Ashley and Logan arrived in Mahony a little before noon. Logan dropped Ashley off at the big two-story Speedway supermarket two miles down the road from the entry to Montrose. While she picked up enough food to keep them for the next few days he continued to the development to meet the owner of the house himself, get the keys, see the woman off before picking up Ashley and bringing her back to the house.
At the Speedway Ashley focused on things that were ready to eat, or which wouldn’t require much preparation: deli packages, microwaveable meals. (They couldn’t plan on having much time to cook.) When she was ready to proceed to the check-out line she got a text from Logan telling her that the house was theirs, and by the time she was all paid up and the food bagged, he was waiting in the garage.
From there it was straight to Montrose. As Ashley had expected, the homes there were all built in the pattern of the house she saw in the photo attached to the rental ad online. (Masonry construction, horizontal lines, wide front porches, low-slung roofs with overhanging eaves.) And even more than she’d expected, the community gave an impression of affluent desolation. Apart from a brown truck delivering a parcel, they didn’t see any signs of life on their way to their particular house, no other vehicles moving through the streets, no people on the sidewalks.
Logan drove up to the gate of their house, used the fob on his new keychain to open it, then opened the garage (projecting forward from the house, to the left of the porch) and took them up the driveway inside. They put the perishables into the refrigerator, then started going through the house to secure it, following the same procedure they followed in their various hotel rooms, except that the house was considerably larger than the suites in which they had stayed. Only after they were done with that did they put away the rest of the groceries and accompanying items, pick out bedrooms for their use.
Ashley opted to settle in a bedroom up on the second floor. Like the rest of the rooms in the house it and the furniture in it (king-sized bed, a desk-and-chair set, a handsome rug on the floor) were decorated in pale, earthy colors, accented by touches of darker brown, tan or red. It didn’t have a skylight, as some other rooms did, but it did have a window that looked directly at the side of the house next door.
Logan popped by, told Ashley he was going to make another shopping trip; he wanted to put some wireless cameras on their perimeter. Ashley nodded without looking his way, her attention fixed on that other house. She spent some time studying its curtained windows for a bit, looking for any sign that despite what they were told it was in fact occupied. She didn’t catch anything of the kind but played it safe all the same, drawing her own window’s curtains to keep anyone from seeing inside, then sat at the desk, turned on her laptop and logged online. The house’s Wi-Fi proved happily functional, after which she began the long-awaited, long-planned game of reaching out to Todd.
Ashley started by setting up another account at Emily Madewell, this one intended not just for access to the profiles on the site, but for the approach to Mackelvore. Uploaded a digital photo, and her vital statistics, then set to work filling in the rest of her profile.
If Mackelvore’s choice of spouse (whose family was just as moneyed as his own), or the women he chose to talk to on the site (whose profiles likewise reflected the trappings of privilege, in their names, their schools, the clothes she saw them wearing in their pictures, the firms for which they worked), were anything to go by, his idea of fun did not include slumming. So it seemed best to approach him as a woman of his own class who looked and sounded the part in every way.
Ashley decided that Beth Ashford had the right ring to it, and typed that in under NAME.
She needed an education and job suitable to such a background. Still, a man who had experienced so much frustration likely didn’t want to risk dating a woman more successful than he was. Or whose education would imply that she was smarter than he was. (Not that he could say so openly in such a forum.)
Sure enough, the educations and occupations of the women whose profiles she saw fell within that happy mean, each of them holding a B.A. in some suitably innocuous major from a distinguished-sounding private college, with Jennifer a real estate agent, Shannon an interior decorator, Laura a buyer for a chain of boutiques.
Even if she had been in a position to tell the truth, a degree from Gotham wasn’t something to bring up here, Gotham being a cut above Astor in the prestige stakes. And while “art history” was apt to be sniffed at as a soft subject by certain types, it probably smacked too much of the intellectual. Her prior economics major was at least as bad in that respect, and even more intimidating in its implications for her career track. So she said she had a B.A. in Liberal Arts from Wellington College (just respectable enough, but no threat to someone with a B.S. in Biology from Astor U, let alone an M.D. from PCU), and claimed to be working as an account coordinator with a marketing firm in the city.
Todd gave no sign of looking for anything long-term, so Ashley said she was married but separated and well on her way to a divorce. Because she was young, because she didn’t have kids, because her alleged soon-to-be-ex appeared to be thinking along the same lines, he could be that much more optimistic that despite what she said the other man wouldn’t blunder back into her life, that for the time being she’d stay alone in that big apartment in which he’d left her behind.
The essentials entered, Ashley finally pinged him, and felt very strange. All her life she’d been content to let men make the advances, to accept or reject those advances as suited her. Now she was putting herself out there, and not at all certain that the man she was approaching would respond. According to Logan Mackelvore got his fair share of contacts, and so she couldn’t take it for granted that he’d jump at hers. Besides, for all they knew, his interest in meeting women on the site may have waned, because of prior disappointments, because he’d found an offline way to get what he was after, because maybe something had come up that was leaving him with less time for such pursuits . . .
All the same, he did get in touch with her, which proved another nerve-wracking experience. Chatting with him she found herself constantly anxious that she’d say the wrong thing, scare him off, with the scarcity of cues in the online chat amplifying those anxieties. But despite what seemed like a dozen possible conversation-ending gaffes he went on talking with her all the same.
Todd suggested they meet Tuesday night at the bar of a place called the Trilby. (A quick check of the web site showed it to be a century-old French Renaissance Revival luxury hotel downtown that reminded her a bit of the Plaza back in New York. There were pictures of the bar, which was all wood and mirrors and brass.)
Ashley agreed, and then spent the two days until then getting ready for their “date.” The first order of business was getting the car, so on Monday morning she repeated the routine she’d practiced back in Maryland, finding a suitable local dealership and buying a used vehicle for cash, a silver Audi sedan in this case—somewhat more conspicuous than the hatchback, but better suited to the role she was playing. (The role. That was how she had to think of it, she knew, playing seductress being so out of character for her.)
The second was figuring out the route she’d take to and from the hotel. Speed was at a premium, of course, and so she studied the available maps, and the comments people had to offer about the various trips for the things maps did not easily convey, like the weight of the traffic at particular times of day. She had to think, too, of where she’d park the car, and how she’d get him into the vehicle, and then what exactly she’d do with him while he was in there.
The ideal thing was to drive the route, but she didn’t want her car to be noticed in the area prior to that date. She did decide that she could get away with going herself if she was discrete. Of course, there was virtually no bus or rail service extending out to Mahony, the bus stop nearest the house over a mile away and covered by a single, infrequently running bus line that ran even less frequently at night. So Monday night she drove her car just far enough into the city to better access the mass transit system and checked the area out on foot, from underneath a large hat, a pair of big darkly tinted glasses, and a figure-concealing coat to ward off the cold.
The third was figuring out how she would array herself. Ashley decided to go with a long green evening dress that left her shoulders bare. It was a bit on the dressy side, she admitted to herself, but she didn’t think Todd would object, and certainly it sent the message she wanted it to far better than any more business-like attire.
The dress had no pockets, of course, so she had to carry everything in her purse, but fortunately she didn’t need to bring very much with her Tuesday night when Ashley made her way to the meeting.
Walking through the door she scanned the room and didn’t see anyone who looked like Todd. She supposed she’d come in first, so she continued to the bar, all the while watching for signs that someone was keeping a lookout for her. (There was a possibility, however remote, that Todd knew who she was, and meant to lead her into a trap.) She didn’t spot anything amiss by the time she reached it, so she took a seat, slipped out of her coat and ordered a white wine spritzer from the bartender to placate the staff and keep up appearances. She didn’t dare risk getting drunk, however, so she had it brought to her with lots of ice, and took only the tiniest sips.
“I’m sorry to have kept you waiting,” a man’s voice said from next to her just a moment afterward.