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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Emily was just crossing the lobby to the library. She stopped and eyed Peter in that schoolteacher way she had that made him want to fidget. In five years he hadn't gotten past that look. She smiled at Leigh and patted his arm. "You look very refined, both of you. Make yourselves at home in the family room. I'm afraid dinner may be delayed." She continued into the library.
Peter paused in front of Beth's painting. The jacaranda tree blooming on the big canvas stood alone on a green lawn. Half the blossoms had dropped. A cloud of violet-lavender mist mingled with a cloud of deep, feathery green above. A carpet of fallen lavender blooms and green grass mirrored it below, connected by a rich, somber brown trunk.
"She is something, isn't she?" Cornell said, coming up beside him.
"Does she sell her work?" Peter asked.
Cornell chuckled. "I wouldn't know. Look around for an E. R. Gray and see what the dealers turn up."
"She doesn't want to stay, Mom!" Jack's words bit into the air.
"Excuse me," Cornell said and followed the voices into the library.
Peter exchanged glances with Leigh and they took off in the other direction, toward the northwest part of the Lodge and the private family room where Sarah, Art, Robin and Abby visited. They were seated there, minutes later, when Matt called everyone to the table.
Art Franklin groaned as he got to his feet. "I'm exhausted. I hate Sundays."
Sarah smiled at Peter. "He says that every week, but he lives for Sunday."
"Why didn't Art's newspaper consider Beth's visit newsworthy?" Jack said, entering the family room against the flow of traffic to pour himself a drink. "People in town want to know why it wasn't reported."
Sarah sighed and didn't respond.
Duane waited near the door while the others filed out. "Wow, Peter and Leigh, are you trying to make me look bad?"
Vicky smiled at Peter as he passed. "You look nice," she said sweetly.
If she liked this, she'd love his brother. He followed the others, and within minutes everyone was seated but Beth.
From where he sat, across from Art, Peter could see the bottom of the west stairs. He trained half an ear to the conversation and watched for Beth.
"I don't know," Matt murmured to his mother. "I talked her out of going for a run."
"Beth wanted us to wait for dinner so she could run?" Vicky said.
"She didn't want us to wait," Matt answered.
Peter glimpsed Beth on the stairs, and couldn't help watching her sky blue dress as she moved. It fit her narrow waist loosely and fell to well below her knees. The knit fabric flowed with the contours of her body in a way that Peter found positively luscious. An enameled silver butterfly fastened her hair back.
"Sorry I'm late," she murmured and eased into the chair between her mother and Abby. She wore a haunted expression and her eyes were red-rimmed.
"Where did you fish today?" Art asked Peter.
"I didn't. I had paperwork to catch up on." He glanced at Beth.
"Paperwork?" Jack said. "I saw you walk out of the woods with Beth and Leigh just before noon."
Peter nodded. "We took a walk before lunch."
Beth's gaze remained fixed on her plate. She wasn't eating.
"That drawing you gave Beth of the cemetery," Jack said. "Who selected that one, Leigh, you or Beth?"
"Beth chose it."
"What made you choose that one, Beth?"
She spoke so softly Peter barely heard her. "The cedar tree."
"The tree?" Jack chuckled. "Beth can find the positive in anything. She gets convicted of murder, and comes back home driving a big white Mercedes like it's nobody's business."
Beth placed her hands against the table edge and leaned back, watching Jack warily.
"Jack," Cornell said in a warning tone.
"I can see why you didn't miss fishing today, Peter," Jack continued. "Did she beguile you with her version of the story?" His pale eyes flashed, his gaze moving from Leigh to Peter, back to Beth. "What's the verdict, guys? Guilty or not guilty?"
Vicky leaned forward to look at Peter.
"Come on. No harm in anyone knowing that, is there?" Jack persisted.
"What's it to you, Jack?" Matt said.
"Jack, that's a subject we will not discuss at this table," Emily said.
Jack continued. "It's on everyone's mind, even Abby's. It's the first thing she said to me when we met Friday. Right, Abby?"
"Stop it, Jack," Rita said. "Abby doesn't know anything about that."
Beth put her arm around Abby. "Leave her out of this."
"This isn't the time or place, Jack," Holly said.
"Holly, I'm not saying anything you haven't wanted to. You, Matt and Vicky want Beth here less than anyone. Is it because of our two guests you don't think this is the time or place?"
He turned to Peter and Leigh. "I haven't said anything tonight to hold a candle to what these three have been saying elsewhere."
"Shut up, Jack!" Matt said.
Abby blinked at Matt. She looked shocked and frightened.
Jack chuckled, eyeing his brother.
Abby stared at Jack, her gray eyes dark and wide with anxiety. Beth wore the same expression.
"Please stop this," Emily said with a quaver in her voice. "Holly's right, Jack. No one wants this discussion but you, and it's not fit for the table."
Jack fell silent, but he continued to watch Beth.
Beth reached for her water glass. She still hadn't eaten, and Peter found his own appetite waning in the ensuing silence.
"Where have you had the most luck lately?" Art asked Peter. "Fishing, that is. Lake or streams?"
Peter didn't answer for another breath or two, and when he did his voice was thick with the anger he contained. "Lake's full of trout, and they're hungry this time of year. Planning to do some fishing soon?"
"Robin likes to fish, but she's never had much luck, so I want to up her odds a little. Her grandmother owns a lake. She should've caught her fill of fish by now."
Emily and Beth spoke quietly to one another. Duane teased Rita, Robin and Abby. Holly and Sarah talked about people they'd seen in church. Leigh, Cornell, Vicky and Matt belabored the problem of too little snowfall suitable for skiing during the past season. Jack ate in silence, drinking Scotch.
Peter looked over once and found Beth watching him, her tears dry. A half smile appeared, revealing a few even, white teeth before her mother spoke to her again and she looked away.
"Mommy, Aunt Holly says I can hold Josh," Abby announced over dessert.
"After dinner. Is it all right?" Holly asked Beth.
"Of course," Beth smiled at her sister in surprise.
"I'll take some pictures," Emily said.
"Mommy should get a baby too," Abby told Holly. "I could help take care of him."
"Your mom has to get married first," world-wise Robin told her. "She can't have a baby by herself."
"I used to be a baby."
"I was married to Daddy then, Abby," Beth said carefully.
Abby turned and gaped at her mother, as if this was news to her.
"Who would wake up when the baby cries in the middle of the night? You or Mommy?" Duane said. "That's a bone of contention in our house."
"Mommy wakes up anyway, when she has bad dreams. What's a bone of condition?"
"A bone of contention is something people fight over," Jack said in a gruff tone. "Like your mother."
Abby went still and quiet, and leaned toward her mother while warily eyeing her Uncle Jack.
"Jack, you're not making any points with Abby," Duane said, "or with anyone else for that matter. Why don't you put a lid on it?"
"Yes sir, Deputy." Jack pushed back his chair and left the room.
"What is with him?" Holly said.
"Amy broke up with him today," Vicky said.
"Victoria, please!" Emily said.
"I've had enough too." Vicky left the table.
After dessert, Sarah, Robin and Art left for home. Abby held Josh in the family room, while Emily took snapshots. The others cleared the table and started on the kitchen. Peter and Leigh stayed in the kitchen to visit.
Art returned, calling from the hall. "Beth? Where's Duane? Both of you come look at this."
Beth tossed her apron over the back of a kitchen chair and followed him through the lobby. Peter followed. Art led them across the parking lot to the narrow space between his tan Jeep Cherokee and Beth's car. He pointed at the right hand side of the Mercedes.
"It's a sin to do that to such a beautiful automobile," Art said.
The damage was plainly visible under the white light from the lampposts. A single word was painted in large red block letters along the side of the white car: MURDERER.
"Shit," Matt said.
"Son-of-a-bitch!" Duane touched the red paint. "It's dry. Matt, get your mom's camera. I want a picture of this."
"I have one in the Jeep," Art said.
Duane turned to Beth. "Maybe it can be rubbed out."
"There's no point in doing anything about it until I leave," Beth said. "I guess word's gotten around that I'm here." She walked away toward the lake.
"Beth, wait," Duane called after her. "Let's try to figure out when this happened."
She shook her head and kept walking.
Beth stood on the upper level of the boat landing, facing the water with her hands on the railing. The stiff, chill breeze ruffled her hair and her dress. She didn't look up when Peter's footsteps sounded on the wooden planks. When he stood beside her, she turned her head ever so slightly and peered at him from the corners of her eyes. "What possessed me to think I could come back, even for a visit?"
"You have a right to be here, Beth."
"Do I?" Her voice sounded hollow. Water lapped against the landing, churned by the wind.
"Duane will report—"
"Duane arrested me, Peter! Oh, I know he didn't want to, but I can't forget, no matter how hard I try, how one day he was my friend and the next he was locking me up for murder. I wish he'd let someone else do it, so I wouldn't have this association in my mind." A moment later she sighed again and spoke more calmly. "Why does it have to be so beautiful, yet so unattainable? Why can't I stop loving it?"
"There are other places like this."
She sighed again and said without conviction, "I suppose there are."
"I've a hunch you could find a nice little bed and breakfast inn somewhere."
She shook her head. "Nobody wants to stay at the Bates Motel, Peter. These people know me, and look how they act. How do you think strangers would?"
"Don't tell them."
"Secrets make you lonely. Besides—" She turned from the water and smiled at him. "I'm a lousy cook."
"What happened tonight, Beth, before dinner? Matt said you wanted to run. What was that about?"
She lowered her gaze and shivered. "That was about me being claustrophobic and getting stuck in my bathroom."
"Claustrophobic. Since when?"
"Ever since I can remember." She continued to shiver.
Realization hit him. "My God, Beth, you were in prison!" He took off his jacket and put it around her shoulders. "You're freezing out here. Can we talk in your room?"
She looked up at him.
He kissed her, tentatively at first and then, because she responded, with more confidence. Her lips were full and soft, and she let him have his way for several wondrous seconds. He broke the link with difficulty.
"Look, Peter," she said breathlessly.
"I know. You want to see Gabriel first. At least I know I have a chance."
"Look!" She pointed over his right shoulder at the sky.
A full moon rose over the mountain, a gigantic pearl dimming the stars in that portion of the sky. Silhouettes of towering evergreens were dwarfed against the moon and sky. As they watched, the moon's bright arc cleared the trees.
She stared at the moon until he put his arm around her to steer her toward the Lodge. "Your room?"
"Peter." She hung back.
"To talk," he said firmly, promising himself that was all they would do, and she nodded.
Peter waited in the lobby while Beth went to check on Abby. When she returned, they climbed the stairs together.
"Mom's reading to her. She'll bring her upstairs if she gets sleepy. They really do need this time together. It means a lot to all three of us."
"That's reason enough to stay, isn't it?"
Her door stood open. The bathroom light was on and a cold draft hit them as they entered. She closed the bathroom window and adjusted the wall thermostat.
"I'm sorry about the cold. It's a bad habit I have, forgetting windows." She returned his jacket and got a sweater from her closet. They sat on the sofa, where she took off her boots and curled her feet under her. She pulled a big afghan off the back of the sofa and offered to share it with him.
"When I was six years old, Mom took us to a department store in Sacramento, at Christmas time, to see Santa Claus. We got into the elevator to ride up to the floor where Santa was supposed to be. As soon as the elevator doors closed, I panicked. I screamed and beat on the doors, convinced I was going to die if I didn't get out of there immediately.
"I didn't understand why I was so frightened, I only knew that I was. On the drive home I wouldn't let Mom close the windows, so we drove all the way up, on a December day, with the car windows wide open. Dad gave me a sedative when we got home."
She fell silent, her gaze distant, her eyes wide and dark.
"No one knew why you reacted that way to the elevator?"
She nodded. "My parents knew, but I'd never been in an elevator before."
"What did your parents know?"
"One morning when I was three, I came up missing. I was found trapped in a small closet in an unused part of the Lodge." She shivered again. "I get the shakes just talking about it. Pretty weird, considering I don't remember."
"How did you get in there?"
"I don't know. I don't remember."
"Who found you?"
"My father. I think that's what most of my nightmares are about. A shadow, and hands shoving me into that closet and leaving me there. A voice whispering." She leaned her head on her hand and clutched the afghan close to her body. Every muscle appeared tense with remembered fear.
"Did you get any kind of therapy?" Peter asked.
"No. Dad gave me pills. Valium, mostly." She paused, watching his eyes.
Peter remembered she'd been on tranquilizers when he treated her. Her record had said they were for anxiety. The prison guard had mentioned panic attacks.
"I don't want therapy, Peter, and I don't take drugs anymore. They were for survival, in prison, not for feeling good. Before that, they were my father's idea, not mine. I never liked them."
They were both silent for a moment.
"Ollie used to play on my fear," she finally said. "He and Owen came here with their dad whenever Tom worked on one of the cars, and they were friends with Vicky and Matt. Ollie was about nine and I was twelve, when he locked me into the bike-shed one day. We were playing hide-and-go-seek. After that he found opportunities to lock me into the shed, the boathouse, even the shell of his father's truck. I don't know how he was able to lure me into those situations so many times. Sometimes I wouldn't even realize he was nearby. Once, when we were older, I was cleaning one of the cabins and he locked me into the bathroom there. It was hours."
She flipped the afghan off her lap. Her eyes were wide, and her movements restless. "That was shortly before the murder. A matter of days."
She met Peter's gaze. "For anyone who gets involved with me, there are a lot of things to reckon with besides a criminal record. Dan didn't have the luxury of knowing about my past. The secrets ruined our marriage. At first he said he didn't want to know about the past. I considered it a blessing and kept quiet."
"What about the bathroom, tonight?"
"The door was closed when I got out of the shower. When I tried to open it the doorknob fell off in my hand. Abby couldn't open it from the outside either, so I sent her for help. I couldn't open the window, and when Matt checked that, he found it had been nailed shut.
"Peter, I didn't close the door tonight. I never do. In almost thirty years I haven't closed a door without giving it a second thought. I drive people crazy going around leaving doors and windows open. I would've remembered closing it."
She shook her head. "She doesn't understand my claustrophobia, but she knows my habits. She wouldn't close it."
"So you think someone came into your room while you were in the shower."
She closed her eyes, nodded, then met his gaze. "Abby was playing in her room."
"This worries me, Beth. If the person knows how you react to being closed in—"
"Someone wanted to frighten me badly, and they succeeded." She looked at her hands.
He wondered if this was one of those nights she didn't sleep at all.
As if reading his mind, she said softly, "You see, it started at night. Someone came into my room and carried me away in the middle of the night, and the night time hasn't felt safe since." She twisted the corner of the afghan. "The past few nights, in this house, it's very close and very real."
Peter glanced at his watch. "I promised Leigh a ride home." He stood, glanced around, and spotted the telephone. "Beth, I know it's been hard for you to come back here. If you need anything, I want you to call me. For simple friendship or for any other reason." He took a card out of his wallet and held it out to her, pointing at the numbers. "This is my cabin ... my office ... my pager." He took out a pen and wrote on the card. "This is my cellular phone."
He really didn't want to leave her. "Lock your door, and call me if you have a nightmare or if you want to talk."
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Copyright (c) 2001 Barbara W. Klaser. All rights reserved