Chapter 1Fort Keeps, NY — Adirondacks — October 1912
Elissa Crosby tossed and turned, troubled by a nagging suspicion something wasn't right. The knock at the front door gave her a reason to get out of bed. She lit the lantern on the nightstand and pulled on her robe. The waning light flickered as she crossed the parlor and she stopped when the sinking feeling in her stomach weighted down her legs and feet.
The knock came again.
A shadow backlit by moonlight darkened the curtained glass on the door. Her lips quivered and while the idea of going back to bed, getting under the covers and finding sleep became appealing, she forced herself forward. “Just a minute.”
There were few times when Elissa missed having a husband. When the roof leaked and the lonely bed on a winter night was cold were two. The man she'd unfortunately married was a bastard. Quick-tempered and violent, getting rid of him was one of the smartest things she'd ever done in her life. Although the bruises were gone and the broken bones had healed, the scars no one saw would last a lifetime. It was a shame she'd wasted ten years hiding before wizening up. However, she'd feel more comfortable having a man answer the door in the middle of the night. That would be a third thing she missed. There was no man and just like everything else, she was the one responsible for getting things done.
She unlocked and opened the door. A brisk breeze brought to life the sea glass and driftwood wind chimes before rushing past her. She shivered and hugged her robe tightly against the cold temperature as dead, brown leaves rustled across the high grass out front.
The sheriff stood on her front step with his Stetson in his hands in front of his chest. He spun the hat by the brim. “Hate to bother you at this time of night, Elissa.”
Small towns. First names. Benji O'Sullivan was about her age, maybe a year or two older. Relief filled her for just a moment. O'Sullivan at the door was better than some stranger, but it made her wonder. Why was he here, at her door, in the middle of the night? “Is everything alright, sheriff?”
“Mind if I come in?”
She stepped aside. “Not at all, but I don't mind telling you, I'm feeling rather apprehensive about a late night visit.”
What happened to calling me Elissa? “Ma'am, Ms. Crosby, we've found a body. Is your daughter home?”
“At this hour, she's asleep in her room … if the knocking didn't wake her, that is.”
“Could you check?”
“Sheriff?” Elissa put an arm across her waist, hoping she could stop the flip flopping. It didn't help. “I am certain she didn't witness any foul play. I am certain of it.”
The sinking feeling she had the last few hours, the reason she couldn't sleep—her legs wouldn't respond; she was glued in place.
“Can you tell me what this is about? Alice has to be up early in the morning. I'd rather not disturb her if I don't have to. Perhaps there is a question I can answer for you?” She bit down on her lower lip and only let up when she feared she'd draw blood.
“We recovered a body in the hills not far from here.”
“My Alice wouldn't know anything about that.” Elissa rolled the hand across her belly into a tight fist. Sharp fingernails dug into her palms.
“I wasn't sure, but I thought she looked a lot like your Alice.”
Elissa shook her head. “No, that's not possible. She's here. In her room. In bed.”
“When was the last time you checked on her?”
When was the last time she'd checked on Alice? “She wasn't feeling well, barely ate her supper and asked to be excused.”
The sheriff's eye twitched. “When was supper?”
His features were cast in an eerie mix of candlelight and shadow. Elissa didn't care for the way the man looked when the flame danced or the way dark and light played over his eyes. “Around about five-thirty, six.”
The sheriff pulled out a pocket watch. “It's nearly three in the morning now.”
She didn't appreciate the implication. “My daughter was sick, sheriff. She went to bed early.”
“I am not doubting you, ma'am.” He held up both hands as if pacifying her. Instead she felt patronized. “I'd be remiss if we didn't at least look in on her. I hope I'm wrong ma'am, that I disturbed your night for no reason. If she's under those covers asleep, I'm satisfied. There'll be no need to wake her.”
She ignored the beads of sweat dotting her forehead; more perspiration pooled behind her knees and inside her clenched fist. She kept looking toward the back of the house, where the bedrooms were. “I don't know what good it will do.”
“It will give me peace of mind, ma'am.”
She wished he would go back to using her first name. It sounded more official and troubling when he was formal.
“Oh, alright. You just wait here. I'll check. I'm sorry it is going to be a little dark. I only have the one lamp.”
“I'll be fine.”
She pursed her lips, not caring if the sheriff saw her look of discontent. Elissa shuffled down the hall, past her own room and hesitated with her hand over the knob of her daughter's door. She stopped, unable to move. Fear and panic set in. Her stomach didn't just ache, instead everything inside of her sizzled with anxiety. “Sheriff? Can you come here, please.”
He would have to maneuver through the dark. Elissa didn't turn around when she heard his footsteps behind her.
“I can't open the door.”
“It's locked?” he asked.
“No.” She shook her head. This was the reason she'd been unable to sleep. She hadn't known it at the time but now understood the cause behind the trepidation she'd felt now. “I'm afraid.”
The sheriff reached around, twisted the knob and pushed open the door.
Elissa handed over the lantern. She couldn't bring herself to look inside her daughter's room.
The dim light barely penetrated the darkness beyond the doorway.
Helplessly, Elissa forced herself to peer into the darkness. She didn't need sunlight to see Alice's bed was empty.
Dropping onto her knees, Elissa screamed. “No, no-no-no!”