CC Humphreys "Where the An­gels Wait"

Granada, An­dalu­sia, Spain. Au­gust 1986

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Sit­ting on the edge of the bed now, lis­ten­ing. A door opened, shut, some­one has come and gone, that much is cer­tain. They’ve hid­den them, and he must find them. Un­less they didn’t leave. “Hello?” No re­ply. He has to start. The draw­ers? Too ob­vi­ous but he tries a cou­ple. The cush­ions? He pulls them off the sofa, feels down the back and side, moves care­fully be­cause if they are there what state might they be in? He finds a crumb cov­ered coin, noth­ing else. On the high shelves then, at the back of the cup­board, rolling in dust? Or in a jar in the bu­reau, pick­led, float­ing like onions? With oth­ers? Alone? Alone, yes, has to be.

He starts to move quicker. Grapes on the ta­ble, that’s fright­en­ing. Eat one? Too risky. Time’s nearly up, pull back the sheets, grope un­der the pil­lows.

“Who’s there?” He lies back down. “There’s no one there,” he says, chal­leng­ing the dark.

He sits up. He knows where they are. His fa­ther is in the door­way, mak­ing it look small, and he has them ex­actly where they should be.

“Look­ing for these?” Dad says, and starts to squeeze his eye­balls from his face.

Off the bed, grop­ing for a light, blun­der­ing in an un­fa­mil­iar dark to a wall, a door, a switch, fill­ing the room with yel­low, run­ning to the win­dow, pulling back the thick cur­tains. He thrusts his head out into fierce sun and fur­nace air and the heat brings him back. He re­mem­bers where he is. It takes him longer to re­mem­ber why. Six PM. Jet lag muz­zles his head like a warm, wet towel and he can’t fig­ure if home is ahead of Granada or be­hind. No, be­hind, it’s nine in Van­cou­ver now. Gwen will be get­ting Sun­day break­fast. French toast. Wear­ing her blue smock to pro­tect her church clothes. If he was there they’d eat, then she’d take the smock off. “Com­ing?” she’d ask. “Noth­ing to con­fess,” he’d say. He’ll call, catch her be­fore she goes, but af­ter a shower. He wants to make sense when he speaks to her. Be­fore the shower though…

Tom kneels by the bed. He al­ways needs pic­tures to go with the words. But the only one that comes is his fa­ther, another door­way.

Eight years old, pa­jama-ed knees to floor­board. He’s been there a while. Got to get Dad’s face ex­act, then Mum, then Malk, then Dozy Dog, his white coat and vel­vet eyes. His fa­ther bursts in. Whiskey breath and showy love. “You don’t need all that non­sense, Tomboy. Only faith you need’s in your­self.” Ni­cotined fin­gers, pulling sheet to chin. “I pray for you, Daddy. And Mummy and Malk and Dozy Dog. All of us to­gether.” “You pray then, makes you happy.” “Don’t go, Daddy.” “I’m right here, son. Not go­ing any­where.” Liar.

The shower drib­bles on him, mak­ing him miss home all the more. Sweat in­stantly prick­ing his skin, he di­als, and she’s there, con­cern dis­guised in tales of the last two days, the or­di­nary worked into com­edy. He laughs, miss­ing her. Ten min­utes, then he’s just hang­ing on for her voice. Guilt for the waste of money. Guilt for be­ing un­able to tell her why he’s there. She knows it has to do with his fa­ther, need­ing to go to him dead, as he failed to go three years be­fore when he was dy­ing. Knows it has to do with the dreams; she’d held him of­ten enough these last months, shushed his cries, talked him back to bed.

She doesn’t know about the eyes. He hangs up, dresses. He knows where he wants to be for the sun­set, had watched it from there twice be­fore. Twenty years ago the hitch­hiker. Ten years, the hon­ey­mooner, shar­ing his wan­der­ing past with the woman he’d given up wan­der­ing for.

In the Al­bacin, the old Moor­ish quar­ter, he only loses his way once on a steep cob­bled street among the chil­dren skip­ping rope, the piebald dogs and skinny cats. Soc­cer com­men­taries blare from hole-in-the-wall bars. Once, glimpsed be­hind an oak door half ajar, a pocket oa­sis lures him, blue tiled and cool, wa­ter drip­ping from pots of plants and flow­ers.

Be­yond it though, at the sum­mit, he sees the spire of San Ni­cholas.

There’s another in­vi­ta­tion within its doors, can­dle­light flicker and in­cense laden air. But Tom walks on to El Mi­rador, the Place of Watch­ing. He’s just in time. Across the ravine the last of the sun burns the walls of the Al­ham­bra fire-red, then seeps through lev­els of pink, bleeds through the sin­gle cloud, bruis­ing it from purple to grey.

Oth­ers watch, like shades from his past. A young cou­ple in the mo­ment and each other’s arms. A back­packer, scrag­gle­bearded, whip thin, nose to guide book, al­ready seek­ing cheap lodg­ings. It’s when Tom turns to leave that he no­tices the old man crum­pled on the pa­tio’s para­pet, eyes closed and face turned to­ward the de­parted sun, a white stick be­side him.

Tom takes a step away, and the man’s eye­lids slide up onto white. He gropes for his stick, swishes it down hard. “Dinero, por el amor de dios.”

Emp­ty­ing his pocket into the man’s claw hand, Tom hur­ries away.

Half-sleep, dream-laden. Four-fif­teen, hands be­hind his head, he waits for dawn.

He has what his fa­ther called a Span­ish break­fast: a plate of chur­ros; a Café Solo, thick and dark; a brandy. Feel­ing bet­ter, he sets out. Granada has changed in twenty years but not that much. Be­sides, he can see the bull­ring. Ac­cord­ing to his map, the hos­pi­tal is the other side of it.

The bull­ring, he thinks, slow­ing.

Roars, ris­ing and fall­ing, con­ducted by a red cape and a stick. The mata­dor is young, ner­vous, but lo­cal so the crowd ‘olé’ his ev­ery pass. The pi­cadors have done their job, gouged their lances deep into the bull’s shoul­der, his head lower with ev­ery run.

Blood, wine, and a sear­ing sun. Dad al­ways in­sists on the cheap sol tick­ets, un­re­lieved by shad­ows. Tom watches his fa­ther raise the wine skin, shoot­ing a red arc into his mouth from near an arm’s length. Tom’s own in­ep­ti­tude is clear in the stain on his T-shirt. The wine skin is of­fered again, re­fused. “Had enough?” “I’ll stay to the end.” “Oh, thanks. Olé!”

The mata­dor com­pletes his faena. A sharp turn jerks the bull around, twists its neck, drops it to its knees. The youth struts away to col­lect the killing sword, while his team goad the ex­hausted bull to its feet. Un­der his breath. “Please, oh Lord, a clean kill, a clean kill.” When it’s clean, when the sword drives into that coin-sized hole be­tween the shoul­der blades and slips in to the hilt, end­ing the fight and the bull in an in­stant, Tom un­der­stands. Can share the mo­ment with his fa­ther, share Spain. But if it ends dirty, sword skit­ter­ing down the flank, crowd boo­ing, bull stag­ger­ing, blood pour­ing from nose and neck – that way Tom won’t look – and those bluest of eyes will mock him again.

A hush. Red cloth moves un­der the bull’s nose. The sight­less

eyes are static, filmed over. The bull won’t move, so the mata­dor ad­justs his stance. Front foot up, he sights along the curl­ing blade. Tom sees the steel wa­ver­ing, and knows what will hap­pen.

The blade slips into mus­cle, en­ters an inch, springs out. The bull moves now and the man leaps be­yond the horns as his team cir­cle, to con­fuse the an­i­mal, to lower its head for another at­tempt. Soon the bull will be on its knees again and there will be noth­ing left but the short knife at the back of the neck, like pithing a frog in the school lab. “Dad, let’s go.” “It’s not over.” “You know it’s over. I’m go­ing.” “Fuck­ing go, then.” His fa­ther cups his hands, jeer­ing with the crowd.

Rub­bing his eyes, re­fo­cus­ing on a grey arch, Tom cir­cles the bull­ring. Half way round white coats ap­pear in a wide mar­ble por­tico. He crosses over, en­ters the hos­pi­tal.

It’s cool in­side, dark. But it isn’t the con­trast that makes him feel faint. Nor the smell of hos­pi­tal, ster­ile tile and stone cor­ri­dor. It’s the eyes. Be­hind the re­cep­tion desk there’s a gi­ant paint­ing. An­gels hover near a bearded man, who’s rais­ing some­one from a bed. But he isn’t look­ing at his pa­tient. He’s star­ing straight out. His gaze tracks Tom across the mar­ble floor. Brown, com­pas­sion­ate, for­giv­ing, lov­ing. The eyes of Christ.

“Digame? ” The voice is harsh. “What?” “Digame? ” A woman leans fleshy fore­arms on her desk, on the plan of the hos­pi­tal un­der plas­tic, con­den­sa­tion where her skin touches. On the in­stant, his ser­vice­able Span­ish is for­got­ten. Why is he here? What does he want? “Habla in­gles?” “No.” She shakes her head, her ears glit­ter­ing gold. “Mi padre… muerto… ha muerte…” She raises a fin­ger. “Mo­men­tito.” She picks up a phone, presses a num­ber, speaks, death and other words lost in rapid An­daluz. “Mo­men­tito, Señor.” She ges­tures to a bench. He sits. White coats pass him, suits, a man on crutches. No other pa­tients. Maybe this is an ad­min­is­tra­tion build­ing only. Maybe … “Good morn­ing, Señor. How may I be of ser­vice?” The man is about Tom’s age, thick black hair swept back and gleam­ing in oil. He has spec­ta­cles on the end of his nose and peers down them, head back, mak­ing him seem older.

Tom holds out his hand. The Doc­tor grips it, holds on longer than for­mal­ity re­quires, as if tak­ing his pulse. “My fa­ther died in this hos­pi­tal, uh, three years ago … Cancer.” “Yes?” “There was no … he was lapsed … not a re­li­gious man.

There was no fu­neral.”

“This hap­pens these days, Señor.” Un­der the thin ny­lon of the Doc­tor’s shirt Tom glimpses a gold cross. “He … gave his body for med­i­cal re­search.” “Yes?” There was cold­ness in the re­ply, sus­pi­cion. Tom hur­ries on. “I won­dered… I need… no, I’d like to know… what be­came of it? Him? His body?”

Be­hind them, the clock is loud. Tom glances at it, meets Christ’s eyes, looks back. “Three years? A long time.” “Yes. I…” The Doc­tor lifts a hand. “Señor, we keep records, we are a teacher hos­pi­tal. It is most likely that one of the stu­dents… you un­der­stand? The study, it is… not very nice to a… a not Doc­tor. En­tiende? You un­der­stand?”

Tom nods. If he could lie down he could sleep now. He half­turns away. “Also, there are the trans­plants?” Tom feels some­thing in his neck, like a knife pushed in an inch then with­drawn. “Trans­plants?”

“Si. Hearts, lungs, the kid­neys, but… you said cancer? So maybe not trans­plants.” Tom swal­lows. “Eyes?” “Eyes?” A shrug. “It is pos­si­ble, if they were good.” Some­one says, “Twenty-twenty even at sixty.” Maybe he does.

The Doc­tor smiles, sud­den white in the brown face, a flash of gold. “Ah, I see. You wish to know if your fa­ther… ben­e­fit­ted, is this the word? Ben­e­fit­ted some­one. ‘In death there is also life’? Yes? En­tiendo! This is not so strange. We have fam­i­lies, boys in ac­ci­dents, moth­ers who wish to know. The heart beats on, yes?” He nods and takes Tom’s arm. “Come, we will look to the records. Then you will be able to sleep, yes?”

Re­luc­tant, ea­ger, now clear, now muzzy, Tom fol­lows. Down the pas­sage lies an an­swer. He’ll leave this hos­pi­tal, this city, this coun­try. It would be enough. It would have to be enough.

In an of­fice the Doc­tor rum­mages in a file cabi­net. “Three years. Long time.”

He pulls out a folder, goes to the win­dow light, holds the file to him­self, head tilted back, peer­ing down his nose, while Tom reads and re-reads his own last name scrawled across one cor­ner. The doc­tor mut­ters, mouthing words, fin­gers shuf­fling pa­pers. Fi­nally he looks up, smiles, and closes the file.

“You can be happy, Señor. Your fa­ther’s eyes were ex­cel­lent. Be­cause of him a young man, blind for three years, again sees the won­ders of God’s world.”

He is head­ing back to the file cabi­net when Tom blocks him . “May I?”

The Doc­tor flinches, steps around him, re­places the file, slams the drawer shut, locks it, rat­tles it. “Re­grets, Señor. Other in­for­ma­tion is… how do you say this? Se­cret. No, con­fi­den­tial. Ex­actly. Con­fi­den­tial.” He takes Tom’s arm again, not as gen­tly,

holds it all the way back to the lobby. Christ beams, the clock ticks. The re­cep­tion­ist’s arms makes a suck­ing sound as she lifts them from the plas­tic. “And now…” “Thank you so much, Doc­tor. Muchas gra­cias.” The smile flashed gold. “Por nada, señor.” The heat makes Tom sway again. There is a cool place he re­mem­bers and he heads to it now. Pays the pe­se­tas. Climbs the steps. At the en­trance, he looks up at the in­scrip­tion above. His Span­ish may have all but de­serted him but this he knows by heart.

‘Give him alms, woman. For there is noth­ing in life so painful, noth­ing, as the pain of be­ing blind in Granada.’

He en­ters the Al­ham­bra. It’s still early enough so tours haven’t yet reached the Gen­er­al­ife, the gar­dens of the palace. Only a few peo­ple stroll the grass paths.

He finds a se­cluded place, re­cently wa­tered, drops fall­ing from the leaves of the tree that shades the spot. He lies down. It’s over, he thinks, and closes his eyes. Blue, like his fa­ther’s. Thank God. “Señor! Señor!” Eyes above him, hazel, an­gry, pin­hole pupils, a hand shak­ing him roughly by the shoul­der. Harsh sun­light be­hind the fig­ure, Tom shades his eyes, sees a grey work shirt, a lined, ochre face. The gar­dener has a hoe and he pokes Tom with the butt end. Jab­bing him like a pi­cador in the arena. As if he were an an­i­mal.

Why? He was do­ing noth­ing wrong. This is out­ra­geous. Tom grabs the hoe, uses the man’s re­sis­tance to pull him­self up. Then he jerks it away, raises it like an axe above his head. He hears some­one say, “Leave me alone,” then, “I’m not go­ing any­where.”

“Liar!” Tom throws the hoe down at the lit­tle man’s feet, turns from him, from the voice, from other voices. As he walks away, he sees his ho­tel room, sees him­self pack­ing; the plane to Madrid, the one to Van­cou­ver. Leave Granada, leave Spain, leave…

He goes back to the ho­tel, drinks two beers, sleeps a lit­tle, light and dream­less. Most of the time he lies with his hands be­hind his head, watch­ing the an­cient fan cir­cle, trac­ing the plas­ter cracks on the ceil­ing. He doesn’t even try to pray.

Stand­ing in the arch of the bull­ring again, he checks the time. Ten PM. Two hours he’s been there and though the flow of peo­ple from the hos­pi­tal has slowed it hasn’t ceased. The Doc­tor came out an hour be­fore with a col­league. He heard his laugh, saw gold flash un­der a street lamp.

No one comes for five min­utes. Tom crosses the street. Through the glass door he sees the night porter lay out things on the desk: a ther­mos, a thick bread roll, a sports news­pa­per. Then the man gets up, and walks down a cor­ri­dor. It’s op­po­site the one Tom wants.

He crosses the lobby, shoul­ders braced against a shout. But

only Christ watches him. He meets one man who hur­ries past with­out a word.

The door to the fil­ing room is un­locked. There are no alarms, noth­ing hin­ders him un­til he comes to the cabi­net it­self. Pulling out the tire iron he’s bought, he jams the flat end into the gap. It slips, catches the sec­ond time, there’s a mo­ment’s re­sis­tance, a crack, then the drawer is rush­ing to­ward him on ny­lon run­ners. He waits a mo­ment, but no one comes, so he flicks his flash­light. He holds it in his mouth, and be­gins to ri­fle through the files.

There are very few ‘J’s. He pulls his fa­ther’s file out and lays it on the desk.

He does not open it straight­away, just stares at the name. Re­mem­bers how he heard the news of his fa­ther’s ill­ness. How he told him­self he was un­able to go, how busy he was. How three months later he heard his name called in the ho­tel lobby in Port­land and knew in that in­stant that it was over. He thinks about the re­lief he felt, and the guilt in feel­ing it. About the call to his mother. About how he called Gwen, tried to cry and failed, tried to pray and failed. How there was no fu­neral, no flow­ers to be placed, be­cause there was no where to place them. He’d scarcely thought of any of this in three years. Un­til the dreams be­gan and then he scarcely thought of any­thing else.

The file isn’t thick. His fa­ther’s ill­ness was short, the cancer di­ag­nosed late. Tom back­lights the X-rays see­ing the dark shad­ows cov­er­ing the lungs. Some scrawled notes, both writ­ing and

med­i­cal terms im­pen­e­tra­ble. A pho­to­stat of a death cer­tifi­cate.

The fi­nal page is the one he is look­ing for. He bends to con­sider. In the end it is easy. There is the word ‘ojos’, fol­lowed by the word ‘azules’.

He laughs. Blue! His fa­ther’s eyes hadn’t been blue! They’d been metal, steel, re­fract­ing and re­flect­ing the rac­ing thoughts, only still when they fixed on you for the sec­ond be­fore they were off again, seek­ing dis­trac­tion, ob­jects to fo­cus his love and hate upon, his hunger bound­less for both. Azules. Op­po­site the in­ad­e­quate word is a name. Tom closes the file, re­places it in the bro­ken cabi­net, closes the drawer, stands for a mo­ment with his fin­ger­tips on the cool metal. Like the Doc­tor, he now knows who looks at God’s world through his fa­ther’s eyes. And he knows where he lives. On the other side of the bull­ring, there’s a taxi stand. “La Car­tuja? Cer­rado, Señor. Is closed.” Tom drops into the back seat. The driver shrugs, starts the me­tre. Slip­ping his hand into the pocket of his coat, Tom grips the tire iron and watches the city slip into sub­urbs.

With another shrug the driver takes his money and drives off. Tom stares up at the gates of the monastery of La Car­tuja. High, crenelated walls gleam in the moon­light and he walks along them, past them onto the street be­yond, check­ing door num­bers, then back the other side, ends up at the en­trance again. The house num­ber he wants is within the monastery. A sign gives the open­ing hours for what he re­mem­bers is a tourist at­trac­tion,

as well as the cen­tre of the Carthu­sian or­der of monks.

The door is oak, iron stud­ded, un­budg­ing. There’s no bell. If he knocks, who would come? What would he say when they did?

Tom fol­lows the wall down, comes to a tree, uses it to shimmy up the wall. When he drops down the other side, he lands heav­ily, his an­kle twist­ing. He falls onto his side, chokes his cry, writhes on the soft earth of a flower bed. It is his lig­a­ments, torn be­fore at soc­cer, at ski­ing. He re­mem­bers this pain, and how the in­ten­sity would, even­tu­ally, fade. So he waits, bit­ing his col­lar. Gets to his feet. The first step is agony. The next a lit­tle less.

He limps through a rose gar­den. It ends in a sin­gle storey struc­ture, the bot­tom end of a larger build­ing. He passes up the length of it, rat­tling win­dows. Finds one ajar, reaches in, slips the catch, hoists him­self over the sill. Moon­light pools un­der the win­dows, there are dark rec­tan­gles on the walls. His flash­light’s beam finds a man’s face, his eyes on the heav­enly host above, smil­ing de­spite the axe that evenly cleaves his ton­sured head.

The rest of the paint­ings are sim­i­lar. Monks in the very mo­ment of their mar­tyr­dom, obliv­i­ous to the spears and

hatch­ets of the sav­ages that sur­round them, their blood pool­ing un­der them like moon­light.

The last one de­picts a monk just blinded. The sav­ages cel­e­brate, un­aware of their real de­feat–for above them a host of an­gels wait to es­cort the monk’s soul to eter­nal glory.

Tom sweeps the light up and down the can­vas. But he can­not find the eyes. Back and forth, up and down. Not a trace. “Come.” The sound is al­most be­side him. He jumps, flick­ing off the light. But it isn’t a voice, it’s a bell. “Come,” it tolls, and Tom now sees fig­ures against lights th­vat spill briefly from opened doors, a man sil­hou­et­ted for a mo­ment then lost again to the dark. Shapes move past the win­dows where he crouches to the build­ing ahead, into the chapel it­self. “Come,” the bell asks him again. Through a door into a stone an­techam­ber. Half­way down that room, another door slowly clos­ing. He crosses to it, steps in­side just in time. Be­fore him a crowd of backs, brown swathed, cowls rolled over necks, a cou­ple of suits. “Wel­come,” the bell says in a longer and deeper knell that hangs above them like a cloud. The monks spread out, kneel. In an empty pew at the back, Tom kneels too.

The chapel sparkles, a thou­sand can­dles il­lu­mi­nat­ing white stucco walls, Baroque plas­ter­work en­crusted in sil­ver, stat­ues that seem alive, mother and child, an­gel and saint. The rich smell of in­cense makes him giddy. Then a sin­gle voice be­gins

to chant, as sonorous as the bell, flow­ing like rich cream over the com­pany who, in their turn, pick up the sin­gle clear line, gen­tly re­peat it back. The li­turgy calms him, eases his an­kle, the strug­gle of his lungs. He leans for­ward, places his head onto his hands, and prays. Prayer as dream, a flow of im­ages that come so eas­ily. Gwen, his mother, the Christ from the hos­pi­tal, he sees each one as they are sum­moned by a phrase from that clear voice, blessed by each choral re­ply. Fi­nally, he comes, his fa­ther, and there are an­gels gath­ered about his head.

Maybe he sleeps, dream­less. Only be­comes aware when peo­ple are mov­ing past him. But he does not raise his head and no one speaks to him. The door closes, re­turn­ing the chapel to si­lence.

Un­til the voice comes. The same one that had led the chant­ing. Speaks above him, as near as a breath. Tom lifts his head to it – and looks into his fa­ther’s eyes.

Oh, he’d re­called them in dreams. In night­mares he’d seen them plucked from a head, dropped into a jar of formalde­hyde. Seen them nar­row in fury or en­large in pain when Tom hurt him, as he’d hurt him in those later years, pay­ment for all those years be­fore. He thought he’d known them. But he’d for­got­ten their ra­di­ance, the light­ning flash, North­ern sky, Sum­mer’s day won­der of them. All he’d seen in the years since their light went out was the struc­ture, not the sub­stance. And see­ing them now his own fill, over­flow. And as he stands, he lifts the tire iron high above his head, high up where the an­gels wait.

They take it from him, he low­ers his hand, and it meets the

monk’s hand ris­ing up. Blue mir­rors re­flect a thou­sand can­dles back and forth.

He can­not re­mem­ber why he’s there. Un­til he does. “For­give me, Fa­ther,” he whis­pers.

The monk smiles, just like Tom re­mem­bers. “Por nada, my son.”

Au­thor’s note

It has been fas­ci­nat­ing re­vis­it­ing a piece of work I wrote some years ago, be­fore I be­came a pro­fes­sional writer. I re­mem­ber be­ing very proud of ‘Where the An­gels Wait’ at the time. It seemed to say ex­actly what I wanted to say at the time, ex­plore what was con­cern­ing me. Now… well, it needed some work. I got back into the spirit of it. I also was very aware of all the ticks I had as a young writer. The en­ergy was there but the ex­e­cu­tion was a lit­tle… slip­shod?

One of the big lessons I’ve learned as a nov­el­ist is econ­omy. Say­ing what you want to say in less. Leav­ing things un­said. I’ve prob­a­bly cut one third of the orig­i­nal and think its much bet­ter for it. I’ve also re­cast it in the present tense when the orig­i­nal was in my more cus­tom­ary past. The story called for it, that im­me­di­acy of ex­pe­ri­ence. I wouldn’t have known how to do that at the time.

I have to say, I am de­lighted with the re­sult—and want to thank my ed­i­tors for this op­por­tu­nity to go back in time. I wouldn’t want to live there now, as writer or per­son. But it was good to visit.

the toi­let. Then the Di­rec­tor couldn’t prove Ch­eryl had ever had it. But, a thou­sand dol­lars! Down the toi­let! Un­think­able. Stella drained the last drops from the mug, and the tea bag bumped her lightly on the nose. She still had not de­cided what to do with the money in her pocket, but she felt a hun­dred times bet­ter. A thou­sand.

Maybe, in­stead of flush­ing the money, she ought to fig­ure out who else could have stolen the other bills — eigh­teen of them.

Eigh­teen thou­sand dol­lars was a strange sort of num­ber — a large amount of money, but not so much that you would con­sider your­self rich if you had it. Happy to get it, maybe, but not ex­actly rich.

Stella sucked her up­per lip. Of course! There had to be more money than just eigh­teen thou­sand. She re­mem­bered the al­bum she’d toed open in the Ef­fects Cup­board, the al­bum with Alice Ma­can­drew’s photo in it. What had it been do­ing in there? Per­haps some­body had found the quiet closet and emp­tied the al­bum of the bills hid­den be­tween the pages. There might be other al­bums, too, with even more money hid­den in­side...

She touched her tongue to the smooth rim of the mug and mur­mured to her­self, “Who­dunit, who­dunit, who­dunit…?” All the ev­i­dence pointed to Ch­eryl hav­ing taken all those bills from the coin al­bum, but Ch­eryl was hon­est. So, who was not? Ol­lie, per­haps? He was so of­ten around, and could hide any­thing in that sunny yel­low trol­ley of his. Or Bel­lamy, Mrs Ma­can­drew’s only re­la­tion and hope for con­tin­u­a­tion of the clan name? Or maybe

the Di­rec­tor her­self, Mrs Perdita War­ren, who had searched the room for the an­tique coin and might eas­ily have found the money? How ter­ri­ble if the thief turned out to be any of these! Ide­ally, the per­pe­tra­tor would be some­body from out­side — a pass­ing rob­ber, who had spied through the win­dow as the Dragon pawed her trea­sures, and awaited an op­por­tu­nity to slip in­side. It would be easy pick­ings—alice Ma­can­drew was cer­tain that she kept an un­blink­ing eye on her fam­ily trea­sures, but she was in the wash­room more of­ten than her Swiss clock cuck­ooed.

With care not to dis­lodge the green plas­tic cover, Stella scooted care­fully back out from un­der­neath the ta­ble. She left the blue mug with its limp teabag be­hind in her se­cret hid­ing place as a sort of marker, the way as­tro­nauts left a flag on the moon. Then, fid­dling thought­fully with the bill in her pocket, she wan­dered down to the front en­try to look out the win­dow at the daf­fodils and think the case over.

She ar­rived just a mo­ment too late. There be­fore her, on the other side of the glass door, was a heart-rend­ing sight. Ch­eryl, wear­ing her blue coat, was head­ing away from Fair­mount Manor down the lit­tle walk with its striped awning, to­wards the drive­way. In her arms she held a small box. Stella couldn’t make out the in­di­vid­ual con­tents, but the box seemed to be filled with bits and pieces, in­clud­ing a pot with a hy­acinth that had not yet be­gun to bloom.

A nasty feel­ing took Stella by the shoul­ders. She had won­dered whether she should have taken the money from Ch­eryl’s pocket,

and now she knew the an­swer. Or rather, she could see the out­come of her act.

De­spite ac­cu­sa­tions of theft, it was ob­vi­ous that Ch­eryl had not been fired. Dis­missals, with their re­views and re­ports and pa­per­work, took weeks or longer. There had not been time to dis­charge the care worker. No, when the hon­est Ch­eryl had been un­able to re­turn the money Stella had stolen from her, Ch­eryl had quit.

This hur­ried de­par­ture was Stella’s fault. Thus, it was up to Stella to put things right, and quickly too. Stella hauled on the door han­dle, but it didn’t open — could not, with­out the door key. Stella ran to the re­cep­tion kiosk and peered through the win­dow at the desk, but the lit­tle room was empty of any­body who could open the door. She looked both ways along the cor­ri­dor, but saw no­body. She might have run along the cor­ri­dors, search­ing for Ol­lie or Reliza or any res­i­dent with key code sta­tus, but a glance at the front door told her that she was too late.

For here along the drive­way came the next in the se­ries of un­happy out­comes: Ch­eryl’s hus­band driv­ing that shin­ing sil­ver car. Ch­eryl’s hus­band and chil­dren would be in­side the car, per­haps won­der­ing why on earth she wanted a ride home so early in her work­day.

Stella ran back to the front door and pounded on the glass. When Ch­eryl didn’t turn, Stella punched num­bers into the key pad at ran­dom. But the door re­mained shut. Stella slumped against the glass, pow­er­less to pre­vent the gleam­ing ve­hi­cle from pulling up in front of Ch­eryl. No sooner had the back car door slid

open than Ch­eryl’s three chil­dren, like small birds, flut­tered out to alight about her. They at­tached them­selves to her arms, to her legs. Chil­dren were weight­less, Stella re­mem­bered. With their small bones and the light­ness of their hope and love, you could pick them up as if they were made of feath­ers and set them on your hip. Ch­eryl did so now with the smallest of the three. This was a tou­sle-headed lit­tle girl…

Stella’s arm, act­ing of it­self, rose from her side and curved about the re­mem­bered shape of Ju­nie’s close em­brace. “Shh,” Stella whis­pered to her daugh­ter down the long cor­ri­dors of life. “Don’t cry. We’ll find a way to set things right.” Stella found her own words of com­fort im­pos­si­ble to be­lieve.

Nor did Ch­eryl’s spend­thrift hus­band, mean­while, ap­pear happy with his wife’s de­ci­sion to leave her job. So abruptly did he hus­tle his off­spring and then Ch­eryl her­self into the car that Stella stared in dis­be­lief. Did the hus­band not no­tice that when Ch­eryl climbed in­side, her fin­gers were still rest­ing on the top sill of the car door? Or might he de­lib­er­ately have moved so quickly to slam it shut? Only an in­stant sep­a­rated Ch­eryl from se­ri­ous in­jury, but she’d re­leased the door and her fin­gers were safe. Just in time.

But even a spend­thrift could make a mis­take slam­ming a car door. And even an idle man could truly love his wife.

Which only left a sin­gle ques­tion that Stella had to an­swer for the good of this lit­tle fam­ily, and for her own ben­e­fit as well.

How would it ever be pos­si­ble to get Ch­eryl back to Fair­mount Manor again?

Thir­teen

Her mind still stew­ing with self-re­crim­i­na­tions, Stella en­tered Cor­ri­dor Park. She gave lit­tle at­ten­tion to oc­cu­pants in the chairs along the walls, and so she paid the price.

Some­thing caught her an­kle. The hall­way tilted like a car­toon space­ship. There fol­lowed a long drawn-out mo­ment where all thought was dashed from her mind—all ex­cept a grim black­out lined no­tice read­ing This is it! Your day to go out, Stella. And your fi­nal act in this world was to make Ch­eryl quit.

But just as she reached the tip­ping point, from which no fall­ing body can re­turn, Stella felt a pair of arms come around her. A body pressed against her back and she and her sal­va­tion tot­tered there for a mo­ment un­til the hall­way righted it­self and Stella, breath­ing hard, looked up into a pair of wa­tery, but very blue eyes. Theo. Of all the male res­i­dents of Fair­mount Manor, Theo Long bourne had the finest head of hair.

She looked up at him and said thank you. “I thought I was a goner,” she ad­mit­ted.

She be­came con­scious that he was still hold­ing her by her fore­arms. Sud­denly his hands be­gan to trem­ble, and he let go.

“You’re wel­come,” he said, and as far as she could re­call, this was the first time he’d ad­dressed a word to her di­rectly. “Stella, I’ve al­ways wanted to ask you…”

She never found out what he’d al­ways wanted to know, be­cause just then Theo stepped on her foot and apol­o­gized.

Stella was hardly con­scious of his mis­step. All she could think was that, for first time in a num­ber of years, she’d been touched by a man who was not a med­i­cal pro­fes­sional. To her sur­prise, this mo­ment re­called the old days, when she would be danc­ing with some fresh-faced, red-eared boy who trod on her toe. As a woman, it was up to her to take con­trol of the sit­u­a­tion. So, she looked up at him and said what a woman was meant to say: “You’re very strong.” And it was true. He might trem­ble, but he had caught her and had not let her fall.

From be­hind them, some­body laughed. Some­body on the far side of the cor­ri­dor. Some­body with a wicked, dry laugh: Thelma Hu. Thelma was sit­ting a lit­tle way down from the three women Stella had for ex­cel­lent rea­son dubbed the Greek Cho­rus, and it was Thelma’s cane that had en­tan­gled it­self with Stella’s an­kles. But Stella knew that was not why the blind woman was laugh­ing at her.

Stella felt the colour rise in her cheeks. Across the cor­ri­dor, the three mem­bers of the Greek Cho­rus looked up from their needle­work. Iolan­the and Lu­cille eyed Stella with un­blink­ing seren­ity, but she caught a truly poi­sonous stare from the Nod­der.

“It’s a sin how hard the linoleum is in this place.” Iolan­the set her crewel­work down in her lap.

To Iolan­the’s right, Lu­cille, the sec­ond mem­ber of the Greek Cho­rus, jabbed a large nee­dle in Stella’s di­rec­tion. “Fall on that floor, and it’s mur­der.”

“Mur­der by linoleum, in the first de­gree.” Iolan­the looked pleased. Lu­cille held up her nee­dle and thread, and the Nod­der —

the third and fi­nal mem­ber of the Greek Cho­rus—snipped off Iolan­the’s thread with a small pair of scis­sors. “Just think how much eas­ier it would be for the staff to run things if we all broke our necks.”

“Some of us, cer­tainly.” Theo looked obliquely down at Stella, who trapped her lips be­tween her teeth so as not to laugh out loud.

A tone sounded from the di­rec­tion of the din­ing room. Iolan­the added, “Lunchtime. Some­thing in­di­gestible, as usual.”

“Mur­der by cab­bage,” Lu­cille agreed, although the smell in the hall was clearly, rec­og­niz­ably, that of mac­a­roni. On Lu­cille’s left, the Nod­der nod­ded. As if by a sig­nal — and the tone that sounded lunch was, af­ter all, just that — Theo turned away from Stella. He of­fered his arm to the Nod­der. She looked up, and then rose, queen-like, to her feet. The Nod­der took Theo’s arm and they walked away to­wards the din­ing room, while Iolan­the and Lu­cille ti­died their needle­work into quilted bags and fol­lowed af­ter them. Stella found her­self stand­ing alone in Cor­ri­dor Park. Or rather, not quite alone. Be­hind her there re­mained the au­thor of the mock­ing laugh. She heard the tap of metal on linoleum and turned to see blind Thelma Hu still in her seat. As Stella faced her, Thelma screwed up her face.

“If you’re ex­pect­ing me to say I’m sorry for trip­ping you, you’re in for a long, cold af­ter­noon’s wait,” Thelma said. She set one hand on the other atop the end of her cane, as if to stop Stella from tak­ing it away from her.

Four­teen

“You tripped me on pur­pose, Thelma?” Not for the first time in prox­im­ity to Thelma Hu, Stella felt her tem­per ex­pand against its seams. “And all this time I thought you didn’t know what you were do­ing with that cane of yours.”

Thelma, blind eyes hooded, shrugged. Above her head a poster fea­tur­ing a dead branch on an arid land­scape was sta­pled to the burlap-cov­ered bul­letin board. Let­tered large upon the poster was the sen­ti­ment Some­thing lost brings some­thing found. Some­thing gained brings another loss. This op­po­si­tional bit of non­sense on top of Thelma’s laugh and shrug so ir­ri­tated Stella that she turned her back to it and sat her­self down in her usual chair next to Thelma.

“Thelma, I’m too old be fall­ing on the linoleum. Watch where you put your cane.”

“I would, but I’m blind,” Thelma re­torted. She turned her head sharply. “Who’s that com­ing?” Thelma’s hear­ing must be acute. Stella hadn’t heard a thing. But now light, youth­ful foot­steps sounded, and here came Mrs Alice Ma­can­drew’s grand­daugh­ter, ar­rived for her weekly visit with her aunt.

Young Bel­lamy was Mrs Ma­can­drew’s only reg­u­lar vis­i­tor. She ad­vanced along the cor­ri­dor, her good spir­its sup­port­ing her in all the cor­rect places. Her hair bounc­ing, her arms swing­ing… Bel­lamy was so young that Stella could no more re­sent her for

it than she could be­grudge a kit­ten its youth.

From her seat be­side Thelma, Stella smiled at Bel­lamy. Bel­lamy smiled back. Stella heard a stealthy hiss of metal on linoleum. She reached out in time to grip Thelma’s cane be­fore she could trip the girl up.

With long, youth­ful strides, Bel­lamy walked by them, her large bag bump­ing against the back of her jacket. She would never know how close she’d come to tak­ing a tum­ble.

Stella stared af­ter her. That re­ally was a very large hand­bag. A stu­dent’s hand­bag, of a ca­pac­ity to han­dle text­books and maybe even a binder… Or an al­bum — coin al­bum, photo al­bum… She said slowly, “Thelma, if an el­derly per­son is be­ing robbed of all her money, who is the first per­son you sus­pect?”

Thelma smacked her cane once against the floor. “Her ac­coun­tant.”

“I sup­pose so… But it would have to be some­body who was of­ten in­side her room here at Fair­mount…”

“Don’t beat around the bush,” Thelma said. “I hear the ru­mours, just like ev­ery­body else. Are you ask­ing whether Ch­eryl stole money from cranky old Alice Ma­can­drew?”

Cranky! Look who’s talk­ing! “But, if you leave Ch­eryl out?” Stella asked, “Who, then, is the most likely thief?” Stella al­ready knew the an­swer, but she didn’t like it. Thelma grunted. “You mean, the thief is not the trusted care worker? Well, then, it’s a mem­ber of the fam­ily.”

Stella sat quite still as Ol­lie came around the cor­ner to­wards them. For such a large man, he moved quickly, like a great liner speed­ing across the At­lantic sea.

Stop­ping be­fore them, Ol­lie said, “Bet­ter hit the chow line, ladies, be­fore all that good nosh is gone.” “I’m not hun­gry,” Thelma said. “Now, Thelma, de­nial is a river in Africa.” Ol­lie chuck­led. “We all need to eat. Do you want me to help you down to the din­ing room?” “What, do you think I’m blind?” Thelma grum­bled. “I’ll go with her,” Stella told him. “That’s the way, you pair of out­laws,” Ol­lie laughed. Head­ing back to­wards the din­ing room, he called over his shoul­der, “Un­hol­ster your six-shoot­ers and hold up the chow wagon to­gether.”

Stella at­tempted to help Thelma to her feet, and got a bash from the cane for thanks.

“Of course it was the grand­daugh­ter who stole the money,” Thelma said. “Young peo­ple don’t have the same moral­ity we do.”

Stella frowned. She thought, but did not say aloud, That’s just what a grouchy old girl like you would think. “Same to you,” Thelma said. “With knobs on.” “I didn’t say that out loud.” Stella shook her head as they walked along the cor­ri­dor in the di­rec­tion of the smell of wet pasta. “Did I?”

Thelma replied, “Ha! You’ll never know.”

Fif­teen

Later that af­ter­noon, while a nasty lunch of mac­a­roni with grated egg was set­tling it­self down for a long stay in her stom­ach, Stella sat in Cor­ri­dor Park watch­ing Bel­lamy, her visit to the Dragon ap­par­ently con­cluded, sashay past to­wards the foyer. Her enor­mous bag swung at her back be­low her long brown hair.

Stella made the click­ing sound with her tongue that all teach­ers learned at teach­ing col­lege.

If Ch­eryl hadn’t stolen the money, then what were the chances that the Dragon’s grand­daugh­ter Bel­lamy had? The prob­lem was that jump­ing to con­clu­sions such as the grand­daugh­ter stole the money was ex­actly what civ­i­lized le­gal sys­tems were set up to avoid.

Fur­ther­more, Stella liked Bel­lamy. While a care­ful ob­server might no­tice that her step dragged a lit­tle on the way to see the Dragon, and skipped when she left, the girl kept a pleas­ant face all the while. What was more, she never missed a visit. Stella ap­pre­ci­ated that fact as only some­body with no vis­i­tors her­self could.

Yet Oc­cam’s Ra­zor and Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple were in agree­ment. If the wife was mur­dered, look first at the hus­band. If the hus­band, watch the wife. When money is stolen, and there ex­ists a young rel­a­tive with a large hand­bag…

No. She would not judge the girl based on Thelma Hu’s gen­er­al­iza­tion.

She would, how­ever, feel per­fectly jus­ti­fied in prov­ing her point. All she needed was a look in­side Bel­lamy’s ca­pa­cious bag.

An idea was com­ing to Stella. But she would need help. She mur­mured, “I need some­body to trip another per­son with her cane.”

Thelma bat­ted her cane against the leg of her chair. She said, “You’ve found your woman.”

Six­teen

The fall that Stella had de­signed for Bel­lamy to take on her way back from her visit to her grand­mother the fol­low­ing week was not a com­plete suc­cess. Or, rather, not at first.

Stella had ex­pected that Bel­lamy would catch her an­kle on Thelma’s cane, lose her bal­ance and try to save her­self while her bag flew down the cor­ri­dor. The idea was that the bag’s con­tents would spread out along the floor in the sort of ar­ray in which brides used to lay out their wed­ding gifts for all to see. In­stead, when Thelma tripped Bel­lamy, the girl went down flat while the hand­bag landed up­right on the floor.

So erect did the bag stand, in fact, that Stella couldn’t help tak­ing its up­right pos­ture as a per­sonal af­front. Noth­ing at all fell out. The leather flap even stayed closed, al­most as if dar­ing some­body to look in­side.

Mean­while, the Greek Cho­rus watched the pro­ceed­ings with in­ter­est.

“Are you all right, dear?” Iolan­the asked Bel­lamy gen­tly. “Of

course you are. Do young peo­ple have to be so noisy all the time?”

“They like to stir things up, that’s what,” Lu­cille an­swered. “Also, her skirt is too short.” The Nod­der nod­ded. Mean­while, Bel­lamy was pulling her­self into a sit­ting po­si­tion on the floor. She looked up at Stella, con­fu­sion in her eyes. “Are you hurt?” Stella asked. “I’m okay.” “Good.” Stella got to her feet. She took a deep breath. She picked up Bel­lamy’s bag.

Then Stella tripped over Thelma’s cane her­self, just as Bel­lamy had, ex­cept that Bel­lamy hadn’t done it on pur­pose. Stella’s de­ci­sion to trip her­self was de­lib­er­ate, but taken so swiftly that although she con­sid­ered the con­se­quences to the hand­bag, she over­looked the cost to her­self.

Stella stag­gered for­ward. Her first ac­tion was to hold onto the bot­tom of Bel­lamy’s hand­bag so that its con­tents flung them­selves onto the cor­ri­dor floor. She her­self fol­lowed it down, al­most in slow mo­tion. Although it was not what you could truth­fully call an ac­ci­den­tal tum­ble, the anx­ious ex­pres­sion she knew she was wear­ing as she went down was per­fectly hon­est.

On her knees now, Bel­lamy turned. She gasped, “Are you all right?”

“I… don’t know.” She truly did not. De­spite the new agility she was feel­ing — the agility that dated from her morn­ing ex­plo­ration with Mad Cassandra — Stella had long been dread­ing a fall. She

had thought any sort of full-body tum­ble might just fin­ish her off, as a mat­ter of fact, and had man­aged by tak­ing ex­treme care to avoid wher­ever pos­si­ble any un­even sur­face un­der­foot. Now, hav­ing taken such a fall on pur­pose (and it was a some­what harder fall than she had planned on), she landed on the side of her hip with a feel­ing of doom. She checked her bones. She was as­tounded when they an­swered with a chip­per, All present and ac­counted for, sir.

“I’m per­fectly all right, thank you.” Stella looked around her. The con­tents of Bel­lamy’s bag had landed on the floor around Stella. A rosy makeup com­pact had slid as far along as the Greek Cho­rus’s chairs, and lay un­der­neath the Nod­der’s chair like some kind of small pink ro­dent run­ning free in Fair­mount Manor.

Stella peered at the bag’s de­tri­tus splayed out across the floor: makeup, tis­sues, wal­let, a sweater, a few books. Bel­lamy’s phone had come to rest by Stella’s right hand. As Bel­lamy folded her cardi­gan and tucked her makeup bag in her bag, Stella pulled the books to­wards her­self. These needed check­ing out. She picked up each book by its cover. No thou­sand-dol­lar bills fell out.

Ha! Stella thought. Although she still had one item left to in­ves­ti­gate, she al­ready felt the plea­sure of be­ing right. Of course, Bel­lamy’s in­no­cence wouldn’t help Ch­eryl get her job back, but Stella felt a sense of sat­is­fac­tion about elim­i­nat­ing Bel­lamy as a sus­pect. And about be­ing right that Bel­lamy was hon­est.

One fi­nal item should prove her case for the hon­esty of Youth. Bel­lamy’s wal­let — a small red leather af­fair — lay by Stella’s knee. As a de­coy, Stella slid the phone along the floor in Bel­lamy’s

di­rec­tion. The girl bent down to scoop it up. Stella picked up the red wal­let.

She was about to open it—to prove the girl’s in­no­cence— and look in­side, when she saw a shadow fall across Bel­lamy’s wal­let. A long pair of tan-coloured trousers ap­peared in front of her. She looked up to meet Theo’s gaze. His good hair fell over his fore­head in a boy­ish man­ner, and in his eye she saw a ques­tion he was too po­lite to ask aloud: What are you do­ing with that girl’s wal­let?

But she had a query of her own, and hers was also in­ter­nal: with Theo watch­ing, how could she pos­si­bly peek in­side the girl’s wal­let? For, if she was to be sure of the girl’s in­no­cence, she must do so.

She dropped her gaze and hoped Theo would move on. But he didn’t budge from his spot, ex­cept to step out of Bel­lamy’s way as she skated by them on her hands and knees, scoop­ing up her be­long­ings and re­plac­ing them in her bag.

Thelma’s case against the girl could not be closed un­til Stella had checked the red wal­let. She was be­gin­ning to think that Bel­lamy would never turn her back, and fur­ther­more that she must by now have col­lected most of the con­tents of her bag. How­ever, with a Sorry, ex­cuse me! to the Greek Cho­rus, the girl was now peer­ing un­der their chairs. Now if Theo would just turn away to help Bel­lamy… But Theo didn’t move from his spot. He held out his hand. Stella, heart sink­ing at the thought of hav­ing to fig­ure out

another way to fin­ish her search, passed the wal­let to Theo. As it trav­elled from her hand to his, a small mir­a­cle oc­curred. She felt the wal­let open slightly. She leaned for­ward for a quick look be­fore it could close again.

She saw, in­side it, the last thing she wanted to see: the cor­ner of some­thing pink. Damn. As Theo handed the wal­let to Bel­lamy, Stella used her chair to get her­self back onto her feet. She sat back down be­side Thelma and watched Theo es­cort the girl from Cor­ri­dor Park to­wards her grand­mother’s room. The Greek Cho­rus stirred and looked at one another. “My, what a morn­ing,” Iolan­the said. Lu­cille picked up her needle­work. “That Stella! Pride goeth be­fore a fall. But what about af­ter the fall? That’s what I want to know.”

While the Nod­der nod­ded, Thelma tapped her cane against the leg of Stella’s chair. “Did it work?” she asked sotto voce.

“Yes. For my sins.” Stella leaned back in her chair, feel­ing dis­ap­pointed to her toes in Bel­lamy. And thor­oughly an­noyed that Thelma and the Greek Cho­rus had been right about the girl. “You were right. It was Bel­lamy who took the money. She is still tak­ing it, ap­par­ently… and will con­tinue to do so un­til Alice Ma­can­drew’s stock of pink thou­sand dol­lar bills runs out.”

“Ha,” Thelma said. “I used to run a shop, you know. I know a thief when one walks into the room.”

Now what? Stella shook her head. “Of course, there’s noth­ing to be done about it. If I ac­cuse Bel­lamy she will deny it. And de­nial…”

“…is a river in Africa. Don’t try to fool me! What are you cook­ing up?” Thelma de­manded.

“Noth­ing,” Stella said tiredly. “I am out of ideas.” But with­out even try­ing, she found that a new plan was form­ing in her mind. This one was more com­pli­cated than the last, darn it all.

Thelma moved her red silk slip­pers im­pa­tiently. She snapped, “Tell me.”

What must it be like to be blind, sit­ting in Cor­ri­dor Park ev­ery day of your life? Tap­ping your cane, wait­ing for a meal you hated the taste of? Stella sighed. “Ac­tu­ally,” she be­gan, “I hope to en­gage in a lit­tle… il­le­gal­ity…” As she ex­plained the plan, it be­came clearer in her mind. And a lit­tle more un­eth­i­cal, too. When she had fin­ished, Stella thanked Thelma for lis­ten­ing. “Don’t thank me,” Thelma re­torted. “I’m lis­ten­ing for purely self­ish rea­sons.”

Stella nod­ded. “I feel the same way. The place is not the same with­out Ch­eryl.”

“I don’t care about Ch­eryl,” Thelma snapped. “They’ll hire another care worker in a sec­ond. What I like is that your plan is kinda in­ter­est­ing. It’s the least bored I’ve been for sev­eral years.”

Stella blinked. “Me, too.”

Seventeen

Stella had to wait two full days for her op­por­tu­nity—if you could call her days at Fair­mount Manor full. Once she’d found an en­ve­lope for the money she’d taken from Ch­eryl—and once she’d found the per­fect word­ing for the note on the out­side of the en­ve­lope, the hours dragged. She spent them try­ing un­suc­cess­fully to make small talk with Thelma, dis­lik­ing the food served up by the Fair­mount Manor cooks, re­view­ing her plans and try­ing not to drift away into some kind of grey-coloured reverie. In this way she awaited the Bel­lamy” s re­turn to Daf­fodil Cor­ri­dor. All that sus­tained Stella through­out the forty-eight hours was the knowl­edge that time was tick­ing away for Ch­eryl’s job. For, with each hour that passed, her tem­po­rary re­place­ment was set­tling deeper into her job.

As well, Stella had to re­mem­ber that be­cause of the trip­ping in­ci­dent, one could no longer count on Bel­lamy tak­ing her usual short-cut through Cor­ri­dor Park to her grand­mother’s room. The girl might very well de­sire to give Thelma and her cane a wide berth. There­fore, in or­der not to miss any op­por­tu­nity, Stella had to walk back and forth from Daf­fodil Cor­ri­dor, through the of­fice area, and around by the Ac­tiv­ity Hall. These were all ar­eas of Fair­mount Manor where she of­ten got lost among the many choices and turn­ings. Luck­ily, it didn’t much mat­ter whether she knew where she was go­ing—the law of av­er­ages only sug­gested that she keep mov­ing.

One em­bar­rass­ing prob­lem rose right away: as she walked about the place, she and Theo crossed paths now and then. Again, since Theo was fa­mous for walk­ing about Fair­mount’s cor­ri­dors for most of the day, the law of av­er­ages com­pelled it. But af­ter their sec­ond meet­ing in a mat­ter of fif­teen min­utes, she be­gan to worry that he would think she was some kind of stalker. Which she was, but Bel­lamy’s stalker, not Theo’s. Af­ter their third meet­ing, how­ever, she greeted him with the same re­laxed nod that he gave her.

So it was that two days later, her wan­der­ing paid off. She caught sight of the girl Bel­lamy as she en­tered the build­ing. Stella had a sud­den urge to call a fel­low de­tec­tive on a walkie-talkie with the news—mad Cassandra, for choice. In­stead, as Bel­lamy strode past Stella with­out sign of recog­ni­tion, Stella si­lently broke from her previous tra­jec­tory. She tracked the girl past the stair­well and around the un­named area lead­ing to Daf­fodil Cor­ri­dor, where Mrs Ma­can­drew’s room faced Stella’s.

She walked as quickly as her slip-ons would take her. Even so, she would never have caught Bel­lamy up ex­cept that the girl al­ways did move com­par­a­tively slowly on her way in to see her grand­mother. So, this part of the plan, the part where she fol­lowed the girl, was easy. As well, Stella had ev­ery right to be in Daf­fodil Cor­ri­dor, where her own Room 34 was lo­cated, and thus must ap­pear com­pletely in­no­cent of guile and sub­terfuge, which was lucky be­cause Ol­lie might over­hear her. The big care worker was busy with his yel­low trol­ley not far from Alice Ma­can­drew’s door.

Stella in­haled deeply. She whis­pered to her­self the count: “One… two… three…” Now. As she reached a point about twenty feet from Mrs. Ma­can­drew’s door, Stella called out, “Bel­lamy, could you help me just for a minute?” She read­ied her pre­pared fol­low-up for the Sure thing, or Of course, that would fol­low.

But Bel­lamy turned and po­litely said, “I’m so sorry, but I’m late to see my grand­mother, and she’s al­ways in such a mood. Ex­cuse me…?”

As the girl headed for the Dragon’s door, Stella scram­bled for an op­pos­ing play. Be­fore she could come up with a sin­gle idea, Ol­lie ap­proached them and Bel­lamy ges­tured to­wards Stella and asked him, “Please, could you give this lady a hand?”

And then the girl ducked through the door into her grand­mother’s room.

Stella stared at the door as it closed pneu­mat­i­cally. She felt thwarted to her core. Ol­lie said, “Sure, Stella, I’ll give you a hand,” and be­gan to clap. “Never mind, Ol­lie. Thank you,” she said, try­ing to keep her an­noy­ance un­der wraps. “I don’t need any help af­ter all.”

“In that case, I think I’ll take a lit­tle smoke break.” He pat­ted her shoul­der and walked to the end of the cor­ri­dor. Be­fore dis­ap­pear­ing through the fire door that led out­side, Ol­lie flipped a switch too high up for most peo­ple to reach. He dis­ap­peared through it, pat­ting his pock­ets in search of cig­a­rettes or matches.

The switch must have dis­armed the door alarm, be­cause it didn’t sound. A crack of light down the length of the door showed that he had left it just frac­tion­ally open.

Alone now in the cor­ri­dor, Stella ex­am­ined the wreck­age of her plan. How to res­ur­rect it, when the girl would be gone in a flash once she’d seen her grand­mother?

With­out plea­sure, Stella faced the fact that she would just have to sum­mon the pa­tience to wait a few more days un­til Bel­lamy vis­ited again. And all the while, Ch­eryl’s sub­sti­tute care worker—stella damned her as pass­able—was mov­ing closer and closer to a per­ma­nent place­ment. Worse still, what if Ch­eryl took her Mona Lisa smile to another care home else­where in the city? No doubt that idle hus­band of hers would be itch­ing for her pay­check.

No, if the thing were to be done, then best…stella bit her lip, but sup­plied the all too ob­vi­ous quote: “…it were done quickly.”

She shuf­fled down to the end of the cor­ri­dor by the fire door. There was a wall fire alarm there, the sort that was a red panel with a lever to pull that would break a glass rod and then sound an alarm through­out the build­ing. She’d seen one of these set off be­fore, at school. One af­ter­noon a few decades back a stu­dent named Rob­bie Belkan, aged eight, had failed to take the el­e­men­tary and vi­tal pre­cau­tion of check­ing over his shoul­der and he had set off the fire alarm just as she was ex­it­ing the school li­brary. So, Stella knew that the glass rod was not much of an ob­sta­cle to sound­ing the fire alarm. It was there just to let you know that

should you pull the alarm, the stakes would be raised.

She pulled the red lever. The glass rod broke and dropped to the floor. Then all hell broke loose.

Eigh­teen

The noise was ear­split­ting. It even seemed to ratchet up dur­ing the first few sec­onds af­ter she’d pulled the alarm. Tak­ing a tip from young Rob­bie Belkan, she moved down the cor­ri­dor, away from the fire door. Then she fell back against the wall, feel­ing jan­gled to the bones.

But the trou­ble—she thought she could safely call it that — had just be­gun. The cor­ri­dor was fill­ing now with res­i­dents head­ing to­wards the fire door. Walk­ers clat­tered, and res­i­dents chat­tered. Mean­while, be­hind her, Ol­lie had banged the fire door open from the out­side and was pass­ing by with a dis­tracted grin for Stella. He dived through Mrs Ma­can­drew’s door. Of course Mrs Ma­can­drew, as the song went, would never walk alone, no fur­ther than her wash­room any­way — not if it meant leav­ing the Ma­can­drew trea­sures be­hind. But Stella judged that the Dragon would find Ol­lie’s help more than ac­cept­able in a fire.

She was right. Here he came now, half-car­ry­ing the old woman. And here came Bel­lamy, fol­low­ing them. The girl ap­peared flus­tered, and was tuck­ing her hand­bag over her shoul­der.

Mak­ing haste, Stella stepped in front of Bel­lamy, cut­ting her off from her grand­mother.

“Would you help me, dear?” Stella asked. “Please? Just let me take your arm…” Said the spi­der to the fly. “All right,” Bel­lamy an­swered. Stella caught hold of Bel­lamy’s el­bow. “Walk a lit­tle slower, dear,” Stella said, as res­i­dents made their way around them. The wheel­chairs were pass­ing now, along with the slower walk­ers, as they headed for the fire door here and, no doubt, at other des­ig­nated fire ex­its around Fair­mount Manor. “But the fire…” Bel­lamy be­gan. “No wor­ries about that,” Stella as­sured her. “There is no fire. I pulled the alarm my­self. I wanted to give you this en­ve­lope.”

Stella took the en­ve­lope out of her pocket and handed it to Bel­lamy, who stared from it to her. Mean­while, the pa­rade of res­i­dents con­tin­ued past the two of them.

Stella ex­plained. “On the out­side of the en­ve­lope is a note that you re­ceived from Ch­eryl sev­eral days ago, thank­ing your grand­mother for her gen­eros­ity but re­fus­ing it once she knew she’d been given real money. I wrote the note. In­side the en­ve­lope — no, don’t open it — is a thou­sand dol­lar bill.” Bel­lamy opened her mouth to speak. But Stella, con­scious of the swift move­ment of time, pushed on, speak­ing clearly so as to be heard over the clang­ing of the alarm. “You know about the thou­sand dol­lar bills, of course — I saw one

in your wal­let the other day. They are quite a dis­tinc­tive pink. I sup­pose you took the last one from the al­bum…”

By now, Bel­lamy had come to a full stop in the rapidly emp­ty­ing cor­ri­dor. She dropped Stella’s arm and be­gan, “I don’t…”

Stella shook her head. “We don’t have much time to work things out. Take the let­ter. I want Ch­eryl to come back. You don’t want your grand­mother to leave the rest of her wealth to the cat’s home…”

Bel­lamy burst out, “I wish she would! Do you think that I want to spend my life look­ing af­ter those things like she does?”

The alarm stopped short. Stella and the girl glared at each other in the sud­den, op­pres­sive si­lence.

Stella was even more dis­ap­pointed in Bel­lamy af­ter the girl’s out­burst. “I sup­posed you’d sell them once you’d in­her­ited them.”

“Of course I won’t sell them.” Bel­lamy looked ready to cry. “But I’m in first year univer­sity. I don’t have any money…” “That doesn’t give you the right to…” Now Bel­lamy was do­ing the in­ter­rupt­ing. “Let me fin­ish. I’m a Ma­can­drew. I know my duty. I’ll keep the Chip­pen­dales and the Stubbs. I even love the prisms—i used to make rain­bows with them when I was lit­tle. But I live in a stu­dent res­i­dence. You can’t fit a quar­ter of the Ma­can­drew things in there, and they wouldn’t be safe any­how with ev­ery­body in and out all the time. I have to get a condo, but she’d never un­der­stand they don’t give out houses for free just be­cause you’re a Ma­can­drew.”

Light dawned. “You’ve been steal­ing a down-pay­ment?” She

re­called the pho­to­graph al­bum she’d first found in the Ef­fects closet, when all of this had be­gun. So, Bel­lamy had in­deed snaf­fled more than one al­bum full of money. “A down­pay­ment for a place to live and store the Ma­can­drew trea­sures?” “Of course. Do you think I’m a thief?” Stella shot her a sharp look. “So you fig­ured that the money would soon be yours any­way…? It’s not, you know. But you’re not the first per­son to bend the time­line for an in­her­i­tance. And now it’s up to you to make things right.” She took a breath. “Take the en­ve­lope. Give it to your grand­mother. Be sure she straight­ens things out with the Di­rec­tor. Make sure you con­vince her that Ch­eryl is in­no­cent.” “How?” Bel­lamy frowned. But she took the en­ve­lope. Stella was run­ning short on ideas. Still, one covert ac­tion should have been ob­vi­ous to even the most re­luc­tant and in­ex­pe­ri­enced thief. “For one thing, use the brain God gave you and move the other bits of money you haven’t stolen yet around from the other al­bums so that your grand­mother can be con­vinced she was mis­taken about the theft of the other many thou­sands.” Bel­lamy slowed her pace. “Gosh, you’re clever.” Stella sped up. “As for the Di­rec­tor, you’ll think of a way. Use your youth­ful charm.” “But I don’t…” The girl looked ready to cry. Stella sighed. “Look, Bel­lamy, you made this mess, and I’ve done enough al­ready. Take my arm and lead me out the front en­try. We’ve been too long as it is, and I re­ally am feel­ing quite tot­tery.”

In si­lence the pair made their way through Cor­ri­dor Park. As they neared the front door, Ol­lie, clearly on a mis­sion to col­lect out­stand­ing res­i­dents, spot­ted them. While he hur­ried to­wards them from the front door, Stella thought of one more thing.

She hissed, “Lis­ten! Bel­lamy, you make sure your grand­mother still thinks you love her.”

Bel­lamy stared. She let go Stella’s arm. Fiercely she said, “I do love her.” Wip­ing eyes with her sleeve, she stalked away. She was a Ma­can­drew, all right.

As the girl passed him, Ol­lie took Stella’s arm. He gave her an oblique, amused look. “Stella, best sella, you were stand­ing near the alarm when it went off. Would you pos­si­bly know some­thing about how that fire alarm hap­pened to be pulled?”

Stella got a taste of how Bel­lamy must have felt a few min­utes ear­lier. She de­cided that the young fire-alarm-puller Rob­bie Belkan had got it right: if caught, you had to play it cool. “How crazy do you think I am?” she asked primly.

“I don’t think you’re crazy,” Ol­lie said. “I think you en­joy mak­ing things hap­pen around this place. Don’t worry. I won’t tell.” “Thanks,” Stella said, as he opened the door. “Us out­laws got to stick to­gether.” Ol­lie laughed. They stepped out un­der the awning to be checked off a mas­ter list only a few mo­ments be­fore the all clear sounded. To her dis­ap­point­ment, she got no more than a nose-full or two of spring air in­side her be­fore he led her back in­side again.

Nine­teen

The fol­low­ing morn­ing, Stella woke to the pleas­ant cer­tainty that she had solved the Bon­nie Prince Char­lie Mys­tery. The brouhaha was over and done with, as long as Bel­lamy made good on her prom­ise to clear Ch­eryl’s name. Two days later Stella knew for cer­tain that this had been ac­com­plished be­cause Bel­lamy had stopped by to tell her so. The girl had been un­able to meet Stella’s eyes through much of the con­ver­sa­tion, but Stella was sat­is­fied that ev­ery­thing was cleared up re­gard­ing Ch­eryl’s hon­esty with Bel­lamy’s drag­o­nish grand­mother as well as with Mrs War­ren, the Di­rec­tor of Fair­mount Manor.

But if ev­ery­thing was re­ally go­ing to be all right, then why was there such a heavy feel­ing in the air? Some­thing was still wrong. Three days af­ter Bel­lamy had cleared Ch­eryl’s name with the War­den, the care worker was still not back at Fair­mount Manor. Stella shook her head. She left Room 34 and walked down Daf­fodil Cor­ri­dor. With ev­ery step her un­easy feel­ing grew stronger.

So it was that as she made her way past the Staffroom, she was un­sur­prised to see Reliza stand­ing hunched over in the mid­dle of the room, wip­ing her eyes with the bot­tom hem of her yel­low ny­lon smock. As ever, Stella wished Reliza would get some­thing new for her­self.

Stella looked both ways. Then she stepped out of the cor­ri­dor, where she was sup­posed to be, and into the Staffroom, where she was not. Guiltily she re­mem­bered mak­ing a cup of tea in here.

Reliza looked up as Stella en­tered the room. “Oh, Stella….” Her ex­pres­sion was tragic. “I said all along that Ch­eryl wouldn’t steal.”

“You did say that,” Stella agreed. “And so did I… Now, when is Ch­eryl com­ing back?”

Reliza’s eyes filled again. “It’s so un­fair.” Her face turned pink, so that she looked pret­tier than ever, de­spite that old yel­low smock. “They wouldn’t treat a doc­tor so, or even a nurse. Just us care work­ers…”

Stella nod­ded. She had been hear­ing that com­plaint most of her life: Un­fair! When you spent your life teach­ing in an el­e­men­tary school, you heard it al­most ev­ery day. It’s not fair, Mrs Ry­man, the whole class has to stay in be­cause of one spit­ball. It’s so un­fair, Stella, the ad­min­is­tra­tion took my Grade Two class and gave it to the new teacher.

But she tried to think of a sin­gle de­ci­sion handed down in school, in life or even in the law that was fair for ev­ery­body — not im­par­tial, but fair, so that all par­ties were con­tent with the out­come. Stella could not. De­ci­sions ev­ery­where were met with gen­er­ous ac­cep­tance, guilty greed, vic­to­ri­ous joy, silent res­ig­na­tion—but never hap­pi­ness all around. In fact, if Ch­eryl fi­nally did get her job back, the new girl they’d brought in to take her place, who had her own liv­ing to make, would lose out…

As Stella con­tem­plated fair­ness, Reliza sat down at the Staffroom ta­ble. Stella watched her do it. The young care worker didn’t set her hands on the ta­ble to ease the sit­ting down the way Stella did, and noth­ing went crack when Reliza bent her knees. Nor did

she let out a deep breath to mark the end of the sit­ting pro­ce­dure. With youth­ful ease, Reliza sim­ply sat. Be­hind her, the sun shone through the win­dow and struck lights from the girl’s dark hair. No, the world was not fair.

Stella said, “You ought to talk to the Di­rec­tor. Make her see that Ch­eryl must be re­hired.”

Reliza’s hands were shak­ing. “I would like to. I would. But, Stella, what if Mrs War­ren takes against me? She could find a way to fire, me, too. And with­out a job, how do I stay in the coun­try?”

“Ch­eryl wasn’t fired, she quit, Reliza. And your union…” Stella be­gan, but trailed off, sens­ing the fu­til­ity of this line of ar­gu­ment with this par­tic­u­lar young woman.

Just then a rat­tle of buck­ets and wheels sounded out­side the Staffroom door, and Ol­lie stepped in­side the Staffroom. As he made his way to the sink she no­ticed, as al­ways, how lightly he moved for such a big man.

He took a mug down from the cup­board over the sink and gave Stella a quizzi­cal look.

Stella gri­maced. “Of course, I know that a Staffroom is meant to be pri­vate, but…”

Ol­lie in­ter­rupted. “Oh, what the hell! It’s good for you and it doesn’t hurt us, does it, Reliza? It’s nice to have com­pany in here now and then…” He paused as Reliza buried her face in her hands. Stella turned to Ol­lie. “Ch­eryl didn’t steal any­thing. It’s been proven.”

I proved it, she thought, first with sat­is­fac­tion and then with an ex­pand­ing re­sent­ment at the un­changed out­come of the case. She’d set out to prove Ch­eryl in­no­cent so that the poor woman, wracked with debt and up to her ears in young chil­dren and a spend­thrift hus­band, would be re­hired. And Ch­eryl was not re­hired.

Stella stared fiercely past Ol­lie at the row of coat hooks at the back of the Staffroom near the wash­room, where Ch­eryl’s blue trench coat ought to be hang­ing right now. It had been quite a strug­gle, prov­ing Ch­eryl in­no­cent. And strug­gles have noth­ing to do with fair­ness. They are about get­ting what you strug­gle for: the re­ward at the end of the fray. So, it came down to this. Stella had won. There­fore, she should get Ch­eryl back as her favourite care worker.

“I tell you what,” Stella said. “I’m go­ing to see the Di­rec­tor about this my­self.” Ol­lie chuck­led. “You go, Stella my bella,” he said. Stella looked sharply at him. Ol­lie was jovial, ap­par­ently by na­ture as well as phys­i­ol­ogy. And jovi­al­ity was only a hop skip and jump from mak­ing fun of a per­son.

Ol­lie raised his mug of wa­ter to her. “Stella to the res­cue,” he said. Was he mak­ing fun? She de­cided that she didn’t care. She turned her back on the two care work­ers — Reliza, so lov­ing and ab­so­lutely no help what­so­ever,

and Ol­lie, happy with things as they were. Stella headed down the cor­ri­dor to­wards the Of­fice.

Of­ten, over the months since she’d moved to Fair­mount Manor, Stella had been crit­i­cal of the ram­bling na­ture of the in­sti­tu­tion’s design. It seemed to her that an eight-year-old with a ruler and a box of crayons could have planned a more sen­si­ble route of cor­ri­dors for the con­ve­nience of res­i­dents and staff. The lay­out was par­tic­u­larly dis­tress­ing if you were the sort of per­son who, like Stella, of­ten found your­self stand­ing half­way along a cor­ri­dor, un­cer­tain which was the way to your own room, and feel­ing like a child lost in Sears. But just now she was glad it was a long way to the of­fice, be­cause she had to think what ex­actly she was go­ing to say to the Di­rec­tor of Fair­mount Manor.

All along the way, how­ever, she could think about noth­ing ex­cept the shuf­fling sounds her slip-on shoes made on the cor­ri­dor linoleum, and how the air was even heav­ier than it had been ear­lier. She filled her lungs with it and nod­ded to her­self. No won­der. Lunchtime loomed, and with it some­thing in­volv­ing cooked cel­ery.

By the time she reached the of­fice, she had de­vel­oped no plan at all. Less cer­tain of her­self now than when she had set out from the Staffroom, she rested for a mo­ment in front of the Di­rec­tor’s sec­re­tary’s empty desk.

How many weeks had it been since the Di­rec­tor’s sec­re­tary had re­tired at the end of what Stella be­lieved must have been a long and grat­ingly ef­fi­cient ca­reer? For what­ever rea­son, the sec­re­tary had not been re­placed. Per­haps it was a bud­get is­sue — or maybe

some­body had fi­nally in­vented a phone sys­tem that did fil­ing.

But it meant that no­body barred the way to the Di­rec­tor’s door. And the door stood ajar. In the cir­cum­stances, there was only one thing to do. Soldier on, Stella.

Pulling her back as straight as she could make it, Stella walked in­side Mrs Perdita War­ren’s pri­vate of­fice. With­out knock­ing. Stella was cer­tain that, even if noth­ing and no­body else was be­hind her, sur­prise was on her side.

The of­fice was empty. That was fine. Metaphor­i­cally speak­ing, Stella would lie in wait.

Twenty

Where was she? Stella closed her eyes, try­ing to get a sense of place. Af­ter an un­suc­cess­ful mo­ment, she opened them again. Gaz­ing from wall to door to win­dow to wall, she gained a sense of… of­fice.

Her own of­fice? She’d al­ways had a small of­fice of her own, be­hind the school li­brary cir­cu­la­tion desk. This of­fice didn’t look like hers, but from time to time she would re­turn from the sum­mer hol­i­days to find that work­men from the School Board had re­dec­o­rated her space. She didn’t think much of these colours — she pre­ferred a warm white to this spleen-like deep apri­cot. But if she was to tack book jack­ets up on the walls, they would hide the worst of it.

And, my good­ness! Stella thought, fold­ing her hands on the desk be­fore her. This was the first time they had given her a new desk! It was a lit­tle too large for the space, mind you. And some­body had done a job on her usu­ally tidy stacks of class lists and ti­tles to re­order. These were strewn around and even had cof­fee mug rings on them. She sup­posed the cus­to­di­ans must have been watch­ing hockey games in here again, cour­tesy of the school ca­ble tele­vi­sion. Ah, well.

She lis­tened for the morn­ing bell, and for the ris­ing rhubarb of stu­dents’ voices out in the hall that meant it was al­most time for class to be­gin.

But there was noth­ing. All was quiet. Was it af­ter school, then? A fool­ish ques­tion, Stella! As if she didn’t know the time… She would take a few mo­ments to straighten her desk. Slid­ing back­wards on her rollered chair, Stella opened the top drawer. She touched the con­tents. “These are not mine,” she said, ir­ri­tated with the cus­to­di­ans, who must have switched the draw­ers with­out check­ing them. “I have never seen these things in my life.”

A shadow fell across the desk, and Stella looked up into the face of a woman she knew only slightly. For the mo­ment, she couldn’t re­call the woman’s name.

But the woman knew hers. “Stella, please close that drawer and come around to this side of my desk.”

My desk? Stella was taken aback, but her eye fell on a black name­plate ly­ing knocked over among the pa­pers. If this was her

desk, it ought to read Mrs S. Ry­man. She did her best to fo­cus on it, but the let­ters shifted and in­ter­wove alarm­ingly. Sum­mon­ing just that touch of dig­nity that had al­ways seen her through the type of em­bar­rass­ing sit­u­a­tions that couldn’t be shrugged off by laugh­ing at her­self, she touched the name­plate and looked up at the other woman. “Is this you?”

The woman sighed. “That’s right. I am Mrs Perdita War­ren, Stella. I am the Di­rec­tor of Fair­mount Manor.” Stella nod­ded. “Glad to meet you, Perdita.” There fol­lowed that sort of pause that tells you some­thing is amiss.

At last the di­rec­tor said, not un­kindly, “I’d be more com­fort­able if you called me Mrs War­ren.”

Oh, my, Stella thought with a rush of re­lief. Now we know where we are. Fair­mount Manor bloomed up around her. “Of course,” she said, ris­ing. “And I, too, would pre­fer to be called Mrs Ry­man.”

“As you like.” Mrs War­ren frowned. “It’s up to you to make your pref­er­ences known, Mrs Ry­man.”

With gen­tle hands the Di­rec­tor pro­pelled Stella out from be­hind the desk. Mrs War­ren added, “We’re not mind read­ers, you know.”

With a desk drawer full of things like that, you must be get­ting close, Stella wished to say. Man­ners, plus a sense of walk­ing a fine in­vis­i­ble line, pre­vented her from do­ing so.

The Di­rec­tor fol­lowed Stella’s gaze and snapped the drawer shut

on at least a dozen — per­haps more — puz­zle mag­a­zines. Su­doku, Ana­grams, Cross­words. Cryp­tic cross­words! The woman must be sharp as one of Iolan­the’s nee­dles.

Stella turned to leave the of­fice. She was in the door­way when the sight of the empty re­cep­tion­ist’s desk re­called her er­rand to her at last. Ch­eryl needed Stella’s sup­port if she was to re­turn to Fair­mount Manor.

So close had she come to for­get­ting what she was there to do that it was al­most like hav­ing the great glow­ing fin­ger of God write her a re­minder note on the wall: Stella, be not vague. Be com­pos. Be sharp! Stella turned and shuf­fled back across the of­fice to the Di­rec­tor’s desk. There, she waited a long mo­ment and then another, longer still.

At last, Mrs War­ren looked up. “Do you want help find­ing your way, Stella?” Stella pinned her with a look. The Di­rec­tor cor­rected her­self. “…Mrs Ry­man?” “Mrs War­ren, I would like to know how soon we may ex­pect to see Ch­eryl back work­ing among us?”

Mrs War­ren took a mo­ment, ap­par­ently de­cid­ing how — and, per­haps, whether—to an­swer her. “I can’t say, not at this point in time. Her re­place­ment has been quite sat­is­fac­tory, I think you’ll agree…”

Anger washed through Stella. She forced her­self to show only calm. “Her sub­sti­tute,” Stella cor­rected her.

Mrs War­ren wrote a few words on the top sheet of pa­per. She

frowned at them. Then erased them and moved the top sheet to the bot­tom. Soldier on. Stella con­tin­ued, “Of course, I’m think­ing of the union base and the trou­ble it may bring you.”

Mrs War­ren looked up sharply. “Union base? What do you mean?”

Ah. Stella shook her head. “I worked for decades in a school sys­tem, not in a care home like Fair­mount Manor, but these union bases are all the same, I be­lieve? All they have to do to cause trou­ble for you is to spread about a story re­gard­ing Ch­eryl quit­ting be­cause of men­tal tor­ment due to un­founded charges of theft…” “But…” Mrs War­ren be­gan. Stella ploughed a straight line through the in­ter­rup­tion. “… A story of a sin­gle mother re­cently aban­doned by her hus­band. A mother of two young chil­dren. And on top of that, they will pro­duce her un­blem­ished record of self­less ser­vice, fol­lowed by un­just ac­cu­sa­tions… the union is just like a dog with a bone! And of course, they’re all in tight with the left-wing press, aren’t they?”

Mrs War­ren sat back in her chair. She gazed at Stella with­out ex­pres­sion. She said noth­ing. Stella’s in­stinct told her to carry on. “What my school district would do in such a case,” Stella went on, “was to put to­gether a lit­tle pack­age…”

Here in­stinct in­structed Stella to pause a mo­ment, so she did.

She was a teacher and a school li­brar­ian. She knew how to wait, that was cer­tain.

At last Mrs War­ren asked, “What kind of pack­age do you mean, Mrs Ry­man?”

Stella in­clined her head. “It would in­clude a card of ap­pre­ci­a­tion.” Be­yond pe­rus­ing the bi­monthly teach­ers’ union news­pa­per, Stella’s knowl­edge of the in­ner work­ings of man­age­ment and unions was lim­ited, and she was in­vent­ing freely now. “And cer­tainly a raise — small­ish, if it came early. Un­com­fort­ably large, if the union peo­ple be­came in­volved. Well, it’s some­thing to think about, when you make that call to Ch­eryl.” Mrs War­ren glanced at the phone. Stella added, “…be­fore you get a phone call your­self. From the union, the press…” She thought hard. “…and your Board of Di­rec­tors. How nice to be able to say it’s all han­dled.” Mrs War­ren blinked. Stella said, “And it would be a good thing to spread the news of Ch­eryl’s re­turn around the staff, as well, wouldn’t you say? Put a stop to any un­rest?” Mrs War­ren stood. “I’ll show you out, Mrs Ry­man.” But Stella was on a roll. Great things were in the air, and some­thing more was needed. It was rather like the time she’d taken over the school Spring Con­cert from a fal­ter­ing ad­min­is­tra­tor. She said, “And by the way, could you please write down for me the num­ber code for the front door? I’m feel­ing much bet­ter these days, as you see. I would like to be able to take

my­self out­side for a walk from time to time.” Mrs War­ren frowned. One thing Stella knew, in ne­go­ti­a­tions the im­pe­tus of gain must not be lost. “I know that when I was brought here…” Stella could not re­mem­ber who had brought her in to Fair­mount Manor — A doc­tor? A neigh­bour? —so she hur­ried past that part. “…I was not my­self. I was ill, you know, with all the dif­fi­cul­ties in ori­en­ta­tion that ill­ness brings…” Here, a chuckle. “… to an old lady. But, I’m feel­ing quite my­self, now…” She trailed off. Mrs War­ren was shak­ing her head. She said, “Mrs Ry­man, five min­utes ago you were sit­ting at my desk as if you be­lieved it to be your own.”

Stella thought hard, but be­fore she could come up with any sort of rea­son­able re­ply, Mrs War­ren went on.

“And, Mrs Ry­man, you checked your­self in. You begged to be ad­mit­ted, as a mat­ter of fact. Let me tell you, Mrs Ry­man, ex­actly what you told me. “Let us start with the in­ci­dent where you set your house on fire.” Stella’s only thought made a cir­cle in her mind: Oh.

Twenty-one

Walk­ing back from the of­fice, Stella re­al­ized gloomily that she felt the ap­proach­ing din­ner hour not in her belly, but in a sort of rhythm she must have picked up un­con­sciously dur­ing the last

three months at Fair­mount. This rhythm prompted her to think, “Now it’s time for some­thing.” And the day had been drag­ging on long enough to know that some­thing must be sup­per.

Burn­ing with em­bar­rass­ment and shame at learn­ing what state she’d been in upon her ar­rival here at Fair­mount, Stella shuf­fled along the hall­way. She tried not to think about the things Mrs War­ren had told her—how Stella had left a box of tis­sues on her kitchen stove­top to burst into flame, and how she had wept while she pled with Mrs War­ren for ad­mit­tance to Fair­mount Manor.

Stella rounded the cor­ner into Cor­ri­dor Park. In the row of chairs to her left, the Greek Cho­rus sewed as hard as Odysseus’s wife Pene­lope in the day­light hours, be­fore she ripped her ta­pes­try to pieces at night in or­der to avoid re­mar­ry­ing. Smart girl, that Pene­lope. Smarter than Stella with her former lodger, all those years ago.

Stella gri­maced. There was another thing she hated to think about: her long-ago lodger.

Iolan­the looked up from her fan­cy­work. “Stella, dear, you make ev­ery­body ner­vous, run­ning around like a teenager all the time.” “Sit down and give us all a rest,” Lu­cille added. The Nod­der nod­ded. She pulled her small scis­sors from the pocket of her fleece vest and snipped Iolan­the’s threads for her.

“Won’t you sit down with us?” Iolan­the said, and no­body could have phrased the in­vi­ta­tion more pleas­antly than she. Her face was pleas­ant and her tone was sweet, so why was it that ev­ery time

Iolan­the ad­dressed her, Stella al­ways felt she’d been pinged in the be­hind by Iolan­the’s crewel­work nee­dle?

“No, thank you.” She walked by the Greek Cho­rus. She thought about walk­ing on, out of Cor­ri­dor Park, never to re­turn. But what then? The Ac­tiv­i­ties Hall? Bridge four­somes? Healthy Move­ment? Never. So it was this, or her room.

She sat her­self down in her own chair un­der the sky­light. Be­side her Thelma slumped, as she so of­ten did, with the tip of her cane be­tween her Chi­nese silk slip­pers, her feet flat on the floor.

Stella asked, “Do you mind if I in­vade your pri­vacy?” She meant to sound jokey and even friendly, but the words hung in the air be­tween her chair and Thelma’s. “Why should I mind?” Thelma asked. “You smell all right, so far.” Stella rolled her eyes and tried not to laugh out loud. Nee­dles dart­ing away on one side of the cor­ri­dor, per­sonal re­marks on the other. Stella sighed as Thelma’s cane moved over and some­how got in a tan­gle with Stella’s an­kles. Stella got the cane sorted out just as the tone sounded for din­ner.

The din­ner tone! Stella had come to un­der­stand that it sig­naled the Nod­der’s great mo­ment of the day. For now, round the cor­ner clos­est to Iolan­the and far­thest from Stella he walked: Theo, with his up­right pos­ture and ex­cel­lent hair. He was wear­ing a sweater in a shade of pale lemon that told Stella that a woman had picked it out for him. Know­ing how women shopped, she thought he prob­a­bly owned a sec­ond one as well, of iden­ti­cal styling but in sky blue or mint green. The yel­low suited him, though.

As Theo walked slowly to­wards Greek Cho­rus, the Nod­der tucked her lit­tle scis­sors into her pocket and sat up in a pos­ture of calm an­tic­i­pa­tion. Stella nod­ded to her­self.

Dig­nity. Con­sid­er­a­tion. Theo rep­re­sented both these virtues in a place where Stella was not even al­lowed to bathe her­self with­out su­per­vi­sion.

In a mo­ment he would of­fer the Nod­der his arm and take her down to lunch.

That lemon yel­low sweater of his brought to mind her high school years, and a clique of hand­some boys from the rugby team who wore shirts and sweaters in Easter Egg tones — aqua and lemon, mint green and sky blue. She had liked the look of the boy who wore aqua. She couldn’t re­call his name, but she did re­mem­ber the way he walked right past her in the school cor­ri­dor, head­ing for another girl, just as Theo was ap­proach­ing the Nod­der now.

And that was fine with Stella. There came a time when you no longer cared whether you were the cho­sen girl, and maybe that was how you knew you had grown up to be a self-suf­fi­cient woman. Or maybe not. Maybe you just got used to not be­ing cho­sen and con­vinced your­self, through steady rep­e­ti­tion, that you didn’t care.

Stella didn’t care. At eighty-two she was so evolved that she would once again sim­ply ad­mire the com­po­sure with which Theo of­fered the Nod­der his arm. And although it was im­pos­si­ble to like the Nod­der, Stella al­ways got a kick from the plea­sure with which the Nod­der took Theo’s arm. It might well be the clos­est that the woman got to hap­pi­ness these days. Stella had to ad­mit, de­spite

her aver­sion to the Nod­der, that she ap­pre­ci­ated the mod­est way in which the Nod­der cast down her gaze each time she ac­cepted Theo’s arm. And ev­ery time she watched the ex­change of cour­te­sies, Stella liked Theo a lit­tle bit more.

Iolan­the and Lu­cille tucked their sewing away un­der their seats. The Nod­der sat up straight and ready.

“I’m blind, you know,” Thelma mut­tered. “You’d think that once he’d of­fer to take me to din­ner.”

“Ol­lie or another care worker al­ways comes by for you,” Stella said. She shifted un­com­fort­ably. “But I’ll take you to din­ner if you like.”

“Don’t bother your­self,” Thelma an­swered, bat­ting about with her cane and catch­ing Stella be­tween the an­kles.

But, now Theo walked past the Greek Cho­rus — past the Nod­der! —and stopped in front of Stella. She looked up into his wa­tery blue gaze and felt sud­denly fool­ish and very el­derly. Theo of­fered Stella his arm. “No, re­ally,” Stella said awk­wardly. “I’m per­fectly all right.” As if she hadn’t spo­ken, he stood, gaz­ing down at her. His calm told her that he had all the time in the world. Stella hes­i­tated, un­tan­gled her­self from Thelma’s cane and stood. She took his arm. To­gether they walked to­wards the far end of Cor­ri­dor Park.

But be­fore they’d taken five steps in the di­rec­tion of the din­ing room, it seemed to Stella that a black cloud was de­scend­ing from the ceil­ing. It drifted along the cor­ri­dor and set­tled over the Nod­der.

Stella gave a men­tal shrug. She was en­joy­ing the feel of her arm looped through Theo’s. The Nod­der, for once, could do with­out — the ex­pe­ri­ence might even im­prove her. Stella looked up at Theo. “This is very kind of you,” she said. Theo didn’t an­swer. They shuf­fled down few steps fur­ther along the cor­ri­dor. But, along with the pleas­ant, al­most-for­got­ten sen­sa­tion of re­ceiv­ing spe­cial at­ten­tion from the most at­trac­tive man around, no mat­ter how tac­i­turn and wa­tery-eyed, Stella felt a sud­den spir­i­tual discomfort. She tried to ig­nore it, but Guilt will have its lit­tle say. Shut up, she told Guilt. Still, she couldn’t help look­ing back along Cor­ri­dor Park be­tween the next two steps. The Nod­der’s gaze met hers, and Stella was re­minded again of the girl she’d been in high school, stand­ing with her back against her locker, watch­ing the boy in the aqua cardi­gan go by, hold­ing a pret­tier girl’s hand.

She looked back again. The Nod­der stared af­ter them, her eyes dark in her closed-up face.

Am I a high school girl? Stella won­dered. Or, more re­al­is­ti­cally, is there still a high school girl in­side me some­where?

Plac­ing her free hand on his lemon-coloured sleeve, Stella stopped Theo be­fore they rounded the cor­ner. “You have to go back for her, Theo…” When he looped her arm back through his, Stella turned them both around. She led him all the way back into Cor­ri­dor Park. There, she handed him over to the Nod­der.

The two of them walked off. Stella sat down sud­denly. Such an

ex­pen­di­ture of good­will had ap­par­ently ex­hausted her.

“I guess you think you’re some kind of hero now,” Thelma said, tap­ping her cane on the floor.

Stella sat down be­side her. “I don’t know why I keep think­ing you’re blind, Thelma.”

“Would they make me carry this damned cane ev­ery­where I go if I wasn’t?”

Stella’s stom­ach rum­bled. She and Thelma were alone in the cor­ri­dor now, and the smell of wet pasta drifted down upon them from the din­ing room. Some­body must have got­ten a deal on fusilli, Stella thought. This was the sec­ond day in a row. Or maybe the third.

“The Chi­nese in­vented pasta,” Stella said. “I think it came to Europe via Venice.” Thelma said, “We should have left well enough alone.” One beat later, Stella said, “If any­body ever lis­tened to us, they would think we’re just a cou­ple of old grouches.”

“Ev­ery­body’s grouchy at Fair­mount Manor,” Thelma said. “Tell who­ever’s lis­ten­ing, you’d be cranky, too.”

“We’re all cranky be­cause noth­ing ever changes,” Stella said. But this state­ment turned out to be un­true. For, once on her feet, she as­ton­ished her­self by of­fer­ing her arm to Thelma.

And, flab­ber­gast­ingly, Thelma took it. To­gether, the two women shuf­fled and clat­tered out of Cor­ri­dor Park. They were al­ready late for lunch.

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