“Good to know that folks like you and Alex Rhodes are out there making the world safe for scholarly research.” Thomas leaned back against the edge of the window and folded his arms. “All right, Julie, pay attention. Here’s what you are going to do. You will not have any more contact with Rhodes. Is that clear?”
Dismay widened her eyes. “But he still owes me another fifty bucks. He promised to give me two hundred altogether and I only got one hundred and fifty so far.”
“The thing is, if you try to collect your money, some people might not understand that you were just holding down a part-time job. The cops, for instance, might get the wrong impression.”
“Cops?” Julie looked horrified. “What wrong impression?”
“They might be excused for thinking that you were aiding and abetting an identity thief.”
“But I didn’t steal anything.”
“Julie, you’re pushing the envelope with the naïve innocent act. Everyone knows that identity theft is big business and a serious crime. A social security number unlocks all the doors and, given a driver’s license and a credit card or two, it’s not that hard to get it.”
“But I told you, Mr. Rhodes was just making sure that Miss Hutton was for real.”
“Is that right?” Thomas asked. “And what makes you think that Alex Rhodes is for real?”
Julie stared at him, obviously staggered by the implications of that question.
“You mean that Mr. Rhodes is . . . you mean that he may be a criminal? But he’s like a doctor or a shrink or something.”
Her voice had risen to such a shrill pitch Thomas was surprised that the window behind him did not shatter.
“I don’t know yet who or what Alex Rhodes is,” he said. “But I think it’s safe to assume that any man who would hire a nineteen-year-old student to go through someone’s personal effects in search of identification data is probably not a very nice guy.”
Julie started to weep again.
Leonora touched her shoulder. “Calm down. Mr. Walker and I will handle this from here on in. But in the meantime, I think he’s right. It’s probably best if you don’t have any more contact with Alex Rhodes.”
Julie looked up at her with wet, doleful eyes. “But what about my fifty dollars?”
“I’ll tell you what.” Leonora reached down to unclasp her satchel. She took out her wallet. “I’ll give you the fifty dollars that Rhodes owes you.”
“Uh, Leonora,” Thomas said.
She paid no attention. Instead she opened the wallet, took out some cash and handed the bills to Julie.
“Thanks.” Julie took the cash with alacrity, counted it swiftly and stuffed it into the pocket of her jeans. “Don’t worry, I won’t go to see Mr. Rhodes again.”
“We appreciate your assistance in this matter,” Leonora said.
“Sure.” Julie hurried to open the door. “Well, I’d better get going. I’ve got a ten o’clock English Lit class.”
Thomas followed Leonora to the door. “With any luck,” he said casually, “this will be the end of it for you.”
Julie frowned. “What do you mean, with any luck?”
“In the end, we might be forced to bring in the police.” He moved out into the hall and turned to smile at her. “You never can tell.”
Julie threw him another traumatized look and shut the door.
Leonora glared at him. “There was no need to add that last bit about the cops. She’d told us what we wanted to know.”
“She conned you out of that money.”
“Big deal. It was worth fifty bucks to find out that Alex Rhodes was doing research on me, wasn’t it?”
“That’s beside the point. I didn’t like the way she did it. What I told her about the cops may be the truth,” he said. “The more we get into this thing, the more I think we will eventually have to take it to the authorities.”
“Fine by me.” Leonora clutched her satchel in her left hand and fell into step beside him. “When?”
“I don’t know. We don’t have enough yet. Ed Stovall has made it pretty clear he can’t justify reopening the investigation into Bethany’s death unless we bring him something solid in the way of evidence. Not after what he went through with Deke when Bethany died. He thinks my brother is a nutcase.”
She searched his face. “You’re starting to believe that we may actually be investigating a couple of murders, aren’t you?”
He rubbed the back of his neck, trying to ease the nagging sensation that something big and nasty and endowed with a lot of teeth was bearing down on him.
“I’m still not ready to buy into a murder conspiracy theory,” he said. “But I’ve got to admit that I’m coming to the conclusion that Rhodes is a serious problem.”
“I’m calling because a friend of mine needs some professional advice and Herb is the only advice columnist I know,” Leonora said on the other end of the line. “I’d go online and email him in care of ‘Ask Henrietta,’ but I know he’s busy and he might not notice my question right away.”
“He’s swamped, all right.” Gloria settled into her armchair and propped her feet on the small hassock. She surveyed her ankles closely. By the time she had gotten home from the shopping expedition to the mall, they had been swollen. She knew from experience that if she kept them elevated for a while they would slim down. “Don’t tell Herb, but between you and me, ‘Ask Henrietta’ is the most popular column in the Gazette. More questions coming in every day. Herb’s talking about getting an assistant.”
“I was afraid of that. This is sort of an emergency. I thought maybe you could go down the hall, get the answers we need and then call me back right away.”
“We?” Gloria repeated cautiously.
“I mean, the answers my friend needs,” Leonora amended quickly. “Here’s the deal. The guy lost his wife about a year ago. He hasn’t gotten involved with anyone else since her death. I think maybe the marriage had some problems and he’s got some unresolved issues. The point is, my friend wants to get his attention. Make him focus on her, if you see what I mean.”
“I understand, dear.” Gloria cradled the phone between her shoulder and ear, picked up a pen and a pad of paper and started to make notes. “Does this man have children?”