They were sitting in Marge’s diner—the Hemlock Falls All-American Diner! Fine Food! And Fast!—that the businesswoman owned with Betty. Quill put a piece of cranberry-orange bread on her plate. Then she added a slice of the cinnamon bread. She was sure she’d read somewhere that cinnamon was an aid to digestion.
“He didn’t seem too impressed by the Kingsfield deal, though. I thought that was a little odd.” Quill pulled a frowning face in imitation of McWhirter. “Anyhow, after he got settled in his room, he spent the entire afternoon and half the night prowling around my inn.”
“Prowling, huh?” Marge burped discreetly and took a long drink out of her coffee cup. People meeting Marge for the first time refused to believe she was the richest person in Tompkins County. She was dressed, as usual, in chinos, a bowling jacket, and a checked shirt. As a concession to the weather, she’d added a bright red sweater with black reindeer galloping across the front. She had short, ginger-colored hair and the expression of a tank commander. Quill was extremely fond of her. “He’s pretty thorough. We put the word out that we were looking for someone to come in and take a look at your operation a few weeks ago. He jumped at the chance.”
“Which reminds me.” Quill put the cinnamon bread down. “Why didn’t you tell me the board voted to do this to me?”
“For one thing,” Marge said tartly, “bank business is confidential, or darn well ought to be. For another, I thought your day-to-day operations might benefit from an objective eye and I didn’t think you’d agree to the expense unless I put a little pressure on. And McWhirter knows what he’s doing. That chain of steak houses—Muriel’s, you know it? He practically turned that chain around single-handed.”
it,” Quill said scrupulously. “I’ve never actually eaten there. But that’s not much of a recommendation as far as I’m concerned. There’s no way that a chain pulls in the same kind of customers that we do, Marge. I mean, two-pound steaks? Whole fried onions? And all of it frozen and trucked in once a week, if I’m to believe the trade magazines. That isn’t us at all.”
“Has he said anything about the operation yet?”
“Nope. He’s just been stalking around. And making notes in a little handheld tape recorder.” Quill put her thumb in the middle of the cinnamon bread and squashed it flat. “In this horrible droning cackle,” she added crossly. “Like a raven of doom.”
“Raven of doom, huh?” Marge reached across the salt and pepper shakers and moved Quill’s bread plate out of reach. “You gonna eat that or play with it?”
Quill made an apologetic face. “Sorry.” She dabbed butter on the bread and ate it. “We got off to a bad start. I apologized and I made him as welcome as I could. But he’s so cranky, Marge. And sour as a Key lime.”
“You’d be smart to make the best impression on him you can. Show him you got a real grip on the business.”
“Well. Of course.” Quill had never been sure she had a real grip on the business. If she’d had a real grip on the business, crabby old McWhirter would be driving some other poor innkeeper crazy. “And I told everyone not to worry, that he’d be gone in a few days, and to treat him like a guest instead of a food inspector. Poor Melissa runs off every time she even thinks she hears him coming. I just hope he doesn’t put everybody’s back up. This is Tuesday, which is the day we do the linen count, and you can just bet he’s going to be driving Doreen absolutely crazy.”
“You’d better keep her away from the mops,” Marge advised unsympathetically. Doreen, the Inn’s head housekeeper, had a notoriously short fuse.
“Well, what can he do to us, after all?” Quill said with a renewed surge of optimism. “Mark Jefferson said he’ll give the bank a list of recommendations, and how bad can that be?”
“Is that a question?” Marge demanded.
“I guess so.”
Marge raised one chubby finger after the other as she counted off: “First, let’s say he thinks you’re overstaffed. He’ll want you to fire a bunch of people. Second, let’s say he finds that the kitchen budget is too high. He’ll want Meg to make less expensive food. You want me to go on?”
“Nope,” Quill said decisively.
“This guy will look at where you’re spending money, and how you’re spending money, and make a big fat list of what needs to be done to cut your costs. Worst case, he can tell us the business isn’t viable and that we should call your loan.”
“We?” Quill said.
“The board of the bank,” Marge said impatiently. “Jeez, Quill. D’ya think we sent this guy on over to you because there’s nothing to watch on cable TV? You want to keep on doing business in Hemlock Falls, this is the guy you got to listen to.”
“You’re kidding me.”
“I never kid about business.”
Quill ate her piece of cranberry bread and said philosophically, “Marge, I’ve been getting your advice about running the Inn, and John’s, too, ever since I realized the Inn was in trouble. I don’t know anyone as smart as you about business, except John, of course, and to think that some crabby coot recommended by the . . . what is it?”
“Office of the Comptroller of the Currency.”
“Right. Anyway, do you really think that he’s going to find any major problems? I don’t believe it for a minute. The way Mark presented this, it’s a necessary step to getting the mortgage continued. Like getting an engineering inspection when you sell your house.”
“You think so, huh?” Marge might have been Hector skeptical about the contents of the wooden horse outside his city’s gates. “Well, what’s gonna come will come. You planning on finishing that cinnamon bread? We’ve got that Chamber of Commerce meeting and for once, it’d be nice if you were on time.”
Quill swallowed the rest of the bread and edged out of the booth.
“Tell you what,” Marge continued, “you drive. I want to walk back downtown after.” She patted her substantial stomach. “Doc Bishop thinks I need to get a little more exercise.”
Quill followed Marge out of the diner. She’d parked the Honda close by—it was rare to have a parking problem in the village—and they drove the short distance back to the Inn in silence. Marge was lost in thought. Quill herself—her optimistic mood temporarily dashed by Marge’s grim reading of the McWhirter powers—grew progressively more cheerful as they proceeded down Main Street and past the Christmas decorations.
The residents of Hemlock Falls loved the holiday season. They decorated with the enthusiasm of little kids. Each year, the explosion of holiday decorations gave the whole village the look of a print by Currier and Ives. Most of the buildings in the village were of cobblestone. And while the founding of Hemlock Falls itself dated back to the late seventeenth century, most of the town’s expansion had occurred just after the Civil War, at a time when Carpenter Gothic was the favored architectural style in upstate New York. So icicles dropped dramatically from the elaborately carved eaves. Snow topped the slate roofs like frosting on particularly elegant gingerbread houses. The December sunlight bounced dazzling prisms of light from the ice-wrapped trees.
Pine garlands twisted down the lengths of the lampposts lining Main Street. An illuminated plastic Santa, sleigh, and reindeer marched across the top of Nickerson’s Hardware store. Large wreaths decorated with colorful ornaments and red velvet bows hung over the doors to the shops. Two-foot-high Christmas trees sat in the middle of the black-iron planters. At the end of Main Street, a life-sized crèche complete with bejeweled Magi sat in front of the Hemlock Falls Church of the Word of God, next to a ten-foot-high menorah that lighted up at night and a twelve-foot minaret. All of this goodwill, Quill thought, puts Scrooge McWhirter in his proper perspective. “And besides,” she said aloud as she parked the Honda in her regular spot near the Inn’s front door, “it wouldn’t hurt to sit down and give him a little bit of advice about how the business is really run. Maybe I’ll take him to lunch.”
“It’s you he’s going to have for lunch,” Marge said bluntly, “and I’m not talking about his picking up the tab. Best to leave him alone. Come on. Let’s get the lead out.”
The Hemlock Falls Chamber of Commerce meeting was held in the conference room at the Inn. Marge and Quill arrived at quarter to ten, which, Quill reminded Marge, was earlier than necessary and they could have had a second slice of Betty’s cinnamon bread. Quill looked into the room. “And the only person in there is Harvey. So I’ve got time to go check on things.”
Marge grasped her firmly by the elbow and hauled her into the room. “You leave McWhirter alone. We’re not early. We’re right on time. Harvey wants to talk to you.”
“Harvey?” Quill stopped dead. “You set up a meeting with Harvey?” Harvey Bozzel was president of Hemlock Falls’ best (and only) advertising agency. He was responsible for several notorious campaigns in his career: the Little Miss Hemlock Falls Beauty Contest (which ended in a fistfight among the six-year-old contestants), the Civil War Days reenactment (the gallant Hemlockians in the Fourteenth Division had lost), and the Fry-a-Way Chicken contest (a corpse ended up in the deep fryer). Quill was extremely dubious about the results of meetings with Harvey.
A wide grin split his face as Marge hauled Quill to the conference table, and he hurried up to meet them. “Merry Christmas, Quill.” He took Quill’s hand in both of his own and shook it heartily. “And a Merry Christmas to you too, Marge. Well! Let’s sit down and have at it.”
“Have at what?” Quill asked warily.
Harvey patted his sculpted blond hair, cleared his throat, and took a deep, dramatic breath. “The First Annual Hemlock Falls Christmas Chorale!”
“Oh,” Quill said in mild surprise. “That doesn’t sound too bad.”
“Doesn’t sound too bad? Quill! Marge! It’s fantastic!”
“Are you planning a concert, then?” Quill asked.
“We’ve got that special meeting of the Chamber coming up day after tomorrow, and I thought we could have the chorale debut at it.”
“Oh,” Quill said. She’d forgotten about that. Zeke Kingsfield was famous for his real estate seminars. To the delight of the mayor—and most of the businessmen in the village— he had agreed to present a shortened version of it at a special Chamber meeting.
“And then the Reverend Shuttleworth wants us to sing at the midnight carol service, of course. And I thought maybe we could get up a caroling group to go around the village. Adela’s got the Ladies Auxiliary knitting hats.”
“Hats?” Quill said. “We’re going to be wearing special hats?”
“Oh there’s big stuff coming down in Hemlock Falls,” Harvey said importantly. “And we have to be prepared for any and all contingencies.”
“What does that have to do with hats?” Marge demanded. “And what are you talking about, ‘big stuff coming down in Hemlock Falls’?”
“Just a few of us are in the know, if you get my drift. The mayor made a couple of calls yesterday. Just to the movers and shakers, if you get my drift.”
“You’re drifting all right, Harvey.” When Marge’s temper was roused, as it appeared to be now, she had the belligerence of a tank. “Nothing big goes down in Hemlock Falls without me hearing about it.”
This, Quill knew, was not a boast, but a fact.
Harvey smiled and put his fingers to his lips. “It’s big. Very big. I can tell you that. It’s going to put Hemlock Falls on the map. That’s what Elmer said.”
“All that means is you don’t know a thing about it, either,” Marge said.
Quill looked at her. “Charley Comstock did say something yesterday morning about some new business at the bank meeting, come to think of it. But he was very vague. You haven’t heard anything, Marge?” If anyone was a mover and shaker in Hemlock Falls, it was Marge.
“Charley?” Marge looked thoughtful, but she let it drop. The members were filing in to the meeting. She marched forward to take her usual spot next to Harland Peterson at the head of the table. Quill herself retreated to the corner farthest from the mayor’s podium. The room was long and narrow, and the rear was ideal for those Chamber members (like Quill herself) who preferred to sit in meetings unnoticed. Back in the mid-1900s, the conference room had been a keeping room for food storage. Such a space offered few usable options. Quill had installed a beige Berber carpet, painted the walls a soft cream, put up some whiteboards at the far end, and added a credenza with a sink to accommodate coffee service.
Chamber meetings were the only time that she was thankful for the proportions of the room. The space really wasn’t usable for anything other than meetings.
But it was a good place for that. She’d scrounged a rectangular table long enough to seat all twenty-four members of the Chamber of Commerce from an auction of old public library furniture. The chief advantage of the table as far as Quill was concerned was that the farthest corner hid her from the active, highly vocal members clustered at the front, like Harvey.
Harvey followed Quill back to the end of the table, an A-frame tucked under his arm. “I’ve made some preliminary sketches of the program, here.”
“Oh,” Quill said again. “I see. You’d like me to design the cover?”
“We sure would!” Harvey placed the A-frame on the table with a flourish. “The cover cries out for the Quilliam touch!”
“For God’s sake, Harvey. Are you trying to cadge off Quill again? Tell him you won’t do it, Quill.” Miriam Doncaster swept into the room. She dropped into the chair next to Quill’s and shook her head in some disgust. Miriam had moved to Hemlock Falls more than twenty years before, with a husband in tow. The husband had picked up and moved on, leaving Miriam with a ten-year-old to support and a large mortgage to pay off. She’d taken a job as town librarian and paid off the bank. The ten-year-old was grown up and practicing as a lawyer in Cleveland. And Miriam had settled into the village with the ease of a Hemlockian born and bred. “You realize what he did with your sketches for the Texas Longhorn Cattlemen’s thingie, don’t you? Sold them. Sold them on eBay as original Quilliams. He got a pretty price for them, too.”