eter Borg was pissed.
Under normal circumstances, he enjoyed visiting clients. It got him out of the office and into some phenomenal homes. It also, in the case of new clients, gave him some sense of their taste and history. For example, if he walked into a living room filled with dark, intricately carved teak, he would know (a) these people had an affinity for Southeast Asia and (b) they'd already done the Cambodia/Thailand/Vietnam circuit. Much better to push the more exotic Micronesian islands, preferably on a leased private jet.
Peter's assistant had set up this particular visit. Eleven a.m. at 142 Sutton Place. Penthouse 2. It wasn't until he was on the street, approaching the polished chrome entrance and the Burberry-clad doorman, that he even checked the name. Miss Paisley MacGregor. Otherwise known as MacGregor. Otherwise known as his ex-maid.
Peter Borg was very pissed.
MacGregor had been glowingly recommended by Maury and Laila Steinberg. The couple had just sold their business and were moving to Maui. They seemed devastated by the upcoming separation from their full-time maid, much more than by the separation from the two grown children from Laila's first marriage. As he listened and pretended to sympathize, Peter grew intrigued by the notion of employing a maid. It was an extravagance he felt he deserved.
At first, he'd been thrilled with his decision. MacGregor was large and warm and capable, with hair the color of lemon Jell-O and the texture of Brillo. He'd estimated her age at around forty-five, but she had probably looked the same since twenty and would remain basically the same until sixty.
Every morning MacGregor had been there, a human alarm clock who pulled back the curtains at exactly seven, to the smell of coffee and sizzling bacon drifting in from the kitchen. Granted, it had been a bit odd that she was actually in his bedroom, pulling back the curtains. Perhaps that should have been a warning.
For a moment, Peter had thought about cancelingâtexting his assistant with a few abbreviated profanities and having her phone in some excuse. But he was already here. And MacGregor had obviously transferred her affections onto someone else, someone with a posher address.
The thick white door opened into a startlingly white oval foyer with bunches of ghost lilies posing on a tabletop. Peter girded himself with a fake smile, ready to kiss MacGregor on both cheeks and say how happy he was to see her and how he'd been meaning to get in touch, but wasn't that just how it went?
Instead, he found himself staring at a middle-aged, patrician face that stared back with mild curiosity. His irritation grew. “So sorry. I don't mean to intrude. I'm here to see . . . This is awkward. I came to visit your maid. Why she asked me to come to your home . . .”
“Quite all right,” the aristocratic woman replied with a Boston Brahmin accent and the hint of a smile. “Please come in.” Peter was relieved by how accommodating she was, considering the situation.
Just another example
, he thought,
of how MacGregor could insinuate herself into your life
. “Can I take your coat?” she asked.
Peter refused the offer, then followed her through the all-white leather and plush living room.
“Miss MacGregor.” She knocked on a bedroom door and called softly, “There's someone to see you.”
It was at this point that Peter pushed aside all speculation, his mind growing numb.
MacGregor was sitting up in bed, framed in a spectacular view of the Fifty-Ninth Street Bridge. Like everything else, the bed was white and large and luxurious. The linens were smooth and crisp and served to accentuate the wrinkled head in the middle, propped up on a goose-down pillow, with wispy lemon hair framing it flatly. She had shrunken considerably since the last time he'd seen herânot aged so much as grown unmistakably ill.
Perhaps this explains it
, he thought, his mind unfreezing. Her employer had taken pity on a sick maid and was taking care . . .
“You can go, Archer,” MacGregor said with a wave. The woman left the room, and Peter's mind froze again.
Paisley MacGregor's laugh was soft and affectionate. “Yes, Petey, dear. She's the maid.”
“Did you win the lottery?” It was the only possibility he could think of.
“Inheritance.” And, of course, that made sense. MacGregor must have had half a dozen employers during her years of service. All of them except one or two, maybe just one, must have considered her a treasured part of the family. Someone was bound to leave her something. “It came around six years ago.”
“Six years?” Another brain freeze, but this one he powered his way through. “So . . . when you were working for me . . .”
“I was already rich. This place is more than I need, but I'm renting it from some friends.”
“Did you have a maid when you worked as a maid?”
“Yes. And I pay her more than you paid me.” She seemed to be enjoying his befuddlement. “I loved my work, Petey. I got to be part of all your fascinating lives, all your dreams, your worries.”
Peter flashed back to the time he came home and found that she had taken it upon herself to rearrange the personal files in his study. Her system was actually much better than his, but that wasn't the point, as he tried to explain. Peter had never stopped to analyze exactly what was so unsettling about MacGregor. She was totally supportive of her clients, even loving. But she could also be quietly judgmental, like a nanny you were deathly afraid of disappointing.
“Why would I give up my life?” she said, following the statement with a slight shiver.
“Are you very sick?” He reached out to touch a spidery hand. He had never been completely immune to her homey charms.
“I'm dying, Petey.”
“No, no,” he said instinctively. “You'll get better. You should be in a hospital.”
“I was in a hospital.”
“I didn't know.”
“All my families expect me to live forever. But I didn't ask you here to talk about my health.” Her bluntness served to smooth over the awkward moment. “I need your professional services.”
“You want to take one last trip?” he guessed. Peter had done deathbed trips before. They were difficult, yes, but given the right planning and the right money . . .
“No,” she said with a wag of the head. “I'm much too ill. But I used to dust so many photographs on mantels and piano tops. Families posing by the pyramids or on the Great Wall. I would look at them for hours, imagining myself there, instead of staying home alone, feeding their goldfish and walking their dogs.” Her eyes strayed to another part of the room, and Peter's eyes followed.
“A Steinway grand?” he blurted out. “In your bedroom?” Yes, there it was, by the flowing white gauze of the balcony curtains. A concert grand, barely taking up a corner of the room. Every inch of the lacquered white top was covered in framed photographsâwealthy, happy travelers, all shiny and neat and smiling directly into the lens.
“I had to special order it,” MacGregor explained. “I don't play. But I like the way they look on a white piano.”
Peter's mind went from one improbability to the next. “And people gave you their travel photos?” he deduced. “Why would they giveâ”
“I asked them. They were all tickled by the idea, made special prints, threw in expensive frames. Except you, Petey. Yours I had to borrow and make a copy. Actually, Archer made a copy. Isn't it lovely to be able to indulge in a little staff?”
Peter crossed to the Steinway and quickly found it, a small print in a silver frame, near the back. He had the original sitting on his own secondhand spinet. It had been taken in Belize, on a jungle-side beach, with Amy Abel nestled in the crook of his arm, her face framed by her signature eyeglasses. His eyes were half shut and his face was peeling red, but Amy looked great.
His face remained expressionless as he returned to Paisley MacGregor's bedside. He had been tempted to react to this new invasion of privacy but didn't want to give her the satisfaction. Besides, she was dying. “How can I help?”
“It's all written out,” said the ex-maid, her voice a little cottony.
Peter handed her the glass of water from the nightstand.
“Thank you.” She handed back the glass. “I want to be cremated. And I want the ashes to be strewn around the world.”
“Literally?” Peter was already envisioning some kind of NASA mission or perhaps a high-altitude jet releasing several pounds of MacGregor powder into the stratosphere of an unsuspecting earth.
“Yes, literally,” MacGregor answered. “I want all my families to fly around the world and to hold these little wakes along the way. I want them to dance and drink and tell stories and spread little bits of me around. Take loads of pictures. Then fly off to the next. All first class and all on me. All the spots I've dreamed of but will never go toâuntil then, of course. Then I'll be there forever. Isn't that nice?”
“Oh,” said Peter, relieved, and then it hit him. “Oh!” Maybe it wasn't as bad as a NASA trip, but it still had the makings of a logistical nightmare. “Will they all want to do this? It'll take a week or two.”
“There aren't that many. And yes, they'll want to.” A practiced, slightly hurt expression wrinkled her eyes and mouth. “You want to, don't you, dear? A last tribute to your old MacGregor?”
“Of course.” Hey, it was a job, probably with an unlimited budget. “But let's hope that's years away.”
Ten minutes later, Peter was walking back out through the white marble foyer, with the contact information for the lawyers and bankers and ex-employers.
Would they really do this?
Circle the globe with the ashes of their maid?
And then there was the matter of transporting human remains through half a dozen countriesâsome with tight security and drug-sniffing dogs, some with unstable governments.
“What did you think of him?” Paisley MacGregor asked her own maid after the thick white door had closed and they were alone. The interview had taken a lot out of her. She was just a few nods away from a nap, but she wanted Archer's opinion.
“He's pretty much how you described him.” Over the years, Archer had found that this was always a safe response.
“Yes.” MacGregor chuckled, and her eyes wandered over toward the grand piano. She'd had the building's handyman and his brother move it in here from the living room just so she could lie in bed and look at the photos. Even from a distance, with her fading eyesight, she recognized every face and pose and familiar monument. Why, there was young Nicole, straining every muscle as she propped up the Leaning Tower of Pisa. There were Evan and Barbara Corns, grinning on either side of a Buddhist monk, solemn faced in his saffron robes. There was one of her favorite families, posing in front of . . .
MacGregor's face wrinkled itself more than usual as she tried to recall. She remembered their names, of course. That was easy. But there was some drama involved with this one family, wasn't there? Some secret. Some responsibility that someone had given to her, MacGregor, the trusted maid. That was the trouble with pain and medication and the cancer eating through her insides. Facts and memories came and went.
“Is there something wrong, ma'am?” Archer asked.
It had been on the tip of her mind. “No, dear,” she whispered. It was important, whatever it was. It was something that she had fretted about during the past few years, as she routinely checked her mail and her e-mail and the newspapers and Facebook and the obituaries. Something with life and death importance. Something that would never get taken care of now . . .
If only she could remember.