Alice stepped out into the cold of the parking lot, the glow of the coffee shop lights spilling out into the night. All of the other shops were closed, excepting the liquor store a couple of blocks away. A glance over her shoulder showed Travis still sitting in the booth, sipping his coffee and looking down at his phone.
Alice pulled her own phone out of her pocket and plugged in the number for the private investigator Travis had given her. It was well after business hours, but there was no sense in putting it off. She’d leave a message and follow up in the morning after she met with Esther. She assumed Esther would have her own ride home, but Alice was planning to be waiting for her when she got there. For now, she needed to find a place to stay for the night. She wasn’t going to be spending the night at the Lucas house unless she wanted to risk Bruce calling the cops on her. Even if that meant she would meet with Esther a little earlier.
She started walking. Wherever she was going, it wasn’t going to be the parking lot of a Dunkin’ Donuts, and she’d stay warmer moving. Snow had begun to fall, reflecting the streetlights. With everything covered in white, the street was dramatically brighter than it should have been at this time of night. Alice shivered, partly from the cold, and partly from the eerie emptiness of the neighborhood.
The phone picked up on the second ring. “Chip Ellison. Who is calling?”
Alice wasn’t that surprised. Private investigation was a tough racket, she knew. Somebody trying to make a living needed to be ready for the call whenever it came. People who needed a PI weren’t always likely to have a preference for one of another, and would just go down the list in the white pages. “Hi Chip. My name is Joan. I need some help.” She offered a slight southern drawl. This would be easier if he didn’t know enough about her to track her down or turn her in to the cops if things went that way.
His voice was crisp, each syllable enunciated perfectly. “Hello, Joan. I’ll need to know a bit more about what sort of help you need, but I’m sure that if I can’t help you personally, I can direct you to someone who can. Can you tell me what you need?“
Alice smiled as she walked. She liked the sound of his voice. “I need to develop some film, Chip. I know I should go to a photographer, but I want someone discreet. Do you know anyone who can do that?”
There was a pause on the line, then he spoke, “I can probably do that, Miss Joan. I have a darkroom, but I have to tell you that I can’t be developing anything that’s illegal. There’s nothing illegal on your film, is there?”
“No, no. Nothing like that. I just, well it’s embarrassing. I have some rather personal photos on this roll of film. I can’t develop them myself, and I don’t want anyone else to see them,” Alice said. Not remotely true, but it would get the job done, she hoped.
“Uh huh. Well, listen. I charge my hourly rate. You want to set up a time to bring your film in, I can see you first thing in the morning. After that, I’m on a job for a few days. I could get them developed for you probably by next Tuesday.”
Alice couldn’t wait that long. And either way, she had to be at the Lucas house in the morning. “That isn’t going to work for me. Do you know anyone who can help me immediately?”
There was a barely audible sigh on the other end of the line. “No… the only other option I have is you could meet me tonight.” He paused again. “If you can come by in the next half hour, I’ll still be here. I can develop the film overnight and you’ll have it tomorrow.”
Alice smiled with her teeth. “I’ll be there.” She confirmed the address and hung up. She looked around. The snow was really coming down hard, and she wouldn’t be able to walk there in a blizzard. She called for a car. The app said she would be picked up in about five minutes. She hadn’t thought she would spend so much time waiting on the side of the road when she came here.
Alice looked up an down the street for a good place to stay out of the wind. Not seeing anything particularly inviting, she began walking toward the doorway to a small kitchen supply store. As she crossed the street, she caught a glimpse of the guy who walked in behind her in the coffee shop. He was walking the same way she was, but was staying a way back from her. It could be a coincidence, but Alice was wary all the same. She didn’t like the feeling she got from him, and she had grow accustomed to trusting her gut when it came to her safety.
He wasn’t looking at her, just trudging through the snow, not seeming to mind the cold, though he had his hands stuffed into his pockets. Alice leaned back against the wall of a building and reached behind her and up into her jacket where the blackwood dagger was sheathed. She felt the handle, comfortable and familiar, even through her gloves. She undid the clasp keeping it from sliding free as she leaned back against the brick.
The kid kept walking toward her, closer and closer, until, when he was a few feet from her, he looked over, seeming to notice her for the first time, and startled. He stepped sideways away from her, and then walked quickly past her, hunching his shoulders down and glancing back at her as he passed.
Alice let out a breath as he went by, watching him walk past her. And that is why she didn’t see the attack coming.