The Christmas rain persisted long enough to drench the grounds and leave the magnolias and oaks dripping, but when I awoke on the 26th, the chill was gone and the air, moist and scented with damp from nearby Nancy Creek, hung warm and unnatural.
The office, which I had to keep open until noon on Sundays, should be quiet. (I say that every day, don’t I?) As soon as possible I wanted to begin the sorting at Abigail’s. This time, I would be looking for traces of Kevin. A crush. I laughed. No, I giggled. You’d better keep this to yourself, Nora, you goof.
But when I reached the model, I found Judith waiting for me.
Her big eyes, which had been so round and encouraging, so soft, were now quite steely. The bit of sadness I’d thought reflected an understanding of human nature was gone. She seemed angry. Had she found something amiss in the office? Had I left the coffee on? The vacuum plugged in? Rented to another messy victim?
Judith had a way, a helpful way, of eying me without seeming to and either nodding or faintly sighing. She was always impeccable. I wanted to be impeccable. I never would be, but I tried. I’d stopped mixing sportswear with office polyester. At her instigation I had traded my three homemade jumpers (too Mary Hartmann) for gabardine circle skirts and coordinating sweaters and leather boots. Today, I wore “dress” jeans. Was it my clothes that made her look at me as if I smelled?
But then she smiled and everything changed. The Judith I counted on and looked up to was back and we could all be safe again.
“The office looks great,” she said. “You’ve been working very hard.”
She’d been told about Abigail, she said. George had reached her at Big Canoe with the news. She had cut her vacation short and hurried home.
“I just can’t imagine what you’ve been through,” she said. “Do you even know how stressful these last days must have been for you?”
Why, no. I wasn’t in the habit of knowing how stressful things were for me. I was just doing my job, I said. I was just plowing on. That sounds brave, but the fact was I had my head too far up my ass most of the time to know how anything affected me.
Judith didn’t want the gory details, though I would have loved to tell her about Abigail’s waxy skin and the thundering of police feet in my head.
“I don’t want you overdoing it,” she said. “You need a day to just be. Just be quiet and relax.”
“I could get started on Abigail’s apartment,” I said. “I promised her sister to start packing it up.”
“She’s paying me,” I assured her. “I was going to start tonight.”
“That was kind of you, Nora. But I wish you had thought it through. Does this seem appropriate to you? Under the circumstances?”
She leaned back and looked at me as if wondering why she’d hired such a dolt.
“You mean, because—“I faltered, “of the police?”
“No, I mean because you work here. It’s so easy to get over-involved, Nora. And then find yourself in an awkward situation. I don’t think you understand that you are affected by this and need to pull back and take care of yourself.”
“I’m just trying to be helpful.”
“I know, but you don’t have to be. You can be helpful here. You can be helpful to yourself.”
She wanted to send me back to my own townhouse to listen to music and bake cookies. Or go shopping, she said. Then she handed me an envelope with $50 in it. George wanted me to have it.
“It’s a Christmas bonus, which, believe me, they do not give to every one. I’ve never gotten one. But George thinks you deserve something for your performance over the last few days.” She shook her head and shuddered. “I would take this money,” she said, her voice soft and motherly, “and spend every penny.” She laughed. “Get a new outfit,” she said. “Because you’re going to need it.”
For the funeral, I wondered.
“Because I’m sending you to Buford Highway tomorrow.” She made it sound like the world’s treat. “Ken’s as impressed as George. Of course, I’m not a bit surprised. I knew who I hired, but they didn’t think you had it in you to run a complex alone.”
She let this sink in. Sure enough, my Irish temper swelled. Momentarily.
“Ken wants to see you work with Barbara. Their girl has been talking about going back to school and he’s trying to work something out. It could be that you can work part time over there and part time here.”
“But what about my role here?”
“Once we’re fully leased here and Ken’s overseeing both properties, he’s not going to need two full-time people. But he might be able to use you on both complexes. Plus, he’s already looking for more property and I want you around for that.”
“That’s between us. Don’t say anything to the Buford girls.”
“I won’t. When do I need to go?”
“They definitely want you all day tomorrow, but if you really want to make an impression, I’d go this afternoon. Go to Lenox Square or Phipps. Buy a nice outfit, then take Lenox Road back. On the way, make a left on Buford Highway and go about two miles. The complex is on the right. Walk the property. Drop in for a visit. You can find out what they want, get some of the floor plans. That way they won’t be able to dump you in the file room and forget about you.”
“Should I mystery shop?” I asked.
She shook her head. “God, no, they’d think we were spying.” She smiled at me, widening her eyes, but with the wicked gleam that charmed Tim and all the other men on the complex. “Of course, we are going to spy on them, but they don’t need to know it.”
Nothing else could have gotten me there with so much enthusiasm. Office espionage would be much more fun than cleaning Abigail’s kitchen.