I’ve been debating whether to post the opening chapter of my second novel and finally decided to do it since Amazon already includes an excerpt on their website. For anyone who hasn’t read the first book yet, this is a spoiler alert. That said, you don’t have to read the first book in order to understand and enjoy the second book. One of my favorite mystery authors has written 17 or 18 novels and the first one I read was number 15. Then I started reading the earlier books.
WHERE SECRETS RESIDE
A LOUD CRASH against the skylight caused Maurelle to pull her bedcovers around her and stare upward. Dave had assured her when he installed the tubular skylight in the dirt tunnel he’d dug above the back portion of their cave home that it could withstand anything Mother Nature threw at it. Normally Maurelle believed most everything he told her, but did Mother Nature have to test his claim with the storm of the century while he was out of the country?
Howling winds rattled the glass in the skylight as if they were trying to rip it away. She threw off her covers and swung her legs over the edge of the bed, her bare feet touching cold tile. A shiver coursed through her. She considered donning her slippers but hadn’t a clue where she’d left them. With no moonlight shining through the rooftop window to guide her, she wasn’t sure she could find the light switch, much less her slippers.
Chilled, she grabbed a blanket, wrapping it around her shoulders, and held the ends together with one hand as she stumbled along, looking for the switch. Her left foot connected with the armoire adjacent to the bedroom door, causing her to pitch forward. She yelled out in instant pain, dropped the blanket, and grabbed hold of her big toe. Steadying herself against the armoire, she paused until the throbbing subsided somewhat, then rewrapped herself in the blanket and hobbled forward. She found the switch and flipped it, but nothing happened. “Just great!” She hobbled through the doorway into the living room, expecting to see moonlight shining through the windows at the cave front, but a savage rain pounded against the window, refracting much of the light and causing ghostly shadows to dance across the walls. A sudden flash of lightning illuminated the room, immediately followed by a thunderous crash and then a return to darkness, momentarily blinding Maurelle. As her eyes slowly adjusted to darkness again, the ghostly shadows returned and combined with the ever-present musty smell of ancient cave, creating a tomblike eeriness and causing Maurelle an involuntary shiver.
She crept forward, then stopped abruptly to listen. Mixed in with the banging and whooshing and the whistling and rattling that had awakened her, she heard a beeping sound. Oh God, an intruder? She held her breath, unable to move. If Dave were here, he would probably laugh at her and tell her she was letting her imagination run wild. But someone had called earlier, right before she’d gone to bed, and when she’d answered, no one said anything. She’d assumed it was a wrong number, only now she wondered. She closed her eyes and tried to calm her breathing. Think logically. It was preposterous to imagine an intruder all the way out here on the outskirts of town, especially since the only way to get here was by footpath through some fairly rough terrain on the hillside. Or was it? There were no other homes nearby, nobody to hear a burglar.
Another loud crash made her jump again. She stumbled, almost tripping on an edge of her blanket dragging on the floor. She yanked on the fabric and hugged it closer around her body. The rain eased up momentarily, making the beeping sound louder. She backtracked and found the flashlight they kept in the linen closet in case of a power outage and flicked the switch. An image of Dave placing a baseball bat under their bed popped into her mind. As a former cop, he’d wanted to keep a gun in the house. It was second nature to him, but she wouldn’t have it. The bat was their compromise.
She went back to the bedroom, knelt down, reached under the bed and pulled out the baseball bat. Seeing that she couldn’t hold onto the blanket, the flashlight, and the bat all at the same time, she unhappily decided to leave the blanket on the bed and wished now she had worn something a bit warmer and less revealing than her scanty nightgown. Armed with her bat in one hand and a flashlight in the other, she re-entered the living room, studying the shadows on the walls and shining the light around. It didn’t take long to ascertain that the beeping was coming from the far side of the room and not from the burglar alarm. She crept forward and leaned the bat against the desk. Squatting down, she stared underneath Dave’s desk at a beeping rectangular box sitting on the floor. God the floor is cold. She took a quick breath and slid down onto her bottom. It was the computer’s battery backup which had kicked in when the storm apparently knocked out the electricity. Relief immediately was followed by amusement at herself. How could she have been so daft? She dragged herself back up and saw that the digital clock’s green numbers read ‘4:10’. “What the—”
Before she finished the question, it dawned on her that the clock was tied-in with the battery backup. Maurelle shook her head. It was probably a good thing Dave wasn’t here to witness her stupidity. He certainly would have laughed at her. She walked over to the front windows and drew back the window’s thin-lace curtain. Wind suddenly whipped the rain sideways as if someone were spraying their front yard with a giant hose. No telling what kind of damage she would find outside. A bright flash of light momentarily blinded her, followed immediately by another loud crash of thunder.
She let the curtain fall back into place, carried her flashlight into the kitchen, and poured herself a glass of milk. Nothing better to calm the nerves, she thought. But when she lifted the glass to her lips, the smell made her stomach churn the way sour milk would. She dashed to the loo. Though it proved to be a false alarm, Maurelle suspected it was her first encounter with morning sickness. Back in the living room, she curled up on the sofa and covered herself with a throw blanket. Soon she dozed-off, dreaming about their future baby.
Sunlight streaming in through the living room window assaulted Maurelle’s closed eyelids and forced her awake. Dave’s desk clock showed 7:01. She jumped up from the sofa where she had fallen asleep, rushed into her bedroom, and flipped the light switch. Still nothing. Huh? The singing from the battery backup in the other room registered with her then. She picked up the telephone to call Dave’s grandmother, Fabienne, but the phone wasn’t working, either.
After quickly dressing in blue jeans, white tee shirt, and trainers, she pulled a comb through her long tangle-prone hair, slipped on sneakers, and opened the front door. Chill air immediately struck her. She stepped back inside and pulled a white windbreaker jacket off a hook beside the door. On her way out she also snatched her keychain hanging on the adjacent hook. She pulled the door shut and tried to lock it, but the key wouldn’t fit. She looked closely at the key. Good grief. It was the key to the bookshop where she worked part-time. She shook her head and went back inside to switch keys. Outside again, she closed the door and locked it, stuffing the keychain in her jeans pocket.
Standing on their flagstone courtyard, she looked around at a mess. Where had their black wrought-iron table and chairs and chair cushions gone? Her potted flowers—purple orchids, red geraniums, and pink petunias—were now stumps, the pots overturned and broken. She stepped away from the courtyard, careful to avoid the largest puddles. Mud was everywhere. Her glorious flower gardens were ruined—rose petals lay scattered, along with buds that had snapped right off, before having a chance to bloom. Even some of the grassy parts of their yard had turned brown where muddy hillside had slid down, coating the grass like a blanket.
In the distance trees were bent, branches broken and sagging, some touching the ground, while in other places mature trees lay overturned, their root balls completely uplifted. At least their house seemed unharmed. Nearby, she found the missing table halfway embedded in the hill. She couldn’t see any of the four chairs.
Maurelle zipped up her jacket against the encroaching cold breeze and carefully set off on the muddy footpath that weaved through this level of the hillside, wide in some spots and extremely narrow in other spots, with dangerous areas where the path ran alongside a cliff side, ivy and honeysuckle cascading down the cliff face. Their troglo was located beside a narrow section of woods consisting of fig, beech, magnolia, and mimosa trees, with intermingled patches of grass and bush. On the other side of the woods, and down another cliff lay the Trizay River. Directly on top of their troglo was more woods.
Five minutes into her walk, she came upon an area laden with debris: fallen trees, two of her windswept lawn chair cushions, soggy remnants of what appeared to be a kite, and a few broken bottles. However, she still didn’t see any sign of the lawn chairs. Maurelle was so caught up in surveying the damage, she nearly stepped on a fallen bird. “Oh, you poor thing,” she said aloud as she stooped down to see how badly it was injured. She reached out to touch it, then pulled her hand back when she realized it was already dead.
Another muddy spot was coming up, so she moved over to avoid the worst of it. Her foot snagged something and she went crashing down, landing on her knees and elbows, with her face positioned for, and barely avoiding, a full-on mud mask. She struggled to pull herself upright and, in doing so, one leg slid backwards and she nearly lost her balance. When she was finally standing, she looked at her hands. If she didn’t know better, she’d swear she was wearing a thick pair of brown gloves. The knees of her blue jeans looked like she’d dipped them in fudge, and the front of her previously white jacket was covered with large mud splotches. She shook her head in defeat. Dave would be laughing his head off if he could see her now. She looked for all the world like one of the spotted Normandy cows.
She scanned the area for a grassy spot, and then trudged over to one near a clump of bushes. Crouching, she rubbed her hands in the grass. Not perfect but at least better.
When she finished, she looked around again. Sitting in the grass a few feet away, nestled between two overgrown bushes, was a small child huddled in a pink and brown ball. Startled, Maurelle fell backwards. By instinctively slapping her hands on the ground on either side of her body, she barely managed to end up on her bottom instead of lying flat on her back.
What on earth was wrong with her? She must have imagined the child, maybe because of the pregnancy and her dreams about what their future child would look like. She took a deep breath and pulled herself up and onto her knees, then gasped, realizing it hadn’t been her imagination. A little girl—a toddler whom Maurelle didn’t recognize—was indeed sitting all alone in the grass. She was wet and dirty and ragged.
Maurelle stood up and looked all around, but the child was alone. Her heart was racing and she rushed toward the little girl with her arms stretched out. The watching child trembled and let loose a scream. “It’s okay, sweetie,” Maurelle said. “I won’t hurt you. I want to help. Can you tell me where your parents are?”
The little girl cried and then tried to stand but fell in the slippery grass. She looked up and stared at Maurelle, shaking, her eyes filled with tears. In the next instance, the girl started to crawl away from Maurelle towards the trees. Maurelle’s first impulse was to grab her, but she held back, fearing she would scare her more. How could she get the child to trust her?
“Where’s your maman?” she said. “Let’s go find her. Let me take you into town.”
The child stopped and turned her head at the word ‘maman’.
Maurelle looked down at her own dirty hands and clothes, then back at the child. She slowly eased backward, then kneeled and leaned forward, but instead of reaching for the girl, she put her hands in the damp grass and wiped them again. She looked up without raising her head.
The girl’s eyes followed Maurelle’s hands as she attempted to dry them on her muddy jeans. Maurelle crawled forward. When she was close enough, she reached out and stroked the child’s hair. In her most soothing voice, she said, “What’s your name, sweetie?”
The girl opened her mouth as if to speak, but nothing came out. Her lips trembled. It was then that Maurelle realized the girl was probably not only frightened but also chilled to the bone. Maurelle pulled off her own jacket and wrapped it around the small figure.
“My name is Maurelle. I’m trying to help you. Won’t you please tell me your name?”
No response, except for blinking.
She decided the girl looked somewhere between fourteen and twenty months old. She wore a short-sleeved pink and white striped shirt, pink corduroy pants, and a tiny necklace. Her clothes were wet and spotted with mud. Her wet and mud-splotched brown hair was matted flat against her round cheeks, and her thin lips, slightly blue with cold, quivered. It was her eyes, though, that made Maurelle’s heart go out to her. Wide and frightened green eyes dominated her innocent face, reminding Maurelle of the Cabbage Patch doll that her mother had given her for her fifth birthday. Maurelle tilted her head. There was something else familiar about her but she couldn’t say what it was. A photograph of Maurelle’s mum as a baby sprang to mind. That was probably it.
She needed to get the child indoors and into warmer clothes, but when she tried to pick her up, the child started shaking violently. Maurelle froze. She knew that reaction only too well. She released her and said, “Let’s go find your mummy. But maybe first we can go into town and get you warmed up. How does that sound?”
The child didn’t respond.
“Maybe find some milk and something to eat, too. Okay?”
The girl licked her lips.
“I will carry you, if that’s all right. It’s muddy.”
Maurelle reached out again carefully and this time the child allowed herself to be picked up. As Maurelle carried the shaking child along the trail into town, something was niggling at her mind, but she couldn’t put her finger on what it was. Maybe the child’s parents had been staying in the chateau, the only hotel in Reynier. That made some sense. Tourists went out hiking on this hill. They could have become separated when the storm hit. It wouldn’t be the first time. On this rugged hillside, especially on a stormy night, one could easily panic, get turned around, and even make a wrong step that could send them careening over a cliff.
Maurelle recalled when she herself had fallen before. She’d only been in Reynier for a week and had been hiking in this area in the dark. She’d slowed when she knew she was approaching a narrow rocky ridge in one of the highest sections of the hill. Mindful of the danger, she’d maneuvered along the rock wall. Without warning, the chalky limestone had crumbled beneath her footing causing her to slip over the edge. Dazed, heart racing, she’d struggled to calm herself. As her heart slowed, she’d realized she was perched precariously on one of several outcroppings in the hill’s tiers. She might have continued swearing at her bad luck as she had done moments before but thought better of it because, looking over her shoulder, she could see that she had narrowly missed a much longer and more devastating fall.
She shivered at the mishap and tried not to think about it as she carried the little girl into the village, watching her step so as not to slip or trip in the mud a second time. When she reached the pavement near Café Charbonneau, she paused to decide where to go. At a little after seven o’clock, Dave’s grandmother, Fabienne, might still be asleep, but the café looked open. Maurelle could see candlelight flickering through the picture windows.