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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Angie drove like a maniac, sending Tess, without a seatbelt, lurching to one side or the other every time Angie swung around a curve. At one point, when Angie lost control of the car for an instant, Tess screamed.
"Shut up!" Angie snarled.
"Angie, why? I don't understand. When did you start hating me?"
"The night you ran away from Trent was the turning point. I rescued you, and later that night all you did was whine about your parents not letting you see Alan freaking Stewart anymore."
"I was upset, I'd been attacked."
"I saved your ass!" Angie turned toward her. "You dumped me for those moronic freaks, when I was busy trying to save Stoneway, and taking care of my grandfather who was dying! All you cared about anymore was painting with your new pals. You abandoned me like they did."
They? Tess realized all at once what Angie was talking about. "Like your parents?" They'd abandoned Angie and Kevin because of their drug habit.
Angie didn't answer. She wore a grim expression.
"I never meant to abandon you, Angie." Yes, she'd known Angie was busy working, and that her grandfather was sick. Tess had her studies, she was getting ready for college. Tess felt bad about that, but she'd been a kid herself. How could Angie think Tess's neglect of her excused blackmail and murder? So many deaths.
"You and your perfect life, your perfect parents who you didn't even appreciate. 'They don't understand me!' That's all you used to say about them. God, I was sick of hearing you whine about that. At least your parents didn't leave you with your grandfather so they could go off and be high for the rest of their lives. At least yours weren't spaced into oblivion, living on the Sacramento streets like sewage! Kevin and I would've been in foster homes if not for Granddad, and when he was dying my best friend was nowhere to be found. I tried to get you away from your new friends, by telling your parents that they were druggies, and that Alan was into weird religious rituals. It was working, too. They made you stop seeing Alan.
"But that night, I knew you didn't give a damn anymore about me. You were gone on Alan Stewart, whining how unfair your parents were. So I took your blouse out of your bag before you went home the next morning, and I called Trent Cambridge. I told him I'd go to the cops unless he paid me. I told him I had the torn blouse and could prove he'd tried to rape you. I told him I'd been looking in the windows. You'd told me the whole story, so I knew the details, right down to the painting in his living room."
Angie wore a crazed grin now. "He laughed! He said I'd called the wrong person, that he didn't have any money, but he would help me get the money I wanted from his father, if I cut him in. All I had to do was give him the blouse. I said fine, as long as we let his dad think it was you who was blackmailing him."
While she talked, Angie headed the car down the winding hill road. "Trent didn't get the blouse, but eventually your little brother did. I still don't know how he managed that, but I suspect it has something to do with Karen quitting her job. She started crying every time Kevin or I asked her for the passkey. Right after you called to make reservations, and I contacted your mom, Spence called me back and told me he had the blouse, that he was taking it to the sheriff along with a letter he'd written. I told Trent, and we waited outside the house for them that morning.
"Man, your dad looked scared when they came out and saw us on the snowmobiles, and he was stuck in that wheelchair. He tried to get up, but he fell. Spence had to help him back into his chair. They were so scared they drove off and left your dad's cane lying there in the snow beside the walkway.
"We followed them on the snowmobiles. I had my crossbow with me, and I wasn't about to lose Stoneway because of them, not after all the work I've done. I wanted to kill Spence, I was so angry, but I was shooting from the snowmobile and I hit one of the tires instead. The van skidded off the road and rolled down the slope into the trees. I retrieved the bolt from the road, and the sheriff didn't suspect a thing, until you got here."
Angie stopped the car. She turned off the engine and lights. Tess glanced out and saw that Angie had parked in the pullout at the curve where Tess's family had gone off the road. Tess knew in that instant that Angie intended to kill her. Tess desperately stalled for time.
She shifted around in her seat to face Angie. "They suspected something from the start. They know it was you, Angie. My family wrote letters to the sheriff."
Tess continued to work the tape off her hands. She nearly had it. A little longer, please!
Tess paused in her struggle while Angie looked at her for a few seconds before speaking. "Trent took the snowmobile a ways down the gully, where the slope isn't as steep, and he scrambled down there before help arrived. He pried open the glove box and found the letters they'd written. Then he swept his tracks with a tree branch. He didn't find the blouse though. It's still in your house somewhere, with your mother's keys. Doesn't matter. I'll find it."
"You can't hide this forever. You've gone too far."
Angie laughed. "This morning I overheard Paige ask Harry if Rose had told him where she was when Trent and I searched your house Wednesday. I could tell they were both concerned about Rose's missing time. She doesn't have an alibi, and she was the first one on the scene of your family's crash. So I planted some evidence in her car, and I sent the sheriff an anonymous note, outlining how Rose had been blackmailing Trent's father all these years, making him think it was you. The letter should get there tomorrow. That leaves me all night to find the blouse, the keys, and the original letters. Now that I have these." Angie nodded toward the two journals on the seat between her and Tess. All night? What about Joe? What had she done to Joe?
"Original letters?" Tess repeated.
"The ones Trent found in the glove box were copies. We burned them, but we never found the originals."
The tape had stretched, and Tess had worked it down over her hands, but it had stuck to them. It was working off.
"I told the sheriff today, I remember that night now," Tess said, lying to buy time, and hoping that her plan would work. She would have only one chance.
"I told him you were there at the house, the night of my accident. Spence and I were upstairs, and you drugged my lemonade. Then you and Trent dragged me out to my mom's car. I told Spence to go back to bed when he asked why I was crying. Remember that?"
Angie's eyes widened, and her face registered a new expression all at once. Shock, or worry?
"Were you the one driving my mom's car? No, that must have been Trent. He jumped out at the last minute and then moved me into the driver's seat after the accident. But you took the keys, didn't you, so you'd have evidence against him. So you could control him." Tess had her hands loose now.
Angie had turned her back, to get out of the car. She held a flashlight in one hand and the gun in the other. Now she rummaged in her pocket for something, with the flashlight in one hand. Where was the gun? Tess spotted it tucked into Angie's waistband.
Angie came around to Tess's door and opened it. Tess shifted so she faced Angie, to hide her hands, which were free now. Angie had a knife in one hand. Tess blinked her eyes as the flashlight came on, and she was temporarily blinded. Then Angie bent to cut the tape at her ankles. Angie couldn't be holding the flashlight and gun in the same hand. The gun must still be in her waistband. She stooped to cut the tape from Tess's ankles.
"What was the evidence you left in Rose's car?" Tess said as Angie freed her feet.
Angie paused, bent over with the knife still in her right hand.
Tess barreled out of the car into her, and heard the wind suck out of Angie's lungs as she hit the ground.
Tess felt around Angie's waist for the gun, while Angie flailed her arms, gasping for breath and striking at Tess with the knife. Tess felt the gun beneath her. She backed away enough to grab it and then rolled out of Angie's reach. Tess stood and backed away, trying to gauge, without looking behind her, how close she was to the drop off. She didn't dare take her eyes off Angie.
All of a sudden Angie laughed. "You won't shoot me. You can't shoot a deer! Look at you. You have no idea what you're doing with that thing."
Tess thought about that, and knew if Angie came a step nearer she would shoot. But she'd never used a gun before, so she wasn't certain she could operate the thing. Tess leveled the gun at her.
"I planted a crossbow and bolts with double-bladed broadheads in Rose's car, the same one I used to shoot the van's tire. Did you know when Rose and Trent were dating they used to practice archery together? Until she got fat again and he grew disgusted with her. I visited Alan's gallery last week, and I heard Rose mention she needed to learn something about hunting. I offered to loan her my books. She came to Stoneway to get them. She was fascinated with my crossbow and had never used one, so I let her fiddle around with it. Her fingerprints are all over it."
Angie moved closer to Tess. "Aren't you going to shoot me?" She kept coming closer.
Tess took aim and fired.
Then Tess was falling, sliding backwards, into the gully, falling and sliding in the snow down the steep slope. She flailed her arms, and then grasped at the branch of a bare shrub as her body slid over it. She grabbed and held on, the bark and smaller twigs scraping and biting into her hand as she shifted her grip to the thicker base of the branch, praying it wouldn't break. It held her weight, for now. She held onto the branch, which was all that kept her from tumbling the rest of the way down, through the snow and rocks, to the place where her family had died.
Tess held on, and peered up at the side of the road, wondering if Angie was dead, wondering if anyone would find her here before she lost her cold, bare-fingered grip and fell the rest of the way. Then she saw the beam from the flashlight. Angie's head appeared there above her. Angie towered above Tess, up there on the roadside, looking down from what seemed an immense height. The beam of the light hit Tess in the face, blinding her. She heard Angie laugh.
"You missed. Has a hell of a kick, doesn't it?"
The beam of the light moved. When Tess was able to focus, she saw that Angie held the gun now. She aimed it at Tess.
The bush Tess held onto had grown out beneath and to the left of a large overhanging rock. Tess shifted, and tried to squeeze herself against the face of the slope, under the rock where Angie couldn't see her. But Tess's fingers were numbing with the intense cold, her hands aching and shooting sharp pains up her forearms. She didn't know how long she could hold on, or how long the branch would. She strained to keep her grip while Angie simply moved further down the road, and took clear aim at Tess again. All Tess could do was hang there and pray.
Angie glanced over her shoulder at the sound of an engine, and Tess recognized the miraculous sound of Joe's truck, up on the road. It must be him, he must be alive. Then Tess heard another engine, and a flashing blue light reflected on Angie's face. The police?
"Stay away or I'll shoot her!" Angie yelled.
A male voice told her to put down the gun. It sounded like Duane Prescott. "Oh please!" Tess breathed, sobbing and fighting not to lose her grip on the branch. "Please don't let me fall now."
"Tess is down there, and I'll shoot her if you don't back off right now. Let me leave, and she lives. Tess, you'd better yell so they know you're there, because if they come any closer you're dead."
Another car drove up, and stopped.
"I'm here," Tess called in a desperately thin voice.
"Tess!" Joe called back. "Where are you?"
"Stay back!" Angie warned.
"Let me see her, Angie," Joe called. "Please."
"Over there, that's close enough. Move to the edge and you can see her," Angie motioned to him.
A few seconds later Joe spoke, some ways behind Tess. "Hold on, Tess. Honey, hold on. It'll be okay."
How could he say that? He sounded too calm. Tess nodded, wanting beyond all else to believe him.
Angie still held the gun on her, and Tess's hands and arms ached, her bare fingers growing numb and slick. Her grip threatened to give out any second. She looked at Angie again.
Then Tess heard a thwack and a surprised, gasping cry. Angie stumbled backward on her feet. Then Tess saw Angie's attention shift to something on the ground. She moved closer to the edge and bent to reach for it. The snow took her, giving way under her feet as it had under Tess. Angie toppled, screaming. She fell past Tess, and tumbled down the snowy slope, all the way to the bottom of the ravine.
Tess cried out, terrified of the same fate. But she held on, believing again that she might well survive. She listened to Joe's vibrant, deep voice, warmed to the sound of it, and followed his and Duane's instructions while Duane lowered Joe down on a rope to get to her. When at last Joe lifted her onto firm ground, he held her there for one long, wondrous, grateful minute.
"What happened to Angie?" Tess finally said, teeth chattering as she spoke, with reaction and cold. Distant sirens moved closer.
"Rose." Joe shifted his gaze from Tess, nodding toward the side of the road, where Rose stood holding a crossbow. Rose peered down into the darkness where Angie had fallen. As Duane approached with a flashlight, Rose turned and handed the crossbow to him.
"There was no way out for her," Rose told Duane as they moved closer to Tess. "She would've killed Tess once she realized that." Rose sounded calm. She looked serene. She reminded Tess of an angel.
Two more sheriff's cars arrived, sirens blaring and lights flashing. Duane directed them to where Angie had fallen. The other officers, and the search and rescue team who joined them minutes later, prepared to climb down there and get Angie out of the gully.
Rose came over to Tess and Joe. "Are you all right, Tess?" Now her voice quivered. She hugged them both, weeping.
"How did you get here?" Tess asked Rose and Joe, while Joe took tight hold of Tess's left arm and held her close to him in a protective, clinging embrace that Tess didn't understand. It reminded her of Jessica Laine.
"I was so worried about you, Joe! She hit you with the shovel." Tess tried to turn to face him, but he made her sit still. She wanted to hug him again, but he was more intent on gripping her arm.
"She only stunned me," he said with a grin. "I'll live. I don't need a doctor. You on the other hand--"
Tess turned to his sister. "Rose, how did you get here?"
"I was feeling glum after Harry and Paige left. I dawdled around the house and tried to write, but I couldn't concentrate. So I drove down to see you and Joe . . . and the kittens. I saw a light on, but no one answered the door. I could hear Joe groaning inside, so I went around and got in the back door, where Ned broke the glass. I found Joe tied up in the foyer. I cut him loose, and he ran out to his truck. He told me to stay and call for help. I could hear the sirens by then. Duane must've already been on his way. I ran out to my car and followed Joe. When I drove up, and saw the cars here, I opened the window and heard Angie threatening to shoot you. Then--it was the strangest thing. I looked down, and there was this crossbow beside me, on my front passenger's seat. It was like--a gift. Angie didn't notice I was here. She was focused on Duane and Joe." Rose looked into Tess's eyes. "I wasn't about to let her take you away from us."
Duane Prescott brought a blanket over. "I'll go to your house with you, Tess, to get statements from the three of you. That way you can all at least get warmed up."
"How did you get here when you did, Duane?" Tess asked him, still amazed at the miracle of them all coming to her aid when they had.
He shrugged. "I went to Stoneway looking for Angie. Kevin paged her, and I was right there beside Kevin in the office when Angie called and Kevin answered. He told her I was there, that I wanted to talk to her. She told him she was on her way. I could see the number she called from, on the phone's display. It was your number, Tess. She forgot about Caller ID."
He held the blanket out to Joe, who motioned for Rose to take it. She wrapped it around Tess, covering only one shoulder, while Joe still clung to Tess's left arm.
Duane's gaze shifted to Joe's hands, and he straightened. "We'd better get you to the hospital, Tess." He motioned them all toward his car.
"No. No, I want to go home. I'm fine."
"Tess, you're bleeding." Rose drew her attention to the gash on her left arm, where her jacket sleeve was soaked with blood, and she realized what Joe had been doing, putting pressure on it to control the bleeding.
"That's not all," Joe said. "You got cut up by the brush when you fell. Let's get you taken care of."
"I--" Tess stared at her arm. Angie must have cut her with the knife when Tess was grappling with her for the gun. She looked at Joe. "You can stitch it up, can't you, Joe? I don't want to go anywhere else tonight. Please." She wanted to collapse in his arms right now, and have a good cry. She started shaking, as reaction set in.
"Joe, if you think she can wait that long, I'll call Peter," Duane offered. "He can meet us at his office. Heck, if I sweet talk him, he might come out here to take care of you, Tess. Peter used to work in an ER." He grinned and gestured at Joe. "This guy's a vet, you know, whatever he's told you. Come on. I have a first aid kit."
Duane glanced down the ravine again as they moved toward his marked vehicle. The other officers were rigging ropes and a back board. "Do you think Angie's alive?" Rose asked.
Duane shook his head. "I doubt it, after that descent. There are some deadly rocks and tree branches down there. We can't see where she landed yet. But there's a chance. The snow may have broken her fall. They'll get to her, and if she's alive she'll get medical care. Shooting her in the hand," Duane said, looking at Rose, "you took an awfully big chance of missing altogether with that thing."
Rose shuddered visibly. "I did miss. I was aiming at her torso. I thought trying to shoot the gun out of her hand was too risky for Tess." Rose looked at Joe. "I've never used a crossbow before. I'm lucky I didn't shoot one of you."
Joe looked at her in disbelief for several seconds. He looked about to laugh at her exploits, but didn't.
"I should've told you when you first arrived that Angie had discouraged your parents from having you visit," Rose told Tess as they neared Duane's vehicle. "I made a promise to myself a long time ago, never to gossip. I--" She shook her head. "I didn't want to be like Angie. I thought she was only jealous of you, like your mother thought. I never dreamed Angie would resort to violence. She'd told your mother you kept in touch with her all these years--with Angie--and you didn't want to come home, because of your accident and the gossip. She told them you didn't tell them that because you didn't want to hurt them. I hoped you'd learn the truth from Cathy's journals, so I kept quiet."
"So tell us, Rose, what were you so busy doing when Trent and Angie ransacked Tess's house the other day?" Joe asked her.
"I'd like to hear that too," Duane said. He held the door for Tess, and Joe climbed into the back beside her.
Once they were all in and he'd started the engine, Duane looked over at Rose. "Well?"
"You were writing, weren't you, Rose?" Tess said, in a knowing tone.
Rose looked back at her and nodded, smiling mildly. "I ran into the house to jot down a single thought. I got so caught up in the story I completely lost track of time."
Joe frowned at her. "That's nuts, Rose."
"No." Tess knew the experience of losing herself in the flow of her creative work. "That's art."
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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