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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In spite of being the county seat, Wilder wasn't a much bigger town than Cedar Creek. From the main street where Tess parked, the peaks overlooking the town appeared to loom close, obscuring a large expanse of sky. Sunlight brightened patches of deep green and a few thickets of deciduous trees clad in fall color peeked from under their coats of snow on the timbered mountainsides. Conifers marched, straight and tall, down to mingle with the historic streets, shading the false fronts of buildings from an earlier era and filling the sun-warmed air with their resinous perfume.
Tess had arrived a few minutes early, after all, so she stopped in at the diner next to the doctor's office and bought coffee in a paper cup. It turned out to be so bitter and thick it was undrinkable. She took only a couple of sips before she paused to pour the dark liquid into the gutter in front of the doctor's office.
Dr. Lloyd opened his door. "You must be Tess Hunter." He chuckled when he saw what Tess was doing. "I should've warned you about that. I've made us some decent coffee inside. I honestly don't know how they stay in business." He held the door for her.
The doctor was tall and lean, in his late thirties. He was a good looking man, with pale, blue-gray eyes, a largish nose, and golden tanned skin. His hair, possibly once the darker shade of brown still evident in his eyebrows, was bleached by the sun to a flaxen shade. He must spend a lot of time outdoors. In fact he appeared ready to spend today outside, for he was clothed in casual clothes and boots suitable for hiking in the snow. Tess spotted what appeared to be a tackle box on the reception desk.
She followed him through the tiny front waiting room lined with windows and furnished with threadbare chairs, and she recalled this had once been a barbershop. He led her into the reception office, where a coffee maker gurgled its last few drips into a glass carafe. Dr. Lloyd busied himself pouring their coffee, and Tess asked him how long he'd been here.
"In Wilder about four and a half years. In this office, if I may be so bold as to call it that, only about three months. How do you take your coffee?" He smiled, a relaxed, easy grin that made her feel at ease. Tess thought his patients must like him. He exhibited none of the distant coldness too many doctors adopted as a professional demeanor. Even her father had been a bit brusque, and frequently too serious to invite open conversation.
Eventually they both sat in the back office space, which was separated by a thin wall partition and privacy curtain from the single small examining room Tess glimpsed as they walked through. Dr. Lloyd brought out a file folder, and Tess sat in a chair forced too close to his desk for comfort in the tiny office. She sipped her coffee and delayed asking her questions, by inviting his.
"Why did you want to talk to me, Dr. Lloyd?"
He shook his head. "That can wait. First, I understand you have questions about your father. Joe Latimer called me last night. He said you didn't know your dad had MS?"
"MS." She repeated the acronym, wondering why her mother had never mentioned it to her. Of all the things she'd kept from Tess over the years, that made the least sense of all.
She nodded. "I know what MS is, and the sheriff mentioned a wheelchair, but I didn't know my father was ill. I only learned about it after I got here last night--from Joe. My family never mentioned his illness."
Dr. Lloyd's face registered deepening concern. "I'm sorry. I didn't realize. I had the impression you and your family kept in touch." He placed the folder on the desk and focused his attention on her.
"We exchanged cards and letters, and occasional phone calls, but I haven't actually seen them in years. My parents didn't want to see me."
Dr. Lloyd's troubled look intensified, but he said nothing.
"You see, something happened, when I was seventeen." There was a kind acceptance in his silence that made her feel comfortable enough to explain. "There was an auto accident that I was blamed for. I'd stayed home that night to baby-sit Spence. He was six years old. They said later I took off in my mother's car and smashed it into a shop at the bottom of the first hill heading into town. I was injured, and they found alcohol and barbiturates in my blood. I don't think my parents ever forgave me, or believed me about it." She stopped because of the look on his face.
Dr. Lloyd's pale eyes remained intent on her. "What do you say happened?"
"I don't remember. I recall baking cookies and playing a board game with Spence, then getting him ready for bed. I don't remember getting into the car, or having an accident. I wouldn't have gotten drunk at all, let alone while I was watching Spence. I didn't use drugs--I never have--and I would never have gone off and left him alone in the house. My parents believed I did, though. They had . . . mistaken ideas, about my friends and me. They thought we were getting into trouble, but we weren't, and I've never understood why they thought that. I kept up my grades, and I had a part-time job. I wasn't an angel, but I was basically a pretty good kid. I'd stopped going to church, and I know that upset my mother. My newer friends from my art classes wore clothing my parents didn't like. We explored different spiritual paths. My boyfriend at the time was a Pagan, and he gave me a pentacle necklace. My mother found it in my room along with some books he'd loaned me to read, and, well, she had a fit. She and I had a horrible fight, and my parents made me stop seeing him. That was a few days before my accident."
After forcing her to break up with Alan Stewart, her parents had set her up with Trent Cambridge, a local banker's son whose father her father knew socially. Tess recalled Trent with a shudder, and she avoided that memory, focusing on the night of her accident.
"Something happened, that night, something I don't remember. I was unconscious for a couple of days, in the hospital. When I woke up, I learned the sheriff believed I was at fault for the accident. My parents did too, I'm sure. They sent me to live with my great-aunt in Seattle, after I got out of the hospital, and I stayed with her until I left for college. They kept me away. I've always suspected my parents were afraid to have me around Spence after that."
Tess went on. "That's not why I'm here, Dr. Lloyd. There are things I need to know, about my family's recent lives. Can you tell me how long my father had MS, and do you know when he retired?"
Dr. Lloyd was silent, his gaze now on the far wall, a frown darkening his pale blue eyes. He seemed to have withdrawn from her.
"You don't want to talk to me now," Tess said, her old feelings of rejection coming to the fore, easily taking hold of her. She started to get up.
"Wait. Yes, of course I want to talk to you, Tess. I'm sorry, you reminded me of someone else for a minute. I had no idea there was anything like this--mistrust, or the distance you describe--in your parents' relationship with you. They spoke of you affectionately. I understand your need to gain some closure."
He took wire framed eyeglasses from his pocket and put them on. Then he read from the file he'd opened on the desk in front of him earlier. "Let's see when your father first reported symptoms." He read off the date, a day in April, the spring following her accident.
Tess had been living with her great-aunt in Seattle then. Aunt Christine had been her father's aunt, surely she'd known about his diagnosis. Tess blinked tears from her eyes, but they kept coming. Dr. Lloyd put the file and his glasses aside and produced a box of tissues. He remained silent, letting her cry.
"Dr. Lloyd," she finally said, folding her hands in her lap.
"My name is Peter." When she hesitated, he added, "Your parents called me Peter. Your father wasn't only a patient. Jim was a friend, and a source of sound advice. I arrived in Wilder with a lot of misconceptions about this type of medical practice, and I shared several dinners at their house with your parents and brother, while Jim brought me up to speed."
"Peter, when did my father retire?"
He consulted the folder again. "I helped him with the documentation. He applied for disability retirement four years ago."
"Can you think of any reason why they would keep all of this from me? Should I know about anything else? Could they have intended not to worry me?" She felt disgusted with herself. It seemed self-centered to worry about what they'd thought about her all these years, or what they'd kept from her, more than about the course of her father's disease. But her father was gone now. She dried her tears and sat up straighter. "I've always hoped they had other reasons, besides the ones I've suspected."
Dr. Lloyd shook his head. "I don't know of anything else. I was your father's primary care physician. You might want to talk to the specialist he was seeing." He gave her the name and phone number.
Tess thanked him. "You had something you wanted to ask me."
Dr. Lloyd's eyebrows bunched together. He hesitated. "Your father didn't call you the day before his accident?"
"No. It was usually my mother who called, but she hadn't recently. I'd called her a couple weeks earlier. Why?"
"Your dad told me during our last meeting, the day before he was killed, that he planned to contact you, to approach you about a problem here. I hesitate to ask you now. This is a bad time for you, but it is pressing."
"Tell me. I can always say no, right?" She was curious to know what her father would've wanted her help with.
"He was going to ask if you'd be willing to talk to someone about Trent Cambridge's attack on you eleven years ago."
Tess went rigid, and felt a sudden, intense need to escape. "No--" She stood up. "No. I can't tell you anything about that." She left his cramped office, moving quickly out to the waiting room. He got up and followed her.
A sheriff's car pulled up out front as Tess reached the front waiting room. She paused, looking out the front window. A uniformed officer got out of the car. Tess turned back to Dr. Lloyd.
"Why? Tell me why." She glanced outside again. The officer appeared to look in the front window at her, then leaned against the car, his back to the office. "Is that who you wanted me to talk to?" Tess gestured at the uniformed man.
Dr. Lloyd stood with his hands on his hips, looking resigned. "Duane Prescott, yes. He's investigating the sexual assault of a teenage girl a few days ago."
Tess turned fully around to face the doctor. "By Trent?"
"He's not sure, but he thinks so. She says so. Tess, I'm sorry I've upset you with this. I thought maybe you could help. Your father seemed to think you might be willing, but I realize this is the worst time to remind you of that."
"There's nothing I can tell him, in any case."
"Are you certain? They don't have anything but the victim's word to go on about who assaulted her. No DNA evidence."
"They wouldn't--" Tess froze, looking at Dr. Lloyd's eyes but not seeing them. Remembering. She shook her head. "No. I'm sorry, I truly am, but I have to go."
She went outside, where she looked only briefly in the deputy's direction. He met her look and nodded. Tess started up the sidewalk in the opposite direction. She hazarded another glance back as she continued in the direction of the county building, and she saw the deputy had walked over to talk to Dr. Lloyd, who stood outside on the sidewalk.
Tess walked past her car, and entered the county building a short ways up the block. She told the woman at the desk that she needed information about the Hunter family's accident. She identified herself, and the woman said Sheriff Kendall would speak to her himself. Tess sat on a hard wooden bench in the outer office and fidgeted for the next two minutes.
Her dad had wanted her to talk to the sheriff about Trent. Why? Her dad hadn't believed her about anything, back then, including her accident. Now she was about to talk to the sheriff about her dad's death in an accident. "It's too late," she murmured, and realized she was repeating Joe Latimer's words to her. It's too late now, Tess.
Tess dreaded walking into the sheriff's office. If he planned to ask her about Trent, she wasn't prepared to answer. How could she think about that when she still hadn't digested the news about her family, still hadn't convinced herself they were gone, hadn't begun to fathom the depths of her grief?
Sheriff Kendall came out of his office wearing a grim expression. He appeared to be in his mid fifties. He greeted Tess in a subdued manner, clearly conscious of her loss. He led her into his office and offered her coffee, which she refused. She wanted to get down to business, to get this ordeal over with.
His office was larger than the doctor's, but stark and cold, with a frosted window reinforced with chicken wire and no blinds. Tess found herself gazing at the blind window, feeling as trapped as she had in her office in L.A.
As it turned out, Sheriff Kendall didn't mention Trent Cambridge at all. He spoke only of the accident that had killed Tess's family. He told her there was unusual tire damage and his department was still investigating the crash.
"When we spoke on the phone, you mentioned the possibility that ice caused the crash?"
He shook his head. "It was a fair assumption to start with, and there was patchy ice on some roads that morning, but the witness who saw the van go over reported no ice on that stretch of road. It had been plowed the afternoon before, and the van left skid marks. We found damage to one tire--"
"There was a witness? Were other cars involved?"
He shook his head. "The witness saw the van roll down the bank from a distance away. She also spotted a snowmobile in the area, but whoever was riding it hasn't come forward. They may not have seen anything. These things can happen in an instant." He went on to describe the exact location of the accident, a curve Tess easily recognized from his description.
She shivered involuntarily. "Can you explain the tire damage?"
"It appears to be from a sharp object. It made a clean cut in the sidewall of the tire. The forensics people have it now. We didn't find any hazard in the road."
"If it wasn't an accident, then it was. . ." Tess hesitated, trying to think of another alternative.
"Foul play." Sheriff Kendall said this with a concerned frown. "For now we're considering all possibilities, including that of an accident. We haven't drawn any conclusion yet. We're still examining the evidence."
"You mean murder?" She had trouble wrapping her thoughts around that notion. Who would want to kill the three of them? Why?
He nodded. "That's one possibility."
"Who was driving?" Her question brought back a flood of memories for Tess, and they seemed to hang in the air. The sheriff's silence made Tess imagine for a moment that he remembered, too, but if he did remember another accident, eleven years ago, it would've been hundreds of accidents ago for him. Surely it wasn't as memorable to him as it was to Tess, who'd been blamed for it. The strange thing was, she knew less about her own accident than she knew about the one that killed her family.
Sheriff Kendall's expression grew more grim. "Your brother Spence was driving. I'm truly sorry for your loss, Ms. Hunter." He gave her the information she needed to have her family's remains moved to a mortuary. "We'll release their personal effects to you as soon as we're finished with them."
Tess got up to leave, then turned to the sheriff at the door. "Who was the witness?"
"A neighbor. Rose Latimer."
Tess went from the sheriff's office to the mortuary, where she arranged for her family to be cremated and scheduled a simple memorial service for Thursday. At the newspaper office she wrote up an obituary. The paper was a Sunday weekly, so it wouldn't appear prior to the funeral. She had a lot of calls to make, to ensure people knew about the service.
Tess returned to her rental car, still parked in front of Dr. Lloyd's office. The doctor came out to get into his truck, carrying the tackle box she'd seen earlier.
He nodded to her. "I thought I'd fit some fishing in while the sun's out." His expression reminded her of a boy sneaking out of school midday.
She paused beside his truck. "Peter, you mentioned you ate dinner with my family a few times. Do you have any idea who might be a good choice to offer a eulogy? The funeral director suggested it should be someone who was close to all of them."
The doctor sobered and thought for only a few seconds before he said, "What about Joe Latimer? He was a frequent visitor at the house, and his sister Rose was a good friend of your mother's."
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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