Fred Chappell

An excerpt from Bon Ton

When Harris T. Bonforth appeared at the reception desk, Walt and Belmont were startled. They had previously decided that the person who reserved a room three months ago, back in mid-April, was the same Harris T. Bonforth who had placed the intriguing advertisement in Friday’s Gallinton Bugler, the town’s weekly newspaper. But both cousins had pictured him, without discussing the topic, as a shortish figure, probably bearded, with a whiff of charlatanry emanating from a seedy tweed jacket. Instead, he was a tall African American, handsome, dignified, and mellifluously soft-spoken. Walt took pleasure in hearing him. He was dressed in a red turtleneck, dark green slacks, and was jacketless. He looked as if he would possess a low golf handicap.

Walt and Monty often shared fancies and premonitions. They had been thrown upon each other’s company since childhood and had shared their present business venture for the past seven years. It was inevitable that they would often think alike.

Yet they were different too. Walt was the younger by about eighteen months and the more impulsive of the two—the more “artistic,” Monty would claim, with some hint of admiration in his tone. Walt was the chef; he enjoyed constructing and serving the breakfasts that the b & b establishment they had named the Waltmon Inn was proud to offer. Monty was the more precise, furnishing the necessary hard head for business. He doted on Walt’s ambition to make the inn a quality hostel, though he recognized that his cousin had but a partial grasp of what was needed to make his idea a reality. Walt was fuzzy-minded—and that is to state the case in the mildest of terms.

And sometimes his artistic side got the better of him, Monty thought. For instance, he held in high disfavor Walt’s peculiar phrase for what he desired. “Bon ton,” Walt would say, nazalizing the phrase in so thorough and high-schoolish a manner that it sounded like a Jersey heifer’s attempt at human communication. Monty feared and detested every foreign tongue and especially the Gallic, but he understood what Walt meant. This was not always the case. Walt’s mind was a nervous, agile entity that leapt about the landscape of reference like a camel cricket. His acuities, as well as his dizzy delusions, were so swift that he sometimes left himself behind, a figure dimly descried though the mists of misapprehension.

Originally they were members of the boisterous Blanton clan, a family prominent in this part of eastern North Carolina and wonderfully self-satisfied. They had separated themselves from the rest of the tribe when they were teenagers and some of the more bumptious Blantons had stigmatized them as sissy-boys. Walt resented this insolence to the point of physical protest and it was locally thought that the scattering of his brains was the result of frequent knocks to the noggin by his inartistic kinfolk. At any rate, this ungenerous treatment had served to bond Monty and Walt. 

While Monty was signing Bonforth in, Walt removed, not entirely surreptitiously, the newspaper laid out on the counter and turned to the quarter-page ad:

            HARRIS T. BONFORTH
            THURSDAY, FRIDAY 9-12, 1-5
            WALTMON INN
            GALLINTON, NC

Bonforth seemed not to notice the removal of the paper. He only raised his slow, warm gaze to Monty after signing the registration card and said that he would like to keep the bill on his VISA number. Monty agreed and inquired how many nights their guest would be staying.

“Tonight and the two following, just as I reserved. You would know that from the newspaper ad.” He smiled and indicated the newly vacant space on the countertop. His voice, as mellow as a knife-ready cantaloupe, inspired trust.

Monty informed him that 27 was upstairs in this building at the opposite end of the hall and asked if he required assistance with his luggage. He did not, but said that he was gratified to learn that breakfast would be served from seven till 9:30 in the adjoining house. “I understand that your breakfasts have a strong reputation.”

“Walt makes them up,” Monty said, “and people seem to like them. Can we assist you in any other way?”

“I hope you won’t find it a nuisance,” Bonforth said, “that I will be welcoming a number of visitors to my room. There will be no loud disturbances or trouble of any sort. Your other guests should not be inconvenienced.”

“I’m sure it will be all right. You don’t look the sort for rough parties.”

“I avoid parties.”

“May I ask what sort of work you engage in?”

“You saw my advertisement. It is a reminder to some people who may wish to talk to me.”

“I understand,” Monty said, having no inkling. But the question had already ventured beyond his customary limits of propriety, had almost distressed the bon ton Walt said they must maintain. He heard his cousin clear his throat and knew it for a sign of disapproval. Walt was inconsistent; sometimes he was the politer of the two, sometimes he was downright insensitive.

Bonforth turned down the offer of a tour of the room and a second offer of luggage assistance. He carried only a single suitcase of forest green leather, dignified and expensive-looking. He accepted the room key and its bulky crystal knob attachment with an air of amusement and ascended the stairs with steady tread.

The cousins listened, silent till he climbed out of earshot. Then Walt said, “Monty. What were you thinking of, asking Mr. Bonforth—”

“I don’t know what came over me. It just slipped out. With this fellow, it seemed like it would be all right. Like he wouldn’t mind.”

“He didn’t seem to mind, but I thought I’d keel right over. I embarrass easily,” Walt said. He brushed a lock of silver hair from his forehead and tugged his vest down to meet his belt. He was vain about his vests and his silver hair. Monty’s hair was a sprinkled gray.

“No you don’t,” Monty said. “You’re never embarrassed.”

“I was just now.”

“It’s the exception that proves the rule.” 

“And, anyhow, you didn’t find out what he does.”

“True enough,” Monty said. “Let’s look at that ad again.”

Walt retrieved it from beneath the counter and they studied, but it informed them no better than before. “Do you have something to tell me?” Walt read. He looked teasingly at Monty. “Well, you had something to ask him, at least, but—”

“Enough already.”

Walt tugged his earlobe. “Do you think he’s some sort of spiritual advisor? Like a palm reader?” He was thinking of Sister Zandella and Madame Topaz. Gallinton was a sleepy, sun-drenched town of 8000 placid souls, but it boasted two females who proclaimed their powers of prophecy and clairvoyance on untidily lettered signs posted out by Highway 427. Walt had always been curious about them.

Monty thumbed his red suspenders outward and let them snap back against his well padded chest. “What does he expect to be told?”

“I don’t know,” Walt said.

Then it was 4:30 and other guests arrived. There were but two parties today besides Bonforth, a family of four traveling to Wrightsville Beach and a honeymoon couple. The children of the beach-seekers, a girl and boy who looked to be about ten and twelve, were lively. This quartet was consigned to the adjoining house where quarters were larger than in this venerable Victorian dwelling with its dark ceilings and narrow hallways. Walt felt that he was the better hand with children, so he led the family across, helped them with their luggage and a battered stack of board games, showed them the bath arrangements, and exhibited the daintily handsome Episcopal church outside the east window. “Eighteen thirty-seven,” he said with unconcealed pride, disappointed that the structure drew only cursory glances from parents occupied with commanding their offspring not to assassinate each other. The mother instructed young George that Billie Jane got to use the bathroom first because she was a girl and he energetically protested this injustice.

The honeymooners did not arrive until six. They looked both exhilarated and exhausted, softly tipsy maybe, and were preternaturally quiet. They seemed almost sad, or so Monty imagined. It had been thought prudent to place them upstairs rather than in the house where the children were lodged. “We don’t want to discourage a young couple,” Walt had said and Monty replied, “You impudent thing.” It took but fifteen minutes to settle the pair; they seemed to long for sleep.

Then Bonforth made his second appearance, descending the stairs silently and coming to the desk. He wanted to warn the cousins that their nice lobby might become a little crowded on the morrow. “I regret the bother,” he said, “but there’s not much I can do about it. I can guarantee they won’t cause any trouble. But some always show up early. When they arrive early they just have to hang around. I’m very strict about time. My appointments never run over, but there’s no way to control the early birds.”

“What size crowds are we talking about?” Monty asked.

“No crowds,” he replied. “Two or three folks at most, early on. Later in the day they thin out.”

“There will be no problem. Will they have any special needs? How can we help?”

“They’ll just sit around and wait. Leaf through your magazines, stare into space. You know, the way people do in lobbies.”

“We could offer coffee,” Walt said brightly. “They could chat with each other and get acquainted.”

Bonforth shook his head. “They won’t chat.” 

“I wish we had more parking space,” Walt said.

“It’s sufficient. Some of them will probably walk over instead of driving.”

“So your . . . guests will be from around here?”

“From Gallinton or close by, most of them.”

“Then we’ll know who they are,” Walt said. “We’ll recognize them.”

“You’ll know some of them, I expect. You’ll probably recognize them.”

“If I know them, I’m bound to recognize them.”

“Maybe,” said Bonforth.

“We’ll do everything we can to be of service,” Walt said. “For this evening would you like information about area restaurants? I can recommend three nice places for dinner and another that’s pretty good. Easy drives.”

“I thank you, but I’ve already made dinner arrangements. In fact, I’m going out now and will return later tonight.” He pulled his room key from the pocket of his tan blazer. “I’ll keep the key with me so I won’t have to disturb you when I come in.”

“Be glad to keep it for you at the desk.”

“I don’t think I’ll lose it,” Bonforth said. He chuckled and tapped the crystal knob to make it swing back and forth.

“That’s one reason we attached those pendants. Monty and I were determined to have real keys that turn in the locks. I think those plastic-card thingies are so tacky. Don’t you like a key that fits and turns?”

Bonforth agreed that this was the more elegant option. He gave an observant look around before saying, “You have a nice place. Has it been in your family?”

Monty beamed. “It belonged to my darling Aunt Miriam. She passed it on to me. I didn’t know what to do with such a big old house, so when Walt suggested the b & b idea I was thrilled. Then we had to wait till the Tramble property next door was available. Big as this place is, we really need two houses, especially for families with children. But, wouldn’t you know, after Walt had come up with this lovely idea, he got cold feet. He wanted to back out after we signed for the Tramble place. I told him, ‘Walt, the time to back out was before. I finally got him to see it my way”

Walt flushed and shook his head. “It wasn’t like that. Not exactly.” 

“It was precisely like that,” Monty said, “and I think it’s turned out rather well, don’t you, Mr. Bonforth?”

“Yes indeed.”

“Of course, it’s not a matched pair,” Monty explained. “This house was built in 1892. The one next door only dates back to the ’20s. We’re not sure of the year. We keep meaning to find out.”

“Both are very nice,” Bonforth said.

“Well, I’ve just rattled on, haven’t I? I should be asking if your room is all right. Did you find the alarm clock by the bed? And the TV channel guide? We’ve had cable installed. Walt and I like the nature shows and the cooking shows.”

“I don’t like that Portagee fellow,” Walt said. “All those fools hollering about garlic.”

Bonforth said, “I have everything I could possibly need.”

“We have a turn-down service,” Walt said. “All hours.” 

“I’ll see you later then,” said Bonforth and he gave his key pendant a waggle before restoring it to his pocket. His calm footsteps took him to the door noiselessly. He paused on the wide porch to inspect the front garden and then stepped down into the pea-gravel front walk.

Walt said, “Monty—”

His cousin grinned ruefully and tugged at the red braces. “Sorry about that. I really gave him an earful. I don’t know what made me run on so. I don’t usually chatter that way, do I?”

“No, you don’t.”

“I just rattled on and on.”

“You like him. I could tell that.”

“He seems a likeable sort. He seemed interested.”

“I couldn’t tell if he was interested or only being polite, the way you jabbered at him. It’s not like you, Monty.”


BONFORTH WAS EARLY to breakfast next morning. He took o.j. and coffee, two bacon strips, a sausage patty, and an order of  Walt’s famous French toast. “No, it’s not really famous,” the silver-haired host confessed, “but folks brag on it enough that I’ve taken to calling it famous. A joke, you understand.”

“It’s tasty enough to be famous,” Bonforth said. He finished it off with an appreciative flourish and announced that he was going for a constitutional. 

“If you walk around Gallinton, be sure and visit the graveyard. There are some interesting sites over there.”

The tall man nodded, left, and returned in forty-five minutes. When he entered the lobby he seemed content with his excursion but did not say whether it had included dead people. Monty was at the registration desk and informed him that he had received a call and that the caller would phone back later. That seemed to annoy the cheerful gentleman. He looked at the clock behind the counter and muttered, “Too early.” It read 8:10. Then he went up the stairs in a businesslike manner.

At 8:30 a man entered and asked if Harris T. Bonforth was in residence. Monty said that he’d seen him go upstairs and that he was staying in room 27. The man nodded, glanced at his wristwatch, and took a seat on the maple deck sofa in the middle of the room. He sat straight, with his hands on his knees, and stared into the space before him as if it were a TV screen lurid with melodrama.

Monty would describe him as the most ordinary-looking person he’d ever seen. In his late thirties, with nondescript brown hair, of medium height, and dressed in a green sport shirt and khaki trousers, he was the type of person you think you recognize but can’t place immediately. If you wanted to hide from the police, you would try to look like this man.

At five minutes till nine, the porch door opened to admit a different sort of personage, an older black gentleman of commanding presence and graceful bearing. He wore a light woolen three-piece suit with a heavy gold watch chain. The frame of his rimless spectacles was gold. He advanced with stately tread to the desk, nodded gravely, and asked in a deep rich voice, “Mr. Bonforth?” When Monty said, “Room 27,” he nodded again and turned to survey the room. He spotted the other gentleman who sat unmoved, still staring at nothing but air, took him in with a keen glance, and looked away, as if he’d seen what he had expected to see and nothing more. Then he took a chair to the left behind the other and opened the Newsweek he was carrying. But he did not read it.

When it was nine the ordinary fellow did not look at the clock but stood up suddenly, his movement jerky, as if it surprised him to be standing, then marched stiffly to the bottom of the stairway. There he paused and looked upward before climbing the steps slowly, as if he were counting them one by one.

At nine-fifteen the beach-bound family began to check out. This business occupied a good fifteen minutes and still was not concluded when the unremarkable man came downstairs and made his way through the travelers, avoiding Billie Jane’s struggle to fend off her brother’s pinches, and slipped outside and away. Monty was busy with some minor computer tribulation and was unable to form as full an impression of the departing visitor as he had planned. Had the fellow been trembling and white-faced or was that only a silly fancy?

Then the computer began making confused, towhee-like noises and Monty turned his attention to it and so did not see the demeanor of the grave black gentleman as he went to his appointment in room 27. Monty was vexed. Walt had asked him to keep an eye on the situation and to report exactly what he observed and what he inferred.

Then at 9:50 a woman entered, gave Walt a harried, surreptitious glance and turned quickly away. She went to the east window to look out into the garden with its hostas and day lilies and late-blooming white azaleas, keeping her face carefully—as it seemed—turned from Monty. She was dressed in a light lime housedress over which she had drawn a red leather coat that had no business accompanying such a dress. Her hair too was red, an improbable strawberry-Kool Aid color, and was perched on her head as if she’d clapped it on while fleeing a house fire. It was a wig, of course, but was she hoping to disguise herself or to attract attention? It might work both ways, Monty thought, because it did attract attention but was so distracting it could confuse anyone trying to make up a description of her.

In fact, Monty felt that he knew her and would recognize her if he could get a good look at her face. He called with professional cheerfulness across the lobby space, “Can I be of service, miss?” But she only shook her averted head and continued her examination of the floral display.

Having finished his breakfast duties, Walt came in from the back of the house and started to say something. A swift warning glance from Monty silenced him and he looked where Monty’s glance indicated the woman at the window. He peered at her closely, widened his eyes in wonderment, and peered again. He grasped his cousin’s forearm, preparing to whisper.

But then the black gentleman came down the stairs and Monty was struck by the differences in him. His step had lightened and his gravity seemed partly dispelled. His bearing was still dignified but it seemed as if a burden had been lifted, as if he waltzed rather than walked across the lobby. Monty followed his progress closely as he departed, leaving his Newsweek on the chair where he had been seated. He called after him, “Sir, you forgot your magazine,” but the happy fellow only gave a dismissive wave of his hand as he went out into the morning brightness.

“Did you see what I saw?” Walt asked.

“Yes, he left his Newsweek.”

“No. The woman in that odd get-up, trying to disguise herself. She just went upstairs.”

“I missed her.”

“She was quite a sight.”

“I mean, I didn’t see her go up. I saw her before you came in.”

“Didn’t you recognize her?”


“Mamie Barnhart.”



“Dressed like that? She kept hiding her face from me.”

“I don’t wonder.”

“Are you sure? I thought I recognized her, but I wouldn’t have said Mamie.”

“I’ll swear it on bibles.”

“What in the world is she—?”

“How about the others? Have you been keeping watch?”

Monty averred that he had observed as closely as possible and described the egregiously ordinary man and the grave black man. He tried to describe the changes he thought he saw in the latter but felt he wasn’t making a success. He never did with Walt; his cousin had made a vocation of being confused.

“Lighter how?” Walt asked again.

“Like folks say, ‘A weight off my shoulders.’ Am I being clear?”

“Maybe. Like, for example, he had told a secret he’d been keeping for a long time? Something he got off his chest?”


“And Mamie Barnhart. Can you believe?”

“I wouldn’t’ve.”

“I’d give a nickel to know what it’s all about.”

At this remark of Walt’s the cousins looked at each other with startled apprehensiveness, looked away again, as if both had entertained the same thought but had rejected it.

“It wouldn’t be anything bad. Not really. Mamie’s a wonderful girl,” Monty said.

Walt nodded but said, “Still, she is married to Howie. 

You know about Howie.”

“Yes,” Monty said, “but does she?”

“After all these years? She’s bound to.”

“But what would this Bonforth person have to do with Howie?”

Walt indicated his ignorance by drumming with his thumb on the counter. “How about our honeymooners?” he asked. 

“Not a peep.”

“They’ve missed breakfast. I told them, no breakfast after 9:30.”

“They won’t mind.”

Precisely at ten Mamie Barnhart came down the stairs with a steady march-like rhythm. Her red coat was draped over her left shoulder and she bore the garish wig in her right hand, twirling it round and round by a lock of hair. Her brunette natural hair had been discomposed by tugging off the wig and there was an air of aggression in her stride. On her way across the lobby, she addressed them cheerily: “Good morning, boys. See you in church.” At the door she paused to let a short Hispanic-looking man enter. Then she exited.

Monty was thunderstruck. “Boys?” he said, but had no time to pursue the matter as the swarthy small man with the dapper mustache came back to the desk, looked at Monty, at Walt, at Monty again, and inquired, “Señor Bonforth?”

“Room twenty-seven,” the cousins chorused and he jittered away and up the stairs. He seemed possessed by an energy he could barely contain. They could hear on the stairway above the landing that he was taking the second set of steps two at a time. 

They turned to each other. “Well—” Monty began but then fell silent. Walt gathered himself to speak but did not; his shoulders rose and fell. Finally he said, “There’s the mailman. I’ll go get it,” and went out to their mailbox by the side of quiet, shady Virginia Avenue. The cousins were proud of their mailbox, mounted in a wrought-iron acanthus-leaf frame they had commissioned from a local artist.

He brought in the sheaf, mostly real estate advertisements and utility bills, and as they sorted through he asked Monty, “Are you satisfied it was Mamie?”

“Oh yes, it’s her all right, but what in the world—?”

Walt only nodded and waited a full two minutes before advancing a careful philosophical proposition: “Human curiosity is a powerful force.”

Monty waited an equal amount of time before assenting.

Then Walt ventured: “A person can’t help wondering.”

“Yes.” This monosyllable issued from Monty with great reluctance. He tugged at his red suspenders. 

The cousins looked at each other with wondering eyes and both were relieved when the portentous moment was interrupted by the entry down the stairs of the sleepy-looking but carefully brushed bridegroom who came to tell them that the clock had stopped in room 21 and he and Eunice had overslept. Was there a chance for a late breakfast?

Monty informed him, in a tone both respectful and regretful, that their kitchen set-up made it impossible to serve after 9:30. He was sorry for the inconvenience but helpless to remedy it.

The young man accepted this verdict in good spirit and brightened considerably when Eunice danced down the stairs. She was lively and chipper, in contrast to her fuzzy-mannered groom, and did full justice to a red dirndl with crisply starched shoulder puffs. She frowned fetchingly when told the unhappy news, stamped a trim foot in mock anger, and told her husband she would have breakfast, however late the hour. 

Walt was eager to recommend the Tick-Tock, just on the east side of Gallinton, Highway 427, a place that served breakfast till 11:30. It was now eleven and a five-minute drive would secure them hot biscuits, strong coffee, fresh brown eggs, and country ham. Eunice seemed exhilarated by this intelligence, grasped her husband’s hand, and only half playfully dragged him toward the parking lot.

But while this scene of romantic foolery transpired, the small Hispanic gentleman rattled down the stairs, flitted through the lobby and out the door which simultaneously admitted the Reverend Mr. Waller, revered minister of the starchily respectable First Baptist Church of Gallinton, which boasted a congregation of no fewer than 510 souls. He came to the reception desk, shook hands with the cousins and asked warmly after their health and welfare. Satisfied on these scores, he told them without hesitation or any apparent embarrassment that he had an appointment with Mr. Harris T. Bonforth. Having learned the room number, he gave the cousins a cordial half-bow, besought the blessings of the Deity upon Monty’s gray head and Walt’s silver, and mounted the stairs with a manly step.

There was a small roller stool below the mail slots and now Monty went over to it and sat heavily. Walt might have said that he tottered to it, but he did not see, having collapsed over the desk with his face down on the backs of his hands. The cousins held these postures for a while, neither daring to break the strained silence.

Finally Walt straightened and declared, “Well, that tears it.”

There was a dull tone to Monty’s response: “What do you mean?”

“Everything I’ve been thinking, every theory I’ve come up with, has been exploded to smithereens.”

“What were you thinking?”

“I’m not such a moron as to say. Haven’t you been having ideas?”

Monty admitted to ideas but kept them silent, aspiring no more ambitiously than did his cousin to the title of Moron.

After a solemn pause Walt made an announcement that Monty did not find mysterious: “I am beginning to think the unthinkable.”

“I was afraid of that.”

“How about you?”

“I’m not very good at the unthinkable.”


“How? When?”

When is noon. How is that closet storeroom at the end of the hall.”

“You could probably hear what they say in 27, but you wouldn’t be able to see.”

“You wouldn’t need to. One of us would work at the desk and keep a log on who went up and the other would be in the storeroom listening. Then we’d compare notes.”

“You sound like you’re going to do it, Walt. This is creepy.”

“It would have to be both of us. I agree that it’s creepy. But shouldn’t we know what’s going on in our own business establishment? What if it’s something illegal?”

“Like what?”

Walt thought and came up empty. Shrugged. “Drugs, maybe?”

“Give me a break.”

“Well, something is going on. Maybe not illegal,
just. . . . illicit.”

“Or fattening,” Monty rejoined. “You want to remember, Walt, how Norman Bates wound up in that scary movie. That’s what an innkeeper gets for spying on guests.”

“If it was illegal, we might be liable. Lawyers. Courts. Unwholesome publicity.”

“That’s a lame excuse. Anyhow, there’s not enough room in that closet. We keep piling stuff in there.”

“That’s why I suggested noon. While Bonforth is out to lunch we can clean out a space. Wouldn’t take much.”

“No,” Monty said. “It’s too stupid.”

“Just natural curiosity,” Walt said.


“I’ll make a space for us—one of us. You can decide if you want to get involved.”

“If I know you’re doing it, I’m already involved.”


“I’ll have to think.”

“How long?”

“I’ll sleep on it.”

“Tomorrow, you mean? That’s a long time off.”

“Tomorrow or never,” Monty said and the debate would have continued in this vein if the reverend Mr. Waller had not now come waveringly down the stairs. He flourished a large white handkerchief at the cousins and then wiped the back of his neck. He lumbered to the wicker rocking chair by the coffee table and lowered himself with tender carefulness.

“Are you all right, Reverend?” Monty asked. “You look distressed.”

The minister sat forward, twisted the handkerchief damply, and requested a glass of water.

“Of course, of course,” Walt stammered and hurried to the kitchen. When he returned, Mr. Waller seemed to have recovered his composure, but he accepted the glass gratefully and drained it off.

“Are you all right?”

“Yes, thank you, Walt. Just need a moment to catch my breath.”

“I hope it’s nothing bad.”

“Sometimes a person comes to a sudden realization that takes the wind right out of him.”

“There have been people going up all morning. Monty and I have been wondering.” 

The minister handed his glass back to Walt and gave him a searching stare. “You don’t know? I assumed that since Bonforth chose the Waltmon Inn he’d tell you.”

“Not a word,” said Monty.

“Not the first syllable,” Walt said.

Reverend Waller rose to his full imposing height, looked directly at the pair, and spoke with calm seriousness: “Well, if you don’t already know, I have to believe I’m not at liberty to tell. I apologize. I don’t wish to be secretive.”

“We’re sure it can’t be anything bad. Illegal or anything.”

But the minister did not respond to this feeble sally except to say, “I think it’s not my place to divulge.” With that, he shook Walt’s hand with reserved cordiality, waved casually at Monty behind the counter, and was out the door into what had turned from a pretty morning into a glorious day. They watched as he trudged down the front walk and as he nodded to the girl making her way to the porch.

The cousins had no time to discuss the minister’s uninformative statements before the girl came in. Walt guessed her age at fourteen or so and thought he could almost place who she was; he was certain to know her parents.

She exhibited a teenager’s awkward shyness when asking for Mr. Bonforth and Monty divulged the number 27 with unwonted tenderness. He was sorry to have such a young person involved in the situation, whatever it was. It might not be illegal, illicit, or shady in any way, but it was not normal. As a professional bachelor, Monty was concerned for the welfare of the young, imputing to them the innocence and fragility only chaste saints could attain. 

“Are you going to be okay, honey?” he asked. “Let us know if Walt and I can help in any way.”

She overcame her shyness enough to look at him straight and say firmly, “I’m fine, thank you.”

“I just thought I’d ask,” Monty said.

When the girl had made her way up to the second floor, Monty said to Walt, “Okay then, you can count me in.” His tone was rueful and he shook his head sadly.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, I think so. That young girl—”

“We’ll have to work fast,” Walt said, “if we’re going to prepare during the lunch hour. That storeroom is a jumble.”

“We’ve been meaning to clean it out for a long time. I wish we had.”

“There are other problems too. Whoever is in there can probably hear pretty well what’s going on, but he won’t be able to see anything.”

“Maybe we could—” Monty began. Seeing Walt’s expression, he interrupted himself. “No, we won’t be boring any holes. That would be beyond the pale.”

“It would be disgusting,” Walt said. “I know this is my idea, but I don’t want you to think I get my jollies this way.”

“I understand. But it’s such a highly unusual—”


“Positively weird. If it wasn’t positively weird, you and I wouldn’t—”

“Usually I’d rather paint my nose green and set my hair on fire than to—”

“Me too.”

“You know,” Walt said, “it’s going to be pretty warm in that close space and whoever is in there is going to be trapped. There’s no way to get in and out without making noise. There are lots of good, solid reasons not to fart.”

“It bears thinking about,” Monty said. “Eight hours in a stuffy little hole. And in the dark. There’s no light in there.”

“Not eight,” Walt said. “Four hours for me, four for you.”

“So we won’t do it till tomorrow?”

“You said to sleep on it. Not a bad idea. But we’ll clear out a space now and put a chair in. Then we can make up our minds.”

“What if he doesn’t go out for lunch? What if he skips a meal and stays in his room?”

“Then he’ll have to go out for supper,” Walt said.

But this complication did not arise. The young girl came down a little after twelve and neither cousin could detect any difference from her earlier demeanor. Whatever had transpired in 27, she had taken it in stride and Monty felt a cool relief gust through him. A few minutes afterward, Bonforth appeared. He was calm and casual, seemed to be in good spirits, though perhaps a little more subdued than earlier. He greeted his hosts and asked if there had been any telephone messages. “I remember you said someone promised to call.”

“No calls,” Monty said. “I’ve been here all morning.”

Bonforth nodded as if this news was gratifying and said he was going out and would return in an hour.

Upon his departure the cousins raced upstairs, flung open the door to the storeroom, and began chucking out cardboard boxes, broken lamps, rickety wicker tables, rolled-up throw rugs, soiled drapes, and other discards. They piled the mass in the middle of the hallway and then began taking items down the stairs and out the back into the garage. . . .