Cutting Corners

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 Even though he knew that Charlie was still at school, Maurice glanced around instinctively for signs of ambush when he emerged from the kitchen door. Not that much of the afternoon remained thanks to the escapades of Joe and Sallie's pride and joy. By the time Maurice had mopped up the bathroom from the shark incident, hauled the boxes of tea things to attic storage, set up the buffet tables and distributed the Mardi Gras decorations to their customary positions, it was well past lunchtime and headed towards supper. He'd seen Leo exit the school bus and go down the driveway an hour ago, and he knew Kate was out in the pasture with the sheep checking on them one last time before heading home to start the evening meal.

He lifted the key to the Stone House from its hook in the box and lifted an eyebrow at Samson who waited patiently at the entrance to the labyrinth. Sallie kept things very clean – no dogs were allowed beyond the last stone arch and Samson was a hound that aimed to please. The big man and the dinky dog made their way through the dim light of the labyrinth and stepped out into the cool afternoon sun. The little girl and her yellow boots were gone from the drive, and Daisy had disappeared. Only the ratty old blanket remained, a forlorn reminder of the morning's altercation. Felix's car sat where he'd left it, right in the middle of the drive, but Maurice stared past it at the grimy old wreck of a truck still parked on the Stone House lawn. He had hoped it would be gone; he didn't relish the distasteful conversation about cutting corners that he felt obliged to have with Kirby, who, at this very moment, was undoubtedly making a mess of Lydia's bathroom.

With a resigned grunt he set off across the frozen ground, Samson trudging determinedly beside him. Lydia's penchant for hiring ne'er-do-wells puzzled Maurice. Not only did she hire these wretches, but she paid them well for work badly done and invariably called them back again when opportunity presented itself. Kirby, for example, had made her acquaintance bagging groceries at the local food mart. Lydia, in her inimitable way, had drawn him into conversation and discovered, to her delight, that he was a down-on-his-luck contractor. For obvious reasons, thought Maurice grimly. Kirby had been hired dozens of times for various projects around the farm, all with unsatisfactory results.

This time, however, Maurice planned to head off the calamity by inserting his own steady hand into the situation early on. Perhaps Kirby merely required some direction and encouragement. His circumstances, after all, suggested the distinct lack of stabilizing influences in his life. It was quite possible that a simple word of insight or instruction sympathetically interjected into the task would give him the foothold he needed to finally succeed. Maurice nodded to himself and wiped his feet on the mat.

Feeling hopeful, he opened the door and stepped into a thick, shifting miasma of chalky, white dust. An electric sander buzzed enthusiastically from somewhere down the hall. Frantically, Maurice extracted his handkerchief, pressed it over his nose and mouth, and, squinting, made his way across the room towards the sound. It stopped as he approached the bathroom door where he quickly abandoned his plan of gentle counsel.

Through the drifting cloud of plaster dust, Maurice caught glimpses of the ruined bathroom. Crumbled plaster and old lathe showed through a ragged hole in the wall, shattered tile from the wrecked wall was scattered next to the tub, and a sledgehammer leaned against the commode. The old vinyl flooring (which Kirby had been hired to replace with large stone tiles) lay intact on the floor. From the hazy center of the cloud emerged a slight figure in a heavy ventilator mask looking for all the world like an alien from a 1960's sci-fi show. It removed its mask and Kirby's face smiled out at him sporting eyebrows tufted with chalky residue.

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