Ashley Bell ~ Chapter 68

In the parking lot, after she moved the Honda to have a clear view of the entrance to the restaurant, Bibi slouched behind the steering wheel and wished that she had a baseball cap. Twenty minutes later, Coy and the professor came outside and stood talking for a minute before shaking hands and parting. He went to his black Lexus, and she got into a Mercedes.

Starting the engine, Bibi figured she should follow one or the other, but then decided not to bother with either. Being a former cop, Chubb Coy would spot a tail in minutes. Wherever the professor was going, it was unlikely to be as revelatory as finding her here with this man. That they knew each other was enough to convince Bibi that they were in league against her and that she had been a topic—if not the topic—of their meeting. If later she needed to have a few words with Solange St. Croix, she knew where to find the bitch.

After the Lexus and the Mercedes were out of sight, Bibi sat for a while, thinking about coincidences. She didn’t believe in them. Could they have known where to find her? Could they have wanted to be seen? Could they be all-knowing masters of the universe in human form? “For God’s sake, Beebs,” she said, “you’re losing it.” Even if they knew what kind of car she was driving now, which they didn’t, they couldn’t have known she would be going to Norm’s until she got there. Anyway, she was certain she hadn’t been followed. But she still didn’t believe in coincidences.

From Norm’s, she went to three different branches of her bank and withdrew two hundred dollars from each ATM, bringing her supply of cash to $814. At a big-box

store, she purchased a disposable cell phone and an electronic map with GPS. She also bought a baseball cap and a pair of sunglasses in case she again needed to disguise herself a little.

In the parking lot, as she unlocked the Honda and put her purchases on the front passenger seat, she began to feel like a sly operator, slipping off the grid with the ease of a senior CIA agent.

Which was when someone behind her said, “Is that you, Bibi? Bibi Blair?”

Bibi swung around to confront a woman who was vaguely familiar, but no name came to mind. Maybe thirty. Lots of tumbling blond hair. Face as smooth and unlined as raw chicken flesh with the pebbly skin stripped off. Pert nose, porn-star lips. Teeth white enough to blind. A projecting bosom on which a line of crows could perch.

“Hope you haven’t gone too big-time literary to remember us little people, Gidget. It’s not even been six years.”

“Miss Hoffline,” Bibi said, not because she could confirm the woman’s identity from the visual clues, but because no one other than her eleventh-grade English teacher had ever called her Gidget.

“These days, it’s Marissa Hoffline-Vorshack. Married right at the top two years ago. His name’s Leopold. Real-estate development.”

Bibi almost said, If that’s his name, why aren’t you Marissa Hoffline-Development? Miss Hoffline, however, had been a world-class mistress of mean, capable of eviscerating you with such finesse that, if you were hurt by her sharp tongue, she could successfully argue that you had misunderstood either her intention or every word she’d said. Better not to get into

a pissing contest with her. Instead, Bibi said, “You look…really good.”

“Four years ago, I refreshed myself a little. Nice of you to notice.”

Before she had refreshed herself, Miss Hoffline had been a thirty-five-year-old brunette of the mouse-brown variety with crooked teeth and the chest of a sixteen-year-old boy. This transformation involved industrial plastic surgery, at least a quart of Botox, and more than a little voodoo.

“Of course I don’t teach anymore. Don’t have to. That’s my café-au-lait Bentley over there. But I always tell people,” said Mrs. Hoffline-Vorshack, “I was the first to recognize your talent.”

That was a crock and a half. She had focused more criticism on Bibi than she had on any of the other kids in the class, especially when the subject was her writing. Bibi had benefited from many good teachers in high school, but it was for one like this that kids had long ago invented spitballs.

As if Mrs. Hoffline-Vorshack saw a flash of resentment in her former student’s eyes, she said, “I was always a little hard on you, dear, just a little, because you needed some prodding now and then to reach your full potential.”

Bibi managed a smile that must have looked like that on a ventriloquist’s dummy. “I appreciate that. Well, nice to have seen you again.”

Leaning closer, so that her heroic bosom seemed about to topple her off balance, the woman said, “May I ask one question?”

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