Professional Writer ♦ Amateur Swashbuckler

The Cancelled Conference

This is the first in a series of installments in a mystery series I’m writing. Please sit back and enjoy The Cancelled Conference.

Weather was the literal definition of “unreasonable.” It didn’t matter who you were, or what was planned, it would go about it’s course without a thought. No one has ever changed the weather by having a conversation, but they can choose to travel to it or not. It was becoming more and more doubtful anyone would be traveling to Fargo, North Dakota for the Upper Western Organic Alliance conference this year. There was always talk of snow, talk of blizzard conditions, it was January in North Dakota after all. This year, the snow backed up the talk, and fell in a continual wave around the Elk Creek Inn and Conference Center.

Julie wasn’t pleased by this, not in the slightest. She stood by the window, looking out at the snowfall which was defying her. By sheer will she’d successfully organized this conference for the past three years, taking it from a group of seven old farmers and their wives to an event attended by over a hundred people last year and nearly thirty different vendors. This year, things would be different if she liked it or not.

“You look upset.” Commented a man approaching her.

It was Charles McCoy, the manager of Straightforward Foods and a primary conference sponsor.

“Of course I am,” Julie spat, “We’ve got a day before the conference starts and only eight God-Damn people are here.”

Charlie shrugged, “It’ll make the accounting easier later,”

Julie sighed and rubbed her eyes, “Don’t mention the accounting. This will be a nightmare.”

“It could be worse,” he observed, looking around the lobby. “At least the hotel is nice, there’s good grub, plenty of snacks, and a fully stocked bar.”

“The bar sounds like a good idea right about now,” Julie admitted, dropping her hands in resignation.

There was no reasoning with the weather, so why fight it. They still had a day to figure out if anyone besides themselves were coming. If they were destined to be snowed in, there was worse company to be snowed in with.

The hotel’s bar was a relic of the days the Elk Creek Inn had been nothing more than a hunting lodge from the days when people only came to North Dakota to hunt, ranch or build railways. Since then, after countless remodeling projects by the owners of the Inn over the years, the bar remained nearly the exact same as the time Theodore Roosevelt himself had had a shot of whiskey here. Julie knew this because, in case she’d missed the bronze plague telling the story, the bartender told her when she ordered a gin and tonic.

Drinks in hand, she and Charlie walked over to the other two people spending their time in the hotel bar at one in the afternoon. Walter Donaldson and his daughter MacKenzie, sat in silence as the other two took a seat at their table.

Neither Donaldson was inclined to be rude, but the discomfort they felt was palpable.

“Walter,” Charlie said,

“Charlie,” the man gruffed back,

“We’re delighted you came to the conference this year,” Julie offered, “I’m just sorry it’s the one which looks like it’ll be an asterisk.”

MacKenzie looked warily at Charlie, but didn’t reply.

An awkward silence settled on the group. Occasionally sipping their drinks, but leaving unsaid what wouldn’t have been polite to say. Julie wished she’d just sat in the corner by herself. She knew the beef, she knew the stories, but maybe she’d just expected it wouldn’t be a problem.

“Good afternoon,” intoned a Southern accent,

Julie silently thanked the goddess for this interruption.

“Dr. Jefferson,” she welcomed, “It’s always a pleasure to see you.”

Dr. Randolph Jefferson joined them at the table, drawing up a chair from another to make the fifth. He was an older man, nearly the same age as Walter Donaldson. His white beard was white as the snow outside, it stood as a stark contrast from his dark skin. He had what appeared to be a double of whiskey in a tumbler, and held it like a supplicant carrying a candle to an alter.

“Different weather than back home?” Charlie suggested,

“Mighty different weather,” Dr. Jefferson agreed with a nod, “Kentucky rarely sees snow, and rarely sees this much of it in a decade of time.”

“I’m afraid you probably won’t have much attendance for your keynote,” Julie apologized,

Dr. Jefferson laughed, “We’ll see what tomorrow looks like, maybe I’ll just deliver it in here. Probably better to listen to with a drink in hand anyway.”

The group laughed. Tensions had eased between Charlie and Walter since the Doctor had arrived, but neither ventured to say anything more to one or the other.

“Decide to throw a party but didn’t invite me?” Asked a man entering the bar. He was stocky, with a ruddy face and carefully tossed hair black hair. Through not young, he still did his best to look that way, carefully ensuring that any grey hairs were dyed for their troubles.

“Pull up a seat Mike,” Julie offered with a smile. Owner of Straightforward Foods, Mike Hamilton was the largest sponsor of the conference, and someone worth keeping happy.

“He can take mine,” Walter offered, “MacKenzie and I’ll be heading back to our rooms.”

“Don’t leave on my account.” Mike said with a smile,

Walter looked Mike dead in the eyes and said, “I’ll be cordial, but I don’t need to push my politeness.”

Nodding to the table, the Donaldsons left the bar. Mike took Walter’s seat next to Charlie without a moments hesitation.

“I wish he wouldn’t carry on like that,” Mike said, “Treating me like the enemy. It’s a free market, not my fault his business is free falling.” He laughed at himself for that. No one else said anything.

Charlie coughed nervously and drank more of his beer.

Not catching the hint, Mike kept going, “Harvest Markets is going to experience the same fate as Sears. It doesn’t matter if you were one of the first, if you can’t keep up with the competition it doesn’t matter how respected your name is, you become as useful as a walking corpse.”

“Mike,” Charlie began,

“Don’t ‘Mike,’ me Charlie,” he cut off, “If you didn’t believe me you would have stayed working for that dinosaur instead of taking my offer. Straightforward has been good to you, hasn’t it? We’re changing how crops are marketed and it shows. If Donaldson had been canny enough he’d have done it himself.”

Sighing, Charlie drank more of his beer.

Eyes darting between the two, Julie quietly sipped her gin and tonic. Maybe being snowed in wouldn’t be nearly as much fun as Charlie suggested it would be.

Dr. Jefferson excused himself, downing the balance of his whiskey in a single shot and told the barman to put the bill on Mike Hamilton’s tab.

“How’s the conference shaping up Julie?” Mike asked,

She sighed before replying, “Not looking good. We’ve got four exhibitors and two speakers. Not a single guest has arrived, which admittedly is typical. Usually they’d be arriving tomorrow, but given the weather, I’m starting to think that’s hopeless.”

“Did the rest of the exhibitors cancel?” Charlie asked,

“Nearly a dozen emails,” Julie confirmed, “And already I’m getting refund requests from the people who registered for the conference. My staff isn’t even here!”

“That brings up a delicate topic,” Mike began, shuffling his glass across the table. “Since it’s only the three of us and the bartender right now, we can probably talk about it. I think we need to reconsider our involvement with the organization next year.”

Julie’s eyebrows shot up, “Reconsider?” She asked,

“There are other conferences we could attend with larger exposure,” Mike admitted, “And not even I’m made out of money.”

There was a lot Julie wanted to say to that. A lot which she could have said, but even with only the three of them there now it was too large a group to say it in.

Before anything more could be said, Mike’s phone rang. He excused himself to take it and stepped away.

“I can’t believe this.” Julie said, when he’d left.

“It’s just business,” Charlie defended weakly,

“It’s what you’d do,” Julie suggested,

“No, it’s not, but it’s not my decision.” Charlie pointed out, “I’m only in charge of what Mike decides I’m in charge of and this isn’t one of those things.” In the back of his mind, Charlie could hear Donaldson’s accusation, he’d sold his soul to the devil. Whatever money he may be making, whatever promises there were, Mike Hamilton was in charge and that wouldn’t change.

Swearing, Mike rejoined the table. “My service keeps going in and out around here,” he complained, “That was before the storm, now it’s even worse.”

Back in her room, Julie had to make the decision she’d been wrestling with for the entire morning. It was time to officially cancel the conference. Clenching her jaw, she typed out the announcement on the website. Emailed her staff telling them to stay home, stay safe, and begin the mind numbing process of offering refunds. She made sure to tell them to also include the option of making the registration fee a donation instead of giving a refund.

It was a good thing she’d gotten it finished to, because within the hour there was no phone service or internet. The storm had gotten even worse.

“We’ll look back on this as the conference which never was.” Opined Bob Hancock, to the Donaldson’s over dinner.

Walter nodded wordlessly, he was more interested in his meal than Bob’s words.

Mackenzie was more polite, and agreed it was an anomaly to be sure.

One of the vendors who’d arrived early like them, Bob was a salesman for Jupiter’s Compost. They’d known him for years on the conference circuit, the only things which had changed about Bob during that time were his hair and waist lines.

“In over a decade of conference hopping, this is the first time I got stuck and one which never happened.” Bob continued, “How about you Walter? You’ve been coming to these things longer than I have.”

“First time for me too,” Walter agreed, disinterestedly. His eyes had caught Charlie’s on the other side of the room. A mixture of a glare and wistfulness crossed his face.

Noting where Walter was looking, Bob was tactful enough not to comment. He was a salesman among salesmen, you didn’t get that way by stepping in something stinky. Instead, he turned his attention to MacKenzie.

“It’s a real pleasure to see the next generation getting involved, Harvest Markets second generation. Your father must be proud.” He said,

“Thank you,” she replied, “It’s an honor to be involved.”

“That’s what I’m going to miss with the conference cancelling,” Bob said sadly, “Getting to talk to all those enthusiastic farmers and growers. It always made my day to hear about how they got started and what they were up to.”

Before MacKenzie could reply, Julie stood up and walked to the center of the dining room they were all eating in.

“You’ve all heard by now the conference is officially cancelled,” she started, “I’m sorry that you guys who came early are the ones who suffer the most because of it. It’s not a great situation for anyone. From what the weather looks like, the storm isn’t letting up soon, so while you’re welcome to leave whenever you like, good luck getting your car out of the parking lot.”

A small chuckle circulated around the room.

“If there’s anything I can do to help, let me know. Our priority is making sure everyone makes it safely back home as soon as the storm allows.”

“I could think of worse company to get snowed in with.” Bob commented, sipping his water.

“I could think of better company,” Walter muttered, adding, “I don’t mean you Bob.”

“I know what you mean,” Bob nodded, glancing at Mike Hamilton from across the room. “He’s a mean coot isn’t he?”

“I prefer not to talk about it,” Walter replied, “I shouldn’t have brought it up.”

“We can’t ignore what he did,” Mackenzie spat,

“He’s an ass,” Bob agreed, “And that’s coming from a man who’s fond of donkey’s. He thinks he can just waltz into Organics and run the whole thing. All he cares about is the money, not the people, and definitely not the soil.”

Walter sighed, “It’s not worth beating the dead horse, or in this case the dead donkey.” He added with a smirk.

“What would happen if the donkey was dead?” MacKenzie asked, both men looked at her in confusion. “I mean, let’s say Hamilton died trying to get home in the storm, what would happen to Straightforward Foods?”

Bob sipped his water, “Your daddy probably has a better idea than me, but I’m guessing the company would have Charlie calling more of the shots. Although, from what I’ve heard,” here he lowered his voice conspiratorially, “The board of directors over there, a bunch of Eastern money investors, they’ve been unimpressed with Straightforward Foods return so far. They may even just close up shop without Mike around.”

“It’s speculation,” Walter warned, “And gossip.”

Holding up his hands, Bob said, “I agree, but it isn’t such a terrible thing to think about, is it?”

After dinner, Dr. Jefferson was sitting by the large fireplace. It was the only place he felt warm in the entire hotel. Even the heater in his room wasn’t enough to feel comfortable. The invitation to speak here wasn’t high on his priority list, at first. Why after all would anyone want to come for Fargo in January? It was the second invitation which had prompted him to take them up on the offer. It was the timing which worked, the occasion when two people were near enough to make a private conference easy, without provoking any unwanted or unneeded tongue wagging around the Organic community. He shivered involuntarily. What he wouldn’t do to be back home right now.

His phone chirped. The service kept going in and out, but at least his calendar could still remind him of what was next without service. It was time for his meeting. Sighing, he left the warmth of the fireplace and ascended the staircase to where the second floor rooms were. At room #212, he knocked.

“Thank you for meeting Dr. Jefferson, take a seat.” Mike Hamilton offered after opening the door.

Nodding, Randolph Jefferson entered the room and took a seat. He hoped this meeting would be worth all the hassle it had been to get arrange.

Tune in next week for the second installment of the series. Check out my book Reason and Romance, releasing May 3rd. wherever books are sold.