The apartment looked the same as it always had, as though Jason had never moved out. Maybe he hadn’t. The question was why? Julia looked around at all the clutter and tried to guess why he had kept this place. No answer immediately suggested itself.
She sat down and started going through the nearest pile of paper. It consisted mostly of notes in Jason’s indecipherable handwriting. Before she could begin a new stack, there was a knock at the door. She sat very still and waited for whoever it was to go away.
Instead, they began to fiddle with the lock. Her first instinct was to leave and return later, but she stopped herself. She didn’t want anyone tampering with Jason’s things. Standing and preparing to defend herself, she waited for the door to open.
When it did, she was surprised to see an older woman dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt standing on the other side. the woman pulled a set of keys away from the lock and stared at Julia over a pair of reading glasses.
“I heard you up here,” the woman said in response to a question Julia hadn’t asked. “Where’s Mr. Wizard?”
The situation had become something unexpected. “Mr. Wizard?”
“Your friend, Jason Wizard. He is your friend, isn’t he? Or should I be calling the cops on you?” The lines on the woman’s face suggested she was in her 80s, but there was nothing frail about her.
Wizard? That was the name Jason had used? As smart as he was, his lack of common sense still amazed her.
“Yes. He and I are friends. But he’s not here right now.”
“I thought so. You used to come around occasionally. Hadn’t seen you in awhile. Thought maybe you’d had a falling out. Anyway, rent’s due. Jason asked me to collect it from whoever was here.” The woman walked into the apartment and headed to the kitchenette area. She put some water into the kettle and set it on the stove. While it heated up, she took out two mugs and a couple of teabags from the cupboards.
Julia watched all of this in stunned silence. This woman, Jason’s landlady, seemed quite at home here. Had she visited often? Julia couldn’t recall meeting her before. The cat appeared from wherever it had gone off to and began rubbing up against the woman’s legs.
The kettle finally whistled, and the woman poured hot water into each of the mugs before dipping the teabags in. “Do you take any milk or sugar in your tea? I know he has sugar, but I can’t be sure there is any milk.”
“No.” Julia was still not sure what to make of all of this.
“I hope you don’t mind if I use some sugar. Helps bring out the taste. Come on, now. Have a seat.” The woman sat down at the small table across from the stove. From a covered bowl, she extracted two sugar cubes and dropped them into the mug in front of her. Julia walked over and sat down in the other chair.
“Who are you?”
“I’m Esther. I own the building.” The woman’s smile was genuine. “And what’s your name? Jason never told me.”
“Julia. Nice to meet you.”
“Do you know Jason well?”
“He’s been living here for years. You get to know people a little after so much time.”
That didn’t really answer her question, but Julia decided not to push the issue. “Well, I’m afraid Jason isn’t here right now.”
“So you said, but rent is still due. He is a good tenant, but I have bills to pay.”
“I’ll make sure to tell him.”
The woman’s smile didn’t fade, but a tinge of sadness crept into it. “This must be hard on you, no doubt. If you’re here alone, I assume something happened to him. He told me it might, and that I should expect you if it did. I guess I hoped he was just pulling my leg again. I am sorry. Is there anything I can do?”
Julia shook her head. “If I get you the rent, can I keep this place?”
Esther reached out and patted her hand. “Of course.”
The cat jumped onto the table between them and laid down. Esther waved her hand at the animal. “Rook, get down.” In spite of her expression, her voice didn’t convey any real threat.
“Oh, he never did bother to figure out his name, did he? The cat’s name is ‘Rook.’ Jason would have known if he had ever bothered to ask.”
Julia stared at the woman. “Who are you?”
“I already told you. My name is Esther. I own the building. Rent is due on the first of the month, which was yesterday. I know you’re in mourning, so I can wait a few days. But not too long, okay? And be sure to keep the tea and sugar on hand.”
Julia nodded and took a sip from the mug in front of her. The tea was warm and comforting. She felt more peaceful than she had in a long time.