“The OCC is a little concerned about the extent of our liability.” Mark sighed. “To make it short, the board wants a consultant on site.”
“A consultant?” Quill said. “What kind of a consultant?”
“Think of it as an IRS audit,” Mark said affably. “It’s along those lines.”
“An IRS audit?”
“It doesn’t have a thing to do with taxes,” Mark said in a reassuring way, “although, I must admit, tax issues arise with more frequency than one would like . . . never mind. I misspoke. Forget the IRS analogy. The consultant will be more like a business auditor.”
“An auditor?” Quill frowned.
“Yes. He’ll take a look at the way the Inn is run.”
Quill felt herself flush. “You mean, at the way
“Well, yes,” Mark admitted. “At the way you’re handling things. The OCC comes in and takes a look at the bank every year in the same way.” He scowled and said to himself, “And aren’t they a bunch of troublemakers.” He growled a little. “Never mind, forget I said that, too. He’ll spend a few days at the Inn observing how you two are getting on. That’s all.” He sat back and beamed at them.
“You mean poking his nose into things?” Meg said. “Like Quill’s office?”
“Like everywhere,” Mark said ruefully. “The consultant basically has free rein. At any rate, the consultant will come up with a list of recommended actions. And we’d be grateful if you’d take his recommendations to heart.”
“You mean you want some guy to poke around in my Inn and then tell me what to do?” Quill said indignantly.
“I’m afraid we’re going to have to insist on it. Now, the fellow we’ve recruited has an excellent reputation, and his fees are pretty reasonable. Considering.”
“Fees?” Quill said.
“Well, yes. I’m afraid he doesn’t work for free. But you’ll more than make up his costs in the money he’s going to save you.”
have to pay him? Now, look here, Mark . . . ow!” She glared at Meg. “What was that kick for?”
Meg gave Quill her sunniest smile. “What was that you said? How bad can it be having Loathsome Lydia tramping all over my kitchen? So how bad can it be having this nice old busybody tramping through your files?”
“Oh,” Quill said.
Then, “Well, fine.”
Then, because her queasiness was back, “Phooey.”
“I still think you could have said something to me before all this blew up in our faces.” Meg picked a bronze angel from its nest of tissue in the ornament box and held it up. One of the gauzy wings was crumpled. She straightened it out with a slight frown and cupped it in the palm of her hand. Quill was perched cheerfully on a ladder inside the windows. They were both finishing the holiday decorations begun the week before.
They were in the dining room of the Inn at Hemlock Falls. Outside the floor-to-ceiling windows, a long expanse of snow-laden lawn stretched to the gorge. The nine a.m. meeting with Mark Jefferson had only seemed to take hours; it was just after ten o’clock and the sun shone molten gold on the waterfall tumbling over the lip of the gorge.
“It didn’t blow up in our faces, that’s the point. Disaster has been averted. It’s a terrific deal. The Inn’s saved, Meg! What better Christmas present could we give each other than that? And you
know the bare bones of the deal. I told you I was going to call Lydia and talk to her. But you said, and I quote directly, ‘If you don’t leave me alone about this stuff, I’m going to go on strike.’ You threatened that more than once.”
Meg tugged absently at her hair. Like their Welsh father, she had gray eyes, pale, translucent skin, and hair as dark as a crow’s wing. Quill’s red hair and hazel eyes came from their mother. They didn’t resemble one another at all, Quill thought, looking down affectionately at her. “What are you thinking?”
“That every time you did talk to me about this, it was in the kitchen. Usually in the middle of the dinner hour. You know how I get during dinner hour. You just didn’t want the hassle.”
Quill decided not to comment on that. She reached down for the angel and then tucked it among the pine boughs draped over the lintel. “There. How does it look?”
Below her, Meg peered up with a critical eye. “Move it to the left a bit. Now up about four inches. Good.” She smiled. “Perfect.”
“That’s the last of it, then.” Quill climbed down and together they gazed at the results.
Quill always greeted the approach of the holidays with a mixture of feelings compounded of hope, joy, and a glum anxiety. This year, anxiety had predominated, and she’d thrown herself into the task of decorating the Inn for the holidays wondering if it would be the last time. Every year was a challenge. This year seemed worse. The financial crisis only served to make the Christmas decorations an insurmountable hassle. And, although she tried to come up with new ways to decorate, there was only so much you could do with lights, tinsel, pine boughs, and ornaments.
Meg put her arm around her waist. “You’ve outdone yourself, Quillie.”
“Not too bad, is it?” She’d taken eight-inch square blocks of rigid foam and turned them into red-and-gold houses, sleighs, churches, mosques, ships, camels, donkeys, sheep— anything she could think of with the remotest connection to the holidays. With the aid of a scalpel, a glue gun, and a ton of ribbon, glitter, fake jewels, and velvet, the figures stopped those who saw them for the first time in their tracks. “Our biggest problem is always the scale of things. We need big stuff. So I made big stuff.”
The proportions of the Inn did require outsized decorations. The building had stood on the lip of Hemlock Gorge in one form or another for three hundred years and more. Originally a wayfaring stop for trappers headed north for furs, the original forty-by-forty-foot structure had grown to twenty-seven guest rooms occupying forty thousand square feet. The ceilings in the ground-floor rooms were over eighteen feet high. This grandeur swallowed up conventionally sized ornaments.
Every year, they put up the most luxuriant fifteen-foot pine trees they could find in the dining room, Tavern Lounge, and foyer. They hung wreaths in the mullioned windows, draped the stair rails and ceilings with pine boughs, and twined holly and mistletoe over the doorways. At night the Christmas lights cast rainbows of color into the shadowy corners of the elegant old building. The air was laden with forest scents. The effect was magical, a fantastically hued holiday universe that kept the world with its defaulting mortgages at bay.
“And a good thing, too,” Quill murmured.
“Christmas. Chanukah. Eid. All those middle-of-the-winter holidays that say there’s hope ahead! Think how glum life would be if we didn’t have the holidays to look forward to once a year.”
“You sound like that repellently cheerful Tiny Tim,” Meg said. Her mood, always volatile, had clearly taken a downward plunge. “Do you really think that Loathsome Lydia is going to bring us holiday cheer? Phooey. You’d better think again. I understand we didn’t have any choice, Quill. But we’re going to celebrate Christmas with a bunch of nosy, bossy, interfering strangers.”
Quill, giddy with relief that the contract was signed and the substantial check deposited, didn’t remind Meg that as innkeepers, their job was to host strangers. And she didn’t ask her sister if she had nothing better to do than drive her crazy with mood swings, either. Which was, she reflected, quite noble of her. But she did give Meg the Look.
Meg made a face at her. Then, since she didn’t wear a watch, she grabbed Quill’s wrist and squinted at the time. “I’ve got a shipment of fruit due any minute now. It’s okay if I go back to the kitchen?”
“What are you checking with me for?” Quill asked indignantly.
“Practicing. I’m practicing asking permission. How am I doing so far?”
“On the knuckle-sandwich scale? You’re at about five hundred. Any higher and ka-pow.” Quill made a fist.
Meg made a rude noise in return and marched through the swinging doors to the kitchen like a one-woman SWAT team.
“So she went ahead and signed it?”
Quill turned to see Dina crossing the dining room. Their receptionist carried a fistful of pink messages. “Hey, Dina. Yep. And the check is in the bank.”
“That’s terrific.” Dina looked up at the garlands draped over the windows. “You finished them! Looks great. And you look a lot better, too. So was there a mighty battle?”
“There was a mighty resistance,” Quill admitted, “but I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a battle. For one thing, she didn’t throw stuff.”
“So we won’t have to close, after all,” Dina said. “It’d have been horrible if we’d been kicked out of the Inn just before Christmas. Like the Little Match Girl.”
Dina was slight, with a fall of brown hair, a creamy complexion, and a pair of owlish spectacles with bright red rims. She was in the final year of her doctorate in limnology at nearby Cornell University, and unless it flourished in pond algae, she had a fuzzy grasp of realities. “We were in no danger of being kicked out into the snow,” Quill said soothingly. “But I was thinking seriously about cutting your pay.”
“No kidding?” Dina nudged her glasses farther up her nose with a forefinger. “You are kidding. Funny.” She waved the pink message slips. “There’s a couple of messages you might want to return right away. And somebody named LaToya Franklin called to confirm that the Kingsfield group is coming in tomorrow. I let Doreen know so housekeeping could be sure and get the rooms ready. And I let Kathleen know, so she can get some more of the waitstaff in here.”
“Thank you, Dina. That’s good work.”
“And the Golden Pillar people called and made reservations for two people for the rest of the week. Two
“Things are looking up,” Quill said a little dryly. That made two more reservations on top of the four rooms set aside for the Kingsfield group. “Now if we just had twenty-one more guest rooms rented, we’d be in terrific shape.”
“Things are going to get a lot better now that the TV show’s coming here,” Dina said confidently. “Now, you had four phone calls while you were out.” She thumbed through the pink slips and began to hand them over one at a time. “Sheriff McHale called. He’s definitely maybe going to be home for Christmas.”
Quill sighed. She’d long ago given up reminding Hemlockians that her husband hadn’t been sheriff for several years now, but instead was an investigator for an international security agency.
“And there’s one from the mayor reminding you about the Chamber meeting this morning.”
Seeing that Dina was going to read every single one of the messages before she handed them over, Quill turned and headed through the dining room to her office beyond the foyer, Dina at her side.
“John Raintree called.” Dina gave her a meaningful glance. “It’s about how the meeting with Mark Anthony Jefferson went, I expect. How did it go? About the line of credit, I mean? I know the mortgage is okay because of the Kingsfield check.”
Quill looked at her blankly. For a brief period, she’d forgotten all about the consultant who was coming in to fix the incursions into their line of credit. “We aren’t in default anymore with anything. But there is a sort of annoyance we’re going to have to put up with for a while.” She hesitated. She really needed John’s take on the whole idea of the interfering consultant before she talked to any of the staff. But before she talked to John, she wanted to talk to Marge about why a member in good standing of the bank’s board of directors hadn’t given her notice of this particular cloud on the horizon. And the board had gone along and picked somebody without so much as a by-your-leave. “I’ll get back to John later this afternoon. He’ll want to go through the whole meeting. With the Chamber meeting coming up, I won’t have enough time to go over things thoroughly.” John had been the Inn’s business manager for their first five years. Quill had wondered more than once if he could have kept them out of the current mess. He said not. Quill didn’t believe him.
“And Mrs. Schmidt wants you to call her.”
Quill stopped so abruptly Dina caromed into her. “Now Marge
somebody I want to talk to right this minute. I can’t believe she didn’t warn me about this person from the bank.”
Dina blinked at her. “What person?”
“Mark says the bank wants some assurances that we’re running things as well as possible. That I’m running things well, actually. And Marge knew Mark was going to spring that on me, and she didn’t say a word. It would have been nice to know ahead of time.”
“Know what ahead of time?”
Quill picked up her pace and crossed into the foyer, stopping briefly to replace a fallen angel in its assigned spot among the pine boughs in the oriental urns flanking the reception desk. She tucked the ornament in and went into her office, Dina at her heels. She sat down at her desk.
“The bank’s sending in someone to take a look at the way we’re running things. At the way I’m running things, to be specific.”
Dina made a face. “So, like, who is it?”
“I don’t know.”
“And what kind of stuff is this person going to do?”
“I don’t know, Dina.”
“So what are
going to do about this examiner person?”
“Hit him with a stick,” Quill said glumly. “Never mind.” She held her hand out for the slips. “Nothing. I agreed to it. I didn’t have a lot of choice. So I’m not doing a thing.”
“Dina! May I have the rest of the messages, please?”
“Whatever. Sure.” She handed the slips over. “There’s one from Jinny Peterson at GoodJobs! She’s just checking on how Melissa Smith is working out in the kitchen. And then there’s this last one.”
Quill looked at the last one. “Hm. Who’s this McWhirter? And you put a frowny face next to his name?” Dina had small, precise handwriting. This was due, she claimed, to having to keep lab notes in cramped and confined spaces. The frowny face was very neatly drawn, although quite small.