Elsa and I went into the house. I held the door and bowed her in, which made her smile.
The living room was warmer than the cool evening air outside. Becky, Li, and Kim were sitting together on the largest sofa. I had the idea that they had just been talking, but now they were silent, looking at us. I wouldn’t say that their expressions were cold — they were being as noncommittal as they could — but the room didn’t seem as inviting as it had a moment before.
Well, as I knew from experience, the arrival of a detective, or her assistant, is often not an occasion for rejoicing. And that doesn’t indicate guilt — only the fact that almost everybody has some secrets they would prefer not to reveal.
Elsa winked at me. “Why don’t you go into the dining room, Marshall, and I’ll warm up my delicious soup for us.” I started to say something, but she added, “I’ll call you when it’s ready and you can come and give me a hand.”
I went into the empty dining room and sat at the table. There were twelve seats, and I assumed that this had been the table where the Loomis family had eaten their meals. I wondered how large the family had been. I wondered how large it was now. I wondered if these would be important facts to know. In general, I felt like I had very little idea — maybe even less than usual — about what might prove to be important in this case.
My employer had said that she had to read Manfred’s book about hauntings in this area, but what was she thinking she’d find there? (And had she actually been serious about that in the first place?)
I couldn’t see anybody in the living room from where I sat, but it sounded like Li and Kim were still there. Becky was either gone or silent. I couldn’t make out any words.
After a minute, Jo walked past the dining room door, catching my eye and then quickly looking away again.
It occurred to me that I should make myself useful. I went to the sideboard and got place mats, silverware, and napkins, setting two places at the table. When I was done with that, I heard Elsa’s wheelchair coming across the living room (wooden floor, braided area rug, wooden floor again, and then into view).
I didn’t rise as she entered. I had already figured out that this particular gesture of politeness didn’t work when the lady in question always entered seated — how would you know when to sit down again?
She had a board across the arms of her wheelchair, with a large serving bowl of steaming soup right in the middle. I quickly rose and transferred it to the table, between our two place settings (I put it on a trivet, of course).
She smiled. “The coffee is in the kitchen,” she said, and I went to get it, realizing belatedly that I should have removed the chair at one of the two place settings.
When I returned with a mug of coffee for me, and a bottle of soda for her (hoping this would prove to be the correct choice), and two glasses of water, she had moved the superfluous chair herself and was sitting at the table. Both of our bowls were full of soup, and it smelled wonderful — a thick fish chowder.
I sat down and placed my napkin in my lap.
She grinned. “Are we saying grace?”
I laughed. “I haven’t in years. Comes from working for an ardent atheist, I suppose. My Catholic parents would be shocked, but probably not surprised.”
I took a spoonful of soup and blew on it.
“What about her Catholic parents?” She shrugged. “She’s Italian, right?”
“Her father is a paisan, though I don’t think he’s all that religious. I’ve never met him. I have no idea about her mother.” She seemed about to ask another question in that area. “I’m sorry, but that subject is classified. Completely off limits.”
She sipped some soup, glancing at me to see if I was going to say any more about my employer’s mother. I didn’t.
“Fair enough.” She smiled her impish smile. “So, you’ve never met her father. Have you introduced her to your parents?”
I shook my head. “Not yet. They know what I do for a living, but I haven’t been back there in years. I’ve been too busy, traveling around. I send them a post card occasionally. And birthday cards, of course.”
“Because you’ve been out detecting.”
“I’ve been assisting with the detecting, assisting with the writing, and making sure we have food, shelter, and clothing, and enough money to pay the bills. Sometimes I take steps to make sure we continue to be alive and healthy.”
She sipped her soup, then she gave a deep sigh. “I still feel we’re — I’m — having too good a time,” she said very quietly. I almost had to read her lips. “Not that I’m having a lot of fun right now or anything…”
I nodded. I leaned forward, my hand on her shoulder, and whispered something. She nodded.