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8: Dull Days Decisions

The town hall was somewhere Clarice never liked to go. It wasn’t the building itself that riled her, to be honest; she could never hate the one-storey white structure even if she wanted to. But there was a certain close family relation in it that she would rather not see.

West Harbour’s town hall was a symbol of how far the town had grown and how much it still aspired for in the future. Located right in front of the West Harbour port- where the town got its name from- the architecture was magnificent.

Constructed in the shape of the ancient Greek temples, the town hall held four giant white columns in its front. The base of each column was made to connect directly to the extremely wide short steps that led up to it as a symbolism of the strength with which each and every West Harbour resident had used in building up and maintaining the town; a structure of their unity, so to speak.

Unlike the outside though, the interior of the building was made more modern and less artworky. The wooden entrance double doors opened to a large space that served as the reception area. It was there that the receptionists, all at various tables and sporting a big smile, received visitors and attended to their queries.

The reception area branched off into three corridors to form a semi-circle; the offices and departments which helped to coordinate the town’s administration located left and right down each corridor.

Messengers, clerks, personal assistants, and sometimes, even political office holders could be seen at one time or the other parading the corridors in the accomplishment of the day’s affairs.

It was for that very reason that the mayor’s office, where Clarice was going, was located alone and at the far end of fourth basement corridor in order to remove it from noise and distractions of the activities going on in the other corridors. The mayor’s office birthed many decisions which have helped to build up West Harbour’s history, the people understood. But also many which have trodden the community too.

Unfortunately, it was the latter kind of decision that had forced Clarice to the point of breaking her self-made vow to never come to the town hall to visit her estranged uncle and Mayor of West Harbour, Benjamin Crawford.

As it turned out, she had run into a dead end with her Michael Holger investigation and she needed her uncle Ben to help change. After all, after her, the man was the second person who had had as many contacts with the enigmatic foreigner.

Clarice parked her car right next to the sign that read West Harbour City Hall and let out a long sigh; she was in a sour mood. Her day had started pretty gloomily; and she wasn’t just talking about the sandpaper feeling the visit was leaving on her tongue.

It was drizzling; and being the kind of town that West Harbour was, a drizzle meant cold and heavy clouds that covered everything in a dull colour. If there was something Clarice hated more than coming to the town hall, it was having to do so on a cold, dull, drizzly morning.

Anyway, she gritted her teeth against the feeling, counted one to ten to calm herself before killing the engines, grabbing her bag, and walking as briskly as she could without slipping on her back side on the wet stone walkway to the entrance.

“Miss White,” said the security guard at the door, genuinely surprised at her presence. “It’s such a lovely thing to see you here this morning.”

“You too, Jeffrey,” she replied, managing a smile on her face as he waved her through.

She knew deep down that the actual reason for the guard’s surprise was the miracle that was her decision to even show up that day. Clarice was like Santa Claus to the town hall; always spoken of but actually never seen.

Inside, the feeling didn’t change. Many heads turned her way as they saw her walk by, their conversation dropping to a whisper. They were making speculations about the meaning of her unexpected visit but Clarice didn’t care; she was there for reasons far more important than petty gossip.

“Miss White, you can go through,” said the receptionist at the centre desk before she even reached her, handing her the visitor’s badge without a second look.

“Thanks,” Clarice muttered under her breath and made her way down the basement corridor.

She reached the door marked Mayor’s Office where another security guard stood to open the door for her with a large smile on his face like she was some celebrity and she entered to see the secretary to the mayor, a woman in her midsixties, typing intently away on her desktop.

“Berta, hi. Is the mayor in?”

“My God, Clarice.” The older woman rushed around her desk to give her a hug like she was her long lost granddaughter. “It really is a surprise to see you here, you know?”

“I’ve been getting that all morning,” she returned, smiling.

Berta- Roberta in full- was the longest serving employee in the town hall. Starting at just eighteen years of age, Berta worked as an intern for almost every person in the town hall. Slowly but surely, she worked her way up the ladder; getting promoted to a receptionist, personal assistant, and finally, secretary to the mayor.

She could have easily retired at her age but Berta proved that being old shouldn’t be an impediment to hard work. She always strived to be better; making herself as vastly skilled as the young graduates who came every year to take over her position; and so, Mayor Crawford kept her in service still- possibly the only decision that Clarice ever loved her uncle for- and hired her two personal assistants to help with the heavy lifting.

Berta was a woman with a great mind; and Clarice loved her like her real granny.

“So, is the mayor in?” she asked Berta again.

“Your uncle-” she emphasised the way she always did whenever Clarice didn’t show the familiarity she thought she should- “just arrived and is preparing for a meeting with the security staff. But I’m sure he has time to see his favourite niece.”

Clarice made no indication that she heard the favourite niece remark, only replying, “Thank you, Berta,” as she made her way into the office while the older woman put in a call to the mayor to inform him of his guest.

Benjamin Crawford stood staring at a landscape painting of a big city when Clarice came in. Dressed in a royal blue well-tailored suit with matching tie, the mayor looked every bit like the community head that he was. Only fifty years old, Ben had the look of an elder. He was healthy though, well-muscled, and with a body tone that only appeared to get better with age.

His black hair held some grey at the roots; the latter having become more prominent since he assumed office two years earlier. Contrary to what someone might expect of a person in his station though, he didn’t fight the grey but let it grow, claiming that it made him look more mature. Clarice suspected that it was only another political strategy to win the people’s favour.

“Good morning, Mayor,” she said as she closed the door and he turned to face her.

“Clarice, so nice to see you,” he said, smiling as he came to take a seat at his desk and offered her one which she took immediately. “So, to what do I owe the pleasure of your presence today?”

“To talk,” she replied and placed the sale contract of Festningen on the table.

Ben gave a short smile when he saw it; he had been expecting it all along.

The news of Clarice's encounter with Michael Holger had set the town hall abuzz for the past two days and the mayor knew that it was only a matter of time before his feisty niece took the confrontation all the way back to him. “Look, I know what you’re going to say,” he began but she cut him off with the raise of a finger.

“All due respect, sir, you don’t,” she replied. “You never did. But why I’m here has less to do with the sale of the castle and more about the man you sold it to. So tell me, what do you know about Michael Holger?”

The question was definitely not one that the mayor had been expecting and his eyebrows furrowed. It made no sense that Clarice would come all the way to the town hall- he had no illusions of her willingness to see him- just to ask about the identity of a man who had recently arrived in town and done nothing especially spectacular except buy an ancient castle. Unless of course, there was more to the encounters between the two of them than the public knew.

“Well, I only had a couple of conversations with him. First on the phone, and second when he came personally to see me. Both times were about the sale of Festningen,” he answered after a while. “But from what I got from him, he seems like a genuinely good man, brutally honest, he’s like you in that regard, actually. He didn’t tell me much and I didn’t ask either. But I knew he wanted Festningen and was willing to take care of it, paid the money for it without even negotiating.”

Caretaker was definitely something Clarice didn’t see Michael as. He really wanted the castle, that part was true. But she wasn’t convinced his intention was to take care of it.

Anyway, she didn’t argue that point but moved on with her questioning. “Did you verify his credibility?” she asked.

“This wasn’t my first transaction, Clarice. Of course, I had some PIs overseas look into him immediately after our first chat,” Ben returned. “He’s clean.”

But clean wasn’t the vibe that Clarice had gotten from Michael in their encounters. However, if there was something her uncle Ben was go at, it was being thorough. If he said that the investigation came back clean, he really had made sure it was truly clean.

Nevertheless, she said, “You’ll need to send me everything you have on him.”

“I’l have Berta send the reports to your email latest by afternoon,” he replied.

With nothing else to say, she nodded her thanks and stood to leave. But that was when something suddenly slipped into her mind. “Tell me something,” she said, “out of everyone who had come for the castle, why did you decide to sell it to Michael?”

“It was just a feeling I had the moment I looked into his eyes,” he replied, shrugging a little. “Something about selling him Festningen just felt-” nd the mayor used the one word that Clarice would never have thought applied to the whole situation, “-right.”

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