A is for Alibi Page 64

"Good. I'll meet you at the Palm Garden in fifteen minutes if that's okay for you.”

"Sure. Fine. See you shortly.”

My glass of white wine had just arrived when I glanced up to see Gwen approaching from across the courtyard: tall and lean, her gray hair slicked away from her face. The blouse she wore was a gray silk, long full sleeves nipped in at the wrist, the dark gray skirt emphasizing her trim waist and hips. She was stylish, confident—like Nikki in that—and I could see where both women must have appealed to Laurence Fife. I guessed that once upon a time Charlotte Mercer fit the same mold: a woman of stature, a woman of taste. I wondered idly if Libby Glass would have aged as well had she lived. She must have been much less secure at twenty-four, but bright, someone whose freshness and ambition might have appealed to Laurence as he neared the age of forty. God save us all from the consequences of male menopause, I thought.

"Hello. How are you," Gwen said briskly, sitting down.

She removed the napkin beside her plate and ordered wine as the waitress passed. Close up, her image softened, the angularity of her cheekbones offset by the large brown eyes, the purposeful mouth tinted with soft pink. Most of all, there was her manner: amused, intelligent, feminine, refined.

"How are all the dogs?" I said.

She laughed. "Filthy. Thank God. We're swamped today, but I wanted to talk to you. You've been out of town.”

"I just got back Saturday. Have you been trying to get in touch?”

She nodded. "I called the office on Tuesday, I think. Your answering service said you were in Los Angeles so I tried to reach you there. Some total nitwit answered—”


"Well, whoever it was, she got my name wrong twice so I hung up.”

The waitress arrived with Gwen's wine.

"Have you ordered yet?”

I shook my head. "I was waiting for you.”

The waitress got out her order card, glancing at me.

"I'll have the chef's salad," I said.

"Make that two.”


"Blue cheese," I said.

"I'll have oil and vinegar," Gwen said and then handed both menus to the waitress, who moved away. Gwen turned her attention to me.

"I've decided I should level with you.”

"About what?”

"My old lover," she said. Her cheeks had flushed mildly. "I realized that if I didn't tell you who he was, you'd be off on some wild-goose chase, wasting a lot of time trying to find out his name. It really amounts to more mystery than it's worth.

"How so?”

"He died a few months ago of a heart attack, " she said, her manner turning brisk again. "After I talked to you, I tried tracking him down myself. His name was David Ray. He was a schoolteacher. Greg's, as a matter of fact, which is how we met. I thought he should know that you were asking questions about Laurence's death, or at any rate that your curiosity might lead you to him.”

"How'd you find him?”

"I'd heard that he and his wife had moved to San Francisco. Apparently he was living in the Bay Area, where he was a principal of one of the Oakland public schools.

"Why not tell me before?”

She shrugged. "Misplaced loyalty. Protectiveness. That was a very important relationship and I didn't want him involved at this late date.”

She looked at me and she must have read the skepticism in my face. The flush in her cheeks deepened almost imperceptibly.

"I know how it looks," she said. "First I refuse to give you his name and then he's dead and out of reach, but that's exactly the point. If he were still alive, I don't know that I'd be telling you this.”

I thought that was probably true, but there was something else going on and I wasn't sure what it was. The waitress arrived with our salads and there was a merciful few minutes in which we busied ourselves with melba rounds. Gwen was rearranging her lettuce but she wasn't eating much. I was curious to hear what else she had to say and too hungry to worry about it much until I'd eaten some.

"Did you know he had heart trouble?" I asked finally.

"I had no idea, but I gather he was ill for years.”

"Did he break off the relationship or did you?”

Gwen smiled bitterly "Laurence did that but I wonder now if David might have engineered it to some extent. The whole affair must have complicated his life unbearably.

"He'd told his wife?”

"I think so. She was very gracious on the phone. I told her that Greg had asked me to get in touch and she played right along. When she told me that David was dead, I was ... I didn't even know what to say to her but of course, I had to babble right on-how sorry, how sad ... like some disinterested bystander making the right noises somehow. It was awful. Terrible.”

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