Page 26 of Smoke in Mirrors

She glanced at the card. Alex’s name and a phone number were the only things printed on it.

“Are you expensive?” she asked.

“Very. But the real money is in the nutritional supplement. You wouldn’t believe how willing people are to take a spoonful of medicine rather than make genuine changes in their lives.”

“Nice work if you can get it.”

“You can say that again.” He gave her a Cheshire cat smile. “And I’ve got it. Want to go back to my place and look at my stress-reduction videos?”

“Some other time, maybe.”

He gave a theatrical sigh of deep regret. “All right, I get the point. You aren’t going to let me sweep you off your feet and onto my couch.”

“You actually have a couch?”

“Sure. Clients expect it. And it gives me a place to take a nap between appointments.”

“I can see the logic. How long have you lived here in Wing Cove?”

“Opened up my practice about a year ago. I can give you a list of references, if you like, but you probably can’t afford me.”

“Probably not.”

“I occasionally do some pro bono work, however.”

“Thanks, but in my family we have this thing against taking charity.”

Alex Rhodes had been in Wing Cove while Meredith was here, she pondered. They would have met. Alex would have made certain of it. And Meredith would have found him entertaining, to say the least. More importantly, she would have considered him a prime source of information. A stress-reduction consultant who catered to the high-end market was bound to pick up a lot of interesting tidbits about his clients’ private lives. Meredith had collected interesting tidbits that might prove profitable the way other folks collected antiques.

“No need to give me a list of references,” she said, “and the only nutritional supplements I use are the chocolate-covered kind.”

“Can I talk you into having a cup of coffee with me, instead? There’s a place just down the street.”

“I’m still looking for a reason.”

“How about because I saw you from the far end of this grocery aisle and I was captivated by the vision of you bending over to reach into that freezer?”

“How about you try again?”

He laughed. “All right, I’ll tell you the flat-out truth. As I mentioned earlier, this is one small town. Most of the women who are anywhere near my age are either married or clients of mine or students. I never date members of any one of those categories, so that seriously cuts down my social options in Wing Cove.”

“I see.”

“I’m a mature, intelligent, sensitive man, Ms. Hutton. I have needs.”

“I’ll bet you do.”

“What I need,” he said deliberately, “is a conversation with a sophisticated, interesting woman that does not revolve around a personal neurosis or a relationship issue that is impacting her ability to deal with stress or to have an orgasm. I need such a conversation very badly, Ms. Hutton. I do believe that I would sell my soul for such a conversation.”

“Oh, well, in that case, let’s have coffee.”

She ordered tea, of course. Alex got an espresso. Of course. The little cup of extra strong, extra dark coffee went with the rest of the outfit.

They sat at a small, round table near the window. The crowd was a mix of academics, students and townsfolk. The walls were painted in warm hues of brown and ocher. The wood floor had been finished to look old and worn. A fire burned on a central, open hearth in the middle of the room.

The fog was back. Outside the window it was so thick it was difficult to make out the shops and galleries that lined the opposite side of the street.

“Mind if I ask you a question?” Alex said.

“Depends on the question.”

“Hate to do this. But before I try to impress you with the breadth and depth of my intellect and sophistication, I feel the need to ask you to define your relationship with Thomas Walker.”

She paused in the act of removing the tea bag from the cup. “My what?”

“I hear the two of you had dinner together last night. In this town that constitutes a relationship.”

“I see.” She set the wet bag down very carefully on the saucer. “We’re just friends.”

“That’s it? Just friends?”

“Yes.”

Alex pondered that for a moment and then shook his head. “I don’t know. ‘Friends’ is a vague term, don’t you think?”

“Is it?”

Alex lounged back in his chair, long, lean legs extended, and looked at her with his glowing gold eyes. “For instance, a few months back, Walker was friends for a while with another woman who worked up at Mirror House. Close friends. One might even say intimate friends.”

Meredith.

She concentrated on taking a sip of tea. It wasn’t bad tea. It wasn’t good tea, either. It had the subtle but distinctive aftertaste that tea made from a bag always had. Not as dreadful as instant tea but not nearly as good as tea made from fine quality loose leaves in a proper pot.

Okay, stop stalling. You’re supposed to be playing private detective here.

“I will tell you one thing,” she said smoothly. “My relationship with Thomas Walker most definitely cannot be defined as intimate.”

Alex nodded. “I just wanted to be sure. I dated Walker’s other friend for a while after they stopped seeing each other. Not sure how he felt about that. Things can get a little too cozy in a small town like this.”

“Nice to know you’ve got a personal code of conduct that applies to your social life.”

“More like I’m just damned cautious. I don’t need a rep for sleeping with the locals’ wives and girlfriends.”

“Bad for business?”

“Very bad.”

“I can understand that.” She had nothing to lose by being a little bolder, she decided. “My turn for a personal question. What happened to your relationship with Thomas Walker’s other friend?”

“We didn’t see each other for long. Between you and me, I think she may have had a problem with drugs. She left town a few weeks ago. I heard she was killed in a car crash.”

She started to pick up her cup again but quickly changed her mind when she realized that her fingers were trembling. She put her hand back in her lap.

“This woman used drugs, you said?”

“Can’t swear to it, you understand. She sure as hell never did them in front of me. But the rumors were all over the place after she died.”

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