Birthday Party

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Like the Magi of old, Augusta, Kate and Sallie processed down the drive bearing cheerful gifts topped with very large bows. Crunchy and Daisy attended them hopefully, circling and weaving and waving their tails like flags. As they passed the Stone House, Kate waved to Maurice who was standing like a fortress next to a small pallet of heavy stone tile, his little dog parked staunchly at his side. He didn't wave back.

Suddenly, without warning, a small, greasy man launched himself from behind the house in the direction of Maurice, waving his arms and shouting. The three women paused, then stopped as the runty contractor confronted their handyman. For a moment it seemed as if the furious little man would run headlong into Maurice's knees, but he thought better of it and pointed a vindictive finger instead. They were too far away to hear, but the women could see spittle flicking from the small man's mouth with every volley of invective. The three women watched this improbable exchange for several long moments before Augusta, with the certainty of a Caesar, handed her package to Kate and advanced upon the combatants.

"What seems to be the difficulty gentlemen?" she asked. Kirby's eyebrows ran for his hairline giving him the look of a small mammal in distress.

"The difficulty is," he said, glaring at Maurice, "it wasn't none a' his bizness t' be buyin' my supplies! I already bought that tile so now these poor people here have t' pay twice for it!"

Augusta's nostrils twitched.

"I doubt that very much," she said, turning to Maurice, "Why did you buy the tile?"

Maurice looked at Augusta mildly then inclined his head towards a roll of dirty linoleum in the bed of the rusted brown pick-up squatting on the Bertram's lawn.

"Saw it coming," he answered, as if that clarified the situation.

Augusta, puzzled, glanced at the linoleum, then looked from Kirby to Maurice and back again. Kirby was the color of a carbuncle. Augusta looked grim.

"I'm afraid I still don't understand," she said.

"He didn't buy tile," said Maurice.

Kirby sputtered, "It looks just like that tile an' they won't know th' difference once I got it down."

Augusta's gaze returned to the dirty linoleum, clarity erupting from the murky depths, "You bought that for Lydia's bathroom?"

"Got it cheap too!" said Kirby, oblivious to Augusta's withering look, "It'll clean up good as new. An' they won't even know the difference if y'know what I'm talkin' about." He winked at her and grinned.

Augusta regarded the stringy little man with the unfortunate certainty that she did, indeed, know what he was talking about. He was talking about larceny, about taking Lydia's money and giving her less, much less, than she had, in good faith, paid for. Once again, Maurice in his quiet way had saved the day.

"Mr. Kirby," she said severely, "if you wish to avoid legal action, you will install the actual tile that Maurice has been thoughtful enough to provide for you, you will dispose of that decaying mess in your truck elsewhere, and you will not charge the Bertrams a single penny for its purchase. Furthermore, when you have completed this job to Maurice's satisfaction, your services will no longer be required here, and if you are caught on this property for any reason, you will be prosecuted for trespassing. Have I made myself clear?"

"Can she do that?" asked the little man, cocking his head at Maurice.

Maurice nodded gravely.

Kirby shifted from foot to foot, dimly staring across the lawn towards the paddock. "Well shoot," he said aloud to no one in particular, "Guess that's that."

** ** **

Augusta retrieved her gift from Kate and the three women resumed their birthday mission. They quickly rounded the last loop of the drive and marched up the steps to the renter's front door.

"It's awfully quiet," Sallie whispered uneasily.

Augusta knocked; all three squared their shoulders and prepared to smile brightly.

No answer.

Augusta knocked again. Nothing moved behind the door.

"This is ridiculous," Sallie huffed in exasperation, "are you sure we have the right time?"

"Friday at one," Kate confirmed, shifting the package and looking at her watch, "I double-checked before we left. It's ten after now."

Sallie pushed past Augusta and banged on the door. Silence shifted against the sound then settled back again. The women stood perfectly still, gifts drooping in their hands. The evidence was clear; there was no one there.

"I can't believe this," said Sallie, cupping her hands against a window pane, " I can't believe I went to all this trouble and they didn't even show up for their own party. They're not even home!"

"I'm sure there's an explanation," Augusta said evenly.

"Let's leave our gifts by the door," suggested Kate, "when they get back they'll know we were here."

Sallie thumped her present onto the doormat. "They'll know we were here all right," she said, "I'll make sure of that."

She stomped down the steps and across the lawn towards home; Kate and Augusta watched her go.

"Well," said Kate, adding her present to the pile, "I guess that's that."

"We'll see," said Augusta. She set her gift down next to Kate's and smiled, "They might not be home but they opened the door."  

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