Zach Kimball would never have been happy in a nine-to-five office job. He was not one to be chained to a desk, staring at a computer monitor, but nor was he a "people person." What he enjoyed most was working with his hands. Ever since he was a child, when he spent long hours in his father's woodshop, Zach liked to build things. He grew to love the look of wood with a natural finish, the smooth feel of a finely sanded surface and the smell of varnish and sawdust.
After graduating from Puritan Falls High School, Zach studied the art of woodworking with a master craftsman in Vermont. Once his skills were on a par with those of his teacher, Zach returned to Puritan Falls and opened a shop on Gloucester Street where he made handcrafted gifts that he sold to tourists who passed through the town on their way to Boston, Salem, or Cape Cod. His heart, however, was not in making whirligigs and birdhouses. He longed to make fine furniture. Occasionally, he crafted a rocking chair, a book case or a curio cabinet. Tourists, however, didn't normally buy such large items. These pieces were purchased by local residents who appreciated the high quality craftsmanship that went into making them.
One day Diane Portman, an artist who lived in one of the Danvers Street Victorians, visited Zach's shop. She asked him to make a settle for her, but she specifically requested that he leave the chair unfinished.
"I'd like to paint it myself," she told him.
Zach felt like a chef who must stand quietly by and watch a diner douse his perfectly cooked and seasoned filet mignon with ketchup. He firmly believed that paint destroyed the beauty of the furniture by masking the natural wood grain, but he was first and foremost a businessman, not an artist. Even if the young woman chose to color the surface of the settle with crayons, who was he to object just as long as she paid for it first?
"You don't think I should paint the settle, do you?" Diane asked.
"I must admit I prefer a natural finish myself, but that's just my opinion."
Two weeks after Zach finished the settle, Diane returned to his shop. When the craftsman saw the settle, covered with a drop cloth in the back of Mrs. Portman's pick-up truck, he assumed she was dissatisfied and wanted to bring the chair back. Zach anticipated an argument since he had no intention of giving the woman a refund if she'd already covered the settle with paint.
The bell above the front door jingled when Diane walked into the shop.
"Hi, again," she said with an amiable smile. "I wanted to show you something, if you have a minute."
"All sales are final, ma'am" Zach cautiously informed her as he followed her out to the truck.
"I'm not here to return the settle. I just want to show you how it looks now that it's finished," Diane explained and pulled the tarp off the settle.
Zach was amazed when he saw what the woman had done.
"I didn't realize you were so talented," he said, examining the exquisite scene painted on the high back of the seat.
"Normally, I work on canvas, but I'm redoing my family room and wanted to customize the furniture."
"You certainly did a beautiful job!"
Other people shared Zach's opinion, and the artist soon returned to the shop to purchase additional pieces of unfinished furniture for herself as well as for others. Before the year was out, the craftsman and the artist formed a partnership and began selling their handcrafted, hand-painted furniture and accessories out of Zach's shop.
Zach and Diane were both delighted with the success of their joint venture. Not only did they make a decent amount of money, but they also formed a strong friendship, a bond that went far beyond the scope of mere business associates. Indeed, Zach fell deeply in love with his partner. The only problem was that she was already married. Zach didn't want to risk either their business relationship or their friendship by declaring his affections, so he suffered his unrequited love in silence.
* * *
The demand for the unique furniture grew, and eventually there were more orders than Zach and Diane could fill. Zach's former teacher in Vermont was able to handle the overflow as far as the woodworking went, but it was obvious that the partners would have to hire a painter to help Diane finish the furniture.
"We may even have to hire two painters," Zach declared. "Once the baby arrives, you'll have your hands full."
"That doesn't mean I'll neglect the business," she protested. "Why don't we just hire one person to paint the backgrounds, and I'll do the detailed work?"
Zach smiled. He knew his partner was a perfectionist and would never trust someone else to meet her high expectations.
As Diane's due date neared, she did most of her work at home, so it was left to her partner to hire the new painter. Late one Friday evening, just as Zach was getting ready to close the shop, Maxine Kelso showed up with the Puritan Falls Gazette's classified section in her hand to apply for the job.
"Do you have any experience?" Zach asked the attractive applicant.
"I've never actually worked as an artist," Maxine admitted, "but I've done a lot of painting--mostly arts and crafts stuff that I've sold on eBay and at flea markets in New Jersey. That's where I lived; I just moved here about three months ago."
The young woman reached into her purse and took out a handful of photographs of items she'd painted. Her style of painting, Americana folk art, was very similar to Diane's.
"These are quite good," Zach said.
The grandfather clock in the corner of the shop--one Zach had built himself--chimed six.
"I didn't realize it was so late," Maxine apologized. "Would you prefer I come back on Monday morning?"
"That won't be necessary. You've got the job--if you want it, that is. If you're free, we can go out to dinner now and discuss your salary and all the other necessary details."
"Don't worry," Zach assured her. "It'll be strictly business. I'm not going to hit on you."
The young woman laughed and felt more at ease.
"Okay, I accept. But I'm a vegetarian, so don't pick a steakhouse or a hamburger place."
* * *
When Zach suggested his partner permanently work out of her home so she could be with her child, Diane's feminist streak bristled.
"I don't see why I can't be in business and be a mother at the same time."
"Whatever arrangements you want to make are fine with me," he quickly assured her. "You can even bring the baby to work with you if you'd like. We can set up a crib and playpen in the back room, away from the sawdust and paint fumes."
Maxine would have preferred Diane stay at home, or better yet, give up her half of the business and devote her time to her family. She didn't like playing second fiddle to anyone, not at work and not in her personal life. While it was clear she couldn't best Diane when it came to painting, Maxine saw no reason why she couldn't outdo her in other ways. With this goal in mind, Maxine set her sights on Zach, one of Puritan Falls' most eligible bachelors. At first Maxine made little progress in her attempts to capture her boss' affections, but she was nothing if not persistent. Eventually, she wore down his resistance.
When Diane found out that the two were dating, she wasn't happy.
"Are you sure it's wise to have a personal relationship with an employee?" she asked her partner.
"It's not a relationship," he clarified. "It's just an occasional dinner and a movie."
"Still, you know how things are these days. You have to be extremely careful about what you say to a member of the opposite sex. Sometimes the most innocent comments can be interpreted as sexual harassment."
"Put your mind at rest, Mama Hen. I won't be harassing anyone."
Diane's manner softened.
"It's not just the business I'm worried about."
Zach nodded his head; he didn't trust himself to speak.
"I care about you," Diane confessed. "I admit I don't know Maxine very well, but there's something about her. I can't put my finger on it, but I don't trust her. She's liable to hurt you, and I couldn't bear to see that happen."
Zach was spared having to answer when the bell above the door of the shop announced the arrival of a customer.
* * *
Despite his intentions not to get involved with Maxine, Zach was only human, and his employee was an attractive woman who knew how to manipulate a man. Although he would never love anyone like he loved Diane, there was no reason he had to remain a lonely bachelor for the rest of his life, pining over a woman he could never have. The "all or nothing" philosophy he'd had regarding love was amended. If he couldn't find true happiness, he would settle for being content.
When Zach announced his engagement, Diane didn't voice her doubts or objections but kept them to herself. Outwardly, she feigned happiness that her friend was getting married, and she graciously congratulated him and wished him long years of happiness.
Maxine was smugly satisfied with her victory. No sooner was the gold band placed on her finger than she quit working at the shop and devoted her time to spending her husband's money. It didn't take Zach long to realize he'd made a mistake and that a marriage of convenience was a poor substitute for one based on love. Nonetheless, since he could never be with Diane, he saw no reason to divorce Maxine, so he tolerated her extravagance and devoted all his energy to building up his business.
* * *
As Diane's daughter, Taylor, grew older, the little girl spent more and more time with her mother at the furniture shop. Zach adored the child. During his free time, he used leftover scraps of wood to make toys for her. Occasionally, he and Diane collaborated on a special gift. The first one had been a wooden rocking horse painted to look like an antique carousel charger. The horse was followed by a doll's house, complete with miniaturized furniture in every room.
"It's going to be hard to outdo this present," Diane told her partner after they gave the doll's house to her daughter.
"I've got a good idea," Zach announced happily. "We could make her a puppet stage."
In a world of computer games, Dancing Elmo dolls and LeapFrog leaning systems, puppet stages had long since become obsolete. But Diane, who had a penchant for history and antiques, loved the idea.
The two friends, as usual, worked well together. While Zach made the wooden stage, Diane sewed the curtains, and when Diane painted elaborate scenes from popular fairy tales on the outside of the stage, Zach carved marionettes out of blocks of scrap wood.
"Who are they, Punch and Judy?" Diane asked when she saw the first two marionettes Zach had created.
"They're not anyone yet, but they're going to be a king and queen. My next masterpiece is going to be a young princess," he joked.
"These are wonderful! I can make little crowns and royal robes for them. Taylor is going to love this present. Oh, thank you, Zach," she cried and threw her arms around her partner's neck.
The hug was innocent enough, a simple expression of affection between two close friends. Unfortunately, Maxine chose that particular moment to enter the room. Naturally, when she saw her husband in the arms of another woman, she became furious. She screamed vituperations at Zach and Diane, accusing them both of all sorts of immoral behavior.
"That's enough!" Zach shouted, having endured enough of her hysterics. "You've jumped to the wrong conclusion. It was just a hug. I made Taylor a puppet stage, and Diane wanted to thank me."
Maxine gave no credence to her husband's explanation. She stormed out of the furniture shop, vowing that she would make her husband and his partner sorry for their betrayal.
* * *
Since Taylor regularly accompanied her mother to the furniture shop, Zach decided to keep the puppet stage in the basement of his house until he and Diane were ready to give it to the little girl. Often, late in the evenings, he would go downstairs and work on the marionettes. When he finally finished carving the puppets' features, he ran strings through the wires he'd placed in the head, hands, feet and joints and attached the strings to the control bars.
"Well, your majesty," Zach said as he made the small wooden king strut proudly across his workbench, "you are now ready for your royal coronation."
He picked up the crown Diane had fashioned from gold metallic fabric and placed it on the puppet's head.
"Next, I will finish your wife. After all, what is a king without a queen?"
Suddenly, he was overcome with sadness.
"I wish I had my queen beside me," he sighed. "If only Diane's husband would just disappear, then maybe ...."
Zach shook his head. Such thoughts only added to his despair. Diane would never be his; why couldn't he accept that? Laying the finished king marionette on the workbench beside the unfinished queen, he turned out the basement light and went to bed.
The following morning Zach opened the shop at nine, but Diane wasn't there. A half hour later his partner still hadn't arrived. It wasn't until after ten that the phone rang.
"I won't be coming in today," she informed him.
Zach was worried; he could hear her sobs over the phone.
"What's wrong? It's not Taylor, is it?"
"No. My husband left me. He just packed his bags and walked out."
Zach immediately closed the shop and went to the Portman house to comfort Diane and her daughter. It proved to be an emotionally exhausting day, and when Zach went home after ten that night, he was in no mood for his wife's angry outburst.
"I've told you dozens of times," he explained when Maxine once again accused him of having an affair with his business partner, "we're just good friends. I went over there because she was upset; her husband left her."
"Isn't that convenient?" Maxine sneered. "With him out of the way, you can move right in."
"What are you talking about?" Zach cried. "I'm married to you, remember?"
"Is that what you call this mess we're in, a marriage?"
"No," he answered with weary disgust. "It's many things, but most definitely not a marriage."
Zach left his wife fuming in the kitchen and fled to the sanctuary of his basement. The sight of the puppet stage comforted him. His and Diane's latest collaboration resulted in a true work of art.
Idly, he picked up the queen marionette and tested its controls by making the puppet dance across the stage.
"That's it, my pretty queen," he said, thinking of Diane. "Dance and be happy. I hate to see you cry. If I had it in my power, I would make sure that you never shed another tear."
* * *
The next morning when Zach arrived at the shop, Diane was already at work, painting a trestle table.
"You're here early," he said. "If you're not up to it, you can go home. The work can always wait."
"I want to be here," Diane replied, smiling warmly. "This is where I'm most happy--here with you and Taylor. Last night I realized I didn't care that my husband left. There was nothing between us anymore. There hasn't been for some time now."
Zach stared at his partner, his heart beating wildly as his hopes rose.
Diane continued hesitantly, "I've always cared about you. I know we can never be more than friends, but ...."
Zach couldn't stand it any longer. He took her in his arms and silenced her with a kiss.
* * *
"Divorce?" Maxine cried as though the word were alien to her.
"Yes. I want a divorce," Zach declared firmly. "And I'm willing to pay you handsomely."
At the mention of money, Maxine's eyes glittered, but her greed was at war with spite. As much as she would have liked to walk away with a large settlement, she had vowed to make Zach and Diane sorry for what she believed was an adulterous affair. Also, she thought, if she refused to give her husband a divorce, he might up the ante. In another year, he might even be willing to double the amount.
Zach was furious at his wife's refusal to set him free. He had loved Diane for years, and now she admitted to loving him. Finally, happiness was in sight, but like Tantalus' grapes, just out of his grasp.
* * *
Zach locked the door of the shop. Diane had gone home several hours earlier, but he had stayed to work on a dry sink ordered by a doctor from Maine. He had no intention of going home. Until Maxine agreed to a divorce, he would continue to sleep on a cot in the back of the shop.
"She'll relent soon," he promised Diane. "I've cancelled her charge accounts and ATM card."
But Zach was not sure that curtailing his wife's spending would be enough. He had no doubt that Maxine was greedy, but she was also mean and vindictive, the type of woman who would revel in his unhappiness.
After turning out the lights in the shop, Zach went to his workroom and picked up a block of wood from the scrap pile.
"All puppet shows need a villain," he said as he picked up his carving tool. "We already have a king, queen and princess, and soon we shall have a witch."
He worked diligently, long into the night. When the marionette's head and body were finished, Zach cut several lengths of string from a large spool and ran them through the wires in the puppet's body.
"Now you shall dance to my tune, little witch," he laughed, as he worked the marionette's control bars.
* * *
The following afternoon Zach and Diane's workday was interrupted by a visit from the Puritan Falls police.
"I'm very sorry to have to tell you this," Officer Shawn McMurtry informed Zach, "but your wife is dead. She hanged herself in the bedroom closet. Your housekeeper found the body."
Maxine's death was ruled a suicide. She had been alone in the house at the time of her death, and her husband--who would have been the most likely suspect in the case of a murder--had been at work at the time.
After a suitable period of mourning, Zach and his newly divorced business partner were married. To celebrate the occasion, the happy couple presented Taylor with the puppet stage they had made. The groom even gave an impromptu marionette performance later that evening.
"And once the wicked witch was dead," Zach concluded at the end of the play, "the king, queen and princess lived happily ever after."
At the conclusion of the show, Taylor and her mother applauded loudly.
Then Diane picked her daughter up and announced, "Come on, honey. It's time for you to go to bed."
Taylor called to her stepfather, "Uncle Zach, can you tuck me in?"
"I'll be up in a minute, sweetheart. I want to put the puppets away first."
Zach hung the king, queen and princess marionettes on special hooks he'd installed at the rear of the puppet stage. When he picked up the witch, however, he felt a sharp pain in his finger. His initial reaction was that he'd gotten a splinter from the wood. But when he looked down at the marionette, he saw the witch turn its head, stare at him with its black painted eyes and smile with a malevolence that chilled his blood. The terrified man dropped the puppet and watched in horror as it stood up on its two wooden legs and began to walk. Although awkward at first, it soon gained confidence, and its movements became more fluid. Before Zach realized the danger he faced, the marionette mounted its miniature broom and flew directly at his face.
* * *
"Zach?" Diane called as she walked downstairs. "Taylor is waiting for you to tuck her in."
Her husband did not reply.
"Zach, are you down here?"
She turned on the hall light switch.
"The honeymoon isn't over already, is it?" she laughed.
Suddenly, the new bride let out a blood-curdling scream as she saw her husband lying dead on the family room floor. Zach's face was a hideous shade of purple, for wound tightly around his neck were the strings of the witch marionette.
Salem once turned himself into a marionette and auditioned for a role on The Muppet Show. He was mortified when he lost to Rizzo the Rat.