It was dark. Though the earlier rain was no longer falling, the clouds that had given birth to a ferocious downfall now cloaked the heavens in darkness. Even the moon, which would only have given off a small crescent of light, was nowhere to be seen in the night sky.
The darkness matched his mood; the intermittent swipe of the wipers across his windshield mocked his efforts at blotting the flow of tears that seeped from his eyes. What had happened to his life? Why had it fallen apart this way? He was a good kid. Did what he was supposed to, fulfilled his obligations, and avoided trouble. Was it the Bible or the fabled American dream that told him his goodness would be rewarded? If it was the Bible, did he have to wait until the next life for happiness to find him? He couldn’t wait that long. He wouldn’t. He wanted it—he deserved it now.
She was not going to take it from him. Thinking of her, of the decision she’d so callously made, he felt his face flush as the blood in his veins boiled with anger. He pushed his foot down harder on the gas pedal, then immediately braked as he entered a bend in the country road. It wouldn’t do to die now, he told himself as he slowed both the car and his breathing, gaining control of both by the time he reached his destination.
The house was surprisingly well lit, considering her parents were out for the evening. He’d confirmed that fact before coming over. He didn’t want any witnesses to his shame. He parked beside the garage, on an extension of the driveway that came in handy when the Gates family threw one of their famous lake-house parties. On those occasions, a dozen cars filled the drive, and dozens more lined the road in front of the house. On this Friday, a week before Memorial Day weekend, his was the only car around.
A week from now, everyone who summered at the lake would be there, rain or shine, to open their houses for the season. Cars would come and go in all directions, and every house would be lit from top to bottom as people aired out the winter and welcomed the spring. Every surface would be scrubbed to a shine, and the smell of backyard barbecues would fill the air. Everyone would be here, and they would all know what she’d done to him.
He had to stop her before she told anyone. He still had time, if he acted quickly.
He turned off the car and stepped out into the light drizzle. Following the winding flagstone sidewalk along the front of the house, he ascended three stairs to the front porch. Or was it the back porch? Or maybe the side. The massive house was oddly angled on the lot, optimizing the views from every window, with covered patio-porches accessed via French doors. Only the garage, which faced the road, lacked a lake or forest vista, and even that wasn’t bad. The front yard was landscaped with flower beds, now just blooming, and dotted with dwarf trees.
Anxiously, he pushed the doorbell, and in the quiet night, he heard it ring on the other side of the tall, half-glass door. No answer. Thirty seconds later, he rang again, this time tapping his finger several times against the glowing white button. Again he heard it, but no answering call of a human, no footsteps heralding her arrival at the door. Growing angrier with every second she made him wait, he depressed the button one more time, with the same results.
Fuck! He knew she was home; she’d called him to tell him the awful news. Called from her balcony, overlooking the lake, telling him how peaceful she felt with her decision. Peaceful! Even as she was tearing him apart, throwing his world into chaos, she felt peaceful.
That was it! The balcony. He’d climbed the trellis beside her balcony on more than one occasion, and if she was going to hide in the house to avoid him, he’d just have to climb it again. If she wouldn’t come to him, he’d go to her. She couldn’t hide.
The walkway circled the house, and he followed it to the side, past his car and into complete darkness. He saw no welcoming lights in this part of the house, and the irony of that absence didn’t escape him. He certainly wasn’t welcome here anymore. He could barely make out the wooden structure, and if the trellis had been painted any color other than white, he wouldn’t have been able to see well enough to make the climb. In a minute, though, he swung his leg over the top and stepped onto Steph’s balcony.
Obviously, Steph was way ahead of schedule with her summer decorating. Already her balcony was furnished with side-by-side chaise lounges and benches, and a table with four chairs. He shook his head, pushing away the memories of Steph and him enjoying this very space the summer before. They were good times, but they were over.
His eyes had adjusted to the night, but here, light poured out from Steph’s bedroom and filled the void. He took a step, still hidden in the darkness, and watched her.
Standing before a full-length mirror, Steph brushed her long brown hair and then shook her head, allowing it to fall where it wanted. She turned left, and then right, studying her reflection, tilting her head up, then down. He shook his head, filled with sadness. Was this what girls did? Break a guy’s heart and then worry about how they looked in the mirror?
Steph sat on a big, cushioned bench before a smaller mirror, leaned in, and added a touch of color to her winter-white cheeks. Again, she turned each way to survey the results. Beautiful, he said softly. You look beautiful, Steph. Don’t you know that?
Her eyes were next, and suddenly he became concerned. What was she doing? It was after eight o’clock. What was she getting ready for? Was she going out? Or was someone coming over? The thought infuriated him as he watched her dab gloss onto her bottom lip, then rub it across the top one. After smiling at the effect, she turned off the vanity light and stood.
Surveying the room as she’d just studied her reflection, she went to the bed and rearranged the pillows. Next, she repositioned the photos on her dresser and then angled the ottoman before a large chair in the corner. She switched on the lamp behind it and then turned it off.
She was preparing the room for someone! That fucker really did have a date. He couldn’t take it anymore. Summoning his courage, he stepped into the light and knocked softly on the sliding-glass door’s frame.
A smile spread across her face as she turned toward the door, but a frown quickly replaced it. She knew it was him, he realized, and she wasn’t at all happy to see him.
Not surprising, considering the conversation they’d had a few hours earlier. It didn’t matter, though. He had to talk to her. He had to make it right, before she humiliated him before the entire world. Before she ruined his life.
Her stride was not the normal, confident one he was accustomed to. She walked slowly, as if measuring each step, gaining time—to gather her courage or her thoughts. It was harder to face someone than deliver bad news over the phone, and it seemed she was just coming to grips with that fact now. She was nervous. Good. Maybe she’d reconsider her ridiculous decision.
She pulled the door back and stepped onto the balcony, rubbing her arms as she did so, reminding him that it was a little cool out. He hadn’t noticed. Emotion had driven him and apparently was warming him, too.
“Hi,” she said. After stepping through the threshold, she closed the door behind her. “What’s up?”
So she’d rather talk to him outside than invite him in. How quickly her manners had eroded. Didn’t she say they’d always be friends? Wasn’t that what she’d told him as she’d cast him aside hours earlier? Now she’d withstand the cold to avoid inviting him into her room. He took a breath and blew it out, slowly. He had to stay calm, find his reasonable voice.
He held his hand out to her. “I had to talk to you in person. Face-to-face. Talk some sense into you. Why are you doing this to me, Steph?” He realized he sounded pathetic, and it angered him. He’d wanted to sound authoritative. He wanted to tell her to change her mind, not ask her to.
Sighing, she reached across the distance, touched his shoulder. “I’m sorry. Things changed. I changed.”
She looked out over the lake, barely visible in the darkness, but there, its blackness was another mirror for his despair. Her source of peace. He followed her gaze and felt nothing but angst.
“I wish I could explain it,” she said softly as she looked at him with pity. Then she turned back to her beloved lake, and her voice grew stronger. Resolute. “Maybe one day. I just can’t talk about it right now.” She seemed convinced, and he knew her decision was final.
“You’re ruining my life!” He raised his voice, and he hated that. She was growing calmer while he was falling apart.
“I’m not ruining your life! This is such a small thing. In the whole course of our life histories, it won’t even really matter.”
“Maybe not to you, but to me, it’s huge! Don’t you have a heart?” What had become of him? Now he was begging, like a bum on the street hoping for a little loose change.
She sniffed back the products of the cool night air. “Of course I have a heart. And I’m following it. I have to do what’s best for me.”
“And it’s just fuck me, then, huh?”
The tone of the conversation had shifted, grown angry, and Steph seemed to sense that. She stepped back, signaling an end to their conversation. “I’ve made my decision. I’m sorry, but it’s done.”
Turning, she reached for the door handle.
He made no conscious decision, just reacted. Driven by his rage, his frustration, his humiliation, he reached for the statue beside the door. It was perhaps eighteen inches high, carved in white faux marble, and it gleamed in the sliver of bedroom light as he swung it toward her.
The sound as it hit her skull was a sickening thud, and he immediately wished he could take the blow back. She fell into the glass, and he reached for her, catching her before she could fall. “Steph,” he called softly as she collapsed against him. “Steph, I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean it.”
Easing her onto her back, he couldn’t help noticing her weight. She was tiny—only five feet tall and a hundred pounds, but she suddenly felt much heavier. As he lowered her to the stone balcony, her head dropped back, her mouth fell open.
So did her eyes. In that cruel light that sought him in the darkness, he saw her eyes, blue and lifeless.
“No! No!” he said, shaking her as tears fell from his face. “Steph, no! Don’t die.” His pleas were unanswered, and he held her, sobbing. After a minute, he composed himself, then collapsed to the balcony floor. Leaning back, feeling the weight of her on top of him, he began to sob again. He’d just killed one of the most important people in his world. He’d just killed himself, really, for what would become of him now? His life had just gone from bad to incredibly worse.
More tears came, and he again blotted them with his sleeve. And then he took some breaths as his mind raced, realizing he had more wiping to do. This was not the end for him. His life wouldn’t end because hers did. Jerking his sweatshirt over his head, he picked up the statue. It was now covered in blood, but he’d only touched the top, where he’d gripped it when he picked it up. He rubbed it with his shirt, from top to bottom, removing the blood and, hopefully, his fingerprints.
What else had he touched? Probably just the top of the balcony and the trellis. How to know which pieces of wood he’d grasped during his climb? Glancing down, he knew he couldn’t scrub that clean.
What to do?
Using his shirt, he deliberately wiped every surface of the balcony and then stepped around the lifeless body on the floor. He opened the door and walked through her room, to the jewelry box on the dresser. Again, leaving no prints, he opened it and scooped out a handful of gold. After glancing at her once more, he walked into the hallway and found a similar box on the dresser in her mother’s bedroom. He raided that one as well, then quickly descended the grand staircase and raced out the front door, without bothering to close it behind him.
Seconds later he pulled out of the driveway, grateful for the darkness that concealed him.
You were great! he told himself. Way to think on your feet! The police will suspect a burglar, and there’s no evidence to implicate you. Steph had only told him her decision a few hours earlier, and he’d asked her if she’d told anyone. She hadn’t. At least she’d denied telling anyone else. With no one to give the police reason to suspect him, they’d never think it was him. He was a good kid. An honor student. Without having a motive, they wouldn’t look twice in his direction.
Now all he needed was an alibi.
He didn’t know where to go, what to do next. The rain that had helped cover his crime had stopped, and it made him nervous. It was a Friday night in May, people were out and about, and the clearing skies meant someone might notice him. He drove faster, distancing himself from Lake Winola and the dead body on the balcony. The farther away he got from the Gateses’ house, the less likely he could be tied to the murder. He’d wiped away the evidence; there was nothing to incriminate him.
Moonlight filtered through the window as he stopped at a traffic light in Clarks Summit, and it drew his attention to the passenger seat of his car.
Fuck! He’d been so hasty in fleeing the lake he’d forgotten about the bloody sweatshirt he’d been wearing. Lying beside him on the seat, it not only held Steph’s blood, but all of her jewelry as well. What was he going to do with it?
The light turned, and his panic pushed bile up in his throat, until he could taste it. He barely had time to pull to the curb before the vomit rushed from his mouth, covering the street beside his car. He pulled away just as quickly, hoping no one had noticed. If someone thought he was drunk, they might call the police. A traffic stop now would be a disaster.
Mindful of his speed, he drove slowly, and though he wasn’t sure where he was going, he wasn’t surprised to see where he was when he finally turned off his car. He exited and looked around, happy to see Nay Aug Park so quiet on a Friday night. Grabbing the evidence from his floor, he walked quickly toward the park. He’d spent enough mornings there to know the park maintenance staff would be there first thing to empty the trash. The garment’s red color hardly showed the blood, and hopefully, no one would pay any attention to it if they happened to see it in the garbage. If they did notice the stains, hopefully no one would suspect it came from the body of a young woman felled twenty miles away.
He walked a hundred yards into the park and removed the gold from the shirt, placing it in his pocket. The maintenance guys might not care about an old sweatshirt, but gold in the trash would definitely draw attention. Looking around for witnesses and finding none, he rolled the shirt into a ball and shoved it deep into the garbage can, then turned and walked back to his car.
Just as he reached the driver’s door, the sound of a voice startled him.
He looked up, surprised to see Cassidy Ryan a few feet away. What the fuck was she doing out at this hour? Cass was the younger sister of one of his classmates, but because she had Down syndrome and often hung out with her sister, he’d gotten to know her pretty well. She lived with her family in the house directly across Arthur Avenue from his car.
“Hey, Cass. What are you doing out so late?” He looked around, wondering who else was out and about, wishing he had a statue he could use to hit her.
“I saw your car from my window. I thought you were coming to visit Reese. She’s sleeping.”
He edged around the car, back toward the park, and as he hoped, she followed. “Oh. Then I won’t come in.”
“You can still come and talk to me.”
Cass’s sister Reese had warned him that Cass had a crush on him. He’d always liked Cass and went out of his way to engage her. It was all very innocent, but he could understand that Cass might take his kindness the wrong way.
“I always like to talk to you. Do you want to sit in my car with me?” If he could get her into the car, he could buy a little time. Formulate a plan.
“My mom says I can’t go in a car with strange men.”
“Do you think I’m strange?”
She giggled. “I guess not.”
The sound of her laughter pierced his heart. What the fuck was he thinking? He’d just murdered one innocent girl; he couldn’t kill another one. Especially not one as pure and sweet as Cass. Unlike Steph, she’d never hurt him.
He asked her a question, kept her talking while he tried to come up with a plan. An idea occurred to him. “So, what’s up with Reese?” he asked.
“She’s sleeping. She has a headache.”
“I was going to ask her if I could borrow some money. For gas.”
Cass shook her hand excitedly, a habit he adored. He hoped she’d put it in her pocket and bring out some money. Cass never went anywhere without a few dollars.
He watched as she reached in and pulled out a roll of money and offered it to him. “I can lend you some.”
“Can it be our secret, Cass? I don’t want anyone to know. It’s sort of embarrassing.”
She shook her head. “I won’t tell anyone.”
“Not even Reese?” he asked.
Her expression was serious. “No.”
“Okay. Do you think you could just pretend I never came over tonight? Because if you tell anyone I came over, you’ll have to tell them why I came over, and then they’ll know that I had to borrow money from a girl.”
“It’s okay to borrow money from a girl. Girls have lots of money.”
“It’s not okay if you’re a boy. Boys are supposed to pay for girls, not borrow money from them.”
“You can have all my money. Here,” she said, thrusting her hand toward him again.
He took the cash and counted it. Eight dollars.
“I’m just going to take two. For gas. I’ll pay you back soon, okay?”
He almost laughed at the change in her attitude but held his tongue. “At graduation.”
“Okay, that’s good.”
“You won’t tell anyone I was here, will you?”
She shook her head.
“Thanks, Cass. You’re the best.” He pulled her into a hug, and this time, instead of laughing, he wanted to cry.
Pulling away, he kissed her cheek. “I’ll see you at graduation,” he said.
He watched as she crossed the street, but before she could climb the stairs, he was behind the wheel of his car. A second later, he turned onto the cross street and away from the park and the bloody sweatshirt in the trash can. He hoped he could trust Cass to keep their secret. His life depended on it.
Chapter 1: The Interview
“What makes you think you’d like living in the Poconos, Elizabeth? It’s not quite what you’re used to.”
Ella looked over Mary Ann Bingham’s shoulder to the impressive vista of the mountains behind her. The presidency of a large university had its perks, she thought, and a corner office with a view was one of them.
Swallowing her nerves, she thought of an appropriate response. This job would be a promotion for her. It would mean more money, more responsibilities, more rewards. It would mean she’d made it, climbed and battled her way to the top of her field. Really, though, the job in the Poconos was more than that to her. It was a homecoming of sorts.
Turning her attention to the president and her question, she realized the view out her window really was the answer.
Her office windows in a similar university in the suburbs of Philadelphia also showed her a shaded courtyard, filled with ancient trees and a circus of squirrels, but beyond that, the differences were more evident than the similarities. There, nature was an illusion, growing dimmer with each year that developers built another shopping mall or housing development. The cost of the homes they built in Philadelphia was two or three times the cost of comparable dwellings here. She knew; she’d done her homework before applying for the job as vice president of development at Pocono Mountains University.
It would be more difficult to find great Thai food in the Poconos, she was sure, and there were probably not as many single lesbians as in the Delaware Valley. They certainly didn’t have the Phillies, and not even their AAA minor-league team, either, since traitorous parties had moved them to Allentown. But the Poconos had other benefits, and over the past few years, Ella had realized the other things mattered most to her.
Meeting Mary Ann’s piercing gaze, she nodded. It wasn’t what she was used to. Ella was accustomed to the great food, and culture, and sports, and occasionally women, too. Yet in spite of all that, she still found herself in this interview, hoping to find a way of soothing the discontent she couldn’t quite explain. That was why she’d responded to the ad she’d read in one of her professional journals. It was why she’d awakened at four o’clock and driven two hours to the mountains. She needed a change, and she couldn’t help feeling the corners of her malaise cracking as she thought of her childhood spent not so far from the PMU campus. This was the next leg of her journey, she was sure of it.
“Please, call me Ella,” she said as she adjusted in her seat, facing the president head-on. “You’re right. It would be a different experience for me, but not one I’m unfamiliar with. I spent the first twelve summers of my life at Lake Winola. Do you know where that is?”
The stern façade softened, and a smile appeared in Mary Ann’s eyes as she nodded briefly. “I certainly do. I grew up not far from the lake. You say you lived there as a child?”
“My dad grew up on the lake and graduated from Pocono Mountains Prep before going off to explore the world. He sent my sister and me here every summer so we could spend time with our grandparents and have some fun. We swam and rode bikes and climbed trees, caught fireflies and toasted marshmallows at night. My parents would drop us off in June, and we wouldn’t hear from them until Labor Day. I think those were the best times of my life.”
“How come you stopped coming?”
“My grandparents died. They went within months of each other, and my dad’s family sold the lake house. After that we went to camp in the summer. It was definitely not as much fun as here.”
“I’m sorry about your grandparents.”
Ella acknowledged the condolence with a nod. “They lived a great life, and I have fond memories.”
“So, you’re saying you wouldn’t mind trading all the excitement of the big city for a chance to revisit your perfect childhood?”
Mary Ann’s smile reached all the way to her mouth this time, and Ella replied with one of her own. “Not at all.”
Sitting taller in her chair, Mary Ann glanced down at the notepad on her desk. “As you probably know, we conducted a national search for candidates for this position. The former VP had health issues and had to leave rather suddenly, but the office is functioning without him. The other development officers are doing some of his promotional work. We’ve already mailed out Save the Date postcards for next year’s scholarship luncheon, for example. We haven’t been out on the road, though, staying in touch with our alums and donors. We need to get back to that.”
“I can understand why.”
“I don’t want to hire someone who looks good on paper but doesn’t really have an idea what this place is about. We’re a good school, and we draw students from all over the country, but we focus on educating local students. That’s our mission. And I don’t care if you’ve been a VP at Harvard. Cambridge is not the same as the Pocono Mountains, our alumni are not the same, and our students are not the same. If you spent your childhood here, I believe you understand that difference.”
Ella was encouraged by Mary Ann’s soliloquy yet felt her nerves firing, felt every beat of her heart, and she fought the urge to bite her lip. Instead, she adjusted her posture once again. While she contemplated an appropriate reply, Mary Ann spoke again.
“If you’d like the position, it’s yours.”
“Wow,” she said, and began to laugh. “I didn’t expect that.”
“Why? You’re qualified, and you know the place. What more could I want?”
“I guess I’m just shocked.”
“Get over it,” she said as she pushed a red-and-white folder bearing the PMU logo across her desk. “Obviously, I need to hire someone soon. I’d like it to be you. This is the entire package. Review it and get back to me with any rebuttals in the next forty-eight hours.”
After placing the folder in her bag, Ella stood and thanked Mary Ann for the opportunity.
“Two days, okay? If I don’t hear from you, I’ll assume you don’t want the position.”
“I’ll talk to you then,” Ella said as she followed Mary Ann through her office and toward the elevator.
After the door closed behind her, Ella pumped her fist before pressing the button for the lobby. She had the job, if she wanted it. If? There was no if. She wanted it. She fought the desire to do a little dance, just in case security cameras were watching. Five floors down, she exited into a glass and tile foyer boasting three stories of student art. Beyond, the July sun beckoned her, and she found a bench in the courtyard and sat, pondering her next move.
Answering the first question was easy. She really wanted this job. The next question was a little more difficult to answer. Could she handle it? Her qualifications spoke for themselves, obviously loudly enough for Mary Ann Bingham to hear. Starting with her alma mater, Villanova, she’d been in development since earning her bachelor’s degree. Working at ’Nova had allowed her to pursue her master’s, and she’d used that accomplishment to propel her to the next level. Twenty years and three schools later, was she ready to take the next big step? She had no VP experience, and she’d seen enough incompetent people hold the position to know that her qualifications didn’t mean she’d do a good job. She thought she would, though. She loved what she did, and as a single lesbian, she really was married to her work.
The rest of her family had no hold over her, either. Her parents were retired in Florida, and her sister was married with children in Chicago. Although they gathered somewhere for their annual Christmas celebration, and again every summer for a vacation, the ties that bound her were not in Philly. When she thought about it, she realized she was all by herself.
Yes, she had plenty of friends, but not much time to enjoy them. Hers really was a demanding field, with many evenings spent wooing donors and at university functions. It had occurred to her on more than one occasion that she could simply rent a hotel room and give up her town house, because she spent so many nights on the road. Good universities spawned successful alums, who spread like seeds in the wind. One week she was in San Diego, the next in Boston, the next in St. Louis. Wherever the money was, she followed, asking the successful businessmen and accountants and physicians to remember the school that gave them the opportunity to fulfill their potential, to live their dreams. Her donors had given everything from $5,000 scholarships to $5,000,000 buildings. In return, she gave her time, and that didn’t leave much opportunity for socializing.
Would her friends even know if she moved? Chuckling, she realized they might not. That didn’t bother her, though. She was doing exactly what she wanted to. Somehow, though, it had lost some of its charm. It wasn’t as exciting to board a plane as it had once been. It wasn’t as thrilling to hook a big fish. She’d never tire of slipping on a little black dress and a pair of heels, though. And maybe when she took them off, pulling on a pair of hiking shoes and going for a walk in the woods might feel right. Or swinging a golf club in her backyard. Or cooking a steak on her grill. Rather than coming home to her town house in Philly, returning to a place she actually wanted to be might be just what she needed.
Thinking of the possibilities filled her with an excitement she hadn’t felt in ages. Yes, she really did want this job.
Ella glanced around the deserted patch of green and smiled. The shouts and laughter of students would soon shatter the quiet of this early July morning. They’d read in the shade of the trees, toss Frisbees in the open spaces, gather on stairs to discuss classes and gossip. Imagining such scenes nearly brought them to life, and she could feel herself absorbing the energy of the students’ collective youth. It would be a wonderful place to work.
During the first interview at PMU, a month earlier, Mary Ann Bingham had given her the campus tour, and it included the spacious corner office the VP would claim. That, too, was appealing. Her current office was small, and too close for comfort to the men’s restroom across the hall. This one afforded more privacy and a small anteroom for intimate meetings with donors. Although she would travel a great deal for the university, when she was home, she’d have lovely surroundings to inspire her.
The salary and benefits package had been outlined before the interview, to make sure it met her expectations before anyone’s time was wasted. It had. PMU would give her a raise, more PTO, and a car. Since her current model—a BMW convertible—wouldn’t do well in the snow, that was a definite plus.
Her personal research into PMU had been promising, as well. The school was small, and private, and didn’t offer a ton of majors, but instead it focused doing a few things rather well. Their alums included a host of doctors, Wall Street wizards, computer analysts, and even a United States senator.
As she did the mental math, Ella found the plusses far outweighed the minuses. Standing, she glanced around one last time before heading to her car. It was time to check out the local housing market.
Chapter 2: The Delicate Balance
Holding a syringe in one hand and a bottle of lidocaine in the other, Reese Ryan turned at the sound of her name.
“Medic on the line wants to talk to you,” the nurse said.
Reese followed her from the supply room and a few feet to the phone and allowed her to hold it against her ear as she coaxed the clear, colorless liquid from the vial. “Dr. Ryan,” she said.
“Hey, Doc, it’s Engle here. I thought you’d want to know I’m bringing Mrs. Nathan in. Shortness of breath.”
At the sound of Millie Nathan’s name—for it could only be Millie Nathan who warranted such a warning—Reese stood a little taller. “CHF?” she asked.
“I think so. I gave her a squirt of Lasix, have her on 100 percent oxygen by face mask, and we’ll be there in five.”
“How’s her pressure?”
“That’s the funny thing. It’s a little low. And her heart rate’s fast, too.”
“Has she had any chest pain?”
“Hmm,” Reese said, quickly running through the possibilities in her mind. If Millie Nathan’s heart was failing, it was in real trouble, because her vital signs weren’t so good. But she had a bad heart, and Reese supposed it was only a matter of time with her. “See you in five.”
Pulling away, she looked at the nurse holding the phone in her hand. “The senator’s mom is coming in. Put her in the penthouse suite and page me immediately. I’d like to get these stitches in before she arrives. Otherwise, this guy may be waiting another hour.”
“You bet,” the nurse said, heading toward the resuscitation room.
Reese headed quickly in the other direction, toward the trauma bays, where an elderly patient awaited her. “Mr. Park, your CT scans are all normal. I’m going to put two stitches in your forehead, and then your daughter will pick you up.”
“What about my car?” he asked for the fifth time.
Reese had seen the pictures, and Mr. Park was lucky to be alive. His car was barely recognizable. When she’d called his daughter, Reese had initiated a discussion about his ability to safely operate a vehicle at the age of eighty-five, and his daughter had seemed relieved to hear Reese’s opinion.
“I think you should rest for a few days, Mr. Park. No driving. And then you need to have a complete physical by your doctor, to make sure you can still safely drive.”
“What are you talking about?” he demanded, the scowl on his face telling her exactly how he felt about any such discussion with his doctor.
As Reese prepped his skin and injected the anesthesia, she tuned out Mr. Park’s tirade. Every eighty-five-year-old thought they were the safest driver on the road, yet the statistics didn’t lie. People his age were involved in more collisions than any other group except teenagers, and much more likely to die from the injuries. It wasn’t something he wanted to hear, she knew that. But he needed to, and if she said it, and his daughter repeated it, and his family doctor reinforced it, perhaps they’d collectively help keep Mr. Park alive a while longer.
The skin came together beautifully, and Reese pulled the drape back from over his face to find his flecked-blue eyes squinting at her. “You’re not taking my car, Doctor.”
Reese bent and placed a playful kiss on his nose. “I have my own car, Mr. Park. And it doesn’t have any dents in it.”
He wiped away the kiss and brushed her away with his hand, and Reese laughed as she skipped out of the room and headed for the critical-care area. “You can leave as soon as your daughter gets here.”
The medics were just pushing a stretcher through the door, and when the crowd cleared she saw the familiar face of Millie Nathan.
Skirting the human traffic, Reese reached the stretcher and grabbed her hand. “What kind of trouble are you up to this time?”
Looking quite comfortable, Millie winked at Reese. “I’m so happy to see you, Christine. You always take such good care of me.”
Reese swallowed an unexpected tear. Indeed, she’d been taking care of Millie Nathan since she’d arrived in the ER in Scranton more than a decade earlier, but their relationship went back much further. Four decades. She’d known Mrs. Nathan her entire life.
“Do you realize you’re dating yourself by calling me Christine? Ever since Cass could talk, she’s called me Reese. No one calls me Christine anymore. Even my mom gave up.”
“It’s more feminine, so if you don’t mind, I’m going against the tide.”
Reese didn’t comment about her obvious lack of femininity, and she knew Mrs. Nathan wasn’t judging her. It was nothing personal, but professionally, she was pleased by their banter. Mrs. Nathan’s brain was working just fine, a sure sign that her oxygen level was adequate. “You don’t seem short of breath. Is the oxygen helping?” Reese asked, and when Millie nodded, she continued. “Tell me what’s going on.”
“I don’t know. I don’t feel right. I’m terribly tired, and weak. And then this morning, I felt like I couldn’t catch my breath.”
“No chest pain? Pain anywhere?” Reese asked as she glanced at the heart monitor.
“Here’s the EKG,” the nurse said as she handed it to Reese. It showed damage, evidence of enlargement Reese knew toxic doses of chemotherapy had caused, but she saw nothing new on the EKG. Nothing to suggest a recent heart attack as the cause of her new symptoms.
“Looks good.” She returned the EKG to the nurse and began her exam. All the typical signs of heart failure were missing. She found no distention of the neck veins, no swelling of the legs, no congestion of the liver. And for someone with a bad heart, Millie’s oxygen level was pretty damn good. Her heart rate, though, was way too fast and her blood pressure a bit low.
Reese opened the room’s laptop computer and pulled up Millie’s chart. “Let me refresh my memory, here. Any changes to your medications?” Reese read the list, and Millie indicated that it was correct. “Allergic to penicillin?” she asked.
“Yes, since my bone-marrow transplant.” That was a quirky phenomenon, one of the wonders of the body that fascinated Reese. When bone marrow was transplanted, the recipient often developed the donor’s allergies, indicating that the allergic response was generated in the bone marrow. She’d first seen it as a student, when one of her patients celebrated her birthday, in the ICU, with a strawberry cake. She’d immediately developed hives. After investigating, she learned later that the donor was known to have an allergy to strawberries.
Reese gave the nurse some orders and then pulled a nasal canula from the wall basket, replacing the mask covering Millie’s face.
“Oh, thank you. That thing isn’t very comfortable.”
“Well, this is the penthouse suite, Mrs. Nathan. We aim for comfort.”
Millie squinted at her. “Are you being sarcastic? I can still call your mother and tattle on you, you know.”
“We can’t have that.”
“How is your mother? And your dad? And Cass?”
Reese smiled. Her parents had just reached retirement age and hadn’t wasted a moment enjoying it. Her sister was the happiest person she knew. “They’re great. They just got back from whale-watching and hiking glaciers in Alaska. I kept Cass while they were gone.”
“Yeah,” Reese said.
Reese saw Millie’s eyes cloud over for a moment, and she couldn’t help but feel badly for her. Mr. Nathan was barely forty when he’d fallen over, the victim of clogged coronaries and good health. If he’d ever been to a doctor, his high cholesterol might have been detected in time to save him. He’d never been sick, though, not until the day he died. She’d spent the next years focusing on her own health and her children, and lately her grandchildren, but she’d never remarried. Even though she projected a happy, upbeat image, Reese suspected Millie was lonely.
“How’s Josh?” she asked, knowing the topic of her son would cheer her. The light returned to her eyes.
“He’s good. Great. He’s optimistic about getting the gun-control bill passed. All the grassroots efforts are starting to pay off, and perhaps we’ll see an end to all these mass shootings with automatic weapons.”
Reese didn’t argue with Millie. She’d spent countless hours debating guns and shootings with Millie’s son, Senator Josh Nathan, and she knew they’d never completely agree. Josh thought the solution to the problem was completely eliminating guns from society. Reese thought the key was completely eliminating mental illness from society. Since the odds of curing mental illness were slim, she wasn’t hopeful. And since no one in America was giving up their guns without a fight, she feared the consequences of Josh’s proposal. If it passed, it was likely to spawn the next civil war.
“I’m happy to hear that. He’s a good senator, Mrs. Nathan. Now, I’m going to check on some other patients, and I’ll see you when the labs and chest X-ray are done.” Reese squeezed her hand and went back to work. Thirty minutes had passed when the nurse handed her a white sheet of computer paper showing the results of Millie’s blood work.
“Well, that explains it,” she said to herself as she headed back to the penthouse suite. En route, she pulled up Millie’s chest X-ray and examined it. The heart was markedly enlarged, but the lung fields were clear, giving absolutely no clues to explain her symptoms. That was okay, though. The answer was in Reese’s hand.
“Mrs. Nathan, I have to get to know you a little better,” Reese said as she walked into the room.
“What do you mean?”
“Your blood count’s low. That’s why you’re tired and weak, and also short of breath. I need to do a rectal to see if you’re losing blood.”
“I haven’t noticed any.”
“Most people don’t.”
“Is it absolutely necessary?” she asked, and at that moment she sounded very much like the mother of one of the most important men in Washington.
“Absolutely,” Reese answered, not in the least bit intimidated.
After easing Millie onto her side, Reese procured her sample and smeared it onto a cardboard tester. After adding a few drops of developer, she watched the paper turn blue. Bingo.
“There’s blood in your stool,” she said simply.
“I’m not sure. I’ll leave that to the specialists to figure out. In the meantime, I’m going to order a transfusion for you. We have to give you the blood slowly, so it doesn’t overwhelm your heart.”
“That’s what happened when I had my bone-marrow transplant,” she said.
“The bone-marrow transplant made me short of breath. The doctors said I had too much fluid in my lungs. Didn’t you read that in my chart?”
Reese shook her head. Millie’s medical chart was about two feet high, not counting the past few years, which had been recorded electronically.
“Yes. I was very sick. Josh saved me, though. He gave me his bone marrow.”
Reese nodded. “That, I remember.” Josh hadn’t been around during one of the darkest times of Reese’s life because he’d been in Philly with his mom. They’d talked every day, though, and cried about the loss of one of their classmates, a dear friend to them both.
“When can I go home?”
Now Reese laughed. It was one of the most common questions her patients asked, and the sickest of them most commonly asked it. “I’ll call your doctor, and should I let Josh know?”
“I don’t want to worry him. He’s very busy this week.”
“Nothing’s more important than you,” she said, simply because she knew it was true.
Reese ordered the blood and then pulled her cell phone from the pack she wore around her waist. It took only a second for her to find Josh’s number; he was in her favorites. Holding the phone with her shoulder, she began typing, listening for the rich timbre of her old friend’s voice. She was quickly rewarded.
“Hello, Doctor,” he said.
“Hello, Senator,” she replied with a smirk. She’d known Josh Nathan since kindergarten, and it was often hard to reconcile her image of him as a toothless playmate with the suit-clad political leader he’d become.
“Are you calling to beg for a spot in my foursome for the PMU golf tournament? If so, you’re too late. I’ve found some ringers, and this year, you’re going down.”
Reese laughed. “Maybe I should just withdraw. Save my money.”
“No. Don’t do that. I relish the thought of beating you, and it would break my heart if it’s by forfeit. Besides, it’s a good cause. Where would either of us be without PMU?”
“Josh, you could charm the habit off a nun. I suspect you’d have done fine if you got your degree online.”
“Aw, shucks. You’re so sweet, Reese. I should have married you when I had the chance.”
Reese shook her head and chuckled. “You never had a chance, Josh.”
“What?” he demanded with mock surprise in his voice. “What about our dance?”
“That was sixth grade!”
“Yeah, but it was special.”
“The entire time I was dancing with you, I was making eyes at Emily Baker.”
“Emily? I can see that. She was cute. So if you don’t want to seduce me, and you don’t want to golf with me, what’s up?”
Reese didn’t even laugh as she suddenly remembered the purpose of her call. This message wasn’t an easy one to deliver, and Josh was clearly not prepared for it. He and his mother were as close as could be. He had always been the doting son, since his mother had been diagnosed with breast cancer during their senior year at Pocono Mountains Prep. Josh’s father had just died when his mother was diagnosed, and he’d given up a scholarship to Harvard, pushing aside his dreams so he could stay home and take care of her. He’d nursed her through her illness and only left four years later, when she was well and law school beckoned. He came back to the mountains to start his law practice, but politics took him away again. Somewhere in the suburbs of Washington he’d met his wife, and now he spent much less time at home. Even though he’d asked, his mother would never move, not even to be close to her son.
“It’s your mom. She’s really sick, Josh.”
Reese heard him suck in a breath. “How bad? Should I charter a helicopter? I can be there in two hours.”
“Not that sick. But she’s lost blood and needs a transfusion. There’s blood in her stool, so that’s likely the cause.”
“Why would there be blood in her stool? You know me. I was a history major. I know nothing about medicine.”
The lab results indicated a chronic loss of blood, probably from the colon. The most concerning cause in someone her age was cancer. Reese wouldn’t tell him that, though. It would only worry him. “Could be lots of things. She’s on an anti-inflammatory, which could cause it.”
“Infection, polyps, diverticulitis. It could be anything.”
“Okay, so what now? Can you just give her some blood or something?”
“Yes, I ordered a transfusion. I have to run the blood slowly, though. All that fluid could throw her into heart failure.”
Reese was in the electronic medical record checking on Millie’s heart as she spoke. Her last echocardiogram showed the heart wasn’t pumping very well. Of course it hadn’t been for some time. “Her echocardiogram sucks.”
“What’s that? The EKG?”
“No. That’s the one that tells how her heart is pumping. It’s not doing very well.”
“Fucking chemo,” he said.
“The chemo saved her, Josh. She was thirty-eight, with stage-four breast cancer. If they hadn’t given her that experimental stuff, she probably would have died back then.”
He was quiet, and Reese suspected she knew his thoughts. As grateful as he was for the doctors and treatment that saved her life, he blamed them for taking it away. Millie’s regimen had caused cardiomyopathy, and even though she’d lived, she’d been a slave to oxygen tanks and water pills. Josh’s first official act as an attorney had been to sue the hospital that had treated her, as well as all her doctors. He’d won, and the millions of dollars had helped Millie buy a condo with a bedroom on the first floor and all the help she needed to care for herself. At forty-six, she’d had all the money she could ever need, but essentially no life.
Even though he’d made his fortune in medical malpractice, and as a doctor, that might have bothered her, it didn’t. The cases he took were good ones, legitimate malpractice claims. And Reese understood his anger. Within the span of a year, and at the fragile age of eighteen, he’d lost one of his best friends, his father, and essentially his mother as well.
A message flashed onto Reese’s computer screen.
“Her blood’s ready, and I have to get back to work. Take your time, Josh. Get here safely. I’ll take good care of her.”
Chapter 3: A Room with a View
Ella picked up copies of the Pocono Record and the Scranton Times, along with a deli sandwich from Abe’s, and followed the map to Nay Aug Park. It had been many years since her last visit to the park, but she fondly remembered an elephant and hiking around the gorge with her sister and some friends from Lake Winola.
It had been thirty years since she’d been at the lake, but she still thought of those people. If her grandparents hadn’t died, she had no doubt those friendships would have lasted forever. Bucky Draper, who could hit a baseball to the moon but couldn’t catch one to save his life. Scoop Timlin, whose family had the biggest boat on the lake. It was housed in an appropriately sized boathouse, with a diving board anchored onto the roof and a slide at the end of the dock. They’d had so much fun there. Vicky and Val, who lived across the street on a farm that provided acres and acres to run and play. Stephanie Gates, Ella’s dearest childhood friend.
When she was in high school and began to understand her sexuality, Ella began to appreciate the depth of her feelings for Stephanie. She’d had many friends, but none of them like her. Steph was special, the connection they enjoyed one of the greatest Ella had ever known. They talked and giggled as little girls do, ran and climbed, but sometimes just sat quietly together, or lay side by side in the grass, studying cloud formations by day and stars by night. It was all innocent—they were only children, after all—but Steph was the measure by which she judged all friendships since.
If it were a different time, when kids had cell phones and social-media accounts, they might have all still been friends. They’d known each other in the 1970s, though, when calling long distance cost money and meant she didn’t even have most of her friends’ numbers. When her grandparents died, her connection to all the people at the lake had ended.
Over the years, she’d wondered what became of her old friends, especially Steph. Google searches showed a gynecologist named Scott Timlin, who could have been Scoop. There was a local attorney named Warren Draper, practicing in the family law firm. She was sure they were her old friends. Ella hadn’t been able to locate the girls, though. No doubt they’d all married and taken their husbands’ names. The only way to find them would be at the lake, where, perhaps, their families still lived. It was a long shot, but she thought it worth a try. If she was going to live here, what better way to start her new life than by meeting up with old friends?
An abundance of parking spaces at the park seemed to be a good omen, and after changing in the restroom, Ella found a picnic table centered in a copse of trees and opened her sandwich and the newspapers. If she was going to work at PMU, she’d have to live here. Renting her town house in Philly would be easy, and practical. Why sell until she knew she’d like it at PMU? Why sell at all? The stock market scared her, and the property was a good investment. Buying a second place didn’t seem like a good idea, though, until she knew the area better and was sure she’d stay in the mountains.
That settled, she focused on the rental section of the paper and quickly found several prospects. Her lifestyle made an apartment a better choice than a house, and she circled the numbers with a pen and began making phone calls. Just as she was finishing her first inquiry, she looked up to the comical sight of a small black dog running in her direction, pulling a young woman. Her face displayed the telltale features of Down syndrome, and she was followed by another woman, this one much older and struggling to keep up.
The pooch didn’t stop until he was at Ella’s feet, and then he stood on his hind legs and put his front paws on the picnic bench. Huge brown eyes caught her gaze, and he turned his head, studying her. Ella allowed him to sniff her fingers before she began scratching behind his ears.
“Bijou!” the younger woman yelled.
“Cass,” the older woman called.
“Hi,” the younger woman said as she sat across from Ella. “I’m Cass.” Her smile seemed to jump off her face.
“Hi, Cass. I’m Ella. And this guy must be Bijou.”
Ella smiled as the dog jumped up to the bench seat and wedged his way onto her lap, provoking a laugh from Cass. He settled in as if he belonged there, and instantly Ella realized how much she missed having a dog. When she’d split with her ex, Cindy had been the logical choice to take custody of their dog, Hudson. Her job didn’t require travel, and she worked close enough from home that she could stop by the house at lunch to let him out. A year later, he’d been hit by a car and Cindy had to put him down. The thought still brought a tear to her eye, and Ella focused instead on the little ball of black fur in her lap.
“He likes you,” Cass said just as the older woman joined them.
“Hi,” she said as she reached for the dog and pulled him from Ella’s lap. “Sorry about Bijou. He likes to explore.”
“No worries. That’s what parks are for, right?”
“Do you live here? I’ve never seen you before,” Cass said. “I live over there, in the blue house,” she said as she turned and pointed.
Ella was concerned about the personal details Cass so readily revealed, but she didn’t have time to ponder her thoughts.
“Cass, what did I tell you about talking to strangers? You can’t tell people where you live.”
“She’s not a stranger, Mom. She’s a lady.”
Ella couldn’t help smiling. “Why, thank you, Cass. And to answer your question, no. I don’t live here. But I just got a new job, and I’ll be moving here soon.” Pointing to the newspapers, she said, “I’m looking for an apartment.”
“Would you mind if I sit?” Cass’s mom asked.
Ella shook her head. “No, of course not. Maybe you can give me some tips about the local neighborhoods.”
“Thank you. I’m Sharon Ryan, by the way.”
“What kind of apartment are you looking for? Something modern in a complex or older and more sophisticated? Something in a converted house perhaps?”
Sitting side by side, Ella couldn’t help noticing the similarities between the women. Cass was shorter but had the same brown eyes as her mom, and her black hair, while short, was full and wavy. Sharon’s was much the same, although silver had replaced much of the black.
“One that doesn’t require me to do anything. Other than that, I’m not particular.”
“Where are you looking?”
“Well, that’s the thing I’m not sure about. I was just hired at Pocono Mountains University, so I can go more toward the mountains or stay here in Scranton. I’d like to be within a half hour of school if I can.”
“Congratulations on the new job. My elder daughter graduated from PMU. It’s a great school. There isn’t much housing out by the campus. Not that I know of, anyway. You might have to check the listings. If you don’t mind Scranton, though, you’ll find plenty of places for rent.”
“Yes. I can see that from the ads. I guess it won’t be a problem. I’d like to check the places out today and make a decision if I can. I’m supposed to start in two weeks.”
“Well, you have your work cut out for you, then. Where do you live now?”
“I love Philadelphia,” Cass said. “The Phillies are the best baseball team, next to the Yankees.”
“Well, if you root for the Yankees, you’re usually happy at the end of the season.”
“She became a Yankees fan when they took over the AAA franchise,” Sharon said.
“I work at the stadium. I’m an usher. Do you want to go to the game tonight? I get free tickets.”
Ella nodded. “I love baseball, especially the Phillies, and I’d love to go to a game, but not tonight. After I find an apartment, I have to drive back to Philadelphia and start packing.”
“I can help you pack. My sister moves all the time, and I always help her pack.”
“Cass, she doesn’t move all the time. You make her sound like a vagrant.”
Cass furrowed her brows. “She’s not a vagrant, mom. She’s a doctor.”
“My other child is an ER doctor, and she’s had quite a few moves for school and residency and all that.”
“She doesn’t sound like a vagrant at all,” Ella said.
“PMU has quite a few doctors on the alumni rolls. The pre-med program is well respected, and every year dozens of our students are admitted to medical school,” Ella said as she pushed a lock of hair back behind her ear. The blond strand reached just past her shoulders, not quite long enough for the scrunchie to hold it in place. That was another thing she’d have to worry about after the move. Finding someone to color and cut her hair. The salon in Philly wouldn’t be convenient from here.
“Oh, yes,” Sharon said. “It’s a great school. I know half the doctors and lawyers and accountants in town, just from the parties my daughter used to host.”
“That sounds like a big bonus.”
“They’re all good kids. Most of them went to Pocono Mountains Prep, too, so I know them from way back.” Sharon shook her head. “Time flies. They have their twenty-fifth high school reunion in a couple of years.”
Ella would also have hers soon. “I must be the same age as your daughter. Mine’s coming up as well.”
“When you get settled in, I’ll introduce you to Reese. She’s lived here her entire life and knows everyone.”
Ella nodded. “That would be very nice. It’s great to have local people to give you the scoop.” Bijou stretched his front legs as far as he could toward Ella and began batting them at her from across the picnic table. She reached over and took his paws in her hands, and he continued the game.
Sharon stared at her for a moment. “This dog really likes you. You wouldn’t be interested in a different sort of living arrangement, would you?”
Ella studied Sharon for a moment, curious. “What sort of arrangement?”
“Bijou’s mom, my neighbor, is going to California for a few months. She wants to study film.” Sharon shrugged as if she’d never heard of anything so ridiculous. “Of course, my husband and I will look after the house and the dog while we can, but we’ve started wintering in Florida, so we’ll be leaving right after Christmas. Ideally, Pip would love to find someone to live in the house while she’s gone. She’s even willing to pay a small stipend.”
“Is the house furnished?”
That was an interesting concept. No lease, just a fully furnished house for a few months until she got to know the area well enough to decide on something more permanent. And a small stipend as well! Money wasn’t an issue, but free rent would be nice, particularly until she found a tenant for her house in Philly.
“I’m not too handy around the house,” Ella said. “I can barely change a lightbulb, and I’ve never taken care of a lawn in my life.”
Sharon waved her hand dismissively. “Pip has Frankie. He takes care of the house and the lawn. She just wants someone to stay so the place isn’t abandoned. You know, what if something leaks while she’s gone, and no one discovers it for two months?”
“Can’t Frankie do that?” Ella asked as she mulled over the prospect of house-sitting.
“I suppose, but it’s not the same.”
“Yes! Stay at Pip’s house,” Cass said.
“Do you live alone?” Sharon asked before Ella could reply. “Any pets?”
“I guess that would be the problem. I’m alone, but I travel about half the time, so I wouldn’t be the ideal dog sitter.”
“He’s not a problem. Cass can usually help with him.”
“Are you getting a commission on this rental, Sharon?” Ella asked.
Shaking her head, she laughed. “No, but I like you, so I wouldn’t mind you as my neighbor. What if she finds some young kid who blasts rock-n-roll all night long?”
“What makes you think I don’t blast rock-n-roll all night long?”
Sharon winked. “Something tells me you’re a little more refined than that.”
Ella swallowed a smile. Coming from Sharon, the compliment almost sounded like an insult. What would she say if she saw the fifty women in her backyard during her annual breast-cancer fund-raiser? Drinking beer, dancing, playing volleyball and horseshoes until the beer ran out? Or caught her sunbathing in almost nothing? No, she didn’t tend to play her music loudly, except while housecleaning on Saturday mornings, but she wasn’t that refined.
“Would you like to see the house?” Sharon asked. “Pip is home. I’m sure she’d be happy to show it to you.”
Her hesitation was brief. What did she have to lose? “Sure.”
“Yeah!” Cass said, clapping her hands, causing Bijou to start barking.
“See. Everyone thinks it’s a good idea,” Sharon said.
After gathering the newspapers, Ella stood, and they walked together the short distance to Arthur Avenue, then crossed the street in front of a stone home in the style of a French country manor, with a sloping roof and stone wall surrounding the grounds.
“What a lovely place,” Ella commented.
Bijou jumped from Sharon’s arms as they approached an arched gateway, immediately running in circles and then squatting to do his business.
“He has an entire park at his disposal, and he comes home to do that.”
Ella looked up to see a woman reclining on a chaise positioned to get her a face full of sunshine, if a large-brimmed hat and glasses hadn’t hidden her features.
“There’s no place like home,” Sharon said.
“Who’s your friend?”
“Pip, this young lady is Ella Townes. She’s starting a new job at PMU, and we found her in the park studying the newspaper. She needs an apartment. I thought I’d introduce you. Perhaps you can help each other out.”
Ella walked forward and offered her hand. Pip responded with her own and shook it gently. “Ella Townes.”
“Penny Perkins. Everyone calls me Pip.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
“So where do you come from, Ella?” she asked.
Ella told her she’d traveled as a child, because of her father’s job, but that she’d spent her summers at Lake Winola.
“Wait a minute. Are you related to Carl and Elizabeth Townes? They lived at the lake when I was young, about a mile from my parents’ place. Their daughter, Nance, was my sitter.”
Ella laughed. “You’re kidding me! Their son, Ron, is my father. I stayed with them every summer until they passed away.”
Pip shook her head. “That was awful, Ella. One fall we said good-bye to them, thinking we’d see them the next spring, and the next thing we knew, the house was for sale.”
“Listen, we’ll leave you two in peace,” Sharon said, handing Ella a piece of paper. “This is my phone number. If I can do anything else for you, call. And even if you don’t need anything, call anyway, so I can hook you up with Reese. I enjoyed talking to you. Good luck with the apartment hunting.”
“Hey, what about my dollar for walking Bijou?” Cass chimed in.
Pip reached into her pocket and pulled out a folded bill, then handed it to Cass. Cass proceeded to unfold it and studied it, as if making sure Pip hadn’t tried to pass her counterfeit money.
“How much money do you have now?” Pip asked.
Pip looked at Ella. “Tell Ella what you’re saving for.”
Ella looked at Cass, who looked from Pip to Sharon and finally to Ella.
“Go ahead,” Sharon said. “You can tell her.”
Ella turned her full attention to Cass, who began flapping her hands excitedly. “When I have enough money, I’m going on a cooking cruise with Chef Vito.”
“That sounds wonderful,” Ella said.
“If you stay here, you’ll meet Vito. He walks his dog in the park.”
“Best soup in town, and wonderful sandwiches.”
“And he runs a cruise?”
“Yes. It’s very popular,” Sharon said.
“I’m an excellent chef,” Cass added.
“Well, I hope you have fun on your cruise, then.”
“We should get going so you can talk.”
Ella felt so comfortable with Sharon that she opened her arms. “It was so nice to meet you.” Sharon stepped in, gave her a gentle hug, and when she stepped back, Cass attacked, clasping her ferociously. “I hope you move here with Pip.”
“Nice people,” Ella said when they’d disappeared through the gate.
“I’ve known them my whole life, it seems. I grew up in this house, but of course, we summered at the lake. The Ryans bought the house next door when I was a teenager, and they’ve lived there ever since.”
“Are your parents still living?”
Pip shook her head. “No. My mom died years ago, and my dad just recently. It’s just me now. And Bijou, of course.”
“Of course. So, Sharon tells me you’re looking for a house sitter for a little while. That could possibly work for me. It would give me a little time to acclimate to the mountains before I decide where I’d like to live. I’m not sure about Bijou, though. My schedule is a little odd, and I travel often.”
“Oh? What do you do?”
“I’m in development. I meet with donors all over the country. I’m often gone for a week or ten days at a time.”
“Don’t worry about the dog. The Ryans are wonderful with him. Cass loves him. If you’re here, it gives them a little break. It could work. I assume you have references I could check? Your Aunt Nance, for instance.”
Ella laughed. “Don’t believe a thing she says about me! But of course, it sounds great for me if it works for you. Would you mind showing me around?”
Beginning with the ample grounds, Pip showed her the converted carriage house, which now had space for four cars. Only one, an SUV, was parked inside. Flower beds and stone pathways dominated the back of the house, and a covered porch looked over it all. Pip led her up a step and into a foyer and gave her the tour. The house was surprisingly small but very efficiently designed, and more than ample for Ella’s needs. Pip, or perhaps her father, had modernized all the important things—kitchen, baths, electrical. Since the master suite was on the first floor, Pip offered Ella exclusive rights to the second floor and use of the common areas as well.
After the tour, Pip poured them both glasses of ice water, and they settled in on the covered porch. “It’s so amazing that I should have met you, Pip. I can’t believe the way this day has gone,” Ella said, shaking her head.
“Sometimes the fates work that way.”
“It’s funny. I was just thinking about my old friends from the lake, hoping I’ll have a chance to get together with some of them once I’m settled, and I meet you, and you also have a connection to the lake. It’s like my old friends are calling me.”
“Do you keep in touch?”
Ella shook her head. “My last summer at the lake, I was only twelve years old. I never even had phone numbers for them. It was a different time, you know?”
“Well, with the internet, I’m sure you’ll be able to track them down.”
“I hope so.”
“Who are you looking for? Even though my dad sold our lake house, I still know some of those people.”
“There are a few people I’d like to catch up with, but the one I’d most like to see is Stephanie Gates. Do you know her?”
Pip took a sip of her water and tilted her head. She’d removed the hat and glasses when they went into the house, but her expression was still unreadable. “Stephanie? Sophie’s daughter?”
“Yes. She lived in the house next to my grandparents. She was my very best childhood friend. Do you know her? Is she still in the area?”
Pip nodded and rested her glass on her knee. “You didn’t hear, I guess. No. How would you?” She seemed to be talking to herself, staring into the distance before she met Ella’s gaze. “Stephanie died quite a few years ago.”
Ella felt the words like a slap to the face. She was only forty-two; Steph was the same age. How could she be dead? “What?”
How could this information, after no news for more than thirty years, hit her so hard? Thoughts of Steph suddenly filled her—riding her bike, long before the days of helmets, a mane of brown hair blowing behind her, a hundred-watt smile on her face. Sitting together in their tree house, built high up in the tree closest to the lake. From there they’d watch the fireworks on the Fourth of July and spy on boaters and partiers. They’d caught neighbors skinny-dipping and teenagers making out in their parents’ boats, even had ringside seats for a few drunken brawls. It had been great fun, and it would have been nice to travel back to those days with Steph and find out what kind of person she’d become. Perhaps, they’d even make new memories. The sadness, she supposed, wasn’t just because of the friendship they’d shared back then, but the one Ella had hoped to rekindle now.
“What happened to her? Was it an accident?” What felled the young other than accidents? Drowning? Steph had been a strong swimmer, but she knew from her time at the lake that anyone could drown.
Pip shook her head and stared again, her eyes unfocused. “No, not an accident. Stephanie was murdered.”
Chapter 4: Ghosts
Even though Ella should have pointed her convertible toward Philadelphia, when she got behind the wheel she didn’t hesitate to drive in the opposite direction. She’d talked with Pip a while longer, already decided that she would house-sit while Pip was away, but she could no longer focus on the details or the conversation. All she could think of was Stephanie Gates, her cherished childhood friend, and the fact that she was dead. Not just dead, though. Murdered. Somehow, that made the reality much worse. Murder seemed even more senseless than cancer and accidental deaths.
Even though it had been so long, Ella felt compelled to talk to Steph’s mom, Sophie. Pip had also mentioned the passing of Steph’s dad, and although Pip didn’t spend much time at the lake anymore, she’d heard rumors that Sophie still lived there, in the same big Mediterranean-style villa Ella recalled from childhood. Ella would go there and talk to Sophie, and offer her belated condolences.
It seemed right that Ella should stop in to say hello. She’d known Steph well, and she’d planned to look her up, so why not her mother? Of course, it was entirely possible that Mrs. Gates wouldn’t remember her or wouldn’t want to talk with her because of the memories a conversation with her would inevitably bring to life. Perhaps she was demented and wouldn’t even remember her daughter.
None of the scenarios she envisioned could stop her from doing what she thought was the right thing. She knew Mrs. Gates and liked her. Because Steph was an only child, she often took friends along on trips, and Ella had been privileged to enjoy Hershey Park with the Gates family, as well as Niagara Falls, Nantucket, and Cape May. Not to mention the hundreds of sleepovers and thousands of hot dogs she’d consumed on the Gateses’ patio.
Mrs. Gates, she immediately realized, was a big part of her childhood, too.
It was a gorgeous day to take the top down, and the ride was peaceful. It had been more than thirty years since she’d visited the lake, and she’d never driven there, so Ella relied on her GPS to guide her from Scranton. Once the car rounded that last bend and the lake came into view, her instincts took over. She’d navigated that stretch of road hundreds of times, on her bike and on foot, and she knew exactly how to get to Sophie Gates’s place.
Slowing the car in front of her grandparents’ former house, she marveled at the changes. Someone had put love and money into restoring the old Craftsman cottage, and it gleamed with fresh paint. Flowers poured from baskets hanging from the porch eaves, and children’s toys dotted the yard.
Her father had often talked about his childhood at Lake Winola, and Ella and her sister had treasured memories as well. It was good that another generation of kids had the same opportunity to enjoy it as they had.
Pulling the car ahead a hundred yards, Ella caught sight of the Gates place. The house was much as she remembered it, the classic Mediterranean style making it difficult to tell if the house was five years old or fifty. Ella parked on the macadam driveway before the garage doors and looked around. Lush green landscaping dominated the front property, with intermittent splashes of color provided by thick beds of flowers. Was Sophie a gardener, or did she hire one? Ella’s memory failed her on that point, but clearly someone was taking good care of the landscaping.
Hesitating just a moment, she exited the convertible and rang the bell. It took a minute, but Ella could hear footsteps approaching and was filled with a strange sense of dread. All of a sudden, this visit seemed like a stupid idea. What was she doing here?
Before she could further debate the question or change her mind and leave, the lace curtain on the glass-paneled door was pushed aside, and a familiar face peeked through. It had been a long time since she’d seen her, but Sophie looked the same. Older—brown hair had been replaced by white, and she had more wrinkles—but Ella would have recognized her anywhere. Another emotion replaced her dissolving anxiety—sadness, perhaps? Ella didn’t have time to examine it before Sophie unlocked the heavy door and pulled it back, assessing her.
“Hi, Mrs. Gates. I’m Ella Townes.” Pointing across her body to the left, she said, “I used to live over there. Carl and Liz’s granddaughter.”
“Say it again,” she said.
The light of recognition flushed her face, and she smiled. “Ella! Look at you, all grown up. Come in, come in!”
Ella followed and wasn’t surprised to see that Sophie’s house hadn’t changed much over the years. Her job took her through the front doors of many homes, and it wasn’t unusual for someone Sophie’s age to lose appreciation for the latest fads and keep things as they were.
Heading toward the kitchen, Sophie paused a few times to look at Ella. “I can’t believe you’re here. I still miss your grandmother. She was one of my favorite people.”
“It was a shock when they both died so suddenly,” Ella said through tears that suddenly filled her throat. Being back at the lake and remembering her grandparents brought back memories she hadn’t expected. The tears, she realized, were not all happy ones. They’d died, and she’d never had a chance to come back to say good-bye to her lake friends. She’d spent ten of her summers there, and if her dad’s parents had lived, she would probably have spent another dozen.
As if understanding her earlier thoughts, Sophie nodded. “The house changed hands a few times, and a few years back I finally bought it. The family I rent to is really sweet. The wife looks out for me, and the kids remind me of you guys when you were small. They’re everywhere, little bundles of energy on the move from dawn ’til dusk.”
“That’s good.” She wasn’t sure why, but she hated the thought of weekenders living in the house, using it for parties but not really loving it the way her family had. For a moment, she cursed her dad and his sister for selling it after their parents’ death, but she knew in her heart it was the right move. They were too busy for a lake house in a remote corner of Northeastern Pennsylvania, and too poor to pay someone else to care for it in their absence.
After instructing Ella to sit in the sunroom beside the kitchen, Sophie procured two glasses and filled them with home-brewed tea, then pulled cookies from a plastic container and plated them. When she was done, she sat across from Ella and studied her.
“Your hair’s lighter. You must color it.” She didn’t wait for a reply. “And you don’t wear a ring, so you must not be married. Other than that, I don’t know a thing about you. What’s become of you? What are you doing here?”
“You’re right about the hair and the marital status. To answer the last question, I just got a job at Pocono Mountains University, and when I thought of moving back, the first person I wanted to reconnect with was Stephanie.” Ella swallowed. “I’m so sorry to hear about her, Mrs. Gates. I had to come over and say hello to you and tell you how much I treasured her friendship. Even though we were only kids, I’ve thought about her my entire life.”
If Sophie felt any emotions at the mention of her dead daughter, she hid them well. “How sweet of you! I do so love to see Steph’s friends as they grow. It helps me think of what she’d be like now. Keeps her fresh in my mind, you see.”
“I think it could be painful for some people. I’m glad it’s not for you.”
“Oh, it’s painful, Ella. How could it not be? But when you say something so kind, like you think of her, it lightens my heart. I know a little piece of her is still alive in you.”
Mrs. Gates might not have teared up, but Ella did, and she used one of the napkins Mrs. Gates had provided to dry her eyes. Mrs. Gates patted her hand. “Steph was a wonderful girl, Mrs. Gates. She was kind. So kind to everyone. And fun. We had so many adventures as kids—treasure hunts and obstacle courses and bike races. Remember when we held the ‘Tour de Winola’? There must have been a hundred people out on their bikes that day.”
Sophie nodded. “I think she charged a quarter to enter the race and donated twenty dollars to the animal shelter.”
Ella nodded. “I remember!” Together, they had designed a poster, and her father had printed copies at his office. All the neighborhood kids had hung them around the lake, and they carefully mapped the course. It had been a huge event, followed by drinks and cookies at Bucky’s house.
“They still have it. The race. Every year on the Fourth of July weekend. Hundreds of people of all ages. Most people don’t remember that two eight-year-old girls started it. Some of the old gang still ride in it.”
“Do you see her friends often?” Ella asked. The lake was a small community, so it wouldn’t have surprised her.
“From time to time. Valerie still lives here, and she runs me to the doctor and takes me for groceries. Bucky treats me to lunch every week. I think he and Steph were secretly dating. He still seems to be in love with her, all these years later.”
“I suppose he had a crush on her even when we were eight years old,” Ella said. Long after the other kids went home, Bucky had hung around, typically agreeing to do whatever Steph wanted. If he’d been invited, Ella had no doubt he would have come to their sleepovers, too.
“I still see some of her high school friends, too. I don’t think you’d know them. Most of them were from town, not from the lake.”
Ella bit into a jelly-filled cookie and looked out the window toward the lake. Steph’s tree house was gone, but she could imagine just where it was, could still see the panoramic view of the lake from up there. Even from here, the sight was magnificent, with an expanse of water just beyond the boat dock, cottages and homes in the distance around the shore, and a cloudless blue sky framing distant mountains.
Noticing her stare, Mrs. Gates turned and shared the vision. “It’s why I stay here,” she said. “The view. There’s nothing like it.”
“It is something. I’ve remembered it my whole life. I’m sorry I didn’t drive up here years ago.”
Mrs. Gates patted her hand.
“Do you still own the print shop?” Ella asked, feeling a change of subject was in order.
“No. We sold it a few years ago. It just got to be too much, driving back and forth to Scranton, holding meetings, disciplining employees. Who needs the aggravation?”
Ella chuckled. “It must have changed over the years, with everyone owning personal computers and printers.”
“That didn’t impact our business very much. We did more commercial stuff. But we went into business at a good time, when there was some profit to be made, and we sold it at a good time, too. How about you? What do you do at the university?” she asked.
“I’m the new vice president of development,” she said, and explained a little about her job.
“Is it hard? To ask people for money, I mean?”
Ella shook her head. “Surprisingly, no. Many people want to give, and I help them figure out how to do it. I help them create their legacies, and that makes most people very happy. Long after they’re gone, they’ll live on in a young doctor or artist whose education they helped provide. And of course, they get their names on a big plaque, too.” Ella winked.
“I see,” she said as she nibbled a cookie, seeming to digest the thought as well.
“I’m surprised you haven’t asked about Steph,” she said a moment later.
Ella knew just what Sophie meant. But she hadn’t wanted to come in and seem like a gossip, eager for juicy details about her friend’s murder. She’d come to honor Steph and, in a sense, pay her respects. Even if she’d died years ago, she’d been alive to Ella. To her, Steph had only died an hour earlier when Pip told her the news. “I didn’t think it was polite.”
“It’s not hard to talk about her. Remember, that’s what keeps her alive.”
“Even speaking about her death?”
“It’s therapeutic. And I keep hoping that someday, someone will come forward and give us some piece of information to help solve the crime. And as long as I keep it simmering, instead of letting it rest, that might happen.”
Ella hesitated just a moment, unsure if she really wanted to know. Not only had Steph been murdered, but her killer hadn’t been caught. How awful for Steph. How awful for her mother. Would discussing it really be okay? After a moment, she decided to take the chance. Telling her seemed to be important to Sophie. “What happened to her?”
“An intruder murdered her. He’s never been caught. There had been a few break-ins around the mountains, and the police think she surprised a burglar. Steve and I were out at a party, and she was home alone. In her room, studying. Even though the lights were on, there were no cars in the drive, and he must have thought the house was empty. She startled him, and he hit her over the head. The coroner said she died instantly.”
How dreadful, Ella thought. Steph had always been petite and would probably have had little chance of her fending off an intruder. Just like her, though, to go down trying, instead of hiding in her closet hoping he’d go away. “It’s so awful. I can’t believe that happened to her. It’s hard to imagine someone you know being murdered. How old was she?”
“Seventeen. It happened just a few weeks before she would have graduated from high school.”
Shaking her head, Ella closed her eyes. It was just so sad. Steph hadn’t even had a chance to live her life. “What were her plans, Mrs. Gates? Did she still want to be a vet?”
Mrs. Gates nodded enthusiastically. “She sure did! She was at the top of her class, on her way to college on a full scholarship. After that, vet school.”
Remembering, Ella nodded. “It was what she always wanted.”
“She was a determined young woman. Had it all planned, even picked out office space next to the print shop, so she could have lunch with her father every day.”
“Sounds like she had it all worked out,” Ella said softly, sorry for the dreams that had died with Steph. The animal kingdom had lost a friend, too.
“I’ve no doubt all her dreams would have come true, if someone hadn’t stolen her from us.”
“From what I remember, I think you’re right. And they never found him? The burglar?” It seemed strange to say the murderer.
“There was really no evidence. It was raining, so no one was out and about to see anything. If he left footprints, they were washed away. She didn’t put up a fight, so they didn’t find any of the killer’s blood or skin under her nails. Not much to go on.”
“That must be frustrating.”
“Yes. But I keep hoping. Someone may know something. Someone must know something. Jewelry was stolen—that’s never turned up. The killer most likely had her blood on him.”
Ella didn’t want to point out the obvious, that an eye witness coming forward at this point was unlikely. But if Sophie needed to hold on to her hope, Ella wouldn’t try to change her mind. She was surprised by what Sophie said next.
“They’re going to reopen the investigation.”
“The sitting DA is retiring at the end of his term. Bucky is running for the position, and one of his campaign promises is to try to solve cold cases. Steph’s is one of them.”
“Well, good for Bucky! I hope he wins. And I hope he finds some answers for you.”
In spite of her claim that talking about Steph was a good thing, the conversation seemed to tire Sophie. “I should get going,” Ella said a moment later.
Sophie didn’t argue with her. “I’m happy you stopped by today, Ella. Will you come again?”
After exchanging numbers, and hugs, and promising to see each other again, Ella headed out the door.