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The Big Steep
by Sandra Balzo
Book Excerpt:

One

‘That’s absolutely genius,’ I told the man sitting across the table from me in my Brookhills, Wisconsin coffeehouse, Uncommon Grounds. ‘I’m just jealous I didn’t think of it.’

Philip Woodward’s freckled face flushed under his reddish hair. ‘You’re being too kind.’

Vivian Woodward held up one hand. ‘Please don’t encourage him.’

‘Really? You don’t think a tea shop named The Big Steep is brilliant?’ Since she and her husband had moved here from Boston a month ago to open the enterprise in question, I kind of assumed Vivian was onboard with the idea. Then again, their shop hadn't opened yet, so there was still time to pull out.

‘Oh, I know it’s clever,’ Vivian said now, patting a strand of blonde hair into place. ‘Assuming people get the reference. The last thing I want to do is spend my day explaining the shop’s name. Not everybody is an old movie nerd.’

Old movies and books, thank you very much. In this case, The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler. A classic by anybody’s measure, I would have thought. But . . .

‘Unfortunately, two of the nerds are sitting right here,’ my business partner Sarah Kingston said to Vivian, setting two lattes on the table. ‘More the pity for you and me.’

I slid one of the lattes in front of each of our new neighbors while Sarah went back to start on our drinks. ‘When do you plan on opening the shop?’

Philip Woodward took an appreciative sip of his latte and sat back. He was very much the marketer of the duo. Outgoing, energetic, positive. His wife . . . well, I was not quite sure what Vivian was at this point of our acquaintance.

‘God knows,’ she said now, taking her own sip and wrinkling her nose before putting the latte mug down. 'Turning my grandparents' decrepit cottage into a tea shop is challenge enough. But every time we turn around, the city or county has another paper for somebody to sign or hoop for us to jump through.'

Like Vivian, Sarah had inherited the building where we now sat--the historic Brookhills Junction train depot. No longer a long-haul train stop, the depot served the commuter trains that ran in and out of the city of Milwaukee, fifteen miles to our east.

And, since Uncommon Grounds now occupied a space in the building that already had been outfitted and permitted as a restaurant for travelers, our renovations were fairly minor. Things like retro-fitting the station's ticket windows into service counters and refurbishing the depot's clocks that had marked the time over the decades.

The Woodwards, on the other hand, were starting from scratch. Not even up to scratch, really, given the neglect of the property over the years.

Still, Philip seemed embarrassed that his wife was being such a Debbie-downer. "It's just paperwork really. And the physical renovation will go faster now that Eric is helping us clear the property.’ He turned to me. ‘Thank you for suggesting him, Maggy.’

‘Thank you for giving him gainful employment over spring break.’ My son Eric went to the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, a five-hour drive west of Brookhills. I was grateful to have him home, but also happy he had something to do away from the living-room couch for a few hours a day. And he was earning money, which pleased both of us.

‘Well, we had to hire somebody to do the grunt work,’ Vivian said.

Philip glanced at me uneasily. ‘That’s unkind, Vivian.’

‘Oh, you know what I mean,’ she said a little impatiently and turned to me. ‘. The yard is even more of a wreck, and I certainly wasn’t going to touch it or the garbage dump you euphemistically call a compost pile.’

Well, that made it ever so much better. ‘There’s nothing dangerous or toxic, is there?’

‘How ever would I know?’ Vivian asked, shrugging. ‘My maternal side of the family is . . . well, let’s say it’s a bit of a mystery to me.’

‘Vivian’s mother doesn’t like to talk about the past,’ Philip explained. ‘What little we do know about her parents is that they were hippies back in the day, living off the land here. I'm sure the only thing in Vivian's garbage dump is just harmless waste returning to the earth.’

‘Accompanied by the occasional hookah pipe,’ Vivian muttered.

Reassuring. I just hoped the old folks weren't into other drugs and their paraphernalia.

‘The expression “hookah pipe” is actually redundant,’ Philip was saying mildly, raising his eyebrows in a professorial manner. ‘It’s common usage, of course, but I believe a “hookah” is, by definition, a water pipe.’

‘Whatever you say,’ Vivian said, discounting him with a wave of her hand. ‘But they were all probably high as kites.’

This last was said a little bitterly and Philip glanced uncertainly at his wife. ‘Yes, well, I guess we’ll never know. But from what Eric tells me, the compost heap has turned up some interesting things, steeping away for virtually decades.’

‘Tea steeps,’ Vivian corrected her husband in retaliation, and her nose wrinkled again. Or maybe she was stuck that way.

‘As does compost,’ Philip said. ‘According to Eric, once the organic material breaks down into the finished compost soil, you can steep it in water for a few days and use the resultant nutrient-filled liquid as a natural fertilizer. They even call it “tea”. Isn’t that perfect?’

‘Include it in your menu,’ Sarah suggested, popping her head out of the service window to place another latte on the counter. Being post-lunch and pre- afternoon commuter traffic, the shop was quiet. Sarah, too, though that usually meant she was listening intently, waiting for her chance to kibbitz. ‘Black, green, oolong and too-long.’

Philip laughed and slapped the table, sending the Woodward’s own lattes jiggling. ‘Too-long. I like that, Sarah.’

‘Funny.’ Vivian’s face said just the opposite.

‘Not to worry, my dear,’ Philip assured her. ‘I won’t include compost tea in our promotional materials. I just think it’s a fun parallel, don’t you? And maybe someday we’ll go all green – as in environment, not tea – and it will be a selling point.’

Vivian said nothing, but her body language screamed ‘over my dead body’.

The tension between the two spouses was palpable.

‘I had no idea Eric knew anything about composting,’ I said. ‘We don’t compost at home or here, though we do recycle, of course.’

‘Good thing, since it’s been the law in Wisconsin for thirty years,’ Sarah said, coming around to pick up the two lattes now at the window.

Had it really? ‘That’s longer than Eric has been alive.’

‘By nearly a decade.’ Sarah set one latte in front of me and sat down with the other. ‘And now he’s been elbow deep in the compost heap for two days. He’s probably learned through osmosis.’

Philip chuckled. ‘Osmosis, another good one. But it is amazing we’ve been recycling for that long. Kids like Eric just take it for granted, and I guess composting would be the next logical step for dealing with organic waste.’

‘Don’t get too interested,’ his wife warned him. ‘That heap has to go.’

‘In that location, certainly,’ Philip said. ‘The outdoor seating will be at the back of the cottage, facing the creek, and we certainly don’t want to obstruct the sight line.’

The Woodward’s property was sandwiched between Poplar Creek itself, to the rear, and Poplar Creek Road to the front. Brookhill Road, the main east/west drag into downtown Milwaukee, formed the lot's northern boundary. The location was, in a word, perfect.

‘That old shed must be torn down, as well.’ There went that nose again.

‘That’ll be a little trickier,’ Philip warned. ‘It’s built on a concrete slab, so we’ll have to either break up the foundation or cover it with some sort of de—’

‘I’m sure you’ll figure something out,’ Vivian said, tapping manicured fingernails on the table. ‘Then there’s what to be done about the parking lot, if you want to call it that.’

‘You mean the driveway from Poplar Creek Road?’ I asked. Viewed from the front, the lot was largely overgrown weeds with a gravel drive to the right of the house paralleling Brookhill Road.

‘The driveway widens out when it stops short of the creek,’ Sarah said knowledgeably. ‘I’d call it a gravel parking apron, if I were listing it.’

I looked at her, surprised. ‘You’ve investigated?’

‘It’s a property in Brookhills. I keep up.’ Sarah had owned the eponymous Kingston Realty before giving it up to turn her full attention, such as it were, to Uncommon Grounds.

‘We can tidy up the apron,’ Philip said with a nod of approval to Sarah. ‘Put down new gravel or asphalt and parking blocks so we don’t lose people and cars in the drink.’

He cocked his head, thinking, and then shook himself. ‘And as for composting, there’s no reason we couldn’t continue the family’s ecological tradition, Vivian, and compost somewhere else, away from the creek. There’s plenty of space.’

‘How much land do you have there?’ We were just two blocks away but being situated in an historic train station, we were pretty much stuck with no green space. We did boast an expansive wraparound porch and plenty of parking though.

‘Almost an acre,’ Vivian said.

‘A buildable acre backing up to the creek is a rare thing,’ Sarah said. ‘Sure you don’t want to sell it and eliminate all this bother?’

‘You’d like that, wouldn’t you?’ Philip said, with a grin. ‘Assuming we let you list the property, of course.’

‘Sarah isn’t practicing real estate any longer,’ I pointed out. ‘So she wouldn’t—’

‘Yes, she would,’ Sarah said, leaning forward to override whatever it was I was going to say. ‘I still have my license and, if you’re interested, I could give you a nice break on commission. I don’t have overhead.’

‘Believe me, I’d love that,’ Vivian said, picking up her latte and setting it down again with the slightest of sips. ‘I’d sell the whole ramshackle set-up and be done with it. But this one’ – she shrugged at her husband – ‘thinks it’s a gold mine.’

I agreed, quite honestly.

‘I know the place needs work,’ Philip said, ‘but it also has a history. Maybe not of my family, but of yours, Vivian. I would think you’d want to hang onto it. You’re all about family.’

‘I am.’ Vivian said it defiantly, but her eyes seemed to be misting up. ‘But the future of our own family, not my grandparents, who lived on that property for decades like squatters.’

‘Not just like squatters,’ Sarah said.

Our heads all swiveled Ms Sensitive’s way.

‘Pardon me?’ Vivian asked her.

Sarah shrugged. ‘Like I said, I keep tabs on Brookhills’ property. A couple of years back, I did an online search and looked up the deed hoping I could track down the owners and convince them to sell.’

‘Why not just knock on the door?’ After all, she’d already walked up the driveway and inspected the ‘gravel parking apron’. ‘Assuming you knew they were still living there.’

‘The old man wasn’t living, period, full-stop.’ My partner was in rare empathetic form today. ‘I think he died back a ways, though his name was still on the deed. As for the old lady, she wouldn’t answer the door. Then, what? A year ago, she goes toes up?’

This was directed to the bereaved granddaughter.

Who apparently wasn’t so bereaved. ‘Finally,’ was all Vivian said.

Her husband did a quick glance my way, catching my reaction. ‘Don’t judge us too harshly.'

'I know families can be complicated,' I offered.

Vivian snorted. 'I never even met the people. Either of them.'

'Your mother had a falling out with her parents?' I asked, though it was none of my business. But, I just like . . . knowing stuff.

Unfortunately, Vivian just shrugged.

Philip was more helpful. 'From what I understand,' he said, glancing at his wife. 'Vivian’s grandparents – the Koepplers – walled themselves off from everybody and everything in the outside world years ago. And preferred it that way.’

‘Tea Man has that right,’ Sarah chimed in. ‘I couldn’t find a phone number, car registration, nothing.’

If I didn’t know Sarah, I’d have believed she was genuinely concerned about the Koepplers. ‘But how did they survive? What about food?’

‘They grew what they needed apparently,’ Philip said. ‘And raised chickens.’

‘In that shed, from the smell of it,’ Vivian said. ‘And I can’t imagine why. I don’t think they even ate meat from what Mother said.’

‘Eggs maybe?’ I suggested. ‘Or didn’t they eat those either?’

‘I don’t think vegans eat eggs,’ Sarah said. ‘Or dairy products. Or anything from an animal, including honey.’

That seemed overly punitive. I like honey. Not that I judge. ‘Maybe they were vegetarians, not vegans. I think they have different rules. Or maybe pescatarians.’ Though I’m not sure I’d eat anything that came out of the creek.

‘Who knows,’ Vivian said, not seeming to care one way or the other. ‘They probably just made it up as they went.’

Old and living off the land, you probably had to.

Unlike his wife, Philip seemed genuinely concerned. But not necessarily about his grandparents-in-law’s well-being. ‘You said you looked up the deed, Sarah. Was there a problem? Vivian’s mother assured us the title for the property was clear.’

‘It is now,’ Sarah said, ‘but apparently there was a dust-up in the late seventies between the Koeppler and Benson families about who owned the property on the Koepplers’ side of Brookhill Road.’

I’d had experience with the wealthy Bensons, as had most of Brookhills. ‘Owning Brookhills Manor wasn't enough for them?’

Brookhills Manor was a senior facility where some of our older clientele lived in their own small apartments. It backed onto Poplar Creek, too, but on the north side of Brookhill Road.

Sarah said. ‘Old man Benson—’

‘This would be Walter Benson?’ I interrupted.

‘Walter’s father, William. The old, old man. He claimed they owned the land along the creek on both sides of Brookhill Road.’

‘Including ours?’ Philip asked, adding with a self-deprecating grin, ‘Or Vivian’s family, I should say.’

‘Ours now,’ Vivian said, a little grimly.

‘Thing was,’ Sarah said, ‘the Bensons never paid much attention to the overgrown lots until they decided senior living would be a good place to put their money as the baby-boomers aged.’

Prescient. And, as it turned out, lucrative. ‘The Manor was built, when? The eighties sometime?’

‘1980, exactly.’ Sarah was a savant where property and real estate was concerned in Brookhills. ‘The bigger parcel was on the north side of Brookhill Road, so that’s where the first phase of the project was built.’

‘Then why did William care about the Koepplers’ land on the south side?’ I asked.

Sarah snorted. ‘Because he claimed it was theirs, of course, and he wasn’t about to give it up. Benson Development filed plans for a second phase of Brookhills Manor to be built there – a skilled nursing facility for residents of the Manor who eventually needed more care.’

As we all would. It was a perfect business plan – one that I couldn’t help but admire, even while disliking the people who hatched it. ‘But the nursing home addition is on the opposite side of the Manor from that now.’

‘Thanks to the Koepplers,’ Sarah said. ‘They apparently had been living on the lot William wanted since the late 1950s, which was more than twenty years. The cottage was already there and then the storage shed. By the time the Bensons came calling – or demanding – the Koepplers claimed adverse possession—’

‘Adverse possession?’ Vivian asked. ‘What is that?’

I flashed her an apologetic smile. ‘Basically, squatter’s rights.’

‘Squatters,’ Vivian repeated, more entertained than aghast. ‘My mother’s parents actually were squatters?’

‘But awarded the property, right?’ For his part, Philip was more interested in the outcome than the circumstances.

‘Ultimately,’ Sarah said. ‘From what I gathered, there was a big dust-up in the papers. The way the press played it, this was the money-grubbers versus the tree-huggers.’

‘And the tree-huggers won?’ I asked, surprised.

‘More like they wore the money-grubbers out,’ Sarah said. ‘Walter, who would have been maybe mid-thirties then, brokered the deal.’

So William Benson had been a harder ass than his son Walter was. Hard to imagine. And Walter’s son, Way, had been right up there in ruthlessness with his grandfather in my experience.

On the other hand, Way’s son Oliver was a schoolmate of my own son Eric and had broken the Benson mold both by being a good kid and by refusing to use his given name of Wendell. So, it was William, Walter, Way and . . . Oliver.

‘Walter settling the dispute probably didn’t sit well with his old man,’ Sarah was saying, ‘but the Bensons had all the land they needed on the north side of Brookhill Road for the Manor as well as the nursing home, which they added fifteen years later.’

‘All a person needs isn’t necessarily all they want,’ Vivian said. ‘Though I guess my grandparents were the exception to that. They must have been happy with what they had.’

‘And the Bensons should have been happy with what they had,’ I said. ‘They’re adding a phase three now – luxury condominiums.’

‘On that same piece of land?’ Philip asked. ‘It must be huge.’

‘It is,’ Sarah said. ‘They’re building the condos to the north on the far side of the nursing home. They’ll be free-standing to make sure people don’t feel part of the Manor’s circle of life.’

‘Circle of life?’ Philip had to ask.

And Sarah was delighted to answer. ‘The nursing home is physically connected to the original Manor so they can just wheel the old farts over when the time comes. I’m surprised the next phase wasn’t a funeral home.’

‘That’s down the block,’ I reminded her. Though admittedly not owned by the Bensons.

‘Old farts?’ This, Vivian thought, was funny.

‘You’ll have to forgive my partner,’ I said. ‘It’s true that the nursing home was built as an addition to the original retirement home. But I suspect it was because it was cheaper to add on than build a whole new structure. That would appeal to the Bensons.’

‘You’ve had dealings with them?’ Philip asked.

‘Walter’s son Way terminated our lease in Benson Plaza to make way for more lucrative tenants.’

‘That’s why you moved here to the depot?’ Philip asked. ‘If so, I’d say this Way did you a favor. This is a wonderful spot.’

Not quite as picturesque as their acre on the creek, but the depot did have a certain character.

‘I agree,’ Sarah said. ‘And the shopping mall collapsed before Way could kick Maggy out, anyway.’

‘Served him right,’ I said.

‘This collapse – was it an accident?’ Vivian asked, eyes wide.

‘Maggy didn’t do it,’ Sarah said. ‘If that’s what you’re asking. As for Way, he didn’t do it either. There are better ways to commit insurance fraud.’

‘Arson for one,’ I said. ‘But in this case the weight of snow on the flat roof collapsed the mall.’

‘If you want to burn down the structures on your property, though, I know somebody who can do it,’ Sarah said. ‘Then we can list it as a buildable lot.’

‘You know an arsonist?’ I was getting married to the county sheriff. I had a responsibility to keep the guest list free of arsonists and the people who hire them. Even if she was my best friend. God help me.

‘Slow your roll, Maggy,’ Sarah said. ‘I meant the Brookhills fire chief. The department would probably love to burn down the Koepplers’ cottage as a training exercise.’

‘Oh.’

‘No insurance settlement, of course,’ Sarah continued. ‘That’s the downside. But the house is gone, and you don’t have to pay the arsonist. So it’s kind of lose, win, win.’

‘I think we’ll pass for now,’ Vivian said. ‘But just for my own information, does this “adverse possession” application appear on the deed? And affect the future salability?’ She glanced at her husband. ‘If we were to consider it.’

‘Which we’re not,’ Philip said a little tersely before he seemed to catch himself and consciously relax his face.

‘Right,’ Sarah said, glancing at him. ‘But no worries either way. A quit claim deed was filed in 1979 transferring ownership from the Bensons to the Koepplers for “consideration” which was probably a buck.’

‘Good to know we’re all legal,’ Philip said. ‘And I admit the slightly shady history makes the place even more intriguing.’

‘Of course you would think so,’ Vivian said.

‘I do, because it ties nicely into our noir theme,’ Philip said. ‘Use your imagination, my dear. You’ve already done wonders with the cottage. And with the creek behind us, the picturesque Brookhill Road bridge next to us—’

‘And the junk-strewn yard and the compost heap in between, it’s heaven.’ But Vivian was smiling. ‘I honestly don’t think my grandparents threw away anything.’

‘At least not farther than the backyard, where they could reclaim it if necessary,’ her husband said.

‘The location will be prime once you have it cleaned up,’ I assured them, still trying to get a bead on the two of them. Philip was all in, but Vivian seemed to feel she had to counter her husband’s unbridled enthusiasm.

‘Do you think so?’ she asked now. ‘Here you have the commuter traffic. People taking trains into the city. That must provide a built-in customer base.’

‘It does,’ I said, ‘but the only reason we need it is because we’re not directly on Brookhill Road now.’ I pointed out the window to the street that fronts the shop. ‘Junction Road is set at an angle and intersects with Poplar Creek a block north of Brookhill Road.’

‘But what's a block?’ Philip asked.

'A mile, if you're running late,' Sarah said.

‘It's true,' I confirmed ruefully. 'People who drive into Milwaukee blast down Brookhill Road, and they’ll stop anywhere along the way – your location or our former location in Benson Plaza – to grab a quick cup on the way. A detour, even of a block, isn’t on their morning schedule. But you're right on Brookhill, plus, you’ll get customers from Brookhills Manor right across the street.’

Vivian was studying me. ‘You’re too nice to be for real.’

‘Don’t let Maggy fool you,’ Sarah said. ‘She’s really not.’

‘Oh, is there something we don't know about Maggy?’ Philip asked, rubbing his hands together theatrically. ‘Skeletons in the closet perhaps?’

As it turned out, they weren’t my skeletons. And not my closet, either.
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