Authors: Gillian Roberts
I nearly swooned.
“Be a sec,” Mackenzie said.
“Why?” The word was not out before I remembered why and couldn’t believe I had forgotten. Obviously, galloping materialism causes short-term memory loss.
“In case the local police don’t know.” He moved off, followed by the major dummy.
Without Mackenzie as shield and ally, I was acutely aware that my dress was rented, I hadn’t paid my way into this gala, and probably nobody but my principal wanted me here. I made an uncomfortable entrance into the library. Nobody hailed or beckoned. Your basic party nightmare.
I squelched the urge to hide in the powder room. Been there, done that a hundred years ago. At thirty-plus, I had to relinquish adolescent behavior. I tried to look thrilled with my own company and prayed Mackenzie wouldn’t be too long.
I’d been in houses that labeled any room containing a book The Library, but this room actually functioned as one. Every inch not otherwise occupied by stained glass casements or the towering Gothic fireplace was filled with floor-to-ceiling shelves, some with etched glass doors, all filled with books. A library ladder on wheels was positioned for easy access around the room.
The firelight caught the luster of leather wing chairs and sofas. It splashed off the polished surface of a library table, the carvings on a delicate writing desk, and sharpened the indigos and rubies of the stained glass windows and the guests’ jewels.
I tiptoed over intricately patterned carpets until I noticed what I was doing and forced myself to walk normally, and behave as if I were accustomed to home libraries as large as an entire home, to furnishings made of precious and probably endangered resources. All the while, I was sure somebody was about to lift an eyebrow and say, “What are
I accepted a champagne flute from a smiling server, eager to quell my dry mouth and jumpy nerves, but I only sipped. Elegantly packaged parents eyed me sideways. You look familiar, their expressions said, but from where? They normally paid me as much attention as they might any other appliance they’d purchased. To many of them, and to my regret, I was an upper-tier servant, hired to fill their children’s days and minds. A function with a face, forgettable. Tonight, I was out of costume and context, and thereby unrecognizable.
It was easier for me to know who they were, even though they, too, looked remade. I was used to faces red from embarrassment at teacher conferences, or redder still from the elements, carrying forgotten medications, lunch money, or assignments. Philly Prep was a service that was supposed to free them, and they were always impatient to get out of the place. Maybe they were afraid they’d be told their offspring had turned out to be just like them.
Tonight they, too, were in disguise, transformed by gloss and cummerbunds. Or maybe this was their natural costume, because they seemed at ease.
Mackenzie, having completed his good-citizen run, returned. “They knew,” he said. “They’ve gotten about fifteen calls. They are out there now—no sirens, no fuss.”
I considered the other people milling around, many of whom must have placed calls, none of whom seemed to be discussing the outrage across the lane, and I understood why. It was so ugly, so appalling, that mentioning it would be like dragging something dead and rotting into the party, a gross breach of etiquette. Still, it felt strange, as if we were all playing blindman’s bluff with a fearsome phantom in the room with us.
Mackenzie and I hovered on the periphery until a flinty woman with whom I’d had a bitter to-do about her son’s grade waved with an attitude that suggested papal dispensation. Or lack of recognition. In either case, she was our first friendly face, and we needed all the socialization we could squeeze out of this crowd.
She moved closer, and Mackenzie and I introduced ourselves. Even knowing who I was, she remained civil. The evening held promise.
We swapped many oohs and several ahs about the house and the hors d’oeuvres, but even while supposedly speaking to me, she didn’t look my way. She looked Mackenzie’s way. She hadn’t floated over to socialize, but to seduce. Happily, she wasn’t good at it, and I made an excuse about meeting someone in the music room and aimed my man and myself toward the doorway. There is a limit to precisely how accommodating I have to be to parents.
En route to the exit, we perused the bookshelves. It’s automatic with both of us. But at least half my attention was still on the woman’s arrogance and talons, so it was Mackenzie, not I, who registered how extremely rare were the contents of the glass-enclosed case near us. “Unless they’re facsimiles, which I do not believe would be the case,” he murmured, “these are priceless. Look here, Corneille’s
early sixteen-hundreds. Vaughan’s
Life of Donne
—the first professional biography,” he whispered. “Whole shelf is seventeenth-century.”
I squeezed in next to him and looked at the bindings, the gilded titles on their spines. “You were wrong about this house not living up to my fantasies,” I whispered back. “My fantasies were too impoverished to live up to this house.”
“Miss Pepper, isn’t it?”
My sophisticated response was to bang—loudly—my head against the cabinet’s glass door, startled as I was by Neddy Roederer’s voice. Had the etched glass been of a lower quality, I would have required stitches. As it was, only my ego was lacerated.
I’d met him the week before at the library ceremony honoring the Roederer Trust gift, a collection of art history and photography books, plus an annual bequest. “Mr. Roederer,” I croaked in a humiliated voice.
It wasn’t odd that I remembered him, but it was head-bangingly shocking that he remembered me.
I couldn’t have been more irrationally dazzled had he been the original, certified Prince Charming.
Which he was not. He was a tall, rangy man with forgettable features, dark-rimmed glasses, and a shock of black hair, all of which bore an unfortunate resemblance to the effigy across the way.
“Did you think I’d forget you?” he asked with a warm smile. “Who else inspired the newspaper staff to write about the library’s needs? Or to have our son, Griffin, shoot the photos for the article? You’re the reason we became involved.” He gestured at the roomful of people. “So I suppose you’re the reason for tonight as well.”
I held my breath. I felt like Harriet Beecher Stowe must have when Lincoln called her the little lady who started the Civil War. Fortunately, I had no idea how apt that comparison was.
“For which aid, assistance, and prodding, I’m quite grateful,” he said.
“We were admiring your collection,” Mackenzie said, saving me from having to formulate words while I remained flabbergasted. “You seem particularly fond of seventeenth century English works.”
“An interesting time for literature, don’t you think, Mr.…”
I found my voice, or most of it, and began introductions, feeling less ept with each stammered approach to the mystery of Mackenzie’s C. K. What the hell. “This is Caleb,” I said. “Caleb Mackenzie.”
Mackenzie winked at me. That wasn’t his name, either, then.
Roederer shook Mackenzie’s hand with boyish, semiawkward charm. “Restoration works intrigue me,” he said. “Perhaps you’d enjoy one of my favorites, an interesting edition of
although not the original, not the first. This edition wasn’t printed until 1690, but it’s quite beautiful.”
He bent to insert a tiny key in the lock. “Climate is controlled in these cabinets,” he added. “But doesn’t hurt the books to breathe real air once in a while.”
I backed off, afraid to be near a priceless object after my unfortunate encounter with the cabinet door. I was sure I’d tip my champagne onto its pages, or have a sneezing fit.
A thick-featured man with a shelf of eyebrows had been watching our threesome, and as Edward Franklin Roederer retrieved his book, the observer moved closer, craning his neck to see the title.
Roederer seemed amused and pleased by the other man’s curiosity. “All bibliophiles welcome,” he said. “
1690 edition, beautifully illustrated. Come, look.”
The man seemed taken aback, as if he’d expected a different response. “You like old books, too, eh?” He made his words half inquiry, half sneer.
Roederer’s smile became tentative, but he nodded. “A passion of mine for some time now. And do you share it, Mr.…” He stopped to study the man, who said nothing. “We’ve met before, haven’t we? You look familiar. But I seem to need assistance remembering where it was.” He extended his free hand. “Edward Roederer. Everyone calls me Neddy, I’m afraid. And unfortunately, my memory for faces far exceeds my ability to recall names.”
The other man waited longer than was civil before proffering his hand, all the while peering at his host. Then, as they shook hands, he apparently had done enough reconnoitering to respond. “Didn’t think we’d met in person,” he said, “but you look familiar, too. I mean I know who you are, but I thought only by reputation. Still and all, I know your face. Probably from the paper, eh?”
Roederer’s smile turned quizzical.
The Roederers’ pictures were seldom, if ever, in the paper. Even at the dedication, they declined to be photographed. Too many crazies, they’d explained. I thought of the fire across the way and agreed.
“Are you perhaps Canadian?” Roederer asked. Good breeding showed. He continued to play gracious host to a boor who didn’t care a whit about
didn’t glance at it once he’d established its title, and hadn’t introduced himself when asked.
“Born, raised, and educated in Toronto. How’d you know? You Canadian, too?”
Neddy Roederer laughed and shook his head. “Not specially anything, I’m afraid. Born in France, schooled in Holland and Hong Kong. Lived all over even before meeting Tea and her wanderlust. But since then, even more. Horrified our families by being footloose. We did try Canada once, but it was too cold, so we moved on to Bali. Or maybe South Africa. Can’t remember. We’re nomads.”
My kind of nomads. Forget yurts—they bedded down in the most substantial and rooted of dwellings.
made me ask,” Roederer said with a smile.
The man shook his head. “Never hear myself say it, but the wife tells me I do it all the time.” He gestured behind him, although he didn’t turn his head to verify if “the wife” was there.
She was, apparently. A reasonably attractive woman in an unreasonably unattractive dress. Her garment, a putty silk with the life drained out of it, was designed to disappear into the background, but at this event, its deliberate drabness stood out. Her hair, loose and long, was a faded brown-gray mix; her face bare of makeup; her ears, neck, and wrists free of jewelry. She watched the man’s back like a trained dog awaiting its next command.
“The wife’s not Canadian,” the man said. “From Jersey originally. Lived up there long enough, though. Still, she notices it. I don’t.”
“Forgive me, I didn’t catch your name,” Roederer persisted. As if anyone had offered it. He couldn’t possibly have any real interest in the man, nor any expectation of ever seeing him again socially. But his graciousness seemed ingrained, and he stood patiently, his lips in a welcoming smile.
“Spiers.” The voice was flat and resolute. I thought he was talking about weapons, until he spelled his surname. “Reverend Harvey Spiers.”
The drab woman watching the reverend put her thumbnail in her mouth and absentmindedly chewed on it. There were deep creases between her eyebrows.
I couldn’t think of a student named Spiers. A newcomer or future enrollee’s parent? A friend of one of our parents?
I sensed more than heard the softest possible exclamation from Mackenzie. He glanced at me as if I’d understand. His expression registered recognition, but no pleasure. I looked back at the Reverend Spiers, wondering why he’d produced this reaction.
And more. A shudder of revulsion distorted Neddy Roederer’s well-bred features. “
Reverend Spiers?” he asked.
“Believe so.” The other man made a mock bow. “I believe I am the only one with that name and position in the area.”
“Reverend Spiers of the Moral Ecologists?”
Of course. That’s who it was. The party setting had thrown me off. This was the last place I’d have expected to see this man.
Roederer’s voice had risen on a cresting wave of incredulity until it cracked, which I now well understood. The Moral Ecologists had reviled him, labeled him Trashman and, I was certain, burned him in effigy outside his front door. And Neddy knew. He had undoubtedly been the first to call the police.
“You—” Roederer said. “You and that woman—”
Spiers bowed his head as if humbly acknowledging achievement. “You refer to Mother Vivien, I assume. My right hand.”
Plus other appendages, too, from what I heard. Mother Vivien had founded the Moral Ecologists, although she’d been eclipsed and supposedly seduced by the reverend. I’d seen her hard face and waist-length tresses on TV. Heard her shrill claims and demands. She seemed the least benevolent Mother since Medea.
“Alas, she’s not here tonight,” Spiers said. Behind him, “the wife” scowled.
“May I say…” Roederer’s Adam’s apple bobbed up and down as he swallowed. “I’m…I never expected you to come to my home, Reverend,” he finally managed. “I thought our interests and…and circles…were at opposite ends of…” He seemed too stunned and enervated to manufacture more words.