It is never too late to die violently.
Past a certain age, we may be sure we will not die young. Farther along, we may wish that we had. But yearn for it or dread it, sudden death is always near: across the intersection, in the baseball whizzing toward the stands, curled into a spring in our neighbor's temperamental gas stove. So that, on any day, the full and shapely life we contemplate for ourselves may turn out to be, after all, slightly abridged.
Ada Case Caffrey, the remarkable old lady whose abrupt exit from the world was to teach Juliet Bodine this melancholy lesson, arrived in New York City on a frigid January afternoon.
It was a Monday, the first one after New Year's, and Juliet had spent the entire day in her office, grimly not writing the novel she owed her publisher on April 1. A small, thirty-oddish woman with a soft face, a fringe of wispy blonde hair, and a distinctly worried expression, she had been sitting for the last hour almost immobile at her desk. It was a large, highly polished, very orderly desk. (She had spent forty-five of her not-writing minutes clearing it off.) A wooden standing lamp carved and painted to resemble a lemon tree lit it from before her, a large window overlooking the Hudson River from behind. Near the swiveling oak chair where Juliet sat failing to createanything stood a tall bookcase containing numerous reference works on the English Regency, the historical period in which all her novels were set. The shelves also displayed a dozen brightly bound romance novels by Angelica Kestrel-Haven, the pen name under which Juliet wrote.
When she wrote.
In a wicker tray on the desk, an ominously thin sheaf of paper represented all there was so far of "A Christian Gentleman," the next book with which Juliet hoped to delight Angelica Kestrel-Haven's fans. She gave this a despairing glance, then stood and went to the window. She could, she told herself, always sell her apartment, a large and extremely comfortable one on Manhattan's Upper West Side. She might even find a job teaching English literature, probably at some small college with a sense of humor. It would be embarrassing to have to admit to her editor, Portia Klein, that she had been unable to write "A Christian Gentleman," which currently consisted of two and a half chapters of exposition, a handful of conversations, and next to nothing in the way of plot. She would have to return the money that Excelsior Books had advanced her. She would have to let go of her diligent, treasured assistant, Ames. And it would be a disappointment to Angelica Kestrel-Haven fans to learn that A K-H had thrown in the tea towel.
But Juliet was only human--surely, they would all have to see that. Her friends would understand. And, on the bright side, her failure would be sure to please certain others--some of her former teaching colleagues at Barnard, for example, and her ex-husband, Rob. Juliet often thought this was an overlooked up side of failure: One might feel bitterly humiliated oneself, but it did bring so much pleasure to those who had always resented one's success.
Leaning her forehead against the thick, cold glass of the window, she found temporary distraction in the sight, sixteen stories below, of a middle-aged woman in a red beret dragging a woebegone fir toward a small mountain of defunct Christmas trees just insidethe entrance to Riverside Park. The woman went into the park, stopped, crouched, hefted her burden, and tossed it to the top of the mountain. It rolled down, landing with a soft bounce on the dirty pathway, then revolved gently till it stopped against an iron fence two or three yards away. The woman, her breath densely visible in the bone-chilling cold, retrieved it, lugged it back to the heap, and heaved it up again.
It rolled back down.
The woman looked around. North, south, east, west: In the frigid afternoon, she was all but alone. Furtively, she kicked the tree toward the edge of the path and walked out of the park. In due course, her tree and the little mountain it had almost joined would be turned into mulch by a thrifty, resourceful New York City Parks Department.
Watching, Juliet sighed. If only she, too, could kick and walk away from her problem. As a writer of Regencies, she considered it her job to manufacture light entertainment--to churn the attraction between an imaginary young Englishman and an imaginary young Englishwoman of two hundred years ago into a froth of such density and dazzle that a reader could plunge into page one and lose all track of time, all memory of personal cares, until she or he resurfaced, refreshed and relaxed, at "The End."
But froth was not always easily to be had. The trick was to invent a couple whose particular push-me-pull-you had just enough air, yet just enough substance also, to whip readily into foam. Last summer, when she had conceived the idea of a book with a determinedly chaste hero, the notion had seemed richly suggestive, irresistibly appealing--true to the genre, yet new. In the decade or so since she had invented Angelica Kestrel-Haven, thus beginning the writing career that had freed her from academe, Juliet had dealt exclusively in heroes on the make. Elegantly on the make, of course. Stylishly so, surreptitiously so at times, but definitely on the make.
Sir James Aptley Clendinning, however, would be a suitor of adifferent sort. A restrained suitor, a superlatively subtle one, who held himself in check not only to spare the feelings of his chosen lady but because he himself deeply embraced the teachings of his church, believed in the union of souls before the union of flesh. Sir James was to be a gentleman-farmer, an enthusiast of the new agricultural techniques that would shortly transform the English landscape forever. Here would be no rake, no gadabout. Here, in fact, would be more of a Goody Two-shoes. But still a fine challenge for the perceptive woman who wanted him and--surely?--a delightful springboard for a romp of a romance.
Or not. Teeth clenched, forehead pressed to the cold glass as she looked beyond her wintry terrace to survey the now empty sidewalk below, Juliet assured herself that, considered purely as a character, Sir James Clendinning was a magnificent invention. She would go to her grave swearing that.
But as a narrative springboard, as a spur to action, the man had proved to have all the driving force of a Teletubby. Poor Selena Walkingshaw, the honorable lady whose quixotic desire it was to wed him, had run out of ideas for attracting his attention before Chapter Two was done. So had Juliet. If Regency romance characters could think such things (which they emphatically could not; Regency characters might go as far as a kiss; but for reasons that had more to do with the twenty-first century than the nineteenth, real sexuality was unknown to them, except by implication), Selena Walkingshaw might well be forgiven for imagining Sir James was gay. What did he mean by ignoring every hint and lure she cast out? How could she know if he liked her at all? And why should she care? Juliet herself was starting to loathe him.
And yet ...
Juliet sighed deeply, her breath forming an amoeba-shaped cloud of mist on the chilly glass. And yet, Murray Landis, the NYPD detective whose marked chasteness (toward Juliet, anyhow) had suggested to her the idea of Sir James in the first place, had generatedplenty of plots in her own mind last summer, when events had thrown them together to solve a murder at the Jansch Ballet Repertory Troupe. The trouble was, those private story lines had come to nothing. She had seen Murray only a few times during the strange, terrible fall that had followed--the fall of 2001, when New Yorkers woke daily to wonder if the collapsing towers had been a horrible dream, then slowly understood that the years before had been the dream, and they sleepwalkers in a world of danger. Once, he had asked her to help him puzzle through a killing at a think tank on West End Avenue. Once, they had met at a court hearing with regard to the death at the Jansch. And they had run into each other at an art gallery.
That was all.
Unlike the teenaged Selena Walkingshaw, Juliet was no longer capable of a sustained crush in a vacuum. So she had forgotten the flavor of Murray's, and therefore Sir James's, attractiveness. Moreover, since November, she had been the object of the direct, unmistakable, openly admiring attention of a very different kind of man. Stylish, articulate, polymathic, almost too romantic, Dennis Daignault had wiped out all but the mere memory of the memory of the delicate frissons Landis's tense diffidence had inspired in Juliet the preceding summer. No wonder Sir James showed so little sign of life.
Although perhaps the fault lay in the other direction, with Selena Walkingshaw? Perhaps Selena should lie supine on a path before Sir James, hoping he would get the hint? If not, Juliet might have to kill off Sir James and start "A Christian Gentleman" all over again. Maybe "A Pagan Gentleman"?
The house phone, buzzing to announce Mrs. Caffrey's arrival, interrupted this train of thought. Juliet went to the door of her office to listen. From the floor below came Ames's resolutely uninflected voice telling the doorman to send Dr. Bodine's visitor up. (In deference to her employer's vestigial academic credentials, Ames always insisted on calling her Dr. Bodine.) Juliet slipped into the bathroomand gave herself a look in the mirror. Round blue eyes, rather unintelligent-looking face, fair complexion made wan today by discontent. Altogether unimpressive. She tried smiling, saw it improved things, went back to discontented, shut off the light, and headed quietly down the wooden stairs.
On the landing she paused and stooped, almost furtively, to get a glimpse of her visitor before she herself could be seen. By the door in her front hall, there now sat a large suitcase of antique design. Next to this stood a large sealskin coat of about the same vintage. Inside the coat, its back turned to Ames as she helped to remove it, a very small lady could just be detected. Such were Juliet's first impressions of Ada Case Caffrey.
Gripped by a sudden desire to get a better look, Juliet hurried down the remaining stairs and into the front hall. As Mrs. Caffrey turned to greet her, a scent of gardenias rose from her person like a flock of pigeons to Juliet's hypersensitive nose.
"Dr. Bodine, please meet Ada Case Caffrey," said Ames, her large, pale face a stolid blank, as usual. "Mrs. Caffrey, this is Dr. Juliet Bodine."
As often happened with people she got to know because they read her books, until now Juliet had had the pleasure of Mrs. Caffrey's acquaintance solely through the mail. Some three or four years ago, Ames had opened a fan letter from an Ada Case Caffrey. She'd answered it, as she routinely answered almost all the letters Juliet received: besides fan mail, requests for her to speak at various luncheons, inquiries as to whether she was the Angelica Kestrel-Haven with whom the letter writer had gone to summer camp in 1947 (no, she was not yet born; and could there ever really have been someone named Angelica Kestrel-Haven?), invitations to contredanses and the occasional offer of marriage from Anglophilic gentlemen who assumed Angelica Kestrel-Haven must be a genteel spinster, offers of honorary degrees from spurious academic institutions, gleeful corrections from fanatical readers ("I'm afraid your Lord Hattersleycould not have been in the House of Lords on August 22, 1816, since, in fact, Parliament had been prorogued until the twenty-forth of that month"), offers from antique dealers of bits of Regency arcana Juliet might care to add to her small collection, and the like.
Mrs. Caffrey confided in her letter that she had just read Miss Kestrel-Haven's Duke's Delight and had found it delightful indeed. Could Miss Kestrel-Haven spare a moment to tell her how she had come up with the notion of a locket containing a portrait of a tabby cat? And so on. Ames sent a reply.
In her next letter, written after reading Marianne: or The Actor's Stratagem, Mrs. Caffrey explained that she had been a lifelong amateur thespian; though now well past eighty, she was still active in the AdirondActors, the community theater group she had helped to found more than sixty years before. Her own mother had been a diseuse, a recitalist, entertaining turn-of-the-century audiences by declaiming the poetry of Wordsworth and Longfellow, and she had brought up her daughters to regard elocution as next to godliness. Ada herself could still recite Tennyson's Maud in her sleep, and so how interesting it had been for her to read of Marianne, who etc., etc., etc.
This time Ames showed the letter to Juliet. Always wary of starting a new correspondence--they were so seductive, such a good way to kill time one really ought to spend trying to write books--Juliet found herself too intrigued not to respond. She dashed off a friendly note, and Mrs. Caffrey, of course, dashed one back. From then on, the two had exchanged letters every three or four months, Juliet's printed out from her computer, Mrs. Caffrey's painstakingly handwritten in her spiky, vigorous script. Juliet knew now that Mrs. Caffrey lived alone on the apple farm, long since defunct, where she had grown up, in Espyville, a hamlet on the southern border of the Adirondack Park; that she had taught diction and public speaking at a private girl's academy in Gloversville, the nearest town; that she spent a great deal of her time working on her poetry; that she hadtwo cats, Zsa-Zsa and Marilyn; that she had read and loved all of Angelica Kestrel-Haven's books; and that she strongly believed they would be better if Juliet would ginger them up with some explicit sex.
Then, three or four weeks ago, Mrs. Caffrey had written in great excitement. She had just come across "a short manuscript circa 1825, concerning an English lord," she said, which she wished very much to show to Juliet. She did not want to consult anyone up near Espyville, or even say a word about it until Juliet had seen it. If Juliet would suggest a reasonably priced hotel she might stay in, she would come down to New York City and bring it in person.
In vain did Juliet suggest her elderly friend make a photocopy and mail it. In vain did she point out that 1825 was a bit late for her (the English Regency ended in 1820, with the death of mad King George III and the coronation of the former Prince Regent) and that, in any case, she wasn't an expert on manuscripts. Mrs. Caffrey had never been to New York, and it was high time. Juliet saw she would not be put off. She suggested Ada wait till the weather warmed up, then come with a companion who could help her negotiate the city. Since she had asked, Juliet could, in fact, recommend a very modestly priced bed-and-breakfast run by her friend Suzy Eisenman in a charming building just across the street from her.
Ada replied that she would be there next week, alone, would stay at Ms. Eisenman's bed-and-breakfast, but would come straight from the bus to Juliet, if she might. Bowing to the inevitable, Juliet had FedExed a note inviting her to tea. And now it was next week, and here was Mrs. Caffrey before her.
The face she lifted to Juliet's was the face of an ancient flapper: small, heart-shaped, and crisscrossed with a hundred wrinkles. Still, she looked younger than her real age--Juliet would have guessed she was closer to seventy-four than eighty-four--and her petite figure was, however improbably, still curvy. Cute, in fact. Her wide-set green eyes, bright with cold, were shadowed in teal blue and ringedwith kohl. Red lipstick covered her lips, as well as a shaky margin of skin beyond them, forming a largish, bee-stung mouth. Her nose and chin were heavily powdered, her cheeks lavishly rouged. The sealskin coat had come away to reveal a venerable turquoise dress cut well above the knees and garnished with looping strings of beads in jet, turquoise, and white. A matching turquoise toque, which she declined to surrender, sheathed a diminutive head ringed with short hair colored shoe-polish black. As she came forward, Juliet noticed rhinestone buckles clipped to the laces of her orthopedic shoes.
"God grant me moxie when I am old," Juliet prayed silently, while Mrs. Caffrey reached out to her, saying in vibrant tones, "My dear, you are so perfectly sweet to invite me to tea." She took both of Juliet's hands in hers.
Improbably for such a diminutive person, her voice was deep, with a crush of pebbles at the bottom. Her pitch swooped and dipped dramatically through her words. Though Juliet was only five foot four, she towered over her guest. Mrs. Caffrey's hands were encased in elderly but rather nice pink leather gloves, with pearl buttons at the wrists. She wrung her hostess's hand with a vigor that was entirely unexpected, then stepped back a little, tilting her head and smiling as if Juliet had just said something particularly amusing. Juliet felt as if the ghost of Myrna Loy had come into her house.
"It's a pleasure."
From the name Ada and from, perhaps, her spiky handwriting, Juliet had unconsciously formed a mental image of Mrs. Caffrey as tall, gray, depressed, dowdy, like a character in a George Price cartoon. Now, as so often happens when we make someone's acquaintance from a distance, the elderly little flapper before her appeared to be wrong, perhaps even an impostor. She struggled to reconcile the two impressions.
"Is it a pleasure, my dear?" Ada said, removing her gloves at last to reveal nails that were grooved by time and thickly lacquered by Maybelline. "I know you're only being polite. But it is a pleasurefor me. And I do believe you will find what I've brought to show you quite interesting."
She handed her gloves to Ames without even looking at her, as if laying them on a table.
"May I use your powder room?"
Watching as Ames ushered her in the right direction, Juliet saw with astonishment a distinct wiggle in the old lady's slow, careful walk. A very large purse (or small piece of luggage) of a kind Juliet believed was called a carpetbag hung from her arm by two stiffly arched leather straps.
Ames returned. Anyone else would have offered at least a raised eyebrow in acknowledgment of the old lady's singular appearance. But this was not Ames's way. "Tea is in the library," was all she said. "Is there anything else you need today? No--?"
She paused suggestively, leaving the noun unspoken.
"No," Juliet answered.
It was not necessary between them to say more. Juliet had written nothing, therefore her assistant had nothing to type into the computer. (Juliet always wrote by hand.) Calmly--and yet, was there a hint of blame in her manner? Or even, for whatever Amesian reason, guilt?--Ames fetched her coat from the closet, said good night, and left.
A few moments later, Mrs. Caffrey emerged from the guest bathroom, mouth redrawn, cheeks redder than ever, a fresh cloud of gardenia invisible around her. She tapped the carpetbag meaningfully as she followed Juliet out of the front hall. "It's in here," she said. "You'll soon see--Oh, my dear!"
Interrupting herself, Mrs. Caffrey had stopped at the entrance to Juliet's library. She clapped her hands.
"Oh, it's just like the set of a Noel Coward play! You are a lucky girl. What fun you must have here! Or I hope you do, anyhow," she amended, catching the uncertain look on her hostess's face. She added, almost sternly, "You ought."
Juliet's library was a snug room lined with books. Heavy red curtains hung beside the windows, a deep red-and-dark blue Persian carpet covered the floor, and a couple of wide leather armchairs sat on either side of a bricked-in fireplace. On a leather-covered coffee table made to look like a pile of gigantic books, Ames had left a little feast drawn from Juliet's teenage imaginings of what "tea" should be: heaps of crustless sandwiches cut into triangles, plates of tiny fruit tarts and petits fours, pots of jam, pats of butter in the shape of stars, a basket of hot scones, and, of course, in a fat pot on its own little brazier, tea.
"Please sit down," she said, wondering at the same time why it was that she did not, in fact, have marvelous fun here day after day. No doubt Mrs. Caffrey was right; she ought. But somehow, life wasn't like that. Not her life, anyway. "Or shall I--?"
Guessing Ada would prefer a seat that was hard (and easy to rise from) to one that was soft and deep, she fetched from a corner a straight-backed wooden chair, its modestly cushioned seat upholstered in velveteen, and placed it by the table. Mrs. Caffrey took it gratefully as Juliet sat herself down in an armchair.
For a few minutes, the air was full of the clink of china and offers of milk and sugar. Mrs. Caffrey told Juliet how much pleasure Angelica Kestrel-Haven's books had brought her. This, in turn, pleased Juliet, who liked to think of her books as helping to pass the too-heavy time of just such people as she conceived Ada Caffrey to be: elderly shut-ins, invalids, night nurses, patients awaiting surgery, acrophobes boarding flights, all those whose sufferings could be palliated with literary anesthesia.
However, when Mrs. Caffrey asked what she was working on now, Juliet dodged the question and turned the subject to her guest's bus journey down. How had she managed, alone with that heavy bag?
Ada (Mrs. Caffrey implored Juliet to call her Ada) smiled. The journey had been a snap; she only wished she'd done it sooner. Thebag was nothing. Tom Giddy--the Giddys were her nearest neighbors--had kindly driven her to the bus depot in Gloversville. In Albany, the driver had helped her transfer it to the New York bus. And here, at the Port Authority, a "foreign gentleman" across the aisle from her was good enough to put her and her bag into a cab on Eighth Avenue.
"And your handsome doorman did the rest, of course," she explained.
Juliet smiled a little distractedly. Could there be a couple named Giddy in "A Christian Gentleman," she wondered? It was a very suggestive name. Neighbors of the Walkingshaws, perhaps. Friendly, solid, middle-aged ... She frowned slightly. Maddening that these characters should stir to life just now, now, when she couldn't do anything about them.
"So tall and slim," Mrs. Caffrey was going on dreamily. "I like a slim, elegant man, don't you? Tom is handsome; but those husky wrestler types don't wear well, do they? They go to seed so early," she went on a moment later, after a pause for a sip of Formosa Oolong. "I'm afraid Cindy Giddy has come to see that. No, tall, slim men are more distinguished, and they last so much longer. Even if they lose their hair," she added meditatively.
Mrs. Caffrey leaned forward, her eyes kindled by some inner spark. Juliet took a couple of inches off her fictional Tom Giddy, thickened his shoulders, expanded his paunch, moved his hairline back, and made Mrs. Giddy a cook. At the same time, she noticed that her guest's lipstick had left a crimson, somehow alarming, stain on her Spode teacup.
"And that reminds me to raise again that business of sex in your books," Mrs. Caffrey continued. "They are so charming, really so delightful, but my dear--people want a bit of meat on their plates! You say your publisher wouldn't like it, but I wonder if you've ever tried. If you lack for material, by the way, I'd be happy to"--she hesitated slyly while, to her extreme irritation, Juliet felt her owncheeks start to flush--"to share some thoughts with you."
"Tell me about Espyville," said Juliet abruptly, unable to think of any better rejoinder. She didn't "lack for material," as it happened. What with one thing and another, she had accumulated a fair amount of material of her own. Moreover, she was finding this earthy, juicy, voluptuous octogenarian disconcerting. Part of her wanted to laugh, part of her reproached herself for being ageist, and yet another part was genuinely shocked. Yet why shouldn't Ada still relish sex--the idea of it, if not the act? Why shouldn't a person of either gender retain a healthy appreciation of sex as long as he or she lived?
Her ideas in confusion, it was a moment before she realized she had inadvertently asked a good question. Mrs. Caffrey was telling her quite interesting things about her home. The hamlet of Espyville, where her family's orchard lay, was adjacent to and largely dependent on the town of Gloversville. Before and after the turn of the twentieth century, that town had enjoyed a long golden age during which it was the national center of glove making. Thanks to the wealth the industry created, and to the skilled European workers drawn there by its specialized needs, by the time Ada was born, the town had its own daily newspaper, an opera house, a legitimate theater, a vaudeville theater, and a Carnegie library, among other cultural amenities. Ada's mother had been Boston-bred, but she had thrived in Gloversville, and had brought her girls up to enjoy all the lively arts.
"Not that the others did," Ada explained between appreciative nibbles at a buttered scone. "My oldest sister, Eugenia, insisted on becoming a missionary in India. She died of typhus, naturally, in Allahabad, within a year of her arrival."
Juliet could not help but feel Ada took a certain satisfaction in this long-gone sister's premature, unhappy end.
"Then there was Florence, the middle child," she was going on. "Not an ounce of drama in her, unless you count self-righteousness.But Mother was a pistol. In a way, it was a blessing she passed away before we lost the glove industry to cheap labor overseas. She didn't live to see her dear home become one of the most impoverished towns in New York State."
Mrs. Caffrey's voice had gone harsh; her face had shrunk to a scowl. Juliet suddenly felt it would not be pleasant to tangle with Ada Caffrey.
"The tannery owners simply dropped everything, took their little bundles of money and ran, leaving Gloversville lethally polluted, riddled with toxic sinkholes, plagued by acid rain. And with too much time on their hands and not enough work, our teenagers are simply shocking. And now this nonsense about Wildernessland. Wilderness indeed," she muttered, indignantly if incomprehensibly.
"Still," she went on a moment later, brightening, "fun is where you make it. I've had some fine times, believe me. I've always performed with the AdirondActors. And you know, men who act, providing they're not pansies, are so ..."
She produced the pejorative blandly and left the sentence suggestively unfinished as she helped herself to a kiwi tart.
"Apart from which, Father's land is quite, quite beautiful," she resumed. "All the years I've lived there haven't blinded me to that. When I was very young, I thought I would move away--oh, to Boston perhaps, or maybe even here. But I was always Father's favorite, and once he'd left the orchard to me, I simply couldn't sell it. I don't mean that no one would have purchased it. On the contrary, there were several offers. But I wouldn't let it go. Not then, not now," she added, with some fierceness. "Not that I ever worked the orchard myself. No, I went to Saratoga, went to college. Came back, taught, married, was widowed, remarried--In short, life swept me up."
She smiled rather sadly and Juliet suddenly saw her curious clothes for what they were: the hoarded remnants of a happier, more prosperous, more hopeful time.
"Life has a way of doing that, you know. Sweeps one up"--Ada's smile turned grim--"and straps one down. I see it happening to Cindy now. A bit depressing, really ...
"But you are young, and single, and perhaps you don't know. At any rate, I still have the theater--I'll be the second witch in the AdirondActors's Macbeth this spring--and my poetry writing. Lately I've begun attending slams in Albany. Do you like poetry slams?"
"Slams," Juliet noticed, Ada pronounced as Rosalind Russell might have done, setting it off from the words around it by dropping her voice to a resonant, sepulchral purr.
"So much like the recitals dear Mother used to give," she was going on. "I do think they're wonderful."
"I don't believe I've ever been to one," Juliet admitted. "I mean, I haven't."
"Oh, then you must come with me," Ada promptly offered. "I'm going to one on Wednesday night. My friend Matthew McLaurin--he's the person who drives me to the slams in Albany--he looked on the Internet and found there's a very nice slam coming up at a club in Greenwich Village called--Cleopatra's Ashtray, could that be it? I can't say I just love Matt's poems, very long sometimes, and so many of them rather angry. But he is serious about it. And he does get me into Albany ... . Anyway, I have the address of this Ashtray place and a couple of poems I plan to perform. It's an erotic poetry slam.
"But, oh, speaking of Matthew, it was Matt's little daughter Nina--or is it Gina?--anyway, Nina or Gina, it was his daughter who found the manuscript."
She set her plate down, as if to signal that it was time to get down to business. Juliet snuffed the flame on the brazier.
"Actually, I suppose it's a bit amusing," Ada recommenced in her deep voice, with that theatrical, mid-Atlantic intonation Juliet still found so surprising, "the way I came across the manuscript. I don'tthink I mentioned it in my letters to you, but Matthew's daughter, a little girl of four, if you can imagine that, found it while scampering about under my bed.
"I should explain that my bed is a quite remarkable one." Mrs. Caffrey lifted an eyebrow and paused for a sip of cold Formosa Oolong. "My second husband, Oliver, bought it at an auction in 1952. Oliver loved auctions. Nothing pleased him better than to drive a couple of hundred miles to look over somebody else's junk."
"Junk," like "slam," Ada segregated from her other words, as if picking it up and holding it at arm's length.
"And as often as not, he came home with something or other. Mind you, Oliver had other qualities that were much more"--she smiled--"much more agreeable. However, this bed. It was made in England, of rosewood, and it is simply gigantic. It has four posts like church spires, a headboard carved with little angels, and a roof on it like a miniature steeple. The legs--"
At this point, the sound of the phone ringing at various extensions throughout the apartment startled her, and she interrupted herself. "Ought you to answer that?"
Annoyed--just when the story was getting good!--Juliet glanced at the caller ID display on the silent phone beside her.
"That's all right; it's my father. The machine will get it. He probably just wants to make a date for dinner. Nothing that can't wait till next Christmas," she added briskly, thus demonstrating, as she later reflected, her complete lack of psychic ability. "You were saying--the legs on your bed?"
"Oh, yes. Well, they're rather thick, puffy, if you see what I mean, and quite tall. It's a high bed. I like a high bed," Ada went on, her voice momentarily dipping toward languor. She paused to smile as if in reminiscence. Juliet wondered what Bacchanalian memories might be flickering in her mind. Something to do with the second husband's "more agreeable" qualities, no doubt.
Then she resumed. "Naturally, I never spent much time underit, however. So it wasn't until little Gina--no, it is Tina, isn't it? Tina? Or Nina. Well, I can't remember, children never did interest me," she interpolated, an aside Juliet found somewhat surprising from a former schoolteacher. "Whatever her name is, this tiny child somehow discovered a hidden compartment in one of the legs. One of the ones by the headboard. Right under my pillow all these years, can you believe it? It's a cunning little hiding place, and I suppose it must have escaped the notice of the former owner and even the auctioneer, because when the girl opened it--you have to place your hands at the corners of a sort of triangular panel and press your fingers just so, and then it slides in rather than out--there inside was the manuscript. I don't ordinarily receive visitors in bed, by the way. Not Matthew McLaurin, certainly. Bit of an awkward look to him, not my type at all. He's a clerk at an insurance agency. I was ill, brought low" (her voice thrilled, as if an empire had been "brought low") "by some sort of grippe. Matt was kind enough to stop by on his way home from Gallop Insurance that day with a book for me to read--he lives out in my direction, that's how we met--and he had little Tina with him. In any event--"
At last, Ada leaned over to catch hold of the carpetbag, which she had set on the floor beside her. With a giggle, she heaved it up onto her lap and fumbled at the catch. "I'm really so excited," she burst out, almost girlishly. "Isn't it just like finding buried treasure?" From the bag, rather confusingly, she withdrew a worn paperback copy of Angelica Kestrel-Haven's third book, Cousin Cecilia.
"I've been rereading your work," she explained, opening Cousin Cecilia and removing from between its pages a small rectangle of folded paper. At the sight of it, a shiver ran down Juliet's spine. "Such fun." Mrs. Caffrey put the book in her turquoise lap and sat clutching her folded rectangle with both hands.
"I haven't told a soul about this," she went on, almost whispering. "Even Matthew only knows Nina found something, some scrap of old paper. 'Loose lips sink ships,' I say. If it is valuable, Idon't want the government getting wind of it. They can make you sell your assets, you know, if you're unlucky enough to wind up in a nursing home."
"Are you sure? I wouldn't imagine--"
But her visitor was too excited to listen. "Never mind," she said. "I can trust you, I know. You'll tell me what you think."
And with that she handed the papers across the table. Later, Juliet was surprised to think how much of this first conversation--no more than a polite preliminary, she would have said at the time--she would come to see as a map to Ada's murderer.
SLIGHTLY ABRIDGED. Copyright © 2003 by Ellen Pall. All rights reserved. . No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.