By Dane Bainbridge
“This can’t be right.” Renee’s grip on the small ax was unsteady as she held it high above her head. Nervously, she kept it there, the sharp blade quivering in the light. She looked at Ms. Fairington, who was waiting to see if the young girl’s bravado really rang true. She looked at Yasmine, her pretty ballerina, and her slender, graceful ankle which lay exposed, with her skirt hiked up and her foot resting on a chair.
“You read the card correctly,” Ms. Fairington said dryly. “You know the rules. “
“But this makes no sense.” Tears were welling up in Renee’s eyes. “You’re asking me to cut off the foot of the woman I love. She’s a dancer. She’s going to become a professional dancer. Now, you want a foot? Now you want to take that away from me? You want me to take this part of her that I love, that I cherish, away from her? What kind of madness is this?”
“You knew exactly where this would lead before we began,” Ms. Fairington said. “You knew the stakes and you knew that it would not be easy to win. Now you’ve come this far and you’ve sacrificed too much. You understand that this is about much more than just your love for Yasmin, or you would have walked away from this table long ago. You mention madness. Just remember, you broke the bones of two people you just met a few hours ago. You brought horrible pain to these people because you believed in something. Because you were committed to winning. Now you are trying to tell me this is too much? I’m afraid I may have overestimated you, Renee. Perhaps, you and Yasmin should just take your wounds and injuries and crawl away from here.”
Tears rolled down Renee’s pale cheeks. She steadied her grip and looked again at Yasmin’s ankle.
“No!” Yasmin shrieked. “You can’t!”
Terror ripped through the air.
Five Weeks Ago
“Question number 239. What is your favorite flower?” Renee was sitting at a rickety little dining table with Yasmin in their dumpy, squat apartment wedged between the dormitories and the football stadium. They were each slowly working their way through a 29-page application packet. Renee was what a lot of people would call ‘pleasant looking.’” Her eyes and lips were nice, her brunette hair was long, straight and neatly kept, her figure well-proportioned, but her voice was deeper than she liked and she carried herself more like a bull moose compared to Yasmin’s graceful gazelle. What she lacked in refinement she made up for with an air of sheer determination. Renee cowered before no foe.
“Are we applying for a lottery or to be centerfolds for Playboy magazine?” Yasmin joked. She was a tall, very slender mulatto woman. Her long, brown hair with auburn highlights flowed down her graceful back. Her upper body was thin and lean, all of her muscles were in her lower body, where she had the sculpted thighs, calves and toes requisite of the great ballet dancer she one day hoped to be.
Renee affected the voice of a ditzy, adult magazine model. “If I could be any flower in the world, I would be the olive branch. Because it represents peace and it’s going to save the world….I’m sorry what do you mean an olive branch isn’t a flower?”
Yasmin giggled. “You already know what kind of flower I am.”
“The most beautiful and delicate in the world. You will always be my little jasmine.”
“Of course, I have to go with the flower I was named after. But, you, you’re a mystery. You’re such a tough girl, I just can’t think of a flower that describes you.”
“I know what kind of flower I am. I’m a ragweed. I’m the kind of irritant that makes everybody miserable. And I like it.”
Yasmin put her hand on top of Renee’s hand and locked fingers. “You don’t make me miserable. I like your rough edges.”
“Don’t go mushy on me now. This application is due tomorrow and we have to answer all 550 questions. So, let’s move onto question number 240. ‘What’s the meanest thing you have done to a complete stranger?”
Twelve Hours Ago
Yasmin was hopping up and down with excitement on the front lawn of a tremendous county estate. “I can’t believe we were picked. I can’t believe this will all be ours. This is totally unbelievable. I’m going to set up a dance studio in the basement. Oh hell, did you see that basement? I’m going to set up six dance studios. I’m going to invite dancers from all over the world here and have the best dance instructors staying at our house. We’re going to put on a production of “Swan Lake.” We have a lake! And it’s got swans. This is just too amazing.”
“Hold on, Yasmin.” Renee was losing her grip on her overexcited girlfriend. “It’s almost ours. Out of all of the tens of thousands of people who applied, it’s down to just us and one other couple. We don’t have it yet, but I like our chances.”
Yasmin tried to stand still, but the excitement overcame her. She burst out hollering and hugged Renee and as she bounced up and down. “It’s got elevators. It’s a house with four elevators. I’ve never lived in a house like that. It’s got three guest houses and a bowling alley. I don’t even know how to bowl, but I’m going to learn how.”
Renee could take it no more. She threw her arms around Yasmin and the two of them jumped up and down with joy. “There are 27 bedrooms and 3 separate kitchens. More than two hundred acres of open space and a solarium. Have you ever even seen a solarium? This front room is going to be the entrance to my clinic. With all those bedrooms, I can do inpatient treatment. I’m going to hire my own staff—nurses, medical doctors, therapists and an army of social workers. With this estate, I’m going to make a difference in this world.”
Renee and Yasmin’s joy was interrupted by the sound of approaching voices, coming from around the corner of the grand estate.
“…Pergo floors, alderwood siding, marble countertops, and vaulted ceilings,” the first female voice said, faded out and then continued. “…put my office on the third floor overlooking the creek, the show room will be on the first floor where the den is now. I’ll have more high-end clients than I know what to do with.”
“I’ll take in all abandoned animals,” the second female voice said. “Cats, dogs, birds, pot-belly pigs. If it limps or just has a heartbeat, I’ll take it in. I can hire a staff of a dozen. The best part is the rental incomes. The rental incomes of the attached properties must be enormous. We can finally do the work we love and not have to worry about the bills. We’re set for life now.”
The two women rounded the corner and met face-to-face with Renee and Yasmin.
“Oh, hi!” Renee said nervously. She knew it was going to be awkward meeting the other couple, but she was slightly relieved that they were two women instead of a husband and wife.
“Good morning,” the more professional-looking of the two women said and reached out her hand in a sterile, businesslike manner to shake with Renee. Renee as always, shook firmly. “My name is Bethany, but I prefer to be called Beth.” Beth was a generically attractive, bleach bottle blond with a Georgian accent, upright and ever alert, she wore a bright red pant suit with a matching red blazer. Her ears, wrists and lapels were covered with gaudy, gold jewelry and her perfume was too strong to be enjoyable. Her entire visage screamed “sales!” “I sell real estate. This is my partner, Gabrielle.”
Gabrielle held out her hand softly and Renee shook it vigorously, just the same. Gabrielle was a pretty little thing with light brown skin, that made her look Middle Eastern, or South American, when in fact her parents were from the Philippines. She had long dark hair, magnificent brown eyes, sparkling teeth and a short, but very curvaceous figure. She had broken the hearts of countless, young men when she chose Beth as her partner. “Such a pleasure to meet you,” Gabrielle said, although it was an incredible lie. “I’m a veterinarian. I’m hoping to start my own practice soon.”
“I’m Renee. We’re just college students, but we’re in our last semester and looking to pursue our interests. I’m going to be a social worker for a women’s shelter. This is Yasmin.”
Yasmin stepped forward and gently touched the fingertips of Beth and Gabrielle. “I’m Yasmin,” she said softly and hesitantly. “Sorry, it’s been a while since I met any new people. I’m studying Fine Arts. I’m hoping to join a ballet troupe in Seattle or Portland.”
“And if you win the mansion?” Beth asked.
“Then eastern Washington will do just fine. I don’t think they have many ballet troupes out here. Perhaps I can start one.”
Their conversation was interrupted by the sharp, syncopated sound of clapping hands coming from the steps of the front portico entrance. At the top of the steps stood a tall, strong, yet graceful woman dressed slightly out of place in a vintage World War II British Army nurse’s uniform. It had a peaked cap with a red cross, a white cotton skirt that went down to the ankles, white sleeves down to the wrists of her white gloved hands, white leather shoes and a dark navy blue, wool cape that fell to the back of the knees. She was young with long, striking scarlet hair, fiery green eyes and a glistening Mona Lisa grin that never changed. She also, apparently, never talked. The nurse gestured for the four women to enter the mansion.
“This is our moment of truth,” Yasmin said and she grasped Renee around the shoulder.
Ms. Fairington sat at the head of a great round, oak table in her ancient wheelchair with her nurse, Ms. Ainsby standing behind her. She appeared to be in her late fifties or possibly early sixties. She had hardened wrinkles from what one would guess was a hard life. But by the way she held her posture there was a hint that she may have been a magnificent beauty in her younger years. Her hair, which was a multitude of light browns, dark browns, silvers and grays was kept in a tight bun. She wore dark, violet sunglasses indoors that looked like a relic from the Victorian age. Although this might have indicated she was blind, her gestures and actions revealed that she did indeed have some vision. However, her periwinkle-gloved hands stayed put, her arms never moved from the armrests of her wheelchair and her legs never budged, leading one to conclude that she was paralyzed either from the neck or the waist down. A blue-green blanket covered her lap and knees and a brown shawl was draped about her shoulders. Ms. Fairington did all of Ms. Ainsby’s talking and Ms. Ainsby did all of Ms. Fairington’s bidding.
“More tea, anyone?” Ms. Fairington asked.
“None for me,” Yasmin said as she waved off Ms. Ainsby who was preparing to refill her sifter.
“I’ll have some more,” Gabrielle said beckoning Ms. Ainsby.
“Be careful, Honey,” Beth said. “It’s blueberry tea. It’s got liqueur in it.”
“I was wondering why I was feeling tipsy,” Gabrielle said. “No more for me then.”
Ms. Ainsby dutifully returned to her position behind Ms. Fairington.
The Grand Library, being the largest of the mansion’s five libraries, was cavernous. The books in the library lined the far walls up to the ceiling. There were two levels of catwalks above the ground floor and these were reached by spiraling staircases. The oak table was a sturdy piece of construction and could seat six to eight people comfortably but looked positively miniscule in such a wide open room. Ms. Fairington, against the women’s wishes had Gabrielle and Renee on one side of the table while Beth and Yasmin sat opposite them on the other side of the table. The arrangement must have been for a purpose, Renee figured. A black canvas mat covered the entire table, yet it poked out in different places indicating that there were some objects underneath.
“I hope that all of you have had the opportunity to examine every inch of this wonderful mansion,” Ms. Fairington said. “Since the four of you spent many hours this morning roaming the grounds and all of the rooms, I am going to guess that you are as smitten with Paladin Manor, as I am.”
All four women silently nodded their heads in agreement.
“It is with a considerably heavy heart,” Ms. Fairington continued, “that I must part with this outstanding estate for reasons that are quite personal and confidential. I am sure that you understand. However, my loss will be your gain. After what has been a very long and carefully designed selection process, we’ve now come down to you four who represent the best of the best. Following this last portion of the selection process, two of you will get to be the proud owners of this grand estate at no price, with no fees and with all of the transfer taxes prepaid. It is simply my gift to two very deserving young women.”
“Will the losers receive any kind of compensation?” Beth asked.
“I’m afraid not,” Ms. Fairington said. “Out of the tens of thousands of applications we reviewed, only one couple will receive the estate. The other couple will receive nothing but the fine experience of having visited this remarkable place.”
“You had mentioned a rental income,” Renee said. “Can you tell us what that annual rental income is? It’s just that it sounded like the kind of money a person could retire on, or at least use to design their dream career.”
“Young lady, you can rest assured that the attached commercial and residential properties of this estate provide a considerable rental income. Quite a large portion of my net worth is tied to the rental incomes of this estate. But out of fairness to both the winning and losing couples, I will only reveal that amount to the winners once they have been determined.”
“I understand,” Renee said. “We’re just anxious about making future plans.”
Ms. Fairington continued. “Now we come to the most difficult portion of the selection process. You two couples were by far the most eminently qualified of the many couples who applied to receive this gift. The difficulty now is deciding between you. You see, your qualifications so surpassed those of the other couples that I am left with two equally outstanding choices.”
Once again, Yasmin was unable to contain her excitement, as she giggled and shook in her chair. “Sorry,” she said.
Ms. Fairington smiled widely. “Quite alright, young child. I was as thrilled as you are now when I first set my eyes on this manor. But let us get back to the matter at hand. I simply cannot decide on my own which of you should receive the estate. You are both charming and responsible couples. Therefore, I believe the fairest way to proceed is by letting Lady Luck make the decision for me.”
Here Ms. Fairington paused and was met with puzzled looks from her four guests. “Flipping cards or tossing a coin really did not seem appropriate for such a momentous event. I thought something that combined chance with stratagem would be much fairer. I’ll hope you’ll agree. Ms. Ainsby would you remove the canvas cover?”
Ms. Ainsby complied with Ms. Fairington’s wish and carefully removed the black cover revealing a game board with a deck of cards and plastic tokens colored red, yellow, green and blue.
“I’m sure you are familiar with the popular board game of Sorry!”
All of the women nodded their heads in agreement.
“Excellent. That means that all of you are familiar with the rules. I have only a few additional rules of my own to add. If everyone participates, this should turn out to be quite an entertaining afternoon.”
“It’s really a very simple game,” Ms. Fairington said. Ms. Ainsby pushed her wheelchair closer to the table. “I’ve add a just a few rules of my own…to make it more appropriate to our situation here today and really just to make things a bit more interesting. Is everyone on board so far?”
The four women nodded and stated their approval. Renee was careful to disguise her true emotions. She was an expert Sorry! player in grade school. Out of hundreds of matches she had only lost four or five times. She was well versed in Sorry! strategy and knew how to rile her opponents with completely unexpected moves. Deep inside, she considered the estate to be practically theirs.
“My first rule,” Ms. Fairington continued, “is that you must follow all of the instructions on the card. If you do not have a pawn that can be moved the necessary number of squares, you forfeit your turn. We will be playing by team rules. That is you may move your partner’s pawn when it is your turn, and she may move your pawn when it is her turn. Therefore, you will actually have eight pawns in play rather than four. But you still need to get your color pawns from your Start to your Home. Understood?”
“Absolutely,” Renee said. “Can we get started?”
“I haven’t finished,” Ms. Fairington said tersely.
“We play a clean game. If you knock over your opponent’s pawn or your own pawn before returning your hands to your laps, you are disqualified. If you touch a pawn, you must move that pawn. You don’t get a second chance during the same turn. If you violate or fail to fully carry out the instructions on the card, you are disqualified. You must move your pawns with care. Each pawn must land entirely in an appropriate square without touching the borders of that square. And God forbid that you should move a pawn you are not entitled to move. That’s an instant disqualification.”
Renee determined that Ms. Fairington was a very serious character. She was going to have to stay on her toes to make sure she complied with all of these strict rules. It was just a matter of moving her pieces slowly and carefully and thinking long and hard about each move.
“Additionally,” Ms. Fairington said, “your play will be timed. We will use a chess clock to mark time. You have sixty seconds to complete your move, so I suggest no dawdling or over-thinking your strategy. If you do not complete your turn in sixty seconds, you are disqualified. If you are disqualified, your team forfeits the game and the other couple automatically receives the mansion and estate. Am I understood?”
The four women nodded their heads solemnly.
“You may bow out at any time, but if you do, you forfeit you and your partner’s opportunity to receive the gift of this estate. Your opponents will win by default.”
“Bow out?” Beth said astonished. “Why in the world would anyone want to bow out with this incredible mansion on the line?”
“Some people just…” Ms. Fairington paused to choose her words carefully. “Let’s just say some people succumb to the pressure. Not everyone is a born gambler.”
“Don’t worry about us,” Beth said. “We can handle ourselves just fine.”
“Very good,” Ms. Fairington said. “You may have wondered when I first brought you in here, why I arranged your seating the way I did. That was so that you would be facing your appropriate colored pawns. Renee, you will be the red pawns. Beth, you will be the blue pawns. Yasmin, you will be yellow and Gabrielle, you will be green. Beth and Gabrielle will be one team and Renee and Yasmin will be the other team. So much simpler that way.”
“Wait a minute,” Yasmin said. “You assigned us each to our colors.” The other women looked at her curiously. “Yellow for Yasmin, Red for Renee, Blue for Beth and Green for Gabrielle. Was that part of the application process?”
“A merry coincidence,” Ms. Fairington said. “That would have been impossible to plan for. Shall we continue?”
There was consensus that they should continue, although Yasmin remained baffled.
“Renee, I am going to let you go first since I received your application ahead of the others,” Ms. Fairington said. “I believe you should be awarded in some manner for your attentiveness.” Beth and Gabrielle squirmed uneasily in their chairs. “I assure you I will not meddle any further.”
Renee knew that there were only two cards that could be used to start the game: a 1 or a 2. With all pawns at Start, no other cards could start play. She closed her eyes and hoped for one of those two cards.
“Eleven,” Ms. Fairington declared. “You have no move, Renee. Hit the clock button and let Beth proceed with her turn.”
Renee quietly hit the button, resetting the clock. Beth proceeded. She drew a 2. She clapped her hands and carefully moved her piece two squares out of the Start area. She went to hit the clock.
“Beth!” Gabrielle yelled from across the table. “Don’t touch the clock!”
“Why?” a frightened Beth asked.
“Because you have another move. If you don’t make the move we’ll be disqualified. You have to read all of the instructions.”
Beth let out an uneasy sigh. She flipped another card. It was a 12. A great card to get once a pawn was in play.
“Crap!” Renee said. It looked like they weren’t going to walk away with the estate that easily.
“Manners, Renee,” Ms. Fairington said curtly. “This is a clean game and you will watch your mouth. I don’t like hearing any denigration from the players.”
“Please accept my apologies, Ms. Fairington.”
“Just don’t let it happen again. From now on no conversation will be allowed while the clock is ticking. Yasmin, please proceed.”
Yasmin flipped a five.
The game proceeded through three rotations of the card deck. At the end of each rotation, Ms. Ainsby collected the cards and shuffled them with the professionalism of a Las Vegas blackjack dealer. Each time the cards were returned to the center of the board and play continued.
At the end of the third rotation, Renee and Yasmin found themselves horribly behind Beth and Gabrielle. Through the luck of the deck, the Blue and Green team managed to get five pawns out of the Start area and into play. The red and yellow team only had one pawn in play, Yasmin’s. Beth had pulled three Sorry! cards, which allowed her to return Yasmin and Renee’s pawns back to Start whenever they managed to get a pawn into play. Already, Beth had one pawn in the Safety zone, free from the threat of a Sorry! card.
Renee hadn’t had the opportunity to employ any of her previously successful strategies. All of these involved having more than one pawn in play. She was also severely handicapped by not being allowed to converse with Yasmin while the clock was ticking.
“Time to retire the deck,” Ms. Fairington declared after completion of the third rotation.
“Retire the deck?” Gabrielle said. “I don’t understand. We’ve always played this game with just one deck.”
“House rules,” Ms. Fairington insisted. “Casinos retire the decks all of the time. It allows for fairer play. And I do want this to be a fair game.”
Ms. Ainsby removed the deck with the blue backing. She brought out a fresh deck and discarded the plastic wrapping. These cards had an orange backing. She shuffled the cards with quiet, thorough efficiency. When the deck was fully shuffled she placed in the middle of the board and play resumed.
Yasmin drew a 1 on her turn and was giddy to move her pawn out of the Start area. Gabrielle’s 3 card was used to move Beth’s pawn into Home. The first pawn had made it home and now the blue and green team had only seven more pawns to get Home. Renee drew a 2. But as part of her strategy she did not advance her pawn with her second move. Instead she kept it two spaces out of Start, waiting for a backward card. She knew the odds favored her getting this card before she could make it to the Safety zone.
Beth drew a 3. A poor card to draw with several pawns in play and some still in Start. She had no choice but to move her pawn into the blue Slide area—a dangerous position to be in if an opponent landed on it. She went to return the card to the discard pile.
“You did not complete all of the instructions,” Ms. Fairington said.
“It’s a 3,” Beth said. “I moved three spaces. What other instructions are there?”
“Read the rest of the card.”
Beth looked at the card again. “Must move your pawn forward 3 spaces and break a toe of the opponent to your right with the nutcracker.” Beth turned pale. The opponent to her right was Renee. Beth gasped and looked in astonishment at Ms. Fairington, who behind her purple tinted glassed revealed no expression at all.
“You’re insane,” Beth said.
“My mental state bears no relevancy to the outcome of this game,” Ms. Fairington said. “The clock is still ticking. You must complete your move before time is extinguished or you forfeit the game and your opponents receive the mansion.”
Beth turned to Gabrielle. “What do I do?” Gabrielle remembered the rules about conversation and only shrugged. Beth looked at Renee. She was calm and quiet. Beth was expecting her to be more scared. But instead she could see that Renee was taking this game far more seriously than she was. Time was ticking down.
Ms. Ainsby pulled out a large wooden box about the size of a chess board. On the lid of the box were painted the words: “Fingers and Toes.” Ms. Ainsby opened the hinged doors of the box. Inside the box on green velvet was an array of instruments: pliers, crescent wrench, hammer and a stainless steel nutcracker. Ms. Ainsby held the box of instruments up within easy reach for Beth.
“Ten seconds,” Ms. Fairington said.
Beth looked at Renee again. A small barely detectable grin appeared on her face. Was this woman mad? Did she want her toe broken?
Renee watched the panic in Beth’s face. Renee had been beaten and abused repeatedly as a child by her mother and her father. She’d broken more bones than she could remember and spent as much time in plaster casts as out of them. She could tell Beth was going to back down.
Beth looked at Gabrielle. Gabrielle saw the grin too. She turned to Beth and nodded.
Beth reached for the nutcracker, and grabbed hold of Renee’s ankle. She flung off her sandal, exposing her soft, wide foot and meaty toes. Using the nutcracker, she placed it around the big toe of Renee’s right foot and squeezed as hard as she could.
“Crack!” The sound filled the air of the library and sent shudders down the backs of the four women at the table.
“Aaaah!” Renee screamed as her toe turned deep red. She grabbed her foot and began blowing on her poor bent toe.
Beth smacked the clock with one second remaining.
“I am going to allow screaming,” Ms. Fairington said, “as long as it is in reaction to physical pain.”
“Yasmin, it’s your turn. Please draw the next card,” Ms. Fairington said. “Now that we have upped the stakes a bit, things should get a little more interesting.
Yasmin, her hand shaking, nervously flipped the next card. She badly wanted to reach over to Renee to comfort her in her pain, but the clock was ticking and Renee would be furious with her if she let time expire.
The next draw was a 12. It was an excellent card that would vastly improve their position. Her move ended at the beginning of the blue slide. With glee, she bumped Beth’s pawn back to the start position. She was about to discard the card.
“Don’t forget that we are playing with a new deck, Yasmin.”
Yasmin didn’t want to be reminded. She was hoping that Ms. Fairington, Ms. Ainsby and most of all Renee would forget. But she was not going to get off that easy. She read the card aloud, “Break the right thumb of the opponent to your left with the ball peen hammer.” Gabrielle felt faint and started to quiver uncontrollably. Yasmin turned to Renee. Renee held out her fist and then turned it thumb-downwards in the manner of the Roman emperors at ancient gladiatorial fights.
Yasmin wasn’t sure she had it in her. She picked up the silver hammer and it felt extremely heavy in her delicate hand. This was going to be more difficult than she could have imagined. Gabrielle was pale and getting paler by the second.
“Lay your hand flat on the table, Gabrielle,” Ms. Fairington ordered. “If you don’t do it this second, you will forfeit your right to the estate.”
Gabrielle slowly turned to Beth. Beth did not hesitate at all. With her index finger, she pointed to the table and tapped on it. She was not going to let her partner risk losing the estate of her dreams for one silly thumb. Gabrielle placed her hand gingerly on the felt table. Yasmin raised the hammer to eye level and very slowly brought it down merely tapping Gabrielle’s thumb.
“Just measuring,” Yasmin said. “I’d feel horrible if I missed.”
“You would lose the game,” Ms. Fairington said. “You better hurry. You have five seconds.”
Yasmin brought the hammer up and this time brought it down with all of her might. The head of the hammer caught Gabrielle squarely on the knuckle of her thumb.
“Gaaa!” Gabrielle screamed. The cracking sound resonated in the air like a walnut getting crushed. Gabrielle pulled her bruised and broken thumb close to her chest and began to cry. “It hurts! It hurts to hell! Damn you all.”
Ms. Fairington examined the four women. Renee was nursing her broken toe and Gabrielle still holding tight to her broken thumb. “This would be a good time to ask if anyone would like to bow out of the game? It needn’t be a team decision. If there is any one of you who would like to bow out, now would be the time to say so.”
“Hell no!” Renee shouted. “A broken toe is nothing. Count me in for the long haul.”
“You goddamn better not,” Gabrielle demanded of Beth.
Beth and Yasmin stayed silent.
“Good,” Ms. Fairington continued. “I am glad that there aren’t any quitters here. “Gabrielle, you may proceed with play.”
Still clutching both hands to her chest, Gabrielle pleaded. “But my thumb is broken and I’m right handed. How do I flip cards without a thumb?”
“You still have nine healthy fingers,” Ms. Fairington said. “I suggest you use them.”
Gabrielle used her left hand to draw the next card. She moved her hand nervously being naturally right-handed all of her life. She drew a 7—an excellent card. A 7 could be split any number of ways between two pawns as long as those pawns were on the same team. Gabrielle chose to move Beth’s pawn two spaces putting it into the Safety zone and her pawn five spaces placing it safely at Home. She had no problem moving her own pawn, but made a near fatal error moving Beth’s pawn. While reaching across the table with her left hand she almost knocked over two other pieces with the sleeve of her sweater. Her eyes grew wide at this close call, but she finished her move and was about to place her card in the discard pile when Beth kicked her from underneath the table.
“Oh yes, the rest of the instructions. It’s not like I was going to forget.” She looked at Ms. Fairington, but the old woman said nothing. “Let’s see, ‘Break two pinkie toes on either of your opponents with the crescent wrench.’” Gabrielle looked immediately at Renee. Even though her injury came from Yasmin, she knew that Renee was the true instigator. If Yasmin had a different partner, she and Beth would already be sitting in their new home.
Renee looked back at Gabrielle and smiled smugly.
“I choose Yasmin.”
“Uhh!” Yasmin gasped.
“Careful, Yasmin. No talking until the pain has been delivered,” Ms. Fairington said.
Renee grew red with anger. She would happily accept any injury or torture Beth and Gabrielle could dish out, but it was entirely unfair for them to pick on her petite partner.
“She broke my thumb,” Gabrielle said. “It’s only fair that I return her kindness.”
“Feet on the table,” Ms. Fairington said. “You will be disqualified if you do not comply immediately.”
Yasmin quickly removed her shoes and gingerly placed her slender ballerina feet on the oak table. Her toes were quite muscular from practicing countless en pointes and pirouettes.
“Those are some tough looking toes,” Gabrielle thought. “Good thing I’m going for the pinkies.” She moved quickly grabbing the crescent wrench and tightening the wheel mechanism down on Yasmin’s left pinkie toe first. She looked at Yasmin’s face. She clenched her chair, bracing herself for the pain. Gabrielle yanked the toe up and backward.
“Gaaaaah!” Yasmin screamed.
“That was very good,” Ms. Fairington said. “But you better move quickly, your time is running out.”
Gabrielle proceeded to the right toe. She fidgeted with the wrench. It wasn’t helping that Yasmin was breathing heavily and whimpering. The wrench slipped and Gabrielle lost her grip. “She isn’t complying!”
“She’s holding still fine, Gabrielle,” Ms. Fairington said. “Now you only have five seconds.”
Gabrielle placed the wrench back on the toe and spun the tightening mechanism with her left thumb. It was awkward enough using hardware tools instead of surgical instruments, but having a broken thumb made it so much more difficult. She wrenched the toe up and back.
“Aaaii!” Yasmin screamed and cried. She leaned over and grasped her toes with her hands. The throbbing pain was intense. Her eyes began to flutter.
Renee acted quickly. She removed some cubes of ice from the pitcher of drinking water that was sitting nearby and rubbed these against Yasmin’s face. The cold ice kept Yasmin conscious.
“Put these cubes on your toes,” Renee said. It will ease the pain. She wrapped the ice cubes in a cloth napkin and gave them to Renee.
“I can’t have you doing that,” Ms. Fairington said. “We only have so many ice cubes and it’s going to be a long night. You will need to pass those back to me.”
Renee, reluctantly and angrily, gave the ice cubes to Ms. Ainsby, who dispatched them in the garbage can before removing the pitcher of water from the room.
“Don’t forget, it’s your turn, Renee,” Ms Fairington said. “Time is running. Tick, tick, tick…”
With a look of disgust on her face, Renee drew the next card. It was a 4–an incredible draw. Now she could employ her strategy. She took her recently opened pawn and moved it back four spaces. The pawn was now only two spaces away from the Safety zone, and was nearly home without having to circumnavigate the board. She looked at the rest of the instructions on the card. “Use the vice grip to break either ankle of one of your opponents.”
“Vice grip?” Renee looked quizzically at Ms. Fairington.
Ms. Ainsby left the room momentarily and returned with a metal shop cart that had a professionally painted sign on the front that read, “Wrists and Ankles.” Inside the cart were a number of hardware tools including a vice grip mounted to the back end. The vice grip was made of cast iron and had a jagged surface on each plate. It could be slowly tightened around any joint in the body and with enough pressure crush what bones fit in-between the plates.
Renee looked first at Beth whose gold jewelry trembled as she shook in her chair and then at Gabrielle who was caressing her sore thumb and muttering an indistinguishable prayer. “This is going to be fun.”
The game continued for four more hours. More tools and instruments were brought into the library. Beth and Gabrielle built on their dominating lead. They now had five of their eight pawns safely at Home. Rene and Yasmin had two pawns at Home, but they had all of their pawns out of Start. Gabrielle still had two green pawns stuck at Start, while Beth had one blue pawn there. Renee knew her team was behind in getting to Home, but that they were perfectly positioned to take advantage of some of Beth and Gabrielle’s miscues.
The damage continued to mount. Injuries accumulated and tempers flared. Ms. Fairington called a number of rest breaks while Ms. Ainsby monitored the women’s injuries to see if any needed more serious medical attention. But none were life-threatening. Gabrielle had six broken toes, seven broken fingers, a broken wrist and two broken ankles. Beth had five broken toes, eight broken fingers, two broken wrists and a crushed knee. Yasmin had nine broken toes, three broken fingers, a broken arm and a broken leg.
Renee had nothing but broken toes, nothing but broken fingers, a broken arm and two broken ankles. She had to use her teeth to move her pawns and Ms. Fairington was kind enough to let Yasmin flip her cards. She never cried and she never winced. Her steely nerves were getting under Beth and Gabrielle’s skin.
The women were given pillows and footstools to rest their damaged and swollen limbs and appendages. To the consternation of the other three, Renee refused Ms. Fairington’s generous assistance on this matter.
When Ms. Fairington was returned to the library following the last break, Ms. Ainsby had brought with her a new card deck. The backing on this deck was dark red.
“I believe it is time to refresh the deck,” Ms. Fairington said. “I believe you will find this deck a little more challenging than the previous decks. And I suppose it would only be fair at this time to ask if there is anyone here who feels like bowing out at this moment.”
Here question was met with stone silence.
“Just checking,” she continued. “It looks as though everyone is committed to winning this remarkable estate. What a pleasure it is to do business with such dedicated individuals. Renee, I believe it is your turn.”
Renee smiled a mischievous smile and winked at Yasmin, who flipped the first card on the deck for her. It was an 11. With that card she could move one of her red pawns safely home. However, she chose to switch one of Yasmin’s pawns with one of Beth’s pawns, sending the blue pawn halfway back across the board and placing her in a dangerous position on the blue slide area. Yasmin’s yellow pawn on the other hand was nearly home. Beth and Gabrielle realized they were up against a pro and their slim lead was getting whittled down bit by bit.
Renee giggled and rubbed her hands. Her fingers looked like crabgrass, each digit sprouting in a different grotesque direction. She read the rest of the instructions on the card. “Chop your partner’s right foot off with the sportsmen’s ax.” She looked at Ms. Fairington in stunned disbelief. “This can’t be right?”
“No, you read it correctly, Renee. You must chop off Yasmin’s foot if you wish to continue playing.”
“But, this makes no sense. She’s my partner. We’re on the same team. How am I supposed to….” Renee’s voice trailed off.
Ms. Ainsby casually walked over to a large wooden secretariat sitting against the opposite wall of the library. She brushed off the dust with her white gloved hand to reveal the words, “Arms and Legs,” painted on its front. She opened its two large cabinet doors to reveal an array of axes and other sharp instruments. From these, she picked up the second smallest of the five axes and placed it in front of Renee.
“What kind of madness is this?”
Ms. Ainsby removed a roll of grey duct tape from the secretariat. She examined Renee’s ten broken fingers and decided there was only one thing that could be done. She had to tape the ax in-between Renee’s hands.
Beth and Gabrielle watched transfixed as the macabre scene unfolded. They understood they were playing with a new deck. They understood that each deck took the severity of the requisite injuries to a new level. They knew that their turns were coming up fast and both were wondering one thing: could I amputate the woman I love? Both thought about their broken bones and the utter humility they had suffered at the hands of Ms. Fairington. Both wondered if any house was actually worth all this bloodshed. Both came to the same conclusion: I refuse to be intimidated by that stinking bitch Renee.
Renee held the sportsmen’s ax above her head, duct taped between her hands. “Yasmin, I want you to know that whatever happens this evening that I love you. I love you more than you could possibly imagine. And I want you to know that whatever you need to do to me or whatever I need to do to you tonight, nothing will change the love we have between us.”
“Five seconds, four seconds, three seconds, two….”
“No! You can’t!” Yasmin screamed. “We must….”
Swoosh! There was a quick horrible chopping sound, the kind never heard outside of a butcher’s shop. Everyone in the room heard the blade cut through the bone and saw the foot sever from the ankle. Blood splattered against the white library walls and across Renee’s face. Beth, herself speckled with Yasmin’s blood, vomited and her partner followed suit. Yasmin’s face was contorted in a lurid visage of painful screaming, but no sounds were coming out of her mouth. Ms. Ainsby quickly retrieved her black medical bag and worked meticulously at cauterizing Yasmin’s open wound with a small blowtorch. Renee dropped to her knees, the tears cascading from her eyes acted to wash the blood away from her face.
“Would someone mind grabbing some towels and helping out Ms. Ainsby?” Ms. Fairington said. “Such a mess to clean up and we still have a game to finish.”
Yasmin passed out at the end of her silent scream. Ms. Ainsby retrieved some smelling salts from her bag and brought her back to consciousness. She awoke in a fright, still mute and scratching at the Maplewood floor with her broken, useless fingers.
“Beth, I believe it is your turn,” Ms. Fairington said calmly. “Ms. Ainsby, when you have a moment will you start the game clock?”
Ms. Ainsby was cradling Yasmin’s head and treating her for shock. But she obediently stopped what she was doing and walked over to the game clock and hit its start button. She then returned to treating Yasmin as though nothing had interrupted her attention.
Beth did not move. She sat in her chair, shaking violently.
“It’s your turn, Beth.” Ms. Fairington said. “If you do not move soon, you will forfeit the game and the other couple will receive the estate.”
Beth’s hand seemed to reach across the table as though it had a will of its own. And with the only two good fingers she had left, the ring and index finger, she flipped the next card.
“A Sorry! card,” Ms. Fairington declared. “How delightful! You almost seem to have a corner on the market for those cards. Let’s see what fortune it brings.”
The lethargy of continuously shattered nerves overcame the four game players late that evening. Ms. Fairington decided to call for a prolonged break. Yasmin hobbled to the bathroom while Gabrielle and Beth, attempted to take a fitful catnap in spite of their constant throbbing pain. Renee, running short of working limbs, crawled out of the library and made her way down the corridor to the banister. She placed one leg out in front of her between the wooden colonnades of the banister and examined her five broken toes and cracked ankle. She struggled with the functioning parts of her two hands to push the bandaged stump of her other leg through the banister. Dangling her legs through the banister was something she used to do as a child living in her foster home and it always made her feel better. Even if this time she had less of her feet to look at.
She was approached by Ms. Fairington who was being pushed gently as always by Ms. Ainsby. Renee saw her out of the corner of her eye, but kept looking at her foot hoping the old woman would just roll past.
“You’ve made a remarkable comeback, young lady,” Ms. Fairington said. She asked Ms. Ainsby to place her wheelchair beside Renee. “I’ve watched many matches, but I’ve yet to see anyone with quite your talent.”
“Go away you horrible witch. We have nothing to talk about.”
“Ah, so proud and so feisty. If it didn’t come with so much foolishness, I would miss my youth. You know that you are going to win, don’t you?”
“No thanks to you. I’ve been watching Ms. Ainsby shuffle the cards. The game’s been fixed, hasn’t it?”
Ms. Fairington let her jaw drop ever so slightly. “Fixed? You must take me for a scoundrel. That’s no mild accusation you make, young lady. With stakes such as these that’s nothing to take lightly. You can rest assured I run a clean game, and that includes the integrity of the cards.”
“I’ve never seen one player or team draw so many Sorry! cards. If I wasn’t as good a player as I am, Yasmin and I would be crawling back to our dump of an apartment by now. What is it about me that you hate so much?”
“My, my. Are you always the center of the universe? You give no thought toward my feelings in regards to your opponents?”
“No, I don’t. I have a propensity for rubbing people the wrong way. You know that Beth and Gabrielle are still in this wicked game mostly out of spite towards me. Take me out of this game and it’s over long before the first toe or finger is broken.”
“There’s no doubt that you are a born trouble-maker, Renee. It takes far less than 550 questions to determine that. How many different foster parents did you have? Was it six or seven?”
Renee huffed and turned her head away from Ms. Fairington.
“Things seem a bit tense,” Ms. Fairington said. “Perhaps some music would lighten the atmosphere. Ms. Ainsby, would you be so kind as to play that lovely Left Banke song that I admire so much? The one with all of those beautiful stringed instruments.”
Ms. Ainsby, as always complied with her employer’s every wish. Soon violins and harpsichords were filling the dank air of the dimly lit mansion.
“I’ve had the entire place wired for sound. It lifts the spirits on those dark, dreary winter days.”
“Sorry, I missed that,” Renee said. “My mind is a million miles away right now.”
The vocals to the song began.
(And when I see the sign that…)
“You’re thinking about Yasmin, aren’t you? You’re worried that she might not forgive you.”
(…points one way.)
“We’re talking permanent damage, both physical and mental.”
(The light we used to pass by…)
“But you have your dreams. Your women’s shelter. Her ballet studio. You can’t let that go.”
“You mock me old woman. Whoever heard of a one-legged ballerina?”
(Just walk away Renee.)
“Greater obstacles have been overcome.”
(You won’t see me follow you back home.)
“And what of me? How do I protect women from abusive partners looking like this?”
(The empty sidewalks on my block…)
“Very true, young lady. You shoulder quite the burden for the both of you.”
(…they’re not the same.)
“But I am telling you, all this pain only makes me more committed to winning.”
(You’re not to blame.)
“You’re anything but a quitter, aren’t you? Your application answers reveal that you never give in.”
“My application answers? Wait, this is about me isn’t it?”
“Here we go again with the hubris.”
“No, wait a minute. I’m the key to this whole game. I’m not just keeping Yasmin in it, I’m keeping Beth and Gabrielle in as well.”
“Beth and Gabrielle are as committed to winning this estate as you are. They were carefully screened just as you and Yasmin were.”
“Yes, and you did the screening. You found the four appropriate personality types that would bring this game to your desired conclusion. Which is what? Mass suicide? Multiple homicide?”
“How dare you! For what purpose would I do such a thing? What would be gained?”
“You enjoy being the pawn master. Why look at what you’ve accomplished.”
“You and the other girls have free will, Renee. You’ve had every opportunity to opt out. You’ve controlled your destiny at every step of the way.”
“You’re right Ms. Fairington. I have the control. I know how to hurt you.”
(Just walk away Renee. I won’t follow you, no.)
“Hurt me? Have you completely lost your mind? Look at you. You are nothing but broken and missing parts. How are you going to hurt me? ”
(Just walk away.)
“By taking away the one thing that has given you satisfaction from this game.” Renee pulled herself abruptly out of the banister and crawled back to the table in the library. “Ladies, we’ve got a game to finish and there’s going to be a slight modification of the rules.”
Beth’s eyes flittered nervously in coal-black pits. Gabrielle, softly cried into her shattered and severed body, reminiscing of the time, only hours ago, when she was whole and beautiful. Yasmin stretched the bandaged stump of her leg out in front of her, practicing a petit fouetté move in the air that she could no longer perform on the ground.
Renee, confident and using only her elbows and her knees, gathered herself back into her chair. She could see she was the only person in the room not dwelling in remorse, and was determined to change things. “We’ve been going about this all wrong.”
“You mean we could have avoided all of these horrible fractures and amputations?” Gabrielle whined.
“I mean, we don’t owe Ms. Fairington the satisfaction of seeing us tear each other apart. All of us have come too far to quit, but at least let’s minimize our damages.”
“She’s talking gibberish,” Ms. Fairington said. She had quickly followed Renee back to the library. “Don’t listen to her. It’s just a ploy.”
“I want to hear what she has to say,” Beth held up a hand full of broken fingers to admonish Ms. Fairington for her interruption. “I’m listening, Renee.”
“We cooperate,” Renee continued. “We stop competing against each other and we start playing for the benefit of the group. Yasmin and I will minimize the damage we do to your team, and you agree to minimize the damage you do to our team.”
“Dishonest!” Ms. Fairington shouted.
Gabrielle wiped her tears and leaned in toward Renee. “But if we do that, how do we decide who wins?”
“That doesn’t change,” Renee said. “It’s still whichever team gets all of their pawns into Home first. What changes is, we stop competing against each other. We stop hating each other and whoever wins shares the mansion with the losers. You’ve got my guarantee that if we win, we’ll share this house and half the rental incomes with you both. I’m sure none of us will feel overly crowded splitting up a 16,000 square foot mansion with one other couple.”
“Disreputable!” Ms. Fairington shouted. “I cannot abide this act of grievous treachery!”
“You’d do that?” Beth asked Renee.
“You have my word. If we win, we’ll split the house with you.” Renee turned to Yasmin. She was so excited with her new strategy that she had forgotten to consult with her partner. She cupped the palm of her broken hand under Yasmin’s chin. Her melancholy lover was still contemplating how to salvage her dancing career. “You’re okay with that, aren’t you, Darling?” Yasmin softly shook her delicate head.
“You cannot carry out what you propose, Renee,” Ms. Fairington said grinding her teeth ever so slightly. “That simply will not be allowed.”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Renee said mocking the old woman’s disgust. “You don’t have a rule to stop that, do you?”
“You forget who owns this place, young lady. I will end this game right now and keep the estate.”
“Do that,” Renee said grinning devilishly, “and we will go to the police. It will be the word of four resentful young women with missing limbs and broken body parts against you and your dumb servant.”
Ms. Fairington seethed silently in her wheelchair. Ms. Ainsby reached over quietly and placed a comforting hand upon her shoulder.
“You’ve got a deal, Renee,” Beth said. “We will accept whatever cards come and whatever tortures come along with them. But, if we work together, we’ll bring this game to a quicker ending.”
The women shook hands and limbs as best as possible and the demented game continued. A leg, an arm, a finger and a toe were lost along the way, but soon both teams were in position to win. Tense moments followed as each woman waited for the right card that would lead to victory. When a card was flipped for an impossible move, play simply passed without further bloodshed.
Beth pulled a 3. It was the exact number of spaces she needed to move to get her team’s final pawn safely home. Without enough undamaged fingers to move her pawns, she carefully maneuvered her piece by clutching it between her teeth. One square at a time, she methodically moved her pawn into the Home space. She delicately placed it down on the circle being careful not to disturb the other pieces. As she finished her move, she looked at Renee, who was beaming and laughing with delight. They won! All four of them had won. They had showed the deranged old lady who was the wiser. The four of them would own the gorgeous estate and all the sins of the day would be wiped away.
“We win,” Beth said and she fell back in her chair and joined Renee in hearty laughter.
“You did not,” Ms. Fairington said slowly and tersely, “complete your turn. You know the rules. You must follow all of the instructions on the card.”
Beth was still holding the card in-between the base of her broken thumb and her chest. She peeked at the rest of the instructions on the card. “Using the large double-headed, battleaxe, completely sever the remaining leg of the opponent to your right.” Beth looked nervously at Renee, the opponent to her right. Renee was still laughing and smiling. Beth gulped down some air and allowed a bead of sweat to roll down the side of her face.
“Time is ticking, Beth,” Ms. Fairington said. “You know the rules. You must complete all of the instructions for your turn to end validly.”
Renee stopped laughing and smiling. “Go ahead, Beth,” she said assuredly. “This is what we agreed to.” Renee propped her right leg up on another chair and leaned forward. She rolled up the leg of her pants exposing her blue and purple wrenched ankle and the white of her limb up to the top of her thigh. “It’s already damaged. You might as well finish the job.”
Beth waived off Ms. Ainsby’s assistance and grasped the battleaxe between her palms. She raised the instrument slowly up in the air and hesitated, waiting for a response from Renee. “I don’t have to do this. We can cut our losses.”
“Five…four…three…,” Ms. Fairington counted down the seconds.
“You must,” Renee said. “We have a deal. Don’t give that witch any reason to disqualify you. Just go ahead and do the job. We’re partners now.”
Beth tightened the grip between her palms and mentally pictured exactly where she would need to bring the ax down to completely sever Renee’s leg.
“One other thing,” Renee said to Beth.
“Blow it,” she whispered.
The battleaxe swooshed down and sliced a gash into Renee’s leg. Blood splattered on the floor and all over Ms. Fairington’s face and purple glasses. The ax blade landed on the wooden floor and stayed stuck there.
“You missed,” Ms. Fairington said without the slightest hint of emotion. “That’s nothing more than a nick.”
“We have a…” Beth’s voice was cut off by Renee’s hearty laughter, which grew in intensity.
“I’m afraid the Blue and Green team is disqualified. You did not complete all of the instructions on your card. I declare the Red and Yellow team the winners and the owners of this proud estate.”
“We did it!” Renee shouted to Yasmin.
“B-but…” Now it was Gabrielle’s turn to be shocked, as she realized that Renee had reneged on her promise. “You said….”
“I congratulate you, Yasmin and Renee,” Ms. Fairington continued. “It was a game well-played and your strategy served you well. Paladin Manor is yours to keep. I shall draw up the contract that transfers ownership.”
Beth turned a ghostly shade of white and struggled for breath. Gabrielle collapsed into her side, crying and whaling about her lost beauty. Yasmin sat motionless and befuddled watching her partner belly-laugh and punch the air with broken fingers in excitement.
“You tricked us,” Gabrielle stammered in-between tears and sobs.
“Yes, I did,” Renee said, sitting upright and proudly in her chair. “I tricked you. We won. And we won’t be sharing the house with you.” Renee placed her chin on her chest, reached into her coat pocket and pulled out a cigar between her teeth. “Ms. Ainsby, would you be so kind as to light me?”
Ms. Ainsby retrieved a silver Zippo, butane lighter from the pocket of her nurse’s uniform, flipped it open with one hand and lit Renee’s cigar. Her Mona Lisa grin widened into a harmonious, tooth-bearing smile.
Renee breathed the cigar in fully, held it in her lungs and slowly exhaled a cloud of smoke that covered the table and all the tortured and broken women sitting there. “Victory certainly eases a lot of pain.”
Yasmin sat slumped over in her hospital bed and looked out the window. It was snowing outside and had been snowing for several days. She looked out the window all of the day and most of the night when it was so dark there was little if anything at all to see. Her left leg was in a long, plaster cast that stretched from her thigh down to her foot and up and over her toes. Her broken limb hung passively inside a canvas sling that was attached by a pulley and chord to a post jutting out of the bed frame. Her right leg was reduced to a stump that was heavily bandaged around the kneecap. The stump rested on a pillow and like her broken left leg rarely moved. Her right arm was in a long, pink fiberglass cast that started from just below the shoulder and went down to the knuckles, except at the pinkie and ring finger which were covered in pink fiberglass bandages. Her left arm ended in a stump right at the elbow and was swathed in many layers of bandages and gauze, and hung motionless from her side. Yasmin never spoke, even when spoken to. The nurses fed her, bathed her and assisted her in all other necessary activities. Every other day she was visited by a therapist who would talk to her at length, but Yasmin would never respond or acknowledge the therapists presence.
Her girlfriend, Renee, lay in a bed just a few feet away, but closer to the door of the hospital room. Renee kept busy with her laptop, Blackberry, DVD player, MP3 player and an assortment of books and pop-psych magazines that the hospital staff continuously kept up to date for her. Renee’s lower left leg ended in a stump in the middle of the calf—the bandages were removed long ago and the skin graft was healing quickly. Her lower right leg was placed in a blue, fiberglass cast that ran from just below the knee to down and around all of her toes. A large gauze bandage was wrapped around the gash that Beth’s errant swing had placed in her thigh. The casted leg was propped up on several pillows and the cast and bandage were due to be taken off in a matter of days. Her left arm was in a long, plaster cast that started from the top of her arm and descended to cover all of her fingers and thumbs, so that her hand took on the appearance of a plaster oven mitt. Her right arm was completely severed. Numerous bandages were wrapped around what remained of her shoulder and collarbone. Renee kept up constant conversation with all of the hospital staff and spent many of her idle hours drawing sketches of the manor and its many rooms and drafting notes regarding the planned opening of her women’s shelter.
About two weeks into Yasmin and Renee’s recovery, they were visited by Ms. Fairington, who as always, was pushed in her wheelchair by her faithful servant, Ms. Ainsby. Ms. Fairington took up a place beside Renee’s bed as the young woman was reading an architectural journal.
“Already making future plans, I see,” Ms. Fairington said dryly.
“Big changes are in store,” Renee said, putting down the journal. With her casted arm she grabbed the aluminum trapeze bar that dangled from her bed frame and turned to face Ms. Fairington as best as possible. “The mansion is far too dank and dark. I’m putting in more windows to open it up to the light and make my clients feel safe and welcomed.”
“You’ll be free to do what you want now,” Ms. Fairington said. “I’ve had all of the papers drawn up. The estate is yours and all of the fees and transfer taxes have been paid.”
“And the rental incomes,” Renee said, not missing a beat.
“I’ve signed them all over to you. The estate is yours. Lock, stock…” Ms. Fairington paused to choke back the emotion, “…and barrel.”
“Now that it’s mine and you have the strict confidence of everyone in the room, will you finally tell me how much those rental incomes are worth?”
Ms. Fairington looked over to spot Yasmin lying passively in her bed, watching the snow fall outside the window. “’Now that it’s yours?’ The arrangements were that the mansion would go to the winning couple. Tell me, what has become of your better half?”
“Oh, yes, my poor Yasmin. I’m afraid she’s been afflicted with a severe case of P.T.S.D. A very severe case, really. She’s pretty much catatonic. She hasn’t handled the loss of her limbs so well. But she’s getting excellent therapy and we hope that there’ll be a response to external stimuli sometime soon.”
Ms. Fairington lowered her voice. “But isn’t she the love of your life?”
“There’ll be a place for her in the mansion. I’ll set up a room and get her the best of care. But given the degree of damage to her psyche…” Renee paused momentarily. “We have no reason to whisper. Her condition is so degraded she doesn’t hear a word that is spoken. I believe Ms. Fairington, that I will simply have to move on. I’m still a young woman, and I can’t let a few encumbrances (here Renee lifted the stump of her leg and her broken arm) get in the way of having a happy, fulfilling life. Personally, I am putting the memory of our little competition far behind me. Now, if you don’t mind, I would like to know about those rental incomes.”
“You’re certainly full of pluck, Renee, if nothing else,” Ms. Fairington said. “But of course, I am on your time now and you seem to be a busy woman in spite of your present circumstances. You will be pleased to know that last year the incomes on the estate earned more than $800,000. And last year is what you would call a bad year.”
Renee let out a holler of joy that startled both Ms. Fairington and Ms. Ainsby. One of the pillows her broken leg was propped up on, fell to the floor. Ms. Ainsby dusted it off and dutifully returned it to underneath Renee’s leg.
“I knew it!” Renee said. “I knew the rental properties would bring in a fortune. This means I can hire more staff for the shelter. This is fantastic news, Ms. Fairington.”
“I’m pleased that you are so cheered by it, young lady.”
Renee turned to Ms. Fairington with a more serious look. “I just don’t get it. Why in the world would you give that all away? Between the value of the estate and the rental incomes, we’re talking a considerable fortune.”
“Ms. Ainsby,” Ms. Fairington said, “would you mind pushing my chair just a little closer to dear Renee? I feel it’s important that she completely understand this.”
Ms. Ainsby complied with her employer’s wish and soon the young and the older woman’s faces were just inches apart. Renee felt a chill run down her spine as she stared into the lenses of Ms. Fairington’s glasses and saw nothing but a purple reflection of herself.
“You foolish young lady,” she said loudly and curtly. “You never asked me about the maintenance. You never asked me about the upkeep and replacement of all the many things that break down and get old in a grand estate. You never brought up the costs of the property taxes, the gas and electricity, the sewage, and garbage, the grounds keeping and cleaning. Not to mention the current condition of the roof with its numerous unrepaired holes and the long-neglected dry rot.”
“The what?” Renee was mortified. The color had drained from her face.
“The costs! You stupid, stupid young girl. Every house has its costs. The rental properties have their costs. All of this upkeep and maintenance is going to cost you twice what the rental incomes will bring in.”
“That can’t be. You can’t hide that information from a buyer.”
“Of course not, you imbecile. That’s why it was a gift. That’s why I gave it to you no strings attached. I’ve been losing money on Paladin Manor ever since I first came into possession of it. That day was more than 35 years ago and I wasn’t much older than you are now. Ever since that wretched day, I’ve been trying to find any way imaginable to save up the money in order to repair and replace everything that needed fixing, just so I could give it away for nothing.”
“But, your wealth? You come from a wealthy family. I mean look at you. You’re eccentric.”
“Yes, look at me, Renee.”
Ms. Ainsby lifted Ms. Fairington’s skirt to reveal two wooden prosthetic legs. She pulled back her sleeves to reveal two wooden prosthetic arms with wooden hands inside of her periwinkle gloves. She removed her purple sunglasses to reveal two badly damaged eyes.
“You’re blind,” Renee said.
“Nearly. The hot poker didn’t completely destroy the vision in my right eye.”
“You’re not rich?”
“Someday, I may just crawl out from under this mountain of debt.”
“You didn’t inherit the estate?”
“No, and good luck finding a buyer. It took me thirty-five years to get to the point where I could give it away and be done with it.”
“How…I just can’t understand this…How did you acquire it if you didn’t inherit the property?”
Ms. Fairington looked over at Yasmin. She was staring blankly off into the distance, looking at nothing in particular, as dried spittle collected in the corners of her mouth. Poor girl was permanently damaged.
“Through trickery and by winning a simple board game.”
The trapeze bar slipped from Renee’s casted arm and she collapsed backward in her bed. Her mind couldn’t process her new reality. She had broken her bones and sacrificed her limbs. She had lost her true love to madness. She had destroyed two perfectly innocent young women and now she was the misfortunate owner of an estate that cost twice as much to maintain as the revenue it generated.
“Ms. Ainsby,” said Ms. Fairington, “why don’t you leave Renee’s papers on her bed stand? She’ll have plenty of time to look over them.” Ms. Ainsby complied. She replaced the purple glasses, turned Ms. Fairington’s wheelchair around and pushed it toward the door. But then she stopped and walked back to Renee’s bed. She leaned over her and gently placed a caressing hand on Renee’s bandaged shoulder.
“It was a pleasure knowing you,” Ms. Ainsby said in a kind, genteel British accent.
“You talk,” Renee muttered.
“I like your style.” She pulled a business card out of the front pocket of her nurse’s uniform and placed it on Renee’s lap. “Should you ever need assistance, like the kind I provide for Ms. Fairington, you have my number, just give me a call.” She returned to Ms. Fairington’s wheelchair and proceeded to leave the room.
“Wait!” Renee cried out.
Ms. Fairington turned her head back to see her.
“Just tell me where you keep those wonderful decks of Sorry! cards.”