Piece By Piece

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When your world crashes and burns, what do you do? Nikki Ragazzi packs her bags and heads home to Chesney.. She's reluctant to discuss the reasons for the loss of her dream job.. Now . . . what does she do? Returning as the prodigal daughter wasn't part of Nikki's life plan. She's grateful for the job at her mom's flower and gift shop, but the job is a step backwards. She's been burned, both in her career and her love life, so aggressively going after what she wants terrifies her. Pop, her beloved grandpa, tries to convince her that when one door closes, another door opens. Can she learn from her mistakes and be open to options? To her amazement she soon learns that life is Chesney is far from boring and that even small town people have stories to tell.

Other / Drama
Age Rating:

Chapter 1

“Welcome to the Chicago Tribune, Nikki. Glad to have you aboard.” Those words were forever etched in Nikki’s mind. The words resonated four years later when she was summons to the editor -in-chief's office. The summons was totally unexpected, but upon reflection, inevitable.

The thrill and exhilaration of working for the Tribune had lost some of its luster during the four years of her employment but hearing the words “you’re fired” pierced her heart. McMillan praised her talent, but lamented her inability to be a team player.

She didn't have the time or financial stability to fight his decision. True, she had been a hard-working and loyal employee, but and Nick Sebastian had clashed since day one of her employment.

Nikki’s dream of becoming a reporter began when she was a child. She wrote and distributed a neighborhood news bulletin at the tender age of nine. The neighbors weren’t always pleased with the columns she wrote, but they tolerated her because she was a Ragazzi. She was convinced that she was fated to work for the Chicago Tribune newspaper. A Nikki Ragazzi byline was her ultimate goal.

She sent a letter, sample of her work and resume to the Tribune at the beginning of her senior year in college. In persistence, she sent follow-up resumes every two months. Although she was advised by her counselors and journalism professor to consider other options, she was convinced the Tribune was her destiny.

Her parent’s love of and pride in Illinois’ largest city was a contributing factor in her desire to live and work in Carl Sandburg’s City of Big Shoulders. She, like all dedicated Illinoisan’s, loved the city’s energy and diversity. In truth, the city is beautiful in all seasons and does offer a wide range of cultural, sporting, and business opportunities. Conversely, there are negatives. The traffic can be a major inconvenience, and the wind, and snow in mid and late winter can be challenging.

Nikki’s parents expressed concerns about a single woman living alone in the big city. Although they didn't voice their main concern, Nikki was uncomfortably aware that they considered inexperience and immaturity a recipe for disappointment, and even failure.

If she were honest, she’d been coddled and protected by family and friends since infancy. Chesney, her hometown, was a warm and loving community made up of hard-working farmers. As kind and caring as her acquaintances were, their dreams were minute compared to Nikki’s.

During the first six months in the city, she explored all of the cities tourist attractions. When she wasn’t strolling through the museums, or shopping, she was treating one of her co-workers to an evening theatre production or sporting event. Before she realized what was happening, she became a shopaholic. Her expenditures for business attire, jewelry and furniture were extravagant. The humiliation of being fired, and her boyfriend's betrayal, were a wake-up call. Finally, she was forced to admit the error of her ways. She had misused her independence and behaved like an irresponsible child.

She was living paycheck to paycheck even before her boyfriend, Jeremy Stone, moved in with her. Initially, she reasoned that having a roommate share household expenses would ease the burden. Problem was, Jeremy was a social animal. He liked hanging out with the up and coming crowd. His need to impress assured that he would be perpetually broke.

He had a trust fund but his monthly checks were, in his opinion, ridiculously low. When his money ran out by the middle of the month, he argued that it was a temporary state of affairs. Before long, unpaid bills became an issue. He was unable to pay his fair share. He borrowed money from Nikki, his friends and his co-workers until it became clear that he had no intention of paying them back.

She had been blind to the predictable outcome, or she had chosen to ignore it. As she was to learn, reckless behavior eventually pulls a gotcha on you. Four years after she reached her highest peak, she plummeted to the depths of despair. She arrived home after her firing to find that Jeremy had taken off with all of his possessions and most of hers. She sat crossed legged in the middle of the bare living room and bawled like a two-year-old.

The day after she was fired, she did her own version of the pink slip. She gave a two weeks’ notice to the superintendent of her apartment building. Because of the scarcity of affordable housing in the city, her notice barely caused a stir. Her humble abode was snapped up before the day was over. She learned a difficult lesson in humility that day. To put it bluntly; she was but a grain of sand in the wide expanse of a vast desert.

Thanks to sedatives, she muddled through the days and nights following her termination. She eventually pulled herself together, packed her meager but pricy belongings in a U- Haul, and headed home to Chesney. Returning as a prodigal daughter was not part of her life’s plan.

She was lucky. Her Mom and Dad greeted her with open arms, or least her mom did. She considered giving them an edited version of the events that had brought about her less than triumphant return to Chesney, but they didn’t ask questions. She was relieved, because she didn’t like lying to her parents, although lying to herself had become a habit.

Two days later, her name was added to the pay-roll of her mom’s flower and gift shop. With the fall and holiday season in full swing her mom was delighted to welcome a new sales clerk. Nikki wasn’t particularly fond of retail sales, but she needed a paycheck. On the positive side, with the hustle and bustle of the holiday season, she wouldn’t have time for reflection or self-pity.

Treasures, her mom’s shop, was an extremely successful business for a town the size of Chesney. The population dipped below 15, 000 unless you counted household pets. The shop was the only florist/gift shop in town. In addition to flower arrangements and house plants, the shop offered a gift section that compared favorably with Chicago’s prestigious gift boutiques. It was known far and wide that Allie Ragazzi’s was the place to shop when you needed a unique gift. If she didn’t have what you were looking for, chances were that she could find it. An even bigger draw than the selection was her pricing. There were items for all pocketbooks. The customer base stretched across much of central Illinois. Allie attributed her shop’s success to the loyal shoppers who were willing to drive.

Immediately after receiving her first paycheck, Nikki moved into a small rental house. Her landlord generously waived the security deposit for the rental property out of respect for the Ragazzi name. Nikki disliked having to rely on her family’s reputation for favors, but she had exactly $234.12 in her bank account. Her reduced circumstances were a reminder that she had been irresponsible for four years For the foreseeable future, her cupboard was almost bare and so was her apartment.

Ben Ragazzi, her grandpa, kept close tabs of her during the cold and snowy months of January and February. He was her staunchest supporter, but he was also an astute businessman who didn’t suffer fools. By the time, the first corn fields were planted he sensed Nikki's restlessness.

In turn, Nikki sensed her Pop was losing patience with her malaise. Even so, she didn’t get her act together until he challenged her to get off keister and find a real job. His exact words were, “It’s obscene for a journalist major with four years of experience to hide in a gift shop and stock shelves.”

Nikki’s blood boiled, and she did the tight jaw thing that dated back to her childhood. She tried to cover her anger by feigning indignation because of her mom. She argued that his criticism of Treasures was an insult to her. In truth, she resented his interference in her life. She was twenty-five, and she expected to be treated like an adult.

He must have perceived what her thoughts were because he snapped, “If you want to be treated like an adult, act like one. Your mom’s gift is working with people. She uses flowers and gifts as the means to do the kind of work she loves. You, on the other hand, are like a wounded bird that is afraid to leave its nest. Where’s that curiosity that has always been the character trait that’s driven you?”

Nikki flounced out of his real estate office and avoided him for days. Despite her irritation— or maybe because of it—she drove over to the newspaper office in Kankakee. She practically got down on her knees and begged Simon Ericson, the Kankakee Daily News’ editor, to let me take a stab at free-lance work. Simon was reluctant, but after reviewing several articles written for the Tribune, he relented. He saw potential in her “to the point” style of writing.

Within weeks, her first freelance article, IC’s Unsafe Rails, was published. The article was an exposé on the security and safety issues of Illinois Central’s rail system. Citizens’ complaints, about the worn and uneven rails, rotting ties and missing spikes, had long been ignored. The negligence of the rail systems’ management team has been a sore spot with her for several years. She frequently traveled by train, and she wasn’t ready to become a statistic.

With the newspaper clutched in her hand, she marched into Ragazzi & Ragazzi Real Estate, her grandpa’s and dad’s agency. She was fired up and ready for a verbal confrontation. Pop, her pet name for him, was on the phone so she had to cool her heels. He acknowledged her presence, motioned to a chair, and continued his conversation. When he hung up, she handed the folded newspaper to him. A smug grin tugged at the corners of his lips as he scanned the article. She could hear a ring of admiration in his voice. “Well, well, well. It’s about damn time you stopped dickering around and used that talent of yours. I’ve been complaining about the railroad’s unsafe rails for years. You did an admirable job of presenting your case.”

Complimentary words from her Pop were far more valuable than gold. He was unfailingly supportive, but his expectations for his only granddaughter were high. He was quick to point out her failings as a writer when she didn’t do her homework, but he was complimentary when she did. Fearing the worst, she had rehearsed a waspish retort. His approval washed away the last remnants of her false pride. She could continue to wallow in self-pity, or she could grow up.

“I botched my chance, Pop.” She didn’t elaborate, but he knew her well to grasp the significance of her words.

“It’s the tough stuff that turns a wiseass teenager into an adult, Nikki. I don’t know— and don’t want to know— what happened in Chicago. I know from experience that our dreams aren’t always what’s best for us. I know you, and I know that talent isn’t confined to the city or even to newspapers. You can write anywhere. There are some distinct advantages to being a free agent. Doesn’t having a choice about subject matter outweigh the prestige of being a Tribune reporter?”

She wasn’t ready to admit that she had been wrong, so she settled for, “Maybe.”

“Stop looking back, Nikki. Take advantage of your strengths, harness your short-comings, establish a goal, and go after it with passion.”

She gulped down the lump in her throat. “You have a point, but the paychecks from a small newspaper don’t compare favorably with those from a nationally known newspaper.”

“That’s why you need your job at Treasures to supplement your income. I have a proposition for you. Your dad and I can use your help. There’s a problem with one of our properties. We need an article that lays out our position to the public.”

Since she was a greenhorn when it came to real estate, she was fairly certain that his request had more to do with her writing hiatus than his need. Even so, she couldn’t say no to her grandpa, and he knew it.

“Tell me what you need and when you need.”

“Are you familiar with the James’ old home place over on route #1050?”

“The property next to the Halliday’s. The piece of land that has a rickety old shed on it?”

“That’s the one.”

“I wasn’t aware that the James family owned the land.”

“The house burned years ago. That parcel of land is what remains of the original holdings of the James family. A hundred years ago, a passel of James’ lived around here. They owned half of Livingston County. As the family members moved away, parcels of land were sold. Derek James has chosen to hang onto the #1050 property for sentimental reasons. His great grandparents, Calvin and Etta James, moved into the house after they married.”

“Was the family living there when the fire occurred?”

“Calvin died before the fire. Etta and her two children escaped with only a few burns. Matthew, Derek’s grandfather, was around seven or eight when the fire occurred.

“Derek has talked about selling the property for years but hasn’t actively looked for a buyer. Recently, a representative from Chandler, Inc. approached your dad and me about suitable mall property in the Chesney vicinity. I contacted Derek.”

“Chandler? Unless I’m mistaken, they build malls. You’ve got to kidding me? Putting up shoddy retail space on a cornfield sounds like one of Cliff’s hairbrained ideas. The farmers will tar and feather you and chase you out of town.”

“One dang minute, missy. You are reacting without looking at the facts. I thought reporters were supposed to be objective.”

His words took the wind out of her sails. “Sorry. As usual, you are right. Spell it out.”

“Derek knows that the sale will be controversial, but he’s aware that the town is in trouble financially. Without retail space, jobs and revenue the town will die. A mall would provide all three.

“Chase Bernstein rents the land now, but he’s ready to retire. He doesn’t need or want it. The bordering property owners would typically snap it up, but both men have other deals pending. For other farmers in the area, the land is too small to be profitable. The truth is that the area’s crop yield won’t be affected one way or the other. Twenty acres isn’t going to make or break the corn growers.”

“The farmers are going to initially react the way I did. So, I’d say that your major obstacle is getting the facts out there before the farmers get riled up by rumors.”

“Exactly.” He picked up a sheaf of papers and handed it to her. “After you’ve read Chandler’s prospectus, I hope that you will consider writing an article.”

“When do you need an answer?”

“Soon. Once a few minor details are worked out, the sale will move quickly. Chandler would like to start construction as soon as possible.”

Her grandpa didn’t negotiate with a buyer or seller unless he considered all aspects of a prospective sale or purchase. As a lifelong resident, he knew the farmer’s needs, and he also knew their priorities. He knew and cared about all of the people in and around Chesney, so backing a controversial deal would cause more than a few sleepless nights. She feared that there would be a fight no matter how or when the project was presented.

“Let me drive over and take a look at the property. I can’t say yes unless I’m sure that I can present your case effectively”

“Don’t take too long. If you’re not interested we need to find someone who is. One more thing before you head out; do you know Annie Mae Bailey?”

“That crazy old woman over in Manville?”

His chuckle sounded more like a snicker. “Crazy like a fox. She is one of the smartest and wealthiest people in central Illinois, man or woman.”

“Wow. I’ve heard rumors about money, but I didn’t dream that she fit into the super-rich category. What about her?”

“Sam Marsden, a Streator friend, mentioned that she is determined to write a memoir. She doesn’t know how to go about finding a ghost writer or a publisher.”

“Sounds intriguing, but I’m not qualified. I’m a reporter not an author.”

“What’s wrong with expanding your horizons? If you decide to talk to her, the phone number is listed as A. M. Bailey in the Streator phonebook. Manville doesn’t have a directory.”

Nikki stopped by Rebecca’s desk on the way out of his office. She had failed to acknowledge his secretary when she stormed past. She could expect a reprimand from her Pop unless she apologized for her rudeness.

Rebecca laughed. “Honey, I could tell that you had a bee in your bonnet. Besides, you’re always welcome in your granddad’s office.”

“That’s no excuse for bad manners. Where’s Cliff?”

Rebecca had never understood why Nikki called her dad Cliff, and Nikki didn’t intend to tell her. Rebecca usually tolerated Nikki’s impertinence, but not always. Nikki used her dad’s given name for many reasons, but primarily because her pop was her father figure. Occasionally Cliff and Nikki managed to coexist in harmony, but more often than not, they were at odds. In public, she was respectful. In private, not so much. Her grandpa needled her for her bullheadedness. Nikki suspected that he was equally critical of Cliff.

“He’s over in Dwight and then he is going on over to Millbrook. The man’s seldom in the office. He’s always out there beating the bushes. He could sell the Wrigley Building, and the buyer would never question the legitimacy of the sale.”

“Is that a kind way of saying that he is windbag and a cheat, Rebecca?” She regretted the words as soon as they were out of her mouth.

“Don’t put words in my mouth Missy and don’t involve me with the squabbles between you and your dad. There’s no question that your daddy has a gift for gab. Thank God for it. Without his sales, I wouldn’t have a job. He’s a good man and an honest one.”

“Sorry Rebecca. Cliff and I rub each other the wrong way. I know that I’m critical, but so is he.”

Rebecca’s glare was hot enough to start a forest fire. Once upon a time, Nikki feared her anger. Now, she knew that Rebecca was a softie. She’s was highly protective of and loyal to her employers.

“You know I love him, Rebecca.”

“You’re too much alike, that’s the root of the problem.”

Nikki was incensed. How could Rebecca not see that Cliff was a loudmouth gadabout who didn’t deserve a beautiful and talented woman like her mom. Her mom had stood by him through thick and thin, and she’d made excuses for his behavior. He showed his love and appreciation by flirting with all women; young and old, thick and thin, beautiful and plain. In Nikki’s book, his offensive behavior didn’t deserve her respect.

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