A Chamber of Commerce coffee is not a big deal. Then again, it takes place at the bank and Fortek shows up. Things could get interesting.
The negotiations continued the rest of the way to Alma. As she parked, Vicky concluded, “I will leave this file with all your money here in the truck. I’ll throw something over the folder, so it isn’t obvious. I’ll also make sure to lock the pickup. You should take the money but leave the file. I need something to file my paperwork.”
There was no reply, and she wasn’t going to wait around for one. Julie was already there when she walked in. Fortunately, it was still before the time to open the bank. Besides, Roger wasn’t there yet, either. Perhaps Paul Fortek was keeping his word about watching out for her well-being.
“You’re not dragging like you were Friday,” Julie observed. “At the same time, it looks like the entire world has gone out of their way to piss you off.”
On the other hand, Vicky considered, Paul wasn’t doing all that he could. “It may look that way, Julie, but I didn’t see too many people over the weekend. There were a few minor irritations this morning, but I’m hopeful they will not bother me anymore.”
Vicky decided it was time to change the subject. “What did you hear at the cafe this morning?”
“It was the usual chatter about prospects for harvest and where livestock prices might go. There was nothing about anybody with family problems. Come to think of it, nobody mentioned any lights in the sky, either. It’s as though they never happened. Did you come down here to church again?”
“Yes, and the pastor had a message about helping our neighbors. Maybe Pastor Harris’ message is getting out if there was no juicy gossip this morning.”
Julie was about to say something, but Roger walked in just then. Whatever it was, Julie evidently decided their boss didn’t need to hear it and went over to the teller station. Roger seemed to be in a good mood as he said good morning to both of them. Vicky had gotten into the habit of keeping an eye out for the Feds showing up, but that didn’t happen.
Roger came back out soon after that to remind them that this was the day the Chamber of Commerce would visit the bank. Such visits included coffee and cookies. With no customers just then, Julie went into the back room to get the big coffee maker. Vicky’s part was to go down the block to a bakery to get a selection of cookies. On the way, she opened the truck.
The file was now nearly empty. Fortek forgot a hundred dollars worth of twenty-dollar bills. Maybe he was taking care of her situation after all. She took the money and relocked the truck. Buying the pastries was another thing Roger would promise to reimburse but never get around to doing.
Alma, with a population of a thousand, was the county seat. Vicky considered it remarkable the town had an excellent bakery in addition to the sandwich shop. Many of the small towns in the area had trouble keeping people, but Alma figured out a way to do it, at least for the moment. Alma was at the intersection of two well-traveled highways and was on the shore of the second largest lake in the state. That certainly helped local businesses.
This time, Vicky could get the pastries without having to short-change her food budget. That was a nice touch. Come to think of it, if a few stray twenties showed up now and then, it wouldn’t be a bad thing. She got back to the bank in time to set out the goodies before the Chamber members arrived. She knew there wouldn’t be any strange faces.
Except for this time, the Chamber used the visit to announce a new Chamber member. The town newspaper’s reporter and photographer were on hand to record the occasion. Vicky wasn’t surprised when the new member turned out to be Paul Fortek. Paul talked briefly about his specialty crops and also about how he hoped to grow grapes and eventually build a winery.
The man had been studying, as he said. His presentation almost sounded like a bona fide business plan. Some of the other business owners chatted with him as though they’d known him for years instead of a few weeks. Vicky didn’t think she would see a car outside. Like the farmer’s market fellow noted, he just went where he needed to be. Nobody there found anything about him odd. Interestingly, that included Rhonda, the real estate broker, with whom he shared a moment of small talk about business.
Vicky began to wonder about the depth of the rabbit hole into which she’d fallen. It was true the pills and advice her mother gave her had done nothing at all. If that was the case, what character did Fortek play? He switched characters at will. One character was the Cheshire Cat. In this instance, it was his eyes instead of his grin that stuck around.
The local members began to go back to their businesses, and soon, the bank was empty again except for Mr. Fortek. He now focused on Roger.
“I wanted to tell you how much I appreciate how you handle my account,” he said, shaking Roger’s hand.
Then, he turned to Julie and Vicky. “It is always a pleasure to see you lovely ladies,” came in his enveloping baritone.
Julie suddenly tittered like a schoolgirl. If Fortek hadn’t already conquered Julie, she was his now. Vicky felt embarrassed for her co-worker but could understand Julie’s reaction to the situation. At the same time, Fortek did not react at all. He just smiled and made something like a courtly bow. Then he left the bank.
Julie stood, staring at the door for a long moment. Vicky had a feeling that if Julie ran to the door and looked outside, Paul Fortek would be nowhere in sight. It was strange how quickly a person could accept as fact what was physically impossible.
Always before, Roger would help himself to as many pastries that he wanted, and if it happened to be all of them, it didn’t bother him in the least. Now, he picked up the platter and brought it into Vicky in her office for her to pick what she wanted.
Vicky didn’t crave any at the moment but took one to be polite, carefully placing it on a napkin.
“Thank you, Roger.”
Roger smiled in a shy way and took the tray to Julie. The plate sliding in front of her broke that hypnotic gaze toward the closed bank door. On a whim, Vicky looked up amaranth’s symbolism. Seeing it was a sign of immortality somehow seemed appropriate at the moment. It also meant nothing at all.
Looking up, she saw Roger placing the tray on the counter where customers could make up deposits. He didn’t take anything for himself. At the same time, Julie was back at her station, nibbling on the cookie and smiling at nothing. It was good to see everybody being happy and getting along with one another. Perhaps that was all the meaning there was to any of this.