High Rhymes and Misdemeanors (9 page)

BOOK: High Rhymes and Misdemeanors
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Peter said wearily, “One problem at a time.”

It was at this point that the burglar alarm went off downstairs.

5
I
n Grace’s opinion a normal person would have jumped to his feet or made some exclamation or done
something
as alarm bells clamored through the house. Peter did not move a muscle. In fact, he went very still, his lean face taking on a peculiar listening intentness.
The next instant he was out of his chair and easing open the door of the flat. “Stay here,” he ordered Grace in afterthought, and with that, was gone.

Not so long ago Grace would have obeyed. But as Peter slipped silently out of his quarters she left the table and followed him onto the landing. It took her eyes a moment to adjust to the gloom. Peter was already on the ground floor, a shadow gliding through the other shadows. Grace crept down the staircase on stockinged feet.

A scream, high-pitched and terrified, came from outside, only to be choked off.

“Peter!” gasped Grace.

She spotted him racing toward the front door. The door opened onto an Arthur Rackham nightscape: gnarled black apple trees stood silhouetted against a golden lantern moon. Shape-shifting clouds drifted across the sky. Grace abandoned stealth and thudded down the stairs. She paused before the display of weapons, her hand hovering as she realized that the missing ax had been replaced. Polished steel gleamed in the light from the landing.

Commotion at the shop entrance startled her. Peter reappeared, supporting a moaning woman. The woman clutched her dark head with one hand and Peter with the other.

“He hit me,” she mumbled.

Peter helped the woman to the nearest Chippendale chair. “Run get some ice,” he told Grace.

Grace ran. When she returned with ice wrapped in a towel the other woman seemed to have recovered slightly although she was still clinging to Peter’s shirtfront, and making tiresome noises into his chest.

She was a “handsome” woman of about forty-five, Grace estimated, handing over the ice pack. She had dark, shoulder-length hair, and a tall, model-thin body. Opening hazel eyes, the woman squinted painfully at Grace.

“Who is
that?
” She struggled to sit up.

“Take it easy, Al,” Peter said, solicitously applying the ice to what, Grace had to admit, was a goose egg-sized bump.

“But who is she?”

“This is Miss Grace Hollister from America.” Peter’s eyes met Grace’s briefly. “Grace, this is the Honorable Allegra Clairmont-Brougham.”

“But who
is
she?” pressed Al plaintively. “Why is she here?”

Grace thought she recognized Al’s too-too-refined accent from Peter’s answering machine. Al was the gal who thought “naughty man” Peter was avoiding her phone calls. The Hon. Al’s dark clothing and the hour of the night she’d chosen to come calling indicated romantic reconnaissance. Grace felt sorry for the woman.

She felt even sorrier for her when Peter said brusquely, “She’s staying with me, Al.”

“She’s …” Allegra sat up, holding fast to the ice pack. “But I thought you and Mimi—that is—” She turned her disbelieving gaze to Grace. “But Peter, you never have anyone
stay,
“ she protested.

“Grace is different.” Peter ignored the daggers of Grace’s stare.

Al dropped back against his broad chest with a pained sound. Grace scowled at Peter over Al’s bowed head.
Cad,
she mouthed. He looked blank. She was tempted to snatch one of the skulls off the nearby dresser and crown him.
Memento Amoure
in this particular case.

Ignoring Grace’s ire, Peter was querying, briskly but not un-sympathetically, “What happened, Al? Did you see who coshed you?”

“Not clearly. I came round the back—I thought I heard something—and I saw a man with a crowbar at the window. Then the alarm went off. After that it’s all a blur.” Falteringly she put a hand to her head.

Grace was relieved that Peter had enough tact not to question the obvious. Perhaps he was used to suspicious lovers skulking outside his windows.

“You didn’t recognize the man? What did he look like?”

“A shadowy figure, that’s all. Tall. Very tall.” She seemed to hesitate. “His face was all blacked.”

“What else?”

“Nothing really. Just the way the light fell.”

“Spit it out, Al. What did you see?”

Al said uncomfortably, “I rather got the impression … you’ll think me mad, but I … I thought he was wearing a turban.”

Peter’s eyebrows shot up, mirroring Grace’s own expression.

Allegra opened her eyes wide and murmured, “Oh, Peter,
why
didn’t you ring?”

“I wasn’t home.”

“But I saw your lights on.”

“When?” Peter and Grace asked in unison. They briefly exchanged looks.

“Yesterday evening. Thursday.” She focused on Grace and said pettishly, “I suppose that was you?”

Grace’s reply was forestalled by Peter’s warning glance.

Al said, “I’ve been staying with Auntie Venetia while the chimneys at the Carriage House are being cleaned. But the place is like a tomb.
Too
dreary.” Her fingers crept up to play with Peter’s collar. “Do you suppose … Peter, if it’s not too terribly much trouble
could
you run me home? I don’t feel quite up to driving.” She fluttered her eyelashes.

Grace decided it would be ridiculous to be annoyed by the Hon. Al’s ploys; despite Peter’s deliberate attempt to make it look otherwise, Grace was not involved with him and had no intention of becoming involved with him. What sane woman would want to be involved with a man who clearly couldn’t commit to anything but a life of crime?

“You should have your head examined,” she heard herself say. Both Al and Peter looked her way. “First,” Grace amended hastily. “You should
first
have someone examine your … um … head.”

Al peered at her through pain-narrowed eyes, and then said to Peter, “Peter, how can you be giving Mimi Kenton-Kydd antique pendants one minute, and living with American girls the next?”

“Yes, I’m curious, too,” Grace remarked.

The look he shot her promised retaliation. To Al, Peter said, ruefully, “I’m rather afraid it’s going to be less of the former and more of the latter now that Grace is here to keep me in line.”

Al was still trying to do the math as Peter helped her to her feet once more.

“Are you sure it’s safe?” Grace asked under her voice, holding the door for them.

Peter’s nod was curt. “Keep the doors locked. Don’t open for anyone but me.”

“I was thinking of
you
. Could he still be out there?”

She was rewarded by an unexpectedly engaging grin. “And I was beginning to think you didn’t care.”

Al stopped clinging long enough to scowl at Grace.

“I’ll wait up, shall I?” Grace added for Al’s benefit. She was instantly ashamed.

“Do.” To her openmouthed surprise, Peter kissed her.

The next moment he had vanished into the night with the Hon. Allegra Clairmont-Brougham in tow.

As a kiss it was too brief to analyze, but as Grace went slowly up the stairs to Peter’s flat, she had the funniest impression her lips were tingling.

Inside Peter’s quarters, Grace switched on the electric teakettle and cleared away the dinner dishes, putting the leftover food away. Finishing, she went into the living room and sat down to wait. Her eyes roved the room and settled on the curio table before her. She wondered if the items collected under glass were a clue to Peter Fox’s character. Among the odds and ends gathered were a child’s spyglass; a browned traveler’s diary with faded writing; another book, this one gilt-stamped and calf-bound; a silver compass; assorted shells and stones and antique coins; and a jade-handled knife. So much
stuff
.

She glanced across at the moon-faced grandfather clock and saw that it was nearly midnight. Grace decided that with a computer at her fingertips she could log in a little research time. Mr. Fox, Do You Yahoo? He
had
to have Internet access.

It was nearly dawn when Peter unlocked the door to his flat. He was vaguely surprised to find the lights still on. It had taken two hours and twenty minutes to smooth Al’s feathers. That was two hours longer than he wanted to spend. The peace talks had been followed by the even more disagreeable task of shifting the mortal remains of Danny Delon.

For a moment there in the passage the old panic had swept over him, the sensation of walls closing in, of suffocation, of being buried alive. The cold, crisp night air had helped to clear his head.

Surprise stopped him midway through a jaw-breaking yawn as Peter took in the clutter of tea tray with its empty cake plate and teacup on the table. Stacks of books towered like Grecian ruins, and Esmerelda lay draped over the couch like somebody’s virgin sacrifice. Peter’s thin mouth quirked as he studied the sleeping
Ms.
Hollister. Chestnut hair framed her flushed face in a silky cloud. She was wearing a pair of round spectacles and some kind of white, ruffly night thing. She clutched a gold-tooled volume to her breast.

She looked rather like a scholarly angel—except that Mary Shelley’s
Frankenstein
was not suitably cherubic reading. Not that there was anything particularly ethereal about the long, slender leg resting outside the tangle of afghan and nightshirt she had cocooned herself in. Nor in the swell of breasts gently rising and falling. Earthly delights these.

Peter had an uncomfortably vivid memory of resting his face against those firm breasts. He recalled the warm scent of her skin and the silken feel of her hair against his lips.

Her gentle limbs she did undress and lie down in her loveliness
.

He approached the couch, all his defenses intact. Grace never stirred. Peter studied her without expression. Then he dropped down on his haunches and with light fingers removed her spectacles, laying them aside on the table. Her skin was soft to his fingertips. Baby skin. She didn’t really look old enough to teach teenage girls anything, although he had to admit she did possess an unexpectedly sharp mind. And tongue to match.

Peter continued to study Grace, feeling the light warmth of her breath on his face. Her mouth was pink and moist, slightly parted.

This was a complication he did not need. Peter rose and walked into the bedroom, shutting the door gently behind him.

“Fertility clinics,” Grace informed Peter at breakfast the next morning. “Fertility clinics and designer plus-sizes. That’s all I could find last night on the Internet.”

“Huh?” Peter asked intelligently, his mouth full of Canadian bacon.

He was wearing a dark plaid robe over what appeared to be yellow pajamas. Grace refused to think about the fact that she was having breakfast with a pajama-clad man she barely knew. There was gold bristle on his jaw and his hair was ruffled. It was so … personal.

She pulled her own plaid robe—a different tartan, mind—closer.

“Relating to Astarte,” she clarified. “There’s an online magazine for something called the Goddess Woman. And there’s a place in San Francisco called the Astarte Fertility Center which provides an integrated online list of egg donors and invitro fertilization and long-distance treatment plans.”

Peter chewed, swallowed, and said, “I don’t have a clue what you’re talking about.”

“I thought maybe I could help by researching the Astarte connection. I used your computer last night; I hope you don’t mind. The thing is—” She leaned forward on the table. “There
is
something called the Astarte Lodge in Berlin. Their site says they celebrate the Gnostic Mass and offer classes to initiates on the Qabalah, ritual techniques, yoga—it’s a bit New Agey, but there could be a connection.”

Peter studied her thoughtfully. “Are you like this every morning?”

Grace sat back in her chair. “Like what? Awake? Most people are, who don’t come waltzing in at four o’clock in the morning.”

“Three-thirty. And I was not waltzing. If you were in a noticing mood, you’d have seen my feet dragging.”

“No doubt you were exhausted.” Grace bit into a muffin, all her white teeth showing.

Peter chuckled and refilled her teacup. “What are you insinuating? Believe me, you couldn’t be further from the mark. The woman is a nuisance.”

“You’re all heart.” Grace downed the last bit of muffin. It took her a moment or two to clear her air passage enough to speak. “Anyway, I couldn’t care less about your love life. I just want to solve this thing and save my skin. Not to mention, my vacation.”

“I think the vacation is a scrub,” Peter informed her. “But I’ll see what I can do about your skin. It’s a rather nice hide, I admit.” He winked at her across the breakfast dishes.

Not used to being flirted with over eggs and bacon, Grace momentarily lost her train of thought.

Peter finished his coffee, put the cup down and said curiously, “Were you really thinking you could find the reason for your being kidnapped on the Internet?”

“It’s quite amazing the things you can find on the Internet,” Grace defended. “I found some pictures of statues believed to represent Astarte; they looked a bit like little chicken-headed figures wearing dunce caps. They’re incredibly valuable though. And I found directions on how to perform the Rite of Astarte. You need seven green candles, dried red rose petals and fruit juice, preferably apple.”

“Sounds most uplifting. I don’t believe we are under attack by renegade Gnostics however.”

The phone rang and Peter rose to answer it.

Grace watched his face turn into a mask of elegant bones and hollows. After a moment he replied expressionlessly, “I appreciate your concern, Chief Constable.”

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