Chapter Thirteen

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I opened my eyes on Saturday morning thinking of two events. On most Saturday mornings at 10 a.m., I met with my therapist, Liz. After therapy, I drove to DeKalb, the home of my alma mater, to take tea with my old English professor, one Homer Andrew Thorstens, Ph.D.—HAT for short. By the time I woke up enough to sit up in bed, I remembered that Liz was on the last leg of a two-week vacation, so half of my Saturday had already been cancelled. The fun half.

HAT was many things, including an old-fashioned gentleman, but he was sure to grill me about the recent murder at my office. And, because he was HAT, he would be sure to offer advice about how I might catch the killer as I had last time. To him, this murder excited the gray matter. It never occurred to him that I almost died the last time I'd stuck my nose into a murder investigation. Because I had no interest in almost dying again, I didn't want to talk about it—with him or anyone else.

So I found myself sitting in HAT's best chair, the comfortable one with all the padding intact, surveying the scene before me. As usual, I set up the tea table while HAT brewed the tea. Cooking wise, tea was the pinnacle of HAT's culinary achievement because he used real tea leaves in a china pot. And he bought decent cookies, which he always called biscuits in the British tradition.

Although he seemed relaxed to the untrained eye, I knew better. Like a cat that twitches its tail back and forth in annoyance, HAT had a habit of wiggling his hairy, gray eyebrows when miffed. Since I'd only just gotten there, somebody else had done the honors. Sadly, I was the one who would have to deal with the consequences.

"You aren't following the murder investigation then?" HAT said between sips of Darjeeling.

When I allowed that I wasn't the least bit interested, he hit me with his long, drawn out, measuring stare, the one that melted the freshmen English students into puddles at his feet.

I merely blinked my eyes at him.

He sneered into his teacup. "A bit difficult is it?"

I expected this sort of remark, so I hadn't yet bothered to taste my own tea. This spared me from choking on my beverage if I reacted in outrage. Goading was always HAT's first gambit.

That technique worked back when I was a mere literary virgin at age 18, terrified by Chaucer and Milton and Woolf, oh my. Long years later, after having conquered literature at HAT's side, I wasn't falling for the good doctor's attempt at intimidation.

If HAT chose to sit in his second-best chair and solve murder mysteries for the less clever souls around him, that was his business. The Master had not recently stared into the eyes of a dead woman.

I had, and the sight and smell wasn't something I was likely to forget. Even sitting with HAT, I could taste the metallic tang of blood at the back of my throat. The Princess' blood had soaked the carpet and perfumed the air.

Since he hadn't been there, it was easy for HAT to forget that I only barely escaped death during my last murder investigation. Lucky for me that the bad guys tried to end me in a trash compactor one size too small. I insinuated myself into the last effort for two compelling reasons: I needed to prove to myself and to Claudie that I was not a racist. A fact proved beyond a shadow. And I wanted desperately to get a date with Odin. The latter motivation had blown up in my face with all the subtlety of a Fourth of July firecracker.

By the time I got around to replying, HAT stared at me—exactly what I had in mind.

I grinned. "Actually, my dear Homer, it isn't a matter of difficulty so much as a matter of safety. You see, I simply don't fancy winding up dead."

"You made it through tolerably well last time," he said. He scooped up the last chocolate biscuit and bit it in half.

Tolerably well for someone who was punched in the jaw, bound hand and foot, then tossed into a gyrating paper shredder. They killed another cashier in the shredder, but it never occurred to them that I was twice her size. Where Dana had immediately fallen into the chute and been chewed up, I was tall enough and wide enough to shove with my feet and keep myself out of the teeth. The only thing that kept me alive was singing the "Limbo Rock" song to keep myself braced against both walls until help arrived.

But, to HAT, anything that hadn't happened to the mage himself was unremarkable and therefore easy.

"I haven't the stomach for it," I said. "You didn't see the body. Somebody stabbed her with a huge pair of scissors. I don't care to tangle with folks like that."

"Crime of passion, I should say." He'd finished with the biscuit and poured himself more tea. The chocolate was obviously supplying the energy for this fruitless pursuit because he wasn't picking up on my not-so-subtle change of subject. Time to haul out the big guns.

"Any more chocky bickies about?" I used an innocent tone to ask for the cookies. Rooting around in what he called a pantry might take HAT the rest of the afternoon. Like every academic I ever met, he was a pack rat. As soon as he located some leftover packets of British fruitcake from his last visit to Harrod's, circa 1974, I was off the hook.

"There's another tin in the pantry," he said. He didn't even glance up from his tea.

It's a fine day when the guest has to search out her own cookies. I didn't plan to dally long in the pantry. If I couldn't find them straight away, I would content myself with the other tasty bits still left on the tray. But they weren't chocolate.

So I wandered through HAT's tiny condo to the back where the kitchen and the pantry hid behind a sliding door. What I found when I opened the pantry was a new lease on life. For HAT anyway.

Every single item from the very top of the uppermost shelves to the items under the counter were stacked and organized with labels facing me, so I could actually read them. I was so thunderstruck for a moment that I fancied the cans had been alphabetized as well, but a peek at the tin of tomatoes stacked atop the canned peas set me straight.

I also found a long, black strand of hair attached to a tin of my favorite chocolate cookies. Since HAT's hair remains short and blond with salty-gray ends, this one clearly didn't belong to him. And my own mop was its usual curly dishwater blond mess. So who exactly had come a-calling?

I returned to HAT's parlor with a smile on my face and the cookie tin in my hand. There would be no more idle chatter of murder investigations so long as I was about.

"Don't suppose you own a wig, do you?"

HAT looked up with a wide-eyed stare and shook his head. "Why?"

I snatched a handful of the tastiest morsels from the tin and settled myself behind my teacup before I answered.

"Don't know," I said, keeping my eyes on the teacup. "I found this enormous black hair in your cupboard and wondered who it belonged to. Have a lady love, do you then, HAT?"

His cup hit the carpet before I heard him mutter "Damn" under his breath, and we were both immediately sopping up Darjeeling with our tea napkins.

When everything was set to rights again, all he would say on the subject was that a biscuit lodged in his windpipe, and he hired a cleaning lady.

Come to think of it, he served up the cleaning lady first in his order of explanation. Needless to say, the topic of murderous intent did not rear its ugly head again during my visit.

Later, I thought about our conversation as I drove home through the cornfields. HAT said the Princess' murder sounded like a crime of passion. I hadn't considered before, but you would have to hate someone greatly to jam scissors into her heart. Getting through the rib cage itself was a feat. Making it smack dab into the heart required strength or anger of epic proportions.

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