“Excuse me,” said Jo, from inside the computer. “Lisa? I’m sorry to bother you, but I’m afraid we need some attention here.”
“I know, I’m sorry,” I said. “But I have a lot of grading to do.”
“You always do,” said Jo. “And we understand. But you’ve left us hanging around here in Chapter 3 for almost six weeks.”
“Yes, yes,” I said, trying not to sound exasperated. “But we are in a pandemic, you know, and I’ve had a death in the family, and I’m behind on my teaching work.”
“But we’re losing the thread here,” said Jo, “and I’m afraid Rossetti is getting impatient.”
“Hmmm,” I said, trying to grade just one more set of student lecture notes.
“Lisa?” This was Rossetti now. “Trouble is, I’m an actual historical character.”
“Unlike me,” added Jo.
“Unlike Jo,” agreed Rossetti, “And I’m known for my impetuous nature.”
“And your charm,” said Jo.
“And my charm,” conceded Rossetti, “And my brilliance and talent and vivacity. You can’t leave us sitting here in the chapter like this. We must shine.”
“We need to know where things are going,” said Jo.
“Well,” I said, “You know where things are going. There’s the outline.”
Jo laughed. “You said you weren’t going to use the outline. Right after you took that Mystery Writing class. I can’t do all this planning, you said, and bought a book about writing in the dark, or something about the seat of your pants.”
“Yes, I know,” I said, “But you can use the outline to know what’s going to happen.”
“But I don’t know,” said Jo. “We’ve only just discovered the body of Mr Pratchett. I’m supposed to be the lady detective this time, aren’t I?”
“Yes, you are. The Inspector did all the work in the first mystery, but this time it’s you.”
“I cannot detect without having something to detect with. A plot or a clue or something. If I don’t have it, I can’t share it with Rossetti.”
“And we’re becoming such good friends,” added Rossetti.
“Yes, we’re becoming such good friends,” said Jo.
“Which you hadn’t planned,” added Rossetti.
“Which I hadn’t planned,” I said, “because Rossetti was a rather famous lover of women, and you, Jo, are a lesbian.”
“She’s a lesbian?” asked Rossetti.
“Yes,” said Jo, “Didn’t you know about my lover Nan, the one who died?”
“No,” said Rossetti quietly.
“She was in the first book.”
“I didn’t read the first book,” said Rossetti, “I wasn’t in the first book. Why would I read a book I’m not in?”
“Oh,” said Jo.
“Look, you two,” I said, “Maybe you’ll become close friends because there’s no sexual tension. Or maybe you’ll both just get excited about the case and enjoy joining forces. You’ve already joined forces really. You’ve already taken Jo to see the wombats.”
“I did,” said Rossetti proudly, “and she’s to be my very dear friend. If you write it that way.” There was a pause. “Are you going to write it that way?”
“I think so,” I said, “But it’s been awhile. I was having trouble with the plot.”
“Well,” said Jo, “you need to write us more, give us more things to do. We can’t just sit here waiting for you to finish your grading. It’ll be all term. We won’t move till winter break at this rate. And all the time, the killer is getting away.”
“How can he be getting away, if I haven’t written about him either?” I asked, reasonably.
“Maybe he’s planning another murder. Maybe the head of the National Gallery is involved. Maybe he’ll start killing artists!” She sounded afraid.
“Or Bridget,” said Rossetti, “He might kill Bridget. Bridget is Mr Pratchett’s assistant, isn’t she?”
“And a very dear friend of mine,” said Jo.
“And a very dear friend of yours. What if she’s in danger? How would we know?”
“She’s already been locked in the darkroom once. And somewhere back here,” Jo paused. She must be searching the previous chapters, I thought. “Somewhere back here there’s a Millicent somebody, who comes to the photographer’s studio.”
“I didn’t know that,” said Rossetti.
“I haven’t been written to tell you yet,” said Jo, “but maybe she’s involved? She’s in the same philanthropy group as I am.”
I shook my head, “I’m not sure what to do with her yet. I thought someone could blackmail her about her hair color. Or a forgery of a painting she owns.”
“Yes! Forgery!” said Jo, “You were going to do something with forgery. And that character, the Italian who knows all about art. He could identify the forger.”
“Besides,” said Rossetti, grumbling, “You’re leaving us here in 1863, while you sit comfortably in 2020.”
“I’m not comfortable,” I said, “Did you hear what I said about a pandemic?”
“More time to write,” said Rossetti. “The fact is, a story about me should be an inspiration, should override all need for mundane work. I want to inspire you! I want to be your muse!”
“It’s not a story about you,” I said, “I am fascinated by you, of course. Who wouldn’t be? But the story is about Jo solving the murder. You’re a side character. You’re her foil.”
“Oh,” said Rossetti, quiet again. “I thought you cared. At one point you had a scene with all of us, with Christina and mother. And Mr Dodgson.”
“I did have,” I said, “I wasn’t sure what to do with it.”
“And now it’s in a file marked ‘not used’,” said Rossetti, sadly. “My family. Not used.”
“Really, Rossetti,” said Jo, “You’re being too sensitive.”
“Am I?” cried Rossetti, “Am I? What if she starts slaughtering the Pre-Raphaelites? What if I’m the next victim? What if poor Lizzie didn’t kill herself, if this murderer gave her an overdose of laudanum? We need this thing written. I deserve to know where I stand!” He was getting very upset.
“Please don’t worry,” I said. “I won’t kill off the Pre-Raphaelites, and you and Jo won’t be harmed.”
“Bridget?” said Jo nervously, “You won’t kill off Bridget?”
“I hadn’t planned to,” I said. “But I really don’t have time to get back to this right now.”
“Hah! You always say that time is made, not found,” said Jo. “So make some time for us and get us to where we can find the forgery and do some detecting.”
“Yes, dear,” I said, and sighed. “I honestly had no idea you characters were so demanding.”
“I’m sorry,” said Jo.
“I am too,” said Rossetti, “but please don’t abandon us.”
“I won’t,” I said. “But do let me grade another set of lecture notes.”