The Dead Room


Page 17


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No, that was impossible.


But there was a man standing beneath the streetlight.


Surely she was imagining him; her eyes must be playing tricks.


No. He was there.


She wasn't going to lose him this time.


She pushed away from the window as if she were a swimmer gaining impetus for a lap and went flying across the room, grabbing her robe in passing and flinging it on as she raced down the stairs. She hurried to the door, looking through the peephole as she fumbled with the alarm and the lock.


Dismay filled her heart. He was gone.


She threw the door open, ready to race out into the street, anyway.


Instead, she slammed against something rock hard. Flesh and blood. A wall of muscle. She looked up.


Matt!


No, this man was real. Breathing. Hot. Vital. Alive.


"Matt?" She couldn't keep from whispering the name.


"Not exactly," the man said.


Matt's voice. Matt's arms reaching out to steady her as she tried to speak. Opened her mouth.


Passed out cold.


6


S hit.


The woman was slim, but even "slim" made for considerable dead weight in Joe's arms. He lifted her, hoping she had disarmed the alarm so that a dozen cops wouldn't come bearing down on him any second.


Thankfully, there was lots of light as he carried her into the foyer. He strode straight to the daybed that flanked one wall and set her down on it. Luckily he'd been in the house before, when he'd come himself to examine the scene of the explosion, so he knew his way around. Once he'd set her down, he headed straight for the kitchen and a damp towel. A quick examination of the cupboards produced no sign of anything remotely alcoholic, so he poured a glass of water and hurried back with that and the towel. He knew he stood no chance of finding an ammonia pellet, so he hoped it was just the shock of seeing him that had made her faint, and that she would spring back quickly.


She did. Her face, beautiful and delicate, scrunched into a frown when the towel touched her forehead.


She opened her dazzling eyes wide as she stared at him, her sense of alarm returning. She braced her hands on the mattress as she strained away from him, her entire posture wary. "Matt?" she asked hesitantly, disbelievingly.


"Sorry, no," he said as soothingly as he could. "I'm not Matt, I'm Joe. We never met, but maybe you've heard of me? I'm Joe Connolly, Matt's cousin."


He couldn't identify the surge of emotion that washed through those glorious eyes as she stared at him. Finally a rueful smile curved her lips; rich, thick lashes fell over her eyes, and she managed a shaky laugh.


"My God. I'm so sorry. I'm not…I don't usually run around passing out or…I'm sorry." She produced a hand, and he took it. She had a firm grip. "I'm Leslie MacIntyre, and of course Matt talked about you all the time. I feel so foolish, but…the family resemblance is…amazing."


"Not really," he assured her. "Matt was…cuter," he offered with a grin. "Seriously, he had lighter hair. My eyes are green, his were blue. But I guess…we were about the same height. Both built like my grandfather…good old Irish brawn, I suppose. I don't think we were descended from the aristocracy. We were probably potato farmers." He was talking too much, something he didn't usually do, but she seemed in need of reassurance, no matter how quickly she appeared to be bouncing back.


At least she wasn't pretending not to stare at him.


She smiled, looking rueful once again. "I really am sorry."


"No, I'm sorry. I guess I forgot about the family resemblance. Matt and I never saw it much, anyway." He stared back at her and grew serious. "A mutual friend, Robert Adair, told me you were staying here."


"Did he? He might have warned me about you," she said with a laugh.


"Well, he's known me forever, knew Matt forever…he probably doesn't really see the resemblance anymore."


She nodded. "Well, it's really great to meet you. At last."


"I went by the hospital," he said quietly. "You weren't conscious at the time."


She nodded, looking away at last. "I got your note. Honestly, I'm so embarrassed. I'm not really dressed, I've passed out on you…I assure you, Matt intended to marry an intelligent human being. I mean, that's what I usually am."


"No assurance needed," he said. "I shocked you. I'm really sorry."


They were very close, he suddenly realized, she half prone, he by her side. He must have been making her uncomfortable. He rose. "I just came by to say hello, but I see you're ready to go to bed." It was just past eight-thirty, he realized. Well, she worked hard. Digging all day must be exhausting. Anyway, lots of people went to bed early. Eight-thirty? "I'll get out of your hair. Though I would love to see you again, if you have time."


She smiled. "I'd make time for Matt's cousin, Joe," she said softly.


God, her smile was pure enchantment. He knew why Matt had been so in love.


"Great," he returned.


She was staring up at him again. "Have you been in Hastings House before?" she asked him.


"Yes." He shrugged. Why pussyfoot around? "I'm a private investigator. I had to come. I had to investigate the explosion for myself."


"And?"


"It appeared to have been an accident."


"Appeared?"


"The police investigated, the fire department investigated…a gas line exploded when someone turned up the heat."


The words hung between them. He wondered if she was thinking the same thing he was. Accident? Or had the line been rigged, and had someone known and decided to turn up the heat at just the right time?


"Greta was the hostess that night," she murmured.


He lifted his shoulders. "I think Greta would lie across the railroad tracks before she'd destroy a place of historic value."


Leslie lowered her head; Joe could tell that she agreed with him. He had learned over the years that the answers to many things could be surprising, but that was one headline he just didn't see. Wealthy Socialite Runs Amok, Destroys Historic House.


But someone else…? That he could see.


Leslie looked up at him and flushed. She wondered if their thoughts had been running along the same route. She stood suddenly. "Actually, it's ridiculously early. Want to give me a minute? I neglected to have dinner this evening, and I'm suddenly starving. Oh, sorry, you probably have plans."


"I'd love to take you to dinner."


"I wasn't suggesting…and I really wouldn't want you to change any plans on my behalf."


"I'd love to take you to dinner," he repeated.


She arched a brow, studying him.


"I don't have any plans."


"Great. Then…make yourself at home. Except," she added with a laugh, "watch out for the tourist no-no tapes."


"I wouldn't dream of sitting on an antique chair," he assured her. "I'll be in the kitchen, how's that? Fairly safe, right?"


"Absolutely. I'll be right down."


He watched her race up the stairs.


Matt had been a lucky man. Then again, Matt had deserved the best.


He wandered into the kitchen and helped himself to a glass of water. There was a plain wooden chair by the hearth. There was no fire burning, but he sat and stared into the darkened recess of the alcove anyway.


He smiled suddenly, glad that he had stopped by. Eileen Brideswell wouldn't be pleased, but he couldn't work every minute of every day, and he had thought of little but her missing niece since he had taken on the case. In fact, she had grown in his mind. He felt almost as if he knew her. He knew the idealism that had driven her, knew the passion with which she had worked.


He prayed that she wasn't dead. That she had, perhaps subconsciously, wanted to inflict some punishment on her aunt, the remaining bastion of a difficult family, so she had run off on impulse to take a breather up in Canada or down in Mexico.


But he didn't believe it. She hadn't used a single credit card. She hadn't written a check. No one had made either legal or illegal use of her social security number. The last person to have seen her-before she stepped into a dark sedan-was Didi Dancer, who had clearly liked her and seemed to have no reason to lie about what she'd seen.


He leaned back in the chair, shaking his head and turning his thoughts to tonight. He was glad to have met Leslie at last. She had taken his mind off his task and given him a much-needed break. But she came with baggage, too. Sorrow that they shared.


He needed a vacation, he decided. Tahiti was starting to sound awfully good.


He rose, walking into the servants' pantry, where the explosion had occurred.


He looked around at the repaired walls, the fresh paint, the furniture. He was no expert. He couldn't tell the difference between real period furniture and good reproductions. It was interesting, though, that the explosion had taken place here and the rest of the house had suffered very little damage.


Targeted.


He couldn't get that thought out of his mind.


He knew that Matt had been working on several things when he died. Because of Leslie, he had written about restoration efforts in the downtown area. His other focus at the time had been the prostitutes who were disappearing.


Had Matt been targeted because he was such a good investigative reporter? Because he had come too close to the truth? And yet, was the disappearance of the down-and-out really such an important issue that someone would kill because of it?


Sure. The abductor and presumed murderer. But how would he have managed access to Hastings House? And most people wouldn't know how to rig a gas explosion to look so convincingly like an accident.


Joe felt a strange draft. Enough to make him rub his arms to ward off the chill. "Matt," he said aloud, "I just don't like it. I swear, I will find out the truth."


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