Cheating at Solitaire

A Gregor Demarkian Novel

Gregor Demarkian Novels (Volume 23 of 29)

Jane Haddam

Minotaur Books

Prologue

There were things that Annabeth Falmer understood, and things she did not understand, and among the things she understood the least was what she was doing on Margaret’s Harbor in the middle of the biggest nor’easter to hit New England since 1853.

Actually, she didn’t understand what she was doing on Margaret’s Harbor at all, but thinking about that made her head ache, and the last thing she needed in the face of snow coming down at two inches an hour was a headache. She was only about a mile from the center of Oscartown, but she didn’t think she’d be able to make it in for a spare bottle of aspirin.

It was two o’clock on the afternoon of Tuesday, December 31st, but it might as well have been the middle of the night. The world outside Annabeth’s window was not black, but it was impossible to see anything in. The snow was so heavy, she was in a kind of whiteout. The only visibility was to the east of her, where the ocean was, and even that was like something out of a surrealist aesthetic. She could see waves, white-tipped and agitated. She could see snow piling into drifts against the tall metal parking meters that had been set out along the beach for people who came in from the landlocked towns. Most of all, she could see the tall oceanward tower of the Point. There was a light on up there, the way there always was now that Kendra Rhode had taken up residence for the duration.

“Who in the name of God names a baby Kendra?” Annabeth said, to the cat, who was the only one besides herself at home. She was talking to the cat a lot lately. It was probably inevitable, but it still made her feel oddly sick at the pit of her stomach. Things had not worked out as badly as she had thought they would, back in the days when she lay awake night after night not knowing how she was going to get through another week, but they hadn’t exactly worked out as a triumph, either.

The cat’s name was Creamsicle because that’s what he looked like: oddly orange and white the way the ice-cream bar had looked in Annabeth’s childhood. She tried not to wonder if there were Creamsicles for sale any longer—everything seemed to disappear, except the things that didn’t, and those tended to be around forever—and got the cat off the ledge of the landing window. He was a small cat, less than a year old. Annabeth wasn’t sure he had ever seen snow before.

“Trust me,” she told him, dropping him down onto the kitchen floor as soon as she walked through the door. “You only think you want to go out. It’s cold out there, and wet, and there isn’t a single cat treat for miles.”

Then she got the cat treats out and gave him three different colored ones on the mat next to his food bowl. She was a compact, middle-aged woman, thinner than she should have been, with hair that had gone gray so long ago she couldn’t remember what color it had been before. Even so, she didn’t think she was really becoming one of those people, the ones who spent all their time by themselves and talked to their cats and knitted things they never used, the ones who were found dead after a month and a half because the neighbors smelled something odd coming out of the apartment.

For one thing, Annabeth thought, she didn’t knit. For another, this was not an apartment, but a house, and an expensive one, and her sons called four times a day trying to make sure she wasn’t completely suicidal. It was one of the few things she didn’t mind about this nor’easter. It had reduced cell phone reception to absolutely nil.

She filled the kettle full of water and put it on to boil. She got her violently orange teapot down from the shelf over the sink and dumped two large scoops of loose Double Bergamot Earl Grey into the bottom of it. The tea was a bad sign, but the teapot wasn’t. It hadn’t occurred to her, when she’d told John and Robbie that what she really wanted was to spend a year on Margaret’s Harbor with nothing to do but read, that she would actually spend her time worrying that she was turning into a cliché out of something by Agatha Christie.

Or, worse, something out of Tennessee Williams, or William Faulkner. The neighbors would come in, drawn by the smell, and find not only her dead body on the floor of the kitchen, but the dead bodies of all her old lovers buried in the root cellar right under the basket of fiddlehead ferns.

“I’m going slowly but surely out of my mind,” she said, to the cat again. The kettle went off, and she poured the water from it into the teapot. Then she got a tray, a mug, a tiny mug-sized strainer, and her copy of Gertrude Himmelfarb’s The Moral Imagination and headed on out for the living room. The storm could scream and moan as much as it liked. She had two industrial-sized generators. She could keep her electricity going in the middle of a nuclear attack.

She put everything down on the coffee table, poured herself some tea through the strainer, and curled up in her big overstuffed chair. This was the way she had imagined herself, last year, when she had been talking about this to her sons. She had seen herself, comfortable and surrounded by books and cats, reading without having to think about anything else in the world. It hadn’t occurred to her that the utter sameness of it would get boring faster than watching The Sopranos had.

The cat jumped into her lap just as she heard the first of the heavy thuds against her kitchen door. She put her hand up to stroke him and said, “I’m an ungrateful idiot, do you know that? They gave me absolutely everything I ever wanted, and some things I didn’t even think of, and I’m about ready to plug my fingers into a wall socket, it’s so out-of-my-mind dull.”

There was another thud, and this time she paid attention. She put the mug away from her and looked around.

“Do you think it’s an animal?” she said. “I can’t imagine it would be a person out in all that. Even Melissandra Rhode isn’t as crazy as that.”

The third thud was heavier and more dangerous than the other two had been. Annabeth could hear the wood straining under whatever was hitting it. She put the book down and got up. You could see the ocean from the kitchen windows. Whoever had built this house had wanted to watch the waves at the breakfast table. Still, it couldn’t be the sea coming in. Not this fast. And it couldn’t be a tree branch blown loose by the wind. It sounded like something soft.

“I should watch television,” she told the cat. “At least I wouldn’t be rewriting Freddy Krueger movies in my head.”

She went back to the kitchen and looked around. She looked out the big windows at the sea, but it was comfortably far away, although choppy. She looked at the walk that wrapped around the house at that side, but saw nothing but untouched snow. She looked around the kitchen, and wondered what she had been thinking when she bought two complete sets of Le Creuset pots to hang from the hooks over the center island.

“One of those is going to fall on my head one day and give me a concussion,” she said, not even to the cat this time. The cat was still in the living room, curled up on a cushion. Then there was another thud, and this time it was distinctly accompanied by giggling.

“What the hell,” Annabeth said.

She made her way out into the pantry, its four tall walls covered floor to ceiling with shelves. She went into the little mud area with its benches and pegs for holding outerwear so that it didn’t muck up the rest of the house in bad weather. She stood very still and listened. The giggling really was giggling, not just the wind, she was sure of it. Sometimes it sounded not so much like giggling as it did like crying. The kitchen door had no window. There was no way to tell without opening up.

“What the hell,” Annabeth said, thinking that if there really was some half-crazed homicidal maniac out there, ready to rip her into body parts before he disappeared into the storm, she almost owed it to him to cooperate. Anybody who wanted anything badly enough to go through that storm to get it, ought to have it.

“Not really,” Annabeth said. She missed the cat. It gave her a cover so that she didn’t have to recognize the fact that she had started to talk to herself.

She grabbed the knob of the door, turned it to the right, yanked the door forward, and stepped back.

She was just in time. The young woman who came falling through at her couldn’t have been more than five feet tall, but she fell hard nonetheless, and she fell far, too.

It took a minute or two, but Annabeth worked it out. This was definitely somebody she recognized, even if she couldn’t remember what the woman’s name was, but that was the least of it. The most was a toss-up between the clothing—a pale blue-silver, sleeveless minidress, hiked up to beyond beyond—and the hair. Annabeth thought she’d go with the hair. It would have been long and blond under other circumstances, but at the moment it was black and sticky and covered with blood.
 

Copyright © 2008 by Orania Papazoglou. All rights reserved.