Professor Jeanne Smith stepped into her old new office and stared. It was full of plush toys. And flowers. And baloons. And strategically placed plates with biscuits and jelly babies. The walls had changed their colour from the elegant dark grey to pale lilac with golden floral patterns, for God’s sake.
“They’ve redecorated. I don’t like it!”
“That’s a pity,” said a voice behind her. Jeanne didn’t hear the woman approach. “Because that’s Chinese silk, and it cost the department a fortune, so you’ll have to stick with it.”
Jeanne turned around. The black-haired woman in her mid-forties, about Jeanne’s age, was wearing a prim old-fashioned suit in a shade of dark purple that looked suspiciously coordinated next to the new tapestries.
“Whose idea was it?” Jeanne asked. The woman shrugged.
“Not a clue.” She put out a delicate manicured hand. Heavy metal bracelets looked weirdly out of place on her thin wrists enveloped in Victorian lace. “Call me ‘Mistress’.”
“Mistress?” Jeanne repeated unsurely as she accepted the handshake. “That’s a strange name.”
“Friends call me Missy. Short for Mistress.” The woman didn’t specify whether that was an invitation of friendship or a piece of trivia. Still holding Jeanne’s hand, she looked over her shoulder into the office. “Oh, and please clean up this mess instantly. Especially the food – don’t leave out the food. We have mice, you know. And rats. Sometimes as large as my forearm. Would you like to have a look? I killed some just this morning. Didn’t get around to burying them yet.”
Jeanne’s palm began to sweat, but the Mistress’ grip was firm.
“Er. Brilliant. Maybe next time. I need to settle down first. Unpack. Clean up.”
The Mistress smiled. “I’ll help you with the food.”
“Oh, that would be brilliant!”
The Mistress finally let go of Jeanne’s hand, walked straight into her office, opened one of the cabinets and produced a tea tray, two sets of porcelain cups and saucers and a tin of Chinese tea.
“Where’s that slug?” she muttered and, without any warning, barked, “Dr. Chang!”
A young Asian man appeared in the doorway as if out of nowhere. “Yes, Mistress?”
“Tea, please, Dr. Chang,” she nodded at the tray. The young man scooped up the tools and disappeared again. “It’s down his alley: he is an expert in Ancient China,” she explained. Jeanne was too dumbfounded to argue.
“Was that the Dr. Chang? The one who found the lost dynasty?”
The Mistress leaned back in a leather armchair – luckily, still the old one Jeanne remembered – and crossed her legs. “Oh, who cares, Chang is such a popular name. But he makes great tea. I am a people’s person, you know: I judge everyone according to their abilities, not their titles.”
Jeanne lowered herself into the opposite chair. “And what are your abilities?”
The Mistress gave her a coy smile. “I’m just a humble housekeeper.” She stretched out a hand and, without even looking, grabbed a plate of biscuits that sat on a shelf behind her. “Please have one, they’re delicious.”
“So it was your idea, this – party?” Jeanne hesitated at the last word. It still felt surreal to be eating biscuits sitting in the creaky leather armchair that smelt like home, while only a few days ago she hadn’t hoped to ever see it again.
“Of course, not!” the Mistress giggled. “I would never waste precious resources on something so silly. It must have been the students, those who remember you from before. For some reason, the young and immature have an inclination towards you.”
She spoke as if she had a very good insight into the department.
“I don’t remember you from before, though.” Jeanne frowned slightly. “Are you new here?”
“New?” the Mistress gave a short sharp laugh. “Yes, you could say that. I’m new, yes, absolutely.” And without any pause, she yelled: “Dr. Chang!”
The young man hurried into the office. “I’m sorry, Mistress, the cooler was out of water, I had to go as far as–”
“Not interested.” She gestured for him to put down the tray and leave. Jeanne rose to her feet.
“Dr. Chang? I read your thesis on the lost dynasty, it was brilliant! Have you made any new discoveries recently? I didn’t have the opportunity to follow the latest developments, I’ve had a rough couple of years.”
The young man blushed. “You read it? It’s all still a theory, of course, but I hope to make real progress soon, if I can get the funding for the expedition–“ he cut himself short. “I’m sorry, I forgot the milk!” he rushed out of the room like there was a fire.
The Mistress shrugged as she tasted her tea. “Scientists! As eccentric as ever. But the tea is good, even without the milk. Now to the more important matters. What do you need for your lectures, Professor?”
Jeanne picked up her cup. “Nothing, really. Just a classroom and my students.”
“Don’t be shy, Professor! The technology has moved forward since the Middle Ages. We have all kinds of fancy toys: overhead projectors, interactive whiteboards, virtual reality goggles. Imagine how impressed the kids would be if you presented your findings with all the bells and whistles.”
Jeanne thought about it for a moment. “A blackboard and some chalk would suffice, thanks.”
The Mistress cocked her head. “If you haven’t noticed, Professor, things are changing. The kids have their heads stuck in their gadgets all day long. They cannot process any new information otherwise. I doubt that your lonesome self, however pretty, can keep them interested for two hours.”
“We’ll see,” Jeanne answered dryly. The Mistress smiled and leaned forward to touch her hand.
“Don’t be offended. It is my duty to give you a piece of friendly advice, but the rest is up to you.”
Jeanne freed her hand and picked up another biscuit to make the movement less conspicuous. Dr. Chang returned with a milk jug and bowed as he put it down. Jeanne was glad of the interruption.
“Oh, Dr. Chang! Please sit down with us and tell me about your research.”
“Next time, Dr. Chang,” the Mistress said firmly. “Professor Smith needs some rest.”
“Of course. Sorry.” Dr. Chang hurried out of the room backwards and still in a kind of a half-bow.
“What’s wrong–?” Jeanne started, but the Mistress talked over her at the same time:
“How did you find your quarters?”
“I haven’t been there yet.”
The Mistress raised her eyebrows in surprise. “Where is your luggage then?”
Jeanne nodded to the backpack she dropped next to the door.
“That’s it? I thought you’d be bringing more – objects with you.”
“No, that’s it.”
The Mistress tapped her fingers on the leather armrest. “Well, Professor, if you need anything, I will be glad to be of service.”
“How can I find you?”
The Mistess got up and bent over to whisper into Jeanne’s ear: “Don’t worry, darling, you’ll see me around.”