HoC Ep. 16: A Jury of Your Peers

George knew, when he saw her car in the driveway, that he had company, but he hoped it was not so even as he opened the unlocked front door and walked into the living room. The coffee table had sprouted a forest of Chinese take-out boxes and paper-wrapped chopsticks and plastic packets of soy and chili sauces. He let his briefcase drop to the floor by the hall closet, thudding on the hardwood floor. On the couch, Susanna jumped and twisted around to face him. She had that nervous, twitchy expression, like a panicked bird, on her face again. Obviously, the two weeks of peace he had bought himself when he gave her a key to the house had run out. They were back to clinging again.

“You’ve been having so many late nights; I thought you would like this better than going out somewhere. It’s from the one you like,” Susanna said. She tucked a lock of hair behind her ear then repeated the gesture a few more times as he crossed the room.

“Is it still hot?” He undid his tie and draped it on the back of the couch. He wanted to ask her if she didn’t have a job of her own, but lately she was on some sort of personal crusade to mother him.

“I reheated it a few minutes ago. This is about the time you’ve been finishing work lately.” Her eyes flicked to the time display on the stereo. “How was your day?”

George snapped apart a set of chopsticks and stabbed them into a container of chow mein. He grunted as he slurped up a mouthful of noodles. Over the edge of the container, he saw Susanna’s hands fidgeting in her lap. He flicked the chopsticks towards the other containers. “Eat,” he said after swallowing the noodles.

Susanna picked pieces of slightly limp zucchini from a container. She chewed at the ends of her chopsticks between bites and watched him. She was in a determined mood then. He stood the chopsticks up in the noodles and leaned back. “You want to know how my day was?” She smiled and grimaced and winced all at once. “Not good, that’s how. You want the details? Of course.”

He picked up a different container and shoveled some kind of chicken into his mouth. It tasted like soggy cotton to him. Greasy, soggy cotton. “Well, three of the developments have run over budget. Two of the completed ones are having trouble filling.” The beef had too much chili in it and he felt it burn down his throat and settle in to rot around his heart. “One of my top luxury developments is experiencing some sort of goddamn exodus.” He pushed the food away and wiped his face with a paper napkin. “Oh, and the board of directors is holding a vote on Monday.” He threw the wadded up napkin across the room.

“What kind of vote?” Susanna asked. Her fingers dimpled the paper carton in her hands. Like she couldn’t guess. Who had told women it was attractive to play dumb all the time?

“A vote of no confidence.” His voice rose. He shouldn’t have to put up with this shit in his own home at the end of a hard day. He wanted a beer and a basketball game and some frigging peace and quiet. “A vote to replace me as president.” He slammed a foot into the edge of the coffee table. “Of my company. I made that company.” A tower of cartons tipped over and tumbled to the floor. The top one popped open and spilled white rice across the carpet.

George heaved himself off the couch and turned to the kitchen to get that beer. It was the only thing he seemed likely to get that night. He heard Susanna slide off the couch and start scraping spilled rice onto a napkin. For once, George did not have to worry about cleaning up some pointless mess.

Heather danced from paw to paw on the counter as Carlisle took out the platter of food she had put in the refrigerator the night before. She could hardly remember the years when Saturdays were a source of dread. Now they meant an excuse to spend Friday cooking something frivolous and delightful and Saturday eating and lounging and walking with Rune. Carlisle took so long easing the plastic wrap away from the plate of deviled eggs that Heather almost grabbed it with her teeth.

Rune sniffed. “Curry?”

“Curry eggs and BLT eggs and Mediterranean eggs. I love deviled eggs. I may die of cholesterol poisoning, but at least I’ll die happy.”

Valoria jumped up on the counter with them. “Something smells good. Having a picnic again, dears?”

“Sure are,” Heather said. “Try some. I made more than enough.”

Valoria nibbled politely on half an egg. “Carlisle, have you heard anything from Rafflesia?”

Carlisle folded the plastic wrap into a little square. “Not yet, but you know what teenagers are like.”

Valoria licked a bit of bright yellow filling from the tip of her nose. “I suppose it was too much to expect a letter as soon as she got settled.”

Rune looked up from his second half. “I am absolutely certain, if she had so much as a stuffy nose, Umber would have written to you herself.”

Valoria cocked her head. “I’m quite surprised to hear you say that.”

“I spoke to her extensively before Rafflesia decided to go with her. I have complete confidence in her.”

Heather twitched an ear at him. Complete confidence? But Valoria seemed substantially comforted by this. She finished her egg, praising Heather rather excessively, and left again. When Carlisle started to leave, Heather hooked a claw in his sweater sleeve to slow him. “Why not take the day off? We can’t eat all this by ourselves.”

Carlisle scratched behind her ear for a second. “Thank you, but I have work to do. Save me some leftovers.”

“Sure thing,” Heather said to his disappearing back. He had been distant and weird lately, but she was more interested at the moment in Rune’s unlimited esteem for Umber. She slid an egg off the tray with a paw and said around a bite, “You could have just told me Raff was going to find Topaz.”

Rune coughed on his food and stared at her with big, guilty eyes. “What makes you think she did?”

“Oh, please, don’t give me that. I knew you two were up to something when she left. I thought maybe you were just taking a special interest in Raff’s well-being, but you’re way too relaxed about her being with a human. You knew all about it, didn’t you?”

Rune looked around and lowered his voice. He spoke over his egg like it would muffle what he said. “It was her idea in the first place. I expected her back before now.”

“So what went wrong? You must have an idea.” Heather gulped down the last of the egg and reached for another. They really had turned out exceptionally well.

“If something had happened to Topaz, she would have come home by now. I’m sure she’s with him.”

“So why wouldn’t they come home?”

Rune snorted. “Because Topaz will find out that Rafflesia and I were the only ones in on it and he’ll come up with some damn fool idea that no one wants him to come back. No one who counts, because your own brother apparently never does.”

Heather smirked. “I’m sensing this is an ongoing problem for you two?”

The tip of Rune’s tail twitched in annoyance. He did not, however, stop eating the eggs any more than Heather did. “I hoped he was over it. I hoped Rafflesia would convince him. If we don’t all greet him with hugs and dead mice, he thinks we don’t want him around.”

“So he has self-esteem issues,” Heather said and got a flat-eared glare from Rune. “Well, that’s what it is.”

“If you say so. Point is, I don’t think he’s going to come back without a royal invitation.”

Heather glanced back toward where Carlisle had left the room. “I think it’s the second-in-command he’s more concerned about.” She groomed her whiskers fitfully. “How am I going to get Carlisle to let him back?”

“That’s your department, not mine.”

Heather unfolded the plastic with her teeth and paws and tugged it over the platter. “Is there a rule that says every house must have at least one oddly surfer-styled, cheeky ginger tabby with an endearing inability to hold his liquor?” Heather jumped down from the counter and pawed open the back door. “Because that would be really helpful right now.”

“I hear he’s a good cat burglar. Need any locks picked?” Rune asked as he followed her out into the yard for their Saturday walk.

When George heard the click of heels across the floor, he just kept looking out the window. The hillside dropped off beyond the backyard and created the illusion of isolation. Mountains in the distance and open patches of cloudy sky were the only things to see. “You have a lovely view here,” he said, turning as he did. “Yvonne.”

Yvonne did not offer him a hand or an air kiss. She looked like a soldier at attention in her crisp suit and brass buttons. “Mr. Ellison. Is this a social call, or are they still making you work weekends?”

“Neither. I had a little private business to discuss with you.” He helped himself to a chair by the window, setting his cowboy hat in his lap. After a long pause, Yvonne sat across from him. “Are you familiar with Heather Lee?”

Yvonne’s expression revealed nothing. Botox and Aqua Net did wonders for her poker face. “She owns property within the Shadow Hills community.”

“You’ve met her?” George pressed.

“Of course.” Yvonne picked a stray thread from her skirt without seeming to take her eyes from him.

“Of course. I don’t know if you’ve seen the old place lately, but I think it’s gone to pot, don’t you?” She stared steadily at him, just waiting. “It doesn’t reflect well on Shadow Hills when something like that happens.”

“Since you are not a member of the Shadow Hills homeowners’ association, I fail to see the cause of your concern.” She waited a single, charge beat. “Well-meaning though it may be.”

“Things like that can get people thinking, maybe it’s time to move to greener pastures. Properties go up for sale, land starts opening up. It gets very attractive to men like, well, like myself.” He gestured the brim of his hat toward his chest.

“I was under the impression you preferred to establish housing developments of your own. And cut from a rather more, hm, efficient cloth than Shadow Hills. The parcels here can’t be broken down to less than ten acres.”

“Oh, certainly. And I’m all about quality. I certainly wouldn’t want to see Shadow Hills change. But my colleagues, say, the ones who specialize in strip malls, they would love to buy up every parcel here. And once you get something like that up here, more people lose interest and move on. More land ends up in the hands of–”

“Men like yourself?”

George smiled tightly. “Exactly. Well, to make a long story short, it seems to me, it would be in your best interest if someone more capable than Lee owned that place.”

Finally, Yvonne’s face showed a flicker of uncertainty. “Someone?”

George nodded as though admitting a somewhat embarrassing secret. “Like myself.”

“I see.”

“I don’t presume to know your business, but I would be surprised if the issue hasn’t already come up.” There. That hard, strained look at the corners of her eyes told him what he needed to know. “Just a little friendly, unsolicited advice. I know how important it is to you that Shadow Hills not turn into another housing track or shopping center.”

“I’ll certainly keep that in mind,” Yvonne said and stood.

George allowed her to direct him to the front door without protest. “You do that. It’s not often that someone comes along who wants to buy a place like that. Not these days.” He settled his hat on his head and tipped it to her. “You wouldn’t want to miss an opportunity to see it go to someone you can trust.”

Yvonne opened the door for him. Her glare said she trusted him as much as a rabbit trusted a fox. That was fine by him. He wanted her fear more than he would ever want her trust. He tipped his hat to her again. The door shut, but he felt her watching him from the window as he walked back to his car. Trust might get him a friend, but fear would get him everything else.

Carlisle took a stack of new blankets into one of the common rooms even as he felt the last of the day’s cat’s bane fading from his system. He probably knew as well as Heather did the signs of impending change and had certainly gone through it more often than she had. He too stood apart from the normal experience of being a changing cat. He smiled to the cats alternately bedding down and waking up for twilight as he swapped used blankets for fresh ones. Polite distance separated him from the rest of the House. He traded familiarity for responsibility when Poppy took him under her wing as a replacement for Heather.

Over in the corner, between the trunk of shared clothing and the window, he bent down to gather up one particular beach towel that had been left untouched for months. His fingers unconsciously curled into it, possessive and jealous. He shuffled it into the pile with the rest, but it did not end up in the laundry room when he finished. He hardly liked to even let it touch the other blankets for fear that they would contaminate it.

Back in his room, Carlisle spread the towel on his bed. Fastidious though he was, he did not pick off any of the stray hairs and he would never dream of washing it, even if it had kibble crumbs scattered on it. He shed his clothing just in time for the change, when the cat’s bane finally ran out and his body just gently turned itself inside out for a few seconds. If a full day of work did not leave him tired, changing certainly did. He did not so much jump onto the bed as climb paw over paw.

He hooked his claws in the terry cloth loops of the towel, slightly worn with age. He knew it on sight, but only when he changed could he smell the traces of Topaz that still lingered there even after so long. It was covered in his golden fur. Carlisle burrowed his face against it. He had resisted the urge to retrieve it after Topaz left. He felt betrayed and so much in the house fell on him — again — while Heather helped Rune recover. When heart-sick longing finally swallowed up the anger, there was no time to indulge it.

He used his claws to hook an edge and pull it around his body, cocooning himself in the familiar scent. But now Heather spent all her time with Rune, suddenly enthusiastic about the responsibilities of caring for the House. Even Dopple had Mysti, neither of whom had much desire to spend an afternoon discussing the newspapers Heather brought him when she went into town. And they all had other people with whom to climb trees or hunt grasshoppers.

The smell of Topaz grew stronger as Carlisle’s body heated the air in his cocoon and he started to drift to sleep. Change. Work. Change. Sleep. Change. His life took on unprecedented monotony and he had no one to blame but himself. He sent away his own grasshopper-hunting, tree-climbing, paper-reading partner and he did not know how to get him back.

The cats got used to bailing out of the front room whenever there was a knock at the door, so Heather did not have to tell them anything and they were gone by the time she reached the door.

On the other side, Yvonne waited and wrung her hands. “Hi, sweetie. May I please speak to you?” The polite request from someone who seemed to take it as her right to help herself to your time and space surprised Heather enough that she just stepped aside and let her in.

“We can sit in the kitchen and have something to drink, if you’d like,” she said in a clear voice intended to warn away the cats who had just relocated there. No small part of her also wished Rune would hear her and stay close by.

“The place looks nice,” Yvonne said as she hovered on the edge of the chair.

The day was just full of surprises. “I’ve been working hard on it.” She almost amended that to “we” when Rune slipped into the kitchen to hover behind her chair.

“You should paint the exterior. A fresh coat of paint would really liven the place up.” Yvonne accepted the glass of iced tea Heather offered her. “No lemonade this time?”

Heather smiled weakly. Yvonne’s new demeanor should have put her at ease, but instead she found herself bracing for the inevitable jibe that had to follow. “Was there something you needed to talk about?”

Yvonne stared into her glass and stroked lines through the beads of water on the sides. At last, she said, “You need to get this place fixed up. And I know I’ve told you that before,” she continued in a rush, “and I suppose I might have been a bit harsh about it.”

Heather gave a breathless chuckle and glanced over at Rune to see what he thought. “A little harsh?” Yvonne winced at the tone of disbelief. “You implied that I could not be expected to successfully wipe my own nose.” Rune watched in silence. Couldn’t he at least say something? It would not mean anything to Yvonne.

Yvonne nodded and kept her eyes down. “I should not have been so rude. But I’m trying to make up for it.”

“And how are you doing that?”

“By warning you.” The ‘duh’ at the end was almost audible. “You need to make this place impeccable. So people can see that you are a responsible owner for the place.”

“He’s gotten to you,” Heather said and it stared her in the face, the obvious fact that George Ellison would do more than just make idle threats.

Yvonne nodded and finally looked Heather in the eye. “I couldn’t bear it if he or one of his buddies tore this place up and turned it into a movie theater and a boutique.”

“He can’t have the house. He just can’t.” Heather thought she sounded pretty confident, which was reassuring. She did not really feel confident. Rune trotted out of the kitchen again. What, this was old news, so he had better things to do?

“He won’t stop trying. He will get something you care about and hold a knife to its throat until he gets what he wants.” Yvonne looked out the window wistfully, as though she loved the house as her own. Heather hoped she did not notice any cats out there.

The image her words brought up made Heather’s stomach turn to ice. Because she could think of all the very real, very much alive things she cared about that he could threaten. “So he sent you here to back up his threats.”

Yvonne shook her head frantically. “He sent me here to get you to sell. To tell you the association didn’t want you here or to make you think you couldn’t handle the house.”

“Jeez, you were doing that before he came along. I’m afraid of what you would be like when you try to drive me away.”

Yvonne pushed her chair back. “I told you I was sorry.” Heather did not remember her saying any such thing, but she supposed Yvonne considered her actions as good as an apology. “Please, don’t underestimate him. Whether he gets this property or another one, know that you won’t be the only one to suffer. I’ll show myself out.”

Heather hoped the cats got out of the way for Yvonne. She didn’t know what to make of the conversation. Yvonne hadn’t told her anything she didn’t already know. Including just how far the damage would spread if Ellison put his mind to it. She knew better than Yvonne could imagine just how many people would be unhappy. Or worse.

Even on the weekend, George recognized half the people who filled the bar as ones who worked in his offices. It was not a bar to take a date or a client. It was a bar to get thrashed with coworkers because you had lost the client and couldn’t get a date. It matched George’s mood better than he would have liked as he hunched over his scotch like a junkyard dog with a bone. After last night, even Susanna had left him in peace, making no mention of going out over the weekend when she left his house. He scattered a handful of peanuts onto a cocktail napkin and crushed the shell of one between thumb and forefinger.

The mirror behind the bar gave him a view of the rest of the room without turning. There was James something or other, who worked with Hill over in PR. He chatted up a woman George did not know, but who seemed to be cut from the same cloth as his own secretary and who could very well have brought him faxes and coffee on any given day. He thought a few people were from accounting, but he could not be sure. The peanut shell crumbled into fibers and salty dust under his fingers. While he watched, someone — he knew her from somewhere, didn’t he? — stared back at him in the mirror. She ducked to say something into the ear of her nearest companion, whose eyes flicked up to him and darted away again. George looked away when they laughed, heads bowed together.

He took a gulp of his drink. These peons probably didn’t know him from Adam, never mind that he was president of the goddamn board and had been in this line since they were picking their noses in grade school. The alcohol welled up behind his eyes and he crunch peanuts in the palm of his hand to drive away the wave of maudlin stupidity. The board would never vote him out, he told himself. It was just office politics rearing its ugly head. Well, he had better things to do than kowtow to that lot.

He swallowed the last of his scotch and tucked a couple of bills under the glass. The laughing girl did not look at him as he left the bar. Outside, the buildings obscured the setting sun so that all he could see above their tops was blue sky gone white at one edge and purple at the other. It would all blow over, he told himself again. They could say what they wanted about leadership and profits and new directions. It was his company. Nothing would change that.

Rune trotted up the spiral staircase. A huge clang shook the close quarters and he winced and pawed at his ringing ears. On the landing, Heather heaved another shattered chunk of masonry into a metal wheelbarrow. Rune skirted around it and sat on a pile of bricks. “Why is there a wheelbarrow in the house?”

“I couldn’t think of a better way to do this,” Heather said. She did not stop working and she did not look at him. The clangs turned to thuds as the wheelbarrow slowly filled. Heather wiped her arm across her forehead even as sweat continued to drip from the end of her nose.

“Why not wait until I can help you? This is a two person job.” To him, the small space radiated pleasant warmth, perfect for a cat nap.

Heather pulled more bricks from the pile blocking what remained of the doorway onto the tower’s walkway. They tumbled down in an avalanche and she jumped back to avoid getting her toes crushed. “I can do this alone. It doesn’t take any special knowledge to haul bricks away.”

“You’re going to have trouble getting it down the stairs again if you fill it much more,” Rune said after a minute.

“Why don’t you go see if someone else needs help? I’m fine here.”

Rune rubbed up against her leg. “You’re upset. Is this about what that woman said?”

Heather sidestepped him. He had to back off to avoid the next cascade of bricks she brought down without warning. “No. Yes. I don’t know,” she said impatiently.

“Maybe you should take a break for a while. You’re probably just tired.”

“I’m not tired,” Heather snapped. “And I should have done this months ago, especially after Elly got lost up here. It’s dangerous. It can’t wait just because you have the wrong body today.”

Rune sat down heavily. “Is that what this is about?” He batted at her leg when she didn’t answer. “Are you mad at me because I’m not human all the time?”

Heather passed a hunk of brick from hand to hand while staring at the half-dismantled wall. “I’m mad that you aren’t human when I need you to be.”

“I told you this could wait for a while. Elly was a fluke. No one’s going to go up here.”

“It’s not about this,” Heather said and flung the brick into the pile. It set off another little tumble. “It would have been really nice to have some backup when Yvonne showed up.”

“Like when Ellison did?” Because really, Yvonne was nothing compared to that son of a dog.

“I need more than what you can give me with two days out of every month.” Heather still stared at the wall, like she could not look at him and speak her mind at the same time. He knew that feeling. Her hands hovered in front of her with nothing to hold, covered in red dust. “I wouldn’t ask you to be human all the time.” She chuckled and wiped at her face again, but he did not think it was sweat she rubbed from her eyes. “Guess that was a once in a lifetime thing, huh?”

They were not going to have a conversation about his old life. “You’re not being fair. I’m doing the best I can.” She had him doing more than he had been able to do in years. He had walked halfway down to the road with her the other day to get the mail, for heaven’s sake.

“I’m sorry. It’s not enough.” She shrugged. “I can’t schedule my whole life around the Leo moon. Not for you, not for anyone. Things come up all the time. I have to know you can be there.” She turned quickly and picked up the handles of the wheelbarrow. Her progress down the stairs was slow and torturous, but Rune did not attempt to catch up to her.

George stood up from the table, hands planted on the reflective surface with a loud slap. “Well, ladies and gentlemen, I guess that settles that.” Half of the board of directors looked uncomfortable and the other half looked defiant. He plucked a stale Danish from the plate in the middle and gave the whole table a cocky grin. “It’s no skin off my nose. I think I’ll leave you to your business. Good luck picking the new guy.” No one said a word as he left the board room with a swagger and a mouthful of pastry.

He circled through the hallways with his head up. Out there, no one noticed anything different. The same meaningless faces greeted him, people he never needed to bother remembering. He positively strolled into his office. Behind her desk, the secretary visibly relaxed, smiling at him with the phone pressed between her ear and shoulder, taking his good mood as an equally good sign. He slashed a finger in front of his throat to tell her to hold all his calls and locked himself in his office.

He dropped the pastry in the trash and sank into his chair. He opened his cell phone. When Susanna answered, he said, “We’re going out tonight. Somewhere nice. Dress accordingly.”

“Does this mean the meeting went well? You’re still president?”

“Who the hell else could they get to put up with this crap? Of course I am. I’ll pick you up at six.”

He picked up the sign on the edge of his desk proclaiming George Ellison the President, Board of Directors. He threw it at the door hard enough to leave a nick in the wood after it clattered, chipped, to the floor. It would need replacing anyway, when he handed in his inevitable letter of resignation as president. Next, he opened his filing cabinet. Slowly and systematically, he flung folder after folder across the room. They flapped and landed on the floor. He wrenched the clips from contracts and released them in a downpour. He stood in a storm of paper and hurled bolts of rolled blue prints. When the cabinet was empty, he gently slid each drawer shut.

He swept papers from his chair and sat down again. Then he took out a little notebook and a pen. He flipped to a page of lists, where one entry was circled. He circled it again. He let the pen run around it, circle after circle, each one more erratic, until you could hardly tell that the name Lee had been there at all. The pen tore though the first sheet of paper and turned the name into a paper cut-out covered in black ink. It popped free. Without removing it, George snapped the notebook shut.

The secretary was off the phone when he walked out again. He jerked his thumb over his shoulder. “Clean up the paperwork in there and file everything.” He grabbed his jacket from a hook by the door. “I’m done for the day.” I’m just getting started, he countered in his head.

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Published by Joyce Sully

Joyce Sully believes in magic and dragons and ghosts, but is not convinced her next-door neighbors are real. So she writes stories. Really, what else could she do?