Romantic Mystery Novel

Shadows Fall

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.

Barbara W. Klaser, romatic mystery and whodunit author, photo from 1970s

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Shadows Fall cover art, whodunit, romantic mystery novel

Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6
Chapter 7
Chapter 8
Chapter 9
Chapter 10
Chapter 11
Chapter 12
Chapter 13
Chapter 14
Chapter 15
Chapter 16
Chapter 17
Chapter 18
Chapter 19
Chapter 20
Chapter 21
Chapter 22
Chapter 23
Chapter 24
Chapter 25
Chapter 26
Chapter 27
Chapter 28
Chapter 29
Chapter 30
Chapter 31
Chapter 32
Chapter 33
Chapter 34
Chapter 35
Chapter 36
Chapter 37
Chapter 38
Chapter 39
Chapter 40
Chapter 41
Chapter 42
Chapter 43
Chapter 44
Chapter 45
Chapter 46
Chapter 47
Chapter 48
Chapter 49
Chapter 50

Chapter 14

Beth stood on the boat landing looking out over the lake, which ordinarily would have soothed her.

"Beth?" Duane said.

Go away. Thinking it didn't make it happen, and she didn't have the heart to say it.

Then he was beside her, the blue of his uniform visible in her peripheral vision. He leaned forward to peer at her face. "You okay?"

"No." She hadn't been okay since she was three years old. Jack was right about that.

Silence, for the count of five. "Is there anything I can do?"

"Just—" Go away. She closed her eyes. She'd almost said it. "No."

Duane put his hand on her back, and her anger and shock dissolved into tears. He said nothing for a full minute while she released the tears she wouldn't in front of her mother and the sheriff. After that minute was up, she sniffed and willed the tears to dry up. Enough was enough.

"Don't take this the wrong way, Beth. I'm not trying to run you off, but wouldn't it be easier for you if you left? This can't be doing you any good."

"You don't understand. This follows me everywhere. The only place I can lay it to rest is here."

She sniffed again, pulled herself together, and looked at him. He was about her height, his pale blue eyes so different from Peter's as to seem another color.

"What if it can't be laid to rest until you are?"

His words, gently as they were spoken, shocked her and she stared at his brown mustache, which she'd once thought would never grow in properly. Now it was thick and neatly trimmed. She considered only for a second. "If it can't, then that will happen here too."

He straightened and backed away a little. "It's that important to you?"

"Hasn't anything ever been that important to you, Duane?"

"Once upon a time—" He shook his head. "Josh is, and maybe Holly if she'd ever let—" He turned, placed both his hands on the railing and looked at the lake. "I suppose if I go on wearing this badge, something else will come along."

"Maybe Holly, if she'd ever let—what?"

He looked at her. "If she'd ever let go of resenting you, then maybe I could love her the way I want to. You and Gabriel. She was dying to see him hook up with someone else. Almost anyone but you would've done. At one time, she wanted nothing more than to hook up with him herself, but all she ever was to him was your sister. She thinks you ruined his life, and maybe she thinks that ruined hers. She won't let go of hating you."

"Gabriel doesn't appear to be a ruined man."

"That's what I keep telling her. Hell, he's got more money now than we'll ever see, and he's never hurt for either friends or female—" He broke off, then said, "So what if he's single? Lots of people stay single all their lives, and maybe he would've wound up that way no matter what. Wouldn't be the life for me, but he seems happy enough."

She smiled at him. "You like being married?"

"Yeah. You didn't?"

"I liked it just fine. He didn't. Or he did, but not with me, or ... something."

"Any chance you and Gabriel will wind up back together?"

"Ask me a question I can answer."

He turned his whole body and grinned at her. "Now you sound like Peter."

She smiled silently.

"At least now you don't look about to jump in." He patted her shoulder. "I'll wait on the steps for you. You shouldn't go out alone, until we figure this out."

"I'll come in now."

***

Les and Emily sat in the dining room in virtual silence. Les sipped his coffee, keeping it on the place mat when he wasn't drinking. He'd attempted casual conversation, to no avail. He didn't think Emily Gray ever had a casual conversation.

Beth entered with Duane and returned to her seat without a glance at her mother. Duane sat between Beth and her mother this time. Les slid Duane's yellow pad and pencil over to him.

"I'm sorry I ran out that way," Beth said.

"We all needed a break." Les almost told her she wasn't a prisoner here, but thought better of it. "Feel free to run out any time you need to." He tried to put some lightness into his words, but she only blinked at him, her eyes so dark they appeared black.

He turned to Emily, who gazed longingly at her daughter. Les was certain he'd feel like a heel later, for possibly managing to split this family even further apart, but he had a job to do. "You said there were twenty to thirty guests here that day, Emily. How many employees?"

"At least ten, full-time."

"I'll want to look at your records, if you have them, of guests and employees. Were any friends or relatives visiting at the time?"

"You're going to investigate that now?" Beth said. "Isn't there a statute of limitations or something?"

"It relates to the assault on you two days ago. Would you rather I not look into that?"

"Of course I want you to look into that. It's just—"

"As you reminded me last night, it's what I'm paid to do. I wouldn't want anyone to think I don't do my job. Do you have any memory of that day, of being locked in that closet?"

Beth shook her head. "Only in nightmares."

"Have you ever seen a face in those nightmares?"

"No, just a shadow in the dark, speaking in a whisper. Nothing I would recognize. It's like a child's nightmare. I'm not sure how to explain it, but there's no recognizable person."

"What does the shadow say?"

"I can never remember when I wake up. It scares me, though. Whatever it says is frightening, threatening. When the shadow goes away and leaves me in that dark place, I wake up screaming or crying."

"Is the voice male or female?"

"I don't know, all I remember is a whispering voice." She lifted her shoulders. "It's a dream."

Les suspected it was more than a dream, and now he was curious, and getting even further off track. "How long have you been having that dream?"

"Ever since I can remember."

"How often?"

She glanced at her mother, then brushed perspiration off her upper lip. "Right now, almost every night. That's just in the past several months though." She wore a haunted look. "They used to be less frequent."

Les shifted in his chair, feeling uneasy. "Okay. Those records, Emily. Do you still have them?"

"Possibly. Lauren kept things like that. I'll look for them. I want to help with this, Les, anyway I can. Perhaps Beth can help me look for them tomorrow."

"I won't be here tomorrow," Beth said. "Abby and I are going fishing with Peter."

"With Peter?" Emily looked about to protest, and then fell silent.

"With Peter," Beth said, with an edge to her tone.

"That's a good idea, Beth," Les said. "Have someone with you when you go out. Try not to give this aggressor another chance."

"I don't plan to give them another chance," Beth said.

Something in her tone made Les think twice about her words. He could only hope she meant she wouldn't let them catch her alone again. He nodded. "Next week will be soon enough, Emily. Now, I wonder if you'd show me the closet she was found in, before I leave."

Emily's mouth opened, then she nodded silently. Beth wore a horrified look.

Les knew the answer before he asked, "Would you mind coming with us, to see if you remember anything there, Beth?"

She shook her head slowly. Her voice came out hushed and breathless. "I don't think I can do that."

***

The door Emily led them to was the last one on the left at the west end of the hallway, the brightest end this late in the afternoon. Even so, it seemed dim.

She unlocked a door, then flicked on a light switch. The windows were covered with heavy drapes and sheltered from the afternoon sun by the roof of the outer gallery and the looming tower. Emily walked straight into the bathroom and pointed to the bottom section of a small, built-in cabinet, with a hardwood door and old-fashioned hardware. The brass bolt was spring loaded so it would latch when the door closed. Les turned the knob on the latch a couple of times. The bolt sprang home with a solid thunk.

"Wow," Les said. "No way she could get out of that, was there?" He opened the door and looked at the space inside.

Why did they keep calling this a closet? A three-year-old would barely fit, and no one would get a child Abby's size in there without doing her serious injury. He found a pattern of pinholes in the top board, which formed the shelf of the cabinet above. "Lucky she didn't suffocate."

"It's incredibly sturdy," Emily said. "They built things that way, in this house." She looked at the bathroom walls and shuddered.

"Was she small for her age?"

"No." Her voice shook with strong emotion. Les guessed anger, or fear, or grief. All three. She'd lost a child that day. The child who'd come out of that small, dark prison had been forever changed.

Years later, he'd helped put her in another prison. He pushed away from that thought as soon as it rose in his mind, threatening to play an ugly game with him.

Les had seen enough. He couldn't get out of the room fast enough, and he understood perfectly Beth's reluctance to enter it. He didn't think he'd ever want to again. He led the way out, and Emily locked the door behind them.

"Do all the rooms have cabinets like that?"

"Only these on the fourth floor. They were still in use by the family and staff when the place was renovated in ... oh, the late thirties or early forties. Lauren knew the history far better than I. So does Beth, for that matter. The rooms on the lower floors are more modern."

"Emily, when your husband examined Beth, did he find any evidence of sexual abuse?"

Emily kept her eyes lowered and was silent for a minute. "I don't know." She raised her eyes. "You see, I don't think he would have told me, if he did."

"Why wouldn't he tell you?"

Emily lowered her eyes again. "Because I wouldn't have wanted to live here with my children after that. You see ..." she began again, but didn't finish.

He waited.

Finally she met his gaze. "Lauren knew that. He wouldn't have told me." She turned abruptly and led the way to the stairs.

They descended the stairs in silence. Les thanked Emily again. He and Duane retrieved their hats and jackets from the kitchen. Some of the other family members were there, including Beth.

"You folks have a good evening." Les said, and wondered if that was possible.

***

Beth and her mother faced one another across the kitchen after the sheriff left. The others in the room watched, silent. Beth stood near the outside door, her mother near the hall.

"What did they talk about this time?" Matt asked.

Beth glanced at him for only a second, then held her mother's gaze as she spoke. "Old, unfinished business."

She looked at Abby, who returned her gaze, her eyes wide with worry. Too much worry for someone so young. Beth suddenly felt exhausted. This was affecting Abby, and it shouldn't. It had to end.

"Beth, I need to talk to you about this," Emily said. "Privately."

Beth turned and went out the back door. She waited on the porch until she heard Emily close the door, then continued down the steps, slowing her pace until Emily caught up. Then she faced her.

"Why in private, Mom? Did I do something I should be ashamed of when I was three years old? Is there something disgraceful about trying to dig my way out of that dark place when someone shut me in? Or do you want to talk in private because you never bothered to do a damned thing about it?"

"I don't want to discuss it in front of Abby. We don't need another child in this family traumatized by this miserable thing that happened to you."

"You don't think this has already affected her? The nightmares, the doors and windows I never want closed? My refusal to ride in an airplane or an elevator? Even a car, sometimes. What do you think she witnessed Wednesday afternoon? Do you think that was a trip to the park for her? When I did this to myself?" Beth held up her right hand. "I was convicted of murder as a result of what happened to me that day, and you don't think she's affected?"

"Beth, please, let me—"

"You can't tell me the one thing I want to hear, Mom. I want to know why, and you can't tell me that, can you? Dad was the only one who knew, and he's gone."

"No one knows why, Beth. Your father didn't know."

"He knew who did it."

Emily stared at her for a second. "That's absurd, of course he didn't. He wanted to protect you from further harm. He was overcome with relief when he found you that morning, but you were obviously in no shape to risk any mishandling by the sheriff."

"Mishandling? Dad never allowed me to talk about it. He made me feel abandoned in my own home, left me to deal with something on my own that I couldn't. I call that mishandling. The only reason I can think of for it, is that he knew who did it and wanted to protect them."

Emily's face went cold. "I won't listen to this." She walked away toward the Lodge.

"He told me not to dwell on my nightmares," Beth called after her. "He said it wasn't healthy, like I had some shameful sickness I should hide. He drugged me and he told me to forget!"

Her mother kept walking.

Beth clasped her arms in front of her and stood in the warm afternoon sunlight and shivered.

She was still standing there when Matt came out.

***

Nora placed a plateful of food under Les's nose. "You're back to your normal work hours today. Why the late night last night?"

"I'm helping Duane with a case."

She sat down. "Something big?"

"I hope not."

"You don't usually help Duane unless it's something big. Come on, Dad, I need a distraction. You used to love to talk about work, whether I wanted to hear it or not."

"What do you remember from when you were three years old?" he finally asked her. "Anything?"

"Let's see. Most of my early memories are from when I was four or older. There was one time, though, I remember going out on a boat in the ocean, and Mom getting seasick. Mom says that happened when I was three and a half. I don't know why I remember that. I think I was scared."

"Scared?"

"I'd never seen Mom get sick before. What does this have to do with work?"

He sighed. "Early on the morning of Beth Gray's third birthday, someone locked her in a cabinet in an unused room of the Lodge. She was trapped there for at least three hours. She scraped her fingers raw, trying to get out. Her mother told me this. Beth doesn't remember it, except in nightmares she's had ever since."

Nora stared at him, a frown slowly creasing her forehead as he spoke.

"You asked, Nora," he added with a tilt of his head.

"Yes, I did." Her voice sounded hollow. She resumed eating without another word, still frowning.

"Want to hear more?"

She pushed her plate away. "Okay. All the gruesome details."

"Someone locked Beth in a shed with her four-year-old daughter Wednesday afternoon. They lured the little girl in there with a doll, then shoved Beth to the floor and locked them both in.

Les went on to tell everything he knew so far. When he mentioned Beth's scraped fingers the second time, Nora looked at her hands, just the way Emily had when she told the story.

"It's hard to believe Holly came from that family," Nora said. "It's a wonder she's as normal as she is."

"Now, you know better than to repeat this."

"Yes, Dad."

"Duane didn't know about Beth being locked in that cabinet when she was three." Les refused to call it a closet. "Does Holly know?"

"She's never mentioned it." Nora pulled her plate closer and pushed the food around with her fork.

"Have you seen her paintings?"

"Whose paintings?"

"Beth's. She paints. She's good, too. I was impressed, and you know me and artwork. Total strangers. They've got a few hanging up at the Lodge."

Nora looked up. "Beth's paintings?"

"Did she paint when she was a kid? Do you remember?"

"No."

"Did she have any particular mannerism that stands out in your mind?"

Nora wrinkled her eyebrows. "She laughed a lot. She always seemed happy, and she had an infectious laugh. But that's not what you mean."

He shook his head.

"She kept her hands immaculately manicured, and she got in trouble for filing her nails in class."

Les chuckled.

"I know, it seems frivolous. That's the only thing the teachers got after her for, even her own mother. She was a perfect student. Let's see. Sometimes, when she was serious, she'd—" Nora looked at her own hands, then covered her face with them. "Dad! What are you trying to do, make me feel sorry for her?"

"She does remember," he said. "A part of her remembers seeing her fingers messed up like that. And she has nightmares, and she's claustrophobic."

"You've been a cop too long. It's affected your mind."

"Did you ever believe those rumors about her sleeping around?"

"Why? Did she make a pass at you?"

"Of course not," he said impatiently. "Just answer the question."

Nora's eyes smoldered. "I wasn't aware I was being interrogated. Look, I don't know anything about Beth. She was two years behind me."

"Her sister was your best friend, and you remember her looking at her hands. Holly was interested in Gabriel too, right? So were you, even back then. Come on, I know how you kids were. Boy crazy, girl crazy. He was always with Beth. What was she like? I need help with this, Nora."

"I'm not exactly unbiased."

"No one around here is. That's the problem. Forget Gabriel for the moment. Tell me what you remember about Beth before the murder, when you were kids."

Nora shrugged. "I guess she was fun."

"Fun?"

"Yeah. Enthusiastic, you know? If she hadn't been so great looking that she made the rest of us feel like dorks, I think she would've had more friends. We couldn't help it, though, being envious. Her dad used to buy Beth special gifts, favor her over her sisters, stuff like that. She always had the greatest clothes, and looked like she belonged in a magazine."

"Still does."

"Secretly, I wanted to go shopping with Beth and have her help me pick out some new outfits."

"All that talk about her being promiscuous, was it just talk?"

"Gabriel thinks she was lonely and just covered it up. He knew her better than I did."

"I'm not asking if she was lonely, Nora."

"I saw her talking to the boys, hanging out with them, laughing with them. And did they love it! They ate up any attention from her they could get. But that wasn't necessarily flirting. Then of course the girls hated her because the boys paid attention to her. Sheesh! I wouldn't be a teenager again for anything. We were awful!"

"I thought Beth was popular in school. She was Homecoming Queen, right?"

Nora had a far off look. "She wasn't just pretty, she was beautiful, you know? I wonder now if she was even aware of it. We assumed things that weren't necessarily true. I think she was only interested in Gabriel. The other boys were just friends."

Nora carried her plate to the sink and scraped it into the disposal. She turned around, looking miserable. "I don't want to feel sorry for her. She killed someone! I want her to leave, so Gabriel will stop feeling he owes her something. This face, this body and this personality cannot compete with hers." She leaned on the counter. "Is the little girl okay?"

"Abby's okay."

Nora drooped, standing there by the sink.

Les stood and reached out his arms to hug her. "Honey, your face, your body, your mind and your warm, loving nature are great assets. If Gabriel can't see that, you'd better start looking for a fellow with better eyesight."

"Oh Dad, I really blew it the other night." She sniffed and straightened. "I gave his ring back and I told him I didn't want to see him until Beth is out of his system for good. That will never happen, I can't expect it to. But I don't understand how he can go back to her, just like that. Holly told me Beth had dinner at his place last night."

The phone rang and Nora went to answer it. "It's Peter, for you, Dad." She handed him the phone, went to the fridge and took out two beers. She twisted the top off one and placed it in front of Les, then opened the other for herself.

"Yeah." Les nodded his thanks for the beer.

"Les, I have a quick question," Peter said. "I need to know how you identified Oliver Stevens' body."

Les sat up straight. "Why would you want to know that?"

"I'm following a hunch. Did you use dental records? Medical records?"

"We used both, but that was just a formality. He wasn't some drifter from out of town. He was born here."

"He was an identical twin, Les. How did you know which twin was killed? Surely you had to verify that, when he'd been murdered. What did the dental records tell you?"

"That was a long time ago." Les recalled, too clearly, but he wasn't about to discuss it with Peter Lloyd over the phone. The dental records had been a jumbled puzzle, because the twins liked to switch places, and they'd seen a different dentist each time. There hadn't been a complete set of dental records that were definitely Owen's or definitely Oliver's.

"What about hand or foot prints from his birth records?"

"They weren't taken the year he was born. Those are usually lousy prints anyway."

"So how do you know the dead twin was Oliver?"

"His father and brother said so. What is this, Peter? Has someone been filling your head—"

"Beth, if she's the someone you're referring to, hasn't said anything about how you identified the body. She probably doesn't know, does she?"

"I wouldn't know what she knows." Les took a long swallow of his beer, and glanced at Nora, who sat across from him, listening. "I'm sure the defense attorney had access to that information. He never questioned it in court."

"Any chance I can get a look at the autopsy report?"

"What possible good can that do anyone now?"

"Call it professional curiosity."

Les breathed a long sigh. He owed the doctor more than a few favors. "Come see me in my office, one day next week during business hours."

He hung up. Nora sat drinking her beer, watching him. He sat down and stared at his. "What the hell?" he muttered.

What the hell was Peter up to? Did he think Owen was the murdered twin and Ollie was still alive? It was ludicrous. Ollie was dead. He had to be. Tom Stevens would've known his own son. Owen would've—

"Shit!"

"That's not your usual reaction to Peter," Nora said.

"Huh?"

"Shit. That's not—oh, never mind. I can see you're miles from here."

"Sorry, honey." He stood up. "I'll be at the office for a while."

"Dad, it's Friday night. You just got home—" She clapped a hand over her mouth. "God, I sound like Mom."

He focused on the beer in Nora's hand. "When did you start drinking beer?"

"When I was twenty-one. If I did it earlier than that, I'm not about to admit it to you."

***

Shortly before dinner, Matt glanced into the family room, looking for his mother. He'd heard Beth's side of what happened, earlier. Now he wanted to hear his mother's. Cornell stood just inside the door, visiting with Vicky and Jack. Peter and Leigh sat in the far corner, near the fireplace, with Beth and Abby.

"Anyone know where Mom is?" Matt asked.

"Upstairs," Vicky said with a cold glance in Beth's direction. "She looked upset, and she said we should eat without her."

"I should talk to her," Beth said, as she got up and approached the door.

Vicky moved to block her path. "Haven't you caused her enough misery?"

"Cut it out, Vicky," Matt said.

Vicky ignored him, focusing on Beth. "Everything you touch turns to disaster, every person you touch winds up miserable or dead. Haven't you caused the whole family enough embarrassment? Mom doesn't need you here, and she's trying to avoid you now, so why don't you just leave?"

Cornell stood a few feet behind Beth, looking stunned.

"Let me by, Vicky," Beth said calmly.

Matt tugged at Vicky's arm. "Let her by."

Vicky turned to glare at Matt, while Beth took a single step nearer the door, clearly in anticipation of Vicky moving out of the way.

Vicky yanked her arm from Matt's grasp with an exaggerated movement that sent her sideways into Beth. Vicky's upper arm or elbow, Matt couldn't see which, impacted Beth's injured hand and Beth released a gasp.

Vicky spun around. "Don't touch me, you bitch!" She hauled back and slapped Beth's face with a resounding smack. Beth wavered, off balance, wearing a stunned expression while Vicky raised her hand to strike her again. Matt grabbed Vicky's raised arm, more firmly this time, and dragged her out into the hallway.

"You're hurting me, Matt!" Vicky said, flushed with anger.

"You don't think you hurt Beth just now? If you're going to pick a fight, at least wait until her hand heals, so it's a fair one. What's the matter with—"

Abby released a howl of rage as she streaked across the room. She plunged into Vicky and attacked her with her fists. "Leave my Mommy alone!"

"Abby, no!" Beth lurched forward, still off balance. Jack steadied her. Then he grasped Abby, with her small fists flailing, and pulled her back to her mother's side. Jack held onto Abby until she realized she was no longer within range of Aunt Vicky and she stopped beating the air. Her face glowed with rage.

"Easy there, slugger. Fight's over." Jack grinned up at Beth. "You guys keep this up, I'm going to sell tickets at the door."

Beth's left cheek radiated the imprint of Vicky's hand.

Matt blazed at Vicky, "Are you happy now? Is that what you wanted?"

Rita came through the hallway past him, from the kitchen. "What's going on? What's wrong with Abby?"

"Aunt Vicky hit Mommy!" Abby's words sizzled with anger and her eyes shot sparks at Vicky. She turned and hugged Beth's legs. They were both shaking.

Beth took Abby by the hand and led her to the corner of the room. She sank into a chair near the fireplace. "You do not hit people, Abby."

Abby put up a spirited argument. Beth let her vent her anger, watching her with a weary expression. Everyone else filed into the dining room.

"I don't care what Aunt Vicky did," Beth told Abby. "You don't hit people, ever. When something like that happens, you stay as far away as possible."

***

Peter reluctantly migrated into the hallway, after the others. Faith stood in the kitchen doorway, wearing a dour expression and her coat. As he met her gaze, she moved out of sight. Sounds of a deadly quiet meal came from the dining room.

When Abby emerged from the family room, Peter moved to Beth's side before she reached the door, allowing Abby to escape. Beth called softly to her, but she was already in the dining room, and Peter blocked Beth's path.

"Is everyone determined to keep me in this room?" Beth said.

"Hold still, let me see. Abby's okay. Matt and Rita are in there."

"Ow." She drew back.

"Smarts, huh? You should ice this. How's your hand."

"She didn't hit me that hard."

"Don't defend her to me, I saw the whole thing." He frowned at her cheek, still flushed bright pink.

"There's nothing for you to do, Peter. No glass, no blood, no sewing. It's a simple slap on the face."

"Well I hope you weren't too hard on Abby. I'd like to give her a medal."

"Please don't let her hear you say that. I'd make her apologize, only I never require it unless it's heartfelt, and this wouldn't be."

"She was being young and—"

"Foolhardy?"

He met her gaze, then glanced behind him to ensure they were out of sight of the hallway. Cornell would come down those stairs any minute, perhaps Emily as well. "If this doesn't hurt, I'll stop doctoring you." He kissed her lightly on the lips.

"We ... have to go in to dinner," she said afterwards. She didn't sound enthusiastic, but she was smiling.

"I'm not hungry for dinner. Are you?"

She laughed softly and blushed and didn't argue. He kissed her again.

"You're incorrigible," she said when he released her lips. Her eyes were smoky and sweet.

"Incorrige me some more."

She laughed again. "A pun that has nothing to do with fishing."

"I'm after the biggest fish of my life, and I don't intend to let this one get away."

She stared hard at him for a few seconds, then kissed him in earnest. He pulled away and searched her eyes. "You really meant that," he said slowly. Then he knew he had to stop, or take this a lot of steps further in a hurry. He backed away and drew her toward the door.

Matt glanced up when they entered the dining room, then discreetly concentrated on his plate while they took seats side by side, under the scrutiny of six other pairs of eyes, including Cornell's. Emily was still absent.

Long, silent minutes later, Matt said, "How about a story?"

"Sounds good to me," Jack said. He rubbed his hands together and looked expectantly at the others. "Who's got one?"

Matt looked at Beth meaningfully.

She took a long breath and began. "For my third birthday, Dad bought me a doll dressed in pink organza."

***

Les walked into Owen's shop. The lights were on, loud music played, and the service bay door was wide open. The smell of dirty motor oil and grease, mingled with that of beer, met his nostrils. Duane was right. Whoever worked in this mess would've left more than a single smudge on a doll dressed in pink organza and white tulle. The garage had never been anywhere near this bad when Tom had been alive. He'd kept a neat shop.

Owen sat in front of a workbench in the near corner, with a beer in his hand. He looked as grimy as his garage. He bobbed his head forward and back like a big chicken, in time to the blaring music. A carburetor lay disassembled on the bench in front of him. When he saw Les, Owen jumped clear off his stool, reached for the power control on the stereo and switched it off.

"I'm not doing any repairs for a few days. I sprained my wrist." He pushed up his left sleeve to reveal an elastic bandage.

Les paused for a second, looking at that arm. "That's too bad, but I'm not here about a car, Owen."

"I didn't lock Beth Gray and her kid in any shed," Owen said at once. He returned to his stool and picked up his beer.

"Who said you did?"

"Matt thinks I did. He asked me about it, the other night. Didn't he repeat the whole conversation to you?"

"As I understand it, Matt was just being a friend."

"I don't need friends like him. That's the kind of thing that got my brother murdered. I don't want anything to do with those Grays. They're nothing but trouble. Murdering slut thinks she has a right to come back here."

"You haven't been up to the Lodge lately?"

"Hell no. Why would I go there?"

"Matt said you wanted to talk to Beth."

"Well I don't anymore."

"Why?"

"Let's just say Matt cured me of that. Lying son-of-a-bitch."

"What did Matt lie about?"

"He tried to tell me Beth didn't shoot my brother. Who did he think he was talking to? I was the eyewitness! He said she lied when she confessed, to get paroled."

"Makes some sense he'd think that, if he believes her innocent."

"Two weeks ago he didn't think she was innocent."

"Well look, Owen, just keep away from there, like you've been doing. Do you have someone who can vouch for where you were between three-thirty and five on Wednesday, in case there're any more questions raised?"

"Sure. Probably. I'll look through my receipts. I was working here all that day. Must've been a couple of customers here during that time."

"Go ahead and check, and let me know Monday. Have someone take a look at that arm. Dr. Lloyd's pretty good, and he's close by."

"Saw him today. Thanks, Sheriff."

"Have a good evening." Les walked away.

The left arm. Les began to have a sinking feeling. He'd started off his career as sheriff with a murder case resolved in the blink of an eye. Maybe it would end in a fizzle.

He drove to the county building and descended to the dusty basement where Duane and he had searched through files last night. This time he knew where to go. He'd been through this particular file hundreds of times through the years. The subject of this file had settled into his belly like a lead weight, off and on, demanding his attention.

Nothing new had ever surfaced. For more than fifteen years, Elizabeth Gray had remained the only conceivable suspect. She still was. Each time he went through the file he grew convinced of that again and came away feeling appeased. The lead weight lifted for a few weeks, a few months, before it dropped again, insinuating questions and doubts into his mind.

He read through the file again, tonight, hoping for that feeling of complacence to creep back to him, like an abashed house cat that had been out prowling for three nights in a row, and now hungered for human companionship. It never returned.

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Copyright (c) 2001 Barbara W. Klaser. All rights reserved

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