The elderly Abigail Pearson has a heart attack at home when she has a "vision" of her long-disappeared husband. When Emily Charters goes to stay with Abigail to look after her, Emily begins to believe something nefarious is indeed afoot. The strangest case yet for Emily and her friend, Chicago police detective Jeremy Ransom, in Fred Hunter's Ransom Unpaid.
About the Author
FRED HUNTER, a Chicago resident, has written four Ransom/Charters titles, along with two books in the Alex Reynolds series.
Fred Hunter is a full-time writer and author of two series--the Ransom/Charters series, an unlikely mix of cozy and police procedural mystery, and the Alex Reynolds series, a barely over-the-top gay mystery series that calls to mind the screwball comedies of the 1930's.
Read an Excerpt
By Fred Hunter
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 1999 Fred Hunter
All rights reserved.
Abigail Pearson was excessively fond of hats. She considered herself blessed that she had been born with a perfectly oval face, her head neither too big nor too small, so that she looked good in almost every style of headgear, from cloche hats to wide brims, to the man's fedora, complete with a wide black band, that she'd sported during the late sixties and early seventies, much to the dismay and embarrassment of her children. But it had been her subtle form of support for the women's movement. The only kind of hat she had never much cared for were hats that tied under the chin. She had an aversion bordering on phobia to feeling bound in that way, whether it was under her chin or around her neck, no matter how sheer the material. Even the softest silk scarf, draped around her neck rather than knotted, made her feel as if she were suffocating.
As Abigail had grown older, she'd lost much of her affection for small, tight hats, although she still enjoyed seeing them on other women. She'd let her hair grow into a long mane that was half steel-gray and half white, believing that a luxurious train of hair lent an air of stateliness to an elderly woman.
She sat on the small chair at the vanity she'd had since she was young. She called it her "powder puff" chair because the seat was round, soft, and white. It brought to mind the large, fluffy puff that came inside the first circular box of powder she received one Christmas as a child. She had loved the softness of it against her skin, and the white clouds of dust it sent into the air whenever she applied the powder. She had kept it in the box on the side of her vanity for months after the powder was gone.
A variety of hats were piled to her left and right on the vanity. In the still of the night she had been seized with one of those flurries of activity where, unable to sleep, one finds oneself unaccountably compelled to scrub the kitchen floor, or clean out the closets, or rearrange all the wall paintings. Abigail's particular craze was to retrieve her collection of hats from the shelves in the closet between her bedroom and bath, and sort through them to decide which to keep and which to discard.
She looked at herself in the perfectly round mirror mounted on the back of the vanity and sighed. She looked tired and she certainly looked old, even if she didn't feel it. The lines around her eyes had deepened so that they no longer gave her character, but instead made her look as if her flesh were being slowly carved away. She picked up the silver-handled brush her mother had given her many years ago and ran it through her long hair, brushing it back behind her ears. She replaced the brush, picked up the hat from the top of the pile on her right, and placed it carefully on her head. The hat had a very wide floppy brim and was lime green with a pale band. She considered it in the mirror.
"What was I thinking?" she said with a grimace at her reflection. "Honestly!"
She snatched the hat from her head, tossed it on the floor and picked up another. This one was also wide brimmed, tan with a dark brown ribbon and a small cluster of berries and flowers on the left side.
"Maybe without the foliage," she said as she removed the hat, placing it on the pile to her left.
The next was a small white hat with a black band and abbreviated brim. A tiny broken feather stuck out from the band. The hat was faded and smudged beyond the ability to be cleaned, but Abigail tried it on anyway. There was something mannish about the hat, though it remained feminine. The color, coupled with the slight point at the back, made her look like a sort of mafioso sprite. She smiled at herself in the mirror. Her husband would have hated this hat. Then again, he would have hated anything she bought for herself. That was partly the point. She took the hat off and tossed it on the floor.
She was just reaching for another when both the overhead light and the boudoir lamp on the vanity flickered in unison. Abigail looked at each of the offending lights in turn and wondered what could have made them unstable. It wasn't entirely out of the ordinary to lose power during a storm, but the weather was calm that night. There was only an occasional gust of warm wind, which caused a branch of the tree outside her window to scrape against the glass. To Abigail it sounded like fingernails. She reminded herself to tell Gregory to trim the branch when she saw him next.
The ancient grandfather clock at the foot of the stairs began to loudly chime midnight. It was a comforting sound that usually made her feel she wasn't alone in the house, although there were times when the loud, insistent ticking made her feel as if her life was being ticked away.
When the clock struck the final note of twelve, the lights flickered again, then went out. Abigail sat motionless, staring straight ahead where her reflection had been, letting her eyes adjust to the darkness. She told herself that she shouldn't be frightened, although it would have been more effective if she could have thought of a reason why the lights would go off on their own.
Slowly she became used to the change, and the shadows around her formed into the things with which she had a lifelong familiarity: the bed with its high, oak headboard, the small nightstand and reading lamp, and the low chair in which she sat every morning to slip into her shoes. Once she had taken stock of these things, drawing a sense of peace from her precious possessions, she began an internal debate as to whether or not she should venture down to the kitchen to try to find a spare fuse, and then into the hollow basement which might have unnerved her at the best of times. There was something about going down the narrow stairs into the cellar that was a bit too much like descending into the belly of the beast. She didn't even relish the idea of doing it in the daylight.
No, she thought with a sigh, I'll just leave it until morning and go back to bed. There's no sense in trying to find my way around now.
She pushed herself back in the chair, placing steadying hands on either side of the vanity to brace herself as she rose. It was then that she heard a loud creak that seemed to come from somewhere in the center of the house. She froze in place, her fingers poised like spiders beside each pile of hats.
After a moment of straining her ears against the silence, she shook her head and chuckled at her own skittishness. Had the lights been working she would have thought nothing of the popping and snapping to which one is subjected in an old house as it settles. Abigail wasn't about to let those sounds worry her now. She got up and pushed the chair under the vanity as neatly as she could in the darkness, and stood for a moment resting her hands on the chair's back.
Then she heard it again. This time the sound rang out more deliberately than before. She wondered briefly why it seemed so familiar, then she realized it was the sound that the floorboard in the downstairs hallway made whenever anyone chanced to step on it.
Abigail suddenly became aware of a drumming in her ears that coincided with the pounding in her chest. There was definitely someone in the house, and there was nothing in the bedroom she could use to defend herself should the intruder decide to venture to the second floor. She did a quick mental inventory of where the few paltry items that could be considered valuable were, and wondered if the intruder would settle for what he found and leave quickly, or better yet, decide that there was nothing of real value at all. Her worst fear was that he might take to exploring the rest of the house to see if there were any hidden treasures.
Hidden treasure, she thought with a sudden, ironic smile. If he only knew.
It seemed to Abigail that she had been standing for hours in that attitude, her mind feverishly going from one possibility to the next then back again, when the silence was once again broken by a loud snap from the floorboard below.
The repetition of the noise caused a puzzled frown to appear on Abigail's face. Surely whoever was down there should have noticed by now that he was risking discovery by continuing to trod on the one space in the hallway floor that would bring him notice. It was almost as if the intruder was walking back and forth across the board purposely. This caused another shock of fear for Abigail: It would be worse to be faced with an intruder who actually wanted to rouse the house.
The pounding in her chest increased its speed and drew her attention back to itself. She had every reason to be afraid, but her heart felt as if it might run out of control. For this, at least, she was prepared. As carefully and quietly as she could, she pawed the vanity till she found the handle of the top right-hand drawer. She slid it out, then felt for the small bottle of pills she kept there. Once she had it in her grasp, she twisted the cap, trying not to allow the pills to rattle. She extracted one, put it under her tongue, and set the bottle down.
She stood with her eyes closed against the darkness, laying her hands back on her chair as the pill took effect. There was a general relaxing as her pulse began to slow.
It was then that something happened that almost made her heart stop. Out of the silence came a voice that sounded far off and muffled, but still clear enough to be understood. It said only one word: "Abigail!"
For several seconds she stood immobilized, her eyes wide with terror. She tried to convince herself that she had been imagining things, but she could feel the blood rushing through her veins, and her nerve endings tingling. She listened again, but could hear nothing over the renewed pounding in her ears. When the sound was not repeated after a wait of over a minute, she started to think she actually had imagined it. She was tempted to go out in the hall and investigate, but knew that was a crazy thing to contemplate. But after a few more moments of continued silence, her curiosity began to get the better of her. After all, she thought, I can't stand here like this forever.
Drawing upon some of the bravery and foolhardiness she had known in her younger days, she quietly made her way across the room to her bedroom door. She pressed the tips of her fingers against the knob and cautiously turned it. The door unlatched with a click that was almost inaudible, though to Abigail it sounded loud enough to be heard in the next county. She waited for a moment, listening intently for approaching footsteps, but there was nothing. She pulled the door open and stepped out into the second-floor hallway.
Her room was the first in the hall. The hall ran directly back from the top of the stairs. She stood there for a while, trying to discern any further movement below. She was met with the rushing wind of silence that permeates the ears of anyone who tries too hard to listen. She was just about to cross to the newel post at the top of the stairs when suddenly she heard it again.
The dim voice, seeming to come to her from a great distance, once again called out: "Abigail."
She felt her heartbeat increase, and at the same time could feel her eyebrows knitting together. She was afraid and confused. There was something familiar about the voice.
"Abigail!" it called again in its far-off whisper.
Despite herself, Abigail felt compelled to go and look over the railing at the landing. She lurched across the hall and laid hold of the post for support.
"Who's there?" Her voice sounded cracked and dried.
There was no answer, but she soon heard slow, deliberate footsteps coming down the first-floor hallway from the back of the house to the front.
Abigail had to struggle to keep herself from crying out when he came into view. From her bird's-eye position and with the darkness below, she couldn't really make out much more than a dark suit and silver hair, but his overall carriage made her sure she knew who the intruder was.
He didn't pause or look up at her. Instead he made his way to the front door. He seemed to slowly glide or float rather than walk, and he opened the door and went out without a word, closing the door behind him.
"Phillip?" Abigail said softly.
Then the darkness folded around her, and she knew no more.CHAPTER 2
"We're going to keep her overnight," said Dr. Frederickson, "to run some further tests and monitor her heart, but unless we find something more than we already have, she'll be released tomorrow."
"Tomorrow?" JoAnna Pearson said, her face drooping as if the weight of this development were dragging it down. Her cheeks were already pale enough without the aid of the additional stressful news, and her dark red hair was shot through with gray that seemed to add ten to her forty-plus years.
"Yes," said Frederickson. "Is there anyone who can look after her?"
JoAnna stared at the third button from the top of the doctor's long white coat. The end of a loose thread protruded from one of the tiny holes in the button, and in the midst of her jumbled thoughts, JoAnna found herself irrelevantly thinking that if he wasn't careful, he'd lose the button.
"What? Oh, no, there isn't. I suppose ... I suppose I could find someone, but there isn't any time, is there?"
The doctor hesitated, then said, "You know, of course, that she has angina. We don't know what caused this episode, but we haven't been able to find any damage to the heart. There may be some other reason for what happened, but we haven't discovered anything else wrong with her. I don't know that she needs a nurse, if that's what you're thinking, but I don't think she should be left on her own." Here he paused for a moment. "Has she shown any signs of anything else lately?"
JoAnna tried very hard to focus her attention on him. It was difficult, though, because she kept finding her concentration interrupted by a stream of thoughts such as What am I going to do? and How am I going to handle this? She kept coming back to the idea that she might have to move back in with her mother, but even thinking about it was almost too much to bear. She knew that if someone had to live with her mother, the responsibility would fall to her. She couldn't count on Gregory to be any more help than he ever was. And even if she could bring herself to move back, it still wouldn't be a solution. She had to work, and that would mean hiring someone to come in during the day, and she didn't even know where to start. And then her life would no longer be her own. Her existence would be reduced to going to work, then coming home to stay with her mother. Not that her life amounted to much more than that at the moment, anyway.
"Miss Pearson?" the doctor said, once again trying to gain her full attention.
"Oh. I'm sorry," she replied with a distressed smile, "I'm just ... There's so much to do."
"I understand. Now, can you tell me if your mother has shown signs of anything unusual lately?"
"What do you mean?"
"Has she been more absentminded, forgetful? Has she been more tired than usual or has she suffered from loss of appetite?"
"No. No, not that I've noticed."
"Would you notice?"
Although there was no accusation in his tone, JoAnna looked up at him, her cheeks reddening. Like so many people who try to do their best, she always harbored the secret fear that her best was not good enough.
"Of course I would notice. What do you mean?"
"Nothing," Frederickson said, quickly backpedaling. "All I meant was that when you see somebody on a regular basis, it's easy to miss changes that take place gradually, over a period of time. It's much easier to notice these things if you haven't seen the person for a while."
"Of course," JoAnna replied sheepishly. She looked down in an effort to hide how deeply she was blushing. "I see my mother almost every day. A day doesn't go by that I don't visit her to make sure she's all right. I think I would notice this type of change you're talking about. Why do you ask?"
Frederickson shrugged. "Just looking for some explanation for the way you found her."
"I can't ... I can't help you there," said JoAnna, shaking her head slowly, at a loss for her own inability to answer. "Is it all right if I see her now?"
Excerpted from Ransom Unpaid by Fred Hunter. Copyright © 1999 Fred Hunter. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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