Deadfall: Murder in a National Forest
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by Lynda Douglas
Description: How does the ten-year-old daughter of a District Ranger on the Pisgah National Forest end up abandoned and severely injured in Oregon's Siskiyo National Forest? All that remains of Claire Michell's childhood are terrifying nightmares and a heart-shaped locket. The cavernous gap in her memory haunts her for the next twenty years. Claire has a brilliant career and a handsome fiance. Just when she finally puts away her obsession with things forgotten, her world begins to fall apart. Someone wants her dead and they might not miss next time. Armed with only her intuition that the attempts on her life are connected to her lost childhood, she leaves her new life and love behind and heads for the Oregon forest where she nearly died so long ago. Forest Service Criminal Investigator Kyle Evers must try to help her find herself and the deadly specter from her past before it's too late.
eBook Publisher: Treble Heart Books, 2005
eBookwise Release Date: January 2006
16 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [341 KB]
Reading time: 233-326 min.
The phone rang. They stared at it without speaking. It continued to ring for an intimidatingly long time.
Jan clutched his arm. "What's going on, Eric?"
He glanced up at her. "Later. There's no time." He looked from one to the other. "We have to leave here, now. Where are the suitcases?"
Jan pointed toward the dinette table. Eric grabbed the luggage, and then eased the door open about a foot. He leaned his head through the opening and scanned the yard and driveway before guiding his family through the door and across the neighboring yards. Marie was still holding tightly to Jan's shirttail when they got to the car.
Eric gently pried her fingers loose and opened the front door. "Come on, Honey. Sit up front with Mom." Jan slid in and pulled Marie in after her. "Stay in the car. I'll be right back." He put the suitcases on the back seat and again disappeared into the shadowy backyards. When he returned he was loaded down with camping gear. He put it in the trunk, closing the lid as noiselessly as possible. Taking a last look around, he slid in beside Marie.
She leaned against his shoulder. "Where are we going, Daddy?"
"Some place safe, sweetheart. Some place safe." He felt, rather than heard her sigh as she began to relax.
Taking precautions to be sure they weren't followed, they drove around for a long time before pulling into a motel parking lot off State Highway 29 just east of Falls Church, Virginia. They registered as Mr. and Mrs. J. M. St. Claire of Asheville, North Carolina. Once they were safely inside the room and Marie was asleep, Eric told his wife what had happened in Jackson's office and about the attempted hit-and-run.
She cradled his bruised hands in hers and gently kissed his palms. "Are you sure they were talking about illegal drugs?"
He nodded. "And it's somehow connected to a lumber company and the Forest Service. I spotted an unusual logo on the file folder they were discussing, and something was said about a freighter."
"Did you recognize the logo?"
"I think I've seen it before, but I can't remember where. It was a silhouette of trees with a logging truck in the foreground."
Marie stirred. Jan held her finger to her lips in a silent "shush" and went to check on her. "She's still asleep," she said, as she returned to sit on the edge of the bed facing away from the sleeping child. Eric checked the peephole in the door again before sitting on the bed beside Jan.
"Even if Mr. Jackson is in cahoots with this Anthony Patrini, why would they meet in his office where you or anyone else might see them? Why would he take a chance on being seen with a man like that?"
"He thought they could pull it off, I guess. It being a Sunday and all, the offices are closed and he wouldn't have expected anyone to come in."
"Don't they have security people in on weekends? Wouldn't they notice?"
"I don't know. Maybe." Eric combed his long fingers through his dark hair and laced them together behind his head. "God, if I'd just stayed home. If I hadn't been so damned gung-ho." He closed his eyes and leaned against the headboard. "I've got a really bad feeling about that other guy."
"What other guy?"
"I wish I knew. He was in the shadows just out of clear view. He was smaller and chunkier than the other two, but I couldn't make out anything more. There was something about him, though, his posture, maybe. It was just the fleeting impression that he was in charge. Like Patrini and Jackson answered to him. I think he's the one who sent somebody after me."
"Why would they try to run you down? Why take a chance like that? You didn't really hear very much. It makes no sense."
"Oh, but it does. Jackson is an ambitious man. If word got out about someone in his position with the Forest Service associating with known criminals, his career would be over. And that man, Patrini, hasn't avoided prosecution by being careless. And that other guy--"
Eric stood abruptly and began pacing the floor. "I hate this. I really hate this." He strode back to Jan, knelt down in front of her and laid his head in her lap.
She stroked his hair. "Surely it isn't as bad as it sounds."
He looked up at her, studying her face. She still doesn't fully understand. She has to know what we are up against, how much danger we're really in.
"I might have been able to convince myself the incident with the van was merely a coincidence if it had ended there, but when I got back to the car, two men came after me on foot. They actually chased the car down the street. And there's no doubt in my mind that one of them was the driver of the van. He even..." Eric looked away, his gaze moving from one object to another.
"What, Eric? He even what?"
He couldn't look at her. "He ... shot at me, at the car."
She gasped. "Why didn't you call the police? My God, Eric, you could have been killed."
He got to his feet and paced the small square of floor between the bed and the door.
"What are we going to do?"
"I wish I knew. I sure can't stick my head in the sand like nothing happened. Even if I was inclined to do that, they won't let me. It's not so much a question of whether or not I should report what I know, but more, how to do it without putting us at further risk. I have to work out some kind of plan to stop them."
"They're looking for you ... for us, right now, aren't they?"
"We have to assume they are. All those hang-ups, the man peeking in the windows--those aren't coincidences. They may have been trying to make sure I was there before they made a move. I don't think they'll be able to find us here."
"Is that why we registered in my maiden name?"
He nodded. "I don't think St. Claire appears on any of my transfer documents, so maybe it'll buy us some time."
He stroked her chin. "Jan, I need to get that file."
"No! You're not going back there. It's too dangerous. Call the police. Call the FBI. Let them handle it."
He kissed her forehead and sat beside her. "I have to get that file before I talk to the police or to the FBI. Don't you remember what they said about that mobster? He has friends in very high places. I'll need proof to back up what I say. And I'll need to talk to the right people once I have the file. How else can we get them to protect us?"
She leaned against him and he held her for a long time. He went over the morning's events in his mind, coming to the same conclusion. The file was the key. He'd have to get it. That is, if it was still in Jackson's office. He checked his watch. It was nearly two a.m. and if he was going to get it, it had to be before daylight.
He stroked her chin. "Let's get some rest. You look exhausted." He pulled her down with him as he lay back on the pillow.
"I can't imagine how I'd be able to sleep."
"Rest, then. We have a long day tomorrow."
He held her close to him, and although he was miles from sleep himself, he closed his eyes.
After more than an hour of fitful dozing, he rose up on his elbow and looked at Jan. She was staring at the wall, a haunted look in her eyes. "I love you, Jan. I'm so sorry about all of this. It's going to be all right." Will it be? Getting the file is only the first step, and then what? "It's time. I have to go."
She made no reply.
"Honey, I promise." He kissed her hair. "Tomorrow, after I've gotten the file, I'll call the FBI--that agent who did the exposé on organized crime. He'll know what to do."
"You don't even know his name. And they hid his face. If after all these years, he's hasn't succeeded in putting that crook away, how are you going to do it?" She closed her eyes. Tears trickled into her hair.
"With that agent's help, we'll get him. One way or the other." He wiped away her tears with his fingertips and caressed her cheek. She was so beautiful with her auburn hair fanned out around her face like a halo. "We'll get him."
He turned to look at Marie and drank in her fresh loveliness. She was a younger version of her mother--the same jade eyes, same radiant hair, same natural beauty--and she shared their love for the outdoors.
Hiking and camping in the Great Smoky Mountains or the Pisgah National Forest had been their favorite summer pastime, and Marie claimed the wooded slopes as her own. Although she hadn't complained about the move to DC, he knew how much she would miss their frequent weekend excursions. He massaged the tight knot swelling in his throat. Would they ever again share such outings?
He brushed a soft kiss over Jan's mouth, stood, and backed toward the door. He saw her watching him, but she didn't speak. "Secure the door after I leave." He let himself out into the dimly lit corridor and waited until he heard the deadbolt turn and the chain-lock slip into place.
The elevator was only a few doors from their room, but Eric decided against using it and headed for the nearest stairway. Just as he opened the exit door, he heard the clunk of the elevator as it stopped. He slipped behind the door and held it so it wouldn't close completely, and watched the hallway through the small glass insert in the door. A man stepped out and approached the room where Jan and Marie slept. Eric held his breath, ready to confront him if he tried to get into the room.
The man stopped in front of the door and fished around in his pocket for something--a key. He fumbled it into the lock. Eric stiffened, pressed his weight against the door, and stepped into view.
The man didn't seem to notice. He stared at the key, wobbled his head, and backed away. He moved to the next door and tried the key again. It opened, and a scantily clad woman stepped into the hall and drew the man into the room. Eric let out a ragged breath and hurried down the stairs.
* * * *
The motel parking lot was deserted. Only occasional highway sounds intruded into its quiet solitude. Eric peeled the USDA Forest Service parking stickers from the windshield and rear bumper and then retrieved his gloves and a flashlight from the rear storage compartment. The spare tire was flat. With the flashlight, he found the hole where a bullet had penetrated the car and lodged in the tire. He shuddered.
He needed a place to leave the car where Patrini's men wouldn't be likely to look for it. He certainly couldn't take a chance on it being seen near the office. West of the Roosevelt Memorial Bridge, he spotted a small café with a gaudy flashing neon sign boasting twenty-four hour service. Even at this hour, the parking lot was nearly full. Eric pulled in and around to a parking space on the side farthest away from the street.
Customers crowded the counter, drinking coffee and eating a late-night breakfast. A pay phone hung on the wall just inside the door. A broken chain dangled under the shelf. He leaned against the end of the counter and signaled to the woman pouring coffee.
"Yes, sir. What can I do you for?"
"Ain't got one. What you need?"
"Number's on the wall." She gestured with the coffee pot and returned to her customers.
Among the scrawl of numbers surrounding the phone, he found several taxi companies. He chose not to use a well-known company and dialed the number for Rico's Taxi Service instead.
Fifteen minutes later a battered cab with faded lettering dropped Eric near the corner of 15th and Constitution. He walked the remaining blocks to the Forest Service complex.
He gritted his teeth as he unlocked the door with the key issued to him on Friday. Without turning on his flashlight, he felt his way through the reception area. Some of the office doors stood open. Jackson's door was closed but not locked. The gooseneck desk lamp was on and projected a ghostly light across the desk and chair. He wouldn't need the flashlight after all.
Scant seconds after he entered Jackson's office, the unmistakable rattle of keys reached him from the reception area. He flattened himself against the inner wall and hardly breathed while security checked the adjoining rooms. Light flooded the hallway outside Jackson's office.
A man leaned his head into the room and started toward the desk. They would discover him and turn him over to the police, or worse, to Carl Jackson. Eric's expanded chest ached.
A voice from behind the security man said, "Hey, wait. Don't go in there and don't worry about the desk lamp. Mr. Jackson always leaves it on."
"Yeah? I should leave it, then?"
"I always do. That man's real picky about his office."
The door closed, and within minutes, they were out of hearing range. Eric let out his breath and hurried across the room. With no clue about their rounds schedule, he had to find the file and get out quickly.
He stepped around the desk. An involuntary gulp of air filled his lungs. His heart gave a painful thud, and he had to lean on the corner of the desk to keep from falling. Carl Jackson lay huddled under his desk in a pool of blood. "Sweet Jesus." Eric stood transfixed, staring into his supervisor's glazed, blank eyes.
Panic seized him and he strode to the door, blood coursing in his ears. He snatched at the doorknob. If they'd kill one of their own, they wouldn't hesitate to kill him. He spun around to face the room again. He needed the file worse than ever. He tried to pace his breathing. "Stay calm. Stay calm," he whispered to himself, as if hearing it would make it so.
The single filing cabinet wasn't locked, and as he feared, the file wasn't there. He edged his way around the body and leaned over it to open the desk drawers. He rifled through them, finding nothing. The bottom left drawer was locked and he'd found no key while searching the others. He picked the lock with a paperclip, gritting his teeth as the sound of metal on metal echoed through the room. He opened the drawer. Nothing. Frustrated, he eased it closed and stared at it.
Why bother to lock an empty drawer? Even if Jackson's killer found the file, removed everything from the drawer, why relock it? He opened it again and examined it more closely. The sides appeared to be nearly twice as high as the drawer was deep. He took off one of his gloves and slid his fingers along the inside edges of the drawer's front and back. There was an almost inaudible click and he felt more than heard a tiny catch release its grip on the bottom of the drawer.
Eric pushed the false bottom up and out of the way. A .38-caliber Smith & Wesson revolver and a small spiral notepad rested atop a thick file folder. The notepad had several pages of columns with numbers and a series of uppercase letters. He had no idea what the entries meant, but since Jackson had locked it away in this hidden drawer, it must be important. He dropped it into his shirt pocket and then eased the file from under the revolver. On the front of the folder, he found the same logo he'd seen earlier.
He laid the folder on the desk, secured the false bottom, and started to lock the drawer. Then for reasons he didn't understand, he tripped the catch again. His hand trembled as he snatched up the revolver in his gloved hand and examined it. No rounds were missing and even though it was well maintained, it hadn't been cleaned recently. He dropped it in his pants pocket and fled the stuffy office with its growing stench of death.
The cold, just-before-dawn air settled his queasy stomach. He hailed a cab and after giving the driver the name of the diner where he'd left his car, he let his head drop back against the rear seat. It smelled of dust and old hair tonic. He fingered the cool steel in his pocket, its weight adding to his burden. Should he tell Jan about Jackson? Not yet, he decided.
In one day, life as he knew it had changed forever. He needed help, but whom could he trust? The police? The FBI?
* * * *
"A gun? Eric, I can't!" Jan stared in horror as he put the revolver into the night table drawer.
He gripped her shoulders and made her look at him. "You can. You will do what you have to do to protect yourself and Marie."
Her body quaked with emotion as she squeezed her eyes shut. "I can't."
He lifted her chin and spoke in a gentle whisper. "Jan, I have to talk to the FBI. I can't be here every minute. What if somebody finds out where we are and tries to hurt you or Marie while I'm away?"
Tears streamed down Jan's face. "You're right. I know it. It's just..."
Eric pulled her to him. Marie sprang to her feet and tried to reach around both of them. The drawings she'd made of the logo from the front of the file fluttered to the floor. "It's okay, Mommy. Don't cry."
He gave them a squeeze and sat on one of the beds facing them. "Now here's what we're going to do." He looked from one to the other. "I'm going to call the FBI and ask for that agent we saw on television. Since he claims Patrini pays off law enforcement, he's the only person we might be able to trust. He's been investigating Anthony Patrini for a long time."
He reached for Jan's hand. "But until I know we can trust him and that he is going to help us, I don't want him or anyone else to know where we're staying. I'll make the call far away from here. If something goes wrong, there's the gun."
She simply nodded and pulled Marie closer.
* * * *
At eight o'clock in the morning, Eric parked behind a small drug store and walked around to the front of the building where he entered the phone booth. He placed his call to the Federal Bureau of Investigation and again asked for the Special Agent from the television exposé on Anthony Patrini. Several minutes passed.
Eric swallowed the lump in his throat. "Who is this?"
"The agent you asked to speak to. What's this about?"
"How do I know you are who you say you are?"
Eric heard the man breathing, but the agent offered no reply.
"Look, I understand your reluctance to identify yourself, needing to stay undercover and all, but my life is at stake. How do I know you're the person I'm looking for?"
"You don't. I was told you wanted the agent working the Patrini investigation. That's me." Impatience peppered his words. "If you've got a tip for me, let's have it. I don't have time to waste."
I'll have to take a chance on this guy. What else can I do? "I have some information that might help you in your investigation."
Eric cleared his throat and began. "Yesterday, I overheard part of a conversation between a high ranking Forest Service official and that criminal, Anthony Patrini. There was another man, but I couldn't see him clearly. They were talking about a missing drug shipment, and the method they use to bring drugs into the country. I really need to know if I'm talking to the right person."
"As you said yourself, I have to protect my cover. So, you'll understand if I'm reluctant to simply accept your word for this. You might be setting me up."
"You need some kind of proof. I know that, but they saw me." Eric's voice broke. "They've already tried to kill me twice. Look, I need your help and I think you need mine. I have to know I can trust you. When I figure out how to handle this, I'll call you back."
"Wait! Who was the Forest Service person? At least tell me that much."
This was not going the way Eric had expected. "I'll tell you, but not yet. You'll hear from me." Eric hung up the phone.
He hadn't smoked in nearly three years, but he really needed a cigarette. He bought a pack from the machine inside the store. Outside, he lit up and took a long drag. He was facing the windows of the store, his back to the street, when he saw the reflection of a dark-colored car pull in and park at the far end of the lot. Two men in dark suits got out and strode toward the entrance.
Because of their height and build, the way they were dressed, Eric's first thoughts were of the men in the van. Sweat dampened his collar and beaded over his lip. If they were the same men, he couldn't go back to the car as he'd planned. Even if they didn't get a good look at his face, they might recognize the car. Keeping his back to them, he stamped out the cigarette and went inside. The two men entered seconds behind him.
Eric tried to move unobtrusively toward the back of the store. He saw the top of the taller man's head as the pair of them made their way through an adjacent aisle toward the prescription department in the rear. Eric stopped at the end of the aisle, picked up a bottle, and pretended interest in the label.
"FBI," the taller man said, pushing his ID toward the pharmacist. "You got a public phone?"
The pharmacist pointed toward the front of the store and frowned. "Out front. Don't see how you missed it."
"Did you see anybody using it in the last fifteen or twenty minutes?"
"Nope. Can't see it from here."
The man turned away scowling and put his ID back in his jacket pocket.
Praying he looked like a customer, Eric took an assortment of aspirin, cold tablets, and Kleenex to the front register.
"Excuse me. Did you see anybody using the phone out front?"
Eric's breath rushed out. His ears rang. Without turning, he glanced over his shoulder at the men standing behind him. He could hardly hear himself speak. "Are you talking to me?"
"Actually, I was talking to the cashier, but did you? Either of you?"
"No, sir," Eric replied. "I just got here." He hoped the cashier hadn't seen him earlier at the cigarette machine.
"Maybe the young lady saw someone. How 'bout it, miss?" The man looked down at an open romance magazine on the counter.
She closed it. "I was ... um ... reading." A pink bubble blossomed and popped over her red lips. She flicked her tongue and the gum disappeared into her mouth. "Didn't see a thing."
The man glanced at the magazine again and pursed his lips. "Thanks." Both men took another quick look around and went outside.
Eric looked up at the cashier, grimaced, and snapped his fingers. "Oops. I forgot something. Be right back." He took long purposeful strides toward a rack near the front window and surreptitiously watched as the men checked out the phone booth.
Finally, the short man jabbed an emphatic thumb toward their car. Eric let out a ragged breath. When they were back in their car, Eric snatched up a bag of potato chips and returned to the cashier who was still popping gum and reading.
"Sorry to make you wait."
She nodded and took his money without comment. He scanned the parking lot to be sure the agents had left before heading for his own car parked in the rear. He had stayed on the phone too long. The call was traced and that agent sent somebody to pick him up. He'd been betrayed.
Thirty minutes later and from a different phone booth, Eric dialed the FBI operator and again asked for the same agent. He remembered hearing once that it took just under three minutes to trace a call. He noted the time as soon as the receiver was picked up.
"Yes. I'm here."
"You came after me or sent people after me. I thought I could trust you."
"What people? What are you talking about?"
"FBI. I saw them."
"I didn't send anyone. You're sure they were agents?"
"I'm sure. If you didn't send them, who did?"
"I swear. I don't know anything about this."
"Then you've got a problem. Two men flashing FBI identification showed up looking for me. Somebody traced the call, and maybe your phone is bugged."
"Why would it be? Never mind. I'll look into it. I'm playing straight with you."
"All right. I have so few options, I'll have to trust you a while longer."
"What do you want me to do?"
"I'll call you again in a few minutes. Do not take the call in your office. Have the call transferred to a different phone." Eric hung up and checked his watch again--one minute forty-five seconds. No time for another trace. He allowed the man five minutes to get to a safe phone and placed the call.
"Special Agent Bob Arnold."
Eric was momentarily taken aback when the man said his name. "That's your real name?"
"It is. Now, give me yours."
"When I know I can trust you, but I will give you the name of the Forest Service person involved in this. It's Director Carl Jackson."
Bob Arnold's only response was a soft, "Huh."
"I wanted to call you right away, but I figured I'd have to get my hands on some kind of proof, something to trade for protection for me and my family. Things didn't go exactly as I'd planned."
"You weren't able to get your proof?"
"I have the proof--a file I took from Mr. Jackson's office." He massaged the lump swelling in his throat. "Carl Jackson is dead, Mr. Arnold. Somebody shot him."
"When did this happen?"
Eric's mouth was a desert. "It could have been anytime after I left the office yesterday."
"No. When did you take the file?"
"Just before daylight this morning. Maybe four-thirty."
"And Jackson was already dead when you got there?"
"Yes. And I'll be next if you don't help me."
"I'll assume for the moment that you're telling me the truth, but I have to check it out, and I'll need your name."
"That'll come later. If you agree to help me." Arnold said nothing and Eric thought he might have been disconnected. "Are you still there?"
"I'm here. I'll check out your story and get back to you."
"No, Mr. Arnold, I'll get back to you. After you've got your proof that Mr. Jackson is dead, leak something about it to the local radio station. There's a public phone booth near the corner of Morton Street and Georgia Avenue. I'll call you there after I hear the broadcast."
"What time? When?"
"You just be there and wait for my call."
Eric drove around the city listening to the radio for over an hour before he heard the news bulletin:
"At the top of the morning news, this just in: A little after eight this morning, Federal agents, acting on an anonymous tip, entered the offices of the U.S. Forest Service, where they discovered the body of a Federal Employee.
"According to an unnamed source, the victim was a high-ranking Forest Service Director. The name has been withheld pending notification of next of kin.
"We'll bring you updates as they become available. This is Cindy Churchill reporting."
Eric hoped Jan hadn't heard the news broadcast. He decided to call and reassure her he was all right.
"Oh, Eric, I'm so glad you called. There's something you should know. It's about that man who--"
"I know, honey. I should have told you about him this morning, but I didn't want to add to your worry."
"This morning? You couldn't have known. I didn't have the paper sent up until a few minutes ago."
"The Post. It says the owner of an Army Surplus store was shot to death sometime yesterday evening. Didn't you say the man who helped you last night was at an Army Surplus store?"
Eric's head swam, and he swallowed the bile rising in his throat.
"It's probably ... It can't be the same guy. What are the odds?"
"I'm sure you're right. My nerves are raw. I'm jumping at shadows."
He'd jumped at a few of those himself. He wished he had told her about Jackson before he left the motel this morning and wondered if he should tell her now.
"How's Marie? She holding up okay?"
"She's tough, tougher than I am. She's a little upset that the television isn't working. Should I call the desk about it?"
Without a television, Jan might be spared the news about Jackson for a while longer. He rolled his shoulders back and forward, relaxing a little. "Let's not draw any unnecessary attention to ourselves." He heard her whisper something to Marie. "Tell her I'm sorry. And, Jan, I love you. If there's a way out of this, I'll find it."
"We'll be fine. You just do what you have to do, and be safe." She hung up.
He found a newspaper rack and bought the last copy of The Washington Post.
The front-page headlines and the picture insert confirmed his worst fears. The murdered storeowner, Donald Bowers, was a decorated Vietnam veteran. He had been severely beaten, but the apparent cause of death was a single gunshot wound to the head. Police speculated the man was killed when thieves broke into his Army Surplus store, not knowing he lived upstairs. A glass display case had been shattered, and a number of weapons were missing.
"That clears up how they knew where the car was parked." Eric stared at Donald Bowers' picture and shook his head. "Sorry, man. I had no idea I was dragging you into another war." Eric laid the paper on top of the rack and returned to his car. He'd have to be doubly cautious from now on or he'd end up on the front page of tomorrow's paper.
* * * *
The man who entered the phone booth was tall and well built. He had a shock of black hair, shot through at the temples with premature silver streaks. Eric checked out all the cars parked nearby and made sure nobody had approached the booth before the man arrived.
He had to be sure the man in the phone booth was the agent he'd spoken to earlier. Eric walked by the booth once without looking at the man and continued on to the Quick Shop half way up the block. He bought a soda pop and a bag of salted peanuts and returned to the phone booth.
He stood on the sidewalk eating his peanuts and pretended to be impatiently waiting to use the phone. He approached the booth, and pitching his voice higher than normal, said, "Hey pal. If you ain't gonna use that phone, how 'bout let somebody else have a go at it."
"Beat it, fella." It was the same husky voice Eric had heard several times today.
"Now look here, I just wanna use the phone, Mister."
"Use a different phone. Go back there to that store and use that one."
"I don't wanna use that phone. I want this phone, so you beat it."
The man reached into his inside jacket pocket and pulled out a black wallet. Inside the fold of the wallet he had a badge and ID card. "FBI, buddy. I said beat it before I run you in."
Eric leaned toward the man and the wallet. He leered at the ID. The name on it was Robert J. Arnold. The Picture and the man were one and the same. Eric snorted, spun around on his heel, and headed for the Quick Shop again as the man had suggested. He picked up the receiver and called Jan at the motel.
"Jan, get a pencil and paper and write this number down." He gave her the number of the phone booth where Arnold was waiting. "After I hang up, call the number. A man will answer. Have him write his home phone number on something and leave it in the phone booth. Tell him he'll find an envelope taped to the back of the stop sign on the corner. He's to remove it, go home, and wait for a call. Tell him to do exactly as he's told or he won't get more information and he'll have no witness. Then you hang up. Do not answer any questions. Just hang up."
"You want me to do it right now?"
From his vantage point in the Quick Shop phone booth, he watched the man answer the phone. After he hung up, he appeared to be trying to decide what to do, but after only a short delay, he laid something on top of the phone. On the way back to his car he paused at the stop sign long enough to rip off the papers taped to it. He got in his car as instructed and drove away.
Eric watched until the man was out of sight before approaching the booth. Two minutes later, phone number in hand, he returned to the Quick Shop phone booth.
After another minute or so passed, Eric saw Arnold pull up to the curb and look inside the phone booth. He looked up and down the street and then returned to his car and drove into the Quick Shop parking lot.
Eric held his breath as Arnold approached the booth where he stood. Arnold tapped on the glass and indicated that Eric should open the door.
He pushed the folding door back with a bang and said, "Hey, Man. How many phones you need, anyhow? This one's busy."
"I don't want the phone. I just want to know if you saw anybody go into that phone booth I was in a few minutes ago."
"Nope! I saw a man going down the sidewalk in that direction, but I wasn't really watching so I don't know if he used the phone or not. What you wanna know for? You looking for a kidnapper or something?"
"Yeah, something like that. What did this guy look like?"
"I don't know. Kind of like you, I'd say. About your size, not as much gray, though. He had one of them T-shirts with some kind of slogan on the back. Something like 'Save our trees', no 'Save our forests', yeah, that's it, 'Save our forests'".
"Did you see a car?"
"No. Like I said, I wasn't really paying no attention. I looked away and when I looked up he was gone. Now can I get back to my girl?"
Arnold sighed and thanked him for the description of the man, and went back to his own car where he sat watching Eric in the booth. He worried that Arnold might be suspicious about who he was, so he called the local movie theater for a list of the attractions for the day and the number for the correct time in order to convince Arnold that he was just what he seemed, an anonymous man using a public phone.
Arnold continued to watch for a few more minutes before finally driving away.
Thirty minutes later, satisfied that Arnold was probably at home waiting for his call, he dialed the number.
"Before I say anything, what about the phone line?"
"Tapping agency phone lines is no easy matter, but I checked it out. You were right, and so just to be on the safe side, I checked my private line. It's clean, so you can relax. Nobody's listening in on this call."
"Good. Now that you've read what I left for you, what do you think?"
"Easy to see why you're so nervous."
"You've got the picture, Mr. Arnold. Are you interested in continuing with this?"
"Are you kidding?"
Eric breathed a silent sigh of relief.
"I think it's safe to assume Patrini sent his goons after you. He probably killed Jackson, too. For the file, maybe."
"Maybe, but he didn't get it. What I gave you came from the file. Jackson had it hidden in his office. From what I've read, I'm guessing there's something big coming up in August, a major deal of some kind. I think I know where it's going to happen, but I need time to find out for sure. In the meantime, what I've given you should be enough to get an indictment, and I'll testify, but you have to give me something."
"I need money, Mr. Arnold. I can't protect my family without it."
"Wait just one minute, now. I can't hand out money like business cards. You might have killed Jackson yourself, and this is some slick shakedown to get money so you can skip town."
"If you really believe that, this conversation is at an end."
"Wait! Don't hang up. I'm listening."
"I ... We have money of our own, but it isn't safe for us to go near it. There's nearly fifteen thousand dollars in our safe deposit box at an Arlington bank. It's an inheritance from my wife's parents. Our marriage license and other legal papers are there, too. I need you to get the cash and papers for me without anybody knowing what you're doing."
"I can't get into a safe deposit box without a warrant. Somebody, at least a judge, will have to know about this."
"That won't be necessary if you have the key and my power of attorney."
"All right. We'll play it your way."
"There's one more thing." Eric cleared his throat. "I took Mr. Jackson's .38 from his desk."
"That's evidence--maybe very important evidence. It might be the murder weapon."
"It isn't. It hasn't been fired, and it was in the drawer with the file I took. If the killer used that gun, he'd have found the file. I know guns, Mr. Arnold and this one hasn't been fired recently."
There was a long pause. "Okay. This is your ballgame. What's next?"
He wasn't surprised that Arnold didn't believe him. He scanned his notarized Power of Attorney one last time before sealing it and the key in an envelope. He put it on top of the phone booth and pushed it back far enough not to be noticed by a casual observer. Once Arnold got his hands on the envelope with their names inside, there would be no turning back. Arnold could launch a citywide manhunt in minutes if he chose to betray them. The narrow confines of the booth pressed in on him, gripping him with sudden panic. It took sheer force of will not to leave.
"You'll find what you need over the top right corner of the telephone booth across from Kelsey Transmission Service. Do you know where that's located?"
"I'll find it."
"The key fits box number 1173 at the main branch of the Arlington National Bank. You shouldn't have any trouble getting access to the box. Put the money and documents into a manila envelope and leave them in the same phone booth across from the service center at two o'clock. That should give you plenty of time."
He cleared his throat and added, "I'll know if you're not alone so don't try to set a trap for me. Just do as I ask and then go back home to wait for my call."
He hung up without waiting for a reply. Before exiting the booth, he took a last look through the clouded Plexiglas for anything suspicious. Satisfied, he drove to a nearby café, and ordered a BLT on rye and waited until time to pick up his package at the service center.
The man Eric recognized as Special Agent Bob Arnold entered the booth fifteen minutes late. He placed something on top of the phone and left as instructed.
Eric retrieved the large manila envelope and returned to the motel. He brought Jan up to date before placing the call to Arnold's home number.
He answered on the first ring. "Arnold."
"Thank you for following my instructions, Mr. Arnold."
"Okay, Campbell. I've done what you said. Now can we dispense with the cloak and dagger games?"
Eric thought of Donald Bowers. "Games, is it? People are dying, Mister Arnold. There's a man--was a man--who tried to help me yesterday. He's dead. I think he was beaten to make him tell my whereabouts and then he was shot to death."
"I didn't know."
Eric cleared his throat. "We've got to stop Patrini. Are you sure you have enough to get an indictment?"
"It isn't enough for a conviction."
"There's more. Much more. When you have a trial date set, I'll come in to testify and provide you with everything you need to get all of them."
"All of them?"
Eric hesitated at first, but finally said, "The third man. At least I think it was a man. I couldn't see him clearly. He could have been anybody, maybe one of Patrini's men, but I don't think so. This person was calling the shots. It occurs to me this third man might somehow be connected to your office. After all, your phone line was tapped, and you said Patrini had a lot of people in his pocket, possibly even government officials. I don't know if that's true or not, but I'm not taking any chances."
"Okay. So, how are we going to do this?"
"I have to trust you to keep our deal to yourself, but if I think you're double-crossing me, I'll stay hidden until doomsday."
"A week to ten days before I have to come in, you run an ad in the New York Times classifieds. The ad must begin with exactly these words: Paul Bunyan says there are trees in the woods that must be harvested. You will run the ad for five consecutive days. At some point within that five days, I will run an answering ad, except I will run it only once. It will begin: Babe says Paul can't see the forest for the trees. After the ad runs, I'll call you at your home, not your office. You be sure your telephone line remains secure. I'll send you the rest of the evidence, and we'll work out the details for getting me into and out of court safely."
"Does this mean you're going to lose yourself in New York?"
"I plan to keep moving. The New York Times is available almost anywhere, so I'm not likely to miss your ad. After my testimony, I expect you to get us into the witness protection program."
"Why don't you let me arrange protection for you now, a safe house maybe? I could coordinate things with the U.S. Marshall's Service right away."
"After Patrini and his thugs are behind bars, we can talk about protection." Eric cleared his throat. "You won't hear from me again until you run the ad. If I don't answer the ad or I don't call you after I answer the ad, you can bet I'm dead. If that's how this thing plays out, I hope you'll find out who betrayed us and put him away. Maybe the next guy in my predicament won't end up the same way."
"That's not going to happen, Campbell. I'm looking forward to the time when we can meet face to face. Good luck."
Twenty-five minutes later, Eric Campbell checked his family out of the motel. The rest of the evidence he needed was nearly three thousand miles away.
* * * *
The crisp West Virginia morning filled Eric with a renewed sense of well-being, an energy the mountains and camping had always fostered in him. While he packed away the tent and sleeping bags, the aroma of frying bacon from a neighboring campsite made his mouth water. He was ravenous.
Fearing that Anthony Patrini's henchman were watching the Interstate systems out of Washington, they had driven west along state highways until exhaustion forced them to stop for the night in a campground near Wheeling.
"I'll be ready to leave in a few minutes." He stowed the gear in the trunk. Jan already had the car running.
"I'm really hungry, Daddy."
"Me, too. I could eat a horse, but I'll settle for bacon and eggs at the first restaurant we see."
Marie laughed. It was a beautiful sound.
"I can't provide a horse, but I have three candy bars stashed away in here somewhere." Jan rummaged in the depths of her purse. "Let's see. What did I do with them?" She clicked her tongue and shook her head. "Oh, no. Maybe I ate them in my sleep."
"No you didn't, Mommy. I see them, right there." Marie pointed at the side compartment of her mother's purse. "May I have the Milky Way Bar, please?"
Jan teased Marie with the bar, passing it close to her, but not letting her take it. "I don't know. I've had a sort of hankering for these lately."
Marie stuck out her chin. "It's my favorite, but if you really want that one, Mommy, you can have it."
Jan kissed her on top of her head. "It's all yours, but thank you for offering."
Eric smiled at their playful exchange. He couldn't let anything happen to them. One way or another, he would put Anthony Patrini away forever. It was the only way his family could ever feel safe again.
They pulled into a fast-food restaurant. "Looks like this will have to do."
"This is great, Daddy." Marie was the first one out of the car. "Last one there is a rotten egg." She raced toward the door, but then stopped abruptly. She turned a pale face toward them and ran back to the car. "Daddy, your picture's in the paper." She whispered the words. "Look." She pointed at the paper displayed in the door of a newspaper rack.
Eric sat staring at it while he tried to figure out what to do. He had half expected the police or the FBI would be looking for him, but not this soon. He fished some change from his pocket and pushed it toward Jan. "Buy a paper."
Jan's eyes were saucer-round as she reached for the money and got out of the car. The color had blanched from her face by the time she got back with the paper. "They're looking for you. They think you murdered Carl Jackson." She handed him the paper with trembling hands.
It was an old picture and Eric thought most people probably wouldn't associate the Eric Campbell in the picture with the mature man he was today. He scanned the article. When he'd finished, he leaned back on the headrest and closed his eyes. "Actually, it says I'm wanted for questioning in regard to Carl Jackson's murder. The FBI calls me a material witness."
"That Mr. Arnold betrayed us."
"I don't think so. He wants Patrini too badly."
"Then how do you explain how they connected you to this murder? Surely not just because you worked for Mr. Jackson."
Eric shook his head and let out a long sigh. "I probably did it to myself. They might have found my fingerprints inside Jackson's desk. After it was too late to do anything about it, I remembered taking off my glove when I was trying to get that drawer open." He sighed again and patted Jan's hand. "I guess I'm not very good at subterfuge."
"What are we going to do?"
"Exactly, what we set out to do. Stay hidden while Mr. Arnold gets an indictment against Anthony Patrini. Then I'll testify. He'll be convicted and I'll be cleared of Jackson's murder. We do our part and we trust Mr. Arnold to do his. We have no other choice."
Marie leaned over the seat and patted them on the shoulder. "Let's eat."
Eric laughed. "That's the best idea I've heard in a long time. Troops can't march on empty stomachs."
"I'll get the food. You might be recognized." Jan was out of the car before he could object.
"It's going to be okay, Daddy. You'll think of something."
Would he? If the police picked him up, he'd be at Patrini's mercy. He would have to make sure he wasn't picked up. The first order of business was to get rid of the car.
* * * *
Eric pulled onto the shoulder of the road in a small farming community just west of town. An older model Chevrolet Suburban sat near the highway with a for sale sign taped to the driver's side window. The owner wanted seventeen hundred dollars or would trade for a car of equal value.
"Are we going to trade?" Jan nodded toward the truck. "It's pretty old, but it looks like it's been cared for."
"It does, doesn't it? And with all that room in the back, we'll have a place to store our things. If it's as good as it looks, we'll buy it, but we'll pay cash. If we trade, the new owner will register the car and that will tell too many people where we've been." He turned to look at Marie. "Stay out of sight, Honey. We won't be long."
A woman with a toothy grin answered the door. "You interested in the Suburban? It's a beauty, ain't it?"
"It is, but I'd like to look it over, if you don't mind."
She stepped out onto the porch and led them back down the steps toward the vehicle. "Go ahead and start her up," she said, handing him the key. My husband, God rest his soul, died early part of the year. I ain't much with standard shifts, and I got no use for that big old thing anymore. Sort of got my eye on one of them compact cars, you know?"
Jan answered. "I understand, and I'm sorry about your husband."
"Well, me too, but Lord knows, he ain't suffering no more. And that's a good thing. Lung cancer, you see."
The two women stood by while Eric started the engine and checked under the hood. After a few minutes he slammed it down and brushed some grime from his hands. "She purrs like a kitten. May I drive her? I want to be sure the transmission's okay."
"Be my guest."
Eric glanced at Jan. "I'll be back directly."
"You folks from the south? Sounds like it."
Jan nodded and started to speak. Eric's startled expression must have warned her because she remained silent.
Eric affected a heavier drawl that sounded less Appalachian. "Macon, Georgia. You know Macon?"
She shook her head. "Been to Atlanta, though."
Eric gave her a big grin and slid into the wide front seat. "Be right back," he said again. "Ya'll stay right here."
It was hard to concentrate on the condition of the vehicle. Eric's mind kept returning to the newspaper article. In it the police had speculated that he was probably heading north, perhaps to New York. That might have come from Arnold since he'd jumped to that conclusion when Eric had decided to use the New York Times for his rendezvous contact. It might buy them time if they backtracked and headed further north before abandoning their car, confirming what the police already suspected was their direction of travel. They'd have to be vigilant, sticking to back roads as much as possible. If the car were spotted before he was ready, all would be lost.
Twenty minutes later, with Jan driving the car and Eric driving the Suburban, they left West Virginia headed north.
South of Williamsport, Pennsylvania, Eric stopped at a gas station. Jan pulled up to the pump next to him. He stuck his head in the driver's side window. "I'm not going to fill the car this time." He leaned in further and checked the gas gauge. "It'll be dark soon and then we'll transfer our things into the Suburban and leave the car behind. You have enough gas for another fifty or sixty miles. I'll watch for a place."
Jan nodded her understanding. "I'm assuming we heading north again to throw the police off our trail?"
He kissed her on the nose. "Smart girl. After we drop the car, we'll head west." He glanced over at Marie. "Wanna ride with me?"
Marie's head bobbed with youthful enthusiasm. She grabbed her notebook and pencils and jumped out of the car. "See you in a few minutes, Mommy." She ran up to Eric, grinning. "Mommy let me wear Grammy's locket. See?" She held it out toward him.
"You must be a mighty special little girl." He lifted her chin and smiled down at her. He saw his reflection in the deep green of her eyes. "Hop in. This won't take long."
A sudden rush of excited words from the front seat got his immediate attention. "Look, Daddy, quick. That truck. Look! It's the one in the picture."
Eric's gaze followed the direction of Marie's pointing finger. The logo on the cab door and the logo on the file he had taken from Carl Jackson's hidden drawer were exactly alike. Eric snatched a pen from his pocket, scribbled the company name and city on his hand. It might be easier than he thought to get the details on these people.
A few miles north of Williamsport, Eric, Jan and Marie Campbell transferred their belongings to the Suburban, abandoning the family car in the back lot of a rundown used car dealer. Armed with a different vehicle and the information taken from the truck Marie spotted earlier, their meandering trip west now became a direct route with a definite destination.
* * * *
Bob Arnold paced the narrow strip of floor between the telephone table and the door. The investigation into Carl Jackson's murder had started five weeks ago, and it naturally included Eric Campbell. Arnold had managed to get himself assigned to the case without admitting he had been in contact with Campbell. Staying in the loop kept him abreast of how the investigation was going and made it possible to maintain a measure of control over it.
The head of the building's security team on duty that Sunday said he saw Campbell early in the evening but had not challenged his presence because Campbell's office is in the building. This information, coupled with Campbell's disappearance and the discovery of his fingerprints inside Jackson's desk, made him the prime suspect. To add to the appearance of guilt, Campbell's abandoned car was found in a small town north of Williamsport, Pennsylvania. The owner of the used car lot where the car turned up swore he hadn't purchased the car. He had simply found it parked on his lot and when after three days no one came to claim it, he called the local police. There was no record of Campbell having purchased another vehicle from this dealer or any others in the area.
To most people connected with this case, Campbell's behavior confirmed their suspicions of his guilt. Campbell was definitely covering his tracks, but Arnold knew it was not for the reasons most suspected. His opinion of Campbell hadn't changed. Everything Campbell told him had proven reliable, so the security man's revelation nagged at him. Campbell said he returned to the office just before daylight, not early in the evening as reported by security. Why would the security man lie?
Even though Campbell's outspokenness on questionable practices in the lumber industry had made him less than popular in some circles, he was well thought of by most of his peers. He had served his country in an unpopular war and had no prior criminal record. Nothing about this man's past or present behavior was indicative of a criminal mind.
Carl Jackson, on the other hand, had been on the fringes of illegal activities in the past. The most recent occurred in 1975. An anonymous tip accusing him of trying to buy negative votes on a proposed bill designating a major parcel of Forest Service land as a National Park led to an investigation, but no formal charges were filed.
Arnold glanced at his wristwatch. The hands had hardly moved since the last time he looked. He shook his wrist and checked it again. "Blast this waiting, anyhow." He stared at the silent telephone and then widened his pacing area.
Everything had gone just as planned. Patrini had been indicted for drug trafficking and Arnold had tied him to the wire tapping of his office. The third man Campbell saw in Jackson's office remained at large and as yet unidentified. And Patrini, of course, wasn't talking. "Why can't I get a single lead on this guy? How has he managed to cover his tracks so completely?"
Arnold poured himself another cup of coffee and looked over the reports he'd brought home.
His personal investigation of Campbell only reaffirmed his conviction that the man was a victim of circumstance, not a criminal. His personal life was simplicity itself. His wife, Janet, was a late-in-life baby, the only child of Samuel and Marie St. Claire. Both her parents died without ever seeing their grandchild, Marie. Campbell's parents died when he was a child. An aunt and uncle had brought him up.
Arnold rolled the report into a cylinder and pounded his open hand with it. Of necessity, Campbell's involvement with Patrini's arrest had been kept under wraps. Only Arnold's immediate superior knew he had ever talked to Campbell, and he'd agreed that the connection should remain a secret until the trial. Still, Jackson's death had gotten Campbell's name and picture splashed on the front page of newspapers locally and in surrounding states. Arnold could only hope the police didn't pick up Campbell, or worse, that Patrini's goons didn't find him. Once Campbell gave key witness testimony against Patrini, Arnold was sure he could clear Campbell of the murder charge and if necessary get him into the Witness Protection Program.
Arnold snatched up the crumpled New York Times. This was the biggest case of his career. "Where the hell are you, Campbell? Christ, your answering ad in The Times appeared exactly as we agreed. Why haven't you called?" Frustrated and fearing he already knew the answer; Arnold threw the newspaper across the room.
* * * *
Grants Pass, Oregon, August 1981
Most healthy seventeen-year-old males fill their weekends with girls, parties, and sports. Kyle Evers spent his hiking in Oregon's lush forests. His first semester at the University of Oregon would begin in September, so this might be his last opportunity to hike for some time.
He sat on a soft bed of pine needles near a newly fallen tree and sipped tepid water from his canteen. A gentle breeze sang through the treetops, and he leaned his head against the trunk, listening to nature's opus.
There had never been a time when he didn't know what he wanted to do with his life. His plan to major in Forest Management was more than a career choice. It was his passion. He had lived near the Siskiyou National Forest all his life. His father was a logger, as his father before him had been. But now, in the early 1980s, shortsighted management practices threatened the continued existence of the forests themselves.
Slanted rays of afternoon sunlight spiked through the towering canopy, striking the forest floor with an iridescent shimmer that bounced suffused light through the underbrush.
Studying the sun's angle, Kyle decided he still had enough daylight to make Lucky Creek before dark. He closed the canteen, secured it to his belt, and moved back to the trail.
A few hundred yards along, an object tangled in the brush caught his attention. He picked it up and stared at it. It was a child's shoe and it looked almost new. He read the label inside; Buster Brown, size four. It was a sturdy shoe, but not one intended for hiking, especially over this rough terrain.
"Strange." He tucked the shoe under a strap on his backpack and then shrugged his shoulders, repositioning his load. "Maybe I'll come across the people who dropped it, and if I don't, I'll turn it in at the Ranger station."
He couldn't stop thinking about the shoe, and ten minutes later, he gave in to the nervous prickling in his scalp and backtracked to the place where he'd found it. Pivoting in all directions, he surveyed the immediate surroundings. Disturbed foliage led away from the trail. About fifteen yards into the underbrush, he found the other shoe. A brownish smear blotted out the label inside.
"Dried blood?" His apprehension turned to sheer dread. "Something's wrong." He turned around and around, straining his eyes in all directions, looking for something to explain the presence of the shoes.
"Hello! Anybody out here? Hello!" The forest whispered an echo of his words.
His alarm increased as his widened search revealed broken branches and more dried brown smears. Finally, looking down from the crest of a ridge, he saw something blue caught in the underbrush below. He dropped his gear and picked his way down the precipitous rocky face. At the bottom, he carefully parted the fern fronds, dreading what he might see.
His heart lurched. The bloody, battered body of a child lay in an awkward position between two serpentine boulders. "Ah, God Almighty. What's happened? Little girl, can you hear me?" He felt for and found a weak carotid pulse. "Look at this." Bloody, swollen flesh hugged the jagged bone protruding from her left arm.
"What are you doing out here? Where are your folks?"
She didn't stir. Her skin was cold and clammy. Cuts and scratches covered most of the exposed skin, including her bare feet. Dried blood had glued one sock to her foot. The other sock was missing.
He yelled again, his voice edged with panic. "Hello! Is anybody there?" The forest remained unnaturally quiet.
Even with his limited medical knowledge, he knew her condition was life threatening. She was dehydrated and in shock. Angry purple bruises dotted her chin and cheeks. A depressed area on her temple oozed blood from a puncture wound. Her pupils were uneven. One had shrunk to a tiny pinpoint--the other was much larger.
He clambered up the ridge to get his backpack and first aid kit, knowing the kit contained only the barest of supplies. As he worked his way down to the girl again, he berated himself for not being better equipped.
He opened his canteen, poured water on a wad of gauze and tried to squeeze some into her mouth. She made no effort to swallow. The liquid trickled out between her cracked lips, painting red and gray streaks through the dirt and the crusted blood on her face and neck. Using tent stakes and strips of gauze, he immobilized her arm, then covered her with his sleeping bag.
"I hope you can hear me. I have to get back to my CB radio to call for help. I'll be back, I promise. You hang on. Okay?" He removed the cap from his spare canteen and left it near the child's face so she would see it if she regained consciousness.
Kyle crammed everything else into his pack and slung it over his shoulder for the climb back to the trail. In the center of a nearby clearing, he spread his orange pup tent, shoved his backpack and other gear underneath, and then used stones to secure it. Taking only the half-full canteen, he raced down the steep trail.
He was soaked with perspiration, and his knees trembled by the time he spotted the old mining road and his Jeep. He dug his keys from his pocket, swung himself over the door into the front seat, and started the engine. Snatching the microphone of his Citizen's Band radio, he spun the dial to the emergency channel. "Mayday, Mayday, Mayday." Static. He surveyed his location and sighed. "It's the mountains. I'm not getting out."
Maybe he could raise a trucker. He turned the dial to channel nineteen. "Breaker, one-nine." More static. "Mayday, Mayday, Mayday." His voice quavered. "Does anyone copy?" The radio crackled. He waited. Silence. He squeezed the mike button again. "Mayday, Mayday. Does anybody copy this transmission?" Kyle gnawed his lip. "God, don't let me be out of range."
The crackling static changed pitch, and a far-away voice like an echo said, "Copy your Mayday. This is Tree Feller. Go ahead, breaker."
Kyle's heart swelled in his throat and he nearly choked on his words. "Tree Feller, I need a link to Forest Search and Rescue or a Siskiyou Ranger Station. Come back."
"Your signal is breaking up. Say again."
Kyle raised his voice and slowly repeated his last transmission.
"Copy that, good buddy. What's your ten-twenty? Come back."
Kyle let out a breath. "I'm in the Siskiyou National Forest below Pearsoll Peak, but I found an injured child north of here, about halfway between Pearsoll Peak and Granite Butte." He took a deep breath and continued. "The child is thirty yards from a clearing where I spread out an orange tent that should be visible from the air. Do you copy?"
The man repeated Kyle's words for confirmation.
Kyle gave him a brief description of the child's injuries and told the trucker he was headed back to the place where he'd left her.
"Ten-four, good buddy. Help is on the way. Over and out."
It was nearly dark before Kyle stumbled into the clearing where paramedics, already on the ground, had strapped the child to a backboard. A rescue helicopter hovered above.
She was taken first to Sacred Heart Medical Center in Eugene and then to the Children's Hospital in Portland, where she underwent five hours of surgery.
The only clue to her identity was a gold antique locket and chain the emergency room personnel found tangled in her hair. The name "Claire" engraved inside was the only readable part of the badly worn inscription. A ruined miniature photograph on the facing side was removed and examined, but revealed nothing. A series of numbers had been more recently engraved inside behind the miniature, but these too, led nowhere.
Extensive efforts to locate the child's next of kin proved fruitless. No one matching her description had been reported missing in the U.S. or Canada. Her fingerprints were run through the FBI's NCIC and AFIS databases without success.
Nurses called her Claire, and believing comatose patients can hear at some level, they talked to her every day.
Kyle Evers visited every time he could break away from classes long enough to make the trip, and one rainy Saturday morning, he sat beside her bed reading to her. When he'd finished, he closed the book and sat staring at her. Considering her prognosis, he wondered if in finding her he'd done her a favor or brought her a lifetime of misery.
"You sure are a pretty little thing. Your injuries have healed, and your hair has grown back. You're going to be a heartbreaker some day, little one."
He took a photograph from his wallet. "This is my little sister. She's about your age, and almost as pretty as you. Maybe I'll bring her to see you sometime and you two can talk girl talk for a while. Would you like that?"
He laid the picture on the pillow beside her head. "Come on now, don't you think it's time to wake up?" He smoothed her short hair back and tucked it behind her ear.
Her eyes moved rapidly behind closed lids, and then, blinking slowly, they opened. He gasped in disbelief and leaned closer. Her eyes were teary, but her gaze followed his movements.
"Hello, Claire. My name is Kyle. How nice to meet you at last."
* * * *
In Harm's Way
Tacoma, Washington, 2001
She ran faster and faster, her chest heaving painfully with every stride. In her peripheral vision, tree trunks and deadfall looked like wraiths shrouded in mist. Alder branches slapped her face and snagged her hair. Vines tore at her legs, tripping her. Then, without warning, the uneven ground gave way, and she tumbled headfirst over an escarpment. Rocky protrusions pummeled her knees and cut into her flesh. She clawed at the ground but found no purchase. Her arm gave a sickening snap as it slammed against an exposed tree root. Her descent came to an abrupt stop when her head struck a boulder at the bottom. She lay motionless, staring up through fern fronds at the forest canopy. The trees leaned together at the top like the poles of an Indian teepee. Mocking her terror, their leaves vibrated with, "Run! Run! Run!"
Claire Mitchell shot up in bed, her arms flailing, her chest heaving. She dropped back into the damp sheets, exhausted, beads of perspiration trickling into her hair.
She moaned. "Not again. Dear God, why now?" Her hand went to her throat as she struggled to control her breathing. Would it never end?
There had been a time when uncovering the mystery of her first ten years of life obsessed her, but she had finally filed the obsession away along with the three-ring notebook-style journal she began keeping shortly after her recovery. Only the nightmares remained, and she thought they, too, had finally receded into the black hole that was her childhood.
She swung her legs off the side of the bed, and reached for the notebook lying on the night table. Had she conjured up the nightmares by dragging it out again? She hadn't looked at it for years, not until last night when Richard Westfall asked her to marry him. Her first reaction was to say yes, but suddenly the doubt, the unanswered questions, smothered her response.
As Claire lifted the cover, the sweet scent of roses escaped, flooding her with memories of her senior prom. The pressed flower's vibrant red color had faded, but it still smelled the same.
She closed her eyes. Pink and blue sparkling lights showered from the rotating mirrored ball hanging from the ceiling. She could almost feel Roger Bishop's arms holding her as they danced to a Whitney Houston love song.
The dreamy music and glittering lights evaporated as she opened her eyes. She set the flower aside along with the remembered melody and turned the familiar dog-eared pages. Loose-leaf paper made up a sort of journal where she had drawn pictures, written poems, and expressed her innermost feelings--feelings she hadn't been able to share with anyone. The teen years had been the most difficult and those memories dominated the handwritten entries.
Other pages held newspaper clippings that gave the details of that day when her life began, not as a newborn, but as an injured and abandoned ten-year-old. Claire had read the articles so many times she could quote them from memory. In one article, under a picture of a sleeping child, was the caption, HIKER FINDS INJURED CHILD IN THE SISKIYOU NATIONAL FOREST.
Claire stared at the grainy, black and white image, at the bandaged head, at the stranger's face. She read the paragraphs circled in red ink.
Hospital spokesperson Debra Dean confirmed reports that the unidentified child sustained severe head trauma and remains in a deep coma. According to Ms. Dean, it is unknown at this time whether the child will recover. No one will speculate on how much brain damage may have resulted.
The name "Claire" was engraved inside a locket found on her person. The child has auburn hair and green eyes. She wore denim jeans and a blue shirt. If you know anyone matching this description, please notify the Portland Police or the FBI.
Claire's hand drifted to the locket hanging from a chain around her neck. She cupped it in her hand, letting its presence soothe her. How many times had she examined it for some clue to her other life, her other silent, forgotten self?
In her ten-year-old mind, she had convinced herself the tiny ruined miniature was a picture of her natural mother. She had glued it in and even as an adult, she could not bring herself to remove it, feeling that to do so would be an act of disloyalty to a mother she couldn't remember having loved. She tucked the locket inside her gown and returned her attention to the notebook.
Her earliest memories were filled with police officers in civilian clothes, doctors, hospitals, and the never-ending parade of psychiatrists who probed her subconscious. Recurring nightmares haunted her sleep, leaving her exhausted, terrified and confused. While her motor skills and language returned quickly, her memory of events before her injury remained a locked secret. The only bright spot in her confused, disconnected world were Kyle Evers's visits. He made her laugh and told her she was special.
A certificate of adoption issued to William and Glenna Mitchell gave her date of birth as August 22, 1971 to correspond with her estimated age and the date she was found. Bill and Glenna Mitchell showered Claire with love and attention, and when the inevitable nightmares awakened the household, they held her and soothed her back to sleep. Their unwavering emotional support and limitless patience eventually bore fruit. The nightmares came less frequently, and by her eighteenth birthday, they rarely returned.
Claire swallowed the lump forming in her throat. The memories of the car crash five years earlier brought fresh pain and sudden tears to her eyes. "Oh, Mom, Dad, I miss you so." She wiped at her wet cheeks with the back of her hand.
During her college years at Portland State University, Claire wrote to every state and federal agency that might aid in her search for her past. Right after graduation, she hired a private investigating agency that specialized in finding missing children. After six unproductive months, she called off the investigation and vowed to put her obsession to rest. And she had, until last night when Richard purposed.
Richard insisted that only the present mattered to him, and she was sure he meant it, but she couldn't help wondering how he might feel later if something unsavory surfaced and embarrassed him and his family.
The Westfalls held title to more privately owned timberland than any one family in the states of Washington and Oregon. Their family's Pacific Northwest history could be traced back to the earliest settlers to arrive via the Oregon Trail. The only similarity between her background and theirs was that her Pacific Northwest history also began in an Oregon wilderness. How would they feel about her strange past and her middle-class upbringing?
Claire had asked Richard for time to consider his proposal. He agreed to wait until tonight for an answer. Was she ready to give him one? She had the rest of the day to think about it. She closed the notebook, again determined to leave the past in the past.
She heard him outside before he pushed the buzzer. He was early. He'd promised her more time. She counted to ten, breathing deeply to calm her racing heart, and opened the door.
Richard stood with his hands in his pockets looking wan and boyishly shy.
His expression softened her heart and the unplanned words came out in a rush. "Yes, I'll marry you, Richard."
His sad, little-boy pout dissolved instantly. A triumphant grin captured his whole face. He grabbed her around the waist and lifted her off the floor.
"I'm the happiest man in the state, in the world, the universe. When? Say it'll be soon."
She caught his enthusiasm. "How about the middle of July?"
"That long? I don't think I can wait that long." He carried her inside, still holding her around the waist.
He pushed the door shut with his foot and eased her feet to the floor. He placed his hands on either side of her face and kissed her, tenderly at first, but quickly the kiss became more insistent. A warm rush spread over Claire as she returned his kiss with equal fervor. In that moment, all her doubts washed away on a surging tide of love and passion.
* * * *
Claire was anxious to meet Richard's family, yet, now that the time had arrived, a thousand excuses for calling it off ran through her mind. How could she look forward to the evening and dread it at the same time?
"Come on, girl. Get it together. Let's face it, you're afraid you won't measure up." Old worries loomed like menacing shadows. It didn't help that Richard had waited weeks after their engagement to tell his family about her. Did he have subconscious fears he wasn't willing to admit even to himself?
She shook off the notion and scrutinized her slim reflection in the full-length mirror. At least she didn't have to worry about her physical appearance, and for probably the millionth time, she wondered if she would ever know whom to thank. The pale green silk blouse she'd chosen added the perfect touch to her vanilla skirt and jacket. The soft colors flattered her shoulder length auburn hair and large green eyes. She fluffed her hair and thought of making a last minute change.
Keys rattled in the door as Richard let himself into the apartment. "It's me. Ready?"
"Too late now," she told her reflection. "The show is about to begin."
* * * *
The scenic, thirty-mile drive to John and Elaine Westfall's home seemed to take only minutes. Majestic Douglas fir lined both sides of the highway, giving one the impression that the trees went on and on. In too many places, though, an impression was all there was. Clear cutting had stripped thousands of acres of land, leaving it naked and scarred. The struggle to conserve forest resources and still safeguard the local economy was having only limited success. Not for the first time, sadness over the dilemma tugged at her heart and she wondered if an equitable solution would ever be found.
Richard interrupted her thoughts. "I think I should prepare you. Mother called just as I was leaving my apartment. She wanted to warn me that my Uncle Edward and Dennis Mancuso, an old family friend from the East Coast would be joining us. Dennis is okay, but under the circumstances, it's a shame he didn't bring Sarah this time. You'd like her. She's a lot of fun." He patted her hand. "I hope you won't be too uncomfortable with so many strangers. You must feel like you're on display."
"Don't worry about me," she replied with more conviction than she felt. "I can hold my own in a crowd. I just hope I'm not underdressed."
Richard cocked his head toward her, and with exaggerated eye movements, scrutinized her from head to toe. "You're a little overdressed for my taste, but given our destination, I guess you need to wear something." He flashed her a roguish grin. "Have no fear, my dear, you are going to wow them all, especially my Dad. You're a work of art."
She batted her eyelids and affected a southern drawl. "Why, you are too kind, sir."
As they rounded the next curve, the headlights shone on a towering wrought iron gate, flanked on each side by brick pillars. A tall, rangy man wearing a gray uniform watched their approach from the door of a matching brick gatehouse built into the left pillar.
Richard rolled down his window. "Good evening, Jack. Are we the last to arrive?"
"Yes, sir. Mr. Mancuso and Mr. Edward got here about twenty minutes ago." He shook his head. "Mr. Edward ain't in a good humor tonight, so watch your step. Oh, and that pretty Miss Mason's been here all afternoon."
"Abby? Nobody told me she'd be here, but I should have guessed." He sounded irritated but recovered quickly. "Thanks for the warning, Jack." Jack touched his cap and stepped back.
Richard rolled up the window and glanced at Claire. "My mother is up to her old tricks. She's forever trying to patch things up between Abby and me. This should be very interesting. Do you mind?"
Claire's heart sank, but she patted his arm reassuringly. This is not getting any easier, she told herself.
She didn't know a lot about Abby Mason, though she was naturally curious. Abby and Richard had been on-again-off-again college sweethearts and they were even engaged for a while. Richard said he broke it off when he discovered he wasn't the only man in Abby's life.
The house sat back among the trees at the apex of a circular cobblestone driveway about three hundred yards from the entrance gate. The massive white two-story structure reminded Claire of antebellum plantation homes she'd seen in her "Southern Living" magazines. Its floor to ceiling windows blazed with light. A colonnaded portico spanned the main entrance. The drive, bordered by neatly clipped hedges, widened into a concrete parking area to the left of the house.
So opulent was the scene that Claire expected a coach and six white horses to appear at any moment. The presence of a silver Rolls Royce, complete with uniformed chauffeur, dispelled the illusion.
Richard parked his BMW next to the larger automobile and gave a slight nod to the chauffeur. The man folded his arms across his chest and openly stared at them, a cocky grin playing across his face. He was taller and younger than Richard and had light brown, almost blond hair.
Richard got out and started around the back of the car to Claire's door, but the chauffeur slid between the hood and the hedges, getting to her door first. He removed his cap with a flourish, bowed at the waist, and then reached for her hand. "Allow me."
Claire stared into his mocking blue eyes, and hesitated before extending her hand. He took it and helped her from the car. She turned to find Richard standing stock-still at the rear of the BMW. After a too-long pause, the young man dropped Claire's hand, bowed again, and backed a few feet away, standing at attention.
Claire flushed nervously as the two men threw caustic glares at one another. For reasons she didn't understand, the chauffeur was deliberately baiting Richard. Endless seconds passed before Richard stepped forward and took her arm. "Thank you, Lance. Maybe I can do the same for you someday." His polite words did not ring true. The air seemed to crackle with threatening emotions held in check by both men.
Richard tucked Claire's arm in his and led her toward the front door. When they were out of hearing distance, Claire whispered. "Who was that?"
Richard's arm stiffened. "Nobody. Absolutely nobody."
Ornate double doors opened just as Richard reached for the doorknob. A round-faced, full-figured woman stood just inside with her hands clasped together over her heart.
"Oh, Mr. Richard. It is so good to have you home again. The life goes out of this place when you are away." She turned to Claire, her dark eyes sparkling with enthusiasm. "Muy bonita ... so pretty is your Claire." She sandwiched Claire's hand between her own. "Welcome, my child."
"Claire, this is Juanita, our housekeeper and my number two sweetheart. You being number one, of course." Richard gave Juanita a wink and then a bear hug. "Juanita has kissed away hundreds of boo-boos and kept dozens of secrets over the years. A little boy's best pal."
"Good evening, Juanita. I'm so happy to meet you at last. Richard sings your praises often."
A rich melodious voice from an adjacent room interrupted. "Richard? Richard, darling, is that you?"
A stunning woman in her early to mid-fifties entered the foyer from a room on the left. Her fair complexion, trim petite figure, and blonde pixie haircut made her seem much younger.
Richard kissed her cheek. "You look wonderful, Mother."
"Thank you, darling." She turned to Juanita with an imperious air. "You may go now, Juanita. I'll ring if I need you."
Juanita's smile vanished as she took two steps back, bent her head forward as if bowing, and turned to leave. A warm flush crept up Claire's neck as she watched Juanita square her shoulders and leave the room on silent feet. She glanced up at Richard and found him staring at the empty space where Juanita had been. His jaw muscles clenched and unclenched.
Elaine Westfall turned a smiling face to Claire. "And you're Claire. Claire..."
"Claire Mitchell," Richard interjected, failing to conceal the irritation in his voice.
"Yes, of course. Claire Mitchell. Come into the living room where we will be more comfortable, and you can tell me all about yourself."
Richard took Claire's arm and led her into a large room. Despite its size, the room felt cozy. The long, overstuffed sofa covered in blue-and-white floral chintz, was adorned with half a dozen blue throw pillows edged in white piping. Two blue chairs and one matching floral chair were arranged in a semicircle facing the sofa. A sterling silver coffee service and four Delftware cups and saucers rested on the walnut coffee table.
Richard and Claire sat together on one end of the sofa. Elaine Westfall perched on the edge of the floral chair and leaned toward the coffee service. She filled the cups with the dark, steaming liquid. "How do you take your coffee, Claire?"
"Black, thank you."
A luscious French vanilla aroma filled the air as Elaine handed her a cup. After spooning cream and sugar into another cup, she handed it to Richard and sat back in the chair with her own cup.
"You have a lovely home, Mrs. Westfall."
"Yes. Thank you." She turned her attention to Richard. "Darling, before we get to the niceties, I need to discuss a business matter with you."
Claire allowed her gaze to move around the room while they talked. A row of five floor-to-ceiling windows lined the front wall. On the end wall, an archway led to a formal dining room already set for dinner. A massive fieldstone fireplace on the back wall was flanked on either side by rich walnut doors. Muffled voices came from behind one of the doors.
Their conversation over, Elaine addressed Claire. "Richard tells me he's known you for some time now. It seems to me if you're from Tacoma, as he says, you couldn't have known each other very long. How did you two happen to meet?
Claire looked from Elaine to Richard and then back to Elaine. "The architectural firm in Tacoma where I work asked me to transfer to their Seattle office. It's a short commute, so I accepted. Our firm designed the new office complex going up downtown. Richard and I met about nine months ago when he came by the site to inquire about leasing a suite of offices when the building is completed."
"So you're a secretary for a new branch of an architectural firm."
Richard sighed. "No, Mother, Claire is an architect for Kristofferson and Kline.
"Oh, yes. I do recall hearing that somewhere." She stared into her coffee cup. "Have you always lived in Tacoma?"
"Only the past five years. Before that, I lived in Portland."
Elaine Westfall stopped musing over her coffee and looked directly at Claire. "Oregon? I thought ... I just assumed you were from Washington."
Claire turned to Richard, questioning him with her eyes. Had he told his mother nothing about her?
He looked away. "Mother, we've set a tentative date for the wedding. If there isn't anything earth-shattering happening on Saturday, the twenty-first of July, we'd like to have the wedding in the garden."
Elaine Westfall's face paled. "So soon? I had no idea things were moving quite so fast. That may not be enough time to ... I mean, that doesn't leave much time to get things arranged."
"What's to arrange? We want a nice simple wedding. Neither of us has time for anything else."
"Even a simple wedding has to be planned or it won't remain simple. With so many people to invite, our family and friends, Claire's family and her friends, any number of things could go wrong." Her voice took on a pleading quality. "After all, we have a certain standing in the community, and I want my only son to have the kind of wedding we can all be proud of for years to come." She turned to Claire. "And surely, Claire, your mother wants the same things for you."
A pregnant silence fell over the room. Claire clasped and unclasped her hands, then dropped them into her lap. She turned to Richard and then away when he wouldn't look at her.
"Mother, can't we talk about this later? You've only just met Claire. Let's have a pleasant evening together. There's still plenty of time to make plans."
Claire didn't know if she should be hurt or angry. She tried to keep her feelings from showing on her face. Not only had Richard delayed telling his family about her, he'd apparently not given them any details, even then.
"Well, all right, darling. Maybe that's best."
She reached over and touched Richard's knee. "There's something I have to tell you. I invited Abby to dinner." When Richard opened his mouth, she held up her hand. "I don't know what I was thinking. I completely forgot you were bringing Claire tonight. By the time I realized what I had done, it was too late to change our plans. Don't be angry and don't blame Abby. It isn't her fault. Please be nice."
The words were barely out of her mouth when a stunning strawberry blonde appeared in the doorway. An ankle length dress of satin and silvery blue crepe de Chine accentuated her willowy figure. She floated into the room.
Pale pink lips framed perfect teeth as she smiled down at them. "Did I hear my name being defamed in here?"
Elaine immediately went to the woman, took her by the hand, and led her to the sofa. "Abby, you're just in time. Richard is here. Oh, and this is Claire Mitchell, Richard's ... ah ... friend."
"Claire," she acknowledged with a nod. "And Richard, how are you?" She sighed, picked up the fourth cup of coffee from the tray, and sat in the blue chair closest to Richard. "I'm sorry to crash your little dinner party, but Elaine didn't tell me it was a party until this evening. I hope you don't mind too much."
"Not too much." He returned her smile, but Claire noticed it didn't quite reach his eyes.
Abby's voice had a pleasant musical quality that reminded Claire of soft spring rain. A twinge of something akin to envy warmed Claire's face with a blush she feared everyone could see.
"So you're Claire," Abby said. "I can't say I'm exactly thrilled to meet you since you have taken my place in Richard's affections. But that isn't your fault. Who knows? Maybe we'll be great friends." She laughed and added, "Oh, don't mind me. I'm such a kidder."
Claire doubted if this elegant woman was kidding at all. Clearly, she was still in love with Richard and Claire sensed the thinly veiled pain and bitterness lurking behind Abby's smile. Her efforts at levity stirred a pang of admiration in Claire.
Angry voices spilled into the room through one of the closed doors beside the fireplace. Everyone turned in unison.
"Take care of it, or I'll find someone who can," demanded a coarse male voice. "Friendship will only carry you so far."
"I still think everybody is overreacting," echoed another masculine voice, "but I told you I'd handle it and I will."
The door swung back against the wall with a resounding crash. A short slightly dumpy man, in a navy blue business suit stood in the open doorway, his ears and the back of his neck scarlet with anger.
Another man stood behind a cluttered desk, fists clenched at his sides. They glared at one another for a long, motionless moment before the man in the doorway whirled to leave. His anger-glazed eyes met four pairs of startled ones from the living room. He hesitated, nodded stiffly in Elaine Westfall's direction, and strode from the room.
No one moved or spoke. Then Elaine stood up, intruding into the palpable silence. A forced smile replaced the surprised look on her pale face.
The man behind the desk walked toward them, his gaze fixed on Claire. His face was expressionless.
"John, look who's here." Elaine's voice quavered slightly. "Our future daughter-in-law, Claire. And of course Abby and Richard."
From his six-foot height, to his startling dark eyes and wavy black hair, John Westfall was a handsome older version of his son. A few silvery strands showed at his temples. Permanent laugh lines around his eyes and mouth announced a pleasant personality, belying the angry exchange overheard moments before.
He smiled and turned to Richard. "Richard, you're a bloody liar. She isn't frumpy at all. She's lovely." He elbowed past his son and reached for Claire's hand. "I'm truly pleased to meet you, Claire Mitchell. Welcome to our home and to our family."
"Thank you, Mr. Westfall. I'm pleased to meet you, too."
"Now, there will be none of that. Call me John, please." He turned and nodded to Abby and said simply, "Abby."
Another man, unseen until now, emerged from the room behind John. He was about five nine or ten and his once-dark hair was more salt than pepper. He hung back in John's shadow. John turned to him. "Edward, do come and meet Richard's fiancée."
He smiled a lopsided grin and reached around John as if to take her hand. A crease formed between his brows and an almost imperceptible pause lapsed before he actually did. "I'm Edward Westfall, Richard's uncle. It's nice to meet you. It's Claire, right?"
"Claire Mitchell, yes, and I'm happy to meet you, too."
He released her hand and turned to Richard. "Where have you been keeping yourself, young man? We don't see enough of you these days. This lovely creature keeping you busy with wedding plans?"
"Can you blame me?" Richard slipped a possessive arm around Claire's waist. "We'll be getting our license in a few weeks. I'm trying to convince Claire to move the date up. Tomorrow wouldn't be too soon to suit me."
Elaine Westfall clasped her hands in front of her in a gesture suggesting prayer. "Richard, dear, I think..." A chime sounded, and she glanced toward the dining room. "I think that's our call to dinner."
Claire thought she'd been about to say something else.
John Westfall took her arm. "Shall we?" He led her into the dining room with Richard following behind with his uncle.
The large oval table was set for seven. John seated Claire and took his place at the head of the table.
When everyone was seated, Elaine gestured to the empty chair and addressed John. "Should we send for Dennis?"
"Something has come up, dear. He won't be staying for dinner after all. He sends his regrets."
"Oh, that's too bad. I was looking forward to his little DC tidbits."
"I'll just bet," put in Abby. "Being in the Bureau makes him privy to all the 'little tidbits' as you say."
Puzzled, Claire said, "Bureau?"
"As in FBI," said Abby.
Under the table, Claire slid her hand into Richard's and whispered, "You have an intriguing circle of friends. I'm suitably impressed."
Abby and Elaine's relaxed banter dominated the evening meal. Claire was anything but relaxed. Her comments, when politeness dictated she make any, sounded stilted, even to her ears. Edward hardly spoke and Claire had the uncomfortable impression that he was watching her. And John, while trying to be pleasant, was obviously preoccupied.
Claire thought she caught Elaine's eye at inappropriate times and too often to be mere coincidence. It was as if she wanted to see Claire's reactions without revealing her interest in them. Richard had been right. A bug under a microscope was a fitting analogy. Her chance for escape came when Richard finally kissed his mother good night at the door.
A slow drizzle began just as they were leaving. Claire sat watching the windshield wipers' steady rhythm across the misty glass. Her heartbeat kept the same rhythm, though none of her thoughts or misgivings cleared away with the rain. She wanted answers to a barrage of questions beginning to shake her confidence.
"Why haven't you told your family more about me, Richard?"
He shifted in his seat and sighed, but said nothing.
"You say my past doesn't matter to you, but when you seem to be hiding it from your family, I have to wonder if that's true. I don't understand what's going on. Are you ashamed of me?"
"Of course not! It's just ... well, mother is a complex person and I'm afraid, a bit of a snob. I thought she should get to know you, without any preconceived notions. Maybe I didn't handle it properly, but I meant well."
When Claire didn't respond, he continued. "Mother hasn't given up the idea of me marrying Abby, and I'm sure Abby being there tonight was no accident. Mother was measuring you against her, feeling you out, looking for weaknesses. I hate it, but there it is."
"How did I do?"
"That depends on whose point of view you're talking about. There's no contest as far as I'm concerned. Dad loved you right away, and, well after dinner Uncle Edward called you a true beauty and that he thought he'd seen you before."
"Maybe that's why he kept staring at me."
"Did he? Well, Dad hit on it. He says you're familiar because you look a little like that actress, Melissa Gilbert." Richard glanced over at her and grinned. "The grown up version, naturally."
Claire smiled. "Richard, does your father share your mother's feelings about you and Abby?"
"Actually, Dad has never approved of Abby. Don't get me wrong. She's beautiful, intelligent, and witty, but Dad thinks she is spoiled and willful and that those traits negate the positive ones. It took me a long time to see his point, but her little tryst with Lance was the final straw on the proverbial camel's back."
"Abby had an affair with her chauffeur?"
"An affair I might have been able to forgive. It was more like a backseat one-night-stand. Abby tried to make it sound like nothing, but she never could quite keep her story straight. So, in walks Lance and out walks Richard."
"She's still in love with you."
"She cheated on me. End of story."
Claire's heart took up the rhythm of the wipers again. He loves me, he loves me not, he loves me, he loves me not.
* * * *
Claire pressed her eye to the peephole in the steel door. The lens grossly distorted Beverly London's beautiful face and Claire suppressed a giggle as Beverly leaned toward the door, then away from it, deliberately exaggerating the effect.
Claire opened the door, admitting the effervescent personality of her closest friend. "Hi ya. Am I too late for breakfast? Where's that gorgeous hunk you snagged? Come out, come out, wherever you are."
"He isn't here, you goose. I told you we are not living together. After we dropped you off last night, he came in for a nightcap and then he went back to Seattle."
"You prude," she teased. "If I had a man with his, his--"
"Money?" Claire interjected, arching her brows.
"Well, that too, but I was thinking more of his," Beverly flexed her fingers into a pinch. "tight little buns. You can always find a man with money, but a man with great buns ... umm."
"Oh, you. Get in here. I was just making breakfast."
lens grossly distorted Beverly London's beautiful face and Claire suppressed a giggle as Beverly leaned toward the door, then away from it, deliberately exaggerating the effect.
Claire opened the door, admitting the effervescent personality of her closest friend. "Hi ya. Am I too late for breakfast? Where's that gorgeous hunk you snagged? Come out, come out, wherever you are."
"He isn't here, you goose. I told you we are not living together. After we dropped you off last night, he came in for a nightcap and then he went back to Seattle."
"You prude," she teased. "If I had a man with his, his--"
"Money?" Claire interjected, arching her brows.
"Well, that too, but I was thinking more of his," Beverly flexed her fingers into a pinch