CHAPTER 38

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

9:30 a.m.

Alice popped into the kitchen. Her gaze touched on Stacy, then jumped to the housekeeper. “I’m going to run to Caf? Noir for a moccaccino.”

Stacy searched her memory. Alice frequented Caf? Noir? Had she ever seen the girl there? A lot of kids hung out at Caf? Noir, mostly at night and right after school. She didn’t remember having seen her.

The housekeeper, standing at the sink, looked over her shoulder at the girl. “What about your morning lessons?”

“Haven’t started yet. Mr. Dunbar’s pukey today. Asked if I’d mind a late start.”

Clearly, Alice was delighted. The thought crossed Stacy’s mind that poor Mr. Dunbar may have been poisoned.

The housekeeper sent Stacy an uneasy glance, then turned back to the teenager. “Your parents left strict orders that you’re not to go out alone. If you give me a few minutes, I’ll-”

The teenager flushed. “Caf? Noir is less than six blocks away! Surely they didn’t mean-”

“I’m sorry, hon, but with everything that’s happened-”

“This is so freakin’ bogus!”

“I’ll go with you,” Stacy said, standing. “I could use the walk.”

“No, thanks.” Alice glared at her. “I’d rather do without.”

“Your choice.” She shrugged. “But I really do need the walk. Shall I bring you one back?”

The teenager stared at her a moment, eyes narrowed. “Fine. But I’m not going with you. You walk behind me.”

Somebody, it seemed, did not like to be thwarted.

Stacy hid her amusement. “Whatever.”

Within minutes, the two were nearing Caf? Noir. As promised, Stacy had stayed several paces behind Alice. She hadn’t promised to keep her distance at the coffeehouse, but she planned to spring that fact on the teenager when the time came.

When Stacy entered the coffeehouse, Alice was already at the counter ordering. Billie looked up and smiled in greeting.

“Hey, girl,” she called. “Long time no see. What gives?”

“Been busy.” Stacy reached the counter; Alice scowled at her. “Billie, this is Alice, Leonardo Noble’s daughter.”

Billie smiled at the teen. “No kidding. Now I can put a name with the face.”

Alice stuck a straw in her super grande frozen moccaccino. “See ya.”

Stacy watched her walk away, then looked at Billie. “It’s the teenage version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.”

Billie arched an eyebrow. “More Hyde than Jekyll, apparently.”

“She come in here much?”

“Sometimes.”

“She and Cassie ever talk?”

“Yeah, maybe.”

Stacy didn’t know which surprised her more, her own uttered thought or Billie’s answer. “She and Cassie knew each other?”

“They weren’t friends, but I think they spoke. The usual?”

Stacy realized Billie meant her usual drink, and she shook her head. “An iced coffee. Tall.”

Billie nodded, made the drink, slid it across the counter and waved away her attempt to pay for it. “On the house.”

“Thanks.” She frowned, thoughts still on Cassie and Alice. “When you say they talked, do you mean more than ‘Hello’ and ‘How are you?’”

“They discussed gaming.”

RPGs. Of course. After that thought came another. Could Alice be the one who promised to introduce Cassie to White Rabbit?

“What’s going on?” Billie lowered her voice. “Where the hell have you been? And don’t give that ‘been busy’ crap.”

She glanced over her shoulder and saw that no one was within earshot. “Life’s gotten a little weird since we last talked. The White Rabbit openly claimed a victim, a woman named Rosie Allen. From the calling card he left the Nobles yesterday, two more victims are on the way. And did I mention, I was welcomed to the game?”

“The game?” she repeated. “Back up, girlfriend. Way, way up.”

“You remember me telling you that Leo Noble believed someone, maybe a troubled fan, had begun playing his game White Rabbit for real? That he had received disturbing cards that indicated he had been entered into the killer-takes-all scenario?”

The other woman said she did, and Stacy continued. “One of the cards depicted a mouse-like creature drowning. A woman named Rosie Allen was found drowned in her bathtub. The killer left a message at the scene. Poor little mouse drowned in a pool of her own tears. The woman had a connection to Noble. She did alteration work for the family.

“Saturday, he left another calling card at the Nobles-‘The roses are red now.’ The message was written in blood.”

For a long moment Billie was silent. When she finally spoke, her tone was hushed, as if to keep an employee or customer from hearing. “Stop screwing around, Stacy. You’re not a cop. You don’t have the support of a police force behind you.”

“Too late. Apparently, I’ve caught the killer’s fancy. Thursday night he welcomed me to the game. Left me a cat’s head. The Cheshire Cat, I’m assuming. I’ve temporarily moved in with the Nobles to keep an eye-”

“Dammit, Stacy, you’re playing with-”

“Fire? Tell me about it.” She glanced toward the front porch. Alice was sitting at one of the outdoor tables. “I’ve got to go.”

“Wait!” Billie caught her hand. “Promise me you’ll be careful or I swear, I’ll kick your butt.”

Stacy smiled. “I care about you, too. I’ll catch up with you later.”

She headed out front and crossed to Alice. “Want some company?”

“No.”

Stacy sat, anyway. The teenager made a sound, an exasperated huff. Stacy fought a smile. Her mother used to make a sound just like that. When she or Jane had been being particularly unreasonable.

“I saw you checking Troy out,” Alice said suddenly.

“Really? When was that?”

“Yesterday. Outside.”

When she had looked up to find Alice watching her.

“Don’t bother to deny it, all the women do it. Even my mom.”

Interesting. Could Kay have the hots for the good-looking chauffeur?

She sipped her iced coffee. “How about you, Alice? Do you check him out?”

The girl flushed. “You’d be wasting your time on him. He’s gay.”

Could be, Stacy acknowledged. But she didn’t think so.

“Gay or not, he’s easy on the eyes.”

The girl frowned. “Aren’t you going to ask how I know?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

Truth was, she had a pretty good idea what the truth was. Alice was infatuated with the man. She had flirted with him; he’d rebuffed her. She was either labeling him gay to assuage her hurt feelings, or to discourage other women’s interest in him.

“Because I don’t care.”

She saw by the teenager’s expression that she didn’t like her answer. “I know about your sister,” she said. “About that boater who almost killed her.”

“And?”

She was silent a moment. “Nothing. I just know, that’s all.”

“Would you like to ask me about it?”

She wanted to say “No,” Stacy could tell. But curiosity got the better of her.

“Okay.”

“We skipped school. Or I should say, Jane skipped school with me and some of my friends. It was March, and still pretty cold. We dared her to swim.”

“And a boater hit her?” Alice said, her eyes wide.

“Yes. He deliberately ran her down. Or so it seemed. He was never caught.” Stacy drew a deep breath. “She nearly died. It was…awful.”

The teenager leaned forward. “Her face was really messed up, huh?”

“That’s an understatement, actually.”

“I saw a picture of her. She looks normal.”

“Now. Because of many, many surgeries.”

Alice sucked on her straw. “She blamed you, didn’t she?”

Stacy shook her head. “No, Alice. I blamed myself.”

They sipped their coffees in silence. After a moment, Alice frowned. “I always wondered what it’d be like to have a sister.”

She said the words almost grudgingly. As if she knew upfront they would tell Stacy more about her than she wanted her to know. But even so, she couldn’t help herself.

In that moment, Stacy realized just how lonely Alice Noble was.

“It’s pretty great,” Stacy offered. “Now. Though we weren’t always close. In fact, for years we hardly spoke.”

Alice looked fascinated. “How come?”

“Lots of misunderstandings and hurt feelings.”

“Because of what happened to her?”

“There were other things that contributed as well, but yes. I’ll tell you about them sometime.”

Alice sucked on the straw, expression eager. “But you’re close now?”

“She’s my best friend. She had a baby in October. Her first. Apple Annie,” Stacy smiled. “That’s my pet name for her. She has the roundest, pinkest cheeks.”

“A baby,” Alice repeated, tone wistful. “Sweet.”

Stacy glanced away, afraid the girl would see sympathy in her eyes. As often as she had wished to be an only child while growing up, she wouldn’t trade her sister for anything in the world.

Alice would never know that joy.

“Do you miss them?” the teen asked.

“More than anything.”

“Then why did you move here?”

Stacy was silent a moment, deciding how vague she should be. “I needed a fresh start,” she said finally. “Too many bad memories.”

The younger woman looked perplexed. “But your sister, her baby, they’re not bad memories.”

“No, they’re not.” Stacy shifted the conversation to Alice.

“Do you have any cousins close to your age?”

She shook her head. “But I have an aunt who’s really cool. My dad’s sister, Aunt Grace.”

“Where does she live?”

“In California. She’s an anthropology professor at University of California, Irvine. We go places together.”

Apparently, brains ran in the family. As did coolness.

The teenager glanced at her watch. “I better go. Clark wanted me back in an hour.”

“Wait. I think you knew a friend of mine.”

She narrowed her eyes, expression doubtful. “Who?”

“She was into RPGs. Came here a lot. Her name was Cassie.”

Recognition flickered in her eyes. “Curly blond hair?”

“Uh-huh.”

“I haven’t seen her lately.”

Stacy’s chest tightened. “Me either.”

The teenager frowned. “Is she okay?”

Stacy ignored her question, asking one of her own. “She ever talk to you about White Rabbit?”

Alice shook her head and sipped some of the frozen coffee through the straw. “Did she play it?”

“No. But she mentioned having met someone who played. I thought maybe it was you?”

“Uh-uh. Why don’t you just ask her?”

The teenager’s words hit Stacy hard. For a moment she couldn’t breathe, let alone speak. “Maybe I’ll do that,” she managed when she found her voice. She stood. “Maybe we should get back?”

Alice glanced at her watch, agreed and stood. She met Stacy’s eyes, expression slightly sheepish. “You don’t have to walk behind me.”

“You’re sure?” Stacy teased. “I wouldn’t want to humiliate you or anything.”

“I guess I was kind of a jerk earlier. Sorry.”

She didn’t sound all that sorry, but Stacy gave her major points for relenting at all. She remembered what it was like to be a teenager caught in extraordinary circumstances.

When they reached the mansion, Alice went in search of Clark and Stacy returned to the kitchen. Mrs. Maitlin was unpacking groceries.

She glanced at Stacy. “Do I sense the beginning of a truce?”

“A small one, I think. Although don’t get too used to it, it may be temporary.”

The woman laughed. “Mr. Noble was looking for you. He’s in his office, I believe.”

“Thanks. I’ll go see him now.”

“Could you bring him his mail?” She retrieved the stack from the counter. “It’ll save me a trip.”

“Sure, Valerie.” Stacy took the mail and headed to Leo’s office. She found the door partially open. She tapped on it. It swung further open, and she stuck her head in. “Leo?”

He wasn’t there. The NOPD had cleared the room for cleaning; a crew had been in two days ago. The blood had left a slight shadow on the hardwood flooring. Stacy stepped over it as she crossed to the desk with the mail and laid the stack on the top of his closed Apple laptop. She gazed at it a moment, reminded of Cassie who’d also used an Apple, though a different model. She blinked, suddenly realizing what she was looking at: a postcard from Gallery 124. Announcing an art exhibit.

Pogo’s gallery.

She frowned and picked it up. The postcard had been mailed to Leo, by name. Which meant he was on their mailing list. He had visited the gallery, perhaps bought something from it.

A coincidence?

She hated coincidences. They always smelled like fish.

“Hey, Stacy. Can I help you?”

She spun around, guilty heat stinging her cheeks. “Leo. Valerie asked me to bring your mail.”

“Valerie?”

“Mrs. Maitlin. You wanted to see me?”

“I did?”

“Didn’t you?”

He smiled and closed the door behind him. “I suppose I did. Though I can’t remember why. What’s that?”

He motioned at the postcard, still in her hands. “An advertisement,” she said, holding it up.

He crossed to her. Took the card. She watched him as he studied it, looking for unease, surprise or the moment he made the connection.

It didn’t come. Had she ever told him the name of Pogo’s gallery?

“I’m not so crazy about nonobjective art. It just doesn’t mean anything to me.”

“The gallery’s name caught my attention. Not the art.” At his blank expression, she added, “Gallery 124. That’s where Pogo exhibited.”

“Small world.”

That small?

Was he a consummate actor? Or really in the dark?

“You’re on their mailing list. Did you buy something there?”

“Not that I remember.” He tossed the postcard on the desk. “Did you sleep well?”

“Pardon?”

He smiled, the curving of his lips boyish. And naughty. “It was your first night with us. I wanted to make sure you were comfortable.”

“Fine.” She took a small step backward, suddenly uncomfortable. “Everything was fine.”

He caught her hands. “Don’t run away.”

“I’m not running. Just-”

He kissed her.

She made a sound of surprise and pushed him away. “Leo, don’t.”

“Sorry.” He looked almost comically disappointed. “And here I’ve wanted to do that for a while.”

“Have you?”

“You couldn’t tell?”

“No.”

“I’d like to do it again.” His gaze dropped briefly to her mouth. “But I won’t…if you object?”

She hesitated a moment too long and he kissed her again.

The office door opened. “Leo? Clark and I-”

At Kay’s voice, Stacy sprang away from Leo. Mortified. So embarrassed, in fact, she wished she could crawl under the man’s desk and hide.

“Sorry,” Kay said stiffly, “we didn’t know you were busy. We were looking for Alice.”

“I was with her not thirty minutes ago,” Stacy said, clearing her throat. “At Caf? Noir.”

Kay frowned, and Stacy added, “We ran into each other. She said Clark was sick this morning. I’m glad to see you’re feeling better.”

The Nobles looked at him. Obviously that information had been news to them.

He laid a hand on his stomach. “I ate fish last night. I’m thinking it wasn’t fresh. You have to be so careful with seafood.”

“You might ask Mrs. Maitlin if she’s seen her,” Stacy offered.

“We will,” Kay said. “Thank you.”

The pair left the office, purposefully snapping the door shut behind them.

“She doesn’t care, you know,” he said softly. “We’re not married anymore.”

Stacy looked at Leo, cheeks hot. “She looked at me like I was an adulterer.”

Leo laughed. “She didn’t.”

“It was my own guilty conscience, then.”

“I told you, you have nothing to feel guilty about. I kissed you. Besides, I’m a free agent.”

She thought of the way Leo and Kay acted toward each other, the affectionate way they teased, the obvious respect.

Like a married couple. A couple very much in love.

“I’m interested in you, Stacy.”

She didn’t respond, and he gathered her hands in his. “I get the feeling you could be interested, too. Am I right?”

He attempted to draw her back into his arms; she resisted. “Can I ask you something, Leo?”

“Ask away.”

“What happened to you and Kay? It’s obvious you care for each other.”

He shrugged. “We’re too different…we grew apart. I don’t know, maybe we lost the spark that kept us working at it.”

“How long were you married?”

“Thirteen years.” He laughed. “Kay hung in there longer than most would have.”

When they stopped laughing, so did Alice.

“Kay and I are like Wonderland. Order and chaos. The sane and insane. The insanity finally overwhelmed her.”

She had wanted the divorce. He had driven her crazy.

He still loved his wife, Stacy realized.

She slipped her hands from his. “This isn’t a good idea.”

“There’s no reason we can’t be together.”

“I think there is, Leo. I’m not ready. And I don’t think you are, either.”

When he opened his mouth as if to argue, she held up a hand, stopping him. “Please, Leo. Just leave it alone.”

“For the moment, okay. But I won’t promise to stay away forever.”

Stacy backed toward the door, grasped the handle, turned and walked through.

And ran smack into Troy.

He put a hand on her elbow to steady her. “Whoa. Where are you going in such a hurry?”

“Hey, Troy.” Flustered, she took a step back. “Sorry, mind’s elsewhere.”

“No problemo. Catch you later.”

It wasn’t until much later that she wondered why Troy had been right outside Leo’s door. And if he had been eavesdropping.

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