On a bright Saturday in October, Claudia Simon looked eagerly out the open window of a pickup truck. Kyle Hansen, her fiancé, was driving, and his daughter, Rowen, was in the back seat. They were headed up the long, curved driveway to the McAllister mansion, the huge home plated in white marble that overlooked the town of Mill River, Vermont. The trees alongside the driveway were in peak autumn color, and the leaves that floated down as they passed carpeted the pavement in a brilliant mosaic of red, orange, and gold.
“It’s so beautiful,” Claudia said. “It seems almost magical, like the colors are just dripping everywhere.”
“Yep,” Kyle said. “Definitely one of the best things about living in Vermont.”
Rowen leaned forward between the two front seats of the truck and grinned. “Imagine how it’ll be in the winter, when it’s time for the wedding! I’ll bet there will be lots of snow! And maybe ice will get stuck on all these trees, like crystal.”
“That would be gorgeous,” Claudia said. She glanced down at her left hand, where the diamond in her engagement ring gleamed in the late afternoon sunshine.
“And romantic,” Rowen said. “Especially with all the Christmas decorations.”
“I’ve always wanted a holiday wedding,” Claudia said. She looked across at Kyle and smiled. “And this place is so close to the church, and so beautiful, at least on the outside. It could be the perfect place for the reception.”
“It’s nice on the inside, too,” Kyle said, “but we’ll have to see what Ruth’s plans are. It may not even be ready by December.”
Kyle pulled up to the large paved area in back of the marble house. Ruth Fitzgerald’s Buick sedan was already there, parked next to an older Subaru Impreza. As he cut the engine, the back door opened. Ruth appeared and waved them inside.
“Hi there,” she said. “I’ve been waiting for you. Would you believe the kitchen is almost finished? Come in and take a look!”
Rowen skipped ahead, quickly darting past Ruth into the house. Claudia smiled at Ruth and took Kyle’s hand as they walked toward the door.
The back door of the house opened into a small mudroom. From there, Ruth led them into a wide, sunny kitchen. Claudia smelled paint and wood and window cleaner. In fact, a bottle of Windex and several rags rested on the counter. She and Kyle were silent for a moment as they looked around the room.
Directly in front of them, a large, professional stainless steel range gleamed. It was nestled between dark cherry cabinets that ran the length of the wall and continued around the kitchen. Other new appliances interrupted the cherry – there were a full-sized refrigerator and freezer, two dishwashers, and a small wine storage unit. The tile backsplash behind the range complimented the rich pattern of the floor tiles. Veins of brown and gold in the new quartz countertops sparkled in the sunlight streaming through the window.
“Oh, Ruth, it’s beautiful,” Claudia breathed.
“It is,” Ruth agreed. “It’s almost too pretty to cook in. Emily DiSanti’s managing the renovation. She’s done an amazing job so far.”
As if on cue, a striking woman with red hair entered the kitchen. She held a plastic shopping bag.
“Ruth, I’ve got the hardware for the cabinets, and I—oh, hello.”
“You all know each other, don’t you?” Ruth asked.
“Oh, sure, of course,” Emily said.
“It’s nice to see you again, Emily,” Claudia added.
“I don’t know if you’ve heard, but Kyle and Claudia are getting married,” Ruth said. The smiling, grandmotherly lady seemed to puff up with scarcely contained happiness. Claudia couldn’t help but smile along with her.
“Yes, I heard,” Emily said. “You know how fast news travels in Mill River. But, congratulations! You must be so excited.”
“I’m going to be the flower girl,” Rowen chimed in, hugging Claudia around the waist.
“And you will be perfect, my dear,” Ruth told her. “But, Emily, I’m glad you’re here. Kyle and Claudia are planning a holiday wedding, and they were wondering whether the bed and breakfast will be open by then.”
“We were hoping our immediate families and maybe the wedding party could stay here,” Kyle said. “Since we’ll be married at St. John’s, it would be so convenient.”
“I told them that the center hall in there would be a lovely place for a reception, too,” Ruth said as she looked over Emily’s shoulder toward the rest of the house. “But I said we’d have to ask you about it.”
Emily set the bag she was holding on the floor and took a deep breath. “Well, if everything goes according to plan, we’ll probably be finished in time. We’ve already taken care of most of the big things that needed to be done – the electricity upgrade, the new boiler for the radiators, the replacement windows. The drywall crew should be done replacing walls this week, too.”
“Why did you need to replace walls?” Claudia asked.
“Mainly because lots of them were plaster and cracking beyond repair. Painted drywall is much easier to maintain. Plus, since it’s an older property, covering plaster walls and replacing windows take care of lead paint hazards.”
“And my beautiful new kitchen is done,” Ruth added with a gleeful look around the room.
“Yes. The owner’s suite is coming along nicely, too. Other than that and a few plumbing upgrades, there will be only cosmetic work to do.”
“How many rooms will you have?” Claudia asked.
“Bedrooms, you mean?” Ruth asked. “Six, not including the owner’s suite. And each one has its own bathroom.”
“That’s exactly how many we’ll need,” Claudia said as she looked up at Kyle. “Two for your parents and brother, two for my family, and one apiece for the other groomsmen and bridesmaids.”
“And where would you two stay?” Ruth asked with a mischievous puckered smile. “Surely you wouldn’t spend your wedding night at home.”
“Well, I think” Claudia began, but Kyle interrupted her.
“Oh, no,” he said quickly, and Claudia turned to look at him again. “We’ll be out of here that evening. We’re not leaving for the honeymoon until after Christmas, of course, but I’ve got something in mind for our first night as a married couple.”
“You didn’t say anything to me about that,” Claudia said in a mock protest. She poked him gently in the ribs.
“Of course I didn’t.” He grabbed her hand to protect against further jabs.
“Where are we going?”
Kyle smiled but didn’t answer her. Instead, he spoke to Ruth.
“So, what do you think about us maybe being your first customers?"
“It would be an honor to host your families and your reception,” Ruth said. “Oh, I can’t wait to show you the whole house! You’ll be able to see how perfect everything will be. That is, if we can be ready. Emily, are you sure we can commit to it?
As Claudia watched, a fleeting look of concern passed over Emily’s face. It was gone in an instant, though, replaced with a wide smile.
“Absolutely. It’ll be close, but I’ll make it happen.”
In the master bedroom on the second floor of the marble mansion, Emily turned off the edge sander she had been using and shifted into a sitting position on the floor. Without the noise of the machine, she could hear Ruth chatting with Kyle, Claudia, and Rowen on their way out. She tried to ignore the stress that had been building after she’d agreed to have the house ready in time for Kyle and Claudia’s wedding. True, she had plenty of experience working to meet deadlines, and she had brought enough old houses back to their original grandeur to know what remained to be done in the McAllister mansion, but it wouldn’t be easy. Between her part-time job at Turner’s Hardware and the odd jobs she did on the side for her mother’s real estate listings, she wouldn’t have a spare minute for the next two months.
Emily sighed and got back on her hands and knees. Using the small handheld sander to remove the final bits of old finish on a wood floor was her least favorite part of the refinishing process. She took some comfort in knowing that this was the last room she had to do, though. She had finished resurfacing the wood floors on the lower level during the summer, and the floors in many of the other bedrooms upstairs needed nothing but a good mopping and waxing, since the rooms had never been used. Emily continued working her way around the room, crawling along the windows and into the closet.
It was then that she felt the crack in the floor beneath her hand.
She switched off the sander. The crack seemed to run perpendicular to the planks of the wood floor, and her first thought was that she might have to completely replace several of the pieces of wood instead of refinishing them. When she looked closely, though, she saw that the crack wasn’t a crack at all, but one side of a well-camouflaged rectangle that had been cut into the floor.
In fact, it looked like some sort of trap door.
“Emily?” Ruth’s voice called, and the sound of footsteps on the stairs followed soon after.
“In here,” she replied.
Ruth entered the room slightly out of breath. “Goodness, I don’t know if I’ll ever get used to such a big staircase.”
“A big staircase for a big house.”
“Yes. I guess I’m ready to head home. I just wanted to check to see if you needed anything.”
“No, I’m good,” Emily said. “I’m going to leave, too, as soon as I’m done edging in here. I’ll vacuum first thing in the morning and then get going on the stain. I’ll lock up everything, as usual.” Her hand was still resting on the floor, and she felt the crack she had discovered leaving an indentation on her palm.
“Thanks, honey. You have a good night.”
Once Ruth had left the house, Emily jumped up. Her toolbox was on the floor near the base of the stairs, and she descended quickly to grab one of her putty knives and a flashlight. Then, back in the master bedroom, she entered the closet and knelt down. The thin blade of the putty knife just fit into the crack. It was difficult, but she was able to pry up a chunk of the floor, a rectangular lid, which she set aside. She switched on her flashlight and peered down into a hidden compartment.
The space was perhaps two feet deep. The only thing inside, other than dust and cobwebs, was an old hard side briefcase.
Emily took hold of the dusty handle and pulled it out. The case was made of smooth, tan leather. Unlike most modern cases, which used combination locks, the brass locks on each side of the handle had keyholes. To her chagrin, the locks were engaged. She shook the briefcase gently. It wasn’t heavy, but a soft rustling noise from inside told her that it wasn’t empty, either.
Maybe the key to the briefcase was still in the compartment.
Again, she took the flashlight and shined it down into the hole. She was more careful this time, moving the light slowly and running her fingers through the dust at the bottom of the compartment in the hope of finding a wayward key. She found nothing, though, and the disturbed dust rose up in a cloud that sent her into a sneezing fit.
When she had recovered, she took another good look at her find. A small bronze plaque attached to one corner of the case was engraved with “P. McAllister.”
The briefcase was obviously something that had belonged to a member of the McAllister family, and eventually Mary McAllister herself. Which meant that now, like everything in the McAllister mansion, it was the property of Ruth and her husband.
I can drop it off at the Fitzgeralds’ apartment on the way home, Emily thought, but telling herself this did nothing to lessen her intense curiosity about what was inside the old briefcase. Surely, she could find a way to open it without breaking the locks. The case was in remarkable condition and probably valuable as an antique. Plus, she reasoned, it would be a favor to Ruth, since she and her husband would be able to inspect its contents easily.
Of course, if I open it, I’ll be able to see what's in it, too.
A part of her was ashamed at her willingness to justify and commit such an inappropriate invasion of privacy. Still, that part wasn’t strong enough to prevent her from going back to her toolbox in search of a small screwdriver or a long nail – or anything else that might help her coax the locks on the briefcase into revealing what was inside.
As the afternoon gave way to a chilly evening, Father O’Brien drove carefully down the main road leaving Mill River. However, instead of following the curve of the road around and through the old covered bridge spanning the river for which the town was named, he turned left into a driveway and parked.
As he had recently started to do before he met with someone in person, he snapped his fingers several times, first on one side of his head and then the other, to make sure he could hear them properly. For a nonagenarian, he was in excellent health. His vision was still remarkably good, so much so that he’d easily passed the vision test the last time he had renewed his license. But his hearing was another matter. He’d finally had to get hearing aids for both ears, and they were both a godsend and a major annoyance. When they were inserted and functioning normally, he could hear quite well. But getting them adjusted to the proper volume in each ear, and making sure the batteries had enough juice, was a constant struggle. Today, he had been called to the home of Karen Cooper, one of his parishioners, and he knew it was especially important that he be able to hear everything clearly once he was inside.
A car in desperate need of a new muffler drove by just as he stepped down out of his pickup truck. He suddenly felt a bit dizzy, and he kept his hand on the door frame for a moment until the sensation passed. Maybe his hearing aids weren’t quite as calibrated as he thought, or maybe the unusually loud noise of the car was too much for them to handle. He snapped his fingers again to reassure himself and then approached the front door of the Cooper residence. Jean Wykowski, Karen’s next-door neighbor, opened the door before he’d even raised his hand to knock.
“Hello, Father. Thank you for coming so quickly.” Jean’s expression was grim.
“Hello, Jean,” he said quietly. He could see over Jean’s shoulder into the kitchen, where Karen and her son, Ben, sat at the table. “You said on the phone that Nick’s gone missing?”
“Yes, they just got word,” Jean said, her voice barely above a whisper. “No one’s seen him in four days, since he went out for supplies.”
“Oh, my,” Father O’Brien said.
“They’ve got people out looking for him, troops mostly, but some private security teams, too. Karen’s taking it pretty hard.”
Father O’Brien nodded and went to the kitchen.
Karen looked up at him with bloodshot eyes. “Thank you for coming, Father.”
“Of course,” he replied. Carefully, he pulled out the chair next to her and sat down. He waited for Karen to speak.
“I know Jean told you they can’t find Nick,” she said. “Two days ago, he left work in the morning and never came back. He was supposed to pick up some things for the shop, and he made it to the warehouse and signed for the supplies, but after that….” Her voice trailed off. She took a deep breath. “Someone from his company called, a man. I wrote down his name and number. He said they have people searching for Nick, retracing his steps and all that, but no other information at this time.”
Her voice broke as she struggled to finish her sentence. Jean came up behind Karen to put an arm around her shoulders. Ben sat silently across from his mother and stared down at the table. Father O’Brien tried to think what he could say to them that would bring some comfort.
“Karen, I know Nick is a good man. He’s smart and strong. Whatever happened, wherever he is, we have to believe he’ll find a way out of the situation. We have to trust that God is looking out for him. Now, listen to me, Karen. You’ve got to stay strong for Nick, and for your son here. Both of them need you.”
Karen nodded through her tears, and Ben glanced up at him for the first time.
Father O’Brien took one of Karen and Ben’s hands in each of his own. “Will you join me in asking our heavenly Father to protect him?”
Karen nodded, and both she and Ben bowed their heads. For a moment before he closed his own eyes, he watched Karen’s son. Ben was growing up so quickly, and yet he was still so young, perhaps twelve or thirteen. It was a difficult age, at the beginning of the transition from childhood to adulthood, an impressionable time during which the boy would need his father more than ever. He knew exactly how Ben must have felt. Even now, in the sunset of his life, it was all too easy to remember himself at Ben’s age, sitting at his family’s table and facing the great uncertainty of his own father’s absence.