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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Once the storm appeared to have ceased for good, and they knew the roads would soon be passable, the party pitched in with the few shovels and one blower they had, to dig out their cars. By the time they finished Tess finally knew how to operate the blower, the sun was out, and the cold wind had turned to a breeze.
They kept an eye on Ned Cambridge, but he remained subdued, and he refused to say another word. Jessica was back to her petulant, spoiled self, and didn't lift a hand to dig her own car out of the snow. She complained of the cold, of not being at home, of the food she was served because it wasn't what she usually ate. She complained, as the snowplow made its lumbering way up the road to free her to leave, that no one here liked her. As she said this, she sent a look Tess's way indicating she thought this was entirely Tess's fault.
The one person Jessica didn't allow to hear her complaints was her Uncle Ned, whom no one had yet informed that his own niece had bashed him over the head with the umbrella stand.
The sheriff himself came, with Deputy Prescott and a couple of others. Once Duane Prescott had taken Ned away, and all the other guests besides Harry and Paige had been questioned and allowed to go home, Sheriff Kendall sat down with Joe and Tess in the kitchen to talk to them over coffee.
"Hell of a Thanksgiving," he said to Tess with a wry grin. "Laura Greene mentioned the happy news. Best wishes on your engagement."
Tess glanced at Joe, who grinned, but looked exhausted as he leaned his head on his good arm, propped on the table.
"Ned Cambridge says he's been blackmailed for the past eleven years, with threats to reveal evidence of Trent's criminal behavior. Tess, he says you're the one who's been blackmailing him, with a blouse you were wearing the night Trent tried to rape you."
Tess was dumbfounded. "What makes him think it was me?"
"It was a woman, and he's always figured you'd be the only one who would want to, or would have evidence of Trent's assault on you eleven years ago. Ned says you financed your magazine and publishing business with money you extorted from him. Do you have anything you want to say about that?"
She stared at the sheriff. Joe cursed and started to speak, but the sheriff raised his hand to silence him, and waited for Tess to answer.
"I didn't blackmail Ned Cambridge. I wouldn't hold his son's actions against him. All the money I've borrowed or earned in the past eleven years can be accounted for. I'll provide you whatever information you need, to verify that."
Sheriff Kendall nodded, taking notes.
Tess was angry now. "My partner Paige Chandler's father, Alfred Chandler, financed our magazine startup. We've paid him back through our own hard work. Our accountant has records of every transaction."
The sheriff nodded again. "Your partners told me the same thing." He placed his hands flat on the table between them. "Now, we've examined the blackmail letters you've received, and found no fingerprints. The envelope the last letter came in was sealed, and we may be able to get a DNA sample from it. It's at the lab now. Your partner Harry brought us some interesting ideas about what may have been used to damage the tire on your parents' van. We're researching that as well, but we have no suspects yet."
"You don't think Trent and his father were the ones who invaded my house? Ned came here on a snowmobile this morning."
He shook his head. "Trent may have been here that day, but his father was at his bank. We'll check his story, but from what he says there are surveillance video tapes that will verify he was there, as well as numerous eye witnesses to his presence, both employees and bank patrons."
"So there's still at least one more person responsible for that," Joe said.
Sheriff Kendall looked at Tess. "Possibly for the blackmail and your family's deaths as well."
Tess faced him. "I'm in danger?"
"You may be."
"Do you have any suspects at all, Les?" Joe said.
The sheriff looked at Joe. "One person we know of, who may have a motive, can't account for her whereabouts during the invasion here the day before yesterday. She witnessed the Hunters' accident."
Tess knew he was thinking of Rose.
Joe's lips tightened. "What about Alan Stewart?"
"The timing of his arrival that day is questionable. But it was a woman who blackmailed Ned Cambridge. Ned told us that your sister Rose had been dating Trent shortly before Tess says he tried to rape her. I asked your sister about it, and she refused to answer."
Joe leaned back, his face darkening.
The sheriff turned to Tess. "Can you think of anything else you may have forgotten to mention about Trent, your accident, your family, or the invasion on Wednesday?"
"No. Wait--yes. One of my mother's journals is missing."
Sheriff Kendall's eyes glinted. "A journal? Like the diary your mother had in her purse at the time of her death?"
Tess stared at him for a second. "You found a journal in her purse? Is--was it still there when you returned it to me?"
"Yes. Is it missing now?" he was frowning. "It's one of the items we wanted you to look at."
"I haven't looked inside the purse you returned yet. This would have been an earlier journal, the one from the year of Trent's first attack on me, and my accident a couple of days later. I read part of it a few days ago, but now it's missing."
"Les," Joe said. "Tess tells me you never found her father's cane, and she hasn't found it anywhere in the house. Is it possible that, or anything else, was left at the scene of the crash?"
"The scene is buried under even more snow, now. If there's anything else there--a cane, you say? That hardly seems significant."
"Tess's father left a voice mail saying they were on their way to see you that morning."
"Yes. We checked the voice mail."
"There must be something you missed. Did you find anything in the glove box, in his pockets, or his wheelchair, anything he might've been bringing to you?"
The sheriff looked from Joe to Tess, and back to Joe again. "No."
There was something the sheriff wasn't saying, Tess thought. Both she and Joe watched his face, but he didn't say anymore. Finally the sheriff backed his chair away from the kitchen table. "I'm finished here for now."
"There's one more thing," Tess said. "I visited Karen Jensen yesterday and asked her about the things we found in Spence's backpack. She didn't say much. Her father thinks she's hiding something because she's scared. She did possibly identify the single key Spence had in his backpack, as a passkey he offered to return to Stoneway for her after she quit her job there. She quit the day after her friend Gail was raped in the parking lot."
Sheriff Kendall stood and continued toward the living room. "A passkey, you say? I'll make a note of it."
Tess turned from the door after he left, feeling frustrated.
Joe turned to her. "Why do I feel, except for the part where they hauled Ned off to jail, that was just a colossal waste of time." He put his arm around Tess, and the gesture gave her the best, most secure feeling she'd had all morning.
Paige came down the stairs, on her way to the utility room with an armload of sheets to wash. "I stripped all the upstairs beds and made them up with fresh linens."
Tess thanked her profusely. "I never intended for you to spend all your time doing housework while you're here."
"It felt good to keep moving," Paige told her. "Oh, I found the journal you were looking for. It was wedged between your box springs and headboard. It was still open to your page, though the page is a little wrinkled. I left it on your nightstand. The kittens are up, and they sound h-u-n-g-r-y." Paige glanced at her watch. "Don't forget you're supposed to see Dr. Lloyd today."
After the kittens were fed and they'd shared a meal with Paige and Harry, Joe and Tess went upstairs and spread the contents of Cathy Hunter's purse out on the bedspread. They found the most recent journal stuffed inside a zipper pocket in the center of the purse, and set it aside with the one Paige had found in the bed. They removed every card, receipt and scrap of paper from Cathy, Spence and Jim Hunter's wallets. They sorted and examined everything, saving the journals for last.
"Nothing," Joe finally said, after unfolding the final scrap of notepaper from Cathy's purse. "A shopping list."
"Did you get the feeling Sheriff Kendall was keeping something from us?" Tess said. "I've heard they hold back information from an investigation like this, something only the criminal would know."
"I hope he does know more than he's telling us, because if not he doesn't know much."
Joe picked up the open journal, from eleven years ago, and started reading it while Tess returned items to the purse and wallets. She didn't feel at all anxious to read that journal again. It had hurt her too much the last time. Tess still felt close to tears every time her mother's words came back to her. I hope I get my little girl back, the way she used to be.
She shivered, and Joe glanced at her. Then he turned the page and kept reading. Tess picked up the other journal, the one from this year, which had been in her mother's purse.
"Wait." Joe touched her arm. "You should read this first, Tess."
"I've read all of that one I can take."
"I know the last page you read hurt you, but you have to understand how frightened your mother was for you and Spence when she wrote that. She was an emotional wreck, herself, then. You'd nearly been killed. Read on. The next entry is dated three days later. Here." He pressed it into her hand.
She reluctantly took the journal from him and read it.
"I was so wrong. How could I have thought those words I wrote here last, let alone write them? I almost tore out the page and burned it, but I've decided to keep it as a lesson to myself.
"It's not Tess I should've doubted. Spence tried to tell me that first night, and I didn't understand, couldn't understand. But the sheriff questioned her other friends and most of them confirmed there was no party. They all thought she was home, babysitting. They said she loved to take care of Spence. Oh my poor Tess, what did we do to you, setting you up with that horrible person?
"Tess's father thinks it may have been Trent who was driving my car. The car keys are still missing, they weren't found at the scene. Jim says Tess's injuries aren't consistent with her being in the driver's seat. The emergency room doctor agrees. Her blood was found on the passenger's side. Jim thinks she was moved to the driver's side after the impact, and he's trying to get the sheriff to investigate Trent. Spence thinks someone forced Tess to leave the house that night. He says she was fun before that, just 'regular Tess,' playing with him, letting him have milk and cookies while she read him a story. After he went to bed Spence heard a noise downstairs. He called down to Tess and she told him to go back to bed. In Spence's words, 'She sounded quivery, like she was crying.'"
Tess looked up at Joe in amazement. "That's what I remembered on Wednesday, Spence asking me why I was crying, and me telling him to go back to bed." Then realization struck her. "She knew. They believed me. My mother knew I didn't--"
"Finish reading it," Joe said.
"Spence heard another voice, too, when he got up and peeked over the stair rail. Tess was being pulled forcibly out of the house through the entry hall. Spence couldn't see who, but he says they had a man's voice, and they said she'd pay.
"The sheriff says he can't arrest Trent without more evidence, and Tess was the one with alcohol and drugs in her system. We don't think they'll charge her now, though, because they can't prove she drove the car, and the keys are still missing.
"Tess told me Trent tried to rape her. I didn't believe her at first, but now I'm frightened for Tess. Her father and I feel so helpless to protect her, and Trent keeps coming here wanting to see her. We haven't told her, we don't want to frighten her. We're thinking of sending her to Aunt Christine's. She'll be safer there, until this blows over or they can arrest him. But they need proof."
Tess looked at Joe. There was more, but she'd read enough for now. She put the journal down, her gaze lingering on it. "They were afraid for me. Afraid of Trent hurting me again. I'm not so sure they were wrong, after the past few days. If I'd come home and learned Dad was ill, I would've wanted to stay, or at least visit often, and Trent clearly didn't intend to leave me alone. I wish they hadn't decided for me. I wish they'd talked it over with me."
"Tess, why did you allow me to think you didn't want to see them?"
She met Joe's look. "Because I didn't know why they kept me away. I thought they believed me guilty of leaving Spence alone to run off and party that night, that they were afraid I'd be a bad influence, or a danger to him. I could see how much you cared for them. What would you have thought if you knew what my parents had done and not why? I wasn't sure you'd even believe me." Tess spoke slowly, her grief resurfacing, but with a new depth. She no longer felt the shock, the resentment, the anger and confusion clouding her feelings for her family, but she missed them, and she would for a long time.
She brushed tears from her eyes. "I thought I'd lost their trust and love forever, through no fault of my own. I lost my little brother."
Joe took her in his arms. "It must've been hard for you, to feel alone all those years, to miss seeing Spence grow up. No wonder you buried yourself in your work."
"No. I--" she began, but paused as she met his gaze. She had done that for a long time. "Well, there are worse substitutes."
"Like last fall, when you celebrated Thanksgiving in a restaurant with another lonely friend and you got quietly drunk together?"
She winced at his words. "Harry had no right to tell you that."
"Harry cares a lot about you. A lot of people do."
They paused at a mew, and found two kittens sitting on the bed with them. Joe chuckled and said, "These two can't stand to be away from you for long, either."
The kittens took up their attention for a few minutes before they decided to continue on to the latest journal. Joe proposed that they work their way through it backward from the last entry, and he picked it up to read out loud.
"I spoke to Rose about Angie's call, and I begin to see things from a new perspective. I think she's jealous of Tess! It doesn't make sense, but I've been thinking a lot about Tess, and talking to Rose about her and her friends the past few days, ever since Peter Lloyd asked us about her. Rose must be sick to death of hearing me go on. I remember that boy Tess was dating, the one we thought was so terrible. Alan Stewart. I ran into him a few weeks ago. He was with his son, Tyler. I've never seen a more well-behaved or happier little boy. He reminded me of Spence at that age, or of Joseph. So, could Alan ever have been so bad? I mentioned him to Angie yesterday. She didn't say a word. In fact, she was a lot quieter than usual. It made me wonder why she called."
Joe paused and met Tess's gaze.
"That must have been after I called Angie to arrange my visit. She was keeping my call a secret. I wanted to surprise them, but I asked Angie to find out if they'd be in town for the holidays." Tess didn't voice the question in her mind. "I think she's jealous of Tess!" Had her mother written that about Rose or Angie? Tess glanced at Joe. He continued reading.
"Spence is upset about Trent, suddenly, insisting we talk to Tess about him. He's writing everything down that he remembers about that night. Karen is here helping him with it, though I don't see how she can. Spence seems to be on his own mission now. He's talking about evidence, he mentioned the car keys from that night. I don't know what to make of it. He worries me, he's so driven, and so angry. I'm sure there's something he's not telling us. Jim has agreed to call Tess. We do need to talk to her. We'll take our letters to the sheriff on Monday. Peter Lloyd is right, we can't let Trent continue to hurt people. I think Tess will agree, once she knows he's still at it.
"I'm so worked up worrying about this and about Spence that I'm not making sense, here where I usually sort things out. Jim is thinking of inviting Tess home for the holidays. That's the one joyful thing in all of this. I'm afraid to tell Spence. I don't want to get his hopes up."
Tess sat up, fighting tears again, but holding them in, wanting to get to the bottom of the questions.
"Joe, I think Karen knows more than she told me, about the blouse, and the keys. The other journal said the keys were missing from my mother's car after the accident. How could I have removed the keys? I was unconscious. Maybe those are the keys we found in Spence's backpack."
Joe nodded. "We need to talk to Karen again. We also need to tell the sheriff about the letters they wrote, and remind him of those keys." He glanced at his watch. "First you need to get to your appointment."
While Joe made a call to the sheriff, Tess helped Paige fold clean sheets. Paige told Tess she and Harry were leaving shortly to go back to Stoneway, get the last of their luggage, and check out.
"Harry needs to get back to L.A. The storm dumped a lot of rain in San Francisco, too. The printer there had a flood, so he has to get the files to our backup printer. I'll stay here with you for a couple more days, but Harry's heading back today. He's at Rose's house now, saying goodbye." Paige wore a pensive look. "We may need to move our whole operation up here."
"Don't worry, Paige. We'll work it out."
"I know, but you know how I hate change. Coming out here from the East Coast about ripped my guts out."
"Somehow I don't recall it being that gruesome," Tess teased.
"I kept it all inside."
"You came out here for me, because I said I wanted to live in California, didn't you."
Paige met her look and smiled benignly. "What else was I going to do? I pushed you into this business. The least I could do was let you live where you wanted." She was silent a few seconds and then said, "I called Daddy yesterday morning, while you were out driving around and I was worried about you. I told him you were burned out with the magazine and cookbooks. He said of course you were. He said it was time for you to start something new."
Tess met Paige's look. Paige smiled at her, and there was something in her eyes, a kind of acceptance and affection, that made Tess realize they would always be friends. "I love you, too," Tess said.
Paige's smile broadened. "You're not going to quit on us to become a stay-at-home mom, are you?"
Tess smiled. "I need time to step back and take stock of where I'm going. You and I will always be partners, you know, in one thing or another."
"In crime, no doubt." Paige continued to smile. "I told Daddy it looked like you might be starting something new already. He asked what. When I told him about the bakery, he said that's not what he meant. He said you need to start a new magazine. He suggested one having to do with art."
Tess paused, taking this in with renewed interest. She nodded. "It does make me want to think." She looked at Paige. "I always admired your dad."
"Me too." Paige was beaming now. "When are you getting married?"
"We haven't had a chance to talk about it, but I think soon. I don't want anything fancy, I just want to marry him quick. Whenever it happens, I want you and Harry to be there."
When Joe got off the phone he was in a hurry to leave. "Duane Prescott will meet us at Peter Lloyd's office and head to Karen Jensen's house with us," he told Tess on their way out.
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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