When a neighbour is blackmailed, she turns to bottle miners Gert and Nina for advice; by Patricia Crandall.
"I really need to put something special on top of this plain ol' piece, as Grandma Liz would say."
She fondly thought of Grandma Liz's whims to spruce things up.
The phone rang and her husband picked it up downstairs. "Hon, it's for you," Lee called. "Don't forget, we're leaving for the Lakeview Restaurant in twenty minutes."
Hedy smiled - as if she could forget. This was to be a special dinner, a celebration of one year of marriage. She could scarcely believe it...the time had gone by so fast.
Hedy gave the bureau a loving pat and answered the phone.
"Do you know who this is?" a voice whispered.
Hedy tightened her grip on the receiver.
"You've received the video in the mail by now," a woman's voice continued. "A reprint will be sent to your husband's office in two weeks unless you agree to pay the money."
There was a pause.
"Perhaps your folks would like to see
you strut your stuff, too. I'll call next week for your answer."
The line went dead. Hedy felt herself go numb.
"Hedy! Time to go," Lee announced.
She slipped into a pair of high-heeled black sandals, showing off pink toenails. With shaking hands she brushed her hair one final time and put on a bright slash of lipstick.
She crossed the room to the armoire and opened her sweater drawer. A padded envelope peeked out from beneath a red cashmere sweater. She squeezed her eyes tightly shut and asked silently, "Please God, what can I do?"
Then she hastily rearranged the sweater to cover any trace of the envelope, shut the armoire door, and went downstairs.
Lee Dayton was in fine good humor as he drove down Main Street in the small town of Indian Falls, New York. The Lakeview was the couple's favorite restaurant, and he had arranged with the management to have champagne icing in a cooler at their tableside for this special event. He reached over and tapped his wife's hand.
"So what are you planning now, Hon? I've seen that pensive look on your face once too often these days not to realize that you're working something out."
Hedy made an attempt to smile. Anniversary or no, all she could think about was that horrible phone call and what it meant. It was going to be difficult to keep Lee from finding out about the threat of blackmail. Sooner or later, she would have to tell him, unless she found a way to pay the blackmailers without making him suspicious. But what if it didn't end there?
She suddenly realized there were tears in her eyes. She turned her head away and said quickly, "I'm thinking about the Pumpkin Festival in October and all the things that have to be done. Like drop by the printer's office tomorrow to pick up raffle tickets and get the right sized baskets from the florist."
"Of course, I should have known it was something simple," Lee slapped his hands on the steering wheel, feeling the rhythm and beat of America's Ventura Highway.
Next morning, Hedy set out across tree-lined Elm Street. Deep in thought, she carelessly darted into the path of a cyclist heading in her direction, causing him to spin to a stop to avoid hitting her.
"Crazy lady!" the man screamed. "Lunatics like you shouldn't be out on the street!"
He muttered other imprecations under his breath, and took off, but not before flipping her "the bird" as a final gesture of his disdain.
Hedy stood shaken and open mouthed in front of Nina Westacott's meticulous Queen Anne house. With pounding heart she climbed the steps to the broad porch that encircled the Victorian-style home.
"That was a close one," she said to the two gaping women seated at a table in the middle of the veranda, holding the last hand of cards from their interrupted poker game.
"That man was crude," Nina clucked her tongue. "Such foul language! What was he thinking? Why, he nearly wiped you out."
"It was my fault. My mind was on something else." Like filling in for a stripper during one night of partying at a spring college break and how it could turn my life into a nightmare, Hedy thought dismally.
Gert Carver eyed the packet in Hedy's hand. "So... you've brought the raffle tickets. I'll take five books."
"And I'll take three." Nina made the sign of the cross. "I hope one of us wins the trip to Atlantic City in March."
As Hedy handed out tickets, Nina arose and walked to a tea table set in one corner of the porch where a large, scalloped overhang shaded a homemade carrot cake and a pitcher of lemonade. She sliced off a piece of cake and set it on a china plate.
"No cake, please, Nina, but I will have a glass of lemonade," Hedy said.
"My gracious saints, girl! Worried about your weight? If I had your figure, I'd eat anything put in front of me."
"And you usually do just that, Nina," Gert piped up.
"You ladies are welcome to join me at the gym any time." Hedy laughed. "I'm heading there now."
She put the money she collected for the tickets into an envelope. "It's my day off. I don't have a deadline to meet today."
"What's the topic of your column this week?" Gert asked.
"I'm still trying to come up with an interesting subject." Hedy's eyes surveyed the porch filled with potted plants and antique white wicker, and then came to rest on a pink satin Victorian doll dustbin. The unusual piece featured a lady's head as the finial attached to the torso, all part of the cover, and her swooping skirt, the base. It was set on a side table in the midst of tagged items for the festival.
"That lovely Victorian lady would make an ideal topic for my newspaper column," she mused.
"Gert dug those doll pieces in the last dump we mined. Isn't it amazing this one's in pristine condition? I'll pull out my book on collectibles and get information for you."
"Thanks, Nina. I appreciate that." Hedy laced her hands together.
"Actually, I have the ideal place for her. If you don't mind, I'll buy her now instead of at the festival." She retrieved her knapsack from the chair and removed her wallet.
Gert's mouth opened wide.
"Oh, have I made a mistake? I assumed she was for sale."
"No, she's not," Gert said finally. "She's a keeper. I brought her to show Arden and Rose. They're joining us to play cards." She squinted at Nina. "Someone else made a mistake tagging the piece."
"Sorry," Nina said.
A look of disappointment crossed Hedy's face. "The piece is exquisite," she said. "At least I know now what I want to set on top of the jewelry bureau."
At their breakfast table the next morning, Lee slid back in his chair and adjusted his tie. He stood up and carried dirty dishes over to the sink where Hedy was rinsing mugs and placing them in the dishwasher. With a cynical intelligence reflected in his warm brown eyes he said, "You tell me everything's okay, but every time I come near you, you jump."
He curled a finger into the thick mass of her chestnut hair, its red tones highlighted by the sun, then rubbed her shoulders. "Honey, are you pregnant?" he asked softly.
Hedy swung around and snapped, "The last thing I want to be right now is pregnant. No, I am not going to have a baby. And nothing's wrong!"
An uneasy silence fell. Without another word, Lee picked up his briefcase and marched out into the crisp morning air, slamming the door behind him and sending fallen leaves swirling in his wake.
"Oh, Lee!" Hedy exclaimed to the closed door. "What am I doing to our marriage? I'm so out of control." She returned to the table, slumped down, head in hands, and let the tears flow.
After a good cry, she got up and reheated the coffee pot. She poured out a big mug of the steaming brew, set it down on the kitchen table next to her laptop, and began to write a first draft of her special interest column on Vaseline glass, with a side piece on Gert and Nina's pastime of mining old bottles.
Later that day when she had finished the article, she trudged across Elm Street to Gert's white and gray Victorian house set on a half acre of so-called lawn, in truth more a patchy jumble of wildflowers and high grass. She climbed uneven steps to the wide front porch, stepped cautiously around mixing sticks drying next to spattered paint cans, and knocked on the screen door.
"It's Hedy, Gert!" she called. When there was no answer, she entered a mud room and passed through to a bright, cinnamon-scented kitchen. By habit she checked the room out, expecting to see Nina.
Gert was there. "Nina had errands to do and wrote down a list of things to be checked for your article," she yelled over the noise of a blaring TV.
She clicked it off and put out iced glasses of pineapple juice on a dark oak, claw-footed table.
Hedy pulled out a chair at the table and sat down heavily. She set the article down before her, picked a warm muffin out of a Shaker basket and took a hungry bite. "Mmm... delicious. Did you make these?"
"Me? I'm not a cook or a baker. Nina dropped them off on her way out." She looked closely at Hedy. "What's the matter, dear? Aren't you feeling well?"
Hedy inhaled... a deep breath. "I'm fine."
"If you say so. Let's see what you've written."
Hedy handed over the printed sheets. Gert adjusted her glasses and read the article with interest. "Um hmmm," she remarked. "Nothing to be added here. You've covered the basics of bottle mining, collecting old bottles, and Vaseline glass. It's a great piece."
"Thanks." Hedy eyed the pink Victorian lady, now adorning the middle of the table. It was filled with jelly beans. Hedy ran her fingers over the sculpted head. It felt smooth as sea glass.
Gert was not fooled. "Something's bothering you." She drummed her fingertips on the table. "Out with it."
Hedy stirred restlessly in her chair. "Oh, Gert, I've got to unload to someone, but I don't want any of this repeated."
"I understand," Gert said earnestly. "Tell me before I burst."
"When I was a freshman in college I went to a fraternity party." Her eyes filled with tears. "Oh, I wish I had never gone, but I did and I have only myself to blame." She lowered her head. "You see... the guys had hired a stripper, but she didn't show. Things got kind of wild. I had a few too many drinks. And then... I..." She gulped.
"Stripped." Gert grimaced .
Hedy nodded. "OK, it was really stupid. And now I'm being blackmailed by the man who took the video and by another person working with him, someone I thought was a friend."
Gert sat quietly, petting an old tabby cat that had jumped up and curled on her lap. She looked out the window at blue jays scattering seeds on a birdfeeder.
"I don't know what to do." Hedy took a steadying breath. "I can't tell Lee. I just can't."
Gert leaned forward and put a comforting hand on Hedy's quivering shoulder. "You must tell Lee, my dear. It'll be hard to do, but I have no doubt he'll be there for you. He's certain to be surprised, and likely hurt and angry, too. But he loves you. He'll forgive you."
Hedy's eyes widened in hope. "You sound so sure. I wish I could be."
Gert waggled her fingers and the cat looked up thinking she was playing with him. "Of course, that might not be the case if you were still dancing at parties and taking your clothes off."
"Besides, Lee's a lawyer. He can file a lawsuit." She hissed, "Whatever you do, you must not pay those blackmailers one cent. You must tell Lee."
Early that evening, in the Dayton's oversized recliner chair in front of a flickering, silent TV screen, Lee tossed the remote control on the floor, and turned with clenched fists toward Hedy, who sat hunched over on the couch cradling her head in her hands.
He roared like a wounded bull, "What do you mean... there's a videotape of you stripping? And they're asking for blackmail?" He pointed to the padded envelope lying on the coffee table.
Hedy straightened up and wrung her hands. "It was in college, Lee. I did a stupid drunken dance at my first frat party."
"How could you?" Lee said in disgust.
"Oh, and I suppose you're Mr. Perfect," Hedy snapped defensively.
He snapped back, "We're not talking about me this time. It's your nakedness in that video." He jabbed his finger at the table. "No wonder you're being blackmailed. It'll look just great on the creep's blog. And if anyone downloads the pictures, they'll be on the Internet forever. What a freaking mess!"
Hedy pressed her head against the leaf-patterned cushions of the plump sofa, and felt her chest constrict, as if iron bands were tightening around her heart. She desperately wanted to leave the house and drive somewhere - anywhere, to get away from Lee's loathing and ranting. She raised herself slowly and walked over to pick up her car keys from on top of the credenza.
Lee grabbed her wrist, and she was unable to pull away. "If anyone's going for a ride, it's me, since I've already been taken for one."
He released her arm, and she rubbed her wrist. She watched in silence as he left the house and went to his car. Seconds later, the motor churned, and he sped off down the road.
Hedy turned the lights down in the room, and numbly watched the flickering, silent TV for what seemed like hours, trying to sort out her thoughts. The sound of the Blazer pulling into the driveway roused her from her reverie. The car's motor idled for a few minutes, and the headlamps went off. She heard Lee's footsteps come briskly up the walk. He entered the house through the side door and came into the kitchen. She joined him there, standing in front of the counter with arms hanging limp at her sides.
"Where did you go?" she asked quietly. "I was worried."
"I went to the lake."
"To our spot?"
"Lee, I was a naive kid when..."
"That video was taken without your permission when you stripped at your first frat party." His eyes glinted with hurt and anger. "In the morning I'll start the procedure to prosecute those sleazeballs for attempted blackmail."
They stared at each other for a long time. Hedy broke the spell by lowering her eyes. Lee moved close to her and ruffled her hair. She leaned into him, welcoming his embrace.
The day of the Pumpkin Festival arrived unseasonably warm, with a northerly wind blowing that somewhat relieved the humidity. Due to the unexpected fine day, crafters and vendors relocated their tables and booths from inside the damp barns at the Greenwich fairgrounds to the paddock outside.
Hedy went in search of Gert and Nina. She found them at one open end of the cavernous 4-H building. "Hey! I thought you would be outside on this beautiful day."
"I don't trust that perfect sky." Gert glanced upwards through the plastic partitions in the high-ceilinged roof.
"Pooh!" Nina said. "Ye of little faith! So now we must clap our hands and stamp our feet to keep warm in this drafty barn."
"Excuse us for a minute, Nina." Hedy grasped Gert's arm and drew her off to one side.
Hedy beamed down at Gert. "I want you to know you give sound advice, neighbor, with a lot of wisdom; that's a quote from my husband. And most importantly, you may have saved my marriage."
"Thanks be to God, as Nina would say," Gert sighed. "Tell me the worst is over for the two of you, and Lee's going to prosecute the blackmailers."
Hedy laughed. "Lee wants to hire you for the firm. He said you are a shrewd negotiator. And yes, to answer your question, he's made official contact with both of the people involved. A full investigation will be opened." She waved her hand, scattering black flies away. "My former so-called friends will go to trial and face up to six years in prison, which will not be enough to satisfy me, but it makes a point."
"Life is good!" Gert cheered.
Hedy put her hand out and felt the splat of raindrops. Dark clouds were forming overhead and vendors rushed to bring their tables inside.
Gert looked smug. "I felt it in my bones." She crooked her finger at Hedy. "I'd like you to come back to our booth for a minute."
Hedy looked at her watch. "I'm meeting Lee for lunch at 11:30. I'll just have enough time."
Nina congratulated Gert for making the right choice concerning the weather and stepped aside to let her pass behind their display. Gert stretched on tip-toes, reached toward a high shelf and removed a well-wrapped bundle. She peeled off the paper and presented the dustbin to Hedy. "I want you to have this, m'dear."
Hedy was speechless.
"Come on, take her before I change my mind. I never intended to part with her but... ta-da... Nina gave me a blue Victorian lady."