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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Shadow Lake spread below the Lodge, its wet fingers intertwined with green fingers of new meadow grass and the darker greens of timber. An osprey sailed across the delicate blue with a thin whistling cry and landed in a tree at the lake's edge. Steep, dark mountains rose all around, rocky in places and dotted with meadows, the remainder of their surfaces covered thickly with trees. The lake reflected everything.
Beth stood on the shoulder of the road and drank in the view of her childhood home, her first in more than fifteen years. Wilder Mountain Lodge stood in the distance, a gray stone edifice backed up against the densely forested slope of a mountain overlooking the lake. The magnitude of the landscape dwarfed the Lodge so it resembled a child's sandcastle, but it was a massive structure, its four stories punctuated by a five-story tower. Ornate chimneys stretched skyward. Small diamond-shaped panes winked in the windows of the first floor.
Trees sighed above Beth's head. The world stood still. She could rest here, and find what she'd lost. Here she could touch the distant reaches of her soul and find peace.
She believed those things in this big silence. She sighed, and the elusive whisper of trees answered her. It was a subtle sound she remembered intimately from her girlhood. The osprey was a good omen, surely. She unclenched her jaw and breathed in the perfume of the trees and earth, willing fear to subside. She touched the trunk of a young tree and it pressed against her palm, pulsing in the breeze.
"Mommy, I'm hungry," a young voice called behind her.
Beth turned. Her four-year-old daughter Abby had her head out the window of the big white Mercedes parked in the pullout across the road. Liz Palmer's car.
"We're almost there," Beth called and hurried back across the road.
She drove to the Lodge and parked in front of the stone steps, got out and went around to Abby's door. Then she looked up at the Lodge and hesitated.
The higher windows with upright rectangles of glass were shut fast, the interior rooms obscured by heavy draperies or dustsheets and further shaded by the long galleries that wrapped around each upper floor. A stone terrace extended the length of the ground level until it abutted the solid bulk of the corner tower. The stone steps spread in a solid fan, rippling in hard gray waves to the new black asphalt of the parking lot.
Abby opened the door herself and got out. "Is my grandma here?"
"I hope so." What if her mother wasn't home, and she had to face someone else first? Beth tensed again.
Abby craned her neck to take in the massive building. "It looks like a castle. Are we going to live here, Mommy?"
"No. This is just a vacation, Abby."
"Beth!" One of the big oak doors swung open and Beth's mother, Emily Gray, hurried down the front steps toward them.
Beth ran to meet her and hugged her tightly, unwilling to let go once she had her arms around her. Years of separation compressed inside her, sealing a big emptiness she hadn't allowed herself to measure for a long time. She fought to push intelligible words past the constriction in her throat. A single word was all she managed. "Mom."
Finally her mother backed away. "I'm so relieved to have you home at last. How are you feeling? You look pale." She touched Beth's face.
"That's from lazing indoors the past few weeks. You look wonderful."
Emily didn't appear to have aged, except for a few more lines around her eyes and a coarser texture to her deliberately-darkened hair, which she wore short and permed. She was plumper than Beth remembered, but it didn't detract from her grace. She wore a fair-isle cardigan Beth had knit for her in pastel shades of mauve, lilac and blue, with blue jeans. Beth had never seen her mother in blue jeans before. Times had changed.
Emily's gaze lingered on Beth's face. "You're too thin."
"I really am fine, Mom." Beth smiled and turned to Abby, who hovered shyly beside her. "Abby, do you recognize Grandma from her pictures?"
Emily bent to touch the little girl's dark curls. "Abby, I'd know you anywhere. You look like your mother when she was your age. Don't you take after your father at all?"
Abby stiffened and looked at Beth.
"It's okay with just Grandma," Beth said. "I told her not to talk about Dan to anyone here," she explained to her mother.
Emily's eyes clouded. "If you decide to stay—"
Beth shook her head. "Only four weeks. We have deadlines."
"Nonsense. Dan told me you're not to worry about that while you're here, you can stay as long as you like."
Beth searched the windows of the second floor again. "Is anyone else home?"
"Jack was, but I sent him to run errands, to give you a chance to rest before facing too many people. Rita's in school, and Vicky's at work. The family will be here for dinner, and of course Faith's here. Rita stayed up late last night making a special dessert for your homecoming dinner."
The knot in Beth's throat tightened. "She must be so grown up."
"You won't know her. She graduates in June." Emily turned to Abby. "Do you like oatmeal raisin cookies?"
Food was the quickest way to Abby's heart. She bounced, shyness forgotten. "I like all kinds of cookies."
Beth started toward the back of the car, but Emily stopped her. "Come see your rooms first. I'll help you with your luggage later." She led them into the lobby, and paused to gesture at the big painting Beth had sent months earlier, of a flowering jacaranda tree.
"It was a delight to unwrap something full of blooms in winter. Leigh is looking forward to meeting you. He's one of our renters, a teacher and an artist himself. He's delighted with your work, especially the portraits."
They went up the stairs. "If there's anything you'd like changed, just say so," Emily said.
She'd prepared connecting rooms. Abby's was smaller, the walls freshly papered with a forest pattern incorporating flowers and woodland creatures with friendly faces. The single bed and simple furnishings were painted and dressed in the same theme.
In Beth's room, a cherry wood tester bed was arranged at an angle, as if inviting one to rest. Its crocheted lace canopy had fringed edges. A quilt covered the bed, and a frothy cable-knit coverlet lay folded at the foot.
Framed botanical prints hung on the cream colored walls. An antique pine dresser held a vase of wild flowers that gave off a delicate scent. The matching armoire supplemented a full-size closet. An overstuffed sofa and a wing chair were arranged cozily, and near the French doors stood a table Emily said should serve for spreading out art supplies.
Beth had requested the view, of nothing but trees, dark and thick against the mountainside. "It's perfect." She kissed her mother's cheek. "Thank you."
Emily helped carry their bags up, but Beth wasn't interested in unpacking more than immediate essentials while the sun shone. She briefly acquainted Abby with the rooms and their location in relation to the west stairs. Abby arranged her dolls and toys on top of a blanket chest near her window, while Beth placed sweaters and jackets where they'd be easy to find.
Downstairs, Emily led them through the empty bar and vast dining hall onto the west porch, where she served them a lunch of tuna salad sandwiches.
The outdoor air was brittle, dry, and aromatic with the scent of earth and growing things. The sighing of the wind in the trees was delicate and elusive. Beth strained to hear it even as she spoke.
"The Lodge feels empty," Beth said. "Dad would hate to see it closed for so many years."
"I'm sure it wouldn't remain that way if you decided to stay."
Beth put down her glass and asked Abby to run inside for their sweaters. She watched her disappear into the Lodge before she spoke again.
"Mom, I need to know how the others feel about my visit."
Emily lowered her eyes for a moment. "Holly, Vicky and Matt have voiced animosity toward you. They know I don't want to hear it, but—"
"They blame me for Ollie's death, you mean."
"There was a time when Matt answered my letters."
Emily's grave expression said more than her words. "I insisted he do that, when he was younger. Holly is the most vocal of—" she broke off, frowning.
"My detractors?" Beth arched an eyebrow.
"But she lives in town and she's focused on the baby. You'll have more contact with Vicky. Matt will be home next week. His school has an odd schedule; it's his spring break. I'm sorry, Beth."
Beth leaned back in her chair, more to let her mother think she was relaxed than because of any real ease she felt. Inside, she was tied up in knots. "I expected this. If my brothers and sisters are so divided, how must people in town feel?"
"I made a promise to your father that this would always be your home. If only—" Emily shook her head. "It's been so long. For all we know the killer still lives here."
"Abby said almost the same thing."
Emily's eyes opened wide. "She knows about the murder?"
"I couldn't risk having someone else tell her. We've been all through it during the past week. She understands as much as a child her age can."
"I've been so selfish." Emily lowered her eyes.
"Mom, you have a perfect right to know your grandchild. I realize how awkward it would've been to visit us and not tell anyone here where you were. It's good for Abby to see where I come from, but I'm afraid to be here. You can't expect this visit to somehow fix the past. Home is elsewhere now."
Her mother was in tears, and Beth felt responsible for them. She moved her chair over, put her arm around Emily's shoulders, and kept her gaze on the doorway where Abby would reappear. What was taking her so long?
The sound of small, skipping steps on the stone floor of the big dining room signaled Abby's return. The footsteps stopped suddenly, and Abby said a shy, "Hello."
Thinking she was lost, Beth took a breath to call her, but before Beth spoke a man's voice returned softly, "Hello there."
Emily met Beth's look, and they both listened.
"Who're you?" Abby said.
"If you're Abby, I'm your Uncle Jack."
"Uncle Jack, do you think Mommy killed that boy?"
There was a pause inside the dining room. Then Jack spoke in a weary tone. "I wasn't there, Abby. What does your mother say?"
Beth called Abby. She ran out with their sweaters. "Mommy, I saw Uncle Jack."
"I heard. Thank you, honey." Beth took her sweater and helped Abby with hers. "Finish your lunch."
Jack appeared, wearing a lopsided grin. He came over and kissed Beth's cheek. "She gets right to the point, doesn't she? My, you look sophisticated. Is that your car out front? Very impressive." He straightened and met Emily's look. "I got back early. I hope I'm not intruding."
"Beth has just convinced me she can only stay four weeks. Have you had lunch?"
"I ate in town." He pulled out a chair and sat with his legs stretched out in front of him, his arms folded across his chest. His auburn hair was cut short so its tight waves lay close to his scalp. This seemed to lengthen his lean face. He looked even more like their father than Beth remembered. Jack held Beth's gaze with his silver-green eyes, his lips forming a half smile. "Mom told us you've been sick. Glad to see you looking well. Has the place changed much?"
"I haven't had a chance to look around. It seems empty." She felt a need to make small talk. "But it's still spectacular. I used to think we had to have tennis, horses and fishing for entertainment, but—"
"Horses! Not in years. Not even a dog or a cat. You'll have to settle for fishing. The lake's still too cold to swim, and you'll have trouble finding anyone who has time for tennis." He lifted his eyebrows. "Not much of a vacation."
"I wouldn't say that. There are walks, and I've brought my paints and things with me. Abby and I will find plenty to occupy us."
"If you need fishing gear, it's stowed in the game room. Same with tennis rackets. They're getting old, but we still loan them out to people who rent the cabins, and there are fresh balls. The only boat is Leigh's canoe, but I understand the shores are best this time of year, where the water's shallow and warmer. I'm not much for fishing. You'll have to pick Peter's brain about that. Jay would've fished with you." He glanced at Emily.
"Peter?" Beth said.
"He rents one of the cabins," Jack said. "You'll meet him. I have to go now. See you both tonight. I've invited Amy, Mother. I hope you don't mind."
"Jack, I—" Emily began. But he was gone, down the side steps and around the tower toward the front of the Lodge, out of sight.
Abby craned her neck to see where Uncle Jack had gone. Beth stood, beckoning to her daughter. "Abby and I need to have a chat. I think we'll grab some cookies and take a walk."
"Get your bearings, both of you. Dinner is at six-thirty."
The kitchen windows were open wide, letting a chilly breeze blow through the room. There was no sign of Faith, but the cookies were arranged on two plates on the marble-topped center island. Beth handed Abby two.
"Look at you!" Faith said behind them. She stood in the pantry doorway. "All grown up and a mother yourself."
Faith Simms had cooked for the Lodge ever since Beth could remember. She'd stayed on when Emily let the other help go. She was a large woman who'd grown rounder, with graying hair worn in a bun compressed under a hair net. Her rosy face was creased like paper that had been folded and unfolded countless times. She hugged Beth, then beamed at Abby. "I've known your mother since she was smaller than you, Abby."
Abby smiled up at Faith. "The cookies are great. Did you make them?"
"I did." Faith shot a speculative look at Beth. "Are you home to stay?"
Beth shook her head. "Four weeks. We're on our way out for a walk."
"So long as we have a few chats in this kitchen, the way we used to. I've been hoping you'd make it back before I retire. How long did you think an old thing like me could hold out?"
"How old are you?" Abby asked with a wondering look. Faith laughed and shooed them out.
Beth and Abby wandered down to the lake, where they skirted the shoreline for a ways, walking slowly so as not to miss a bird or a squirrel or a blade of new grass. Eventually they sat on a sunny, dry spot near the water and Beth faced her daughter. "Abby, why did you ask Uncle Jack if he thought I killed that boy?"
"I wanted to know if he likes you. He was hiding in that big room, and he didn't hug you like Grandma and the other lady."
"Some people don't hug very much. I don't want you to ask people that. It's not polite."
"Why do I have to be polite?"
"Because we want to get along here and have a nice time. We're going to be polite and civilized. That's very important to Grandma, and this is her house."
"I just want to take care of you, like Daddy told me." Her earnest expression touched Beth's heart.
"That was when I was sick, and you did a wonderful job, honey," Beth said, smiling. "I'm lucky to have a little girl who loves me so much. Tell you what. Your job, while we're on vacation, is to just be a kid and have fun. And if I catch you not having enough fun, you're going to have to explain yourself, or ... get tickled!" Beth tickled her and she giggled and squirmed away, squealing.
"Okay, Mommy. I'm having fun, I promise!" Abby plopped into Beth's lap, belly down, still laughing.
They walked and rested intermittently, going slowly to accommodate Abby's smaller steps. On the return trip, they moved away from the chill of the lake and through the wide meadow, nearer the woods. Abby ran ahead of Beth every now and then, and once vanished for a few seconds beyond a stand of black oaks. Beth called to her, and Abby peered around a tree trunk, laughing.
They were nearly to the Lodge when Abby ran back to Beth and tugged at her hand to coax her off the trail, into the trees. "It's a playhouse, Mommy. Come see it."
It was the bike-shed, which Beth remembered all too well from Ollie Stevens' pranks. She shivered and told Abby to come away.
Abby disappeared around the end of the shed. Beth followed, and found the door open and Abby inside. Beth's heart raced. "Abby, come out of there! Look, it's full of trash. It's filthy."
"I can play here while we're on vacation. I brought my dolls." Abby bounced up and down inside the shed, pleading.
"You can play with your dolls in the nice room Grandma fixed for you. You're not to come outside by yourself. This isn't our backyard at home; it's a wild place, it can be dangerous." She heard herself uttering those words of warning she'd defied too many times as a girl and hoped Abby would be different.
Abby came out of the shed and peered at Beth soberly. "Are you tired, Mommy?"
"Yes. It's cold, and it'll be dark soon. Let's go get ready for dinner. You can put on a pretty dress and I'll tie your hair with a ribbon."
Abby took Beth's hand. Beth risked another glance behind her. The shed leaned into the sinking sun among the trees, its shadow stretching toward her, mocking her. She shivered again, unable to escape the memories. She hadn't expected to meet any ghosts so soon.
They met Jack on the west porch. His eyes flashed silver in the dusk. "Mom just sent me out to look for you two. You all right?"
As she approached the door, Beth had a clear view of the kitchen through the windows. She glimpsed a slender girl with short, straight black hair who stood at the island, rolling out biscuit dough. This was Beth's youngest sister Rita, who was eighteen. Vicky, twenty-eight and slightly plump with strawberry-blond hair, sat on a stool beside Rita. She wore office apparel and a bored expression. Emily and Faith stood at the stove with their backs to the door, consulting over a saucepan.
Jack reached past Beth to open the door. The warm air met them, fragrant with the aromas of beef, mushrooms and a hint of garlic.
Emily turned from the stove. "There you are."
"Beth!" Rita cried out, and wiped her floury hands on a towel. She gathered Beth into a hug, then turned to Abby. "I'm Aunt Rita, and this is Aunt Vicky."
Abby hovered beside Beth, unapproachable. "Mommy's tired, and her name's Liz." She marched across the kitchen, through the hall door to the foot of the west stairs, where she turned and waited for Beth to follow.
"I'll be up in a few minutes. Do you remember the way?" Beth said.
"Yes." Abby grudgingly continued up the stairs alone.
"What was that about?" Vicky murmured.
"She misunderstood something that happened outside," Beth told her.
Vicky's expression went cold and blank. She turned away. Rita chewed her lip. Emily came over and placed the back of her hand against Beth's cheek. "You do look tired, and you're chilled. I should've made sure you took jackets."
"I just watched Abby run into the bike-shed. She thought it would make a wonderful playhouse. I overreacted."
Rita drew in her breath. "Oh, Mom, I forgot. It slipped my mind. I'm sorry, Beth. I was supposed to lock it last night. I'll take care of it now."
"No, it's all right, Rita." Beth smiled, feeling a need to lighten the mood in the room. "Mm, something smells heavenly in here."
"Nothing like home cooking," Cornell said, coming in from the hallway. "You waited long enough for it, and it appears you need a few of Faith's roast beef dinners." He was Beth's oldest brother, as different from Jack as he could be, with Emily's darker coloring and a stockier build. He slipped an arm around Beth's waist and kissed her cheek.
Beth hugged him. "Cornell, I'm so happy to see you."
"Was that Abby I saw running up the stairs? She didn't look happy."
"She's tired, and worried about her mother." Emily patted Cornell's arm, "Thank you for coming to dinner, let me get your sister some tea. It's chamomile, Beth." Emily dropped a tea bag into a mug and filled it from the urn of water kept forever hot beside the coffee maker. She turned towards Beth, "Honey or plain?"
"Let it steep for a few minutes. Why don't you lie down until dinner. I'll help you unpack later." Emily pressed the cup into Beth's hand. Beth climbed the stairs slowly to avoid spilling the hot liquid. Emily's voice followed her. "A playhouse! Rita, run lock the shed now. She's going to feel safe here."
Beth approached the family room an hour later and found Rita in the smaller dining room the family used, setting the table. She'd covered the antique walnut surface with old lace, on which she'd arranged Emily's wedding china with its delicate pattern of old fashioned roses. Rita moved briskly around the room as she arranged glassware and silver.
"Everything looks beautiful," Beth said as she entered.
Rita looked up and smiled. Then Beth followed Rita's gaze to the portrait on the dining room wall. It was one Beth had painted of Abby. "It looks just like her, Beth. Where is Abby?"
"Still in her room. She's never seen that painting. I was afraid she'd want to keep it, and I meant it for Mom. I coaxed her to wear that dress tonight. I'm surprised it still fits. She wore it for her baby sister's christening last fall."
"Her baby sister?" Rita said.
"She has two half-sisters."
The sound of steps in the hallway made them both turn. Duane Prescott came around the foot of the stairs, wearing a blue sheriff's deputy uniform, his badge glistening under the hallway's deer antler sconces. Beth froze at the sight of him.
He stopped at the dining room door. "Beth, you look fantastic."
His name stuck in her throat. "Duane," she croaked, remembering that he was now married to her sister Holly.
He entered the room. Beth stared, feeling trapped.
"I guess you're not too thrilled to see me."
She moved forward with her hand outstretched, and tried to smile. "You're family now."
"I'd prefer a hug," he said earnestly. She hugged him, then backed away into the table. "Excuse the uniform. I couldn't get the whole night off, just a couple hours for dinner."
Rita touched Beth's arm. "The others are in the family room with Mom."
Beth's oldest sister Sarah hugged her at the door of the family room, her honey-gold hair silky against Beth's cheek. Sarah turned to include her husband and daughter.
"Good to see you, Beth," Art Franklin said with a handshake. He was in his forties and gray-haired for his age. He'd married Sarah shortly before the murder, had never known Beth well, and appeared uncertain exactly how to take her now. But he was polite, and he smiled as nine-year-old Robin gave Beth a mother-directed hug.
Sarah introduced Jack's guest, Amy Rankin, who'd been a few years ahead of Beth in school. Amy greeted Beth quietly, then moved away to a corner with Jack. Beth visited with Sarah and Robin until dinner.
Holly and her four-month-old son Josh arrived just as the others were sitting down at the table. Holly took her place without a glance in Beth's direction, which had to be difficult, since Beth was seated right across from her.
Matt arrived last. He'd been eleven when Beth last saw him. Now he was twenty-six, tall and muscular. Except for his dark brown hair being straighter, his features were so like Beth's there'd be no question in any stranger's mind that they were siblings. They'd been close when he was little, and Beth longed to hug him, but he didn't acknowledge her by either word or look. He took the farther of the two empty seats between Beth and Rita.
"Sorry I'm late. I stopped in town to see Owen." Matt's announcement earned him an icy glare from Emily, and a smoldering one from Rita. He shrugged, looking smug, and avoided Beth's gaze.
The conversation was strained, but there were enough people present for there to be a steady drone of voices. If Beth was too silent, Duane made up for it. He sat across from her and talked, mostly to Beth and mostly about his son, who slept in an infant seat between Holly and Emily.
Holly tugged at the sleeping baby's blanket, fretted with his pacifier, adjusted his booties. When a strand of her long, copper-red hair slid over her shoulder and tickled his cheek, Joshua wakened and began to cry. Holly shot a cold glance at Beth, who couldn't help feeling she was, indirectly at least, the cause of the baby's distress.
They were well into Faith's delectable roast beef dinner when Abby appeared. She walked over to the baby and let him grasp her finger. Josh stopped fussing and cooed at her while his mother looked on, spellbound. "Mommy, you didn't tell me there would be a baby," Abby said.
Quiet laughter erupted. "That's your cousin Joshua." Beth beckoned Abby to the chair beside her and introduced the others. The three who wouldn't speak to Beth appeared at ease with Abby. Beth relaxed ever so little.
"Abby, who's that behind you?" Matt said.
Abby turned and saw the portrait of herself, wearing the same burgundy velvet dress she wore now; then she gazed into Beth's eyes. "You did that, Mommy." She got up on her knees and planted a kiss on Beth's mouth.
Matt's face darkened. He spoke only to Rita and Vicky after that. Holly returned her attention to Joshua. Jack looked as if he recalled some old resentment and didn't speak again. Amy looked only at her plate. Cornell sat quietly at the far end of the table, wearing a resigned smile. Sarah, shy to begin with, inched nearer her husband and daughter, and Art put his arm across the back of her chair. Even Abby and Duane grew subdued.
The ice had congealed again. It hardened as the minutes dragged and the silverware clinked. Beth pushed food around on her plate, thinking her mother had been blindly unrealistic to believe this welcome home dinner could succeed.
Holly and Duane got up to leave before dessert. Beth followed them to the dining room door, where Duane hugged her again. "I'm satisfied you're all right now," he said.
Beth turned to Holly, who was her nearest sister in age. There was no light of affection in Holly's grayish-green eyes. Beth attempted to bridge the gulf just the same. "Thank you for being here tonight. Abby and I both enjoyed meeting Josh."
"I came because Mom asked me to."
Beth wondered if the cold blast could be felt across the room. She felt the chill of it long after Holly's departure.
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Copyright (c) 2001 Barbara W. Klaser. All rights reserved