Of all the women's job skill centers in all the towns in all the Pacific Northwest, he walks into mine. It had been a rocky week already, and it wasn't Friday yet. In fact Thursday morning was moving so slowly that if I hadn't personally witnessed each second tick off on the big black schoolroom clock across from my desk, I would have sworn that time was standing still. It didn't help that no one was buying my best impersonation of a mild-mannered receptionist. As a woman who has never weighed less than 200 pounds in my adult life, you might not guess that I can be inconspicuous, but if I keep my head down and my mouth shut, I can usually pull it off. Unfortunately the earnest blue silk pantsuit, pearls and expression of well-bred naivete weren't working.
Something about this job skill center wasn't quite right. I needed to find out what it was for Mrs. Madrone, so that my wealthy employer could decide whether to award the place a grant. Maybe I had asked too many questions.
By the time Ted showed up, I was already on Delores Patton's radar. The center director was an African American woman who commanded respect with an attitude that could clean brass at 20 paces. She knew I wasn't your usual do-gooder. She just hadn't decided how to deal with it. Ted's arrival made up her mind, and managed to get me fired from a volunteer job—not as easy as it sounds.
Teddy Etheridge was the first male who had entered the office in the three weeks I'd been volunteering there. The Center was located in Bremerton, about an hour's ferry ride southwest of Seattle. I'd stayed in Bremerton during the week answering phones, helping out and nosing around. On the weekends in Seattle I saw my Persian tomcat, Raoul. Thor Mulligan took care of the cat for me during the week.
I had a crush on Mulligan, but he was still grieving over the death of Nina, his lover and my best friend. It had been three months since she died and I was mourning her too. But I was also fighting off a terrific yearning for Mulligan, who had drastically mixed feelings about getting involved with me, or maybe with anyone at this point.
We had tested this theory by spending a night together six weeks earlier. The night itself had been wonderful—right up until the emotional tidal wave of guilt and grief swept over Mulligan and left me untouched.
He had backed away from me after that. We hadn't talked about it much. I felt guilty about how I didn't feel guilty. As for what I could do next—the short answer appeared to be "Not much."
For a split second when Teddy walked in the door, I thought he might be a potential employer who had strayed in without an appointment. Not that I'd ever seen an actual employer on the premises. They did call from time to time to get cheap labor. Oops—I mean to support the Women's Job Skill Center.
Then I recognized him. "Teddy!" It was always Ted or Teddy to his friends. Never Theodore, not even on his book covers. He wrote humor books for a living.
When he realized it was me, his bearded face lit up in a huge grin. "Josephine Fuller!"
"Ted Etheridge. The last of the hopeless romantics."
I came around the desk to shake hands with him, and he pulled me into a big hug. An inch or two over six feet tall and square as a teddy-bear, Ted was not quite fat because he was so intensely physically active. I pulled back to take a look at him. Now in his late thirties, he would always be boyish, with a shock of red-brown hair that seemed to fall into his eyes no matter how short it was cut.
Our last conversation had lasted over a dozen hours—the night in Kathmandu when both of our marriages died.
Ted had been married to Francesca Benedict Etheridge, a gifted mountain climber. It had looked as if she might attempt an ascent on Mount Everest. That climb fell through, and she ended up ascending my husband—as he then was. Leaving Ted to entertain me in the lobby of the Everest Vista Hotel which, incidentally being quite a distance away in Nepal, does not have a view of Mt. Everest.
I had been married to Griffin Fuller, world-renowned as a photographer, and well-known (except to his wife) as a philanderer. Teddy had been playing the part of the supportive husband of a climber, helping Francesca field media coverage, and occupying himself by gathering local color in Nepal. He had a gift for mingling with serious trekkers and climbers, who sometimes mistook him for one of their own. But his appearance was deceptive. Teddy dabbled in climbing and a variety of other sports. But in everything he did, he was always looking for a punch line.
"Josephine, I haven't seen you—well, since that infamous night. Is it still Jo Fuller or did you get divorced?"
"Yes to both questions. My maiden name was O'Toole, so I kept Griff's last name in lieu of alimony. What about you and Francesca?"
He shrugged. "It's in the works."
"Is that anything like 'the check is in the mail'? 'The divorce is in the works'?"
"You can't know what hard work that is," Ted said. "It's backbreaking labor to convince Francesca to let go of anything she once controlled. Speaking of which, she's still with Griff. Did you know that?"
"I made it a point not to know."
That night in the hotel lobby was etched in my memory. Ted and I had met a few days earlier, as both he and Griff had assignments from the same travel magazine. As we waited in the lobby, it became clearer with each hour that our respective spouses, scheduled to arrive at any moment, were both not showing up.
We adjourned to the bar, and began comparing notes. We were able to put together a pretty strong case for the suspicion that my husband and his wife were spending the night together. Ted and I had some quantity of time to reflect on the qualities that we both expected in a spouse. Loyalty was high on both our lists but the partners we were with didn't seem to feel the same way.
We got along famously. We managed to laugh quite a lot, considering the situation. The scotch whiskey might have helped. There was never any possibility that we might have wandered up to one of the rooms together that long dark night for some mutual comfort. True, we did both have that little kink about not cheating.
But, I must also note that, as a large-sized woman, I've developed extra-sensitive radar for men who see me as a sexual being, versus men who see a surrogate mom. Ted had cried on my shoulder that night in Kathmandu. No problem, we were consenting adults crying on each other's shoulders. Now I got the sinking feeling that he viewed me as a warm, fuzzy shoulder to lay his head on, and indulge in another sympathy session.
I was in no mood. I needed to stop that in its tracks.
"So what brings you here, Ted? Are you planning a sex-change operation, and lining up future employment? I hate to tell you, but the pay cut is the most unkindest cut of all."
Teddy burst out laughing, which seemed to knock him out of what looked like a looming self-pity jag. "Et tu, Josephine!" He quipped with his hand over his heart. "You'll have to stand in line today—grab a knife and take a number."
"Ouch!" I chalked him up a point for the quick recovery and the edgy image of Teddy as Caesar surrounded by knife-wielding, female assailants.
But there was a gasp from behind me, and I saw the Center Director Delores Patton. She was the image of the Black executive woman today from her copper-colored wool business suit with matching nails, to her short Afro hairstyle and take charge expression. Delores had already expressed doubts about whether I should be there. My joking with Ted sent the room temperature zooming downward until I could almost hear her opinion crystallize into a solid, frozen, "No."
Ted got in a flash that I had shocked Delores, and that tickled him even more. He was amazingly good-natured for a humorist—a job that usually comes with neurotic baggage. He wrote a syndicated column, Ted's Wide World of Bumbling, based on his attempts to try new and daring destinations and modes of transportation, usually with hilarious results. He also wrote a series of books about adventure travel for the clueless, which had bumbled onto the bestseller list. The first one was Bumbling Through the Jungle—about a tourist wandering the rainforests of the world. This was succeeded by Bumbling Around In Boats—about sailing boats of all sizes. In Nepal, he had been gathering material for Bumbling Along the Roof of the World.
Delores blinked as if she recognized Ted's name when I introduced him as a best-selling author. Ted stared at his feet and mumbled "Aw, shucks." But Delores continued to look grim.
"Sorry, ma'am, I just bumbled into your office by mistake," Ted said, giving Delores his most boyish look. "What a wonderful surprise to find my old friend Josephine. Can you spare her for lunch?" He asked her, as if begging a parent to let their child come out to play.
"You're supposed to ask me, Teddy," I said, although Delores's reaction was interesting.
"I was getting to that, Jo. If this gracious lady can spare you for an hour."
Delores stepped past me, punched the intercom, and called one of the counselors to cover the phones. She muttered that I was free to go now if I wanted. She didn't say anything about not coming back. But it was there if I wanted to hear it.
The next day Francesca Etheridge winds up slain by her own ice axe, and the murder weapon is discovered in Josephine's storage room, which implicates Jo as a suspect. She must find the real killer while she is still AT LARGE!
© Lynne Murray