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14

Fleeced

When he formed his butler school, Maldwin Feckles had decided that field trips would be an important part of his students education. There were cigar stores to visit, china shops, designer-clothing showrooms, wine shops, jewelry stores-so many places to go and learn about the finest things money can buy. And of course how to use and care for them properly.

Now Maldwin stood with his first class of four students in a crowded, dark, and dusty antiques shop in rural New Jersey. He had hoped to acquaint them with objects that are found in homes that reeked of old money. He also wanted to pick up a few serving pieces for Lydia s future parties. Last night three of her good plates had fallen off the kitchen counter and smashed to smithereens on the floor.

No one had taken the blame, of course, but Maldwin had tried to take it in stride. It had been right after one of the guests came running in to say there was a dead body across the hall.

Maldwin sniffed as he glanced around the shop, which turned out to offer mostly a hodgepodge of other peoples junk. But after careful exploration, with Maldwin picking up objects such as silver trays and odd-shaped forks and pointing out their usefulness, he had managed to find several items for purchase that he would put into service at Miss Lydia s apartment. One was a silver soup tureen with a tarnish buildup that must have taken decades, another was a set of espresso spoons that one of his students thought was for babies, and three were stained teapots that would require scrubbing with industrial strength denture cleanser.

They were now being packaged by the clerk, who seemed to think that everything in the shop was some sort of treasure.

Students, Maldwin said, pointing to a stack of china dishes. These should never be stored without a protective pad between each plate. The pad can be made of bubble wrap, if need be, but the plates will scratch each other if theyre not-

Maldwins cell phone rang.

Thank God, Blaise thought.

I thought you said cell phones were rude, Vinnie Checkers mumbled. He was clearly the troublemaker student. Maldwin wasnt sure why he had even signed up for the class. He looked like an extra from Grease.

They are rude when they disrupt meals, entertainment, or if the cell phone user insists on carrying on his business in a loud voice on trains, buses, and in other public areas. Maldwin sniffed as he pulled the phone out of his breast pocket. Otherwise, they are most handy hello what? oh my another party tonight we will return to the city at once it should take a couple of hours. He hung up the phone as fear seized his stomach and began a slow gnaw.

Whats the matter, Maldwin? Albert Ketler asked, his mouth hanging open in a most unbecoming fashion. It had occurred to Maldwin that he had a constantly befuddled look about him. Another one who was only accepted because the school is just getting started, Maldwin thought.

We are returning to the city. Miss Lydia is having another party this evening.

Another party? Vinnie asked. I thought we were getting out early today.

You knew when you signed up for this course that it would be intensive. And flexibility is an important part of any butlers life. You have to be ready at a moments notice to go with the flow, as they say, Maldwin said as the clerk came back with the packages.

Were getting in some good pieces next week, he said, peering owlishly through his glasses as he handed Maldwin his credit card and receipt. Be sure to come back.

Serving plates are what I need. Maldwin handed him his card. If you get any good ones, let me know.

Everybody breaks them.

Tell me about it. Maldwin turned to his assembled group. He raised the walking stick that he always carried on his excursions. Follow me! He led them out to the thirty-year-old Vista Cruiser station wagon that Lydia had had since she was a teenager.

Its the one part of my old life that I dont want to give up, shed told Maldwin.

Vinnie opened the back door and climbed into the third row of seats, with Albert close behind him. The two had bonded quickly in the first week of class and wanted to sit as far away as possible from the teacher. It had been a late night last night, an early morning this morning, and they were both hungry and tired. And now it would be another late night. They were both hoping for a little nap time in the car.

No such luck.

Little Harriet, the only girl in the group, had jumped in the front seat with Feckles.

Can we listen to the etiquette tape on the way back? she asked hopefully.

Vinnie and Albert groaned as Blaise Bowden, the quiet loner, took a seat by himself in the second row.

Of course we will, Maldwin said as the station wagon bounced out of the bumpy driveway and past a big WELCOME sign. But first we will go over all the mistakes you made last night. Vinnie, he called, how could you improve your performance of last night?

You mean after the party?

Maldwin winced as Vinnie and Albert chuckled.

No, I mean in your role as butler.

Vinnie frowned. I think I did pretty good last night.

Harriet turned around and looked at him. Youre not supposed to put ice cubes in red wine.

Dont insult my mother! Vinnie said. She liked her red wine nice and cold.

Now, now, Maldwin said. We dont ever want to insult anyone. That is not what a true gentleman or lady does. And many things are a matter of taste. But perhaps it was sangria that was your mothers beverage? Sangria is best served chilled.

All I know is there was fruit in the bowl.

Maldwin nodded. Yes, Vinnie. That would have been sangria. When you are serving fine red wines, they are best served room temperature.

Vinnie waved his hand at him. Ive got a headache.

Perhaps we could use some quiet time, Maldwin agreed. And a Rolaid, he thought. Ill put in the etiquette tape. But first, does anyone have a helpful hint of the day?

A true gentleman or lady never jangles the change in their pockets, Harriet blurted.

Very good! Maldwin cried. Harriet, this all comes to you naturally.

She nodded enthusiastically. It annoys the hell out of people.

Maldwin blinked, quickly shoved the cassette into the tape player, and tried to put out of his mind the sense that everything felt doomed.


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