as I came to the top of the broad staircase, it was immediately
obvious which room Miranda meant. I opened the door to the
left of the head of the stairs and entered a dark chamber
that smelled of pipe tobacco. It was an austere room that
I would have taken for a man's study, except for the single
bed under the draped window. Aside from the bed, the room
contained a small. dark writing desk that looked like it was
made of mahoganny, a matching chair, a tall bookshelf, and
a dresser with three drawers. There was only one closet. When
I opened it, I found it empty except for a step stool, a scattering
of boxes on the floor, and, high overhead on a shelf that
I knew I could barely reach even with the step stool, a cigar
box and a pile of notebooks that looked like journals of some
I was curious about the contents of both boxes and journals
and considered having a quick look in the boxes before clambering
up on the stool to reach the cigar box. However, I reminded
myself that Anita and Miranda were waiting for me, so I bridles
my curiosity about the boxes, pulled out the step stool, opened
it, and placed it strategically so I could reach the cigar
box. I'd managed to get up on the third and highest step of
the stool and was stretching to reach the cigar box, when
I heard an angry yell.
"Hey, what the hell do you think you are doing? Get out
of my father's closet!"
I almost fell off the stool but managed to grab the cigar
box and make my way down to floor level before turning to
face the source of the yell. It was Ellen.
"Your mother asked me to retrieve this box of old pens
for her," I said as calmly as my rapid heartbeat allowed.
"You startled me."
"You shouldn't have been in there. You have no right
She has no right
" Ellen sat down hard on the bed
and looked as if she was about to burst into tears.
I sat down on the desk chair so as not to be towering over
her. When she'd collected herself, I smiled are reassuringly
as I could. "Why don't you tell me what's wrong?"
I offered and immediately wished I hadn't.
"Why?" she demanded. "Why should I tell you
anything? I know you think I'm a bad mother and probably a
bad person too.
"Joanna told me you don't approve of how I'm raising
I shook my head. "I was concerned when we found Anita
alone in the store, but I can see that you have a good support
network," I tried to placate her.
"And you think I'm stupid too for staying with my husband,"
she went on as if I hadn't spoken. "Well, just because
my mother rejected my father doesn't mean I have to follow
in her footsteps!"
I had the feeling I was hearing more than I wanted to, but
Ellen was not to be stopped.
"Do you think he wanted to move in here? No, but she
kicked him out, just because she found out about Brenda. Well,
Brenda wasn't the real reason, she just wanted him under her
thumb, and he wouldn't bend."
Ellen grimaced. "I liked Brenda, but mother said that
if there was one, there'd be others. Well, if there were others,
it was her fault. She drove him to them with her stupid illness
and her demands."
I tapped on the cigar box, wishing I could get downstairs
to Anita and Miranda. But I couldn't just get up and walk
out. After all, I'd offered to listen to Ellen.
"Everyone talks about dad's accident," she went
on in a teary voice. "Well, he was a great driver. He
could drive eighty on a wet, dirt road and not even spatter
his windshield. There is no way he'd have hit a tree on a
perfectly clear, summer afternoon. His accident was no accident.
He'd just had enough."
I stopped tapping and cleared my throat loudly. Ellen looked
over at me.
"Ellen," I said softly, "do you really believe
that your father killed himself?"
She nodded. "And I'm afraid that if mother makes me leave
Kevin, he'll kill himself too. Or someone else."
I was in water over my head and didn't know what to say.
"Mrs. Privett is right, you know, even if she does quote
the Bible so much that I sometimes have to tune her out. You
shouldn't judge people unless you know the whole story, which
you didn't did you?"
Though I knew the biblical injunction against judging others
did not include a rider about knowledge of the whole story,
I had no impulse to correct Ellen's error. It seemed to me
she needed help, counseling certainly and maybe even more
than that, though I had no idea what extra assistance might
be advisable. A restraining order sounded like a possibility
if her husband was threatening harm to her. Of course, she
had said "others," but I was sure he had threatened
to kill her. And maybe little Needles. In my mind's eye I
saw headlines about a double murder.
"Ellen, if you really fear that Kevin might be a danger
to himself or others, you really ought to tell someone and
make sure he gets help," I said as calmly as I could.
She waved her hand at my suggestion. "He won't hurt anyone
as long as I don't leave him," she said with an assurance
that seemed foolhardy to me. "I'm keeping him together."
I shook my head, but she was unmoved. "I know my husband,"
she said firmly. "He loves me and he loves Anita."
"And he loves Susie," I said before I had a chance
to stop myself, "and who knows how many other women?"
She clenched her teeth and shook her head. "Susie is
a convenience for when he's away from home. She can travel
to meet him."
"Susie doesn't work?" I asked, wishing I'd had enough
self-control not to.
"Susie is self-employed," she replied. "I don't
know what she does to support herself, and I don't care. She
mans nothing to me and little to Kevin."
"So you have no fear that he's planning to take what
little money you and he have, sell the store out from under
you, and go off to live with her?"
She snorted. "Don't be ridiculous."
"Then why the withdrawals of funds from you account?"
I pressed her.
"He sometimes needs money," she said, looking pained.
"He isn't a spendthrift, but he isn't cheap either."
"Okay," I said, "you know him and I don't.
But I do hope you're keeping your eyes open and not indulging
in wishful thinking."
She glared at me for a minute, trying to stare me down, I
think. Then she stood up and left the room. I waiting for
a couple of seconds until I heard a door close and then I
too left the room and went back down the grand staircase.
"It certainly took you long enough," Miranda complained
as I entered, bearing the cigar box. "Couldn't you find
"I found it quickly enough," I replied, wondering
if I should recount my conversation with Ellen in any detail.
"Ellen came in and confronted me as soon as I'd gotten
my hands on the box. We had a brief conversation."
"I can just imagine," Miranda said in an uninterested
I looked over at Anita who seemed oddly quiet. She looked
"Are you all right?" I asked her.
She smiled. "Just lost in thought for a moment,"
she replied. I sensed that she wanted to say more but wasn't.
I didn't know why. I hoped it was because she finally was
as eager to be on our way to Stew as I was. Better not to
get involved in these people's troubles and conflicts. I went
over to Miranda with the box."
"Give it to her," Miranda ordered me, pointing at
Anita. "She's the one who wanted to see it."
Anita took the box from my hand and settled it carefully in
her lap. I stood poised to look into it as soon as she got
it open. The lid had settled a little, and she had to pry
it open with a fingernail. She did, and a big grin covered
her face when she saw the contents.
"Red ripples," she said. "There must be at
least a dozen of them."
I reached in and extracted the top two pens from the pile.
The larger was a Waterman #7 with a gray nib. "Not bad,"
I said. "I wonder if it needs repair or just resaccing."
The other pen was a Waterman 52 with a nib that looked like
a stub. "I didn't think they stubbed these things,"
I said to Anita, showing her the nib.
"It doesn't look like a factory stub," she replied,
closing one eye to squint at it with the other. "My loupe
is out in the car. I didn't expect to be looking at pens in
Miranda cleared her throat. "What have your two found
in that box?" she inquired. She was trying. I thought,
to sound cheerful and unconcerned, but her voice was strained.
I wondered if she'd been hoping for something of great financial
value in the box. If so, she'd probably be disappointed. Unless
there as a rare pen in there, the bunch would bring her a
nice sum but nothing earth-shaking.
Anita cleared her throat. "We have found a number of
Waterman pens in the red ripple finish. You might want to
get Mr. Diamant to come and look at them. He'd be able to
tell you what they were worth and how you might sell them,
if that's what you had a mind to do. They seem to be in good
enough shape. I'm sure they all need new sacs though."
Miranda sighed. "I really don't want to impose on Morris.
Besides, he's looking after Anita. He can't bring her here
if she's ill. She should be kept safely in bed in a darkened
I could tell she was worried about her granddaughter even
though she'd lived much of her life before the vaccine for
measles was discovered. The disease was not likely to harm
Needles, but I though I saw my chance to ask if she knew why
the child hadn't been vaccinated.
"I was surprised to learn that Needles, excuse me, I
mean Anita, had contracted measles. I thought all children
were vaccinated against the disease these days," I said
as casually as I could.
"Kevin doesn't approve of most vaccinations," Miranda
informed me. "He says that children should be exposed
to the common childhood diseases he was exposed to."
She sniffed disdainfully. "A perfectly ridiculous opinion
by a completely ridiculous man."
To my surprise I heard Ellen's voice. She'd obviously entered
the room while we were gawking at the pens. "Kevin is
not ridiculous, mother. He has a right to his beliefs. And
Anita is his daughter, not yours."
Miranda just sniffed. "Sit down, Ellen," she commanded.
Her daughter complied. "These kind people are looking
at those old pens your father left in the cigar box. You know,
the smelly, old, rubber things. With the red and black patterns."
Ellen rolled her eyes. "Daddy loved those pens, mother.
I wish you wouldn't describe them that way."
"You father loved many things. And people," Miranda
interjected. "Few of them were worth anything at all,
as you well know. Except Morris, of course. But then he inherited
Morris, so to speak, from your grandfather."
"Daddy loved me," Ellen protested.
"Well, he had a funny way of showing it, deserting us
for that woman," Miranda grumbled.
"He didn't desert us!" Ellen squeaked. "You
drove him away."
Anita cleared her throat loudly. Then she said, "I think
you should continue this discussion in private. However, if
you are not willing to have Mr. Diamant examine the pens,
I'd be glad to do so."
I knew it! We were going to be stuck here all day. I gave
Anita the evil eye, but she just smiled back at me with a
twinkle in her eye.
"There's a Waterman 58 in here, Bob," she said in
a conversational tone.
I stopped shooting daggers at her with my eyes and felt a
grin spread over my face. Anita had found her holy grail.