Walking back up the hill to the house — the family was named Arkright, my employer had told me during lunch — I was hoping that somebody would be home. It was important, it seemed to me, to settle the question of where we would be staying. Not only so that I could divest myself of our luggage — though that was a consideration — but because it was August, and Claremont was obviously something of a summer resort town. I was a bit concerned that everything would be booked and we’d end up sleeping on the beach or somewhere like that.
My employer glanced at me and raised an eyebrow as we stepped onto the front porch. She wanted to make sure that I’d noticed that the note she’d left earlier was still there, wedged between the screen door and the frame.
She knocked on the door anyway, and I started to put down the suitcases. “We do have to remember…” she began, but she was interrupted by a woman’s voice calling cheerfully from inside the house, asking us to come on in.
My employer’s hand flicked up, grabbed her note, and quickly slipped it into her jacket pocket.
She opened the screen door and stepped in. As I lifted the final suitcase again, she said, “Oh, you can just leave them out here for now.”
It did seem unwise to leave all of our luggage, all of our possessions, on the front porch, but, as she’d been about to remind me a minute earlier, we weren’t in New York any longer.
Inside the house, squinting in the sudden darkness, my employer was regarding a woman. She was fairly tall and slender (though not as tall and slender as my employer), with long dark hair and wire-rimmed glasses.
My employer introduced herself, using her birth name, which she didn’t generally use unless she had to. She didn’t introduce me, as usual.
The woman frowned. “I am sorry, but I don’t recognize the name…”
My employer smiled pleasantly. “I lived here, in town, when I went to college. My father and I lived down the hill, in the little house next to the Historical Society.”
“The little white one? Oh, and would you like to sit down?”
A few moments later, we were all sitting in the pleasant living room. I had placed myself on a sofa where I could see out one of the front windows and keep an eye on our suitcases.
“I haven’t been gone that long,” my employer said as she used her cane to lower herself into a straight backed chair, “but apparently it was long enough for the owner to paint our little house white. When we lived there, my father and myself, it was painted a red brick color.”
The woman nodded. “Oh, I think I remember that, when they painted it.” She frowned at my employer. “You do look familiar, though your name… You’re Jan Sleet, aren’t you? I’ve seen your photograph, with your articles.”
My employer looked pleased, as she always did when she was recognized, but also wary. I could tell by the careful way she was pressing the tips of her long fingers onto her thighs, adjusting the pressure slightly from moment to moment.
“So, you’ve read my work? That’s always good to hear.”
“I didn’t realize you were back in this country. Will you be going back to Bellona?”
“Probably not right away. I’m… sort of deciding where I want to go next.”
“I always thought that your columns on Bellona… They would make a very good book. The sort of thing that could even be used in schools, studying current events and Latin American history.”
My employer shrugged. “That is a possibility.” She smiled. “I can’t say more about it right now.”
The woman nodded. “Of course. So, Miss Sleet, may I ask why you’re here?”
“Of course. My father, Vinnie, before he left town, left several cartons of my books in your garage…”
The woman stood up. “Oh? Of course. Please come with me.”
She stood and led us toward the rear of the house. She opened the door from the kitchen into the garage and then stepped aside to allow us to go first.
But then we all stopped in the doorway, and my employer said, “Oh.”
Even though she was apparently as surprised as our hostess and myself, my employer was still the first one to move forward to examine the body. She grabbed a windowsill with her long fingers and lowered herself to a squatting position.
“Dead,” she said after a moment, not looking around. “Probably since yesterday. Strangled, apparently. Wearing a bikini bathing suit and flip flops, so there’s no identification on her. Do you recognize her?”
The last was for our hostess, who moved forward hesitantly, looked at the swollen and discolored face, and scurried away and out the door in order to be sick in the kitchen (based on the sounds).
My employer turned around to face me. I knew from experience that she was far from done examining the body, so I didn’t move forward to help her to her feet.
“Please call Sheriff Baxter. Give him my regards and let him know that there’s been a murder here.” She told me the phone number and turned back to continue her examination. I hesitated, and she spoke over her shoulder. “The ‘lady of the house’ won’t mind your using her phone. I have no idea who that woman was, but she doesn’t live here and I imagine she’s long gone by now. Go make the call.”