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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"Evening, Beth." Les looked at Beth's face and wished he'd listened to Duane. She wasn't a suspect this time, they should've waited until morning. Still, maybe this surprise visit would be the push it took to get her to leave and stay away. She wasn't safe to have around.
She straightened. The scared-kid look vanished. "Good evening, Sheriff, Duane." She nodded at each of them.
How did she get from one extreme to the other so fast, from the trapped look to that of the sophisticated woman of means? He shook his head, and focused on her chin. It wasn't much of a scrape, and only slightly bruised. Maybe she'd covered it with makeup.
She looked good, Les had to admit. She wore slim-fitting berry colored slacks, which sheathed her endless legs. Her beguiling, velvety chenille sweater outlined her breasts and showed a lot of neck and shoulder. His gaze fell on the bottle of wine and the candles.
"This doesn't look like a social call, Les," Gabriel said.
"We need more information from Beth about what happened yesterday. We called the Lodge, and Vicky said Beth was here. I hope we aren't interrupting anything," he said pointedly.
"We just finished dinner."
Les turned to Beth. "Duane needs a picture of that bruise, and we'd like to show your little girl the drawing you made of the doll."
She raised a hand to her chin.
"Abby's at the Lodge, with Rita," Gabriel said, moving to Beth's side.
"That can wait until tomorrow," Les said to Beth. "Duane needs to go over the scene with you and her anyway."
Beth appeared to study him for a few seconds.
Les went on, "We'll just get that picture, for the record."
She shot him a rueful smile, touching her chin again. "I did far worse to myself."
He glanced at the bandaged hand, then at her chin, and he couldn't help focusing on the sparkling studs in her earlobes. Diamonds?
After Duane took the Polaroid shots, Gabriel moved toward the front door, clearly intending for them to leave. Les hung back in the living room, looking at some photographs in a big, framed collage mat on the wall. There were pictures of Jay Handley, his wife Alison, Gabriel, his sister Kelly, Rita and Emily, Kelly's husband Dave, and their older son, and one of Beth as a girl. There was one of a grownup Beth too, with a baby.
"Is this your daughter?" Les said.
She moved to his side. "Yes, that's Abby. My mother must've given that to Jay."
"Do you have a recent picture of her?"
"In my purse. I'll get it." She paused. "Will you need to keep it?"
Les nodded. "For the file." He glanced at Duane, and shrugged. He wanted to see the kid. It would help him take this more seriously, now that he knew he should.
She brought the snapshot to him, he looked at it briefly, and passed it to Duane. "Thank you, Beth." He started for the door, then stopped so suddenly Duane bumped into him. "One more thing," he said, ignoring Duane's mumbled apology.
"Yes?" Beth said.
"Do you know if a report was filed with the Sheriff's Office, the time you were locked in that closet when you were three?"
She stared at him, eyes wide. Her mouth opened a little. The scared kid returned.
Gabriel came over and stood beside her with his hand on her shoulder. "Why are you asking about that?"
Les raised his hand. "Please, let her answer."
"I don't know," she said softly. "I don't remember it. Why?"
"I just learned about it myself. I was a deputy at the time, and I don't recall hearing of anything like that associated with the Lodge or the Grays. I can't find any record of a report. I wondered if you knew, since it appears there may be a connection between that and what happened yesterday." He moved toward the door again. "We'll ask your mother."
She followed him. "What connection?"
"Your mother recognized the doll."
She went white, instantly. "She ..." Her voice was a faint whisper. She blinked. "What do you mean?"
"She said it was a doll your father bought for your third birthday. It disappeared, when you disappeared that day, only it didn't turn up when you did. Your mother found it years later, after your father died, in his storeroom. She threw it away. Now apparently it's surfaced again."
"If Emily threw it away, how could it show up yesterday?" Gabriel said.
"What does it mean?" Beth said.
"That's what I'd like to know." Les turned and faced her. "A lot of people don't want you here, Beth. You and your little girl might be safer if you left."
She met his look head on. "This is my home. It's where I was born, and where I grew up. I have a right to be here now."
"It's also where Ollie Stevens was born. Rights don't change how people feel, Beth, and people worked up some powerful feelings about you killing him. I can't protect you from that."
"Sheriff Kendall, I came here to spend time with my mother, to let Abby know her grandmother. I've been staying away from town and anyone outside the family who might be offended by my presence. Someone is violating my rights and my daughter's rights, and I expect you to do something about it, to do your job. I've helped my mother pay her taxes in this county for several years now. You work for me, too."
Les felt himself mentally back away from her look. He nodded at her and Gabriel, meeting their eyes only briefly. "Good evening." He went out the door, leaving Duane to close it.
He walked down the gravel driveway, passing the white Mercedes on the passenger side. He stopped when he saw the word MURDERER scrawled along the side of the car, illuminated by the bright yard light. "Damn it all to hell!" Les turned from the infuriating red letters and glared at Duane. "What's the matter with her? Why doesn't she turn and run, like any sane person would if they knew everyone in town wanted them gone?"
Duane shrugged. "The way she sees it, they painted the wrong car."
"The hell you say!" Les strode to the Blazer. As soon as Duane closed the passenger-side door, Les put it in gear and the tires dug into the gravel.
"That business about the doll upset you," Gabriel said, beckoning Beth back to the sofa. "And Les Kendall. Why'd he have to come here tonight?"
"It wasn't him."
Gabriel chuckled. "I liked what you said, about him working for you. The look on his face was priceless."
"I shouldn't have spoken to him that way." She sat beside him and he moved closer, putting his arm around her.
"What was it like for you, in prison?"
Why was Gabriel bringing that up? She'd talked about it to Peter, but he'd never treated it like anything out of the ordinary. After all, it was the first thing Peter had known about her.
"It was humiliating, demoralizing, depressing, and wasteful. I tried to make the best of it. I spent my energy on keeping my mind occupied, convincing myself I still had a future."
"You weren't afraid?"
She met his look. "Everyone was afraid. I was there for murder. Some people must've been afraid of me."
Gabriel huffed. "Your mom told me you worked on a business degree."
"I didn't complete it. I didn't think it would matter if the only job I could get was waiting tables and, as it turned out, with Dan it didn't matter either. When Dan decided he couldn't live with me, he gave me half his business, like he was paying off an expensive whore."
"That's bullshit, Beth. He must've thought you could hold up your end of the deal. He wouldn't have risked half his business otherwise, would he?"
He touched her shoulder, pressed her closer, and kissed her lightly on the lips. Then he drew back and studied her face.
"Gabriel, I'm not thinking straight right now. I need some time to think, to clear my mind." She realized she was thinking about Peter and fell silent.
"You used to call me Gable."
She met his searching look.
"I can give you time, Beth, if that's what you need."
She could only look at him, cautious.
"If I'd been here, instead of in New Zealand, would you have attempted suicide?"
"I can't answer that, Gable. I felt ... lost." Beth stood up. "I really should get back. It's past Abby's bedtime—"
"Beth." He stood beside her. "I'd like to spend Saturday with you and Abby."
"We have plans for Saturday. Maybe next week sometime."
He took a moment to answer, his expression clouded. "I want to see you as often as I can while you're here." He moved closer. The lamplight in his eyes made them look like pools of water. She could recall a time when she'd wanted to dive in and lose herself in him.
"I want to try this again." He tilted his head and kissed her, long and deeply.
It would've been simple if all she could think of was Peter when he did that. It would've been easy to stop if she didn't feel anything, but she did. This had been her most cherished dream, at seventeen. This man, Gabriel, whom she'd known all her life, but never known as a woman. She abandoned herself to the feeling of being wrapped in his arms, possessed by his lips.
She pulled away, eventually, and Gabriel took something out of his pocket. His mother's ring, a garnet rose with emerald leaves, set in a filigreed band of antique gold. Beth had worn it when she was sixteen, seventeen—a lifetime ago—until the night she'd handed it to her mother for safekeeping. The last time she'd worn it was the night Ollie Stevens was killed.
"I want you to think about wearing this again, Beth."
She gaped at the ring, and then at him.
"I said think about it. That's all. I don't expect you to answer me now. Just give me a chance to get close to you again." He kissed her again, releasing a low moan, and he left her feeling breathless, her body wanting to go places she wasn't sure her heart could follow.
She felt like a fraud not explaining about Peter. She really should, and she didn't. More secrets.
She remembered too vividly, falling into the lake wearing the heavy gold ring, which had fit her finger too loosely. Submerged in the cold water, she'd felt it slip and had curled her fingers to hold it. She'd filled with rage not only for the watch her father had given her, but also for this ring, which had nearly been lost. She'd told Ollie she hated him and if he came near her again she'd kill him.
"Don't waste your breath. I got your love note," Ollie sneered, and Owen and Vicky laughed behind him while Gabriel's sister Kelly helped Beth out of the cold water. Less than twelve hours later she'd found Ollie lying in a meadow in the moonlight, dead.
The memory chilled her. She backed away from Gabriel.
When Beth arrived at the Lodge, it was still lit up, but inside it was quiet. She went straight to her room and found a note on her door from Rita, saying Abby was sleeping in Rita's room.
Sleep eluded Beth until the early morning hours, when she dozed fitfully, only to waken shortly after dawn. She dressed in running clothes and crept down the stairs.
Minutes later, she dashed out into the first rays of sunlight. The clear morning air filled her lungs, and her legs carried her in long strides along the lake road. Her confusion left her. She moved and breathed, stretching her legs as far and as fast as they'd go. The shadow of her fear didn't snap at her heels out here. It couldn't move fast enough. It lived in tight, airless, hidden places, not out here in the open and the light. The landscape swept past her, the road raced beneath her feet, the trees soared above her head. She felt unfettered and truly alive.
Peter approached the turn to the Handley ranch and spotted Gabriel seated on his porch drinking from a mug. Peter parked in front of the house and got out.
"Morning," Gabriel called. "What brings you here so early?"
Peter climbed the porch steps. "I was in the neighborhood; I used to stop by and visit your dad."
Gabriel nodded. "Coffee?"
"I'd love some."
Gabriel brought him a cup and returned to the wicker love seat. Peter sat in the chair arranged at a right angle to Gabriel's. "Sun feels good."
"How's Nora doing these days? She still selling computers for that outfit in Auburn?"
"Yep. Works out of her dad's house now."
Peter hesitated, wondering if he was about to go too far. "I heard a rumor you two are getting married."
Gabriel shifted in his seat, and the wicker creaked. He didn't look happy. "Things are up in the air right now, with Nora and me. See, Beth and I used to be engaged, and Nora's not too thrilled about Beth's visit." He looked into Peter's eyes. "She was here, last night, for dinner."
Peter glanced away and sipped his coffee.
"We had a visit from the sheriff."
Peter leaned forward. "Les came to see Beth, here?"
Gabriel nodded. "It upset her more than she let on. I think something happened to her, in prison. She's ... more subdued." He frowned at his coffee cup. "She's changed."
"Of course she's changed," Peter said impatiently.
Gabriel narrowed his eyes at Peter. "You don't even know her."
"Not the way you do, but we're friends."
"Yeah? Well you need to understand one thing about Beth. She didn't kill Ollie Stevens."
Peter waited for more. Gabriel looked thoughtful for a moment, sipping his coffee. Then he leaned forward, and spoke slowly.
"She wrote me a letter right after her dad died. His death was sudden, and it hit her real hard, but one thing she said she wouldn't miss was hunting with him. She would've done almost anything to please him, but she hated hunting, and he insisted she do it. It made her physically sick to kill an animal. She was a good shot, but she got so she'd miss on purpose, and he'd get angry because he knew it was deliberate.
"It doesn't mean anything, I guess, to anyone but me. I mean, it's not as if liking to hunt means you'll become a murderer. I do my share of hunting. But she wasn't a kid who didn't understand what a gun would do to someone, and she wouldn't shoot someone, even someone she thought was tormenting her. If her life was in danger, maybe, but she knew Ollie was just a prankster. She wouldn't kill him."
"Did she ever tell you she didn't do it?"
"She didn't have to. I know she didn't." Gabriel looked angry, focused on some invisible foe. "Nobody who really knew her could believe she killed Ollie."
"Why would her father make her hunt, if he knew she hated it so much?"
"It was part of his twisted idea of what it took to run the Lodge. He did a lot of things nobody understood, and nobody ever questioned him."
"Sounds like he wasn't your favorite person."
"He wasn't. I didn't understand why he couldn't just relax and let Beth be herself. It was like he loved a perfect translation of her that only existed in his mind. He molded her, or tried to, and she made sure she fit that mold when she was around him, for all her rebellious spirit when he was out of sight. He was her idol, and she lived to please him. She was vivacious around him, even winsome, most of the time. That was her, that was Beth. But if he yelled at her, she'd suddenly act like a different girl. Thoroughly abashed, even a little cowed. Almost like she feared she'd lose his love somehow. She never acted that way with anyone else.
"Now that I think of it, though, that's the way she acts now, like her father is angry and she doesn't know how to appease him."
Peter couldn't forget Sylvia telling him Beth's father didn't want her to remember.
"Do you think he abused her?"
"Not physically," Gabriel said quickly. "At least, she never mentioned anything that sounded like physical abuse to me, and I think she would've. Like I said, she used to tell me everything."
Beth stepped out of the shower and into her fleece robe, then removed the plastic bag she'd used to protect the dressing on her cut hand.
At a knock on the hall door she called, "Come in."
Peter entered, carrying his medical bag, and stopped when his gaze fell on her robe.
"I thought you were Rita, bringing Abby back," she said. "You're here early, aren't you?"
"It's not that early."
She glanced at the clock. "So it's not. I must've taken a longer run than I realized, or a longer shower."
"You went running alone?" He looked alarmed.
"I'm okay, Peter. What time do you want to get started tomorrow?" She began to comb her hair.
He met her gaze.
"I didn't sleep with him, Peter," she said quickly.
He looked away, then met her gaze again. "I didn't ask. We'll leave right after breakfast. This time I provide lunch. That is, if you don't catch yours."
"Do I need to bring gear, or bait?"
"No, I'll have everything you need. I only fish with flies. If you release a fish caught with bait, it's less likely to survive."
She studied his face. "And that matters to you?"
He lifted his eyebrows. "Yes." He gestured for her to sit on the bed, then pulled the chair beside the dresser over and sat on it. He removed the dressing completely from her hand, checked her sutures, and then replaced the dressing with a fresh, slightly less elaborate one.
"Leigh's friend has verified that the printing on the note isn't yours," he told her. "Leigh wants other samples to compare it to."
"How? I mean, who will be willing to give them to me?" She realized she'd been twisting the corner of the bedspread with her free hand. She smoothed it. "I'm staying, Peter."
Now it was his turn to look surprised.
"I did a lot of thinking last night," she continued, "after I got back from Gabriel's. I imagined picking up where I left off in San Diego. I felt like I would die if I did that. I want to stay. I can't tell anyone yet, because there's so much I'm not sure of; but I need to claim what was stolen from me, to stop running from shadows. Now, with what Leigh's friend says about the note, I can begin to have hope. This person who keeps terrorizing me has power over me because he knows what frightens me. But now I know something that frightens him. Me. My presence here terrifies him. I can feel it."
Peter looked disturbed by her words, but said nothing.
"Peter, the sheriff told me my mother recognized that doll. He said my parents may not have reported finding me locked in that closet." Beth took a deep breath. "I can barely stand to look at a cop anymore, but it's the first thing I'd do if Abby turned up missing, or if someone abused her that way. When I try to think of a reason they didn't, my mind locks up." She lifted her gaze to meet his.
"Let me help you then."
On her way out of her room, several minutes later, Beth met Jack in the hallway.
"I have to say, Beth, I missed you last night at dinner. I hadn't realized how dull it's been around here all these years without you."
She was never certain how to take Jack anymore.
He stretched his long body against the wall just outside her door, touching the upper doorframe with one hand. "Duane and the sheriff will be here this afternoon. You may begin to wish you'd stayed away."
"But not you. You enjoy the excitement, right?"
Jack grinned. "Right." He sobered again at once. "Cornell's coming to stay for a couple of weeks. Mom asked him to, since Matt won't be here next week. Mom figures Cornell will make you feel safe. Will he?" Beth didn't answer. "Does Matt? Do these new locks on your door?"
She met the challenge in his eyes, but said nothing.
"I told Mom I don't think you've felt safe since you were three years old. Whoever it was, they screwed with your mind. I mean, look—" He pointed at her bandaged hand, then he grasped her other arm, pushed up the sleeve of her sweater and traced the scars on her wrist. "Look at the lengths to which you'll go to escape, when you're trapped."
She pulled her arm away.
"I wonder what it was like for you to be locked up for six years, to have no way out and to never feel safe, once, in all that time. I wonder how many times you wakened the other inmates with your nightmares, and I wonder how they treated you, the prettiest girl on the cell-block."
She turned and closed her door harder than she intended. "What's your point, Jack?"
"You're not going to feel safe as long as you're here. This isn't a vacation. From what I can see, it isn't even healthy for you. So why come back? Why stay?"
She moved toward the stairs, unwilling to meet his gaze again. "Look at it as a gift, Jack, from me to you. Free entertainment. Hours and hours of it."
His laughter followed her. "Gee, Beth. I didn't know you cared."
At lunch, Beth learned that a picnic was planned for Sunday, which was Mother's Day. Matt, Duane and Art were going to smoke turkeys, and Emily had invited Gabriel and his sister, Kelly. Sarah planned to play some tennis.
"Beth, do you still play?" Matt asked. "I have an extra racket you can use."
"You'll never prove anything by letting her slaughter you at tennis," Jack said.
Beth glanced at her cut hand, which was back in the sling where it hurt less. "I play right-handed."
"You could try playing left-handed," Matt said. He continued to watch her. "Have you ever tried? Just because Dad thought you had to play right-handed doesn't mean you have to keep doing it. You're grown up now. You get to decide."
She squirmed at the memory of her father insisting she do everything right-handed. She'd forgotten why she played that way.
"Tennis makes Mommy's knee sore," Abby chimed.
"Besides, you guys will be busy cooking," Rita reminded Matt.
The back door opened, and Duane and Sheriff Kendall entered. Beth got up to offer them coffee.
"Let me do that." The sheriff took the mug from Beth and filled it himself. "Don't let us interrupt your meal."
"I'm finished," Beth told him. "Would you like a sandwich?"
"No, thanks. Whenever you and Abby are ready, we can check out that shed."
The shed door swung on its hinges, banging in the gusty breeze. Broken glass crunched under Beth's boots while she described to the sheriff what had happened Wednesday. When she finished she walked several feet away from the shed to wait, while the sheriff and Duane heard Abby's account. Matt stayed behind with Abby.
Beth needed to forget about the shed. She faced the lake, and closed her eyes for a few seconds to focus on the breeze blowing her hair, the chill of it on her face. Trees whispered all around, their voices rising and falling, mingling in a soothing chorus.
"They could've come from the campground," Peter said behind her.
He stood several feet away, with one hand against a tree. Beth wasn't sure how long she'd stood here with the sound of voices faint in the distance. She hadn't heard his footsteps.
He moved closer and pointed through the trees northwest of the shed. "They wouldn't have to go far from the road to get here from the campground, and there's a clear trail. They could've hung out in the trees, returned to collect the doll and the lock, and taken off again without being seen from the Lodge or the lake."
"How would they know to expect us?"
"You sit for a few hours getting your portrait done, and if you're the kind of person who likes to run and can't stand to be confined, you're not likely to want a ride back. They know you, they knew what you were doing at Leigh's, and they knew about Abby's fascination with that shed."
"Someone in my family." She shivered. She'd mentioned her plan to sit for Leigh, at dinner, the evening before she and Abby were locked in the shed.
He moved closer. "Unfortunately, it makes the most sense. You know it wasn't Rita, Matt or Faith. That leaves you a few people to trust."
"And it wasn't you."
He shook his head. "I was with a patient when Faith paged me. Duane already asked, and he's probably checked by now."
"I wasn't asking, Peter."
The others filed out of the shed and Abby ran over to Beth.
Sheriff Kendall came out last, grinning. "That's a bright little gal you've got there."
Peter presented his theory about the campground, and Matt agreed with him.
"Let's check that gate," the sheriff said. Matt started off beside Duane, toward the campground. Sheriff Kendall looked uneasily at Beth and Abby. "No need for you to come, but you shouldn't be out here on your own."
"I'll walk back with them," Peter said.
The sheriff nodded, his gaze on Beth. "Remind Emily that I still need to talk to her." He turned and followed Duane.
"Bye, Sheriff!" Abby waved at them.
"Cute kid," Les said.
Duane gave him a look, and Les would've remarked how the kid couldn't help who her mother was, but Matt was standing right beside Duane, and Les hadn't missed Matt's reformed attitude toward his sister.
Duane grinned casually. "Takes after her mother." He kept walking.
Les paused to look back at the three who walked through the trees toward the Lodge. Beth and Peter each held one of Abby's hands. Abby swung her arms between them and skipped to keep up with their longer strides. As Les watched, Abby broke the hand link and ran ahead. Peter moved over beside Beth and placed his hand on her back. Les saw, even at this distance, the welcome in her look and in her posture. It was like watching an electric spark jump a gap.
"I'll be damned." Les turned to Duane and Matt, but they'd moved on toward the campground.
Les shook his head, walking fast to catch up with the two younger men.
They reached the campground entrance, and found the chain link gate, which led from the Lodge road to the campground, hanging open. The padlock and chain used to keep it secured were missing.
They returned and entered the Lodge through the front. Les stared at the painting of a purple-flowered tree in the lobby. He backed away to get a better look. It was awash with bright sunlight breaking through a silver sky, the shimmering green of new growth, and those flowers. The deep, rich brown of the tree trunk was the only sedate thing about the painting, and even that threatened splendor. How was that possible?
"Beth painted that," Duane said behind him.
"You don't say," Les breathed.
"I told you she was an artist."
Les cleared his throat and dragged his attention from the painting. "Guess so."
Matt returned. "Mom says she'll meet you in the dining room."
It was a long time since Les had been here, but he remembered the way, through the long hallway to the left of the front desk, past the restrooms on the right and the big dining hall on the left. The hall wound past the industrial-strength kitchen with its pantries and walk-in freezer, the stairs, and the laundry room. The family room was tucked away at the end of the hall, at the back of the Lodge. The smaller dining room lay between it and the kitchen.
Duane closed the door to the kitchen. Les was already seated at the satin-finished walnut table when his glance fell on the portrait of Abby. "Beth did that?"
"Yeah. There's another of Emily, in the family room. That's Beth's work too." Duane pointed to a still life of a bowl of lemons. It made Les's mouth water.
Duane fetched him coffee, then opened the sideboard and pulled out a couple of plastic laminated place mats. He placed one in front of Les. It must be as old as Duane and had a Disney illustration of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
"It's an antique," Duane said.
"The table or the place mat?"
"The table. Dates back to the Gold Rush."
Emily came in and sat at the end of the table. "If you want to discuss what happened to Beth," she said, "I'd like her to be present.
Les thought a minute, then he nodded. "I've a feeling some of your answers are going to raise questions I'll want to ask Beth. Deputy?"
Duane left, and returned a moment later with Beth. If Les had thought a moment earlier that Emily dominated the room, now he was certain her daughter's presence dominated his attention, in a wholly different way. Les worked on not looking at her. He asked Emily to describe the events of the morning Beth had turned up missing.
"Sheriff Kendall, that was almost thirty years ago," Emily protested.
"Yes, but I've a hunch you remember it clearly, Emily. The doll Beth and Abby found in the bike-shed connects to what happened back then, however indirectly. I have no report on file of the incident, so I need your help. Start with the date."
Emily still balked.
"It was her birthday, I understand?"
Emily sighed, nodded and told him the date.
"When did you notice she was missing?"
"When I woke up, and she wasn't there."
"Wasn't in her bed?"
"She wasn't in our room. She nearly always came in and wakened us, by jumping onto our bed, laughing. Every morning, from the time she stopped sleeping in a crib."
Emily was smiling, then the smile vanished. "I thought she must be sick, so I went looking for her. She wasn't in her bed."
"What time did you wake up?"
"Probably before six."
"I wakened Lauren and the children, and we searched for her. Lauren had us each check a different part of the Lodge, and outside. When you're worried about a child, you imagine the worst. I was afraid she'd wandered down to the lake. I'd always been afraid of the children drowning in the lake. I became frantic."
"Who found her?"
"Lauren. He'd sent Jack and Cornell upstairs, but when I started to get panicky, he sent Cornell down to sit with me, along with Sarah and Holly, and he and Jack searched the upstairs rooms together. He found her in the fourth floor room next to the tower, in a linen closet."
"What time was that? Do you know?"
"It was at least nine-thirty or ten when he found her. It must've been, because all the guests had eaten breakfast by then, and Faith had to take over in the kitchen for lunch because the cook quit, angry that we'd had his helpers out looking for a lost child when he was serving breakfast to twenty or thirty guests. I have to say, I was happy to see him go. Faith was a godsend."
"What shape was Beth in when they found her?"
Emily looked lost. Beth looked worse. Her face had turned a pale off-gray, and she was perspiring. She stared at her hands.
But if she couldn't remember ... or did she remember? Les tried to think what Nora could remember from when she was three. Then he realized some part of Beth's mind must remember. This was the cause of her claustrophobia. This was the event that had eventually driven her to kill Ollie Stevens. She kept staring at her hands. At what? The bandage?
Les's mouth felt dry. He looked at the painting of the lemons to see if it would work its magic again. It did.
Paints like an angel.
Emily finally spoke, slowly. "Beth was in shock, Lauren said. She didn't speak for hours, except to whimper, and then she was hoarse. She'd strained her voice, screaming. She was screaming when Lauren found her."
Out of the corner of his eye, Les saw Beth give a little jerk. Her face was pale. She inhaled deeply as she met his gaze.
"Just a minute, Emily," Les said. "Do you mind sitting through this, Beth? If you'd rather not, I understand."
"I want to—" She closed her eyes for a second. "No, that's not true, but I need to hear it. We never talked about this. I'm fine." Her eyes slid their focus to her mother.
"Her voice was hoarse from screaming," Les prompted. "What else?"
"She wanted to be held continuously. I stayed with her day and night. She wouldn't stay alone in her room for a long time after that, even with a night-light. If we left her alone, she'd scream. She'd panic. And then there were the nightmares and the claustrophobia."
"What about that day, Emily. What did your husband find that day? Didn't he examine her?"
Emily stared at him. Then she looked down at her hands, just as Beth had done earlier. Only this wasn't habit or mannerism. Emily was recalling something.
"She had a cut and a bruise on her mouth. And ... she'd scraped her fingers raw. Her father thought she'd tried to scratch her way out." Emily was in tears, and Beth looked dazed.
Emily shook her head.
"And the doll?"
"Yes, the doll was missing. We didn't notice until three days later, when Beth was finally able to open her birthday presents. The doll Lauren had purchased for her was missing."
"But her other presents were still there? Where were they kept?"
"After she went to sleep, the night before her birthday, we'd piled them on a table in her room so she'd see them when she woke up. It was what we did for all the children on their birthdays."
"Could she have wakened and done something with the doll?"
"No. Beth wanted to show us everything, and she usually slept straight through till morning, until that day." Emily glanced at Beth.
"What about the other kids?"
"They knew those were Beth's presents. They were all fond of her."
Les raised his eyebrows.
Emily turned a cool look on him. "My family may not get along now, but they did at that time. Our children were taught to be loving toward each other. That was important to their father and to me."
"How old were the other kids?"
"Cornell was ten. Sarah was nine. Jack was eight. Holly was four-and-a-half. Abby's age."
"Could Holly have been interested in that doll, and have been young enough to consider taking it not much of a crime?"
Emily sighed. "What does it matter?"
"I'm trying to come up with an explanation for that doll turning up in your husband's office years later. Maybe he found it among the other kids' things and didn't want to upset you with it. Stuck it in his storeroom and forgot about it."
"No, you don't understand. It wasn't stuck away in some back corner of the storeroom. It was out in plain view, the first thing I saw when I opened the door, as if he'd put it there the day he died."
"All right, back to that morning. At what point did you call the sheriff?"
Emily stared at him.
"Did you call the sheriff, Emily?"
Beth leaned her mouth against her left hand, eyes still lowered. She had long, slender, graceful fingers, recently manicured. Perfect hands, except for the cuts she'd inflicted on herself, breaking that window. Les glanced at the bandaged hand in the sling.
He realized with a jolt, looking at her cut hand, that Beth was still trying to claw her way out of that closet, nearly thirty years later. It had driven her to murder at seventeen, attempted suicide at eighteen, and still she tried to claw her way out. If she would break a window with her bare hand, what would she do next? He wondered whether hearing this interview would help her, or drive her on to her next act of desperation.
"No. We didn't call the sheriff," Emily finally said.
Emily looked at Beth. Was it apology Les saw in her eyes? Beth rested her forehead against her hand, and didn't look at her mother.
"I'm not sure," Emily said.
"Would it be easier to answer if Beth wasn't in the room?"
"I am answering the question."
"Did you discuss it?"
"Yes. I wanted to call right away. My baby was missing! Lauren kept assuring me we'd find her, that we just had to keep looking."
"After he found her, did you still want to call?"
"Yes, but he said it would upset Beth more."
Duane shifted in his chair and it creaked.
"So it was your husband's decision not to report it?"
"He was thinking of Beth. She was very special to him."
Beth went from her chair to the door in one motion, then fumbled with the doorknob. A small gasp escaped her. She tried again, opened the door and rushed out.
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