Read from the beginning

The letter fell from my hand onto the floor. I gazed at the ceiling for a moment in a state of mild shock. I was already dealing with the enigma of the blue bottle in which the message came with the Saragossa insignia painted on the side. It was signed “Linda Lou” and I gathered that the bird I saw gliding away in the night was the giant horned owl we’d seen in her living room. Was she somehow in on Ringo’s new liquor bottling enterprise? She sure didn’t look like someone named “Linda Lou.”

“What is it?” Dimity noticed me and called from a linen closet where she was digging through sheets and pillows.

I couldn’t speak for a while. I just looked at her.

“Bo? Bo!”

I blew out my candle. “Ringo’s not coming tonight. Probably not tomorrow either.”

She bustled to the couch with a cotton gauze duvet and a blue-striped ticking feather pillow and flopped down with them.

“Does that mean we can stay here? Play house while we wait for him? Come sit down.”

“Jeepers, is that all you can think about? I’m already feeling a little claustrophobic. I can’t just sit here forever waiting for him to show. What if he’s more than a couple of days?”

“Well, we’re stuck here tonight at least. Why don’t we enjoy the fire for now? I’m so…so sleepy.”

“What if he needs help? What if he’s been captured?”

“We’ll figure out something in the morning. Come on, possum. Have a seat.”

“Sorry. Possum?”

Sit your bloody arse down, boy!

“Alright. But mind your manners.”

Secretly I loved it when she called me boy. It was bossy in a flirty kind of way. And she was most irresistible when she dropped those petty vulgarities, delivered in the gamey, open-throated brogue of that nethermost penal colony of the British Empire. All of her taunts and jeers were rendered innocuous in that voice and became instead a kind of idiosyncratic pillow talk.

“I’m too tired to think about manners,” she moaned through a big yawn with her arms stretched out over her head.

It was somewhere around midnight. When I’d blacked out earlier, it must have been for an hour or more. What caused it, I couldn’t imagine. The port wine? Ringo’s brew from the other day? I was not one to just faint like that.

I sat down next to Dimity and put my arm around her. She snuggled into my side and pulled up the blanket and pillow.

Thoughts were running wild in my brain. My mother! Ah, she must be frantic by this time, dad would be fuming, my siblings would be crying. Had they reported me missing yet? The last I’d seen them, the thugs had beaten up my dad asking about the Lancia, and I’d run off after seeing him bloodied up talking to Officer MacAdoo. They knew I was mixed up in the whole thing.

The more my thoughts seemed to get wound up, the more Dimity seemed to be drifting off. Once or twice she jerked awake, took a deep breath, and then resettled more snug on the couch.

“You can have the bed if you want.”

“I can’t move. I just want to sleep here in front of the fire.”

My eyes were heavy but too many things had happened this day, and my mind was still on alert. I slipped out and she curled up in the blanket.

Unable to relax, I started to drift around the room, thinking, fretting. I went to the fire, put some more wood on it, and absently poked the coals with a brass poker. The candles and lanterns were all put out, and the fireplace cast its buttery flicker on the ceiling and furniture. Shadows made the dark recesses of the room more sinister, and just beyond the velvet-draped windowpanes were a host of forest specters beyond our ken.

I strolled around the room, hands in my pockets. I stood before a tapestry, an oil painting, then another painting, blind to them all. There was a toy racecar on the wet bar next to a deck of cards and a Limoges porcelain serving set, probably priceless.

Among numerous cryptic books on the bookshelf, I found a figurine of a fairy princess carved in hardwood. It fit in the palm of my hand and was light as air. I became convinced from its face, hair, and bosom that it was supposed to be an image of our friend Linda Lou. Maybe it was the heavy eyelids. I wondered if Ringo had carved it himself.

All was silent except for the occasional soothing sound of wind in the trees outside. Dimity’s breathing became regular now punctuated with a precious little wheeze. I stood silently behind the couch where she lay and listened to its gentle cadence for a long time. I studied the immaculate curvature from her brow to the tip of her nose as the fire cast its diminishing winks of light on her face. Her canvas bag was still next to her on the couch. She’d had a bottle of port; I wondered what other surprises she might have received from Cougar Bob.

The zipper to the bag was open. I carefully lifted the mouth to look, expecting to find snacks, maybe a dime novel, or maybe a clean set of foundation garments. Whether any of those things were in the bag, I did not notice. My attention was completely captivated by the first thing I saw: the shining black metal of a pistol and a box of bullets, the same gun I thought I’d imagined or dreamed before.

Sitting on the edge of Ringo’s little bachelor bed, I slipped off my shoes and turned to lay back with my hands clasped behind my head. Once again, sleep fled me like a dog off the leash.