Of course, they’d want to be in close for the kill.
Okay. It worked out. Liza raised her hand, causing a bit of a stir among the other contestants. The volunteer came to take her puzzle and then nodded almost imperceptibly toward the door in the rear.
It took Liza a moment to take the hint.
Well, duh. Why should I sit around here? Especially when the camera people probably want to film my exit?
Liza rose, trying not to make any noise and also avoiding eye contact with the camera. She went to the right-hand side of the pair of double doors, gently twisted the knob, pushed, and stepped through.
As the panel swung shut behind her, cutting off the camera’s view, Liza released a long-held breath.
The corridor outside the event rooms stood empty except for a tournament volunteer acting as hall monitor. Of course, with the doors opening to admit camera crews, both Will and Charley wouldn’t want any extraneous noise disturbing the contestants or the camera sound levels.
Liza heard a subdued murmur of voices coming from one end of the hallway. She followed the sound to the large open area in front of the Skye Room.
The doors to the ballroom were closed, but a good number of people had congregated in the anteroom—audience members who had stood in the rear for the original first round plus some of the contestants who’d given up. Liza recognized the potbellied guy Roche had interrogated after Ian Quirk collapsed.
Some people actually clapped as Liza arrived, and her cheering section quickly converged on her. “You’re the first person to come out here,” Kevin told her.
“Of course,” Michael pointed out, “there’s another way out from those rooms. That much we found out before they chased us away.”
“A TV camera crew came by and filmed us,” Mrs. Halvorsen said. “But then a young woman marched over and said we had to get out of there. We didn’t want to be a distraction for you.”
So somebody like Roy Conklin who hates crowds could just sneak off to the elevators and make a getaway with no fuss and no one the wiser,
On the other hand, I’d expect Babs Basset to come out here with a brass band to receive an ovation from her subjects.
And speak of the devil, who swept in at that moment but Babs herself. She looked a little put out seeing Liza already there, but managed a gracious enough response to the smattering of applause she received.
“It seems they were considerably more organized last year,” she shared with the room in general. “As soon as contestants submitted solutions, they were checked. So much more
, especially for the—”
Liza was almost certain the next word would be something like “peasants” or “nobodies.” But Babs came up with “first-time contestants” instead, although her tone made the other meanings crystal clear.
How nice—Babs worked in a double-barreled disparagement of the participants in the tournament and Will’s running it,
Liza thought, but she managed to keep her mouth shut.
Scottie Terhune appeared. Babs gave him a superior smile, but that curdled when he announced, “So this is where the party is! Guess I must have taken the long way around.”
True or not, Liza enjoyed watching the uncertainty about Scottie’s finishing time slip past Babs’s armor.
Some other new faces filtered in, then Gemma Vereker entered to general applause.
“Really,” Babs sniffed. “It’s not as if she set any records.”
But Gemma did finish in a respectable time,
Liza thought, and more people were glad to see her.
Michael consulted his watch and leaned close. “It’s seven-fifteen. Time’s up.”
The anteroom really began to fill as recently released contestants crowded in. Finally, Will Singleton made his way to the center of the growing mob scene. He pulled a sheet of paper from his portfolio.
“I’m pleased to announce that sixty contestants successfully solved the puzzle in the allotted time.”
“So few,” Babs murmured. Liza could have spit at this hypocritical concern for the “little people” Babs could care less about. “Doesn’t dear Will realize that odds like that can only discourage the casual viewers?”
“It doesn’t seem to hurt those poker programs,” Scottie pointed out. “They usually only concentrate on the top ten out of maybe a thousand entrants.”
“Poker.” Babs made the game sound too déclassé for words.
“Last year, only the top five contestants in five elimination rounds advanced to the finals,” Liza said. “That was probably the same proportion.”
Babs didn’t respond. In fact, she turned her back on Liza, all her attention on Will as he prepared to read out the names of the five top scorers.
Maybe it was the avid way Babs eyed Will and his portfolio, but Liza had a sudden flashback—a glimpse of the portfolio lying on the podium during the publicity get-together . . . and Babs pulling her hand back. At the time, Liza thought maybe Ms. Basset had been trying for an advance peek at the competition puzzle. Considering how things turned out at SINN’s Irvine headquarters, could she have gotten at the portfolio to mess up Will’s promotional puzzle?
Will held up the sheet of paper. “In first place, Roy Conklin.” That got a soft hiss from Babs. To tell the truth, Liza had a hard time not joining in.
“Next, Liza Kelly.” That was better—although not for Babs.
“Third, Scottie Terhune.” Babs’s hiss turned into something more like a groan.
“Fourth, Barbara Basset.” Babs didn’t mind leading a brief spatter of applause.
“And in fifth place, Dr. H. Dunphy.”
Babs straightened with a strangled,
At the same moment, a muscular guy popped out of the crowd, a malicious smile on his chiseled features. “Hey, Babs. Long time no see.”
Liza wished she knew this guy’s secret. For the first time since she’d met Babs, the woman stood speechless.
Michael took advantage of the silence to get a few words in. “The restaurant where this big hoedown is supposed to take place tonight is called Angus, so I guess we can expect some good steaks.”
Fergus Fleming appeared behind them. “That’s an American thing, to connect the name ‘Angus’ to beef,” he said. “Angus is the name of the ancient Celtic god of love. It’s also the name of our chef. And while you can indeed get a good steak at our restaurant, tonight we’re offering a traditional Scots feast.” He gestured expansively, his teeth showing white against his red beard. “We’re piping in the haggis!”
Liza hoped she had a good smile in place, because whenever she heard of something being “piped in,” she had a memory from her childhood days. Spending summers wandering all over Maiden’s Bay, she and her friends had discovered a giant pipe at one end of the beach. And when the tide receded to reveal an opening large enough to swallow them, they also discovered the stink of the area’s sewage being pumped out.
“Sounds like an adventure,” Liza said in a faint voice.
“Not for me.” Babs had gotten her voice back, and it was venomous. “They may have forced me to accept that man’s hospitality, but I will never share a meal with him.”
“What’s your trouble with Mr. Fleming?” Liza asked.
Babs continued to follow the big Scotsman with her eyes, her look getting more baleful as he stopped for an animated chat with Gemma Vereker and Will. “Oh, he may have a sort of surface Celtic charm, but that can lead to real trouble, believe me.”
“You could end up married to him,” Babs snapped. Then it was Liza’s turn to stand speechless as Babs Basset stormed off.
As soon as Babs was out of earshot, Liza began herding her friends in the opposite direction. “Come on. I want to go over some of that stuff Michelle sent us.”
Back upstairs in the suite, Liza went immediately to her laptop, calling up the data on Babs Basset. “What do you know? Hubby number three was Fergus Fleming.”
“Well, I missed that,” Michael admitted.
“Who would have been looking for it?” Mrs. Halvorsen wanted to know.
Liza got the phone. “I think that’s something Buck ought to know.”
When she got hold of him, though, she discovered he already knew. “I caught the name and looked into it. Seems Babs met Fleming while he was managing a hotel in Europe and married him. I guess she fancied herself a latter-day Ivana Trump. It didn’t last, though. And thanks to a sloppy prenup, Fleming actually came out of the divorce with a chunk of Babs’s change.”
“Which he apparently invested in Rancho Pacificano,” Liza said. “I remember him being introduced as the managing partner.”
“You got it,” Buck confirmed.
“Wow, no wonder Babs kept giving him dirty looks—especially when Fleming was with Gemma Vereker.”
Liza thought for a moment. “There’s another thing. A little while before that disaster of a publicity stunt, Will left his portfolio lying unattended—the portfolio holding all his puzzles. And I saw Babs standing nearby—moving away actually.”
“You think she might have been looking inside?” Buck asked.
“I think she was screwing around with the puzzle that was going to be on television,” Liza replied. “She’s out to sabotage Will’s standing with SINN.” She paused again. “And she may be striking at Fergus Fleming, too. He agreed to host the tournament because he figured it would be a showcase for Rancho Pacificano on nationwide television. Professionally speaking, it’s not the greatest publicity in the world to have a guest drop dead.”
“I dunno.” Buck sounded dubious. “If Fergus was the one who dropped dead, I could see more of a connection—more of a motive.”
“There’s something else I saw that was a little weird,” Liza went on. “When Will read off the list of the five top-scoring contestants, Babs sort of went into shock when she heard the last name—Dr. H. Dunphy. And then this guy approached her and said, ‘Long time no see.’ ”
Notebook pages flapped on the other end of the connection. “That’s not the name of any of the other previous husbands. Could he be an old boyfriend, maybe? Or someone else she screwed over?” Buck thought for a moment. “Maybe you’d be better off getting a line on him.”
“I’ll ask around this evening at the big dinner,” Liza promised. And with that decided, they ended the call.
“Ready to go?” she asked Michael.
“I was going to ask the same thing of these two,” he said with a smile. “Have you got someplace exciting you’re going to go zooming off to?”
“Not exactly zooming,” Mrs. H. reported, sounding a little disappointed. “We’re taking a taxi.”
“Some technical problems with the car,” Kevin said gruffly.
“You should have mentioned it earlier. I could have lent you the Honda.” Michael managed to rub salt in the wound even while sounding generous.
Liza grabbed his arm. “I think we’d better get moving.” As soon as they were out the door, she added, “After all, a moving target is harder to hit.”
Michael raised his hands. “All right, all right. I’ll be a good boy while you investigate.”
When they arrived down at Angus, Liza wasn’t sure she’d get in any investigating at all. She could hear the loud chattering well before they even got to the entrance of the closed restaurant. The maitre d’ stood barring the way until Liza passed over her invitation. Then she realized that according to the fancy printing on the heavy stock, they were already well into the cocktail hour.
Not that there were many cocktails in evidence. Spread along the bar she saw a row of bottles, all high-end single malt Scotch. Michael had a Macallan, neat. Liza determinedly ordered a ginger ale. “The last time I had a bit too much to drink, I wound up finding a dead body and entertaining the cops dressed only in a towel—and not much of a towel,” she muttered.
Michael sipped his whiskey. “From what I hear, they were very entertained.” He took a long breath. “Smooth, but potent. I’m not sure if this is for social lubrication, or to help get the Scottish cuisine down.”
Fergus Fleming appeared in the Highland version of black tie, wearing a short, black velvet jacket and a kilt in red, black, and yellow. “I’m a MacAlister on my mother’s side, so I’m allowed to wear the tartan,” he said, offering a professional glad hand. “You had us worried—we’ve had a few no-shows.”
“Ms. Basset,” Liza said.
Fleming’s lips compressed as he nodded. “And Mr. Conklin—apparently he doesn’t do well with large, lively groups, which we hope this will be. You’ll join me at the head table, along with Ms. Vereker and Mr. Singleton. After dinner, he’ll talk about where sudoku came from, where it’s going—”
He broke off with a quizzical glance at the drink in Li za’s hand. “Not traditional.”
“It is for Liza’s line of work.” Gemma Vereker appeared. “She’s expected to keep her head while her clients lush it up.”
From their similar florid complexions, she must have been matching him drink for drink.
After a little more chitchat, Liza went off in search of Will Singleton. She found him with a glass of whiskey in his hand, too.
“So, Will, do you want to tell me about this Dr. Dunphy guy?”
“You didn’t hear that story? I thought it was all over the sudoku world.”
“Contrary to rumor, Will, I don’t have spies everywhere.”
Will shrugged and gave her an owlish look. “Dr. Humphrey Dunphy taught economics and was the go-to guy on sudoku for the San Francisco media. He knew his stuff, but he talked like a college professor—and he was heavy.”
“But now Babs Basset is the Frisco queen of sudoku,” Liza said.
“Yeah.” Will took another sip. “First came the whispering campaign and a nickname—Humphrey Dumpy. Then Babs started insinuating herself with the local stations. And . . . you know. Whatever you think of her personality, she looks great on the screen.”
“She pushed him out of the spotlight,” Liza said.
Just as she’s trying to do to you, Will.
He shrugged. “Dunphy left town. Apparently he relocated to Phoenix and created a second act for himself. He lost weight, and now he’s back to compete in the tournament.” Will’s enunciation wasn’t as clear as it could be. Liza figured he’d better have a good meal before he got up to speak.