Page 45 of Smoke in Mirrors

“Oh, wow,” Leonora said. “Julie and Alex Rhodes. I don’t like the sound of that.”

“Neither do I,” Thomas said.

“Funny you should mention Rhodes,” Deke said dryly. “This is probably as good a time as any to tell you why I came calling this evening. I learned a few things about our friendly neighborhood antistress counselor.”

“You have our undivided attention,” Thomas said.

“A few years ago Rhodes was ABD at a small college in the Midwest,” Deke began.

“ABD?” Thomas said.

“All But Dissertation,” Leonora explained. “A Ph.D. candidate who hasn’t quite finished all the requirements.”

“Got it. Go on, Deke.”

“Rhodes was working as a graduate teaching assistant in the department of chemistry. His contract was, as they say, not renewed.”

“Meaning he was fired?” Thomas said.

“More or less.” Deke made a face. “From what I could find out online, Rhodes was let go because he had a hobby of seducing his female students.”

“Why am I not surprised?” Thomas said.

“One of the sweet young things was the daughter of a very wealthy alumnus who had given a lot of money to the school. Said alumnus was furious when he discovered that his precious offspring had been fooling around after hours in the chemistry lab with Rhodes. He insisted that the college dump Rhodes.”

“I don’t blame him,” Leonora said.

“After he got kicked out, Rhodes seems to have moved around a lot. He got some one-year contracts in the chemistry departments of various small colleges. Never lasted very long anywhere, though. Apparently he continued to engage in his hobby of seducing the wrong students. There were complaints.”

“I’ll bet there were,” Leonora said.

“Here’s the really interesting part.” Deke sat forward on the stool, radiating controlled excitement. “There were rumors that Rhodes used that stuff they call the date-rape drug, and maybe other junk in the course of his seductions.”

“And now he’s here in Wing Cove,” Leonora whispered. “Selling his antistress formula.”

Thomas looked at Deke. “Any luck with those lab tests on that powder?”

“Not yet,” Deke said. “But I’m expecting to hear from my friend soon.”

“What do we do if the results show that Alex Rhodes is selling hard drugs labeled as antistress formula?” Leonora asked.

“That’s easy,” Thomas said. “If we get that lucky, we take everything to Ed Stovall and dump it into his lap. No way he can ignore that kind of problem.”

Deke took a swallow of beer. “But you don’t think we’ll get that lucky, do you?”

“Nothing else about this mess has been simple,” Thomas reminded him.

Two hours later Thomas and Wrench stood on Leonora’s front porch. Leonora had her key in her hand. They had driven back to her place in her car. They would walk home across the footbridge.

Thomas had suggested that she might want to spend the night at his house. She had declined. He hadn’t pushed. It was okay, he told himself. He could play the waiting game.

“Don’t get me wrong,” she said, inserting her key into the lock. “I’ve got no problem with the theory that Rhodes is up to no good. But I don’t see him as a killer. He’s more the slick, con artist type.” She sighed. “You know, like Meredith.”

“I’d agree with you,” Thomas said. “Except that there are drugs involved. And where drugs are in the mix, all bets are off. People in the drug business get killed. Just ask any cop.”

“We don’t know for sure yet about the drugs. All we’ve got are rumors.”

“You see enough smoke, you start to wonder if maybe there’s a fire.” He shoved his hands into the pockets of his jacket. “You know what I’d really like to find out? I’d like to find out where Alex Rhodes was on the night Bethany jumped off that bluff on Cliff Drive and the night Meredith crashed her car in L.A.”

She got the door open and turned to face him. “That may not be possible.”

“In the meantime,” he continued, “I think we should lean on Julie Bromley a little.”

She thought about that and nodded. “Might work. She’s only nineteen years old. Doesn’t strike me as a hardened criminal. If we confronted her with the fact that we know she searched my satchel and that we also know she’s connected to Alex Rhodes, she would probably fall apart pretty fast. But I doubt if she’ll be able to tell us very much.”

“It’s worth a shot. I’ll dig up her address tonight. We can catch her tomorrow morning before she leaves for classes.”

“All right.” Leonora gave Wrench a good-night pat and prepared to close the door. “Not like we’ve got a lot of other leads.”

Thomas realized she was about to close the door. He put one foot over the threshold, making that action impossible. “One more thing.”

“What?”

“You going to just pretend tonight never happened?”

“I beg your pardon?”

“After seeing you in my bathrobe this evening, Deke is going to think that we’re sleeping together. I was sort of under the same impression, myself.”

“So?”

“So, I’d like a little clarification,” he said. “Are we involved in some kind of relationship here, or was this evening just a one-night stand?”

She gave him her dazzling smile, the one that made him feel like he was standing in a dark tunnel watching the light of an oncoming train coming toward him.

“For the record,” she said, “I never engage in one-night stands.”

He suddenly felt a lot better than he had a moment ago. “Is that a fact?”

“It is, indeed.”

“Correct me if I’m mistaken, but by process of elimination, it would appear that if our encounter earlier tonight was not a one-night stand, then what we have here is some kind of relationship.”

“I do admire a man who can connect the dots,” she said. “Good night, Thomas.”

The relief morphed into a totally irrational euphoria. He leaned forward and kissed her without removing his hands from the pockets of his jacket. Just to see what she would do.

She kissed him back. Without putting her arms around him.

He took his foot off the threshold. She closed the door in his face. Gently.

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