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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"What throws me is Ned Cambridge thinking I blackmailed him," Tess said on the drive back from Wilder to the Jensens' house. They were in her rental car. Joe was driving. The sky was fading to dusk already, with a new batch of clouds moving in, thankfully without the same threat they'd held two days ago. "Ned Cambridge is the last person I'd take money from." Tess caught herself and sent Joe a guilty look. "I'm sorry."
He grinned. "It's okay. I don't think he ever intended to fund my project. I was a fool to let him string me along the way he did."
"You didn't suspect me of blackmailing Ned, did you, when you first heard that?"
"Maybe for about half a second, and only because I was in shock at the time. I'm more concerned about Rose's possible involvement in what's been going on."
"Why? You know Rose better than you know me."
"Because she had more reason--"
"Trent tried to rape me!"
"--and maybe less resilience. You didn't let yourself be traumatized for long, did you." He didn't ask it, he stated it. "I know you're afraid of Trent, and what happened on Wednesday terrified you, for good reason, but it's not a morbid or unreasonable fear, is it? It's not the fear it would have been if he'd succeeded back then."
"Your accident had a more lasting effect, because it robbed you of your family." She nodded, but he didn't see it. He watched the road ahead. "Tell me about that night again. Every detail you can remember. See yourself there."
Tess sighed. She didn't want to go over it again, but she needed any answers she could find in those memories. "My parents went to dinner with friends."
"I'm not sure. They left a note with the number on the refrigerator. They always did that. When they left, Spence and I were in the kitchen eating our dinner. When we finished, I cleaned up and then made cookie dough. I opened the back door and all the windows, to keep the oven from heating up the house too much. We played a board game. A couple of friends called, but I told them I was busy. I let Spence have warm cookies, with milk. I drank lemonade. We played his board game until it was time for his bath. He was only six, so he had an early bedtime, eight-thirty, I think. I stayed upstairs to read to him."
Tess paused, blinking. "After that I woke up, in the hospital. But what I remembered this Wednesday must've come after his bath. I was standing in the foyer, telling Spence to go back to bed. He asked me why I was crying."
"Were you frightened?"
Tess looked at Joe. "I don't know. The memory makes me feel numb, sad, and . . . fuzzy." She shook her head, shaking off that feeling. Then she looked at Joe. "I was drugged. It must have been after I was drugged. Now that I think back, it's close to the way I felt at Trent's, a couple of nights earlier, when he drugged me, only this was more pronounced."
"If you were under the influence of drugs then, but not earlier, you must have been drugged somehow after you gave Spence his bath. Think back. Did you lock up the house before you and Spence went upstairs for his bath?"
"No. It was a hot night. Besides, we rarely locked up the house until everyone went to bed."
"Think about this, Tess. Did you eat or drink anything after you put Spence to bed and returned downstairs?"
She tried to recall, but finally shook her head. "I don't know."
"You'd been drinking lemonade earlier, you said. Did you take it upstairs with you?"
"I don't think so. I don't know."
"Who knew you were at home alone with Spence that night? Which friends called you?"
"Alan, and a girl whose name I don't recall. I barely knew her."
"We'd been dating, until a few days earlier, when my parents insisted I stop seeing him. He called me that night to ask if they'd changed their mind, or if I had."
"The girl whose name you don't recall. Would she have any reason to want to hurt you?"
"No. I didn't know her. She was someone from Mom's church. Mom was trying to get me to start attending again."
"Why were your parents so worried about your friends, and you going to church?"
"Good question. My parents decided my newer friends were somehow leading me astray. Honestly, Mom kept talking about Alan as if he were a criminal. You know Alan. I have no idea why she was so suspicious of him. She had no good reason."
Joe didn't comment on Alan. "Did anyone else know you'd be home that night? Who did you tell earlier?"
"I'd planned it a week or so in advance. A lot of my friends knew. The people at Stoneway knew. Angie knew. I worked part-time in the kitchen there that summer."
"Did you mention to Trent, during your date, that you'd be home with Spence that night?"
"No. That was a one-sided conversation, all about Trent's car and his skiing trips, hunting and things like that."
"Skiing and hunting? Did Trent know Angie back then? Could she have mentioned to him where you were going to be that night?"
Tess looked at Joe. "Angie knew who he was, but-- No, you see, Angie knew he'd tried to rape me. She was the only person who knew. I hadn't told anyone else."
Joe frowned at her. "When did you tell Angie?"
"The night Trent tried to rape me. I had a bad feeling about him driving me to his house after dinner, without asking me first. His parents and sister were out of town. When he went to his kitchen to get our drinks, I called Mom to tell her where I was. Then I called Angie. I gave her the phone number and asked her to come get me if I paged her from there. She had the beeper for the airport shuttle. She used to drive it on the regular driver's day off. I didn't call her back, but someone called while Trent was on top of me. He let it ring. Angie said later that was her. When there was no answer she started to worry. She drove up and found me on the road, running away from his house. She rescued me. She was the only one who knew about him trying to rape me, until after my accident, when I told my parents."
A sudden thought occurred to Tess. She picked up the two journals on the seat between them, turned on the dome light because dusk had fallen, and thumbed through the earlier one.
"What are you looking for?"
"When I told my parents what Trent had done, I told them to ask Angie about it, because I was afraid they didn't believe me. They assured me they would, but Angie says they never did. That doesn't fit, does it? They would've asked her."
Joe pulled up in front of the Jensen house, and nodded toward the marked sheriff's vehicle already there. "Here's Duane." He opened his door.
Tess would have to look through the journal later. She opened her own door and got out, still thinking about Trent, and that evening at his guest house. He'd drugged her. She tried to recall how the drug had made her feel, comparing that feeling to her fuzzy memory of seeing Spence on the stairs a couple of nights later. She'd sat on Trent's couch, looking at a painting on his wall.
Tess suddenly made a connection. "The painting!" She paused on the front steps of the Jensen house, and saw in her mind's eye the painting in the dining room at Stoneway. The same painting Trent had on the wall of his guest house eleven years ago. A hunt scene. "But why?"
Joe turned to look at her. So did Duane Prescott, his finger already pressing the Jensens' doorbell.
Margaret Jensen came to the door. She didn't look happy to see the three of them, but she let them in and called her husband out to the front room.
"We'd like to speak to Karen, Mr. Jensen," Duane said in a formal tone.
Hank Jensen didn't argue or ask questions. He told his wife to get Karen and invited them into the family room.
"I called Kevin Norwood yesterday, after you left here," Hank Jensen told Tess. "I told him you found the passkey, that it was in safe hands. I insisted they pay Karen, or I'd take it up with my attorney. Angie Norwood delivered a check here for Karen, a few minutes ago. Do you still have that key?"
"No." Tess gestured toward Duane in his blue uniform. "The sheriff does."
Karen came into the room from the kitchen, and took a seat beside her mother. She didn't look happy, in spite of having gotten her paycheck. Tess saw something more than grief written in her face. Something besides losing Spence still troubled her.
Duane, already primed from his conversation with Joe earlier, started right in. "Karen, according to Cathy Hunter's journal, you helped Spence write a letter to the sheriff about Trent Cambridge."
Karen opened her mouth. Her mother turned to look at her.
"Can you tell us what was in that letter?"
Karen shook her head no, slowly.
"I understand you used to work at Stoneway until a few days ago," Duane went on, undeterred. "What kind of work did you do there?"
"Did you clean the guests' rooms?"
"Sometimes, but I usually worked on the ground floor, cleaning the common rooms and the offices." Karen chewed her lower lip.
Duane nodded. "Sounds like a decent job. Why'd you quit?"
Karen took a deep breath and looked at her mother. "I needed to spend more time studying."
"Karen, there were some items in Spence's backpack that we're curious about. One was a blouse that had been torn."
Her eyes were wide now.
"Tess Hunter identified the blouse as hers, but says she lost it eleven years ago. She doesn't know how it got into Spence's possession. Do you?"
Karen's eyes had filled with tears. She nodded, sobbing. Her mother held her close and handed her a tissue. It was a moment before Karen appeared ready to speak.
"Karen," Duane said softly. "Did that blouse have anything to do with you quitting your job?"
"I couldn't go back there again, to Stoneway. I was too scared. I didn't think anyone would believe me, and I knew what they did to Spence's sister, years ago. They almost killed her. They ruined her reputation; people still gossip about her. Spence made me promise not to say anything or go back. He wanted me to be safe. So I called and told Kevin Norwood that I needed to quit to keep up with school. Angie called me back and tried to get me to stay on until after the holidays, but I said no, so she told me to come by as soon as I could to return my key, and she'd cut my last paycheck."
Karen looked from Joe to Duane, then drew a shuddering breath.
"That key," Duane said. "Was it one of those new plastic cardkeys? Can't they void those?"
"No. This was for the offices. It was a regular metal key. Spence offered to return it for me, so I gave it to him. That's why he's dead." Karen broke down in tears again.
Duane looked at Tess and Joe, and they all waited for Karen to stop crying long enough to continue talking. Hank Jensen got up and offered them coffee, looking disturbed, as if he needed to escape while his daughter wept. Karen's mother remained beside her on the sofa with one arm around her. Hank came back with hot drinks about the same time Karen's sobs subsided.
"Karen, I know this is upsetting for you," Duane said, "but why were you scared to go back to Stoneway? What scared you?"
Karen took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "I overheard an argument, a few days before Spence's accident."
"Will you tell me what you overheard?"
Karen nodded. "I was trying to get a chance to clean Angie's office."
Karen finally began talking freely now. She painted a thorough picture for them of the scene she'd witnessed. Tess felt something die inside her as she listened.
Karen had stood outside the office, in front of the reception desk, waiting. Angie never wanted Karen to clean while she was working in her office, and she'd been in there all day, so Karen hadn't had a chance to get to it. Now she feared Angie would be angry if it didn't get cleaned today. So Karen waited for Angie to come out, planning to ask her if she could clean it now. She'd stowed her cleaning cart out of the way in the next room, because Angie hated it to be left sitting in the lobby.
The office door was closed, and Angie was in there talking to someone in an angry tone.
"Ned wants the blouse," Angie said. "He says the statute of limitations has run out, or something like that. He sounds like a freaking lawyer. If we give him the blouse he'll pay this last time, but that's it. If we don't give it to your dad he says he's going to turn us in."
"Us?" a male voice said.
"Well, Tess." Angie chuckled.
"So give him the blouse."
Angie said something in a low tone that Karen couldn't hear.
The man said, "You want me to do one of your guests?"
"Yes, and bring back some evidence. We'll keep milking your dad. He won't want a scandal. He'll figure out he's not dealing with Tess, but he still won't know who we are."
"Are you nuts? This is getting out of hand, Angie."
"Oh, have you suddenly developed a conscience? Excuse me. Don't try to tell me you haven't raped anyone since you tried it with Tess. I won't believe it. I doubt she was the first."
"Let's give the blouse to him. It's making me nervous. He's always asking me where I get my money."
Angie laughed. "Where do you get all your money? You've never worked a day in your life."
"Just give him the damned blouse!"
Karen heard a slide and bang like the slamming of a drawer shut. "That's where the blouse is staying."
The office door had been closed, but now the doorknob turned, with a small noise. Karen moved. She scurried behind the big, stuffed black bear next to the reception desk, and she stayed there behind the bear as the man strode out into the lobby. She peered past the bear's outstretched foreleg and paw. The man was Trent Cambridge. She'd seen him visit Angie here before.
Trent stopped, turned around, and looked about to walk back into Angie's office. He stood in the lobby for a minute, breathing hard, looking furious. Karen feared he would come past her and see where she hid, and it was all she could do to keep still and quiet, but eventually Trent went out the front door.
As Karen described seeing Trent leave, she looked forlorn, and near tears again. "He must have done what Angie told him to do, because that's the night Gail was raped in that parking lot."
"What?" Hank Jensen said. He'd been pacing while his daughter told her story.
Karen glanced at him. "That's the night he raped Gail."
She turned back to Duane. "By the time I heard about it, I'd already called Kevin, to quit my job. After I heard what happened to Gail, I told Spence about the argument I'd heard, that I was afraid to go back there. Spence offered to return the passkey for me. I told Spence about the bottom desk drawer Angie always kept locked. I'd seen her stop to lock it, or check that it was locked, whenever she left her office to let me clean.
"Spence went there late one night and used my passkey to get into Angie's office. He broke into that drawer. He found the blouse there, and a set of keys. Spence found out later they were his mom's keys, the ones missing from Tess's accident. Spence wrote a letter to take to the sheriff, and he got me to write one about the argument I'd heard. The morning of their accident, they were planning to see the sheriff with those letters."
"But they didn't take the blouse with them that morning," Tess said. "It was in Spence's backpack, in his room."
"They wanted to make sure the sheriff would listen first, that it was enough to prove you didn't cause that accident. They were worried about that, because it made you look bad that it was never resolved. Spence had always been angry about that, about the gossip. They thought your accident was an attempted murder."
"Karen, have you told anyone else about this?" Duane asked her.
"No. The only one I told before tonight was Spence. He told his parents, but they were the ones who warned us not to talk about it. They told me I should tell my parents." She looked at her mom. "But I was afraid you'd never let me get another job."
"You're only sixteen," Margaret Jensen told her daughter. "You'll have plenty of time for jobs, once you're done with school."
"Can you do anything about this?" Hank Jensen asked Duane, visibly upset. He'd been on his feet for the past few minutes, pacing, while his daughter told her story. "Karen's not in danger, is she? Angie was just here."
Duane called for a deputy to watch the Jensens' house. He left to head over to Stoneway, to pick Angie up for questioning.
Tess and Joe went out to their car in silence, and drove back to Tess's house. Full darkness had fallen, and the porch light was off. Tess followed Joe up to the door, and then remembered the journals, still in the car. "I'll be right in." She went back for them while Joe unlocked the front door.
Tess had just opened the car door when she heard an odd noise inside the house, a thud and then a groan.
"Joe?" she called. The front door was still open. She ran up the steps to the house--and stopped outside the front door.
Angie stood in the doorway of the study with a shovel in her hands. She dropped it, then looked out and saw Tess. She pulled a handgun out of her jacket and aimed it at Tess. She came out and closed the front door behind her, as Tess caught a glimpse of Joe lying on the entry hall floor.
"Joe!" Tess called. "What did you do to him?"
Angie held the gun on Tess, and ordered her over to the car. There she told her to turn around, and she taped Tess's hands behind her with duct tape--possibly the same tape Joe had used earlier on Ned Cambridge. She worked quickly and then opened the passenger door. "Get in the car." Once Tess was in, Angie taped her ankles together as well. She did all this in a hurry, as if every second counted.
"Don't go anywhere," she said with a laugh. "I'll be right back." Angie closed the car and locked it, then ran back to the house, while Tess fought frantically with the tape on her wrists. She found, by feeling with her fingers, that in her haste Angie hadn't put many layers of the tape on, two at the most, and there was one spot where she'd left a narrow section of one layer without any overlap. Tess hoped to be able to tear it. She worried about what Angie was doing inside the house, to Joe, or to anything or anyone else. Paige had still been here when they left, waiting for Harry to get back from visiting Rose so she could take him to the airport. That was a good three hours ago. Had Paige returned?
Was Joe alive? Tess felt desperate to know, and this only served to make her more frantic to get out of her bonds. Angie was gone for several minutes, so she had enough time to get one end of the tape loose. If only she could reach it with her teeth. It was so sticky, even where she'd loosened it, that it was difficult to make progress.
Angie came back out and closed the front door behind her. She slid into the driver's seat of the rental car and put on her seatbelt. Then she placed the gun on her lap, pointed in Tess's direction. She inserted the ignition key, which had been in Joe's hand when he entered the house, and started the car.
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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