The Crossword Puzzle (#5)

Ming Zhen Shakya
Ming Zhen Shakya
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The Crossword Puzzle

by Anthony Wolff (Ming Zhen Shakya)

To see all published chapters of “The Crossword Puzzle” click here

PART 5: EMBEZZLEMENT, PHONY WABI SABI, AND LOSS

 

The Council had only to decide which of the ladies would escort the old man to the airport in Philadelphia, give him another tranquilizer, and continue on to Cairo.  The date and time were fixed and reservations made. They were delighted with the solution to their most pressing problem. Paige was happy, too, since Spence assured her he’d come home to live in Pennsylvania, not Lucerne.

Nola still was waiting for the syndication contracts to be produced and signed.  Yet, she feared that by making an issue of it, she’d antagonize Spencer and he’d end her employment in the house – which would not have helped Paige who was becoming increasingly nervous and insecure. Every day she made some kind of secret gesture or remark to Nola about needing her to stay.  The children had come home briefly for the summer.  Samantha and Pierre left immediately to vacation with friends in Canada and Roland took a long Asiatic cruise.

Spencer, despite his promise, did not return to Pennsylvania.  He reversed his route to Japan and in July stopped in Lucerne for an indefinite time.  Paige clicked off the phone and trembled.  She asked Nola to drive her to an attorney’s office in Morton and to wait in the car until she finished talking to him.  Although curious, Nola did not ask why she was seeing an attorney.  She sat in Paige’s new Jaguar and worked on the theme, “Breaking up.”

Since Paige was obviously taking steps to protect her own interests, Nola wrote another note to Spencer asking when she could expect the syndication documents and why he was showing so little interest in the hermitage land.  In a separate note she told him that despite his absence, people were visiting the site and giving her and Victoru Roshi deposits on the different plots of land and cabin construction.  She added that she deposited the few down-payments she had received directly into the Abbot’s account since he, in Spencer’s absence, had taken charge of the project.

Spencer did not respond to Nola’s notes; but he did call Paige and tell her he’d return when he felt better.  He told her he had had a minor relapse while he was in Japan.  “I’ll be seeing you soon,” he encouraged her.  “Keep the home fires burning!”

Paige told Nola about the call.  “If I didn’t know my own boy would be getting this place, I’d keep the home fires burning by burning this goddamned house down… antiques and all.”

 

Gregor, it seemed, had been spending an excessive amount of time driving the old pickup truck to feed stores to buy food for the goats and to various plant nurseries to buy potting soil, fertilizer, and rose bushes.  The few times he came face to face with Paige, he invented a chore he had to do.  She no longer cared and was beginning to wonder how she could get rid of him without any unpleasant repercussions.

 

Paige immediately began to attend services at the zendo and flirt with Vikram who was busy with the Schuylkill Buddhist Retreat – as he called it.  She praised his business acumen for selling so many plots and adding an “Indian touch” to the design of the rustic dwellings.  She had, herself, showed him the way to the site the first time he went, and let it be known through the town’s tangled grapevine that he was marvelous in bed.

The members of ZBA who gave deposits wanted to see progress of the buildings. August and September seemed the perfect time to show their relatives and friends at least the beginning of their charming getaways. Vikram began to take several trips a week to the land with a variety of prospective hermits – unmarried women mostly.  He’d sleep with them in the cabin and then he’d accept their building deposits, speak of love, and put the money in his own personal checking account.

One afternoon Paige remembered something about the wedding gift of the land and called the county recorder.  She had visions of Dr. Hesse living in Wabi Sabi splendor in Schuylkill County.  Sure enough, the county recorder told her that her sixty acres – transferred while she was still single – contained the trail that led from the highway. She decided that If Spencer had any ideas about leaving her to live in another county with Ingrid Hesse, he had better return from Switzerland without delay. Victoru Roshi was no businessman for the hermitages and the extension to the Lucerne Clinic required Spencer’s Wharton School background. Contracts needed to be signed.

In late August the Ghent family was united.  At Spencer’s suggestion they all piled into the Lexus and drove to the First Methodist Church for Sunday morning service.  They were all well-dressed which may have impressed others but did not seem to be noticed by the Pastor who was shocked to see the five of them appear at the entrance door. Dumbfounded, he shook hands with Spencer and said without thinking, “In Christ all things are possible.”

The big dinner that was prepared for them in the decorated dining room was a disaster.  The fancy ham that Mrs. Eglington had baked all morning, sat like a clove-decorated stone in the center of the table.  Paige and Samantha were on diets;  Nola and Roland were vegetarians; Spencer was angry when he learned that the hearts of palm the cook had taken such trouble to prepare were served with neufchatel cheese that had tried to disguise itself under parsley as it wormed its way into the innocent leaves.  He, having a Monday therapy session in Media, feared the inevitable results of the cheese and refused to eat anything.  Pierre had wolfed down two cheeseburgers and fries when he left the group after services to “see an old friend.”

Paige summoned Mrs. Eglington and told her to serve the 90% meal remains to the rest of the servants.  Then she went to her room and locked the door and cried into her pillow.

Paige and Nola had considered so many explanations to account for Spencer’s behavior in recent months that neither woman was surprised to read in the Sunday newspaper that there was a planned addition to the Lucerne Clinic addition in Media, Pennsylvania, that Spencer would be investing in it, and that Dr. Ingrid Hesse of Switzerland was slated to be its new CEO.  The two women were not even surprised when Spencer announced that since he’d be overseeing the construction, he’d probably be spending many nights there at the site in Media, Pennsylvania.  “I need a little more time to think about the hermitages,” he said, adding, “I’m tired and do not care to discuss anything further.”

 

At the Zen Assembly, which was now thriving, talk centered on the hermitage land.  Vikram’s natural charm enticed people of every age and sex to want to experience spiritual isolation with him, and he was able to collect $155,000.  Citing his “ecclesiastical position,” he held to secrecy every person who gave him a deposit. People began to collect rustic things… buckets, brooms, copper pots with handles that could be hung on the fireplace’s swing-out arms, Torii-gate toilet paper holders, pagoda shaped outhouses, and hand-made ceramic dishes.  Producing Wabi Sabi things became a nearly full-time occupation.

At home, Spencer’s charm returned.  In the morning, while Paige slept, he and Nola rode around the estate.  “It’s great exercise for my legs,” he said.  Then he added, “I owe you an apology for that first night in the cabin.  My only excuse is that I hadn’t had sex with a woman for so long that I wasn’t sure I’d go about it correctly.  It’s one thing when you’re a kid.  Then, anything goes.  But when you find yourself naked with a with a woman whose had all sorts of … well… respectable continental experience, you don’t want to come off as a clumsy ass. It wasn’t as though you and I were romantically involved.  I just needed re-assurance and went about it in all the wrong ways.  I’m sorry for that.”

Nola appreciated the apology even though it was somewhat “left-handed” since she was hardly the woman who had all that daunting continental experience.  She remembered that “practice” was one of the theories Paige considered to explain his sudden interest in having sex with her.   Paige, Nola concluded, was right on target. She decided not to tell her sister about the conversation since it would have only have humiliated her further.

 

On the Labor Day weekend, Spencer took Ingrid Hesse to the mountain for a day’s jaunt. Seeing an area that would have functioned well as a “beginning to Intermediate” ski slope, she suggested,“Instead of leasing the land to wanna-be recluses, why don’t we keep it as our own private hideaway? You have your own home in Morton and the clinic just won’t do as our own private place.”  Spencer gave the suggestion serious thought.

Paige knew that her land had been used to access the possible sites. When Spencer announced that he had decided on another use for the land, she laughed at him and said, “You and Ingrid can build your own road, and be prepared to make it a regular Champs de Elysee. what with the cost of getting grading equipment up there and meeting the new county specs for roadways.”  The Hermitage Project, as it was then called, met an untimely death.

Sri Bashumitsu, showed her omniscient bent when she learned that the project had suddenly been cancelled.  When Victoru Roshi quietly closed his bank account and left town, she suggested to The Council that she knew why Nola had been so eager to ingratiate herself with The Council.  “We were scammed by that phony land deal and her Wog lover.”  That Nola was still in town seemed to contradict her revelation; but it did add a new subject for conjecture.

Spencer, in a rare weekend interview, said that Nola committed a bit of pre-ejaculation by announcing to the Sangha the possibility of hermitages before he had the opportunity to discuss it with his wife and sign a proper joint-venture contract. And Paige, publicly at least, blamed Nola for inspiring Spencer’s interest in the land without consulting her first. “After all,” she said nervously, “if you hadn’t started him on that hermitage business, I wouldn’t have to visualize him roasting marshmallows with that femme fatale physician.”

Nola felt it pointless to protest to anyone except Ellis Foyle.  “The criticism I’m receiving is both harsh and confusing.  Yes, I encouraged Vikram to look at the land; but I felt sorry for him because he had been rejected by every hospital that cared to respond to his inquiry.  Where on earth did I get the idea that a gesture of mine could turn a loser into a winner?  Last week I got a letter from him from Mexico City asking me to pay back the deposits.  He said that he had gotten a position as a surgical resident and intended to reimburse me – with interest – on the installment plan, of course.  I tried to telephone him at the boarding house address on the envelope but the landlady, who did speak English, didn’t know who he was.  And where on earth did he get the idea that I’d simply pick up his $155,000 debt?”

Ellis offered a possible reason for the request.  “Between knowing that you had paid for the new roof and visiting you at the Ghent house, he probably assumed you had money… that maybe the house was yours.  You did introduce him to your sister and he put that together…”

Nola laughed at the idea, wondering how much farther her life’s spiral would go down before she hit bottom.

She decided to surrender to the cosmos and place her faith in her religion and let everything happen without any interference from herself.  She no longer danced, taught yoga, meditated in the ZBA room, or attended the book club.  Nearly every evening she would go to her bedroom and work on a koan or crossword.  She would go on as before in stolid Zen passivity. The world would turn without her help in any case.

 

Shortly after the summer vacation period had ended and the children returned to their schools, It was time for Hines to be given a permanent room. He had been sleeping on a cot in Jules’ apartment over the Four-car; and although, surprisingly, the two men became friends, this arrangement suited no one as a permanent solution.

Spencer ordered Hines to prepare to move into “the tower.”  He summoned Jules also and berated him for his tardiness in not ordering painting and carpeting for the new living space.  “There! This will be the last week you’re without your own space,” he said to Hines with commanding finality, “and you’ll be fine in the turret room.  Go get an idea of the kind of covering you want for the four clear window panes.  Jules will order whatever you want.  Give me a progress report.” he said.  “Right now I have to make a few calls.”

As Jules left the bedroom, Hines pretended that he wanted to get a book of his from the shelf and surreptitiously switched on Spence’s baby monitor.  He shut the bedroom door as he left. Then as Jules went down the rear servant’s stairs, Hines, knowing that Nola was riding with her sister and wouldn’t be back for at least another hour, went into Nola’s bedroom, and closed the door, switched on her monitor and listened to Spence’s side of his phone conversation. At first, he heard much incomprehensible talk about land and architects and a contract with Paige about rights-of-way, and then the subject changed to the household bequests in his will.  “To hell with my sister-in-law and Hines who is a royal pain in my ass. Increase Eglington, Gladys, and Jules by an additional $30,000.  They’ve been loyal and useful. Roland still gets all the Ghent real estate and since I’m divesting myself of much of my portfolio to pay for the new clinic, the rest of the money, assuming there’s any left over, will go to Paige and the kids. Roland is studying Economics at the university and after he gets his MBA he’ll be given a job I used to have.  It won’t be at the top, but he’ll make out well.  I’ve already laid the ground work for him.

“For a long time I considered replacing Paige as executrix, but she’s settled down now and say what you will, she’s still a good mother and does love those kids.  Frankly, they’re far more juvenile than I was at their age so the old stipulations remain. If I’ve got to trust somebody, I’d just as soon trust her.  It’s a modest proposal and as Swift says in defense of his strategy, “My wife is past the child-bearing age.” Get the papers ready and I’ll sign them next week.”

And that was it.  Hines heard himself described in such unflattering terms that he could barely move after he switched the monitor off.  There was no expression of appreciation for all the hard work he had done and all the nasty treatment he had had to put up with for the past half year. So, the truth came out, and he, the royal pain, knew what was in the Will.  Nobody else knew.  But what could he do with this precious information?  As he walked to the garage to meet with Jules, he mumbled, “I’m supposed to be the factotum, not the stupid chauffeur.  And I’m starting to forget all the French I knew.  Nobody in this madhouse has any refinement.” He thought about all the jobs the agency had listed as possibilities and each began to attain admirable properties in his mind.   There was nothing negative about what might have been just as there was nothing positive about what he had. A wave of contempt for Spencer Ghent rose up from his toes and he could not spit nor breathe it out.

 

Jules was in the midst of compounding Spencer’s Lexus and the car would not be ready for another couple of hours. Spencer had been to the garage earlier.  He had marched out in a foul mood.  He admonished Jules as though he were a child, calling him an incompetent ingrate.  Gruffly he called Paige and asked her if she minded if he borrowed her new Jaguar for the day.

Hines, serpent-like, spoke to Jules.  “I’ve got news,” he said.  “I know what’s in the Will.  You’re due to get a considerable amount.  You, Gladys, and Mrs. Egllington.”

Jules was in no mood to be toyed with.  “You’re full of crap,” he said. “Nobody knows what’s in that Will… not even Mrs. Ghent.”

For the second time in twenty minutes Hines had been insulted.  As a defensive instinct over which he had no control, he whispered that he had turned on the baby monitors and while in Nola’s room had heard Spencer’s conversation with his attorney.  Jules stopped rubbing the compound paste and started to take Hines seriously.  “Yes,” Hines said, “you, Gladys, and Mrs. Eglington are each going to be beneficiaries of a quarter million dollar life insurance policy… he’s already taken them out.  He took out policies for the same amount for each of the kids.   Your old bequest increased to $45,000.  Jules, happy to learn that he had not been removed from the Will and also that upon Spencer Ghent’s death he would become financially secure immediately revived his dream of soothing his cervical back problems by retiring in the tropics.

“Look,” said Hines, “I get nothing.  I’ve not been here long enough to count.  But I’ve got an employment contract.   So I get paid… in full… until next spring.  And it’s iron clad.  I get paid whether he dies tomorrow or lives another ten years. I like you, Jules. You’ve been decent to me.  I’ve heard his conversations with that woman he’s in love with. He intends to live another fifty years. Those treatments he supposedly gets are bullshit. The two of them make love like a couple of teenagers; and when they’re not in bed, they’re having lunch at some really posh restaurant. She’s smart and will get every nickel he’s got – and if he dies after dipping into his liquid assets, his accounts will be too short to cover the money allocated as bequests.  Are you getting my drift?”

“Sure I am.  And I know too that the hospital extension he’s planning to build will cost more money than he figures.  Builders bid low and then hit you with ‘change orders’ or ‘contract addenda’ and the final cost is double the original bid.  I know that.  So what you’re saying is that the servants named in the Will will find that the premiums on their policies weren’t paid and that their money has been spent on some spa for the rich.”

“Or as diamond rings for his new lady love.”

Jules, still angry at the way Spencer had chastised him, let his guard down. “He’s been a rotten boss.  I’ve worked here for thirty years.  For Christmas he gives us a $25.00 saving’s bond.  I loved his old man.  And his grandfather.  They were men.  He’s been a cheapskate roach since the day he became master of the place. And I’ve had to be his nursemaid for the last five years.  How much is he giving Nola?”

Hines lied again. “He plans to take out a $100,000 Certificate of Deposit and hold it in trust for her. He says, ‘After all, she saved my life.’  As if that wasn’t what she was paid to do.”

“The three of us have had to put up with him for years.  Always, he’s held that goddamned Will over our heads.”

“I sympathize with you. And don’t forget that if he stops paying those insurance premiums, you can kiss that $250K goodbye.  He’s talking about cutting back here and renting some space in Media. And he’ll be signing the documents in a week or so.”

“I know.  He’ll be back here only to see the kids when they’re home… after he squanders his money on that Swiss project.  And Mrs. E., Gladys and I can be terminated without cause or severance pay.  And we won’t get any inheritance until his other debts are paid.  I’ve been sick about it, so’s Mrs. E.  We’re too old to find other employment.”

“Please don’t let me shock you… and if I’m out of line, I apologize.  The only suggestion I can offer is the statistic about highway fatalities on the road to Media. The quick demise of Spencer Ghent doesn’t affect me financially, but it’s something for you to think about.” He had not realized how often servants think about fatal accidents.

“You’re the one who drives him to Media,” Jules huffed.  “And an accident in one of his high-end cars isn’t likely to kill anybody.  There isn’t even a river big enough to crash into.  You’ll have to come up with something better than that… something that won’t get yourself killed in the process.”

Hines suddenly felt like the puppet master.  Here he was, standing in the garage, and the butler was appealing to him.  His position in the conspiracy became the superior one.

Gladys called to Hines from the portico.  “I’ll be there in a minute,” Hines replied pleasantly.

Jules was worried. “One way or another I’m going to be let go once he moves down to the new clinic’s residence.  All my years of service won’t matter.  I’ll end up in Scranton living in one of my sister’s bedrooms.”

“He’d never give me a good reference – that’s how spiteful he is; but If you’d promise to give me good… really good references,” Hines said, trying to make his efforts seem more legitimate by getting something for himself.  “Ah,” he said with feigned disgust, “what’s the use. You know me.  All brains and no brawn.  I’d need a second person to help with any plan. He’s going to sign the documents soon, and then he’s going to start spending money like a drunken sailor. We don’t have weeks to make a plan and get the wrinkles out.  He may not come back here for months. A project like getting rid of him takes thought.”

Jules was impatient.  “Weeks? I just got word of a house in the tropics I could buy at a bargain price – cash only – and while a down payment would hold it, I’d need the money sooner than later.  We’ll have to think of a good way.  How about a home invasion of some kind?   In town recently there have been a few.  And did I tell you that the Japanese guy who stole Ghent’s medicine – the kid who’s been in prison – is going to be let out on good behavior.  The ZBA sangha in town is really worried that he’ll come to them to make them fulfill the contract obligation about letting him reside in the old Norris-Giles house they call their monastery.”

Paige and Nola could be seen coming towards the paddock.   “After I finish the car,” Jules said, “I’ll go into town and try to find out exactly when that kid is due to come back. Then we’ll work out the details.”

“Roger,” Hines nodded creating a military kind of precision, and left to join Gladys.  Hines could hardly believe that Jules had so easily become his ally.  It suddenly occurred to him that perhaps he was going to be set-up for the attempted crime. He decided to be extra careful.

Hines and Gladys entered the turret staircase from the study. Gladys lugged a bucket of water and a mop up the stairs. A net bag of cleaning supplies hung from her waist.  He did not offer to help her carry the water.  “You’ll need more than that pine smelling stuff and water to make this place livable,” he groused.  “Look at the windows.  Once they must have been beautiful… all that leaded-in stained glass in the top frames.   But now you can’t even tell what season the design is meant to convey.”

Gladys, delighted to learn that Hines would not be sleeping near Gregor, laughed at the thought that cleaning them would present a problem.  “It all depends on whether the sash cords still work well,” she explained as she unlocked one window and pulled down the top and then pulled up the bottom.   She tested all four windows.  “One needs some work, but the others are good as new,” she pronounced.  “As a matter of fact, I think Mrs. E. told me that Mr. Ghent’s father had the sash cords replaced.”

“We’re too high up for you to do the outside where the dirt has mostly collected,” Hines griped.

Gladys had already brought glass-cleaning liquid and paper towels to the turret.  “It’s old fashioned, I admit,” she said.  “You hardly ever see windows washed this way any more for some reason.”  With that she pulled up the lower clear window, sat herself on the sill with her behind sticking outside the structure, and lowered the upper window so that the stained glass window’s exterior was completely in her reach.  She sprayed the glass several times until it the paper towels gave no indication of dirt, and then she raised and lowered the windows until she had thoroughly cleaned the clear glass window.  She slipped back into the room and, standing on a small step ladder she cleaned the inside of both frames.  The effect was startling.

“My God!” Hines exclaimed.  “I never would have believed it possible.  It’s beautiful! Go ahead and do the others.  I’m amazed.”

She completed the others, saying that Gregor would have to bring a screw driver and tighten the screws on the fourth window. The trim that held the leaded-in glass to the frame was loose. But Hines barely heard her.  The colorful light that shone through the stained glass was mesmerizing him.

“It’s going to be lunch time soon,” Gladys said.  “You can get Gregor to help you bring your bed up here after the painting and carpet guys are finished.  You’ll be warmer with a good carpet under your feet.”

Hines thought he’d choose the cheapest window treatment to please Spencer and Paige.  “Those bamboo slatted windows shades will do nicely,” he said.

 

Hines drove Spencer into Media and on the return trip they saw Jules come out of a drug store.  Jules saw them and gave a quick thumb’s up sign to Hines.  Yes, Hines thought, the Japanese kid could be blamed for the crime. There would be no difficulty.

And so it was that Hines and Jules learned that the tenzo had already been released but that he might be deported to Japan shortly. But ‘shortly’ to the government did not mean swirt.  “It would probably take them another matter of weeks to type up the paperwork. We’ll have to act quickly nevertheless,” Jules said when he and Hines were finally able to speak.  “I’ve already called the agent in Antigua.  The house is still available.  I’ll forward the deposit as soon as we set our plan in motion.”

 

Except for the crossword puzzles, Spencer had ceased to speak to Nola or Paige or anyone else except Hines. He kept to himself so much that no one could tell the difference between “Spencer the indifferent” and “Spencer the depressed.”

The children, especially Samantha, worried about Spence’s strange absences from home.  She called regularly, wanting her father to take her to New York to buy her a new winter wardrobe.  (Her mother was not nearly so liberal a spender as her father.) Paige assured her that she’d talk Spencer into taking her to New York when her school had a long mid-term break.

Although Spencer was not at first agreeable, Paige casually mentioned how the girl could use some decent jewelry and that a trip to Tiffany’s was definitely in order.  She could see his pupils change as he imagined buying a few “trinkets” from Tiffany’s for his new girl friend.  Feigning reluctance, Spencer acquiesced and said he’d escort his daughter to New York the following week. “We’ll only be gone a few days – a week at most,” he said.  “You can lose a few days of school. We can visit your great aunt Helena in her house on the Hudson.”   Since Ingrid had several important meetings scheduled, he decided the time for her to get close to his daughter was propitious.  As they drove home from the trip, he’d introduce Samantha to Ingrid during a posh Friday lunch.

Spence left to pick up Samantha on a Monday, planning to return in five days.  Although he had promised his daughter that he would not give a “smidgeon” of his attention to anyone else, he did try to call Ingrid on Tuesday and left a voice mail message that she did not return.

Wednesday morning Paige read on Page 6 of the newspaper the uplifting news that Doctor Ingrid Hesse had been killed on Tuesday in a car accident when she hit a bridge support on a back road. Paige anonymously called the clinic and asked how long they expected Ingrid’s body to remain in the U.S.  She learned that the doctor’s remains were scheduled to be flown back to Switzerland on Thursday.  She did not know if Spence had tried to call the doctor again but if he had called, he could leave only a voice mail.

Wednesday Spence called home and asked, “What’s new?”

Paige answered, “Nothing. Everything’s under control.  We all miss you.” When she ended the call she confided to Nola, “With a little luck, Dr. Ingrid Hesse will be six feet under in Switzerland, pushing up Edelweiss, before Spence even knows about the accident.”

When he stopped at the clinic as they drove home on Friday, he learned about her death. He collapsed and could not drive.  The confusion was so great that Samantha, bewildered by this unknown facet of Ghent life, frantically called Paige who sent Jules and Hines down to Media to drive them home.

At the Ghent house, Spence locked himself in his bedroom and listened to a sequence of dirges.  Judging from his wet pillows, he wept constantly.  Nola finally succeeded in getting him to let her in so that she could make sure he took his medicine.  “You want to be in good condition if you decide to visit a certain grave in Lucerne,” she said.  He, holding her to privacy, wept in her arms and Saturday, at his suggestion, they worked on a puzzle that he themed, La Belle Dame Sans Merci.  He was not much help, but at least he was roused from his depression long enough to come down to his study to check references of a few individuals who had met an untimely death.  It was his habit to hand-address the envelopes to complete the illusion that he was the sole author of the work.

 

And this is what preceded Nola’s trouble that began on Wednesday, October 22nd, the day that she called out, “Is the envelope the one on the right side of the blotter or the left?”