Secrets long buried surround the murder of teenage Melanie Tippitt. The daughter of a wealthy family in a small town, her lifeless body was found floating in Tippitt Pond in the summer of 1971. Six people were there that day, and one was convicted of her murder. Case closed.
Now, forty-five years later, Beth Russell, a freelance researcher and genealogist, is brought to the town by a lawyer who believes Russell is the daughter of Melanie Tippitt and long-lost heir to the Tippitt fortune. Soon Beth finds herself surrounded by people who want her gone as soon as possible, people with a great deal to lose. The more they push, the more determined Beth is to discover the truth. With the help of a handsome detective, Beth vows to uncover what happened that day at Tippitt Pond.
The ghostly presence of Melanie Tippitt, a stranger watching from the woods, and the discovery of secrets in Tippitt House make for a suspense-filled investigation where Beth discovers … A DEATH AT TIPPITT POND changed everything.
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Shading her eyes from the morning sun with her hand, Elizabeth Russell stared up at the roof of Tippitt House with an anxious ache in her gut. In this small Midwestern town, she was pulled in opposite directions. Should she fly back to her New York home, leaving this mystery behind, or should she wait and appease her curiosity despite her uneasiness?
Frozen with indecision, she studied the massive Tudor home that rose three stories. The sun reflected off the slate roof as well as the finials on the gable points. It was a Queen Anne Tudor, its patterned bricks laid in headers and stretchers. She'd learned the process while researching an English manor. Some bricks were laid with their ends forward while others were laid with their sides forward, exhibiting a pattern called a Flemish Brick bond. She briefly saw a woman staring from the darkness of a bay window, then disappearing.
Well, Beth thought, taking a deep breath. Standing here examining brick patterns is not going to give me any answers. I'm simply putting off the inevitable.
Feigning confidence, she marched across the street, checking both ways. Unlike New York City, she wasn't likely to get hit by a car. Sweet Iron, Illinois, population 15,000, had little morning traffic in either direction. Climbing the stairs, she was about to push on the doorbell when the door opened, and the woman she'd seen in the window a moment earlier was looking into Beth's eyes with interest. She was thin, maybe a runner, Beth thought, her brown hair blunt-cut, framing her long face perfectly. Her facial features were symmetrical, her smile a little too wide for her narrow face.
"Good morning, Ms. Russell," the woman said with a smile. "I'm Molly Grayson. I've been keeping an eye on the house for Janet Landry and, more recently, for Mr. Hatcher." She put her hand out, and Beth shook it firmly. "Unfortunately, Mr. Hatcher has been delayed, but only momentarily. He asked to have you wait in the living room. I laid a fire so it's warm."
"Nice to meet you — Molly, was it?"
"Yes. Here, let me take your coat. Follow me."
Once Beth was seated, the Grayson woman indicated a silver tea service on the coffee table. "Help yourself. I'm sure he will be here shortly." Then she left, quietly pulling the exquisite pocket doors shut behind her.
Beth sat back, ignoring the tea and concentrating on the ache in her stomach. Ever since she could remember, she had been plagued by anxiety. This situation was no different. Her thoughts went back to the investigator who had found her at the New York City Public Library. Besides giving her a plane ticket and expenses to come to this little town, he'd piqued her curiosity with this ridiculous story about being heir to an inheritance from some family named Tippitt. She was between projects, so she decided to check out this fiction. Why not? It had cost her nothing. Now her uneasiness made her sorry she had come.
She glanced around the living room — beautifully crafted furniture, a baby grand piano, heavy drapes over the windows, and walls filled with gilded frames surrounding massive paintings. It was so quiet, except for an occasional crackle from the fireplace, that Beth felt like a patient waiting in a room for her doctor to give her bad news. Glancing at the tea things, she pursed her lips and thought about her day yesterday in the small town. Beth had kept an initial appointment with this efficient but stuffy lawyer, Remington Hatcher.
She had felt a sudden desire to flee even then. Entering by the front door of the law office, Beth had seen an empty waiting room except for a man in a sportscoat and slacks. His dark hair was brushed back in a slight wave with only enough silver to be attractive. He had a small scar on his left cheek near his ear. Beth might have missed it entirely, but he was turned toward the window light. He was about Beth's age, and she could see he sported a shoulder holster. When he saw her noticing the slight bulge in his jacket, he explained he was a detective with the Sweet Iron Police Department.
"Kyle Warner, ma'am," he intoned quietly. "I'm here to take DNA to the lab if I'm needed. This is my day off, and Mr. Hatcher wanted to ensure the validity of the sample."
"How do you do," she said, holding out her hand. "I'm Beth Russell, but I suppose you may already know that."
"Yes, ma'am, I do."
Beth felt the color in her face rise and she shook her head. Moving to New York City, she had fled her small hometown where everyone knew everyone else's business. She took another glance at Kyle Warner as he sat down and thought he was good-looking in a rugged sort of way. Turning, she stepped over to a desk where a middle-aged woman, dressed in a brown suit with a white blouse, was standing at attention. Her smile was pleasant, her manner efficient, her hand outstretched. "Good morning, Ms. Russell. I'm Harriet Newman, Mr. Hatcher's assistant. If you'll have a seat, I'll see if Mr. Hatcher is ready for you."
Beth shook her hand and, turning, eyed the clock as she sat down. 9:50 a.m. She could still catch a plane home in the afternoon.
"Mr. Hatcher will see you now, Ms. Russell," said the assistant. Beth followed her into an office with thick, dark blue carpet and wood everywhere. Two leather chairs sat in front of the desk.
A short man stood up, forty or forty-five with dark hair — a little gray at the temples — and looked at Beth expectantly. He must have been five-foot-seven and carried maybe twenty extra pounds.
"Good morning, Ms. Russell," he said, stretching out his hand.
"Good morning to you, Mr. Hatcher." She shook his hand, and he gestured that Beth might sit in a leather chair. As he walked behind the desk, Beth watched him take an antibiotic wipe from the top drawer and sweep it across the hand she had just shaken.
"Cold and flu season," he said. "Can't be too careful." He sat behind his desk, a lone folder occupying an otherwise pristine surface. No papers, no other folders, bare. He must be super-wizard organized, Beth thought.
Taking two pens out of his desk drawer, he lined them up side-by-side, meticulously making sure they were parallel. Then he looked at Beth, a cordial tone to his voice. "I trust your flight went well and everything was in order at the bed-and-breakfast. I hope you're comfortable there."
"I am, indeed." She stared right at him, her fists tightened on her lap. "I appreciate the trouble you've taken sending an investigator with this story about a lost heir, but I doubt very much that I'm the person you're trying to find."
Hatcher licked dry lips and looked up. "That remains to be seen." He clasped his hands together, setting them on the folder. "I am mainly concerned, Ms. Russell, with discharging my fiduciary duty as executor of the estate of my client, Janet Tippitt Landry. She left quite explicit instructions." He lightly tapped a finger on the desktop. "Frankly, I am not sure I even believe this missing child theory. No records exist about a child being born, but Janet Landry was definite about her desire to find a baby she remembered. Depending on our discussion, I have been advised of two separate directions for disbursement of the Tippitt estate. So, this is where we are."
Beth leaned forward in her chair, figuring she should end this quickly and mercifully. "I may as well begin by telling you I grew up in Spring Harbor, New York, with two parents who certainly existed, a birth certificate, and any number of records to show I am the adult child of Robert and Laurel Russell. So, I'm confused. Why would you associate me with a family I've never heard of in a place I've never been?" She sat back in her chair, crossing her legs.
"My investigator. It has taken him several months to find you, and, unfortunately, Janet died during that period. She tried hard to survive her cancer to meet this elusive niece, but it wasn't to be."
Beth took in a breath, feeling her anxiety again, and said, "I figure I'll listen to you — since you're willing to throw so much money into a free trip for me when I'm between research projects — then I'll return to New York City and my real life. I'm simply curious, as I said, about the context of this whole mysterious family."
Hatcher opened the folder on his desk and said, "Would you like to know a bit about the Tippitt family? I can give you some information if you'd like."
"Sure." She settled back in her chair, watching as the lawyer pulled the cap from an expensive gold pen and cleared his throat. Beth studied him. He glanced down at the first page, turned it over, and began talking while his pen tip touched various spots on the next page. Precise, she thought.
"I wasn't present, Ms. Russell, when this situation with an out-of-wedlock birth allegedly took place. I can explain that the Tippitt family has been a driving force in the history of Sweet Iron for several generations. You might have noticed the college and the various venues named for the generous donations of the family."
"I did on my way into town." She nodded, trying to hide her impatience, but a jiggling leg put a lie to that.
"Of course, the local library has books about the history of the town, and the Tippitts have been highly involved since Sweet Iron's founding. I inherited their legal affairs from my uncle, who was an attorney and a friend of Judge Tippitt's."
"Oh, he was a judge?"
"Yes." He nodded solemnly. "Judge Tippitt has been gone now twenty-six years, and his wife, Joellen, twenty-one. Their only surviving child was Janet Tippitt Landry, who died a few weeks ago at age seventy-four. She had a younger brother and sister who predeceased her."
Beth looked down at her hands in her lap. "So many early deaths. I'm sorry for the family."
He hesitated, his facial expression approving her scruples. "That is kind of you." He shuffled another page and resumed. "If I describe the three siblings, maybe it will help you understand. Janet was the oldest. She married Neal Landry, who sold real estate in the Fort Worth area. They didn't have any children. Neal died some time ago, and since Janet was the only surviving child, she returned to the family home."
After the lawyer paused, Beth said, "Was that her house, or maybe the family's house, I saw down the street from the bed-and-breakfast?" "Yes, Tippitt House. It's in the historical section of town. I believe the house dates to the mid-1800s."
She moved forward in her chair, her voice becoming animated. "I figured that was the case. I'm a historical researcher and genealogist, you see. It must have been built fairly soon after the founding of the town."
"Correct. Much of it was preserved even after the deaths of the siblings." He put his head down and returned to his notes. "After Janet came Jeff, the judge's only son. Unfortunately, he was killed in 1967 in Vietnam. Helicopter pilot. It was quite a blow for the family, from what I've been told, since he was the presumptive heir, continuing the family name. The youngest child, Melanie, who was six years younger than Jeff, took his death very hard. I am told they were close."
"I can see why Janet Landry was trying to find this mysterious heir, since I imagine they want to keep the family's estate intact."
He looked up at her, nodding. "The focus of our little chat would be the last child, Melanie. From what I have heard — I have, of course, seen photographs — she was quite stunning. Blond, like you. It was her eyes, however, that were the cause of great interest. You see, she had green eyes, and each had little gold flecks in the irises." He paused, and added, "Much like yours."
Hatcher waited, considering her eyes, and silence filled the space between them.
Beth's body suddenly went still. Her whole life people had remarked upon her unique eyes. She hadn't given a thought to their origin, since she knew so little about either of her parents' families. Suddenly, Beth heard someone clear his throat and realized she had been sitting in silence while Remington Hatcher waited.
He cleared his throat once again, saying, "You know, Ms. Russell, all of this took place a long time ago. Jeff Tippitt has been gone forty-nine years, and Melanie, forty-five. It was all a long, long time ago. Only people in their sixties or older could remember what happened back then, I'd imagine."
"You're probably right," Beth said, in a quiet voice. She looked down at her hands in her lap and saw they were trembling again. Seconds went by in silence. Deep down, Beth had always known something was wrong. She could remember a conversation with her well-meaning friend, Gabrielle, who said, "But I have grandparents and aunts and uncles and four brothers and three sisters and nieces and nephews too numerous to mention. At last count, I think that overwhelms your zero. Don't you find that strange?" It was true her parents kept her close to home. No history. No relatives. If she were honest, even she found it strange.
A ghost of a kindly expression passed over Remington Hatcher's face and he said, "I doubt we will find this missing baby, now adult. If she were alive today, she'd be forty-seven years old."
Beth raised her eyes. "I'm forty-seven. Forty-eight next April."
She saw his face suddenly transformed by shock, as if he were finding it difficult to believe her last words. He turned several pages of papers in his folder and began searching for something. Finally, his pen lighted on a spot on one of the pages. He looked up.
"When, exactly, is your next birthday, Ms. Russell?"
He stared at her, and his voice began to take on a more mellow tone. "I believe maybe we should consider a DNA test."
"The baby Janet Landry remembers was born on April 10, 1969. She was quite definite about the date. She was in attendance, you see."
Beth stared at him as if he were speaking a different language. She tried to say something, but the words stuck in her throat. Taking a deep breath and finding her voice, she asked, "What were the circumstances surrounding this baby's birth, Mr. Hatcher?"
He pressed his lips together and said, "I can't tell you more until we determine identity. I believe I've already said too much. If you are the Tippitt niece, I am prepared to give you a great deal of information, but we will have to establish your identity first. A simple DNA test. We have DNA to match from Janet, as well as a lock of the alleged baby's hair."
By now Beth's researcher instincts were kicking in, and she considered reasons they could abandon this whole ridiculous story. "I thought DNA results took a long time to complete. I seem to remember some of the more dramatic legal cases in the news had to wait weeks, maybe months, to determine the results."
"That is where we are in a sweet spot. Not far from here is a private lab, and Tippitt money has been set aside to pay the cost of the test if we have a candidate with a reasonable background. In addition, a new DNA test is now out which takes approximately four hours to match," said the lawyer.
She sat forward in her chair, a gasp leaving her lips. "Four hours? You have to be kidding!"
"No, Ms. Russell. We could resolve this whole situation quite quickly. We would know later today, or, possibly, by tomorrow morning."
Beth brought a shaky hand to her forehead pushing back her hair.
"However, we would have to have your permission to swab your mouth."
Beth slowly assembled her chaotic thoughts. "This is all impossible, Mr. Hatcher. My parents were present at my birth. Never did anyone question I was anything but their child. My mother had me quite late in life — she was forty-two. But they told me they never gave up hoping they might have a child while she was still able to do so. I find it difficult to believe these parents I loved and cherished lied to me about this fundamental information."
Hatcher pushed back his chair and stood up, walking around the desk. He didn't touch Beth on the shoulder or put out his hand, but he did say in a somewhat empathetic tone, "Maybe we should see if you are that heir."
She had played that first meeting with Hatcher back and forth in her mind, restlessly tossing and turning all night. As soon as her eyes got heavy, her brain kicked in, keeping sleep just beyond her reach.
That was yesterday. Now, as Beth sat in the Tippitt living room, she thought about pouring a cup of tea after all, but she was afraid her hands would shake too much. Into the silence came Molly Grayson's voice, a distant murmur from behind the pocket doors. Remington Hatcher must be here, she thought as she listened to the sound of the front door closing. Hmm, she thought. His voice sounds quite optimistic.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "A Death at Tippitt Pond"
Copyright © 2019 Susan Van Kirk.
Excerpted by permission of Encircle Publications, LLC.
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