Strange Bedfellows Part Two: IntroductionsPosted: August 12, 2015
“I’ve got room; do you want to ride with me or caravan it?” asked Shepard.
Betty thought for a split second, then agreed with a qualification. “I’ll ride along if Ben’s up for it,”
Shepard and Betty turned to look expectantly at Ben. He mulled the idea over for a moment, lip twitching in anxiety.
“Okay, I’ll ride with you.” Shepard could barely hear Ben’s soft response. “Um, thanks,” Ben added, as an afterthought.
“Great!” Shepard exclaimed. “Depending on what kind of packrat our benefactor was, we may be spending quite a bit of time together, so we might as well get to know each other some on the way.” Shepard had been walking as he talked, and now slowed to a stop at a blue Trailblazer. “Who’s got shotgun?” he asked as he hit the button on the key fob to unlock the doors.
Ben nodded to Betty. “I’ll sit in the back. You, um, have the key anyway.”
Betty smiled and thanked Ben before hopping in the front seat next to Shepard. Ben chose the seat behind Betty for the extra bit of room her shorter legs would afford him.
Shepard was plugging the address into his GPS when a thought hit him. “Does anyone know where this place is? A person always give better directions than this thing.”
Ben shook his head, and Betty offered up a chipper “Nope!” so Shepard finished tapping and checked to make sure the route seemed halfway sensible before buckling up and putting the car in reverse.
Betty decided to break the ice as the SUV bumped out of the parking lot and onto the road.
“I’ll start us off!” Betty smiled as she spoke. “I’m Betty Parks, I’m thirty-one, I sell life insurance over the phone–” here Betty paused to mimic gagging. “–okay, okay, so I’m a telemarketer. But I’m still a really nice person, I promise!” Ben and Shepard chuckled. “And my favorite thing in the world, besides my dog Oscar, is crafts. You probably noticed my flippy flops. Everyone does! I went a little crazy with this pair, but I love them.”
Betty was short enough to kick her legs up to show off the easy-dozen-per-shoe fabric flowers she’d painstakingly hot glued on. Ben offered a polite half-smile, but Shepard had determined that her enthusiasm only increased his initial attraction to her. He’d definitely noted that she hadn’t mentioned a husband or boyfriend, only a dog. Shepard loved dogs.
“So that’s the quick and dirty Betty, huh?” Shepard winked at her. “I’ll go next since I’m pretty sure Ben here wouldn’t mind a few more minutes to collect himself.” That small kindness earned Shepard a grateful nod from the back seat. “So, Shepard Strom, and you already know I never moved out of my parents’ house.”
Betty had been wondering about this since Talmon had brought it up earlier. Shepard didn’t seem the type to lean on family, or anyone, for help, at least from the little she’d observed of him so far. Maybe something had happened, she thought.
“Trust me,” Shepard continued, “I’d be a mama’s boy if I could. My parents both died in a car crash the weekend I graduated from high school.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry,” interjected Betty, as she unconsciously reached out a hand to squeeze his knee in comfort. Ben echoed the verbal sentiment, half a second behind her.
“Thanks,” said Shepard. “That’s not the kind of thing you ever get over a hundred percent, but I’ve lived without them longer than I lived with them, so that wound’s about as healed as it’ll get. I’m a woodworker by trade, to change the subject, and I spend my summers doing yard work for little old ladies, but you know that one already, too. He grinned at Betty, already missing the weight of her hand on his leg.
“Well, Ben,” said Betty, turning in her seat a bit. “Are you ready to open up to us a little?”
Ben’s demeanor was noticeable more relaxed than it had been back at the office. He even sat up a little straighter.
“Um, sure, okay. Ben Henderson, and I’m twenty-eight years old and mostly unemployed. If you heard about the Stockholm scandal last year, well, that was, um, my fault. Nobody wants to hire me with that on my resume, so I try to, um, do as much freelance accounting as I can. My family thinks I should have, um, minded my own business, so it’s been pretty hard for a while now. But I, um, made some smart investments in college, so as long as I’m careful, I can ride this out until somebody else screws their life up and everybody, um, forgets about me.” Ben took a deep breath, as if to recharge. Betty and Shepard glanced at each other in amazement.
“I thought the whistleblower’s name was Hendrickson,” Betty said, cautiously. She was unsure how lightly to tread on the subject, for Ben’s sake.
“Um, yeah, that’s me,” said Ben. “I changed my name and moved here, hoping I could start over, and, um, it helped with regular life, but without Stockholm, I don’t have any work history, and with it, um, well, they figure it out sooner or later. Um, mostly sooner.”
“I was so angry reading about that scandal. It’s completely unfair that they stole millions of dollars, and you’re the one suffering for it, when you’re the one who did the right thing!” Betty remembered her outrage, and it infuriated her anew.
“Um, billions,” Ben corrected her.
“That’s even worse!” exclaimed Betty.
Shepard shifted in his seat. He vaguely remembered something of the story, but it had seemed so far away at the time, like it would never directly affect him. Shepard was never one to pay much attention to the news.
“Well, maybe Clarence just solved your problems, bud. This unit could be packed full of gold bars. Then none of us would have to worry about being careful with our money,” Shepard said.
Everyone laughed, skeptical of the idea, but joyfully entertaining the possibility.
“So, what do you think is in there?” Betty asked, still smiling.
“Whoa, there,” Shepard cut in, “There’s no telling whatsoever what’s in there waiting on you to turn that key. I’m not worried about it because we’ll have that answer in just a few more minutes. What I want to know is the story behind my neighbor, Miss Simpson, and how she was Clarence’s nephew first love. What happened there? And Betty, you have an uncle you never even heard of? What’s with the big family secret? Isn’t that driving you nuts?”
“You’re absolutely right, Shepard?” Betty wanted to slap herself in the forehead. “I know my family has skeletons like anyone else’s family, but it’s hard to believe that we could erase an entire person! It’s easier to think that I’m the wrong Betty Parks, but Mr. Robinson or Mr. Talmon or whoever just did so much research, how could they be wrong? I didn’t even ask whose brother this uncle was.”
“Um, I don’t think he has the wrong Betty,” added Ben. “I mean, he found me, and I was trying to hide. And um, since he knew your uncle before your family disowned him, or whatever happened there, he’d have known, um, your grandparents, and maybe one of your parents. But, um, Shepard would have been the easiest of all to find, since he’s only one degree of separation from Robinson.”
Ben seemed to suddenly realize that he was speaking out of turn, and tried to draw in on himself, but Shepard noticed.
“That’s some serious critical thinking there, bud. Good points! You’re gonna be great when we’re trying to sort through old dude’s stuff,” said Shepard.
“Um, thanks,” said Ben. Shepard and Betty were happy to see the first honest-to-goodness smile on Ben’s face. Ben was certainly beginning to appreciate being saddled with two so kind and considerate individuals.
“Are we here? That’s the place!” Betty squeaked. She couldn’t wait to get out of the car and open up D-22.
Shepard read the signs and slowed to a stop in front of what seemed to be the right building. The three of them piled out of the car and pounded down the empty corridor until they finally reached their destination. D-22 was stenciled in black paint just above the rolling door. Betty put the key she’d been gripping the entire trip into the heavy duty padlock and turned it. She removed the lock from the door and put it in her pocket.
“Let’s open it together,” she said.
Everyone put their right hand to the handle, and Betty counted aloud. “One, two, three!”
The door opened to expose the treasures waiting within.
Inspired by TBP.