“I don’t know about this,” Stella said.
They stood in the front parlor of Little Peavy Farm, Stella’s home. The room was a bewildering visual gallimaufry of patterns and colors: green and red flowered chintzes vied with black and yellow checks and blue and pink stripes for air space. The only consistent motif was cats. Live ones-four full-sized and very friendly cats were closely investigating the visitors-and representational ones. A cat-faced wall clock offered a Cheshire grin, cat-shaped throw pillows littered the sofas and chairs, and there were paintings of cats, cat-shaped candles, and numerous cat statues.
“You’re beginning to sound like a broken record. It’s quite simple,” Elysia was apparently working from the hypothesis that if she kept playing her own broken record long enough someone would be bound to believe her. “You’ll get in and establish your cover, that you are filthy rich, have a big fat mouth, and are lonely and desperate. Then you’ll bugger off. With a new hairdo. What is there to object to in any of that?”
Stella stared at her long and steadily. “They’re not just going to instantly start trying to blackmail me. It’ll take time to find me the right man.”
“A lifetime. But they’re not actually going to try to find you the right man,” Elysia said. “You do realize, I hope, that all this is not in aid of improving your social life?”
A.J. put in hurriedly, “Don’t worry, we’re not going to try to crack the blackmailing operation ourselves.” She ignored Elysia’s obvious displeasure; they had argued this point at length. “We’re not expecting you to do any real investigating. All we’re trying to do is show the police that there are sufficient grounds here for their own in-depth investigation-and that Mother is not the only viable suspect.”
Elysia smiled sweetly when Stella glanced at her.
A.J. said, “So all we really need is for the blackmailer or blackmailers to approach you, to make the first move in setting up a scenario that would obviously leave you vulnerable to blackmail. We can take that to Jake who can then take it to his superiors.”
“Like what kind of scenario?”
“Well, for example, if a young, handsome man suddenly asks you out.”
“We all know how unlikely that is,” Elysia drawled. A.J. shot her a look, which Elysia blandly ignored.
Stella still looked doubtful.
A.J. said, “I promise you don’t have to go through with anything you don’t want to.”
“I just don’t think I’d be any good at this kind of thing.” Stella said.
“It doesn’t matter,” Elysia replied. “We’re going to sweeten the deal and make you all but irresistible. We have a theory that they’ll be looking for one quick, easy score. They have to know time is running out on their operation.”
That was Elysia’s theory; A.J. wasn’t convinced.
“But what if these people running The Salon are the murderers? If they’ve killed three people to protect this blackmail operation, I can’t imagine they’ll abandon ship now,” Stella said.
“We think Stewie and Gloria are probably in cahoots in a blackmail operation, but we don’t think they’re killers. Of course, we don’t know that for a fact, it just doesn’t seem like very good business.”
“There’s an assumption,” Stella commented.
“There’s no danger. They have no reason to connect you with us or with any investigation. As far as they know you’re just another lonely, frumpy dowager.”
“Dowager!” Stella gave a hoot of laughter.
A.J. shot her mother a repressive look. “We don’t think there’s any danger, but you would have to be careful, obviously. These murders may not be connected. We don’t even know for sure that Peggy Graham was murdered. But if someone was frightened or desperate enough to kill once, there’s no telling what they might do if she or he thought you were snooping.”
“I’m betting our friends Gloria and Stewie know that once they’ve been brought to the attention of the police, they’ll never be fully forgotten again. Greed will make them want to go for one last score, but they wouldn’t take any foolish chances.”
“But once again,” A.J. reminded them both firmly, “We don’t know how deeply Gloria and Stewie are involved. We don’t know who Madame X is. It could be Gloria.”
“It could be Stewie,” Elysia put in. And at the look A.J. gave her, she made a little moue. “Probably not. Dicky was fairly conservative in his tastes.”
A.J. continued, “We think she’s a customer at The Salon, but she might not be. She might have no connection with The Salon at all. You have to be on guard. Remember, she’s not your target. We’re strictly interested in proving there’s a blackmail ring so that the police will investigate further.”
Stella considered this grimly. “What if this Stewie and Gloria don’t take the bait?”
“You’ll have had a complete makeover. That alone is a service to mankind,” Elysia stated.
Stella gave her a withering look. “I can’t afford that kind of thing.”
“I’ll pay. It’s my neck on the block, after all.”
Stella opened her mouth, but A.J. said quickly, “It’s worth it to us, Stella. We have to do something to show the police that there’s more than one motive for Dicky being killed. We don’t have anything to lose by trying-so long as you’re careful and don’t take any foolish chances.”
“But how long would I have to keep this charade up for?”
“We don’t know,” admitted A.J. uncomfortably. “Hopefully not too long. If we can’t get them to move within two weeks, we’ll have to try something else.”
“Two weeks! You want me to go somewhere and pretend to be someone else for two weeks?”
“We have to establish a cover for you. You can’t be living here as Stella Borin and going to The Salon as someone else because they’re bound to check up on you.”
“But where am I going?”
“Oh, we’ll figure that out. We’re going to devise a legend for you,” Elysia said.
“Your cover story.” Elysia apparently saw herself in the film adaptation of a le Carr'e novel. “Now I think the best thing will be to introduce you as my long-lost great aunt.”
“Great aunt!” Stella objected. “You’re as old as I am, Elysia Alexander!”
“No,” A.J. interrupted. “Stella can’t be associated with us in any way. Three people have died already. We have to make sure there’s no obvious connection between Stella and us.”
Elysia said reluctantly, “I suppose you’re right. Although I think it’s worth the risk.”
“I’ve been thinking about this part. Andy will help us. Stella can pretend to be his widowed aunt. She can stay at his parents’ vacation home in Byram. It keeps her safely away from Stillbrook, but it’s close enough to Newton that it’s not unreasonable she might go to The Salon.”
Stella had been listening to this with a deepening dismay. “But what about my critters?”
“A good shampoo will take care of that,” Elysia said blandly. “You’ll see.”
Stella gave her a stony look.
“I’ll take care of your animals,” A.J. promised. “You can just tell me what to do.”
“Not with your back,” Stella said. She turned a considering eye on Elysia. “But if Elysia gives me her word she’ll take care of my farm while I’m away, then I suppose I could do her this favor.”
The gazes of the two older women locked. After an apparent inward struggle, Elysia summoned a gracious smile. “Of course. It will be my pleasure.”
“Then I guess I agree.”
Elysia said smoothly, “And I’ll stay with Stella to monitor the operation.”
Stella said, “I’d rather take my chances with the murderers.”
“I’ll stay with her,” A.J. intervened. “You just promised to take care of the animals.”
“I can drive back and forth.”
“No you can’t. That’s ridiculous. We’ve already said there can’t be a connection to us. Me staying with her is bad enough.”
“Then I’ll pay someone to take care of the animals. You have a business to run.”
“Oh no,” Stella said flatly. “I’m not trusting my critters to paid strangers. You gave your word.”
“But me no buts,” Stella said. “Either you take care of the critters or I stay to take care of them.”
A wide smile broke across Stella’s face. “Don’t you worry. I’ll leave you detailed directions on exactly what to do, Elysia.”
Lily was in her office when A.J. arrived at Sacred Balance. A.J. went into her own office and called Andy, explaining what she and Elysia were planning with Stella’s help. As she had surmised, he was enthusiastic about the idea.
In fact his only regret was that he would be unable to take a more active role as he and Nick were going out of town.
“You’re going on vacation? Where?”
“Paris.” He sounded a little smug, and she wasn’t surprised.
“Oh, you lucky dog.”
He chuckled. “Yeah. But not to worry, I can lay the groundwork for the sting.”
A.J. sighed. “You and Mother are a pair. I swear we were switched at birth and you’re her real child.”
She could hear the smile in his voice as he said, “I’ll call The Salon and set up the appointment for my widowed auntie, and I’ll be sure to drop a few tantalizing tidbits about how rich and reckless she is.”
“Perfect. Don’t overdo it, of course, but make her sound like the perfect mark.”
“Don’t worry. She’ll be chum to the sharks.”
A.J. inwardly shivered at that description, but there was no use pretending that they were not trying to turn Stella into irresistible bait for some very unscrupulous people.
She and Andy chatted a little longer. He promised to call her back as soon as he’d finished working out the details, and she rang off.
Turning on her laptop, she began to go through the day’s e-mail. She was tempted to call Jake and tell him what she, her mother, and Stella were planning, but she fought back the urge. As Elysia had often pointed out, it was easier to ask forgiveness than permission.
There was a soft knock on her half-open door.
A.J. glanced up to see Chess Cox standing in the doorway to her office.
Startled, she rose and pulled open the door. “Hello!”
“Hi. Do you have a minute?”
“Of course. Come in.” A.J. was surprised at this impromptu visit, but Chess seemed perfectly nice and there was no reason they shouldn’t be at least cordial. Right?
So why did A.J. feel suddenly on the defense?
Chess entered the office and sat down. A.J. sat, too. Chess was smiling, her light eyes studying A.J. with friendly curiosity. “I probably should have called first, but since I was here anyway, I just thought we should get to know each other a little.”
Why? A.J. wondered. But she didn’t say that. “Of course. What do you think of the studio? Did you enjoy your class?”
“Oh, it’s wonderful. You’ve got a terrific operation here.”
“Thank you.” There was a pause and A.J. offered Chess tea, which she declined.
“I won’t stay long. It’s just… it’s such a strange situation.” Chess was smiling. “I guess there’s no way to prepare for something like this.”
“I guess not.”
Chess seemed open, even unnervingly candid. Generally A.J. appreciated the direct approach so she couldn’t understand her own resistance to the other woman’s friendly overture, unless it was something as simple as good old-fashioned jealousy. She’d have liked to think she was a little more sophisticated than that, but maybe not.
Chess said, “I’m going to be honest here. I’m just feeling very much on the outside. Everyone speaks so highly of you. And Jake is obviously very fond of you.”
“I’m not criticizing anyone, but I do get the feeling that some people see me as an interloper. Not Jake, obviously. Jake couldn’t be more-”
No. She couldn’t do this.
“I don’t mean to be unkind,” A.J. interrupted. “But I can’t sit here talking to you about my relationship with Jake-or listen to you talk about it.”
Chess looked instantly serious. “I understand. I just thought if we knew something about each other, it might make it easier.”
Make what easier? A.J. wondered. How was knowing each other going to make anything easier? Did Chess honestly think they were going to be friends? Did she think there was some way to share Jake? What was she thinking? A.J. couldn’t figure her out at all.
“I’ve known Jake for a long time,” Chess said. “Leaving him was the hardest thing I ever did in my life, but I had to do it to protect him.”
A.J. stared at her earnest lovely face, and something clicked into place. Chess was playing on her sympathies, on her guilt. Chess wanted her to back off-why? A.J. had already backed off. If Chess didn’t know, it was because Jake wasn’t sharing that information, and A.J. felt immeasurably better. Whatever was between her and Jake was still between her and Jake.
“I can’t judge,” A.J. said. “I wasn’t there.”
Chess said wryly, “People say that when they’re judging you.”
A.J. stood up. “Chess, I can’t begin to understand your situation, so I’m not judging you. But I know Jake-maybe not as well as you did-but I know him well enough to know what he would think about us sitting here talking about him.”
“I thought we were talking about us,” Chess said coolly.
A.J. smiled. “I don’t think we are. Not really. And I think it would be difficult for us to be anything more than polite acquaintances at this stage.” She added, “But I appreciate the gesture. You’re very gracious.”
Chess rose, too. Her smile was terse. “Well, that’s clear enough.”
“I appreciate the gesture,” A.J. repeated.
“Nice chatting with you.”
“Good-bye,” A.J. said firmly.
She closed the door softly, carefully, after Chess walked away.