A wave of discontent settled over the dusty, low-lit room. The momentary stunned silence crumbled by a low growling hiss.
“Booo.” The jeer lingered as all eyes fell on the speaker. Reverberating from a back corner of the room, the sneer seemed surprisingly appreciated.
It was obvious he’d felt the disaffection his words brought. He ran his fingers through his summer bleached blond hair, pushing the stray strands back in place. The cheeky smile that had curled at the end of the lips when he first began to speak was put on pause as his eyes drifted to the place the word of scorn had emanated from.
“We’re going to, uhm . . . to erect a mall.” He swallowed hard. “A mini mall.” Sputtering, he couldn’t seem to find the right words, obviously disturbed by the reaction in the room. “A vertical mall on the square.” He stepped beside the tabletop lectern, his eyes returning to focus on his audience. His voice ragged, the last words he’d read from the notes he’d now abandoned had spilled from his lips, hesitant and broken. They were out of character with the earlier poised, melodic tone he’d used with his words of introduction.
The second attempt at making his intended remarks went off no better than the first. It birthed a rumble across the room, low at first, the voices incrementally escalating. A ruckus soon ensued.
“Boooo!” The second call of disdain came from a man standing next to a seamstress’s manikin draped loosely with material. He cupped his hands around his mouth and drew the word out, elevating his voice above the rumble, initially the only decipherable words made in the room.
“We don’t have a square,” Mrs. Cro, the owner of the Flower Pot, our town’s flower shop, said, her voice raised, making her declaration known.
“It’s a triangle,” another person corrected mockingly. I couldn’t tell who’d said that.
It was true, and anyone who knew Chagrin Falls knew that where most small towns had their downtown built around a square, ours was built around a triangle.
He didn’t seem to get it.
Or maybe he didn’t care.
Zeke Reynolds had entered the back room of Debbie Devereaux’s clothing boutique in his navy blue skinny three-buttoned suit with the mien of a politician. He straightened his tie, tugged on his suit jacket and followed the mayor’s lead as he gestured for him to take his place at the podium. An air of confidence and the woodsy sweet smell of musk followed him in, as did a woman.
The woman carried a large black vinyl artists’ portfolio in one hand and an easel in the other. Once he stood in front of the lectern, he’d introduced her as Veronica Russell, a junior associate and his right hand. She bowed her head slightly at his acknowledgment, her bangs swaying with the tilt of her head, the rest of her hair pulled back into a tight chignon. She leaned the portfolio and tripod against the wall
and stood there next to them at the back of the room, her hands at her sides, waiting, I guessed, for her cue.
Her hair color matched his. But her emerald-green eyes, bright even behind her black-rimmed rectangle glasses, gave off sparks of light and warmth, something he, at the moment, seemed void of.
“We’re trying to help usher the Village of Chagrin Falls into the twenty-first century,” he continued. He wiggled his fingers at Veronica and she jumped to action. She pushed her glasses up her nose with a flick of her finger then grabbed the handle of the portfolio with one hand, wrapped her other hand around the tripod and marched to the front, not wasting one moment in setting up.
The village business-district people were gathered for a meeting of the Shop Owners of Chagrin Falls Association. We called it SOOCFA for short. Well, it’s what the members called it. I wasn’t one. Yet. Although with my new food truck under construction and sliding off the assembly line soon, all shiny and spanking new, and the ice cream shop doing good business, I’d need to join. But today, I’d come to support Maisie, one of my best friends.
The room was sparsely filled. Old sewing machines, a long wooden table for cutting and a file cabinet—drawers hanging open, overstuffed with patterns and sewing materials scattered about. Ms. Devereaux had long abandoned the practice of dressmaking—designing and tailoring clothes. All the wares she sold in her boutique nowadays came ready-made.
There hadn’t been an agenda circulated at the start of the shop owners’ meeting, and after Maisie’s plea for acceptance into the shop owners fraternity, everything had seemed to be winding down.
That was until Zeke Reynolds took the podium.
“Who is he, Win?” Maisie leaned in to me and pointed her finger.
I hunched my shoulders. “He said his name is—”
“I know what he said his name is,” she said, not letting me finish. “But who is he?”
I shrugged. I was just as clueless as she was.
As clueless, it seemed, as everyone else.
I mean, I knew what he’d said— I’d heard what he’d read from his notecards, and so had Maisie. I think what everyone really wanted to know was why. Why was he here telling us what he was going to do to our little village? To us. How did he think he could?
I glanced back at the doorway where he’d entered twenty minutes earlier. Escorted by Kevin Greer, the mayor of our little village, and Amelia Hargrove, owner of the Around the Corner Bookshop.
Amelia had kept her eyes straight ahead, carried a small stack of colored papers. Expressionless, she sat at the front of the room. Hands in lap, she seemed placid and unperturbed by the speaker’s words.
The mayor, however, seemed to have quietly slipped back out. He was nowhere to be seen.
Mayor Greer, whom I hadn’t voted for in the last election because I was still in New York, was a good friend of my grandfather’s. I’d have to be sure to ask PopPop what the mayor had been up to bringing in a man who would cause so much confusion at a SOOCFA meeting.
Had the two of them thought the crowd would be rowdy when they agreed to escort Zeke Reynolds in? I wouldn’t want to be in their shoes when this was over.
I directed my attention to the others present and spied the reaction on their faces. Some of the faces I recognized, some I didn’t know. All, though, except for Amelia, were upset.
“We’ve acquired all the necessary buildings but one, and there is still a plot
or two of land we’re working to gain ownership of.” Zeke was back to talking. He’d built up a steady cadence, decidedly schlepping forward with his presentation. “It’s amazing how they were sliced up into such small parcels.” He drew in a breath and shook his head. “I’d hoped to come here tonight to get your support.”
Veronica had pulled a poster board drawing out of her portfolio as he spoke, and placed it on the easel.
“Our support?” Maisie turned and looked at me, the red curls of her hair thrown to the side with the jerk of her head. “For which buildings?” She tightly clutched the back of the metal fold-ing chair in front of her, the knuckles on her hand turning white. “Which of the buildings around Triangle Park? My building?”
I started to speak, but her curls, flipping the other way, gave notice she was no longer paying attention to me. She scooted forward in her chair, sitting on the edge of her seat, and eyed Zeke and his drawing board, intent on finding out what they meant.
“It’s not really your building,” Riya, sitting on Maisie’s other side, leaned toward her and said matter-of-factly. “At least not yet.” She gestured with a head nod toward the front of the room. “Or maybe ever.” She raised an all-knowing eyebrow.
I gave Riya the most disapproving face I could muster, then mouthed, “What is wrong with you? Don’t say that to her.”
Riya’s face showed not one glimmer of contrition.
Maisie glowered at Riya, then turned, her pleading eyes meeting mine. “But I am getting it,” Maisie squeaked. “Right? Everyone here was in agreement I should get it and that’s all the zoning committee cares about. Right?”
Maisie Solomon had come to the meeting because she wanted to expand her community garden using an adjoining vacant shop on the triangle. Such an endeavor was a feat for Maisie and was contrary to the way she usually did things.
Maisie never kept a job for long, or kept to anything for that
matter. She’d get bored or disillusioned and would abandon projects, jobs or anything else just to come up with something new she wanted to try. She was usually good at her endeavors, whatever they were, even though they never held her attention for long. But the community garden had seemed to be a constant for her. She’d even grown spices for my ice cream recipes. That was why Riya and I, well, at least I, had come to support her.
Hearing Riya, I was no longer sure what she thought her purpose of attending had been.
Maisie came needing the shopkeepers’ support to convince the village’s zoning department to allow her to enlarge the windows, hook up sprinklers and lay plots in the building she wanted to purchase. She’d come bearing gifts— offering a community hall she had drawn into the plans as the meeting place for SOOCFA. She’d also use it, she’d told her rapt audience, for food drives and a fresh produce market in the winter months.
Her pitch drew smiles and praise, and ended in applause.
Then Zeke Reynolds took the microphone . . .
Riya leaned across the back of Maisie’s chair and, I supposed, thinking she’d made her voice too low for Maisie to hear, said, “Did you hear he’s buying plots, too?” Her voice strained to whisper. “Wonder if that’s Maisie’s garden he bought.”
“My garden!” Maisie squealed and popped out of her seat.
“We’re here to help,” I scolded Riya.
“What?” She coiled back as if my remark had struck a nerve. “I am trying to help.”
“Then be supportive,” I said and gave a yank on Maisie’s arm to try to get her back into her seat. That didn’t work. I stood next to her. “Maisie.” I bumped my hip into her. “You gotta sit down.”
“I think he wants my community garden!” She wasn’t trying to contain herself. She made known her feelings loud enough for the entire room to get wind of them.
“He wants all of our shops,” someone yelled. “But he’s not getting them.”
“Talk about me? Hah!” Riya stood up next to us and leaned forward so she could see my face. “They’re the rowdy little bunch,” Riya said, jabbing her finger around the room at various people. “I”— now jabbing that finger at herself— “was trying to be reasonable.”
Riya knew rowdy when she heard it. It was a major part of who she was.
“He’s messing with our livelihoods.” A man one row up and to my right turned to us, gesturing at Zeke still standing beside the podium.
“Whoa! I— rather, the company I work for is not trying to take anyone’s shop.” Zeke held out his hands, trying to calm the crowd. “We want to work with you. That’s why I’m here.”
“What does he think he’s doing?” Maisie looked at the man who had spoken to us, then back at me.
“I think he’s telling us that someone’s building a mall on North Main Street,” Riya said. “And it sounds like it’s a done deal.”
“And you’re okay with that?” Maisie said to Riya, her voice going up an octave. She didn’t give Riya time to answer before turning to me, her eyes suspiciously red and blurry. “He can’t do that, can he?”
“How could this already be happening and none of us knew about it?” someone stood and asked.
My eyes went over to Amelia Hargrove again. I couldn’t help but think that Amelia knew something about all of this— the buildings, the land being sold, or rather this company wanting to buy them. She had come in and made a beeline to her seat. A seat, now that I thought about it, that oddly seemed to have been waiting for her. I scanned the seat next to her. An older guy, maybe midfifties, dressed in a suit and a bow tie. He must have saved it for her. I didn’t know who he was, but I had to wonder, was he in on it, too?
Her bookshop had been in Chagrin Falls as long as I could remember. Books stuffed in every nook and cranny, piled onto display cases and filling up bookracks, a family business like our ice cream shop. And as far as I knew, business was good.
“Look, I am not the one buying up the buildings.” Zeke’s face was flushed. He was getting weary of the jeers, it seemed. “I’m here because— ”
“You work for the company.” The interjector cut him off before he could finish. “Yeah, yeah, yeah. We get it. Now you go back and tell them for us that we’re not interested.”
“I do,” he said, licking his lips. “I do work for them. For Rhys Enterprises. A smart and innovative company located in Dallas. And even though they’re a good piece down the road, you’ll find that they are the neighborly kind of folk and committed to keeping Chagrin Falls the quaint little village that it is.”
“With a shopping mall right smack in the middle of it?” That woman’s voice was so strained it squeaked.
“You’re not proposing anything good for our little village!” Another dissenter squawked.
“On the contrary,” Zeke said. “Urban revitalization is a good thing. Even I’d agree with that.”
“We don’t need revitalization,” someone yelled from the audience. “There’s nothing wrong with Chagrin Falls.”
“It’s not revitalization,” someone else yelled out. “It’s gentrification.”
“We’re not a blighted area.”
I knew that voice. I swiveled from the waist and cast my eyes toward the rear of the room. Standing near where Miss Green-Eyed Junior Associate Veronica had just vacated was my brother Bobby. The activist. Standing next to him was my grandfather.
Someone must have spread the word because neither of them had been there when the meeting first started. Now, the back of the room, since the last time I looked, had become standing room only.
“We’ve been named Tree City USA for twenty-five years running,” PopPop said. “We’ve got the falls, the trees and our shops. We don’t need anything else.”
“That’s right,” I heard several people say. “Yes! We don’t need anything else,” came the chorus.
“We’re not going to stand for this!” Ms. Devereaux said and stepped forward. Even dressed in a dainty pink summer sweater with three big bows down the back and a pair of loose-fitting jeans, she seemed ready for a fight. Though she was usually glittery and gem encrusted, the only sparkle I noticed now was the one in her eye that I was afraid would flicker into a flame. At nearly seventy, I hoped she wasn’t thinking of forcibly ushering the man out of her shop. She was known to be a little feisty.
“You’re coming here trying to mess up things that aren’t broken.” It was Squeaky Voice speaking again—she seemed willing to join in the fight if that was what Ms. Devereaux had planned. I didn’t know which, if any, shop she owned.
“I’m not— we’re not—” Zeke Reynolds stopped what he was trying to say and let out a nervous chuckle. “Please,” he said, raising his hands to control the crowd, “I’m just here to assess and send in a report. And”—he stopped to take a sip out of his bottled water— “keep you informed of how things are progressing.”
“We don’t need your progress reports,” Ms. Devereaux said. “And we don’t need or want you here.”
“That’s right!” Maisie pumped a fist in the air, choking out the words. “We don’t want you here.” The threat of tears emerging spilling out in her voice.
“Get out!” Riya said and with that hurled her shoe.
As it went spinning over the heads of the sitting shopkeepers and toward the podium and Zeke, a hush came over the room, and all heads turned toward Riya.
“What are you doing?” I screeched, my mouth agape, my eyes big.
“Being supportive,” she said, as if it were obvious.
“Hey!” Zeke Reynolds shouted defensively, ducking out of the way of Riya’s projectile. “Don’t shoot the messenger!”
From A GAME OF CONES by Abby Collette. Used with the permission of the publisher, Berkley Prime Crime. Copyright © 2021 by Abby Collette.