The Dead Room

Page 39

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He was standing by a stack of boxes. One suddenly teetered and fell, right by his side.

He jumped like a jack rabbit. A wrench bounced from the box and caught him on the knee. He howled with surprise and pain.

"It's not safe down here!" he exploded.

"Right. We should go up."

As she spoke, the hatch above them swung open. "Leslie?"

It was Joe, and he sounded deeply irritated.

"Joe!" she called in relief.

"You little liar! You said you were going to stay at the hospital." He was walking down the stairs as he spoke, then came to a dead stop when he saw Hank Smith. "Hank, I didn't know you were into archaeology," he said, his tone skeptical.

"I came to see how Leslie's doing-same as you, I suppose," Hank said.

Joe ignored that. He looked as if he wanted to throw Hank across the room. She set an arm on his shoulder. "I did stay for a few hours, and I'm sorry, I meant to call you right away when I left. I felt fine, and I wanted to get back. I'd made an appointment with Brad earlier, and I didn't want to break it."

"I guess you were going to show Brad the discovery the two of you made together, right?" Hank inquired politely.

"No, I had to make some plans with him," she said.

"Do you have a problem, Hank?" Joe inquired.

"You know, it's getting really musty down here," Leslie cut in quickly. "I'm going up. Oh, and Joe, we're going to meet Laymon and Brad for dinner. Mind waiting while I grab a shower?" She was up the stairs as she spoke. Joe followed on her heels, his eyes narrowed thoughtfully. As soon as Hank reached the top, she quickly closed the hatch, throwing the rug back over it. "Hank, it was very nice of you to come by, but I'm fine. I'll see you over at the dig in the next few days, I imagine."

"Sure. Take care of yourself."

"I'll see you out," Joe told him.

"I know the way."

"I've got to key in the alarm," Joe said.

They left the pantry, and Leslie followed them. Joe looked at her after he'd closed the door. "That was a lie, you know. I don't know the alarm code."

She smiled, walked over to him and set the alarm. Then she reached into her pocket for a pen, pushed up his sleeve and wrote down the numbers. "Now you do."

He was silent for a minute. "I wonder who else has these numbers?"

"Any of the big muckety-mucks in the Historical Society, I imagine, plus Melissa, Jeff and Tandy," she said.

"That's a lot of people."

"Yes, but-"

"A friend tells a friend, who tells a friend…"

"Joe, stop. I'm not leaving this house."

He caught her shoulders and looked earnestly into her eyes. "Come and stay with me in Brooklyn. I won't touch you-not unless you want me to. You know that."

"Joe, you are…" She broke off, laughing. "You're walking testosterone. You're also courteous, compassionate…cute as the devil. And I'm so grateful to have you on my side. But…there's something here. Something that has to be solved."

"Right. So that explains why I tell you not to leave a hospital and you leave it anyway. You don't call me. I come looking for you-and you're in a dark basement with an asshole who should never be trusted."

"I'm sorry. I didn't invite him down."

"My point exactly."

"I need a shower. And, um, I didn't mean to presume or anything, but would you mind having dinner with Brad and Laymon?"

"No, at the moment I only mind when I don't know exactly where you are."

"Joe, you don't have to be so responsible for me just because…because of Matt."

"Matt is in my mind constantly," he told her quietly. "But, honestly, I'm feeling responsible for you because you're scaring me to death. You're an accident waiting to happen."

"Either that," she murmured, "or…"

"Or," he said bluntly, "someone did murder Matt. And that someone may feel you're too close to figuring out the truth."

She was startled by the wickedly stabbing trickle of pure ice that snaked down her spine. She prayed she wouldn't betray herself.

She hesitated. "Joe, are you really seeing a connection between Hastings House, Matt, the prostitutes…and Genevieve O'Brien?"

"Well, I did learn today that Genevieve wanted an invitation to the gala. Does that mean anything? Maybe not. Half the city probably wanted an invitation, if not for the history, for the media exposure and the all-star attendance. Matt was writing about the prostitutes. Genevieve was trying to help the prostitutes. That's what I know. So…is a connection a long shot? Probably. But I haven't got a hell of a lot more to go on, other than a black sedan. And," he added very softly, his gaze probing as he met her eyes, "your belief that Genevieve is still alive."

She was tempted to go to him. To feel the real, live, flesh-and-blood assurance of his arms around her, breathe in his scent. He was a good man. True, he wasn't Matt, but if she'd met him on the street, at lunch, at a friend's house…she would have been attracted to him. If…

If there had never been Matt.

She nodded. "I'm going to shower. I'll be right down."

He nodded. "I'll be in the dead room."


"Sorry. The servants' pantry."

Leslie hurried on up the stairs. In her room, she leaned against the door, closing her eyes. "Matt," she whispered. "I know you're here. I know…I know you're looking after me. If only…oh, Matt…"

She hadn't cried in so long, but tears welled up in her eyes now.

And then…

She felt something brush against her face. The slightest caress. Just a touch…that wiped away her tears. She opened her eyes.

But she was alone.

Dinner was…boring.

Professor Laymon spent all of two seconds assuring himself that Leslie was really okay. There was only one love in that man's life, and that was his work.

Then he spent a good half hour talking about the work done in "Leslie's crypt," as he called it. Then he started on the find in the basement, and that turned into an argument, because Leslie was absolutely insistent. Those particular bones were not going to become a spectacle. She was going to contact a friend of Matt's from the paper to see that the story was written up properly, and then she was going to find an Episcopal priest who would see to it that the woman was given a decent burial.

She was a tigress when she wanted to be. Joe watched with admiration as, in the end, she bested Laymon, who finally agreed to her plans.

But in return she swore that she would be back to work in the crypt the following day.

Joe decided he liked Brad better that night. He was willing to throw his weight Leslie's way when it came to the burial for the woman in the basement at Hastings House. He was also irritated that Laymon wasn't more considerate regarding Leslie's health.

Laymon didn't even seem to realize he was there until they got to dessert.

"You don't write?" he asked.

"No, Matt was the journalist."

"You were a cop?"

"For a few years."

Joe never felt the need to explain himself. He certainly wasn't going to do so now.

He was surprised when Brad chose to do it for him.

"Joe has a degree from Columbia in criminology. Police departments all over the country fly him in when they hit a dead end."

"Oh?" Laymon looked at him with a new respect.

Joe lifted a hand. "Fresh eyes see new things sometimes," he said.

"Don't let him fool you. He solved a big cocaine thing out in Vegas recently. The casinos didn't know how the dealers were getting the goods through their private security systems. They were doing it with coffee cups," Joe said.

"Thanks," he told Brad. "But don't go being too impressed. To tell you the truth, I got the idea because of a plot I'd seen on a television show once. They'd probably seen it, too, so there you go."

Laymon stared at Leslie. "Well, I guess it doesn't much matter where an inspiration comes from when it pans out, hmm?"

Delicate little Italian cookies arrived at the table just then, along with Laymon's espresso, Leslie's cappuccino, and the plain old coffee he and Brad had ordered.

"I understand you're convinced that the explosion at Hastings House was no accident," Laymon said, his eyes surprisingly sharp as they met Joe's.

"Hey, Matt was my cousin. Can't blame me if I question what happened," Joe said lightly.

"Where did you get the idea that Joe was still investigating the house?" Leslie asked.

"Well, hell." Laymon was clearly annoyed at being asked to explain himself. "Brad and Ken have gotten to be drinking buddies. Ken knows what you're up to."

"I'm not exactly 'up to' anything," Joe said.

"How are you doing on your quest for that young woman?" Laymon demanded.

"Hopefully, I'm getting a little closer every day."

"Does it matter now?" Laymon asked.

"I beg your pardon?"

"She's been gone a long time. She's undoubtedly dead."

"One way or the other, I'll find her," Joe said. He wasn't sure why, but the tension was growing around the table.

"Pass a cookie, Brad, please?" Leslie said lightly. Joe lowered his head. She was always determined to defuse a tense situation. Smart. He should have held his temper better with Hank Smith that afternoon. He didn't want to find himself persona non grata at the site or anywhere else Leslie might be.

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