“Don’t know about you.” Gabe put some money down on the counter. “But I’m in no rush.”
“You’re not ?” In her wildest flights of imagination she would never have envisioned him willingly going down the rabbit hole into the alternate universe that was Arizona Snow’s world.
He glanced at her, brows raised. “What?” he asked amused.
“Don’t you, uh, have some telecommuting to do?” she asked weakly.
Arizona gave Lillian a knowing look, squinting slightly. “Hannah and Rafe weren’t real interested in what was going on up at the institute, either, until it was damn near too late.”
Lillian knew when she was beaten. She tried and failed to come up with an excuse but nothing came to mind. The bottom line was that the Hartes and the Madisons owed Arizona Snow. She was more than a little eccentric but a few months ago it had been her meticulously kept logbooks that had provided the clues Rafe and Hannah had needed to identify a murderer.
“I suppose we can stay for a few minutes,” Lillian said.
“Forewarned is forearmed.” Arizona held the curtain aside.
“Can’t argue with that,” Gabe said. He picked up his muffins and coffee and went around the counter.
Lillian reluctantly collected her croissant and tea and trailed after him.
Arizona let the curtain fall behind them. Lillian stopped at the sight of the three men and two women grouped around a large, floured worktable. All were dressed in Herald-style attire, complete with robes and ancient-looking jewelry. Their ages were varied. The youngest was a man whose long hair was neatly bound up in a white sanitary cap. Lillian thought he was probably in his mid-twenties. The oldest was a woman with silver hair and a matronly figure. A tall man with a shaved head and a stately air appeared to be the authority figure in the group.
The Heralds regarded Lillian and Gabe with serenely polite expressions.
Arizona took up a position at the head of the table and fixed everyone in turn with a steely look.
“Gabe, Lillian, meet Photon, Rainbow, Daybreak, Dawn, and Beacon.” She gave the Heralds a pointed look. “Gabe and Lillian are friends of mine. Take it from me, you can trust ’em. Fact is, in this town, you can trust anyone with the last name of Harte or Madison.”
Lillian nodded, determined to be polite. “Good morning.”
Gabe inclined his head in an easy greeting. He set his mug down on a nearby table and took a bite of one of the muffins on his plate.
“Great corn bread,” he said.
Photon, the man with the shaved head who seemed to be in charge, said, “Thank you. We do our best to introduce the light of future history into all our products. But we’re only human. Sometimes our negative thoughts get into the dough in spite of our best efforts.”
“Light’s your secret ingredient, huh?” Gabe picked up the remaining portion of the muffin. “Works for me.” He took another bite.
Arizona picked up a large rolling pin and rapped it smartly on the table to get everyone’s attention.
“Enough with the chitchat,” she said. “Got a briefing to get through here. Not like we have time to waste.
The future of this town, not to mention the whole country, is hanging in the balance.”
Everyone obediently moved a little closer to the table.
Arizona cleared her throat loudly.
“Now, then, as I was sayin’ before I heard Lillian and Gabe out front, I’ve put the evidence together and it’s become real clear why they’re building the new wing at the institute. Official word, of course, is that it’s supposed to be additional office and conference space.” She broke off to give everyone at the table a meaningful look. “But I think everyone here knows that’s just another one of their lies.”
Lillian studied the map spread out on the table. It showed the hillside above town where the Eclipse Bay Policy Studies Institute was located. A handful of photos that looked as if they had been snapped with a long-range lens were scattered around the edges. They were pictures of what was obviously a construction zone at the institute. She could make out a truck and something that looked like electrical equipment.
Gabe leaned over the photos. “Good long-range recon shots, A.Z.”
“Thanks.” A.Z. allowed herself a proud smile. “Took ’em with my new surveillance camera. A genuine VPX 5000. Latest model. Replaces the old 4000 series. Telephoto lens, sniper grip shutter release trigger. Half a dozen filters for day and night photo work. And a real nice leather carrying case.”
“I hate to sound like just another naïve, innocent dupe,” Lillian said, “but what makes you think they aren’t adding office and conference space?”
“Number of factors.” Arizona motioned toward the map with the rolling pin. “First, increased volume of traffic in this sector during the past six months.”
“Are we talking out-of-town traffic?” Gabe asked.
“We are, for sure,” Arizona said.
“Huh.” Gabe took another bite of the muffin. “That’s suspicious, all right.”
“For heaven’s sake,” said Lillian. “Everyone knows the institute has been growing rapidly for some time now. They give seminars, receptions, and political theory retreats on a regular basis. In addition, they provided the springboard for Trevor Thornley’s campaign. It’s only natural that there would be a lot of traffic.”
Arizona squinted. “Cover, is what it is. All that political think-tank stuff and those seminars and such make good camouflage for concealing what’s really goin’ on up there. Furthermore, the traffic volume didn’t fall off for long after Thornley pulled out of the campaign. No sir. There was a brief lull, but by the end of November, there were more vehicles than ever going in and out of there.”
“Sounds serious, all right,” Gabe concurred. “What other factors besides increased traffic point to a clandestine operation?”
“Oh, geez,” Lillian muttered. No one paid any attention.
“Most of the construction work on the new wing is being done by contractors who aren’t from around here,” Arizona said ominously.
“Heard something about that.” Gabe examined another photo. “My brother said the Willis brothers didn’t get a chunk of the construction action.”
“No, they didn’t and that tells us a lot, doesn’t it?” Arizona said.
“Uh, what, exactly, does it tell us?” Lillian asked cautiously.