Romantic Mystery Novel
a whodunit by Barbara W. Klaser
|There's a little bit of sleuth in everyone....
Shadows Fall is a romantic mystery set in an old, closed mountain resort, in the Sierra Nevada of California.
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Beth made a detailed color drawing of the Lodge from her spot beside the lake the following morning. As she worked, she realized what had been missing yesterday. The flags. The stars and stripes, with the grizzly bear flying below, billowing in a stiff mountain breeze, had been one of her favorite sights as a girl. "What happened to the flagpole?" she said aloud, to herself. She would ask her mother.
She couldn't help glancing around every so often, wondering if Peter would appear. He didn't, and neither he nor Leigh had shared dinner with the family last night, or breakfast this morning. Mealtimes with just the family were grimly silent, Abby's gregarious nature subdued by the implicit tensions. It was her own presence that caused the tension, Beth knew, yet she longed for a break from it.
She glanced up once and spotted Leigh approaching across the sloping meadow from the direction of the Lodge. He waved and shouted good morning. Then he came and stood beside her and studied her work.
"I've never noticed the diamond shapes of the panes reflecting light that way. How does that happen, when they're in shadow? Oh, I see, it would be the reflection off the lake at dawn. You have to know it the way you do, I suppose, having grown up here."
"For some reason I know it better today than I did yesterday. I think even Peter would like this one."
"I think he would wonder why you're painting the Lodge instead of the lake." Beth turned to read his expression. Leigh met her gaze and grinned. "Peter is an honest critic. Objective and analytical."
"Refreshingly honest," she said, grinning. "Where are you from, Leigh?" She began filling in the orchard grass as she listened to the soothing rhythm of his speech.
"I was born in Boston, but I spent most of my childhood in Austria. When I was thirteen and my mother remarried, I came back to live with my father."
"Rita told me you and Peter eat at the Lodge with the family when I'm not here. You're not staying away because of me, are you?"
He put his hands in his pockets, looking uneasy. "Your mother thought the family should have some time to themselves while you're here, to work things out."
"She asked you to stay away?"
"For dinner, at least."
"Don't, please. I'll talk to Mom about it. The family isn't growing any closer without you. We hardly know what to say to one another in private. If you can stand the awkwardness my presence effects, I'd like you to share our meals."
"I would appreciate that. Faith and your sister are rather marvelous cooks, and meals were part of the original agreement with your mother. Sometimes Peter is busy."
She went back to work. "Do you fish, Leigh?"
"You're not what I expected," he said. "I thought you'd be more like Vicky."
"Oh. My father's family were all redheads, and my mother's—"
"That's not what I meant by comparing you to Vicky. After prison, I expected you to be bitter, and I expected you to be more worldly than your sisters, in a crude way, while ... you're rather elegant."
She looked at him in some surprise. "I'm relieved you can say kind things about me, but I am bitter, Leigh. So bitter, I'm amazed I can contain it for any length of time." She brushed off her hands and turned to face him. "My freedom was stolen from me. I didn't understand at the time what made people think I could be so violent. I realize now how damning the evidence was. But things were brought up at the trial, things I know I didn't do or say. They made me sound ... cunning. Even psychotic." She shook her head. "I've learned to keep my bitterness inside."
"Don't you express it, even in your artwork?"
"What purpose would that serve? I find myself wanting to blame someone from time to time, and I rail against the hopelessness of changing the past. Sometimes I'm even angry with God."
"No one knows about the burning inside," he said. "Beth, will you let me make a pencil sketch of you?"
He nodded, then his expression clouded again. "I've found something I think you ought to see." He turned around and looked in all directions, even up at the dense shrubbery on the hillside that sloped toward the road. Beth waited, itching to resume her work. Finally Leigh spoke again.
"Soon after I came here, my students showed me the pool in the clearing where Ollie Stevens was killed. I thought they were talking about something that happened recently, something they remembered and needed help coping with. That was when I learned about you."
Beth turned away to remove her paper and collapse her easel. She'd suddenly had enough.
Leigh went on. "I developed a morbid fascination with the place, and the murder, and I started researching it. I talked to people, read old newspaper accounts. I learned more details as time went by. Often they were in conflict. For instance, I heard there was a note you wrote Ollie, telling him to meet you there that night, but the note was never found. The Stevens twins had a secret mailbox where they left each other messages, but no one knew where it was. I started thinking how natural it might be that the hiding place was near where the boy was killed, since the two were connected, and I wondered more and more about the notes."
Beth shivered involuntarily.
"I'm sorry," Leigh said. "You don't want to talk about this."
"Go on." She'd finished packing her things and stood listening. She zipped up her jacket.
"I found an old tree near the swimming pool, about thirty yards into the woods. It was hollow, and someone had placed a wooden birdhouse inside it. Inside the birdhouse I found an old tin box, rusted shut. I destroyed it, prying it open. There was a note inside, wrapped in an old plastic bread wrapper. It aroused my curiosity, and I took it home."
He pulled a piece of folded paper out of his shirt pocket. "This is a photocopy. The original is at my cabin." He handed the paper to her furtively, and glanced around again.
Beth's thoughts, which had seemed so lucid earlier, dissolved into a white mist, and she hardly knew how to register what Leigh was saying. She half expected to find one of his drawings on the paper when she unfolded it. But it was a photocopy of a hand-printed note, all in block letters. The second line had been scratched out:
IF YOU DON'T STOP BOTHERING
STAY AWAY FROM ME OR I'LL KILL YOU.
"I don't understand." Her voice shook. So did her hand. She gave the paper back.
"You didn't write that. The printing isn't yours." He held the paper out to her again.
"I know, but—" She suddenly understood and looked into his eyes. "How do you know it isn't my printing?" She frowned, dispirited and more confused than ever.
He met her gaze. "You said earlier you sometimes want to know who to blame for what happened to you, that you sometimes blame God, that your freedom was stolen. You weren't surprised just now when I said the printing wasn't yours."
"You're taking my word for it? You don't even know me. My own sis—"
He raised his hand. "I saw your printing recently, on the back of a photograph you sent your mother. I'm convinced you didn't write this note. But let's prove you didn't. Give me a sample of your printing."
"Are you a handwriting expert?"
"No. I have a friend, a calligrapher, who studies antique documents. I've mentioned this note to him. He offered to look at it, to compare it with samples, if I could get them."
"When did you find the note?"
"Almost three years ago."
"But it couldn't have still been there, more than twelve years after Ollie died."
"It was sealed in that tin, in plastic, sheltered from the weather."
"But it's not the note they talked about at the trial."
"That one is probably lost forever. There were supposed to be several threatening notes, weren't there? This was most likely written by the killer."
She stared at him again for a moment, then closed her eyes. "If I let myself believe this—" She broke off, afraid to finish the thought. She took a deep breath.
"That you can clear your name?"
She straightened, suddenly decisive. "I want to see the original."
He nodded. "Can you come to my cabin now, and bring a sample of your printing?"
Beth picked up her easel. "I'm sure I have something in my room. Vicky's the only one home."
"No need to tell her where you're going. She won't want to come anyway."
Something in his tone made her curious. "Are you and Vicky romantically involved?"
He nodded. "We were, until shortly before you came home. Her attraction to me has waned in favor of Peter."
Beth dropped her things off in her room. Vicky watched Beth and Leigh leave the lobby together, no doubt convinced Leigh was about to be debauched.
Leigh spoke of the weather and other equally mundane topics while they walked just over a mile and a half to his cabin. It stood nestled in the woods, between fingers of land that reached out into the colder depths of the lake, overshadowed by the bulk of mountains to the south and west. A small beige truck stood in front of it.
"Peter lives there." Leigh nodded in the direction of the furthest cabin as he opened his door for Beth. She glimpsed Peter's blue camper, just visible through the trees to the south, before Leigh closed the door. Then she pulled her samples out of her pocket.
"May I see your artwork, while you compare these with the note? I need a distraction."
He showed her into the smaller room he used as a studio and left her alone to study the drawings and paintings that lined the walls and filled the corners and cabinets. Her opinion improved with each new revelation. Leigh was better than she ever hoped to be. Apart from his sheer talent, she withheld something from her work, the very emotions Leigh couldn't believe she didn't express.
Everything he painted he blessed with honesty. He expressed it all: the stark loneliness of an ancient incense cedar in the cemetery, the frigid depths of the cove outside his own back door, the splash of an osprey plunging feet first for a fish. There was sorrow here. There was danger, exultation and mastery.
Beth dragged her attention away with difficulty when Leigh appeared in the doorway, and she spread her arms as she faced him. "Leigh, you have such treasures here. Have you shown much of your work?"
"Only to friends, and my pupils. I've given quite a lot as gifts."
"What does Peter say about your artwork?"
"He says I'm brutal. I'm not sure what he means. I don't depict any sort of cruelty. Except for the osprey, but that's survival, and Peter kills fish all the time."
"Leigh, do you even know how talented you are?"
"Actually, I do think I'm rather good," he said with a mild smile. "I value your opinion though, because I admire your work so much. Your mother's shown us other drawings and things from time to time, but in portraits you capture spirits."
"For a long time all I did was people and trees."
He smiled mildly. "Peter's favorite is the jacaranda."
She looked away, heartened by that after Peter's criticism yesterday, and perplexed that his opinion meant so much. "My work is tame and banal in comparison. Leigh, don't you want to sell it?" She turned to face him again.
He'd backed away. "No, I think not. Please, choose one of these for yourself. I'll be interested to see which you like."
She chose the drawing of the old cedar tree in the cemetery. It wasn't as dramatic as many of the others, but it was a familiar scene, something from home that she wanted to keep. "Thank you, Leigh."
"Your samples don't match the note. Come see."
Beth sat at his kitchen table and compared the note with her own printing. No one could mistake the printing for hers. She took a deep breath, let it out slowly as she allowed the seed of hope to plant itself in her mind.
"Part of me wants to take it straight to the sheriff," she said, "but in his mind the case is closed. I don't feel right about you and I being the only ones who know about it. Do you mind if we show it to Peter?"
"Do whatever you wish with the note, Beth. You can keep it, or let my friend study it, or turn it over to the sheriff. Of course we can show it to Peter. Shall I call him now?"
"Please, and I do want your friend to look at it. Will you show Peter and me where you found it?"
He phoned Peter, who came at once and listened while Leigh explained how he'd found the note. Then Peter studied Beth's samples briefly, while Beth's tension mounted. She longed to hear him announce that this proved she wasn't a murderer. He remained silent.
The three of them rode together in Peter's truck, parked in front of the Lodge, then walked past the tennis courts and empty stables, across the orchard and main road, to the trail leading into the woods. Where it split, they took the left fork leading alongside the creek. They crossed over a rough wooden footbridge and continued until the mixed forest opened into an oak grove, then into the sunlit clearing where Carter's Creek filled a deep, tranquil pool.
Beth's gaze went directly to the spot where the dead boy had lain, a silent shadow. She paused at the near edge of the clearing, remembering. She'd noticed the gun near his feet, where tiny plants now forced their way out of the soil, preparing to bloom. Moonlight had glinted off the mother-of-pearl grip, enticing her to touch it.
"Beth?" Leigh's voice drew her back to the present. Both men watched her, and she realized she'd been staring at her hand for some time. Peter touched her shoulder. She glanced up, intensely relieved by the contact, believing his touch had the power to anchor her in the present. He didn't speak, but his quiet eyes communicated understanding. Gratitude flooded through her and she moved on, with Peter's hand on her back as he steered her around the edge of the clearing.
An old California black oak stood in the gully Leigh descended. It was fire hollowed on the uphill side. The hollow was large enough for a toddler to stand in, sheltered from view by thick brush and large, scarred rocks. The birdhouse was still there, faded and splintering, on top of a rock that was flat on top and just small enough to have been moved here by two boys.
Leigh removed the rotting lid of the birdhouse and showed his companions the rusted metal flakes.
No one said a word. Leigh replaced the objects and they returned to the clearing.
Beth walked deliberately to the far edge of the clearing and pointed at the ground.
"I found him here," she said. "At first I couldn't tell whether it was Owen or Ollie. They were identical twins. I could usually tell them apart, but that was when they were animated, and it was by expression and mannerism. When I saw the green gloves stuffed under his belt, I realized it could only be Ollie. He never let Owen wear them.
"The gun was there." She pointed at the ground. "I recognized it, and I picked it up. When Owen came running through the trees, he startled me, and I fired it accidentally.
"But not at him, or Ollie, or anyone. I never could—" She stopped, took a breath. "There were seven rounds fired altogether, but only three hit Ollie, two in the arm and one in the chest. They never found any of the other bullets, but I know the clip was full earlier that day."
"Earlier that day?" Leigh cast a furtive glance at Peter.
Beth nodded. "I'd found my father's desk drawer jimmied open that afternoon. The gun was kept in it. I checked the gun, then I locked his office. Matt came in while I was there and asked what I was doing. I said I was going to shoot someone. It was a stupid thing to say, but as kids we joked around that way sometimes, trying to scare each other.
"I forgot about finding the desk broken into. So did Matt. I didn't mention it again until after I was arrested. They thought I broke open the desk and took the gun to shoot Ollie. That made no sense, because I had a key to it.
"They found residue on my hands. The note they said I'd written Ollie, telling him to meet me, was still here somewhere, according to Owen. The sheriff and prosecutor theorized the wind blew it away." She glanced at each of the men. "I remember it as a hot, still night, with a full moon and no wind."
She turned away, wondering why she bothered to tell this. She hated to even think about it. "I never wrote those notes. I didn't kill Ollie."
"Why were you out here that night?" Peter asked.
She hung her head. These memories exhausted her. "I used to walk at night when I couldn't sleep. My mother discouraged it, but it was as if I had the world out here to myself. She'd forbidden me to go out that night, after Vicky accused me of planning to. Something wakened me, though, and I couldn't get back to sleep. A noise, pea gravel hitting the window. I wanted to obey my mother, but I heard someone run off into the brush." What was she forgetting? She brushed sweat from her upper lip, sighed, and moved away to lean against a tree, holding her head.
"It's all right," Peter said. "You don't have to talk about it."
"I do. I want you to understand." She pointed through the woods. "I was back that way, closer to the bridge, when I heard the shots. I ran toward them instead of away." She met Peter's look, couldn't read his expression. "I didn't sense any danger. I thought it was a poacher, and I was indignant, as if I owned the place." She shook her head, looking down at the ground.
"People heard you threaten Ollie earlier that day," Leigh said.
She nodded. "Ollie used to deliberately frighten me. That's a whole story in itself. That afternoon was different though. He pushed me into the lake when I was wearing a wristwatch my father gave me. I wasn't frightened, I was angry. I thought the watch was ruined, and it was the last gift my father gave me before he died. I told Ollie I hated him and I'd kill him if he came near me again. I didn't mean it, it was—"
She caught her breath, remembering something else. "He said, 'I got your love note.' At the trial I thought Owen was making the notes up. Especially when he wouldn't say where the secret mailbox was."
She stopped talking, worried she sounded more crazy by the minute. She looked at Peter, who shifted his gaze to meet hers. The lines of his face softened and he motioned to her. "You'll be expected back."
They left with Peter in the lead and Leigh at the rear. Where the trail widened enough, they walked abreast with Beth in the middle. They moved at a leisurely pace, mostly in silence, with the dappled sunlight that played through the branches above waving on their shoulders. When they left the trail and crossed the main road again, they skirted the orchard and approached the Lodge and Peter's truck from the lake road. The cars in the parking lot indicated the others were back from church.
Leigh retrieved the drawing he'd given Beth from the cab of Peter's truck, and handed it to Peter. "She chose the cemetery. I need to find Emily before lunch and take care of next month's rent. Excuse me." Leigh hurried toward the Lodge, pausing to wave at Vicky, who stood at Rita's upstairs window looking out.
"Uh-oh." Peter turned and leaned against his truck door, facing the lake and Beth with a mischievous glint in his eyes. "You've been seen with me again. You're in for it now."
"So you know my sister's attracted to you?"
"I wouldn't call it attraction. It's more like fishing. Vicky goes after a lot of fish, but the one fish she's caught she never bothered to reel in."
Beth broke into a grin. "What does that mean? Does everything come down to fishing, with you?"
"Not everything." Peter sobered and looked at the lake.
"What are you doing here, Peter?"
He handed her the drawing, held her gaze as his hand brushed hers. "I already answered that question. Have you seen Gabriel?"
"No. It's only been a day since I told you I would."
She started toward the Lodge. He fell into step beside her.
"I haven't baited my hook, Peter."
"You don't need bait. You have allure."
She avoided looking at him, but couldn't resist a smile at his audacity. His nearness insinuated itself on her awareness, wrapped up with an explicit pleasure. He was impossible to ignore.
Beth sliced bread, for lunch, while Rita made sandwiches and Emily tossed a big green salad.
Jack sat at the table with the newspaper and a freshly opened beer in front of him. Leigh's drawing of the cemetery lay on the table as well.
Jack laughed at it. "The cemetery. Isn't that a bit ghoulish, Beth? I know Leigh has macabre tastes, but I thought prison would have cured you of that."
Beth handed her sister two slices, then followed Rita's gaze. Cornell, Matt, Peter and Leigh stood in a half-circle out on the porch, talking. Abby hung onto Matt's hand. The kitchen door stood open and the four men and little girl had just turned their heads in this direction.
"Don't you ever think before you speak, Jack?" Rita said.
Jack leaned toward her, narrowed his eyes and said quietly, "I always do."
Emily carried the salad to the table, picked up Leigh's drawing and shook her head at it. "I don't understand why he gave you this one. Surely he's done something more cheerful."
Beth said nothing, considering this came from the woman who'd recommended she read Anna Karenina in prison, after attempting suicide. None of Leigh's subjects appeared to have stepped in front of a moving train.
"Take it up to Beth's room for her, Jack, before it gets soiled. Call the others. Lunch is ready."
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Copyright (c) 2001 Barbara W. Klaser. All rights reserved