Blackout

Thursday, August 14, 2003

At four o’clock on a Thursday afternoon, all was quiet in the office of the Sleepyside Detective Agency. Honey Wheeler-Belden was out working on a case, Bobby Belden was in the storage room organizing the filing system, and Trixie Molinson was typing the notes from her most recent case into her computer.

Trixie was lost in thought about her latest case as she typed her notes into the computer, and she blinked when the monitor suddenly went dark. She soon realized that not only had the computer had shut down entirely, but the office was now dark. “Bobby?” she called out. “What did you do back there?”

“Nothing,” he called back, hurriedly coming back into the main office. “Did you remember to pay the power bill?”

She stuck out her tongue. “Of course. It was in the stack of bills I had you drop in the mail last week. I’m assuming you actually mailed them?”

He chuckled. “Yes, I did.” He sat down at his desk. “Unfortunately, it’s too dark to work back there until the lights are back on.”

“I know. I suspect they’ll be back on soon. I haven’t noticed a storm brewing, have you?”

“No.”

She walked over to the plate glass window that faced Main Street and looked out. “It looks like the whole neighborhood is dark. Maybe a transformer burned out somewhere. If power isn’t back up in a few minutes, you can go on home for the day. I’ll stay until five just in case someone comes in, but I doubt they will at this point.”

“I’ll stay with you,” he told her. “I don’t want you alone here with no power.”

“There’s no need for that,” she protested, but she knew it was futile. Like all of her brothers, Bobby had always had a protective streak, and it had only grown as her pregnancy had progressed. “I’ll be fine.”

“Yes, and I’m going to make sure of it.” He reached out to ruffle her hair. “I promised Dad that I’d watch out for you.”

“You were seven years old, Bobby, and he was just trying to get you to feel better about staying home instead of going to camp with Larry and Terry. Besides, even if he had been serious, the statute of limitations on that expired years ago.”

“And I just might have renewed it when I came to work here,” he admitted sheepishly. “But it’s how it’s supposed to be. You and Honey watch out for me, and I watch out for the two of you.”

She had never quite looked at it that way, but she realized he had a point and she smiled. “Don’t let this go to your head, but I’m glad you want to work here with us.”

“Me, too. So, want me to call Con-Ed and report this?”

She nodded. “Yes, please.”

Honey walked through the door shortly before five, and tossed her purse on her desk. “Well that was a bust. It seemed like everyone in the neighborhood walked outside when the lights went out except our client’s wife. It was either leave or have everyone wondering why I was just sitting there.”

“Ugh. How long had she been there?”

“Long enough for a lover’s tryst,” Honey rolled her eyes. “I did get a picture of her walking in with her boy toy, but I don’t think it’s clear enough to give to our client. I was hoping to have this one wrapped up soon, too. Then to top it all off, I think something happened to the cell tower when the power went out. I tried to call you, but couldn’t even get a signal.”

For the first time since the outage began, Trixie felt uneasy. “I wouldn’t think so, but it’s possible, I guess. Any idea how widespread this is? I was thinking it was just a blown transformer or a line down somewhere, but that’s not likely if it’s affecting cell coverage.”

“No,” Honey shook her head. “But lights are off all over town, at least. I stopped at the hospital to talk to Brian, and they’re running on generators.”

“Any idea of the cause?”

“Not that I heard. Brian was too busy to talk for very long. The generators only run essentials, and patients were already complaining about having no air conditioning.”

“We’re spoiled,” Trixie said. “I’m starting to struggle with it, too, and I grew up with no central air.”

“Well, it has been a hot summer, and today is exceptionally so,” Honey pointed out. “You know, I wouldn’t be surprised if so many people using it at once overloaded the system somehow.”

Bobby sighed. “I like that theory. My mind just keeps going back to what if that punk was right. What if ‘they’ really are here and making a move? I mean, wouldn’t affecting the power grid be one of their first priorities?”

Trixie immediately walked over to put an arm around her brother. “Bobby, don’t ever worry about that. Even if aliens do exist, and I admit I’m not convinced either way, they’re not going to make first contact with a fanboy living with his mother.”

“I think that deep down I know that, but there’s just this doubt, you know? You grow up trying to develop a scientific mindset, only to find out ghosts and even monsters like the one that attacked Knut really are out there. Life on other planets makes a lot more sense than they do if you really think about it.”

“That’s exactly why I try not to think about it,” Honey admitted. “I’ll be honest. Ghosts still freak me out. As for the ‘monster’ that attacked Knut, that was man-made. Not quite a Scooby-Doo monster that’s just a man wearing a mask, but still, it was made in a lab. The real monsters are here on earth, and I’m going to say that most of them are still in the realm of the living.”

“And there are way too many of them,” he sighed.

Trixie looked up as the door opened and smiled a greeting to her husband. “We were just speculating about the causes of the outage. Any theories?”

He shrugged. “None that I want to dwell on. It looks like the whole eastern seaboard is out, though. According to Con Ed, it may not be back on until late tonight. I talked to the chief, and we’re putting as many hands on deck as we can muster for the duration.”

“The whole power grid is down?” she asked in surprise.

“As far as we can tell. Yes, we’re overreacting, but there’s already speculation in the City that it’s terrorism related. And no, there’s no evidence that it is, but you know how rumors can be so quickly blown out of proportion.”

“Tell me about it,” she sighed. “Di is going to freak.”

“Understandably, though,” Honey reminded her. “I’m not too comfortable with it myself.”

“Me, either,” Trixie added softly. “Dell? Do you think it could be related to 9/11?”

He shook his head. “I really don’t think so. Terrorism is the first cause that people think about now, just like I suspect that some people locally will be remembering the graffiti out at the shopping center.”

The phone on Trixie’s desk rang, and she picked it up. “Sleepyside Detective Agency. Trixie Molinson speaking. May I help you?”

Given Dell’s revelation, she wasn’t surprised when Mart’s panicked voice came through the line. “Thank goodness you’re still there. I need a huge favor. Power’s out in the City, so the trains aren’t running. It’s a madhouse on the streets, and Patrick and I may be staying here tonight. We’re fine, but Di is frantic. Her mom is in Pennsylvania with Larry, so could you get her and the twins and take them back to your place?”

“Of course I will. Are you okay?”

“We’re fine,” he assured her. “No news of an attack, but cell phones are also down. Everyone’s trying to call everyone, and I’m worried land lines will be overloaded soon, too. I may not be able to get through again. I really appreciate this, Trixie, but I need to hang up. I want to try to get in touch with Knut while I still can.”

“Please,” she said. “I’ll make sure Moms knows that you’re checking on him. You don’t worry about Di and the twins. We’ll take care of them.”

She hung up and turned to the others, even as she reached for her purse. “We were right. Mart’s stuck in the City, and Di’s panicking. He asked me to take her and the twins back to our place.” She looked up at her husband. “Is Erica still at Becky’s? If so, I’ll swing by and pick her up on the way to Di’s.”

At his affirmative nod, Honey grabbed her own purse. “You go get Erica, Trixie, and I’ll meet you at Di’s. Bobby? Do you want to come with us or go home?”

“I should go make sure Moms doesn’t need anything,” he admitted. “Then I want to check on Bethany and her family. Her mom may be panicking, too, if they haven’t heard from Gordon or Mr. Halvorson.”

“Let Moms know that Mart was going to check on Knut,” Trixie told him, then she sighed. “I hate this. What kind of world do we live in when a simple power outage can make us this paranoid?”

 

On the fifteenth floor of a building in the heart of Manhattan’s financial district, Knut Belden closed his eyes as the power flickered and then went off. After a quick sigh of relief that he had just saved the spreadsheet he was working on, he rolled his chair slightly back from his desk and listened as the low hum of background noise he was slowly becoming accustomed to turned into a cacophony of chatter. Eventually he stood and made his way to his coworkers gathered by the window at the end of their row of cubicles.

“What’s going on? Can you tell?”

Lisa Jankowski shook her head. “Hard to say. No storm, but it looks like it’s affecting everyone around us, too.”

He glanced out the window, surprised to see people pouring into the street from their office buildings. “Does this happen often?”

“No,” Steve Easterday said. “Sure, we have small surges here and there, or maybe a brief outage during a storm. I don’t think the entire street has gone dark since 9/11.”

9/11. Knut’s heart raced as he remembered a conversation with his younger sister shortly before leaving Idaho.

“Are you sure this is a good idea, Knut?” Hallie asked, her voice pleading. “Why not something closer? Spokane, maybe, or even Seattle, if you want to work in a big city.”

“I can’t get a job around here,” he told her softly. “I tried. Too many people know I was let go from my old firm under suspicious circumstances. I have bills to pay, and Mr. Wheeler’s willing to take a chance on me.”

“But don’t you remember what happened? Isn’t Wheeler International just a few blocks from where the towers were? What if there’s another attack?”

He nodded reluctantly, but wrapped a brotherly arm around her. “Yes, the building is close to Ground Zero. But we can’t live in fear, Hallie. We can’t let them win, and we can’t not live our lives. I have to support myself somehow, and I have to get caught up on Gloria’s alimony. She’s been surprisingly understanding, but she won’t be forever.”

His words had been brave, but now he felt close to panic as he wondered if there had indeed been another terrorist attack on the city. From the sober faces around him, he knew he wasn’t the only one; however, he realized that watching it on the news and waiting for emails or phone calls from extended family in New York had been entirely different than actually living and working in the City at the time.

Lisa took a deep breath. “Okay. I think we’re probably overreacting, but I’m going to let Ian know I’m headed home. I need my kids right now.”

Greg Charles nodded. “The day’s almost over anyway, and even if the lights come back on, my productivity is shot.”

Conversation stopped as the CEO himself approached the group. “The day is over,” he said. “We’re spreading the word as fast as we can. Mr. Belden, could you wait a moment, please?”

“Of course,” Knut agreed. In the weeks that he had been in New York, Knut had become friendly with his employer outside of work and they often found themselves commuting together, but inside the office, they maintained a formality that belied their neighborly and familial connections. Once the others had gone, he turned to Mr. Wheeler and asked, “Do you know what’s going on?”

“Looks like the entire power grid is down,” Mr. Wheeler told him. “No idea of the cause or estimate of when it will be restored, though, so we’re sending everyone home.” He took a deep breath. “Look, Knut, I know you try to minimize your injuries, but I don’t want you walking down fourteen flights of stairs. The elevator near my office is connected to a generator just for situations like this, so it should still be working.”

“Thanks. I’m really not sure I could have made it down that many flights,” Knut breathed a sigh of relief. “At the risk of sounding naive, I don’t suppose the trains run on a generator of some kind, do they?”

“Unfortunately, no, but Patrick Lynch and I both keep apartments in the same building near Central Park. Mart called and asked me to let you know you’re welcome to stay with them tonight. If you don’t mind hanging around for another hour or so while I finish up a few things, I’ll be glad to help you get there.”

“I’d appreciate that,” he replied. While he had a vague idea where the apartment was located, he wasn’t sure that he would ever find it on his own, let alone manage to convince a doorman to let him in. A thought struck him, and he frowned. “How did he manage to get through? I thought all of our phones depended on the internet.”

Mr. Wheeler grinned as he looked around surreptitiously and lowered his voice. “They do. The technology’s great, but it’s still not fool-proof, so I keep an unlisted landline in my office. I just don’t advertise it.”

An hour later, Knut wasn’t sure if it was the elevator or being in the CEO’s company that made him feel more conspicuous, but he was thankful for both as they made their way down to the lobby and then outside the office building. The streets were even more crowded than they had seemed from the windows upstairs, but he was surprised and relieved to find that the throngs of people were mostly calm.

The trip to the apartment building was easier said than done, however. Cabs were scarce, and even Matthew Wheeler was unable to obtain one. Given his injuries and the throngs of pedestrians, walking was slow as his limp grew ever more pronounced.

Eventually a cab pulled up beside them and honked. “Where ya headed?”

Mr. Wheeler gave the address of his penthouse, then added, “If you can take us there, I’ll make it worth your while.”

The cab driver shook his head. “It’s going to be slow going with the traffic lights out, but if you don’t mind sitting in traffic, I’ll get you there. No charge.”

They slid into the back seat, and Knut said, “We really appreciate this. Usually we take the train out to Sleepyside, but we’re stuck in the City tonight.”

“Everyone is,” he replied. “I’m supposed to be headed home myself, but I wouldn’t have slept a wink tonight if I hadn’t stopped for you two. My youngest son has a limp like yours and I know how hard it is for him to get around.”

“What happened? May I ask?” Mr. Wheeler inquired.

“Injured in Iraq back in ’91. He’s doing better than I expected. Steel pin in his leg, but at least he kept the leg. His buddies weren’t so lucky. Two of them never came home.”

“Still in the service?”

“Nah. Got out on a medical discharge. Went to school on the GI bill and studied computers. Managed to get himself a good job. No idea what he does, though. I barely even know how to turn one of those suckers on. Too old to learn now, so I stick with driving a cab.”

“Do you like it?” Knut asked.

“Eh, it’s okay. Like I said, it pays the bills so I can put food on the table. It’s just my wife and me at home now, so we don’t need much. So young man, what’s your story?”

“Nothing like your son’s,” he admitted. “I’ve just been in the City a couple of months. Moved out here for work after I went hand to hand with a grizzly out in Idaho. Take my advice and avoid them if you ever run across one.”

“Not many of those out here,” the cab driver grinned. “Any family here?”

“Yeah. My aunt and uncle and their kids live out in Sleepyside.” He turned to the man sitting beside him and smiled gratefully. “And friends who might as well be family.”

“That’s the best kind of family,” the cab driver said.

Conversation continued to flow easily among the three, and when the cab finally pulled up in front of the apartment building, Mr. Wheeler tried to hand the driver a folded bill.

“You really came through for us tonight, and we appreciate it.”

“Nah, I told you no charge, and I meant it,” he replied, waving away the money. “Look. I know you can afford it, but I get the feeling that you’re always doing something for other people. Let someone do something nice for you for a change.”

Some time later, Honey, Trixie, Erica, and Diana with her twins had gathered at the Molinson’s new home in Hoyt Acres. Having changed out of her business suit as soon as she had gotten home, Trixie was now wearing one of the more casual maternity outfits that had once belonged to Di, and she was comfortably ensconced in the cushioned rocking chair Dave and Jean had given her as a combination housewarming and early baby gift. It was situated near the window so that she could keep an eye on the three children playing in the back yard. Honey had claimed the nearby armchair, while Diana sat curled up on one end of the couch.

“I hope no one minds sandwiches for dinner,” she said, mentally going through the contents of her refrigerator for something she could make without power. “I can’t really cook anything, but I did pick up some turkey and ham from the supermarket yesterday.”

“I don’t know that I can eat,” Diana sighed. “My stomach is in knots, but I suppose I should try so the twins don’t worry. I know they must be getting hungry. It’s been a long time since they had lunch.”

Trixie nodded. “Yes, and you need to eat something, too, Di, and not just for their sakes. We know Mart and your dad are safe. I know it’s hard, but this isn’t another attack.”

“I know that,” she admitted. “At least, my head knows it. My heart won’t quite believe it until Mart gets home.”

“I know the feeling,” Honey said, tucking her feet under her. “That’s why I swung by the hospital after I realized power was out all over town. I needed to see that Brian was okay.” She hesitated, then added softly, “I’ll never forget how terrified I was that day knowing that he and my dad were both in the City. It made me realize just how important Brian was to me.”

“But you’ve been in love with Brian ever since I can remember,” Diana protested.

“Yes, but that doesn’t mean I’ve always admitted it,” Honey explained. She flushed, then added, “Brian wanted stability in life. The perfect house with a white picket fence. Two point five perfect children. A minivan in the driveway. The so-called American dream circa 1950. I grew up expecting to have that, although the house would have been a mansion on Long Island and the minivan was to have been a limousine complete with chauffeur. The thing was both versions scared me. I didn’t want to be the perfect little wife.My dream was the detective agency and marriage way down the road once the agency was established and we’d proven ourselves as detectives.”

She took a deep breath. “We had argued the night before. Brian wanted to get engaged, but Trixie and I were just setting up the agency. He was still finishing his residency. We had our whole lives ahead of us, and I just didn’t see any need to rush into an engagement or marriage. That all changed in an instant the next morning when I realized that we really might not have years and years. I knew I’d rather have a lifetime of memories than have to live with a lifetime of regrets.”

“At least you realized it,” Trixie pointed out, only slightly surprised by her friend’s revelations. She had already pieced together most of it, but had managed to refrain from interrogating either her best friend or her brother on the matter. She grinned slightly and teased, “So, when is this baby going to be getting his or her two and a half cousins?”

Honey shook her head. “No time soon. Brian agreed he’d rather have me than rush into marriage and children with someone else, and I agreed to let him know as soon as I’m ready, if I ever am. I’m happy for you, but right now I’m even happier with my Mirena.” She gestured at Diana. “Take up the issue of cousins with the other Mrs. Belden over here.”

“We’re thinking about it,” Diana admitted quietly. “We’ve been planning to wait until the twins were in school, and they’ll be in kindergarten this year. I’m not ready for them to go, but they need the interaction with other kids. I have to say, though, that if they weren’t going to Jim’s school, I’d have kept them home another year.”

“We’re going to have that dilemma with this one,” Trixie said. “Erica has done okay, but we really didn’t have much choice when she started school. Dell was working odd hours and I was still in college and doing internships. We needed her in school just from a childcare perspective.”

“Have you made arrangements for the baby yet?” Diana asked. “I’m assuming you’ll be going back to the agency.”

Trixie nodded. “Yeah. We’re planning on me being out for about eight weeks, but possibly twelve depending on how things are going at the agency, but Moms and Jean both offered to help out as soon as they found out I’m pregnant. Dell and I talked about it, and then talked to both of them, and Moms will have the baby three days a week and Jean will have the other two days.”

“Jean?”

“Yeah. She said she can’t distinguish between Erica and the baby, so she’s claiming the baby as her grandchild, too.”

“That’s nice, but what about Mrs. Molinson? Isn’t she going to feel left out with that arrangement?”

Trixie’s face clouded over at the mention of her mother-in-law, who had made her reservations about the coming child be known loud and clear. “No. For one thing, she’s turning seventy this year, and I’m not sure her health is up to taking care of an infant, let alone a toddler in a couple of years. For another, she’s upset I’m not going to stay home and give up the agency.”

Honey sighed. “Does she ever say anything positive about anything?”

“Not often,” Trixie admitted.

Diana looked puzzled. “Is she that bad? I just realized I’ve only met her a couple of times, so I don’t really know her that well.”

“Remember Captain Molinson when we were teenagers?” Honey asked. “Before he married Heather, back when he was cross all of the time? That’s how she still is every time I’ve seen her.”

Trixie briefly laughed at the description of her husband a decade earlier, but soon frowned. “The more I’m around her, the more I’m convinced she’s why he was that way. I know a lot of it is just that she was raised when women had certain roles they had to fulfill, and after Mr. Molinson died, Dell was all she had left. She blames me for taking him away from her.”

“But that doesn’t make sense,” Diana said. “He was already widowed and had been living on his own for years when you started dating.”

“Yes, but when Heather died, she tried to convince him to move back in with her so she could help out with Erica. With Honey and me babysitting instead, he didn’t have to, and she’s never quite forgiven me for that.”

“That’s just stupid. He was, what, forty at the time?”

Trixie thought back for a moment, then answered, “Thirty-eight, but yeah, I know. I try to be nice to her for Dell and Erica’s sakes, but it’s not always easy. I get that it was hard to lose her husband, but she acts like she’s lost Dell, too. She’s just in White Plains, so it’s not like we’re that far away.”

“No, but here’s a thought,” Diana said with a soft sigh. “You and Honey both established yourselves as you before you got married. I mean, you both had independent lives and knew what you wanted to do with them. I suspect Mrs. Molinson never had that. If she married young, being a wife and mother was probably all she knew. Imagine losing everything you’ve ever known and suddenly feeling like you have to figure out who you are on your own.”

Honey reached over and put her hand on Diana’s shoulder. “And while you’d never admit it, being Mart’s wife and Brent and Trent’s mother is all you know. I know you never had concrete career goals like Trixie and I did, nor did you need to. Not every woman is happy with a career, and you’re blessed to be able to be a stay-at-home wife and mother.”

“I know,” Diana admitted, tears glistening in her violet eyes. “That’s just it, Honey. I love my family and my life, but I get so worried sometimes that something will happen to them.” She took a deep breath, then blurted out, “I’ve been having nightmares and panic attacks off and on for the past two years. Sometimes I can go for several months and be fine, but then something will happen and I’m right back where I was. So far I’ve been able to hide it all from the twins, but Mart knows, of course, and he’s trying to get me to go to a counsellor. It’s just stupid, you know? What does it say about me that he was the one actually in the City that day, but I’mthe one who winds up with PTSD.”

“It’s not stupid and it doesn’t mean you’re weak,” Trixie told her gently. She pulled herself out of the rocking chair and went to sit beside her friend. “Dell was just barely too young to go to Vietnam, but some of his friends went. He’s told me stories about the struggles one of them has with it. If a big burly soldier has it, why should you feel ashamed that you do?”

She shook her head and wiped her eyes. “That’s different. Your soldier was actually on the battlefield. I wasn’t even close to the City that day.”

“No, but your husband and your father were. Other friends and acquaintances were. You were still affected, even though you weren’t actually at Ground Zero.” Trixie took a deep breath. “Would it help if I admit that I still have nightmares sometimes about this spring? Or that I get irrationally protective of Erica after her teacher came after her last fall?”

“That’s your mothering instinct,” Diana said with a faint smile. “I have no idea how any of our parents ever let us out of their sight after some of our escapades.”

Trixie groaned. “You’re not kidding. Then again, I don’t think they even knew half of what we got up to.”

The back door slammed, and Erica soon came running into the room. She was followed closely by Brent and Trent, who climbed up on the couch with Diana. The eight-year old looked plaintively at Trixie. “I know our lights are still out, but is there something we can have for supper? I think we’re all getting hungry.”

“Of course,” she nodded, struggling to her feet. “Why don’t you grab some paper plates from the kitchen and go set the picnic table out back? I’ll make some sandwiches and we can eat outside.”

Erica excitedly agreed and hurried off to do as Trixie had asked. Unlike the small back yard surrounded by the marsh at their old house, their new home had a large back yard with enough room for a wooden swing set, a picnic table, and a gas grill. Trixie had yet to use the grill herself, but Dell made frequent use of it when the weather was cool enough to tolerate being near the heat of its flame for any length of time. Erica had discovered that her favorite meals were those eaten outside, whether they consisted of grilled hamburgers or chicken or a simple turkey sandwich.

Both Diana and Honey insisted on helping as Trixie quickly set the makings for sandwiches on the kitchen counter. She also pulled an unopened jar of her mother’s homemade dill pickles from the cabinet as well as a large bag of potato chips. A pitcher of lemonade she had made the night before completed the meal, and it was only a few minutes before they were all sitting around the picnic table eating.

After the sandwiches disappeared, Erica had no trouble talking Trixie into serving chocolate ice cream for dessert. The energetic twins polished off their ice cream in record time, and Trixie grinned at Diana. “If it wasn’t for the fact that they look just like you, I’d swear I was watching Mart when he was their age.”

“They’re never still for very long, either,” Diana said, pushing her own dish aside after giving them permission to go back to their playing. “I’m sorry, Trix. It’s good, but I can’t eat anymore.”

“At least you had something,” Honey pointed out, patting her hand. She passed the bowl to Trixie. “We’ve shared food for years now. I’m sure Baby Molinson wouldn’t mind some more.”

Trixie rolled her eyes, but sighed as she took the ice cream. “Sadly, you’re right. Ice cream, pickles, Twinkies, you name it, he or she wants it.”

“Wouldn’t it be easier to just find out already so you’re not saying ‘he or she’?” Diana asked. “It would make planning your shower a lot easier, too.”

“Nope. Not going to happen,” she replied. She and Dell had agreed early in the pregnancy to wait until the baby was born to find out the gender, and even though she was tempted to ask when she had her ultrasound, so far her stubbornness had withstood her curiosity. “I admit that part of me really wants to know now, but there’s something exciting about not knowing, too.”

“But what about setting up the nursery? How are you decorating?”

Trixie snorted. “This is me we’re talking about. Erica’s not even biologically mine and she’s no more likely to pick out something pink than I am. So we’re going to go with something neutral, probably yellow or green.”

“Decide soon, please, so you can register,” Diana requested. “You have to register at Crimper’s, at least. And make sure you pick out a theme. Zoo animals, Winnie-the-Pooh, I don’t care. Just something so that it looks like it’s all tied together and so we know what to buy you.”

“Soon,” she promised, her attention diverted by Erica following the twins to the corner of the yard. She took a final bite of ice cream, then gestured to the children. “I think they’re up to something.”

“Looks like they found a kitten,” Honey said. “A little black and white one.”

Trixie’s eyes went wide as she saw the small animal, and she met Diana’s horrified gaze. “That’s not a kitten.”

Her sister-in-law was faster on her feet and halfway across the yard by the time Trixie made it off of the wooden bench, but it was too late. The baby skunk felt cornered by the mob and reacted in the only way it knew how before running back through the slats in the wooden fence.

“Thank goodness you’re on the Sleepyside Water System,” Diana groaned, skidding to a halt before she too was enveloped by the noxious fumes. “We’d really be in trouble otherwise.”

While most of the residents who lived on the outskirts of Sleepyside relied on private wells, the developer of Hoyt Acres had paid to extend the municipal water line to the subdivision. Trixie was mostly ambivalent about it, not quite convinced that the convenience outweighed the slight taste difference or the monthly bill, but she was now grateful for the amenity that meant she had running water during a power outage. “Me, too. Not that it will do that much good….”

With a slight smirk, Honey calmly stood up. “Unless you’ve got a stockpile I’m not aware of, I’ll run to Mr. Lytell’s and clean him out of tomato juice. Can you think of anything else you’ll need? Air freshener? Nose plugs?”

With something to focus on other than her worry about Mart, Diana was back to herself, and she wrinkled her nose at Honey, before turning back to her crying children. “Funny. Seriously, though, if you don’t mind going, see if he has any hydrogen peroxide and baking soda. They worked better than the tomato juice did when Reddy got sprayed a couple of summers ago, and even if Trixie has some, we’ll need more.”

“I’ll get all he has,” Honey assured her, walking back to the house. “If he doesn’t have any, I’ll run into town for it. I’ll be back soon.”

“Thanks!” Trixie said gratefully. She turned to Erica, who was struggling not to cry, and reached out to pull her into a hug.

“Don’t,” Erica protested weakly, but she didn’t resist. “You’ll get stinky, too.”

“Then we’ll all get baths,” Trixie told her. “Did it get in your eyes?”

Erica shook her head. “No, but I don’t know about Trent and Brent. They were closer. I’m sorry, Mom. It looked like a kitten, and when I got close enough to see that it wasn’t, it was too late. The skunk will be okay, though, won’t it? It’s not like a bee that dies when it stings you, right?”

Despite the situation, Trixie grinned. “Right. He may not spray again for a day or so, but that’s a good thing.”

“Yes, it is!” she giggled, but then she groaned. “Will we ever get clean?”

Knut, Mart, Matthew Wheeler, and Patrick Lynch were gathered around the living room in the Lynch’s apartment, enjoying large bowls of slightly melted rocky road ice cream. Dinner had been obtained from a nearby restaurant that was trying desperately to dispense its offerings while they were still good, and afterwards, Mr. Lynch had remembered the Häagen-Dazs ice cream in the freezer that Mallory had purchased on her last overnight visit to the City.

Their only light as dusk descended was from a pair of tapered white candles in crystal candlesticks, and Mr. Lynch laughed suddenly as they watched the shadows flicker on the walls. “With this atmosphere, I feel like we should be telling ghost stories.”

“Or discussing some of my sister’s cases,” Mart grinned. “Then again, that’s somewhat redundant.”

Mr. Wheeler groaned. “Let’s not go there. I still have ulcers from that blasted trip to St. Louis more than ten years ago. Gun runners were bad enough, but now they’re dealing with murderers and who knows what else. Maddie and I try really hard not to dwell on the fact that they’re adding ghosts and goblins into the mix, too.”

“Goblins?” Mr. Lynch smirked. “Mart mentioned the ghosts, but I haven’t heard about any goblins.”

“Give them time, and don’t tell me about it when they do!” He stretched out his legs and set his bowl on the end table. “So since Maddie is at the Manor House and I have to go back to my apartment alone and in the dark, and given that I really don’t need a nightmare tonight, let’s change subjects. How are the renovations on the Martin house going?”

“Almost finished,” Mart reported. Not only had he, Mr. Lynch, and Mr. Wheeler banded together to buy Rachel Martin’s house from Trixie and Dell in order to donate it to the Sleepyside Historical Society, but all three men now served on the society’s board of directors. “We’re still on track to open the first of October, and the Historical Society voted to offer a combined ticket that includes admission to both the Martin House and Lisgard House. It should help increase traffic to both.”

“Good thinking. Has there been much interest so far?”

“Several school groups have already signed up, and Jim’s planning for grades seven through twelve to tour both houses as part of their history curriculum. I’m sure you heard that Vera Parker is spearheading the events committee. She’s not too thrilled that the board agreed that Christmas should be the first big event for the Martin House. She was pushing for a Halloween-themed tour.”

As the lone man in the room not involved in the project in any way, Knut felt out of place as the discussion continued. He quietly gathered the bowls they had been using and carefully carried a candle to the kitchen where he stacked the dishes on the counter. The telephone on the wall beckoned to him, and he was slightly surprised to have a dial tone. He was not surprised, however, to hear a recording stating that all circuits were busy when he attempted to call Crabapple Farm.

Trying again, he dialed Hallie’s number, gratified to hear her husband answer on the third ring. “Hello?”

“Hey, Ron. It’s Knut. How are you?”

“Relieved to hear from you! Hallie’s been worried ever since we first heard about the power outage. Where are you? That’s not Crabapple Farm’s number on the caller ID.”

“No,” he chuckled. “I’m stuck in the City. Staying at an apartment Mart’s in-laws keep right off Central Park.”

“And you’re all right? Hallie’s been trying to call the Farm, but hasn’t been able to get through at all.”

“Sleepyside’s a small town, so I suspect the circuits are overloaded with everyone trying to call in and out. I’m a little surprised this one is working. Cell phones are down, and my phone at work goes through the internet, so it’s not working either. But I’m fine. Thankful for generators to run emergency elevators and cab drivers who take pity on me. Thankful for a boss who made sure I got here. Turns out he owns an apartment in the same building.”

“Ah, living the high life,” Ron teased, but then he took a deep breath. “Hey, I’m going to let you talk to Hallie, I promise, but do you have a few minutes?”

“All night,” Knut replied, but his stomach clenched. The serious note that had crept into his brother-in-law’s voice usually indicated something heavy weighed on his mind, and it seldom indicated anything good. “What’s up?”

“Have you heard from Gloria lately?”

Knut’s ex-wife and Ron’s sister, Gloria had been a source of contention between the two men since the marriage had fallen apart and they had gone over a year without speaking. Only Knut’s encounter with the chimera had forced the former best friends to move past it, and their relationship was slowly returning to the easy friendship they had once shared. However, the foundation of the truce was an unspoken agreement to seldom discuss the woman in question, and so Knut was surprised to hear her name.

“It’s been a couple of weeks. She emailed to let me know the alimony check came in the mail.”

“Has she told you that she’s dating?” Ron asked hesitantly.

“No. I’m assuming she is?”

“I’m sorry, Knut, if I’d known, I would have told you. She brought him to dinner at our parents last night, and well, they’re engaged.”

“Oh.”

The interjection was all Knut could manage to say as the news sank in, and he wondered how he was supposed to feel. After all, Gloria had been his high school sweetheart and the woman with whom he was supposed to grow old. Sweet nothings whispered in each other’s ears during their early years of marriage had turned into bitter arguments and recriminations as time passed and they drifted apart as their ardor cooled. Their separation and divorce had been acrimonious, and Knut had found himself agreeing to alimony just to get out of the marriage. The monthly payments had proven to be a heavy burden, especially during his recuperation and job search, but per their divorce decree, they would cease upon her remarriage.

“Are you all right?” Ron asked after a long silent moment.

“Yeah,” he said gruffly. “Just wasn’t expecting that, but I’m glad you told me.”

“Well, it was only right,” Ron sighed. “You needed to know. I know it won’t help, but try to think of it this way – at least you won’t have to pay any more alimony.”

“True.” He let out a deep breath. With no more alimony, once he was caught up with the amount past due his last legal tie to Gloria would be gone and he would finally be free.

An evening filled with baths turned into an impromptu camp-out for Erica and her cousins in Mart and Diana’s back yard. Both Brian and Honey had joined Diana, leaving Trixie at home alone. Moonlight streamed through the open windows, with the soft glow of an oil lamp providing enough light for her to read comfortably. The paperback, however, couldn’t keep her attention as her eyes drooped, and eventually the book feel to her lap as she fell asleep on the couch. It was almost midnight when she was awoken by Dell’s soft kiss on her forehead.

She blinked sleepily and smiled up at him. “I’m glad you’re home. I didn’t think you would be.”

“Me, either,” he replied. He gently lifted her legs from the sofa and sat down, settling them in his lap. “It’s been quieter than we expected tonight, and the last we heard is that the power will probably be out a while longer. I came home to grab a few hours sleep before heading back in.”

“I’m glad,” she said simply. “I missed you.”

“You, too. How has it been here? Is Erica asleep?”

She grinned. “No clue. She’s over at Mart and Di’s, camping out in their back yard. Ours isn’t exactly habitable right now.”

“Why not? What happened?”

“Let’s just say it was an interesting evening. Honey convinced Di to bring the twins over, and we wound up having an impromptu picnic out back. We had just finished eating when all three kids learned not to play with any unfamiliar kitties – especially if they’re black with a white stripe down their back.”

He grimaced, but chuckled. “I thought I smelled skunk when I came in. Did they get sprayed?”

She nodded, with a grimace of her own. “Yep. Honey made a supply run and brought back Brian, who pronounced them ‘stinky, but otherwise unscathed.’ Lots of baths later, and they’re all tolerable, but not enough to be in polite company. Di suggested the camp-out, and Brian and Honey volunteered to help.” She gestured towards the oil lamp. “Di helped me dig this out, and I lent them our battery-operated one. I feel bad for bailing on them, but I don’t think the baby is ready for his or her first camping experience. Besides, you’d have needed a forklift to get me up out of a sleeping bag.”

“When the baby gets old enough, we should take a real camping trip. I suspect Erica would enjoy it.”

“She’d love it,” Trixie agreed, sighing happily as he started rubbing her feet. “I would, too. I don’t think I’ve been on an extended camping trip since the Bob-Whites all went to Idaho ten years ago.”

“Want to go back there?”

She shook her head vigorously. “To visit family? Sure. To camp out with the kids? No way. Who knows if Knut’s scientist created more than one of those things? Knut was beyond lucky he got out of there alive. There are lots of other places we could go that should be safer, though.”

“Plenty of time to decide.” He yawned. “It’ll be at least two or three years before I want to take the baby anywhere more rugged than the Wheeler’s game preserve.”

“Me, too,” she agreed. “Although we should do that as a trial run before going anywhere for several days.”

“Good idea. Any particular reason you were sleeping down here?”

“Aside from not really wanting to carry a lit oil lamp upstairs, not really. This so-called mystery put me to sleep right where I was.”

He chuckled, then extricated himself and stood up, snuffing out the lamp. Her eyes widened as he bent down and scooped her up into his strong arms, and she wrapped her own arms around his neck.

“What are you doing? I’m way too heavy!”

He shook his head as he began to walk toward the moonlit stairs. “Baby, there may come a day when I’m old and feeble and can’t carry you, but that day is not this day.”

She giggled softly and leaned in to rest her head on his chest. “I feel like I’m in some weird mixture of Gone with the Wind andReturn of the King, but this may be the most romantic thing you’ve ever done.”

He grinned. “And to think I was just trying to prove your forklift comment wrong.”

“Still romantic,” she told him. She reached up to kiss his cheek. “Think we could take advantage of our unexpected night alone?”

“I think that can be arranged….”

Electricity was restored to Sleepyside early Friday morning, and throughout the eastern seaboard by the end of the day. Commuter trains into and out of the City were slow to resume service as tracks and signals were inspected for problems. Madeleine Wheeler, almost as impatient and worried about her husband as Diana, accompanied Tom Delanoy into the City to bring the stranded businessmen home to Sleepyside.

By Monday morning, life was almost back to normal, and Trixie laughed as Bobby sauntered through the door of the agency and exclaimed, “Light! How I missed thee!”

“Channeling Mart?” Honey teased.

Bobby chuckled. “That was about what he said when he and Di dropped by the Farm with the twins last night. He was glad to be home. They all were.”

“I would have been, too,” Trixie admitted. “I never thought I’d be so thankful for electricity.”

“Or city water,” Honey reminded her with a grin. “Has your back yard recovered?”

“Just about,” she sighed. “Erica, too. She was still faintly skunky for a day or so, though.”

Bobby wrinkled his nose. “I am so glad I missed that.”

“The kids all learned a valuable lesson, though,” Trixie told him. “They won’t be playing with any strange animals for a while.” She opened one of her desk drawers and took out a small bag that she handed to him. “Before I forget, I found this for you at Crimper’s on Saturday.”

He took the bag to his desk and sat down as he opened it. He took out a blue DVD case and rolled his eyes. “E.T.? Gee, thanks.”

Laughing, she pulled herself out of her chair and walked over to ruffle his hair. “Yeah, this has that travesty masquerading as ET that they came out with last year, but it also has the original version that you’ve never seen, and you need to.” Her expression became more serious as she leaned against the filing cabinet. “I bought a copy for us, too. I was thinking about what we talked about the other day, and this movie is a good reminder that we don’t always have to fear the unknown. After all, E.T. was just trying to get home.”

“Thanks,” he told her, setting the movie down. “I’ll get Bethany to watch it with me soon.” He grinned. “And yes, I know I was jumping to conclusions by thinking that they had caused this. But seriously? They’re saying that a tree branch in Ohio took the entire grid down? Aliens made more sense than that.”

“Better a tree branch or even your aliens than terrorism,” Honey sighed softly.

The siblings both nodded, and Trixie smiled as she gently patted her stomach where the baby was kicking her. “Better yet? None of the above!”