The tiny cabin Claire O'Toole's mother had once used for painting had been shut up for years. Claire was the only one who came here, and even she didn't return all that often, maybe every six months or so.
Braced for the torrent of memories that hit her every time she walked inside, she dropped the key into the pocket of her jeans and forced open a door warped from too many Montana winters. Before she crossed the threshold, however, she looked behind her, suddenly feeling she might not be as alone as she'd thought.
A gentle wind swayed the pine trees. She could hear the rustle as it traveled through the surrounding forest, but she couldn't see any movement. She couldn't see anything at all, except for what fell inside the beam of her flashlight. There were no city lights up here, no glassy lake to reflect the moon's glow, the way there was closer to town, nothing but thick forest carpeted with pine needles, cloaked in darkness and topped with a canopy of stars.
No one was sneaking up behind her. How silly to even check. There were other cabins in these mountains, but only one in the immediate vicinity. Her parents had owned it as well as this studio from when they were first married to the summer before she started school. Then they'd sold the main house and moved to town. She could still remember her mother cooking in that kitchen, the little tree house her stepfather had built in the backyard.
The house had changed hands more than once, but Isaac Morgan owned it now, so she stayed clear. Avoiding it minimized the number of times she and Isaac ran into each other. He filmed wildlife all around the world and was often gone, which helped. Although he lived closest to the studio, she couldn't imagine any reason he'd be lurking in the trees. They were too busy trying to prove to each other that what they'd had ten years ago had been as easy to leave behind as it should've been.
So who else could it be? Her sister, her stepfather and his wife, her best friend and her best friend's sheriff husbandin fact, nearly all of Pineview's 1,500 residentswere watching Fourth of July fireworks in the city park across the street from the cemetery. She could hear the distant boom of each explosion, smell the smoke that drifted up against the mountain.
No one had noticed when she slipped away.
Drawing a deep breath, she turned back and focused on the dusty interior. Cast-off furniture from her stepfather, her stepfather's wife and her maternal grandparents crowded the living room. Cobwebs hung from the rafters; rat droppings littered the floor. Pack rats built nests everywhere in this part of the state, even in the engines of cars.
This wasn't the magical place it'd been when she was a child. The good memories had been conquered and overrun, broken by tragedy, but she returned, anyway. She couldn't ignore the studio's existence and move on, like everybody else. Invariably, the past dragged her back.
As she stepped inside, she paused to listen. She'd expected silence. But she could hear the engine of her old Camaro ticking as it cooled in the overgrown drive. Then a creak, coming from the loft above. When other creaks followed, it almost sounded as if her mother was walking around up there like she used to.
Obviously, Claire's imagination had kicked into overdrive, reacting to the isolation and the spookiness of coming here after dark.
Or maybe it was her subconscious, trying to get her out before she could come across something that might disrupt what little peace of mind she had left. Her mother had been missing for fifteen years and in all that time they'd never found a trace of her. Her sister had broken her back sledding two years later and been confined to a wheelchair. And David, her husband, had died only a year ago in a terrible hunting accident. She couldn't tolerate another loss.
And yet she kept digging for the truth.
What if she discovered that her stepfather had killed her mother, as so many others believed? Or what if her mother had run off with another man, willingly left them for a new life somewhere else, as the previous sheriff had suggested?
She'd be devastated. Again. But she couldn't accept either of those possibilities. Her stepfather was a good man; he would never have hurt Alana. Alana was a loving mother; she would never have abandoned her children. That meant someone had kidnapped her, maybe killed her, and would get away with it unless Claire made sure that didn't happen. Who else would fight for justice?
Not Leanne. Claire's sister battled enough challenges. Leanne didn't even want to think about the day they'd lost their mother, let alone look into it. And her stepfather Tug, as his friends called himhad moved in with the woman who'd eventually become her stepmother only six months after Alana went missing. At this late date, he wouldn't have known what to do with Alana even if she reappeared.
Only Claire held on. She was all her mother had left, and that made it impossible to give up, no matter how many people told her she should. Her mother deserved more than that.
At least obsessing about the mystery that had tormented her for half her life kept her from dwelling on David, a loss that was far too recent and still too raw.
Another creak. She almost lost her nerve. Maybe she should've waited until tomorrow. But her sister lived in the house right next door to hers and was constantly dropping by. It was difficult for Claire to get away without divulging something about where she was going and what she was doing. And because Claire ran her business, a hair salon, out of her home, if it wasn't her sister, it was one of her many clients, who paid more attention than Claire wanted. Thanks to her mother's disappearance, she'd always been watched a little too carefully. Everyone was waiting to see whether she'd recover or fall apart. That was the reason she wanted to move awayso she could be anonymous for a change, start overa desire that had only grown more intense after David died. Except for two years when their relationship had faltered while he was in college, they'd been together since they were sixteen. Losing him meant becoming the object of everyone's pity once again.
How are you? You hangin' in there, kiddo?
She got questions like that, spoken in low, somber tones, all the time. She wouldn't have minded so much if the people who asked were as sincere as they sounded and not just inviting her to provide them with a bit of tantalizing gossip for the next community gathering or church event. Poor Claire. She's suffering so. I talked to her last week and
Claire didn't need anyone gabbing about her efforts to solve the mystery. Or conjecturing on what she might or might not find at the studio. Or confronting her family with the fact that she'd been here. That was why she kept whatever she could to herself. Why create more curiosity? It would only upset those who'd rather forget
So, frightening though it was, she liked the cover of darkness. It made her feel as close to anonymous as she could get in the place where she'd grown up. The noises she heard were nothing to worry about. No one would have any reason to hang out in an abandoned studio that didn't have electricity or running water. If some vagabond had moved in, there'd be proof of occupancy.
Knocking the cobwebs out of the way, she followed the beam of her flashlight through the cluster of furniture. Then she climbed up to the loft, where her mother used to paint. She'd loved watching Alana work, had never felt more at peace than here, with the sun pouring through the floor-to-ceiling windows of the second floor, her mother standing in the light, concentrating on her latest masterpiece.
Several unfinished paintings perched on easels covered with sheets, looking like ghosts floating a couple of feet off the ground. The sight of them made Claire sick with loss, a loss rivaled only by David's death. Whoever had taken Alana had robbed the world, and Claire, of so much.
Was it someone she knew? Someone she passed on the street, spoke to, cared about? One of those people who always asked how she was?
It had to be, didn't it? Alana went missing from their house in town in the dead of winter. Although this part of Montana saw an influx of hunters, fisherman and rec-reationists during the spring, summer and fall, it was not a place to visit in the cold months. Libby, thirty miles away, was the closest town. Notorious for the asbestos mine that'd made everyone sick and caused the death of two hundred people, Libby had been in the news a lot in recent years. But on the day Alana had gone missing, it was still just a spot on the map, and an overturned truck carrying vermiculite ore had blocked traffic on the highway for hours. The sheriff himself hadn't been able to get through until it was cleared.
Claire supposed some "bad man" could've come from the other direction, from Marion or Kalispell, but no one had spotted any strangers that day. Even more significant, there'd been no sign of forced entry at the house. Whoever had taken Alana was most likely someone she trusted. She'd opened her door, never expecting to be harmed.
The betrayal inherent in that scenario made Claire more determined than anything else to solve the mystery. Dragging a chair from the corner, the very chair in which she used to sit and daydream while her mother painted, Claire climbed up to reach the handle that would open the attic door. Just shy of five foot three, she could barely grab hold, but once she caught it, the pull-down ladder lowered easily enough.
It was warmer in the small space above Alana's studio. Dustier, too. Claire coughed as she poked her head through the opening and used her flashlight to re-acquaint herself with the contents.
Boxes stacked floor to ceiling left little room in which to maneuver. She hadn't remembered it being quite so crowded. But when it became clear that her mother wasn't coming back, Claire had insisted that everything Alana owned, down to the razor she'd been using in the shower, be preserved. The sheriff's department had confiscated the contents of Alana's desk, her computer, any recent letters she'd written or received, the photos she'd snapped in the months prior to her disappearance, her journal, the things left in her caranything they thought might help them find her. Claire and Leanne had taken possession of any sentimental items that remained. And the rest had been packed up and stored here years ago, just after Claire graduated from high school and moved outand her stepfather and his wife bought the luxurious home they currently enjoyed, the home they'd bought with the inheritance Alana had received when her parents died in a plane crash only a year before she disappeared.
Riddled with guilt for even thinking that her mother's misfortune had provided such a spectacular living for the woman who'd replaced her, Claire steered her mind away from that direction. She liked her stepmother. It wasn't Roni's fault that Alana was no longer around.
But it bothered Claire that Roni acted as if Alana had never existed. Tug and Leanne preferred to handle the situation the same way. They'd both asked Claire to forget the past. Learning what happened wouldn't bring Alana back, they said. And it was true. It was also true that Leanne seemed to do better if she didn't have to be reminded of that fateful day. Which was why, after pleading for the new sheriff to reopen the case a couple of years ago, Claire had gone back to call him off. Her family had been too upset about the questions he was asking. They couldn't tolerate the assumptions and suspicions that were inevitable in such a small community.
Claire respected their position. But she couldn't stop digging entirely. She needed resolution as much as they needed to forget.
What she was hoping to accomplish by coming here tonight, however, she didn't know. She'd been through all this stuff so many times. Her stepfather, his wife and Leanne had seen it, too. The three of them had packed it together.
But Claire couldn't help hoping that she'd see something she'd missed before, that some clue would emerge and solve the mystery. That happened all the time on those forensics shows.
Squeezing through the narrow pathway, she moved toward a box that contained her mother's childhood memorabiliaAlana's report cards, her early journals, pictures of her family and friends. Claire loved looking through that box because it made her feel closer to the woman she missed so terribly. And it was as good a place to begin as any. She planned on going through every last box, even if that meant frequent trips to the studio over the next few weeks.
She bent to lift it, then saw some boxes that had been packed much more recently. They stood out because they were labeled in her own handwriting. David's Clothes, David's Things, David's Yearbooks.
Her hand flew to her chest as if she could stop that familiar lump from growing in her throat, but she couldn't. What were her late husband's personal belongings doing here? She hadn't expected to find them, wasn't ready for such a powerful reminder.