The Dead Room


Page 8


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She turned, smiling at him. "I want to stay here."


"It won't bring Matt back to life."


"I know," she said, looking back toward Hastings House.


The house was beautiful. Two stories high, and all the outer over-the-centuries additions had been ripped away and its facade had been restored to the Colonial-era style in which it had been originally built. Even downtown, there were few buildings to compare with it, other than St. Paul's Cathedral and Fraunces Tavern. It had been given a white-picket fence-higher than it would have been when the house was built, and even as the sun set, the alarm wires around it were visible. A sign on the gate advertised the house's historical importance, and announced visiting times and admission prices.


It looked just as it had the last time she had come here.


The damage from the blast and fire had been repaired.


And since it was Sunday, after five, there were no lingering tourists. The horn blasts and other street sounds seemed to come from far away. The house was quiet, as if it were resting.


As if it were expecting something.


Then the front door burst open, and Greta Peterson came hurrying down the walk to the gate. "Come in, come in. We've been waiting for you. Watching."


We?


Who the heck else was here? Leslie had hoped for a quiet night. No one would have understood, so she hadn't said anything, but she really wanted the house to herself.


Before she knew it, Greta, with all her warmth and enthusiasm, had reached her, hugged her, rested an arm around her shoulders and called out a greeting to Professor Laymon and Brad. Then Greta dragged her up the walk, saying, "Oh, Leslie, I'm so happy to see you. You look wonderful, dear. A bit too thin, but wonderful. I know that thin is in…but don't go losing your shape, young lady."


That from a rail-thin, hyper matron, Leslie thought dryly.


But Greta's warmth and enthusiasm were endearing. Then, as they neared the house, Leslie's heart sank.


Greta had apparently planned a welcome party. Thankfully, it appeared to be a small one. Sergeant Robert Adair-okay, she liked Robert and was delighted to see him-peeked out the doorway as they approached. Behind him, Hank Smith, from the development company, stepped into view, and then Ken Dryer, the attractive and articulate police spokesman, made an appearance.


"Leslie!" Robert called, smiling affectionately.


"Robert," she said with a smile, accepting a hug as the other men stood back.


"Hey, Les," Hank said, offering her a handshake.


Ken Dryer gave her a very proper hug before moving on to shake Brad's hand and ask about the weather in D.C. Then he started down the path to welcome the professor and collect Leslie's rolling suitcase from the sidewalk.


"Gorgeous as ever," Robert Adair whispered softly. "You okay?" he asked, taking her hands and looking at her with concern in his eyes.


"Fine," she assured him.


He kissed her cheek quickly. Robert was around fifty, she thought, a twenty-year veteran of the force. He worked out of One Police Plaza and wasn't assigned to a particular precinct. He was called a liaison officer and became involved with crimes that crossed precinct boundaries to affect multiple areas of the city-like the missing prostitutes-or that started garnering more than a mention in the newspapers.


Greta bustled past him to stand face-to-face with Leslie.


"We are delighted to see you, my dear. If you'd refused to come, everyone would have understood," she said. There was real concern in her soft gray eyes, the kind that made Leslie feel the ache inside again, but she needed to get past all that. And really, it had been sweet of Greta to find a special way to welcome her, Brad and Professor Layman on their arrival. Greta had been blessed to be born with not just the proverbial silver spoon in her mouth, but with a whole array of cutlery. Her ancestors had been fur traders on a par with the Astors. She was a born-and-bred New Yorker who truly loved her city and its history, and because of that ardent love, she was acknowledged as a major-if not the major-power in the field of restoration and archaeology.


"I love this city, and I'm privileged to be invited to work this new find," Leslie told her cheerfully.


"We all are," Brad said quickly, then flushed. "Well, the professor is history, but Leslie and I are both very pleased to be respected enough to be asked back."


"Well, you're both not just talented," Ken Dryer said, "you love the city. You know the city."


"And it's so kind of you all to be here," Leslie said, smiling. "I thought the professor and Brad would be helping me settle in quietly, but it looks like we have a dinner party to attend." She tried to sound enthusiastic.


"Oh, just us and the caterers," Greta said. "I had to do something." Then she cut to the chase. "Oh, Leslie…do you really want to stay in the house? Sleep in it?"


Leslie smiled dryly. "I'm dying to stay here," she assured Greta.


"But you won't stay?" Greta asked Brad, sounding disapproving.


Brad shrugged, opting to answer lightly. "Sadly, Leslie has made it clear that she would prefer not to sleep with me."


Greta wasn't amused. She frowned.


"Sorry, just teasing," Brad said quickly. "I have an apartment in Manhattan. Leslie's place is out in Brooklyn, so it's more convenient for her to stay here," Brad said.


"I can walk right over to the dig," Leslie explained. She smiled, trying to put Greta at ease. "Honestly, Greta, I love this place. I don't blame what happened on a house. I want to be here."


Greta stared at Professor Laymon. "And you're not staying, either?" she demanded tartly.


Layman looked acutely uncomfortable. "Greta, we've talked, and this is Leslie's choice. I have a home here, too," he explained. He lifted his hands, the very image of brilliant but helpless.


Greta shook her head, her soft, short silver hair bobbing around her attractive face. "Oh, dear," she murmured, still unhappy. "There's no guard on duty, you know, except for when the house is open to the public. There's an alarm system, of course. State-of-the-art. But the Historical Society can't afford full-time security."


"A state-of-the-art alarm system is much better than what I have in Brooklyn," Leslie assured her. As Greta looked back at her, trying to smile, Leslie realized that the woman had set up the whole party just to keep her from being alone for as long as possible. She had to lower her head and smile. Then she lifted her eyes. "This place is fantastic. I loved it from the beginning. And I understand that the damage has been completely repaired, that you can't even tell that…that anything happened. So…how is the tourism thing going? Do a lot of people come see the place?"


"We actually had to have crowd control when it first reopened," Ken Dryer said. He smiled as he spoke. He always smiled. Wheaten-haired and handsome, like the boy next door all grown-up, with an ability to spin any situation, he was perfectly suited to his position, but Leslie always felt, despite how nice he had always been to her, that he was just a bit oily, as well. What his real thoughts were, she seldom knew. She had heard that he had political ambitions, and she was sure that on the political trail, he would charm an audience without ever really saying anything substantive about the issues.


"Crowd control?" Brad marveled.


Robert cleared his throat uneasily. "There's nothing like an…event to draw crowds."


Hank Smith groaned, taking Leslie by the arm. "What our good sergeant is trying to explain without words is that not only is this house a historical masterpiece, it has a modern-day tragedy to go with it. Unfortunately, tragedy brings people in droves. In the beginning, we had cops every day. The lines were around the block. That's slacked off some, but even so, eventually this place is going to pay for itself. Look, you've chosen to stay here, and I, for one, am not going to tiptoe around. You know that we were all affected by what happened, that we all felt a terrible loss-not as great as yours, but a terrible loss all the same-and if you want to be here, I say good for you. And that's not sucking up, that's God's honest truth. So, hey, can we eat now, Greta?"


"Of course, of course," Greta stuttered. "Come along to the dining room. Leslie, I've put you in the best bedroom. We'll get your bag up in a bit. One of these brawny fellows will be willing to serve as a…well, as a brawny fellow and take it up there for you."


"Hey, I can handle a suitcase," Leslie said.


"Yeah, and one of us can be a gentleman and take care of it, too," Brad told her. "Let's eat." He looked at his watch. She had a feeling that Brad had other plans for the evening and that a welcome-back dinner party hadn't been on his agenda.


Leslie…


She was thinner. She looked almost ethereal. He had never known such pain, such longing, as he felt seeing her there that night. He wanted to touch her so badly. He wanted to tell her that it was all right.


He wanted to tell her that Hank Smith was a dickhead. He laughed at himself. He hadn't known he disliked the developer so much. On the surface, the guy was a decent sort. Maybe he was too perfect. Tall, dark and slimy. His Armani suits were pressed to a T. Even his shoes were designer. He was a big man in town. Went to the right clubs. Ate at all the right places. Shook hands with the mayor. Hell, the guy even kissed babies' cheeks. He was a partner in Tyson, Smith, and Tryon, and he was the perfect representative whenever the firm had to deal with permits, public opinion and the laws of the state. But he just wasn't the kind of man other men liked. His lines were too smooth. He didn't kick back at a local bar to enjoy a good football game. Did that make him bad? No, just…a dickhead.


And there was Robert Adair, good old Robert, still looking like a bloodhound. Working tirelessly, always concerned, always in the middle of something tragic, criminal, sad…


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