“Rose—Manor?” I said.
“ . . . contracts,” Hayley was saying to Lena. Lena looked even younger than Hayley did, and was perhaps the current part-time college student. Lena hadn’t been at her desk when I’d first come in, and I saw her now looking me over, from the beat up leather jacket with the unravelling cuffs (fortunately she couldn’t see the lining) to the fraying All Stars (All Stars are at their very best during the last few months before they disintegrate) and the thought balloon over her head said “They’re perfect for each other.” And she didn’t even know about Caedmon. Then she glanced up a little farther and saw me watching her (I may have been smiling in a sardonic, middle-aged way), blushed even redder than Hayley, and started scrabbling furiously through the file folders on her desk.
Hayley turned to me. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I should have pointed it out to you. It’s on a plaque over the front door, but it’s dark under the porch roof. It’s your mailing address too. There are no house numbers in Cold Valley: your house is Rose Manor, Reuel Street, Cold Valley.”
“Although,” said a new voice, “after you’ve lived there forty-eight hours, the postman will know who you are, and letters addressed to ‘Kestrel MacFarquhar, Cold Valley’ will arrive unerringly in your box.” A dark-haired woman had emerged from the office at the back. I could see where Hayley was getting her dress sense. Grey pin stripes. Looked like a tailored jail cell to me, but I’m the one in jeans. The dark-haired woman held out her hand with a friendly smile. “I’m Sally Hutchins. Welcome to the area.”
“Thank you,” I said.
“I’m sure Hayley is taking excellent care of you,” said Sally, “but if you need anything further, or if Hayley isn’t available some time, anyone at Homeric Homes would be happy to assist you.”
“Thank you,” I said again, repressing an urge to curtsey. Or ask where I could hire a rent boy.
“Do you know anything about a big old solid-fuel stove at Rose Manor?” said Hayley. “It’s not on the inventory.”
“What?” said Sally, looking disconcerted. I hoped Hayley wasn’t going to get, ahem, raked over any coals later for exposing high-level weakness in front of a paying customer. “No. Mr D has agreed to a woodstove, but not until the house had a tenant. And Bob would have told us if he’d sold a stove for one of our properties.”
Bob of Hephaestus’ Grotto, no doubt, and Hayley’s uncle. Or possibly Sally’s. Or Lena’s.
“And Ron would have said something,” Hayley went on. “He was there today. Something about the electricals.”
Sally’s brows snapped together, and she had her mouth open to say something and changed her mind. She turned a professionally smooth face back toward me. “Ron is a treasure,” she said, “but he is a trifle . . . wayward. I suppose I will find out what it’s about when he sends his bill. But you’re right, Hayley, if there’d been a new stove installed, Ron would have been involved.”
“It’s a very old new stove,” said Hayley. “If I was guessing, I’d guess it was about the same age as the house.”
His name is Caedmon, and he’s friendly, I wanted to say, but I didn’t. It would probably be worse than asking about rent boys.
Sally and Hayley were staring at each other and then Sally’s eyebrows snapped together again, and this time they stayed snapped. “Don’t be ridiculous,” said Sally. She looked back at me, regaining the professionally smooth face with some effort. “Hayley is very imaginative,” said Sally. “She reads a lot of novels.”
You cow, I thought, smiling pleasantly. “That can do it to you,” I said. I had noticed that when Hayley tossed her briefcase on her chair she kept hold of her shoulderbag, which had FLOWERHAIR THE INVINCIBLE in it.
“Fantasy novels,” piped up Lena, and briefly my right hand flexed, as if expecting a sword hilt to grasp, to run this toadying peon through. But Lena went on: “She’s got me started. My economics exam is next week, and last night I was up after midnight reading a book Hayley loaned me.”
I looked back at Sally, working on a smooth professional face of my own behind which to gloat and saw . . . a middle-aged woman doing the best she could, and whose life maybe hadn’t turned out quite as she planned. She looked tired. Okay. I got it. Sally said: “It’s true. I am old and boring and I do needlepoint and read gardening magazines. Lena, have you found the contracts for Rose Manor?”
“Yes ma’am,” said Lena, and hit a button on her computer. A machine at the back of the room made a noise surprisingly like arrrrgh and started chomping out a page with printing on it.
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