Authors: Mary Ann Artrip
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Mystery; Thriller & Suspense, #Mystery, #Cozy, #Romance, #Contemporary, #Mystery & Suspense
Other novels by Mary Ann Artrip
Copyright © 2005 Mary Ann Artrip
Cover design by Bill May
Johnson City, Tennessee
Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise,) without the prior written permission of the copyright owner.
Names, characters, places, and incidents used in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to actual persons living or dead is purely coincidental.
Printed in the United States of America
For Sarah and Ricki,
keepers of the mountain wildflowers,
keeper of the city courtyard
Al Bradley, who took me to the *Fort Chiswell Shot Tower and let me stay as long as I wanted.
My little family of writers at the Arts Depot in Abingdon, Virginia and those Friday nights that kept us sane through tragedy and triumph and a lot of laughter. The writings, the muse of the poetry, carried us across the years and we got older without even realizing it. Oh, the loveliness and the pain of it all.
*Even though the shot tower that Al Bradley and I visited is on the banks of the New River in Wythe County, Virginia I took the “fictionary” license of moving it a few hundred miles north and on the Atlantic coastline. And although the Wythe County tower has been beautifully restored, I imagined what might have happened had the tower been left to deteriorate and fall into a feeble state. Other than that, I’ve tried to remain true to the structure and the method of operation.
right eyes watched as Janet wandered the room, the cordless phone pressed to her ear. She straightened a sofa cushion then stepped to the window and eased back the side of the drape. It was the time of evening she called
—that gap between twilight and dark when things turned to smudged silhouettes in pale relief.
“Yes Grandmother, I’m listening,” she said and dropped the curtain. “Of course I can come for the whole weekend.”
“Thank you dear, that would be splendid.” Elizabeth Lancaster’s voice was small and inadequate compared to her usual firm and commanding tone. “I was so afraid you wouldn’t be able to make it.”
Janet’s hand fisted around the receiver and her brow creased beneath a tousle of bangs. “Grandmother, are you okay?”
“Well enough, I suppose. I just need to see you right away. And try to stay longer this time, won’t you Janet? You’re always in such a rush, coming up on Sunday and staying for a few hours, then dashing off again.”
Janet could hear her grandmother’s rattled breathing. “I promise I’ll do better,” she said.
“Perhaps you’ll do some painting while you’re here. You always did like the autumn light in the west wing, and you haven’t done anything for such a long time.”
“We’ll see,” Janet said, knowing she probably wouldn’t.
“You won’t forget or change your mind?”
“About coming up? Grandmother, you know me better than that.”
“All right then, I’ll see you tomorrow evening. And try to make it in time for dinner. I’ll have Cook hold off serving until eight. That will give you plenty of time.” The voice paused. “You know how I feel about you driving fast.”
“I know,” Janet said. “Can I bring something? Is there anything you need?”
“Thank you dear, but there’s nothing. Duffy went to the Point yesterday with his usual shopping list. Just bring yourself. And drive carefully.” She sounded short of breath. “I’m sorry to be rude, but I must ring off now.”
The phone line went dead.
“Goodnight,” she said, thumbing down the “off” button and returning the phone to its battery base on the kitchen counter.
Janet nipped her lower lip, a questioning pout deepening the little lines just above the corners of her mouth—quotation marks she called them. Wisps of hair the color of ripe apricots had worked loose from the French braid and feathered around the sides of her face. No matter how well she did the braid up in the morning, by afternoon she knew the flyaway strands made her look like a frazzled washerwoman. Threading her fingers through the wayward hair, she tried to tidy the unraveling.
A frown touched her eyes and deepened the color. Usually a twinkle of aqua, they tended to deepen toward shades of dark blue that measured her level of anxiety. She knuckled the ceramic countertop and considered the call. It was quite out of character for Elizabeth Lancaster to make a special request of her. No,
wasn’t the right word;
was more like it. But it wasn’t as if Janet failed to go see her on a regular basis. Truth was, she drove up to
at least once a month and phoned nearly every weekend. So her grandmother would know she’d be coming soon. Could the trip not have waited a few days? Elizabeth Lancaster didn’t intrude into other people’s lives on a whim. She most certainly did not do that. Something was wrong. Or—as it was prone to do at fairly regular intervals—Janet’s active imagination was working overtime.
She stepped from the kitchen to the living room, her stockinged feet sinking into the mauve carpet. She wore a long denim skirt over black cotton tights and a beige camp shirt tucked in and cinched at the waist by a latticed belt of supple leather. The Country Look, Chelsea called it. Janet wasn’t so sure. Fashion magazines—spouting the opinions of those proposing to be experts in the field—suggested ensembles were supposed to make the wearer look taller, more slender and elegant. But Janet was realistic enough to know that she would never be a mannequin on which to hang high fashions.
From a corner of the room, the eyes continued to watch her every move. A menagerie of exotic creatures: a crouching lion with fierce ruby eyes, topaz-throated giraffes, a golden-horned unicorn, tawny deer with spots of dark jasper. They watched as she stopped to straighten the small Andy Warhol original and flick away an invisible speck of dust. The surroundings whispered wealth. Understated extravagance. To quote her best friend: “It’s not Janet’s nature to clobber people over the head with her financial status.” Janet had long ago accepted the fact that she could only hope for half the style of Chelsea Parker, which only proved the misconception that wealth equaled class.
While Janet depended on her paycheck from the library for day-to-day living expenses, this townhouse had been purchased and furnished with Lancaster money. Scalamandre fabric covered the windows and Southampton furniture filled the rooms. And the little red import parked outside could be replaced in a snap. All these things were important to Janet’s life, but not important enough for her to give them much thought.
Janet continued across the room and sat down at the small mahogany spinet that took up the wall space between the entrance closet and the hallway that led to the bedrooms. Anything in the apartment she would give up without too much of a fuss, except for this. The piano was her one thread to the past, the only link that continued to keep alive the memory of her parents. It had been their birthday present to her the year she turned six. At the time there was nothing to indicate that it would be their final gift. Janet picked up the photograph of them from the lid. Her father was standing behind her mother, his arm resting on her shoulder. They looked perfect together. Without the picture Janet was unable to remember their faces, their smiles, their eyes. Especially their eyes. Allowing them to slip from her memory was akin to committing the unpardonable sin, something for which she knew she would never forgive herself.
The photograph had once kept company with another one: the one of her parents had sat on the left, the one of Adam on the right. Now theirs sat alone. Adam’s had been moved to the curb for Monday morning trash pickup, and she hadn’t even bothered to separate the glass from the paper for recycling—such a simple thing to do to rearrange one’s life.
Adam Hastings. Janet wasn’t sure she wanted to remember, was ready to remember. Beautiful, mocha-tanned Adam, with sun-glitzed hair and laughing eyes—sea-green eyes that had a way of turning into a tidal wave of anger in an instant. Adam in white twills and v-necked summer pastels. Apparently his love for her hadn’t been as deep and abiding as he claimed. In any affair of the heart, Janet firmly believed that one side loved deeper and suffered more than the other. In this case, she had been the one to pay the higher price. But at long last, when it became clear that she couldn’t grieve him back into her life, the healing process was set into place and she began to mend.
Almost a year had passed since that night Adam stormed out of her apartment and out of her life. Hateful words had shot back and forth between them as they stood just inside the front door, words which continued to linger in the corners of the room like dust motes that float free and could been seen occasionally when the light is just right. If Janet stilled her breathing and listened closely, she could hear the hardness of his voice as he insisted that she ask her grandmother for money—fifty thousand dollars, to be exact.
“But Adam. I can’t do that.”
“Jan baby, it’s just a loan. I’ll pay it back.”
She shook her head. “I’m sorry. But, no.”
He put his arms around her and pulled her close. “If you love me, you’ll do it,” he whispered against her hair.
“No,” Janet said, stepping back. “You know I love you, but don’t ask me to do this.”
Green eyes flashed with the lightning of an approaching storm. “What’s the big deal anyway? The old broad’s got more money than she’ll ever spend. What’s a few thousand to her?”
Janet wasn’t prepared for such an ugly outburst from the same beautiful lips she had kissed and loved to trace with her fingertips.
“You’ve said more than enough for tonight, Adam.” She whirled and yanked back the door. “I think you’d better go.”
With no parting word or backward glance, he had stalked from the room and slammed the door behind him.
Now, Janet had no reason to believe she would ever see him again. Could it have been only the money all along? Had she been so mesmerized by his good looks and polished charm that she failed to recognize what must have been obvious from the very beginning?
That’s what Elizabeth Lancaster would have called him. She always had an uncanny ability to take correct measure of a person, and she would’ve been disappointed in Janet’s choice. And she would’ve been right. Janet was thankful she’d never taken Adam to
to meet her grandmother—at least she’d spared herself that humiliation.
She stirred herself from the past and nibbled her lip. Someday she would trust and love again, but for now the very thought made her fearful. She brushed her hand across the silky mahogany lid until her fingertips touched a tiny nick in the wood. The nick had been the result of a sharp edge on the frame that held Adam’s picture. Over time, repeated waxing and polishing had almost erased the scratch, but Janet knew it was there. It was a constant reminder to allow others into her life, but not too close. She dropped her fingers to the keys and rippled them across the cool ivory. For no particular reason that came to mind, she pecked out the first few bars of “
Pushing back the bench, she rose, stepped around the coffee table of bronze and smoky glass, and picked up a paisley throw pillow. She hugged it to her chest as she stood looking at a painting over the sofa: a young girl standing beneath a crimson and gold-leafed maple, one hand resting on a low branch. At her feet, in the grass, lay an opened book of poetry, and she seemed deep in thought as she gazed across the meadow spread out below. It was Janet’s last painting. As always, after studying it, she felt sad that she didn’t know what the girl was thinking. After all, one would think that she would. Janet smiled and thought how her own life was beginning to share the tranquility of the scene in the painting. But just as she was beginning to emerge from the failed romance with Adam and have some semblance of predictable order, the call had come from her grandmother. Was her calm life about to hit turbulence? She felt the eyes of her wee crystal creatures watching her, and she wondered.
The following morning Janet arrived early for work. She paused at the entrance of the historic building. She never failed to take time to read the name over the arches. LANCASTER MEMORIAL LIBRARY. Flanking the massive doors of solid chestnut were tablets of the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address. Beyond the double doors, the foyer displayed a plaque commemorating the library to the memory of Janet’s grandfather, Lionel Lancaster.
She pushed through a second set of doors and stepped into the main hall. The interior of the building was silo-shaped, with curved shelves lining the walls from floor to ceiling. The library staff prided themselves on the immense selection of books, especially for such a small-town establishment. In the past some of the books were in danger of being banned by self-righteous souls alleging themselves to be experts in the field of pornographic and sacrilegious renderings. Still, the volumes were the thoughts and beliefs of the writers—thoughts and beliefs the Patriots had died for—and would survive random attacks of censorship.
The first floor of the library contained all the new releases and those titles most frequently requested. On either side of the room, stairs climbed to the stacks on the second level. A balcony-like walkway, fifteen feet above the ground floor, completely circled the room and gave easy access to the research materials, maps and drawings that were shelved there. Above the second level, the upper stacks extended all the way to the vaulted ceiling. A scant walkway of creaking and aged wood wound around the top level of the room. A wobbly railing guarded the walkway and gave the appearance of more stability than it actually provided. This level had long been due for renovation, but since it contained only books with brittle bindings and crumbling pages that were seldom read, the funding never seemed to become available.
Janet paused and breathed in the flavor of the room: the ink on the pages, the millions of printed words, the glue that held it all together. She loved every aspect of the library. It gave her a sense of purpose and a point of direction for her life. Working under this roof and within these walls was never a chore; rather, it was a learning experience from which she never tired. She walked across the room and stuck her head into the staff lounge. In the center of the room, Amanda Austin sat at a table reading the early edition of the
“Morning,” Janet said.
The woman’s response was automatic. She didn’t bother to look up from her paper.
Janet pulled the plaited strap of her over-sized tote bag from her shoulder.
“Coffee sure smells good,” she said, shrugging out of the stonewashed blue duster and pitching it toward the hook on the back of her locker. She tossed the tote on top of abandoned magazines and a gray wool hat lying on the bottom. After pouring a cup of coffee, she sat down at the table.