He needed some coffee before he dealt with Mitchell and Sullivan.

“What’s up?” he asked the Herald who took their orders for croissants and corn bread.

“Haven’t you heard?”

Before she could explain, the curtain opened behind her. Arizona leaned out and beckoned urgently.

“Come on back here, you two,” she hissed. “I’ll brief you along with the others.”

Gabe looked at Mitchell and Sullivan. They had resumed their conversation with Sean. He was in no great rush to join them, he thought. One of Arizona’s briefings promised to be a lot more entertaining. He glanced at Lillian. She shrugged and turned to go behind the counter.

He picked up his corn bread and followed her.

A familiar group of Heralds, including Photon, was gathered at the large worktable. They nodded somberly when Lillian and Gabe joined them.

“ ’Morning,” Gabe said.

“What’s going on?” Lillian asked.

Arizona rapped a rolling pin on the floured table. “A very interesting development has just occurred.

Course, the mainstream media and the local authorities, including Sean Valentine, have bought into the cover story being handed out by the gang up at the institute. But that’s only to be expected.” She shook her head. “Poor dupes.”

Gabe propped one shoulder against the wall and savored a bite of warm corn bread. “What’s the story?”

“Official version is that Claire Jensen was injured in a single-car accident on her way out of town yesterday. She’s in the Eclipse Bay hospital as we speak.”

“Good heavens.” Lillian stared at Arizona. “Is she all right?”

“Sean says she’s pretty banged up but she’ll be okay. He investigated the crash. Said she was driving like a bat outta hell in the rain. Took a curve way too fast. But we all know the truth.”

Heads nodded around the table.

Lillian cleared her throat. “Uh, what is that?”

“It’s obvious. She must have seen somethin’ she wasn’t supposed to see up there at the institute.

Probably stumbled into the underground lab. They faked an accident to try to get rid of her. Lucky for her they botched the job.”

Lillian looked at Gabe. “And you say you don’t believe in karma.”

“I stand corrected,” Gabe said. “Learn something new everyday.”

He took her arm and steered her back through the curtain into the main room. Several pairs of eyes followed them as they made their way to the small table where Mitchell and Sullivan sat with Bryce and Sean.

Lillian leaned down to give Sullivan a kiss on his cheek. “ ’Morning, Granddad.”

“Good morning, honey.”

Gabe nodded at Mitchell and Sullivan. “Glad to see that the two of you didn’t knock each other’s teeth out last night.”

“When you get to be this age,” Sullivan said, “you have to think twice about risking your teeth. Not that many good ones left.”

She greeted the others and sat down beside Sullivan.

“Arizona give you her version of the accident?” Mitchell asked Gabe.

Gabe set his coffee and partially eaten corn bread down on the table and took one of the chairs. “All part of the big conspiracy up at the institute, according to A.Z.”

Sullivan chuckled.

“Got to admit that her take on local news is always a lot more interesting than mine,” Sean allowed.

“So it was an accident?” Lillian asked.

“Definitely.” Sean took a bite out of a large, jelly-filled pastry. “She must have been in a real hurry to get out of town. Had to be doing seventy when she took that curve out by the Erickson place.”

Bryce shook his head in solemn disapproval. “Everyone knows that’s a real bad curve.”

“The medics who pulled her out of the car said she was spittin’ mad when they got to her.” Sean swallowed the bite of pastry and reached for his coffee. “Kept saying something about how unfair it all was.”

Chapter 26

On the night of the reception at the Eclipse Bay branch of the Bright Visions Gallery, Sullivan stood with Mitchell, a glass of champagne in his hand, and watched the large crowd ebb and flow around Lillian and her paintings. Warm pride flowed through him.

“Not like it was in Portland last week,” Mitchell observed. “Only press here is from the Journal. But, what the heck, Eclipse Bay isn’t exactly the art capital of the western world.”

“Portland was all about publicity and media coverage,” Sullivan reminded him. “It worked just like Octavia Brightwell said it would. It introduced Lillian to important collectors and the museum and gallery crowd. But this event is special for Eclipse Bay.”

“And they’re lovin’ it.” Mitchell grinned. “Look at ’em, all dressed up and swilling champagne. I doubt if a lot of these folks know much about art, but they’re sure having a good time.”

The throng that filled the gallery was composed largely of local townsfolk. Everyone from the Willis brothers to the strangely dressed group from Incandescent Body had turned out. Sullivan had a hunch that it wasn’t a keen interest in art that had brought so many of the residents of Eclipse Bay out on a wet night. The driving motivation for this crowd was its lively curiosity about Hartes and Madisons. Everyone knew that both families would be in town for the event and they were all well aware that Gabe and Lillian were engaged.

The free drinks and hors d’oeuvres were just icing on the cake as far as most folks were concerned tonight.

“Who would have thought that a Harte would turn out to be an artist?” Mitchell said.

“Who would have believed that anyone in your family could create a profitable business like Madison Commercial?”

“Gotta say that Octavia sure knows how to give a party.” Mitchell helped himself to a cheese canapé.

“First class all the way, too. Lot of people here tonight wouldn’t have noticed or cared if she had served cheap champagne and second-rate food. But she pulled out all the stops, same as she did for the Portland crowd.”

“Showing respect for the locals.” Sullivan nodded. “Very smart. Good public relations.”

“She’s a smart young woman. But she’s real, too, if you know what I mean. She didn’t put on this bash just for publicity purposes. She did it because she really wanted to show folks that she appreciates them as much as she does the Portland crowd.”