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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When Duane Prescott arrived Tess was seated on the floor in the study, going through the papers that had been left in chaos there. Harry was making dinner for the three of them, while Paige straightened the living room. Tess answered the door, and led the deputy up the stairs.
"Did you see the snow, out front? They obliterated my snow angels again. That wasn't Trent--I mean it wasn't the first person, in the ski mask. It was his accomplice, on the second snowmobile."
Upstairs, she pointed out the torn garment on the table in the studio. "I was wearing this blouse the night Trent Cambridge tried to rape me, eleven years ago. Trent ripped it when I fought him."
Duane glanced at the blouse on the table, but didn't touch it yet. He got out his notebook. "What did you do with it, after the assault back then?"
Tess sat on the edge of the bed. "I'm not sure."
He looked up. "You don't remember?"
She shook her head and sighed. "I was angry. I wanted to tell my parents what he'd done, to show them that the boy they'd set me up with was a total loser. I was scared of Trent, and of the humiliation." She glanced at the deputy and sighed again. "I didn't make a lot of sense, at the time, even to myself. By the next morning I'd decided not to report it, not to tell my parents. I knew the blouse was ruined, I'd noticed that when I was running away from him. I don't remember what I did with it. I thought I threw it away."
Duane sat in the chintz-covered slipper chair. "Okay, let's go through this step by step, from the beginning. Trent's assault on you. Where and when did it happen?"
"Wait. There's something else. Earlier this afternoon, while Paige and I were going through the boxes, I tried to recall what I'd heard of the intruders' movements up here today, in Spence's room. I was thinking how sound carries in this house. I had this sudden flash. I remembered something from the night of my accident. Spence got out of bed. I remember him standing at the head of the stairs. He asked me why I was crying. I looked up at him, and I told him to go back to bed. That's all I remember, but I wonder if he saw something, if someone else was here."
Duane watched her intently, a frown creasing his brow.
"I'm sorry. I'm not helping, am I?" Tess started in on her account of Trent's attempted date rape, eleven years ago. It appeared to take the deputy a moment to realize she'd switched gears and to begin taking notes again. Tess was calmer now than she'd been earlier, and she didn't hesitate, but told the entire story quickly, in as much detail as she'd ever recalled. She'd tricked Trent, that night, and run away from his house into the woods.
"I stayed with a friend that night. The next morning, I borrowed clothes to wear home, and I stuffed the blouse into my purse, to throw away later."
When she finished, he continued writing for a moment.
"Back to your accident. Do you remember any more about it now than you did in those first few days?"
"Just that bit about your brother?"
"You claimed back then that you wouldn't have left your brother. Remember?"
"It's true. I wouldn't have." She was no less sure of that today than she'd been at seventeen. "I loved Spence. I was responsible for him that night. I took that seriously."
"What if staying here in the house with him would've endangered him?"
Tess looked at the deputy in amazement.
"After hearing your account of Trent's attack, and your memory of your brother that night, it crossed my mind there might be another explanation for you leaving him alone, besides you going off to party."
"Yes, I might have left him in order to protect him. That's the only reason anyone's offered that makes sense, but it doesn't explain why there were drugs and alcohol in my blood, or why Spence would have my blouse all these years later. I want to know why he did, and whether that has anything to do with why my family died."
He nodded. "If this blouse is what the intruders were looking for today, then it's a good reason to suspect Trent was one of them. But who was his accomplice? Any ideas?"
Tess shook her head. Duane donned gloves and placed the blouse in a bag. Then he picked up the backpack, opened it, and emptied out the rest of its contents: School books, a three-ring binder containing Spence's homework and class notes, and an English paper he'd written. The smaller zip pocket of the backpack contained two sets of keys, as well as a separate, single key.
The deputy glanced inside the bag containing the blouse, and surveyed the other items on the table. "Which pocket was the blouse in?"
Tess called Paige, who came up and told Duane that she'd found the blouse in the smaller pocket, with the keys. He thanked her in a dismissive way that spoke of the authority he didn't often make a show of, and Paige returned downstairs.
"Do you recognize any of these keys, Tess?"
One of the key rings held a key that looked identical to the house key Joe had given her on her first night home, and a metal tag with Spence's name on it. "I've never seen it before, but that has to be Spence's set. I don't know about the other key ring. There's something . . . familiar, but I can't place it." She reached out to touch the single remaining key, and he stopped her. He picked it up and held it closer, turning it over. "It isn't to anything in this house that I know of," Tess said.
The deputy checked carefully through the rest of the backpack, and bagged all the items. Finally he got up and put all the paper bags in a box to take with him. Then he reached into his jacket pocket and handed her a sheet of paper. "That's a copy of the latest blackmail letter the intruder left here today."
Tess unfolded the copy and read it. It contained instructions for delivering the $50,000 to a locker in a gym near the Sacramento airport. It further instructed her to tape the key to the locker under the counter in a women's lavatory at the airport, and which flight to take back to L.A. It reminded her to be on that flight and to pay the $50,000, or the blackmailer would send a letter to every major newspaper and TV station in the state on December first, relating the details of her accident eleven years ago.
"I checked out the gym," he said. "It's one that allows day use for a minimal fee. Did you consider paying?" He watched Tess with a bland expression, but she sensed his curiosity. "Is that why you didn't report it earlier?"
"I talked it over with my partners, and we all agreed the blackmailer might keep wanting more money. We don't have the resources to keep paying. We'd wind up bankrupting ourselves, and that would end our business more effectively than bad publicity. So why pay at all? My partners and I planned to discuss turning the letters over to you, after the holiday. I didn't think you could do anything about it either, but the repetitive letters worried me."
He nodded. "It's like they thought you weren't taking them seriously, or they hadn't been noticed. Tends to make you worry what they'll do to get noticed." He stood up, taking the box. "We're still looking for Trent Cambridge. We'll notify you as soon as we have him in custody."
Tess returned downstairs, where Harry and Paige were preparing dinner. They wouldn't let Tess help, and kept telling her to sit down. When the phone rang she answered, hoping for a distraction from the inactivity everyone insisted she needed.
It was Joe, his voice strung tight with anxiety. "Tess, are you all right? Have you been to the hospital and back already?"
"Yes. I have a concussion. I'm supposed to see Dr. Lloyd for a follow-up on Friday. Paige and Harry are doing the cleaning, here. They won't let me do anything."
"Good. Take it easy. The sheriff questioned Rose for a long time, and she's clearly upset, but she won't talk about it. She still hasn't explained where she disappeared to after she left your house. Did she give you any indication?"
"Only that she was headed for Cottage Arts."
"I'm worried about her."
This worried Tess too, as did his tone of voice. "Maybe Rose tried to call me. The phone rang twice, while they were here. I haven't checked--" She stopped, realizing the answering machine had been ruined.
"That was me who called, both times. I let Paige and Harry into the restaurant. They told me Rose should've arrived before them, and they mentioned Rose had seen a snowmobile hanging around your place. I'd seen a red one follow you away from the bridge earlier, and I remembered Rose saw a snowmobile the morning of your family's accident." He paused. "That's why I drove to your house when I did. Well, I'm relieved you weren't hurt worse."
His words, his low voice, and the concern he expressed brought all her feelings for him back to the surface. She didn't want that.
"I--have to go. I'll see you tomorrow afternoon. Tell Rose, dinner's still on. Goodnight, Joe." She hung up.
By morning the weather was worse. The wind was colder, the sky darker. The news reported a winter storm watch in effect for this part of the Sierras. It was expected to produce heavy snow sometime in the next twenty-four hours.
"Are you sure you still want to do this?" Paige asked Tess at breakfast. "We could delay the dinner until after the storm. That would give you a couple of days to--" Paige broke off.
"A couple of days for what? Today is Thanksgiving. I've already invited everyone. The food is ready to go, all I have to do is put the turkey in the oven. The house is clean again, thanks to you two. There's no point in delaying."
"You make it sound more like an ordeal you need to get over with than something you'll enjoy."
Tess thought about that. What was an ordeal, what she had trouble enduring, was the wait. The wait for dinner with her friends tonight, yes, but also the wait to know who was blackmailing her, who had killed her family, who had intruded on her life yesterday. The wait for justice, the wait for the chance to feel at peace again. Tess had taken a sleeping pill last night for the first time in her life. Today she kept reliving those minutes of panic, when the man in the ski mask had overpowered her. Where would this end?
"Maybe we should pay them and leave," Paige said later. Tess looked up and saw Harry shake his head at Paige, signaling her not to talk about it.
Tess got up and left the table. She went upstairs to her studio and sat on the bed. The open storage cabinets gaped at her, with all the boxes of her family's belongings, their whole lives, inside. She went over and closed the cabinet doors, moved the furniture in front of them, hung the Russian print shawl over them. Then she went downstairs and said she was going for a drive.
"Alone?" Paige said.
Tess didn't answer. She took her parents' address book from the kitchen drawer, put on her warmest jacket and went out to the car. She drove to the address her mother had written down for Karen Jensen. Tess hoped Spence had told Karen something about the blouse and why he had it.
Tess parked in front of the Jensens' house, thinking how like her parents' house theirs appeared. It was approximately the same size and of the same type of construction. It was even close to the same age, but it was in town, with houses close to it on both sides, and a small yard in front with a sidewalk edging the tree-lined street.
Karen's father Hank Jensen opened the front door. Tess had met him briefly at the gathering after the funeral. He was in his late forties, thickset and about Tess's height. He didn't appear to recognize her at first, so she introduced herself. "I'm sorry to disturb you on a holiday, but I need to speak to Karen if she's available. It's about Spence."
Hank Jensen invited her inside, introduced her again to his wife Margaret, and called Karen downstairs. The Jensens' house was fragrant with holiday meal preparations. The television in the living room was on, tuned to pre-game football highlights. Margaret Jensen switched it off.
Karen hesitated on the stairs when she saw Tess seated in the living room. She came the rest of the way down more slowly, and took a seat beside her mother on the sofa. Hank Jensen sat in a recliner, but didn't tilt it back. Tess sat in a glider chair, which she hadn't realized was a glider before she sat down. She did her best to keep it still. She felt a need for stillness.
As soon as Karen was seated Tess began to question her. "You mentioned the other day, when you visited, that you needed a key back that you thought Spence had."
Karen nodded. "Spence offered to return it to Stoneway for me."
"What was the key to?"
"It was a passkey to the offices on the first floor. I used to clean them, until I quit a few days ago."
"Would it have been a single metal key that Spence didn't keep on his key ring?"
Karen nodded. "He only had it for a couple of days. He must have still had it when the accident happened, because Angie Norwood told me this week that he never returned it. They're holding my final paycheck until they get it back."
"They're what?" Hank Jensen said.
"If it's the key I think it is, we found it yesterday," Tess told them. She didn't mention turning it over to the sheriff.
"Karen, why didn't you tell us they still haven't paid you?" Margaret Jensen said.
"I was afraid you wouldn't let me get another job."
Margaret looked at Tess. "I didn't want her to work there. At first she was happy, but apparently Angie got temperamental with her. Karen's only sixteen. I want her to enjoy being sixteen."
"Mom, that's not why I quit. I needed to spend more time studying."
Her mother looked at her with an odd expression, but didn't say anything.
Tess leaned forward, again fighting her chair's inclination to move. "Karen, do you know anything about a torn blouse that Spence had?"
"A what?" Margaret said. "What is this about?" She looked accusingly at Tess now, and appeared about to break off the conversation and send Tess out the door.
"I'm sorry, Ms. Jensen, but I need to ask these things. Someone came into my house yesterday. They searched it and vandalized it. I think they were looking for those things Spence had in his backpack. One item was that key. Another was a torn blouse. It was the blouse I was wearing eleven years ago when Trent Cambridge tried to rape me. I need to know how it came into Spence's possession."
"What makes you think Karen would know?"
"Honey," Hank Jensen said, "he was Karen's boyfriend. Karen, answer the lady."
Karen shook her head. "I don't know!" She got up and left the room, crying. "I don't know!"
"I think you'd better leave," Margaret told Tess.
Tess got up and went to the door. Hank Jensen followed her. "I'll talk to them."
Tess turned to look at him. "Do you think Karen knows more than she's saying?"
"Well, I know she didn't quit her job because of her schoolwork, or because her boss was temperamental. Something happened there, and she won't talk about it. She quit the day after Gail, a friend of hers, was raped in the Stoneway parking lot. Gail says it was Trent Cambridge who raped her." He paused and then asked, "Did, uh--did the people who vandalized your house give you the black eye?"
She nodded. "I think that was Trent Cambridge. He had someone else with him."
Hank Jensen shook his head. "The man is a menace. I'll talk to Karen and her mother."
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|All characters and events in the novels on this website are fictitious, they are solely products of the author's imagination. Any similarity to real persons or events is purely coincidental.||
Copyright (c) 2004 Barbara W. Klaser. All rights reserved