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Late October, Saturday Night
Her new name, spoken in a whisper, woke her from a troubled sleep. "Laura?"
She glanced at the clock as she reached for the monitor button. Two o'clock. Before she could respond, the voice continued.
"Come quickly. Don't turn on any lights. Hurry."
Untangling herself from the rumpled bed sheets, Laura grabbed her robe off the end of the big four-poster, fumbling in the dark.
No lights? Why?
Her employer's suite was through a connecting door, and Laura took the familiar steps quickly, concern for Mrs. Priestly making her heart race. The old lady wasn't well, and after the stress of the evening who knew what had happened?
The bed seemed to be empty. Fearing a heart attack or a broken hip, she scanned the Persian carpets. "Mrs. Priestly?"
The responding voice crackled with undercurrents of distress. "Over here, by the window."
Laura finally made out Mrs. Priestly's frail shape enveloped in the chair that overlooked the riverside garden at the back of the house. In the daylight hours, the view was one of Mrs. Priestly's favorites.
But this was the middle of a fall night and not a typical night, either, not even for Idaho. A storm had broken earlier that evening, and all that was visible through the window now were shifting shadows thrown by wind-whipped branches and shrubbery. "You shouldn't have gotten up without calling for my help," Laura said gently. "That's what I'm here for."
Mrs. Priestly grabbed Laura's arm. "I think I just witnessed a murder!"
The old lady pointed a gnarled finger at the window. "Right out there by the fountain. Can you see a body?"
Laura peered into the night, but the shadows were too deep. "No. Can you?"
Mrs. Priestly craned her neck but finally shook her head. "No, not now."
"Tell me what happened," Laura coaxed, hoping the act of talking it out would convince Mrs. Priestly she'd been having a nightmare.
"Well, I just couldn't sleep. You know when your mind just keeps racing and racing and you wish you'd said this or you hadn't said that?"
"Oh, yes," Laura said, kneeling beside the old woman's chair with some difficulty. "Yes, I know that feeling."
"Well, I decided I could make it as far as the window without bothering you. You do need your sleep, you know. So I sat here for a while, and then I guess I dozed. I don't know what woke me, but I swear I saw movement out by the fountain, so I stared harder. It looked like two people. One turned toward the river and took a few steps. I think it was a man.
"The next thing I knew, the other person struck him to the ground, but when I looked again it all seemed to dissolve. That's when I called you, Laura. I hate to admit on tonight of all nights that I need Victoria and Emerson's help, but I guess I do. You'll have to go awaken them."
Every protective bone in Laura's body recoiled at the thought of involving Mrs. Priestly's son-in-law. She'd witnessed Emerson Banner sneering behind Mrs. Priestly's back more than once before tonight. And then there was the argument she'd overheard after dinner. Mrs. Priestly had been shaking when she finally allowed Laura to help her into bed.
"I have an idea," Laura hedged. "Before we disturb Mr. Banner or your daughter, let me go outside and make sure you didn't see a falling tree limb or something else equally ordinary. It's really stormy out there and the light is tricky."
"I know what I saw," Mrs. Priestly insisted, but a second later, doubt crept into her voice as she added, "Would you really do that for me? I wouldn't want you to get hurt."
"I'll be fine."
"We have to look out for each other, don't we, dear?"
Laura smiled and gave the old woman an impromptu hug. "You bet we do. I'll be careful, don't worry."
"Just don't take any chances. You see one little thing out of place and we'll call the police. Okay?"
"Of course," Laura agreed, sincerely hoping it didn't come to that. She grabbed a throw off the bed and tucked it around the old lady's thin shoulders. "I'll be right back," she promised. "Don't move." She was rewarded with a shaky hand that gripped her arm for a moment.
Laura detoured through her own room to slip on shoes and grab a flashlight, then hurried down the hall. The huge old house was very dark, but thankfully the steep stairs were lit by well-placed lights.
In the kitchen she opened the door leading to the back garden. The outside lights refused to go on—something that had happened a couple of times before since Laura took this job. At least the rain had stopped.
There hadn't been a doubt in her mind when she made the offer to conduct a search that Mrs. Priestly, still upset from the evening's altercations, had confused a dream with the images of the stormy night. But now a sense of urgency grew more acute as she hurried down the brick path toward the fountain. She shined the flashlight everywhere as she moved, illuminating the gloom ahead, anxiety raising the hair on her arms and tingling her spine.
The fountain was a huge circular affair that towered over her head. Atop it, a trio of marble fish spouted water. Tonight, the wind caught the water and sprayed it into a fine mist.
Using the flashlight, Laura investigated the fountain and the area around it. There was a broken paver near the base, but it could have been that way for years, as others were cracked and one was even missing. There was no sign of foul play, nor, miraculously considering the weather, any downed branches, though leaves and yard debris flurried across the ground.
The rain started falling again as she looked up at the house, zeroing in on Mrs. Priestly's dark bedroom window. Big drops splashed against her bare head and face. She moved her search farther afield and checked the gate that opened to the path running along the river, as she could hear it banging against the center post. Impossible to tell how long it had been open—the latch was rusty. Propping the flashlight between her chin and shoulder, she used both hands to tug it closed.
A figure appeared on the path outside, looming in the dark. Hands reached out, grabbed the gate and shook it. Startled, Laura dropped her flashlight to the ground and backed into the yard.
"Who's there?" a woman's voice demanded, and a second later a small flashlight flicked on. Its light hit Laura in the eyes, then lowered. "Laura? What are you doing out in this weather? Open the gate at once."
Laura bent to pick up her flashlight as she placed the voice—Victoria Banner, Mrs. Priestly's middle-aged daughter. "I'll hold it open for you," she said as she fumbled with the lock.
Victoria, swathed in a rain slicker with a hood, came through the gate like royalty. She paused as Laura secured the latch once again. When she spoke, her voice was sharp. "What's going on?"
Laura wasn't about to tell the truth, not yet anyway. "I was looking for your mother's shawl out in the garden when I heard the gate rattling."
"What would Mother's shawl be doing out here in the middle of the night?"
"I thought I might have left it outside earlier, before the weather turned. She may need it in the morning."
"We're not paying you to be careless. Be sure to lock the kitchen door when you come inside." And with that she was off, her heels clicking against the stones, the small light she held in front of her disappearing into the gloom.
Victoria Banner wasn't paying Laura, period; her mother was. Besides, what was she doing out this late? And why had her hands been shaking when she grabbed the gate? Laura shook her head and knew she would never have the answers.
As she was getting wetter and colder by the minute, she forced herself to stop speculating and turned her attention back to the task at hand. She scanned the rain-soaked lawn, searching the grass for a sign someone had been dragged across it or had crawled away.
This voice came from the back of the house. Now what? She turned her light onto an approaching figure who carried a light of his own, and with some relief she recognized Mrs. Priestly's grandson, Robert Banner. She'd forgotten he'd come for dinner and stayed to visit with his parents, who also lived in Mrs. Priestly's mansion, something he did one or two nights a month.
"I saw a light out here when I went to close my window. Then I ran into Mother on the stairs. She said you were out here looking for a shawl. Need help?" He was dressed as she was, in pajamas and a robe the wind whipped around his legs. "You're very wet," he added. "Can't this wait until morning?"
"There actually isn't a lost shawl," she admitted. "I lied." She pushed long strands of wet hair away from her eyes as she told him about what his grandmother thought she'd seen.
Robert immediately began a search of his own. When he discovered, as she had, there was nothing to see, he took her arm. "The weather is getting worse. Let's go inside."
They hurried back to the house. Robert stepped into the laundry room as Laura fought off a chill that didn't have a whole lot to do with being cold. He tossed her a dry towel.
"I have to tell your grandmother she was mistaken," Laura said, as she dabbed at her face. "Since there were no fallen branches to explain what she saw, she'll want to call the police." She hoped her voice didn't betray how uneasy that thought made her. And then she had a thought.
"Remember a couple of months ago when I brought your grandmother to your restaurant for lunch? I took a wrong turn somewhere in the back hallway and ended up running into a guy outside your office. He introduced himself as your friend. His name was different. Taipan, that's it. Detective Taipan. If we have to contact the authorities, maybe you could call your friend and ask him to investigate unofficially so your grandmother isn't humiliated if she's mistaken."
Robert was a nice-looking man creeping toward forty, with fair hair and light eyes, the kind of guy who would look young his whole life. But what warmed him to Laura's heart was that he made the time to visit Mrs. Priestly on a regular basis, and that couldn't be easy coupled with the demands of running a successful restaurant.
"I have a better idea," he said. "I don't know how much of our family dynamics you've gathered since you've worked for Grandma "
"I try to mind my own business," she said.
"Yeah, well, the truth is my father and Grandma's own lawyer are doing their best to prove she's incompetent so they can take over her affairs."
Laura had suspected as much. She'd picked up on several innuendos. She suspected Mrs. Priestly had, too.
"I know Grandma is well over ninety and failing in many ways, but she seems perfectly lucid to me," Robert continued. "Everything kind of hit the fan tonight when she got a good look at her investment portfolio. She accused Dad of mishandling her accounts. She went so far as to threaten an audit." He raked a hand through his wet hair and sighed. "If she insists she saw a murderer, Dad and that shyster Gibbons will use it to argue her mind is slipping. And if they get power of attorney, they'll call all the shots."
"But your mother and sister would never agree to that."
"Mom will do whatever Dad tells her to do. And Donna is great, but her husband has sunk all her assets in that string of auto-repair shops, and I hear things aren't going well."
"Donna is over here all the time. She's very sweet with your grandmother."
"Still, right now she has other things on her mind." He took a deep breath and regarded Laura with anxious eyes. "I don't think my grandmother is senile, do you?"
She met his gaze. "No, I don't."
"Good. You spend the most time with her, so if she was slipping—"
"I haven't noticed anything like that."
"Okay. Let's go talk to her together. Maybe she saw a couple of kids having a fight. If she's still sure she saw a murder, then we'll call the authorities. How does that sound?"
Laura nodded, relieved for his help. One way or another, Robert would take care of things now, which suited her fine. She wanted no one in an official capacity to look into the nonexistent past of Laura Green. She wasn't ready for that yet. A few more weeks
They hurried upstairs, careful to make as little noise as possible.
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