Mr. Imperfect(7)

By: Karina Bliss

An unexpected blow to the heart made him step back, shove his hands into his pockets. His fingers brushed the crumpled ball of paper and, swearing softly, he pulled it out of his pocket, smoothed the creases and glared at it.

Nothing complicated about it, just a scrap of a page torn from an exercise book. The IOU had been dated and signed, the letters sprawling loose and untidy across the page. His signature hadn’t changed much in sixteen years.

You conniving, brilliant old woman. You got me good.

With a sigh he opened the door, saw Don and Bernice May and a host of other anxious people—many familiar—staring at him. He fought back a sense of claustrophobia and nodded acknowledgments. “She’s sleeping, but I doubt she’ll want a welcoming party when she wakes. Perhaps just you, Don?”

He drew the older man away, ostensibly to talk privately, but moving closer to the pub’s exit. He was in no mood to renew old acquaintances. Plenty of time for that in the following weeks, he thought bleakly. “I’ll be back when I’ve reorganized my affairs. I’m sure Muriel’s bank will allow us a few weeks’grace.”

“A phone call from you will get it,” Don said dryly.

“Tell Kez I’ll need a bed at the hotel. Ask her to courier me the books so I can start formulating strategies.”

Don looked doubtful. “I can’t promise anything. She hasn’t exactly warmed to the idea of you coming back.”

“Then here’s the carrot. Tell her I’ve set myself a deadline. I’ll turn the hotel around in a month.”

“You don’t know how bad things are….”

“A month,” said Christian grimly. “If it kills me.”

KEZIA RACKED HER BRAIN FOR another way to tell Christian no. Spats of rain against the pane heralded a summer squall. But the storm building indoors was of more concern than racing to bring in the white tablecloths snapping on the line in the easterly below.

“Probably not,” she ventured.

They sat on spindle-legged antique chairs in the private sitting room on the hotel’s first floor. Much of the threadbare blue carpet was covered by piles of paper, as neat and precisely spaced as soldiers at attention, testament to Kezia’s methodical sifting over the previous week.

Christian had roared back into town thirty minutes earlier in old jeans and a new Enzo Ferrari he called Consolation. If asked, Kezia would recall it as red and showy. And—like its charismatic, self-indulgent owner—not to her mature taste.

“You mean no.” Christian began pacing while Kezia watched her tidy piles of paper anxiously. “I thought we agreed to cooperate—get me out of here as quickly as possible.”

“It’s not that I think your ideas lack merit.” Kezia had spent the intervening days practicing her responses to this intrusion and had resolved on diplomacy, civility and detachment. She frowned as his foot knocked a pile askew. “I just think we need to quantify the problem to qualify the solution.”

Christian grabbed an invoice from the top of one stack and her eyes followed the tug of taut muscle under tightened denim. “‘Nineteen twenty-six. Two bags of chicken mash and five pounds of head cheese.’”

“That’s not indicative of what I’m sorting,” Kezia said stiffly. Okay, maybe she had become a little distracted by cutesy historical data, mainly because she could sleep after reading it, unlike some of the more recent accounts she’d uncovered.

“I know you want to do this properly.” Christian forced a smile and Kezia’s mood lightened. She, at least, had relaxed her jaw. “But we don’t have the luxury of time.”

For once she couldn’t disagree with him. The bank had abruptly withdrawn its forbearance when the manager discovered wealthy Christian Kelly couldn’t act as a guarantor. Kezia had won a further ten days’ grace based solely on her own banking history. “But cutting staff…” she protested.

“Short term. Ultimately the plan will generate jobs.”

“But my people depend on those jobs now. In a rural community, employment is hard to come by.”

“Even harder if the hotel closes down,” Christian said bluntly. “And what’s this complicated system with a dozen part-timers?”

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