FIONA HAD A window. She had a window just to the right of her reproduction Empire desk here on the upper floor of Livia Northwood Wheeler's duplex apartment on Fifth Avenue in the Seventies, and she never tired of looking out her window at the sweep of Central Park down below, not even when it was snowing, which it was doing right now. Not a heavy snow like those of January and February, turning the world white and thick and hard to move around in, this was a tentative March snow, the snow of a season that knows its end is near, a mere dusting of white to freshen the mounds of old snow gathered beneath the trees and against the low stone wall that separated the park from Fifth Avenue.
Fiona's job as Livia Northwood Wheeler's personal assistant was interesting in its diversity, but it did leave time for gazing out the window at the park, imagining what the view would be when they came to spring and then to summer. When she wasn't park-gazing, though, there was enough to keep her busy in Mrs. Wheeler's affairs, which were many and varied and mostly uncoordinated.
Mrs. W (as she preferred to be called by the staff) was, for instance, on the boards of many of the city's organizations, as well as a director of a mind-boggling array of corporations. Beyond that, she was a tireless litigant, involved in many more lawsuits than merely those involving her immediate family. Solo, or as a very active member of a class, she was at the moment suing automobile manufacturers, aspirin makers, television networks, department stores, airlines, law firms that had previously represented her, and an array of ex-employees, including two former personal assistants.
While passionately involved in every one of these matters, Mrs. W was not at all coordinated or methodical and never knew exactly where she was in any ongoing concern, whom she owed, who owed her, and where and when the meeting was supposed to take place. She really needed a personal assistant.
And Fiona was perfect for the job. She was calm, she had no ax to grind, and she had a natural love for detail. Particularly for all the more reprehensible details of Mrs. W's busy life, the double-dealing and chicanery, the stories behind all the lawsuits and all the feuds and all the shifting loyalties among Mrs. W's many rich-lady friends. And, just to make Fiona's life complete, Mrs. W was writing an autobiography!
Talk about history in the raw. Mrs. W had total recall of every slight she'd ever suffered, every snub, every shortchanging, every encounter in which the other party had turned out to be even more grasping, shrewder, and more untrustworthy than she was. She dictated all these steaming memories into a tape recorder in spurts of venom, which Lucy Leebald, Mrs. W's current secretary, had to type out into neat manuscript.
Fiona's role in all this was to read the finished sections of manuscript and establish the chronology of events, since Mrs. W recalled things in no sequence at all and didn't personally care a rap when this or that event had occurred. To put her story in chronological order purely on the basis of internal evidence was, of course, impossible, but it was just exactly the kind of impossibility a history nut goes nuts for.
Fiona, still astonished by the fact three months later, was in heaven. The day she'd been fired by Mr. Tumbril at Feinberg had been a frightening one, somehow liberating but mostly perilous, with no solid future in sight. She'd had to tell Brian, of course (he'd responded with black pudding for dinner), but she told no one else, not even her grandfather, until the following week, when he called her because he'd received that set of names of Northwood heirs she'd mailed on her way out the Feinberg door. Then she'd had to confess, weeping a bit, and he was so repentant, so appalled, so positive it was all his fault, that she was forced to cheer up just so he would feel a little better.
He was also responsible for her being here, in this job. It's true Mrs. W had said, at the end of that awful experience, "Call me," but Fiona had had no intention of doing any such thing until Grandfather, hearing her story, insisted she make the call: "Always follow up, Fiona, it's a rule of the world."
So she'd followed up, to find that the invitation to call had been an act of contrition by a woman not at all used to being contrite. She hadn't thought twice about heaving the lackey Fiona Hemlow at the head of Jay Tumbril, only to discover — mirabile dictu! — the girl was innocent! And a victim! Mrs. W's victim as much as Jay Tumbril's, in fact.
So here she was, and if Mr. Tumbril knew who answered Mrs. W's office phone these days, those few times he'd left messages here, he gave no sign. Nor, of course, did she.
Not the office phone. There were three phones on Fiona's desk, each with its own ring — blip-blip for the outside line, bzzzork for the in-house line, and tink-tink for Mrs. W's private line from her desk in her own office across the hall. So: "Good morning, Mrs. W It's still snowing."
"Thank you, my dear, I have the Weather Channel for that. Come in and bring your pad."
Fiona left the office she shared with Lucy Leebald, crossed the hall with its elevator at the far end and window at this end with its identical park view to her own, and into Mrs. W's office, in which the same windows somehow offered more light, more air and more park, and where Mrs. W herself sat at her more ornate desk and nodded at Fiona like the queen bee she was. "Good morning, dear."
"Good morning, Mrs. W."
"Close the door, dear, and sit on the sofa here. You have your pad; good."
The little settee next to Mrs. W's desk was far less comfortable than it looked. Fiona perched on it and looked expectant.
Mrs. W seemed more ruminative than usual this morning. Frowning a little, she watched her hands move small figurines around on her desk as she said, "As I remember, in addition to your law degree, you have a strong interest in the study of history."
"Your memoir is fascinating, Mrs. W"
"Of course it is. But it's a different history I want you to think about now."
"Do you remember a discussion we had — two discussions, I think — about the Chicago chess set?"
Oh, dear. Fiona had been afraid to even mention the chess set, but wanting to help her grandfather in his quest — even if at the moment he believed he'd given it up — she had given it a try. She'd even — when they were looking together at the photos of the pieces on Mrs. W's computer — managed to «discover» the mismatch in weight among the rooks.
But that had been some time ago. She'd given the effort up when she'd seen she was getting nowhere and might even be putting herself at risk. But now Mrs. W herself had raised the issue; for good, or for ill? Heart in her mouth but expression as innocent as ever, Fiona said, "Oh, yes, ma'am. That beautiful chess set."
"You noticed one of the pieces was the wrong weight."
"Oh, I remember that."
"Very observant of you," Mrs. W said, and nodded, agreeing with herself. "That fact kept bothering me, after our discussions, and I soon realized there was far more mystery surrounding that chess set than merely one unexpectedly lighter rook."
Looking alert, interested, Fiona said, "Oh, really?"
"Where is that chess set from?" Mrs. W demanded, glaring severely at Fiona. "Who made it? Where? In what century? It just abruptly appears, with no history, in a sealed glass case in the lobby of my father's company, Gold Castle Realty, when they moved into the Castlewood Building in 1948. Where was it before 1948? Where did my father get it, and when? And now that we know the one piece is lighter than the rest, and is a castle, now we wonder, where did my father get his company name?"
"Gold Castle, you mean."
Knowing how she could answer every last one of Mrs. W's questions, but how doing so would be absolutely the worst move she could make, Fiona said, "Well, I guess he had to have it somewhere else before he put up the new building."
"But where?" Mrs. W demanded. "And how long had he had it? And who had it before him?" Mrs. W shook her head. "You see, Fiona, the more you study that chess set, the deeper the mystery becomes."
"History and mystery," Mrs. W mused. "The words belong together. Fiona, I want you to ferret out the history and the mystery of the Chicago chess set."
I am being given, Fiona thought, the one job in all the world at which I have to fail. I'm the mystery, Mrs. W, she thought, I'm the mystery and the history, my family and I, and you must never know.
Mrs. W was going on, saying, "I don't mean I want you to devote your life to that, but for at least a little time every day you should work on this problem. What is that chess set, and where did it come from?"
"Yes, ma'am." With the sudden thought that there might be something useful here, after all, useful to her grandfather and to Mr. Eppick and to Mr. Dortmunder, she said, "Do you think I should go look at the chess set?"
Mrs. W didn't like that idea at all. "What, physically stare at the thing? We know what it looks like, Fiona."
"Yes, of course," Fiona said.
"If it had a label on the bottom reading 'Made In China, someone would have noticed it before this."
"If it ever turns out there is a need for a physical examination, I'm sure we could arrange it. But for now, Fiona, the question you are to concern yourself with is provenance. What is that chess set's history? What is its mystery?"
"I'll look into it, Mrs. W," Fiona promised.