Read an Excerpt
Aunt Dimity Slays the Dragon
“One of the most charming entries in an enduringly popular series.”
Aunt Dimity: Vampire Hunter
“One of Aunt Dimity’s most suspenseful mysteries. Loyal fans will be thrilled by every new revelation.”
Aunt Dimity Goes West
“Just the ticket to ease out of a stressful day.”
Aunt Dimity and the Deep Blue Sea
“The eleventh Aunt Dimity mystery is testament to the staying power of Atherton’s cozier-than-cozy premise.. . . Rainy Sunday afternoon reading.”
Aunt Dimity and the Next of Kin
“This is a book entirely without edge, cynicism or even rudeness—this is the way life really ought to be if only we were all better behaved. Put on the teakettle and enjoy.”
—Rocky Mountain News
“This is Atherton at her coziest.. . . Fans of the series will not be disappointed.”
—Over My Dead Body! (The Mystery Magazine)
“Cozy mystery lovers wouldn’t dream of missing an entry in this series.”
Aunt Dimity: Snowbound
“Witty, engaging and filled with interesting detail that will make the cottage-in-the-English-countryside fanciers among us sigh.. . . Just the thing to veg out on when life gets too much.”
—The Lincoln Journal Star
“The perfect tale for a cold winter’s night.”
“Fans of this series will be delirious with joy. . . . What a treat!”
Aunt Dimity Takes a Holiday
“A thoroughly modern cozy . . . The setting is delicious. . . . A very enjoyable read.”
—The Washington Post Book World
Aunt Dimity: Detective
“Atherton’s light-as-a-feather series is an excellent example of the (cozy) genre’s traditions.”
—The Seattle Times/Post-Intelligencer
“Entertaining, comforting, and charming.”
—Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Aunt Dimity Beats the Devil
“Nancy Atherton is a simply wonderful writer.”
—The Cleveland Plain Dealer
Aunt Dimity’s Good Deed
“Atherton has a whimsical, fast-paced, well-plotted style that makes this book a romantic and graceful romp.”
Aunt Dimity and the Duke
“Nancy Atherton is the most refreshingly optimistic new storyteller to grace the shelves in years.. . . Charming!”
Aunt Dimity’s Death
“A book I thoroughly enjoyed in the reading and which leaves me richer for having met charming people with the courage to care and in places we all visit, at least in dreams.”
A PENGUIN MYSTERY
Nancy Atherton is the author of fourteen Aunt Dimity mysteries, many of them bestsellers. The first book in the series, Aunt Dimity’s Death, was voted “One of the Century’s 100 Favorite Mysteries” by the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association. She lives in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
Introducing Aunt Dimity, Paranormal Detective
THE FIRST TWO BOOKS IN THE BELOVED SERIES
Aunt Dimity’s Death
Aunt Dimity and the Duke
Table of Contents
Aunt Dimity’s Death
When I learned of Aunt Dimity’s death, I was stunned. Not because she was dead, but because I had never known she’d been alive.
Maybe I should explain.
When I was a little girl, my mother used to tell me stories. She would tuck me in, sit Reginald in her lap, and spin tale after tale until my eyelids drooped and I nodded off to sleep. She would then tuck Reginald in beside me, so that his would be the first face I saw when I opened my eyes again come morning.
Reginald was my stuffed rabbit. He had once had two button eyes and a powder-pink flannel hide, but he had gone blind and gray in my service, with a touch of purple near his hand-stitched whiskers, a souvenir of the time I’d had him try my grape juice. (He spit it out.) He stood nine inches tall and as far as I knew, he had appeared on earth the same day I had, because he had been at my side forever. Reginald was my confidant and my companion in adventure—he was the main reason I never felt like an only child.
My mother found Reginald useful, too. She taught third and fourth grade at an elementary school on the northwest side of Chicago, where we lived, and she knew the value of props. When the world’s greatest trampoline expert—me—refused to settle down at bedtime, she would turn Reginald around on her lap and address him directly. “Well, if Lori doesn’t want to listen, I’ll tell the story to you, Reginald.” It worked like a charm every time.
My mother was well aware that there was nothing I loved more than stories. She read the usual ones aloud: How the Elephant Got Its Trunk, Green Eggs and Ham, The Bluebird of Happiness, and all the others that came from books. But my favorite stories (and Reginald’s, too) were the ones she didn’t read, the ones that came from her own voice and hands and eyes.
These were the Aunt Dimity stories. They were the best, my mom’s special treat, reserved for nights when even back-scratching failed to soothe me into slumber. I must have been an impossibly restless child, because the Aunt Dimity stories were endless: Aunt Dimity’s Cottage, Aunt Dimity in the Garden, Aunt Dimity Buys a Torch, and on and on. My eyes widened with excitement at that last title—I was thrilled by the thought of Aunt Dimity preparing to set out for darkest Africa—until my mom reduced my excitement (and the size of my eyes) by explaining that, in Aunt Dimity’s world, a “torch” was a flashlight.
I should have guessed. Aunt Dimity’s adventures were never grand or exotic, though they took place in some unnamed, magical land, where a flashlight was a torch, a truck was a lorry (which made Reginald laugh, since that was my name, too), and tea was the sovereign remedy for all ills. The adventures themselves, however, were strictly down-to-earth. Aunt Dimity was the most mundane heroine I had ever encountered, and her adventures were extraordinarily ordinary. Nonetheless, I could never get enough of them.
One of my great favorites, told over and over again, until I could have told it myself had I wanted to (which I didn’t, of course, because my mother’s telling was part of the tale), was Aunt Dimity Goes to the Zoo. It began on “a beautiful spring day when Aunt Dimity decided to go to the zoo. The daffodils bobbed in the breeze, the sun danced on every windowpane, and the sky was as blue as cornflowers. And when Aunt Dimity got to the zoo, she found out why: All the rain in the world was waiting for her there, gathered in one enormous black cloud which hovered over the zoo and dared her to set foot inside the gate.”
But did that stop Aunt Dimity? Never! She opened her trusty brolly (“umbrella,” explained my mother), charged into the most drenching downpour in the history of downpours—and had a marvelous time. She had the whole zoo to herself and she got to see how all the animals behaved in the rain, how some of them hid in their shelters while others bathed and splashed and shook showers of droplets from their fur. “When she’d seen all she wanted to see,” my mother concluded, “Aunt Dimity went home to warm herself before the fire and feast on buttered brown bread and a pot of tea, smiling quietly as she remembered her lovely day at the zoo.”
I suppose what captivated me about Aunt Dimity was her ability to spit in life’s eye. Take Aunt Dimity Buys a Torch: Aunt Dimity goes to “Harrod’s, of all places” to buy a flashlight. She makes the mistake of going on the weekend before Christmas, when the store is jam-packed with shoppers and the clerks are all seasonal help who couldn’t tell her where the flashlights were even if they had the time, which they don’t because of the mad crush, and she winds up never buying the flashlight. For anyone else it would have been a tiresome mistake. For Aunt Dimity, it was just another adventure, one which became more hilarious floor by floor. And in the end she goes home to warm herself before the fire, feast on buttered brown bread and a pot of tea, and chuckle to herself as she remembers her day at Harrod’s. Of all places.
Aunt Dimity was indomitable, in a thoroughly ordinary way. Nothing stopped her from enjoying what there was to enjoy. Nothing kept her from pursuing what she came to pursue. Nothing dampened her spirits because it was all an adventure. I was entranced.
It wasn’t until I was in my early teens that I noticed a resemblance between Aunt Dimity and my mother. Like Aunt Dimity, my mother took great delight in the small things in life. Like her, too, she was blessed with an uncommon amount of common sense. Such gifts would be useful to anyone, but to my mother, they must have proved invaluable. My father had died shortly after I was born, and a lapsed insurance policy had left her in fairly straitened circumstances.
My mother was forced to sell our house and most of its contents, and to return to teaching much sooner than she’d planned. It must have been a wrench to move into a modest apartment, even more of a wrench to leave me with the downstairs neighbor while she went off to work, but she never let it show. She was a single mother before single mothers hit the headlines, and she managed the job very well, if I do say so myself. I never wanted for anything, and when I decided to leave Chicago for college in Boston, she somehow managed to send me, without a moment’s hesitation. Around me, she was always cheerful, energetic, and competent. Just like Aunt Dimity.
My mother was a wise woman, and Aunt Dimity was one of her greatest gifts to me. I can’t count the number of times Aunt Dimity rescued me from potential aggravation. Years later, when nearsighted old ladies ran their grocery carts over my toes, I would recall the very large man who had stepped on Aunt Dimity’s foot at Harrod’s. She guessed his weight to within five pounds. She knew because she subsequently asked him his exact weight, a scene which left me convulsed with giggles every time my mother recounted it. Remembering that, I found myself guessing the eyeglass prescriptions of my grocerycart-wielding little old ladies. Though I never had the nerve to confirm my estimates, the thought made me laugh instead of growl.
By all accounts, I had a naturally buoyant spirit as a child and the Aunt Dimity stories certainly helped it along. But even naturally buoyant spirits sink at times. Mine took a nosedive when I found myself living the bits that never appeared in the Aunt Dimity stories: the bits when there was no wood for the fire and no butter for the brown bread, when all the lovely days turned dreary. It was nothing unusual, nothing extraordinary or exotic or grand, nothing that hasn’t happened a million times to a million people. But this time it happened to me and it all happened at once, with no space for a breath in between. I was on one of those downward spirals that come along every once in a while and suddenly nothing was funny anymore.
It started when my marriage dissolved, not messily, but painfully nonetheless. By the time we sat down to draw up papers, all I wanted was a quick, clean break—and that was all I got. I could have stuck around to fight for property settlements or alimony, but by then I was tired of fighting, tired of sticking around, and, above all, I despised the thought of living off a man I no longer lived with.
I faced the Newly Divorced Woman’s Semiobligatory Wanderjahr with no sense of adventure at all. About to turn thirty, I had little money, less energy, and absolutely no idea of what I wanted to do next. Before moving to Los Angeles, where my former husband’s job with an accounting firm had taken me, I had worked in the rare book department of my university’s library. I moved back to Boston, but by the time I arrived, my old position was gone—literally. The humidity control device, installed at great expense to protect the rare book collection from the ravages of time, had gone haywire, causing an electrical fire that no amount of humidity could extinguish. The books had gone up in smoke and so, too, had my prospects for employment.
Getting a new job in the same field was out of the question. I had no formal library degree, and the curator, at whose knee I had learned more about old books than any six library school graduates combined, was an opinionated maverick. A personal recommendation from Dr. Stanford J. Finderman tended to close doors rather than open them, and I soon discovered that the job market for informally trained rare book specialists was as soft as my head must have been when I’d first decided I could make a living as one. Had I known what the future held in store for me, I would have gone to motorcycle mechanics’ school.
My mother wanted me to come home to the safe haven of our yellow-brick apartment building in Chicago, but I would have none of that. The only motherly assistance I would accept was a steady supply of home-baked cookies, mailed Federal Express and packed to withstand a nuclear blast. I never mentioned how often those cookies were all that stood between me and an empty stomach.
I stayed with a friend from college days, Meg Thomson, until the divorce was final. She introduced me to the wonderful world of temping and as soon as I’d registered with a reputable Boston agency, I struck out on my own. With high hopes, I joined the ranks of the urban pioneers—mainly because the only apartment I could afford was located in what real estate agents like to call a “fringe” neighborhood.
I can confirm the rumor about the poor preying upon the poor. Two weeks after I’d moved in, my place was ransacked. The intruder had apparently had a temper tantrum when he discovered that I was just as impoverished as the rest of my neighbors. I came home to an unrecognizable heap of torn clothing, splintered furniture, and a veritable rainbow of foodstuffs smeared decoratively across my walls.
That was pretty disheartening, but the worst part was finding Reginald. The boon companion of my childhood had been slit from cottontail to whiskers, his stuffing yanked out and strewn about the room. It took me three days to find what remained of his left ear. I interred him in a shoebox, too sickened to attempt his repair, knowing that my clumsy needlework could never match the beautiful stitches that had helped him survive an adventuresome bunnyhood. On the fourth day, shoebox in hand, I moved out, beginning what was to become a long sequence of moves in and out of apartments which, if not exactly squalid, were still a far cry from my predivorce standards of domestic comfort. In April of that year, an ad in the Cambridge Tab led me to share an apartment with two other women in a three-decker on a quiet street in West Somerville. I’d just settled in when my mother died.
There was no warning. The doctor told me that she had died peacefully in her sleep, which helped a little, but not enough. I felt that I should have been there, that I might have been able to do something, anything, to help her. Up to that point I had been able to bounce back from every blow more or less intact, but this one almost flattened me.
I flew back to Chicago at once. There was no need for me to arrange the funeral—my mother and Father Zherzshinski had taken care of that. The memorial mass at St. Boniface’s was attended by scores of her former pupils, each of whom had a story to tell, a fond memory to share. In among the flood of flowers was an anonymous bouquet of white lilacs that had come all the way from England. I gazed at it and marveled at the many lives my mother had shaped, all unknown to me.
My mother had also arranged for the Salvation Army to pick up her furniture and clothing, knowing full well that her brilliant daughter had no place to put them and no means of paying for their storage. I spent a week at the old apartment, packing the rest of her possessions—mementos, photograph albums, books—and settling her accounts. She had left just enough savings to cover the funeral expenses, to ship her things to Boston, and to get me back there, with very little left over. I was neither surprised nor disappointed. Elementary school teachers are paid in love, not money, and I had never expected an inheritance.
I took on an overload of temp jobs when I got back, and not purely for financial reasons. Exhaustion is a great analgesic—it numbs emotion, silences thought—and I craved the release. The months passed in a blur. I stopped seeing my friends, stopped writing letters, stopped chatting with my roommates and coworkers. By the time April rolled around again, the only person I talked to was Meg Thomson, but that was because she kept in touch with me, not the other way round. And not even Meg could get me to open up about my mother’s death. Did I mention a downward spiral? This is the point where I was about ready to auger in.
That’s when I got the letter saying that Aunt Dimity was dead.
It was the perfect capper to a perfect day. April had roared in like an ill-tempered lion and I had just survived yet another week in yet another unfamiliar office, coping with yet another phone system (picture the control room at the Kennedy Space Center) and managerial style (“Are we up, up, up for another tee-rific day?”). I had been on the run since six that morning and had skipped lunch to get ahead on the filing, only to learn that I wouldn’t be needed for the full day after all, since the office was closing at three in honor of the boss’s birthday. Shrunken paycheck in hand, and dreading the empty hours to come, I dragged myself home through a bone-chilling drizzle, more sleet than rain, wondering how many more tee-rific days I could stand.
The apartment was deserted when I got there, pretty much the way it always was. One of my roommates was an intern, the other a premed student, and their Byzantine hours meant that I had the place to myself most of the time, which suited me just fine.
It was the best living arrangement I had found so far, but it wasn’t exactly the Ritz. Not even the Holiday Inn. My furniture consisted of a mattress on the floor, a borrowed card table, a chair rescued from a life on the streets, and a wooden crate on which rested my one and only lamp. Reginald’s shoebox lived in the closet, and I kept my clothes in the same cardboard boxes I had used throughout my many moves. It saved a lot of time packing. My mother’s things, sealed in boxes, had stood along one wall since they’d arrived from Chicago.
I flicked on the hall light, slipped out of my wet sneakers and jacket, and grabbed my mail from the basket on the hall table. Changing into jeans and an oversized flannel shirt, I sorted through the mail, braced for the usual barrage of threats from various credit card companies who were unimpressed with my increasingly erratic payment schedule. Legalized hate mail is what I called it, and it was the only kind of mail I had received since my mother’s death.
That and junk mail. The plain envelope nestled in among the bills was probably another promotional scheme, and I regarded it sourly. Just what I needed: an invitation to time-share in Bermuda, when the closest I would ever get to Bermuda was the pair of shorts I’d come across in the Salvation Army store last weekend.
Instead, it contained a letter from a law firm, the name of which was plastered (tastefully) across the letterhead: Willis & Willis. This is it, I thought, feeling a little queasy. The credit card companies are taking me to court. What were they going to do, repossess my mattress? With a sinking heart, I read on.
In polite, formal phrases, Willis & Willis apologized for the delay in reaching me, admitting to some difficulty in finding my current address (no surprise to me, since I’d moved six times in the past year). Willis & Willis went on to say that they were sorry to inform me of the death of Miss Dimity Westwood, whom I would recognize as Aunt Dimity. At which point, all thoughts of credit card companies and promotional campaigns vanished and I sat down, rather suddenly.
Aunt Dimity? Dead?
I was stunned, all right. In fact, I was downright spooked. As far as I could remember, I had never told anyone about Aunt Dimity. She belonged to my mom and to me and was far too special to share, except, of course, with Reginald. But he was in no position to be talking to law firms. Hurriedly, I skimmed through the rest of the letter.
Willis & Willis would be most grateful if I would stop by their offices at my earliest possible convenience to discuss some matters of interest. An appointment would not be necessary, as they would see me whenever I chose to appear on their doorstep. With sincere sympathy, they remained my most humble servants, William Willis, etc.
I spread the letter on the folding table and stared at it. The stationery was real enough. The words were real enough. The only thing that wasn’t remotely real was their message. “Well, Reginald?” I said, glancing at the closet door. “What do you make of this? Pretty weird, huh?”
I didn’t really expect an answer. I had decided long ago that the day Reginald started speaking to me was the day I checked myself into the nearest funny farm. Then again, a fictional character had just walked out of my earliest childhood and tapped me on the shoulder. Maybe, if I listened harder, I’d begin to hear Reginald after all.
I read the letter through once more, slowly this time, then examined it with a professional eye. The stationery was cream colored, stiff, and heavy. When held up to the light, the watermark and laid lines confirmed its quality. It hadn’t been run off on a computer printer, either, but typed on a real typewriter and signed with a real fountain pen. I had the distinct impression that Willis & Willis wanted me to see this, wanted me to feel that I was worth more effort than computerized efficiency would allow. I wondered if the very best law firms employed scribes to handwrite correspondence in order to demonstrate their painstaking concern for the affairs of special clients.
Certain phrases seemed to stand out, as though in boldface. Miss Dimity Westwood. No appointment necessary. William Willis. And, most interesting, those “matters of interest” to discuss. Curiouser and curiouser. I glanced at my watch, glanced back at the letter, then looked once more at the closet door.
“What the hell, Reginald,” I said. “It’s not as though I had plans for the afternoon. As Aunt Dimity would say, it’s an adventure.”
. . .
As with many adventures, this one didn’t get off to the start I had in mind. The law office was located a few blocks south of Post Office Square and I worked out a combination of bus routes to get there. It didn’t seem like a bad trip: two buses and a short walk, no more than an hour, tops. Of course, I hadn’t looked out the window yet.
I don’t know what’s worse about a blizzard in April: the fact that it’s so wet and slushy, or the fact that it’s in April. No wonder they call it the cruelest month. The two buses and the short walk turned into two hours of howling wind, driving sleet, and ankle-deep slush. Plus the heat didn’t work on the second bus. I might have been able to shrug it off if I’d had proper winter clothing, but I had lived in LA just long enough to get rid of my nice warm woolen sweaters, down parka, and snow boots and I hadn’t found the money to replace them yet. Most of the time it didn’t matter, since I made it a point to be outside as little as possible.
This time, it mattered. My windbreaker and sneakers were no match for the storm, and by the time I found Willis & Willis, I was soaked to the skin, red faced from the wind, and shivering uncontrollably. If I hadn’t been afraid of dying from exposure, I would have been too embarrassed to approach their door. What a mess.
And what a door. Not that I saw it right away. I had to get past the gate first. The gate in the wall. The wall that rose up from the edge of the sidewalk and bore a brass plate engraved with the address mentioned in the letter. I checked and rechecked the numbers as carefully as I could, considering the velocity of the wind. It was the right place. I buzzed a buzzer, was scanned by a camera, and for God alone knows what reason, the gate unlocked and I let myself in. It wasn’t until I was halfway down the path that I saw the door.
It was the exact door-equivalent of the elegant stationery: polished to a satin sheen and massive, with a lion-head knocker gleaming dully through the swirling snow. The storm seemed to abate for a moment so that I could admire the gleaming lion, and the building over which it kept watch.
Clearly, the law firm of Willis & Willis had no more use for glass and steel than they had for laser printers. They didn’t have an office, they had a mansion, a gracious old mansion, surrounded and dwarfed, though not in the least intimidated, by office towers on every side. Don’t ask me how it got there or, more incredible still, how it stayed there, but there it was, an oasis of charm and dignity in a concrete desert.
Great, I thought, Willis & Willis Meets the Little Match Girl. I staggered up the stairs and placed my hand on the lion’s burnished head, knowing full well that I looked like something any self-respecting cat would refuse to drag in.
Two thumps brought a slightly rumpled looking man to the door. He was in his midthirties, had a short, neatly trimmed beard, and was wearing a well-worn dark tweed jacket and corduroy pants. If I’d had any sense of drama I would have chosen that moment to collapse into his arms—he was a big guy and looked sturdy enough to take it. He stood staring at me, while the snowflakes made little wet splashes on his glasses and the ice water dripped from the end of my nose. Then he smiled, so suddenly and with such radiance that I glanced furtively over my shoulder to see what he was smiling at.
“Hello,” he said, with a warmth and intensity that seemed all out of proportion to the moment.
“Hello,” I replied, a bit uncertainly.
“You must be Lori,” he said, still beaming. My only response was another uncontrollable bout of shivering. It seemed to be enough. He threw the door wide and gestured for me to come in.
“I’m so sorry, standing around while you’re freezing to death. Please, come in, come in and get warm.” He took my elbow and guided me into the foyer. “Here, let me have your jacket. I’ll see that it’s dried. Please, have a seat. Can I get you anything? A cup of coffee? Tea?”
“Tea would be fine,” I said. “But how did you know who I—”
“I’ll be right back,” he said abruptly, and hurried away.
Wondering which of the Willises he was, if indeed he was a Willis (did Willis &/or Willis answer their own door?), and baffled as to why any Willis would seem so happy to see me, I watched him disappear down the hall, then let my eyes wander around the room. I called it a foyer, but it was much grander, more like an entrance hall, with a high ceiling, oil paintings on the walls, and an enormous oriental rug that was more than capable of soaking up the sleet melting from my hair and shoes and jeans.
An ornate divided staircase curved up around the tapestry couch on which I sat, teeth chattering. There was a low table at my knees, and a tall vase filled with deep blue irises graced its flawless surface. I loved irises and the welcome reminder that, all evidence to the contrary, spring had to be just around the corner. An icy drop of water slithered down my neck, but I kept my eyes on the flowers, comforted by the thought that someday soon it would be warm again.
My host cleared his throat. I looked up and saw that he was carrying an armful of clothes—a hooded sweatshirt and some sweatpants, in crimson. Harvard, I thought.
“Here you are,” he said, handing them over.
I looked at them blankly.
“I thought you might want to change into something dry,” he offered. “I keep these on hand for the club, and trust me, they’re clean.” He patted his fairly ample midsection. “I don’t use them as often as I should. I would’ve had proper clothes for you to change into, but I wasn’t sure . . .” He looked me up and down in a way that wasn’t remotely flirtatious. If it had been, at least I would have known what was going on. “Size eight?” he asked.
I nodded, not knowing what else to do.
His face lit up. “I’ll remember that. But in the meantime, this is the best I can do. Will you take them for now, with my apologies? You can slip into them in the changing room. Right along here.”
I hesitated. I didn’t usually accept favors from strangers. Then I considered my blue-tinged fingertips and decided to force myself to make an exception this one time. I followed him down the hall, through a magnificent set of double doors and a sumptuous office, to what he had called the changing room. He set out a pile of towels and left, shutting the door behind him.
The changing room was to bathrooms what the Taj Mahal is to the Little Brown Church in the Vale. I would have gladly moved into it and lived there for the rest of my life. It was as elegantly appointed as the entrance hall and spacious enough to hold everything I owned, with room to spare. I had never seen anything like it: shower stall and whirlpool bath in gray marble, closet space galore, sleek reclining leather chair, massage table, full-length mirrors, telephone, stereo system, television, VCR, the works. But the best part of all was a carpet so thick and soft that my toes almost got lost in it. I took my time getting changed, savoring the sensation of being in a place designed to please the eye as well as the body. When I had finished, I tiptoed back into the office.
My host was sitting on the edge of the desk. He sprang to his feet when he saw me.
“Socks,” he said.
“Socks—I forgot dry socks. Here, take these, and give me those wet clothes. I’ll be right back.” We made our exchange and then he was gone again. The man was like a magic trick: now you see him, now you don’t.
I pulled on the socks and popped back into the changing room to take a look at my new ensemble. It was about what I had expected, considering the fact that the donor was at least eight inches taller than I and a good deal heavier. The sweatpants were baggy enough for two of me, the sweatshirt, complete with its Harvard insignia, came down past my butt, and the heels of the socks reached well above my ankles. My hair was beginning to dry, and my short, dark curls completed the effect. It wasn’t bad, if you go for the waif look.
“Comfy?” asked a now-familiar voice. I nearly jumped out of his socks. My host was looking in from the changing room doorway.
“Yes, thank you,” I answered, “and I appreciate the dry clothes, but . . . do you think you could tell me who you are?”
“Whoops. Sorry about that,” he apologized, “but you looked so damned wet and miserable that I thought introductions could wait.” He began to chuckle. “I’ll bet you thought I was the butler. . . .” He changed his chuckle into a cough when he saw the look on my face, which told him plainly that I didn’t know what to think.
“I’m Bill Willis,” he said hastily. “Not William. That’s my father. We’re partners in the firm. Do you mind if I call you Lori?”
“No,” I said.
“That’s great,” he said. “Terrific, in fact. I can’t tell you how happy . . . But please, come in here, sit down, and have your tea. I’ve let Father know you’ve arrived and he’ll be here shortly. He’s thrilled that you’ve come. We’ve both been looking forward to meeting you. You have no idea.” His unexpected burst of enthusiasm hit me like a wave. I must have swayed on my feet because he was immediately at my side.
“Are you all right?” he asked.
“I’m fine,” I said as I waited for the room to stop spinning. This had happened once or twice before on days when I skipped meals, but I was mortified to have it happen now, in front of this rich, Harvard-educated lawyer. Holding myself very erect, I walked past him into the adjoining office and sat in one of the two high-backed leather chairs that faced the massive desk. “I’m perfectly . . . fine.”
“If you say so,” he said doubtfully, crossing from the doorway to the desk. A silver tea service had been placed there. He poured a cup and brought it to me. “Maybe I should call for some food to go along with this.” He reached for the phone, but I held out a restraining hand.
“Please don’t,” I said, in an effort to salvage what was left of my dignity. “There’s no need. I said I was perfectly fine, and I meant it.”
He stroked his beard thoughtfully, then nodded, once. “Okay. If that’s what you want. But at least get some of the tea inside you. I don’t want Father to think I’ve been inhospitable, and he’ll be here any minute.”
. . .
The sovereign remedy worked, as always, and by the time William Willis, Sr., entered the room, I was able to view him with something approaching equanimity. It was hard to believe he was related to Bill. A slight, clean-shaven man in his early sixties, with a high forehead and a patrician nose, he was impeccably attired in a black three-piece suit. Not only did Willis, Sr., dress better than his son, but while Bill had been almost too friendly from the moment I’d staggered through the front door, his father was as formal as an etiquette book, as though he knew the exact amount of pressure—in pounds per square inch—his handshake should exert, under these and any other circumstances. He was scrupulously polite, but he gave no indication of being thrilled about anything. What could Bill have been talking about? Sprawled comfortably in the leather chair beside my own, he had fallen silent at his father’s entrance, and was watching him with an inexplicable gleam of excitement in his eyes.
After the punctilious handshake, Willis, Sr., seated himself behind the desk, unlocked the center drawer, and removed a file folder, which he placed carefully on the desk before him. He opened the folder and studied its contents intently for a moment, then cleared his throat and raised his eyes to mine. “Before continuing, young lady, I must ask you a few questions. Please answer them truthfully. Be advised that the penalties for misrepresentation are grave.”
I felt a sudden urge to look to Bill for support, but I quelled it. Bill, for his part, remained silent.
“May I see your driver’s license?”
I pulled my wallet from the sweatshirt pocket and handed it to him.
“I see,” said Willis, Sr. “Now, will you please state your full name and place of birth?”
Thus began what I came to think of as the Great Q and A, with Willis, Sr., intoning the Q’s and me supplying the A’s. What was my mother’s family name? Where had I gone to school? Where had my father been born? Where had I worked? Who was my godfather? On and on, with an almost sacramental regularity, for what seemed like a very long time, question after question after question. I could see Bill out of the corner of my eye the entire time and the look on his face continued to perplex me. He began with barely the ghost of a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. As the questions went on, the smile settled and gradually became more pronounced, until he was grinning like a fool. Willis, Sr., seemed to share my puzzlement: the only time he faltered was when he happened to look up from his papers and caught sight of his son’s goofy grin. Aside from that, Willis, Sr., showed no emotion whatsoever, never hurrying, never slowing down, pausing only to turn to the next page in the file.
My fatigue must have put me in a highly suggestible state of mind, because it never once occurred to me to fire any questions back at him. Like “What business is it of yours?” or “Who the hell are you to grill me like this?” The setting was so artificial that I felt like a character in a play. I even felt a touch of pride at knowing my lines so well. The hypnotic rhythm lulled me into a kind of semiconscious complacency, until Willis, Sr., asked what turned out to be the last question.
“Now, young lady, would you please tell my son and me the story entitled Aunt Dimity Buys a Torch?”
I sat bolt upright in the chair, sputtered a few incoherent syllables—and fainted. The shock of hearing those words on a stranger’s lips did what a polar expedition on top of a hectic day without food had failed to do: awakened my sense of drama. I vaguely remember gaping in astonishment and then I found myself gazing blearily into Willis, Sr.’s face from a prone position on a couch.
“Miss Shepherd, can you hear me?” asked Willis, Sr., leaning over to peer closely at my face. “Ah, you are awake. Good, good.”
I hardly recognized the man. The cool politeness in his eyes had given way to a look of warm concern, a lock of white hair had fallen over his forehead, and the hand that had shaken mine with such formality was now solicitously tucking an afghan around me. Suddenly I could see a clear resemblance between father and son.
“I am so very sorry about this,” he said, with a worried frown. “I had no idea it would affect you so severely. But the terms of the will are quite clear and I had to be certain you were who you claimed to be. I was under strict orders, you see, but I never dreamt—”
“How did you know?” I murmured muzzily. “How did you know about Aunt Dimity?”
“I think we shall have a bite of supper first. You appear to be in need of sustenance,” said Willis, Sr. “And then I will answer your questions for a change. A change for the better in my opinion, and in yours, too, no doubt.” He beamed down at me. “I am so happy that you are here, my dear. I feel as though I have known you for years.”
However much I disliked having my questions deflected yet again, I had to admit that food sounded like an idea whose time had come. I pulled myself into a sitting position as Bill entered the room pushing a supper-laden trolley.
“Feeling perfectly fine, are we?” he asked cheerfully, and I felt myself blush. He wheeled the trolley to within my reach and pulled up chairs for himself and his father. “If you’d felt any better, we might have had to call an ambulance.”
“This is no time for levity, my boy,” admonished Willis, Sr., gently. “If you had given Miss Shepherd a proper meal when she arrived, we might have avoided this unfortunate incident.”
“You’re quite right, Father. I stand corrected,” said Bill, and I sank a bit lower on the couch.
“Please, Miss Shepherd, try some of the consommé,” said Willis, Sr. “There’s nothing like a good beef broth after an upset. And then, if you’re up to it, a bit of the roast, I think . . .”
The two men fussed over me, filling my plate and keeping it filled, and between bites I told them the story of Aunt Dimity’s quest for a torch. I felt awkward, hauling out a part of my childhood for these two strangers to examine, but Willis, Sr., assured me that it was a necessary part of the Great Q and A, so I went ahead and told it, word for word, exactly as my mother had told it to me. The only difference was that this time it put the teller to sleep instead of the listeners. Although it was barely eight o’clock, I dozed off with a dessert plate still in my lap.
I awoke in the small hours of the morning. The room was pitch-dark, but I didn’t need light to know that I wasn’t in my own bed. The mattress was firm and the pillows were soft—instead of the other way round—and when I stretched, my hands bumped into something which felt suspiciously like a headboard. Reaching to one side, my groping fingers found a nightstand, then a lamp. I turned it on.
Definitely not my room. A large, tweedy armchair sat in one corner, a small, graceful desk in another, the kind that sits in the front window of a fancy antique store and costs half the gross national product. A crystal carafe and a tumbler sat on the nightstand; the carafe was filled with water. The bed had a footboard to go with the headboard, and both were made of the same lustrous wood as the desk. The sheets and blankets were navy blue—very masculine—and the pillowcases bore a silver monogram in looping Florentine script: W.
I sat up as the rest of yesterday’s events came flooding back, erasing my confusion and anchoring me firmly in . . . what? Yesterday morning I had been a struggling, semiemployed, ordinary person who slept on a mattress on the floor. This morning I found myself comfortably ensconced in an elegant bedroom, the honored guest of a venerable attorney. “What next?” I murmured, gazing about the room. “A glass coach and a Handsome Prince?”
The thought made me start as another memory settled into place, a sleepy memory of being carried up a long flight of stairs by the venerable attorney’s son, the same son who had loaned me . . . I peeked under the covers and was relieved to spot the Harvard insignia. It was bad enough to know that I had been toted up to bed like a helpless child, but it could have been worse.
I still had plenty of questions, but they’d have to wait until the rest of the house had awakened. In the meantime . . . I swung my legs over the side of the bed. If I was careful and quiet, I should be able to take a look around. After all, it wasn’t every day that I woke up with a mansion to explore.
Easing open a door at random, I discovered a spacious dressing room with empty shelves, empty hangers, an empty dressing table. The towels in the adjoining bathroom held the scent of fresh laundering, and everything else in it seemed to be brand-new: an undented tube of toothpaste, a toothbrush still in its wrapper, a dry bar of sandalwood soap placed between the double sinks. The shampoo and liquid soap dispensers in the shower were full, and an enormous loofah sat on one marble ledge, looking as though it hadn’t touched water since it had first been wrested from the seafloor.
A second door opened on to a well-appointed parlor dominated by a wide, glass-fronted cabinet. Padding over, I saw that it held an assortment of trophies, plaques, and medals for everything from debating to Greek. There were a few sports awards, for odd things like squash and fencing, but most were for scholarly achievements. Each was polished and gleaming, and each was engraved with the name William Willis. The dates indicated that they were Bill’s, rather than his father’s, and a young Bill’s at that; the triumphs of childhood and young manhood memorialized quietly, in a very private room.
The cabinet reminded me of the steamer trunk I had found while sorting through my mother’s things; a trunk carefully packed with the symbols of my own academic achievements, which had not been inconsiderable. It had been a crushing discovery, like encountering a trunkful of my mother’s unfulfilled dreams for me. I looked at the trophies before me and envied Bill. He had lived up to the promise of his early years, while the schoolteacher’s daughter was living out of cardboard boxes.
I turned away from the cabinet and was promptly distracted from my gloomy thoughts by the sight of my clothes from the day before. They had been placed neatly on the coffee table, cleaned, dried, and pressed. I was amused to see my well-worn clothing treated so respectfully, but I was also a little embarrassed. I doubted that Bill had ever seen such threadbare jeans before, or such shabby sneakers.
A piece of paper stuck out of one of the sneakers. I unfolded it and saw that the words on it had been printed in caps and underlined:
CALL 7404 AS SOON AS YOU GET UP
THE SOONER, THE BETTER!
I glanced at my watch, saw that it was coming up on four A.M., then looked back at the note and shrugged. Maybe I’d get those answers sooner than I’d thought. I picked up the phone on the end table and dialed the extension. Bill answered on the first ring.
“Lori? How are you feeling?”
“Fine,” I said, “but—”
“Great. You’re up? You’re dressed?”
“Terrific. I’ll be right down.”
“But what—” I began, but he had already hung up. I grabbed my sneakers and by the time my laces were tied, Bill was at the parlor door, rosy-cheeked and slightly out of breath, wearing a bulky parka with a fur-trimmed hood.
“I was hoping you’d be awake before dawn,” he said. “Now, come with me, and hurry. I have something to show you.”
“What is it?”
“You’ll see.” His eyes danced as he turned on his heel and took off down the hall. I scurried to catch up and we nearly collided at the first corner because I was so busy gawking at my surroundings. But how could I help it?
My suite opened on to a paneled corridor hung with hunting scenes, and the rug beneath my feet depicted a chase, the hounds bounding up the hall to bay at a smug-looking fox who perched out of reach at the farthest edge. A turn took us into another long passageway, this one devoted to still lifes, the rug woven with pears and peaches and pale green grapes glistening against a background of burnt umber. Another turn and we were racing up a staircase of golden oak, the newel posts carved with a pattern of grape leaves, the balustrade with the curling tendrils of trailing vines. The landings were as big as my bedroom. If Bill was trying to impress me, he was succeeding.
“Behold the House of Willis,” I murmured.
Bill heard me. “Do you like it?” he asked. “It’s what happens when you come from a long line of pack rats. We shipped all of our worldly goods over from England more than two hundred years ago and as far as I can tell, not one member of my family has ever thrown anything out. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that some of these pots were used in the ancestral caves.” The “pot” he was referring to at that moment was a pale blue porcelain bowl spilling over with orchids. The flowers alone were probably worth more than my weekly paycheck.
He said nothing else until we reached the bottom of a narrow staircase with unadorned plaster walls and simple wrought-iron railings. There he turned and whispered, “Servants’ quarters. People sleeping.”
In silence, we climbed the stairs and made our way down a short passageway and into a small room. It was empty save for a rack hung with an assortment of jackets, and a table heaped with heavy sweaters. A spiral staircase in the center of the room led to a trapdoor in the ceiling. I rested against the wall while Bill rummaged through the pile of sweaters. He plucked up a tightly woven Icelandic pullover and handed it to me. “Size eight,” he said. “Put it on.” He stood with one foot on the bottom step of the staircase and looked at me closely. “Are you all right?”
“Yes,” I said, wheezing. “It’s just . . . all those stairs.”
“We can stay here for a minute, if you need—”
“No, I’m okay.”
“I’m positive,” I said, with some exasperation. “Let’s get going.”
He climbed up the spiral staircase and through the trapdoor, then closed the trapdoor behind me as I emerged into the chilly predawn darkness of the mansion’s roof. There was no moon, but the storm had spent itself, the clouds had flown, and the sky was ablaze with stars. I could vaguely make out the shadowy shapes of vents and chimneys and . . . something else. I knew what it looked like, but I couldn’t imagine what it might be doing up there.
“Come.” Bill led me directly to the strange shape that looked like, but could not possibly be, a dentist’s chair. Except that it was. Piled next to it was what appeared to be a fitted waterproof cover.
“Had it since college,” Bill said, giving the headrest an affectionate pat. “Saw it at an auction and snapped it up. Knew exactly where I’d put it. Have a seat.”
I looked at Bill and I looked at the chair and for a brief moment it crossed my mind that there might be an army of servants hiding behind the chimney pots, waiting for Bill’s command to leap out and shout, “April Fool!”
“Hurry,” he said. “It’s almost over.”
His sense of urgency was infectious—I climbed into the chair. It was upholstered in sheepskin, like the bucket seat of an expensive sports car, a welcome bit of customizing in this brisk weather. Bill levered it back until I was looking straight up into the star-filled sky.
“What am I looking for?” I asked.
“You’ll know it when you see it,” he replied.
I continued to gaze heavenward. With tall buildings towering on either side and the vastness of space stretched in between, I felt like a very small bug in a very big bottle. I didn’t mind in the least when Bill placed his hand on my shoulder and whispered, “Be patient.”
Then I saw them. Shooting stars. Not just one or two, but a dozen of them, silvery streaks that dashed across the velvet darkness, then vanished, as though the heavens were winking out at the end of time. I clutched the arms of the chair, dizzied by the sudden sensation that Bill’s hand on my shoulder was the only thing keeping me from falling upward, into the stars.
It ended as quickly as it had begun.
“There are very few things in this world that really can’t wait,” Bill said after a moment of silence, “and a meteor shower is one of them. I take it as a good omen that the clouds parted in time for you to see the end of this one.”
The warmth in his voice brought me back down to earth, so to speak, reminding me that I was sitting in a dentist’s chair on the roof of a mansion in the middle of Boston, with a complete stranger as my guide. And that the complete stranger was talking to me in a tone of voice usually reserved for very, very good friends. I eyed him warily as he levered the chair into an upright position.
“Do you do this with all of your clients?” I asked.
“No, I do not,” he said, a hint of amusement in his voice. “This is my private domain. There’s something else I’d like you to see as long as we’re up here—if you feel up to it, that is.”
“If I feel . . .” I ignored his outstretched hand and clambered out of the chair on my own. “Look, Bill, in spite of my performance last night, I am not an invalid.”
“Of course not.” He pulled the fitted cover over the dentist’s chair. “You’re twenty pounds underweight, and a run up a flight of stairs leaves you puffing like a steam engine, but you’re certainly not an invalid. Come on.”
I stared at him, nonplussed, until he had almost disappeared in the shadows, then set out after him, ready to give him a piece of my mind. I made my way around chimney stacks and ventilators to a small domed structure in the center of the roof, but before I could say a word, he ducked through a low door, then stood back to let me enter. He shut the door, lit an oil lamp—and the walls sprang to life around us.
The entire interior, from the floor to the top of the dome, was covered with paintings—the Gemini twins, Orion with his belt and sword, and the regal queen, Cassiopeia, to name only a few. The paintings were inset with tiny faceted crystals that sparkled like miniature constellations, and the centerpiece was an old brass telescope that had been polished to within an inch of its life. Bill held the lamp high, clearly enjoying my wide-eyed amazement.
“Oh, my,” I gasped at last, “this is incredible. Did you build it yourself?”
“The only thing I did was install a telephone. The rest”—he let his gaze wander across the glittering dome—“was Great-great-uncle Arthur’s idea.”
“Yes, well, every family has one eventually, and we had Arthur.” Bill handed me the lantern, rummaged in a cupboard, and came up with a chamois cloth. As he spoke, he ran it across the smooth surface of the telescope. “He’d be considered eccentric in England, but here he was thought to be just plain nuts. He gave the family fits spending all that hard-earned cash on stargazing, but I, for one, am grateful to the old loon. Granted, it’s not much good as an observatory now. Too many buildings, too much light from the city. But when he built it, the mansion was the tallest building around and the lights were fewer and farther between. Like this.” He nodded at the oil lamp. “A softer light for a softer time.
“This is my bolt-hole,” he continued. “I discovered it when I was a boy, and I’ve come here ever since, whenever I’ve needed to be by myself. Just me and the stars. And now, you.”
There it was again, the warmth in his voice, and again it made me uneasy. “Thanks for showing it to me,” I said, then tried to fill the uncomfortable silence by adding, “It’s more than I deserve, really, after getting you in trouble with your father.”
“What he said last night, about giving me a meal when I showed up. You did try, and I should have told him so.”
“Oh, that.” He folded the chamois cloth and returned it to the cupboard. “Don’t worry about it.”
“No, I mean it—I’m sorry I didn’t say anything.”
“But it’s not okay. I should have—”
“I understand, but there’s no need—”
“Bill!” Did he think he had a monopoly on good manners? Here he was, showing me all of these lovely things, and he wouldn’t even let me do something as commonplace as apologize for rude behavior. “If I want to say I’m sorry, I’ll say I’m sorry, okay? I don’t see why you won’t—”
“Accepted,” he said.
“I accept your apology.”
“Well . . . all right, then,” I muttered, the wind leaking slowly from my sails.
“Good.” He rubbed his hands together. “Now that we’ve settled that, let’s go back to your rooms. There’s one more thing I’d like to show you.” He took the lantern from me, extinguished it, and opened the door.
. . .
I had hoped to see more of the mansion on the way back, so I was disappointed when we returned to the guest suite via the same route. Bill must have sensed it, because as we approached my door he said, “I’ll give you a tour later, if you like. It’s a wonderful place. You’ve seen some of the older parts, but we have an entire wing that would put IBM to shame. One of the reasons we’ve been so successful is that we’re willing to take the best of both worlds: the gentility of the old and the efficiency of the new. Ah, good, they’ve arrived.”
This last remark came as he opened the parlor door and I saw right away what had prompted it. During our absence, a vase had been placed on the coffee table, a slender crystal vase filled with deep blue irises. I gave a gasp of pleasure when I saw them.
“You like them?” Bill asked. “I hoped you might. I saw you looking at the ones downstairs and I thought—”
“They’re my favorites. But how do you manage to find irises at this time of year? Isn’t it a little early?”
“Where there’s a Willis—” he began, but my groan cut him off. “The hothouse,” he continued. “It’s in the back. I’ll be sure to include it in the tour.” He jutted his chin in the direction of the one door in the suite I had yet to open. “Been in there yet?” When I shook my head, he frowned. “But that’s the whole reason I put you in here! Come on.” He opened the door, turned on a light, and stood aside as I entered a library as small and perfect as Great-great-uncle Arthur’s observatory, though executed in a rather more sedate style.
“The big library is downstairs,” Bill said. “This is Father’s private stash.”
I scanned the shelves, speechless. The collection was everything a collection should be. My old boss, Stan Finderman, would have approved wholeheartedly, and so did I. It wasn’t full of showpieces. It was full of love and careful thought. The books were all related to polar exploration—Franklin’s A Journey to the Shores of the Polar Sea, Ross’s A Voyage of Discovery, and many others—some worth a small fortune, all priceless to the person who read and cherished them.
“And now for the grand finale,” Bill said. He put a finger to his lips and tiptoed stealthily to a wall space between two of the bookcases. Pushing his sleeves up with a flourish, like some mad magician, he applied pressure to two places on the wall and, presto-chango, it swung open to reveal a staircase leading down.
“A mansion wouldn’t be a mansion without a few secret passages, now, would it?” he said with a grin. “This one leads down to the changing room in Father’s office. For all intents and purposes, you have your own private connection to all the comforts therein. You can lock the changing room door from the inside and use it anytime you like. But please—don’t forget to unlock it when you’re done.”
“Wait a minute,” I said as he closed the door in the wall. An appalling thought had just occurred to me. “If this is your father’s collection, and if that staircase leads down to his office, then . . . Oh, Bill, this isn’t his suite, is it? He didn’t clear out to make room for me, did he?”
“Not at all. Father would have been happy to make way for you, but as it happens, he didn’t. This used to be his suite—he used to live above the shop, so to speak—but he’s on the ground floor now. We simply haven’t gotten around to moving the books yet.” Bill’s gaze swept over the shelves. “It’s ironic. All these stories about conquering the wilderness, and he’s not allowed to climb the stairs in his own home.”
He glanced at me, then looked back to the books. “His heart,” he said shortly. “Started acting up last spring. Hasn’t been anything serious so far, but . . . I can’t help worrying. My mother died when I was twelve, and aside from some desiccated aunts, it’s been just the two of us ever since.” He reached out to touch one of the books. “It’s strange, isn’t it? No one ever tells you that one day you’ll worry about your parents the way they always worried about you.”
I averted my eyes as my heart twisted inside of me. The fact was that I had never worried about my mother. She’d never been sick a day in her life. The only time she had ever been in a hospital had been to give birth to me. But Bill’s words reminded me that I should have shown more concern for her, that I had failed her in that as I had failed her in so many other ways.
“But enough doom and gloom.” Bill turned his back on the books. “As I said, there’s no need to worry, not really. There’s no reason Father shouldn’t live to be a hundred, as long as he takes care of himself.”
“You make sure he does,” I said. “Because once he’s gone . . .” I fell silent, hoping Bill hadn’t noticed the tremor in my voice.
“Lori,” he said. He touched my arm and I pulled away from him. I didn’t need or want his sympathy, and I was annoyed with myself for provoking it.
“Breakfast is at nine,” he said, after a pause. “The small dining room, downstairs, left, left, third door on the right. And Father would like to see you at ten. In his office.” He walked to the door of the library, then turned. “And by the way—you’re not my client. You’re his.”
It took a moment for his words to register, a moment more for me to realize that I had let him go without getting any of the answers I’d been looking for. What’s more, as I returned to the small library for a closer look at Willis, Sr.’s books, I realized there was something else I wanted to know.
Why was Bill being so nice to me?
The small dining room made me wonder what the big dining room was like. The table at which Bill and I sat—Willis, Sr., having opted for breakfast in his rooms—was long enough to seat twelve, and anything above a sedate murmur caused muted echoes to reverberate from the domed ceiling. The food was set out in silver chafing dishes along a sideboard, except for a small mountain of strawberries that loomed over a stoneware pitcher filled with cream. Two servants, casually attired in khaki twills and crewneck sweaters, poured our orange juice, then sat down with us and engaged Bill in a heated debate over some obscure point of contract law.
“Law students,” Bill explained when they had cleared the table. “Live-in staff.”
“How convenient,” I said. “Your own private supply of slave labor.”
“Absolutely. That’s why we have a waiting list as long as my arm.” Bill looked at his watch. “My father, the capitalist tyrant, should be waiting for us now. Shall we?” He led the way to the office. “The students were his idea,” he continued. “Room and board and a chance for hands-on experience in our clinics, not to mention the opportunity to learn from one of the finest legal minds in the country. I refer, of course, to my father’s. In exchange for which they do everything but cook. Some things are best left to a professional, don’t you agree? I’m sure they’d be much better off somewhere else, but what can we do? They’re champing at the bit to be trodden underfoot.” He opened the office doors. “Aren’t they, Father?”
Willis, Sr., looked up from his desk. “Aren’t who what, my boy?”
“Miss Shepherd was commenting on your unorthodox solution to the servant problem.”
“Ah, the students. They have worked out marvelously well, Miss Shepherd. I don’t know where we would be without them, and they seem to find the experience worthwhile. Bill, did you hear? Young Walters was made a judge last week.”
“Sandy Walters? But he couldn’t even wash dishes!”
“I doubt that he will be required to,” Willis, Sr., observed dryly, then turned his attention to me. “Forgive our prattle, Miss Shepherd. How are you this morning?”
“She’s perfectly fine,” said Bill, and I sent a low-level glare in his direction. “I’ll leave you to it, then, Father. And I’ll see you later.” He nodded pleasantly at me as he left the room.
“My son appears to be in a lighthearted mood this morning.” Willis, Sr., stared thoughtfully at the door for a moment, then smiled at me. “But let us proceed, Miss Shepherd. I am sure you must be feeling very impatient by now. Please make yourself comfortable. This may take some time, I’m afraid.” I took a seat in the tall leather wing chair facing him.
“Twenty-five years ago,” Willis, Sr., began, “I was contacted by a colleague in England. A client of his, a mildly eccentric woman of comfortable means, wished to draw up her will. Further, she wished to have her will administered by an American law firm, since one of the legatees would be an American. She was quite concerned about finding the right people to handle the case and I am pleased to say that she found our firm satisfactory.”
I smiled at this and Willis, Sr., raised his eyebrows in polite inquiry. “Don’t take this the wrong way,” I said, “but it’s easy to see why Willis & Willis would appeal to an Englishwoman. I can’t imagine a less ‘American’ law firm.”
“You are quite right,” said Willis, Sr. “She admitted as much when I traveled to England to meet her. She wanted a firm which hadn’t ‘succumbed to the rat race,’ as she put it. We were anachronistic enough to suit her taste exactly.”
His gaze returned to the doors through which Bill had exited. “I suspect that my son influenced her in our favor as well. I brought him with me, you see. My father, who was then head of the firm, disapproved of such unprofessional behavior, but my wife had just passed away, and to be so far away from the boy for any extended period of time was out of the question.” He looked once more at me. “In the end, it proved fortunate. Bill’s presence seemed to reassure my client that the firm wasn’t completely ossified.
“At any rate, she told me that she had a friend, an American friend who had a daughter, and that the will concerned certain tasks that her friend’s child was to undertake. The daughter, apparently, did not know of my client’s existence, and my client wished to maintain her anonymity until the time came for the will to be administered. ‘It’s my last appearance in the story,’ she told me, ‘and I would like it to be a surprise.’
“As you have undoubtedly guessed by now, your mother, the late Elizabeth Irene Shepherd, was the friend and you are the daughter. What I am permitted to reveal to you now is that my client was Miss Dimity Westwood, founder of the Westwood Trust, which supported, indeed still supports, a great number of charitable institutions in the United Kingdom.
“During her lifetime, Miss Westwood was widely respected, but something of a mystery—an invisible philanthropist, one might say, whose good works were better known than herself. She was also, if I may add a personal note, the most remarkable woman I have ever had the honor to know.” Willis, Sr., leaned back in his chair and folded his hands across his waistcoat.
“I have practiced law for a good many years,” he mused, “and I have seen every kind of scandal and battle royale imaginable. The cliché is true, I’m afraid: wills do frequently bring out the worst in those involved—the greed, the pettiness.” He sighed. “I should not complain, I suppose, for I owe my livelihood to such disagreements. But I must say that it is a singularly pleasurable change of pace when a client such as Miss Westwood comes along.
“She was a voluminous correspondent, but I only met her in person that one time. Yet she was so generous, so kind, so . . .” He groped for the right word. “So good-humored,” he concluded helplessly. “We stayed with her, you see, at her invitation, and not an hour passed during our visit when she didn’t find something to laugh about, some incidental detail or absurdity that I would have overlooked completely. I felt quite renewed by the end of our ten days.”
Willis, Sr., stared into the distance, lost in visions of the past, and I watched his face, entranced. One meeting, twenty-five years ago, and he was still under her spell. I could almost see Dimity Westwood welcoming him to her home. She had looked beyond the professional demeanor of the lawyer and seen a grieving widower who couldn’t bear to be parted from his young son. This was the man she had chosen to look after my interests and it was clear that she had chosen with her heart as well as her head. Miss Westwood had to be Aunt Dimity. But why was this the first time I had heard that she was a real person?
Willis, Sr., returned to the present. “Forgive an old man his distractions, Miss Shepherd. Now, where was I? Ah, yes.” Leaning forward, he continued, “My task was quite simple, really. I was to familiarize myself with certain of Miss Westwood’s personal documents, draw up the will to her specifications, and keep myself apprised of your whereabouts. I was not permitted to contact you, however, until after Miss Westwood’s passing. I regret to say that the sad event occurred eleven months ago.”
“Just when I disappeared from the face of the earth,” I said.
“Precisely,” said Willis, Sr. “I had learned of your divorce, naturally, and managed to trace your first change of address, but after that?” He clucked his tongue. “Oh, my. I enlisted my son’s help in the search, but it wasn’t until last week that I believed I’d finally found you, here, living across town from us. You can imagine how surprised I was to learn that you were so nearby. It was an unexpected, though quite welcome, turn of events.
“I was very pleased when you appeared so promptly, even more pleased when you responded to Miss Westwood’s questions with the appropriate answers. If you will permit me,” he added, “I would like to apologize once more for the distressing climax of that particular interview. Had I not been constrained by the terms of the will to carry it out, I assure you—”
“That’s okay,” I said. “Really, I understand. You had to make sure you had the right person, so . . . To tell you the truth, I’m finding it hard to believe I’m me, too, if you know what I mean. I grew up thinking that Aunt Dimity was an invention, a fantasy. And now you’re telling me that she was real.” I shook my head. “It’ll take a while for it to sink in. But what exactly are we talking about? What tasks am I supposed to undertake?”
“Ah, yes,” continued Willis, Sr. “Having ascertained to my satisfaction that you are the Lori Elizabeth Shepherd so named in the will, I must now ask you to examine the contents of these envelopes.” From a drawer in his desk, he withdrew two envelopes, one pale blue, the other buff-colored. He stood up and walked around his desk to bring them to me. “You will, perhaps, care to read them in the privacy of your rooms.” He indicated the changing room door. “There is a staircase that leads—”
“I know,” I said. “Bill showed me.”
“Did he?” Willis, Sr., said. His eyebrows rose in surprise, but I had no time to wonder why. The entire room seemed to fade as I saw what was written on the buff-colored envelope. It was my name, and it had been written in my mother’s hand.
. . .
I put my mother’s letter aside to read last. Curled in an armchair in the parlor of the guest suite, a single lamp shedding a pool of light around me, I slipped a letter opener beneath the flap of the pale blue envelope, then paused to look at it once more. My name had been written on the front of this one as well, in neat, unfamiliar handwriting. I didn’t need subtitles to tell me whose it was, though. With great care, I slit open the envelope, and Aunt Dimity’s voice came through, soft and clear.
My Dearest Lori,
No, I am not your fairy godmother. Neither am I a witch. I may be dead now, but I assure you that, while I was alive, I was the most ordinary person imaginable. And before you get any more silly ideas, no, I do not plan to return from the grave! I’m looking forward to a nice, long rest and many pleasant chats with your mother.
Yes, I just got word of Beth’s death and I am so very sorry. I know how hard it will be for you. But I also know that you will weather this along with everything else. It may not seem so for a time, but it will come out right in the end.
I am getting ahead of myself, however, and I must remember not to do that. You have been so much a part of my life that it is altogether too easy for me to forget that we have never met.
You must be very perplexed. I would apologize if I felt sorry, but I freely admit to feeling no remorse whatsoever. It’s as though I’m watching someone open an oddly shaped birthday present. The intrigue is half the fun, especially when one knows how delighted the recipient will be when the contents are finally revealed. My wrapping paper is more elaborate than most, to be sure, but then, I’ve never wrapped something quite so oddly shaped before. How does one wrap the past? How does one wrap the future? I have done my best.
But enough riddles, Dimity, or Lori shall begin to tear at her hair with frustration. Get on with it! Are you comfortable, my dear? And have you a cup of tea? Very well, then, let us begin.
Your mother was the dearest friend I have ever had. We met late in the autumn of 1940, in London, when I was a humble clerk in the War Office and she was a humble clerk on the General’s staff. I refer to General Eisenhower, of course, but lest you become overly impressed, let me reiterate the word “humble.” We were very small cogs in that very large machine. What glamour there was was the glamour of being young and aware that we were living the great adventure of our lives. I consider myself blessed to have shared it with your mother. I could not have invented a more ideal companion. I suspect that the circumstances of our meeting will sound familiar to you.
I occasionally had a day free of duties and on one such day I decided to visit the zoological gardens. For some reason I had become intensely curious to know what the war had done to them, so intensely curious that I didn’t mind the circuitous route I had to take to get there, nor the promise of rain that hung in the air, a promise that was fulfilled as soon as I’d entered the grounds.
In my mad dash for shelter, I ran straight into Beth. I mean that quite literally. I knocked her down. I was ready to sink into the ground with embarrassment when Beth did a most unusual thing. She blinked up at me for a moment—and then began to laugh. Suddenly the absurdity of the situation was brought home to me: how could a bit of rain and an accidental collision compare to the war raging on all around us? Laughter was the only reasonable response. When I had helped her to her feet, I invited her back to my flat to dry off. We chatted the evening away over what was to be the first of many shared pots of tea. We became very close very quickly, as one did in those days.
That was how our friendship began, with laughter. Beth knew where to look to find the humour in any situation and I learned how to find it myself after a short time in her company. As you can imagine, this was invaluable during the war, but it has stood me in good stead under “normal” circumstances as well. It was a great gift and I remain indebted to her for it to this day.
When the war was over, and your mother was posted home, I accompanied her to the ship. Somehow we knew it was the last time we would ever set eyes on each other. It wasn’t easy to find the humour in that, but we managed. As we walked toward the gangplank, Beth threatened to start another war if I didn’t write to her, and I vowed, for the sake of world peace, to be a faithful correspondent.
I was and so, too, was Beth. Long letters, short notes, postal cards—we became closer with an ocean between us than we had been while living in the same city. We often spoke of visiting one another, but we never did. It seems strange to me now, but it did not seem strange then. Looking back on it, I suspect that we were trying to keep the world of our letters apart from the world in which we lived. Perhaps we had become so accustomed to the magic of words on paper that we were afraid a face-to-face meeting might break the spell.
Our letters were our refuge. We looked to them for stability, for continuity, in a world of change. Beth regaled me with tales of married life while I spun the saga of spinsterhood and, through it all, our friendship became stronger, deeper than ever before. I believe that your mother needed these letters very much. Although she loved you and your father dearly, still, she needed one place that was hers and hers alone. To my knowledge, she never told another living soul of our correspondence, save your father, naturally.
Shortly after the joyous event of your birth, your mother faced a most difficult time. Your father’s death was a terrible blow, as I am sure you know. Beth refused my offer of financial assistance, but it was clear that she needed something, some special way to remind herself that this difficult time would pass.
With that thought in mind, I began to include stories in my letters. I wrote them for you, but they were directed toward your mother as well. The stories featured a heroine who was, like Beth, blessed with the gift of easy laughter. They were tales of commonplace courage and optimism, for I knew from my own experience that everyday virtues endure best, and that quiet courage is worth more than the grandest derring-do. Thus “Aunt Dimity” was born, a heroine for the common woman.
By telling the tales to you, your mother told them to herself. They served as a steady reminder that she already possessed those qualities that would see her through whatever life held in store for her. It was a small thing, perhaps, but great changes begin with small things. Witness our friendship. Little by little the stories, and the healing power of time, helped restore Beth’s tranquillity.
By anyone’s measure, Aunt Dimity was a roaring success. You didn’t outgrow the stories until you were nearly twelve, long after you had put away most other childish things. And during that time Aunt Dimity had given me a great deal of pleasure and Beth a great deal of comfort. By then, I felt that I knew you quite well. I had tried to tailor my stories to your tastes, you see, which meant learning as much about you as I could. And though you eventually tired of hearing about Aunt Dimity, I never tired of hearing about you.
I have followed the events of your life ever since and, though sorely tempted at times, I have never broken my promise to your mother to keep the identity of Aunt Dimity’s creator a secret.
Even now, I am keeping my promise. Beth and I agreed many years ago that, without this chapter, the story would be incomplete—and nothing bothered us more than a story with gaps. We decided to fill those gaps by bequeathing to you our complete correspondence, from the first pair of letters to these, the last. With Beth’s approval, I engaged the firm of Willis & Willis to carry out our wishes.
You will find the correspondence waiting for you in my cottage, near the village of Finch in England. I disposed of my other properties, but I could not bring myself to dispose of the cottage. I grew up there, you see, and returned to it occasionally even after the war. It has always held a special place in my heart.
There is a small task I would like you to perform while you are there. William Willis will explain it to you at the appropriate time. It is a favor I can ask of no one but you, and I am confident that you will find it agreeable.
Please give my best wishes to William and to young Bill. Your mother and I approved of them without reservation, and you may trust them to look after your affairs as though they were their own.
I hope you are not too put out with Beth and me for keeping this from you for so long. I know that the idea of being watched over from afar will pinch at your independent spirit, but I assure you that it was done with great respect and even greater
I looked up from the letter and stared blindly across the room as the words, and the images they evoked, settled over me like drifting snow. It was difficult to accept the fact that a woman I had never known had known so much about me, but I no longer doubted her existence. She knew too much to be a figment of anyone’s imagination.
My mother had been in London during the war and she had ended up on Eisenhower’s staff. While there, she had been an indefatigable explorer of the wartime city: she had told me of seeing the Tate Gallery shrouded in blackout curtains, St. Paul’s Cathedral alight with incendiaries, the streets cratered by bombing. She had met my father during that time and she had often spoken of their first meeting. But she had never spoken of this other momentous meeting, nor of the forty-year friendship that had grown from it. As I turned it over in my mind, though, I remembered the family ritual known as Quiet Time.
Quiet Time came just after supper, when my mother retired to her room, leaving Reginald and me engrossed in a storybook or some other peaceful activity. She emerged from her room looking so refreshed and invigorated that I had always assumed she used that time for a nap. Since I had been a fairly active—not to say rambunctious—child, it wasn’t an unreasonable assumption.
Now it seemed obvious that a renewal of spirit had been taking place behind her closed door. I placed Dimity’s letter beside me on the couch and took up the buff-colored one. Looking over the familiar scrawl, I pictured my mother at her writing desk, bending over these pages as she had bent over so many others, and after a few deep breaths, I opened the envelope.
Something fell into my lap. It was a photograph, a very old photograph, stained in places, the corners creased, one missing altogether; a photograph of . . . nothing much, as far as I could tell: a gnarled old tree in the foreground of a grassy clearing, a valley beyond, some distant hills. It was no place I’d ever been, no place I recognized, and there was nothing else in it: no people, no animals, no buildings of any sort. Baffled, I set it aside and unfolded the pages of my mother’s letter.
All right, Sarah Bernhardt, dry your eyes and blow your nose. Your big scene is over.
I know what you’re thinking right now, just as surely as if I were sitting there looking at you. You’ve never been much good at hiding your feelings, not just from me, but from the world at large. It has always been one of your most endearing and exasperating traits. Your thoughts are on your face right now, and I can tell that they are U-N-H-A-P-P-Y.
You feel as though Dimity and I have played a pretty mean trick on you and I can’t blame you, because in a sense we have. But look at it this way: if I’d told you about everything, you’d know it all already and I’d be dead and that would be that. As it is, I may be dead, but you still have a lot to learn about me—the story continues, so to speak. I like the idea. I think you will, too, after you finish moping and feeling sorry for yourself.
You’re probably wondering about the photograph. I am, too. That’s why I’m giving it to you. This is serious, so I need your full attention. This is not something I can tell to Reginald.
Dimity said that she would tell you how we first met, and I’m sure she has. I’m equally sure that she hasn’t told you the state she was in, that day at the zoo. Not to put too fine a point on it, she was a wreck. She looked as though she hadn’t eaten a solid meal or slept a good night’s sleep in a month. The reason she ran into me was because she was walking around in a daze, only half aware of her surroundings. I took her back to her flat, got some tea and dry toast into her, then stayed with her until she fell asleep. I talked myself hoarse that evening, and the next, and gradually, over the course of a few weeks, I managed to coax her out of her shell. She talked about a lot of things after that, but she never mentioned what it was that had knocked her for such a loop.
After I got to know her better, I asked her about it. It was as though I’d slapped her. The color drained from her face, she said there were some things she couldn’t speak of, even to me, and she made me promise never to ask her about it again. You know how I am about promises. I never asked her again, but I never ceased to wonder.
Dimity took me down to her cottage once, to show me the place where she’d grown up. While we were there, two of her neighbors pulled me aside. They were elderly and not very coherent, but I got the impression that Dimity had suffered some kind of nervous collapse the last time she’d been home. Apparently, they’d found her in the cottage one day, with photo albums strewn about her on the floor, mumbling to herself and clutching—you guessed it—this photograph.
They were convinced it had something to do with her condition, so they took it from her, then didn’t know what to do with it. They were afraid to give it back to her, but they didn’t want to destroy it, either, so they decided to pass it on to me for safekeeping. They said I was “what Dimity needed” and seemed to think I’d know the right time to return the photograph to her. I tried to explain about my promise, but they wouldn’t take no for an answer.
So here I am, all these years later, still pondering the question of how an innocent-looking photograph could cause a woman like Dimity to fall apart. And why someone who opened her arms to the world kept one part of her life in darkness.
I’d like you to find out for me. I don’t know how. I don’t know where the picture was taken or by whom. The neighbors who gave it to me are no doubt dead and gone by now, so they won’t be able to help you. It may even be that the answers died with Dimity, but if not, I know that my unstoppable baby girl will find them.
Why is it so important to me? I’m not sure. It’s certainly too late to fix whatever it was that went wrong. But I can’t help feeling that, whatever it was, it needs to be brought into the light. It can’t hurt my friend now, and I’ll rest easier, knowing you’re looking for answers to questions I was never allowed to ask. You can tell me all about it the next time I see you.
And that’s about all for now, except to tell you to scratch Reginald behind the ears for me. And to tell you that I love you very much. You will always be my favorite only child.
She almost tripped me up with that last paragraph—I guarantee that nothing turns on the waterworks faster than a dead parent telling you she loves you—and her mention of poor old Reginald nearly sent me running to the nearest tissue factory. But the story of the photograph put a halt to that. I picked it up and looked at it again, then looked down at the letters nestled together on the couch. All those years of friendship, and not one word about . . . it.
What had happened in that clearing? I studied the tree, tried to imagine how it would look today, if it hadn’t been struck by lightning or chopped down or knocked over by the wind or . . . I stopped myself. That sort of thinking would get me nowhere.
I would go to the cottage. I would take care of Dimity’s task, then turn the place inside out, if need be, looking for clues. I’d ask around the village, show everyone the photograph, and if that didn’t work, I’d . . . I’d think of something else.
I would find out what had happened to Dimity, if I had to conduct a personal interview with every tree in the British Isles. I would find the answers to my mother’s questions.
It was my last chance to do something right.
I used the phone on the end table to call Willis, Sr., and he asked me to meet him in his office in half an hour. Standing at the tall windows in the parlor, I watched the gardener repair the damage from last night’s unseasonable blizzard, kept an eye on the time, and tried to absorb what the letters had told me.
I suppose, somewhere in the back of my mind, there was a certain sense of disappointment. Surrounded as I was by the luxurious House of Willis, it was only natural to hope that my mother’s wealthy friend had left me some small part of her estate. I certainly could have used it. Not that I was looking for a handout—Meg Thomson had tried to loan me money once and I had bitten her head off—but a small bequest for the daughter of a beloved friend? I could have accepted that.
Such minor regrets were overshadowed, however, by thoughts of the correspondence. That was a treasure beyond price. Where I would find a safe place to store forty years’ worth of “long letters, short notes, and postal cards” from two voluble correspondents was a problem I’d solve when I got to it. For now, it was enough to know that, whatever else might happen, my mother’s words would belong to me.
Sarah Bernhardt, indeed. My even-tempered mother had often teased me about being oversensitive and I was the first to admit that I sometimes let my emotions run away with me. So far, though, under what I thought were very challenging circumstances, I had kept them under control. I hoped she was proud of me for that, wherever she was.
I couldn’t for the life of me imagine what kind of favor Dimity Westwood had in mind. A philanthropist had to be rich, after all, and if she could afford the long-term services of a firm like Willis & Willis, Dimity was surely rich enough to hire people to do whatever else needed doing. I had no special skills. I knew about old books, but there were all sorts of people who knew more about them than I did, especially in England. What could it be, then? Only time, and Willis, Sr., would tell.
I also counted on him to tell me how I was going to get to the cottage. The last time I’d looked, there hadn’t been a huge selection of transatlantic bus routes, and the cost of flying over was more than my temp’s wages could handle. But Dimity wouldn’t have left me something I couldn’t get to.
I wasn’t sure if I should tell Willis, Sr., about the photograph. He might object to anything that took time away from carrying out Dimity’s task. Then again, he might know something useful. I decided to wait and see. In the meantime, I’d wash my face and brush my hair and get myself ready for our meeting. I glanced down at my jeans and sighed—I was no doubt unique among Willis, Sr.’s well-heeled clientele. It was kind of him not to make me feel out of place.
I headed for the bathroom, got as far as the dressing room, and stopped dead in my tracks. The low shelves, empty that morning, now held shoes, women’s shoes, five or six pairs of tasteful pumps and fashionable flats, and there were purses on the high shelves, tiny embroidered clutches, and shoulder bags in buttery leather. The racks were hung with dresses in dainty floral prints, silk blouses, pleated gabardine slacks, tweed blazers and skirts—all size eight.
I stared at them, openmouthed, as my blood pressure began to rise. I could almost hear it, like the faint whistle of a teakettle just coming to boil. So that was Bill’s game, was it? I understood it all now: the irises, the star show, his father’s books—the whole nine yards. Prince Charming bestows gifts on the wide-eyed beggar girl, dazzles her with his castle, then sweeps her off her feet with . . . Had he picked out new underwear, too?
The pent-up emotions of the past twenty-four hours fueled my indignation. Who was he to tell me what to wear? Willis, Sr., might know a thing or two about tailoring, but Bill looked as though he slept in his clothes. I looked upon those lovely dresses and thought only of the audacity, the gall, the sheer, unmitigated . . . Did he expect me to be grateful? I had never been so embarrassed in my life, and I was seriously annoyed with him for causing my humiliation.
A muffled knock sounded at the parlor door and when I opened it I found the object of my wrath standing there with frayed cuffs and bagged-out trousers, compounding his sins by looking extremely pleased with himself.
“How dare you,” I snapped.
The smug look vanished.
“Come in,” I said, “and sit down. There are a few things we need to get straight.”
Bill sat on the edge of the couch and watched as I paced the room. In a small voice, he ventured, “You don’t like the clothes?”
“Oh, they’re beautiful,” I said. “Just beautiful. I’m all set for the Governor’s Ball.” I closed in on him. “Bill. I don’t go to the Governor’s Ball. Where am I supposed to wear that stuff? To the grocery?”
“Well, I—” but he never had a chance. My wounded pride was on a rampage.