I know, I know – a lot of talking and very little action – but that’s how these things go. Vinnie had cards up his sleeve and Jack had to pull them out one by one, without him noticing. That’s how Jack explained it, anyway.
My classes were all early the next day – I’d have scheduled them all for morning if I’d known how busy my afternoons were going to be! Mama did the baking herself while I was at school. The pies were ready and so was Mama by the time I got back.
This created a dilemma for Mama. She fully understood why we were meeting everyone in this particular building now but in Southern society, one does not snub the neighbors. Her preference was to go methodically through the building as we had been doing. But the person most of interest to us was on the third floor.
We compromised – I ‘accidentally’ hit the three when we got into the elevator. We started, as before, in the front. That tested my patience and my social graces to the max, let me tell you! The apartment I wanted to see was in the back. But we met each neighbor in turn: Mrs. Harrison, widowed; Mr. George Tyner, who insisted we call him George and was a widower; and then the Conners, Abigail and Herman who had us in for tea.
Down to the last pie before I would need to go back to the house for the rest, we knocked finally on number 304. The door opened a tiny slit.
“Hello,” Mama began, “I’m Evelyn Abernathy and this is my daughter Crystal. We’re new to the neighborhood and were just introducing ourselves.”
The door didn’t move and the hall became silent.
Mama wasn’t put off in the slightest, “I understand our ways are a bit different and I certainly hope we’ve not come at a bad time. However, it’s our custom to present a small token on such visits. Would it be alright to leave it out here? Perhaps we could come back at a time more convenient to you?”
“That would be okay. I’m not well today.” A male voice answered.
“Oh, I am so terribly sorry to have troubled you then. We’ll be going.”
I left the pie and its disposable carrier on the doorstep and followed Mama dutifully. She waited on the stoop while I ran home for the other four pies and we returned to the third floor. I peeked – Mama did not approve – and the carrier was gone. Chastened by a stern look from Mama, I followed her as we met the rest of the third floor denizens. The Vickers, Tom and Sally; the De La Vegas, Diego and Marci; Mr. Henry Kincaid and lastly for the day, Mrs. Elmore.
Should have known when I saw the name on the door. Thick accent, Georgia by the sound of it. Her nurse, Betty, saw us into her sickroom. Gladys Elmore was a tiny thing but the sagging around her face told of happier, healthier days. She received us warmly, chiding Mama gently that it was she who should have come to welcome us with a pie – and wistfully speaking of the days when her blueberry pies took blue ribbons at the fair.
Listening to them talk, it reminded me so much of home – of Mississippi – that for the first time I found myself homesick. This would be the first year that I wouldn’t go with the girls to pick muscadines and scuppernongs. I doubted I’d see the first spider lily peeking up through the sidewalks to announce the arrival of fall.
I got lost in my thoughts of home and almost missed it.
“He’s a bit of an odd one.” Mrs Elmore was saying, “I’ve seen him a few times on my good days, but he’s always hurrying to be somewhere or to get home. I’ll say this for him, he keeps an impeccable house.”
“You’ve been to see him, then?” Mama asked.
“Mercy, no – but he moved in with all manner of critters – I’m not one to talk, I had my share of mice and gerbils as a girl – but you cannot have so many and not annoy the neighbors if you don’t keep house well, don’t you agree?”
Mama nodded, catching her drift, “Why, yes, you’re right. I hadn’t thought of it before but there was no hint when he opened the door earlier.”
Mrs. Elmore nodded serenely, “There’s that. Sad that he lives all alone and won’t talk to anyone. I don’t understand it.”
Mama nodded in agreement. “Perhaps he has friends elsewhere…”
“Oh, I do hope so – I do hate to see anyone lonely. By the by, have you ever been to Gaineswood?”
“No, I’m sorry, I should explain – it’s a home in Alabama. It’s in Demopolis, not too terribly far from Meridian.”
“Ah, yes – I may have. I toured several homes one Christmas with some friends.”
“One with a dome?”
Mama nodded sharply, “Yes indeed. I recall that one fondly – the music room was very interesting.”
Mrs. Elmore smiled slyly, “If I were one to gamble, I’m not, mind you, but if I were, I’d wager that our Mr. Chambers is of Whitfield stock. He is the spitting image of old Bryan himself.”
Now, I haven’t been to Demopolis a lot – and then mostly to drive through on the way to Montgomery. But seeing as they name virtually everything after the illustrious Mr. Whitfield, it’s impossible not to know he was the town’s founder. Unlike Mama, I did remember being dragged through that huge mansion, crowded with people – and I remembered perfectly the portrait of Bryan Whitfield in the hall. Names I stink with but show me a face and I’ll remember it always. I now knew what Mr. Chambers looked like.
I just wasn’t sure who he was. Southern women can change topics faster than socks – I wasn’t sure if they were still talking about the man in number 304.
They talked some more about Gaineswood and Demopolis – Mrs. Elmore’s deceased husband Kenneth had been from there – and moved on to important topics, like cooking and the best way to get grass stains out of pant legs – Mrs Elmore had three boys; Mama had one tomboy.
It was getting dark when we finally said our goodbyes. Theresa, the maid, saw us to the door. Her accent was every bit as Georgian as her employer’s. During the short chat to the door, Mama learned that Theresa had worked for Mrs. Elmore since she was sixteen. Her own family was still in Georgia except for her oldest son, a doctor here in New York. She’d used his growing family as an excuse to move with Mr. and Mrs. Elmore ten years ago. She got to see her grandbabies and she got to stay where she felt she belonged.
As we entered the hall, she poked her head out the door, “You be mindful not to get too close to that man. He’s a wizard, he is. I done seen him – well, you folks wouldn’t believe an old woman’s superstitions but you be careful of him. You is good folks, come to talk to her so long. I… I’s got to get in.”
Theresa disappeared behind the door.
It was a long, silent walk home. Only once we had gotten in, changed and started supper did we start talking about it. Mama confirmed that Mr. Chambers was the mysterious man in 304.
Now, Theresa hadn’t called a name but Mama and Mrs Elmore had talked more about Mr. Chambers than any of the other neighbors – and I could fill a couple notebooks on what they discussed of the other neighbors. I didn’t need to guess – she meant him, I was certain. I didn’t know what she’d seen, but I had no doubt she’d seen something that made her think as she did.
Plus, it fit – a wizard can have many familiars, which it occurred to me finally might make sense of how Vinnie knew so danged much about Jack and his family. If he could conceal a familiar like a mouse and let it run loose in the building, it would be the perfect little spy.
No, wait, that didn’t work. Jack had specifically asked Finley if any familiars had been in the building and the answer had been no. Normal concealment wouldn’t keep Finley or the cats from noticing. And a mouse familiar in the cat’s domain wouldn’t have lived long.
Duh! This is why I leave this stuff to Jack – he doesn’t seem to vacillate as much as I do. It did too fit – if you can conceal a vampire from a houseful of slayers, you can conceal a mouse from a couple cats. Ayami’s concealment was in her clothing – that stupid vampire was the same – it fit perfectly! Most creatures can’t create charms or imbue objects with power – but a wizard can!
It should come as no surprise that when I saw Jack that evening, he had already figured all of that out. Dang, I’m slow! What interested him now was finding the wizard responsible – and it appeared we had a winner in that category. Now, the fun began – it was time to draw him out.