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A Time To Every Purpose XI
Continuation of our Tuesday serial
from the fountain pen of Myra Love
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 Chapter XI

"We aren't really going to continue in this vein, are we, Anita?" I asked, as soon as I'd settled myself behind the steering wheel.
"Aren't you the least bit curious?" she replied, answering a question with a question in a way I found unexpectedly irritating.
"I'm not that curious," I replied. "Don't you think it's about time we were on our way to Stew? This has been a very…interesting diversion, but now that little Needles is safe with that old fellow you like so much, I really think we don't need to linger."
Anita smirked at me. I'd rarely seen her smirk. "You know, Bob, if I didn't know better," she said, "I'd think you were jealous."
That floored me, and I almost floored the gas pedal in response. "What are you talking about?" I asked, trying to sound normal.
Anita's smirk disappeared and she replied, "Well, for one thing, the fact that I pay attention to other people seems to make you very uncomfortable."
"That's ridiculous!"
She shook her head. "No, it's not."
"That old geezer was flirting with you, Anita."
She laughed. "That old geezer is younger than I am, Bob. And I'm not just talking about Mr. Diamant. You seemed horrified at my friendliness towards Joanna as well."
"Not horrified," I tried to explain. "It's just that she's so…well, extreme, and you're so…"
She raised her eyebrows. "Yes?"
"Well, you don't go around in outlandish…" I caught myself looking at Anita's fedora and stopped.
She started to laugh.
"You don't wear an ugly wig that bobs around on your head, and you don't act like an idiot just because…"
"Just because I go over to take care of a child and encounter a strange man coming out of the house? Really, Bob, how did you expect her to react?"
I pulled up to the address Mrs. Privett had given us.
"Not like that," I replied. "We're here."
The house was enormous. There was even a large, well-tended garden with a gazebo in the middle of it. I wondered briefly how Ellen McManus reconciled the conditions in which she lived with the obvious wealth of her mother, but I didn't have long to wonder. As soon as I slammed the car door behind me, the front door of the house opened and a woman with red hair waved to us. To Anita actually. Anita waved back, and I followed her over a short path and up three steps to the house.
"You must be Ellen," Anita said to the woman and extended her hand.
Ellen shook it and offered her hand to me as well. "You must be Mr. Harmon. Please come in," she said. "Mother is looking forward to meeting you both."
We followed her through a very light entryway into the living room. I wondered if we were to be led to old Mrs. Clegg's bedroom and didn't look forward to that at all.
However, Ellen led us instead through a French door covered by a thin, white curtain into a very comfortable den. Even though the day was not at all cool, there was a blazing fire in the fireplace. Seated in a wheelchair near the fireplace was someone who looked like Needles, except that she was about sixty years old and frail. I stared at her for a moment and realized she was or at least had been a very attractive woman before her illness.
"Mr. Harmon," she said, "Miss Carswell, I am very glad to meet you. Please make yourselves comfortable."
I'm afraid I gawked as I seated myself in a comfortable armchair, for she smiled at me and said, "I'm Miranda Clegg. I'm sure you've heard me called 'old Mrs. Clegg' and expect to meet someone at least a hundred years old and terrifying."
I was relieved she'd chosen to say a hundred and not eighty or eighty-five, for Anita's sake. I looked over at Anita who was observing her with some interest from a perch on a hard-backed, very straight chair across the room from me.
"The people in town have called me old Mrs. Clegg every since I married. My late husband was ten years younger than I." She smiled with genuine amusement. "That just couldn't pass without comment, a marriage like that, I mean. And the name stuck."
Anita nodded and the woman continued, "I wanted to thank you personally for taking care of my granddaughter. But the real reason I've asked you to come by is because I need a favor."
I could feel my shoulders tense. Much as I found Miranda Clegg vaguely appealing and not at all the harridan I'd expected, I was starting to feel trapped.
"Please don't be alarmed, Mr. Harmon," she said, noticing my reaction. "It won't take long and you won't have to stay here in town in order to do it for me. Ellen told me you two were on your way to the pen show in Chicago. There is something, a small package I'd like you to take with you for me. I promised it to someone who will be in attendance."
"Not Felix Floh, I hope," Anita said.
Miranda laughed. "Oh, I can tell that Morris has been bending your ear. I love Morris," she said softly in an indulgent tone, "but he is obsessed with redeeming his good name. No one doubts his integrity at all, but…"
"We'd be glad to deliver your package to whomever you wish in Chicago," Anita reassured her. "As long as you make the arrangements."
Miranda smiled at her. "Perhaps," she offered, "you'd like to see what you'll be transporting."
I nodded.
"Ellen, please bring in the pen box, dear."
Ellen disappeared and I heard footsteps going up stairs. When she returned, she had a small box in her hand. She pulled a rolling table up in front of her mother's wheelchair and placed the box on it.
Miranda reached out and opened the box. In it were three pens, each one in its own velvet-lined compartment. I stood up to get a better look.
"These belonged to my husband," she explained, pointing to two of the pens. "This one he inherited from his father." She pulled out a mint Waterman Patrician, almost identical to the one Anita had in her bag. "He never used it," she explained. "His father had gotten it as a retirement gift and put it in a drawer, intending to use it to write his memoirs. He didn't live long enough to start them. My husband kept it as his father had left it."
She put the pen back in its compartment. "This one," she said, extricating a Mandarin Duofold Senior, also in mint or near mint condition, "my husband bought for himself when he was elected town clerk. He kept it in a glass case on his desk." She picked an imaginary spot of dirt from the pen before putting it back.
"And this," she said, indicating the third pen with a sad smile, "this one is mine." She showed us a fountain pen I didn't recognize. It was obviously Japanese and had what appeared to be a hand-painted design on it. "My husband bought it for me when Ellen was born." She held the pen tightly for a second and then returned it to its place in the box. "My memento of the good days," she whispered.
"I need to sell these," she explained.
"No, mother…," Ellen interrupted her.
"Yes," Miranda insisted. "You need a good lawyer. Things can't go on as they have been."
"Mother!" Ellen exclaimed, her face pale under its slight sprinkling of freckles. "I told you we'd work things out. There's no need."
Miranda just looked at her with pity in her eyes. "There is a need. Kevin has begun to withdraw money and is about to sell the store. He doesn't have your interests at heart, dear, I know you don't want to hear it, but it's true."
Ellen threw up her hands and marched out of the room. Miranda sighed, looked over at me, and whispered, "I'm sorry."
I felt slightly queasy and glanced over at Anita who seemed a little abstracted. She took a deep breath and focused once again on the woman in the wheelchair.
"Your husband collected fountain pens?"
Miranda nodded. "Yes, he had quite a collection. I've sold most of them through Morris, But Morris refused to sell these. He told me he'd lend me the money before he's see me give these up. But I can't take money from him."
Anita nodded.
"Morris is a good friend. He and my husband were close." She looked hard at Anita. "He told you his story, didn't he?
"Some of it," Anita replied cautiously. "We learned that your husband's father helped him become naturalized."
Miranda smiled. "Well, there's more to it than that, but it's not my place to tell you. Morris has been an angel since my husband's death."
"Mrs. Clegg," Anita began.
"Please call me Miranda."
"Very well, Miranda. Is there really no alternative to your selling off these pens? I can see that they mean a great deal to you."
"Miss Carswell," Miranda began.
"Please call me Anita."
Miranda actually grinned. "Just like my granddaughter. I hope you never called yourself Needles."
I choked down a chuckle.
"It's all right to laugh, Mr. Harmon. She is a very funny child. It's really for her sake, you see, that I'm taking this action. She can't continue to live in a family that isn't one. I've tried reasoning with Ellen, but she is very stubborn. Just like me, I'm afraid. As is little Needles."
Anita cleared her throat. "May I have a closer look at that last pen?" she asked.
Miranda took the pen out of its compartment, and before Anita could stand up to take it from her, I got up and brought it back to Anita. I wanted a closer look at it myself.
Anita carefully took the pen from me and examined it. "Just as I thought," she said under her breath. She took off the cap and examined the nib with her naked eye. Then she gave me the pen and I returned it to Miranda.
Anita folded her hands and inclined her head for a second the way she often did when she was about to speak.
"Do you know what that pen is, Miranda?"
Miranda shook her head. "I don't know a thing about fountain pens," she admitted, looking at me as if she expected to be scolded. "Martin," she explained, using her husband's name for the first time "had what I found an inexplicable passion for them. It was one of his many inexplicable passions," she said with a slightly twisted smile. "After his death I sold off all of them except to these which I kept for sentimental reasons. And a cigar box full of funny looking old things that he said didn't work. They needed to have something done to them, but I'm not sure what. I suppose that I'll get around to giving them to Morris someday to see if he can fix them and sell them off too. Martin said it was simple enough to do himself, but he didn't get around to it before his accident."
Anita took a deep breath and looked down. I could see that she was trying to process the information she'd just been given. So was I. Accident? No one had told me that Ellen's father, Miranda's husband, had died in an accident!
"Well," Anita began. "First things first. What you have here is a Dunhill-Namiki maki-e fountain pen with a chrysanthemum design on it. It is worth a bit more than the other two pens put together."
"Really?" Miranda said. "Wasted on me, I'm afraid, though I'm sure Martin thought the design would appeal to me as I love chrysanthemums."
"Yes," Anita said, looking a bit alarmed. "May I ask how much you were offered for the three pens you have there?"
"Oh, I agreed to sell them for $5000. That would cover the retainer fee the lawyer requested."
Anita glanced over at me, but I just shrugged my shoulders. I didn't know a thing about maki-e pens.
"So you already have a lawyer?" I asked, surprised because when speaking to Ellen she'd sounded as if finding a lawyer were something still to be done.
"Well," Miranda hesitated for a moment, "I haven't actually hired him, but we've had some discussions."
"I don't think you should sell those pens," Anita said suddenly. "Not at that price anyway. Why, the maki-e alone is worth more than that. I believe you should be able to get close to twice that for the three pens."
"Really?" Miranda repeated. "But I've made a commitment."
"Break it," Anita said. "Whoever offered you $5000 doubtless knew he was robbing you blind. You owe him nothing."
Miranda took a deep breath. "I've always sold pens through Morris, you see," she explained, looking embarrassed. "I really don't know a thing."
"I understand," Anita replied. "May I ask you one more thing?"
Miranda had started to wilt, and I could see that she was a very sick woman indeed. I wondered what illness was draining her strength, and I was more than a little impressed at how she had managed to pull herself together for her meeting with us.
"Of course, you may," she said to Anita with a smile.
"Could we look at that cigar box full of funny looking old things?"
"Certainly. But one of you'll have to get it down for me since Ellen isn't here. It's on the top shelf of the closet in the room just on the left at the top of the stairs."
"Bob?" Anita asked, giving me one of her commanding looks.
I smiled and stood up, eager to be up and doing. Maybe we'd get out of here today after all.

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