We stepped up on the small porch and Rhonda opened the door for us, moving aside so we could enter as she called ahead, “We’re here!”
She followed us in and closed the door as I looked around the living room. It was warm and pleasant, and I heard a woman’s voice call, “Be out in a minute!” from the rear of the house. I smelled food, and I tried to remember how long it had been since we’d had a home-cooked meal.
Rhonda gestured for us to sit. The cozy room held two armchairs, a low coffee table, and a small sofa, plus a dinner table that was tucked away against one wall and not large enough for four. Two walls were covered in bookcases, and I saw my employer’s eyes flick around, taking what inventory she could. In addition to whatever other information she was filing away, I was sure she noticed that there were two ashtrays in the room, both with cigarette butts in them.
It was a small room, but that wasn’t surprising since of course it was only half a house.
My employer did manage to conceal her distress that the two armchairs were plush and old and very low to the floor. Chairs like that were difficult for her to get into, at least elegantly, and then even more difficult for her to get herself out of. She was fine with accepting my help when we were alone, but the rest of the time she wanted to handle these things on her own.
She used her cane and a hand on the chair arm to get herself seated with only a mild thump. She frowned at me, as if this had somehow been my fault, and leaned her cane against a small end table.
A woman, somewhat smaller and apparently somewhat older than Rhonda, came in, drying her hands on a dish towel. She swung the towel over her shoulder as Rhonda performed introductions. Her name was Phyllis.
“Would either of you like a drink?” she asked. “Dinner will be ready in about a half hour. We don’t have any hard liquor, but we have beer and white wine.”
My employer declined, as usual, and I said I would like a glass of white wine. Rhonda said, “I’ll get it,” and the two women went into the kitchen.
Rhonda returned a moment later. She handed me a glass of wine and drank some of her beer, then she placed her bottle on a small table as she sat on the sofa.
“Phyllis has asked that we save our ‘shop talk’ until after we eat.” She smiled. “That way she can escape back to the kitchen when we start to get too tedious and technical.”
“That’s not exactly what I said,” Phyllis called cheerfully from the kitchen.
My employer nodded. “Perfectly proper.”
Phyllis returned and sat next to Rhonda, “I’ll set the table in about ten minutes. We’re almost ready, but I feel like sitting and visiting for a minute.”
My employer smiled. “By the way, Phyllis, how long have you been teaching children with special needs? That must be very rewarding.”
There was a moment of awkward silence, during which various glances were exchanged, Before my employer could explain — having been prompted to do so by a frown from me — Phyllis asked, “Have you been… investigating me?”
“Oh, no,” my employer protested. “I didn’t know you existed until around fifteen minutes ago. I’m so sorry. I just… You have a ‘Faculty’ parking sticker on the windshield of your car, you have an unusual number of books on education, child psychology and related subjects, and your living room, while certainly ‘lived in’ — in the best possible sense — gives every indication that you have no children of your own.” She shrugged, still looking rather sheepish.
She could be blunt and even ruthless when investigating, but we were guests here, and she always took that relationship very seriously. And of course there was the fact that she wanted Rhonda to fill us in about what was going on with the case.
Rhonda and Phyllis exchanged a glance, and the older woman’s shrug seemed to convey, “Well, you did warn me.”
After a few minutes of innocuous conversation, Rhonda and I got up and pulled the narrow table away from the wall and she opened the extension that would make it suitable for four people. Then she and I set the table.
Topics discussed at dinner included:
1. My employer’s book about the civil war in Bellona (which was still in search of a publisher). Phyllis was apparently much more familiar with the situation in Bellona than Rhonda was, and she asked some very pertinent questions, including one very specific one, about the battle of the Vale da Serenidade, which my employer evaded, as she always did.
2. My employer’s book on the murder of Marvel Phillips. Rhonda controlled her expression as she learned about the magazine article my employer was writing about the investigation. I imagined she might be wondering how she was going to be portrayed in the article.
3. Rhonda’s recovery from the gunshot wound she’d received during that case. Rhonda insisted that she was fully recovered, but then, after a frown from Phyllis, she admitted that she still had headaches which were thought to be related to the concussion she’d suffered when she’d been shot.
4. The house itself, which had been built some eighty years before, by a father for his daughter. The expectation had been that her future husband would finish the house. The daughter had never married, however, and she had lived in the house, as it was, for the rest of her life.
This story obviously pleased my employer, who was familiar with this local custom. “Most of the half houses did get finished, of course,” she said, “but they were always designed and built so that they didn’t need the other half in order to stand for a long time.”
Dinner passed without incident, and then Phyllis suggested that we adjourn to the living room (which was the other half of the same room, of course) and “talk shop” while she made coffee. She attempted to discourage me from helping her to clear the table, but she was not entirely successful.
Once the table was cleared, my employer and I sat in the two armchairs and Rhonda sat on one end of the sofa, with Phyllis perched on the arm next to her. There was an ashtray on the small table next to my employer’s chair, so she pulled it closer to her with one finger and then lit a cigarette. Phyllis lit one also.
Rhonda said, “Jan, I’m hoping we can start by you telling me what you know, and what you suspected, and then I’ll tell you about the last two days.”
My employer nodded, suppressing a grin. “That’s fair, of course.” She leaned back in her chair, drawing deeply on her cigarette.