Page 27 of Smoke in Mirrors

“Where would she get them in a small town like this?”

“Don’t you read the papers? You can buy that junk anywhere these days. Besides, this is a college town. That makes it even easier.”

“I see.” So much for getting the name of the local drug kingpin. This detective work was hard.

“How did you meet Walker?” Alex asked.

“He’s my landlord.” She was pleased with the way that came out. Very casual. Very innocent. “I met him when I rented my cottage.”

Alex looked briefly surprised, as if he hadn’t considered that mundane possibility. Then he nodded. Thoughtful now. And maybe less intent. More relaxed.

“That’s right,” he said. “I think Meredith mentioned that he was into the home improvement scene in a big way. She said he had picked up a couple of the old summer cottages overlooking the cove and planned to remodel them.”

“I have the cottage that hasn’t been redone yet. But it’s warm and dry and comfortable enough for the short time I’ll be in town.”

“How long do you expect your project at Mirror House to last?”

“I’m estimating that it won’t take me more than a few months at most to put that collection online. The original cataloging was clearly done by a pro who devised a unique classification system for the books. It resembles the Library of Congress system to some degree but it’s been greatly enhanced and expanded to allow for nuance and very fine distinctions in the subject—”

“Where’s home?” he interrupted.

Apparently Alex was not terribly interested in the details of her professional work at Mirror House. Before she could decide whether or not to invent a false answer to that query, the door of the coffeehouse opened. She did not have to turn her head to know who had just entered. She was developing a sixth sense where Thomas Walker was concerned.

Alex did turn his head. He watched Thomas coming toward them. There was an almost imperceptible hardening of his spectacular eyes.

“You sure about the status of your relationship with Walker?” he asked. “He’s just your landlord?”

“Yes.”

Thomas arrived at the table. “Don’t knock it, Rhodes. The relationship between landlord and tenant is damn near a sacred trust. Backed up by the full weight and authority of several centuries’ worth of law, custom and tradition. Sort of like marriage.”

Leonora gave him a warning look. Thomas did not appear to notice. He pulled out a chair, reversed it and straddled it. He rested his arms along the back and smiled at her.

“I was at the hardware store across the street. Thought I saw you come in here. Everything okay at the cottage?”

“Fine, thank you.”

“Be sure to let me know if you need any maintenance work.”

“I will.”

She picked up her cup and took a sip of tea while she tried to figure out what was going on here. The testosterone levels were climbing fast. Had she unwittingly achieved that pinnacle of feminine accomplishment that occurred when one became the object of the rampaging lust of two men who were willing to fight for the honor of her favors?

Nah. Stuff like that never happened to her.

Alex glanced at his heavy gold watch and pushed back his chair. “Hate to leave, but I’ve got an appointment with a client. Can’t be late. Nice to meet you, Leonora. You’ve got my card. Give me a call if you feel the need for some advice on how to handle stress.”

“I’ll do that,” she said.

He winked. “One of these days I’d like to know what you planned to do with those frozen soybeans.” He nodded at Thomas. “See you around, Walker.”

“Sure,” Thomas said.

Alex walked away toward the front door of the coffeehouse. He collected his long black coat from a rack, pulled it on and went outside.

Thomas watched through the window as Alex disappeared into the fog.

“Frozen soybeans?” he asked, his gaze never leaving the window.

“They make a wonderful, low-cal appetizer.”

“I’ll have to remember that. Think Wrench would like ’em?”

“I doubt it. Wrench doesn’t strike me as the type who would have much interest in soybeans.”

“Yeah, you’re probably right about that.” Thomas switched his attention back to her.

The ice in his gray eyes caught her off guard.

“Something wrong?” she asked.

“What did Rhodes want?”

She hesitated and then gave a small shrug. “He said that he longed to indulge in a stimulating conversation with a single female who was not a client, student or the wife or girlfriend of a potential client.”

“Stimulating conversation, huh? Could have sworn he was coming on to you.”

She sipped some more tea. “That, too, perhaps.”

“Were you enjoying this stimulating conversation?”

“I will have you know,” she said primly, “that I was playing detective.”

“Is that so? Mind if I ask why you chose to practice your detecting skills on Rhodes?”

“There were a couple of very sound reasons. First, I found it quite interesting that he approached me out of the blue, so to speak. Just sort of materialized there in the frozen-foods aisle, if you will.”

Thomas tapped one finger lightly against the wooden chair back. “Okay, I’ll give you that. It is interesting. Any idea why he initiated the conversation?”

“My derriere was apparently displayed in an extremely provocative and enticing manner when I bent over to pick up the previously referenced package of soybeans in the freezer case.” She took a sip of her tea. “Never had that happen before. I may have to start buying more soybeans.”

“Doubt if the soybeans had much to do with it. Guys tend to notice things like women’s derrieres. What was your other reason for letting him drag you in here for tea and stimulating conversation?”

“Very early on in our chat, he mentioned Meredith.”

Thomas was silent for a beat.

“Is that right?” he said very softly.

“He brought up the subject all by himself without any prompting from me.”

“Not real subtle, is he?”

“No. I got the feeling that he didn’t have time to be subtle. He wanted answers and he wanted them quickly. He also volunteered the information that he and Meredith had dated for a while after you stopped seeing her.”

“I could have told you that.”

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