Molly sat in front of her computer, utterly useless. An open document sat in front of her, with a story waiting to be finished, and she couldn’t do it. The damn thing was even outlined. All she had to do was turn it all into sentences. This had happened before. All she had to do was put her fingers on the keyboard, and the rest would do itself. It was so easy, and yet at random times it turned into a struggle.
She put her elbows on the desk, tented her fingers, and looked out the window. So much for the home office thing being more productive. So much for the inspirational power of her antique cherry-wood desk, Art Deco filigrees, anachronistic computer on top and all. Deadline, she reminded herself with a glance at her watch. Two and a half hours from now.
Come on, dammit. Just one sentence.
Nothing doing this morning, though. She pushed her chair back with a sigh and stood up, glaring at the computer as if it were somehow the PowerMac’s fault that she couldn’t get the writing machine in her head fired up.
The last thing she needed was to blow a deadline. Dobie had found the opportunity of a lifetime for her–made it happen, in all probability–and she wasn’t going to give anyone a reason to take it away.
Wandering downstairs, she paused on the steps to admire the sun in her living room. The house was a new-ish build, with a second-floor ceiling in the foyer slash great room, and windows all the way up. She had a southeast view, so during the late morning and early afternoon the sun streamed in, nicely filtered by the curtains. The three-bedroom house was larger than she needed for just herself, but she wasn’t ready to give it up yet. Somehow the broken dreams it represented–growing old with Rich, the inevitable pitter-patter of little feet–didn’t bother her most days. It was home, and that was that. Two bedrooms upstairs, one downstairs, the extra upstairs room converted into an office. Big bathroom, chintzy tub, three-car garage to house the antique car Rich was going to have some day. Molly used the extra space to store the orange Ford Fairmont wagon she’d had since high school. She had assumed her parents had sold the thing while she was away at college, and had been surprised to see it still sitting in the driveway when she graduated. Of course, she didn’t want it, but the rusty old thing was endearing somehow, and she had the space for it now so what was the harm?
There were a lot of things like that in Molly’s house. The carefully selected and matched antiques contrasted with score of things she’d had for so long she couldn’t bear to part with them. Most were kept in the downstairs bedroom, whose door was generally kept closed. It was less embarrassing that way.
The tax auditor–Annabella, her name had been, a surprisingly pretty name for such a nebbishy little lady–had left two days before, after finding nothing amiss in the records. Molly had invited Annabella out for a night on the town some time, a raucous girls’ night out at the bars perhaps, and Annabella had blushed and agreed.
There had been plenty of time since to think about the weird coincidence of herself and Ian being audited at almost the same time. Her paranoia wasn’t quite in full swing yet, but it was difficult to believe that it was a cosmic accident. In fact, she could draw the lines pretty easily: Becka Packard saw her, Lexi, and Ian as the primaries in the family’s recent humiliation. And Lexi’s assets were all tied up with Ian’s–plus she hadn’t earned any money in the past year–so there was no point in siccing the IRS on her. Molly worried that Glen might take some of the heat, but he hadn’t been directly involved and Becka didn’t know about him, apparently. If he’d had trouble, he hadn’t mentioned it during any of their phone calls, at least.
She continued down the steps into the living room, and dropped onto the couch with a sigh. It was a big leather sectional, chosen out of a catalog by Rich. She hadn’t liked the looks of it at first, but it was comfy enough to have grown on her, and most guests seemed to be impressed by it. Of course, they didn’t have to keep the damn biscuit-colored leather clean, either, but there were worse fates in life.
“Finish your story,” she told herself loudly, looking at the ceiling. Deep inside herself, she felt the equivalent of a child’s mocking laugh and a slamming door in response. Oh, well. One of the nice things about living alone was that she could talk to herself.
She was struck by a sudden epiphany. Becka had made much of Molly’s Italian heritage when they’d met briefly, in New York. Could the audit have happened because the woman was so narrowminded she thought that Molly just had to have Mafia ties, somewhere?
“No,” Molly said, disbelieving and yet realizing that the chances were good that was the case. She stood up and headed toward the kitchen with half an idea to call someone and tell them about it. When she got there she remembered that Lexi was in Ile du Soleil. Katharine wouldn’t be home this time of day, and she didn’t feel like calling Mom, who was freaked out enough about her life without bringing newfound rich and powerful enemies into it.
In the kitchen Molly noticed that the mystery smear on the stove was back, though, and that took the phone off of her mind. Right smack in the middle of the stovetop there was a greasy smudge that always seemed to come back, no matter what she scrubbed it away with. She was sure she wasn’t leaving spoons there (there was a spoon rest for that) and there wasn’t anyplace above that it could have come from. And yet, here it was again, in spite of a (highly not recommended by the owner’s manual) recent Comet scrubdown.
Molly ran her finger through the smear, testing its consistency, of which there was none. She looked closely at it, sneering as if she could make it go away by force of will. No, it really was a smudge, not a flaw in the paint, and it really had come back of its own accord. She was going to have to call Mom about this some time. For now, though, a shot of Formula 409 made it go away. It would be back tomorrow.
As she was putting the cleaning stuff away, Molly felt the chill. She looked toward its source, a short hallway that connected to the garage and also to the backyard. The outside door was open a crack.
Her heart rate soared immediately. She had been downstairs to make breakfast before sitting down to (fruitlessly) write this morning, and she’d have remembered leaving the door open all night. Besides which, the alarm would have shrieked about it long ago. For that matter, it should have chirped when the door opened.
She thought first of her gun. Her father had insisted she buy it; it was a .32, in a locked box upstairs, in the closet, and unloaded. She hadn’t fired it since her father had taken her to the range and taught her how to care for the horrible little thing. Useless.
Molly picked up the cordless phone, turned it on (thank God, it was working), and dialed 9 and 1. Then she approached the door, slowly. The little hallway between kitchen and garage held no hiding spaces for anything larger than a dog, and it was empty. The door leading to the garage was also closed.
She pushed the back door shut quickly, glancing outside as she locked the deadbolt. She didn’t see any footprints in the snow, but it was patchy, the last fall having been a week ago and warm-ish temperatures since then giving the grass space to poke through.
She looked at the wall panel next to the door. The open-door chirp was turned off. Maybe she’d left it off. Molly reset it. She thought of the gun again, but even if she ran up there, dragged it out, and loaded it, any sixteen year-old crackhead would certainly be able to wrestle it away from her before she could get a shot off.
Her decision already made, Molly picked up her car keys and went straight for the front door. She didn’t stop to grab her coat or purse, and she took the phone with her. On her way to the neighbors’ house, she dialed that last 1.
The police were calm and understanding, and told her she’d done the right thing, which was music to the ears of Molly’s inner Girl Scout. Nevertheless, she couldn’t help but feel sheepish when a pair of cops showed up, searched her house carefully, and found no hidden crackheads. They were sympathetic and glad she’d called them of course, but Molly read a “stupid-scared-female” vibe from both of them. Or maybe it was all in her head.
Before they left, the phone rang. It was Dobie. “Good evening. I haven’t called at a bad time, have I?”
“The opposite, in fact,” Molly said. She explained the phantom break-in. “I’m still feeling skittish; if you hadn’t called, I probably would have gone to my friend Katharine’s just so I don’t have to be in the house alone.”
“Well, I’m glad to be a serendipitous source of confidence,” he said.
“It’s nice to have billionaires calling out of the blue. What can I do for you?”
“Just a quick question of strategy, I suppose.” Molly could hear seagulls in the background; Dobie was calling from outdoors somewhere. “While Lexi was on her way to my house, I got called away. I’ve been down in Hamilton since she arrived three days ago. I’m hoping to be back tomorrow, but I’m sure she’ll be a bit sore, and I was hoping you might have a suggestion as to an effective peace offering and apology.”
Molly laughed. “Oh, that’s priceless,” she said. It served Lexi right, for abandoning Dobie at her house without telling anyone where she was going. She didn’t say this. “Well, the best way to appease an enraged Lex is to just take her for a drive. She’ll act like she doesn’t want to go, but she will, especially if it’s a cool car. I don’t know cars well enough to say what she’d like. Something Italian, maybe,” she added. “Lex likes Italian cars, I think. Except for Ferraris, she’s weird about them. Just listen to her. She’s pretty good about saying what she wants, generally.”
“Except that she speaks her own language,” Dobie replied.
“This is true. And the only reliable translator was Ren. It’s an incredibly sad thing when a couple’s secret language becomes a dead language, isn’t it?”
“Yes, I suppose it is,” Dobie said, sounding distracted and distant. “I know a good seafood restaurant, down in Marjori. Do you think she’ll appreciate that?”
“Lexi likes just about any kind of fish,” Molly said. “And if it’s anything like that secret club you took me to, she’ll love it. I’m jealous.”
“I’m glad you enjoyed it. When I’m back in the States, we’ll have to go again. My treat. What do you think?”
“‘Tis a date,” Molly said. The phantom burglar was forgotten, and she could feel her muse’s logjam beginning to break up.