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A Rant of Ravens
By Christine Goff
Astor + Blue EditionsCopyright © 2014 Christine Goff
All rights reserved.
"What, exactly, does that mean, Aunt Miriam?" Rachel Stanhope shouldered the telephone receiver and rooted in the overstuffed filing cabinet for the Henderson design folder. The pendulum clock ticked toward the Monday morning production meeting, signaling a need to end the conversation, but curiosity had gotten the better of her. "An abbreviated version."
"It's an expression I picked up birdwatching in the British Isles. Specifically, as defined by Peter Weaver in The Birdwatcher's Dictionary, it means 'failing to see a rare bird which other birdwatchers have succeeded in seeing.' In your case, dear, it means you viewed Roger as a bald eagle while the rest of us spotted a turkey."
"Aunt Miriam, I can honestly say I've never once thought of Roger as a bird." Unlike her aunt, who classified everything in bird terms, Rachel viewed the world from a more nonsectarian perspective. "Try a larger species."
"I was thinking equine." Two months ago, Rachel had come home from work and found her husband in bed with a waitress from the West Side Diner. Roger, ranked seventeenth on the PGA tour, had called it a bogey, cited the "seven-year itch," and taken a penalty stroke.
"Well, if you ask me," said Miriam, "the man's a dodo."
Rachel swallowed against the sudden, rising lump in her throat. Aunt Miriam had always been her biggest cheerleader. More importantly, she stuck like ink to paper whenever the chips were down. "I spoke with a lawyer today. I'm thinking of filing for divorce."
Once spoken, the D word hung in the air, distended by the silence that stretched between them. Divorce had never been an option in the Wilder clan.
Take Grandma Wilder, Miriam's mother and Rachel's paternal grandmother, a wizened eighty-two-year-old with piercing blue eyes, an iron will, and a rapier tongue. A self-proclaimed "recovering" Irish Catholic, she'd married Grandpa Wilder, an Irish Protestant who, it turned out, had a taste for whiskey. But she'd stuck by him and had borne him five sons and two daughters, in that order. Rachel's father, Peter, was the oldest — a younger, male replica of his mother, who now lived with him in Chicago. Miriam, the youngest, had turned out to be a pint-sized version of her father.
Rachel considered herself a combination of the two women. Like her aunt she sported the Wilder auburn hair and trademark freckles. But, unlike Miriam, she'd been blessed with Grandma Wilder's blue eyes and, through some genetic mutation, a long, sticklike frame that Roger once deemed "willowy."
Miriam cleared her throat. "It's an ill bird that fouls its own nest, dear. If you ask me, it's about time you dumped him."
Relief surged through Rachel, then guilt. "I feel like such a quitter. Do you realize I've been married for eight years?"
"Now, you listen to me, Rachel Wilder Stanhope. You are no quitter," Miriam said, a steely edge creeping into her otherwise lilting voice. "Do you remember the time you took third place in Midwest magazine's Young Photographers competition?"
"I remember the white ribbon hanging on the refrigerator."
"Then you must recall that the following year you went back and took first place, beating out the previous year's winner. That showed tenacity, Rae. Something quitters have little of." Miriam paused. "Things happen in a marriage. Some good, some bad. God knows, if I hadn't outlived my husbands, I'd have left all three."
"With your Puritan ethics?" Rachel rolled her eyes and laughed. "I'm not buying it, Aunt Miriam. But ... thanks."
"The point is, sometimes God slams a window. That, my dear, is when you look for the door. Which brings me to why I called."
A sharp rap on her office door snagged Rachel's attention. Jack Jaffery, vice president of design services at Images Plus, stood in the hallway. He knuckled the glass a second time, and gestured sharply toward the conference room. Rachel glanced at the clock, and flashed him the one-minute finger.
"I have to go, Aunt Miriam. Can I call you back?"
"This will take only a second, dear. I have a proposition for you."
Rachel hesitated. Miriam's propositions established the foundations for most of the Wilder family legends. Rachel's father liked to say she was the medium the fairies used to play tricks on unsuspecting people.
"I want you to come and stay at Bird Haven for the summer."
Bird Haven was Miriam's ranch, a 2,500-acre spread that butted against Rocky Mountain National Park, a few miles north of the town of Elk Park, Colorado. She and her late husband, William Tanager, had purchased the property sixteen years ago from a cattle rancher who was closing operations. Once they'd acquired it, they'd designated the land a wild bird sanctuary and converted the barn and outbuildings into a raptor rehabilitation center.
After her mother died, Rachel had spent several summers there as a teenager. It was a time of healing — picking wildflowers in the meadow, searching for mountain lion tracks on the deer paths, and wading in the creek running ice-cold with winter runoff. But, much as she loved Bird Haven's back-to-basics pace of life, spending a summer there now was out of the question.
"You're joking, right? You do recall that I have a job, Aunt Miriam?"
One she might lose if she didn't get her rear end into the production meeting soon. Jack, a short, balding man with horn-rimmed glasses and a Sean Connery beard, had the patience of an angry water buffalo. And though Rachel's position as the firm's top creative designer carried some clout, marriage counseling had cut into work time. Pushing Jack much further would be like wearing red in front of an angry bull, something Rachel knew better than to do.
"Just hear me out before you make your decision, Rae. A change of scenery would do you a world of good, and you'd be saving my life."
Jack stuck his head into Rachel's office and jerked his thumb in the air.
"Aunt Miriam, I really don't have time —"
"I have an opportunity to go birding in the Middle East," interrupted Miriam, not the type to be shut down without stating her case. "The problem is, I need to leave someone in charge of things here at the ranch."
"Can't you ask one of the girls?"
William, Miriam's third husband, had brought three daughters from his first marriage into his second. The oldest, Gillian, was an anorexic matron living in Houston with a rocket scientist husband and four children who called Miriam "Nana Rich." The middle daughter, Geraldine, was married to the leader of a South American drug cartel and lived on board a yacht anchored somewhere off the coast of Venezuela. The youngest, Gertrude, lived in Elk Park.
Granted, she was somewhat of an energy drain, but she was single and nearing thirty — Rachel's age. "What about Gertie?"
"I need someone I can trust, dear. With William gone, those girls view me as an interloper. They forget that when we bought this place, your Uncle William and I pooled our resources. He borrowed against his pension, and I chipped in everything I had from my first two marriages. Everything I have is tied up in Bird Haven."
"Can't you just close up the house for a couple of months?"
"It's not that easy, dear. After William died, I turned the operation of the raptor rehabilitation center over to the Park Service. But, per our agreement designating me as the resident landowner, I'm required to have someone on site holding my power of attorney. It's just a formality, in case any unforeseen legal matters pop up. I also need to leave someone in charge of the checkbook."
That ruled out any of the Tanager sisters. Aunt Miriam's stepdaughters had been hounding her to sell Bird Haven ever since Uncle William had died. He had left them his share of the estate, then tied it up by granting Miriam the right to remain on the property, with a proviso: if she moved, sold out, or remarried, his full share of the land equity at the time of his death was to be divided immediately among his heirs.
"Rachel, those girls are watching my every move. Even a whiff of impropriety could jeopardize the land status. I want a house to come home to."
"What about your attorney? Can't he represent you in your absence?"
Jack loomed at Rachel's door again, his bald head beet red, gleaming like a warning beacon. Rachel nodded before he could bang on the glass.
"My lawyer's the one who recommended I find a family member or friend to stay here. And there just isn't anyone I trust more than you, dear."
"Trust me, I really have to go, Aunt Miriam. I'll call you back." Rachel hung up before her aunt could protest. Then, locating the Henderson folder, she held it up for Jack to see. "Look!"
He jabbed a stubby finger in the direction of the phone. "Keep your personal life out of the office, Rachel. It's interfering with business."
"I'm sorry, Jack."
Tailing her boss to the conference room, Rachel couldn't help but think how Roger had spouted a twisted version of the same sentiment the last time she'd brought work home from the office. He claimed her job interfered with family life — or, more specifically, the business of starting a family.
The production meeting was a regular Monday morning event, and the key players had all assembled by the time Jack and Rachel arrived. There were eleven people present in all — the three other members of the design staff, along with team members from advertising, public relations, and marketing. They all seemed to be tapping their pencils against the conference table in various rhythms of impatience.
"About time," one of the men commented, as Rachel slipped into a vacant chair near the door.
"That's enough, folks. Cut the drumbeat and listen up." Jack ticked off the agenda items with military precision once things got started. They were a quarter of the way through the list and twenty minutes in when the receptionist buzzed. Jack snatched up the receiver, listened, scowled, then told her he didn't care, that even if his mother was in the waiting area, she was not to interrupt them again.
The meeting continued well into a second hour before Rachel was asked to make her presentation. She had spent the previous month designing brochure layouts to promote a Dale Carnegie wanna-be named Kevin Henderson. He offered a series of one-day "Take Back Your Life" seminars, had committed thousands of dollars for a "fresh" brochure design, and then insisted his face beam from every cover, effectively squelching any creative ideas the design staff had come up with.
Ironically, it was Roger who'd triggered the solution. He'd left a packet of reprinted photographs on the coffee table in the living room. The photos, taken over the course of several years, depicted Roger scaling Mount McKinley, biking in the Andes, and participating in a variety of other activities paid for by Rachel's steady employment. A risk junkie from the get-go, Roger openly aspired to try every adventure sport that existed, and to document his triumphs for posterity.
Rachel, exercising latent adolescent genes, had taken a pair of scissors and cut his face out of several of the photographs when inspiration struck. With a little computer technology and some added artistic skill, Kevin Henderson merged with Roger Stanhope and became a man taking his life back.
"The key is in making people feel like once they've attended Henderson's seminar, they can do whatever they dream of doing," explained Rachel, passing out colored examples of her idea. "So we go ahead and put Kevin on the cover. We show him kayaking a river, caving in New Mexico, lounging on a beach in Puerto Vallarta. We present to the world a person whose troubles are over."
"This is why I put up with you," Jack exclaimed, clapping her on the shoulder once the meeting was over. "You, Ms. Stanhope, have a tendency toward moments of brilliance."
Rachel grimaced. "Does this mean I can call my Aunt Miriam back?"
"Whatever you want," Jack said as she strode away. "Just don't forget, there's a five-minute limit on all personal calls."
Nearing the door to her office, Rachel smelled the scent of cranberry wafting from the potpourri on her bookcase. She sensed the ghost of a shadow imprinted on the room, and peered anxiously inside, half expecting to find someone there. The office was empty, unchanged, except for a manila envelope that lay in the center of her desk. Her name was scrawled across it.
She recognized the handwriting and broke the seal with her fingernail, then gingerly extracted the contents — court documents listing her as Respondent in a Petition for Dissolution of Marriage.
Rachel closed her eyes and cupped a hand over her mouth, afraid of the stinging tears and the sobs threatening to well up from deep in her gut. Anguish was replaced with fleeting denial, then anger. Roger had beaten her to the punch.
She buzzed the receptionist. "Was my husband in the office earlier today?"
The receptionist rushed to explain. "I am so sorry, Rachel. I buzzed the conference room, but Mr. Jaffery yelled at me for interrupting. Your husband said it was okay. He said you weren't expecting him. That maybe it was better this way."
"I'll bet. Thanks." Rachel clicked off, and drew a ragged breath. As Respondent, she'd have to respond. As a woman, she just wanted to make sense of the situation. To find the pattern, the order. Had she devoted herself to her job to escape a crumbling relationship, or had her desire to succeed eroded the foundations of her marriage? Were they both to blame for creating irreconcilable differences, or had she driven him away?
Kevin Henderson's face grinned up from the dummied brochure on her desk. The caption "Take Back Your Life" blared from the page in neon green. Maybe Kevin wasn't as dumb as he looked.
Her thoughts leaped toward Bird Haven and Aunt Miriam's offer. God knew she could use the time away. Plus Aunt Miriam had always been there for her. Spending the summer there might be just the ticket. Or, as the saying went, a way to kill two birds with one stone.CHAPTER 2
The bird came out of nowhere. A white blur that chirped, then dived, hurtling toward Rachel's head like a B-52 coming in for a hot landing.
She ducked. Dropping her suitcase, she raised her arms, swatting at the air above her head. "Get away!"
The bird swerved, then dived again, lighting on the polished mahogany bannister of the entryway. Milk-white and small, it had gray-brown spots forming what looked like a collar around its neck. Its wings and tail feathers were patterned in gray-brown and white; its nose was a slash of blue above a yellow beak. The bird cocked its head to one side and eyed her.
"Why, you're some sort of parakeet!" Her words echoed, bouncing off a high ceiling crisscrossed with thick beams. Slatted mahogany shutters flanked tall windows, and a staircase that looked transported from a Big Valley rerun led to the second floor.
On the left of the stairs, two doorways opened to the interior of the house, but there was no sign of human life anywhere.
No answer. Where the heck was she?
The bird fluttered, spreading its wings from its perch on the bannister. Rachel stared. This was like something out of an Alfred Hitchcock movie. The note taped to the front door had read Come in, dear.'Beware of Bird' would have been more germane.
Maybe she should try to catch the dumb thing. Rachel's gaze moved toward her suitcase and the handle of the tennis racket protruding from the zipper compartment. Or kill it.
The parakeet stirred.
"Don't even think about it, bird, unless you want to play some modified badminton."
As if in defiance, the parakeet took to the air and settled into a holding pattern above her head. Rachel considered taking the overhead shot, then envisioned Aunt Miriam's reaction. This was a bird sanctuary, after all. Scratch the badminton idea.
"Aunt Miriam? Are you here?"
Still no answer. So much for the cars she'd seen parked out front. Rachel weighed her options. She could wait outside for Aunt Miriam to show up, walk around to the back of the house, or brave the bird.
Rachel sidled toward the front door and the warm rays slanting through the windows. June or not, gooseflesh pimpled her arms. The entryway felt cold. Or maybe she was just in shock.
Excerpted from A Rant of Ravens by Christine Goff. Copyright © 2014 Christine Goff. Excerpted by permission of Astor + Blue Editions.
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