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Chapter 1




    There's nothing to make one shiver like climbing the steps of a darkened and lifeless-looking house, on a late December night, with a cold moon above laced over by naked tree branches, while a cold north wind whips about one. And on this late December night, I was shivering.

Coat pulled tight, a set of metal keys grasped tightly in my hand, teeth chattering away, I made my shivering way up the frosty, front steps leading to Aunt Ruth's house.

I was on a mission of mercy. Mom needed photos aunt Ruth had of a mutual friend. Mom was making a montage for the said friend's birthday. Would I mind picking the photos up?

Of course not.

So here I stood at nearly midnight, on the front porch of my aunt's home in Wyndale, a tiny speck of a town lying at the western edge of the state, officially made real to the world-at-large by a small dot on every Illinois map.

Such can be the fate of daughters.

But now with trembling fingers my first effort to slip the frigid key into the lock failed. I tried again. This time I was rewarded by the comforting sound of the click of tumblers working free.

I swung wide the door and stepped inside the house, grateful to feel the blast of furnace-warmed air which greeted me. I turned sideways, flipping on the overhead light, then stood there blinking.

My aunt's hall, my dear aunt's hall, was a scene of complete destruction.

Her matching, mahogany hall tables had been overturned. The contents of those tables, all antique pieces, most of them made of china, lay scattered on the hardwood floor. Much of that china now rested there as broken shards of crockery.

And in the middle of all this, in that horrid spot from which my eyes now refused to move, lay Aunt Ruth's motionless body, twisted, at an odd and awkward angle.

I screamed.

This is clearly murder, came the unwelcome thought.

I screamed again.

***


Nearly an hour later, beneath the bright glow of Mother's kitchen light, she and I and two Porter County Sheriff's detectives took up places around Mom's large, old trestle table.

I'd spent nearly a full hour with police at Ruth's place,where I'd sat off by myself in the back of a squad car, as a press of police types had prowled Ruth's grounds and gone into and out of her home. But at last I'd been released to come home, to come to Mom's house, and I'd done so, with the two detectives trailing behind me.

Now my attention fell to the apparent lead detective of the pair, to Adam Devine, who sat directly opposite me.

He was a tall man, maybe in his middle thirties, squarely built, wearing a dark sports coat across wide shoulders. A five-o'clock shadow dotted his chiseled chin. Under different circumstances, at a different time, I could almost have called the man handsome. 

But here in Mother's kitchen on this night, he appeared to be capable and confident, two traits which appealed far more to me, currently, than any mere physical charm.

Leaning forward in his chair, he began, "This is the report Deputy Jakes made when he responded to your 911 call. I'd like to go over this with you. Have you double-check its accuracy with me." 

He looked up at me.

I nodded. "Of course."

"Good." His dark eyes openly studied me for a long moment before he cleared his throat and then shifted his gaze back to the paper smoothed out on the table before him. 

My gaze slipped to Mother's snow globe. It sat on her old, red hutch in the near corner of the kitchen. It was identical to one Ruth had displayed on one of her hallway tables. But when I'd last seen Ruth's, it'd been lying next to her lifeless body.

I shivered.

Fortunately, just then the detective took up his mission, beginning his review of the report and interrupting my my sad, sad memory.

"This says you're one Jessica Chase, 28, of Chicago, employed as a teacher of English composition at a private college up there; the only child of Harriet Chase, 56, of Wyndale. Is everything right so far?"

"Yes. That's all correct."

He pulled his gaze back to the report. "And your aunt was one Ruth Wyndom, 58, lifelong resident of Wyndale. She worked as a librarian at Crayworth College, right?" 

"Yes. That's all as it should be."

"She was unmarried?" he asked, looking up at me.

"I nodded.

He glanced back down at his paper again.

"You're single too?"

"Yes."

He made a note of it on the page.

Beside him, his partner Carl Sturn, scribbled my answers into a small notebook. Sturn was a narrowly built man, probably in his late twenties, with a long face and pointed chin. He, too, had dark eyes, but they carried with them an uncomfortable nature, something both penetrating and judgmental.  

"Can either of you think of anyone who might have done this?" Devine now asked. "Do you know of anyone who had a grudge or harbored ill thoughts toward this woman?"

Round eyed, Mom shook her head. "No one could have hated Ruth that much. It had to be some stranger, someone who wandered in off the streets."

"I can understand that you'd like to believe that," Devine replied. "It's uncomfortable to think someone we know could be a killer. But I'd say a stranger as a killer is unlikely in this case. There wasn't any sign of forced entry. Nothing was taken. The TV's still there. So's the computer. Her jewelry case didn't looked rifled. We believe she knew her killer. We think she let him . . . or her . . . in. Either that or they had their own key."

Mom face collapsed into fresh grief. I wrapped my arm about her and pulled her toward me.

"I don't mean to be cruel, here," he hastily added. "But you need to understand this. There's a killer loose. And we need your assistance, your information, to help track this murderer down. Okay?"

Wordlessly, Mom and I nodded.

"So if anything occurs to you, call us. It might not even be something big. Sometimes it's the littlest, oddest thing that can pull a case together. So don't worry about it's importance, just call us. Let us sort it out. Understand?"

Mom and I nodded, again.

Devine refolded my original report and slid it into his breast pocket, then he sat a moment studying us quietly.

"This isn't going to feel comfortable to you," he finally said. "But I assure you, it is strictly routine. Everybody has to be checked. So what I'm going to ask you, both of you, is about your movements today. You won't be the only ones who knew the victim who will face our questions. So don't take them personally. It's our job."

Mom looked at him in disbelief. "Are you asking us for an . . . alibi?"   

"That's part of it, yes. But it's not all there is to it. Do you want to begin," he asked looking at Mom.

Mom's face drained of color. "I was here. I've been here all day, cleaning and preparing things, getting ready for Jessica's visit and Christmas. One of my friends has a birthday coming up. I spent some of my time making her present."

"Alone?"

"Yes, well, except for a brief while this afternoon. Sarah Clark, a neighbor, came over for coffee."

"What time was that?"

Mom's brows drew together. "I don't know. About four, I'd guess."

He nodded, while his partner scratched the time into his notebook.

Mom and I exchanged worried glances. This was not going as I'd expected it to. We were the victims in some sense. We'd lost a loved one. What was this?

"What time did she leave?" Devine asked.

"She was here maybe an hour?"

"And you went no place?"

"No. Not today."

"And you." The detective shifted his gaze my way. "You had a key to your aunt's house with you tonight. Was that normal for you?" 

Mom blinked and straightened. "Officer, Jessica's bounced back and forth between Ruth's house and mine all her life. She's always carried a key to Ruth's place. It's just the way we were."

"Okay," Devine replied.

"She only stopped there tonight as a favor to me," Mom added. 

"Yes. She told us that."

"She was dead when I found her," I said, blinking back tears. I'd never forget the terrifying sight of my aunt's face: black, distorted. 

"Yes, we know that." Devine answered. "The coroner believes she was killed earlier today, and probably long before you got there. That's not an issue."

I slumped in my seat. I hadn't known when she'd died. Did that mean that if I'd come down earlier, Ruth might still be alive? I nearly swayed under the impact of that thought.

"Tell us about your day," Devine prompted, pulling me from my speculations. "We know you arrived later than you'd planned. Let's start there. What happened that delayed you?"

So I told him about the traffic jam on my way out of Chicago. And I filled him in the the sleet and slick roads I'd encountered halfway to Wyndale.

"Under normal circumstances, the drive would take you, what, about four hours?" Devine asked.

"Yes, about that."

"Then, you got out of Chicago at what . . .  around seven, eight?"

My gaze flew to the digital display on Mom's microwave. It read just after one. "Yes, probably around that. Sorry, but by the time I finally got on the road, I didn't think to check the time Why would I? But with all the delays figured in that sounds about right."

"And you'd hoped to start out when?"

"Around three this afternoon. Even earlier if I could."

"Why leave starting out on a long drive until so late in the day?"

"I had to give a final this morning. It's the end of the semester. It's a busy time at a college."

"What time did the final start?"

"Eight this morning."

"And what did you do after that?"

"I took the essays home and graded them. But that took longer than I'd planned."

"Why was that?"

"I was tired. Halfway through I gave in and took a nap."

"And why were you tired?"

None of you business, I thought. But I answered, "Lots of pressure. End of the semester. I hadn't slept well the past several nights."

Not quite the truth, perhaps, but even with that it was still more than he needed to know.

"So apart from your aunt and your mother, did anyone else know of your intention to stop at your aunt's place tonight?"

"Not from me. Whether Aunt Ruth had mentioned it to anyone, I don't know."

My eyes burned from the long drive. My head throbbed from the tension of the last hour. My energy level had plunged as well. I felt I was coming to the very end of my patience and I worried that I might say or do something stupid. Something that would invite the detective's suspicion of me.

But I got lucky, for at that moment, Devine turned his questions to other quarters, as he turned back to Mother.

"Who were the important people in your sister's life? Who played a large role there?"

"Well, there was her tenant farmer, Dwight Akers, and her attorney, Julius Trent. They could probably fill you in on Ruth's business affairs better than I can."

"What about the man in her life? You haven't identified him yet," Devine pressed.

"You mean a lover?" Mom asked blinking.

Devine nodded.

Mom shook her head. "Ruth wasn't involved with a man."

"You're sure about that?" Devine asked, sounding rather disbelieving.

 Mom stared at the detective for a moment as though he were somehow feeble minded. "Yes, I'm sure. There hadn't been a lover in Ruth's life for years ,. . . maybe decades."

"There's no chance you're mistaken?" 

"Sir, my sister lived an open, respectable life. Had she been involved with a man, I think I'd have known it."

"And you?" Devine turned my way.

"Knowledge of a lover? No. I don't think so. That's just not the Aunt Ruth that I knew."

He shared a glance with his fellow detective Carl Sturn. Somehow I wondered if they knew something about Aunt Ruth which Mom and I didn't. And the look they shared seemed to confirm that suspicion.

But whatever it was, Devine apparent saw no purpose in pushing it further. Instead he turned back to Mom and asked her for a complete listing Ruth's friends.

Mom complied, sharing name after name of people well known both to Ruth and to us.

"Of all these names you've given me," Devine said after Mom had concluded, "who would you say was her best friend?"

"Betsey Fielding," Mom and I immediately responded, nearly in unison.

"And was everything was okay between them? No shifts in their patterns? No falling out?"

Mom pulled a puzzled look for a moment, then said, "I'm not sure she'd mentioned Betsey's name quite as often in recent days."

"Betsey's in London," I said, crossing my arms over my chest. "She could hardly have strangled anyone from there."

Devine shot me a murderous glance, which I returned without flinching.

Looking back down at his notes, he double checked my address and phone number both for home and work.

I assured him they were both correct. Then, appearing to have at last come to his end of questions, he and his partner gathered their gear, made their farewells, and headed for the door.

But as much as I wanted them to solve Aunt Ruth's murder, I couldn't believe the level of relief I felt at their departure. And I also wondered what the coming days held in store for for Mom and me. More of this?



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