J. M. Davis
Copyright © 2017 by J. M. Davis
Cover Design by Madison Designs
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This book is a work of fiction. The names, characters, places and incidents are products of the writer’s imagination. Any resemblance to persons, living or dead, is coincidental.
Other titles by J. M. Davis
Tough As They Come
A Woman To Die For
Murder And Mayham
The Ghost of Leonard Korn
No Tears For Jack
The Durley Incident
To my wonderful wife, our two amazing children, and our grandchildren.
Robert Alrick removed the last file from the back of the lower left drawer and read the label before opening it. The file appeared to contain research material used to write a story about an unidentified young man found dead in the city park. On top of a stack of black and white photographs were pages of his great-grandfather Edward’s handwritten notes used to write the newspaper article published in 1911. He thumbed through the pages of notes. A reference to the hidden gold had been underlined in pencil. ? He placed the notes back on top of the photos and closed the file.
Instead of tossing this folder into the wastebasket, he placed it inside the center file drawer in the desk and locked it. The contents of the file would be a surprise for the next proud owner of the desk. Maybe the next person who read the contents could unravel the mystery that had brought so many people from around the world, over the past 68 years, to search for hidden gold in a small southern town. Previously known only for its large architecturally appealing hotel and European-styled train station, the mysterious death had placed the town of Horby on the world map.
After sitting for more than an hour cleaning out the desk, he stood and stretched. The wooden floor of the antiquated newspaper office squeaked when he moved toward the half wall that separated the front office space from the printing presses in the back portion of the building. He knew he was taking his final look at the machines that had been used to print The River County News each week since the early 1900s. On the other side of the half wall to his left was a floor-mounted paper cutting machine. Next, lined up in a row beside it were a linotype machine, a large cylindrical press that had been installed in 1903, and a newspaper folding machine. On the other side of the room were four platen presses used to print business cards and letter-sized documents. The most modern piece of equipment in the building was a Heidelberg platen press, which at one time had been the fastest of its kind in the world. But now, even it was out of date and only worth its weight in scrap steel. Everything in the building, all remnants of an era long past, including drawers full of hand-set type, had been sold for scrap value and was scheduled to be hauled away by the end of the week. He turned toward the large glass window that faced Main Street, a narrow two-lane paved road that once bustled with activity. The clothing store and pharmacy across the street were closed long ago and boarded up like every other store along the street.
Horby, founded by Almund Nils in 1873, had prospered, until a new four-lane highway bypassed it in 1968. The resulting lack of traffic took its toll, and the town’s decline came about more rapidly than anyone anticipated. Businesses no longer contributed advertising revenue, but his father continued to print the weekly newspaper until a month before his death. Robert had promised his father he would publish the final edition of The River County News: eight pages filled with local news and his father’s obituary, pre-written by his father two days after being told his condition was terminal. Now that he had fulfilled that promise, the machines would forever remain silent.
The building had never been air-conditioned. The open front door offered little ventilation for the office when the air was still and the outdoor temperatures approached the high nineties. He recalled the sweltering heat every summer while visiting the office as a child. He always wondered why an air conditioner had never been installed. With his final tasks complete, Robert wiped sweat from his forehead as the sound of footsteps on the sidewalk caught his attention, a rare sound without much to attract people to the town center anymore.
A young woman stepped through the open doorway.
“Excuse me,” she said. “Are you Mr. Alrick?”
“Yes ma’am, I am.”
The woman stepped closer to him and held out her hand.
“I’m Rebecca Griffith. Thank you for replying to my inquiry.”
He had no idea what she was talking about, but shook her hand when she extended it.
When he released her hand, she reached into her purse, removed a letter, and handed it to him.
He unfolded it and read it.
“This letter was written by my father. I am Robert Alrick, Junior.”
“I need to speak to your father. Is he here?”
“He passed away two weeks ago.”
“I’m so sorry. I did not know.”
“Thank you.” He glanced back at the letter. “What kind of help did my father offer you?”
“I had written him requesting information. I understand he kept copies of the newspapers dating back to the turn of the century.”
“The archives go back to 1883. Which issues are you interested in seeing?”
“The year 1911. Beginning in the month of—”
“May?” he said, interrupting her. Apparently, the people searching for a missing distant relative were still coming to town. In years past, the visitors, for the most part, had been much older; however, this well-dressed petite woman with eyeglasses and shoulder-length blonde hair couldn’t have been over thirty.
“How did you know which month?” she asked.
“You’re not the first person to come here looking for a lost relative…or are you looking for the gold?” He didn’t wait for her to answer. “Either way, I’ll save you a lot of time, Mrs. Griffith.”
“It’s Miss Griffith, but you may call me Rebecca.”
“This entire county has been dug up and scavenged by people looking for the gold the young man supposedly hid before his death.”
“I don’t care about any hidden gold.”
That had rarely turned out to be the case. A few may have come in search of a long-lost relative, but the vast majority of visitors came in hopes of finding the hidden loot. He hesitated for several seconds before deciding whether to enlighten her or merely play the game and give her the documents she wanted. Enlightenment rarely worked, but the young woman might have better things to do than waste her days in a withering ghost town that held nothing more than memories of the past.
“Rebecca, in the previous sixty-eight years, over five hundred people from all over the world have come to this town determined to find their lost relative. None of them have succeeded. If he was a distant relative of yours, my guess is only God will ever know for sure.”
Her smile faded into a frown. The expression of sadness in her eyes made him wish he had not been so harsh.
“I have travelled all the way from Malmo, Sweden. Surely, Mr. Alrick, you can show at least a small bit of courtesy.”
Chastened, he nodded and walked toward a tall, black safe located to the left of the roll-top desk. The oldest issues of The River County News had been bound in hardcover books to preserve them. Each one represented a year of the newspaper’s publication, fifty-two editions. The safe hadn’t been locked in over twenty years; its sole purpose was for storage of the archived newspapers in the only place a fire wouldn’t destroy them. He reached inside the safe and removed the book containing copies of the editions printed in 1911. He opened it to the first May issue and placed the book on top of the desk.
He pulled the chair back for her. “You may sit here, if you’d like. I’m going down the street to the hotel to have lunch. When you have finished, please leave the book on the desk and close the door behind you.”
He moved toward the doorway expecting never to see the woman again.
“Obviously, you are familiar with the story.”
He stopped short of the doorway and turned around.
“My great-grandfather wrote the newspaper article. Yes, I am familiar with the story.”
Rebecca glanced at her watch. “I do not want to delay your lunch any further. Would it be possible to speak with you later today, after you have had your meal?”
“Have you eaten lunch?” he asked her.
Her smile returned. “No, I’ve been driving all morning. The closest airport is a three hour drive from here.”
“The hotel is the only place in town that still serves food to the public. If you like fried chicken and mashed potatoes, you’re welcome to join me for lunch.”
“Excellent, I would love to join you.” She stepped toward him.
He grabbed the door and stood back to allow her to proceed ahead of him. “I forgot to mention ice cold sweet tea.”
“I’m more familiar with hot tea.”
He closed the door behind him and joined her on the sidewalk. “The restaurant is a short walk down the street.”
“Yes, I know. I noticed the sign as I drove into town. It is one of the few establishments which appears to still be active.”
Two story buildings stacked side-by-side lined the sidewalks on both sides of the narrow street. Rusted steel railings surrounded neglected balconies that once provided an outdoor seating area for the original shop owners who lived above their shops. The darkness behind the windows, and the cobwebs clinging to the door frames made it obvious the stores of Horby had been closed for years.
“Why are all of the businesses along this street closed?” she asked, walking beside him.
“The interstate highway system bypassed this town years ago.”
“It must have been sad to watch the businesses decline.”
“See that old storefront window?” He pointed toward a boarded up building across the street. It had a balcony extending from the second floor that had offered protection from the elements to shoppers entering the store.
“Charles W. Hickerson, Attorney at Law,” Rebecca said, reading aloud the words painted on the large single pane window.
“Before it became a law office, it was my great-grandfather’s music store. He and four other men founded Horby in 1873. When Almund Nils died in 1911, he owned four buildings on Main Street, but I was told his passion was the music store.”
“Did he start the newspaper, too?”
“No, Edward J. Alrick, my other great-grandfather, on my father’s side, started it in 1883.”
“Is that why you’ve stayed here in this small town?”
He glanced at her.
“No offense intended, Mr. Alrick.”
“Please call me Robert. I’m on a leave of absence from my job with The Atlanta Journal. I returned only recently to Horby to care for my ailing father and close his weekly newspaper office.”
He and Rebecca crossed First Street, the railroad tracks, and the old highway that had brought people to Horby in years past. After crossing the street, and climbing several steps, he reached for the door handle to the large French style doors of the Larrance Hotel.
He pulled the door open. “Seventy years ago, this hotel was considered the palace of Horby.” He chuckled. “In a way, it still is.”
“I have visited a few palaces in Europe.” Rebecca smiled. “None of them served iced tea.”
He smiled back at her and held the door open.
Once inside, he led her to the dining room and pointed toward a table in the corner near a front window with a view of the old train station, which had been used as a museum until it too was boarded up.
“That one by the window is mine.”
“You have your own table?” Rebecca moved toward one of the four chairs.
He nodded and pulled it out for her and helped her get seated. “Everyone has their own table now. This palace hasn’t had a packed house in over thirty years.”
He glanced up when a woman approached them.
“Well, Robert. I see you brought me a new customer.”
“Sharlett, Rebecca. Rebecca, Sharlett.” He turned to Rebecca. “Sharlett runs this place.”
The two women exchanged pleasantries.
Sharlett gazed at Rebecca. “We’re serving our chicken special today.”
“May I have a salad?” Rebecca asked.
“That comes with the chicken special,” Sharlett replied.
Rebecca smiled at Sharlett. “Sounds delightful, but I’d prefer just a salad, please.”
“Okay, so I have one chicken special and one chicken special without the chicken and mashed potatoes. I’ll bring your tea right out.”
“And, Sharlett, would you please make some hot tea for the lady?”
Sharlett threw her hands on her hips. “Well ain’t you the gentlemen. Hot tea for the lady.” She winked at Robert, before walking away.
He turned his attention back to Rebecca. “Did you really come all the way from Malmo to read a stack of old newspapers?”
“I came here to verify the dead man’s identity.”
He leaned back in his chair. “Okay, so who do you think the man was?”
After unfolding her cloth napkin and placing it across her legs, she looked up and said, “When I was a young girl, my grandmother Katherine told me a story that her mother, Elizabeth Mansson, had passed on to her. A young violin maker, upon hearing in town that Elizabeth Mansson was English, brought his eight-year-old son, Andrew, to the farm where Elizabeth and her well-to-do Swedish husband, Anders, lived.”
Robert had heard several versions of the dead man’s possible origin, all elaborately concocted by people hoping to set a claim on the gold, if it were ever to be found. The stories all had one thing in common, a European origin. Although skeptical, the details of her story held his interest.
Rebecca continued, “The boy’s mother, also an English woman, had died in her sleep. Her heart had apparently simply stopped beating. The father, who had planned to embark on a difficult ocean voyage, knew the long trip would be too perilous for his son. After hearing the man’s story, Elizabeth Mansson promised to look after Andrew until his father returned from his travels. In an act of good faith, the man left Elizabeth three gold coins the boy’s mother had given him, his pocket watch, and a violin he had made for the boy. The violin maker asked her to hold those items in trust, until he returned with full payment for the lad’s care. My great-grandmother reluctantly accepted the items, after the man agreed to return for his son within one year. However, after a few months, letters from the boy’s father stopped coming. A year went by, then more years without any word. The boy’s father was never heard from again.”
While listening to her story, Robert studied the young woman. She appeared to be well-educated and too intelligent to believe she could find a lost violin maker in a stack of old newspapers.
“You believe the man found here in 1911 was the boy’s father?”
She looked around the dining room, before making eye contact with him again.
“No. I believe he was the violin maker’s son.”
Although her story sounded intriguing, her mentioning the coins reinforced his skepticism. The elaborate stories people concocted always weaved in three gold coins, the one and only similarity among hundreds of versions of the dead man’s possible origin. That way, if by some miracle the gold were ever found, they could attempt to claim ownership.
“I see,” he said, trying not to sound cynical.
She pushed her chair back. “I’d like to freshen up a bit.”
He pointed and stood when she did. While she made her way down the hallway that led to the restrooms, he realized Rebecca was probably no different than the others. Earlier she had mentioned she was here to identify the deceased man and did not care about the gold. If her focus turned back to those coins, he would know she too came to town in hopes of finding the rest of the loot.
Sharlett brought a glass of iced tea and a pot of hot water and placed them on the table. She returned moments later with a cup and saucer, pulled two tea bags out of her apron pocket, and placed them on the saucer.
“I’ll be right out with your food.”
He looked at the colorful red and yellow flower design on the cup, quite different from the plain white coffee mugs she normally served.
“Thank you for the flowers, Sharlett.”
“You’re mighty welcome, hon.”
When Rebecca returned to the table, he stood and helped her with her chair again.
“Thank you. This place must have been luxurious in its day, but how did a town this small justify such a large hotel?”
“Beginning in 1906, passenger trains stopped in the town each afternoon at three o’clock. Later, when trains no longer brought them, people came by buses and automobiles on that highway we crossed. The street out front became a major east-west corridor for this part of the country. Thousands of people passed through this town every week. Many of those traveling through stopped, bought gasoline, shopped in a variety of stores, and dined in the cafes and restaurants. When the interstate bypassed this town, the visitors bypassed it as well. This is the last hotel and restaurant remaining.”
“I guess this is where I’ll be staying tonight.”
He started to tell her about the old men, but Sharlett walked up with their food and placed it on the table. She glanced at Rebecca.
Rebecca smiled. “Thank you. This salad looks wonderful.”
“If you need anything else, hon, you just holler.” Sharlett walked toward a table of old men staring at Rebecca. “Y’all need anything besides a pair of binoculars?”
Upon hearing Sharlett’s comment, Robert glanced over Rebecca’s shoulder. The only people who stayed at the Larrance Hotel lived there; old men with nowhere else to go. Each one lived in one of the hotel rooms where the ceilings were twelve feet high, and the claw-foot tubs were large enough for even the tallest man to lie down. The monthly rate included three meals a day. The hotel survived through the old men’s social security checks and what little the restaurant brought in from a handful of locals who ate there.
After sampling her salad, which covered the whole plate, Rebecca looked up.
“This is excellent.”
“Sharlett aims to please.” Knowing she was not here for Sharlett’s chicken or an overnight stay in an old hotel, Robert decided to return to the important conversation. “How did you learn of the newspaper story?”
“About a year ago, while I was dining with a group in London, an elderly man told about traveling to this town back in the year 1925 in hopes of finding out what happened to his older brother who had traveled to America fifteen years earlier. He told us his trip had been in vain, since the boy who died in 1911 appeared to smaller in statue than his brother had been. After listening to his tale, I recalled the story my grandmother told about her mother raising the violin maker’s son.”
The gold seekers always came up with an answer as to how they stumbled across a story that was published in an obscure newspaper that had a circulation of less than twelve hundred people in 1911.
“Please tell me more about this Andrew.” He took a sip from his glass of tea. His question caused her to smile, possibly pleased he appeared interested in learning more.
“Of course, I’m happy to go into as much detail as possible. When Andrew reached the age of nineteen years, he convinced my great-grandmother to allow him to travel to America with his violin teacher to search for his father. Reluctantly, after Andrew’s violin teacher promised to look after the boy, she agreed to let Andrew go. He arrived safely in America. We know that from his letters. However, after a few months my great-grandmother stopped receiving letters from Andrew. She knew something was wrong. As the months passed without further contact, she became heartbroken and feared something terrible had happened to the boy she had raised as her own son. Elizabeth and Anders Mansson went to their graves wondering what had happened to their sweet Andrew.”
“I later told my mother about the elderly man’s story. I also shared with her that I thought the man could, in fact, be Andrew. She and I searched though my great-grandmother’s personal documents. Once I read the letters and the account in her diary, I wrote a letter to your father. He replied to it and offered his help.”
“Based on what you found in your great-grandmother’s documents, you believe you can verify the young man who died here in 1911 was the Swedish man’s son?”
“Yes, I believe so, or I would not have traveled so far.”
There was nothing lacking in her confidence, but he had several more questions.
“What would have brought him to this small town?”
“Obviously, the young man was searching for his father.”
“Over the years, my great-grandfather, my grandfather, my father, and I have heard many interesting stories like yours. And like you, all of the people telling those stories have been certain they knew the dead man’s identity. Unfortunately, none of them have ever been able to provide conclusive proof the young man found dead in Horby was the same person referred to in their stories.”
She placed her fork on the plate and leaned back. “I can understand your reluctance to accept my story as fact, based on the history of so many failed attempts to identify the man.”
Had he been too harsh again?
“Oh, I don’t doubt your story is true, but unless you have some way of proving it, the young man’s identity will remain in doubt to everyone except you.”
“I’m hoping you will help me.”
He gazed at her. “I’m not sure what more I can do.”
She picked up her fork and nibbled at her salad, but not for long. “Would you mind answering some questions while we finish our lunch?”
He was beginning to enjoy the distraction from the rough weeks of taking care of his father and then settling the estate. He decided to indulge Rebecca in her search. What could it hurt? Answering her questions was the least he could do for a woman who had traveled halfway around the world. He smiled and laid his fork down.
“I’m at your service; ask me anything you like.”
Without hesitation, Rebecca said, “How did the young man die?”
“The cause of death was never determined. According to the county coroner’s report, there were no injuries, nor bruising on the body. It appeared the young man sat on the ground, leaned his back against a tree, and died. Prior to his death, he had apparently been playing a violin in the early hours of the morning. People living near the park reported being awakened by music.” He retrieved his fork from the plate and stabbed a piece of chicken.
“How old was he?”
“The coroner estimated him to be between eighteen and twenty years of age.”
“Why didn’t they do an autopsy?”
“The cause of death was assumed to be from natural causes. Back in 1911, unless a crime was evident, doctors were reluctant to cut up the deceased.”
“Was he carrying a pocket watch when they found him?
“No, but a watch chain was tied to his pants pocket.”
“What else was found on his person?”
“A pencil, a few pieces of paper, and what appeared to be an unfinished note.” He paused and gazed at her, looking for a reaction. If she asked about the gold again, then his earlier suspicions about her true interest might prove to be correct.
Rebecca placed her hands together beneath the table. “Tell me about the gold.”
Her true goal appeared to be no different than the others. It was really about the gold. “Although no currency of any kind was found on his person, three gold coins were later found in the music store window display.”
She knitted her brow and picked up her cup and took a sip of her tea.
“That seems rather odd. How did the coins end up in the music store display?”
“The young man placed them there.”
She lowered the cup and gently placed it back onto its matching saucer, which made a slight clinking sound. “Whom did he speak to at the music store?”
He noticed how gracefully she handled her cup, her movements slow and precise.
“The boy was never actually seen at the music store. A man who worked at the station did remember him getting off the afternoon southbound train and asking directions to the music store. He recalled that the boy immediately departed the train depot. That was the day before his body was found in the park.”
“If no one saw him at the store, why were the coins attributed to him?”
“No one was tending the store that day. My great-grandfather had died of a heart attack one day earlier. There was a bereavement notice on the door of his store. The theory was the young man got off the train, made his way to the music store, but found no one there. Although the store was closed, he must have tried the door, and found it to be unlocked. There was no indication of forced entry.”
“Did your great-grandfather have a habit of leaving his store unlocked?”
“Probably not every day, but people were more trusting in those days.”
“How could people be certain the gold coins were left there by the young man?”
“Due to my great-grandfather’s declining health, he stopped replacing his inventory of musical instruments. He had placed a violin in the music store window with a hand-written sign in front of it that read THE LAST VIOLIN. The gold coins were found behind that sign where the violin had originally been placed. Also, the violin found next to the young man’s body was later identified as being the one that had been displayed in the music store window.”
Rebecca’s eyes widened with excitement. “It’s him!”
“There were exactly three gold coins, no less and no more, right?”
“That’s right. The remaining coins have never been found.”
Squinting her eyes, she frowned. “Remaining coins?”
“From the collection.” he replied. “The coins found were assumed to be part of a gold coin collection reported stolen in Belmont, where the young man had purchased his train ticket to Horby.”
She shook her head, clearly upset by something he had said. “Your father wrote that there were only three gold coins. He did not mention anything in his letter about them coming from a collection.”
He recalled reading the letter she had handed him earlier. “He may not have mentioned it for one simple reason: gold coins minted at the same time in the same year all look alike. The collector, apparently an honest man, had examined all three of the coins with a magnifying glass within days after they had been found. He told the authorities he could not confirm with absolute certainty they had been part of his collection. When the collector was unable to confirm the coins were from his collection, people assumed if they could prove a relationship to the dead man, they would have a legitimate claim to the gold if any of it were ever found.”
She sat back in her chair and placed the tip of one finger to her lips as if in deep thought. “Were any other coins from the man’s collection ever recovered in Horby, or anywhere else for that matter?”
“Not to my knowledge. Had they been, I doubt people would have continued to come here in search of them.”
She nodded. “Good, if the other coins from the man’s collection had been found in Horby, that might have confirmed the boy had indeed stolen them, or at the very least he had come to town with more than three coins. Which would mean the dead man was probably not Andrew, because Andrew was not a thief, and he only had three coins in his possession. Since no other coins were found, I will continue to assume I am right about the identity.”
Deep down inside, for some reason, he wanted Rebecca to be the one who solved the decades-old mystery, but his family had witnessed all previous attempts to solve the mystery play out unsuccessfully. Everyone appeared to be sure, without any doubt whatsoever, that they had found their long-lost relative. But in the end, it all boiled down to speculation, because none of those searching for the truth had any documents or other physical proof to substantiate their stories.
She held out her left hand, opened it, and then touched each finger and folded it closed with the index finger of her other hand as she went through her clues.
“The age is right, three gold coins, a violin – but not his –, and a watch chain only. Everything appears to fit, but there are still some remaining pieces of evidence needed to confirm his identity beyond any doubt.” She said it as if talking to herself, not him. She lowered her hands and placed them under the table.
It appeared he had been wrong about his assumption she was after the gold, but he was correct about the other. She, like all those who had come before her, had a theory, but lacked enough evidence to confirm it.
“Hundreds of people have failed so far, but I’m sure you’ll find your evidence.”
She stared at him. “You are still not taking me seriously, are you?”
He should try to sound a little less sarcastic, but he felt compelled to tell her it may all end with her being the only one convinced of her theory.
“Those who have come here, before you, were all serious, or at least they claimed to be. Rebecca, a lot of people have researched this story for years trying to fill in the blanks. Do you really expect me to believe that you can actually prove beyond any doubt the mystery man’s identity?”
She leaned back away from him, but gave no indication of being deterred.
“Maybe not now, but I plan to prove to you I am right.”
He shook his head and held his hand up. “Look, you don’t have to prove anything to me. The young man can be anyone you want him to be. My skepticism is not meant as ridicule, but I would hate for you to waste your time in this town trying to prove something that appears from everything I know to be a lost cause.”
She leaned forward again and stared at him, as if she were daring him to play the game, her way, with her rules. “I have a few more questions, if you would be kind enough to indulge me?”
“You are not one to give up easily, are you?”
Appearing to ignore his question, she asked her next question. “Do you know who made the violin?”
“It was given to my great-grandfather to pay off a debt of gratitude. The person who made the violin is buried in the family plot in the cemetery on the outskirts of town.”
She bit her lip as if in deep thought. A few moments later, she posed her next question. “If that violin had been made by the boy’s father, would you agree that would be a piece of evidence in my favor?”
For the first time, one of her questions made her theory far more interesting to him than any of the others he had heard. Her speculation and subsequent answer might provide clues to the identity of another mystery man in the town’s past.
“Rebecca, my great-grandfather was from Sweden. The only other man from Sweden to set foot in Horby prior to 1911 was a man who had been severely beaten, robbed, and left for dead on the outskirts of town. Some speculated he may have been thrown from a train. A doctor was summoned, but the man was Swedish, and the doctor had trouble communicating with the injured man. The doctor had him brought into town and sent for my great-grandfather, in hopes the two of them could communicate. After the doctor did all he could for the man in his one-room clinic, my great-grandfather took the injured man into his home, providing him food and medical care, in hopes the Swedish man could recover from his injuries.”
She smiled and nodded her head slowly.
Realizing Rebecca may have actually hit upon a real possibility no one else had ever considered, he said, “I apologize for my sarcasm earlier. The man who made the violin was Swedish. When my great-grandfather took him into his home, the injured man told my great-grandfather to take his violin and sell it to pay his debt for the care my great-grandfather was providing him. Both the injured man and my great-grandfather assumed the man would recover from his injuries. Unfortunately, my great-grandfather woke up the following morning and found the man had died in his sleep, apparently from internal bleeding.”
“It’s him. Don’t you see? That would explain why the father’s letters stopped coming in 1900 and why he never returned for his son.”
Her elaborate theory had the ring of truth to it, but he found it difficult to believe she could actually prove it beyond a doubt.
“Okay, Rebecca, assuming the Swedish man who died here in 1900 was the boy’s father, where do we go from there?”
“Who has the original note found on the dead boy’s clothing?”
“I doubt it still exists,” Robert said. He glanced over her shoulder at the old men seated at the table next to them. One of the men appeared to be trying to listen in on their conversation, but he doubted the elderly man could actually hear anything softer than a car horn.
She was on the edge of her seat. “If it does, who would have it?”
“It was probably kept by the county coroner until he died. Then possibly the next coroner until his office was closed. I think all the old records were eventually shipped to the Lincoln County Coroner’s office a long time ago.”
“How far is Lincoln County from here?”
“It’s twenty miles. You’re not thinking—”
“I must see that note.” She reached down and grabbed her purse from the floor. “Will you take me there?”
He saw no need to drive to Lincoln County. “The words in the note were documented in the newspaper article. You can read them when we get back to the office.”
She shook her head. “You do not understand. The words are not enough. I must see the handwritten note, the actual paper it was written on.”
“If you want my help, you’ll have to tell me why.”
“I want to compare it to other notes written by Andrew.”
“Unless you’re a handwriting expert or able to determine an exact match in paper stock, you’re wasting your time.”
She removed her napkin from her lap and placed it on the table. “I shall be the judge of that.” Rebecca stood. “Let’s go. I can’t eat now.”
He looked down at his half-full plate of food. He and Rebecca had been too engrossed in conversation to eat much of their meals. He hoped Sharlett would not be offended they had not eaten all of their food.
Rebecca opened her purse.
He stood and put his hand out.
“Put your money away. Let’s go see Doctor Smith.”
“I would prefer to pay the check myself.” Rebecca removed a few bills from her purse. “It’s the least I can do.”
“She will not take your money. There is no check. I pay my tab by the month. Sharlett runs a slim operation and she doesn’t have time to hand out change, besides she can pad the bill that way.”
He and Rebecca hurried back to the street where his car was parked. Thirty minutes later, he pulled his car into a driveway in Lincoln County. Doctor Smith, a tall, thin man, had white hair and green eyes.
“Thank you for seeing us, Doctor Smith.” Robert pointed to his left. “This is Rebecca Griffith. Rebecca, meet Doctor Sam Smith, the coroner for Lincoln County. Miss Griffith has come all the way from Malmo, Sweden.”
“Nice to meet you, Miss Griffith.” Sam’s smile widened enough to show most of his sixty-nine-year-old teeth. He gazed at Rebecca. “What brings you all the way from Sweden to see me?”
She glanced at Robert.
He realized Rebecca wanted him to take the lead.
“Do you still have the records from the River County Coroner’s office that were transferred here after Doctor Cox’s death?”
“Lord, son, those files have been in storage for decades,” replied Doctor Smith. “What are you looking for specifically?”
“A note,” Robert said. “The one found on the body of the dead man who died in the park in 1911.”
Smith rubbed his chin and shook his head. “Those records date back to Doctor Jones’ term as coroner. Following Jones’ death, they would have been turned over to Henry Lee Cox who kept them until his death. But when Doctor Cox died, his son Lee made a mess out of Henry’s office and storage area, probably looking for money or anything of value. That was before I was appointed to take over responsibility for River County. Henry’s boy took everything in that file, including that note, if it was there. I suspect Lee was looking for the gold like all those other fools who came into town. It took me two weeks to put that office back in order.”
Rebecca glanced at Robert. Most of the sparkle had gone out of her eyes.
“Thank you for your time, Doctor Smith.” Robert said.
“Wait.” She gazed at Smith. “Do you know where we can find Lee?”
“Sure do,” Smith replied. “He’s in the cemetery. His car got hit by a freight train passing through town at two o’clock in the morning. Lee was a heavy drinker and may have been drunk at the time, but we’ll never know. His body was burned beyond recognition.”
The rest of her sparkle faded.
“We won’t keep you any longer,” Robert said.
“Goodbye, Robert. Goodbye, Miss Griffith. I’m sorry I couldn’t be of more help.”
“Thank you for your time, Doctor Smith,” Robert said before escorting Rebecca back to his car. The mid-afternoon sun along with a ninety-plus temperature had heated the interior. Hot air hit him when he opened the passenger car door for her.
Rebecca slipped into the passenger seat.
“Thank you.” From her tone, it was obvious she was disappointed. He also noticed that the heat had caused beads of sweat to form on her forehead.
He started the car and turned the air-conditioner on high before backing out of the driveway. Rebecca remained quiet during the ride back to Horby. Nothing more was said on the subject, until they entered the newspaper office.
Wondering if she had given up, he asked, “Do you still want to look at the newspaper articles?”
She glanced at the book still resting on top of the roll-top desk.
“Not now. Thank you for your help.”
Hours earlier the woman had been so sure of herself. Her loss of enthusiasm caused him to feel her sadness.
“Giving up?” he asked.
She stared out the window, apparently focusing on her rental car. “No, I’m going to get a room at the hotel. I traveled all day yesterday and this morning. I’d like to get some rest. May I come back in the morning and read them?”
“Sure.” He hesitated for a moment and then said, “You may stay at my dad’s house if you’d like. That hotel is not actually—”
“I appreciate your generous offer, but I’d rather not put you out any more than I have already.”
It was evident to him she was no longer excited about her prospects for success. His quest for the truth now appeared to exceed hers.
“I’m trying to save you some trouble. I’m offering you the top floor bedroom. After my father passed away, I temporarily moved into his downstairs master bedroom while in town to take care of his estate. I haven’t been upstairs this past week, but the cleaning lady has. It should be fine.”
“Thank you again for your kindness, but I’d rather stay at the hotel.”
How could he blame her? She had known him for less than three hours. For all she knew, he might be a serial killer. He sensed he might not see her again. He turned around and picked up the book containing the archived newspaper editions and a business card. He placed the card between two pages to mark the May editions dated 1911. “You may take this book with you. If you need anything, please call me.”
She stared at it. “Oh, I would not feel right taking this.”
The book had to go somewhere. He was closing the office at the end of the week. “It’s okay. Really, I want you to have this. No one else will be coming to this office in search of the boy’s identity, now that my father will not be here to help them.” Hopefully, she wouldn’t feel like the trip had been wasted. “As far as I’m concerned, you’ve solved the mystery.” He held the book out.
She took it. “Thank you. I’ll take good care of it.” She turned and walked through the doorway.
After she drove away, he turned his attention to the roll-top desk and the trash can full of discarded files. Who knows, maybe that young man was her Andrew.
An hour later, Robert was in the back of the building looking at the antiquated large single cylinder printing press that stood idle, and forever would until melted down in order to recycle the steel. From the time he was ten until he went off to college, he had helped his father put out hundreds of issues of The River County News.
The phone rang. He hurried back to the front office and picked it up. “Robert Alrick, Junior.”
“What kind of hotel rents rooms only by the month?” asked Rebecca, sounding frustrated.
“It’s an old folks’ home. I’ll call Sharlett and tell her to put your room on my account.”
“Money is not really the problem. There is no shower, but that is not the problem either; when I got out of the bathtub and walked back into my room, I found a man asleep on the bed in my room. I screamed and two elderly men came into my room to see why I was screaming. I ran back into the bathroom and stayed there. One of the men yelled through the bathroom door that they were taking Ben and leaving.”
“Sharlett should have told you about Old Ben. He gets mixed up sometimes. I seriously doubt he knew he was in the wrong room.”
“But how did he get into my room? I had the door locked?”
“All of the room keys are the same. Sharlett got tired of keeping up with different ones.”
“Is it too late to accept your offer of accommodations?”
“Come back to my office, and you can follow me to my dad’s house.”
“Thank you. I will pack up my things and be there in fifteen minutes.”
His father’s house was a large white, two story wood frame structure located on Main Street, five blocks down from The River County News office. It sat up high on a hill, two hundred feet from the street. A circular drive led up to the front entrance, but Robert veered off the circular drive and headed down the back driveway to the rear of the house. Rebecca followed him in her rental and parked it next to his.
He jumped out of his car and rushed over to help her. “I’ll get your bag.”
After retrieving her luggage from the trunk, he led Rebecca into the house and up a squeaking staircase, the wooden risers heavily worn and loosened from decades of footsteps on them.
“What a beautiful home,” Rebecca said following behind him.
When they both reached the top of the stairway, he turned right and opened the door to a guest bedroom on the left side of the hallway. While holding her bag, he motioned for her to enter before him. After following her into the room, he set her bag down near a small closet. The room had a full bed. A dresser with a large oval mirror and two night stands completed the room’s décor. The walls were covered with twenty-year-old wallpaper that had a small red and yellow flower print over a white background. He pulled the light yellow drapes back from two six-foot-tall windows on either side of the dresser. The windows overlooked twenty acres of fenced-in land behind the house. After settling her in, he stepped toward the doorway.
“Thank you.” On the other side of the room, Rebecca moved close to one of the windows and gazed out. “This is nice.”
He moved back over to the other window on his side of the dresser and glanced down at an old faded red barn—overtaken by weeds—sitting back away from the house. He then turned his attention to the perpendicular wing off to the south. At one time, it had been the live-in servants’ private quarters.
Rebecca turned to face him. “Did you grow up in this house?”
He nodded. “When I was young, we had horses, chickens, a large vegetable garden, and live-in servants. The maid’s husband maintained the outside of the house, the garden, and the livestock. After my mother died, the maid and gardener stayed on until their deaths. The gardener died when I was twenty, and his wife, the maid, died four years later. They’re both buried in the family plot. That seems to be a tradition in my family. Those we love, we like to keep close even after death. Times had changed considerably by then, and my father did not attempt to replace the last servants. Instead, he hired a woman to come in and clean the house once a week. He also hired a one-man landscape company to maintain the lawn and plants.”
“What happened to the animals?”
“The horses were sold two days after I left for college. I assume somebody ate the chickens. It was a long time ago.”
Rebecca grinned. “You are not that old. It could not have been that long ago. Thank you for offering to let me stay here.”
“You’re welcome.” Robert stepped away from the window. “Would six-thirty be all right with you for dinner?”
She met his gaze. “I don’t expect you to prepare a dinner for me.”
“I don’t cook dinner,” said Robert. “When I get tired of the hotel food, I drive over to Harper, sixteen miles to the west. Since we didn’t finish our lunch, I thought we might have dinner there this evening. If we don’t leave until a little after six, you could get at least two or maybe even three hours rest before then.”
Rebecca flushed from her neck up. “That sounds wonderful. I really am sorry about interrupting our lunch. That was terribly inconsiderate of me.”
He glanced at his watch. “If you don’t mind, I’ll leave you with the house. I’m going back to the office. There’s something I want to check on before dinner tonight. I’ll be back around five. We’ll meet in the sitting room downstairs at six.” He moved toward the doorway.
“Thank you for being so kind, and helping me.”
He stopped and turned to face her. “It’s my pleasure,” he said before closing the door behind him.
On his drive back to the office, he thought about the old files his father had kept in the roll-top desk. After he entered the office, he retrieved the file he had locked inside in the center drawer of the roll-top desk earlier that morning.
Pulling up a chair, he sat at the desk and opened the file folder. Finding several hand-written pages, he read each page, laying them aside one by one. They appeared to be eyewitness accounts used to write the story his great-grandfather later published in the weekly paper. When he finished reading the last page, he lifted it to place it face down on top of the other pages. Several old photographs were stacked underneath it. He studied each of the black and white photos carefully. A couple appeared to be out of focus. There were several photos of the dead man’s clothes. Each piece of clothing had been photographed individually. There was a photo of the violin found next to the corpse. One picture was a close-up of the gold coins found in the music store window. He did not know if they had been restaged or if the photo had been taken before they had been removed from the store window. There were several more photos. Someone even had the presence of mind to take a photo of the young man’s shoes and socks. There was one photo of the corpse, but it was taken from a distance to show the whole body. It was the photo that had been printed in the 1911 edition of the newspaper in hopes someone might come forward and identify the body. Unfortunately, the body had been buried before the film had been developed and the photographer realized the photo was out of focus. That photo proved to be little help to anyone.
Robert returned to the house, showered and changed clothes. He met Rebecca downstairs in the sitting room promptly at six. The twenty-five minute drive to Harper put them at the small Italian restaurant a little before seven o’clock.
A woman met them inside the doorway. “Hello, Robert. Your table is ready. Please follow me.” He had requested a table with some privacy.
“Thank you, Alice,” said Robert. He pulled a chair out for Rebecca.
“Thank you.” She took her seat. “How often do you come here?”
Sitting across from her he chuckled. “Whenever I get tired of Sharlett’s cooking.” He gazed at her. “I took the liberty of ordering some wine.”
Rebecca smiled, “That is quite nice of you.”
A waiter walked to their table. “Welcome to Tony’s. I’m Randel and I’ll be serving you tonight.” He handed menus to them, before glancing at Robert. “I’ll return with your wine.”
Moments later, the waiter returned. Robert approved of the bottle of wine; the waiter served it and left the table.
Looking at her glass of wine, he said, “I hope you like it.”
“I am sure I will,” she replied. “It should go well with the pasta.”
After placing their order, Robert picked up his glass of wine, leaned forward, and held it up.
“I would like to propose a toast. Here’s to finding what you seek.”
Rebecca raised her glass, touched his with it, and then they both tasted the wine. She placed her glass down.
“I wish that had been the case. After our visit with Doctor Smith, it became clear the note has been lost forever.”
He took a second sip of his wine before putting his glass down. “If you’re certain it’s him, I don’t understand why the original note is so important?”
“I am indeed certain, but I was hoping to take back something tangible to show my family. I thought the original note might provide indisputable evidence.” She gazed at him. “Even for someone as skeptical as you.”
She hadn’t fallen for his act of believing her. Deciding he had held it off long enough, he said, “I have a surprise for you.” He removed the photograph from his inside sport jacket pocket and placed it on the table and slid it toward Rebecca. “That’s a photograph of the note that was taken in 1911. As you can see it’s not like looking at the original, but it beats nothing.”
The note’s contents, published in the newspaper, had brought people from all over the world in search of the gold:
I will be leaving Horby soon. I hid the gold coins where you told me. I will write again when I arrive in
He reached into his coat pocket and removed a small magnifying glass. “This helps.” He held it out.
She eagerly reached for the magnifying glass and looked at the photograph for a brief moment.
“The handwriting was obviously the script of an educated practiced hand. Was Andrew well-educated?”
She placed the photo and magnifying glass down onto the table, before looking up. “Yes, he was. May I keep this and study it in my room later tonight? I will return it to you in the morning.”
He couldn’t help but notice how happy she was to have the photograph. Her eyes sparkled like diamonds in sunlight. “Knock yourself out.”
Her eyebrows narrowed. “I beg your pardon.”
“That means study it as much as you wish.”
She smiled. “I intend to.”
After dinner, they returned to the house and entered through the rear entrance.
He walked with her to the stairway. Rebecca put her hand on his arm. “Thank you for a lovely evening.”
“You’re welcome. I’ll see you in the morning for breakfast.”
“At the hotel?” asked Rebecca.
He shook his head. “Maybe someplace different. I might surprise you.”
“Good night,” said Rebecca. She climbed the stairs, carrying the photograph in one hand and magnifying glass in the other.
The following morning, the stairs squeaked as he stood over the cook-top stirring eggs in an iron skillet. He placed two pieces of bread in the toaster and pushed the timer down.
Rebecca walked into the kitchen holding several pieces of paper. “Good morning.”
He turned toward her. “Your timing is perfect. I hope I didn’t wake you when I got up this morning.”
“You didn’t. I’ve been awake for some time. The smell of food brought me downstairs.” She stared at the skillet and raised her brows. “I thought you did not cook.”
“I don’t cook dinner, but I cook a basic southern-style breakfast.” He divided the eggs, toast, and bacon and placed the two plates of food on the kitchen table. He then filled two glasses with orange juice and placed them next to the plates. “Please have a seat.”
She put the papers aside and took a seat at the old ornate wrought iron table.
Sitting across from her, he didn’t have to ask if the photograph had helped. He could see it in her expression. After they had eaten most of the food on their plates, he asked, “So what do you think?”
She swallowed. “The food is wonderful.”
“Thank you. Actually, I was referring to your thoughts on the note.”
She grinned. “I was hoping you would ask. I am so excited. I was right about the note.”
He placed his fork down. “I’m all ears.”
She glanced at the papers she had pushed aside earlier. “The note was an incomplete draft of a letter Andrew intended to send to my great-grandmother before he left Sweden.”
He glanced at the papers Rebecca had set aside. They appeared to be handwritten pages on discolored paper. “Those letters were written by Andrew?”
She reached for them. “Yes, they were. When you told me the story about the violin and the three gold coins, I knew I had found my Andrew.” She handed one of the letters to him.
He read it.
Dear Madame Mansson,
I hope you and Mr. Mansson are well. I wanted to write before I left Horby, but they had us board the train to Malmo sooner than we had expected. The voyage was long and uneventful until my violin master fell ill and died. After a ceremony on the main deck his body was buried at sea. I felt so sad and alone. Several people on board offered warm words, but my heart remained full of grief.
When the ship reached America, I knew you would want me to remain strong. I regained my composure and filled my heart with joy upon our arrival. People were happy, laughing, and excited when we entered port. Thank you for assisting me to fulfill my dream.
Your loyal and loving servant,
He passed the letter back to her. “He was sad, but determined to continue.”
“It was mailed in March of 1911. I remember my grandmother reading it to me when I was a young girl. It brought tears to her eyes. I never asked her to read it to me again.”
“He was from Horby, Sweden?”
“My great-grandfather came from there. That’s how this town got its name.”
“I assumed that to be the case, after you told me your great-grandfather was from Sweden and was a co-founder of the town.” Rebecca handed another letter to him. This one was mailed two days before Andrew was found in the park.
Dear Madame Mansson,
I miss you and Mr. Mansson. I hope you are both well and this letter finds you soon. I have been traveling the country by train. I have much to write about.
You were wise to tell me to hide my money in my socks. Last night, while I slept on the train, a thief stole Papa’s watch and my beloved violin he made for me. I was so distraught that a nice man at the train station offered to help me.
When he learned I was from Horby, Sweden, he told me he had heard of another man from Sweden who sold violins at a music store south of here. I have purchased a ticket on the southbound train. I pray he is my Papa and will be glad to see me. Although I lost his watch and the violin, he will know I am his son when I show him I still have the three gold coins. I hope he will be proud of me for not spending them.
Your loyal and loving servant,
Robert placed the letter down on the table. “That poor lad was convinced he would find his father at the music store and instead found a bereavement notice on the door. He must have been overwhelmed with sorrow.” Robert knew if his great-grandfather had been alive the day Andrew arrived, he would have taken him in and tried to help him. “My great-grandfather could have told him about his father and where he was buried.”
“I think Andrew thought your great-grandfather’s shop was his father’s music store, especially after he saw the violin in the store window and recognized the style and design being like the one his father had given him.”
She held out a photo of Andrew playing the violin at the age of fourteen. “You can see the coloring and style are almost identical to the violin shown in the newspaper article.”
He studied the photo. “I would say both violins were made by the same person. Andrew thought he had missed finding his father alive by one day.”
“I think that is exactly what he thought,” Rebecca said.
“That explains something else. One of the townspeople who heard his violin music was a woman who lived near the park. She said something about the music made her feel very sad. She said it sounded to her as if the violin was crying.”
“Andrew died of a broken heart,” Rebecca said, and then remained quiet.
After at least a minute of silence had passed, Robert placed his napkin next to his plate. “Would you excuse me for a moment?” He stood and walked out of the room. A few minutes later he returned.
“I’m sorry I do not have the coins. They may have been what Lee was looking for when he went through the files after the coroner died. But I do have this. I want you to have the violin Andrew played that morning in the park, before he died. I believe Andrew knew his search for his father was over, and no longer needing the three coins, he left them in exchange for his father’s last violin, which meant far more to him than the gold.”
He approached her and handed the case to Rebecca.
“Thank you.” She opened the violin case and removed the instrument. After studying it several minutes, she looked up.
“It appears to be in excellent condition. Do you play the violin?”
“Yes,” he replied. “But I have not played this one recently.”
She held the instrument out. “Play it for me, please? I want to hear what it sounds like.”
He hesitated, but eventually took the violin from Rebecca’s hand and tuned it. Then he began playing several measures of a melancholy classical piece. As he played, he thought about Andrew and how sad he must have felt thinking he had arrived too late to see his father alive.
Near the end, the notes of the music sounded as if the violin wept in sorrow, possibly the kind of notes Andrew might have played that morning before his heart simply stopped beating.
Rebecca’s eyes began to water.
He had been wrong about her. Unlike those who came for the riches, Rebecca came to find family ties.
Thank you for reading THE LAST VIOLIN. I hope you enjoyed this short story and will consider leaving a reader rating and a short review. Reviews and ratings help other potential readers make story selections. Click to read an excerpt of Portrait of Conspiracy, a full length romantic suspense novel.
About the Author: Jim Davis made the first cellular telephone call in the country of Russia. He was working with Russia engineers inside the Ministry of Foreign Affairs building in Moscow at the time. Jim writes mystery/suspense/thriller novels, romance, humor, and short stories. He lives with his wife in the Boston Mountains.
Connect with the author online and find other stories by this author:
PORTRAIT OF CONSPIRACY
( Story description and a three chapter excerpt )
This gripping tale mixes elements of mystery, romance, and danger, bringing a thrilling new twist to an old tale of greed and vice.
Philip Lewellan discovers a mysterious painting. He’s sure it’s proof his missing wife is alive … and may be living somewhere with a child, his daughter. The thought of being a father is more than enough to get Philip to turn to the one person who might believe him.
Sandra Copeland, the original detective assigned to the missing-persons case, chased far too many bogus leads, after Philip—against her advice—offered a million dollar reward. Legitimate private investigators quit taking Philip’s money. Nothing could be found, or any evidence to indicate Renée might be alive. Copeland is not about to reopen an inactive seven-year-old missing-persons case based on what could only be another bogus lead. That is, until she sees a photo of the oil painting Philip has found in a New York art gallery. Their investigation unearths a staggering conspiracy impossible to believe, or to ignore.
A fist sized lump formed in Philip’s throat when his eyes confirmed what his heart wanted to believe. Light reflected off the glossy surface of the art gallery brochure. An adorable little girl, a child he had never seen, gazed at her mother. The name of the painting, My Sweet Beautiful Rachel, erased any remaining doubt.
Renée is alive. We have a daughter.
The jet engine’s pitch changed and the plane began its descent toward Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport. Philip turned toward the young woman seated to his right. Through the window, a cloud passed in the distance. Wearing white jeans, a pink Hard Rock Café T-shirt, and matching flip-flops, he guessed her to be a college student returning home for a summer break.
Her hand flipped through pages of Cruising World, the magazine he had purchased at La Guardia before boarding the plane. Appearing to be oblivious to his emotional reaction, he raised the brochure and asked, “Where did you get this?”
She looked up from the magazine and said, “I’m not sure,” before lowering her head again.
“Please, I hate to trouble you, but it’s important.”
She glanced out the window before turning her head toward him. “I took a shortcut through one of those big hotels with entrances on two different streets. Several pamphlets and brochures were in a rack. I liked the picture on that one, so I grabbed it on my way out. Sorry, mister, I don’t remember the name of the hotel.”
“May I keep it?”
She flipped through another page. “Sure.”
He gazed at the portrait. Would it be enough to get the police to reopen the case? No one had been able to find anything, not even her car. All active searches ceased when legitimate private investigators quit taking his money.
Statistically speaking, his wife was dead. Everyone involved in the case either felt that way or had said as much to him. Why had no one been able to find her? Confronting one possibility he had never considered, he tried to think of anything he had done. If she left voluntarily, why for God’s sake had she gone into hiding and kept his daughter from him? Rachel’s first words, her first steps; he had missed so much. He blinked away tears.
By the time the wheels of the plane touched down, he had organized his plan to return to New York. The certainty his wife and child were alive had brought back all the hope and optimism the last seven years had drained from him.
I have a daughter played over and over in his head. Nothing could stop him from finding her.
The young woman broke the silence as the plane neared the gate. “Thanks for letting me read your magazine.” She offered it to him.
He raised the palm of his hand. “Please, keep it.”
“Thanks, but I’m not really into boats that much.”
He took it and tucked it away.
She gathered a small backpack from beneath the seat.
“My name is Philip Lewellan.”
“It’s nice to meet you,” she said. “I’m … I’m Carla.”
“Nice to meet you, Carla.” He glanced at his watch.
“Do you have a connecting flight?”
“Not tonight, but I’m hoping to catch one out in the morning. I have to get to New York City as soon as possible.”
She knitted her brows. “We just came from there.”
“It’s a long story. What about you? Are you home?”
“Almost, I work at the Red Bird Grill in Lubbock. They expect me back tomorrow morning at six o’clock sharp. My aunt paid for the trip. I wouldn’t have been in New York otherwise. She still has high hopes for me. If you’re ever in town, stop by. We serve a good breakfast.”
After she and Lewellan cleared the arrival gate area, she slowed to allow him to get ahead of her. He appeared to be in his early thirties, much younger than she expected. Why had she jabbered on so much? Nervous, scared, whatever, she had done her part. Jessica hoped throwing out the name Carla had not been her biggest mistake.
She watched Philip leave the airport terminal. His confident stride, his hair, his clothes, everything about him indicated money and a lot of it. He could be featured in an upscale men’s clothing photo shoot without any additional prep work. His physical appearance was one thing, but his tears and emotional reaction to the photo had conveyed much more.
He didn’t try to kill that woman, he loved her.
She dialed the number for her contact in New York. When he answered, she said, “He took the brochure like you said he would.”
“Did you keep your mouth shut?”
“I did exactly what you told me. Now, I want you to follow through on your end of the deal.”
“The charges have been dropped. You’re free to go. You can pick up your ticket at the counter. You have one more thing to do.”
She squeezed the phone. “Wait. You said all I had to do was make sure he saw the picture on the brochure.”
“Get out of Texas and never go back unless you want to be buried there.”
“No problem. I don’t ever want to see you again either.”
“Where are you going?”
“None of your damn business,” she replied.
“Have a great life,” the man said sarcastically.
She slammed her cell phone shut and walked toward the ticket counter. What had she done to a man named Philip Lewellan—a man who had fought back tears. More importantly, why had Barletto threatened her? Why did he ask her where … hell it wouldn’t be hard for him to figure that out. Her stomach churned.
She placed another call. A woman answered.
“I’m going to be a few days later than I told you.”
“Are you okay? Has something happened?”
“I’m fine, Momma. There’s something I need to take care of first.”
“I’ve been so worried about you. Please be careful.”
She looked up and realized she was next in line. “I have to go now. I love you.”
Stepping up to the ticket counter, she said, “My name is Jessica Riddling. I should have a one way open e-ticket.”
The ticket agent entered her name and waited for her computer screen to update.
Decision time. Go home and hope Barletto wouldn’t come after her, or go on the run. His sarcasm was a dead giveaway. He’d never planned to let her go. If she was going to run, she’d need help. She remembered what Philip had said, “I’m hoping to catch a flight out in the morning.” She wasn’t ready to confront him yet. Screwing up a police investigation could land her back in jail, or worse, she would end up dead, if Barletto got to her first.
“I want to go to New York. Anything, but an early morning flight.”
The plane landed at La Guardia fifteen minutes later than scheduled. His carry-on bag strapped over his shoulder, Philip hurried through the terminal. After he passed through the doorway, marked Ground Transportation, he scanned the area until he spotted a man wearing a traditional chauffeur’s uniform. The man, a cap covering most of his gray hair, noticed him and approached.
Joseph reached for his bag. “Welcome back, Mr. Lewellan. I must be losing my mind. It seems like only yesterday you flew out of here.”
Trying to appear amused, Philip said, “You’re not losing your mind.” His forced smile faded. “I hope I haven’t lost mine.”
He jumped in the limousine and handed an address to Joseph. “Take me here first, then the hotel.”
“The James Walker Chapman Art Gallery it is.”
Forty minutes later, Joseph pulled the limousine over and stopped.
Philip gazed out the window. “Are you sure this is the right place?”
“Yes, sir.” Joseph pointed to an old brick structure packed between two scruffy looking facades. “The one in the center has to be it.”
“Wait here.” Philip said.
The hand-carved wooden door, dried and cracked from sun and rain, could have used some stain. A brass nameplate, tarnished so dark the raised letters James Walker Chapman Art Gallery were almost unreadable, confirmed he had arrived at the correct location.
The foyer was well maintained, nothing like the exterior of the building. Pale green walls lined the entry. The odor of fresh paint hung in the air as he glanced at the four paintings displayed in the hallway, two on each side of two open archways leading to two rooms, one to his left and one to his right. At the end of the hallway a third open archway opposite the entry door allowed a limited view of a third room. More paintings displayed on its walls.
“Hello,” Philip called.
There was no response.
He raised his voice and tried again. “Is anyone here?” Again, no response. You’d think someone would be delighted to greet a customer entering this place.
Against the wall on the other side of the archway to his left were landscapes. Others hung above them. Upon entering the room, the sound of a muted alarm in the background disrupted the only other sound, a whistling return air vent in the ceiling. Gazing around the room, a portrait displayed on the wall to his right caught his attention. Illuminated by a light mounted above it, what he had come for was a mere few steps away. He walked close enough to reach out and touch it.
The brochure photo had not done it justice. The details were flawless. Her brown eyes looked happy and inquiring, the way he remembered. Her hair had been longer the day she disappeared, but the color was right, dark brown, almost black. Scanning down the painting he focused on the smile that had stolen his heart the moment he first saw her. All of her features, so real, he wanted to reach out for her. And the necklace, painted in exquisite quality. The pearls appeared almost three dimensional. The overlapping twists and unique weave of the platinum links connected each pearl to the next. Hair pulled back over her right ear, exposed one of the matching black pearl earrings. The necklace and earrings, his gift to Renée on their second wedding anniversary, were his own custom design.
Farther down, the little girl, with blue eyes, looked up at her mother. Her eyes and hair color like his, but she had her mother’s mouth. She’s precious. His heart raced.
The alarm went silent. Moments later, approaching footsteps on the black and white ceramic tiled floor preceded a short man with white hair at the doorway. In his late fifties or early sixties, he appeared to take a quick assessment. His eyes cut a path from head to toe as he approached.
“Beautiful, isn’t she.”
Philip stared at the man.
“I’m sorry, sir. I didn’t mean to interrupt your concentration. I’m here to help. If you have any questions, it would be my pleasure to address them.”
“What can you tell me about this painting?”
The man smiled and extended his hand. “Roscoe Chapman.”
He grabbed his hand and shook it. “Philip Lewellan.”
“Randellini is an artist best known for his life-like portraits in oil. Do you notice how her dark brown eyes seem to study us as closely as we study her?”
“Yes, I know those eyes.”
Chapman hesitated, and then said, “Randellini captures the soul of a woman better than most artists of our time. Her hair looks so real it makes you feel even the smallest breeze would blow it across her face.”
“Yes, thank you. Please tell me what else you know about this painting.”
Chapman glanced at it. “I was quite surprised when it arrived. I don’t get many from him.”
“I’m interested in finding out about the woman in the portrait. Do you know who she is?”
Chapman put his hand to his chin. “That’s strange.”
“Another man came in here a few days ago and asked me the same question.”
“Who was the gentleman?”
Chapman lowered his hand and rolled his eyes. “Sir, he was no gentleman. I can assure you. He never gave me his name. He was displeased when I told him Rudolf Randellini died over twelve years ago, and I had no way of knowing who the woman was. He stormed out of here mumbling words I don’t care to repeat.”
Philip turned and gazed at the little girl. “This work is more recent than that, within the last year or two.” He turned toward Chapman. “You have no information in your files to help me find her?”
Chapman shook his head. “Most definitely not, but you are correct, sir. I was merely stating what I told the other man. After he left, I decided to do some checking. I don’t know as much about art as my father. This gallery was his passion. After he became ill, he tried to teach me the business. Unfortunately, it was too late by then.”
“I’m truly sorry about your father, but I must find this woman.”
“Thank you, sir. Rudolf and my father were close friends. My father, deeply saddened by Rudolf’s death, sold many of his paintings over the years. This one was not done by Rudolf Randellini. Regrettably, I gave the other man erroneous information. Not intentionally, of course, but all the same I believe it probably cost me the sale.”
“This painting is a fake?”
Chapman jerked his head up, raised his voice slightly and said, “No, sir, it is not.”
Pointing to the signature, Philip said, “It’s signed R Randellini. What else am I to think?”
“I see your point, sir, but I can explain. This one was shipped with two other older paintings from France. I assumed all three were from Rudolf’s collection. I have since learned Rudolf’s son, Ramsel painted this portrait, not his father, Rudolf.”
“You described how Randellini could—”
“Capture the soul of a woman better than most artists of our time. Yes, sir, the artist capable of matching Rudolf’s ability is Rudolf’s son, Ramsel.”
He glared at Chapman. One hoped to get simple straight forward information, but Chapman’s approach seemed to be anything but that.
“If you’re disappointed, sir, I have the two by Ru—”
”I’m only interested in paintings of this woman.”
Chapman shook his head. “I only have this one of her.”
“Do you know when Ramsel completed it?”
“As you thought, within the last year. After I reviewed the records more closely, I realized Rudolf’s son had to be the artist.”
“Where can I find him?”
“I suppose I could get that information for you.”
Picking up on Chapman’s hint, he asked, “How much for the painting?”
“I can let you have it for five thousand.”
It’s the proof he needed. “I wish to take it with me along with the information on Ramsel Randellini.” Pulling a credit card from his wallet brought a smile to Chapman’s face.
“Yes, of course,” responded Chapman. He beamed and grabbed the card. “It will only take me a moment, sir.” He turned and walked toward his office.
While he waited for Chapman to run the card, Philip read the name of the portrait again. My Sweet Beautiful Rachel. Painted within the last year. He removed his cell phone and took several photos of the painting. He should call Copeland. No one knew more about the case. But would she be willing to help him after what he had put her through?
At the time, the detective seemed too young and inexperienced to lead the investigation. His requests for a more seasoned person had been denied. He was told Detective Sandra Copeland had outperformed her equals as well as older and more experienced detectives. If anyone could find his wife, she would.
His thoughts were interrupted once again by the sound of footsteps. Chapman approached with a frown. “I have bad news. I should have checked the status of the painting after I returned from lunch. My assistant accepted an offer while I was out. I’m sorry, but this painting is no longer available.” He held out the credit card.
Philip took it and said, “Can you tell me who made the offer?”
“That’s not our policy. My assistant accepted it and confirmed the sale by e-mail.”
“Tell them you have another buyer for the painting.”
Chapman stared at him. “Another buyer? I’m afraid I don’t understand.”
“I’ll pay them three times the price they paid you for the painting. In addition, you could earn a nice fee. Let’s say, ten thousand for brokering the deal, if you can get it done today.”
Chapman’s eyes widened. “I’ll try my best, sir.”
That was more like it. He held out a business card. “I expect to hear from you no later than this evening. Do you have the information on Randellini?”
“Yes,” Chapman said, taking the card. “He lives in Paris, but like his late father, spends a lot of time in New York. He maintains his father’s old studio apartment, not far from the Brooklyn Bridge. In fact, according to my assistant, he could be in town as we speak.”
Chapman handed him a piece of paper. “Here’s the address. I’m sorry I can’t give you a telephone number. Ramsel detests them, but I’m told he often dines at the River Café, a nice restaurant near the bridge. If he’s not at his apartment, you might find him there this evening.”
“Thank you.” He took the paper and glanced at the address. Brooklyn.
“It is I who want to thank you, sir. Please accept my apologies for my lack of knowledge about the woman in the painting.”
Philip left the gallery. As he approached the limo, Joseph opened the rear door. He handed Joseph the address. “Take me to this address.”
Before he closed the door, Joseph glanced at it and said, “Brooklyn it is.”
What if Chapman doesn’t come through? Without physical evidence, getting Copeland out of Dallas would be like getting Washington out of the dollar bill. There had to be a way to get her to New York, painting or no painting in hand.
Joseph started the car. Philip pushed the button that lowered the privacy window. “Joseph, I need to make stop before we cross the bridge.”
Dallas Police Detective Sandra Copeland sat at her desk reviewing an investigative report. In an attempt to gain ground, she had skipped lunch again. Her new partner had made things better. For a change, he pulled his weight in their missing-persons case load.
Unfortunately, Detective Kevin Franks posed a new problem. He had shown plenty of interest in her. Dating him was out of the question. They’d be yanked apart at even the hint of a romantic relationship. She’d figure out a way to handle the situation. But at age 32, how long could she keep her social life on indefinite hold?
Her desk phone rang. The flashing light, the last in a row of ten, indicated a call on her direct line. The unlisted number given out to family members of missing persons.
“Detective Copeland? Philip Lewellan.”
“Mr. Lewellan, it’s been a long time.”
“About three years.”
“I’m sorry, but we have no new information about your wife.”
“I’ve always assumed you’d call me if you did,” Philip said.
“Yes, sir, I would. What can I do for you?”
“Do you remember our last conversation?”
She leaned back in her chair. “Why don’t you refresh my memory?”
“You told me there was nothing further you could do without physical evidence.”
“I recall saying something like that.”
“And what else you said?”
Where’s he going with this? “What’s your point, Mr. Lewellan?” She straightened in her seat and leaned forward.
“I’ve found proof that my wife and child are alive and I need your help.”
She glanced at her partner. Kevin sitting at his desk less than three feet from hers was obviously listening to her side of the conversation. She moved the receiver to left hand and picked up a pen. “What kind of proof?”
“Twenty minutes ago, I left an art gallery where an oil painting of my wife and child is on display. The painting is recent and the child appears to be the right age. I tried to purchase it, but someone else beat me to it.”
She frowned and tossed the pen back onto her desk. “Mr. Lewellan, I don’t think an oil painting is proof they’re alive. It’s probably a painting of a woman who looks like your wife.”
“I thought you’d give me a little more credit than that. I’m not stupid. ”
“I never meant to imply─”
“Of course you didn’t. The name of the artist is Randellini. I’m going to find him. I’ve had the brochure scanned and I’m sending the image to you. I’m hoping you’ll be willing to meet me in New York City tomorrow. My cell phone number and your flight information will be in the e-mail. I can pick you up at the airport.”
Why won’t he accept the fact his wife is dead and never coming back? She couldn’t let this start all over again. “I’m afraid that’s not going to happen. I can’t imagine getting travel authorization based on an oil painting.”
There was no response.
“Are you still there?” she asked.
“Yes, I was considering my other options, since you don’t want to help me.”
“You’re well aware I was forced to halt all active search activity. And that order came from a high enough level that not even you were able get it overridden.”
“I know how much your department spent chasing down bogus leads. I spent twenty times that much on private investigators. This won’t cost your department anything but your time. I’m willing to cover that if necessary, but I realize I’m still asking a lot.”
“It’s not that I don’t want to help you, but my hands are tied. I have other cases, active cases.”
“I’m asking for twenty-four hours. If you’re convinced there’s nothing to what I’ve found, I’ll send you back to Dallas in the First Class cabin.”
She shook her head once. Why was she even considering it?
“Your flight arrives at La Guardia at 1:20 tomorrow afternoon. I have an e-ticket confirmed for you on the seven o’clock flight tomorrow morning.”
“I can’t promise you anything without the lieutenant’s approval.” A good excuse when she comes to her senses.
“You’re not coming, are you?”
“I told you I have to get the lieutenant’s approval,” she said, wishing her tone had not been so harsh. Even Kevin looked away.
After a few moments of silence, Philip asked, “Can you at least promise me you’ll look at the picture I’m sending you?”
“That, I can promise.” She reeled off her e-mail address and hung up.
Kevin gazed at her eagerly. “Let’s have it.”
“Philip Lewellan thinks he’s found proof his wife and child are alive.”
“Never heard of him.”
“It’s an old case, before you transferred to the department. Seven years ago, he went to London on business. When he returned to his home in Dallas, his wife was gone. She’s hasn’t been seen or heard from since. She was four months pregnant at the time.”
She nodded. “Exactly my thought.”
He spun around in his chair to face her. “So what did he find?”
“An oil painting.”
“How does it prove they’re alive?”
“He believes it’s a recent painting of his wife and child.”
“Sounds like the husband in our last case.”
“Lewellan’s actions didn’t add up to a murdering husband.”
“Nothing indicated another woman. There was no financial gain by her death. But the most compelling reason I don’t think he had anything to do with her disappearance was his unborn child’s nursery. When I was forced to put the case on inactive status, I went to his home to tell him. He showed me the nursery he and his wife had prepared. His voice cracked looking in the empty crib. I doubt any man has been more ready to be a father than Philip Lewellan. Struggling to fight back tears, he vowed he would keep searching until they were found. He did everything humanly possible. Never withdrawing the million dollar reward he offered for information leading to their safe recovery.”
“Maybe a reward he knew he wouldn’t have to pay.” Kevin flipped his pen in the air and caught it. “Do you really think she could be alive?”
“No,” she said shaking her head. “But from his tone, he wants to believe they are. A far different tone than three years ago when he seemed ready to give up on life”
“I bet. Killing your pregnant wife might do that to a man.”
She stared at him. “I was that way once.”
“No! Suspecting the husband is the bad guy in every case where a wife disappeared.”
“Since I’ve been here, we’ve closed three cases where they were.”
“We’ve closed that many where women ran away for a new life.”
Kevin shook his head. “Well, Lewellan’s wife didn’t, or she would have turned up somewhere by now. In my book, he’s still a suspect.”
She laughed. “You have a few things to learn.”
“When police stop actively searching, murdering husbands give up looking. You might want to put that in your book.”
He swung back around in his chair and tossed his pen on his desk. “I’ll try to keep an open mind.”
She checked her e-mail and clicked on the one from Lewellan. There was an attachment. A double click, an image started filling the screen from the top down.
She snatched a file folder from her lower left desk drawer. Opened it, retrieved a photo of Renée Lewellan, a photocopy of a fingerprint card, and the twenty-eight page summary of notes she’d made during her investigation.
Kevin glanced at the label on the folder. “You’ve got to be kidding.”
Ignoring his comment, she spread the documents out on her desk.
“How did you end up with that fingerprint card?”
“It’s a copy of the original. Her prints were on several of her personal items in their master bathroom. I wanted them entered into the database in case we needed to ID a body. I also collected strands of hair from one of her brushes.”
“You’ve kept a closed case file on a missing person in your desk for seven years?” He shook his head. “No wonder your desk looks like a disaster area.”
“For the record, it’s not closed. It’s inactive. And the official file is kept in the record’s department downstairs. This one has a photograph of Renée Lewellan and a copy of my report. I used to keep short files of photos and physical descriptions, inactive cases and data in my desk, before we had everything put on computers. It was a good way to quickly compare notes to forensic reports I received from the state lab.”
“Maybe I should do that too,” Kevin said sarcastically. “Or, I could operate in the modern world and continue to use the department’s computerized file system.”
When the full image filled the screen, she held the photo of Renée next to it. “Hmmm.”
Could it really be her?
“Kevin, I’d like your opinion on this.”
He stepped over to her desk.
Holding the photo next to the computer screen, she asked, “What do you think?”
“That’s not what I was asking.” She elbowed him in the side. “Do they look like the same person to you?”
For several seconds, Kevin examined the two images. “The hair’s shorter and the face in the painting is fuller, but otherwise I’d say they’re unquestionably the same person.”
Putting the photo down, she said, “People do gain weight.”
Kevin straightened up and patted his firm stomach. “Some don’t.”
She waited until he was forced to let his breath out. “You’ll have to cover for me while I’m in New York.”
“Good luck getting the lieutenant’s approval. Especially after you tell him all you have is an oil painting. Besides, have you forgotten he’s on vacation this week?”
“How could I forget?” After the image was saved and sent to the printer, she said, “Must be why I don’t hear him telling me I can’t go.”
“I’d love to see The Big Apple with you.” He grinned.
She stood and glared at him.
“I meant you may need backup.”
She patted him on the shoulder. “I’ll call you when the shooting starts.”
“I guess one of us has to stay and keep the crime wave to a ripple.”
“You’re the man.”
Checked her watch, gathered up the documents, and placed them back inside the folder. “I might need these in New York.” She grabbed her purse and said, “I’m going home to pack a few things. See you in a couple of days.”
On her way to the stairs, she stopped at the printer and grabbed the photo and placed it in the file with the other documents. At the stairway, she stopped and turned around.
Kevin, still standing beside her desk, smiled. “Change your mind about me going with you?”
If he only knew how much she’d love that.
Reality set in. With all the cases they were working, he had to stay. “No. I skipped lunch today. It’s in the refrigerator, lettuce and tomato on wheat, if you want it.”
He nodded. “Call me if you need anything.”
“I’m pretty sure I’ve got your number.”
After pressing the unlock button on her car remote, she hesitated and looked back at the building entrance. Without authorization, going back would be the smart move. She’d received her fair share of warnings from the lieutenant. How much more would it take before he was forced to bring disciplinary action against her? Lewellan’s influence and money had made it one of the most publicized missing-persons cases in the country. The pressure from above to solve the case had been horrendous. Re-activating the seven-year-old case, based on an oil painting, would be the last thing the lieutenant would approve. Getting on that plane might be career suicide.
A couple of vacation days left. She opened the car door, started the engine and pulled out of the parking lot. Who said they couldn’t be taken in New York?
End of Sample
A violin and three gold coins hold the key to solving a sixty-eight-year-old mystery. Hundreds of people have traveled to a small Southern town in America in hopes of proving the young man found dead in the city park in 1911 was their long lost relative. Or were they trying to make a claim on the gold the young man supposedly hid before his death? No one has been able to prove a verifiable link to the unidentified body, and the hidden gold has not been found. Sixty-eight years after the death, a young woman has traveled from England to set the record straight. Rebecca believes everyone had it all wrong. She has an interesting theory, but can she prove her version of what happened? She needs a little help from the one man in town who is the most skeptical of all, with good reason. A novelette, approximately 10,000 words. Included in this eBook is an additional 5000 word excerpt of Portrait of Conspiracy