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File M for Murder

Miranda James - Author

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ISBN 9781101554364 | 304 pages | 31 Jan 2012 | Berkley | 18 - AND UP
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Athena College's new writer in residence is native son and playwright Connor Lawton, known for his sharp writing-and sharper tongue. After an unpleasant encounter, librarian Charlie Harris heads home to a nice surprise: his daughter Laura is subbing for another Athena professor. Unfortunately her old flame Connor Lawton got her the job.

But before Connor finishes his newest play, he's murdered-and Laura is the prime suspect. Charlie and his faithful cat, Diesel, follow Connor's cluttered trail to find the true killer before his daughter is forever catalogued under M...for murderer.



ONE

Connor Lawton made an abysmal first impression on his initial visit to the Athena Public Library.

Now, four weeks later, I’d seen enough of the tattooed playwright to know he didn’t improve on further acquaintance.

This afternoon, I wanted to curse my luck as I watched him amble toward the reference desk, where I waited to help library patrons.

From around my feet I heard an interrogative warble, and I glanced down at Diesel, my three–year–old Maine coon cat. He always seemed to sense when something, or someone, caused me stress or anxiety, and I had to smile. “It’s okay, boy. Nothing to worry about.”

Diesel warbled again and stretched, reassured.

“Talking to your feet?” Connor Lawton gave me a sour smile. He looked more like a prize fighter than a playwright, with his broken nose, buzzed haircut, and muscular frame. Today he wore a sleeveless shirt that revealed the colorful ink on his upper arms. The tattoos, Japanese in style, offered a stark contrast to his tanned skin and white shirt. A diamond stud glittered in his left ear.

“No, I was speaking to my cat. Remember him?” Lawton grimaced. “Unfortunately. Never seen such an

unfriendly animal.”

Now I wanted to laugh. Diesel likes almost everybody he meets. He’s a very sociable, easygoing cat—a lot like me, actually. But there are some people who rub him the wrong way, and that’s what Lawton did the first time he saw Diesel. The man immediately stuck his hand under the cat’s belly and started to scratch, and Diesel was offended by the improper first greeting. He growled, Lawton jerked his hand back, and Diesel turned and stalked off.

Since then Diesel had no use for Lawton, and evidently it still rankled the man.

“I’m surprised they let you bring the beast to the library,” Lawton said. He exaggerated his drawl when he continued, “But at least Ellie Mae ain’t in here with all her critters.”

I suppressed a heavy sigh while I felt Diesel place a paw on my knee. If he stood on his hind legs, he would be able to peer over the counter at the playwright. “What can I do for you today, Mr. Lawton?”

“Old newspapers.” Lawton frowned, and for a moment he appeared troubled by something. “Research for the play I’m writing.”

Ah, yes, the play. Lawton mentioned it frequently. By now every person in Athena knew that the brilliant young playwright Connor Lawton, the toast of Broadway and Hollywood, was in Athena for two semesters as writer–in–residence at the college. The fall semester started in ten days, but Lawton arrived in Athena early to settle in and “immerse the Muse in the fecund atmosphere of the literary South, the home of immortals like William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, and Flannery O’Connor.”

The man’s pretentiousness evidently knew no bounds. He even told me he was named for Flannery O’Connor, but that he had dropped the O’ from his name because it sounded too artsy–fartsy.

“Are you looking for old issues of the local paper? We have access to a number of newspaper archives online, but the Athena Daily Register hasn’t been digitized yet. At least, not prior to 1998.”

“Local, at least for now.” Lawton stared at me and frowned.

“If you’ll follow me, then,” I said as I headed around the desk to the open space in front, “I’ll show you where the microfilm is.”

“Whatever.” Lawton moved closer and pointed to a spot behind me. “Does the cat have to come with us?”

“Yes, he does,” I said as I glanced back at Diesel. “If he wants to, that is.”

Diesel, his gaze intent on my face, chirped a couple of times before he turned and walked back behind the desk to sit with Lizzie Hayes, one of the circulation staffers. Good choice, Diesel. Lizzie is much nicer.

“Follow me,” I repeated as I turned and walked away. I

heard Lawton mutter something from close behind me.

We walked down a hall near the desk, and I showed the playwright into a small room with filing cabinets, a couple of small tables, and two microfilm–reading machines.

I paused by the cabinets. “The films for the Athena Daily Register are here. The dates are on the cards on each drawer. When you finish with a roll, please put it in that basket on top of the cabinet.” I stopped a moment to clear my throat. “Have you used microfilm readers like these before?”

Lawton nodded as he approached me. I moved aside to let him peer at the labels on the drawers. He squatted, pulled out one of the drawers, and examined its contents.

“Then, if there’s nothing else, I’ll head back to the desk.”

“Yeah, thanks,” Lawton said.

“You’re welcome,” I said, surprised. This was the first time he had uttered the word thanks in my hearing, despite the other times I had helped him.

I glanced at my watch on the way back to the reference— circulation desk. A quarter to three. Only fifteen minutes more on the desk, and then Diesel and I could go home. I looked forward to some quiet time. This had been a long, hot week, and a brief nap before I cooked dinner sounded appealing.

As I mulled possible menus, I resumed my seat behind the desk. Diesel left Lizzie and came back to me. I scratched his head as he rubbed against my right leg. He was an affectionate creature and didn’t often stray far from my side—except to spend time with one of his many human friends. He was popular with the library’s patrons, and he enjoyed them—as long as they didn’t have small hands that wanted to pull cat hair, that is.

I helped two more people with their reference questions, and when I consulted my watch again, the quarter hour was down to three minutes.

The library’s newest employee, Bronwyn Forster, offered a sweet smile as she neared me, ready to take my place. “Afternoon, Charlie. Has it been busy?”

“About the usual,” I said. “When school starts next week, things will pick up.”

Bronwyn nodded as she rubbed Diesel’s head. She cooed at him for a moment, and Diesel warbled back at her. I knew Diesel would agree with me that Bronwyn, with never an unkind word for anyone, made a pleasant change from Anita Milhaus, the obnoxious woman she replaced two months ago.

I waited until Bronwyn finished petting the cat, and then Diesel and I bade her and Lizzie good–bye. I retrieved my briefcase from the office I shared with one of the full–time librarians on the Fridays that I volunteered. I put Diesel into his harness, attached the leash, and we were ready.

The hot August air slapped us both as Diesel and I left the library for my car. I opened the doors to let the heat out, then got in to crank the car and get the air conditioner going. In the meantime, Diesel hopped onto the floorboard on the front passenger side of the car. I detached his leash and stuck it in my briefcase.

On the way home, I thought longingly about a cool shower. I felt sticky from the heat despite the cold blast of air from the car vents.

I pulled into the driveway and hit the garage door opener. As the door rose, I saw Sean’s car in its slot. I smiled, glad he was home from whatever mysterious errand he said he had to run today. I pulled my car in beside my son’s, and I thought about the change in our relationship over the past five months. We were getting along much better now, and I enjoyed having him with me.

Diesel hopped out of the car and made it to the kitchen door ahead of me. I watched, grinning, as he opened the door. Earlier in the year he had learned how to do it by twisting the knob with his front paws, and I still got a kick out of watching him. I suspected my boarder, Justin Wardlaw, taught him the trick, although Diesel was smart enough to have figured it out for himself.

I followed my cat into the kitchen and closed the door behind us. Diesel loped off to the utility room, home to his litter box and food and water bowls. I followed his example and poured myself a glass of water. As I drank I heard laughter from the direction of the living room. I recognized the baritone rumble of Sean’s voice, but there was a second voice. A female voice, and it sounded oddly familiar.

“It can’t be,” I said as I shook my head. My heart beat faster, and I set the glass on the counter.

Moments later I paused in the living room doorway and stared at the two people on the couch—my son, Sean, and my daughter, Laura.

She caught sight of me and jumped up. “Surprise, Dad!” She grinned as she ran to give me a hug.

I threw my arms around her and held her tight. “What a wonderful surprise.” I glanced over at Sean, still on the sofa. He grinned broadly.

“Look at my movie star daughter.” I released Laura and stepped back. I hadn’t seen her since Christmas, and I was thrilled to have her here. Her visits home were all too infrequent. “You and Sean really put one over on me.”

“Not a movie star yet, Dad, but I’m working on it.” Laura laughed as she posed for me. Even dressed in jeans and an old linen man’s shirt she was still beautiful and looked several years younger than her age, twenty–four. Like her brother she had curly black hair and expressive eyes. She had the gamine grace of Audrey Hepburn despite the fact that she was five–ten in her bare feet.

“I had a hard time not telling you on Wednesday when you called me.” Laura laughed again. “I knew Sean would kill me, though, because we wanted it to be a real surprise.” She took my hand and led me to the couch.

I sat with a child on either side of me. “So your mysterious errand was going to the airport in Memphis.” I smiled at Sean, and he grinned.

I turned back to Laura. “How long can you stay? At least a week, I hope.”

Laura exchanged a sly glance with her brother. “Actually, I can stay longer than that, if you can stand having me.”

“Of course,” I said, delighted.

“I’ll be here through Christmas.” Laura giggled at my stunned expression.

“That’s wonderful,” I said, somewhat bewildered. “But can you afford to be away from Los Angeles that long? Career–wise, I mean?”

Laura shrugged. “I guess I’ll find out. But in the meantime I’ve got a pretty good gig here.”

“What kind of gig do you have in Athena?” I couldn’t imagine what kind of acting job she had found here that would last several months.

Before Laura could respond, my thirty–six–pound cat jumped into her lap, startling all of us.

“Diesel. You rascal.” Laura hugged the cat as he warbled at her. Diesel adored my daughter, and the feeling was mutual. Last Christmas Laura threatened to catnap Diesel and take him back to California with her.

After a minute or so of loving attention to the cat, Laura focused again on me and Sean. “I’m going to be filling in at the college for a professor on maternity leave this fall. The person who was originally hired to do it got a full–time job and backed out, and I’m the last–minute replacement.”

“That’s wonderful,” I said. “So you’ll teach acting?” Laura nodded. “A couple of basic courses, plus I’ll be

helping with the fall productions of the Theater Department. Should be fun.”

A cell phone ring interrupted our conversation. Laura frowned as she pulled the phone from the pocket of her shirt. “Sorry about that.” She glanced at the display, then stuck the phone back in her pocket. “I am so not in the mood for him right now.” She grimaced.

“Him who?” I had to ask. Was some guy bothering her?

A guilty expression flashed across her face. “Oh, it’s just my former boyfriend. He’s always having some kind of crisis. But what can you expect from a playwright?” She wrinkled her nose and frowned.

Playwright? Dismay hit me. No, surely not. Not him.


TWO

“I thought you dumped him,” Sean said. “For what, the third time now?” He quirked an eyebrow at his sister.

Laura grimaced. “Second time. But I’ve got to put up with him this semester. He helped me get the gig, after all.” “Are you talking about Connor Lawton?” I tried to keep

my distaste for the man from coloring my voice.

Laura nodded. “Have you met him?”

“Several times,” I said. “He’s been in the library every Friday that I’ve worked the past month.” I paused. “I don’t remember you mentioning him before, although it sounds like you told Sean about him. Have you known him long?” “Eight months, I guess.” Laura glanced down at Diesel, still lying across her lap. She stroked his head, and he purred in response. His tail flopped up and down across my legs. “I met him right after Christmas when I was cast in one of his plays. I told you about that. You know, the one where I played the waitress who thought Elvis had possessed her husband’s body?”

Sean snorted with laughter, and I had to smile. Laura was a huge Elvis fan, and I imagined she had had great fun with the part.

“I remember that much, but you neglected to tell me you were dating the playwright.” Or anything about him, I added to myself.

“Sorry about that, Dad.” Laura shrugged. “The only reason Sean knew about him was because he spent a weekend in LA with me and saw the play back in February. I wasn’t dating Connor then, though he’d already asked me out a few times.”

“He came to Laura’s dressing room after the play.” Sean met my gaze as I turned to look at him. “He seemed okay, though he sure has a healthy opinion of himself. He spent probably fifteen minutes quoting reviews of his plays.” Sean shook his head in obvious amusement.

Laura snickered. “That’s Connor. Self–absorbed ought to be his middle name. I told him that once, and he took it as a compliment.”

“Why would you date someone like that?” I asked, puzzled by what I was learning about my daughter. “I can’t see the attraction myself.” Not for someone as independent and strong–minded as you, I added silently.

“He can be charming and sweet when he makes an effort. And he really is an awesome writer. His plays are amazing.” Laura ran a hand through her curls. Diesel warbled, and she rubbed his head again. “But he’s also exhausting. High maintenance could be his other middle name.”

“Are you together now?” Sean asked.

“No, just friends at the moment,” Laura said. “And that’s all we’ll ever be, trust me.”

“I hope it stays that way,” I said. I didn’t fancy the idea of Connor Lawton as a potential son–in–law. “You can do a lot better, no matter how gifted he is.”

“You don’t think anyone’s good enough for me.” Laura poked my arm with a finger. “Admit it.”

“True,” I said, treating her to a mock–severe frown. Then I grinned. “Probably no one ever will be, though I’m willing to be convinced at some point.”

“Maybe there’s a prince somewhere willing to marry a commoner.” Sean smirked. “Dad can recruit him for you, little sister.”

“And maybe he’ll have a sister for my big brother,” Laura said in a sweet tone. “That is, if she’s willing to kiss a frog.” She stuck her tongue out at Sean.

I laughed but decided to shift the conversation back to Connor Lawton. “Will it be awkward for you, having to be around him all semester?”

Laura shrugged. “I’m going to be way too busy to think much about him. Besides, we get along fine as friends.”

“The less you have to be around him, the better,” I said. Laura shook her head at me. “Dad, don’t worry. I’ve

dealt with bigger pains than Connor, believe me.”

I was probably better off not following up on that statement, I decided. I worried enough about Laura on her own in Hollywood as it was. “I’ll try. What say we go to the kitchen and figure out something for dinner?”

“Sounds good to me,” Laura said. “I’m starving. All I had for lunch was a few pretzels on the plane.” Diesel hopped from her lap to the floor and rubbed his head against her leg.

I smiled down at the cat. “Diesel is hoping you’ll drop him some tidbits like you did the last time you were here. Just don’t overdo it.”

Laura and Diesel came with me to the kitchen. Sean disappeared upstairs, saying he’d be down later.

In the kitchen I found a note stuck to the refrigerator door with a cat magnet. I recognized Stewart Delacorte’s handwriting. Stewart, a professor of chemistry at Athena College, moved in five months ago after his great–uncle was murdered in the Delacorte family home. His stay was supposed to last only until he found a permanent place to live. Somehow he didn’t seem to be able to find a place he liked, so he was still here, occupying a large bedroom on the third floor.

The note informed me that Stewart had prepared a chicken and mushroom risotto and left it in the refrigerator. The note included instructions on heating it for supper. He concluded by stating that he would probably be late tonight and not to wait for him. “Looks like I don’t have to cook after all,” I said as I

handed the note to Laura.

She skimmed the contents and handed it back to me. “Sounds yummy. You told me he’s an awesome cook.”

“He is,” I said. “Between him and Azalea, Sean and I have been eating better than ever.” I patted my waistline ruefully. “I need to be getting more exercise. I miss seeing my feet.”

Laura laughed. “Oh, Dad, stop exaggerating.” She cocked her head to one side as she regarded me. “But if you want to get up and run with me in the morning, I’d love it.” “Thanks, honey,” I said. “I’ll stick to walking, if you don’t mind. Besides, Diesel likes to go with me, and he doesn’t get

motivated to run unless there’s a squirrel involved.”

At the sound of his name, Diesel chirped several times, and Laura reached over to scratch his head. “Yeah, big boy, I bet you’d run with me, wouldn’t you? We’d have fun.”

I laughed at the expression on the cat’s face. I would have sworn he understood Laura and didn’t like the notion of running any better than I did. He moved away from Laura and closer to me.

“I guess not,” Laura said with a wry grin.

“I’ll make a salad to go with the risotto,” I said and opened the fridge door to find the salad makings.

Laura set a large bowl on the counter by the sink and pulled a knife from the drawer. “Do you have any plans for tomorrow night, Dad?”

I placed lettuce, onions, and red bell peppers in the sink. “Helen Louise and I talked about having dinner.” Helen Louise Brady, owner of a local Parisian–style bakery, was a good friend, and lately we’d been spending more time together. We’d known each other since childhood, and she had also been a friend of my late wife’s. “Was there something you wanted to do?”

“I don’t want to interfere with your plans.” Laura began to tear the lettuce and drop it into the bowl. “There’s a cocktail party tomorrow night, kind of a reception for the faculty and the grad students in the Theater Department. I was hoping you’d go with me.”

“I don’t think Helen Louise would mind skipping dinner when I explain,” I said. “I’ll invite her for Sunday dinner instead. She’d like to see you again.”

“Thanks, Dad. I appreciate it.” Laura found the chopping board, then started cutting up the peppers. “Do you know any of the Theater Department faculty?”

“Not well,” I said as I tried to remember names.

“The host of the party is the chair of the department,” Laura said. “His name is Montana Johnston.”

I snickered. “His real name is Ralph. I do know him. He decided a few years ago when he started writing a play that he needed a more artistic–sounding name, and he came up with Montana.”

“I thought it sounded odd.” Laura dropped slices of pepper into the bowl.

“Pretentious is more like it,” I said. Unpleasant memories of the man’s play came back to me. “I actually went to a performance of his play, and it was dreadful. The man just isn’t the best writer.”

“Then he’d better not ever ask Connor to read anything of his,” Laura said. “Connor is brutal to less–talented writers.”

“Like water off a duck’s back with ol’ Montana,” I said as I shredded the last of the lettuce. I picked up the onion and started to peel it. “Ralph has the thickest skin of any person I’ve ever known. He’s as convinced of his own worth as your friend Connor. It might be interesting to see the two of them trying to dent each other’s hides.”

“Count me out,” Laura said with an exaggerated shudder. “That’s the kind of drama I don’t need, thankyouvery– much.”

“Dad, can you come here a minute?” Sean’s voice came from out in the hall.

“As soon as I finish with this onion,” I called out in response.

“Could you come now?” Sean’s tone sounded more urgent.

“Okay.” I handed the onion to Laura and wiped my hands on a dishcloth before I went out to the hallway.

Sean stood there, a puzzled expression on his face, as he stared at a large piece of paper he held gingerly by two corners. As I moved closer to him, he glanced at me.

“I found this on the floor by the front door,” Sean said. “Someone must have slipped it through the mail slot. It’s offensive.” He turned the sheet so I could see it clearly.

The paper was a photograph, a publicity shot of Laura. I

had one like it framed on my bedside table.

But my copy of the photo didn’t have a red A painted on

Laura’s forehead.


THREE

Sean shifted position so we could examine the photograph together. “You think Lawton is responsible for this?”

“Why would he do such a thing?” My anger was building over this insult to my daughter.

Then a chilling thought struck me. Was it a threat of some kind instead?

Diesel rubbed against my legs and muttered. He always picked up on my emotions, and he didn’t like it when I was upset or angry. I rubbed his head to reassure him.

“Other than you and me, who else in Athena knows her? Or even knows she’s here?” Sean continued to stare at the photograph.

“Good point, although I can’t imagine why he’d do something like this.” I locked gazes with Sean. “I don’t want her to see this.”

“See what?”

I was so intent on the photograph that I failed to hear

Laura come up behind Sean and me in the hall. I nudged Sean, hoping he would hide the photograph, but he didn’t move.

“I think she should see it,” Sean said. “I wanted you to see it first, Dad.”

“What are you hiding from me?” Laura stood in front of me, right hand on her hip, head cocked in the same direction. She wrinkled her nose and frowned, sure signs of irritation from her.

“This.” Sean turned the photograph toward her.

Laura’s eyes widened, and then she laughed. “So Damitra’s in town. I didn’t figure it would take her long, once she heard I’d be spending several months here.”

“Who is Damitra, pray tell? And why do you think she’s responsible for this?” I was surprised that Laura appeared to take it so lightly.

“Damitra Vane.” Laura rolled her eyes. “She’s this nutcase Connor dated before me. Basically harmless, but she’s crazy jealous. Calls herself an actress, but she’s terrible. The only reason she ever gets cast in anything is her open—leg policy with casting directors.” She flashed a wicked grin at me. “Oh, and her giant boobs.”

Sean burst out laughing. I could feel my lips twitch, but I wasn’t ready to dismiss the incident. The altered photograph set off an unpleasant tingle in my gut, and I feared Laura might be dismissing this too quickly.

“How would she know you’re here?” Sean asked.

“We have mutual friends in LA, and one of them probably told her I was coming to Athena.” Laura shrugged. “Plus I’m sure she’s heard me talk about my father and remembered Dad’s name. Then all she had to do was look up the address in the phone book.”

“She sounds like a stalker to me,” I said.

My daughter put her arm around my waist. “Come on now, Dad, don’t start worrying. I promise you Damitra is harmless. To me, anyway. Connor’s the one who should be looking over his shoulder. She follows him everywhere.”

“Has she ever done anything physically aggressive toward you?” I wasn’t ready to drop the matter.

“No, she hasn’t. Just stupid little tricks like this.” Laura stepped back and crossed her arms over her stomach. Her nose wrinkled. “You don’t need to get all protective, either of you.” She glared at her brother. “I’m perfectly capable of handling this myself.”

Diesel rubbed against Laura, obviously bothered by her heightened emotions. “See, you’re upsetting Diesel, and that’s not good.” She crouched by the cat and cooed softly to him as she scratched his head.

I was still concerned, but I could see there was no point in discussing this further. I’d have a quiet word with Sean later, ask him to nose around and find out whether this Damitra Vane was in Athena. In the meantime I intended to keep an eye on Laura—as much as I could without riling her. “Let’s get back to preparing dinner,” I said. “You finish the salad, and I’ll reheat the risotto. Sean, you set the table.”

My children and my cat followed me into the kitchen. Laura applied herself to the salad and, once her back was turned, Sean and I exchanged glances. He gave a quick nod, and I knew he understood what I wanted.

“Will Justin be here for dinner?” Sean asked, his tone nonchalant as he pulled plates from the cabinet.

“No, he’s with his dad this weekend,” I said. “He’ll be back Sunday evening.”

Justin Wardlaw, a sophomore at Athena College, was my other boarder besides Stewart. When I inherited this large house from my late aunt Dottie, I kept up her tradition of renting rooms to students attending Athena. Justin boarded with me last year, and now he was almost family.

“How is he doing?” Laura asked. “He seemed like such a sweet kid when I was here for the holidays. I felt bad for him, after all he went through.”

“He’s doing fine.” I popped the dish of risotto into the oven and set the temperature and the timer. “He occasionally has some rough moments, but he’s handling everything well, considering.” Last fall Justin had been a suspect in a murder case and had suffered some serious personal losses. With his father and me, he had a strong support system, and Diesel, who adored him, was a huge help as well.

“The risotto will need about fifteen minutes to reheat,” I

said. “In the meantime, shall we start on the salad?”

“Ta—dah.” Laura presented the bowl of leafy greens, peppers, and onion in a sweeping gesture and set it on the table.

After we each chose a drink for the meal, we sat down, and Laura dished out the salad. While we ate Laura regaled us with some amusing anecdotes from her recent auditions, and I listened for the buzzer on the oven.

Sean talked about a couple of the cases he’d worked on over the summer as we enjoyed the risotto. While he studied for the Mississippi bar exam, Sean was doing investigative work for Athena’s best—known lawyer, Q. C. Pendergrast and his associate, his daughter Alexandra. Sean and I met the legendary Pendergrast and Alexandra a few months ago when I was hired to inventory the rare book collection of one of the lawyer’s late clients, James Delacorte. Though Sean and Alexandra didn’t hit it off at first, they now worked well together, and I was beginning to suspect that Alexandra could very well be my daughter—in—law one of these days.

When we finished our meal, Sean insisted he would clean the kitchen and sent Laura and me off. We made ourselves comfortable on the couch in the living room. The cat sprawled between us, his head and upper torso in Laura’s lap, his back legs and tail against my leg. He was one blissful kitty. His purr rumbled, making the origin of his name obvious.

Laura wanted to hear more about the Delacorte murder case, and I obliged with a summary of the details. Laura loved mysteries as much as I did, and soon the conversation turned to books. Sean joined us then, and we talked for nearly three hours. Diesel remained between Laura and me the entire time, thoroughly content.

Around ten o’clock I yawned and declared that I was ready for bed. “You stay up as long as you like,” I said. Both my children were night owls, but I wasn’t. “Ready for bed, Diesel?”

The cat lifted his head from Laura’s lap and yawned at me. He rolled over and stretched as I stood up from the couch, and he meowed three times at Laura.

“It’s okay, sweet boy, you go on up to bed. I’ll see you tomorrow.” Laura kissed his nose and scratched behind his ears. He jumped to the floor across the coffee table. Thanks to his size, he had little trouble leaping that far.

I bent to kiss Laura’s forehead, and she then kissed my cheek. “Good night, love,” I said. “See you in the morning.” I squeezed Sean’s shoulder and wished him good night.

As Diesel and I headed up the stairs, I heard Sean and Laura talking about having some coffee, and I knew they didn’t mean decaf. I shuddered. How could they drink regular coffee this late at night and then expect to sleep? Ah, youth, I told myself.

Before long Diesel and I were in bed, the cat with his head on his pillow, lying on his side facing me. I rubbed his head and down his side several times, and he rewarded me with chirps of contentment. He was soon asleep, and I drifted off not long after.

At some point during the night a barking dog woke me, and I rolled over. The sounds came from the stairwell. That meant Stewart was home, and so was Dante, his poodle. Dante originally belonged to Sean, but once Stewart moved in and started fussing over him, the dog switched his adoration to my boarder. Sean seemed happy with this because, even though he was fond of the little fellow, he wasn’t that keen on having a dog. He had taken Dante to keep him from being sent to a shelter and brought him along when he moved to Athena back in the spring.

Diesel and Dante got along pretty well, though occasionally Dante turned rambunctious and Diesel had to calm him down. Since the cat was about five times the size of the dog, Diesel always had the upper hand—or paw, that is.

The next thing I knew my alarm went off at seven. I sat up, groggy, and reached over to silence it. I saw that Diesel wasn’t with me. Most days he didn’t get out of bed until I did, but when there was a new guest in the house, he sometimes went visiting in the morning. I expected he was in Laura’s room happily curled up next to her.

I breakfasted alone, and it was nearly ten before anyone else appeared downstairs. After that the day sped by. As I expected, Stewart and Laura really hit it off, and Laura kept Stewart entertained with bits of Hollywood gossip. Stewart insisted on cooking lunch for everyone, and Sean and Laura cleaned the kitchen afterward.

After lunch Sean pulled me aside for a brief conversation. Earlier in the day he’d called around town and verified that Damitra Vane was indeed here. She was staying at Farrington House, the best hotel in Athena. He also looked her up on the Internet Movie Database and showed me her picture on his laptop. She was beautiful, in what I thought of as a plastic, Hollywood manner. Her expression was vacant, and she didn’t look all that bright.

“Since she’s definitely here in town, looks like Laura could be right about the source of the photograph.” Sean powered down his laptop and set it aside.

“I guess, but I still don’t like the situation. I have a good mind to go over there right now and talk to her.”

“Why don’t you let me do that?” Sean said. “As Laura’s lawyer. Maybe frighten her enough with legal repercussions that she’ll back off and leave Laura alone.”

“Sounds like a plan. Thanks, son.” I paused to think for a moment. “Why don’t you wait until Laura and I leave for the cocktail party? That way you won’t have to make up some errand.”

“Good idea,” Sean said. “What time are you leaving?” “Around five,” I said.

The arrangements made, I spent the rest of the afternoon enjoying myself, talking with my daughter and her new best friend, Stewart. The two of them together entertained me, trading gossipy trivia about movie stars past and present.

Laura disappeared upstairs at four to get ready for the party, and I went up shortly afterward to do the same. Diesel stayed downstairs with Sean, Stewart, and Dante. He wouldn’t be happy when Laura and I left the house, because I wasn’t going to take him with me as I usually did.

Stewart solved that problem by taking Diesel and Dante to the backyard for a play session. When Laura came down the stairs a few minutes before five, I was ready.

She was stunning in a sheath of turquoise silk that fit her figure and set off her tanned skin perfectly. Dangling silver–and–turquoise earrings that once belonged to her mother accentuated the long line of her neck. Her lustrous dark hair was pulled back in a chignon, her curls for once sleekly restrained. She carried a small clutch the color of her dress, and her high–heel shoes were a shade darker. I’d forgotten just how mature and elegant she could look.

“Maybe I should carry a big stick with me.” I smiled at her as she reached the bottom of the stairs. “They’ll be swarming all over you.”

Laura laughed. “You are so good for my ego.”

As I backed the car out of the garage, Laura pulled an invitation from her purse. “The address is 1744 Rosemary Street. Do you know where that is?”

“Only a few minutes from here,” I said. “It’s in a neighborhood like ours on the other side of the town square.”

At five–fifteen I turned onto Rosemary Street and soon spotted the house. I had to park half a block away, and as I escorted Laura down the walk we both admired the beautiful houses. This neighborhood, like mine, dated from the latter years of the nineteenth century, when the fashion was for large, multistoried houses. The lots were generous, and there were plenty of trees to help shade the houses. The hot summer sun turned the faded red brick of 1744 to pink, and I felt the heat radiating from it as we headed up the walk.

I was perspiring freely by the time we reached the front door, and I itched to lose my jacket and tie. Laura, on the other hand, appeared unaffected by the heat. I rang the doorbell, and we waited.

And waited. I rang again. Sounds of merriment from inside reached us easily, and I suspected no one could hear the doorbell.

“Let’s just go in.” Laura reached for the knob and swung the door open. I felt a welcome blast of cold air and followed her inside.

The noise was much louder now, and I decided I should have brought earplugs along with a big stick. I’d have a headache before long, thanks to this din. I pulled out my handkerchief and mopped my face and the back of my head. I stuck the sodden linen in my jacket pocket.

We approached a nearby doorway and paused to

observe the scene inside the room. The space was large, perhaps thirty by forty, the furniture and wooden floor worn but clean. I counted sixteen people spread out around the room, and they all seemed to be talking and gesturing at once. I recognized one of them as the host, Ralph Johnston, or Montana, as he now insisted he be called.

There were a few vaguely familiar faces, but no one who I could put a name to besides Ralph. I hated making cocktail–party chitchat with people I didn’t know, but for Laura’s sake I’d make the effort.

Even so the next couple of hours could well seem like twenty.


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