A movie star’s suicide draws a young woman into the deadly shadows of a Hollywood scandal in this novel from “a master of suspense” (Mary Higgins Clark).
More than fifty years ago, Victoria Frazer and Roger Brandt were the most popular stars of the silver screen—until a notorious and tragic love affair on set in the Appalachians destroyed their lives. It was there, at the foot of Rumbling Bald Mountain in Lake Lure, North Carolina, where Victoria drowned herself, and where Roger would remain—drifting into obscurity as a tortured recluse.
Now, a half-century later, screenwriter Lauren Castle has arrived at a Lake Lure resort in the wake of a more recent tragedy: the suspicious death of her husband, a documentary filmmaker who was investigating the legendary Hollywood scandal. Lauren’s husband held the most closely guarded secret of all: She is Victoria’s granddaughter. Only one other person knew her secret, the couple’s close friend, Gordon Heath, whom Lauren is inexplicably drawn to. Now she must solve a mystery that links two generations, has claimed more than one victim, and has yet to reach its deadly and final fade-out.
New York Times–bestselling and Edgar Award–winning author Phyllis A. Whitney “is, and always will be, the Grand Master of her craft” (Barbara Michaels).
This ebook features an illustrated biography of Phyllis A. Whitney including rare images from the author’s estate.
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About the Author
Whitney resided in several places, including New Jersey. She traveled to every location mentioned in her books in order to better depict the settings of her stories. She earned the Mystery Writers of America Grand Master Award in 1988, the Agatha in 1990, and the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Society of Midland Authors in 1995. Whitney was working on her autobiography at the time of her passing at the age of 104.
Read an Excerpt
Something awakened me so suddenly that I sat up in bed, my heart thumping as I stared at the unfamiliar reflection of water rippling across the ceiling of my room. Being disoriented by my surroundings wasn't my problem — I knew where I was well enough. Back home in Palm Desert, there was no nearby water to cast ceiling reflections, so I began to wonder whether there had been something out there on the lake — some strange ambience that had reached out to disturb my dreaming — or whether I simply found it hard to sleep in the watery surroundings.
As I came fully awake, I dismissed the former notion. I was here in North Carolina to find the answers to important questions, some of which had plagued me for years. I knew I needed to search for solutions with logic and good sense. A sound plan, certainly, but one that made me smile as I considered it. I wasn't sure that I was capable of such a sensible approach. Confusion and concern were too much a part of my emotional baggage at the moment.
I'd arrived at Rumbling Mountain Lodge in the early evening, after a long flight from California, with several changes before I finally reached Asheville and picked up the rented car that had brought me here. A glance at my watch told me that it was a little before 3:00 A.M. locally, though not yet midnight at home.
Finding myself sleepless, I put on a robe and slippers, opened the door to the long balcony that ran past several rooms, and stepped outside. The late-September day had been warm, but the night air of the mountains felt wonderfully refreshing. Driving here while there was still some daylight, I had realized how lushly green everything was, very different from the desert browns I was used to. Leaves were just beginning to turn, with the promise of even greater beauty to come.
I had never meant to come here. I knew the story behind my mother's birth and had absorbed some of her prejudice against the man who still lived at Lake Lure and was my grandfather. I knew about my grandmother, who had sent her child away to old friends in California before her own suicide. All this was a part of my family history and responsible, I was sure, for the uneasiness I was trying to dismiss.
Even though my real grandparents had never been a part of my life, I had grown up curious about them, my young imagination fired by the glamour of those two legendary figures. Once, when I was sixteen, I had said to my mother, "Don't you want to know the truth about your mother's death?"
But her sense of having been rejected was too strong and her guard was always up. To the day of her own death, she remained unforgiving toward a past she really knew very little about. She had wanted a life that was safe and secure, and her foster parents had given her that. I remembered them as loving but old, with whatever young leanings toward adventure they might have had long subdued.
As I stood on this balcony, high above the very waters where Victoria Frazer had drowned, some disturbing enchantment seemed to fill me — as though something in me already knew that how and why she had died would have a startling effect upon my own future. What did Roger Brandt really know about her death?
I was the one who wanted to know. Once, I sneaked into a movie theater where one of Roger Brandt's old pictures was playing. In spite of all that seemed sentimental and corny to me, I'd been able to catch a bit of the fascination he must have held for the audiences of his day. He'd been very much a man's man, strong and vital in his adventure pictures, yet women, too, were clearly susceptible to his special charm.
A veteran of more than thirty movies since his teens, he would have been in his early twenties in the film I saw. He appeared tall and lean — perhaps lanky was the word — yet possessed a natural grace of movement that was appealing. The camera loved him. His eyes said more than any lines they gave him, and a crease in one cheek brought an interesting twist to his smile. He had a special way of walking off with his back to the camera and then pausing to look over one shoulder, almost mischievously, as though some secret existed between him and the audience. Of course, his prowess on a horse was famous and the palomino in his films belonged to him. All these things I knew about from old fan magazines I'd picked up in secondhand stores, hiding them from my mother.
My father, I didn't remember at all; he'd died in an accident when I was only two, so he held less reality for me than my grandfather did.
Unfortunately, I had never seen the movie Blue Ridge Cowboy, which starred both of my grandparents. Those same old magazines had shown me her entrancing, tender young face with those great eyes that must have held me spellbound. I knew they were green, because the magazines said so, though all the photographs I saw were in black and white. My own eyes were green as well, and sometimes I'd felt a certain pride of distinction because they'd come from my famous grandmother. She must have been a glorious shooting star across the film screens of the world, only to have her light quenched in the dark waters of Lake Lure. At least she would never grow old. Roger Brandt was over seventy, and probably growing feeble, with all that young charisma long gone. Yet I was curious about him.
My room at the lodge was on the second floor, at the rear, above the lake. The building was set among tall evergreens, oaks, and maples that offered shade by day and a certain dusky seclusion by night. Beneath my balcony, the hillside dropped steeply to the water. With the lodge's lighted standards all around, I could make out wooden steps leading down to a slanting walkway that ended where a house stood near the water.
My coming here still seemed strange and unreal to me. It had less to do with Victoria and Roger and the distant past than with the death two years ago of my husband, documentary-filmmaker Jim Castle, in this remote place. Nevertheless, what was happening now seemed strangely fateful and destined — if one believed in such things.
Jim's interest in Roger Brandt had been sparked by the fact that he was my grandfather, but it had quickly grown to be more. He had watched his films and read hundreds of books written by Hollywood insiders, and those invariably made some mention of Roger Brandt. When Jim decided to travel here to get footage of his film's subject, I had refused to accompany him.
As a film writer, I had worked on some of Jim's past efforts, but I'd wanted nothing to do with this one. I was still resisting destiny. When he died on that trip, I'd suffered a good deal of guilt, perhaps because our marriage was no longer close. I kept thinking if I'd come here with him, Jim would still be alive.
The startling letter that finally had brought me here was nearly anonymous. I knew the few lines by heart, and as I looked out over the water toward that great crouching mountain, they ran through my mind:
Your husband's death was not an accident, as I have only just learned. If you want to know what happened to him, you must come to Lake Lure as soon as possible. Stay at Rumbling Mountain Lodge, and I will find you.
The note had forced my hand. I had comforted myself knowing I could come as Jim Castle's wife, so that my connection to Roger Brandt would remain a secret, except to one person. Gordon Heath, who had been working with Jim and who was an old friend of his, still lived here. But Gordon's presence in these parts and his knowledge of my family history was something I wasn't ready to deal with yet. I had written to Gordon to say I was coming — though not why or when. I didn't want him to know more than that for now, but I was aware I would need his help. So where was I to find cool logic to guide me now?
Gordon had sent me a letter at the time of Jim's death — a letter that had been kind but impersonal. Clearly, what had happened between us eleven years ago in San Francisco was to be ignored. He wrote that Jim had been filming a scene for his documentary on an abandoned movie set — an Indian village on the mountain above Hickory Nut Gorge. A heavy beam had fallen, killing him instantly.
Gordon had returned Jim's possessions to me — everything, that is, except the work he'd been doing on the documentary. After I received his letter, I had written to him, but there had been no further communication between us. His silence had spelled disapproval of me. Yet here I was and the first person I would need to find was Gordon Heath.
As I stood at the rail, someone turned on a light in the house near the water's edge and my attention returned to the present. I wondered who lived there and why they were up so late. Someone else must also be sleepless.
However, I had no patience for idle speculation at this hour. Tomorrow — today! — I must find Gordon Heath and talk to him, whether I liked the idea or not. I hoped he could identify the N who had written to me. I also wanted him to show me the place where Jim had died and tell me more about the accident.
A door opened in the house below and someone came out to stand on a walkway that led down to a boathouse. The figure was tall and wore a long robe, but I couldn't tell whether it was a man or a woman. When the person looked up in my direction, I realized that I was visible against the lights of the lodge.
"So you're not sleeping, either?" a woman's husky voice called up to me. "If you want to come on down, I'll fix us tea and a snack. Don't bother to dress — I'm in my pajamas."
Her manner seemed so assured that I didn't feel I could refuse. Intrigued by her informal invitation, I stopped only to put on shoes before starting down steep wooden steps to the walkway. When I reached the landing that passed her door, the woman held out her hand in a clasp that seemed as assured as her words.
"You're Lauren Castle, the guest who came last evening, aren't you? I knew your husband. Mrs. Adrian, at the desk, told me you'd arrived. Come on in and we'll get acquainted. I'm Gretchen Frazer."
I'd known, of course, from the lodge stationery that Victoria Frazer's sister owned and managed Rumbling Mountain Lodge, but I wasn't prepared for this sudden impromptu meeting with the woman who was my great-aunt. I didn't intend to reveal myself to her, or to anyone else. Not yet. I would play everything by ear for a time until I began to get a feeling for the place and the people. First I must know what had really happened to Jim — assuming, of course, that there was more to the story than I knew.
She led me into a big room that was clearly the main living space of the house — both kitchen and dining area. Following a wave of her hand, I sat down at a round oak table and watched her prepare tea. Blue pajama legs showed beneath a comfortable-looking plaid robe that she had tied around her waist with a frayed cord. She was tall and bony — a bit gaunt — but her body gave the impression of great strength. Her face — a somber, life-worn face — wore a map of deep lines. It seemed a little forbidding in its cast — or at least that was my first impression.
By now, Victoria Frazer would have been in her early seventies — a few years younger than Roger Brandt. This woman must have been a younger sister to Victoria, for she seemed active and ageless. When her sister died, she could have been no older than seventeen or eighteen. I counted myself lucky to meet her informally as Jim Castle's wife, since she might be a source of much that I wanted to know about my mother's family.
When Gretchen Frazer had set down a tray with two blue glazed mugs, into which she had poured a dark brew, accompanied by a plate of brown cookies, she joined me at the table.
"Tell me what you think," she said, and when I looked at her blankly, she smiled. All the lines of her face lifted, so she now seemed less formidable and austere. "I mean the tea. It's made from kudzu. And so are the cookies — from kudzu flour, that is. I don't imagine you've tasted kudzu before?"
Of course I hadn't, though I knew the reputation of the voracious vine from Japan that was devouring the South. "I don't think we have kudzu in California," I said. "I didn't know it could be eaten."
"It's time people found out instead of just sitting around cursing it," she said pleasantly.
The aroma of the tea was inviting, and I flavored it with a little honey and sipped. "It's quite good."
"And not full of caffeine. It will help you sleep."
I realized suddenly that she was staring at me. Her eyes were a deep, dark brown and for a moment they held me. Then she blinked and relaxed, releasing me.
"Your eyes are an unusual color, Mrs. Castle. I've seen eyes like that in only one other person in my life."
I knew she meant her sister, Victoria, so I leaned forward to take a cookie, avoiding a reply.
"Your husband told me that you are a film writer, Mrs. Castle. I hope you don't plan to continue his work on the Brandt story."
I wasn't sure why she would oppose this, but I tried to reassure her. "Those aren't my skills. I write mostly for television, and I like to get away now and then and find fresh settings to write about. Jim's description of Lake Lure in his letters made me think I might find something for my own work here."
"You waited long enough to come," she said, sounding tart.
I had planned my story, my excuses. "It would have been too painful to come sooner."
She seemed to accept this. "In the old days, when I was young, this area attracted a number of film companies. We were quite famous before World War Î . Then everything fell apart."
"It seems remarkable that Roger Brandt still lives here." I hoped that I sounded casual.
She shook her head as if puzzling. "I expect you know the local stories about Roger and my sister, Victoria?"
"I've heard some of them," I said, and changed the subject slightly. "Since Jim got to know Roger Brandt through his work and admired him, I'd like to meet him sometime."
"I don't know if you'll succeed. He doesn't take much to visitors. He and I are not exactly friends, as you might expect. Though his wife, Camilla, is all right. Sometimes I feel sorry for her."
I let this talk about the Brandts pass and finished my tea. "Thank you," I said. "I'd better get back to bed now."
She rose and came with me to the door. "If you're looking for a good setting for a story, you've come to the right place. You must be sure to take one of the boat tours around the lake."
I followed her onto a long, open porch that ran across the front of the house. From there we descended steps to the big flat roof that covered the boathouse. Metal railings protected us from the water and outdoor chairs and benches had been set about invitingly. The night was less than quiet, with water sucking rhythmically against pilings beneath us, while the orchestra of insects on the shore seemed to herald the end of summer.
A cloud covered the moon, making me aware of a sudden enveloping darkness in which the even darker mountain shapes around the lake were visible.
Gretchen Frazer pointed. "You can't see the place from here, but way down there across the water is a building that was used in the movie Dirty Dancing. Several scenes were shot here — so Hollywood has discovered us again. And of course some of the mountain scenes around Chimney Rock were used for The Last of the Mohicans. They even built a village of longhouses up there. Huron Indians in North Carolina! But it's all good for business."
Reference to the village caught my attention. "Miss Frazer, can you tell me anything about my husband's death?"
Her shoulders seemed to droop a little. "I'm sorry, I shouldn't have reminded you of such sadness. I only know that he died in that very village. I've never wanted to go there myself. I liked this place better in the old days. In the twenties, everyone came to Lake Lure — Franklin Roosevelt, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Emily Post, Frances Hodgson Burnett. The list goes on and on. You must be sure to visit the Lake Lure Inn — you'll find a lot of history there. Of course we enjoyed a long, peaceful time without visitors, but we need the money outsiders bring in, and it's good to see everything opening up again."
A wave of tiredness swept through me and I turned toward the walk leading back to my room. Gretchen came with me as far as her house, where we were stopped by a large animal that came through the screen door it had apparently managed to open. It trotted over to snuffle around my ankles, startling me.
"Behave, Siggy," Gretchen told the creature. "Don't mind him, Mrs. Castle. He'd like to sit on your lap, if you'd let him — he's very friendly. Spoiled."
Excerpted from "Star Flight"
Copyright © 1993 Phyllis A. Whitney.
Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Good suspense? Keeps you guessing
As with all of Phyllis Whitney's books, this one wouldn't let me put it down. Great read.
I enjoyed this book, but, however, the plot and the ending were a bit too odd for my liking. All in all, this book was a fun and easy read.