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Welcome to Austenville, 6

June 19, 2020 12:12PM

Welcome to Austenville

To be clear (?), Bingley is not officially out so there will not be a smooching scene for Alice to observe in this chapter. (Tripp figured out that secret because he figured out who Jane and Bingley are, and also considering Bingley is such a close friend of Darcy and "either you're just not into men or it's not Fitzgerald Darby.")

6: The Third Catalysis

Charlotte Singer was a superlative guide but eventually Alice asked her how she had ended up working as the city manager.

“That's a long, sad story,” she laughed, then elaborated. “I had a summer internship lined up after my senior year in undergrad. It was with a big-name PR firm in New York. I was so excited about it, and my parents were really proud of me, and then the firm retracted their offer.”

“Oh no!” Alice gasped in sympathy.

“It was too late to get in anywhere else,” continued Lottie, “so Mom said, ‘Come home.’ I did but I knew I couldn't just sit around all summer so I offered my services to Jack Willoughby who was the city manager at the time. He took me in and my job was all-around dogsbody. It was a horrible job but I loved it. People would come into the office everyday and ask me questions or give me problems, and I'd have to come up with some solution. And I was good at it; Jack was very impressed with my work. And I met Gerry, who was also impressed. Jack invited me to come back the next summer but I just knew it wasn't going to happen. And in the fall I left to get my MBA.”

She paused to check her listener’s interest. Alice stared back expectantly.

“But then old Jack Willoughby got himself arrested. I wasn’t in town at the time but it was a big deal. Huge scandal! Anyway, Gerry Darby got promoted to city manager, and he called me up that night and made me an offer. I finished my degree in the spring and moved home. Ta-da!”

Alice waited for more, but there was nothing forthcoming. “That's it?” she asked. “But that's the story of how Mayor Darby became city manager.”

Her tour guide nodded. “Yes. No. But I wanted to show you this first.”

They were standing in one of many nondescript corridors. Lining one side was a series of portraits, mostly men. Alice recognized the first one immediately as Fitzgerald Darby.

“Dad was a little disappointed that I took a job with the city rather than starting my own business or joining him and my brother Lewis in the family business but I couldn't figure out what else we needed in Austenville. Besides, if I didn't like it, I would have found something else to do. Anyway, that was a golden age. Gerry is an excellent manager but he hates talking to people; I love talking to people but I needed to develop my management skills. We were for the most part unstoppable, winning governance awards left and right, speaking at conferences, getting interviewed by national papers, the works.

“Then tragedy struck,” she said. “Gerry and I were at a conference in Los Angeles. Gerry was being his usual self -- don't get me wrong. I love the guy like a brother, and I am super excited that he's going to literally be my brother-in-law, but he can be a little off-putting at first. He really stepped in it with this woman and I was about to go and apologize to her on his behalf when my sister called.”

“So what happened to the woman in Los Angeles?” Alice asked during the dramatic pause.

“Her? I have no idea. She's unimportant. Forget about her. My sister --” Lottie returned to the subject of interest -- “called to say that Gerry’s aunt had died.”

At that she took a big step so that she was standing in front of the next mayoral portrait. Alice scurried to keep up.

“Who --” Alice began then stopped. She leaned forward to read the name carved into the plaque at the bottom of the frame: Catherine Darby.

“Mayor Darby’s aunt Catherine was also Mayor Darby?”

“Her death was unexpected,” said Lottie. “She was always full of curiosity and opinions. I swore she had eyes in the back of her head. She was old but she never showed any signs of slowing down, although she did get a little erratic at the very end.”

Alice was too curious to act otherwise, and prompted her storyteller.

“She didn't want Gerry to go to L.A. with me. At all. And she called him like ten times the night she died and left weird voicemail messages. He let me listen to them as we traveled home and it was just so strange.”

“How did she die?”

“She fell down the stairs at home, one of those mansions with extra high ceilings, so more like a story-and-a-half per floor. Carol was completely freaked out on the phone.”

“Was she there?” Alice asked. Had Dr. Singer been looking after her boyfriend’s family in his absence?

“Oddly enough, yes. Catherine hadn't been feeling well and she insisted that Dr. Perry make a housecall that night. Perry couldn't make it so he sent Carol instead, which should give you some idea of what Perry thought about the mayor's request,” said Lottie. And it probably did make sense if Alice knew the people better. “And Carol walked into the mansion to find the mayor dead at the foot of the stairs. She called 9-1-1 even though it was too late, but it took them over an hour to get to the mansion.”

Alice gasped.

“After everyone calmed down, Perry and Carol decided it was probably one or more little strokes, especially after hearing Gerry’s voicemails.” Lottie shook her head sadly. “That was a bad night for Austenville. Nelly Haber died the same night.”

“Nelly Haber?” she repeated.

“Yeah, Tripp’s sister,” Lottie supplied. “She's the reason the ambulance was late to the mayor's; we only have one ambulance and, quite frankly, according to Carol, Mayor Catherine was beyond help by then.”

Alice shuddered in response to the story.

“There is a silver lining,” soothed Lottie. “The tragedy brought Gerry and Carol together in ways I never could. They grew closer and eventually started dating.

“But anyway,” the city manager shook her head and started walking again, “we left L.A. on the first available flight home and I had to convince Gerry to run for mayor the whole time. He didn't want to do it but, from my perspective, he was the best choice. In the end, he agreed, but only after I promised to take the role of city manager and do all the public face stuff that he can't stand.

“And that is how I became city manager: a story of failed dreams, scandal, and death!” she concluded with another flourish. “Although, once Gerry marries Carol, he may get out more. My sister may not give him a choice.”

“Your sister would force him into the spotlight?”

Lottie made a face as they started walking again, headed toward the exit of the building. “He's the mayor, not the local Illuminati; he's not allowed to govern from the shadows. As for Carol, well, she's been a bit much lately, but I think it's just wedding stress. I'm sure she'll calm down after the honeymoon.”

Alice was a little too young to have many close friends who had married, but she had seen that sort of woman on television and in movies. “Bridezilla?”

Lottie laughed. “Yeah, a bit,” she agreed. “We just got back from the florist who has been working hard to find roses just the right shade of red. Carol’s dress has this red sash and she wants the roses in our bouquets to match it exactly. It's driving Peggy up the wall.”

“Maybe she should get white roses and just paint them the right shade of red,” suggested Alice.

Lottie laughed harder and led Alice back into the town square. “I actually mentioned that. She nearly bit my head off.”

The two paused near the statue of General Tilney. Lottie extended her hand again. “Well, I hope you enjoy the rest of your stay in our town, and I hope you'll be able to talk your brother into coming here with you later this summer. It will be a great time, trust me.”

Alice found herself smiling. “What stuff do you have planned?”

“Well, Independence Day is a big holiday. We have people dress up in costume and reenact a revolutionary battle here, and there are fireworks and a few carnival rides,” said Lottie. “But really, we have things going on every week. We hang up a big sheet in front of city hall and show movies on Friday nights.” She paused to throw up her hands in front of city hall as if to draw the screen.

“We have bike rides, walking trails, and scavenger hunts,” she continued. “We have a frequent shopper card with which you can earn points for a free t-shirt with an annual logo designed by a local artist. There's an ice cream social every Sunday with discounted ice cream from Thornton Lacey Creamery. Jennings Bar has trivia contests practically every night.” By now Lottie was ticking off the activities on her fingers, moving a few steps in different directions toward the various shops she was talking about.

Alice's stomach grumbled loudly. She covered it in embarrassment. “Tripp stole my lunch,” she explained sheepishly. “I'm actually starving right now.”

“He stole it?” she looked alarmed.

“Not like that!” Alice clarified. “He thought I had bought it for him when he took it. It was just a sandwich, no big deal.”

Lottie was still distressed. “It's a good thing Carol ran into him. Here, let me buy your lunch. It's the least we can do,” she offered.

Alice was about to say that was unnecessary but stopped herself. “Okay,” she said instead. “Yeah, that'd be great.”

The two women set off in a direction away from Lottie's desk and her phone call to councilwoman Ferris.

“So where to?” asked Lottie as they crossed the street and left the public square.

“Sweet Nothings,” Alice answered unequivocally.

Lottie slowed her steps and tried briefly to suggest a different place. “Are you sure you're not in the mood for pizza? Martin's makes the best.”

“Maybe tomorrow,” Alice smiled, trying not to link arms with the city manager to better drag her down the street. “Is there any way I can get one of those t-shirt punch cards this week? I promise not to turn it in until I see my brother.”

Lottie focused on the question at hand and allowed herself to be brought to the sandwich shop, but when they reached the door she dug in her heels.

“It looks like nobody's home,” she pointed to a handwritten sign that read, “We’ll be right back!” “How about that pizza?” she said.

“Hi Jenny,” Alice said instead as she watched the barista return to work.

“Hello Alice,” she greeted, fishing her key chain out of her purse to unlock the door. “Charlotte Singer, long time, no see.” Did Alice just imagine the tightness in Jenny’s voice?

“Ha, yeah, well, perfectly good explanation,” Lottie replied nervously. “Tripp stole her lunch, so I'm buying her a new one.”

In an instant, their shared concern for a mutual acquaintance cut through the awkwardness. “He did what?”

“It was just a misunderstanding,” Alice said.

“I know, right?” Lottie spoke over her as if Alice wasn’t there. “Do you think he's getting enough to eat these days?”

Jenny pushed open the door and the other two followed her inside. “I offer him a soup or sandwich everyday, but mostly he just wants coffee. Do you know if Norland’s still gives him free groceries?”

Lottie rolled her eyes. “Francesca Daschle won't lend a hand to her own husband's family. Why would she help the town drunk?” She shook her head, deflatedly. “I'll talk with Rich and see what's going on. In the meantime, a sandwich for Miss Parks, if you please.”

“Same as earlier?” Jenny asked.

Alice suddenly realized she was back in the conversation, like a prop or plot device. She nodded.

“My treat,” announced Lottie. Alice might be back in the conversation but only with a nonspeaking role.

Jenny laughed and grabbed another prepared sandwich from behind her counter. “No, it's not,” she disagreed as she put the sandwich in a panini press to toast the bread and melt the cheese. “If Tripp did eat the first one, then I ought to refund her, so we'll just call it even if I let Alice have the next one for free. And besides, your money's no good here, Lottie. You'd know that if you stopped in once in a while. I don't even understand why you're here now.”

“Oh, you know me. This is a classic Lottie Singer conflict avoidance technique,” she grimaced, thinking of Councilwoman Ferris. “There's someone I don't want to talk to, so I am doing literally anything to avoid her.”

Lottie’s eyes widened as she realized what she said, and to whom. Jenny's mouth pressed into a thin, unforgiving line. Silence stretched out awkwardly while the panini press did its job.

Alice racked her brain for a peacemaking remark. “Lottie was just telling me about all the activities planned for summer in town. What does Sweet Nothings get involved in?”

It had seemed like an innocuous topic that would lead to fewer tensions but Alice's question had the opposite effect. Lottie looked even more stricken and the line of Jenny's mouth became a more pronounced frown. Then Jenny shook herself and moved to watch the sandwich carefully so it would not get too hot.

“My shop and I have actually never been formally invited to participate in Summer at Austenville,” she said as dispassionately as possible.

“You can't blame that on me,” Lottie at last spoke in her defense. “You know the city manager is not responsible for making those decisions.”

Jenny took the sandwich out of the press and handed it to Alice who accepted with barely audible thanks.

“It has always been a mystery to me what decisions you take responsibility for,” Jenny snapped. “But I suppose as long as you're happy with the outcome, it doesn't matter who gets the credit.”

Lottie turned bright red. “That is not what happened,” she spoke in a strangled voice, pressing her hands to the counter.

“Then what did happen, Lottie?” Jenny demanded. “Because I was standing right there and I still don't get it.”

Alice’s stomach grumbled again and attracted everyone’s attention. Seeing two sets of eyes on her, she backed to the door. “I'll just take this with me to Longbourn,” she announced, knocking the bell on her way out, leaving the “We’ll be right back!” sign facing the street to discourage other customers.

Alice wasn't completely sure what she had witnessed, whether she had brought the couple back together or further apart. She tried to put it in perspective with the reconciliation she had witnessed between Emily Woodhouse and Geoff Knightley last night. She was more than half-tempted to sneak across the street and spy on the two in Sweet Nothings from the laundromat, but she could see a squad car parked in front of it and imagined Officer Fred would not appreciate Alice's snooping.

There was nothing to do for the moment but go back to the bed and breakfast and finally eat her lunch, which she consumed post haste upon reaching the breakfast room, taking advantage of the napkins there.

Now what? she asked herself as she nibbled on the last bit of crust, then decided more characters needed rescuing, and the whole town in general needed saving. She could probably manage one or two more before Jason Thorpe finished repairs. Anne Elliot and Fred Wentworth were doing well, and Emma Woodhouse and George Knightley looked quite content at lunch today. Alice supposed she needed to go to the square at lunch tomorrow to see if Jane Bennet and Charles Bingley were back together.

Who did that leave?

Tripp had told her that Catherine Morland and Henry Tilney were too young, and Edmund Bertram was too married, but that left both Elinor and Marianne Dashwood. Was it Lottie who mentioned something about Daschles, and Norland? The way she talked about it, Norland sounded like a grocery store. And there was Colonel Brandon in the police department. Maybe they would be next on her list.

Alice had no sooner finished her sandwich when Mrs. Bennet bustled in. She was unpleasantly surprised to find someone making a mess at one of her tables, and hid it imperfectly.

“Alice!” she said. “What are you doing here?”

Alice apologized and swept up her crumbs. “I'll clean up the mess,” she offered.

“Oh, it's no trouble,” lied Mrs. Bennet brightly, “but weren't you going out for lunch?”

“It was a miscommunication,” she shrugged. Then she decided to do some sleuthing. “Is there a grocery store around here?”

“You're not thinking of keeping food in your room, are you?” the proprietress asked warily.

“Just a few snack bars I can take with me around town,” Alice quickly supplied. “So I don't get too hungry between meals. I didn't care for the selection at the drugstore.”

Mrs. Bennet looked like she was giving away information that would come back to haunt her. “You want Norland’s. It's on -- Street, about a ten minute walk from here.”

“Norland’s?” she repeated. “Is that a local chain? I’ve never heard of it.”

“It’s owned by the Daschle family,” volunteered the busybody. “Although…” she trailed off.

“What? Although what?” Alice didn’t even have to pretend to be interested.

“It used to be owned by Ian Daschle but the whole store and everything in it went to his brother Rich when he died,” Mrs. Bennet answered. “Ian’s wife and daughters didn’t get a penny of it.”

Alice knew the plot went like this, but it still seemed ridiculous in a modern setting. “How is that even possible?”

“Lawyers,” Mrs. Bennet spat. “It’s always the lawyers’ fault. If my ex-husband didn’t have such a fancy lawyer, I wouldn’t be stuck here, I can tell you that!”

As fascinating as that story might be, it was a distraction that Alice could ill afford. “What happened to the daughters?”

“One is a hippy artist and one is a lawyer. Had they gotten professional help rather than trying to handle it on their own, they might have gotten more out of their father’s business than just the shirts on their backs,” Mrs. Bennet rolled her eyes in derision. “And the third sister runs the flower shop.”

“So what kind of artist is the one sister?” Alice asked, guessing that would be Marianne Dashwood.

Mrs. Bennet shrugged dismissively. “Any kind of art you can do while high. Mostly she draws things that end up in newspapers or magazines.”

“So how does she know Chief Brandon?” Alice hoped her landlady wouldn't think she was being too quick.

“Chris Brandon is in love with her sister, the lawyer.” Mrs. Bennet knew no secrets worth keeping. Alice tried to contain her shock. “They got to know each other after Ian died and then really started working together when the city manager‘s dirty laundry got dragged out of the closet. Everyone expected something to come of it, but blood is thicker than water. You see, Jack -- that's the old city manager -- was dating Rita, the artist sister, except he wasn't just with her, if you follow my meaning.” Mrs. Bennet raised her eyebrows significantly but Alice was glad she already knew the plot.

“He was cheating on her,” Alice supplied.

“With Chris Brandon's 16-year-old niece,” Mrs. Bennet elaborated. It had never seemed as seedy as now, to think of John Willoughby’s crimes starting at pedophilia. “Chris showed no mercy to Jack, in a legal sense. Rita blamed Chris for what happened to Jack, and Ella --” here Mrs. Bennet rolled her eyes as if she was fed up with the juvenile antics -- “dropped Chris in the friend-zone. It’s such a waste! If I didn’t have my daughter to remind people of how old I am, I’d have a go at him, myself. Unfortunately, like my ex, he prefers younger women.” That last bit was said with understandable bitterness.

Okay, Alice was not going to get involved in the Bennets’ divorce. She had always thought that couple had been deeply flawed and wasn’t surprised that a modern version of them had terminated an unhappy marriage.

“So Rita blames Chris Brandon rather than Jack Willoughby? That’s messed up,” Alice judged honestly. But Col. Brandon wasn’t in love with Elinor Dashwood; he was in love with Marianne. “But Chris is in love with Mari -- Rita,” she blurted out.

“Oh he is, is he?” Mrs. Bennet looked amused. “What makes you think that?”

Alice couldn’t admit she had read this story in high school so she settled on a believable lie. “I overheard something when I was at the police station.”

“It’s the Public Safety Office,” corrected the landlady but Alice could already see the wheels turning in her brain. “No wonder Chris has never made a move on Ella after all that time,” she said at last. “That actually explains a lot.”

Alice retired to her room, content that the seed she had planted with Mrs. Bennet would bear fruit.

Welcome to Austenville, 6

NN SJune 19, 2020 12:12PM

Re: Welcome to Austenville, 6

Alicia MJune 22, 2020 07:05PM

Re: Welcome to Austenville, 6

Melanie1June 20, 2020 01:14PM


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