Romantic Mystery Novel
by Barbara W. Klaser
van skids off a snowy mountain road. . . .
Tess returns home to bury her dead. There an old flame rekindles, promising the warmth of a winter romance, while Tess begins to suspect her family was murdered.
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"The sheriff suggested I pack a few of your things, and he'll drive you to the hospital. After you get checked out there, you can stay with me at Stoneway," Paige told Tess. "There are two beds in my room."
Tess had described what happened to the sheriff and deputy, who were going through the house while Paige sat with Tess in the living room. Joe had insisted Paige be allowed to stay with her, and that she get medical attention.
"I don't need to go to the hospital." Tess suppressed a shudder, wondering how she would ever get the house ready for guests by tomorrow. According to Paige the kitchen wasn't fit to cook in. "I'm not going to cancel Thanksgiving. I won't let them do that to me."
"The sheriff's worried you may have been raped while you were unconscious, if it was Trent Cambridge. Apparently it's a pattern of his."
Tess shook her head. "He wasn't here to rape me. He wanted something he thought he'd find in this house."
"In any case, Joe says you should get your head checked out. You have a huge goose egg, and--I don't want to hurt your feelings, but--you haven't been making a whole lot of sense since we all got here. Listen to the professionals. Joe's obviously concerned, and he knows about these things."
"Joe's a veterinarian. This is a human goose egg." Her voice seemed to have developed a permanent quiver.
"You need to give them the blackmail letters."
Tess nodded agreement. She'd been telling herself she needed to do that before Trent had come here today.
Paige was silent for a minute. Then she sighed. "All right, Harry and I will stay here with you tonight. We'll clean up the house, and we'll help you with your dinner tomorrow. Provided you get checked out by a doctor right now."
The sheriff and Paige helped Tess out to a car, and a female deputy drove her to the hospital. Paige followed in her rental car.
It was another four hours before Tess returned to the house with Paige, and it was nearly dark by now. Tess felt done in, but didn't dare tell anyone, since they were treating her like she'd shatter any minute as it was. She had too much to do.
The sheriff asked Tess to walk through the house with him. "If you're feeling up to it." He frowned at her right eye, which was swollen and red, and seemed to grab and hold everyone's attention. "That's going to be a black eye by tomorrow," Sheriff Kendall remarked.
Her head throbbed the entire time, and what Tess saw as she surveyed the house made her feel worse. The sheriff and Deputy Prescott questioned her again as they went through each room, starting upstairs. Her bedroom was a mess, all her belongings strewn across the floor, drawers open or thrown on the floor, clothing in a jumble. Every book had been removed from the bookshelves and tossed on the floor, the nightstands emptied. Bathroom toiletries had been knocked over or onto the floor. Tess couldn't tell from the mess whether anything was missing or not, but she was certain the two people had been searching for something.
"They went to Spence's room first, when they came up here." Tess recalled the sounds and movements of the two people through the house.
She referred to her attacker as the man in the ski mask, because each time she called him Trent the sheriff and deputy would stop to ask how she knew he was Trent. She couldn't explain how, but she knew.
In Spence's room the bedspread was tossed off the bed and the rug beside it had been swept aside. It appeared someone had searched under the bed as well as the mattress, leaving each cocked to one side in a way that made Tess feel dizzy to look at it. The empty drawers and closet were thrown open.
"What's missing?" Sheriff Kendall asked.
"Nothing. I cleared out all his things days ago."
Tess's studio had been tossed as well. Her work, drawings and paintings lay jumbled on the table and floor, but the furniture she'd placed in front of the cabinets hadn't been moved. The big shawl still hung across the cabinet doors, concealing them, while the unconcealed closet and drawers had been opened and their contents thrown onto the floor. The few boxes of her family's things Tess had stored in the closet were emptied and dumped out of the boxes onto the floor.
Downstairs, the desk drawers and files in the study had been pulled out and rifled through, the books there given the same treatment as those upstairs. The piano bench and some small table drawers in the living room had been emptied, their contents scattered. The sideboard in the dining room had been dumped of papers, candles, place mats, tablecloths and napkins.
The kitchen was the worst of it. Tess surveyed the mess in the kitchen, where someone had taken out their temper on everything in sight, including a set of antique stoneware crocks that Tess's mother had used as countertop canisters ever since Tess could remember. Flour, sugar, and various other foodstuffs coated the countertops, floor and cabinet surfaces. A carton of eggs had been dumped and smashed into a gooey mess in the middle of the floor, along with other food items from the refrigerator. The smell of vinegar permeated the room, from a broken jar of pickles. Broken glass and crockery littered everything, cutlery lay scattered about, and dishes had been broken. It would take hours to clean it all up, and Tess expected guests here for dinner tomorrow.
Tess stood in the kitchen, feeling queasy. Then she rushed back to the dining room, where she breathed relief that her mother's heirloom china and silver were still inside the top of the china cabinet, untouched, although the contents of the cabinet's drawers had been tossed about.
"They wasted a lot of time in that kitchen," Sheriff Kendall said. "If it was valuables they wanted, I doubt that would still be here." He indicated her mother's sterling teapot. "They may have been interrupted before they finished. Ms. Hunter, will you go through your family's things, as soon as possible, and let us know if you find anything missing, or anything unusual they may have been looking for?"
"But the kitchen."
The sheriff nodded toward the kitchen. "That was rage." He looked at Tess inquisitively.
"I don't think that was Trent, if it was Trent in the ski mask," Tess told him. "I'm sure he was the one upstairs who yelled 'car' when Alan drove up. Meanwhile the other person was doing that to the kitchen."
Tess nodded, and told them about the blackmail letters she'd received. Then she described the envelope the man in the ski mask had dropped beside her before he left. "It's the same type of envelope those three blackmail letters came in."
The deputy's pale blue eyes widened suddenly beneath his heavy lids. "Blackmail letters? I wondered about that envelope. It's not addressed, but the envelope is sealed." He went to collect it.
Tess retrieved the other blackmail letters for them. Then she told them about her father's voice mail. The deputy wrote down the codes so he could retrieve and record the message when he returned to his office. Tess finally left through the dining room, and the deputy walked beside her.
She turned back to him. "Sheriff Kendall mentioned that a snowmobile was seen in the area when my family's accident happened. Today, both these people were on snowmobiles. A red snowmobile followed me away from the footbridge this morning. A short time later Rose told me she saw a dark blue one with a white stripe, near the house."
Deputy Prescott nodded, and made a note of it.
Harry returned, looking anxious and bringing his luggage along with Paige's. He sat with Paige in the living room until the sheriff's people left. Harry insisted he would help take care of the mess.
"You haven't seen the kitchen yet," Paige said.
Tess feared the cleanup would take days.
On his way out, Duane Prescott paused in the foyer and studied Tess. He looked concerned, and his thick moustache twitched, his heavy-lidded blue eyes open wider than usual. "You may remember more details as the shock wears off. If so, give me a call. I've written my home number there." He handed her a new card. "We'll pick up Cambridge and question him as soon as we can. The call's already out, but that doesn't guarantee we can hold him. You said the guy in the ski mask was wearing gloves, so that means any useful prints we found will belong to his accomplice. Unless they also wore gloves, which is likely."
"Bloody hell!" This came from Harry, who'd entered the kitchen. He popped back into the living room, looking furious. "I'll take care of the kitchen, Tess. Stay out of there for now."
Harry and Paige made tea, and then Harry wouldn't let either woman back into the kitchen until he'd cleaned up the mess.
Long, silent minutes later, Tess was lying down on her bed upstairs, while Paige moved around the bedroom, straightening and putting away Tess's clothing.
Tess sat up.
"Would you like more tea?" Paige said.
Tess shook her head. "They searched through my family's things, and I want to know why. Will you help me?"
Page looked at her critically, and Tess was afraid she was about to tell her to lie back down and rest. Instead she said, "Oh hell, I can't stand this either. But you have to let me do the work. You can sit still and supervise."
They went to the studio and Tess sat on the chintz-covered slipper chair, while Paige picked up the boxes from the closet that had been strewn on the floor. They went through one box at a time, looking at each item before Paige repacked it. Paige stacked each box in the closet again.
Paige picked up the artwork and supplies that had been scattered on the floor. Then Tess had her take the big colorful silk shawl down from in front of the storage cabinets and move the cheval mirror and chair aside so she could get to the boxes stored there. Paige draped the shawl over the mirror and turned to stare at the cabinets with a wondering look.
"I never would've known those were there. I bet your uninvited guests today didn't either."
Tess didn't answer, embarrassed about hiding them from herself in her unwillingness to face her family's things.
Paige removed the top, unmarked boxes containing Tess's mother's journals and her family's personal effects that had been returned by the sheriff, and set those aside. Then they located the boxes Tess had packed with Spence's things. She suspected the intruder today had headed toward Spence's room first for a reason.
While Paige worked, Tess attempted to hear again, in her memory, all the intruders' movements, in chronological order. Instead she remembered something else, something like a dream, it was so fuzzy.
She saw Spence, six years old, in his pajamas, leaning over the stair rail, asking Tess if she was okay. "Tess? Why are you crying?"
In the memory, Tess looked up at him. "Go back to bed, Spence."
"Tess?" Paige roused Tess from the memory.
Tess shivered, shook her head, and came over to watch Paige open the first box from Spence's room.
Paige peered at Tess critically. "Why don't you take a break? Let me continue this for a while."
Tess shook her head. She was on a mission. She and Paige went through the first six boxes of Spence's things before Tess paused, stood up, and stretched. "Maybe I do need more tea."
"Go ahead. This is going to take some time."
Harry had made impressive progress on the kitchen. All the broken glass and crockery were swept up, the food debris as well. He'd scrubbed the floor, and was wiping down the cabinet doors when Tess entered.
"Good, old, solid hardwood. They're barely scratched, in spite of their punishment with God knows what implement. Whoever did their number on this room was disturbingly vicious." Harry paused and studied her face. "Let me get you something. Not tea this time, I think. Ah, I know the thing. Wait here."
He went to the pantry and brought out a bottle of old, single malt scotch. "Your father must have kept this for special guests. Shall I?"
She nodded, and Harry poured them each a shot of the scotch. He raised his glass. "To friends, old and new, tried and true."
"To friends." They clinked glasses and downed the scotch.
A few minutes later, Paige called Tess from the head of the stairs. "You'd better come look at this."
Tess and Harry hurried up the stairs.
"What do you make of this?" Paige held up a woman's blouse. It was a color somewhere between butter and straw, with thin, delicate mother-of-pearl buttons. The fabric was lightweight--and badly torn.
Tess took one look at it and froze.
"Where did you find that?" Tess croaked.
"In your brother's backpack, with his homework, of all places."
Tess frowned and held her aching head. "Are you sure?"
"The backpack has his name on it, and it was in a box you marked with his name. There are some--"
"What is it?" Harry said.
"It's a woman's blouse that's been ripped nearly apart," Paige said.
"It's . . . it must be . . . what they were looking for," Tess said, her mouth dry.
Paige looked intently at her. "Maybe you'd better sit down," she suggested, and Tess did, on the edge of the bed. "Why do you suppose your brother would have this? Do you know whose it is?"
"It's mine," Tess said.
Tess nodded. How had Spence gotten this? Why did he have it? "I thought--" Tess tried to recall what she'd done with it. Maybe that fact was lost in the memories her accident all those years ago had wiped from her mind. But no, this had happened two days earlier than her accident, and she remembered things after it. She remembered baking cookies for Spence. She felt as if her mind were slipping into a fog, and surely this wasn't the result of her bump on the head, or of drinking one shot of scotch, no matter how good or how old. She sat and said nothing, as she attempted to absorb this latest discovery. Her torn blouse, in Spence's backpack. Why?
"Yours? I don't recognize it. How did it get torn like this?" Paige's words seemed to come from a long way away. "Tess? You're scaring me." Paige stood in front of Tess, demanding an answer.
"Wait," Harry said quietly, firmly, putting his hand on Paige's arm and drawing her away. "I think we should call the sheriff back. Here. Let's not handle this anymore." He gestured toward the work table, and Paige lay the blouse on it.
"There are some other things in the backpack. I'll put it here, too." Paige retrieved the backpack from where she'd been working.
"Let's all go downstairs and I'll call the sheriff, shall I, Tess?" Harry said.
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Copyright (c) 2004 Barbara W. Klaser. All rights reserved