The house was next to a Presbyterian church, with the church parking lot in between. It seemed fairly typical: two stories, painted white, peaked roof, set back from the street with a nice lawn in front of it.
Beyond the house, on the far side from the church, was a smaller house, with a corny sign in front of it. Even here, near the center of the town of Claremont, there was a comfortable amount of space between the buildings. The houses and stores were almost all painted white (was there a town rule?), and most of them could have been a hundred years old. If so, they were well maintained (maybe there was a rule about that also).
“Is there a rule, do you think?” my employer asked as we walked up the hill toward the house. “That all the buildings need to be painted white? I always wondered about that.”
I shrugged. Given the number of suitcases I was carrying, even that was an effort.
She stopped and breathed in. “It smells even better than I remember,” she said as she pulled out her cigarette case.
I put down the suitcases and took out my lighter in order to light her cigarette.
She looked around as I picked up the suitcases again.
“It sure has changed,” she said thoughtfully, probably attempting to convey the idea that she’d lived and matured quite a lot since she’d left college and moved away, all of three or four years before.
As we got into motion again, a couple of people across the street noticed us. My employer glanced at them, and then at me. I shook my head and she shrugged.
She’d had an idea that she was being recognized as a famous and intrepid gal reporter and amateur sleuth, but the truth, as far as I could tell, was that she was attracting attention simply for being, in the context of Claremont, Massachusetts, a very odd looking woman.
We climbed up on the front porch and she knocked on the door. There was no response.
She pursed her lips, disgruntled. She knocked again. “I had hoped,” she said quietly, tapping her cane very lightly on the wooden floor of the porch, “that they might still rent rooms, and that they might have a room available for us. It would be so much easier to stay and visit here for a few days and go through the books here… Oh, well, no matter. Let’s go and get some lunch, and then we can come back.”
“We should leave a note,” I said.
She nodded. “Excellent idea.”
I had already put down the suitcases, of course, so it was easy for me to open her attaché case and hand over a pad and her fountain pen.
I sat down on the porch swing, knowing that this might take a few minutes, and she leaned against the wall of the house, looking thoughtful.
Walking down the hill to the center of town, there was a clear sky and a pleasant breeze, but I wasn’t really enjoying it, since I was getting a bit tired and sore, what with all the suitcases.
“The Wagon Wheel!” she said happily, as if it was a tremendous surprise that her favorite restaurant was still there after all the many months she’d been away.
She sailed happily into the small, rustic restaurant, remembering at the last minute to hold the door open for me.
It was the middle of the afternoon, so the place was mostly empty. A waitress came over slowly, regarding us. I thought her hesitation might have been about to lead into a “Janice!”, but instead she just said, “May I help you?”
“We’d like a table, please, somewhere where my assistant here can put our luggage so that it won’t get in your way?”
There was a little side porch on the building, with five tables, all of them empty. I piled our luggage around the rearmost one and we sat at the next one. The porch, which seemed to have been added some time after the building was built, had screens rather than windows, so it was clearly for summer use only.
The waitress had taken our orders and we were waiting for our food when I asked, “Do you really think that going through the boxes will take several days, or is that time to solve the mystery? Or is it just because we don’t really have anyplace else we need to be?”
She frowned. “I have two questions that I want to answer while we’re here. One is what happened with my books, or to my books (and why and by whom and so forth – that’s all one question). The other – the more important one, I must add – is whether there are other options for getting the book published. I don’t intend to give up on that until I’m sure I’ve exhausted all of the possibilities.”
She caught my expression, and the words I was about to speak. “Not that there are any options here in town – well, there might be one – but it’s going to take some thinking to figure out the best way to proceed, and we can almost certainly live here more cheaply than we can if we’re staying in a hotel room in New York City.”
She looked at me with what I’m sure she thought was a stern expression. “And you’re not going to distract me from that, even with a mystery about my missing book, or books.”
Having learned at least a thing or two over the course of my employment, I did not bother to protest my innocence of this vile calumny.