It would turn out to be an odd engagement that, unsurprisingly, began with an odd interview. The first entreaty came from Caitlin Milan herself in a letter delivered in person by knobby-kneed Mr. Caine the postmaster, directly to Mrs. Sully’s boarding house.
“Good Morning Mrs. Sully”, he sing-songed from behind a walrus mustache sparse enough to resemble nothing so much as a waterfall in drought. “I’ve a missive for James. From Tuscany!” he held up the letter as if just now finding it in his hand. “In Italy.”
Virginia Scully’s glowering squint penetrated the suspended webbing of cigar smoke that encircled her head in the dead air. “I know where’s Tuscany”, she said. “You mook”, she thought. “Leave it here-I’ll put it in his box”. To close the transaction she picked the smoldering cigar from the tea saucer and inhaled deeply.
“Uh…” Mr. Caine dawdled. “I’m sure it’s an important notice. Do you know when he’ll be….”
She looked back at him, shocked he was still in the room. As she opened her mouth to speak, smoke seemed to billow from every open orifice. “There’s twelve boxes here Mr. Caine-twelve boarders who gets their mail through me. All manner of letters, missives and messages. Father’s dying. Mother’s dying. Babies born. Babies dying. Weddings. Divorces. Fortunes made, fortunes lost. All important-all getting to who gots to get them. You can leave it Mr. Caine. It will be attended to.” She popped the cigar back into her mouth.
The little man had begun skittering back toward the door. “Of course, Mrs. Sully. Not for me to tell you how to do your work. I’ll leave it with you…” And he was out the door. She had no sooner settled in for another prodigious huff on her cigar when she was distracted by the clattering of heavy, if tiny, feet on the stairs behind her. Knowing who it was, she continued her smoke without looking back.
“Ewww-I can smell that all the way up in the room” said the florid little brunette. The girl, in her early twenties, was slightly plump and had grown at least a half size beyond the red dress she was trying get one more season out of.
“Since I own the place”, said Virginia Sully puffing like a locomotive, “and you’re only here by the hour, I’m comfortable saying I do as I please.”
“You should have more respect”, the young girl scolded her, “For respectable guests.”
“Find me one under this roof and I’ll lay on the respect like marmalade and honey.”
“Now you’re just being rude. I’ve a mind…”
Virginia Sully pointed the wet cigar butt at the girl. “I’m sure I’ve a large enough wooden spoon back in the kitchen to do the trick if you want to continue telling me what you’ve a mind to.”
“Good bye Mrs. Sully. Until next time.”
“I’ll try to hold my water.”
The young woman was no more out the door than the light dancing tread of James Cooke pattered down the stairs.
“Mrs. Sully-Did you frighten Millicent?”
“Is that her name now? I thought she was born Aileen.”
“That wouldn’t exactly fit her now, do you think?”
She pushed the envelope across the counter. “Letter for you. The pinhead brought it special.”
James looked at it. “Caitlin? From Tuscany?”
“In Italy, don’t you know? Pinhead thought you should know.”
He took a step toward the small round table at the window and stopped. “You wouldn’t have any coffee back there would you?” With elbow on the counter he assumed the pose that brought girls like Aileen Fennick home with him. Not a pose that Virginia Sully had any interest in.
“Don’t you even think of leaning in and giving me that smile, or that twinkle that all the gals fall for. And never while I have a weapon within reach-which I do-throw your hair back like one of those women in the shampoo commercials on the TV. Your dimples are lost on me, Pretty James.”
He smiled slyly. “You know I can’t abide tea.”
“Your failings and perversions are no concern of mine.” She paused long enough for James to begin turning toward the window table. “But I do have something here that you might abide.”
She pulled a bottle of Macallan from under the counter with a small glass that glinted in the sunshine.
“Ahhhh…” sighed James admiringly.
“I’ll pour”, she said filling the glass. “Make it last. The Mister left me some when he went on and I am on ration…” She winked and placed it back behind the counter.
He took the whiskey and the letter to the table by the window where sunlight flowed like maple syrup. He tore it open and began to read.
To be continued…