The soft arborvitae branches caressed the sides of Cid’s truck as he drove, slowly making his way up the drive. He slowed further as he approached the split in the lane that he had been warned about. Jesse had told him to take the road on the right. This would free Cid of the evergreens and give him an unobstructed view of their summer project: Hidden Meadow.
The mammoth stone-and-brick mansion stood atop a large hill. From where he sat, the house looked as if it had grown out of the ground. Nature had stepped in when the owners had checked out. The woods had sent, first, an army of brush and brambles before it marched its seedlings in. There was little meadow left. Only the height of the mansion saved it from disappearing entirely.
Cid stopped the truck and looked down the hill. The long, hedged drive looked more like a lumber chute. Cid feared that a summer downpour would turn the lane into a river, taking anything that was caught on it to the bottom of the hill, across the road, and into Lake Angeline. He would suggest a wide, curving drive be cut into the hillside and the arborvitae taken out and replaced with terraced plantings. The water could be managed with proper excavation. But that wasn’t why he had been asked to spend the summer. His job was Hidden Meadow itself.
The mansion had been built in 1905 as the summer home of the son of a lumber tycoon. While the forests were being destroyed in the north, Kip Archer enjoyed the calm gentility of sitting on his wide veranda with his rich cronies, smoking cigars and sipping gin drinks. It was his oasis, where he didn’t have to hear the sounds of saws, axes, and the mill as it changed the once beautiful giants of the upper Midwest into lumber. His wife Suzette, or Suze as he called her, had taken full advantage of the large building to put distance between her closeted husband and herself.
Jesse said that the house was really two houses attached by a massive entry, ornate ballroom, and hotel-size kitchen. Suze took care of the running of Hidden Meadow while Kip decorated it with his collections of china, porcelain and jade. Once the offspring had been produced, each turned a blind eye to how the other chose to enjoy their evenings.
According to the book Kip’s House by one of his lovers, Guy Gillette, it was a happy house. Suze chose her staff carefully and overpaid them to keep them from leaving and gossiping. The “Roaring Twenties” came and went, but Hidden Meadow hung on to the gin-and-tonic lifestyle until the last of the heirs blew through the remaining Archer fortune. This was according to Fond Memories written by third-generation butler Edward Tully.
After that, Jesse said the house was sold to various Hollywood producers. But the cost of its upkeep soon depleted their bank accounts, and for fifty years, Hidden Meadow stood empty. That was until it was bought by a dot-com billionaire. Jesse wasn’t forthcoming about who this was. All he said was, “We report to Miss Kiki Pickles; she’s in charge of the renovation. She will liaise between all the various contractors and the principal.”
Kiki waited in the construction lot. The replacement carpenter was expected any moment now. She didn’t want the man to have to waste time looking for her, so she chose to wait for him there. Kiki reseated her ball cap on her head, pulling her long black braid through the opening in the back. She would have cut her hair long ago if it weren’t for a bet she had with her sister; the first to cut their hair off would have to acknowledge at the family Christmas party that the other was the most beautiful twin. It didn’t matter that they were identical. What mattered was winning.
She shielded her dark brown eyes from the sun with an expensive pair of Wayfarers that her boss had given her. He didn’t like the squint lines that were developing from Kiki staring into the sun. Kiki humored him and took the glasses. She didn’t care if she had squint lines or not. Kiki was the most un-body-conscious person of her crowd. As long as her pits didn’t smell and she didn’t have to buy a larger size pair of jeans, she did little to maintain her killer cut body. Her job did that for her.
A covered truck with Illinois plates drove into the lot. Kiki jumped down from the tailgate and directed it into a space.
Cid turned off the truck, pocketed his smart phone, and opened the door.
Kiki was puzzled by the handsome man who walked towards her with an outstretched hand. Jesse had described the contractor as being a four-eyed nerd who has been spending too much time holding a camera for a cable paranormal show. This tall, dark-haired, and tan man she would have cast as a Hollywood stunt double, not a nerdy ghost hunter.
“Cid Garrett,” Cid introduced himself, shaking the strong hand that was held out to him.
“Kiki Pickles,” she said and released his firm grip.
Cid smiled and took off his sunglasses and wiped his brow. When he smiled, Kiki fell into his warm brown eyes.
“It’s pretty warm already. How is it inside?” he asked.
For a moment Kiki forgot language. There was a pounding in her ears. It could have been the patio guys packing the earth, or her heart, but it distracted her from the business at hand.
Cid patiently waited for his new boss to answer him. She was an attractive woman whose name, Kiki Pickles, didn’t fit. Maybe she was in witness protection?
“The house is warm, especially the attic. We’re hoping once Walrus can get the central air ducts installed, we’ll be able to camp out in the house instead of taking the long drive to the interstate to find a reasonable room. The plumbers have the sanitation all sorted, so you can use the bathrooms. The electric has to be brought up to code, but it is sufficient enough to run machinery.” Shut up Kiki and breathe, she commanded her body.
Cid quickly filed the information and got ready for more.
“You’re not what I expected,” she blurted out.
Cid winced. Surely he hadn’t gotten too soft. “If you would like to recheck my references, I’m sure this will…”
“That’s not what I meant,” she said quickly. “I actually didn’t mean to speak at all. It’s just, Jesse told me you were… different.”
“Ah, that was before I got my Lasik surgeries. I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face without my glasses. I actually got lost in a daylight snowstorm because I didn’t have my glasses on,” he confessed. “People would see the lenses and that’s about it.”
“So this whole handsome hero look is new?” she asked.
“First I have to deal with your friend Jesse who is a Viking god and now…”
“Superman?” Cid said with his face scrunched up. “I’ve been called it before.”
Kiki nodded. “That’s it. Well, Clark, grab your gear. We have a contractor meeting in the main hall. I’ll introduce you around.”
Jesse Holden was examining the chandelier two stories up when Cid walked in behind Kiki. He tapped on the ceiling and shook his head. “Boss, I’m thinking the safest thing would be to take this down before it falls down. We can work on the wood rot and then rehang it once it’s refurbished and the new wiring is ready.”
“Where would we put it?” Kiki asked, worried that the magnificent crystals and elegant chains would be damaged if it were set in a box.
“I could build a cage so it can be hung inside, covered with a tarp, and moved as necessary,” Cid offered. He drew a quick sketch in his pocket notebook, ripped out the page, and handed it to her.
“Looks good, Clark.”
Jesse looked down at Cid. He had changed since their days working for Heritage Homes. Gone was the stoop-shouldered, bespectacled, shy carpenter. Jesse worked his way down the scaffolding, careful to test each board before putting his full weight on it. They’d already had a near accident when a board cracked in two. Fortunately, the worker was light on his feet and grabbed onto the pipe frame as the lumber fell twelve feet to the floor. The funny thing was, Jesse had used the scaffolding the day before and all the wood was solid. He’d jumped up and down on each piece to make sure.
Cid smiled as Jesse walked quickly over to him and patted him on the back. “Good to see you, Cid. Did you have any trouble with my directions?”
“No, found the place the first try,” Cid said. “How’s the folks?”
“My stepmother has joined that Red Hat Society, which my father calls the Red Hot Gossips. She’s gone all the time, and he’s enjoying having the house to himself.”
Jesse ran his hand through his thick head of blonde hair that had so many cowlicks, no part ever stood a chance. It just stuck up in all directions, straight like a confused scrub brush. His hazel eyes and freckled nose gave him the innocent boy-next-door look. Today, he was sporting a two-day beard. Kiki had already given him a new nickname. He was now Scrub. So far, none of the other workers had heard it, and he hoped that she would drop it. He didn’t think that Scrub sounded too professional.
“Cid,” he corrected.
“Clark,” she insisted, “is going to build a cage to hang that monster in, Scrub.”
“Scrub,” Kiki said again. “I’d like to get that taken care of as soon as possible, so direct Clark to where we have the good lumber stored. And, Scrub, while you’re at it, call and see if you can get him a room over at the Rancho-clean-toileto,” she said and walked over to consult with two other contractors.
“We call her Boss,” Jesse started, “so she calls us whatever crosses her mind.”
“I don’t care as long as she remembers I’m Cid Garrett on payday,” Cid said.
“She will. Follow me to the lumber yard. I already have you booked into Highway Ranches with the rest of us.”
Kiki watched the two tall men leave the hall. In her line of work, she didn’t need distractions like Cid and Jesse. Her defense mechanism was giving them absurd nicknames. One simply didn’t have romantic thoughts about Clarks or Scrubs.
He watched them from the staircase. Every day more and more workers filled his home. The noise was becoming a problem. He wanted to scream and break things when the high-pitched machinery was used. He wouldn’t dare break any of his things; his things were much too precious. But the boards and bones of the workers, he didn’t care about. If they didn’t stop the racket soon, he would, and he didn’t care who he hurt in the process.