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Six years ago, Henrie O's beloved newspaperman husband Richard lost his life on the Hawaiian island of Kauai. Now, on a brisk March morning, a chilling message has arrived by Priority Mail claiming Richard's fatal fall from a towering island cliff was no accident--it was murder. Following cryptic clues and her infallible instincts to a lush and verdant tropical Eden--andto the lavish mountaintop estate of wealthy matriarch Belle Ericcson, where Richard spent his final days--the determined sexagenarian sleuth ...
Six years ago, Henrie O's beloved newspaperman husband Richard lost his life on the Hawaiian island of Kauai. Now, on a brisk March morning, a chilling message has arrived by Priority Mail claiming Richard's fatal fall from a towering island cliff was no accident--it was murder. Following cryptic clues and her infallible instincts to a lush and verdant tropical Eden--andto the lavish mountaintop estate of wealthy matriarch Belle Ericcson, where Richard spent his final days--the determined sexagenarian sleuth becoems privy to terrible allegations of greed and jealousy, adultery and abuse...and of a mystery surrounding the kidnap-slaying of Belle's eldes child CeeCee. But now that her search for the truth has brought Henrie O to this lethal paradise where giant palm fronds hide evil deeds from inquisitive eyes, she may never be allowed to leave alive. Because the deaths did no begin or end with Richard Collins...and someone's dark and enduring homicidal passions have yet to be fully satisfied.
I struggled to breathe. If I'd come upon a cobra, hood flared, deadly tongue flickering, I could not have been more transfixed.
Yet, once my eyes saw the shiny white posterboard in its entirety, once my vision encompassed all of it—the cut-out pictures and story, the artfully pasted letters, the single stark sketch, and the taped plastic bag—a sickening acceptance washed over me.
The glistening cardboard had been folded in half to slip easily into the postal service's two-day, red-white-and-blue priority mailer. No cover letter, no note, no return name and address, simply the decorated posterboard.
I opened the envelope casually, standing by the walnut butler's table in my narrow entryway. I had no sense of impending drama, no inkling that my life would never be the same.
I unfolded the poster. There were six separate representations:
The first was my late husband Richard's obituary with the accompanying one-column news photo and the caption "Richard Lattimer Collins." A red pencil had underlined the words: Collins fell to his death at the remote cliff side home of Belle Ericcson on the island of Kauai. Ericcson is a legendary foreign correspondent whose credits include Vietnam, the Six-Day War and El Salvador.
I was swept by the hideous sense of emptiness I'd felt when I'd held a current newspaper in my hand, seen the story that spelled an end to the invincible joy of a happy marriage. I'd written obits in the course of almost a half century as a newspaper reporter. That's how young reporters started in my early days. It became a quick, automatic ordering of the facts of a life, typewriter keys clacking. I didn't realize then the pain of seeing aloved one's existence reduced to lines of type:..."Survivors include his wife of thirty-nine years, Henrietta O'Dwyer Collins; his daughter, Emily Collins Drake, and her husband, Warren; two grand children, Diana and Neal Drake. Collins was preceded in death by his son, Robert Lattimer Collins . . ."
The second consisted of cut-out letters and numerals in two straggly lines, forming the dates March 30 and April 1.
March 30 held no significance for me. April 1 was the day Richard died. I could never laugh again on April Fool's Day, a day meant for lighthearted games, silly teasing, elaborate jokes. Richard had loved April Fool's Day, and he and the children had outdone one another with straight-faced evocations of absurdities. "Hey, Dad, did you see that huge bird that just flew by? Big as a boxcar!" Richard looked inquiringly at Emily and Bobby. "Bird? What bird?" Emily grinned, "Why, Dad, it's a favorite bird of yours." "Really?" Richard craned his head, peered out the window. "Gosh, I don't see it." Then Bobby hung from the window, flapped his hand.
"Over there, Dad, over there." Richard peppered them with questions, but each time the bird flew by, he just missed it. Finally, he clapped his hands together and shouted, "There it is. It has to be. The bluebird of happiness. Right?" I heard the children's whoops of glee and Richard's dramatic declamations as if they were here beside me, close enough to hug, the three of them, Richard and Emily and Bobby. Then the happy voices subsided, plunged back into the recesses of my mind, there to be summoned but never again to sound in a careless present.
The third was a magnificent photograph of a steep cliff. Lush vegetation in every shade of green, from palest jade to darkest emerald, glistened in bright sunlight. Silvery falls splashed over sharp black rocks.
My hands trembled. The poster-wavered. I didn't have to ask what cliff this represented, though I'd never seen the site where Richard died.
The fourth was a dip from an advertisement showing two gloved hands, palms forward, fingers outspread. The brown gloves had the rich sheen and texture of expensive leather.
The pulse thudded in my throat. Hands move at the direction of a mind. Human choice. Not chance. Not accident. I'd survived loss before. My foreign-correspondent father disappeared in the deadly melee of fleeing refugees and strafing guns after the fall of Paris in World War II. War is brutal and rapacious and incalculable, but its destruction is catastrophic, like a tidal wave or an earthquake. There is no individual to be held accountable. I could bewail the world, the human passions that result in bloody destruction, but not a single mind or pair of hands. Richard and I together mourned the death of our son Bobby in a ear wreck. We grieved horribly, but it was an accident. No one deliberately snuffed out Bobby's young life. I blamed myself because I was the one who insisted we travel on the twisting mountain road to a fiesta. The brakes went out in the decrepit old truck that rammed us. But the driver's little girl was buried that next week, too. I could blame poverty, timing, my own willfulness.
But not a pair of hands.
The fifth was a sketch of a stick figure tumbling backward toward the jagged points of boulders far below.
The drawing was haphazard, almost childish, pressure unevenly applied to the thick black grease pencil. But no dlild had drawn that plummeting body. Before my eyes, the stick figure metamorphosed into Richard, my Richard, flailing toward bloody death.
The sixth was a sandwich bag taped to the bottom of the poster, beneath the scrawled boulders.
Through the slick plastic, I saw pieces of slate-gray card board. Whatever those pieces meant, I knew it would cause me pain.
It was as if the intervening years vanished and I was once again caught up in the shock and despair of Richard's death, my mind arguing that it had to be a mistake, that the call would come, the phone would ring, and it would be Richard saying, "It's okay, honey, I'm coming home." As he had come home through the years from odd and distant places, a first-rate newspaperman and the man I'd loved above all others.
But there was no call, there was only emptiness, a world swathed in steel-gray, all color gone. I could see the vivid hues, but there was no warmth in my soul. I was alone.
I walked into my kitchen, carrying the posterboard in one hand, the mailer in the other. Thin March sunlight angled through an east window. I placed the posterboard on my kitchen table and ripped the bag loose, spilling out the card board pieces into a pool of sunlight. Despite the sorrow washing over me, lapping around me, a rising tide of misery, I understood what I saw. The uneven, oddly cut pieces of cardboard were a puzzle, a puzzle created just for me by a nameless, faceless, cruel correspondent.
I almost scooped up the pieces, crushed them into a wad of smashed paper. My hands came close to the table. Somehow I made myself stop. It would not staunch the memories—or the agony—to destroy these little pieces of cardboard.
I don't know how long I stood there, aching with loss.
The thin sliver of sunlight moved and now the cardboard pieces were dull, making them even more chilling.
What damnable message awaited me?
I started to reach down, hesitated. But I felt abruptly sure that I could touch these pieces with impunity, that there would be no fingerprints to smudge. The person who had so carefully and coldly created this hellish exercise would be far too intelligent to leave a trace.
I arranged the pieces.
They formed a tombstone. Black letters—R. I. P.—scored the granite gray. A thick question mark was scrawled on the tombstone, over the letters.
My eyes moved from the tombstone to the tumbling stick figure. But I didn't see the drawing.. Instead, nausea clawing at my throat, I saw Richard's body—felt Richard's body—plummeting faster and faster, inexorably, the law of gravity bleakly enforced, to slam painfully into rough black volcanic rock.
Oh, God, the pain Richard must have known! And the hideous heart stopping terror of falling out of control. . .
it takes so long—so eternally long—to fall.
That's how Richard's life ended, the brutal obliteration of a mind and body that had given me pleasure and delight through the years. His laughter was forever stilled. No more quick and clever thoughts, no more vivid, concise writing, no more passion or effort or joy.
My heart raced. I struggled to breathe. But through the pain of imagining, remembering, reliving, I understood the point—the vicious, mind-bending point—of this ugly collection.
Richard was pushed to his death. Gloved hands shoved him over the edge of that faraway cliff.
Richard was murdered.
Copyright ) 1998 by Carolyn Hart
Posted September 26, 2012
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Posted June 7, 2011
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