Authors: Barbara Michaels
“She could come to us,” Ruth said, innocently aware of undercurrents. “Pat and I rattle around in that big old house and it's not far from the shop.”
That idea appealed even less than the prospect of moving in with Kara. Rachel could imagine what Ruth's house was likeâa Virginia manor house, decorated with dainty chintzes and antique furniture. They probably had live-in servants. I'd be as out of place as Alexander the dog, Rachel thought; the only difference being that I know I'm a slob and Alexander doesn't know. Or care.
Before she could comment, Kara said impatiently, “We'll settle that later. Ruth, will you call Cheryl and explain the situation? Tell her we're on the way. Come on, Rachel, we've got a lot to do.”
It was after noon by the time they left College Park. Arguing with Kara was a waste of breath; she had ignored or countered every protest Rachel had made, helped her pack, hauled suitcases and boxes to the car. As they headed for the Beltway along the eccentric traffic of Route 1, Rachel tried one more time to talk Kara into taking her back to Georgetown and her car, but her heart wasn't in it. In the gray winter light the house had looked like a set for
a horror movie, its paint peeling, its windows dark, the untrimmed shrubbery a wild tangle that provided concealment for an infinity of imaginary enemies. Rachel hadn't expected that the sight of her room would make her break into a cold sweat of remembered terror and morbid “what-ifs.” What if he had had a gun? What if he had attacked instead of running away?
So when Kara told her not to be silly she settled back and relaxed. Kara was a good driver, and the car was warm and comfortableâquite a contrast to Rachel's drafty, springless wonderâand she had had only three hours' sleep. She dozed off and didn't wake up till they reached Leesburg.
Kara brushed her apologies aside. “I expect you were exhausted. I was watching; I'm almost certain no one was following us. Let's go in before CherylâToo late, there she comes. Just look at herâno coat, no sweater, dashing out in the cold as if you were an abandoned baby. That woman needs to have her maternal instinct amputated.”
Not until she had supplied them with hot coffee and hot soup, and Rachel had assured her no less than four times that she was fine, did Cheryl consent to sit down and stop talking. Tony hadn't spoken except to greet them; he was sitting in a rocking chair with one cushion behind his head and another one under his thigh. Several others had been inserted around him, more or less at random, and he looked horribly uncomfortable.
The room had been the kitchen of the house, and Cheryl had left the appliances in place when she turned it into a downstairs sitting or family room. The stove and refrigerator were butter-yellow; the rug was braided; the furniture was upholstered in a country print, with matching cottage curtains at the window; three cats and two dogs were curled up on the smaller rug next to the fireplace. It was cozy enough to turn a sensitive stomach, and
the temperature of the room must have been close to eighty. Tony's face shone with perspiration.
He stopped Cheryl before she could add another log to the roaring fire. “Sit down, honey, and stop fussing. We have to talk.”
“Right.” Kara shed her jacket and rolled up her sleeves. “Kee-rist, Cherry, it's a hundred degrees Fahrenheit in here already. I gather you talked to Aunt Ruth?”
“And the police,” Cheryl said, “From D.C., I mean. They came out just beforeâ”
“Let me tell it, okay?” Tony's voice was pleasant but tightly controlled.
“Okay,” Cheryl said cheerfully. “Do you want another pillow behindâ”
“No! I mean, no, thanks.” He went on without drawing breath, addressing Rachel. “Ordinarily it might have taken them some time to follow up on your story, Rachel; they've got enough murders in D.C. to keep them busy, never mind a little attempted burglary. As it turns out, the cop you talked to last night remembered me, from the time when I worked for the department.”
“I thought he gave me a funny look when I mentioned the shop.”
“Yeah. I couldn't add much to what you had already told him. He agreed that the merchandise could be stolen property but he pointed out that the guy's subsequent behavior is a little whacko. Why would he take such risks to retrieve the stuff?”
“Because it's worth a lot of money,” Cheryl said. “Ten, twenty, thirty thousand.”
“That much?” Kara's eyes took on an acquisitive gleam.
“At least. And,” Cheryl went on, “he might not think there was much risk involved. One woman, aloneâ¦After all, if criminals were sensible people they wouldn't be criminals.”
Tony's frown turned to a smile. “You said it, babe.”
“Makes sense to me,” Kara agreed. “Your buddy doesn't buy that idea, Tony?”
Tony shrugged. “He's just a poor ignorant male like me. The idea of a bundle of old bedclothes being worth big bucks is hard to swallow.”
“You ought to know better,” Cheryl began.
“So what does he think?” Kara demanded.
Tony glanced at Rachel, and then looked away. One of the cats jumped onto her lap. It was a calico, namedâby Megan, who was, after all, only fourâPatches.
“You don't have to treat me like a child,” she said, stroking the cat. “But that's stupid. Why would he go to all that trouble? There are plenty of women around and I'm not exactly Helen of Troy.”
Tony's heavy black eyebrows drew together. “For God's sake, Rachel, don't make asinine jokes. This character got to youâdon't deny it, I could hear it in your voice. Some people get a sexual kick out of evoking that reaction. If he thoughtâ” He broke off. “Cheryl, will you stop making faces at me? I'm not trying to scare her, but I'm glad she's here, and I think she should stay here until they catch the guy.”
“Suppose they don't?” Rachel demanded. “I can't stay here forever.”
“The chances are pretty good that they will,” Tony said. “I've asked the boys to check reports of break-ins and burglaries, not only here but in adjoining counties and the District. This one should be easy to spot; there can't be too many cases of stolen quilts. He may have a previous record, and if there's a mug shot on file I can probably pick him out. I got a good look at him.”
“Anyhow, you're welcome to stay as long as you like,” Cheryl declared. “That long drive is a killer, especially in bad weather, and we've got plenty of room. Oopsâlook at the time. I've got to go meet the school bus.”
Kara rose to her feet. “I'd better get going too; we're supposed to attend a reception at the Japanese Embassy.”
“You and Mark are coming for dinner tomorrow night, don't forget.” Cheryl slipped into her coat.
“How could I forget the great annual tree-decorating ceremony? I don't know why you're bothering this year,” Kara grumbled. “You won't even be here for Christmas. And you always work yourself into a frazzle and do too much.”
“The kids enjoy it,” Cheryl murmured. “See you tomorrow, then. I'll be right back, honey.”
Rachel felt a sick mixture of relief and disappointment. She had heard Tony and Cheryl discussing their plans to spend the holidays with his mother in Ohio, but the fact had slipped her mind.
Despite her declared intention of leaving, Kara didn't seem to be in any hurry. As soon as Cheryl left the room she went to Tony, removed two of the most obtrusive pillows, and tossed them onto the couch. Neither of them commented, but the look they exchangedânot quite intimate, but a little warmer than friendlyâmade Rachel feel like an intruder.
“Do you really want to go to Ohio?” Kara asked.
“No way I can get out of it,” Tony said. “The whole clan will be there this year, they planned it months ago. And Mama is dying to get her poor sick boy home.”
“Poor sick boy,” Kara murmured. She was smiling, making a joke of it, but her hand moved to his shoulder.
His eyes shifted, acknowledgingâreminding her ofâRachel's presence. “What about you, Rachel? We're a bossy bunch, I never thought to ask about your plans. Are you going home for Christmas, or is someone coming to you?”
Kara turned. Her expression of polite inquiry didn't fool Rachel. Cheryl had taken her at face value, grateful for the help she needed so badly, but a sharp businesswoman like
Kara would investigate anyone she hired to handle expensive objects. Kara undoubtedly knew all about her background. Not that there was anything shameful or embarrassing about it, but she was in no mood to explain to Kara, of all people, why she was alone during the holiday season.
“I have no plans,” she said.
It sounded ruder and more abrupt than she had meant it to, and she realized, too late, that the brief speech might have been interpreted as a play for sympathyâno plans, no friends, no family. Poor little me. She could have kicked herself when she saw Tony's expressionâtroubled, faintly guilty. He was blaming himself for insensitivity and lack of interest. Obviously it had never occurred to him to wonder about her personal life. Why should it?
Quickly Rachel went on, “I had talked with some of my friends about cooking dinner togetherâat my placeâyou know, one of us bringing the turkey and another making dessert, andâ¦But we hadn't made definite plans. I'd be happy to stay here, if you need a housesitter.”
“Even if you're staying here, which I think you should, you don't have to stick around twenty-four hours a day,” Tony said pleasantly. “You could invite your friends to come here Christmas Day.”
“Oh, no, I wouldn't do that.” Kara's steady regard made her stumble into unnecessary explanations. “Not that they'd behave improperly, or anything. But this is your house, and you don't know them, soâ¦I don't mind being alone.”
“You won't be alone,” Kara said.
“I wouldn't have suggested you come here if I had thought you'd be alone. What would have been the point of that? Adam should be adequate protection.”
She gave Tony another of those comradely grins, and
his mustache twitched in responsive amusement. “I should think so.”
“When is he coming?”
“His ETA is the twentieth, but that doesn't mean a thing with Adam; I've never known him to show up when he said he would. He always has the most, fantastic stories to account for being late. Even more fantastic, they're usually true.” Turning to Rachel, he added reassuringly, “I don't mean to imply he's unreliable. He'll certainly be here before we leave; he knows we're counting on him to look after the animals.”
“Who is he?” Rachel asked.
“A former student of Pat's,” Kara answered. Seeing Rachel's blank look, she explained. “Aunt Ruth's husband, Patrick MacDougal. He taught anthro at Johns Hopkins before he retired last year.”
“I know who he is, of course,” Rachel said. “I've read his books. The name didn't connect at first.”
“Adam teaches too,” Tony said. “In North Carolina. He's an orphan and a protÃ©gÃ© of Pat's, so he often spends the holidays with them when he isn't out in the field. This year we conned him into pet-sitting for us. That suited him fine, because he's notâ¦I mean, he prefersâ¦Hmmm. I don't know exactly how to put thisâ¦”
“What Tony means is that he won't bother you,” Kara said. “In any way.”
Twenty-four hours later Rachel was still in the dark as to why the mysterious Adam wouldn't “bother” her. She had tried to find out, but the answers to her inquiries only confused her more. Her blunt question to Kara: “Is Adam gay?” got an equally blunt response. “I don't think so. Why do you ask? Are you homophobic?”
She tried Cheryl next. “He's not physically handicappedâI mean, âchallenged,' is he?”
Cheryl hooted with laughter. “Adam? Quite the contrary.” She was about to elaborate when one of the cats let out a squawl of rage and she had to rush to rescue Jerry, who was trying, over the cat's emphatic protests, to tie a red bow and a bell around its neck.
The private kindergarten he and his four-year-old sister attended had closed for the holidays, but the public schools had not yet done so. Joe had left earlier, loudly berating the sadism of the board of education. Without him to ride herd on them, the younger children were racing around, yelling with excitement and getting in everybody's way. Alice, Cheryl's part-time housekeeper, had gone to Pennsylvania for a couple of weeks to spend the holidays with her daughter, and Cheryl was trying to do several things at once: bake cookies, set up the tree, prepare dinner for a dozen people, and deal with customers who had delayed their shopping till the last minute. The dogs wove in and out, hitting people with their tails and licking up the scraps of dough Cheryl dropped onto the floor; the cats all tried to get onto Tony's lap, since he was the only one sitting down. Abnormally sensitive to every expression that crossed his face, Rachel knew his enjoyment of the comfortable holiday bustle was marred by his inability to do anything except look on. Watching Cheryl wrestle with the tree, eight feet tall and too thick to fit into the stand, he appeared to be on the brink of apoplexy.
Kara arrived around noon, driving Rachel's car. She refused Cheryl's attempt to prepare lunch for her, saying she'd had a sandwich before she left, but accepted a chocolate chip cookie warm from the oven. “Anything new?” she asked.
Tony shook his head. His eyes, wide with alarm, were fixed on Cheryl, who was whacking at the trunk of the tree with a hatchet.
“Thomas is coming over this evening,” he answered
abstractedly. “He may have somethingâ¦Honey, please don't wave that hatchet around. Leave it till Joe gets home, he'll do it.”
The shop bell sounded. Kara reached for a towel and wiped her fingers. “I'll go.”
“Take that plate of cookies,” Cheryl said, her voice muffled by pine needles as she struggled with the recalcitrant tree. “You'd better check the punch, too, it's getting low.”