Meet Phillipa. She’s a character in Missing Brandy, the second Fina Fitzgibbons mystery. Phillipa is a minor character, I guess, but she’s major for me. She’s one of those characters we often come across. I call them characters in distress. I keep thinking about Phillipa and her agony, a sure sign that one day, I’ll write more of her story. Anyway, Phillipa is a housekeeper. In this scene, Fina and Cookie ask her questions about the missing girl, Brandy.
I rang Trisha Liam’s bell a few minutes past seven, and a tall woman in her late thirties answered the door, a balled-up paper towel in one hand. Her cheeks were the color of strawberries.
“Trisha told me you’d want to talk to me.” She introduced herself as Phillipa Olinski, the Liams’ housekeeper. “I thought for sure they’d find Brandy by now.” She looked at my ID, made a swift pass at the ground with her eyes before giving me and Cookie a tentative smile.
As she led us through the hall and into the kitchen, I remembered a present my gran gave me one year for Christmas, an illustrated O. Henry. Don’t hike up your lips at me, but I loved that book, loved listening to my gran reading it to me, struggling to pronounce some of the words in her thick accent. The story had something to do with love and giving. I won’t tell you what happened, but the woman in the picture book had beautiful hair, a golden chestnut color, and she wore it long and pushed up in a loose bun. On some of the pages, tendrils floated all around her as she gestured with her body, stretching and bending it into different poses. Gran said the drawings were made that way so you got the feeling of movement. Della—that was the character’s name—became my imaginary friend. She was always in motion, crying or flopping face down onto her bed and sobbing. Well, Trisha Liam’s housekeeper, Phillipa, seemed just like Della to me. She looked like her, totally. She even wore one of those old-fashioned costumes, a loose blouse, a long skirt with a striped apron, and her whole body seemed to tremble as she twisted it one way and then the other.
“I thought for sure Brandy would be back by now,” she said again and craned her neck to look out the window, as if expecting her sudden appearance.
It’s been over two years since I created Phillipa, but she still haunts me, one of the characters who has a life and shares mine. As I write this, I see her, struggling for composure, always in motion, the tendrils of her hair twisting as she squirms in her chair, trying to hide her distress, never succeeding. Poor Phillipa. I can’t give away her story, but some would say she has achieved peace.
Photo: Old Law Tenements, Lower East Side, Manhattan