Charlie Ann stuffed the money in her pocket and ran out back.
“You guys are not going to believe this,” she started, then gasped. Bennett had swung the garden hose like a jump rope, its fat nozzle aimed at Rick who crouched in a corner, between a smelly compost heap and a water barrel. “For the love of Pete, Bennett, STOP!” she yelled.
Bennett dropped the hose. “Aw, we were just fooling,” he said.
Charlie Ann pursed her lips and plonked her hands on her hips. “Get inside and watch the shop,” she said. “God forbid we miss a customer. That was the deal, remember?”
Bennett pushed past her into the shop. Rick stood up. Charlie Ann nodded towards the garden gate. “Go out that way.”
It took all their strength to tug the wooden gate out of its frame. Once free, it sagged at a 45-degree angle. It was missing its top hinge. Charlie Ann swore. Rick looked at her, askance.
Charlie Ann tilted her chin. “Get out of here,” she said. “Go see if I can turn this dump into a parking lot without paying an arm and a leg for the zoning varience.”
“Are you going to be all right with that…” Rick nodded towards the shop.
“I can handle him. No sweat. But right now, I’ve gotta go see Aunt Shug.”
“I’ll be half an hour,” she called to Bennett, as she strode through the shop.
“Where are you going?”
“Aunt Shug’s. Have I got news for her!”
Charlie Ann was reversing onto Main Street when she heard a rustle in the back of the car. Someone hissed “Pssst” in her ear. She stopped reversing, turned round. “Who’s there?”
“Who the hell’s Norm? And where the hell are you?”
“Tut, tut. Language, Ms. Huckabee. I’m your guardian angel.”
“Guardian angel! Big help you’ve been! Where were you when the sh*t was flying at Fulcrum? And why didn’t you stop me buying this pig in a poke?” Charlie Ann flung a hand towards the shop and banged her knuckles on the door frame. “Ouch!” She sucked her fingers.
Norm’s voice was sulky. “You did better’n your aunt and a whole lot better’n Glenda. And you got good severance from Fulcrum. I engineered that for you.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I take it Bennett’s never mentioned that worthless time-share he inherited.”
“No, he hasn’t. And I can do without your help, thank you very much. I’m supposed to have free will, aren’t I? Well, that’s what I choose. Go be guardian angel to someone else.”
Norm coughed. “Oh, well. Your choice. Maybe the Big Guy will assign me to someone who’s not so much of a challenge.”
Charlie Ann pulled up in front of the Huckabee Guest House. As she climbed out, a smartly dressed man carrying a briefcase trotted down the porch steps and headed for the expensive car parked beside hers. He glanced her way, gave a quick wave to Aunt Shug standing on the porch, squeezed into his car (Charlie Ann hadn’t left him much room) and drove away.
Charlie Ann walked towards Aunt Shug. “Who was that?”
“Honest to God, that’s his name. He’s my attorney.”
“What’s he here for?”
“Hmmm! Nosey this morning, aren’t we?” Aunt Shug led the way indoors. “If you must know, he brought more papers for me to sign. The new owners want to start renovating as soon as poss. They’ve already got clients signed up to move in.”
Charlie Ann followed her aunt into the small office leading off the hall. “Oh, Aunt Shug,” she said. “Willoughby won’t be the same without your guest house.” She blinked back tears.
“Pull yourself together, woman!” snapped Aunt Shug. She flapped a long white envelope towards her niece. “He also brought my new will, duly signed, sealed and executed. Of course I’ve left everything to you, seeing you’re my last living relative, but don’t expect to get rich on the pickings.” She tossed the envelope into a drawer and sat back in her chair. “So why are you here? If you’re hoping to borrow money for that fool flower shop…”
Charlie Ann hung her head. “I made a big mistake there, Aunt Shug. I should never have bought it. I don’t know what possessed me…”
“Don’t feel so bad, girl,” Aunt Shug’s voice was grim. “Join the club!”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean that when I’m gone you’ll be the proud owner of a 50-acre pig farm in Georgia that set me back fifty grand. That blasted father-in-law of yours! He means well but he knows zilch about real estate. More fool me for being talked into buying it.”
“Pig farm? Fifty grand? But you said…”
“Not me. He said it all. But he had to come up with something, didn’t he? Oh, the lies that have rolled off that silver tongue of his. He must have kissed the Blarney Stone.”
“You mean, he didn’t con you out of that money? Can’t you do anything about it?”
“Too late now. I’ll just chalk it up to experience.” “Don’t you even want to know where he is?”
“Not particularly, now I’ve got my car back. Thought I’d seen the last of that. Why? Do you know where he is?”
“Er, yes. He’s staying with Miss Caroline.”
“Caroline!” Aunt Shug’s eyes bulged and she jerked back in her chair.
Then she started to chuckle. “C-Caroline!” she spluttered. “Oh my, oh my. Ha, ha, ha, ha. He’ll have his way with her, he will. Ha, ha, hoo, hoo, hoo.” Tears streamed down Aunt Shug’s face. She flung her head back and guffawed loudly again. The scab on her top lip split and blood spurted. “Oh my, oh my.” She started rocking backwards and forwards, gasping for breath between laughs. Suddenly she stopped and clutched her heart. Her lips turned blue. So did her face. Her eyes rolled crazily and her breath came in noisy wheezes.
Charlie Ann grabbed the phone and punched 911. “Ambulance! Ambulance!” she cried when a distant voice answered. “Ambulance to Huckabee’s Guest House, Main Stree… What? Who’s this? Charlie Ann Huckabee. My aunt’s having a heart attack. She needs an ambulance.”
Aunt Shug’s arms dropped and hung limply, like a rag doll’s. A long noisy raspberry blew between her blue lips. Her head lolled to one side and her eyes stared vacantly upwards.
“Please hurry,” Charlie Ann begged. “Oh, oh! I think it’s too late. I think she’s gone…” She dropped the receiver and ran round the desk. “This wasn’t supposed to happen,” she sobbed.
“That’s what comes of choosing free will.”
Charlie Ann spun round.
“Norm? What you doing here? Don’t say you’re Aunt Shug’s guardian angel, too?”
“Er, no. He got a pink slip. ‘Cos of that skateboarding.”
“Pretty inept lot, aren’t you?”
“I don’t know what you’re complaining about. Looks to me you’ve got a lot to be grateful for.”
“How d’you work that out?”
“Well, thanks to the severance I wangled for you, you’ve got a shop you didn’t have to pay for. Then there’s those fifty acres in Georgia coming your way. They don’t have to stay a pig farm. You’ve got lots of potential there. Plus your aunt never got to spend a penny of the proceeds of selling this place. Play your cards right, and you’re gonna end up pretty rich.”
“I’d sooner have Aunt Shug alive and well.”
“Come on, kiddo. She’s had a good life. And you can have one too, if you change your mind and let me string along. You’ve got no idea what this is going to look like on my record.”
“I’ve made up my mind. I’ll take it from here, Norm.”
“You sure? Absolutely, positively sure?”
Sure I’m sure.”
“But you never know when you’re gonna need…”
“I’m gone! I’m gone!”