Read an Excerpt
When the night is beginning to lower,
Comes a pause in the day's occupations,
That is known as the children's hour.
The patter of little feet;
The sound of a door that is opened,
And voices soft and sweet...
The grandfather clock struck the hour, midnight, the deep chimes drowning out the sounds of the wind rustling the trees, rattling the windows. Caroline Holt's glance went from the leather bound volume of Best Loved Poems spread open on her lap to the ceiling of the old house. No patter of little feet, no door opening, no voices soft and sweet. Tonight her son, Aaron, worked quietly two floors above in the attic. Soon she would go up and shoo him off to bed.
She placed her hand over her abdomen, thinking back twelve years, remembering her excitement at the first gentle flutter she'd felt. The miracle of new life. A child of their own. Aaron.
She opened another leather bound volume, lifted the pen tucked in the crease, and began to write.
My darling Richard, how I wish you were here to guide me. In the past month I've learned something I did not want to know, and I've done something that cannot be undone. I must tell someone before it's too late. I'm afraid for Aaron, for myself. If only you were here to help us, to tell us what to do.
With icy, trembling fingers she lifted the glass from the lamptable and sipped at the brandy. Pressing the glass to herchest, Caroline leaned back against the chair and closed her eyes. "In the round-tower of my heart," she whispered softly to the husband she had lost twenty years earlier in Vietnam, "... I keep you forever..."
Minutes later in the dining room she refilled her glass, lifted the phone, and dialed. An answering machine on the other line clicked on. Caroline had left a message earlier -- no point in leaving another. She hung up, carried the glass of brandy through the house, and, somewhat unsteady on her feet, climbed the stairs to the second floor.
As he moved through the dark passageway beneath the streets of Eagleton he listened to the echoes, to the hollow underground sounds of scurrying creatures, dripping water, and his own heavy breathing. The insipid beam from a penlight danced several feet in front of him. Long shadows crawled up the walls, growing and stretching as he neared the ladder to the trapdoor that led into the house of a woman he once loved.
How long since he had come in this way, passion and exhilaration rushing through his veins like fire and ice, the world outside unreal, nonexistent? He felt exhilaration now, passion as well, but tonight both were different. For a long time he had thought about this. Exactly how he would do it.
He took the gloves from his pocket and worked his fingers into them. Then he climbed the ladder, opened the trapdoor, and pulled himself up into the tiny basement.
Silently, quickly, his footsteps muted by the gusting wind outside, he made his way through the large house to the dining room. Satisfied that a good measure of the brandy in the decanter had been reduced and that she and the boy had turned in for the night -- the lights had gone out over an hour ago -- he continued up to the second floor to her bedroom.
At the open door he paused, directed the beam of light at the foot of the bed, and let it slowly glide along her slender length to her face -- pale, lovely, relaxed in sleep. If she sensed the light from beneath her eyelids, there was no indication.
Holding the light on her face, he entered and went directly to the nightstand that had once, years ago, held her so-called shrine. All that remained of that ridiculous display was the wedding photo and the pocketknife. He stared at the photo, feeling a flash of pure hatred. He wanted to smash it. Wanted her to witness it, to see and feel her pain, let her see and know his pain.
Instead he lifted an empty glass by its stem and tipped it. A bead of amber-colored liquid, clouded with a powdery sediment, rolled at the bottom. He replaced the glass and lifted the pocketknife. In the moonlight the metal plate on one side glinted. It was too dark to read, but he knew what was engraved there. R Holt. He pulled out the smaller, sharper blade and turned back to the bed. Caroline Holt slept on her back, her arms at her sides. He gently lifted a limp hand and pressed his lips to her palm.
Her face in sleep was beautiful, serene. She had always been beautiful; even now with her illness, with dark smudges and tiny lines around her eyes, she was lovely. He felt the crushing ache pushing all rational thoughts away. She had done this to him, had forced him to kill. If he didn't stop her, she would destroy him.
He raised his mouth from the soft flesh of her hand. He pressed the tip of the blade into the pale skin of her wrist and made several superficial cuts. Two tiny beads of blood formed and ran down her arm to the hollow of her elbow. Her hand lay limp in his. He sighed and pulled the blade away. He fit the knife's handle in her right hand, then wrapping her fingers around it he drew the blade across the left wrist. For an instant the opening glowed bonewhite, then blood welled up and began to pour out. Fascinated, he watched. He repeated the process with the right, not going as deep, until both slim wrists were open, the blood flowing freely. He let the knife fall from her fingers onto the white quilt.
Her arm jerked upward, surprising him. A stream of blood darkened the front of his shirt and flew across the framed picture that stood on the nightstand. He took hold of both arms and gently pushed them down to her sides, securing them. Her eyelids fluttered, then opened wide to stare with surprise into his. Her direct gaze jolted him. He nearly released her. A moment later her lids lowered halfway to stare vacantly ahead. He felt a strong resistance in her body, an instinctive will to survive. His heart throbbed in his chest. He waited, his insides churning, until there were no more struggles, until her face turned ashen and her skin grew cold and clammy.
Finally releasing her, he lifted the framed wedding picture and carefully placed it facedown on her chest. He took the glass, went downstairs, rinsed out both glass and decanter in the kitchen sink, and returned them to the dining room. Back in the kitchen he lifted the stove top, blew out the pilot light, and turned on a burner. He listened for the hiss of escaping gas before making his final retreat to the tunnel beneath the house.
Long Beach, California Sunday, 1:22 AM
Roni Mayfield struggled with her luggage, shifting the totebag, laptop computer, and a week's mail around to free a hand to unlock and open her front door. She used her foot to close the door and her elbow to switch on the entry light and was immediately enveloped by bright light and stale air. The rapid invasion of mustiness always amazed her. She had been gone less than a week, yet the small house smelled of mildew as if it had been closed up for months. The bedsheets, she knew, would feel cold and damp -- a small price to pay for living at the edge of paradise.
She piled her luggage in the entry, crossed the living room to the glass slider, and opened it all the way. The night was mild. The rhythm of crashing waves filled the house with a familiar, soothing sound, like fine music. Tonight the sea was fluorescent. Beautiful. Haunting. She loved it like this with the waves glowing an eerie greenish-white, the microscopic shells, pebbles, and foam sparkling like jewels beneath a late-night full moon.
This was the ultimate pleasure -- coming home. The traveling didn't get to her as long as she had a home base, and home was on the Pacific Ocean with her own stretch of beach... that is, if she didn't mind sharing it with thousands of others from June to October. Unless the grunion were running, nights on the beach were usually quiet, free of surf and sand worshipers. Tonight the beach was deserted.
She stepped out onto the deck of the robin's-egg-blue bungalow with its white gingerbread trim, leaned against the doorframe, and inhaled deeply of the salty air. That very afternoon she had filled her lungs with the dusty, parched air of the desert.
It all came back in a rush: three highly emotional, drama-filled days spent in the hills overlooking a nameless ghost town on the California/Nevada border. In the center of a barbed-wire barricade, thirty-five feet down into an abandoned mine shaft, seven-year-old Dennis Stemmer clung to a makeshift platform of rotting boards wedged precariously across the narrow opening of the shaft. Where at any moment the boards could give way and send the boy plummeting a hundred feet below to certain death. As the first agonizing, though hopeful, hours stretched into days, Roni knew with a profound sense of dread what the child was going through. Years ago as a young girl in another Nevada town, she'd survived a similar experience and she had only to close her eyes to relive the ordeal. For seventy-two hours she'd known Dennis's pain, his fear of death and darkness, his complete aloneness.
On assignment for Tempo Magazine, Roni had been the first major media journalist on the scene. Her prospector father, working a claim in the area, had contacted her within an hour of the accident. At first the boy had been lucid and quite brave, calling to them. But after the third freezing night, in a great deal of pain from several broken bones, terrified each time a board beneath him shifted or groaned, his bravado and strength had finally dissolved. At the end no more words or soft whimpering could be heard from the shaft. With the deadly silence Roni's faith dissolved as well.
Then, suddenly, into the bright morning light, a small, limp form, streaked with dirt and blood was lifted out, then cradled in his parent's arms as paramedics worked feverishly to revive him.
The following morning at the hospital in Bishop, where Roni spent a sleepless night in the waiting room, Dennis's condition was upgraded to stable, then to good. When it came time to leave, the parting had been emotional. Those long days of hovering impotently around the shaft with life or death hanging in the balance had bound her to the family. Remembering little Dennis's brave smile when they said goodbye made her smile too.
At twenty-eight, single, a journalist for six years, those were the stories Roni liked to cover. The ones with happy endings.
It was late and she was exhausted, yet the need to unwind before turning in, especially after an out-of-town assignment, was an old habit she couldn't break. She would check her mail and phone messages, then change into sweats and take a midnight stroll on the beach.
The next few minutes were spent sorting mail. Halfway through she came across an envelope, its stationery strangely familiar, as was the handwriting. No return address, but she wasn't surprised to see the postmark -- Eagleton, Nevada.
Eagleton. A town she thought of often. A part of her past that was never far from her mind. Although it was only one of a dozen towns her family had touched down in during her father's years as a commercial miner, Eagleton was the most memorable. Memories, bittersweet, of Frank Scolli, Larry Glazer, his brother James, but most of all, Caroline Holt. Happy days -- before it had gone sour.
Roni felt her heart flutter softly as a wave of nostalgia washed over her. She carefully opened the flap, not wanting to destroy the delicate, rose-tinted envelope. Two questions raced through her mind. How long had it been? And why now?
The matching sheet of paper revealed the distinctive penmanship of the letter writer along with a trace of her scent. Roni smiled, caressing the translucent paper. The first time she'd laid eyes on Caroline had been the day Roni, going door to door, had sold her this very stationery.
You must be wondering why on earth I'm writing to you after all these years. Voices from the past have a way of resurfacing, stirring memories, some pleasant, some not so pleasant. I wish I could say this letter is merely one friend greeting another, but the truth is I need your help. Aaron and I need your help. Aaron is my son, a very special boy, and my one and only reason for living.
Something has happened recently to compel me to write you. The fact that I hired an investigator to find you should convince you of the seriousness of my situation. Dearest Roni, I don't know who else to turn to. I don't know who I can trust in this town.
Will you help?
A loving friend,
P.S. It is much too complicated to go into in a letter.
Please call as soon as you receive this.
Below the signature was a telephone number. There was no address, but Eagleton was small enough that a letter addressed to a certain party in care of general delivery would find its way.
Roni hurried to the phone in the bedroom. Caroline contacting her after twelve years! Caroline with a son. Caroline asking for her help. Although she would be past forty now, Roni still visualized a lovely woman in her late twenties.
Perhaps it was the late hour, or her exhaustion, or hearing from someone who at one time had been like a second mother to her, or a combination of everything, but Roni felt a profound and grave sense of dread.
On the nightstand the blinking answering machine indicated messages waiting. Ignoring them, she dialed Caroline's number and, as she waited, pacing the room anxiously, she realized it was well past midnight. Surely she would be asleep. Everyone in Eagleton would be asleep. Four rings in, too late to hang up now.
Continuing to pace, Roni mentally ran through her schedule for the next week. She had several assignments, but nothing she couldn't get out of if she chose to drive to Eagleton. Caroline. A gentle, benevolent woman who had taken a lonely young girl under her wing during the four years Roni's family lived in town now needed her and there was no question that she would go.
"Pickup. Pickup," she muttered, each ring intensifying her sense of urgency. She hung up, dialed again, more carefully this time. While it rang she pressed a button to retrieve her messages, hearing without really listening. Her sister was checking in. Her boss needed to talk to her -- pronto. A carpet cleaning company and a local charity soliciting. Her sister again. A woman's voice, speaking too fast, the words slurred, rambled on about something crazy.
Roni slammed down the ringing phone and hit the stop button on the machine. Caroline?
She backed up the tape and started it again. "Roni, it's... it's Caroline Holt. I need your help. I'm -- oh, this sounds so crazy but... but I'm afraid... very much afraid for Aaron and myself. I've done something unwise, something incredibly foolhardy. Roni, I feel that you're the only one I can count on. Please call me. Please." It clicked off. Roni had no idea when the message had been recorded.
She tried Caroline's number again, letting it ring on and on before giving in and calling the sheriff's office in Eagleton. She spoke to a Deputy Deming, explaining the reason for her call.
"You say she left a message on your answering machine?" the deputy said.
"Yes. She sounded upset... distraught. I wonder if someone could drive to her house and check on her."
"It's after one here, ma'am."
"Yes, I know. Please..."
A sigh. "Yeah, okay. Sheriff Lubben's patrolling. I'll get him on the radio."
She gave him her number and asked him to get back to her as soon as he could. She hung up, changed into sweats, and went to brew a pot of coffee.
The ringing startled Roni out of a deep sleep. Curled up in the wingback, her arm asleep under her, she groped for the cordless phone on the endtable.
"Ms. Mayfield?" a man asked. She glanced at her watch. Four-twenty. Three hours since she'd placed her call to Officer Deming. "Yes. Yes. Officer Deming?"
"Ms. Mayfield, I'm sorry to have to be the one to pass along the bad news. I've just come from the Holt place. It seems you were right to be concerned. The place was full of propane gas. The boy's okay. A little groggy, but okay. If we hadn't got there when we did..."
He cleared his throat. "I'm afraid we didn't reach her in time. Before turning on the gas, Mrs. Holt took a knife to her own wrists this evening. She's dead."
Copyright © 1995 by Carol Davis Luce