Episode 2: Eavesdropping

Kerry leaned forward in the mildly uncomfortable plastic chair. The other Paxwood citizens attending the city council meeting focused on the presenters, but Kerry had already gotten a solid sense of those two. The lawyer, whose skin was almost deathly pale in contrast to his dark brown hair and deep black custom-tailored Armani suit, stood to the side, smiling, sometimes offering handouts to city council members, but his smile held the unsettling chill of a crack in the ice of a frozen lake. Kerry had missed his name, but he was the Silphium Resorts lawyer. They probably had a barn of lawyers just like him.

Tricia Anholts, though, knew her crowd. She had grown up in Paxwood. Her family’s bed-and-breakfast burned down when she was in high school, and she was the only survivor. It had happened when Kerry was in elementary school. She could still remember the lingering smell of smoke all over the town. After Tricia received a scholarship for Harvard, no one expected her to return, not with such a pall over her past. Here she was, the face of Silphium Resort’s pitch to purchase the old Paxwood Mayor’s House.

The current Paxwood Mayor’s house was built in 2005, after a series of tragic accidents halted remodeling attempts on the old house. Kerry didn’t know the exact details, but the Old Paxwood House had sat unused ever since. The Paxwood Historical Society tried to handle preservation and maintenance, but no one could afford to renovate it.

No one, except a fancy resort company. While Ms. Anholts clicked through her presentation slides, sharing the long-term financial benefits of allowing Silphium Resorts to open a bed-and-breakfast in the old Paxwood House before it collapsed in decay, Kerry studied the faces of each of the city council members—even her mother’s face. Then she leaned back and surveyed the audience itself, inconspicious as any bored teenager waiting for her mom to finish work.

But she wasn’t just a bored teenager.

Kerry had the gift of near-perfect recall. When she was a kid, she’d get frustrated because everyone else seemed to forget obvious things. Her dad had to sit her down and explain that her photographic memory was a gift, not a given.

Tonight, she was using her special ability to spy on the audience. In exchange, her mother would allow her use of the car so Kerry could stay the night at Char’s house. They were doing a research project.

It wasn’t a research project for school, but her mother didn’t need to know that part.

Around her, glazed eyes were a common sight. Many audience members didn’t care about the financial benefits to the town—at least not when those benefits were presented in charts and graphs with large numbers. A few Kerry recognized as local business owners, and they nodded along with the numbers, weighing out the possibilities. All the major businesses in Paxwood—the town grocery store, the cafe and the other restaurants, the antique shops, the hotels, even the gas station—were locally owned and operated, and Paxwood prided itself in avoiding chain businesses and franchises as much as possible. Silphium had resorts across fourteen US states and several European countries, and it had opened a resort in unincorporated Whatcom County, just a stone’s throw from Paxwood. They wanted to make a good impression.

“There’s even space for a cafe—Paxwood’s first Starbucks?” Ms. Anholts said, beaming at the prospect.

Only Dr. Vogel, the town dentist, approved of that. He nodded, proud grin on his face. He and his wife had taken Ms. Anholts in after the tragedy so that she could finish out her high school experience within a stable home, so he was biased. Several of the business owners, by contrast, sat back or crossed their arms, expressions tight. Chain stores were not welcome competition.

Even with that fumble, when Ms. Anholts finished up her remarks, polite applause filled the room. Kerry noted three of the city council member’s faces light up. There was a motion to schedule a vote on the sale of the former mayor’s house in two weeks, seconded. Then it was time for local environmental activist Lloyd Wilmingham’s presentation on the merits of catch-and-release spaying and neutering the city’s feral cats.

Kerry scooped up her backpack, gave a quick nod to her mom, and left the city council chamber. She didn’t need to stay for that part because she’d heard Wilmingham’s song and dance at least twice already.

Considering her mother had been on city council for years now, Kerry knew these halls well. There was almost always an unlocked meeting room around the corner from the chamber—left open for council members or presenters to take a recess, but perfect for her purposes. She needed to jot down notes for her mother—who looked in favor, who looked opposed, the points in the presentation that were most and least appealing to the residents in the audience.

Like much of City Hall, the conference room was an odd contrast between modern technology and old logging town craftsmanship. The table and polished hardwood floors were almost definitely original, but the noise-dampening panels on the walls, the rolling office chairs, and the projector mounted to the ceiling kept the conference room from feeling like a time capsule. These days, Paxwood was a resort town that thrived on the image of its logging past meshed with modern amenities, nestled in the northern Cascades.

And that balance was also at the core of today’s presentation. On the one hand, the old Paxwood House was a piece of town history that deserved to be preserved instead of left to decay behind its high stone walls and wrought-iron gates. Paxwood also had a history of independent small business owners who saw chains and large corporations as a threat to their continued existence and financial success.

But Silphium thought they had a shot at cracking through the indie business owners’ grasp to put down roots and change the whole nature of the town. Kerry loved Paxwood and all its unique stories. These outsiderscouldn’t understand the lore of the town well enough to enhance its existing charm. They’d sand down and smooth over the ghost stories until they looked like every town’s ghost stories, paint over the nuanced faerie tales, flatten the whimsy and try to sell it in a mass-produced box.

Kerry’s phone buzzed, reminding her she had half an hour before Char expected her. Time to get to work.

She pulled her laptop out from her backpack and started in on recording her covert observational notes for her mother. She knew better than to kick her feet up onto the antique conference room table, but she still tucked her legs up as best as she could between herself and the table’s edge, leaning back in the office chair a bit, her laptop wedged in her lap. Sure, she could have typed with her laptop on the table, but comfort had a direct correlation with focus.

Now and then, someone would walk past. She’d left the door open just a crack so that her presence would be obvious to anyone passing by. Even though she loved people-watching whenever she spent time in City Hall, she wasn’t about to get herself in trouble with her mother or any of the other local politicians or bureaucrats because they thought she was spying on them for her mother’s political gain—especially on days when she was.

But some people weren’t aware of their surroundings. If the hallway itself was empty, they assumed that they were alone in a liminal space, neither here nor there. Even as comfortable as she was, when Kerry’s ears caught the sound of voices in the hall, she looked up, and she listened.

“Two weeks until a vote. The number of follow-up questions they haveis obscene. There’s no downside. The building’s a run-down wreck, a drain on their local government revenue, worth half of what we’re offering. Their little backwater make-believe vacation town has to need this financial infusion.” Baritone voice. Kerry could imagine how the man’s nose had to be up in the air, lips curled in disgust.

“If you’re wondering why they aren’t biting, you can start with the fact that you’re calling Paxwood a backwater town. It is a city. Technically.” Now, that was Tricia Anholts. Kerry had just listened to her give a long presentation, so that most likely meant the baritone was Silphium Lawyer Man. “They don’t want your big city disdain. They want to know they’re valued, and that what we’re offering will not erase their little measure of self-importance from the map.”

Lawyer Man huffed. “I want to get out of this forest and back to an actual city. The blood donor selection is abysmal. I’d use my charms on a local, but the evergreen sap smell permeates everything, and I don’t want that taste in my mouth. It ruins the experience.”

Kerry’s mind leapt to one obvious conclusion: Lawyer Man was a vampire.

Then she massaged her own temple and forced herself to dismiss that possibility. Sure, she believed in the magic of Paxwood’s stories. She went out on investigations to pursue local lore about ghosts and faeries and other things, but as much as she wished there was actual proof that the magic was real, they were all stories. Experiences. These things existed somewhere between true and false, like Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny. They just made the world more interesting.

So, no, she’d misheard him, or misunderstood what he was saying. There was no way that a real honest-to-goodness vampire could have gone through all the steps necessary to become a certified US lawyer, and if such a vampire existed, they would not be standing around in Paxwood City Hall talking about real estate deals. That made no sense.

But she also trusted her recall, and no matter how she listened to the words in her memory, they sounded like something out of a fangy angst-filled vampire romance.

She sat still, held her breath, and waited.

“We’ve made our proposal, and there aren’t other offers on the table,” Anholts pressed on. “If we have to do some special persuasion to convince the majority of the city council to vote to approve the sale of the property, well, my local connections should give me the access I need to make it happen.”

Anholts and her companion moved on down the hallway without ever noticing the open conference room door or Kerry inside. Lawyer Man could not be a vampire. Any lore she’d read about vampires stated they could always pick up on the heartbeats of their favored prey—humans—and last Kerry had checked, she had a fully functional human heart. He would have noticed her.

Soon, she’d be putting her heart to the test again. Every time she saw Char, it gave evidence of its existence with that little flutter in her chest.

When she was sure that she could breathe without drawing attention to herself, she exhaled, then glanced at the clock on her laptop’s task bar. She wouldn’t be late to pick up Char. Good. Her mother had already arranged for a ride home with one of the other city council members. They planned to talk strategy over drinks. As curious as Kerry felt about this whole Paxwood House sale, there was only one New Moon a month. She could ask her mom about city council stuff any day.

She sent off her notes in an email, closed up her laptop, and gathered her things. It was time to go meet Char.

related 🧶 for ko-fi members – Kerry’s Notes for the Pixie-Bitten: Paxwood Today

Episode 2: Eavesdropping

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