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    Parker Owens
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Double Concerto - 33. Risoluto

There is a 100% chance of Rita in this chapter. Feel free to take appropriate shelter.

Dawn is often misunderstood. Some paint the softly growing light in the east as tranquil. Quiet. Peaceful, even.

Rick thought differently. He knew that in history, these same moments saw armies form for battle, drums and horns blaring. At dawn, negotiators, weary with all-night arguments, shook hands to cement momentous decisions. At sunrise, men were marched or dragged out of jail cells and stood up against bleak walls before a squad of disinterested riflemen.

Sure, he could admit that he’d spent any number of early mornings on a silent, still lake. Yet even then, the tranquility could be deceiving, suddenly broken by the strike and frantic splashing of a fish caught on the hook.

From the Adirondack chair in his back yard, Rick mulled this over as he watched the light change on Eagle Lake. He pulled his red check flannel shirt a little tighter against the early chill and sipped on coffee steaming in his yellow “Drain Surgeon” mug. Caroline Lee’s rooster crowed across the street behind him, on the other side of the house.

The momentary peace belied the tumult of the past twenty-four hours. Zoltan Takács had invaded the Ernst and Son workshop to inform Rick that he was no longer permitted any contact with Gus. He’d exploded at Heinrich Senior, shattering the old man’s fantasy of an engagement to Rita McKee. She’d turned out to be a master of manipulation. Rick marveled at how well she’d played on his father’s avarice and single-minded yearning for a grandson - someone more worthy to be an heir than himself, he thought bitterly. Rita had brilliantly suckered Heinrich into sinking his miser’s hoard, plus a mortgage on the family business, into her proposal to buy College Hill from the Eagle Lake School Board for development.

Rick smiled to himself in satisfaction. In the span of two minutes the previous night, he’d torpedoed both his father’s jackpot dreams and Rita’s carefully laid schemes. The School Board meeting ended in pandemonium.

The sky to the east burned a bright pink, almost fuchsia. Red sky at morning, sailors take warning. What the hell am I going to do now?

He’d been asking himself that question ever since he’d gotten back from Irene and Harold Inksater’s house the previous night. It had echoed in his brain through the long hours he’d lain in bed, tossing and turning, unable to settle or sleep.

In the darkness, Rick had come to the surprising conclusion that he cared very little about the work waiting for him at Ernst and Son Plumbing and Heating. If Don Ingersoll and the North Capital Bank chose to take possession of the place, lock, stock and barrel, he wouldn’t shed many tears.

Maybe Walter Heinemann will hire me on as a janitor at the school. Wonder how he’d get that one past the School Board?

A fish jumped and splashed, sending an ever-widening ring of ripples across the glassy surface of the lake.

He’d made a splash the night before, no doubt about it. Not only had he thrown a wrench into Rita McKee’s finely tuned plans, he’d decided to come out to Jerry, and then to Irene. That fish reminded Rick that the news would spread, just like those wavelets, right across Eagle Lake. He shivered.

Some people will think it’s a big deal. Why should it be? It’s nobody’s business but mine. But what was I thinking of, telling Irene?

Rick didn’t bother answering his own question. He did it so there could be no turning back. He made sure his revelation would be more widely known than if he’d taken out an ad in the Eagle Lake Clarion. If Heinrich Senior couldn’t have the courtesy to consult Rick about arranging a marriage to Rita, he saw no reason to come out to the old man personally.

Dad can hear it from the grapevine, like everyone else. Rick grinned wickedly. He’s gonna have quite a morning.

 

Rick’s visit to the Inksater house had been memorable. When he pulled into the driveway, most of the split-level ranch was dark, except for the glare of a television in the front room. The light over the front door flashed on as he turned off the ignition, well before he got a chance to ring the doorbell.

Harold Inksater answered the door. “Rick? Is that you?” The short grey figure peered out at him from behind the screen door.

“Yup. In the flesh.”

“What are you doing here?” Even in surprise, the man’s lips moved only minimally.

“I hoped to talk with Irene.”

“Not sure she wants to talk with –”

“Harold? Who is it?” Irene’s voice came from deeper inside the house.

“It’s Rick Ernst.”

“Oh, him. What’s he want?” The disembodied voice sounded less than pleased.

“I don’t know. Why don’t you ask him?”

“Fine. I’ll do just that.”

Through the mesh, Rick heard the distant creak of well used furniture and the muffled thud of approaching steps on carpet. A moment later, the woman appeared at the door, wearing a faded red Badgers sweatshirt and matching lounge pants.

“I’ll let you two talk.” Harold muttered, backing away.

“You’ve got a lot of nerve,” Irene declared, arms folded across her amply padded front.

“That’s possible.”

“If I’d wanted to talk to you, I’d have returned your calls.”

“So you got my messages, then?” Rick batted away a pair of hysterical moths drawn to the light over the door.

“I did. And as you can see, I’m perfectly all right, thank you.”

“I was worried.” Another bug buffeted his right hear. He swatted at it.

“You should have been worried about your soul.”

“What? What are you –” Rick spat out a gnat that had flown into his mouth. He stopped to wave away the cloud of insects gathering around his head. “Look, can I come in before I suffocate out here?”

Irene hesitated, then opened the door with ill grace and a grimace.

Rick stepped in, pulling the screen closed behind him. “Thanks. So. What was that crack about my soul?”

“You know exactly what I mean.”

“I didn’t think you and Harold were big churchgoers.”

“You know damn well we’re not. But you sold your soul to that she-devil, didn’t you?”

“The one with pearl horns and a plaid tail? The one named McKee?” Rick teased, breaking out into a grin. He’d definitely hooked her now.

“It was all over the internet.”

Rick shook his head in the same way a benevolent uncle bestows a lesson on a favorite child. “Irene, Irene, Irene. How many times have I told you not to believe everything you see on the web?”

The woman’s eyes narrowed.

“You really thought I would agree to marry Rita?”

“Well, didn’t you?” Her voice had lost its righteous certainty.

“What made you think I would?” He allowed her to fight against the line.

“Oh, come on. Heinrich Senior said he was going to fix it. And how many times have I heard Rita say she was going to take you off to Madison for a romantic getaway?”

“More times than I want to remember.” Rick agreed.

“Seems like she’s had you in her sights for months.”

“Then you saw the Facebook feed.”

“Everyone saw it.”

It was time to reel her in a little. “And you fell for it.”

Irene raised an eyebrow. “Fell for what?”

“The idea I’d given her that ring. She splashed it all over the web.”

“You didn’t?”

“Of course not. You should have known me better than that.”

“But …But …” His old friend seemed lost.

“The post didn’t say anything about me. Look at it again. I’m not mentioned anywhere. I insisted all spring and summer that I wasn’t interested in Rita McKee. Were you even listening?”

Irene looked deflated, all the fight gone out of her. “So I was pissed off at you for nothing?”

He could reel her in and let her off the hook. “Pretty much.”

The poor woman looked blank.

“I get why you might have jumped to the wrong conclusion. I even forgive you for being angry.”

“I just couldn’t accept you’d actually hitch yourself to that witch.”

“But you believed it anyway.”

“I did.” She nodded in agreement. “I’m sorry. I had no business giving you the cold shoulder.”

Ric grinned. “Well, because you stayed away, you missed the big drama in town tonight.”

“What happened?” Suddenly, Irene was all ears, on high alert.

“There was a big meeting of the Eagle Lake School Board. You knew about that?”

She frowned. “I heard something about it. There was a weird message on my phone from Walter Heinemann.”

“You didn’t follow up?”

“It got garbled, and I couldn’t make much sense of it. I thought if anything interesting happened, I’d hear about it in the morning.”

“I’d say it was interesting.”

“Tell me.” Suddenly her demeanor perked up.

“The place was packed – standing room only. It was so crowded the AC units must have had a hard time keeping up.”

“Stop talking about the HVAC and tell me what happened.” Irene demanded, eyes glittering.

“Well, let’s see. Rita McKee offered to buy College Hill from the School Board for three million dollars so she could develop it. Dan Unser tried to railroad it through.” He ticked the events off on his fingers. “He used public comment time to call on all his pet stooges in the audience. Guess he didn’t figure I would stand up and remind everyone how Dear Old Dad talked them out of spending money on the drainage and sewage work when they did the athletic complex.”

“And so?”

“I just pointed out to the Board that it would cost three or four times what Rita’s offering in terms of future flood damages and repairs.”

“You got up and said all that? In a public meeting? No way.”

“Yes, ma’am. That’s a true fact.” Rick nodded. “The taxpayers got their noses put out of joint by little old me. Rita’s big project’s gone kaput.”

“You squashed her?”

“Well, I wouldn’t go that far. But the development’s not happening.” He admitted. “I also learned who gave Rita that ring.”

“Who?”

“Willy Kohler.”

Irene put her hand over her mouth in surprise. “You’re joking.”

“No, I’m dead serious. Rita told me so herself.”

“My, my, the real estate queen and the lumber baron. They’ll make quite a pair. It’ll be the party of the century. Think you’ll be invited to the wedding?”

Rick gave a short, sharp derisive laugh. “Nope. And I wouldn’t go if I were.”

“I can’t believe I missed all that.” Irene shook her head.

“Well, tons of people were at the meeting. You can call around for details.”

“You mean she announced her engagement in front of all those people?” Her voice rose an octave.

“No, no, she told me that in a more private conversation during a break.”

“What’s your father going to say?”

“I really don’t care. Did you know he put every dime he could scrounge, and mortgaged everything else to invest in Rita’s little venture? Everything?”

Irene’s eyes went wide. “The old cheapskate did what?”

“Apparently, Pops put millions of dollars into her scheme. Hell, I didn’t even know he had that much money. And, according to Rita, he may never get it all back again.”

“Who else knows about this?”

Rick shrugged. “Beats me. I bet it’ll be the talk of the town tomorrow.”

He grinned inwardly, knowing that the moment he left, Irene would be on the phone, making sure of it. The old man would get a steady stream of calls from the moment he awakened, confirming the disaster.

“Boy, won’t it?”

“Anyway, I just thought you’d want to hear the news while it’s fresh.” He moved to the door, pushing it open and stepping outside.

“What are we going to do?” Irene called out from behind the screen.

Rick turned back. “I don’t know about you, I’m going to get up, maybe go to work and try to put Rita behind me. But before that, I’ve got a boyfriend I want to see first thing in the morning.”

“Hold on there, buster, just a second. Say that again.”

“I want to see my boyfriend. The man I’ve been seeing, the one who makes me happy. You know, guy meets guy? Boy takes out boy, falls in love? I’m gay, Irene. Didn’t you know that?”

Irene’s jaw dropped. She appeared to gasp like a fish landed in his net, shocked and staring. He’d given her a cheerful wave, and walked back to his truck.

 

Rick smiled in the morning light, savoring the memory. Driving home, he’d felt as if a huge weight had fallen from his shoulders. Besides, even if everything was about to collapse around his ears that day, at least he’d managed to render Irene Inksater speechless.

As a finishing touch, he’d blocked his father’s home and cell numbers on his phone the moment he walked in the door.

He’d meant what he’d said the night before. Rick intended to pay a visit to Cedarcrest and talk to Gus, regardless of whatever the Takácses might have to say about it. Joey’s piano lesson could stand to be interrupted. If Gus was through with Rick, he wanted to hear the man say it to his face.

The warm coffee in his mug invigorated him. That, or it was the cascade of ideas that coursed through his brain during the night which left him with nervous energy.

Rick pulled out his omnipresent spiral notepad and pencil stub to plan his morning. It was always good to make a list of stops and task so that he could organize his time. The tally of bullet points lengthened. He glanced over at his canoe, drawn up on the shore.

I could paddle over to Cedarcrest and talk to Gus right now.

He almost gave in to the urge. But no, it would be smarter to wait until later. He’d drive out to Cedarcrest, having given the residents plenty of time be awake and breakfasted. He could demand to see Gus, and clear things up once and for all. After that, he’d see what else the day would throw at him.

Rick drained his cup. The sun was rising above the trees. He needed a shower.

 

About an hour later, freshly scrubbed and shaven, Rick parked the Ernst and Son van at the diner, backing it into a space between a late model Ram pickup and a shiny black Yukon. He sighed a little, reflecting that the old Ford seemed much worn and faded, like an old pair of jeans, by comparison. He wondered what his reception inside the eatery would be like.

He felt a shiver of apprehension.

Shaking his nerves into order, Rick climbed out and slammed the door shut. He took a moment to straighten his clean work shirt, the embroidered “Rick” stitched in red on the left breast pocket. He stalked across the warming asphalt and pulled the heavy glass door to the diner.

Inside, he spied Jerry at their usual table. The place seemed more crowded than usual for the hour. He started to wend his way toward the back. Suddenly, he noticed that the hubbub of conversation had faltered.

Heads swiveled in his direction.

Rick felt his neck flush, embarrassment radiating across his body.

A body at his right hand twisted in its seat. Erwin Meyer, who drove sand and gravel trucks for Rosberger’s excavation, grinned up at him. “Nice job last night, Rick. Thanks for saving my house.”

Rick frowned in confusion.

“Kristy and I just bought a place over on Cedar, down the street from the Becks.”

His face cleared. “Oh, right.”

“You really showed ‘em. We owe you one.”

“Well, it’s no problem.”

Rick moved on. As he sidled between chairs and tables, he garnered a few glares, but a greater number of friendly nods.

“Hey, hey, if it isn’t Eagle Lake’s favorite available bachelor!” Jerry greeted him as he seated himself.

“Morning. Am I late?”

“No. I decided to get here early.” His friend grinned.

“Seems like you’re not the only one.”

“Maybe they wanted to get a look at the town celebrity.”

“Please don’t go there.” Rick hissed, horrified.

“Hey, when you want to make a splash, you don’t do a half-assed cannonball.”

“Why can’t –”

The presence of the restaurant’s owner made itself known. She stood at the end of the table, hands on hips.

“Oh, hiya, Wanda.” Jerry acknowledged her with a nod.

For the first time in living memory, the woman simply waited, saying nothing.

“Looks busy this morning.”

She ignored the garage owner and addressed Rick. “What’s this chatter I hear about you?”

“I’m not sure. What have you heard?” He deadpanned.

“Carla Koenig told Lisa Kruger who got it from Irene …” She let her sentence hang, unfinished.

“Yeah? And?” He prompted.

“Well, she said that, you’re, um … like that.”

“Like that, huh?”

“You know what I mean.”

“Indeed, I do. And yes. I am like that.” Each time he said it, the idea became easier to speak aloud.

“You never said anything.” Jahnke sounded almost petulant.

“Was I supposed to? I’m sorry. You want me to stand up right now and make an announcement? Hey, everyone, I’m Rick Ernst and I’m –”

“Stop it.” The woman hissed. “People are gonna talk.”

“That’s their right. It’s a free country.”

“And it doesn’t bother you?”

“Why, is it a problem?”

“That you’re …that way?”

Jerry Guttmacher barely suppressed a snort. “You mean gay, Wanda?”

Rick grinned back at his friend.

“Yes.” She snapped. “And no, I don’t have a problem with it. It’s just kind of, I don’t know … unexpected, that’s all.”

“Well, don’t worry over me,” Rick said. “People are going to talk no matter what I say the truth is. It went on all summer about me and Rita, and I bet it’s going to keep right on going.”

“There’s plenty on the rumor mill this morning.”

“The news running from Irene to Lisa to Carla to whoever, all the way to you,” Jerry interjected.

“All right, all right, fine. But not only are you news for being …gay, people are saying you were leading Rita McKee on, so you could trash her development project.”

I led her on?”

Wanda nodded.

“Geez, you’d think people would be grateful.” Jerry quipped.

“And who’s spreading this gossip?”

“Don Ingersoll. Bert Albrecht, too, they say. I won’t repeat the words I heard.”

“Don’t bother. I can guess.” Rick sighed. “Look, can we just get breakfast?”

“Sure thing, Rick. The usual?”

“You have to ask?” He smiled.

Wanda managed to return it and hustled off.

“Well. That was interesting.” Jerry commented. “Having fun surprising people?”

“You think I should have kept quiet? Just bumped along and made the best of it?” Rick raised an eyebrow.

“Hell, no. This is way more entertaining than watching Rita pretend to chase you.”

While the remainder of breakfast at Jahnke’s wasn’t exactly normal – Rick’s table kept attracting furtive glances and occasional stares from the other patrons in the crowded diner – but there were no interruptions until Jerry mopped up the last traces of egg on his plate with a fragment of toast.

“Looks like we’ve got company.” Jerry gestured with his head and popped the last of his breakfast into his mouth.

Turning, Rick spotted Walter Heinemann making his determined way toward their booth. His old friend bore an inscrutable expression on his face.

“Hiya, Walter. What brings you here this morning?”

“Jerry.” The older man nodded acknowledgement to the lanky mechanic, then faced Rick. “You owe me.”

Rick blinked, perplexed. “I owe you?”

“I’m confused.” Jerry chipped in. “Didn’t Rick bail you out in front of the school board last night?”

“No, no, it’s not that.” Heinemann waved the objection away. “Just tell me. Is it true what they’re saying about you?”

“That depends. What are they saying?” Rick asked.

“The word going around is that you came out of the closet last night. True or false?”

Rick looked his mentor in the eye. “True. I told Jerry and Irene that I’m gay. Oh, and Wanda Jahnke, too.”

The old man’s shoulders sagged. “Damn.”

“I’m sorry you feel that way.”

“How am I supposed to feel? You cost me fifty bucks.”

“How’d I do that?”

“I had a bet with Angela – she’s thought you were gay for years. I said you were just being choosy. Now I have to pay up.”

Rick had to laugh. “Can’t help you there, Walter.”

“You absolutely sure?”

“Afraid so. I’m thinking of repainting the company van. You want to look at paint chips with me?”

“Okay, okay.” A grin appeared under the white mustache. “Just tell me one thing. Am I going to get to meet this guy who made it worth your while to broadcast the news all over town?”

Rick flushed a little. “Maybe. I hope so. If you’re lucky, I’ll let you take us fishing sometime.”

 

Rick stayed longer at Jahnke’s than he’d intended. Rather than head back to the shop, he driven downtown, parking in a slot directly in front of Abby’s Attic Antiques. Perhaps a half hour later, he emerged from a heavy glass door to the left of the storefront, having descended the steps from the second floor, and the offices of Beck & Beck, Attorneys at Law.

It had been a satisfactory thirty minutes. He and Debbie Beck had discussed several issues that had been on his mind over the past twenty-four hours. For a very modest retainer, she had agreed to represent Rick should the need ever arise. Standing on the pavement in the bright morning sunshine, he felt a sense of independence. He had his own lawyer, chosen by himself, and not Heinrich Senior. If his world was going to turn uglier than an early spring stormfront, at least he’d have someone looking out for him.

He stepped toward the van’s driver’s side door, then hesitated a moment. An idea occurred to him. There’s still time on the meter. It would be a shame to waste it.

Rick walked right between the van with its flecked and faded paint and a Chevy Blazer of indeterminate age, proceeding to jaywalk diagonally across Main Street. He sped up his pace to avoid traffic in the street and arrived beneath the McKee Realty Group sign at a jog. He pulled open the door. The stylish faux Scandinavian interior still gleamed. However, no receptionist awaited to greet him with a raised eyebrow. All appeared still and silent.

He turned to go, but stopped at the sound of a desk drawer opening and closing. He walked further in. Light streamed out of a doorway. Peering in, he discovered Rita, appraising a heavy square bottle with a black label, perhaps two thirds full. A small glass tumbler held several inches of amber liquid.

Rita’s hair, usually perfectly coiffed, showed stray tresses here and there. Her muted grey plaid jacket seemed askew.

He knocked gently. “Rita?”

She looked up and blinked at him. Realization dawned. “You again,” the woman said with a heavy sigh. “Have you come to gloat, Ricky? Come to crow? Go ahead.” She set the bottle down and raised the glass.

“A little early for a drink, isn’t it?”

“I think it’s a perfect time, considering last night’s disaster.” She took a swig.

“Sorry about that.”

“No, you’re not. You’re just like all the other mossbacked good old boys I’ve dealt with: entitled to have things their own way, and God help the woman who rocks the boat.”

“That’s not fair.” He replied, stung by her bitter tone.

“At least I’m going to take down some of you with me.” She went on, unheeding.

“If the sale had gone through, you’d be making them rich.”

“And myself, too, Ricky, don’t forget that.” She took another mouthful. “So if you’re not here to preen and rub failure in my face, then why are you standing in my office? Not to try and collect your bill for Heinrich Senior, I hope.”

“Well, getting paid would be nice. It’s just not Dad I’m collecting for, it’s me. I did the work, after all.”

Rita leaned back in her chair and thought that idea over. “That’s true.”

“Look, I didn’t come here to gloat, and I didn’t come here in anger, though I have every right to be pissed. You used me to get to Dad, and to his money. You used me so you’d have access to every address in town. You made me the object of rumor, gossip, and half-truth all over town for the past six months. Sure, it would be nice to try and keep the business solvent, but really what I want is an apology.”

“You want me to say I’m sorry? Fine. I’m sorry. I’m sorry for you and all the other intolerant, complacent males who think they run the world. It’s high time all of you were hauled off your pedestals and made to work for all that power.” The bitter words tumbled out of the woman’s mouth.

“Are you done?” His eyes flashed.

Startled, Rita frowned up at Rick.

He went on. “I may be easygoing, but all that other stuff about being some kind of male chauvinist is way out of line. And even if I were what you think I am, it wouldn’t justify one-sixteenth what’s happened. Besides, after the lengths you went to wring the cash out of Pops and everyone else, you’re hardly a saint here.” He took a breath and tried to change his tone. “Look, I understand you’re disappointed about how your project turned out. What I said last night was absolutely true. The money you offered wouldn’t come close to covering the damages of the flooding your development would cause. And it doesn’t help that what you wanted to do would destroy some of the prettiest acres in any town in the state.”

“The impact statement said it wouldn’t be a problem. I spent a ton of money on it.” Rita protested.

Rick had a feeling he knew where the fees for his work had gone. “Whoever produced that report took you for a ride. Hell, I could have done a better job. How much did you pay for it?”

She made a listless wave, batting the question away. “It doesn’t matter anymore.”

“And I suppose you paid for surveys? Legal fees?”

“And for a huge line of credit, and for construction advances too.” Rita snapped. “So what? The investors will take a big old haircut, and the whole damn thing will be over.”

“Until you get another great idea.”

Rita tipped her glass up and let the remaining contents disappear down her throat. “Maybe. But I doubt it’ll be here. You ruined my name here in Eagle Lake.” She paused and hiccuped slightly. “It’s a pity, really. I may be just a brat from the wrong side of the tracks, but I can outdrink, outsmart, and outsell any man in that old backslapper’s club called the Chamber of Commerce.”

“Somehow, I don’t doubt that. You’re wily and ruthless, and underhanded, too. You almost slipped your project through with a minimum of public input. With all the respect in the world, I don’t trust you worth a damn.”

“I can almost take that as a compliment.”

“So why the bright and early morning bourbon?”

Rita looked away. “Fortification.” She muttered. “Waiting for the phone calls. Already had one.”

“Who from?” Rick couldn’t help asking.

“My fiancé. Don’t know who told him about last night, but he wants me to buy him out. He’ll take pennies on the dollar.” She made a rueful smile.

“He can handle the loss.”

“Ha!” She snorted. “Guess you don’t know everything about Willy Kohler.”

“We’re too well acquainted.”

Rita raised a perfectly defined eyebrow. “He’s got debts up to his eyeballs. He scraped together the last of his family money to get in on the ground floor with us. This project was going to give him a chance to shore things up, consolidate, and get back on his feet. I was supposed to manage his rehabilitation, financially speaking, at least.”

“And you’d get a cut.”

“I’m not proud of it.” Rita snapped. “But for the risks and hardship involved, I think I’d deserve plenty in the way of compensation.”

“You’re right about the risks, anyway. I wouldn’t spend time alone in the same house with the man. Does that mean the wedding’s off?” Rick asked. He hadn’t meant to twist the knife in Rita’s wound, but he couldn’t help asking.

She surprised him by eyeing Rick speculatively. “Why, are you thinking of making me a better offer?”

“God, no. Sorry, but you don’t know everything about me, either.”

“Really? Try me.”

“I like guys, Rita. I’ve got a man who I think I’m in love with.” And I hope he wants me back.

For a moment, the woman’s face registered disbelief. Then it dissolved into laughter, a rich contralto belly laugh that emanated from somewhere deep inside her. Rita leaned back in her chair and let it out, the sound of her mirth echoing off the birch floors and white painted walls.

It wasn’t at all the reaction Rick had expected, but as he watched, he decided that this was the most genuine he had ever observed her to be. For once, Rita McKee was truly herself.

 

He couldn’t spend all morning figuring out Rita, however. Rick had a more important showdown than confronting the tarnished realty queen on his agenda. As he drove out of town, he nearly pinched himself to be sure he hadn’t been dreaming. Somewhere, he had discovered a wellspring of courage, or maybe just plain self-respect. In any case, he wasn’t going to let it go to waste, not that morning. Rick’s phone sat on the seat beside him, switched off. It wouldn’t ring or squawk over the van’s speakers. He wanted no distractions as he mentally prepared himself to confront Zoltan and Magda. He’d politely but firmly ask to see Gus. In his mind, Gus would appear, drawn by the sound of voices raised, maybe.

“Rick! What are you doing here?” Gus would ask.

His managers would stand by, mute, assured of their position.

“I’m here to ask if it’s true.” He’d fill the silence.

Gus’ face would wrinkle in adorable confusion. “Is what true?”

“That you don’t want me around anymore. That we’re done.”

“What? Who told you that?” Gus would demand. His brown eyes would flash, and realize Zoltan’s treachery.

The details in his mind were sketchy after that, but his scenario played out with he and Gus driving away together. Rick smiled at the thought.

The newly refurbished sign for Cedarcrest came up sooner than Rick expected. Perhaps the speedometer had crept up on its arc a little more than he had meant it to. He executed the turn perfectly, threading the old bulky van between overhanging birch branches. He pulled around the gravel driveway to the kitchen door. There was no hesitation as he disembarked from the vehicle, slamming the door good and hard.

The only thing Rick didn’t do to announce his arrival was to honk the horn.

His first misgiving appeared when he approached the kitchen door. Both the screen and the solid paned wooden door behind it were closed.

Silence greeted Rick’s knocking on the wooden door frame.

He knocked again, harder.

No response.

Rick pulled open the screen door and pounded on the stained pine panel with his fist.

A bird sang in the woods to his right.

He stepped back, away from the house, and looked up at the row of second story windows – all closed up tight.

“Gus!” He shouted, his voice echoing off the walls of the house and garage. “Gus, I’m here!”

The bright summer sun and blue sky mocked Rick’s rising panic. His heart beat a tattoo in his chest like a snare drum.

“Where are you?!”

I humbly and gratefully acknowledge the help and efforts of @AC Benus and @Carlos Hazday in making this story better than it was ever drafted. If you have any reflections, comments, suggestions or interjections, feel free to leave them. I enjoy everything anyone has to say.

Copyright © 2020 Parker Owens; All Rights Reserved.
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3 hours ago, Mawgrim said:

 Brilliant! Irene has spread the news exactly as Rick wanted and Rita is finished in town. I even felt a tiny bit sorry for her (maybe for a millisecond). Rick is growing in confidence by the minute as he takes control of his life. But what an ominous note with which to end the chapter. Bet the Takacs have closed up the house and fled, taking Gus with them. Bit of an extreme reaction, if that's the case, but I'm sure that Rick will be in hot pursuit.

Irene must have been burning up the phone lines the moment Rick departed. Rita's name is ruined in Eagle Lake, unless she wants to put in a ton of work restoring people's confidence and rebuilding the trust her investors placed in her. She's determined and gifted at sales, but that may not be enough to get her what she wants. There doesn't appear to be anyone home at Cedarcrest, not unless they're all very sound sleepers. Rick is alone at the lodge, yet again. Rick will have to figure out what to do on his own. Thanks very much for reading, and for your comments.

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3 hours ago, Ivor Slipper said:

I just knew as I was reading this chapter that things were going too well for Rick. There just had to be a blockage in the drain and it has turned out to be a large one. It's gonna take more than just a sink plunger to resolve this. 🙂

Do I foresee Rick heading for the windy city?

 

Things just had to go wrong didn't they? There's definitely a hairball in the pipe, and it appears to be in the form of a Hungarian impresario. Rick must now decide what to do - and how to go about it. Will he even have a job or a way to make a living in a few days? But if he spends time trying to sort out the mess at home, what would become of Gus? Yes, there are lots of things to resolve. Thanks for reading, and for your many helpful comments.

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2 hours ago, pvtguy said:

Brilliant chapter!  It's wonderful to see Rick now living his truth.  Can't wait for the next chapters!!

You're very kind. Watching (and writing) Rick beginning to shine on his own has been wonderful. Thank you!

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1 hour ago, headtransplant said:

You built this chapter up incredibly well, with so many resolutions falling into place like puzzle pieces. But you withheld the last piece, the most dear one. And I’m left here jumping around wanting the next chapter like a crack addict lol

Go save him, Rick. He needs you 😭

If you are awaiting the next chapter eagerly, then perhaps I've done well. There are lots of things resolving as we thought they might - Jerry remains firmly in Rick's corner, as is his mentor, Walter. Irene has done exactly as Rick thought she would - spread the news more swiftly than social media or anything else in town. I'm cheered that you feel Gus needs Rick, as much as Rick needs him. Thanks a ton for your comments and encouraging thoughts.

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55 minutes ago, weinerdog said:

That's one part of  Zoltan's plan I don't get.I'm sure he didn't tell Gus that he can't see  Rick even if Zoltan has some kind of leverage on Gus no way would Gus take that.I have to assume Zoltan will think Gus will contact Rick on his own and Rick would say they can't see each other anymore.If Rick doesn't do what Zoltan wants him to do well he probably has a plan for that. After he finds out the blackmail didn't work Zoltan most likely handles Gus finances I could see him using that in a way where Gus would have  stay with them.Is this where Debbie Beck comes in?

Perfect kind of Karma. Willy's way out of the hole he put himself in was foiled by the person he raped.

BTW can Heinrich still afford to fly into town?Maybe a bus trip?🤔

Zoltan may not be able to strictly forbid Gus to have any contact with Rick, but he can do his damnedest to make their connection difficult. Zoltan undoubtedly fears that Gus' attachment would slow his recovery, as well putting a dent in his frenetic performance pace. So many appearances must have had to be postponed or cancelled already. You're right that Zoltan probably has plans to keep Rick and Gus apart; the appearance of a savvy lawyer at Gus' side would be a disaster for the impresario.

Heinrich's finances are in a state, aren't they? That in itself must be an enormous weight on the old man. How is Senior going to tell Trudy about this calamity? I think you used the perfect word for Willy: Karma. His last hopes for the recovery of his family fortune were dashed. I suspect the Kohlers will be forgotten within a generation.

Thanks for your reflections and thoughts - and for hanging on this far into the story!

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So many vignettes that were well crafted in this chapter and so many quotable comments, the following stood out the most to me...

She surprised him by eyeing Rick speculatively. “Why, are you thinking of making me a better offer?”

“God, no. Sorry, but you don’t know everything about me, either.”

“Really? Try me.”

“I like guys, Rita. I’ve got a man who I think I’m in love with.” And I hope he wants me back.

For a moment, the woman’s face registered disbelief. Then it dissolved into laughter, a rich contralto belly laugh that emanated from somewhere deep inside her. Rita leaned back in her chair and let it out, the sound of her mirth echoing off the birch floors and white painted walls.

It wasn’t at all the reaction Rick had expected, but as he watched, he decided that this was the most genuine he had ever observed her to be. For once, Rita McKee was truly herself.

 After the way you ended this chapter, there are only a couple of possibilities for Rick and Gus, and in leaving the chapter the way you did...may have foretold the outcome.

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39 minutes ago, drsawzall said:

So many vignettes that were well crafted in this chapter and so many quotable comments, the following stood out the most to me...

She surprised him by eyeing Rick speculatively. “Why, are you thinking of making me a better offer?”

“God, no. Sorry, but you don’t know everything about me, either.”

“Really? Try me.”

“I like guys, Rita. I’ve got a man who I think I’m in love with.” And I hope he wants me back.

For a moment, the woman’s face registered disbelief. Then it dissolved into laughter, a rich contralto belly laugh that emanated from somewhere deep inside her. Rita leaned back in her chair and let it out, the sound of her mirth echoing off the birch floors and white painted walls.

It wasn’t at all the reaction Rick had expected, but as he watched, he decided that this was the most genuine he had ever observed her to be. For once, Rita McKee was truly herself.

 After the way you ended this chapter, there are only a couple of possibilities for Rick and Gus, and in leaving the chapter the way you did...may have foretold the outcome.

I shall have to let you speculate on how Gus and Rick's story will conclude. Perhaps when it is all done, you can let me know what you predicted. You were very kind to think of this exchange as memorable. Rita did not explain her laughter, yet she found something hilarious - either ironical, bitter, or just plain funny. Thank you for continuing to read and for your thoughts.

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33 minutes ago, Valkyrie said:

Wowee!  Great chapter!  It was awesome seeing Rick so self-assured and being himself.  I have a feeling Zoltan took Gus and the family back to Chicago, but Rick's not going to let that stop him.  I imagine Zoltan probably told Gus that Rick didn't want to see him and it was best to leave.  Whatever happened, I don't think Rick or Gus is going to let it stop them from getting back together.  

Gus has helped Rick change since we first met him when the ice was just out of the lake. It would seem that the lodge is empty, and your suggestion that the Takacses and Gus have gone back to Chicago seems plausible. Zoltan must really believe his own line that Rick is a distraction. From Rick's point of view, his boyfriend has disappeared, and the opportunity to confront Zoltan over his unpleasant words and behavior is gone. The old Rick would have accepted this and retreated. But as you observed, this is a new Rick we're dealing with. Thanks again for reading, and for your thoughts.

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1 hour ago, Headstall said:

The opening section of this chapter was some amazing writing, Parker. :worship:  

I like this new Rick. He has shed a suffocating skin, and I know the freedom that comes with that. Rita, Heinrich, and Willy have all got what they deserve, but it's nice that RIck doesn't gloat. Still, getting his own lawyer shows he's preparing for whatever may come. I look forward to his next encounter with his father. 

We don't know why Gus left... we can only speculate, but we do know Zoltan is a slimeball, so who knows what levers he might have used. Rick has broken out of his prison... will Gus do the same for love? Look forward to the next chapter. Cheers!

 

It has just occurred to me that Gus could be waiting for Rick at his place. It's hard to see him leaving without word, no matter what Zoltan might say or do. :unsure2: 

Thanks very much for your comments. I liked how you put it: he has shed a suffocating skin.... Rick has allowed the sun in and many of the shadows have fled. You noted that Rick didn't gloat. That's just not like him to gloat, though he did show what was (for him) anger at Rita. He has already exploded at Heinrich Senior, so I can only wonder what their next interaction will be like. You're right that Rick (and we) can only speculate about Gus' departure, though it seems reasonable to assume Zoltan orchestrated it. If the impresario is driving, it's doubtful he'd stop to let Gus out at Rick's shop. I'm very glad this chapter makes you want the next one. Again, many thanks for reading and for your thoughts.

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One of my favorite chapters. I've always said coming outside liberating. Rick grew a pair and stood up for what he believed in. Oh that more closet cases would do the same.

He was way nicer to Rita than I would have been. After all her BS, he's entitled to gloat. And how dare she pull the feminist card? She can't use her gender to get what she wants, and again when she loses. 

Still not sure if I liked the Drain Surgeon mug or Walter's bet best.

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I loved every moment except the heartbreaking ending. I have no doubt Gus’ feelings are genuine yet he’s been treated like a trained dog on a leash for years and they’re likely very skilled at manipulating him so it kinda turned out the way I expected. I’m not saying Gus knowingly left him but I was predicting they’d do something like make up some excuse, like a job, for him to leave hoping to crush Rick’s spirit by having him believe Gus doesn’t care for him. I don’t know how they convinced or kept Gus from calling Rick though as you’d expect he’d want to let him know he was going away. Sadly another possibility is Gus was told of Rick’s supposed engagement and decided to leave without even speaking to Rick to see if the rumors were true as hard to believe as that scenario is. I mean, you’d think Gus would know Rick well enough to not believe the rumors and even if he did fear they were true I’d expect him to at least talk to Rick before leaving.

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1 hour ago, Carlos Hazday said:

One of my favorite chapters. I've always said coming outside liberating. Rick grew a pair and stood up for what he believed in. Oh that more closet cases would do the same.

He was way nicer to Rita than I would have been. After all her BS, he's entitled to gloat. And how dare she pull the feminist card? She can't use her gender to get what she wants, and again when she loses. 

Still not sure if I liked the Drain Surgeon mug or Walter's bet best.

Rick has discovered that the door to his cage was open all along; and now he feels the sun, and it's good. He is such a nice man, isn't he? And by not gloating, he probably made Rita squirm all the more. You're quite right: he is entitled to gloat. In any event, Rita will be left picking up the shattered remnants of her dream, and by her bitter words, she indicated that this probably isn't the first time. If Willy is trying to get released from his contract and his engagement, I'd expect her to take him and what's left of his family money to the cleaners. I'm glad you liked the Drain Surgeon bit, and the part about Walter's bet. Honestly, I think Walter and his wife were both right: Rick is gay and choosy. Thanks very much for all your comments and help!

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1 hour ago, NimirRaj said:

I loved every moment except the heartbreaking ending. I have no doubt Gus’ feelings are genuine yet he’s been treated like a trained dog on a leash for years and they’re likely very skilled at manipulating him so it kinda turned out the way I expected. I’m not saying Gus knowingly left him but I was predicting they’d do something like make up some excuse, like a job, for him to leave hoping to crush Rick’s spirit by having him believe Gus doesn’t care for him. I don’t know how they convinced or kept Gus from calling Rick though as you’d expect he’d want to let him know he was going away. Sadly another possibility is Gus was told of Rick’s supposed engagement and decided to leave without even speaking to Rick to see if the rumors were true as hard to believe as that scenario is. I mean, you’d think Gus would know Rick well enough to not believe the rumors and even if he did fear they were true I’d expect him to at least talk to Rick before leaving.

There are many things Zoltan may have said to Gus that might have turned him away from Rick. The man didn't call, but Rick was awfully busy the day of the meeting. Also, Gus lost his phone in Butternut Lake, and probably hasn't had the chance to replace it. Calling Rick would have meant trying to borrow a phone from one of the Takacses - an unlikely proposition - or to use the house landline, which Zoltan is apparently watching carefully. If Zoltan knew of Rita's social media post, he might have told Gus about her possible engagement to Rick, though I agree with you also that Gus would have known better. In any case, the Takacses are now gone, and Gus with them. The sun may have gone behind a cloud in Eagle Lake...  thank you for reading and for your response.

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I have enjoyed reading this story, and I love the way things have progressed! I liked Rick from the beginning! It is great to see him becoming the person he was meant to be! Now to get through Zoltan's meddling and figure out what HEA with Gus looks like! Thanks. 

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