by Norsebard







This little slice-of-life dramedy belongs in the Uber/Original category. All characters are created by me, though some of them may remind you of someone.

All characters depicted, names used, and incidents portrayed in this story are fictitious. No identification with actual persons is intended nor should be inferred. Any resemblance of the characters portrayed to actual persons, living or dead is purely coincidental.

The registered trademarks mentioned in this story are © of their respective owners. No infringement of their rights is intended, and no profit is gained.

This story contains a little bit of profanity and other derogatory language. Readers who are easily offended by bad language may wish to read something other than this story.





Written: May - June, 2024.

As usual, I'd like to say a great, big THANK YOU to my mates at AUSXIP Talking Xena, especially to the gals and guys in Subtext Central. I really appreciate your support - Thanks, everybody! :D

*Wave*  Hi, Phineas! :)

Just for fun, here's an in-depth article on Wikipedia that explains what Smørrebrød is:


Description: Business isn't exactly booming for Marianne Haakonsen and her fellow storekeepers at the Eagle Lake Strip Mall. Fresh ideas for attracting customers are sorely needed, but endless squabbling among the owners creates a toxic environment that prevents any kind of progress. New blood is introduced when Katerina Georgiou arrives to take over her uncle's store, but although the move initially breaks the stalemate, an argumentative storekeeper won't give up without a fight…





Friday, June 14th.

Market days at Ørnesøens Butikstorv - the strip mall at Eagle Lake - no longer drew in the number of people they had in the past. The cozy square lined by five privately-run stores did see twenty or so potential customers milling about, but few seemed ready to swap their money for any of the quality items for sale at the various booths set up by the owners.

To bolster interest among the locals and the tourists visiting the small market, the storeowners' committee had invited two delicatessen food trucks to the special day, but the fishmonger and the cheese expert had no better luck in attracting attention. To kill time between customers, the fishmonger added crushed ice to the trays containing raw fish so they wouldn't go bad - the master cheese-maker spent the flat moments drinking coffee and reading a newspaper.

The Eagle Lake Strip Mall at #116 Viberup Strandvej was located on the southern outskirts of an upmarket satellite suburb of a smelly, noisy, bustling city. The suburb found itself in a high-quality sweet-spot between idyllic forests toward the east, the picturesque Eagle Lake to the west and plenty of open farmland further south.

A good portion of the north-eastern horizon offered a view of the big, bad city and its many church spires, residential high-rises and chrome skyscrapers found in the commercial and financial districts. Though the suburb and the city were more than six kilometers apart, the inevitable, smoggy result of the city's 750,000 residents was visible as a grayish cloud hanging above the many concrete canyons.

The microclimate was far nicer at the strip mall. A gentle, refreshing breeze rolled in from the nearby Eagle Lake as always, and with the flip-over calendar showing mid-June, the sun was out in full force. The golden rays beat down from a clear sky to heat up the flagstones and the other sections of the square - like the five booths set up and manned by the storeowners.

The stores lining the square had all been built in the early-to-mid 1970s. Two had later been converted into an apartment and a general-purpose storage room, respectively, but five carried on with their original functions.

While all had received various technical upgrades over the subsequent decades, their floor plans were still aligned with the architect's original vision: a glass door framed by two large panes of reinforced glass would allow access to a single room meant to be the store itself. A gypsum wall separated the main room from a smallish apartment at the back that featured a living room, a bathroom, a bedroom, an office and a decent-sized kitchen.

Independent stores were no longer valued in the impersonal and occasionally cold world of commerce, but the news seemed to have passed by the storeowners at the strip mall who continued to follow the same plans that had worked for so long. As a result, everyone's bottom line showed their returns were diminishing for each passing year. Fresh ideas, or perhaps even new blood, were badly needed, but both were in short supply.

The moment 63-year-old Marianne Haakonsen stepped out of her store - a photographic studio - and onto the pale-gray flagstones, she snapped a picture of the strip mall and the meager amount of potential customers milling about.

The analog camera she had chosen for her photo safari had cost more than most people's cars when it was new, and she still considered it one of the kings of the hill among the cameras she owned. Always on the look-out for new equipment, she already had a baker's dozen ranging from a genuine 1932 box camera to a low-priced digital disposable meant for kids. Though the resolution of the latter was a joke, the photos it took could be computer-processed into works of abstract and surreal art that had in fact won her an award at the renowned AvantArt Festival.

While photo-art brought her the greatest highs, it wouldn't put food on the table. Thus, she had branched out into taking pictures for passports, driver's licenses, family portraits and even wedding photography to make a comfortable living off her skills. The constant advances in smartphone technology meant she was being squeezed in those areas as well - now, everyone had the means to take world-class photographs by simply tapping an icon that read Snapshot.

On her small journey around the square, she wore gray plastic flip-flops and white cotton slacks. Further up, a pale-gray multi-pocket vest covered a spring-green, long-sleeved T-shirt that matched the color of her eyes perfectly. Her graying hair, that she preferred to keep in a short, boyish cut during the summer months, was protected by a white sunhat that carried a fluorescent-yellow button depicting the familiar smiley-face. The only piece of jewelry she wore was a link necklace that carried a pair of interlocked women's symbols as a pendant.

Another few photos were snapped as she walked past the stores and booths manned by her friends and associates. The low turnout to their traditional market day prompted a long, slow sigh that visibly sapped her enthusiasm for the whole thing: a gloomy mask fell over her face as she made a slow turn to take in the depressing sight.

In addition to Marianne's own photo-studio, the four stores at the strip mall were Henning Thomsen's Fine Wines, Imported Tea & Exquisite Tobacco, Carsten Jakobsen's antiquarian bookshop that had specialized in first editions and other rare books, Jesper Tiedemann's Sports Clothing & Footwear and finally Birgit Andersen's House Of Accessories that sold hand-crafted glittery objects as well as hand-sewn gloves, small clutches and larger purses.

The two shops that had closed down had been a bakery and an independent toy store. Both had been vital in attracting plenty of customers to the strip mall, so losing them had been a body blow to the other owners - the baker had been forced to throw in the towel when he had fallen ill, and the independent toy store had simply been unable to compete with the mega-stores and their unlimited advertising budgets.

When Marianne realized she had been spoken to, she snapped back to the present and turned around to face the person talking to her. "Oh, hello, Henning. I'm sorry… my mind was elsewhere. You were saying?" As she spoke, she put out her hand for the traditional greeting.

Henning Thomsen smiled at Marianne as they carried out the handshake. The late-60-something gentleman wore pale-blue boat shoes and white pants that featured sharply defined creases. Despite the pleasant ambient temperature generated by the sun's golden rays, he wore a Navy-blue, sailor-style windbreaker over a white polo shirt.

To round off the classy ensemble, a straw hat straight out of the 1920s sat crooked atop his thinning locks - in short, he looked ready to head onto the yacht and sail to the Bahamas. "Oh, it was nothing, really. Just a comment about the depressing state of affairs," he said, gesticulating at the sparse number of potential customers. "You know… I've been here since the start, give or take. I can't recall it being this bad. Not even during the crisis years of the mid-eighties."

"I agree," Marianne said in a somber tone as she glanced around the open area between the booths and the two deli food trucks. Not only had they reached rock bottom when it came to the number of visitors, those who had come seemed unwilling to do more than window-shop. Sighing, she turned back to her long-time friend. "Perhaps we need to accept that all good things must eventually come to an end."

Henning nodded. "Perhaps. I wish we could pool enough money to place an ad in one of the newspapers. I'm sure that would work, but…"

"But we'll never, ever convince Carsten Jakobsen to go along with it," Marianne continued where Henning had trailed off. She let out a grunt that held a bitter undertone. "That's the downside of needing unanimous approval in the owner's group. Nobody's putting anything up for debate now. There's no point!  We all know Carsten will simply shake his head and act contrary."

"Yes. I don't even need to tax my imagination to see Doctor No doing just that," Henning said with a wink that was responded to in kind.

Marianne let out a knowing chuckle before she and the gentleman strolled along the square to take a look at the items for sale at the booths.


Ten past nine in the evening of the same day, all hints of a smile had been wiped from Marianne's face as she and the other storeowners had convened in her studio to evaluate the market day.

Since she didn't need room for traditional products as such, she had turned much of the available floorspace into a gallery of her photo-art. Six large photostats had been glued onto cardboard standees to promote her best photographs and artwork in the hope the colorful spectacle would lure in a customer now and then.

As she listened to the same people uttering the same arguments for the umpteenth time, she zoned out and let her eyes wander over the store's interior. The large, foldable table she and the other four committee members sat at had been placed in the corner opposite to where her equipment for taking portraits had been set up.

The spindly tripod and the poles for the powerful lights were all ready to be used - she only needed to choose a suitable backdrop and attach one of her cameras to the tripod to create the perfect photos for personalized Holiday greeting cards, birthday wishes, Get Well Soon messages or colorful invitations to all sorts of events.

An emphatic "No, no, no!" accompanied by an index finger thumping onto the tabletop brought her back to the present. The identity of the individual responsible for the reply was hardly a surprise - it was Carsten 'Doctor No' Jakobsen.

Sighing, Marianne leaned forward to rejoin the evaluation once more. They had splashed out on a large tray of high-quality Smørrebrød from an exclusive catering service, but judging by the way the others pushed their food around, it appeared that none of them had any appetite.

A lack of appetite had never been an issue for Marianne, so she used a spatula to nab another piece of Smørrebrød while the others were busy arguing - the one she chose featured a slice of Schwarzbrot - a very dark-brown rye bread - fives slices of hard-boiled egg, plenty of mayonnaise, several pieces of shrimp, a good dollop of red caviar and a sprig of watercress to add a little contrast in color and flavor.

Henning Thomsen had brought a selection of quality wines, so Marianne poured herself another glass of ruby-red that would go well with the high-quality food. While she munched on her latest slice of Smørrebrød, she glanced at her fellow members of the storeowners' committee.

Henning sat opposite her with a look upon his face that could only be described as thoroughly fed-up with Carsten's constant negativity.

Jesper Tiedemann had taken up residence on Henning's immediate left. The late-thirty-something owner of the store selling sports clothes was a slender, wiry and above all quiet fellow who rarely said anything regardless of the topic of debate. At present, he wore sneakers and a mousy-brown tracksuit that made him blend in with the background. The best way to gauge how Jesper felt at any given moment was to watch his cheeks: he had a tendency to blush hard whenever the conversation grew into a disagreement or downright arguing.

Blushing was the last thing anyone should expect to see on Birgit Andersen's face. In her late fifties, the expert craftswoman - and mother of three - was the perfect example of the old saying Never judge a book by its cover. Though her shape was on the round, jovial side, she was a strong-willed individual whose sharp mind and whiplash tongue had won many an argument. She wore a breezy summer dress with a low neckline that offered a good view of the twined, Norse-style leather straps that graced her neck.

Carsten Jakobsen, the man colloquially known as Doctor No, sat at the far end of the table with a vacant chair on either side of him - a result of the fact that nobody wanted to sit next to him. In his mid-fifties, he was clean-shaven and had thinning hair that had turned gray prematurely. His gloomy disposition had locked his face in a permanent scowl that looked as if he sucked on lemons around the clock. He had worn a pale-gray lounge suit when he had entered Marianne's photo-studio, but the blazer jacket had been put on a hallstand to reveal a white shirt and a necktie that carried the colors of his old alma mater.

"I'm fully aware that my opinions are unpopular… as always," Carsten said, shooting each of the other committee members a pointed look, "but I'd never have agreed to invite those two food trucks had I known how smelly and noisy they'd turn out to be!  Good heavens, the smells coming from that horrible cheese-thing clogged up my sinuses for most of the day… and the constant droning, humming and buzzing that came from the fishmonger's air-conditioning unit was enough to drive a man to drink!"

Marianne eyed the cantankerous fellow in silence until he appeared to have come to the end of his list of complaints. She used a fork to stab a green olive that had accompanied her next slice of Smørrebrød: a liver pate featuring sliced walnuts and irregular chunks of bell pepper. "Just imagine how the fish would have smelled if the truck hadn't been air-conditioned, Carsten," she said in the drollest voice she could muster.

Across the table, Birgit let out a handful of snickers that she tried to conceal by holding her napkin to her mouth - Henning couldn't be bothered to hide his wide grin. Jesper settled for blushing and studying the tray of Smørrebrød in the obvious hope the embarrassing moment would soon pass.

Carsten and Marianne locked eyes for a moment before the perpetual grumbler let out a huff and crossed his arms over his chest. "Let's move on. Did any of us actually sell anything today?"

"I did," Jesper said, holding up his hand like a polite schoolboy asking to be excused. "Two pairs of cross-country running shoes, one pair of basketball boots and a set of neon-green laces to go with said boots."

"Good for you, Jesper," Marianne said, giving her acquaintance a big thumbs-up. "I sold two reproduction posters and a high-gloss twenty-by-thirty of my Magic Forest photo manip. Birgit?"

The owner of the House of Accessories dabbed her lips again before she put the napkin away. "I didn't sell anything as such, but I got an order for a hand bag and a matching purse that will be someone's birthday gift come November. I already have all the materials I'll need, so I'll start working on them tomorrow morning."

"Great!" Marianne said before she used the spatula to nab another piece of Smørrebrød while there was some to be had: a slice of rye bread featuring two pieces of smoked cod roe, a ton of tartare sauce and a quartered tomato that acted as a hood ornament.

Even the surly Carsten Jakobsen had to acknowledge that such an order was a big deal for the expert seamstress. "Well done, Birgit," he said as he pushed away his empty plate. A few moments went by in silence before he added a mumbled: "I didn't sell anything. Nothing. Not one book."

"Ah," Henning said, "may I add my two cents' worth here, Carsten?"

Though Carsten's face had already assumed a surly shade, he managed to keep his voice neutral as he said: "By all means."

Henning picked up a tall glass filled with a semi-sparkling white that had gone well with the breaded plaice-fillet-on-rye slice of Smørrebrød he had just finished - he held the glass crooked against the light to see the wine's purity. "I can't help but think that offering a compendium of Sigmund Freud's dissertations and… what was the other one… ah yes, a coffee-table book on religious architecture in the Ottoman Empire, might have been a little optimistic on your part. Surely you must have some, ah, more regular books-"

"I have no knowledge of fine wines, Henning. I'm not about to give you advice on what to offer for sale," Carsten said in a tone of voice surly enough to strip even the most reluctant paint off any surface.

Henning blinked several times before he took a long swig of the white wine. He let out an "Ah, point taken," before he withdrew from the conversation to focus on the wine and the next slice of Smørrebrød - next to him, Birgit pulled an annoyed grimace at Carsten's flippant reply. Jesper settled for blushing and studying the half-empty tray that had been put directly in front of him.

On the opposite side of the table, Marianne eyed both combatants wearily. Her casual glances soon turned into a proper glare as she zoomed in on the man they all referred to as Doctor No. "Carsten," she said in a voice that made it clear to everyone around the table that her limit had been reached, "can we please maintain a respectful tone here?  Thank you. All right. We've talked about the ups and downs of today. Now we need to talk about what we can do to get this ship back on an even keel before it's too late. Any suggestions are welcome. Birgit, let's start with you."

"Thank you, Marianne," Birgit said and leaned forward. She looked at each of her fellow storeowners in turn before she spoke: "I do have an idea I'd like to share. I believe we need to attract entire families, not just adults. So… what if we hire someone who'll provide activities for the kids so their parents can have a moment to themselves?"

Carsten shook his head.

"To put it bluntly," Birgit continued, "pull in the little ones and then keep 'em occupied with something fun while their parents shop in our stores. Perhaps the modern-day equivalent of the traditional Harlequin pantomime."

Carsten shook his head even harder.

"Or a magician… or perhaps someone they know from childrens' television-"

The shaking of Carsten's head was suddenly joined by his index finger thumping onto the tabletop. "Birgit," he said so strongly that everyone stared at him, "do you have any idea how expensive it is to book a popular entertainer?  It'll cost us a fortune that we don't have!  And trust me when I say that the absolute last thing we want is to have a guerilla army of little troublemakers running around causing a mess or worse-"

Birgit's eyes shot fire, but before any lightning bolts could race across the table and reduce her opponent to a pile of ash, Marianne stepped in: "Thank you, Carsten. You've made your point. Now we'd like to hear your suggestions. I'm sure you must have one positive thing to say today. Right?"

Carsten promptly opened his mouth to add a little more complaining but closed it again before anything came out. Instead, he went back to one of his favorite pastimes: shaking his head.

Marianne let out a huff before she turned to Birgit. "Attracting families with children is an excellent suggestion. Thank you very much. Let's meet tomorrow and research it."

"Coffee's on me!" Birgit said with a smile that was responded to in kind.

When a blushing Jesper mumbled something about having no suggestions to bring forth and Henning could only shrug - the idea with the delicatessen food trucks had been his - the spotlight returned to Marianne. She drew a deep breath and let it out slowly. She cast a glance at each of her fellow committee members before she said: "I know we'll never be able to reach a consensus on it, but I strongly believe we need to look at a print ad-"

'Doctor No' shook his head.

"Carsten, don't you start!"

"Advertising is the wrong way to go. It's vulgar and it'll draw in the wrong crowd. And!" - Carsten thumped his index finger onto the tabletop for effect - "Ad space is so prohibitively expensive that even if we pooled all our resources, we could only afford a teeny-tiny frame at the bottom of page twelve… or fourteen… or whatever!  I'll bet it would be right next to the crossword puzzle and the Lonely Hearts columns!  We might as well throw our money into the crapper and flush."

The crude language made Jesper's cheeks explode in a color best described as tomato-red. Henning let out an annoyed Tut-Tut-Tut, Birgit shook her head and Marianne slammed her arms across her chest.

When it grew obvious that the committee meeting had reached a roadblock of gargantuan proportions, everyone's enthusiasm fizzled out and turned into a telling silence. Marianne broke it first: "Well. We won't get any further tonight. Thank you all for coming. Henning, the wine was exquisite as always. And please let your friend know the Smørrebrød was wonderful."

"Will do," Henning said with a grin.

Marianne smiled back before she turned to Birgit. "Let's find a time for that coffee tomorrow. Your suggestion is definitely worth looking into. All right?" When Birgit nodded, Marianne pushed her chair back and stood up. "We all need our beauty sleep, so… good night, everybody."

The chairs made the usual noises of squeaking and scraping as the other members of the owners' committee got up. A series of brief handshakes and goodbyes were exchanged before Marianne and Henning were the only ones left in the studio.

Henning eyed the pile of dirty dishes and cutlery that Marianne had begun collecting. "Do you need a hand with those?  I love doing the dishes… it's so relaxing."

Marianne chuckled as she used the spatula to move the remaining four pieces of Smørrebrød into the cardboard carrier tray they had arrived in - they were far too good to go to waste, so they were destined for her refrigerator. "Thanks, Henning, but I have a dishwasher. I'll just set it to run over night."

Smiling, Henning put out his hand for the traditional shaking. Once it had been accomplished, he grabbed his straw hat and put it on in a stylish fashion. "In that case, I think I'll see out the day. I've come across an old, black-and-white detective movie that looks promising. And maybe enjoy a glass of port. To help the digestive process along, you understand."

"Ah yes. The digestive process," Marianne said with a knowing grin. "Have a good night, Henning. Talk to you tomorrow."

Once Henning had gone back to his own store, Marianne locked the glass door and faded the ceiling lights to their night-time setting. A quick check proved that everything was safe and sound, so she activated the burglar alarm and left the studio for her apartment at the rear of the building.


Several hours later, Marianne cracked open an eyelid. Something had pulled her from her sleep, but the darkness surrounding her meant she couldn't figure out what it could have been - then her telephone lit up and sent out another annoying trill explaining exactly what had happened.

"Ohhhhh, that damned thing," she mumbled as she sent a scathing glare at the noisy telephone. Her misery was compounded by the fact that she had forgotten it on a small dresser in her bedroom instead of bringing it over to the bedside table like she always did.

Sighing, she swept the duvet aside, swung her legs over the side of the bed and made a beeline for the telephone. A surprised grunt escaped her when the caller-ID read Henning. "What in the world… at a quarter past three in the morning?" she mumbled before she accepted the call. "It's Mari-"

The unintelligible sounds that filtered through the connection made her furrow her brow and shake her head in confusion. "Henning, I can't understand a word of- tell me, how much port did you have?  You're too old for drinking that much-"

When the next words were 'Help me… help… please…' spoken in a slurred, unnatural voice, a river of ice swept down Marianne's spine.

Now wide awake, she hurried back to her bed and shoved her feet into a pair of comfortable slippers. "Henning, what's wrong?  Please tell me what's-"

'I've fallen ill… very, very ill… some- something's very wrong…'

"I'm… I'm on my way. Hang on!  I'll be right over. Okay?  I'll be right over," Marianne said, hurrying over to the bedroom door. Before she could make it all the way there, she looked down at her oversized sleeping T-shirt and let out a mumbled curse. Returning to the bed at once, she picked up her regular housecoat and threw her arms down the sleeves.

The connection was still active, so she put the telephone back to her ear as she left her bedroom, hurried through the hallway and entered the studio itself. "Henning, I'm on my way!  Don't panic- oh… dammit, I don't have any keys for your- can you get to the doors and unlock them?"






The eeriness of the sudden loss of contact caused a million goose bumps to roll over Marianne's body. Moving fast, she exited the studio and hurried across the flagstones between the stores. "God, this is terrifying… I hope the old boy's all right," she mumbled as she moved ever closer to Henning's wine, tea and tobacco store.

The mood lighting that had been installed at certain spots around the square meant it was never fully dark there, so she had no trouble seeing where she needed to go. The ambient temperature was still on the pleasant side, even at twenty past three in the morning - a result of the sun beating down on the flagstones all day - but the gentle breeze that caressed every part of the Eagle Lake Strip Mall carried a chilly reminder of the vast lake that was only a few hundred meters away. An owl hooting somewhere in the middle distance added a surreal touch to what was already a strange affair.

The sky toward the eastern horizon had already begun to brighten to herald the new day, but Marianne had no time for Mother Nature's splendor. "Henning?  Henning!  Henning, are you there?  Oh, God…" she said into the telephone as she hurried over to the store.

Though the connection remained active, she couldn't hear anything - not even when she stuck a finger into her other ear to block out the world around her. She had almost reached Henning's storefront windows when she tapped the Close Connection bar on the telephone.

A quick look through the windows confirmed that the store's lights had been turned down to their night-time setting. The alarm system's user-access panel installed on the doorjamb of the main entrance showed three red LEDs indicating it had been set to actively monitor the doors and windows.

Marianne let out a trembling breath as she whipped up her telephone to punch in the three-digit number for the privately-run emergency service they all used at the strip mall. As she put the telephone's cold plastic to her flushed cheek, she couldn't stop another shiver from breaking out all over.

A cool, calm and collected female voice soon spoke in Marianne's ear: 'You've reached Falcon Emergency. How may we help you?'

"Good morning!  My- my name is Marianne Haakonsen… I'm… I need an ambulance!  It's urgent!  A d- dear friend of mine called me to say he had fallen ill and- and- but now I can't get in touch with him!  He's an elderly fellow-"

Rapid clicking came through the connection as the operator updated the information. 'I need to know where you're calling from, Miss Haakonsen.'

"Oh!  Oh, it's one-one-six Viberup Strandvej. In Viberup, obviously… the Eagle Lake Mall!" Marianne said in a voice that almost turned into a cry. "Oh… you'll need my… oh, my customer number is… God… I can't remember… four-six… something. I can't remember!  Please, it's urgent!"

'An ambulance and a paramedic unit were dispatched when you confirmed your address, Miss. ETA eight to ten minutes.'

Marianne reached up with her free hand to give her eyes and brow a thorough rubbing. "Oh God, thank you!  Thank you so much… I'm- oh!  Please tell the ambulance crew they need to drive onto the mall's square when they get here… my friend's apartment is attached to his store!"

'I will, Miss Haakonsen.'

"All right… is… is that… is there anything more you need to know?"

'Not at this point, Miss Haakonsen. Thank you for using Falcon Emergency.'

Too upset to have any kind of mental surplus for pleasantries, Marianne simply closed the connection and tried Henning's number once more. When it went nowhere, she ran around the wine, tea and tobacco store to search for a window she could perhaps peek through. A mumbled curse escaped her when she realized Henning had drawn all the curtains.

A rock-hard obstacle hiding in the deep shadows between the stores was nearly her undoing. Flailing her arms to stay aloft, she had to clench her jaw to stop a paint-stripping blue streak from escaping her lips - a tidal wave of pain soon rose from the toes that had smashed into the hidden obstacle.

The slipper on that foot had been sent flying by the involuntary stunt, but she managed to find it resting upside-down next to a drain pipe clear across the aisle between the stores. Hissing in pain, she hobbled back out onto the square to try another approach that she hoped would provide less physical pain.

The new approach was to call Carsten Jakobsen. Although the man with the perennially sour disposition was the last person in the world she wanted to talk to at half past three in the morning, the unfortunate truth was that he was the only one there who could help her - Jesper Tiedemann and Birgit Andersen both lived with their families up north in the city rather than in the apartments at the rear of their stores.

A sigh escaped her as she found Carsten's number in the registry. The night-time chill began creeping up her bare legs, so she needed to shuffle around to stay warm. By the third ring, she stared at the display as if her angry glare would speed up the process. "Oh, will you pick up your damn phone-"

'Marianne?!' Carsten suddenly said at the other end of the connection - it made Marianne concentrate fully on the conversation. 'Don't you have any concept of time?  It's three-'

"Carsten, Henning has fallen ill and I need your help!"


"He called me a short while ago begging for help!  We exchanged a few words… and now I can't get in touch with him!  He sounded very, very bad… please, I need your help. You have the keys to his store, don't you?"

'Yes, but-'

"Please come at once!  We need to check up on him!  I've already called Falcon Emergency… the person I spoke to said the ambulance had already been alerted…"

'I'll be right over.'

"Thank you!" Marianne said before she closed the connection and stuffed the telephone into the only pocket of her housecoat. A moment later, she dug it back out to try Henning's number again. She chewed hard on her lips when the attempt went nowhere.

A bad case of huffing and puffing heralded the imminent arrival of Carsten Jakobsen - a large wad of keys jingle-jangled as he hurried closer. His felt slippers were given a strenuous workout on the square's coarse flagstones, and his golden pajamas and baby-blue bathrobe presented quite a spectacle at such an ungodly hour of the day. Unfortunately, the severity of the situation didn't allow for quips of any kind.

"Good morning, Marianne," he said once he was close enough. "I didn't understand a word of what you were trying to tell me… you said you spoke to Henning when you believe he fell ill?"

Marianne began shaking her head even before Carsten had finished speaking. "No, the other way around… he called me to say he'd fallen ill. Can we please discuss the semantics later?  Just unlock the door so we can look for him!"

Carsten went through the large wad of keys to find the right one. It only took him a few seconds, but it was long enough for Marianne to throw her arms in the air. "When we spoke just now," Carsten said, inserting the correct key in the lock on the glass door, "you cut me off before I could explain that I only have the keys for this door here!  Not the one to his apartment."

The front door was soon pushed open. Moving swifty, Carsten made a beeline for the alarm system's user-access panel so he could punch in the correct abort-code before all the safety measures would go off.

A long groan escaped Marianne's throat as she made her own beeline toward the inner door that lead to Henning's apartment at the back of the store. Her groan intensified when she realized the inner door was in fact locked. She whipped up her telephone and tried Henning's number again.

She and Carsten both drew a sharp breath when they heard Henning's telephone ringing somewhere on the other side of the closed door. They shared a quick look of concern before she moved up her hand, clenched her fist and began pounding on the inner door. "Henning!  Henning!  It's Marianne and Carsten!  Can you hear me?!  We're right out here!  Henning?  Oh, God, please let him be safe…"

Once Marianne stepped back, Carsten took her spot at the door and grabbed hold of the metal handle. Though he tried jerking it up, down, back and forth, the sturdy locking mechanism wouldn't budge a fraction of a centimeter. "It's no use… we need the keys," he said, rubbing his aching palms.

"We don't have the keys, Carsten!" Marianne barked. "The door opens toward the apartment… if we put our shoulders to it, we might be able to-"

Almost working on autopilot, Carsten began shaking his head. "That's an awfully big 'might'!  Chances are we'll fracture our shoulders long before that damn door moves!" he said, waving his hand at the sturdy nature of the wooden jamb and the door itself. "I wouldn't be at all surprised if our insurance companies would classify that as a self-afflicted injury. You know how difficult they can be-"

"Don't you start!  Not now!" Marianne replied at an even louder volume. "Our friend needs our help!  We need to break down the door to get to him!  It's as simple as that!  So you either help me or get the hell out of my way!"

Before Carsten had time to answer, they were both able to hear the tell-tale wails of emergency sirens appearing in the near distance. Without speaking another word, Marianne brushed past her cantankerous acquaintance to run out onto the square.

A large IVECO ambulance painted in fluorescent-orange and reflective-white soon drove onto the square. The driver immediately turned off the electronic siren as it had served its purpose. The large space on the side of the ambulance was home to the Falcon Emergency logo as well as the familiar blue Star Of Life symbol that featured the Rod of Asclepius.

The fast-response paramedic unit, a bright-red Mercedes-Benz GLE 350, drove up next to the ambulance. A female doctor soon stepped out of the vehicle to get the Rapid Response Kit from the SUV's rear compartment - while that had been going on, the ambulance crew had prepared the gurney and were busy wheeling the spindly contraption across the flagstones.

Marianne's eyes popped wide open when she realized the two members of the ambulance crew looked as if they spent all their spare time lifting weights - both were tall, broad-shouldered and square-jawed fellows. The main difference between them was that one had brownish hair and the other was a redhead. Just like the doctor, they carried Rapid Response kits over their shoulders as they approached the scene.

"Good morning," the driver of the ambulance said, "I'm Benjamin Weiss. This is riding nurse Kurt Jensen. I presume you're Marianne Haakonsen?"


"Is this the gentleman-"

"No, no!  We can't get in touch with- and- and we can't get to- oh, it's easier if I show you. It's through here," Marianne said before she hurried back to the store leaving a perplexed Carsten Jakobsen bobbing in her wake.

Inside the store, Marianne made yet another beeline for the wooden door. Just to see if there had been a positive development for once, she pounded her fist against it several times while she shouted: "Henning!  Can you hear me?  Henning, the ambulance is here!  Please hang on!  Just hang on for a little while longer!"

The bulky, buff riding nurse Kurt Jensen had already opened his mouth to inquire about the details, but Marianne beat him to it: "My dear friend Henning Thomsen is an elderly gentleman. He called me, oh… a short half-hour ago pleading for help because he'd fallen very ill. I could hardly understand what he said… his voice was slurred… but then something happened and- and- the connection was lost. When I try to call him, we can hear the telephone ringing just beyond the door. But it's locked and we don't have the keys and it's too strong to break down!"

The riding nurse and the ambulance driver briefly looked at each other before the former took off in a hurry. The driver stepped in to explain: "All the Falcon Emergency ambulances received a new tool at the start of the year. It's called a lock-buster. We'll get to your friend in no time."

"Oh… oh, God, I hope so. I truly hope so," Marianne said, wringing her hands.

The male nurse was soon back with a metal tool that looked like something out of a science-fiction horror movie. Marianne stared wide-eyed at the metal rod that bore a passing resemblance to a bicycle pump of yore - except that it was equipped with three rows of sharp teeth at the tip. Just when she was about to ask how in the world that thing worked, she was given a demonstration of its effectiveness.

After pressing the lock-buster's teeth against the wooden door, Benjamin Weiss pumped the handle a dozen times. Once Marianne had been moved back to a safe distance, the driver squeezed a trigger which made the three rows of teeth crash through the wood powered by nothing but pneumatic pressure. Some wiggling was required, but the entire locking mechanism was soon cut out of the door that swung open with a squeak.

The small victory made Marianne let out a trembling sigh of relief as she took a half-step forward. Her moment of elation only lasted for a second. Then she caught a glimpse of a motionless figure lying on the floor next to an armchair. A telephone was just beyond the reach of an immobile hand. Her throat instantly tied itself into a knot that rendered her unable to speak, cry or even breathe. She staggered backwards at the same time the professional ambulance crew and the doctor went to work.

Henning's living room soon echoed with Latin terms and other kinds of Doctor-babble that might as well have been spoken in Talrinian or another extra-terrestrial language - Marianne didn't understand a word of it, but even if she had understood it perfectly, the frightening image of Henning's prone body that had been etched onto her mind's eye meant she had to step back out onto the square.

"Well?" Carsten said the moment they hooked up.

Marianne tried to speak, but could only shake her head.

Carsten kept quiet for once. Instead of speaking, he settled for letting out a long, slow sigh.


Five minutes later, Marianne had to look away when the first-response crew wheeled an unresponsive Henning Thomsen over to the rear of the large vehicle. The gurney disappeared up into the back of the IVECO ambulance with nary a hitch.

While the crew got ready for their imminent departure, the doctor walked over to Marianne and Carsten to provide an update: "Mr. Thomsen's vital signs are weak, but stable. He'll be admitted to St. Petri Hospital on Søndre Boulevard. My initial assessment indicates a stroke. Its severity remains to be seen, but the chances of Mr. Thomsen pulling through are fair. The experts at St. Petri are some of the best in the country."

A whispered "Thank you," managed to escape Marianne's numb being, but the brief message was all she had to offer. She looked around for Carsten, but he had already left. The chill finally got to her, so she pulled her housecoat tight and wrapped her arms around herself.

A long sigh escaped her as she watched the paramedic unit and the ambulance from Falcon Emergency perform U-turns and drive off the square. Although they didn't activate their sirens while they moved through the nearby residential area, their emergency lights lit up the early-morning sky for several minutes.

She stood alone for a short while before she turned around and made for home. The tears finally came when she reached her own store.


A week later - Sunday, June 23rd.

A small, charcoal-gray rental car followed a paved lane that snaked its way past grassy knolls and majestic trees inside a park-like area. Though the driver adhered to the local speed limit of 15 kilometers per hour, it didn't take long to reach the parking lot in front of the chapel.

The white gravel that acted as the driving surface of the lot crunched under the rental car's wheels as Marianne aimed for one of the parking spots by a low, evergreen hedge. The sun continued to beat down from a mostly clear sky, so she chose a spot that was kept in permanent shade by the branches of a tall copper beech.

Once she had come to a halt, she turned off the engine but made no move to get out. Quick glances to either side of her proved that five or so cars were already there. Another glance at the clock on the dashboard revealed the time as 11:15 - the funeral service wouldn't start for another 45 minutes. A brief peek at her telephone confirmed the time.

She had decided to leave early to combat the effects of the poor night's sleep and the mind-numbing maelstrom of emotions that had plagued her all week, but now she had arrived, she discovered the proverbial troll had come along for the ride.

Birds chirped merrily all around the rental car. The branches of the copper beech above the parking spot let out quiet creaks as they were touched by the gentle breeze. Marianne heard none of it, nor did she see the little, white clouds drifting slowly across the heavens.

She was back at St. Petri Hospital. Back in the oppressive environment of the Intensive Care Unit where illness was the norm, where death was an hourly occurrence and where dispassionate, soulless machinery had stripped the last layers of dignity from the patients. IV drips. Blood packs. Suction tubes. Ventilators. Urine bags. Beeping machines. Squiggly lines on readouts. Alarms going off. Nurses rushing in though the Reaper had already swung the scythe. And no traces of humanity anywhere.

Henning's suspected stroke had in fact been a massive cerebral hemorrhage. He had never regained consciousness. Marianne had spent endless hours at St. Petri over the course of the first four days until it grew obvious that Henning's condition would never improve.

Late on Thursday, the doctors suggested switching off the life support systems based on their ethical precepts. Henning had no blood relatives nearby who could make that decision, so it fell on Marianne's narrow shoulders. It took her the entire evening to come to terms with the inevitability of it all.

Once she accepted the experts' suggestion, the senior doctor on call at the ICU had initiated the poetically titled 'exit procedure' - Marianne had simply thought of it as letting Henning Thomsen die for a second time. She sat bedside when the ventilator ceased its activity and all hope was lost.

Five minutes post-fact, the senior doctor and a legal witness from the ICU filled out Henning's death certificate. The official time of death was listed as 23:56 hours on Tuesday, June 18th.

Returning to the present, Marianne dug into a pocket to find her handkerchief. Her eyes - that were already red after going through a year's worth of crying in the past week alone - were leaking once more. A handful of large tears had time to roll down her cheeks before she could dab her aching eyes. A long sigh escaped her as she glanced at herself in the rear-view mirror. At least she never wore any makeup. If she did, all the crying would have left her looking like a raccoon coming off a four-day bender.

Gravel crunching somewhere off to her left made her look in that direction. The next vehicle to arrive turned out to be a luxury Range Rover in a shade of charcoal-gray that wasn't too dissimilar to Marianne's rental car. The SUV reversed into the parking spot which enabled Marianne to get a clear view of the driver.

It proved to be a tallish, attractive brunette who looked to be in her mid-fifties. The lady's dark-brown locks had been shaped into a stylish hairdo that came to her shoulders. She wore a pair of black shades and a coffee-colored pant suit over a white, open-collared shirt - the latter offered a glimpse of a gold necklace that stood out against her suntan. The lady adjusted her shades before he took a bouquet of flowers from the passenger seat, locked the SUV and walked over to the chapel.

Marianne let out a puzzled grunt as she watched the lady's progress through the help of the rear-view mirror. "Who can that be?" she mumbled to herself. "Did Henning have a little fling on the side or something?  No way. He wouldn't 've been able to keep quiet about it…"  Shrugging, Marianne stepped out of the rental car and shuffled around to the rear hatch to get her own bouquet of flowers. The occasion - and her frame of mind - required her clothing to be dark and earnest, so she wore black shoes, a black dress and a black shawl that she had wrapped around her shoulders.

Before she could make it over to the side entrance, two further vehicles entered the parking lot. When she noticed they were driven by Birgit Andersen and Carsten Jakobsen, respectively, she stepped back onto the white gravel and walked over to her acquaintances.

Carsten, who wore the classic combo of a black suit, a white shirt and a black necktie, merely greeted Marianne with a nod and the briefest of handshakes before he left for the chapel.

Birgit was altogether more animated: she pulled Marianne into an enormous hug that would seemingly never end. To respect the somber nature of the event, she had eschewed her usual, brightly-colored outfits for a subdued dress held in grays and blacks. The only splash of color came from a white-and-gold brooch shaped like a daisy that she had pinned onto her chest.

"This is so sad," Birgit said in a thick, tearful voice when she finally stepped back. Though the hug had come to an end, she kept her strong hands on Marianne's slender shoulders to offer her support. "I can't believe you're holding up so well. I've dreaded this day the entire week. It turned me into a blubbering mess just thinking about it… and you knew Henning so much better than I did!"

Marianne shook her head as she let out a long sigh. "It's all an act, Birgit. I've cried a million tears… day and night. Over and over and over again."

"I know exactly what you mean. I've run out of paper tissues twice!" Birgit said before she opened her car's trunk to get the ubiquitous bouquet of flowers. Once everything had been sorted, she and Marianne strolled over toward the chapel.

They had made it halfway there when Marianne let out another sigh. "I keep telling myself there was nothing I could've done… or at least done differently. And yet my conscience won't accept it. I should've smashed a window… I should've tried to climb in… or perhaps I should've run around to the back and tried the garage door. There's a million things I should've done…"

"It wouldn't have made any difference, Marianne," Birgit said quietly. "You could've pulled down the house one brick at a time to get to him, and it still wouldn't have made any difference. I spent all of yesterday researching it online. That Henning was even able to call you was a miracle."

"I suppose…"

"Perhaps you could find solace in the fact that he reached out for you instead of the ambulance service-"

"But then I let him down, Birgit!  I couldn't get to him!"

Birgit shook her head several times. The flowers got in the way of another hug, so she put a gentle hand on Marianne's arm instead. "No. He lost the battle the moment you lost contact."

Marianne had no words left to counter her friend's well-intentioned statement. A car racing onto the gravelly parking lot gave her something else to think about. Soon, Jesper Tiedemann bolted from the vehicle and ran over to the waiting ladies.

"Sorry I'm late!" he said while a deep blush tainted his cheeks. "The babysitter stood us up… my wife couldn't come 'cos she had to stay at home to- oh, never mind. I'm not too late, am I?"

"No," Birgit said, "the service doesn't start until noon so we still have five minutes. You didn't bring any flowers?"

An even deeper blush exploded onto Jesper's cheeks before he spun around and ran back to the car's trunk. A moment later, he returned holding the ubiquitous bouquet.


By the time the ecclesiastical part of the funeral service had ended and the guests had reconvened for the traditional wake inside a flat-topped banquet building adjacent to the chapel, all Marianne could do was to sit on a chair and practice her thousand-mile stare.

When Henning's last will and testament had revealed that he wanted to be interred in a rural cemetery as far away from the large, noisy, smelly city as possible, Marianne and the other storeowners really had no choice but to book the banquet room by the chapel as the distance back to the Eagle Lake mall would be too great for Henning's business contacts who - literally - lived all over the place.

The banquet room was held in subdued colors befitting such an important place: the linoleum floor was mostly dark-gray while the wooden panels on the walls and the ceiling were white. A large, rectangular table seating twenty-six had been put up in the center of the room so the guests could speak to one another without needing to shout. A piece of paper that had been put on the table by the staff revealed that the serving of tea, coffee and various sugary pastries and treats would commence momentarily.

The wall at the far end of the room was equipped with a pair of glass double-doors that offered a view of a particularly serene part of the cemetery. Out on the well-groomed lawn, a pictogram had been stuck into the ground depicting the outline of someone holding a finger to the mouth in the classic Shhh! pose.

Activity by the door proved to be two of the chapel's staffers wheeling in several carts carrying coffee pots, thermos bottles and trays filled with a wide selection of sugary treats.

Although Marianne saw it unfold, she couldn't process any of it. Not only were her eyes as red as the average fire hydrant, she had developed a hiccup and a bad headache from all the crying.

Handling a soaked handkerchief, a glass of water, a small piece of the marzipan treats and the constant line of people who came by to see if she was all right taxed her energy levels to such a degree that she was running on the proverbial fumes.

She had nearly made it through the actual funeral service without being reduced to a tearful mess, but her undoing had been the emotional combination of the elegy, the choir singing the traditional closing song and the clergywoman throwing dirt onto the casket - even if Henning wasn't in it as he had wished to be cremated. Once the tears had caused the dam to crumble, there had been no holding back.

It wasn't until a shadow fell over her that she snapped out of her stupor. A small grunt escaped her when she realized she had been joined by the dark-haired lady whose identity remained a mystery. "Oh… hello," Marianne said as she rose from the chair.

Up close, she was able to determine that her initial assessment of the attractive lady's supposed suntan had been completely wrong: the mystery woman was in fact of East-Mediterranean origin and her medium-brown complexion was thus natural. Her almond-shaped eyes were unusual, however: instead of dark-brown, they were bluish-gray.

Marianne's half-eaten marzipan treat and glass of water - for the hiccuping - were suddenly in the way, but she got rid of them by putting them on the chair. "I'm Marianne Haakonsen. How do you do?" she continued, putting out her hand for the old-fashioned shaking.

"Very well, thank you. I don't have to ask how you're doing," the mystery lady said as they shook hands. Although her grammar and pronunciation were perfect, her voice carried a mysterious and faintly exotic accent that revealed she wasn't a native speaker. She smiled. "I'm Katerina Georgiou. Pleased to meet you. My uncle always spoke highly of you and your photo-art."

Marianne's red eyes grew so wide it almost seemed there was a risk they would fall out. She had to shake her head in a slow, disbelieving fashion as the words filtered through to her tired mind. "Your… your uncle?!  Henning was your uncle?  I knew him for twenty-three years and he never… or maybe he did… and- and I just can't remember… good heavens, my head's such a mess right now. All I have up there is a wad of cotton wool!"

Katerina chuckled at the colorful description. "My father was Henning's older brother Jørgen. Dad was a member of the UN Peacekeeping Force on Cyprus for a handful of years. In 'sixty-eight, he was deployed to the Lefka District where he met my mother… he was twenty-two and she was eighteen. You're talking to the rest of the story."

The first smile in over a week flashed across Marianne's lips, but it was gone as soon as it had shown up. She took a small step back to get a full view of the elegant lady. "Fascinating!  I'd love to hear more, Miss… or is it Mrs.?"

"Oh, it's just Katerina, actually. Come, let's sit down and get some coffee. I have an important announcement to make now that Uncle Henning's colleagues are gathered, but I need to stock up on some liquid courage first," Katerina said as she put a hand on Marianne's elbow to lead her over to the central table.

"Oh?  What kind of announcement?" Marianne said as she sat down at the table. The person next to her had already nabbed a thermos of coffee intending to pour it into Marianne's cup, but she shook her head and pointed at the tea instead.

A flash of nervousness briefly rippled across Katerina's cool facade, but her unease didn't last long. "You'll hear in a moment," she said as she sat down on the next vacant chair.

Marianne scratched her neck again - it was clear there was something unsaid hanging in the air just beyond her reach. Her tired mind didn't allow her to perform the mental arithmetic required to fill out the blanks, so she settled for sipping a mug of tea and munching on another of the sugary treats.


Five minutes later, Katerina rose indicating that she wanted to address the group of mourners. She had barely opened her mouth to begin when she was interrupted by Jesper Tiedemann coming back into the banquet room.

He let out a croaking "Ohhhhh!" when he realized everyone glared at him for making a mess of the speech. All too predictably, his cheeks, nose and forehead caught fire as he hurried back to his chair. "I just needed to call my wife to ask- never mind…" he mumbled before he found a very interesting design feature on the table that needed a close study.

Marianne locked eyes with Katerina who clearly waited for the din to settle down before she would go on. Others would have turned into a caricature of the Furious Fidgeter at the prospects of facing a group of people they hardly knew, but it was obvious by the lady's calmness that she was used to speaking in public. Marianne crossed her legs, re-arranged her black dress and made herself comfortable - for once, her tears had agreed to hold off to give her a chance to recuperate.

When peace had been restored to the banquet room save for a pocket of murmuring among some of the guests, Katerina raised a hand to let it be known she had something to say. "Ladies and Gentlemen, my name is Katerina Georgiou. You obviously don't know me, so I'll begin by saying that I'm an attorney of corporate law and that I hold a senior position in a City investment bank."

A sudden buzz rippled through the people sitting at the table. Marianne moved her leg down so she could lean forward and get a closer look at the intriguing speaker.

"Henning was my uncle," Katerina continued - it caused an even bigger buzz - "and although I didn't get to see him as often as I would've liked, he made me the executor of his estate-"

A surprised "Whoa!" escaped Marianne before she could stop herself. It appeared that Jesper's constant blushing was contagious as some of it spilled onto her cheeks - the blushing only grew deeper when Katerina locked eyes with her once more.

Katerina offered Marianne a smile before she continued: "Indeed!  It's been a terrible week so I know that further surprises is the last thing you wanted. I hope I'll ease your concerns by saying that everything will carry on as normal at the Eagle Lake Mall. Well, apart from the fact that I'll be taking over the day-to-day operational aspects of the wine, tea and tobacco store until the probate court has finished their part of the paperwork. I know you'll have a great deal of ques-"

"You bet we do!" a male voice said in an angry, even accusing tone.

Everyone craned their neck to see who the culprit could be. Marianne simply let out a groan as she had already recognized Carsten 'Doctor No' Jakobsen's voice. She turned around on the chair to shoot the cantankerous bookseller a dark glare that, unfortunately, bounced clean off him.

"Why weren't we told earlier?" Carsten continued, thumping his index finger onto the tabletop. "The storeowners' committee held an emergency meeting this past Friday. Such an important development should have been at the very top of the agenda!  Things aren't going well for us as it is!  What will happen to Henning's store?  Who'll assume ownership of it long-term?  Will they continue his line of specialty products?  Will they turn it into a supermarket?  Or, God forbid, a vulgar beer hall… or worse?"

Katerina displayed amazing patience while she waited for a break in the angry tirade. When one finally came, she spoke up at once: "I'm afraid it wasn't possible to inform the committee earlier as I was out of the country on business and didn't return until yesterday afternoon. There won't be any change in the day-to-day operation of uncle Henning's business for the foreseeable future. I'm sure you've read the news reports of chronic underfunding at the probate court. It could be several weeks before they made their final-"

"A week isn't what it used to be. Time flies worse than ever. And then what?" Carsten said, crossing his arms over his chest.

"I'm not in the possession of a crystal ball, sir," Katerina said in a droll voice that earned her scattered chuckles. "I've taken four weeks' leave from my job. I'm hopeful the case will have been settled by then. If not, we'll take it from there."

The people at the wake seemed to hold their collective breaths in the hope they had reached the end of the embarrassing back-and-forth, but Carsten wasn't quite done yet: "Well, I'm sorry, but that's not good enough. Henning was a dear friend to all of us for decades, but we don't know you from Eve. I think the years we spent working with him have earned us the right to demand a little more clarity when it comes to affairs that may affect our businesses-"

Marianne thumped a clenched fist onto the tabletop - it made everyone's cups and plates dance about. Her eyes narrowed down into slits as she pinned the curmudgeon to the spot with a healthy dollop of hellfire. "Carsten, that's enough!  This is neither the time nor the place for venting," she said in a voice that was stronger than even she had expected considering the week she had been through. "You're not the only one who's upset, and you're certainly not the only one who's grieving. Put a sock in it until the next committee meeting!  That's when we'll discuss the future!"

A loud "Hear, hear!" burst out of Birgit Andersen who sat on the opposite side of the table. Jesper Tiedemann just blushed a little more while he studied the texture of the marzipan treat on the plate in front of him.

Carsten slammed his arms over his chest. Leaning against the chair's backrest, he let out an unimpressed "Pah!" that proved exactly how he felt.

An awkward and acutely embarrassed silence spread among the people who were supposed to be there to mourn Henning Thomsen's passing. Little by little, the regular din of quiet chatting, chairs being moved and cutlery hitting plates was restored.

Huffing, Marianne turned back to Katerina who offered her a smile as a non-verbal sign of appreciation. The smile was responded to in kind before Marianne concentrated on her tea and marzipan treats.


Two weeks later - Saturday, July 6th.

Life had returned to normal at the strip mall at Eagle Lake. All the high points, low points and average moments of a typical day had been welcomed with open arms by the four remaining storeowners. The number of visitors on the market days hadn't increased, nor had it been possible to tempt those who did show up to splash out beyond the limit they had set before arriving, but everyone was simply happy for a respite from the tragedy despite the continued downward trend.

The ambient temperatures had done nothing but climb since the calendar changed from June to July. At half past nine in the morning, the thermometer attached to the outside of the door to Marianne's photo-studio still showed a pleasant 21 degrees centigrade due to the proximity of the lake, but when the hands of time would swing around to the afternoon hours, ambient temperatures in the mid-30s would be reached which would create near-lethal conditions out on the baking-hot flagstones.

Marianne always opened her store at nine sharp regardless of the number of visitors to the strip mall. No one had been by her store yet, so she'd had time to go through a list of daily chores that included doing the dishes after her breakfast, sweeping the floor of the studio, taking a feather duster to cobwebs that had been made overnight, and vacuuming the carpets in her bedroom and living room.

The latter task had kept her away from the store windows for a short fifteen minutes, but a pair of pleasant surprises awaited her when she returned to the studio: not only were the number of visitors exceedingly high compared to the norm - at least three times the regular amount - but she had a customer waiting for her.


The customer left ten minutes later with a 30-by-40-centimeter frame that had been fitted with one of Marianne's landscape photographs - titled A Snowy Day At Eagle Lake - as well as a small stack of headshots for a new ID-card.

As Marianne put the kroner bills in the cash register, she couldn't help but look out upon the steady flow of visitors who went by her storefront windows. A few of them even stopped to look at the landscapes and pieces of photo-art that she had on display. None of them took the plunge and actually bought a photo or two, but she knew that buying art was anything but a spur-of-the-moment thing so she wasn't concerned in the least.

Taking her trusty feather duster, she moved over to the display to freshen up the various items there. She paused to reflect for a very long moment when she reached an easel carrying a framed 50-by-75-centimeter portrait photograph of Henning Thomsen.

The photo had been taken at their traditional New Year's get-together, so Henning wore suitable attire in the shape of a dark-blue blazer jacket over a dark-gray shirt. A blue tie and a gold tie-pin completed the look. The shock of white hair, the sparkling eyes and the broad smile gracing the gentleman's features were the perfect counterpoints to the subdued, though stylish, clothing.

She had bawled her eyes out all over again when she had rediscovered it going through her photo archives for something to put in the storefront windows. To honor her dear, departed friend, she had it professionally printed at one of the best service providers in the region. The print-out and the frame of polished obsidian that she had ordered had cost a bundle, but one look at the portrait of Henning Thomsen made financial matters irrelevant.

Letting out a wistful sigh, she made sure the black frame and the easel were free of dust. She had barely finished the task before she happened to notice Carsten Jakobsen hurrying toward the studio holding what appeared to be a newspaper. He wore what could only be described as a sand-colored safari suit - the odd garment made him look as if he had taken a left when he should have gone right while searching for Doctor Livingstone.

"Ohhhh, no… I'm not in the mood for any of his nonsense today," Marianne said in a mumble as she put away the feather duster.

Carsten only stopped his hurried approach when he reached Marianne's counter. Beads of sweat had formed on his ruddy forehead, but he mopped them up with a handkerchief that he soon stuffed back into the pocket of his odd-looking safari suit. "Look at this!  Look what she's done!" he said, slapping his hand against the newspaper several times in rapid succession.

"What?  Who?  You're making even less sense than usual, Carsten!  What in the world are you-"

"This!" Carsten said, once more slapping his hand against the newspaper. "She placed an ad in the West Coast News!"

"Who has- oh… Katerina?"

"Well, of course!  Who else?"

Marianne narrowed her eyes down into slits at Carsten's patronizing tone. Instead of getting a reader's digest version - that would undoubtedly be colored by Carsten's well-publicized aversion to the lady across the square - she grabbed the newspaper to see for herself.

The advertisement took up almost half of page five and consisted of a drone photo of the Eagle Lake Strip Mall. An over-sized picture of Katerina Georgiou wearing a breezy summer dress and a wide-brimmed hat had been superimposed onto the background - she grinned from ear to ear while holding a gift basket filled with quality products similar to those found in the shops around the square. The top of the page read Visit the Eagle Lake Strip Mall today!  Open Mondays thru Saturdays 9:00 to 21:00, Sundays 11:00 to 20:00.

Marianne let out a "Hmmm…" at the sight.

"I'll say!" Carsten said in a sharp tone. "Have you ever seen anything this vulgar?"

A few moments went by in silence - mostly because Marianne was busy biting her tongue. Doing so wasn't good for her in the long run, so she drew a deep breath and fired off a broadside at the curmudgeon: "Why do you insist on calling everything vulgar?  One, that word doesn't mean what you think it does. And two, even if it did, this isn't vulgar in the least. Don't tell me you don't find her attractive!"

"That's completely irrelevant. I can't believe you're defending her!  Henning would never have approved of this-"

"Don't go there, Carsten!  Don't even think about going there!  Henning was far more progressive and open for new ideas than you'll ever be!  All right?"


"All right?!"

"All right, all right. God," Carsten said, shaking his head in a bout of utter confusion. He stared at Marianne with the proverbial - very large - question mark hovering just above his head.

A vein throbbed hard on the side of Marianne's neck. It continued to pulsate at a fair clip until she took a few deep breaths to calm down. Several long seconds went by that she used to study the advertisement once more. "There's nothing wrong with it as such, but I will concede that… well, I wish she had brought it up at our last committee meeting. Someone asked her-"

"It was Birgit."

"Birgit, right. Birgit asked her if she had any ideas or plans when it came to marketing. Katerina-"

"Said that she didn't. She obviously lied to us," Carsten said vehemently.

Marianne tried her damnedest to shoot a dark glare at the man who had earned the derogatory nickname Doctor No for a reason, but the odd safari suit created such a distraction that the glare never really made an impact. Instead of trying again, she turned her attention to the broadly grinning - and certainly photogenic - Katerina Georgiou in the newspaper advertisement. "Still… it's brought in a larger number of people than we've seen for weeks, if not months. All right. I'll go over to her. I'm sure there must be a perfectly good explanation for her oversight. Are you coming?"


Marianne had already set off for the front door when the single-word answer registered with her. Turning around, she shot Carsten a puzzled look. "No?  So why all the histrionics?"

"Well, I have a business to run, you know," Carsten said, brushing past Marianne to go out onto the square. "I can't just close my store in the middle of the day. Especially not with all these potential customers around."

Growling, Marianne slammed her hands onto her hips. "So you wind me up and send me over to chew her out!  And while I do that, I presume you'll be hiding underneath your counter?  There's a word for that, Carsten. It's spelled c-o-w-a-r-d!"

"I beg your pardon!"

"You won't get any!" Marianne said, reaching out to slam the door shut.

Carsten stepped back in a hurry so he wouldn't get hit by either the door or the tempestuous woman.

The door had almost closed when Marianne swung it open once more. "I'll talk to Katerina about the ad, but it'll be when I feel like it!  Goodbye!" - Slam!


The rest of the morning hours went by without further dramas save for the steadily climbing ambient temperatures. By the time the little digits on Marianne's telephone showed ten past twelve, the thermometer had reached a suffocating 30 degrees with yet more to come.

Her appetite read a flat zero so all she'd had for lunch was half of a chilled salad and a can of diet soda from her refrigerator. At present, she let an ice cube melt on her tongue to try to negate some of the blast-furnace heat that threatened to burn her up from the inside.

The studio was in fact equipped with an air-conditioning system, but it was old, noisy and gobbled up a ridiculous amount of expensive electricity for hardly any gain in lowering the indoor temperatures - thus, she only turned it on during the afternoon hours of the days where the sun threatened to burn the store to cinders.

Outside, the number of visitors to the Eagle Lake Strip Mall had unsurprisingly gone down from the early-morning high. Some people continued to brave the conditions, but they were few and far between. One pair in particular caught Marianne's eye. The cameras they wore around the neck as well as their loud, colorful clothing offered a hint they might be tourists determined to milk their long-awaited vacation for all it was worth.

As the last of the refreshing ice cube dissolved into cool water, Marianne made a beeline for the ice box to get a new one. Reconsidering at the last moment, she went into her bedroom instead for a sunhat and a white, breezy cotton jacket that would protect her shoulders and arms during the long trek she was about to head out on.

She flipped the unique, three-faced sign that she had attached to the inside of the glass door to read Be Right Back! - the other two options were obviously Open and Closed - before she gently pulled the door shut and worked the locks.

Flickering waves of heat rose from the flagstones as Marianne stepped away from her photo-studio and set off for the wine, tea and tobacco store across the square. The strong smells of hot asphalt and even hotter stone that emanated from the paved areas didn't exactly fall under the category known as A Rosy Fragrance so she almost needed to pinch her nostrils as she went on her somewhat-less-than-merry way.

Down below, it felt as if her plastic flip-flops were already melting from walking on the surface that had suffered the wrath of the old sun all morning. Picking up the pace was out of the question as any kind of exertion would inevitably lead to heat exhaustion, so all she could do was to aim directly for Katerina's store to make the trip through Death Valley as brief as possible.

She let out a sigh of relief when she reached the glass entrance at the wine, tea and tobacco store. Hurrying inside, she let out a chuckle at the classic sound of the two-tone bell that had been installed above the door.

A moment later, the chuckle turned into a shocked gasp as she discovered that Katerina had the air system going at maximum blast. A flurry of goose bumps exploded all over Marianne's body as she was exposed to an ambient temperature in the high teens centigrade and thus a staggering fifteen degrees cooler than on the other side of the glass door.

The cotton jacket was soon wrapped around her body with the vehemence of someone who was about to turn into an icicle. "My God… this is awful!  How can anyone work in here?" she said in a semi-whispered mumble.

The interior of the store had mostly been left unchanged since the days where Henning Thomsen had been in control of everything, but a small stack of brand-new, unopened cardboard packing cases over by the tobacco shelves revealed it might not remain unchanged for much longer.

As ever, the store was divided into three sections that each had a distinct theme: the fine wines rested on padded metal cradles inside noblewood racks that were softly illuminated by shielded light bulbs. To ensure the bottles would develop neither sediment nor cork-rot, they were kept at a certain angle that had been calculated down to the third decimal.

A pair of tall, oakwood bookcases presenting the various imported teas had been put directly ahead of the main entrance so they would be the first things new customers would see. The tea typically came in small tins or cardboard packets that carried elegant paintings of the so-called Classic Orient - to highlight the artwork, golden light shone upon the bookcases.

The tobacco shelves were off to the right of the entrance, and they had literally been put under lock and key to adhere to the recent legislature designed to curb all types of tobacco sales to minors. Although there was still a wide selection of products for sale, it was obvious by the developing gaps on the shelves that Katerina intended to phase out that part of the business sooner rather than later.

Marianne furrowed her brow when she looked at the store's highly elegant noblewood counter, or more to the point, at the things that had been put on it. Henning had always been a stickler for keeping the store clutter-free, so she couldn't help but wonder what he would have said to seeing a stack of brochures, a reed basket filled with small sample bags of tea, a mug holding a dozen or so ball point pens, and - of all things - a pink piggy bank made of earthenware taking up a great deal of space on the counter's top.

She needed to push those thoughts aside when Katerina Georgiou came out of the back room to join her.

Befitting someone working in an arctic environment, Katerina wore a royal-blue pant suit over an off-white button-down shirt. Her dark hair had been tied into a ponytail that made her look several years younger than her actual age. "Oh, hello, Marianne. I thought I heard the door, but I wasn't sure," she said as she put out her hand for the traditional greeting - a moment later, she let out a surprised gasp at the iciness of her visitor's fingers. "What in the… are you all right?"

"No, I'm not!" Marianne said with a grin as she pulled back her hand so she could wrap her arms around herself. "First of all, how can you work in such freezing conditions?  And secondly… how on Earth can your hand still be warm?  My extremities froze solid the moment I set foot in here!"

Laughing, Katerina held out her hands to give them a close study. "Well, I don't know. Maybe I'm just warmer?  Anyway, is there anything I can do for you today?  Did you like the red currant tea?"

The grin faded from Marianne's face as the topic changed from a safe one to one that could potentially cause a stir. "Yes, the tea was just fine, thank you, but I'm afraid that's not why I'm here."

"I see. It's the ad."

Marianne broke out in a slow, somber nod. "Yes. Well, yes and no. It's not the ad itself… truth be told, I suggested something similar at the committee meeting the night your uncle passed away. It's the principle, Katerina. Since the opening of the strip mall back in the mid-seventies, the storeowners have held meetings where things that affect all of us are discussed. And discussed in advance, I might add."

"Well, I did attend the last committee meeting…" Katerina said and moved behind the counter. She briefly locked eyes with Marianne before she began pouring more black tea into small sample bags that were destined for the reed basket.

"I know, but that's just it… we went around the table asking everyone if they had any ideas or suggestions they'd like to share regarding marketing or the like. Unless I'm very much mistaken, you said you drew a blank. I believe those were your exact words."

Katerina let out a low chuckle. "True, that's what I said. And I meant it. I didn't have anything at that point in time. The thought of the print ad only came later the same evening when I watched the late news on one of the local stations. One of the commercials was for a neighborhood flea market up in the city. The next morning, I made a few calls. A TV commercial proved to be too expensive and most likely wouldn't reach the right segment, but a print ad in the West Coast News was manageable. So… I got in touch with their ad department. They sent a photographer and you know the rest."

A deep sigh escaped Marianne. "I just wish you had told us. Or at least told me so I could have informed the others. Carsten got really upset-"

"Frankly, Marianne… what doesn't upset Carsten?" Katerina said, cocking her head. "I've dealt with a great number of people through my day job, but I'm hard-pressed to recall ever meeting such an obstinate fellow. He only knows one word, and that's 'no'."

"Well, that's why we call him Doctor No," Marianne said with a sly grin, "but I digress…"

"Fact is," Katerina continued after she had put a handful of new sample bags in the reed basket, "that I had more customers this morning than the past three days put together. All of them said they had never heard of the Eagle Lake Strip Mall before, but the ad made it look interesting. So they came."

Marianne fell quiet to digest the information. She watched Katerina walk over to the bookcases and put the surplus boxes of tea back on the shelves. They briefly locked eyes before Katerina took a feather duster and proceeded over to the wine racks to carry out Operation Dust-Off. "All right," Marianne said as she followed the new owner over to the other section of the store. "So did I, as a matter of fact-"

"Well… there you have it."

Having arrived at the wine racks, Marianne studied some of the labels for a moment or two before she turned to face Katerina: "I'll concede that point, but like I said earlier, the central issue here isn't the ad, but the principle. Right?  Discussing such things during our meetings is really important to us. I know you're only here while the probate court processes Henning's case, but I really wish you'd… oh… humor us by doing it our way. Even if our way seems quaint and inefficient to someone like you who's undoubtedly used to dealing with cut-throat high-rollers, brokers, lawyers and whatnot."

"I'm more of a backroom spreadsheet manager, actually," Katerina said with a chuckle. "But yeah, I'm sorry for cutting a few corners. If I get another bright idea, I promise I'll bring it up on the next meeting. Or call you if it's something that can't wait."

"Thank you very much, Katerina," Marianne said and put out a hand for the traditional shaking - the results of said action were immediate:

A sharp gasp and a high-pitched "Yee!" followed in quick succession before Katerina took a hurried step away from Marianne's frosty fingers. "That's not natural!  How is that even humanly possible?  You need to wear snow mittens!"

"Tell me about it," Marianne said with a grin. "Oh, I really need to return to my store. You know, I think it would be possible to bake bread on the flagstones. My flip-flops nearly melted walking over here!"

Katerina smiled as she escorted Marianne over to the door. "We can't have that. I wouldn't recommend running to get back faster, though."

As the door opened, a wall of scorching-hot air entered the store. Marianne and Katerina shared a brief look before Marianne gulped and stepped out into the hostile environment that was only a few degrees cooler than the inside of an erupting volcano.


The rest of the day went far better than usual for Marianne and her photo-studio. By the time six-thirty rolled around, she'd had as many customers in one day than she would usually see in an entire week - better yet, they had all bought something: two families had booked a time for group photographs and single-person portraits so they would have personalized Christmas cards to send out during The Season To Be Jolly. Other customers had bought several of Marianne's framed landscapes and even some of her photo-art. Others again had come by to have their picture taken for new library cards, driver's licenses and other types of ID documents.

She and the rest of the storeowners at the Eagle Lake Strip Mall had been given a helping hand by Mother Nature who had persuaded cooling clouds to form over the lake. Later, the clouds had drifted over the lakeshore promenade and the adjacent mall to take the raw edge off the boiling-hot ambient temperatures.

Although the humidity had risen sharply as a result, the fact that it was possible to walk around the square without getting roasted by the sun's strong rays had made a large amount of visitors show up for the second time that day.

The new wave of people ranged from tiny tots in baby strollers to the elderly in wheelchairs. Every age group in between was represented as well, including the one that controlled the flow of money from their wallets to the storeowners' coffers. All in all, the day had been a smashing success.


The lack of food in Marianne's stomach made it send out a series of frantic distress calls. A quick glance at the clock proved the hands of time had indeed reached a quarter past seven in the evening - supper was long overdue.

Although the past forty-five minutes had flown by through profitable visits by two further customers, the dwindling number of people walking past the studio's storefront windows made it obvious that the day was winding down.

In the mood for something spicy, she had already reached for the menu for one of the local pizza parlors when her telephone rang. Intrigued by the fact the caller-ID said Katerina, she reached for the smartphone and accepted the call. "Hello, Katerina. It's been quite a day, hasn't it?"

'Hello, Marianne. Yes, it certainly has. Listen-'

"And we have your ad to thank for it," Marianne said with a smile.

'I believe we do, yes. On that note, I've had a new idea. During the lull this afternoon, I explored the Internet to see what others have done to stir up interest. It seems there's a popular video content creator on the World Connected platform that specializes in visiting small, independent malls and the like.'

"Oh… ah, Katerina-"

'I checked out a few of their most viewed videos, and guess what?  The quality nearly blew my socks off. A charming female presenter who isn't biased but lets the destination speak for itself-'

"Katerina, I'm… I'm sorry, but you lost me completely with the Technobabble."

'What?  I didn't… oh… yeah, okay. You're not familiar with World Connected?'

Marianne let out a chuckle. "Not in the least… I always use that other one."

'Okay. Tell you what, it's much easier if I come over to show you what I'm talking about. I guarantee you'll be astounded by the professional quality of the videos.'

"Sounds like a plan… oh… Katerina, I've just had a great idea," Marianne said, snapping her fingers. "I'll call for an extraordinary committee meeting tonight. In an hour's time… on second thoughts, let's make it eight-thirty. I'll order a stack of pizzas and maybe you could bring a good bottle of red-"

'Or two.'

"Or two, yeah," Marianne said with a grin. "Then you could show us the video and we'll discuss your plan. Carsten Jakobsen probably won't like it to begin with, but I think we may be able to convince him. I know he uses the Internet for a lot of his trading, so… yep. I have a good feeling about it."

'Well, that's good to hear. Oh, a customer just walked in… I better hang up. Talk to you later!  Bye!'

Marianne's smile only grew larger. She craned her neck in an attempt to see Henning's old store across the square, but the angle was wrong. "Bye-bye, Katerina. Thanks for calling."


The original starting time of half past eight became eight-forty instead, but it didn't matter as all the ingredients were present to make it a productive evening. The extraordinary committee meeting was to be held at Marianne's, so she had rigged up the foldable table they always used for the get-togethers. Since the late supper would have an Italian theme, she had even draped the table in a cloth that carried the classic red-and-white checkers often seen in the more traditional Italian restaurants.

In the hope of preventing endless rounds of pointless bickering about who could have which slice and when - Marianne was certain there would already be plenty of that debating the main topic - she had ordered four different pizzas so everyone could choose their favorites. The food had already been delivered in a large, multi-tiered Styrofoam box that had been put on a side table for when the meeting would start.

Birgit Andersen, who had brought some balsamico and extra pouches of Mediterranean and North African spices, sat at the far end of the table sporting a grin of expectation that reached from ear to ear. To combat the heat, she wore pink Bermuda shorts, a baby-blue spaghetti-strap tank top and a white shawl over her shoulders - the latter was soon folded up and put away as Marianne still hadn't turned on the A/C.

The meek Jesper Tiedemann had kept it far more subdued by wearing a single-layer tracksuit held in pale-gray and white. He hadn't brought anything to the committee meeting as his best-selling items - basketball boots, sweatbands and jock straps - would have somewhat limited use at such a function.

Marianne had to open the door for the next person to arrive: Katerina, who had her arms full carrying three bottles of red wine. The lady continued to wear the royal-blue pant suit over an off-white shirt, but it was clear by the surprised look upon her face as she experienced the ambient temperature in Marianne's store that at least one of those clothing items would soon be hanging over the backrest of a chair. "Ohhhh… did you turn on the central heating or something?" she said as she put the bottles of wine on the side table next to the Styrofoam box. "This is the kind of indoor temperature we used to have back on Cyprus when I was a little girl. I've been here two seconds and I'm sweating already!"

"No central heating required when we have the sun. And this is exactly how I want it," Marianne said with a grin as she closed the door. Reconsidering, she opened it once more to cast a long look outside in the hope of seeing Carsten Jakobsen walking toward the photo-studio. A grunt escaped her from looking at the time on her telephone.

Katerina chuckled as she took a napkin to dab her forehead. "I'd melt. In fact, I am melting!  No, I have to take this off," she said as she pulled the suit jacket off her shoulders and rolled up the sleeves of her off-white shirt. The actions distributed a delightful fragrance that soon reached the other parts of the store.

"Now that's what I call a quality perfume," Marianne said as she moved back to the table. "I've given up wearing anything but heavy-duty deodorant during this heatwave. Is it Chanel?"

"No, it's a local brand from Cyprus. It's mainly sandalwood plus a few secret ingredients."

"Right… well, come in and have a seat. Carsten should be here any minute."

Smiling, Katerina moved over to greet Birgit and Jesper the usual way.


Five minutes later, Carsten Jakobsen hurried across the flagstones to get to the studio. He still wore his safari suit that didn't look any less odd now the sun was creeping toward the western horizon.

He had barely set foot inside when his face turned so ruddy it looked as if he was about to burst. The safari jacket ended up across the backrest of his chair in a hurry, as did the fetching pullover he wore underneath. "Good Lord, Marianne… why don't you turn your air on?  This is unbearable!" he said as he sat down at his usual spot - away from the others.

"Well, it just so happens that I prefer it this way, Carsten," Marianne said before she reached for her telephone. "And something else… do you call this eight-thirty?" - As she spoke, she pointed at the clock that read 20:48 hours - "Because I don't. I call it being eighteen minutes late!"

"I was detained."

Marianne let out a huff before she put her telephone away once more. "I'll say!  At least you're here. All right, I want to thank you all for coming at such short notice. Katerina has thought of something she'd like to share with the-"

"While we're on that subject," Carsten said in a surly voice, "I'd like to file a formal complaint to my fellow committee members regarding the advertisement in today's West Coast News. Actually, I'd like to file several complaints-"

"Carsten-" Marianne tried, but she was cut off at once. Sighing, she cast a glance at the other storeowners - Jesper could do nothing but blush, but Katerina and Birgit offered her looks of sympathy.

Carsten shook his head. "No, let me speak. This is important. Miss Georgiou, did you or did you not inform the committee at our last meeting that you had no ideas or suggestions when it came to marketing?  And that you wanted to look at how other things would pan out before you could-"

"Yes," Katerina said, repaying the favor by cutting Carsten off mid-stream. As expected, the man known as 'Doctor No' didn't look as if he appreciated it. Katerina continued: "And I would like to apologize to my fellow committee members. I should have notified you of my idea with the ad when the thought came to me. It was a spur-of-the-moment decision. That's partially why Marianne called this meeting."

It was obvious by the wide-open look upon Carsten's face that Katerina's honest plea had snatched the winds from his sails. He opened his mouth a couple of times to add another dose of vitriol, but nothing came of it save for a "Well… all right."

"And with that out of the way," Marianne said and got up from her chair, "let's get those pizzas out and about while they're still hot. Katerina, what kind of wine did you bring?"

Katerina grinned as she moved over to the side table as well. She held up the first of the wines: one of the arch-traditional, pot-bellied bottles wrapped in bast. "An easy-drinking Chianti cultivated, processed and bottled by a Tuscany vineyard co-operative. It's the real deal. Although it has an exquisite body and magnificent depth, it packs less punch than you'd expect. Just the thing for an Italian-themed evening with pizza and good company."

"Excellent!  Okay, let's see what's hiding behind door number two," Marianne said before she opened the large, multi-tiered Styrofoam box to get to the pizza on the upper level.


The late supper went well - the wine was rich and delicious, the pizzas were tasty and Birgit's extra spices and balsamico added plenty of pep - but Marianne had a hunch the serenity wouldn't last.

Even while Jesper Tiedemann mentioned that he had sold three times as much on the day than he had during the past three market days combined, the look upon Carsten's face proved that he mulled over something that could make the peace and quiet come crashing down. He took a long sip of the mineral water he had asked for as a replacement for the Chianti wine that had apparently been far too peppered for him.

Eyeing Carsten's gloomy expression, Marianne decided to speak up at once to keep the positive energy flowing: "Jesper," she said, smiling at her fellow committee member, "I'm glad to hear about your good day. And Birgit, with the great amount of business you had, it proves the ad was a success. So… thank you for that, Katerina. Now, I believe you have a new suggestion you'd like to share with the rest of us?"

"That's right," Katerina said after dabbing her lips on a napkin. "I've found a content creator on the World Connected social media platform who makes these outstanding videos on local markets, malls and the like. Their videos are near-broadcast quality when it comes to the onscreen talent and the production values. My suggestion is that we try to contact-"


Everyone stopped what they were doing to shoot Carsten Jakobsen looks that ranged from mere puzzlement to fiery outrage.

To counter the stares thrown at him, he folded his arms over his chest and shook his head several times. "We're not going to contact anyone. You're new to the area so you can't know. Well, let me tell you that the TV commercials on the local channels are nothing short of grotesquely poor."

"Carsten," Katerina continued, "I'm not talking about a TV commercial. I'm talking about a promotional video filmed by a content creator who does this for a liv-"

"You could be talking about the new Pope coming to sign autographs, and I'd still say no. No, no, no, no."

Marianne looked at both combatants before she put her palms on the tabletop and leaned in toward Carsten. "Why don't you just come clean and say you have no idea what Katerina is talking about?  I misunderstood at first as well, but she's prepared a video that'll show exactly-"

"But I don't care, Marianne. I should have known you'd side with a woman regardless of how hopeless her suggestion was. Especially now when you outnumber us by one. When Henning was still with us-"

"Don't go there, Carsten… I'm warning you," Marianne said in a low, dangerous voice - the look on Carsten's face proved he wasn't going to heed that warning.

"-and we were three men, we could have an honest and fair discussion-"

Birgit butted in: "Pardon my French, Carsten, but that's nothing but pure, unadulterated bullcrap!"

"No, it's not!  It's a fully justified point, Birgit!" Carsten said, thumping his index finger onto the table. Glaring at Katerina, he tried - unsuccessfully - to pin her to the spot. He soon gave up trying and turned to face Birgit once more. "Especially considering how much of an outlier Henning's niece is compared to the rest of us. Just the other day, I saw her wearing jeans!  Can you believe that?  Jeans at her age?"

Stunned silence spread through the photo-studio. It lasted long enough for Jesper's cheeks to catch fire and for Marianne's face to gain an expression that promised impending doom. Another heartbeat on from that, Birgit and Marianne both went ballistic at the exact same time:

Where Birgit let out a long raspberry and offered Carsten a one-fingered salute that was recognized from Anchorage to Zawezi, Marianne bolted to her feet at such speed the chair tipped over behind her.

"Get out!  Do you hear me?  Get out!  Now!  Before I throw you out!" she roared in a voice that didn't sound like her usual honeyed tones at all. When Carsten was too shocked by the reaction to do much but stare, Marianne turned to the others. "From this moment on, the decisions are no longer required to be unanimous. A simple majority will suffice. All those who agree to expel Carsten Jakobsen from the owner's committee, raise your right hand!"

Carsten smacked a palm onto the table with such force the plates and wine glasses danced about. "You can't do that!  That's one of the original clauses in our regulations-"

"Watch me!  Jesper, Birgit, how do you vote?"

Katerina knew better than to get mixed up in other people's battles so she abstained from voting. Birgit's hand shot skyward at a rate of knots, and even the blushing Jesper put his hand in the air, though in a rather meeker fashion.

"Three for, one against, one abstained. The ayes have it," Marianne said in a growl. "What'll it be, Carsten?"

Carsten narrowed his eyes down into slits. Beads of sweat sprung from the pores on his forehead, but he eventually got up and took his pullover and the jacket for his safari suit. "I hope you're happy, Marianne. You've been wanting to get rid of me for a long time."  Moving over to the large portrait of Henning, Carsten pointed an accusing index finger at the irate woman. "And I'm telling you one thing… Henning is spinning in his grave right now!"

"All right, that does it!" Marianne roared, stomping around the corner of the table to get to Carsten. "Get the hell out of my store, or I swear to God I'll throw you out by force!"

For once, Carsten did what he was told, but he did so with a long line of mumbled curses.

Staggering back to the table, Marianne sat down with a heavy bump. She eyed the bottle of Tuscan Chianti but chose against imbibing the fine wine. "Will someone please get me a diet soda?  I have a six-pack of Cokes in my fridge," she said in a listless voice.

Katerina had already risen to carry out the request, but Birgit was quicker: "Marianne's regular fridge isn't where you'd expect it, Katerina… I got it. Please look after her in the meantime."

Nodding, Katerina moved around the table to crouch down next to the visibly fatigued Marianne. She took the older woman's hands in her own and gave them a little squeeze. "Thank you for being my knight in shining, uh… flip-flops. I guess Carsten has an aversion to jeans, huh?"

Marianne broke out in a tired chuckle. "Don't take it to heart, Katerina. He's just an incurable bunghole. If he hadn't brought Henning into it, I would've let him stay."

At the same time, Birgit returned from her small trip to the refrigerator carrying a can of diet Coke. "Here you go, Marianne. If you want me to track 'im down and kick his ass from here to the other side of the lake, I will!"

"No, I think he got the picture, Birgit. Thanks," Marianne said and held up the can. She needed the help of a fork to crack it open, but the task had soon been accomplished.

Katerina eyed the remaining committee members before she got up and moved back to her spot at the table. "So… could I still tempt you to watch that video I wanted to talk about?  It's sort-of a highlights reel of their work so it's only eight minutes long."

Marianne needed several deep breaths to gain enough energy to get her lead-filled limbs up from the chair. Once upright, she moved around the table. "Yes, let's watch it. Then we'll have a vote on your suggestion," she said before taking a long swig of the cooling soda.



Monday, July 8th.

It's said that time heals all wounds, but perhaps the same doesn't apply to old feuds - the mood at the Eagle Lake Strip Mall certainly hadn't improved at all even two days on from the fiery confrontation at the committee meeting. The relationship between Marianne and Carsten remained on edge, even after Katerina had tried to mediate to get the two back on speaking terms.

At least one part of the grand plan had come to fruition: Katerina had managed to get in touch with the video content creator, who - through a late cancellation - had a gap in her schedule that was just waiting to be filled.

In the old days, the filming of a travelogue or a documentary would have required a regiment's worth of camera and sound technicians, cable-layers, makeup people, wardrobe people and multi-purpose gofers who performed all the mundane jobs at the set that nobody else could be bothered with, but the advances in technology meant that the entire crew consisted of the on-screen talent, a camera operator who controlled an ultra-high-definition steady-cam as well as a pair of drones, and finally a personal assistant slash stylist who'd make sure the background was clear and that the presenter's hair looked sublime.

Instead of having a boom-operator to record the sound, the presenter carried a nearly-invisible, cordless mini-mic that had been attached to the upper hem of her blouse - the speech it picked up would be integrated directly into the video to create a seamless mix that would only require minor touch-ups later on in case of flubbed lines or the like.

Marianne and Katerina watched the small commotion unfold from the safety of the wine, tea and tobacco store's doorstep. Just to prove how popular the channel's videos were, nearly a hundred fans - and potential customers - had turned up to watch the filming and to get close to their idol.

"Amazing, really," Marianne said as she took in the scene. "And you say some of their videos have been watched several million times?"

"The most popular ones, yes. Some peaked somewhere in the eight-hundred-thousand bracket, but most have reached a million views."

Marianne shook her head while letting out a dry chuckle. "Amazing. Incredible. And I don't understand a word of it. Oh, never mind. Here she comes… what was her name again?"

"Silke Mantoni," Katerina said out of the corner of her mouth - then she stepped forward with her hand stretched out ahead of her. "Hello and welcome to the Eagle Lake Strip Mall, Miss Mantoni. We've spoken so you already know my name… this is Marianne Haakonsen. She's the one who wrote the background pieces you asked for."

Silke Mantoni was a slender, brown-eyed brunette in her late-twenties who proved to be taller than Marianne but shorter than Katerina. To fit the casual mood found at the independent mall, she had chosen to wear limited makeup and regular clothes in the shape of white track shoes, pale-blue denim shorts, a white, sleeveless blouse and a red-and-blue windbreaker that carried the name of her show on the back - her entire wardrobe had obviously been provided by one of her many sponsors.

Silke immediately put out her hand to shake Katerina and Marianne's in that order. "Hello!  Thank you, thank you… it's certainly a cozy strip mall you have here. We can get a lot of great angles. Thank you for the background info, Miss… Mrs?"

"Oh, Marianne is just fine," Marianne said with a grin.

"Thank you for writing the background info. I'm going to use it to introduce the stores as we walk around the mall. I had to condense it a little to fit my typical shot length, et cetera, so I might say something dead wrong. If I do, just butt in and we'll do a second take. All right?"

Marianne's grin grew a little strained thinking about the countless hours she had spent - and possibly wasted - the day before getting every little detail right, but it was soon back to a state known as 'genuine.' "Works for me," she said, glancing at Katerina who could only shrug.


An hour and a half later, Silke wrapped up her scenes at Birgit Andersen's House Of Accessories. Unlike Jesper who blushed so badly he could hardly state his name and present his store to the camera, it had seemed that Birgit never wanted to stop speaking.

Marianne could only grin goofily at the look upon Silke Mantoni's face when Birgit had gone on and on and on. Birgit had offered the presenter her entire backstory from the moment she was born, past all the different types of jobs she'd held over the years, and up to the moment fifteen minutes earlier when the camera team had arrived at her store.

By the time everything had been said and done, Silke was given a bottle of mineral water by her personal assistant. She had barely cracked it open before she chugged it down in a series of deep gulps.

Marianne waited for the Internet celebrity to empty the bottle before she stepped forward: "Well, that's three down and two to go. My studio and Mr. Jakobsen's bookstore… I'm afraid I need to give you a heads-up about him, Silke. Carsten can be a real pain in the butt when the mood hits him. He's been in a foul state of mind ever since Katerina first aired the idea of inviting you. I hope he'll have come around after he's seen how professional you and your team are, but… I can't say for sure."

"Thank you. I know the type well. Some people are only capable of complaining."

"Yeah, and Carsten's a prime example of that. We call him Doctor No for that very reason," Marianne said, breaking out in a shrug. "Katerina is over there right now in an attempt to un-ruffle his feathers- oh, there she is!  Ahoy!"

Katerina jogged back to Marianne and Silke with a reddish flush covering her cheeks. "Well, let me start out by saying… oh boy, his mood sure hasn't improved since the committee meeting. He almost threw me out of his bookstore. I have a feeling he wants to sabotage the rest of the day somehow. Don't know how, but there's a definite risk of it."

A mask of equal measure glumness and mounting temper fell over Marianne's face. She stood like that for a few moments before she said: "If he wants to be an immature bunghole, fine by me. We're going to ignore him and his store. Silke, let's wrap this up by going over to my studio. All right?"

Silke looked from one to the other before she broke out in a shrug. "Sure… no problem."


A short ten minutes later, the production crew had moved down to Marianne's studio. After finding a good angle for the shot, the camera operator measured the light levels before he adjusted the camera's many settings to obtain the best possible quality for the shot. While that went on, the personal assistant made sure Silke's hair and clothes sat perfectly.

Marianne would sit on a tall barstool during the customer-free periods of the day, and she made up her mind that it would serve an even better role as her on-screen furniture. The aluminum frame and the fake-leather cushion only required a little action with her trusty feather duster before it was ready to move around the corner of the counter.

Silke Mantoni soon performed the last of her own pre-recording preparations by gurgling in mango-flavored mineral water - an action that made Katerina and Marianne gawk at her. "All right," she said, handing back the bottle to her assistant. "I'm ready. Okay, Marianne, I'm going to give you the same spiel I gave Jesper and Birgit. When we record, just be yourself. Please don't put on an act as it looks far more fake than we realize. Trust me, I know. When I started, I did the whole movie-star thing, and it was awful."

Marianne chuckled as she hopped up on the barstool and made herself comfortable. "I hear you. That's pretty much what I say to those who come in for family portraits. It needs to be natural."

"Exactly," Silke said with a grin. "All right… and we're rolling. Marianne Haakonsen, you have the longest tenure among the owners. When exactly did you arrive, and what brought you here?"

"I first came here twenty-three years ago, actually, but another year went by before I bought this store and opened my studio. My first visit here was as a tourist. I stayed at one of the bed-and-breakfasts over by the lake. One day, I went on a little stroll that ended over here at the Eagle Lake Mall. I guess there was a certain rural charm to it that I fell in love with. I lived up north in the city at the time… well, I had just grown tired of the constant hustle and bustle, the crime, the pollution and all those things. A year or so later, I read in the West Coast News that one of the stores had become available to buy. I counted all my nickels and dimes to see if it could work out… and lo and behold, it could. I bought the store and moved down here. I haven't regretted it for a second."

Sitting out of shot, Silke offered Marianne a big thumbs-up that prompted a wide smile. The camera continued to record while the presenter looked through her papers.

Marianne briefly furrowed her brow when she noticed Katerina - who stood guard at the door so nobody could disturb the filming - slam her hands onto her hips and stare out onto the square between the stores. Marianne focused on Silke once more when she started speaking:

"In addition to taking family photos, portraits and even offering all-inclusive solutions for weddings, bar and bat mitzvahs and other religious functions, you're also heavily into photo-art. Please, can you tell the viewers what photo-art is?"

"Sure!  The term photo-art covers several different forms of… of…" - Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed Katerina stomping out of the studio. The tall lady disappeared from view almost at once, but her body language had suggested she was distinctly unimpressed with something - "Uh… art. The traditional, physical collages obviously fall under this category, as do computer-aided surrealism and abstracts."

"A few years ago, you won an award at the AvantArt Festival. Do you have the winning photo here?"

"No," Marianne said with a grin, "because it was entered in the Surrealism category. It only existed on a very cheap disposable camera, and only as long as the camera was switched on. The moment it lost power, the picture was gone forever."

Silke grinned back. "Well, that's certainly surreal. But you do have other examples of your photo-art here, right?"

"Yes. They're on display over in the window," Marianne said, once more looking past Silke's shoulder at Katerina who returned with a face like thunder.

Silke held up her hand to show they had reached the end of the setup. "Let's look at a few of them," she said before she tapped the camera operator's shoulder to let him know they were done. While the operator checked the recording and the data, Silke went over to Marianne. "Okay, that was great!  All right, would you mind finding two or three images or works of art you'd like to promote?  No more than that, please."

"No problem," Marianne said as she hopped off the barstool. Selecting the photos had to wait as the annoyed look upon Katerina's face revealed that something had come up. Moving over to her new friend, she offered her a smile and put a hand on her elbow. "What's going on?  You look about ready to blow up…"

A simple two-word answer from Katerina was enough to make Marianne groan out loud: "It's Carsten."

"I swear he's going to give me an ulcer one day," Marianne said, pinching the bridge of her nose. "What's he done now?"

Katerina let out a sigh. "Oh, it's hardly worth mentioning. Except that he's taken large pieces of cardboard, poured black paint over them and put them up against his storefront windows. And he's written various slogans on them in white."

The more Katerina spoke, the more Marianne rolled her eyes and shook her head. By the end of the sentence, she even added a facepalm as the proverbial crashing cymbal. "Just to compound my misery… what kind of slogans are we talking about here?"

"Well, there's one that says 'True freedom is saying that-' "

"Two plus two equals five without anyone contradicting you. Yeah. That's one of his favorites. That it makes zero sense doesn't bother him. Okay. If a guy in his fifties wants to act like a spoiled three-year-old, it's fine by me." As Marianne spoke, she made it a deliberate choice to stand at an angle where she couldn't see Carsten Jakobsen's bookstore across the square.

"Miss Haakonsen… pardon, Marianne," Silke said from over by the studio's windows, "we're ready when you are."

"Shoot, I didn't have time to find any of my artwork to show 'em," Marianne said in a mumble before she continued at a normal volume: "Thanks, Silke. I'll be right there!"

Marianne turned back to Katerina. A tired smile spread over her features as she reached out to touch the taller lady's arm. "Say, when we're done here, would you like to share something sweet and a mug of your fine herbal tea?  Or something?  Or do you need to get back to your own-"

"I'd love to," Katerina said with a grin that was responded to in kind.

The arm was given an extra squeeze by Marianne's slender fingers. "Neat!  Oh, I better find some artwork before Silke loses her patience. At least I know exactly which three to highlight."


Everyone had been so busy over the course of the day that time seemed to have gone by double-quick. Before anyone's soul really had time to catch up with all the hectic activity, Silke Mantoni and her crew said goodbye and left for their base up north in the big city - their master plan was to head into the editing room the following day, post a 10-minute promo reel the day after that, and then post the full-length video the following Friday so the Eagle Lake Strip Mall could reap the benefits over the weekend.

Her head spinning from the hubbub, Marianne returned to her studio and made a beeline for the table they always used for their committee meetings. A mug of herbal tea was soon put on a heat-resistent coaster in order to protect the wooden tabletop. Even that slight action made another wave of fatigue roll over her, and she had to let out a long, slow sigh as she pulled out the chair and made herself comfortable.

A moment later, Katerina sat down opposite Marianne bringing another mug and a dessert plate laden with chocolate treats. Her own mug was pushed aside so she had room to reach out for Marianne's hands. Once she had them in her own, they were given a little squeeze. "What a day… but we made it through in one piece. More or less."

"More or less?"

"Honestly, you're quite pale."

"Oh… yeah. I guess I've gone numb in the upstairs department," Marianne said before letting out a tired chuckle. A long swig of the herbal tea was followed by an even longer sigh. "I wish I could fall into bed and sleep for the next three days, but I can't. For starters, I need to read Carsten the riot act about his petulant behavior."

"If it's any help, I'd like to volunteer. Perhaps I could-"

Marianne shook her head to cut Katerina off. "Won't work. He won't listen to you. I have to do it. Chances are he won't listen to me either, but… well… I've known him for so long. Maybe I can get through to him."

They fell silent for a few moments while they sipped their herbal teas and enjoyed the quality chocolates. Katerina soon reached out to give Marianne's hand another squeeze. "Was he always Doctor No?"

"Pretty much since the start, yeah. It was manageable as long as Henning was there to act as his counterweight. Carsten's gone completely off the rails now."

"Maybe he's still grieving," Katerina said with a shrug.

"We all are. Henning had an immense presence. As cheesy as it may sound, he was the heart of the Eagle Lake mall."

Another few moments went by that were filled with the occasional slurping of tea and munching on the chocolates. "I'm sorry for being so blunt," Katerina said after putting down her mug, "but were you and he ever romantically-"

Marianne shook her head at once. "Oh, no. It was nothing like that. We were like brother and sister. Sensible older brother and cheeky younger sister!  Your uncle obviously had family here and abroad, but I never did. Both my parents were only children, and so am I. I suppose Henning took me under his wing pretty much from the outset. We just became each other's extended family."

"That's so sweet," Katerina said with a grin. A few sips were taken before she continued: "Is there room for me in your extended family?"

Marianne grinned back. "Oh, you better believe there is. The more the merrier."


There was just enough time to munch on a piece of chocolate before Marianne continued: "So how did you find your way from Cyprus and all the way up here?  They're not exactly close in a geographic sense."

"Well, no," Katerina said, sipping her tea. "It was a long process that started when my parents got divorced. This was in nineteen-eighty. Dad had served his time with the UN by then, so he moved back here. I was eleven and took it quite hard."

"Oh, I'm sorry to hear that."

Katerina shrugged as she nabbed the next piece of chocolate. "It's been so long it almost seems like someone else's life. Anyway, I moved to Greece in 'eighty-eight… no, late 'eighty-seven… to live on the Athens University campus. My plans were to major in Ancient Greek studies, but things and plans changed so I ended up studying economics full time and corporate law on the side."


"I wanted to see Dad's home country, so I came up here during the summer recess. I liked what I saw and vowed to return some day, but I stayed in Greece for the next handful of years. Once my student years were over, I badly needed a steady salary to pay off my bank loans and other debts. Well, there weren't any jobs for someone like me in Athens so I had to travel north. I spent a few years in Thessaloniki, then onto Vienna and finally Frankfurt am Main where I worked at Germania Bank… then I realized I wanted to settle down. Greece had plunged into a financial crisis then, so I chose to come back up here. It took a few months, but I managed to find a job as an assistant to a stock broker. That led to other things, and this and that… and here I am now."

Spellbound by the tale, Marianne took a long swig of her herbal tea without taking her eyes off the attractive woman sitting opposite her. "Wow, that's so impressive, Katerina. I've barely been out of the country!  Unless you count one-day trips across the border to buy tax-free…"

"Oh, take it from someone who's been there and done that… working internationally isn't what it's hyped up to be. There's a mountain of paperwork and bureaucracy, the insurance companies are reluctant to cover you, there's always a language barrier which means language schools, homework and cramming for exams. Not to mention the cultural differences. Ugh. But I'm happy now. I have double citizenship, so… yes, I'm happy."

Falling quiet, Katerina concentrated on her herbal tea and the next chocolate treat - then she needed to hide a yawn so wide it nearly made her jaw drop off. "Pardon me… I'm dead tired. You know, I think I'll call it a night. I need to drive home so I can hit the sheets."

Smiling at her new friend, Marianne rose and began collecting the empty mugs and the dessert plate where only two pieces of chocolate remained. "You haven't had time to set up a new bedroom over in the store?"

Katerina got up as well and helped carry the various dishes into the kitchen. "No, I've been too busy. I tried sleeping in Uncle Henning's bed one of the first nights here, but… well, it kinda creeped me out, to be honest. I don't like sleeping in strange beds."

"So when you're out on a hot date, you always end up at your place, then?  Eh?  Eh?" - The comment was accompanied by an entire series of winks.

Laughing out loud, Katerina tried to reach Marianne to deliver a playful slap on the arm, but the intended target had already moved out of range by then. "You really are the cheeky younger sister!  My lips are zippered… or however you say it!"

"Ohhhh-all right, all right," Marianne said while she briefly moved back into range to return the playful, little favor - unlike Katerina's, hers made a light connection with the sleeve. "Please take care when you drive back to the city. The roads are bound to be congested tonight… I have a feeling that everyone wants to get home before the rain hits. The Weather Bureau have forecast a thunderstorm, you know."

"Yes, I got an Inclement Weather warning on the app. Will you be all right? I'll bet it gets real loud out here with the wide-open lake and everything…"

"It sure does," Marianne said with a grin, "but I have top-of-the-line earplugs. I'll be fine. Thanks for caring."

"You're welcome. And I'll make sure to drive extra-carefully," Katerina said before she leaned down toward Marianne for a very Mediterranean cheek-kissing session. Once all the kissing had been accomplished, she put out her hand to end their day with the traditional greeting.


The familiar sound of distant thunder finally reached Marianne's ears at ten to two in the morning - the high probability of a nightly thunderstorm had been evident for hours as the humidity had done nothing but increase since Katerina had left to drive home.

She had been granted a few hours' worth of solid sleep, but all she could do at present was to lie on her bed and sweat even though she had already removed all non-essential clothing.

The initial crack of thunder was soon followed by a second, then a third as the cell in question rolled closer to the lakeshore hamlet and the adjacent strip mall. Five minutes later, there was no denying the weather forecasts had been correct for once.

A deep sigh escaped her as she swung her bare legs over the side of the bed. Sitting up, a quick glance at her alarm clock proved it was two minutes to two. "I hate this damn mugginess… oh, I might as well get up and do something useful," she mumbled to herself as she got to her feet and shuffled over to the window.

The bedroom curtains were soon moved aside so she could peek out. "Hmmm… no rain yet… excellent," she said as she craned her neck to take in the sights. The absence of rain meant she opened the bedroom window in the hope that cooler air would enter and gobble up the humidity.

Out on the square, the night-time mood lighting illuminating the flagstones between the stores had come on, but there was really no need for it as the frequent flashes of lightning took care of business in their own, inimitable way.

Marianne scratched her sleep-tousled hair as she looked at the clothes she had already laid out for the coming day. Another "Hmmm!" escaped her as she donned a pair of capris, a T-shirt and a fleece vest. Once she had stuck her bare feet into a pair of beach sandals, she left the bedroom and made a beeline for the small storage room where she kept all her camera equipment.


Fully decked out with an ultra-high-definition digital recorder of the latest generation as well as a 50-year-old analog film camera built to NASA-grade specifications, she ventured outside to take full advantage of Mother Nature's amazing light show.

The humidity persisted, but it was far easier to breathe than in her stuffy bedroom - she celebrated that fact by taking a deep, invigorating breath of the cool night-time air.

The skies toward the west were dark-blue rather than black as the final, faint traces of the day that had just left them were still visible. As a good example of the perpetual celestial movements, a few blue and purple notes were already encroaching on the vast sea of blackness toward the east.

She clamped the shock-and-waterproof UHD recorder onto a low, spidery tripod that she put in the middle of the square. The thunder cell took up a great deal of the view toward the south, so she aimed the camera in that direction and set it to record.

Moving away from the center of the square, she cast a glance at Carsten's bookstore as she made her way to the connecting road at the far end of the Eagle Lake Strip Mall. She scoffed at his ridiculous petulance. The black pieces of cardboard he had put in the storefront windows as a protest against God-knows-what had all been taken down the moment Silke Mantoni and her team had left. Carsten's confrontational behavior meant they hadn't recorded a second's worth of footage from his store, but he was the only one who didn't seem to understand the implications of that.


Marianne slowed down to a halt when she reached the wine, tea and tobacco store that Henning Thomsen had owned for so many years. A sudden urge to admire the storefront windows fell over her, so she let the thunderstorm be to take in the sights of the many colorful boxes and bottles.

Parts of the displays had been redesigned by Katerina following her decision to phase out the tobacco products in favor of top-quality candies and chocolates, but other parts still looked the same. A muted chuckle escaped Marianne as she recalled the many afternoons she and Henning had spent designing the displays so the placement of the various products would be perfect.

Being the nimblest of the committee members meant it had always been her job to put everything in the right place once the exact layout had been drawn up. Doing so demanded the grace and agility of a circus tightrope performer as it was only safe to put her feet in very specific spots on the displays - three centimeters off in either direction and she would either break through the plywood shelf or end up down on the floor, buried in a pile of bottles, cartons and tea leaves.

The smile faded from her face as her thoughts inevitably turned to her late friend and the night where it had all come to an end. A brief shiver fell over her before she turned away from the store and moved back to the center of the square.

Flashes of lightning toward the south brought her back to the present and the task at hand. She readied the classic camera in the hope of catching one of the jagged bolts of electricity. Earlier, before the digital revolution meant that everyone carried professional equipment in their pockets at all times, she had sold several photographs of lightning bolts to local and national newspapers. When that particular market had dried up, she had turned her attention to various online sites focusing on local news and weather forecasting, but they paid so little per photo that it was almost a waste of time and effort - save for getting her name out there.

High above, the ominous thunder cell seemed to follow a course that would take it over Eagle Lake itself rather than directly onto the strip mall. Marianne observed the flashes of lightning for a few moments before she returned to the UHD camera to pick up the tripod.

Just as she was about to relocate to the lakeshore promenade to get a better view of the light show, movement to her left made her let out a long groan. None other than Carsten Jakobsen - just about the only person in the world she had no interest in speaking to at that moment in time - came out of his store and waved at her.

Her blood pressure told her to ignore him, but that would perhaps not be the smartest thing to do for the sake of everyone's future working relationships. Sighing, she swallowed her annoyance before she waved back to acknowledge that she had seen him. "Couldn't sleep, Carsten?"

"No. The humidity kept me awake," Carsten said with a shrug. He had finally swapped the odd-looking safari suit for a pair of black Bermuda shorts and a gray short-sleeved polo shirt. "Listen, Marianne… I… I'm… I was going to call you tomorrow, but… but now that we're both here, I might as well get it off my chest."

That particular line of thought could go anywhere, so Marianne settled for letting out a "Mmm-hmmm?" while mentally preparing herself for the worst. She had been forced to listen to so much of Carsten's narrow-minded nonsense over the years that she knew he had an inexhaustible supply of it - all of this past knowledge was reflected on her face as a passive mask.

"Well," Carsten continued, licking his lips, "I want to apologize for my behavior. Not just for the things I did yesterday, but for what happened at the last committee meeting as well."

Marianne had already opened her mouth to tell Carsten she was in fact quite busy when his words filtered through to her - his surprising message left her speechless which only happened twice a year at the most. To show that she had heard him, she nodded several times before a distant crack of thunder reminded her of why she was even out there.

Instead of dealing with it right there, she put a hand on Carsten's elbow. "All right. I want to take a few photographs of the thunderstorm while it's here, so… can we walk and talk?"

"Uh… sure. Where to?"

"The promenade." Marianne turned to point toward the far end of the strip mall. Once she had made sure the message had come across, she set off in that direction.

Carsten scratched his neck several times, but soon followed the photographer. "Well… okay. Are you sure it's not dangerous?  I mean, standing near a body of water in a thunderstorm sounds a little risky."

"The heart of the cell is several kilometers away, Carsten. It's not dangerous at that distance. If it turns toward us, we'll just go back. Don't worry, I've done it dozens of times."


Once the tripod had been set up at a good spot that would give the UHD camera a wide angle of the thunderstorm across the lake, Marianne kept the classic camera ready at a split-second's notice. She had already snapped several photos of lightning bolts racing from cloud to cloud or down to the ground over among the trees on the far side of the lake, but she wouldn't be able to see how they turned out until she developed them.

Carsten kept silent while he watched the distant spectacle. A click-whirr and a highly satisfied outburst of 'Nailed it!' by Marianne made him look at the old camera. "Say… that's not exactly the newest model, is it?"

"No. It was designed by EMCA Electronics in 'seventy-three. This particular one was hand-built in 'seventy-seven," Marianne said without ever taking her eyes off the thunder cell. "The prototype was developed for NASA to be used on the last ever Apollo mission in 'seventy-five, but I guess something happened 'cos it didn't go up after all."

Carsten furrowed his brow as he tried to connect the dots. "In 'seventy-five?  I thought the final moon landings were made in 'seventy-two?"

"I wouldn't know," Marianne said with a shrug. "I had other things on my mind back then. Pop stars. Poetry. Teenaged-angst, you know-"  She cut herself off when an impressive lightning bolt tore across the skies on the far side of the lake. Grinning, she lowered the analog camera once more. "You said something about wanting to apologize?"

Carsten rubbed his chin several times while he stared at the distant horizon. "Yes. I'm sorry for being so poorly mannered about yesterday's events. And at the meeting, too. To tell you the truth, I reacted the way I did because I had misunderstood everything. I thought the finished video was going to be similar to those horrible daytime infomercials… you know, where they sell worthless products at extortionate prices?"

"Yeah. I could've told you it wouldn't be anything like that. In fact, I did try to tell you, but…"

"I found out for myself. Katerina had emailed me a link to the, uh, online celebrity's video channel, but I hadn't looked at it before the committee meeting. And once I got back after the shouting match, I was so angry that I just deleted the whole thing. It took me two full days to cool off enough to resurrect the email. I watched a random video on the channel… it floored me. I can't use any other term. Not only did I realize the world had moved on without me, I grew so ashamed of myself that I just wanted to curl up in a fetal position."

Marianne looked at her companion for a short while before she reached out to shake his hand. "Apology accepted, Carsten. Thank you for explaining. I wish you had come over last evening… Katerina and I had a little chat before she drove home."

"I'll talk to her later today. You know, I think she's a lesbian."

A cross between a suprised snort, a puzzled grunt and an amused chuckle burst out of Marianne at Carsten's comment that had been delivered in a complete deadpan. She took a long, hard look at him to see if he was trying to pull her leg, but he seemed perfectly serious. "And you base that observation on… what, exactly?"

"Well, that she's never shown any interest in me as a man."

Marianne rubbed her nose. Then she scratched an eyebrow. Then she rubbed her nose again. Then she let out another amused chuckle. "Maybe you're not her type?"

"I can't imagine that. Of course, I agree that she doesn't look like the typical lesbian."

With the conversation rapidly heading into the territory generally known as Surreal, Marianne began looking around for the candid cameras she was sure were around. "Out of complete curiosity, Carsten… what does a lesbian look like?"

"Well," Carsten said, holding up a hand so he could count along on his fingers, "they never wear nice shoes. Always hippie sandals or biker boots. They always wear stonewashed jeans for some strange reason. They frequently use metal chains for waist belts. They wear sleeveless T-shirts that feature the logos of obscure rock bands. Their arms are tattooed. They all have short hair and most have facial piercings. God, how horrible."

The longer Carsten spoke, the wider Marianne's eyes grew. When the monologue was through, she nodded twice before shaking her head once. "Right. Okay. Uh-huh. Those gals exist, that's true… but Carsten, you wouldn't know a lesbian if she stood right next to you."

"I think I would."

Marianne had already reached under the hem of her T-shirt to produce her link necklace - that carried a pair of interlocked women's symbols as a pendant - when she remembered that it was still on her bedside table. Instead, she let out another chuckle. "Wanna bet?"

"I never bet. Betting is vulgar," Carsten said, looking up at the thundercloud above. "Oh, and just so there won't be any further misunderstandings… I'll obviously honor the group's decision to expel me. I'd still like to get a copy of the minutes."

Marianne continued rubbing her nose and scratching her eyebrows for a moment longer; then she broke out in a shrug. "Yeah, about that…" When a lightning bolt suddenly tore across the sky, she acted on instinct alone by whipping up the camera and pressing the release.

"Ooooh… that was a biggie!" she said with a grin before she turned back to Carsten. "But… ah… the expelling thing. I dug through the old paperwork and found the founding committee's original rules and regulations. You were right, even the decision to expel a member has to be unanimous, so… well… it doesn't count. You're free to return whenever you wish. I'd sweet-talk Birgit a little beforehand if I were you, though."

Carsten nodded - there was nothing more to say.

The thunderstorm eventually drew further north and thus away from Eagle Lake and the strip mall. In its wake, a gentle breeze rolled in from the lake that not only lowered the humidity down to bearable levels, but sent a flurry of goose bumps over Marianne and Carsten's glistening skin.

With the heavenly spectacle coming to a close, Marianne picked up the tripod and switched off the UHD camera. "I think we're done for the night… I hope the photos will be crisp and awesome. Okay… I need my beauty sleep, so good night, Carsten. See you tomorrow."

"Good night, Marianne. I read it's going to be a scorcher tomorrow. We better get some rest while we can."

Yawning widely, Marianne stuck the tripod under her arm before she turned for home - and her bed.



Four days later - Friday, July 12th.

The influx of visitors to the strip mall at Eagle Lake proved that contacting the content creator had been the right choice - it seemed that more people strolled around the square than over at the lakeshore promenade despite the latter's ice cream vendors and clown show for the youngest.

Marianne stood in the open door to her photographic studio watching the steady stream of people walking past. She had tried to keep a running score of the visitors, but the sheer number of them made her lose count somewhere around 75 or so.

"Uh… would you mind repeating that, Silke?" she said into the telephone she had put to her ear. "Your video's been viewed how many times?  Almost half a million views?!  Since yesterday?!  How is that even possible… yeah, I know, but… frankly, I'm nothing short of flabbergasted- huh?" - A chuckle escaped her - "That's an old word. It means astounded or shocked. Yeah."

Eyeing a cobweb stretching out from the lower-right corner of one of the photostats and down to the floor, Marianne went back to the counter to get her trusty feather duster.

"Oh, we can see the results, all right!" she continued into the telephone even while she moved the duster across the web to pick up all the sticky strands. As she did so, a little, black spider showed up. It shook a fist and hurled abuse at her for ruining its hard work, but she was in a good mood so she let it live to weave another web elsewhere. "The square is packed. I can't recall ever seeing such a great number of people here, not even back in the heyday in the early-to-mid 'nineties."

Marianne moved back to the open door where she craned her neck to look at Carsten's bookstore on the opposite side of the square. Several people studied his storefront windows, but it didn't seem the books he had on display were enough to lure many of them inside.

"The videos you make sure work, that's undeniable," Marianne continued into the telephone. "Yes, Carsten and I had a heart to heart. He's calmed down now. Yeah. So… what's next for you and you chan- you're going to the Virgin Islands?!  Does a tropical paradise really need more PR?  Just kidding. Well, I definitely wish you all the best for your future endeavors. Oh, you're welcome. Bye-bye, Silke."

Once the telephone had been put in the pocket of her white cotton slacks, she grabbed her store keys as well as a pale-green fleece vest that she donned at once. Underneath it, she wore a loose-fitting, long-sleeved tunic to protect her shoulders and arms from the strong sun.

The three-faced sign on the door was soon flipped around to show Be Right Back! - she had an important mission to carry out.


A short ten minutes later, she and Carsten Jakobsen returned to the studio carrying a cardboard display stand and an armful of books, respectively.

Marianne soon found a good spot for the display: in the storefront window just to the right of the central door. Moving back outside, she gave it a thorough inspection to see how it looked from several different angles. "Yep, that's fine right there. We don't need to adjust it," she said as she walked back into her store.

The rarest among all of Carsten's expressions - a smile - spread over his face as he put the four books he had been carrying onto the display's two shelves. The bottom shelf held a series of three 'How To' books on various topics within the world of photography while the top shelf was home to a massive, limited-edition coffee-table book presenting the 380 best Associated Press images from 1961 to 1999 as chosen by a panel of independent judges. The prices ranged from a reasonable 59,50 kroner for each of the three 'How To'-books to a hefty 499,95 kroner for the AP collection.

"Once again… thank you, Marianne. You didn't have to do this," Carsten said as he dabbed his neck on a handkerchief. Though the ambient temperatures had once again climbed to levels best described as Hot, Hot, Hot, he wore the odd, sand-colored safari suit albeit sans the fetching pullover.

Moving over to the counter, Marianne picked up a plastic fan that she flicked back and forth to get some fresh air to her face. "Perhaps I don't, but it's the right thing to do. I know we've had our differences in the past… and I'll bet we'll have some in the future… but one thing's for certain. If the storeowners don't at least try to stick together, our competitors up in the big, bad city will make sure we sink without a trace. Promo video or no promo video."

Carsten nodded somberly. "On that note, did you see how many times people have watched that video already?  Nearly half a million views. It boggles the mind."

"It sure does. I only use the 'Net to stay in touch with friends and business contacts. Well, guess what… there's an entire world out there that we old geezers can't really grasp," Marianne said, letting out a dark chuckle. "It's scary, intimidating and fascinating all at the same time!"

Before Carsten could add another comment to the conversation, Marianne waved at someone behind him. Turning around, he soon spotted Katerina walking across the square.

"Oh, no!" Marianne said with a grin while she poked Carsten in the side with her elbow. "Katerina's changed into a pair of denim shorts!  Quick, you better sit down before you faint."

Carsten furrowed his brow as he took in the sight of Katerina's sandals, pale-blue shorts, white, long-sleeved polo shirt and the red scarf she had tied around her waist as a stylish accessory. "At least her legs are slender and shapely. Can you imagine what it would have looked like had she been overweight like Birgit?  Oh, the horror."

Marianne stared at Carsten to see whether or not he had really meant what he said. Establishing that he wasn't jesting, joking or making any kind of pun, she slammed her hands onto her hips. "Don't push your luck, pal. All right?"

"Uh… sure. All right. My bad."

"Yes!  Thank you," Marianne said before she waved at Katerina once more.

It only took Katerina another few seconds to enter Marianne's photo-studio that was far warmer than her own store. "Hi!  I'm sorry I didn't have time to talk before… the phone call was really important. I only heard the first half of your idea so you need to run the whole thing by me again."

"Sure!" Marianne said with a grin. "I noticed that a low number of people visited Carsten's bookstore compared to the other stores, so my idea was to help our friend here by doing a little cross-promotion."

While she spoke, she turned to point at the cardboard display stand and the books on photography that they had put in the storefront window. "And then over in Carsten's store, we're going to create a diorama of sorts with a tripod, a couple of old cameras and even a strip of ancient super-eight celluloid that's too brittle to be used. The diorama will carry a little sign with my name and business info on it so the customers will know where it came from."

"Oh, that's a great idea," Katerina said with a smile. "Carsten, do you have any books that cover the art of fine wines or the like?"

Carsten rubbed his chin for a moment or two before he smacked a fist into his palm in triumph. "Yes!  I have one on the functional architecture of traditional vineyards along the Rhine and the Moselle… oh, and an autobiography written by a Portuguese Count who kept his family-owned port winery going while fighting the dictatorship in the 'sixties."

Katerina and Marianne shared a brief - somewhat amused - look before the former broke out in a nod. "That could work. Okay. And I could come over with a selection of herbal tea and some-"

"Actually," Carsten said, "I'd rather if you brought a few boxes of cigars or cheroots. It would go much better with my typical clientele. And pipe tobacco, too!  Oh, I just love that smell. You're phasing all that out, aren't you?"

"Ah, yes… yes I am. Do you really like the smell of pipe tobacco?"

"Yes. Ever since I was a little boy, in fact. I always sat next to my father when he lit up his pipe so I could sample the rich smoke," Carsten said, gaining yet another rare expression: a wistful, nostalgic gaze.

Katerina didn't know what to say to that, so she looked to Marianne for help - Marianne's grin and shrug proved she didn't have anything to add, either. "Well, that's nice, Carsten. Tell you what… you can have my entire remaining stock of tobacco products. There's quite a lot left so we'll need some kind of cart."

"Oh!  That would be amazing!" Carsten said, reaching out to give Katerina's hand an enthusiastic shaking. "Thank you!  Thank you very much. All right. A cart… let me see. I think I have something in my garage that we could use. I'll probably have to dig it out, though. I better do that right away. Once again thank you. And thank you, Marianne, for wanting to help me."

Marianne chuckled as she put out her hand. "Don't mention it. Like I said, we need to work together to keep the mall afloat."

After waving at Katerina and Marianne, Carsten hurried out of the photographic studio and jogged across the square to get to his own store and the garage out back.

Katerina observed him for a moment before she turned to Marianne. "I hope you don't mind me asking, but why the sudden change of heart?  You and Carsten have been at war the entire time I've been here… and I presume it stretches back a lot further than that?"

"Yes and no," Marianne said as she walked behind the counter, picked up a ball point pen and began updating her calendar and the order book. "Carsten has always been Doctor No, but he only got that unpleasant antagonistic edge after Henning's passing. I'm obviously no shrink, but I have a feeling that being faced by his mortality rattled him."

"Makes sense. It didn't rattle you?  I mean, beyond your obvious grief for Uncle Henning?"

Marianne paused to think for a moment before she broke out in a shrug. She glanced at the large, framed portrait of Henning Thomsen that continued to grace the front of her store. "I guess I'm a fatalist. When it's lights-out, it's lights-out. It could happen tomorrow or in twenty years. It's what we do before then that matters."

"Hear, hear," Katerina said, clapping. "On a different though related note… the earlier phone call was from the case worker at the probate court. Uncle Henning's case is about to be wrapped up. The lady I spoke to explained that it had been a fairly straightforward process. There shouldn't be any dramas with regards to the inheritance tax and all those things."

"Oh, that's good news, Katerina. And then you're as good as gone, right?" Falling silent, Marianne offered her new friend a pointed look peppered by a cocked eyebrow.

Katerina matched the silence to begin with; then she let out a "Well…"

When nothing further came, Marianne nodded somberly. "I had a feeling it would go along those lines. You already have a day job."

"Well, I do. And my leave is about to come to an end, too."

Nodding, Marianne put the ball point pen and the order book into a drawer. The stack of work sheets was soon tapped into order. She offered Katerina a brief glance before she stepped away from the counter to move into the darkroom. "Are you going to sell the store?" she said over her shoulder.

"Tell you what," Katerina said, following Marianne over to the doorway, "I'm actually planning on buying it from Uncle Henning's estate. Henning only had one legal heir, a daughter."

Marianne poked her head back out of the darkroom to stare at Katerina. Several, long moments went by that she spent wading knee-deep in the murky mists of time - she eventually broke out in a nod. "Oh… that's right. I won't call her a taboo topic, but Henning only talked about her maybe once a year. Probably around her birthday or something. I gather she had been an oopsie. That's a harsh word, but it's the impression I got. I think they didn't get along at all. No, I'm sure they didn't. I mean, she chose not to come to her dad's funeral, for crying out loud!"

"Well, from speaking with her online, I know she lives in Argentina."

"Okay, that would explain that part of it… never mind," Marianne said, letting out a chuckle.

"She has no interest whatsoever in owning or running a store here. However, since she was Uncle Henning's only remaining direct blood relative, she's forced to pay the tax if she wants her inheritance."

Marianne turned off the lights in the darkroom and stepped back into the hallway. Briefly putting her hands on her hips, she let out an "Ouch," before she moved into her kitchen.

"Yes, it's bound to be hefty. She can refuse to pay it, but that's an entirely different can of worms," Katerina said, following along. "Let's say she pays the tax. Now she owns a store-"

"On the other side of the world, too!"

"Exactly. A store she has zero use for. My plan is to buy it cheaply. That way she'll get an extra influx of cash while I get the plot, the building and the stock. Oh, and a permanent seat at the table of the owners' committee."

Nodding, Marianne opened one of her cupboards to take a mug. Though she soon had one lined up and ready to go, she changed her mind about making herbal tea - she moved over to a small refrigerator instead to take a can of diet soda. "I can't drink anything hot today. Would you like one?"

"No, thank you. I'm fine."

The can of diet soda was soon cracked open and poured into the mug that had been meant to hold steaming-hot tea. "Regarding your plans… I like what I'm hearing. I do have a few questions, though. Like, who'll you get to run the store while you're up north in the city earning your eight-figure paycheck?"

"Oh, it's not quite that large."

"All right. Seven-figure paycheck, then," Marianne said with a wink and a sly grin.

Returning the grin, Katerina reached out to add a little slap on Marianne's elbow that ended up missing the mark by a few centimeters. "I haven't thought about those details yet. It would only be Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. From what I gather, the store has always been closed on Wednesdays. Right?"

"Yep. Henning insisted on having a mid-week rest day."

"Okay. If I work longer hours at my regular job the first four days of the week, I could take Fridays off. Then grab an early breakfast and drive down here for the nine o'clock opening. Then stay Friday through Sunday. It requires remodeling the bedroom, but you know… it sounds feasible."

"But tiring in the long run, Katerina," Marianne said, putting a hand on the taller woman's arm. "I already lost a dear, old friend this summer. I'd hate to lose a new one, too."

Katerina nodded. "I hear you. There'll be some stress involved, that's undeniable. I presume that September onwards will be much less strenuous?"

"Oh yeah. There's another peak in October at the mid-terms," Marianne said before she took the final swigs of the diet soda. "And Christmas, of course. Well, unless we get a mountain of snow. If we do, the city folks won't risk driving down here."

"Right. So if-"

Before Katerina could go on, her telephone started ringing. A dive into the side pocket of her denim shorts soon produced a sleek, black smartphone. "Huh, it's Carsten…" she said before she accepted the call. "Hello, Carsten. What's up?  You found a sack cart?  Great. I'll be over in a few minutes. Bye-bye."

Once the telephone had been put away once more, she turned to Marianne and broke out in a grin. "He found a sack cart. That means I can get rid of all the tobacco products."

"Neat. Do you need a hand packing all that stuff?"

"Well… yeah. If you're offering. But what if you get a customer in the mean time?"

"Oh, then I'll just leave you high and dry," Marianne said, letting out a loud guffaw.

A few seconds of stunned silence went by fast - then Katerina echoed the guffaw and put out her arm. "In that case, I better hold onto you for as long as I can, huh?  Let's go. We have about sixty boxes of cheroots and cigars to deal with. Not to mention a large pile of Carsten's beloved pipe tobacco."

"Oh!  I can hardly wait."  Another laugh escaped Marianne as she and Katerina exited her photo-studio. Once outside, she turned the three-faced sign to read Be Right Back! before she locked the door.

The two ladies soon strolled across the square in a cheerful mood - and arm in arm. "You know," Marianne said, looking at Katarina's smiling face, "like Bogart said in Casablanca… this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship."

"Yeah, huh?  I'd like that."

"So would I!" Grinning, Marianne leaned over to give Katerina's taller frame a little sideways hip-bump to show exactly what she meant - well, for starters, anyway.

The bump knocked Katerina two steps sideways, but she had soon recovered. "Whoa!  There's that cheeky little sister again!"

"Oh… you haven't seen anything yet," Marianne said with a grin that reached from ear to ear.

The bright skies, the chirping birds and Marianne and Katerina's sparkling eyes and wide smiles all pointed at one thing: it was going to be a good summer and autumn at the Eagle Lake Strip Mall…


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