My employer and I had been comfortably ensconced in our warm, cozy room for the evening. We each had a cup of coffee, and she was smoking her pipe.
Things were usually pretty informal in Claremont, Massachusetts, where we were living, but I knew that Jan Sleet, the amateur detective and “intrepid gal reporter” (as it said on her business cards), was not about to adjust her personal style toward being even slightly less formal. After all, the last two places we’d traveled together had been New York City and Bellona — the latter a South American country in the middle of a civil war — and she’d always dressed in elegant three-piece suits in both locations. So, I knew that living in a beach town was not going to change her habits in the slightest.
This was not only when in public, either. Even when we were alone in our room of an evening, with no plans to go out and no visitors expected, her vest remained buttoned, her tie remained in its proper position, and her shoes (or, really, her custom-made, ankle-high boots) remained on. So, if we did happen to get an unexpected visitor, even on a dark and stormy night like this one, she was ready.
“We do need to do something about my books,” she said suddenly, looking up from her newspaper.
My first reaction was to glance at the window, as another bolt of lightning split the darkened sky, and wind and rain continued to shake the glass in its frame.
She smiled and reached out to tap my forearm. “Not now!” she said playfully, as if she’d been about to order me out into the storm to deal with the cartons of her books which were still in the Arkright family’s garage.
Of course, I hadn’t thought any such thing — well, at least not after I’d considered it for a few seconds.
There was a knock on our door as I turned my attention back to my book. My employer considered calling out, “What is it, Mrs. Jessup?” (which would not have counted as a great deduction since nobody else was in the building and there was a storm outside), but then she stuck out her tongue at me as I went and opened the door.
It was indeed our landlady. I had an urge to say, “Why, Sheriff Rhonda, what a pleasant surprise!” — since my employer couldn’t see the hall from where she was sitting — but I resisted.
“I’m sorry to bother you both,” Mrs. Jessup said as I gestured her into the room, “but there’s a young lady downstairs and she says it’s very important that she see you.”
My employer grabbed her cane and got to her feet. “Absolutely,” she said, limping toward the door. As Mrs. Jessup turned to step back into the hall and out of the way, my employer asked, “Is it possible that we could use the parlor?”
Mrs. Jessup was clearly somewhat surprised by this sudden eagerness for company (as was I, I freely admit) and she’d barely managed to say, “Yes, of course,” before my employer was halfway down the stairs.
I shrugged and followed her down. Mrs. Jessup trailed behind and unlocked the door to the parlor as we greeted the visitor in the hallway.
“Jan Sleet,” my employer said as she shook our visitor’s hand. “We’ve never met, obviously, but your roommate, Diana, is a good friend of mine. Did she send you here to talk to me, Mary? Or was it Professor Lebrun? I believe you’re in one of his classes.” She gestured at the open door of the parlor.
Both our visitor and our landlady looked somewhat overwhelmed, but, of the two, our visitor looked less likely to recover quickly. She was young, slender (as far as I could tell under her raincoat), blonde, and drenched.
“It would be easier if we talked on the way,” she said, gesturing outside. “I have my car–”
My employer held up her hand, her expression growing stern. She stepped forward, looking down on our visitor, and said, “You have caught my attention, on a slow evening when I have no pressing responsibilities, but you are a stranger. My welcome extends to listening to your problem, but no further, at least so far.”
There was an awkward moment as our visitor tried to pull herself together, and I started to get the idea that some of the water on her face might have been tears.
“At this moment,” my employer continued, “you have three options. None of them involve me leaving this house now. The options are–” She held up a bony finger, not allowing our visitor to speak.
“One: If someone is in immediate danger, or some other disaster is imminent, then you should call the police immediately.” She tapped the telephone next to her.
“Two: Let’s step into the parlor.” She gestured in that direction. “We can sit down and talk. You can explain why you’re here, and I can ask questions.
“Three: Not to be rude, but your third option is to go home.”
She raised an eyebrow, waiting.
Her relentless approach had originally made our visitor more tense as she tried to interrupt, but then she started to calm down.
I had seen this before, and I’d never been sure if my employer’s tendency to browbeat people in these situations (when she thought she could get away with it) was actually intended to achieve this result — calming the person down and asserting that the great detective could solve whatever crisis was at hand — or whether she didn’t care one way or the other.
Our visitor seemed to be frozen, and I had the idea that she was stuck between option two (staying) and option three (leaving). Her expression as she’d glanced at the telephone had told me that calling the police was not something she was considering.