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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Clouds moved in from the west, late Monday evening, and piled up against the western face of the mountains. They loomed heavy in the sky before dawn on Tuesday. A brisk wind buffeted the branches of trees, and waves crisscrossed the surface of the lake.
The kitchen was warm and smelled of freshly brewed coffee and rising bread. Beth was there, with Abby and Faith. Her colorful sweater fell open to reveal her flannel shirt as she packed sandwiches into a small cooler. She turned at the sound of the door, and smiled radiantly at Peter, sending a thrill through him.
"Biscuits will serve them as well as toast," Faith said, "especially with my turkey and bacon gravy."
"Faith is fixing us an early breakfast," Beth said.
Peter turned to Faith. "Do I get turkey and bacon gravy?"
The older woman cast him a dire look. "Only if you agree not to utter the word cholesterol in my presence for at least four weeks."
Faith reserved for Beth the most perfectly done eggs and the tallest biscuits. Peter watched, thinking the people who wanted Beth to feel welcome were nearly enthusiastic enough to make up for those who didn't.
The three of them bundled into warm outdoor clothes and stole out to Peter's truck before any of the other family members appeared.
"Where are we going? You're in charge," Peter said, eyeing Beth's blue jeans and hiking boots.
"There's a waterfall I want to show you. It's tricky to get to, and it often dries up halfway through the year. We'll have to walk a ways."
She gave him driving directions. The sunrise broke, bright pink, through briefly parting clouds over the eastern mountains. Peter turned onto a narrow dirt road that wound uphill south of the lake, through rugged country. He stopped the truck when the road became alarmingly narrow and deeply rutted. "How much farther?"
"Not much, but we go the rest of the way on foot. I heard there wasn't much snow this year, but it shouldn't be dry yet, if there's still runoff here." She pointed ahead, where a seasonal stream ran over the road. Peter parked the truck and they got out.
Abby, who'd been sleepy and quiet during the drive, now kept running ahead. Beth made her take her hand, and they climbed what became no more than a narrow deer track with numerous switchbacks that could easily be missed if they didn't watch the trail closely. Beth seemed to know it well.
Peter felt vague relief that Beth had a small child's safety in mind. He knew fishermen who would do anything and go anywhere to find the prime, out-of-the-way spot, or climb where they had no business climbing, just to get a good view of the fish below.
"It's not much farther," Beth said as if reading his thoughts.
They were half an hour from the truck when the trail widened again and swept gently around onto a ledge that would have been wide enough for his truck if there'd been a way to get to it. It led clockwise around the side of the mountain. Suddenly they rounded a curve and came on a panoramic view of distant, jagged peaks still packed with snow and, closer, a thin veil of water which sprayed downward for a couple-hundred feet or more, into the rocky, brushy, tree-lined ravine below. The trail ahead of them led to within thirty yards of the fall, and then switched upwards to the right in a rocky, neck-breaking incline, over the ridge. Beth stopped at a safe distance from the drop off, and turned to smile at Peter, still gripping Abby's hand in her own. "This is as far as we go."
The waterfall beyond her shimmered and threw off a frothy, white mist. Beth's face was radiant after the brisk walk. Her smile was wide and bright, and her eyes shone in the silvery light of the cloudy morning. Dark tendrils of hair escaped from her hat in the damp wind. Peter moved closer.
The water appeared to erupt from the midst of a stand of small, leaning trees on a rock ledge above and across from where they stood. It started its fall in a satiny ribbon a few feet wide, then glanced off the rock face, splitting into a fine spray.
Peter sat on the ground, and Beth did the same, gathering Abby into her lap. Now and then a gust of wind blew fine droplets of spray against their faces as they sat and listened to the music the water made.
"It won't be there in August. At least it never was, in my memory," Beth said, long, silent minutes later.
"Did you come here often?"
"Yes. Once, we climbed over the ridge there, and—"
"You climbed that?" He gaped. One wrong step up that steep trail, and you could fall a thousand feet.
"I wouldn't do it today," she said. "We used to think nothing could happen to us. Gabriel, Kelly, and I. We did take too many chances. We didn't even carry rope."
"Whose idea was it?" The look she gave him was her answer. "So you really did those wild things people say you did?"
"Some of them, but I wasn't flirting with death, the way Jack makes it sound. That wasn't it." She looked away.
"What was it then?"
"I guess it was a rebellion against that closed in, trapped feeling I had at home. My father wanted to control my activities, even things that were simply a matter of personal taste. I felt truly free only when I was doing something he didn't want me to do. My career is even a kind of rebellion. When I was paroled, I couldn't do what he wanted me to, which was to run the Lodge, so I did what he used to discourage me from doing."
"What do you do?" he asked. She hesitated and he raised his hands. "It's just us here. I won't tell."
"I design clothing. Women's sportswear and knitwear." She tugged at the sweater under her jacket. "Sweaters are my specialty."
"How is that a rebellion?"
"Dad hated for me to sew or knit. When I did, he'd just buy me some new clothes and tell me I didn't need to waste my time. He was a terrible snob about it. He never understood my need to create something uniquely mine.
"I didn't start drawing, and later painting, until I was in prison. At first I just drew things I wanted to remember from home. I also drew clothes I wanted to make when I got out, but then I started drawing the other women and their families. It was a way to have something to offer them, and I discovered I was good at it."
"Like the one of the nurse, Tilly."
"Yes. I drew people the way they should look. I showed them how they were beautiful. I helped them create an image of who they wanted to be, who they were inside. I used snapshots to draw women with their children, who couldn't be with them except during visits. I drew them with their husbands, boyfriends, parents, siblings, pets and friends. I learned to watch people's faces and body shapes, to see how they'd look with different expressions. A lot of that has helped me in the design business. You have to be able to visualize how a garment will move on the person who wears it."
They both fell silent and watched the water fall from the side of the mountain for several more minutes. Even Abby was quiet, sitting cradled in the warmth of her mother's lap. The sound of the water had a soothing effect. The birds and other wildlife were strangely silent. The clouds had taken on a light, puffy texture.
"Peter, you were married when I first met you, weren't you?" Beth asked, looking over at him.
"My wife died."
"I'm sorry." Her look of shared pain made him want to look away, but she held his gaze, her eyes narrowed against the cold breeze and intent on him. "When did she die?"
"Shortly after you left the hospital. She had breast cancer."
She was silent while she digested that. Abby sat up and watched Peter. Beth said softly, holding his gaze, "She must have been young."
"What was her name?"
He suddenly felt cared for in a way he hadn't in years. He thought how different the two women were in appearance and personality, and yet similar in the feelings they aroused in him.
"Claire. Her name was Claire." He stood and held out his hand. "Let's head back. I've a feeling it's about to snow."
They reached the road as the first snowflakes drifted down. The wind had grown colder, and they were relieved to gain the shelter of the truck. Once inside, with the engine on and the heater going, Beth pulled off Abby's gloves, then kissed the top of Abby's head. "This is Abby's first snow. I'd forgotten how quickly the weather changes here."
"Sunshine, lemons, no snow, jacarandas, the garment industry. Los Angeles? Just between us," he assured her.
Beth sobered as she met Peter's gaze. "San Diego. I can't let people here know what I do, because our business could be hurt if word got out about my record. It's not just Dan and me, we have employees."
"Understood. Where to now?"
"Do you know Sylvia Maxwell?"
"No. Who's Sylvia Maxwell?" He'd expected her to show him her favorite scenery all day, not visit someone's house. Peter turned the truck around.
"Sylvia took care of me when I was little. Dad called her my nanny, but she did housekeeping at the Lodge as well. Now she grows herbs, culinary and medicinal. My father didn't approve of her doctoring people with herbs, but he trusted her. She was the only baby-sitter I ever had, after the closet."
A prim, shy woman answered the door at the little ranch, which was neatly kept, with a vast greenhouse, a painted barn and well-maintained pens for a few goats and sheep. Sylvia was tall and soft-spoken. Her smooth, fine-grained skin showed only a few tiny wrinkles around her eyes and some faded freckles. Peter guessed her age at near fifty. She appeared squeaky clean, and Peter liked her at once.
Sylvia's eyes widened as she took in the three people on her porch. She shifted her gaze swiftly to Peter, to Abby and back to Beth. A smile broadened across her face, and she put her arms around Beth, squeezing her eyes tightly shut as she hugged her.
"It's you, it's really you. Come in, it's snowing!" She looked at Peter again.
Beth made introductions. Sylvia stroked Abby's cheek, smiling into the little girl's eyes. When she turned to Peter she acted cautious at first and then friendly in a shy, wide-eyed sort of way. He offered his hand. "Beth is taking me on a tour of her favorite places," he said. "Your house is one of them."
The furniture in the front room was old and mismatched, arranged for comfort and practicality, not style. Fresh flowers in vases added a single patch of color to each room.
They sat around a gleaming Formica table in Sylvia's kitchen with mugs of hot tea, and milk for Abby. Half a plate of fresh oatmeal cookies was consumed. A big black cat rubbed against each visitor's legs, purring loudly, then reclined on the rug in front of the stove to wash himself. A fire crackled in the next room, while Sylvia told Beth about her garden, the weather and her animals.
Beth was quiet, and finally Sylvia fell silent and just watched Beth for a moment. Then Abby needed to use the bathroom and Beth went with her.
Sylvia said quietly to Peter, "It's a marvelous thing, how when you perform surgery, you remember for the patient how his or her body should be."
Peter stared at her, wondering what in the hell she was getting at. She pushed the plate of cookies toward him. He took one and bit into it.
The serene gentleness never left her voice. "You can't do that for Beth, here." She pointed to her head. "Her father didn't want her to remember."
"Why?" Peter's own sudden anger startled him, and he backed off. "Why?" he said again quietly.
"I never knew, but she knows he didn't want her to, and it frightens her."
Her father made no attempt to help her remember? This was what Beth had left out, Peter realized.
"As far as I know he was a good doctor," Sylvia said as if reading the question in his eyes, "but he made a terrible mistake with his daughter."
"Do you realize he may have cost her six years of her life, and her home?" Peter said, his anger rising again.
"Yes and no." Sylvia met his gaze with a mild smile. "I'm not convinced he caused that, and she didn't lose those six years. Her life wasn't shortened. The past can't be undone, Peter. Nor should it be forgotten. One must learn from it and live with it."
Beth and Abby returned to the kitchen table.
When they left, Sylvia made Beth and Peter both promise to visit again soon. "And you must bring this pretty little one with you. I'm so happy to have met you, Abby."
The three visitors hurried out to the truck through gently falling snow. It had begun to collect in a light carpet on the ground.
"Indoor picnic, at my cabin?" Peter said. Beth responded with enthusiasm.
"I didn't know snow was so cold!" Abby exclaimed as she followed Peter's example, stamping her feet on the mat inside his door.
Peter lit a fire, and Beth spread the lunch she'd prepared on the kitchen table. They sat down to eat with hearty appetites. Peter made coffee for himself and Beth, and they ended the meal with thin slices of Rita's blueberry cheesecake. Abby began to totter sleepily. Beth lay her down on the couch near the fire and pulled off her shoes. By the time Peter fetched a blanket from his bedroom, Abby was asleep.
Beth picked up her satchel and took out her sketchbook. She showed Peter two color drawings she'd made of him, one of him reeling in the rainbow trout from the shore of the lake Saturday morning, the other of him leaning against the tree in the cemetery on Sunday.
Peter felt a strange mix of feelings as he studied the drawings. She'd captured expressions he rarely saw in a mirror, or in photographs of himself. She saw something deeper than he allowed others to go, as if she'd seen into his soul. He recalled his thoughts in the cemetery when he'd visited, in his mind, with Claire and Emery.
He flipped back to the first drawing. "You do this from memory, like it's nothing, like you've got this little camera in your brain that freezes time."
"I've been told I have an eidetic memory."
"You have more than that."
Her smoky eyes spoke depths of gratitude. She returned to the drawing. "What about fishing makes you sad? Did your wife fish with you?"
He led her into his bedroom and showed her the photographs he kept on his dresser, of his parents, his brother Tim, and Claire. Finally he said, "This is my son, Emery," as he picked up a picture frame.
It was a moment before Beth spoke. "He has your eyes." She turned to face Peter, serenely expectant.
"He was killed in a bicycle accident when he was eleven. He'd be seventeen now." Peter put the picture down.
Beth's tears spilled over. He brushed her cheeks with his fingertips. "That was a long time ago."
"I'm so sorry, Peter." They stood close. He didn't want her to move. "You used to fish with Emery?"
He had to take a deep breath and force his next words out. "Not nearly enough. He used to beg me to take him fishing on the weekends. I think about those lost weekends sometimes when I fish."
The phone rang. He went to his study to answer it. Afterward he found Beth in the kitchen, picking up the remains of their lunch.
"You have to go?" she said.
He nodded. "I'll drop you and Abby at the Lodge."
The snow had ceased to fall, and the clouds had begun to part, allowing a few rays of sunlight to begin the melting process. The light dusting of snow would be gone by evening, just a memory.
They'd arrived at the Lodge and Beth was opening the front door for Peter, who carried Abby, when they heard the truck pull up. Gabriel Handley stopped his new silver-gray Dodge Ram in front of the steps. The sheriff's daughter, Nora Kendall, sat beside Gabriel in the cab.
"I'll take Abby in while you say hello," Peter said with a nod in Gabriel's direction.
Beth followed his gaze and drew in her breath. Gabriel stared up at her.
Peter paused long enough to look back and see Beth wrapped in Gabriel's arms. The big man's bulk engulfed her slender body.
Matt met Peter inside and took Abby from him. Peter hurried out to his truck past Beth and Gabriel. The pair still stood within the circle of each other's arms when he drove away, and he saw Nora, looking bewildered, seated in the silver-gray truck.
Gabriel held Beth tightly, while she clung to him. Then she spotted Nora. What was Gabriel doing with the sheriff's daughter?
"When did you get here?" Gabriel asked Beth, his deep blue eyes shining and intent on her.
"How are you feeling?"
"Fine. I'm all better. I'm so sorry about your father, Gable."
"I know. He missed you." He touched her cheek lightly, looking into her eyes. "You're so different. All grown-up and so ... I'm not dreaming?"
She smiled. "I'm lucky you recognize me."
"I'd know you anywhere. Was that Abby I just saw with you and Peter?"
"Yes. You have someone waiting. Why don't you both come in?"
She glanced that way in time to see Peter drive around the curve in the road, beyond the trees. It wrenched something deep inside her to watch him drive away alone.
"I can't stay," Gabriel said. "We're on our way to an engagement party in Auburn."
She nodded. That explained his clothes, the black trousers, white dress shirt, and forest green silk tie with a pine cone design. She glanced again at Nora.
"I stopped to let your mom know I'll be here tomorrow morning. I haven't seen your family since the funeral." He turned and glanced at Nora. "I really do have to go. I wish—"
"No, please don't keep her waiting."
"You'll be here tomorrow morning? Beth, I want to see you. I need to talk to you."
"I'll be here." She watched him return to the truck, and she waved at Nora, who nodded, unsmiling.
Beth looked in on Abby, sleeping soundly on her bed covered with a quilt, then Beth returned downstairs to look for her mother. She started in the library and from there followed a sweeping sound to the eastern end of the Lodge and one of her father's old examining rooms. Emily was on the floor, scrubbing it by hand with a brush.
Beth stood outside the door and watched her mother for a few seconds. This was why these rooms had appeared spotless the day Beth and Abby toured the Lodge. Emily kept them as sterile as they'd been when Lauren Gray required it so many years ago, except back then one of the maids had done the work, and not on her hands and knees.
Emily said something in a low tone that Beth couldn't make out.
Jack answered. "She had to be sedated on a regular basis."
He stood beyond Beth's line of sight, near the open door. Beth backed away a couple of feet.
The scrubbing noise stopped. "Jack, you know the reason—"
"Mom, face facts. She was always unstable, and she got worse as she got older. Remember all those crazy stunts. Dad realized before he died that she wouldn't be able to handle the responsibility, the pressure of running the Lodge. It would've been too much for her. He knew he couldn't mask her problems forever with drugs."
"Beth is perfectly—" Emily let out an exasperated sigh.
"Perfectly what? She didn't remember hitting that deputy. Maybe she doesn't remember killing Ollie."
"Is that why you harangued her and Abby at the table Sunday night? Because you believe she killed Ollie?"
"I don't want to, but this visit has gotten me thinking how she changed after Dad died and she wasn't getting his little magic pills anymore. Maybe you just refused to see that."
"That was a difficult time for all of us, especially Beth. But Beth is not a killer, Jack. I may not have agreed with Dad about how he handled her, but he was right about the Lodge. You want to sell it! It was of utmost importance to Dad that the Lodge remain in the family, as it is to Beth. She would've managed it just fine. She still may. She's years younger than your father was when he took it over."
"Did it ever occur to you that the reason none of us others bothered to show an interest in the Lodge while Dad was alive, was we knew it would go to Beth? We never had a chance. She's not running the Lodge and never will. There's no one to hold onto it for, Mom."
Beth moved silently away.
The kitchen was filled with the lingering aroma of baking. Faith sat at the table, wrapping loaves of bread in plastic bags. She got up to take the picnic containers from Beth. "Matt said you were back, and the cherub is asleep. You look done in yourself. You need a nap or some coffee."
"I had a cup at Peter's. Any more and I'll never sleep tonight. I'm okay, Faith."
"Then sit and visit while I finish up here. Where did you go today?"
"Gabriel's waterfall and Sylvia's place. We ate our lunch at Peter's. Abby saw her first snowfall."
"Gabriel's waterfall. If it ever had another name, it wouldn't have mattered to you kids. I always meant to have you show me where that is, but I'm probably too old, too fat, and too arthritic now to get anywhere near it, and I stay out of the snow if I can help it. I swear there's more of it than there used to be. What did Sylvia think of your sudden appearance on her doorstep? And what did she make of Peter, and he of her?"
"She was happy to see us. I think they like each other."
"Matt told me Gabriel was here. He left in a hurry, didn't he?"
"He was on his way somewhere with Nora Kendall."
"Oh." Faith sat down beside her. "Is that what's got you down?"
"No, I just—" Beth sighed, leaned her elbow on the table and rested her head against her hand. She couldn't get Jack's words out of her mind. Unstable. In essence he'd told Mom that Beth was mentally ill. She'd never realized anyone in the family thought of her that way. "I'm tired."
"Well, no wonder. Too many things pulling you in all directions at once. It's not the place to come if you really need a rest. Not with all that's left unfinished."
"Not with all the animosity toward me, you mean?"
Faith nodded sagely. "They all talk to me. I've been wondering when you would come back to finish things. I never thought you'd give this place up without a fight. Neither did your father. But you don't appear to be putting up any kind of a fight. Your mother thinks it's because you're still not entirely well. I think it's something else. I think with all that murder business, and being locked up for so long, someone finally found a way to break your spirit."
"Spirit." Beth shook her head. "I used to do a lot of foolish things, Faith. It made everyone think I was out of control, and crazy enough to commit murder. As for fighting, I feel as if I've been fighting off shadows and demons all the years I've been away, they hammer at my mind. I'm so tired. I don't want to fight anymore."
She sighed, reviewed her words, and realized how crazy they sounded. Shadows and demons ... nightmares. Claustrophobia. Then there was the reality she hadn't mentioned. Her suicide attempt. And she didn't remember hitting that deputy. Maybe Jack was right.
"I'm going to lie down. If you see Mom, will you tell her Gabriel stopped by? He'll be back in the morning."
She left the kitchen and found Matt standing near the bottom of the stairs. He moved aside to let her pass with a quiet, "Hey Beth."
"Hi Matt." Now he'd spoken to her exactly five times in five days.
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Copyright (c) 2001 Barbara W. Klaser. All rights reserved