Page 10 of Smoke in Mirrors

They got into a glass elevator that overlooked the lushly landscaped grounds and rode it to the third floor. Leonora got out and waited for Gloria to get the walker aimed in the right direction.

A number of apartments opened off of the carpeted hall. Next to each door was a small wooden shelf, just large enough to hold a vase of flowers, personal knickknacks or a holiday decoration. It was understood that each resident was expected to do something creative with his or her shelf. Leonora was always amused to note that none of the shelves had been left unadorned. Peer pressure was a powerful force at any age.

Halfway down the carpeted hall the door of one of the apartments opened. A man stuck his head out into the corridor. What little was left of his hair was very white. He eyed them over a pair of reading glasses.

“Hello, Herb,” Leonora said.

“Evening, Leonora. Thought I saw your car downstairs in the parking lot. You two have a nice time?”

“We had a lovely meal,” Gloria said. “I’ll probably pay for it later, but who cares? Got a cabinet full of antacid.”

“You look real nice, Gloria,” Herb said. “I like that green on you. Matches your eyes.”

“Skip the compliments, Herb. They won’t get you anywhere. Finish your column?”

“Hell, yes,” Herb said. “I don’t miss my deadlines, unlike some people I know.”

“Now, now, you know Irma had a good excuse last week. Her nephew was visiting from Denver.”

“So what? My niece came to see me two weeks back. I still managed to get my column done.”

“Irma turned in a great travel article this time,” Gloria assured him. “A detailed list of Las Vegas hotels that have handgrips in the bathrooms and wheelchair-accessible gaming tables. I’m following up with a hard-hitting editorial that asks the tough questions.”

Leonora looked at her. “What are the tough questions?”

“Why is it that fancy hotels always locate the rooms that are supposed to be accessible to folks in wheelchairs and walkers at the end of the hall as far from the elevators as possible? And why is it those rooms are always the ones with the worst views?”

“Good questions, all right,” Leonora said.

Gloria’s Gazette, the online e-zine that Gloria had founded a few months before, after taking a series of computer classes for seniors, had proved to be a resounding success. The subscription list grew daily as more and more seniors got on the Net.

“So, Herb, what’s the major issue in the ‘Ask Henrietta’ column this week?” Leonora questioned.

“Millicent in Portland emailed to tell me that her family is pushing her to give up her car keys. She says she’s not sure she’s ready to stop driving, but the pressure from the relatives is getting to her. Also, one of her friends had an accident recently. Made her nervous.”

“That’s a difficult problem,” Leonora said.

“Nope,” Herb said. “Not difficult at all. I reminded her how much money she’ll save if she gives up her car. Costs a lot of dough to keep one in the garage, what with insurance and gas and all. Told her she can apply that amount to cab fares and have a lot left over.”

“You’re good, Herb,” Leonora said admiringly. “You’re really good.”

“I know,” Herb said. He looked pointedly at Gloria.

“Don’t get any ideas,” Gloria said.

“You know what I want.”

“Not yet, Herb. I’m still thinking about it.”

“Damn it, I deserve to have my name on the advice column,” Herb said. “I’m sick and tired of folks emailing ‘Ask Henrietta.’ They oughta be writing to ‘Ask Herb.’ ”

“Hasn’t got the same ring,” Gloria said.

“Who cares about the ring? This is a matter of journalistic principle.”

“I told you, I’m thinking about it.” Gloria put the walker in gear and moved off down the hall. “Let’s go, dear,” she said to Leonora. “It’s late. Herb needs his sleep.”

“The hell I do,” Herb called after her. “I haven’t had a good night’s sleep in twenty years. Sleep’s got nothing to do with this. I want my name on that damned column.”

“Good night, Herb.” Gloria did not look back.

They turned the corner in the hall and stopped in front of another door. Leonora waited while Gloria got her key out of her purse.

“You know, I think Herb is kind of sweet on you, Grandma.”

“Hah. Columnists are all alike. They’ll do anything for a byline.”

Leonora drove home through the balmy southern California night. Melba Creek was a comfortable town on the fringes of the San Diego suburbs. She had moved here a few years ago when she had been offered the position in the reference department at nearby Piercy College, a small liberal arts school. Gloria had followed after Calvin died.

For a time Leonora and Gloria had lived in neighboring apartments in the same building. But after two frightening falls that had left her lying helpless for hours on the floor of her living room, Gloria had opted for the security of the Melba Creek Gardens retirement community with its emergency pull cords in every room, handgrip-equipped bathrooms and twenty-four-hour staff. Not to mention the nonstop activities that included everything from daily bridge to swim aerobics and computer classes.

Gloria claimed she had made the move because it suited her to do so, but Leonora knew her grandmother had done it for her granddaughter’s sake. There was no denying that it was a huge relief to be able to go to work or leave town for a few days without having to worry about Gloria taking another bad fall or getting sick with no one around to help her.

Leonora noticed the blinking light on the phone as soon as she walked in the door. Her first thought was that Thomas Walker had called to see how well his carrot-stick thing was working. Adrenaline flowed, leaving her with an odd, tingling sensation.

She would be delighted to tell him that the carrot-stick thing wasn’t working one damn bit. Looking forward to it, in fact. Couldn’t wait.

She had been right, she thought. He had caved first. Triumph blazed through her.

She stopped tingling as soon as she heard the familiar voice of her ex-fiancé.

“. . . Leo? It’s Kyle. Honey, I’m starting to get the feeling that you’re avoiding my calls . . .”

“Very perceptive.”

“. . . We need to talk, Leo. This is important. I’ve got a good shot at getting on the tenure track here in the English Department this year. There’s just one teeny little glitch. Your friend Helena Talbot is on the committee. You know how she feels toward me because of what happened last year. But I think we could clear things up if you would give her a call and let her know that I wasn’t responsible and that you don’t blame me in the least . . .”

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