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"We're comin' home!" announced Henry Tahtinen, a crackle of noise on his end of the line.
Sophie stood behind a beat-up metal desk in a small room in the subbasement of the Maxfield Plaza, the voices of her maintenance men shouting all around her. A badly rusted pipe had burst a few minutes ago sending water gushing into a storage area. Already, her shoes were soaked. She had a vision of the water filling the storage room, rushing out the open door into the office where she was standing, covering her feet, then her knees, rising to her waist, and finally her neck. The only way out was a narrow stairway, which would be blocked by floating debris. She would die an ignominious death in the subbasement trying to swim her way up through thousands of rolls of wet toilet paper.
Sophie had an avid imagination. It was one of her more endearing qualities. "Where are you now?" she asked, watching two men carry a heavy trunk to safety.
"Bangkok. The Regent Hotel. We've spent the last two months in India and Nepal. Your mother's become a Buddhist."
Sophie could hear her mother in the background, protesting the comment. The last time Sophie had heard from her parents, they'd been in Tasmania.
"I had a hell of a time dragging her out of Katmandu," continued her father. "She couldn't get enough of the temples. She even learned to meditate. Me, I spent my time studying the vistas. 'Ah, another vista,' I'd say. Those Himalayas are hard to beat. While your mom soaked up the culture and lost her religion, I spent my time hiking. I'm in pretty good shape for an old geezer."
"Dad, you're not a geezer."
"Of course I am. My hair's about three shades grayer than it was when we left two years ago. God, has it been that long since I've seen you? How's everything at the hotel?"
"Fine," said Sophie, finding no reason to tell him about the pipe.
Before her parents had left on their world tour, they'd formally retired and handed the reinsor more accurately, sold the Maxfield Plaza for one dollarto Sophie and her husband, Bram. Henry wanted to keep the hotel in the family. Rescuing the historic art deco landmark from the wrecking ball and restoring it to its former status as the premier hotel in downtown St. Paul had been his life's work, his claim to fame in the Twin Cities. Sophie loved the hotel almost as much as he did.
What she hadn't been thrilled about was the daunting task of taking over a family business that she knew very little about. She'd lived at the Maxfield when she was a teenager, worked the front desk before she left for college, but that didn't mean she had any real, hands-on experience running a major metropolitan hostelry. Her father insisted that his staff, primarily his general manager, Hildegard O'Malley, could teach her everything she needed to know.
The first year was a crash course. Sophie was constantly terrified that she'd screw up, so she worked like a madwoman, which could have put her marriage in jeopardy. Thankfully, Bram was a patient man. He was already well established in his own career as a talk-show host for a local radio station, so he gave her the time she needed with a minimum of grousing. From the beginning, he made it abundantly clear that he had no interest in running the hotel. He said her parents were kind to include him in the deal, but the Maxfield was her inheritance. She would have to run it.
After Sophie's parents had taken off for points unknown, Sophie and Bram sold their home in Minneapolis and settled into a beautiful apartment on the top floor of the hotel's north tower. They quickly discovered that they adored living at the Maxfield, loved all the amenities a hotel could provide. The change in their lives had brought new stresses and strains, but new opportunities as well.
By the second year, Sophie felt much more confident in her position, so confident that she took on the job of restaurant critic for the Minneapolis Times Register. This caused another round of grumbling from Bram. He insisted that he needed to make a date just to catch a glimpse of her. The truth was a little less dramatic, but still, all life, including married life, was a negotiation. When he learned that Rudy, Sophie's son, would be taking over the majority of the duties at the paper and that Sophie's involvement would have limits, the grousing turned to manageable murmurings.
Bram understood something fundamental about Sophie, and for that she was grateful. Food would always be one of her prime passions. Since she'd done reviews for the paper in the past, the job offer hadn't come completely out of left field. In a few more years she hoped to bow out gracefully and let her son take over as senior restaurant criticas long as he promised to allow her an occasional guest review.
"Your mother wants to talk to you," shouted Henry. The connection was growing worse. "I'll say good-bye."
"Bye, Dad," said Sophie, noticing one of her maintenance men rush past the open door. He was soaking wet from head to toe.
"Hi, honey," said Pearl, Sophie's mother. "How's Bram feeling?"
"Much better," said Sophie. "He's lost almost twenty-five pounds since the surgery."
"Good for him. Give him my love."
"I will," said Sophie.
Bram had undergone double bypass surgery last November. That was ten months ago. He was doing much better now, almost back to his normal self. Except, his illness had caused repercussions that Sophie hadn't entirely expected. Bram had always been so full of zest and self-confidence. He made no bones about loving the good lifechampagne and chocolate cake at midnight when he was in the mood, dancing on the balcony with Sophie in the middle of a snowstorm. He had wit and unpredictability, and Cary Grant good-looks. And yet, lately, he'd turned into Mr. Fitness Center. Mr. Sprouts and fresh greens with low-fat dressing.
Sophie understood his motivation: He didn't want to die. He was fifty-two years old, several years older than Sophie, with a family history of heart problems. His father had suffered a heart attack when he was fifty-two, and his uncle on his father's side had died of heart problems at the same age. Bram would be fifty-three soon, so he'd beaten the family curse, but he was still scared. And that fear was on the verge of turning him into a different person.
"We're heading up to Shanghai tomorrow," continued Sophie's mother. "Then on to Tokyo. We should be home soon. We'll call later and give you all the particularsthe flight number and arrival time."
"Great," said Sophie, hearing a crash in the next room.
"Is something wrong? You sound kind of funny."
"I feel like I'm standing on the deck of the Titanic."
"What?" said Pearl. "This connection isn't very good. Sounded like you said you were standing on the deck of the Titanic." She giggled.
"I'm fine, Mom. We'll all be so glad to finally have you home again."
"Honey, your father just walked out of the bathroom. He's signaling that he wants to talk to you again."
Henry came on the line. "Soph, here's the skinny. I want you to call that friend of yours, Elaine . . . whatever her last name is now."
"She's gone back to her maiden name," said Sophie. "Veelund."
"Whatever. Tell her that when we get back, Pearlie and I are gonna look for some land up on Pokegama Lake. I want that company of hers to build us a log house. We're done with our jet-setting lifestyle for a while, so I want to have a spot where we can go when we feel like getting out of the city. A place where I can fish, and where your mom can meditate on her new Buddhist leanings." He laughed, calling, "Pearlie, stop it. I'm an old man. I can't take that kind of excitement."
Sophie could only imagine what her mother was doing to him.
"See if you can get me some hard details, Soph. I know they have packages, standard plans, that sort of thing. Find out what you can, okay? I want to move on this right away when I get back."
"Sure, Dad. I'll call Elaine tonight."
"You're still buddies with her, right?"
"We're still great friends."
"Good. Maybe she'll give us a deal. Never hurts to ask."
Sophie smiled. "I'll see what I can do."
"It's tomorrow here, you know. Where you are is yesterday."
"It's Saturday. Where you are is Friday. And it's seven a.m. What time is it in St. Paul?"
"Four. In the afternoon."
"Your mom's telling me to hang up. Since I always do what your mom says, I better get off the line. Talk to you soon, sweetheart. Over and out from sunny Bangkok."
The line clicked.
To say her parents were a tad eccentric was an understatement, thought Sophie. Fifty years of marriage and they were still going strong, still having fun together. They were the happiest couple she knew. She wondered what their secret was. Sometimes they acted more like kids playing in the backyard than like an old married couple. She couldn't help but think of her marriage to Bram, of what their future would hold.
A maintenance man sailed by the office door with a dolly loaded with drenched boxes.
Sophie called after him, "Did you get the water stopped?"
"Yeah," he hollered back. "But it's a mess in there. The pipe's got to be replaced."
She spent a few minutes surveying the damage, then headed up the narrow stairs to the basement, and from there took the elevator to the lobby. Her shoes squeaked on the marble floors as she made her way as quickly as possible to her office. Several people stared at her feet, but she ignored them, adopting a look of what she hoped was quiet dignity.
Once behind closed doors, she dumped her shoes in the trash. They smelled like sewer gas. She doubted she could ever get the reek of decaying pipe out of them. It was a warm September afternoon, so she wasn't going to catch pneumonia in bare feet. She took off her nylons and cleaned up in her office bathroom, then sat down behind her desk, not sure what to do next. She had dinner reservations at Chez Sophia at eight. It would be a working dinner, a review for the paper. Rudy was supposed to go with her, but he'd backed out at the last minute. If she didn't come up with another dinner companion fast, she'd be eating alone.
That's when an idea struck her. She checked her Rolodex, then picked up the phone and tapped in Elaine's number. She waited through a couple of rings until a woman's voice answered, "Veelund Industries."
"I'd like to speak with Elaine Veelund," said Sophie.
"May I ask who's calling?"
"Just a moment."
Sophie drummed her nails on the desktop for a few seconds. Finally, Elaine's voice came on the line. "Hey, girlfriend. What's up?"
"Dinner. Tonight. It's on me."
"That new restaurant just outside of Stillwater. Chez Sophia."
"You doing a review?"
"Yes, so technically, I guess, the dinner would be on the paper."
"Sounds great to me. Are you planning to bring along that handsome husband of yours? Flaunt your good luck while I drool?"
After a nasty separation, Elaine had divorced her third husband last spring. "He's playing racquet ball with a buddy."
"Too bad, but I guess his loss is my gain. We need some time to catch up. Woman to woman. What's it been? Two months?"
"At least. Can I meet you at the restaurant?" Sophie told her the time and gave her the directions.
"It's a date. And Sophie . . . thanks. This hasn't been the best week of my life. We'll talk more tonight."
Sophie worked in her office for the next couple of hours. Now that her parents were on their way home, she felt a double impetus to make sure everything at the hotel was running smoothly. She was engrossed in the financial figures for August when there was a knock on the door. Glancing at her watch, she saw that it was going on six. She had to get a move on if she was going to make it to the restaurant on time.
Sophie always wore disguises when she visited restaurants for review. Her face was well known by restaurateurs in the Twin Cities, so camouflage was the only way she could get a sense of what the average diner would encounter. Tonight's disguise would have to be better than usual because the owner and executive chef at Chez Sophia was, to put it politely, an old and intimate friend.
"Come in," she called, switching off the computer and standing up.
Ben Greenberg, her maintenance foreman, entered carrying a box. As he stepped closer, she saw that it was made of metal, maybe eight inches wide by a foot long, and a good six inches deep. He set it down on her desk, then removed his cap.
"What's this?" she asked, fingering a rusted padlock that hung from the front.
"One of the plumbers found it in the storage room in the subbasement. It's got a name stamped on the side there. Eli Salmela. And the date, 1923." He pointed. "It was on the floor, pushed as far back as it could go under one of the shelves. It looks watertight, but it's old. I thought you might want to take a look at itwhatever it is."
"Eli Salmela," she whispered, touching the top of the box. Eli Salmela was her mother's uncle. He'd been dead for over forty years. What on earth was a box belonging to him doing in the subbasement of the Maxfield Plaza? "How's the repair coming on the pipe?"
"We're still working on it. I'm afraid we lost a lot of paper products. Actually, I need to get back down there."
"Thanks, Ben. I'll take care of the box."
If she'd had more time, she would have pried off the lock to see what was inside, but she had to hustle upstairs to her apartment and don her disguise. A restaurant critic's job was a dirty one, etcetera, etcetera.
The box would have to wait.
In a specially made Lords of London suit and vest, Sophie stood next to the reception desk at Chez Sophia, waiting for the matre d' to find the table assignment. Because she was a shrimpa little over five feet tallshe liked to wear three-inch heels when she dressed as herself. When she was disguised as a man, as she was tonight, her lift shoescordovan leather wing tipsgave her added height. A dark brown wig covered her short strawberry blond hair. The addition of a beard lent her male persona a bit of class. Sophie felt she made a rather attractive man, albeit a short one. With an equally short female date on her arm, she might have pulled off the ruse, but standing next to the tall, elegant Elaine Veelund, Sophie felt like a dumpy fraud. Not the best way to start the evening.