Chapter Twenty-Four: Relocation
"James, I was chatting with Eleanor Whittaker at our card club yesterday, and she mentioned something to me that you might want to pass on to Ken Granger. She and her husband own the insurance agency in Twisp. They've been tied down to it for over twenty-five years, ever since Randall took it over from his father."
Vi Brightman bustled around the kitchen, getting their morning breakfast on the table. Jim was enjoying his first morning coffee. He eyed a growing stack of potato fritters and toast on the warming shelf above the stove top.
"Anyway, she said they've decided to retire but they need to find a qualified buyer for their business, one they can trust to continue a successful operation and make payments. It seems the problem is to find someone qualified and experienced, who is willing to live here and run the business locally. They don't want their agency to be acquired by an outside firm, or by an absentee owner. They've always prided themselves on being part of the community, on knowing the people they serve, and having community interests at heart. She said they would carry the contract if the buyer could come up with a reasonable down payment, and they'd include their lovely house in that contract also, to the right buyer."
"Really! Their home, too? Are Randall and Eleanor going to pull up stakes and leave, as well as retire?"
"Well, sort of. She said Randall has always wanted to travel, and he's got his eye on a new Chevy Suburban and an Airstream travel trailer. He said he wants to take the next couple of years and hit all the national parks, and spend a few winters where it's warm. She explained that he plans to put a pair of snow tires on the back of the Suburban and drive south. When some gas station attendant asks, 'Hey, mister, what are those funny tires?' he'll know they've driven far enough south to spend the winter."
Jim chuckled over his cup. It was an old joke but it was still funny every time he heard it. Snow tires were no joke during the long Methow winters.
"So why are they selling their house, too? They're not planning on coming back, then?"
"On, no, it's not that. They do plan to come back to the valley when they tire of traveling, but then they'll want a much smaller place. Their youngsters are gone away to school or married and they don't need that big house any longer. She's wanted to move into that lovely little cabin out by the lakes that her father left her, so now they will. It has a secure shop building to store their things while they're traveling, and the family will share the cabin during vacations or weekend visits while she and Randall are away."
"Sounds like a good plan to me," Jim nodded. "Randall has talked about wanting to see this big country for a long time. He's felt tied down since coming back from the service and taking over the family business. Did Eleanor say if they had listed the agency or the house with anybody yet?"
"No! That's the thing. They're hoping they can find a buyer for both, without going through a broker or realtor. They'd save a lot of money in fees and commissions. She said they would split the savings with the buyer, so both sides would come out ahead."
Violet set the warm dishes down, poured more coffee, and tucked herself into her chair across from Jim. He looked thoughtful as he mounded scrambled eggs beside his fried potato patties, and laid two strips of bacon beside them. One advantage of working an active ranch life: he was able to indulge himself in a ranch breakfast that would send an overweight office worker into cardiac arrest.
Violet winced when Jim poured a swirl of ketchup onto his scrambled eggs and took up a forkful. Every morning when she served up delicately scrambled, fluffy, gourmet quality eggs, Jim added ketchup. Over the years she'd accepted it as his personal quirk, and every time he did, she winced. She also suspected that he knew she detested ketchup on eggs, and this was his gentle way of teasing her.
"You know, that is an excellent point. Fees and commissions on a property sale that size would be significant. Why don't I call Randall, and see if he'd consider an idea that might get him a fast sale and solve a big problem at the same time?"
*Yes... * Jim shoveled more potato and egg mixture onto his fork, swallowed, and washed it down with a gulp of coffee. *Yes, I think that will be just the thing... *
He slid his chair back, stood, and walked around the end of the table to lean over and plant a big coffee kiss on Vi's forehead. She giggled and ducked; he gave her a warm smile, then went into the parlor where his easy chair and side-stand and their old rotary-dial telephone sat. His index finger twirled a number from memory.
"Hello, Ken? Say, about that brother-in-law of yours in Kansas City. Didn't you say he's an executive in a big insurance company?"
Sometimes when things are meant to happen, the pieces fall into place very quickly. And when all parties to the action have good and honest motives, and the means, things can happen very quickly indeed.
Frank Jacobs answered an early evening call from Kenneth Granger. He took careful notes, and spent the rest of the evening consulting with his wife Madeline. Early the next morning he called his secretary at work and asked her to reschedule his appointments to the next day, as an urgent matter had come up and he would not be in. His next call was to his banker, followed by a call to his stockbroker. By mid-afternoon he had enough confirmations to place a call to Randall Whittaker at his home in Twisp, Washington.
"Mr. Whittaker, my name is Frank Jacobs. My sister-in-law, Helen Granger, is a teacher in Winthrop and she tells me that you and I have an opportunity to do each other a great deal of good."
Frank arranged a week of vacation leave immediately upon returning to his office the next morning. He and Madeline caught an early Saturday flight to Seattle, rented a car, and Sunday they were enjoying lunch with Ken and Helen. It was a tearful, joyful reunion with Marilee who was delighted to see her parents. She was more than a little puzzled by their sudden appearance. No hint of anything had been mentioned to her, to avoid terrible disappointment if anything went wrong.
Early Monday morning the two couples, the Jacobs and the Whittakers, met over a country breakfast at the Whittaker home. Frank had offered to treat them to a café breakfast, but Randall cautioned that too many curious eyes would soon guess the business between them. After a cordial get-acquainted meal, the ladies decided to tour the two towns, Winthrop being only nine miles up-river. They would spend the afternoon visiting at the Granger home.
Randall and Frank got down to business, going over financial statements, tax reports, client lists, and a hundred other details. Hopefully, they might quickly reach an accord. Frank was impressed. Whittaker Insurance was a small gem, well run, honest, and solidly profitable year after year. It was a small agency but it served a stable, hard-working valley population with two small towns and numerous outlying ranches and orchards. If he searched for the perfect opportunity to go into business for himself, free of the corporate pressures and demands he'd come to resent, he'd soon find that this one had been heaven sent. It suited him perfectly. It matched his means, his needs, and his talents. It was as nearly perfect as anything could be.
The Whittaker home was a huge bonus. Madeline loved it after three steps inside. It sat high on a river bench overlooking the sawmill town, in a neighborhood that had been developed by an elderly orchard owner who decided to subdivide the property rather than replace the aged and unproductive apple trees. It was an open, warm, and safe area. She sensed a neighborly spirit surrounding the cluster of homes, each on a large lot without fences. There was a mix of older and younger families. Children played, rode bicycles along the blacktop lanes, and older high school youths walked together, talking and laughing. It gave a comfortable 'our town' feeling to the neighborhood. They instantly sensed that Marilee would be welcome and safe in this neighborhood. The Whittaker's asking price for the home was easily within the Jacobs's price range.
Randall was more than impressed with Frank. He did business with the huge Kansas City insurance firm. He knew its policy line, and as an independent agent he carried some of their product, recommending it to his clients when it served their needs. He recognized Frank's knowledge and his obvious skill, and was pleased by the financial statements proving Frank's ability to purchase both the business and the house.
Negotiations took little more than a statement of intent, an agreement on price, a quick penciling in of terms, and a few notes to be included in the sales agreement and contracts. They visited Randall's lawyer just down the street, and then went two blocks over to the title company. They were assured that both offices would have paperwork ready for their signatures Wednesday morning.
They adjourned to a popular Main Street café and tavern where local businessmen, ranchers and loggers gathered for lunch or an after-work social beverage. Business done at a brisk pace is a thirsty business. Within minutes they were seated in the cool, dim atmosphere of the tavern, leaning back against a padded bench seat at a back booth, gratefully eyeing the foaming suds on two frosty glasses of sparkling, amber draft beer. Randall tipped a shot of tomato juice into his, explaining it was a favorite northwest variation.
"I guarantee that by morning every one of the local Chamber of Commerce members will know I've sold out to you, and by Friday half of our clients will be calling for assurances that nothing will change," Randall smiled. He tipped up his glass and drained it. The cold brew was delicious, celebrating his fortunate transition from a lifetime of work to a retirement dream.
Frank drained his glass as quickly. He stood, stretching his long frame.
"I imagine we ought to get upriver to Ken and Helen's, and see what the women have planned for us. I'll guess they're all more than a little curious about what we've decided."
Marilee stood, stunned, her eyes wide, her mouth open, trying to sift through the implications of her father's smiling announcement. A moment later she squealed, jumped into her father with a running hug, and excitedly placed kisses on both of his cheeks while at the same time trying to ask over and over, "Really? It's true? You and mom, moving here? To Twisp? We're going to have our own home and business here in the valley, in Twisp?"'
She was so excitedly overwhelmed by the sudden news that she barely heard her father's repeated assurances, "Yes, pumpkin, it's true! Yes, it's true!" Madeline had to step over and literally peel Marilee off her father and lead her away to the kitchen and a chair at the table where she could both calm Marilee down and tell her, over a tall glass of iced tea, the details of what they had been doing for the past few days.
Graydon was quiet and virtually unnoticed during all the excitement. He sat with Ken, the two of them off to the side in adjoining lounge chairs beside the huge window overlooking the pond. Graydon had been invited to share the evening's news, and to meet the father of his special young lady. He was dry-mouthed, nervous, and fidgeting. He almost wished he was back up on the mountain with Mike. Only the incredible good news and obvious happiness that was flowing all through the house settled his nerves... somewhat. He shouldn't have been nervous.
"I am told by nearly everyone I meet that I owe you a huge debt, a debt of gratitude and thanks."
Graydon jerked his head around at the voice above him. Looking up, he jumped to his feet and extended his hand in the same motion.
"Thank you, sir! But I owe you the gratitude, for trusting us with your daughter. She is really very special, but you know that. I... uh, we, uh, that is, all of us, we feel lucky to know her. We'd do anything for her, uh, keep her safe, that is. And, sir, I'm sure glad to meet you, at last. She surely had missed you all... you and her mom."
Graydon found himself stammering and blushing. He found it all pretty overwhelming. So much was happening, so quickly. The changes and implications for everyone were huge and would change their lives, long term.
"Young man, please. Let me say again, that I am forever in your debt. Helen has told me much of what has happened since Marilee has been here; the help you've been, the assault she claims you prevented, her obvious joy afterwards. I don't understand most of it, but I accept it. Now you must accept that I owe you more than I can ever repay."
Frank stood before Graydon, studying the young man's eyes, as he continued to grip his hand. Time seemed to stop for a few moment as the two, the father and the young guardian, studied each other. Each seemed to read the other's character, integrity, and qualities. Finally, with a last firm squeeze of his hand in quiet affirmation of understanding, Frank reached out to place his other hand on Graydon's shoulder. In a voice only Graydon could hear, he murmured, Truly, the honor is mine ... son.
Soon afterward everyone was called to gather around a table loaded with salads, cold cuts, sandwich makings, iced tea, hot coffee, and pies. Paper plates were passed around. All gathered on the patio to watch the parade of ducks and swans on the pond, the covey of exotic birds, and one proudly strutting peacock. Marilee slipped away to the grove of birches at the end of the pond, and there she found the two fawns, yearlings now, tall and leggy with their spotted tawny coats faded into dusky gray. They stood quietly, the three of them, watching the happy friends enjoying their picnic meal at the house.
"I'll be living here in the valley with my parents. I'll come often to visit you. It's so wonderful! I can hardly believe it. I never dreamed, never in a million years, did I hope!" The pair shook their long, fuzzy ears and the bolder one stretched forward for a scratch behind its ears from her human friend. Nearby, half concealed, the doe gazed at her three young ones.
Friday brought warm, clear weather, an end to paper-signing and the transfer of bank drafts. A barbecue celebration was held that afternoon on the Granger's lawn. Jim and Violet Brightman brought a heap of grass-fed, home butchered beef steaks for the grill. Randall brought a crate of corked bottles, an exceptional collection of local wines. Produce donated from friend's gardens completed the salad table, and fresh ears of sweet corn sizzled in their salted-water soaked husks on a slow bed of coals. It was an afternoon celebration that all would remember for years.
Mike Peterson, his identity safe and never mentioned among this circle of friends, was able to enjoy a rare afternoon of socializing. He seldom appeared in public, even in the valley. Too few would accept his appearance or understand his nature. But among these, his rare friends, he could cherish the moment.
He and Frank had spoken at length about the events in Kansas City, and Mike shrugged off Frank's repeated offers of gratitude and repayment.
"Give your appreciation to Graydon; he will, in time, become both my successor and the single most important person in your daughter's life after you, her parents. He has done much already, and I sense he will do more to protect not only your family but the good people of this valley. If you would repay me, I would ask that you give him your friendship and support, and your forbearance. Much that he will do may seem strange or confusing to you. He has power, more than he knows, and it is growing as he matures. His life would be unbearably lonely if it were not for these few precious people here today, and now you are in a position to be one of his most steadfast and valuable friends. Your daughter has chosen him as her soul mate, as young as she is, and he has chosen her without hesitation. He saw and accepted. You are the closest link between those two. Your approval and support is essential to their happiness, and perhaps to their ultimate safety and security. Remember my counsel. You will gain much from this trust that is placed with you."
Afterwards, standing with Graydon, Mike spoke softly to his young apprentice.
"Graydon, remember this day. Etch it into your memory. We are blessed, you and I. We are truly blessed to know these people, to be with them to share this day."
Monsignor Arturo Vitelli was angry. He had dispatched church investigators into that accursed mountain valley and after several weeks and considerable expense and one painfully embarrassing incident, they returned with nothing useful.
"Nothing!" he seethed through thin lips, compressed so tightly in anger that they appeared to his nervous chief investigator to be two thin, white lines etched across his dark and scowling face. The investigator felt pierced to his cringing soul by M. Vitelli's black, unblinking eyes. There was no hint of humanity behind them.
"No, your Grace, nothing. No rumor, no clue, no acknowledgment, hint, admission, no record or address or any scrap that indicates that such a man lives, let alone resides in that backward place — or even within a hundred miles of there."
"No one? No records of any kind? Nothing?" M. Vitelli allowed himself the luxury of rocking back in his massive seat, more of a throne than an office chair, and he peered at his chief investigator through steepled fingers tilted upward, their tips resting against his high, narrow forehead. After a moment he released the frightened man from his accusing stare. He raised his sight to the ceiling and for a long time he stared upward, unblinking, as though he saw through the structure above and was reading clues from the heavens.
"Your men, you rotated several through the assignment. Why?"
"The locals, your Grace. They quickly became suspicious, distrusting. Although I cautioned them, the men pressed too hard, too quickly, and the local people became hostile, uncooperative. Our politest response was a demand to mind our own business. Others questioned our motives, and our presence there as obvious outsiders and intruders. One of our agents was terrorized by a huge man, a logger. When our agent ignored the man's warning to stop asking questions that were none of his affair and to leave, the logger picked our man up by his armpits and hung him by the back of his suit coat from a stop sign on the street corner. Read that, and obey! is what our agent said that the logger shouted at him."
Vitelli stared blankly. "So, how did the fool get arrested, then?"
"He was hanging from the stop sign shoved up the back of his suit coat, and screaming loudly for someone to call the police. A store keeper nearby heard him yelling and called their local town constable, a city marshal, I think his title is. By the time the officer arrived, a small crowd had gathered and several cars were blocking the intersection. The drivers were exchanging rude comments and jibes with the crowd, insulting our man, asking how had he gotten his fool self hung up like that?"
"Yes, yes, but how did he get arrested?"
"It seems, your Grace, that two of the younger men decided to help our man down from the sign. They grabbed his legs and jerked him down, quite violently, I understand. His coat ripped free and he landed on his back. He was gasping from the fall and suffered a mild concussion when his head slammed onto the sidewalk. He recovered himself to attack them just as the city officer arrived. Our man was incoherent with rage and humiliation, but sadly, he was no match for the two young men, both of them loggers, apparently. They broke his nose, blacked one eye, and loosened two of his front teeth."
"So, what were the charges against the men involved?"
"Only our man was arrested, your Grace. He was charged with disorderly conduct, disturbing the peace, assault, resisting arrest, and... uh... obstructing traffic!"
For the first time since he was a young boy, M. Vitelli lost control of himself. The chief investigator heard a thin, high, keening sound begin somewhere in the back of his superior's throat. Vitelli's eyes stared straight ahead in a disbelieving, unfocused stare. As he sat, tense and rigid, the sound of outrage burst forth from his mouth in a great, gushing screech that transformed into a shrieking string of obscene, blasphemous, unholy Italian curses.