Thursday, February 25, 2010

Dangerous Book - Episode 31

Episode 31

Wednesday, May 9

Several days later, as I was on my knees in the garden, Professor S. lowered himself to the ground beside me.

“She’s just left,” he whispered.

“What are you talking about?”

“Veronica. She’s gone over to the church with Elizabeth. I just saw them.”

“I didn’t.”

“They went out the back,” said. “Come on. I want to search her place.”

“No way.”

“Don’t be weak. I’ve got the key. I just want you to watch from the back window so we can see when they leave the church.”

“Where did you get her key?”

“She leaves it under the radiator in the hall.”

So he’d found it, too.

If Veronica’s apartment could speak, I think it would croak with irritation. A grass green couch sat too close to a cherry red upholstered chair. A brown braid rug swam like a dusty boat, too small to reach either piece. Her walls were a harsh rental white and nothing—no paintings, posters or shelves—had been added to soften them. Next to a maple rocker stood a low bookshelf upon which sat some cheap ornaments, too small for the bony lamp next to them. I honed in on the books.

Professor S. headed for the kitchen, but stopped at the dining room table, distracted. He picked something up and turned to me.

“Isn’t this yours?”

I glanced up from my examination of a copy of Gone with the Wind, which to my amazement, proved to be a first edition. She and Phoebe might have bought them together. Very little could have distracted me from this find, but what dangled from Professor Sargeant’s hand certainly did. My new charm bracelet.

“How on earth did it get here?”

“I’d say someone brought it. Didn’t you miss it?” He handed it to me.

“Sort of. I was looking for it last night, but got distracted. I hadn’t started searching for it. It must have been Veronica’s,” I said, taking it from him.

“Yeah, if she’s the one who took it from your apartment.”

“But she hasn’t been in my apartment.”

“How do you know?”

“Good question. God, she could have keys to everyone’s apartments.”

“Not mine. I installed new locks when I moved in. I take it you didn’t?”

I shrugged. I was careful about changing locks in the big city, but here? It hadn’t occurred to me. What had Veronica done? In searching for her bracelet, what else did she discover? This diary. My TV Guide? Did she pet the dog? Or simply dislodge the air? I counted the charms; there was nothing missing.

“Do you think Peter might have taken it?”

“That’s possible.”

Peter, as we know, has spent many hours in my apartment. Or has he? I thought about the time he and I have spent together. Most of the concentrated hours, if you will, have been spent in his place. He’s never spent the night or even had a meal. I said this. Professor S. nodded.

“It doesn’t take much time to put a small object in your pocket,” he said.

That was true. There were times when I’d been in the kitchen or bathroom. Last night I got a call from my mother, and she’d kept me talking for almost fifteen minutes. During that time, I’d wandered into my office leaving Peter alone on the couch, but he could have gone into the bathroom, just two steps from my bedroom. I generally left the jewelry I wore regularly on top of a bureau. The rest was in various boxes in the top drawer. I’m almost certain he’d seen me search for earrings.

“He was over last night. We had drinks and hung out.” Actually, he’d come to see Jacob and had swung by my place when Juniper barked her greetings from an open window. Seducing him to stay had been a bit of a challenge, but I’d succeeded and was still feeling very full of myself.

I pictured us on the living room sofa, snuggling low. The lights were on and the blinds open when I’d kissed him. He had pulled away, not quickly, and walked to the windows, closing the blinds with a movement that had been, in retrospect, very quick.

“I joked about his aunt passing by and seeing us,” I said, relating some of this to Prof. S.

“How did he take that?”

“Take what?”

“Joking about his aunt seeing you.”

A flip remark rose to my lips as I considered how to answer him.

“I think he was more interested in Billie or Allan not seeing us,” I said, restoring Veronica’s copy of Gone With the Wind to its place next to a cookbook. She did not appear to have any other first editions.

“Don’t you wonder why?” he demanded.

“No, I don’t,” I said. “Why shouldn’t he want some privacy? I would like some.” This wasn’t true. I wanted everyone to see us together.

“Privacy is one thing. Secrecy is something else. Keeping your relationship —”

We were just turning toward the small kitchen when Juniper started barking. We froze, looking at each other. Was it Veronica and Mrs. Moth back from Calvary already? Juniper continued her noise.

“Back door?” I hissed.

Prof. S. tried the doorknob but of course the dead bolt was thrown and the door would not open. It was the kind that required a key on both sides. Most people would have left a spare either in the deadbolt or close by. There was no key in sight. How were we to get out? I pivoted and crept as fast as I could to the front windows, trying to see if she and Mrs. Moth were standing out front. They were studying the professor’s garden, pointing to and examining its growth, or so it appeared. We might have some time if the light held or the plants fascinated. Juniper’s bark subsided. I opened the front door.

“Come on,” I whispered.


He’d been trying to open the deadbolt with keys from the set we’d found downstairs and had finally managed it.

“Meet you later,” I hissed, making a bold, if potentially stupid, run for the front door. My aim was to get out and at least be on the descent in case Veronica walked in. That way I could distract her and give Professor S. a chance to escape the back way.

It worked. Veronica was still engaged with Mrs. M. when I reached my own apartment. Juniper’s barking stopped abruptly as I scooped her into my arms. Whispering “Good dog” I realized I was still clutching the charm bracelet. I managed to hide it by sliding the hand that held it under Juniper, switching her to my right hand and cradling her under that arm. But I am not sure. Surely she could see how dilated my eyes were and hear how breathlessly I lied.

“I was just looking for you,” I said. “But now I can’t remember why.”

“Oh, you girls always want to borrow something.”

She insisted I follow her, which I readily did, and with every intention of returning the bracelet to its place. But where had Prof. S. found it?

Veronica led the way through the living room and into her kitchen.

“I’ll make us some tea,” she said. “Or coffee? I have instant.”

“Tea is great,” I said from the dining room. I bent down to release Juniper and, standing straight, dropped the bracelet on the dining room table. Chances are if it wasn’t where Professor S. had found it, Veronica would not remember moving it. Then I made a rash decision.

“How did this get up here?” I asked, rather ostentatiously walking into the kitchen with the bracelet dangling from two fingers. On my face, I’d slapped a quizzical look, half innocent, half conspiratorial. “This is the bracelet I dug up.”

Veronica, turning from the open refrigerator, one hand on the door, the other grasping a glass pitcher, blushed to the roots of her iron gray hair. For a second we stood as combatants, then, as she began to lose her grip on the tea, I reached forward and caught it. Together we placed it safely on the counter and my attempt at confrontation aborted. Or so I thought.

“Where did you get that?” She was stuttering with anger and confusion.

“On the dining room table,” I said.

“How dare you go through my things?”

“It was right there,” I snapped. “And I believe it’s mine.”

“No, it isn’t,” she said. “Give it to me right now.”

But I held it fast. “Veronica, I found it.”

“Finders keepers? That doesn’t matter. Do you think everything you find belongs to you?”

Actually I do, but clearly that wasn’t an appropriate or even a fair response. In the second it took me to think twice before answering her, I drew a breath. Taking a breath, counting to ten before speaking is wise advice. In those seconds much can be revealed. But only if you use the time to look around.

Veronica’s red face paled, her blue eyes watered. She too, breathed, and I could see the effort it took for her not to reach out and grab the trinket from my hand. Suddenly I felt very ashamed of myself and my actions. What kind of adventure did I think I was on? At my feet, Juniper snuffled. She had dragged a dingy white sock from somewhere and was toying with it. Wasn’t I doing the same with Veronica’s emotions? But looking at Juniper reminded me of Astible. If Veronica had poisoned the little dog, she deserved no consideration from me. (But what if she hadn’t?)

“Are you saying this is your bracelet?” I asked. My anger, rooted in fear, had dissipated. Hers had not.

“It…yes, it is mine. It was mine. It will be mine again, if you have any manners.”

Of course I had manners. But I also had a brain.

“If this is yours, why didn’t you say so when I dug it up? It was sitting right there.”

“I didn’t notice it until you wore it. By then you’d added your own charms, but when you told the other girls where you’d found it, I realized it was the one I lost.”

“When? When did you lose it?”

“I don’t know. I don’t know. When Beau… it must have been when he planted the azaleas. I just know it’s mine.”

When she reached out again I released it. The spell, such as it was, had been broken. As if to emphasize our return to normalcy, I heard Professor S.’s steps on the stairs.

“Nora? Are you up there? Someone here to see you.”

I almost laughed. Our Nancy Drew adventure had ended for the day. We still don’t know if Veronica poisoned Astible, either by accident (this seems improbable) or for reason of her own (also improbable) but at least I’d learned who owned the bracelet I’d uncovered.

How long had it lain there? Did the bead?

I stood looking at Veronica rubbing the baby head charm with her thumb, her lips moving slightly, as if in prayer, and then I turned and left. If she knew who owned the blue bead, I’d find out soon enough.

As I walked downstairs, not looking forward to reporting this scene to Professor S., she called to me.

“Here,” she said, handing me an envelope. Inside was the bracelet with my own charms still attached but not the baby head. Sadly, I cupped my new jewelry. I wanted the baby charm.

“Why did you take it from me?” I asked. “How did you even get it?”

“The locks haven’t been changed on that apartment in thirty years,” she said with a certain grimness. “I used to come and go every day. Here.”

When I held out my hand again, she placed in it the key to my apartment.

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