Josie-Jo Ford stared at the thick wooden door.
It was the same door that she’d seen every day for years, but today, it somehow seemed different. Larger. Heavier. The kind of door that hid secrets away instead of opening up to reveal them. It stretched far above her head, dark and blank.
Get a grip, Josie-Jo! she thought. You can do this.
But, could she? How on earth was this conversation supposed to go? What could they possibly have in common: a child and an adult, from such different backgrounds? Black and white, rich and poor, young and old, everything lined up in opposites. How could it end in anything but misunderstandings and tears?
It didn’t matter. She could do this. She had to do this.
And anyway, it had been her idea in the first place.
Josie-Jo Ford took a deep breath, reached her hand forward, and pushed the intercom button. “Send Miss Wexler in,” she told her assistant.
* * *
Nine-year-old Josie-Jo Ford stared at the thick wooden door.
“You’re not in trouble, honey.” Her father’s hand, callused from hard work on railroads and gardens, smoothed down over the neat cornrows of her hair. Her mother had spent hours putting in the braids, hours that Josie-Jo ached to run around, but treasured because they were spent alone with her mother. “He just wants to talk to you.”
“But why?” Josie-Jo asked again. Her parents always said that ‘why’ was one of her first words – she learned it when she was a year old, and she hadn’t stopped asking it since.
“I don’t know,” her father had to admit. Josie-Jo saw a tiny flicker of apprehension in his eyes, and that made her scared, too. He didn’t know for sure that she wasn’t in trouble. He was just saying that to make her feel better.
But what if she was in trouble? She’d touched Mr. Westing’s things – she’d played with the chess set. She hadn’t meant to mess anything up! She just wanted to see if she could remember how Mr. Westing had made the pieces move when he was playing with his friend Dr. Sikes, and if she could figure out what Dr. Sikes would have done next.
What if Mr. Westing fired her parents? What if he kicked her out of the house? What if he kicked them all out of the house? It would be all her fault!
The wooden door swung open to reveal Mr. Westing sitting behind his desk. An assistant ducked out from behind the door with a suspicious glance at the gardener and his daughter, then skittered away to leave them alone.
“Go on, honey,” Josie-Jo’s father told her.
She took a step forward into the office, feeling the carpet change under the thin soles of her Sunday shoes as she crossed over the threshold.
“Good morning, Miss Ford,” said Mr. Westing.
As frightened as she was, a little thrill ran through her. He called her ‘Miss Ford,’ like she was a grownup!
“Good morning, Mr. Westing,” Josie-Jo recited, as quiet and obedient as if she were greeting a teacher in school. She folded her hands behind her and waited.
Mr. Westing fixed her with his sharp blue eyes. “I see that you like chess, Miss Ford.”
What did he mean? If she said yes, then she’d be saying that she did play with his chess set, and then she’d be in trouble! But she’d never really played chess before, so should she say no? But if she said no, then it would mean that she hadn’t been playing with his chess set, and then she’d be lying, and that wasn’t right.
Was it a trick? Was there any right answer at all?
Josie-Jo swallowed hard. “Um. I’ve never played it with another person before. Mr. Westing. Sir,” she added for good measure.
Mr. Westing’s pale eyes crinkled at the corners. “You sound like a lawyer, Miss Ford.” Josie-Jo wasn’t sure whether that was supposed to be a compliment or not. “Chess needs two people to play it properly. If you want to play, Miss Ford, you should not sneak around to do it. You will play with me.” Mr. Westing didn’t wait to hear whether she would say yes. He never did; he just assumed that the other person would agree with whatever he said. “Next Saturday. One o’clock. I will see you then, Miss Ford.”
Josie-Jo still hadn’t thought of anything to say by the time the door closed behind her.
* * *
Turtle still hadn’t thought of anything to say.
Neither had Josie-Jo. She was racking her brains to find topics of conversation that didn’t focus on Turtle’s nascent bombing career, or her sister’s on-again-off-again wedding plans, or her father’s second career. Or school. Whenever adults asked children about school, it almost always meant that they had no idea of anything else that a child might like.
And Turtle was definitely a child. She looked it, despite the sleek new haircut that she still couldn’t help swishing around her face when she thought nobody was looking. She was utterly dwarfed by the monumental leather chair. Did her feet even touch the floor? Turtle may have acted like an attorney in that strange scene – and was a much better one than some actual lawyers who had appeared before Josie-Jo in court! – but she wasn’t one. Josie-Jo remembered the sharp angles of Turtle’s bony shoulders when she hugged her, the lost look in Turtle’s eyes when Sandy collapsed.
Turtle’s friend. Josie-Jo’s partner in the game. The person they had both lost.
Josie-Jo could talk about him, but she hardly knew what to say yet. But she did know that she wanted to help Turtle, and that she didn’t want to bring Turtle back to that awful moment of grief.
“Baba, Baba, I don’t want to play anymore,” Turtle had sobbed, running to someone else’s mother for comfort.
* * *
“I don’t want to play anymore!” Josie-Jo sobbed. Sobbed, but didn’t cry. She wouldn’t. She could feel the tears coming closer and closer to spilling out of her eyes, but she wouldn’t let them out. Maybe if she looked up to the ceiling and tilted her head back, the tears would flow back in, and she wouldn’t cry in front of Mr. Westing.
Mr. Westing leaned forward across the chessboard, seeming to grow bigger as he did. “You will keep playing,” he told Josie-Jo. It wasn’t an order, exactly - Mr. Westing didn’t need to give orders. He just said things, and that made them happen. “You won’t give up. Weak people give up. Weak people quit.”
Weak people quit, and Josie-Jo wasn’t weak. So she wouldn’t quit.
She looked back at the board, trying to find something to do. In her mind, she moved each of her pieces: where could it go? Where could Mr. Westing go if she moved there? Or there? Or…
And then she saw it. Mr. Westing’s queen was open. She could get the queen! Josie-Jo reached forward to push her bishop with one small finger and captured the queen, a smile starting to bloom.
“Checkmate!” Mr. Westing crowed.
…oh. He was right. That move had left Josie-Jo’s king open. He’d won again.
She wouldn’t cry. She wouldn’t.
And she didn’t, not until she was safe in her own room.
* * *
“Would you like some hot chocolate?” Josie-Jo finally asked.
Food and drink – that was always a good way to start. No matter how little they had in the house, whenever a guest came, the first thing Josie-Jo’s mother always did was to offer them something to eat.
Apparently Turtle was still enough of a child that hot chocolate would bring a grin. “Yes, please!”
Josie-Jo almost never smiled, but it took more effort than usual to suppress a grin as she rang for her assistant. “Ms. Franklin? Two cups of hot chocolate, please.”
“With marshmallows!” Turtle stage-whispered.
Josie-Jo nodded. “With marshmallows.”
* * *
She had hoped there would be hot chocolate in Mr. Westing’s office that day. Sometimes there was, in the winter, put there by Bridget or Shirley or one of the other kitchen staff. Josie-Jo was never sure if Mr. Westing knew their names or not, but she knew them, of course, and they always hugged her when they passed her in the hall on their way out of Mr. Westing’s office.
That day it wasn’t Shirley coming down the hall, it was Violet.
Violet was dainty, blonde, beautiful. She always made Josie-Jo feel clumsy, like her feet and hands were too big. Violet was like a ghost or a fairy, floating through the halls of the Westing mansion, never really here even when she was right in front of you.
That day, Violet drifted out of Mr. Westing’s office, eyes cast up towards the heavens. It should have made her look like an angel, but it didn’t. She looked bored. Exasperated. Even…angry?
She can be angry! Josie-Jo thought excitedly. And shen she felt guilty almost at once, because she shouldn’t be so happy at someone else being upset. Violet didn’t seem to have noticed Josie-Jo – she never did. She just drifted on by, off to do whatever it was that she did.
“Ah. Miss Ford,” came Mr. Westing’s voice, as Josie-Jo slipped through the door into his office. “Right on time.” When Josie-Jo dared to look up, she blinked in surprise at what she saw. Mr. Westing was smiling. He looked happy to see her.
She climbed up into her usual chair, wrapped her feet around the legs so they wouldn’t dangle, and waited for Mr. Westing to get the chessboard into position.
He started by moving a pawn – a different one from the last game. Never the same opening move twice in a row. “Are you going to take over your father’s business, Miss Ford?”
Mr. Westing always asked questions. Some were questions about the chess games they played, some were math problems for her to solve in her head, some were what-if questions. Some were questions that he already knew the answers to. (Josie-Jo could usually tell when he was asking that kind of question. His eyes crinkled at the corners when he did, as if he were pleased with himself for knowing the answer. But he didn’t smile. He almost never smiled.) Some were questions where there weren’t any right answers, and whatever Josie-Jo said would be wrong. Which kind of question was this?
Josie-Jo thought for a moment, then pushed one of her pawns forward – the same one that he had. “Do you mean, am I going to be a gardener, sir?” Or maybe build railroads, she guessed, but she didn’t think they’d take girls.
“Hmph. Predictable first move,” Mr. Westing scoffed, then moved smoothly back to the original conversation: “It is traditional, isn’t it, for an only child to take over the family business?” He leaned over to pick up a knight, leaping it over the row of pawns.
“But Daddy doesn’t have a business. It’s just a job.” The statement came out before Josie-Jo could think about it, so honest that for a second she froze in fear. What if he thought she was talking back? She ducked her head down and hastily pushed another pawn forward to join her first.
To her surprise, Mr. Westing just answered, “Hmm. Maybe so.” And then he came back with another question. “What is the difference between a job and a business, then? Is it the amount of ownership that you have? The expectation that it will last longer than just the span of your own career? The expectation that you will pass it on to the next generation? Knight takes pawn,” he added casually, folding one of Josie-Jo’s pieces into his thick hand.
Josie-Jo stared hard at the chessboard, because doing that meant that she wouldn’t have to watch Mr. Westing watching her. “Some jobs are just jobs, sir,” she said quietly. “There isn’t anything to pass on.” Oh! There was an opening! She quickly moved another pawn forward to take one of Mr. Westing’s in return.
“Hm,” said Mr. Westing. That was all he ever said, when she took one of his pieces. Never ‘good job,’ or ‘well done,’ just ‘hm.’ He leaned back to look across the board at Josie-Jo, eyes crinkling. “Let me ask you this, Miss Ford. Let’s say that there are two men who are up for promotion.” So it was that kind of question. He already knew the answer, and was just testing to see if she did too. “One of them has eight years of experience, the other five, but the one with less experience has better reviews from his boss. Which one should be promoted?”
This was more fun than some of Mr. Westing’s other questions, but Josie-Jo still had to think for a while before she answered. She thought for a long time, then moved her bishop, then thought for a minute more.
Only after she’d moved did she realize that Mr. Westing hadn’t tried to hurry her up the way he sometimes did, and he wasn’t yelling at her for being slow. He was just letting her think.
That was why she felt brave enough to ask, after another minute, “May I ask some more questions about them?”
“All right,” Mr. Westing said. His knight clicked against the board as he snapped up that bishop that Josie-Jo had dared to move out.
Josie-Jo winced at the capture, but still asked, “What was better about the reviews? What did the second man do better than the first?”
Mr. Westing didn’t smile – he never did – but he did say, “Good question. Let’s say that the second man got his workers to work more efficiently.”
Josie-Jo nodded, and moved another piece forward while she thought. “What do the people who work for the two men say about them?”
Mr. Westing blinked. “What?”
For a second, Josie-Jo just blinked back. She wasn’t sure what she was seeing. Had she asked him a question that he didn’t already know the answer to? “Does the second man get his workers to work faster because they’re scared of him, or because they like him, or because he’s taught them better?”
There was a long silence. The clock ticked. Mr. Westing tapped his rook against the board once – twice – three times – then moved it forward. “You have asked the right question, Miss Ford.” And then he actually smiled, showing even white teeth in a sharp line above his goatee. Josie-Jo grinned in excitement.
She looked up at Mr. Westing, then down at the chessboard again. Suddenly, she saw it – two more moves, and she’d put his king in check! Could she actually win this time? Could she beat Mr. Westing? Getting a smile and asking good questions and winning! She was so close…
“Checkmate,” said Mr. Westing, and Josie-Jo slumped.
* * *
What do you talk to a teenager about? Clothes? Music? That would be all right for some, but Turtle was most definitely not the sort of teenager who would like to talk about that. And she couldn’t very well ask, ‘So, have you kicked any interesting people lately?’ What else did Turtle like?
“Are you still playing the market?” Josie-Jo asked. “I saw that the Dow finished this week several points higher than expected.”
To her great relief, Turtle’s face lit up. “Of course!” The girl was trying to sound disdainful – perhaps it was an obvious question – but Turtle was too excited about the topic to hide her enthusiasm entirely. “It was mostly because GE is having a really strong quarter, which means – “
And she was off, chattering happily about leading indicators and stock prices, with the easy authority of someone who has done her research.
A girl like that deserved a good education. The best education. She was lucky that her parents could give it to her.
* * *
This time when Josie-Jo showed up for their chess game, her parents were already there.
Her mother looked like she’d been crying. Her father looked...resigned? Determined? Old.
Oh no. She was really in trouble now…
“Your parents and I have been talking about your performance in school,” said Mr. Westing.
What? She was doing well in school! She’d gotten 100 on her last math test. Were they angry because she’d done too well? Or because she’d spotted the mistake in the Civics textbook and pointed it out to the teacher?
“You can do better,” Mr. Westing continued. “Not your grades,” he added quickly. “Your grades are impeccable.” Oh. So that’s how that word was pronounced. Josie-Jo had read it, but nobody had ever said it to her before. “But you need a better school. One that will enable you to work up to your potential.” He leaned across the table and placed a brochure in front of Josie-Jo. The cover had a photo of two smiling white girls sitting under a tree. One was holding a book, and both looked like they were talking excitedly. “Fairview Academy,” read bold letters above the girls’ heads. “Educating Tomorrow’s Women.”
Josie-Jo felt a painful tug in her heart, suddenly homesick for a place she’d never been. She’d never sat under a tree and talked about books with another girl. She’d never had a friend she could talk to about the books she’d read. None of the other girls in school read the same books that she did anyway.
“It’s a good school, honey.” Josie-Jo’s mother’s voice was soft, and a little sad. “Real good. He’s right that it’s better than the one here in town. If you went there, you could go to college.”
“The best colleges,” Mr. Westing agreed. “Radcliffe, Wellesley, Vassar.” The names sounded like Neverland or Narnia – faraway places that you could only go if you knew the right magic and had the right help; places that ordinary folks could never get to. “And then – medical school, law school, who knows? Fairview Academy would ordinarily be out of reach for a family like yours – “ a poor family, he meant. A poor black family. “But I would like to offer financial assistance, and the necessary letters of recommendation that would enable you to be admitted.” What he meant was, he was going to pay money and pull strings. “Do you realize what a gift I am giving to you, Miss Ford?” Mr. Westing asked, and smiled.
That little smile turned her stomach. He looked happy for himself, not her. He could look like a hero. Local Businessman Funds Poor Black Girl’s Education, the headline would read, and he’d smile that smile all over the newspaper. And his eyes were crinkling at the corners because he already knew the answer to the question he was asking.
She wouldn’t take it. She couldn’t.
But…she could go to college. She could go anywhere.
“Say thank you, Josie-Jo,” her mother said, her voice trembling.
“Thank you,” said Josie-Jo.
* * *
The debt was finally repaid, after all those years. She had given the money to Sandy, which meant that she had given the money to Sam Westing. The receipt was still in her desk – the debt was cleared.
But it didn’t mean that the questions were all answered.
Had Westing been paying back his debts, too? Helping Crow find the happiness he couldn’t give her as his wife; helping Angela find the better life he didn’t give Violet?
And was he giving Josie-Jo something, or just taking what she owed him? Had he chosen her as his partner because he wanted to give her the friendship that he hadn’t given her all those years ago? Or just because he wanted his money back? Or because he knew that she wanted to give the money back, and was giving her something that she wanted?
And if he had been trying to pay the debt of friendship, had he actually done it? Could it really be a friendship if it hadn’t been given with complete honesty? Yes, Sandy and Josie-Jo had talked easily; yes, they’d felt comfortable with each other; but he’d been telling her lies the whole time. Sometimes she felt as if she’d just spent another month sitting in that big chair with Westing smirking – but never smiling – at her because he already knew all the answers.
Yet even if Sam Westing really had been gloating at her one last time, even if he had lied to her, she hoped that there had been something genuine in Sandy’s friendship with Turtle. The jokes, the kindness – she hoped that Turtle’s good memories of her Uncle Sam were real, and not another trick that Westing had played on them all. She hoped that Chris had been right when he said that Sam Westing was a good man. Josie-Jo couldn’t bear to see any more children hurt and disillusioned by Sam Westing’s actions.
Sam Westing wasn’t here to answer those questions. Whatever actions he’d done, they were in the past now, and whatever debts he’d left behind couldn’t be paid.
But Josie-Jo was here, and she could start doing things right. Turtle was owed a friendship, and so was Josie-Jo.
The door opened again, and Ms. Franklin came in with two cups of hot chocolate: one plain, one nearly overflowing with marshmallows. “Thank you, Ms. Franklin,” Josie-Jo murmured.
“Thank you,” Turtle echoed, grinning at the pile of fluffy sugar.
Josie-Jo picked up her cup, and started asking more questions that she didn’t know the answers to. “So – you think that Whitney Pharmaceuticals’ IPO will really push the market up that much?”
Turtle’s smile lit her whole face. “Uh-huh! See, the quarterly report said…” And she was off again, her mind careening around corners and skipping from one topic to another, while Josie-Jo listened.
Then, abruptly, Turtle stopped. “Oh! Oh, gosh, the time! I’m sorry, I can’t stay. I’ve gotta go to the library.” For just a second, Josie-Jo thought that she caught a flicker of something else in Turtle’s eyes. Satisfaction? Secrecy? Guilt? “I’ve got a lot of work to catch up on.” Turtle was looking at her very intently, the way that defendants look you straight in the eye to make themselves seem more truthful. What was she trying to hide? But then Turtle looked away and said, a little shyly, “But. Um. I’d like to visit again.”
“Absolutely,” Josie-Jo said. “Talk to Ms. Franklin on your way out. She can set up an appointment for you.”
“Okay,” said Turtle. She took one last sip of her hot chocolate, and dashed out, leaving the door open behind her.
Josie-Jo got up to close it, and as the door closed, she smiled.