* * *
The days settled into a rhythm as Semple made good progress on Allith, Mountain Flower Dragoness. In the afternoon Miss H-V silently left tea and biscuits in the hall outside the aerie; entering the kitchen at mealtimes, on the table Semple found a single place laid, a carafe of wine and appetizing dishes—but no cook. Was Miss H-V trying to avoid him?
Once he lingered after lunch but she didn’t come to clean up or eat by herself. Semple decided to make a quick search the house for his mysterious employee. Invisible though Miss H-V might be, 3231 Wisteria Lane’s spic-and-span appearance attested to the young woman’s skill. How did she manage it? I’ve never heard the vacuum, the clothes washer or dryer or the sound of meals being prepared. No cosmetics, perfumes or scented soap occupied the lavatory counter.
Semple saved Miss H-V’s room for last. He rapped twice and listened but no answer came from within. Finding the door unlocked he pushed it open. Towels, sheets and pillowcase were stacked at the foot of the window-side bed, exactly where he’d placed them the evening before the housekeeper’s arrival. Casting propriety to the wind, he explored the dresser and nightstand drawers, which were empty. Clothes, shoes and luggage were absent from the closet.
The only item present in the otherwise immaculate space lay on the dresser. Unlike anything Semple had ever seen, it was crafted from a six-inch fragment of antler, polished and inlaid with gold. A curved silver pick was set into one end of the beautiful object. Uncertain what the thing was, he decided to call it a “backscratcher.”
Examining the backscratcher, Semple realized that what he’d taken to be a decorative inlay was actually something written in an unrecognizable script. A glance at his watch told him that his afternoon’s writing hours were slipping away. Returning the object to the dresser, Semple went to the aerie.
He turned on the computer, clicked on BBC Four and opened the manuscript. Coming to the end of the file, Semple’s eyes narrowed. He calculated the manuscript to be five pages longer than before!
Only one person could have done this but how the hell did Miss H-V know his login password? Semple dutifully changed his password at regular intervals, keeping a list of them hidden in the N-Z volume of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary.
Semple read the additional text before deleting it. He acknowledged that Miss H-V advanced the plot of Allith in a direction that hadn’t occurred to him. The young woman’s style and vocabulary so closely mirrored his that it was difficult to distinguish between them. After stabbing the Delete key Semple changed the login password.
He did not record the new password on the paper in the OED.
* * *
The phone alarm sounded at three o’clock, breaking in on the account of Lord Creswel’s plot to rob his widowed sister-in-law Lady Allith of her lands and treasure. Semple figured Miss H-V would be preparing dinner, and he was determined to have things out with her.
He went downstairs, avoiding the creaky fifth tread from the bottom. Entering the kitchen Semple saw the housekeeper at the counter, facing away from him and dicing vegetables on a white plastic chopping board. An enticing aroma issued from the oven. Miss H-V was wearing her starry blouse and long green skirt. She spoke without turning around or pausing in her task.
“Must you interrupt me, Mr. Semple? What is it you want?”
Semple’s dammed-up anger and frustration broke forth. “What I want to know is how you found the house key; why you seem to never be around; why none of your belongings are in your room or the lav, save for that backscratcher; and most of all, what gave you the right to touch my novel!”
Once the verbal storm subsided the housekeeper faced her interrogator with a faint grin that showed in her blue eyes and freckles. “A backscratcher? What on earth are you talking about?”
“Never mind that: if I don’t get answers you risk being sacked.”
In a matter-of-fact tone Miss H-V addressed each question in turn. “One: I found the key behind the fairy door. Two: where I go and what I do or do not keep in this house are none of your business. Three: if you leave I can get food on the table.”
Semple retired to the parlor, where he tried reading the evening newspaper. Throwing it aside after a couple fruitless minutes, he sat back and closed his eyes. Awakening an hour later he went to the empty kitchen, where the usual palate-delighting meal awaited him.
Digging into the steaming cassoulet Semple recounted his confrontation with Miss H-V. Why had he forgotten to call her to account for breaking into his computer, let alone adding hundreds of words to his manuscript? Shouldn’t he dismiss her?
Something else nagged at Semple. Rising after he had sopped up the last of the cassoulet gravy with a piece of bread, he caught a whiff of something. He knew the smell but its name eluded him.
[© 2018 Robert Edwin Stone, II]