I must have passed out on the bed because I awoke with a chill and no covers. I fumbled for the nightstand lamp and knocked the electric clock to the floor. After flicking on the small luminary, I picked up the clock and through blurred eyes saw that it was nearly 7:30 a.m. I ached from the cold and my head felt like a bubble about to float away, and I had a desire for a big cup of hot coffee that was too strong to ignore. I stumbled toward the shower, removing my gown as I went. When I reached to turn on the water as hot as I could, I noticed that Aunt Liv's ring was gone from my hand. "Where could it be?" Chilled as I was, in the buff, I hurried back to the bed and tore it apart searching. I could have sworn I put it on my hand. "Oh, well. I'll have Maricela look more closely later," I said, muttering aloud, "I really must quit this irritating habit I'm getting into of talking to myself. Humph!" Still feeling uneasy about the ring's disappearance, I took the journal from under the mattress into the bathroom with me along with some clothes I grabbed from the closet. After carefully locking the door and testing it, I climbed into a steaming shower.
The hot, piercing beads not only warmed my body, but also helped settle the bubble more firmly on my shoulders. This having been accomplished I felt more in control and able to initiate my quest for coffee. Slipping into my slightly worn, but comfortable, blue jeans gave me an at home feeling, just what I needed for the kitchen. I wasn't sure what kind of reception I would receive since servants can tend to be territorially protective, but one thing I was sure of was that I wouldn't find any of the rest of the family there. I just couldn't feature Sarah or her offspring encroaching on the servants' domain. Well, I wasn't like any of them. I was raised with a much more liberal view of servants and quite prepared to make friends – if they'd have me. "After all, I'm just as good as they are!" I concluded. I arranged a few hairs and applied my lipstick after pulling on the sloppy, blue cowl-collared pullover from home. One look in the mirrors and I was ready, but what to do with the journal? I didn’t know why I felt uneasy about leaving in my room, but after the disappearance of Aunt Liv’s ring I just didn’t want to leave it there unprotected.
I decided to have another go at the fascinating closet behind the tapestry and sure enough I found the latch. The big door swung open without a sound, but as I looked around for a satisfactory hiding place, something occurred to me. How many people besides Maricela knew about the closet? She admitted to being new in the role of ladies maid, so others before her had to have known. Gardner had obviously been a long-time family domestic for many years. And then someone has to clean, make household repairs, and so forth. No, this wasn't the best place. Then I remembered an old saying of my dad's – "Hide in plain sight" – and where else should a book hide than with others of its own kind.
I grabbed a dark brown cape from the coat section to conceal the journal on my way down to the library. Coming down the great staircase I thought I saw a shadowy movement in the study. I heard a slight scraping noise as I approached the slightly gaping door, but when I pushed it open there was no one. Walking slowly around the room, I found it hard to shake the feeling that I was being watched. "Ridiculous," I said and mentally berated myself for my foolishness. Just then I noticed a rather sizable walnut bookcase crammed full of old books of all sizes and thought how conveniently located it was. I wouldn't have to wander through the house searching for the library after all.
I had just slid my little volume in behind them when something else grabbed my attention. On the hardwood floor next to the bookcase, ashes from the fireplace were scuffed and partially tracked over to the huge wooden desk, but I didn't have time to think about it then. The cleaning crews were already spreading out across the lower floor in preparation of the family's appearance. While they moved about as silently as they could, there was still the unmistakable noise of brooms, dustpans, vacuums and other apparatus. Rather than be discovered there by a curious servant, I decided to move on in my search for the perfect cup of coffee.
Since the kitchen had to be in the back of the house and directly connected with the formal dining room, I kept moving in that general direction, starting first with the drawing room. A grandmother clock in the far corner struck eight just as I pushed open the big dining room doors and startled an attractive young woman in the same kind of table maid's uniform as was worn the previous night. She bore a striking resemblance to Maricela, but a little older and much fairer.
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to frighten you, ah . . ."
"I am Esmeralda, Miss."
"Thank you. Is the kitchen this way, Esmeralda?" I said with a sweeping hand gesture in the direction of the door from which all that scrumptious food had flowed in wave after wave of culinary excellence. As I started through the door, I heard her draw in her breath, but I fearlessly pushed forward. Soon the aroma of hot, strong coffee wafted over my nostrils and carried me along through a long pantry and a swinging door at the end. When I stepped into the vast, old-fashioned kitchen, all activity came to a dead halt. Undaunted, I put on my best smile and marched right over to the not-so-old-fashioned coffee maker and chose a mug from a nearby selection. The steaming brew warmed me thoroughly and the former bubble began to resume it's rightful place as my head.
As I sipped, I looked around the room until I found the most obvious choice for the cook, a rotund little woman peeling potatoes. "Good morning. I'm Val Hansen."
"Yes, Miss," she answered nervously.
"I wanted to tell you what a fantastic meal that was last night. I've never tasted anything so . . . out of this world!" Something in the look on her face told me that I'd made a big mistake and a movement from the distant corner told me that I was right. The person responsible came quickly into view and was none other than the walking mountain from the plane. His attire, from white puffy hat to sharply creased white uniform, testified that he was unmistakably the chef.
"May I be of assistance, Miss Hansen?" his resonant bass voice asked. "We were not yet prepared to serve the family, but will adjust to whatever hours you choose to set."
I felt ashamed of myself for intruding unannounced on their schedule. Seeing my embarrassment he successfully set about making me feel comfortable. "And thank you for your compliment." As he reached for the coffeepot to warm my cup and fill his own, everyone in the room seemed to breathe a deep sigh of relief. He led me to a small table in the corner where he had evidently been planning the menus and timetables for meal preparation and service. Pushing the papers to one side, he offered me a chair and took the opposite one. "Now that we're away from the rest, so to speak, we can talk."
"You were on the plane watching me," I said as resentment began to replace the embarrassment.
"It's time for an explanation, I guess. My name is Aloysius, Luke if you please, Merriweather and yes, I was watching you. In fact, I've been watching you for about a year." The beer, frosted mug, and peignoir all started to make sense. A flush filled my face as I realized something else.
"How well were you watching?" He immediately realized the implication of my question and his tanned complexion took on a definite reddish hue. His blue eyes opened wide with surprise and the deep voice stammered, "Oh, not that well! Let me explain as much as I can. A little over a year ago, Hugo came to me at my home nearby. We'd been friends since I was a kid, and my father having passed away, Hugo became sort of a second father to me. He had some crazy notion that someone was trying to kill him. He was sure that it had to be for the estate."
"He suspected me?"
"No, no, but you as an heir might be in danger. Fortunately on that count he was wrong. My job was to protect you if the need should arise and . . ." His face reddened a little once more. "And find out all your likes and dislikes."
The full impact began to set in and I was furious. "You were in my apartment! You must have gone through everything I own taking notes! The perfume, the clothes, even my under . . ." I drew in my breath sharply. "No wonder everything fit so perfectly! How could you!"
"Shhh! Keep your voice down!" he warned. “I am sorry, but Hugo wanted everything, right down to the honey pot in the kitchen." Then indignantly he added, "And yes, I took notes and photographs for him. Don't tell me you haven't enjoyed the rewards of that deception. By the way, the peignoir was my idea. I saw you admire it week after week and knew from the way you lived that you'd never buy it for yourself."
I was beginning to forgive him. I could see him as a . . . small(?) boy and the devotion he must have felt for Uncle Hugo. And he was right – I never would have bought it for myself.
"Okay, a truce. Then it must have been you that sent the peppermint tea and honey to my room last night?"
"Peppermint? No! Rosehips with honey and lemon just the way you like it." He paused with a puzzled look, his brows deepening, and his voice took on a concerned tone, "Tell me – how did you feel after you drank it?"
"Tired. Terribly tired. In fact, I must have passed out after all the alcohol and food served last night." I brought him up to date from my waking, to the coffee compulsion, to the need for a refill.
"Sure, just a minute," he said as he arose. Before he left the table, he leaned over and conspiratorially whispered, "Don't eat or drink anything from now on – unless everyone is having it. Hugo may not have been so crazy after all."
I enjoyed the following cups of coffee while listening to stories of his boyhood. He told me about the fishing trips out into the bay in all kinds of weather and the skill with which Uncle Hugo handled a boat. I learned of Hugo's early morning rowing excursions, especially in inclement conditions to keep testing his skill and strength. I began to get a picture of him as an aging man's man, afraid to admit he was finally facing the old overstuffed arm chair till the end of his days. One thing was especially clear though. Luke loved him.
The kitchen clatter was beginning to move out through the pantry door. I looked at my watch. It was going on 9:30. "Better hurry for brunch, but I wouldn't let the rest of your family see you coming in by way of the kitchen. Things have been hard enough around here without asking for more static."
"Well, then, we won't," and I started for a Dutch door at the back of the kitchen. "Besides, the day looks like it's off to a great start." I was aware of a certain exhilaration. "A brisk seaside walk will do me good!" Out the half-open door I went before he could say anything more. About three city blocks (it's the only way I could measure distance) from the well-manicured yard was a sandy beach, glistening in the mid-morning sun. I stood on a slight rise and looked back at the house. The shining sandstone exterior made it look like a shimmering, fairy tale castle about to disappear. I would awake back in New Jersey from a strange dream, but the dream wasn't over yet.
I was about to turn and step off the rise when I tripped over something just beyond the edge and rolled down to the beach below along with whatever it was. As I pulled myself to my feet and brushed back my sand filled hair, I saw the object in question. It was Uncle Joseph.
I screamed like I'd never screamed before and almost instantly Luke was there, holding me and smothering my screams into his chest. "I saw you fall over the rise and thought something had happened to you!"
"No, but something has happened to him," I said with a quaking voice as I pointed to the lifeless mass.
"Go! Go quickly back to the house. Use the French doors on the patio to the right of the kitchen. You'll be in the dining room. Get a cup of coffee from the buffet and compose yourself." There seemed to be urgency in his voice as he snapped out the orders.
"All right. But what about him?"
"I'll take care of everything," he said as he pushed me in the direction of the house. "Whatever you do, don't say anything of this to anyone!"