A is for Alibi Page 74

"You got a man yet?" she asked.

"Six or eight a week," I said. "Do you have any cold Chablis?”

"Just the crummy stuff. Help yourself.”

I went around behind the bar and got a glass, taking the big gallon jug of white wine out of the refrigerator under the bar. I poured a tumblerful, adding ice. I went over to my favorite booth and sat down, preparing myself mentally like an actor about to go on stage. It was time to stop being polite.

Gwen arrived forty minutes later, looking crisp and capable. Her greeting to me was pleasant enough, but under it I thought I could detect the tension, as though she had some inkling of what I was about to say. Rosie shuffled over, giving Gwen a brief appraising look. She must have thought Gwen looked okay because she honored her with a direct question.

"You want something to drink?”

"Scotch on the rocks. And could I have a glass of water, too, please?”

Rosie shrugged. She didn't care what people drank. "You want to run a tab?" she said to me.

I shook my head. "I'll take care of it now," I said. Rosie moved off toward the bar. The look Gwen and I exchanged inadvertently indicated that both of us remembered her first reference to drinking Scotch in the days long past, when she was married to Laurence Fife and playing the perfect wife. I wondered what she was playing now.

"I revert now and then to the hard stuff," she said, picking up my thought.

"Why not?" I replied.

She studied me briefly. "What's up?”

The question was brave. I didn't think she really wanted to know, but she'd always struck me as the type to plunge right in. She probably whipped off big pieces of adhesive tape, too, with the same decisive thrust, just to get it over with.

"I talked to Colin," I said. "He remembered you.”

The modification in her manner was slight and a look, not of apprehension, but of wariness flickered in her eyes.

"Well that's nice," she said. "I haven't seen him for years, of course. I told you that. " She reached into her purse and took out a compact, checking her reflection quickly in the mirror running a hand through her hair. Rosie came back with her Scotch and a glass of water. I paid the tab. Rosie tucked the money in the pocket of her muumuu and wandered back to the bar while Gwen took a sip of water. She seemed to be holding herself in check, not trusting herself to pick up the conversation where we'd left off. I bumped her along for the sake of surprise.

"You never mentioned that you had an affair with Laurence," I said.

A laugh burbled out. "Who, me? With him? You can't be serious.”

I had to interrupt her merriment. "Colin saw you out at the beach house that weekend when Nikki was out of town. I don't know all the details, but I can make a guess.”

I watched her compute that and shift gears. She was a very good little actress herself, but the slick cover she'd constructed was getting shabby from disuse. It had been a long time since she'd had to play this game and her timing was slightly off. She knew all the right lines, but the pretense was hard to sustain after an eight-year gap. She didn't seem to recognize the bluff and I kept my mouth shut. I could almost see what was happening inside her head. The terrible need to confess and be done with it, the pressure to spill it all out was too tempting to resist. She'd gone a few rounds with me and she'd pulled it off beautifully but only because I hadn't known which buttons to push.

"All right," she blurted out rebelliously, "I went to bed with him once. So what? I ran into him at the Palm Garden as a matter of fact. I nearly told you the other day. He was the one who told me Nikki was out of town. I was shocked that he'd even speak to me." She switched to the Scotch, taking a big drink.

She was fabricating as fast as she could and it sounded nice but it was like listening to a record album. I decided to skip the cuts I didn't want to hear. I bumped her again.

"It was more than once, Gwen," I said. "You had a full-blown affair with him. Charlotte Mercer was screwing his head off back then but he broke it off with her. She says he was into something very hush-hush. 'Very hot,' to quote her. I think it was you.”

"What difference does it make if we had an affair. He'd been doing that for years.”

I let a little time elapse and when I spoke I kept my voice low, leaning forward slightly just to give her the full effect.

"I think you killed him.”

The animation drained out of her face as though a plug had been pulled. She started to say something but she couldn't get it out. I could see her mind working, but she couldn't put anything together quickly enough. She was struggling and I pressed.

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