The two letters arrived the same day.
I expected the first: my official termination letter from Cabal Industries. Having it in my hands, smoothing the creases, and looking at the stark black print—Bookman Old Style font—on twenty-five pound cotton-bond paper, Robert’s favorite for official business, made my heart thud. The company had been sold, and my lab—with all my data and backups—had been immolated in a fire. The conflagration and the expense of rebuilding my research program during a difficult merger was the ostensible reason for my being fired, and no, I wouldn’t forgive the pun. The company’s symbol, the black silhouette of a wolf howling against a full yellow moon, cried out for me. “Unfair! Unfair!”
The second letter held more promise. This one came on plain computer paper with a name on top in block letters: Lawrence Galbraith, Attorney-At-Law. Two hours later, I stood in front of a two-story yellow brick building off Markham Street, just west of downtown Little Rock. A sign in the second-floor window read, “For Rent: Commercial Space”. Mr. Galbraith didn’t have a secretary, but a bell rang when I opened the door. After five minutes, I wasn’t so sure he’d heard me and began the internal argument of whether I should knock on the heavy oak door that separated the sparse waiting room from what I imagined to be the plush inner sanctum. I made up my mind and walked to the door, but when I raised my fist, I heard a male voice from inside.
“That’s bullshit, Galbraith!”
“Mr. Bowman, please keep your voice down.” This second one I recognized from the telephone. I had spoken with him earlier. “Doctor Fisher is in the waiting room.”
“I don’t give a damn about Doctor Fisher.” He sneered my name. “Look, that land is ours by right, and I don’t care if the old man never changed his will. And to bring that overgrown—”
“How Mr. Landover felt about you during his life is irrelevant if it is not on paper.” Galbraith spoke over him. “I’m sorry, Leonard. You and the others may have to find other grounds for your sport.”
Leonard’s next statement came out as a cross between a hiss and a whine. “It’s not sport, Lawrence, and you know it. You’re the only one who can help us.”
“There’s nothing I can do.”
I jumped back from the door just before this Leonard person burst through it like a ball of energy—dark energy. With his olive skin, dark wavy hair, and brooding black eyes, he would earn a second look from most women. I barely got a first one as he snarled at me and stalked out of the office. The bell on the door jangled with the force of his exit.
“Doctor Fisher, I hope Mr. Bowman didn’t disturb you.” Lawrence Galbraith looked down his aquiline nose at me and pursed his thin lips. With his mane of gray hair and simple black suit with a long jacket over a white shirt, no tie, he could have stepped out of a mid-twentieth-century movie about an undertaker.
“He certainly seemed upset about something.” I wanted him to say more about what this brooding young man wanted with my grandfather’s estate, but he evaded the implied question.
“Most of my clients are, Doctor Fisher. If they’re not disturbed about something, they’re dead. Otherwise they wouldn’t need a lawyer.” He held out a chair and scooted it under me as I sat.
“I understand. Now about my grandfather’s estate?”
I expected him to do the lawyer thing and pull out a file bursting with paper and tell me to look through it and see if I had any questions. Instead, he sat back and steepled his fingers.
“I knew your grandfather quite well, Doctor Fisher. He was very proud of Wolfsbane Manor.” He studied me through narrowed eyes. “You visited there quite often as a child, yes?”
“I spent my summers there.”
“And your twin brother?”
“It was after my brother died. Andrew never knew my grandfather. It wasn’t until my parents started fighting that my mother had the guts to visit him again. Apparently he and my father didn’t get along.”
“He spoke to me about the rift, how it broke his heart to lose his only daughter. He told me you were a lot like your mother.”
When I thought about my mother, I remembered the gentle hands that so quickly turned hard when she slapped me. I hadn’t spoken to her since I had gotten my first assistantship in graduate school and no longer needed her financial support.
“I don’t think so.”
“How much do you know about your grandfather’s estate?”
“I know it’s up in the mountains and used to be really far away from everything. It took forever to drive there on winding mountain roads. There’s a stream that bubbles up from underground near the top of the hill where the house is, and it goes to a river.”
I thought back and tried to untangle murky threads of childhood memory. “The house is huge, old-fashioned, with a ballroom and a mural on the ceiling. I don’t know what my grandfather did to earn his money, but he seemed to have a lot of it and was careful spending it.”
“He was immensely careful. Consequently, his estate, with house and property and all, is worth five hundred million dollars.” He ignored my astonishment and continued, “I told him he had plenty to share between you and your mother, but he insisted the bulk of it go to you. Something about your research.”
“He didn’t even know what I did.”
“Ah, but he followed your career quite closely.”
“He did? He always seemed so remote, especially after I stopped going up there when I was in high school.”
“Yes, he did. He was a researcher in his own right.”
“Is there anything in there for Mother?” Guilt welled up. It’s amazing how childhood training kicks in, like it was my fault he left everything to me.
“A small annuity to keep her comfortable until she passes on.” He waved my concern away with one hand. “It won’t dent your fortune at all.”
“What am I supposed to do with all that money?”
“Whatever you want. I think you will find enough up there in the hills to keep you busy.”
“What do you mean?”
“Have you ever heard of the Landover curse?”
“The what?” This was new. I remembered whispers about something wrong with Mother’s side of the family from early childhood—worried conversations outside the room where my brother and I slept in twin beds.
“If it pops up, you’ll know. It supposedly skips a generation.”
“What is ‘it’?”
“You probably have nothing to worry about, Doctor Fisher. I recommend you go and claim your property as soon as you can. I can help you with arrangements to break your lease and move your things from Memphis.”
“Okay. No, wait, what? I can’t just move.” My head was in a fog, still worried about the curse. What was the curse? Insanity? Some weird genetic disease? And underneath all his assurances, Galbraith seemed worried. A little line had appeared between his brows.
“…will arrange to have movers pack and ship your apartment’s contents to the Manor,” he was saying as he picked up the telephone.
“Whoa, wait a second here.” I held up my hands. “This is too much right now. I can’t just break my lease, pick up, and go.”
“I understand.” He reached across the table and patted my hand. “You need a little while to absorb all of this. But I assure you, it is imperative you move up there and take possession of the property.”
My eyes blurred with tears. “I don’t even know how my grandfather died.”
Galbraith rubbed his temples. “I was afraid you would ask.”
“Because I don’t know, either.”
When I arrived at Bistro, a little French place in West Little Rock, my head was still spinning. The key to Wolfsbane Manor was nestled in my purse between my cell phone and my wallet on a keychain that read in bright pink letters, “So NOT a morning person”. I had handed over the apartment keys to Galbraith, who assured me he would take care of everything and I could expect my belongings in a few days’ time. I’d tried to argue the hastiness of the move, but I may as well have been talking to the stone lions outside the manor’s door.
Lonna, my best friend, had arrived before me and sat in a booth along the wall. When she saw me, she waved with one of her long, tanned arms, which looked particularly dark in the white sleeveless top she wore.
“Somebody’s been to the tanning booth,” I teased as we hugged. I only came up to her shoulder, but I smelled the orange and coconut conditioner she used in her long, dark hair.
“It’s my guilty indulgence. I figure, with this job, it’ll be a miracle if skin cancer kills me first.” Even though she meant it as a joke, there was something serious in her topaz-colored eyes. A private-investigator-turned-social worker with the Department of Family and Child Services, she didn’t have an easy job to begin with.
I slid into the booth across from her and picked up a menu. “What’s going on over there?”
“Just the typical bureaucratic bullshit. Not all that interesting, so you go first. You said earlier you had big news.”
I opened my mouth to reply, but she interrupted me.
“Oh, and how’s Robert? You guys haven’t come over in a while.”
“We’re not together anymore.” It hurt to remember our little road trips from Memphis to recruit research participants from the Little Rock pediatricians’ offices.
“Did his wife find out?”
“Worse. I got fired, so no more excuses to see each other.”
“I got the letter today. I kept hoping there would be some sort of appeal or something, but no dice. I didn’t want to tell you until it became official.” The fact Robert hadn’t even stood up for me hurt the most.
“I wish I could understand you, Joanie. How could you not tell me?”
“You’re my best friend. You’re supposed to understand.”
She didn’t fall for the guilt trip. “So was that the big news?”
“No, I also found out today I inherited my grandfather’s estate, so I’ve got the dinner check.”
“Congratulations, but not so fast there, Fisher.” She gave me a stern look over the menu. “Let’s tackle one thing at a time. You got fired. Tell me more.”
“It was after the lab caught fire. They still don’t know what started it.” For a second I thought I could feel the heat and smell the smoke from the blaze. Sweat jumped to my forehead, and I had to take a sip of water. This was why I hadn’t spoken to her about it in detail before—the memory made me panic.
“I’m sorry, Joanie.” She reached across the table and put a hand on my arm. “You don’t really have to talk about it if you don’t want to.”
I smiled at her implied question. “But details are important? You’re such a private detective.”
She grinned. “How else are you going to figure out what, exactly happened?”
“Good point, although it’s not like it matters much now.” I took a deep breath. “One night about a month ago, I was compiling data, pediatric charts, in our statistical spreadsheet…” Just talking about it brought me back there. “I had been sitting on a stool checking to make sure the information in the files had converted into the correct columns in the spreadsheet when I heard my car alarm go off. I jumped down, really annoyed because I was on the cusp of running the first analysis, and my lab coat caught on the stool. Really caught. Like the corner of it had somehow gotten stuck in the middle joint where you adjust the height and then twisted in there. I turned to free it and was just giving it a last tug when the smoke alarm went off. When I opened the lab door, the hallway was in flames. I panicked. I shut the door and tried to go out the back way, but the door wouldn’t open. It was getting hotter and hotter, and I started coughing from the smoke. Finally I took the damn stool and threw it through a window, I don’t know how.”
“You’re a tough little thing.” Lonna rested her chin on her hands. “Even if you don’t look it.”
Caught in the story, I had to keep going. “So I jumped through and got scraped up a little.” I rolled up the sleeve of my T-shirt and showed her my left shoulder, which had a long, thin, barely healed cut. “That one was the deepest. Fifteen stitches.”
She traced it with a cool finger. “Wow,” she murmured. “So you got out?”
“I thought that was it. I started heading to my car to shut off the damn alarm and get to a hospital, but then I heard something behind me.”
The waiter approached, and I jumped. “Oui, mademoiselles?” he asked with a raised eyebrow.
Lonna didn’t even look at him, just gave the order for our appetizer and wine. “Brie en croute, s’il vous plait, et deux Chardonnay.”
“Go on,” she told me.
We were getting into the realm of nightmares. “Honestly, I’m not sure whether to believe it myself.” I swallowed, my mouth suddenly dry. “I would rather not say here.”
“Oh? It’s not fair to keep me hanging, Joanie.”
“I’ll tell you later, at your place, I promise.”
The waiter brought our wine in tulip-shaped glasses—hers blue, mine red— with green stems.
“So anyway,” I said after taking a sip. “Hmm, a good Oaky California. You can tell every time. You’d think they’d have French here.”
“So?” she prompted.
“No lab equals no work. No work equals no job. And that’s it.”
“How can that be it? You were top in your field.”
“I don’t know. Maybe someone found out about me and Robert. Or maybe they blamed me for the fire, but I suspect it’s more about money. They just got bought, and mergers mean layoffs. But enough about that. What’s going on with your work?”
Lonna sighed. “There’s been this string of kids disappearing in this little community in the Ozarks north of Mountain View. I’ve got to go up there tomorrow and talk with the local social worker. As hard as I’ve tried to get out of the private-eye business, you’d think they’d leave me alone.”
“Oh, gads, that’s rough.” Hearing about stuff like that made my stomach twist. It reminded me too much of Andrew.
“Sorry, I know you don’t like to hear about the kids.”
“I just don’t know how you do what you do, that’s all. What’s this little place called?”
I set my glass down a little too hard, and the wine spilled.
“What’s with you?” Lonna arched an eyebrow.
“Wolfsbane Manor, my grandfather’s estate, is up there. Crystal Pines—it used to be called Piney Mountain—is at the base of the hill, the manor at the top.”
“That’s really odd.” She swirled the wine around in her glass. “From the files I’ve gotten from the case worker who lives up near there, the locals—y’know, the ones who were there first before the yuppies moved in—are associating the ‘old gentleman’s house’ with the kids going missing.”
A shiver climbed up my spine. “How?”
“That’s the weird part. No human footprints or anything. The kids just…disappear. When they call the forensics guys out, it’s usually too late to get anything because they always disappear outside.”
“No ‘human’ footprints? What about animals?”
“There aren’t any big enough to take a child, so I don’t think they’re looking.”
“Wolves? Coyotes? Bears? My parents always warned me to watch out for them.”
“The only wolves in Arkansas are red wolves, which are too small to snatch preadolescents. And if it was something like that, they would at least find…” She cocked her head trying to find a nice way to put it. “Remains.”
“Point taken. It must be a boring summer for them. No hiking, fishing, swimming…”
“It is for the locals’ kids. They’re the only ones being abducted. If your dad drives a Beamer, Mercedes, Lexus or Volvo…”
“You’re safe?” I found that hard to believe. “So it can’t be wild animals then. They’re not that discriminating. What do you have to do tomorrow?”
“The case worker, a guy named Matt, wanted me to come and check things out for myself. He’s worried the board isn’t going to believe him and wanted an outside opinion.”
“Is he single?” Lonna, like myself, had the most rotten luck in love.
“No such luck. Happily married for thirty-four years.”
The waiter arrived again, so we ordered our main courses, Coq au Vin for me and Moules et Frites for her. I didn’t realize until the waiter set the food down and the aroma of red wine, spices, and hot, crusty French bread rose to my nostrils how hungry I was. The food also gave me the opportunity to ignore Lonna’s question, so she had to repeat it.
“Earth to Joanie,” she called and poked me in the arm with a mussel shell. “What happened with Robert?”
“You would ask.”
“Of course. Things seemed to be going so well.”
“Right. As well as they could be with a married man.”
“I thought he was separated?”
“Is he still?”
“No.” I tore off a little piece of bread and stirred it in the thick maroon sauce. “I think when Cabal got bought, he decided he’d better make nice with the wife in case he lost his job and needed her to support him.”
“How did he tell you?”
“Gads, you’re merciless tonight, woman.”
“It’s my job.” She winked. “That’s what my boyfriends like to tell me.”
“Well, he called me into his office.” Images flashed into my mind of the long walk down the sterile white hallways. “My shoulder was still in a sling so I wouldn’t move it and open the wound. That arm was hidden under my spare lab coat. He didn’t see it at first. When he did, he didn’t react like he normally would have. You know, by jumping up and coming over to take care of me. A look crossed his face… How to describe it? Pain? Regret for having to kick me while I was down? I don’t know.”
“This was after you’d heard your job was no longer there?”
“You can say fired.” I took a sip of my wine. “It’s the reality of it. I was packing up my office when he called.”
“Did you know what was coming?”
“I could hear it in his voice. He asked me to sit down, and he got up and closed the door. I noticed he was limping a little.”
“Serves him right.”
“No kidding. So then he told me since we didn’t have any excuse to see each other on a daily basis, he didn’t know if he could deal with that level of deception.” I felt the all-too-familiar pressure of tears and my vision blurred. “He said he respected me too much to start using cheap motels and made-up business trips.”
Lonna rolled her eyes. “Yet he didn’t mind the chair in his office.”
I smiled a little, and a tear rolled down my cheek into the corner of my mouth. Its warm track turned cold after a second. “So no more boyfriend. That’s what I get for seeing a married man.”
“You just had, what is it called? Where the mentee falls for the mentor.”
We both took a sip of our wine, and I wiped my eyes with the napkin.
“Garcon.” Lonna signaled our waiter. “This woman needs chocolate mousse.”
I looked down at my half-eaten Coq au Vin. “But what about this?”
“Take it with you.” Lonna swirled the little bit of wine left in her glass. “You can put it in the fridge and have it for lunch.”
That’s one of the things I liked about Lonna. She made up any excuse for dessert. It’s amazing she kept her model-like figure.
The chocolate mousse came, and we talked about other things over coffee and dessert. Before we knew it, it was nine o’clock, and Lonna raced back to her apartment with me in tow so we could get up early to drive to Crystal Pines in time for her ten o’clock meeting with Matt.
It bothered me a little I hadn’t told her the rest of my story. Later, it bothered me a lot. I don’t know if it might have saved her—and our friendship—but maybe she would have been more careful. Or maybe I would have.
Cecilia Dominic wrote her first story when she was two years old and has always had a much more interesting life inside her head than outside of it. She became a clinical psychologist because she’s
fascinated by people and their stories, but she couldn’t stop writing fiction. The first draft of her dissertation, while not fiction, was still criticized by her major professor for being written in too entertaining a style. She made it through graduate school and got her PhD, started her own practice, and by day, she helps people cure their insomnia without using medication. By night, she blogs about wine and writes fiction she hopes will keep her readers turning the pages all night. Yes, she recognizes the conflict of interest between her two careers, so she writes and blogs under a pen name. She lives in Atlanta, Georgia with one husband and two cats, which, she’s been told, is a good number of each.
You can find her at:
Web page: www.ceciliadominic.com
Wine blog: www.randomoenophile.com
To buy her books, you can get them in all ebook formats from Samhain Publishing:http://store.samhainpublishing.com/mountains-shadow-p-73020.html
It’s also available from Apple, Sony, and anywhere else ebooks are sold.