Vietnam veteran David Hallam is in Tennessee working as an arson investigator for an insurance company when he sends his wife, Karen, an unnerving note: “If anything happens to me down here, don’t let it pass as an accident . . .” Ten days later, he dies in a fire and the only thing Karen can feel is guilt—for all the years she wasted in an unsalvageable marriage and for the relief she feels at finally having the sadistic and abusive man out of her life. But despite all that transpired between them, Karen leaves New York City for Belle Isle, in the heart of the Smoky Mountains, to bury her husband.
Once there, Karen can finally put the past to rest—or so she thinks. Instead, she is drawn into a tangled and deadly web of disputed fortune, family jealousy, conspiracy, adultery, and murder.
A New York Times–bestselling author and recipient of the Edgar and Agatha Awards, “Phyllis 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
I was only a few miles from Gatlinburg when the sign pointing right caught my eye: Belle Isle. I hadn't intended to stop until I reached Trevor Andrews' house, but the name compelled me. This was the place to which my husband, David Hallam, had come. This was where he had died. His burying still lay ahead of me, with all the problems and questions it would involve.
The car I'd rented at the Knoxville airport carried me a little past the sign before I made up my mind and turned around, found my way back to the side road. Gravel crunched under my wheels and in the growing September dusk tree shadows fell across the way, so that I drove into a tunnel of green gloom. Three miles, the sign had said, and I drove slowly, reluctantly, unable to help myself.
I shouldn't be doing this — I knew I shouldn't! Especially not while I was in this numb and shattered state.
Only ten days ago I'd had a letter from David. A furious letter. He'd even left out the "Dear Karen" of a salutation, spilling out more of the anger he'd felt for me at the time he left New York. I had expected that. David had never let any possession of his go easily — not even when it was something he no longer wanted. When I had told him that I would leave him, his rage had been frightening, and there had been moments when I'd feared that the physical hurt he might do me would be worse than on occasions in the past. I was slight and not very tall — hardly equipped to stand up to as big a man as David. After he left for Tennessee on his new assignment, I could feel only relief for this borrowed time.
However, there had been more in his letter than the usual threats to disturb me. Something seemed to have alarmed him, threatened him, for a change. "If anything happens to me down here," he wrote, "don't let it pass as an accident. You owe me that, Karen. You've owed me since the day we were married."
It was dreadful that this should be true. After the first year I had known that the blame for our marrying must be shared, yet at the same time, mine was the greater fault. That was what he meant by the debt I owed him. Now I had my own futile sense of guilt to drive me.
When the phone call had come from the police a few days ago, it seemed the inevitable fulfillment of David's warning, yet it was a shock at the same time. There was a strangeness in the grief I felt. Grief for the wreckage of a marriage that had ended years ago, and that I would have broken off sooner if I hadn't been afraid of his rages. I had never really faced the fact that if I stayed I was responsible for what happened to me. There is always a door to be walked through, yet I'd lacked the courage to open it until recently. Now, nevertheless, there was a rather terrible pity in me for the loss of all that dark drive that had characterized David. He had always seemed to me indestructible, though he had been perfectly able to destroy.
Belle Isle and the fires! This was where the ending for David had come. Perhaps the greatest irony lay in the fact that Trevor Andrews had sent for him to come here. Trevor, the older half brother with whom David had grown up, and of whom he had been bitterly jealous all his life.
Fires were David's business. When he had come home wounded from Vietnam, he had gone to work for a company which investigated fires for insurance firms all around the country. And for the first time he had stuck to what he was doing and had become amazingly successful at his work.
I had been surprised when David had responded to Trevor's call for help. The estrangement had never been Trevor's fault — perhaps the blame was mostly mine, though Trevor had never known that. David had seemed amused by the letter from his brother, and after a day or two of consideration he had asked his company to send him down. That he should have died in a fire at Belle Isle was doubly ironic and tragic.
Ahead of me trees opened on either hand and the road divided to circle a jewel of a lake tucked into its pocket of mountains. Here in the valley dusk came early, with the ranges that formed the Great Smokies cutting off the sun. Traces of rose and amber still painted the rippled water, lending light to the scene. Out in the center the island that gave the place its name was a smudge of black, with rosy water lapping its shores. Like a reflection of fire.
I could understand why Trevor Andrews had chosen this lovely spot for his project. Belle Isle was not any standard jerry-built "development," but the dream of a gifted and distinguished architect. Ever since I was a young girl I had followed Trevor's career, taking pride in his successes, remembering the days when he used to come to my parents' home in New York to draw encouragement and wisdom from my father's generous fund. I'd been no more than sixteen at the time and Trevor had been my first love, worshiped from afar — my first fantasy of love. How vital he had seemed with all that dynamic energy and creativity fairly pouring from him.
Of course he had hardly known that I existed, except as a rather shy young girl who crept in to listen and — though he didn't know it — adore. For me it was a time of secret happiness and dreaming. Later, when I was grown, I was to photograph his imaginative and sometimes spectacular houses many times for Country Home Magazine, which employed me. Though I doubted that he knew who was behind the uncredited pictures.
There was further irony in the fact that the attack upon Trevor's houses had been due to arson — that heinous and most frightening of crimes — and that it had been this crime that had brought my husband, Trevor's brother, here to his death.
In the growing dusk it was hard to see the houses clearly, but I could make out well-spaced structures fronting the lake shore beneath a great many trees. Trevor was never one to bulldoze a property heedlessly, and I imagined that the average builder would have hated him. No one lived here as yet. The project was still in the course of being created. I chose the left-hand road around the lake and drove slowly. The first fires had done some damage, I understood, but the last one had been complete.
When I came upon what was left of the house it was with a sickening sense of shock. I braked my car and, drawn by a nameless dread, I got out and walked between damaged maple trees that had shaded a still-unpaved path — to what had once been a house. A portion of it rose roofless against the sky like a dark skeleton. One corner of the frame was left, a stone chimney, and a hollow doorway, blackened and lifeless. From that one corner a window shape empty of glass stared at me without soul, and I could smell the acrid stench. The rest had been blown apart by the explosion, destroyed by fire, and lay all around in splintered and burned wood, crumbled plaster and broken stone.
That was the awful thing — that this house had been set to explode, and David had been inside when it happened.
I went no closer, but stopped where I was. "David?" I spoke aloud softly, as though his spirit might answer me. It was not to the David of that last letter that I called, but to the almost forgotten man who had wooed me and to whom I had turned in my eagerness for love, never admitting to myself that this was all make-believe. In fact, for a little while it had been real enough, and it was to the memory of that young and tender love that I called. Even though I knew now what a pretense the tenderness had been. A breeze stirred the treetops, coming down from the mountains, but the ruined house gave me back no answer. I could almost hear the crackle and roar of flames, and glimpse the red of fire against a darkening sky.
When a hand touched my arm I stifled a scream and turned about in alarm. The man before me wore a brown jacket above khaki pants, a visored cap shading his eyes. In the growing dusk his expression was disapproving.
"You looking for something, miss?"
Only the past, I thought. Only for answers. But obviously he was a watchman and I explained quickly.
"I'm Mrs. Hallam. I'm on my way to Mr. Andrews' house. I — I just turned off when I saw the sign."
He became solicitous at once. "Maybe you shouldn't have come here so soon, ma'am. Not all by yourself like this. Better go back to your car."
I stood my ground, though. I felt ill and shaken. "Tell me about what happened?" This was the question I was to ask so many times, that I must ask at every turn — because of David's letter.
He was clearly uneasy. "I wasn't around then, ma'am. They fired the other fellow. Reckon he went to sleep on the job. But Mr. Andrews came down right after it happened. You better ask him."
I took three wobbly steps and then leaned on his arm as he walked me back to the car.
"You okay?" he asked. "You sure you can drive all right?"
"I'll be fine," I said. "I'll just sit here for a little while. It's been a — a shock."
Once I was in the driver's seat he backed away and disappeared on his watchman's rounds. I put my arms on the wheel and leaned my head against it, while disconnected thoughts flowed through my mind.
David hadn't stayed with Trevor and Lori Andrews when he came down here, though Trevor had invited him to their house. In spite of the fact that they had shared the same mother, all David's old resentment and jealousy of his half brother still possessed him so strongly that I had wondered why he'd come at all. There had never been resentment on Trevor's part, but always an effort to understand and to make peace with his younger half brother. When he came to New York, Trevor sometimes took David to lunch, though David never brought him to our apartment. What motivated my husband wasn't anything Trevor could understand — he was too big and generous for that. Never once, I was sure, had Trevor suspected my own unhappy role in the antagonism David exhibited toward him.
How strange to remember that it was Trevor who had brought David to my father's house in the beginning, proud of his handsome younger brother. My father had been a noted architect in his day. His books were still gospel in the field and he had been a fine teacher and lecturer as well. When a stroke paralyzed him, he continued to give of himself from his bed and armchair to those who came to learn — Trevor among them. And Trevor, eventually, had brought his brother David with him.
David had been nearer my age, and sixteen didn't seem so hopelessly young to him. In those days David resembled Trevor physically far more than he did later. Unfortunately, David, always alert when it came to feeding his jealousy, saw what Trevor never glimpsed at that time — my adoration for the older brother. Perhaps for David that was enough. He kept his eye on me from then on, made his own plans to distract me, win me away — overwhelm me. The most dangerous thing — for me — was that resemblance to his brother. They had the same tall build and the dark hair that swept back in a slight wave from a wide forehead. Their hands, especially, were alike — strong and long-fingered. David had as well certain mannerisms that he had picked up from Trevor. A way of turning his head, a gesture of dismissal when he was impatient, an intent, studying look, though Trevor's eyes were gray, and David's brown. No matter how I tried not to, I kept seeing Trevor in David, and that meant disaster for me. I was all too ready for love, and David had no scruples about taking advantage of that fact. Nevertheless, no one had forced me to marry him. I had done that of my own free will, betraying us both.
Emotionally, I suppose, I was bound to him, even before the outside world intervened and he was the brother who went to Vietnam. Trevor hated the war and was fortunate enough to miss the draft. All the while he was gone David wrote to me fervently, and I wrote back. After all, David had become my "real" love, while Trevor was only a dreamed-of ideal — perhaps superimposed to some extent upon a David I didn't really know — for all that I thought I did.
While David was out of the country, my father died, and Mother went to pieces rather badly. I would never forget Trevor's kindness to me at the funeral and the way he stood beside me attempting to comfort, though grieving himself. Those had been the closest moments I'd ever shared with him.
Afterward, he had come to the house a few times to see Mother and me, and I think that on the last time he came I let him glimpse too much of my adoration. I was growing up, and he was tender and careful with me. But when he left that time, he didn't come back. How I'd despised myself for being hopelessly young and immature, and I had written even more warmly to David.
I was determined to grow up fast and be fully a femme fatale by the time he came home. In the meantime months passed and I moved into my own place and found my own absorbing work.
David returned wounded — he would walk with a slight limp from then on, though that never hampered him in getting about. I went to see him at the hospital, and such weakness in a man who had been so strong physically broke my heart. He was still terribly like Trevor in appearance — he was the nearest I could get to Trevor, and I had already convinced myself of my love for him. Never once did I face the danger of reality that might lie ahead, and we entered into a sort of taken-for-granted engagement.
When Trevor married Lori Caton and an invitation to their wedding came for David, he had shown it to me and then torn it up. At the birth of their son there had been an announcement, and behind David's back I'd sent a gift. After David and I were married, it was I who sent greetings at Christmas, and presents for Chris, until a year or two ago when David had put a stop to that. Now Chris was ten — and though David and I had been married nearly eight years, we had no children, which was just as well. Once I had longed with all my heart for a son, a daughter. Later that wish was buried, obliterated — because I wanted no child of David's who might inherit his dangerous rages, his closeness at times to a paranoia he would never admit. To say nothing of the fact that he was not cut out for fatherhood.
After he had recovered from his wound, David had gone into the exciting work that he found so much to his taste — the investigating of fires and the tracking down of arsonists. He had a flair for ferreting out arson and I was proud of the way he advanced in his company until he was one of the best men in the country at his job. I tried to give him what support I could in his work — since I knew I had failed him in other ways. As, indeed, he had failed me as well.
Now I had come to Tennessee to bury my husband, and I couldn't ignore the warning in the letter he had written me — that if anything happened to him, I must not let if pass as an accident. His words reached out from death and set an obligation upon me that I couldn't side-step, no matter what our last years together had been.
When at last I raised my head from the wheel of the car I found Belle Isle nearly dark, with only a little light in the western sky. Something in me seemed to have burned away to ashes as dead as those of the house where David had lost his life. Cold ashes, incapable of ever again quickening to flame. It was better that way and I accepted.
The headlights of my car cut the darkness as I switched them on. I should have gone while there was more daylight and I could better follow Trevor's directions. He had wanted to meet my plane at Knoxville, but I had put off the moment of facing him. I would need a car while I was in Tennessee, I told him, so I would rent one at the airport and be able to move about more freely. He had agreed and sent instructions for finding the house.
I drove slowly away from Belle Isle and back to the highway, watching for signs.
When the authorities had phoned four days ago to tell me what had happened, they had first suggested that not much purpose would be served in my coming down. Because of the violence of the explosion and the fire that had followed, destroying everything in its path, a full-scale investigation was under way. The county sheriff had called again yesterday when they were sure about David. Did I want the remains shipped north? Horrid words, yet kinder in their blunt way than delicate allusions would have been. I said I would come down at once.
Excerpted from "The Glass Flame"
Copyright © 1978 Phyllis A. Whitney.
Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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