Page 81 of Smoke in Mirrors

The glow of the computer screen glinted off the lenses of Deke’s glasses. His fingers moved over the keys with the virtuosity of a wizard crafting sorcery.

“Okay, I’m in,” he muttered. He did not look up from the screen. “I’ve got Kern’s banking records. Now what?”

Thomas turned away from the window and walked back to the desk. He looked over Deke’s shoulder.

“Now we search for some kind of pattern,” he said. “Whatever Elissa Kern found that made her think her father was making blackmail payments to Rhodes.”

“I still don’t get the point of this search. Stovall told us that Kern was being blackmailed by Rhodes. It’s old news. Kern and Rhodes are both dead.”

“I’m just trying to tie up some loose ends.”

“What loose ends?” Deke sounded exasperated. “It’s finished.”

“Did I give you a hard time when you were acting like an obsessive nutcase because you wanted answers about Bethany?”

“Yes, you did, as a matter of fact. I seem to recall a lot of lectures on the subject of letting go of the past and getting on with my life. And then there were all those hints that I should talk to a shrink.”

“So now I’m the obsessive nutcase. Humor me, okay?”

“Whatever you say.” Deke went back to work on the keyboard. “But I gotta tell you, I had planned to spend today in bed working on my yoga exercises.”

Roberta was standing behind her desk, stacking framed photographs in one of the three cartons arrayed in front of her. When she saw Leonora in the doorway she looked up with a relieved smile.

I’m not the only one who has a case of the creeps today, Leonora thought. The oppressive atmosphere had affected Roberta, too.

“Oh, good, you’re here,” Roberta said. “Please sit down.” She put aside the photograph she had been about to stuff into the carton with evident relief, and crossed the room to the table that held the coffee things. She picked up the pot. “Thanks for joining me.”

“I’m glad you called me downstairs. I wasn’t getting much done, anyway. This place feels even stranger than usual today.”

“I agree. And I’m used to Mirror House.” Roberta poured the coffee into two cups. “Maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to come in and pack up my office today. So many years and so many memories. But it has to be done. I just wanted to get it over with, I suppose.”

“I can understand how strange it must feel to leave an office you had occupied for a long time.” Leonora sat down in one of the padded leather chairs and glanced at the stack of framed photographs on the desk. “Almost as bad as packing up a house where one had lived for several years.”

“I’ll let you in on a small secret.” Roberta set down the pot. “This office has felt more like home to me over the years than my own house. That was true even when my husband was alive, I’m afraid. Cream or sugar?”

“Neither, thanks.”

“Oh, that’s right. I forgot. You drink yours black.” Roberta picked up the two cups and carried them back to the desk. She put one in front of Leonora and then sat down across from her.

Leonora took a tiny swallow of the coffee. The bitter brew tasted more burnt than it had the last time, but who was she to judge? She hated coffee. She could manage half a cup at least.

Roberta was not a small woman. Her chair groaned beneath her weight when she sat back in it. She drank her coffee with a reflective air. “Maybe we should both go home early today,” she said. “There’s really nothing that can’t wait until tomorrow.”

“That might not be such a bad idea,” Leonora said. She looked at the cartons on the desk. “Where are you going to hang all those photos?”

Roberta regarded the pictures, head slightly tipped to one side. “I’m not sure yet. I think the kitchen wall would be a good place for them. But it won’t be the same. Nothing will ever be the same. Even when you think you’ve prepared for change, it always seems to come as a shock, doesn’t it?”

Leonora thought about how her own world had changed in the past few days. “Yes. But some shocks are good for the system.”

“You may be right.” Roberta sipped some of her own coffee and studied one of the photographs with a pensive expression. “It’s too bad that George didn’t live long enough to go on this cruise. He would have loved it.”

“George?”

“My late husband. He was a tenured professor in chemistry here at Eubanks.” The lines deepened around Roberta’s mouth. “He was the stereotypical absent-minded academic. Lived for his work. If he’d had his way he would never have left his lab. He died there, you know. I often think that he would have wanted it that way. Sometimes I wonder—”

The sound of footsteps in the hall interrupted her. She looked up sharply. Leonora jumped, too. They had both assumed they were alone together in the mansion.

“Probably one of the student assistants.” Roberta put down her cup and pushed herself up out of the chair. “I made it clear that no one was expected to come in today. But you know students. You have to tell them everything at least three times before they bother to remember it. Excuse me. I’ll be right back.”

She circled the desk and went out into the hall, pulling the door closed behind her.

Her muffled voice was just barely audible through the panel.

“Julie, what are you doing here? I told you that none of the students were supposed to come in today . . .”

Alone in the office Leonora looked down at her unfinished coffee. She had wanted the warmth and the caffeine, but the taste was so bad it wasn’t worth the effort of trying to drink it. She did not think that she could manage another sip of the dreadful stuff. But she did not want to be rude.

She contemplated the potted plant in the corner for a few seconds and made her decision. The palm looked healthy enough to withstand a dose of caffeine.

A wave of dizziness crashed through her when she got to her feet. Alarmed, she grabbed the edge of the desk. She wondered if she was about to faint. But that was ridiculous. She had never fainted in her life.

The disorienting sensation passed. When the room steadied around her she walked slowly and carefully to the palm and dumped the remainder of the coffee into the pot. It vanished into the dark soil.

When she turned around, the room wavered a little at the edges. The angles straightened in the next instant, but she did not find that reassuring. Something was wrong with her. She was ill.

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