Romantic Mystery Novel
a whodunit by Barbara W. Klaser
|There's a little bit of sleuth in everyone....
Shadows Fall is a romantic mystery set in an old, closed mountain resort, in the Sierra Nevada of California.
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Beth lay on the ground, blinking up at the sky, the trees, and Matt's anxious face. She blinked a couple more times, then started to sit up.
"Damn it, Beth, lie down. You just fainted. How long were you in there?"
"I don't know. We left Leigh's at three-thirty. Does Abby seem terribly frightened to you?"
"She seemed okay. You're the one who worries me."
"Abby was scared until she knew you were coming back to let us out. Matt, Abby found a new doll in there. She was playing with it when I reached the door. Someone pushed me from behind with the door. They must've seen Abby run in. When Abby wandered in there on Friday, the shed was dirty, full of trash. Now someone's cleaned it and washed the windows. What do you make of that?"
He watched her and said nothing.
"What time is it?"
He glanced at his watch. "Almost five."
She sat up and looked at the shed. "The son-of-a-bitch lured Abby in there and locked her in with me. Why would anyone do that to her, even if they hate me?"
"Why did anyone ever do it? You were younger than she is when it started. God, someone loves to see you scared. I'd forgotten how this fear is for you, it's bigger than I remembered." He watched her with a pensive look.
She glanced at the shed again, feeling it's proximity too keenly. "I don't see how you could forget. It was supposed to be my motive. Can we go now? I need to get away from here."
"Wait a few more minutes." He was silent for a moment, watching her face. Then he said, "It wasn't Ollie, you know, back then," Matt said.
"What do you mean?"
"Ollie played his little pranks, sure. But the worst of them weren't his doing. Someone else terrorized you all those years, doing this kind of thing. Ollie wasn't this diabolical." He nodded his head in the direction of the shed again.
"Dad was certain it was Ollie."
"Dad was wrong!" Matt looked angry, then he softened. "Owen knew Ollie better than anyone, and he says Ollie didn't pull all those pranks. He had a crush on you, he wanted to get your attention. Ollie teased you, but once he realized how panic-stricken you were by being locked up, he didn't do it again. When he pushed you into the lake that day, it was intended as a harmless prank. He knew you were a strong swimmer. It was someone else who terrorized you, Beth, and it looks as if they're still at it."
He nodded toward the shed, and Beth shivered. "Ollie didn't do this, and he didn't lock you in your bathroom on Sunday. He's dead."
"Has Owen ever told you why he lied in court about seeing me shoot Ollie?"
Matt looked disgusted. He rocked back on his heels, holding the crowbar upright. "He didn't lie, Beth."
"Yes, Matt, he did. I didn't shoot him."
"You admitted it. Don't start denying it now, not to me. Save it for Mom."
"What do you mean I admitted it?"
"Your confession to the parole board. I know all about that. Owen's father was there, remember? You told them you shot Ollie. You described it in detail, and you wept."
Her tears were instantaneous.
Matt pushed himself up, and turned away.
She stood and moved around to face him. "Matt, I would've said anything to get out of prison by then. Anything! It was my third try. So I lied. I told them I killed Ollie. I'm not proud of it, and it's one of the most difficult things I've ever done. And yes, I cried. You have to know how desperate I was. Matt, look at this!" She held her bloody right hand out to him. "I would've done anything to get out. Anything!"
She sat down with her back against a tree and her knees drawn up, to work the choking sobs and the aching tears out of her system.
A moment later, Beth sniffed. She must be a sight. Dan wouldn't recognize her. This was not Liz Palmer behavior. Liz Palmer lived in another world, and she never cried.
The sun would dip behind the mountains soon. The breeze was already cooling. She felt the chill of approaching dark in her fingers, and her right hand ached. Matt came over and offered his hand, pulled her to her feet, then stood facing her.
"Tell me again that you didn't do it." His eyes shone, steady on hers, his lashes wet and unwavering. He waited.
She returned his gaze. "I didn't kill Ollie."
"Then how can you stand to speak to me, knowing I helped send you away?"
She almost smiled, she was so relieved. "Why were you so nice to me, before? You've been extremely brotherly in the past twenty-four hours for someone who thought I killed his friend."
"I never wanted to believe you did it, or that Owen lied, or that what I said in court could help convict you if you were innocent. Beth, I'm sorry about the things I said at the trial. I've been sorry since I testified."
"You were eleven years old and you told the truth, though it hurt to tell it. I knew that at the time. I thought you were an awfully brave kid. It sounds crazy, considering where I stood, but I was proud of you."
He released a dry laugh. "You're right, that does sound crazy."
"You're right about one thing. Someone is still terrorizing me, and Ollie's dead."
He looked down, placed a hand behind her shoulder and turned her toward the Lodge. "You're terrorizing me. You're bleeding again. You act like you don't even feel it." He gently raised her bleeding hand and made her hold it against her chest.
He went on talking, and mentioned being ashamed he'd never taken a first aid course, if he really wanted to be a doctor, so he'd know how to handle a situation like this. "This doesn't make me look promising."
"You want to be a doctor?"
"I start med school soon, at UCSD."
"I wonder why Mom didn't tell me. I didn't know you'd gone back to school until I got here. Last I heard you were working at the Stevens' garage."
They started back to the Lodge.
Peter met them at the edge of the parking lot and guided Beth to his camper.
He frowned at her hand, then glanced in the direction from which they'd come. "What happened?"
"Someone locked her in the bike-shed with Abby," Matt said. "She fainted after I got them out."
Peter glowered at Matt, and the crowbar. Then he met Beth's gaze.
"I cut my hand breaking the window." She sounded like her portable radio when the batteries were low. She couldn't get the damned quiver out of her voice.
"Where's Abby now?"
"With Rita. I protected her from flying glass with my sweater, but I'd like you to see her too, just to be sure."
She sat on the back step of his camper while he applied a temporary bandage. He finally turned to Matt. "Did you call the sheriff?"
Matt looked at Beth uncertainly. "Faith might've."
"The son-of-a-bitch locked my little girl in there with me!" Beth clenched her fists, and winced. Now her hand hurt.
"Easy," Peter said. "Ride to my office with me and I'll take care of this there." He guided her toward the cab of his truck.
The sickening, suffocating feeling returned. Beth broke into a sweat. "Peter. I—" She eyed the cab of his truck, reminding herself she'd ridden in it just yesterday. Today everything was different. "There's Dad's office. Mom cleaned it yesterday." Her voice, high-pitched with tension, reminded her of Abby in the shed. Beth felt queasy.
"My office will be better," Peter told her. "I have everything I need there."
"Come on, Beth," Matt urged. He promised to call the sheriff and check on Abby.
Peter urged her toward the cab.
Later, Peter sat on a stool in his office, giving Beth's numbed hand his solemn attention. She watched his eyes and began to realize what a crazy thing she'd done. "I really messed up, Peter."
"You were foolhardy. But there's no serious damage to your hand. Relax. This is what I do best. Now that I think of it, that's something you and I have in common. We both like to sew."
She managed a shaky smile, followed by tears. "None of this was supposed to touch Abby, ever. I wanted to protect her from this fear. I should never have brought her here."
"Tell me what happened."
She sniffed, blinked away tears, and told him. He remained silent, his attention on her hand. By the time he'd cleaned, stitched and bandaged her cuts, she'd related the whole story. He was about to add a splint to the dressing he'd devised.
"Is that really necessary?" she asked.
"I'm assuming you want the same hand you started out with. If you were going for a new look, I could've been creative myself and added a flounce or a ruffle, maybe some mother-of-pearl buttons, but I usually stick with what nature intended."
She fixed him with what she believed was her most baleful glare. "I don't expect you to understand."
He provided a sling, and she chewed her lip but said nothing. He inspected her scraped chin for splinters, then began cleaning up. "I need to check your hand within forty-eight hours. That's really necessary. The stitches come out in ten days."
She thanked him and asked what she owed him.
"No charge." He didn't look up.
"Of course there's a charge, Peter."
"I don't want you to pay me." He met her gaze. "I've told you, I don't want to be your doctor. I want another kind of relationship with you. But I couldn't very well leave you to take your bloody hand clear to McGuffey because I felt more like kissing you than stitching you up."
Mollified, she watched his steady blue eyes. He felt like kissing her? She wished he would.
He moved to the window and lifted a slat in the blinds. "Do you mind talking to the sheriff?"
"He'll send one of the younger deputies, who'll act nervous, write everything down and do nothing."
"You don't think he'll be concerned about Abby?"
"I don't know." She stood and looked down at the flimsy paper gown. "This is a bit airy."
"I'll call Matt." He went out to his front office.
She waited. What time was it? Why didn't she ever remember to wear a watch? She cast the privacy curtain aside and searched for a clock. There wasn't one. She picked up her bloodstained sweater, wondering whether it was a total loss. It was a favorite, patterned with purple and gray swirls. She'd knitted it by hand from Shetland wool during some of those endless, sleepless nights. She shook the sweater and a shard of glass fell onto the floor. She cursed and flung the sweater away from her.
The sweater landed at Emily's feet as she entered. "Beth? How are you feeling?" She picked up the sweater.
"Careful, that's full of bits of glass." Beth pointed at the shard on the floor. Emily picked it up and put it in the trash.
"Here, I brought clean clothes, and I'll drive you home. Peter says he'll follow us, and see Abby. But Rita says Abby's fine. Matt went with Duane to look at the shed."
Emily closed the privacy curtain. Beth donned the clean sweater and pants as quickly as she could, which wasn't fast, because of the splint and the numbness. She whipped the curtain open so suddenly she startled her mother. "I need to go for a run."
"Don't be silly. You don't go running after you've fainted."
"Who made up that rule?"
"Try to relax." Emily tucked Beth's arm into the sling.
Beth fought back fresh tears and the urge to take out her anger on her mother. She was silent during the drive. The look on Abby's face when she'd seen Beth sprawled on the floor of the shed, the nightmares and all the times she hadn't been a normal, comforting, responsible mother piled up in Beth's mind like dark clouds building for a storm.
Peter followed. When they arrived, Beth waved him up the stairs and remained in the lobby with the doors wide open, still not ready to face Abby. What would she say to her?
Emily returned with Beth's sweater. "I believe I can get the blood out of this. It's too lovely not to make the attempt. Perhaps you should go upstairs and be with Abby while the doctor—"
"He's more fit to be with Abby than I am."
"Beth, how can you say that? You hardly know him."
"Hey." Jack came in and closed the door. His gaze fell on Beth, shifted to the sling, and the corners of his mouth twitched. "What happened to you?"
"Mom can explain. I need to get cleaned up." Beth ducked past him out of the room.
Minutes later, Peter entered the kitchen and poured himself a cup of coffee. It was hot, fresh and strong. He stood sipping it, debating whether to go shower and change before dinner or to stick around and hear what Duane had to say.
"Appears she'll mend," Faith said. "It won't surprise me when she leaves, after this. She wouldn't have, before, but she's changed."
Peter turned silently to look at Faith. She faced the stove, fanning herself with a dishtowel. Peter wondered if she'd ever ignited a towel that way, or blown out the gas flame.
The back door opened and Matt and Duane came in, along with a chilly gust. Matt shut the door hard and removed his jacket.
"I'll ask Abby again about that doll," Duane said. "Maybe she brought it back with her.
"She told you she didn't. Don't treat her like an idiot, Duane. They took the lock. Why risk coming back at all if they were going to leave the doll behind?"
"Why didn't you hold onto the lock and the doll?"
"I wanted to get Beth away from there," Matt said. "I wasn't thinking about evidence. Besides, you're always harping about fingerprints. If I had thought of it, I wouldn't have wanted to touch anything."
"Why clean the shed?" Duane said. "That's nuts."
"It's someone who plans things out," Peter said. "Both times, they prepared in advance and waited for the opportunity to trap Beth. The window nailed shut and the doorknob rigged on the bathroom door. The doll, and a padlock nobody had a key to. How did they know Abby would be interested in the shed?" He looked at Matt.
"What doorknob?" Duane asked.
"You're right, Peter." Matt sat backwards on a chair and draped his arms over the back rest. He glanced at Duane. "Oh. Beth got locked in her bathroom Sunday night, before dinner."
"Why didn't anyone tell me? I thought she acted like she didn't feel well, at dinner. She'd been too quiet and she didn't eat, and I thought, the way your Mom always fusses like she's afraid Beth will relapse or something...." He looked at Peter. "Where is Beth?"
"Upstairs," Peter said. He refilled his coffee and sat down at the table.
Duane did the same. He placed his notepad on the table, pencil poised. "Matt, who has a key to the shed?"
"Everybody in the family."
"And me," Faith said from the stove.
"I meant you, Faith, when I said family. We all have keys. You know that, Duane. Holly has keys."
"To all but the tower and gun cabinets." Matt glanced at Peter. "Remind me to show you the tower sometime, when Beth's not around. We're supposed to keep it locked while she's here. I guess you don't hunt, do you?"
"I learned to shoot when I was a kid, but killing fish is the furthest I go these days," Peter said.
Matt nodded. "We had to learn to shoot. Dad insisted. He used to stage shooting matches, have us compete with each other. Mom said we were competitive enough, that he didn't need to bring weapons into it. Rita was still too small to learn by the time Dad died." Matt nodded toward the hall door. "She always won the matches."
Peter looked that way just as Beth entered and took the chair beside Matt.
"Beth, what happened at the shed?" Duane said.
She described the entire incident while Duane took notes on his yellow pad.
"Did Abby leave the unknown doll in the shed?"
"She had one of her own dolls in her arms just before Matt opened the door, but I didn't see what she took with her. Ask Abby. She may not know where her sweater or shoes are most of the time, but she keeps track of her dolls."
"She says she left it in the shed," Duane said. "Now the doll and the padlock are gone. Beth, why didn't you tell me you were locked in the bathroom the other night?"
Beth stared at him for a second. "I didn't think of it. But someone lured Abby into the shed today. I want to know who did this."
"Do you mind if I talk to Abby again?" Duane said.
Matt jumped up. "I'll get her."
"Have her bring the dolls she had with her today," Duane told him. Matt nodded and ran up the stairs.
Faith placed a steaming mug in front of Beth. "Chamomile."
"Faith, did you hear Beth yell?" Duane asked.
"Matt and I both heard the glass break, and the shouting. It took him a few minutes to figure out which direction the sounds came from."
"How long had Matt been in the kitchen?"
"An hour or so, studying and eating, with Rita going in and out teasing him. She was in the laundry room when the shouting started."
"Who else was home?" Duane asked. "Do you know?"
Faith shrugged, with her back to him, working as she talked. "Ms. Gray walked through once this afternoon. She was on her way out."
"Out?" both Duane and Peter said at once.
Faith turned slowly and looked at each of them. "Out that door." She pointed at the back door. "The only door I notice when I'm working. I haven't seen her since."
"How soon after Emily left did you hear Beth?"
"Duane." Beth frowned at him with her mouth open.
"It's a reasonable question, Beth," Duane said, holding her gaze for a second.
"About a half-hour," Faith said, watching Beth.
"Beth, how long were you in the shed before you broke the window?" Duane asked.
"I don't know."
"You weren't wearing a watch?"
"No." Beth frowned at her tea.
Peter watched Duane make notes. Matt returned with Abby, and returned to his chair. Abby sat beside Beth, across from Duane, and arranged two cloth dolls in her lap.
"Abby, tell me again about the doll you found in the shed. Do you know where it is now?" Duane said.
"Where did you see it last?"
She looked at her mother, then turned back to Duane. "I left the other doll there. It wasn't mine."
"How do you know which dolls are yours? How are yours different from the other doll?"
"Mommy made my dolls. That other one is hard. Mine are squashy, and mine have regular clothes. They're like people, and they have names."
"May I see your dolls?" Duane asked.
Abby handed them over. "That's Rosemary, and that's Constanza. Mommy names them."
Duane grinned, touched the embroidered faces, and fingered the yarn hair. "Cute, Beth. And squashy. The faces are realistic, for homemade dolls. Nice eyes." Duane handed the dolls back to Abby and made notes. "Okay, who else was there, Abby, besides you and Mommy?"
"Uncle Matt came and talked to us. Then he went away. Then he came back. He opened the door, and Aunt Rita was with him." Her voice lilted, as if Aunt Rita's appearance had been magic.
"Was anyone else there?"
She glanced at Beth, who watched Duane. "Just Mommy."
"Did you see who put the other doll in the shed?"
"Did you see who pushed Mommy and closed the door?"
"Beth, do you remember what the other doll looked like?"
"It's a hard plastic little-girl doll, as opposed to a baby doll or a fashion doll. It's about eighteen inches high with blue eyes that open and close, and curly blonde hair. It's dress is pink organza, with a ruffled white tulle and lace petticoat. The dress had a full, gathered skirt, and short puffed sleeves. There was a tiny dark smudge on its nose. Now that I think of it, although I assumed it was new, it was a type that was made several years ago, and the plastic was slightly discolored, as if with age."
Duane was making notes as fast as he could, and when Beth finished he looked flustered. "That's quite a description."
Faith came over. "Mind if I ask a question?"
"Go ahead," Duane said.
Faith spoke to Beth. "The first day you were here, you came in from walking with Abby and told us she'd run into the bike-shed and wanted to play there. Your mother, Vicky, Jack, Rita and I were here in the kitchen."
"Yes," Beth straightened a little in her chair. "Abby thought it would make a fun playhouse. I said so when I came in."
"Well, I'm wondering who else Abby told about this playhouse she'd found. She's been everywhere with your sisters and your mother in the past few days, to town and to church. If Matt thought he could cut that lock off with bolt cutters, why couldn't anyone? Maybe that's why they needed a new lock. Could even explain why the bolt cutters were missing when Matt looked for them. This didn't have to be someone with a key."
"That wouldn't explain Beth's bathroom," Matt said.
"Since when does anyone here lock doors?" Faith said. "The place is unlocked when I arrive in the morning and you're all asleep. I rarely need to use my key. There are times in this big empty place that I hardly know whether anyone is home or not, and it would've been easy for someone to come in and see which rooms were being prepared for guests and, in this case, which was the adult's. It seems to me, rather than asking who has a key, you should be asking who would most like to see Beth leave this vicinity, too frightened to ever show her face again. Now, who would that be?"
"Ollie Stevens' family," Peter said, half to himself.
"Right." Faith looked at Matt, who glanced angrily around the room but said nothing.
"The only family left is Owen," Duane said to Beth. "Tom passed away a couple of years ago."
"Mommy, can I go play?" Abby asked.
Beth deferred to Duane.
"Just one more question, Abby. Did you tell anyone besides Mommy that you wanted to use the shed as a playhouse?"
She nodded. "Robin. She has dolls too. And Aunt Holly."
"Thank you, Abby."
"Go ahead and play with Aunt Rita, honey," Beth said.
Duane turned to Matt. "Does Owen know Beth is here?"
Matt shifted, glanced at Beth, and nodded. "I told him."
"A week before she arrived. Right after Mom told us."
"How did he react?"
Matt glanced at Beth. "Owen cursed and called her a few names. Then he said he wants to talk to her."
Peter leaned forward. "Why?"
"I don't know. I told him it wasn't a good idea. When I saw him Friday night, he said it again. I told him to stay away from her."
Duane stood up. "I'll talk to him."
Matt got to his feet. "Owen didn't lock them in the shed."
"Someone did, and Faith's right. He's got the most reason to, or thinks he does."
"Duane, let me talk to him. He trusts me. I'll find out where he was today, and why he's so anxious to see Beth." Matt grabbed his jacket off the hook.
"Let him, Duane, please," Beth said.
Duane looked at her for a few seconds, then nodded at Matt. "I guess it can't hurt to let you have first crack at him." He followed Matt out.
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Copyright (c) 2001 Barbara W. Klaser. All rights reserved