I got off the bus, jumping off the edge to land on the concrete with a loud thud, my backpack jiggling behind me, and I scuffled through the pockets in my skirt for the little note. I read it again and again all throughout the bus ride, but I read it once more just to make sure I didn’t ask for a stop prematurely. I do that sometimes. The name on the street sign matched the instructions on my note, so I followed the rest to the address in question. The streets were mostly empty, one or two people walked idly by, and stray cats scuffled here and there, being close to sunset I wouldn’t have expected any less of anywhere, but this was an old part of the city where victorian style houses that had never been repaired or repainted claimed most of the area, some of them having surrendered their use as houses for a future as boutiques and little shops, and every now and then the domino line of houses was interrupted by an empty space where old trees stretched in bizarre ways to fill in the gaps. I promised myself I’d bring my camera next time.
Eight, nine, ten, and eleven? Or at least the number on the door should have been eleven, but there was a missing number one. Again, just to be sure, I checked the note, and confirmed I was in the correct address.: Yes. I looked for a doorbell on the sides, above, maybe on a beam, but all I found was a door knocker, so I knocked and waited for an answer. I wasn’t a very patient person if I was on my own, and after about a minute I checked my note again for the phone number I wrote down. I dialed and heard the phone ring from the inside of the house, it was an old and loud phone, but nobody answered. My heart sped up a bit, I was desperate not to miss this appointment and I was absolutely sure they asked me to come by before dusk. I paced left and right for a bit, knocking again then checking the windows for light or movement. The lights were on, but only barely, and the natural light left was starting to turn orange and purple at the same time. I knocked one last time, and mid-knock I was interrupted as the door swung open.
“Oh! I’m sorry, I thought I heard a knock, then thought twice about it. In this big house anything makes a sound and it takes a while to get anywhere to check and see if it was real or not. You have an appointment, dear?”
“Yes, um, with a Mrs Durant?”
“Miss Durant, dear, she is not married.”
“Oh, sorry. I was asked to arrive before dusk for an interview about an opening you have for a secretary. I would have gotten here earlier but my phone was dead, and I checked the recorded messages about an hour ago…”
“Not to worry, dear, you are just in time. Miss D is usually asleep before sunset, and she just woke. I was back in the kitchen fetching her some breakfast when you rung. Come in, please.”
I walked into the main hall and expected the inside to be as worn as the outside, but while the facade looked close to death the interior looked un-aged, decorated with wallpaper and carpet in dark shades of turquoise, the curtains tall and grey, dark furniture, and every now and then a pot full of lilies. I was taken to the front parlor and asked to wait. I suddenly felt poor.
“She’ll be with you in just a bit, dear.”
I placed my backpack on my lap and took out my résumé, the feeling in my gut that in my rush to get out I probably forgot something important back home, but I hadn’t the slightest clue of what it could be. I heard the lady who let me in go up the stairs with what sounded like a tray of food, so I figured I would be waiting at least thirty minutes, unless I was asked to go up, which seemed inappropriate. I could wait that long, I think I was late, anyway.
The room was just as blue as the hall, with a bit more lilies, pictures, and keepsakes and relics from, what I could tell, was all over the world. There was a painting or two on the walls, portraits of people from another time, proudly staring into the distance and sometimes menacingly into the eyes of spectators, I promised myself to never own paintings like these; but mostly there were pictures in shades of brown, pictures of people in groups of about ten men and women, most posing into the camera but some staring elsewhere. The majority of the pictures seemed to be pre-World War I, everyone in their exploring outfits and under tents, after a while I began to make out places where the pictures had been taken: some seemed to have African surroundings, others had more of an Indian feel to them, and a few had some Asian surroundings, maybe Japan? Now I really felt poor.
They seemed happy in the pictures. While I tried guessing where the pictures might’ve been taken, I also noticed that the clothing changed, not because they were obviously taken during different days, but because they seemed to be from different eras completely. Most of the pictures looked pre-World War I, but there were a few that looked from the twenties, some from the forties, others from maybe the fifties or sixties, one or two of the seventies, and when it came to the eighties and nineties the trail went cold. But the men and women in all the pictures all looked the same: young and just as un-aged as this house, no matter the era or quality of the picture. Costume parties? Parents and children? Clones? The more I thought about it the less likely any option seemed.
I was about to get up and examine the pictures in disbelief when the lady came back into the room.
“Miss D is ready for you in the library, if you’ll follow me, please.”
We walked back into the hall, and I followed her all the way to the back on the lefthand side of the house. The library was a little bigger than the front parlor, the walls covered in bookshelves which themselves were covered in books, a sofa here and there, and at the back of the room was a long desk, a lady in her indigo robe was sitting there, writing on a notebook.
“I’ll be just a moment.”
I sat facing her.
“Edith, make sure to send for my brother, s’il vous plaît. I urgently need him within the hour. If not I shall leave without him.”
“Yes, miss. Will that be all, or shall I fetch some more tea?”
“Gladstone, Aberdeen Gladstone. Or Abby, nobody calls me Aberdeen, actually…”
“Miss Gladstone, will you be in need of any refreshment?”
“Oh, I’m fine, thank you. Well, um, maybe just some water.”
“Merveilleux. Edith a glass of water before you send for my brother, s’il vous plaît”
“Yes, miss. Right away.”
“So, Miss Gladstone, glad that you arrived as requested. This is the first time you’ve ever attempted to contact us, correct?”
“How did you come upon our notice? Newspaper, was it?”
“Yes, at first a friend mentioned something about this place, about Durant & Dietrich.”
“And did he or she provide you with the information to locate us?”
“No, I looked it up. At first I tried looking for it online, but I couldn’t find either a website or an advertisement from another page or anything. So then I tried the newspapers, and after about a while I found the advertisement.”
“Right, perfect. And- Oh, merci.”
Edith handed me a glass of water with a slice of lemon on it, and I took a long sip while Miss Durant scribbled on a piece of paper. She continued:
“This friend of yours, had she worked for us?”
“No, not that I know of. I think she tried scheduling an appointment but she never got an answer.”
“I see… I am not sure how much information you were given, but please tell me, are you in any way aware of what we are looking for?”
“A secretary, kind of?”
“Précisément, quite simple work. Mostly paperwork, some phone-work, I might send you to fetch me some things every now and then, but it is mostly desk-work that we are in need of. You shan’t ever accompany us on our nightly assignments unless we are running short on hands, but more on that later. The main work, our main need is for a secretary, and you would be working here in this house. I assume you are experienced in this area?”
“Yes, I brought my résumé with all of the experience I’ve had.”
“Magnifique! So while being secretary to our needs would be your primary occupation, there is a small project we would most certainly need you to assist in. As you realized form your research, we do not have any presence in the world wide web. In fact absolutely all information and document is on paper. Apparently it’s a bit old fashioned and we have been asked many times to, well, get with the times and proceed to document everything digitally as who we work for already does. Do you see my point?”
“So, while I will had things to do as a secretary, I would need to help you digitize everything?”
“Um, yeah, I mean, I don’t think that’d be a problem. At all.”
“Merveilleux! And what would be the time of day most suitable for you to?”
I paused for a bit and thought about it. I wanted to be honest, but I did not want to slave away at a job that was clearly going to ask a lot of me. Then again, I was down to my last pennies and I was desperate for any income, desperate enough to compromise to my employer’s needs.
“I am not a particular morning person, but I could work as early as nine am and as late as nine pm. Whatever time frame within that.”
“Good. Well, let me see then. We would need you to start as soon as possible, tomorrow, probably, nobody will be at home at the moment to give you any instructions. Let… me… see…”
“Mister Durant is not answering his phone. I’ve sent a boy over to check on the house and see if he is there.”
“Merci… Miss Gladstone, I would need you to be working in a schedule of between noon and eight in the afternoon. With a lunch-break of an hour in-between. Would you be able to make those hours?”
“Oh yes, absolutely. And I would be starting tomorrow, right?”
“Oui, and your salary would be the basic we offer, which is-”
“Miss Durant, pardon the interruption, but the boy just came back and he says the front door at Mister Durant’s has been knocked down, and all the lights are off, and there is a foul stench coming from inside. He didn’t go in to inspect any further but came back as quickly as he could manage.”
Miss Durant gave a long sigh, put her head between her two hands and began rubbing her temples. I checked my watch: it was six forty-five.
“Shall I fetch your attire, Miss?”
“Miss Gladstone, pardonnez-moi. It seems we have an emergency and we might need that extra pair of hands I mentioned earlier.”
“Oh, but, um… what for?”
“Mostly to follow my orders. What we are about to do is inspect my brother’s house and look for him, nothing extraordinary. In any case might need to document and file this later, so you might as well have a first-hand impression of it all.”
“I, well, I guess could come along, if it’s that urgent.”
“Merveilleux. Edith? Fetch my attire, s’il vous plaît Don’t worry, I shall dress here. Miss Gladstone, if you don’t mind, could you wait in the hall for a moment?”
I got up and walked to the hall, Miss Durant closed the door behind me. The boy whom Edith had sent was also waiting in the hall, he looked very frightened and would not make eye contact, except with the floor. This wasn’t comforting, but I had already said yes, I felt obliged. A few seconds later Edith came running down the stairs with clothes in her arms, and a pair of boots hanging from her shoulders, I opened the door for her and she rushed into the library. Shuffling and movement could be heard from the hall, and every now and then a ‘merci’ from Miss Durant. About a minute later, the door opened and out came Miss Durant, fully dressed, the powerful sound of her boots echoing in the hall, and in her dark blue long-coat. I honestly thought I walked out of a sensible, vintage establishment and stumbled my way into an adventure story.
“Right, Miss Gladstone, if you would follow me, we will take my vehicle.”
And so I followed.