It was done. A sense of peace flowed through her. She had completed the task. She could sleep now. She turned around, clutching the desk for support.
The killer came to stand silhouetted in the office doorway.
“I’m the smartest one of all, Bethany.”
Bethany Walker did not respond. She closed her eyes and slipped into a peaceful world on the other side of the looking glass, where the laws of mathematics reigned supreme and everything made sense.
THE PRESENT . . .
A shifting of the light reflected in the mirror above the dresser was the only warning she had that she was not alone in the dead woman’s apartment. Her hands went cold. The fine hair on the nape of her neck stirred as if she had been zapped with an electrical charge.
Leonora straightened swiftly from the drawer she had been searching and spun around, a soft, pale pink cashmere sweater in her hands.
Two junkyard dogs stood in the doorway of the bedroom.
One of them was human.
His broad shoulders filled a lot of the available space and cut off the view of the hall behind him. There was about him the deceptively relaxed, totally centered grace of the natural-born predator. Not an impulsive young hunter overeager to take down the first of the prey that bolts from cover, rather a jaded pro who prefers to pick and choose his targets. He had the face of a man who had done a lot of things in life the hard way and he also had the cold gray eyes to match.
The ghost-gray beast at his heels had a lot in common with his companion. Not real big, but very solid. One of his ears was permanently bent, the result of a fight, no doubt. It was difficult to imagine this creature springing playfully in pursuit of a Frisbee. Probably tear the thing to shreds and eat the plastic raw.
Both of the intruders looked dangerous but her intuition told her to keep her eyes on the man. She could not see his hands. They were thrust casually into the deep pockets of a charcoal-colored windbreaker. He wore the lightweight jacket open over a button-down denim shirt and a pair of khaki trousers. His feet were shod in leather work boots. The boots looked large.
Both man and beast were damp from the rain that misted this stretch of the southern California coast today. Each gave the impression that going for her throat would be no big deal. All in a morning’s work.
“Were you a friend of hers or did you just happen to hear that she was dead and decide to drop in to see if there was anything worth stealing?” the human junkyard dog asked.
His voice suited him. A low, dark, very soft growl.
She got a grip on her hyperactive imagination. “Who are you?”
“I asked you first. Which is it, friend or casual opportunist? Either way, I figure you’re a thief so maybe the answer is moot.”
“How dare you?” Outrage incinerated some of the alarm that had quickened her pulse. “I am not a thief. I’m a librarian.” Damn, that sounded dumb. Well, no one could say that she couldn’t hold her own when it came to snappy repartee, she thought.
“No kidding.” His mouth curved into a mockery of a smile. “Looking for overdue books? You should have known better than to give Meredith Spooner a library card. Doubt if she ever returned anything she stole in her entire life.”
“Your sense of humor leaves a lot to be desired.”
“I’m not auditioning for a late-night comedy show.”
One had to be forceful in situations such as this, Leonora thought. Take the initiative. Take charge. Gain the upper hand with a show of confidence and authority. It wasn’t as though she had not had some experience with difficult people. In the course of her career as an academic librarian she was occasionally obliged to deal with a variety of obnoxious patrons, from egotistical, demanding faculty members to boorish frat boys.
She went deliberately toward the door, praying that the stranger and his dog would step back in that automatic way most creatures did when you made it clear that you wanted to move past them.
“As a matter of fact I have every right to be here, which is probably a good deal more than you can say.” She gave man and dog a steely smile. “I suggest we discuss this with the apartment manager.”
“The manager’s busy. Something about a plumbing emergency down on the third floor. I have a feeling we’d both rather deal with this privately, anyway. Got a name?”
It became glaringly apparent that neither he nor the dog was going to get out of her way. She was forced to halt in the middle of the room.
“Of course I’ve got a name,” she said crisply. “But I don’t see any reason why I should give it to you.”
“Let me take a wild guess. Leonora Hutton?”
She froze. “How did you know?”
He shrugged. The easy movement drew her attention once again to the impressive width of his shoulders. The fact that they fascinated her was worrisome. Normally she was not the least bit attracted to male muscle. She preferred the intellectual type.
“Meredith didn’t have a long list of friends,” he said. “Mostly she just had marks, from what I can tell.”
“Marks. Targets. Victims. Dupes. Whatever you call the people she used, conned or fleeced in the course of her scams. But unlike most of the people in her email address book, you and she went back a ways from what I can tell.” He paused a beat. “Assuming you’re Leonora Hutton, that is.”
She set her teeth together. “Yes, all right, I’m Leonora Hutton. Now, who are you?”
“Walker. Thomas Walker.” He glanced down at the dog. “This is Wrench.”
Wrench tilted his broad head and grinned in response to the sound of his name.
She looked at Wrench’s impressive array of teeth. “Does he bite?”
“Nah.” Thomas was apparently amused by the question. “Wrench is a real sweetheart. Very nonconfrontational. Probably a miniature poodle in his former life.”
She did not believe that for one moment. If Wrench had had a former life he had no doubt lived it as a giant medieval hunting mastiff. But she decided not to make an issue of it.
“We’ve been waiting for you to show up, Miss Hutton,” Thomas said.
She was aghast. “Waiting for me?”
“Three days now. Spent most of the time in that coffee shop across the street.” He angled his jaw toward the window and the partial view of a block of small shops. “You were the one who claimed the body and made the burial arrangements last week. Figured you’d come to clean out her apartment sooner or later.”