My employer stood with me as I waited for the jitney. “So, why am I staying over at Heron House tonight?” I asked, wondering if I’d get an answer. “Do you expect further violence?”
She shrugged. “I don’t believe so. But no, you have another assignment.” She leaned over and whispered something in my ear, though there was nobody near enough to us to overhear.
Then, with her head still quite close to mine, she murmured, “You’re looking a little scruffy.” She tugged the hair over my ear. “I’ll give you a quick trim when I get home. You’ll want to make a good impression on the gaggle of nubile coeds you’ll be spending the night with.”
We were at the Claremont College campus, and I was being sent home to sleep. From what she had just told me, I might have a long night ahead of me at Heron House.
Rhonda had dropped us off at the college on her way back to town. The Heron House residents had been taken directly to police headquarters in a van, and state police investigators were swarming over the murder scene. The body had been removed, of course.
“So, I’m getting a real, actual nap today,” I said. “What will you be up to?”
“I — I’m afraid — will have to make the supreme sacrifice.”
“Lie back, close your eyes, and think of England.”
She snorted a laugh. “No, even worse. I’m afraid I’m going to have to read Manfred’s book.”
So, in the late afternoon, with my hair trimmed (by my employer) and my face shaved (by me, though she supervised), I took a cab to Heron House, making sure that I would get there well before the moment when the island would be cut off from the mainland for the night.
I had packed a small suitcase to bring with me. It was more than I needed for just overnight (assuming this visit was only going to be for one night — and I suddenly wondered why I was making that assumption), but it was constructed with a small secret compartment where I’d packed my gun and a few other items.
I did wonder what kind of reception I would get at Heron House. I had the idea that this might depend less on my personal charm and more on what kind of day the residents had had at police headquarters.
Jo answered my knock as the taxi turned around and went back down the hill. She regarded me for a moment, then she said, “Can I help you?”
“I’m to stay here for tonight, for protection. I hope that’s acceptable to everybody?”
“What if we say no?” Elsa called from somewhere I couldn’t see. I thought her voice sounded playful, although that may have been wishful thinking.
“Then I’ll have to stay outside,” I said, “lurking in the bushes, getting cold and damp, and yet constantly vigilant, on guard and alert to any possible–”
Jo opened the door all the way and motioned me in.
I came in and put down my suitcase. Jo closed the door and said, “Just you? Not any cops, or your friend the lady detective?”
I hadn’t realized before how small Jo was. The night before, she’d been dressed in pajamas and a huge robe and I hadn’t noticed her standing up, but now she was in a T-shirt and pajama pants, wearing, apparently, several pairs of socks of different sizes and colors, and large horn-rimmed glasses that dominated her face. The glasses were similar to my employer’s, but the effect was different because Jo’s face was small and round, while my employer’s was narrow and framed by her lank, brown hair. Jo’s hair was dark and pulled back into a loose ponytail.
Elsa was watching me without comment as I told Jo, “I have no idea what the police are doing. We’re not privy to their plans. And the lady detective, who is my employer, is, as far as I know, at home.”
“You’ll be here all night?” Jo asked.
“That’s the plan.”
She leaned toward me, and I lowered my head so she could speak softly. “I may have some questions for you later. If that’s okay.”
Then, without waiting for a reply, looking as if she might be afraid that she’d said too much, she turned and padded off and up the stairs to the second floor.
Elsa wheeled herself toward me. Once Jo had vanished, she said quietly, “The last couple of days have made me realize that I’m not in favor of dying any time soon.”
I sat down on a sofa, so we’d be closer to eye level.
“Most people feel that way in the abstract,” I agreed, “but it is different when death becomes a more immediate possibility.”
“I read some of Jan’s articles about Bellona, for a class that I took last semester. Were you with her when she was there?”
I nodded. “Yes.”
Her mouth quirked. “I was trying to figure out your relationship with her, when you were here last night. I think it was a way of distracting myself from everything else. Or trying to.”
“It’s not mysterious, really. I can show you several years of pay stubs and tax returns.”
She gestured toward the kitchen. “I just made some soup. Would you like some?”
I nodded. “That sounds good, but first I need to ask you for a favor.”