Read Death Falls Online

Authors: Todd Ritter

Death Falls (5 page)

He sighed, reading the slim columns of black against the wide expanse of white. This was not what he was supposed to be writing. He had told his editor—promised, in fact—that he would be hard at work on the latest adventure of sports-reporter-turned-detective Mitch Gracey. Yet the two words on his screen were the most he had typed in two weeks, and they had nothing to do with hard-drinking, Mets-loving Mitch.

Still, Eric couldn’t delete them and start over. In fact, he typed more.

Eric deleted it immediately. He needed to focus. He needed to write. And fast. He was nearing a head-on collision with his deadline and had nothing to show for it. Sitting up in his chair, he cracked his knuckles and let his fingers hover over the keyboard.

They remained motionless.

As much as he tried, Eric found himself incapable of forming a sentence. It was that way in the days before his mother died and had only grown worse in the two weeks that followed. At first, he had chalked it up to a variety of factors. Location was a big one. The rickety desk and the bedroom he grew up in were a far cry from the Brooklyn apartment that served as his usual writing base. Timing was another. He normally wrote at night, when darkness made it easier to come up with the brutal scenarios required for crime fiction. But in Perry Hollow, he woke early. His mother’s condition had required it. Now that she was gone, he still couldn’t shake the habit.

Yet deep down, he knew these weren’t the reasons. They were simply excuses he used to justify spending the day napping. Or surfing the Internet. Or eating peanut butter sandwiches while watching
Animal House
for the sixteenth time. The real reason Eric Olmstead couldn’t write was because the well had run dry. He wasn’t sure what had sapped his creativity. Grief, probably. Guilt, definitely. But it was gone, not to return anytime soon, no matter how much time he spent at his laptop.

That morning he vowed to stay there until he wrote five pages or until noon rolled around, whichever came first. But with no inspiration in sight, Eric had a feeling noon was going to be the winner, so he was happy when the doorbell rang at quarter after nine. It meant he had a distraction on his hands, and writers loved distractions almost as much as they loved royalty checks.

Reaching the front door, he found a man in a black suit standing on the porch. Had he been a character in a Mitch Gracey book, Eric would have described him as worn but handsome. The cane gripped in his right hand hinted at a troubled past. Also he had been a cop at some point. Eric knew that from the searching green eyes that tried to take in everything all at once.

“Eric Olmstead?” the man asked.

“Yes, sir.”

The man extended a hand. “I’m Nick Donnelly.”

Eric must have looked confused because the man added, “We spoke on the phone on Friday. You told me I could stop by this morning.”

Eric slapped a palm against his forehead, stunned he hadn’t realized it was Wednesday. The days tended to blur when you were trying to avoid writing.

“I’m so sorry. It completely slipped my mind.”

He moved out of the doorway and Nick Donnelly entered, taking another one of those sweeping gazes. Behind him, someone else crept tentatively up the porch steps. Her uniform indicated that she, too, was a cop. But Eric didn’t need to see a badge to confirm that. He already knew Kat Campbell had followed in her father’s footsteps.

Twenty-five years had passed since Eric last saw her. Time had been generous. Although older, she still had that sharp chin that would lift when she was angry and lower when she was sad. Her eyes still sparkled with kindness, and the formation of her lips suggested everything from tension to boredom to the barest hint of a smile.

“Please tell me we’re not so old that you’ve forgotten me.”

“We’re older,” Eric said. “But I didn’t forget you, Kat.”

The hint of a smile remained on her face as she leaned forward and gave him a brief, nervous hug. It was the reaction Eric had been hoping for but not entirely expecting. He had done nothing to deserve a hug, not now and certainly not then.

“Let me get a good look at you,” Kat said.

As she stepped backward to take him in, Eric foolishly wondered how he looked now compared with his eighteen-year-old self. He had changed a lot since those high school days. His contacts were new. So was his thatch of curly brown hair. His body, too, had undergone changes, getting leaner and more muscular as he got older. Each passing year made him hit the gym harder in an attempt to stave off old age.

His face, however, had stayed the same. At forty-three, his skin remained free of wrinkles and age spots. He didn’t know how long it would last, but he thanked good genes for making it this far. Sometimes he’d look at photos of himself from high school and be amazed at how little his features had changed. Same jawline. Same strong nose. Same crooked smile.

“You look great,” Kat said. “And I’m so happy for your success. Truly and deeply.”

That last part had been added for a reason, Eric knew. It was her way of saying that, yes, she remembered everything but that she was prepared to let it go.

“So you work for the Sarah Donnelly Foundation, too?” Eric asked.

Kat looked at Nick Donnelly, who had been watching their reunion with an impatient lean on his cane. “No, although Nick would like that.”

Eric glanced between the two of them. “Then why are you here?”

“Just trying to be a good police chief,” Kat said, at last stepping inside. “And in that role, I’m curious about what you think happened to your brother.”

“I don’t know what happened to him,” Eric replied. “But my mother had an idea.”

“Which was?”

“That Charlie was kidnapped.”

They sat at the scuffed table in the shabby dining room, Eric on one side, Nick and Kat on the other. The arrangement forced him to focus on either the private investigator who might take his case or his old flame. Not knowing who to pick, Eric settled on the space between their shoulders, which offered a view of the faded wallpaper. There had been roses on it once. Tiny pink ones with thornless stems that twisted around each other. Now the roses were barely visible, their stems vague gnarls of color.

“Before I take on a case,” Nick began, “I like to get a grasp on the situation to see—”

Eric finished the sentence for him. “If it’s worth your time. I completely understand.”

In his books, Mitch Gracey did the same thing. He didn’t waste energy on cases that couldn’t be solved. It made things easier. But Eric already knew that Gracey wouldn’t for a second take on Charlie’s disappearance. He hoped Nick Donnelly thought otherwise.

“Good,” Nick said. “So let’s start by your telling me how much you know about your brother’s disappearance.”

“Not much,” Eric said. “I was a baby when it happened.”

“Did you parents ever discuss it?”

“Never. My father’s been mostly out of the picture since I was two. My mother didn’t like to talk about it.”

Not that she needed to. Her actions spoke volumes. There were no photos of Charlie on display in the house. Eric hadn’t even known any existed until he accidentally found a box of them in the basement one December when he was snooping around for Christmas presents. He spent the rest of that afternoon staring at image after image of his brother. Ten years of photographs, hidden away in shame.

The same was true of his brother’s bedroom. Instead of clearing it out and putting it to different use, Eric’s mother had sealed the room off like a tomb. The door was locked. The key was God knows where. Usually, Eric didn’t think about it. But sometimes he’d walk by the door and pause, wondering what was on the other side. He always imagined something empty and pristine, like the room of a Benedictine monk.

Eric never brought up the photos, not even as his mother was dying. He never asked about the bedroom, either. He knew Maggie didn’t mention them because it was too painful, and that talking would only bring the pain back.

Fortunately for Eric, the rest of Perry Hollow had no such reservations. They talked plenty about his brother. Everything he knew about the incident came from people in town—classmates, store clerks, parishioners at the church his mother had dragged him to during a brief religious phase. He didn’t know how much of it was the truth, but growing up, he didn’t care. Any morsel of information was a feast to him.

What he learned—and what he told Nick—was that on the night of July 20, 1969, Charlie left the house and never returned. The only trace of him was his bicycle, which his mother, Kat’s father, and a deputy saw drift over Sunset Falls. The bike was found the next morning, smashed against the rocks at the base of the falls. His brother was never seen again. After several days of news coverage, search parties, and tense living-room vigils, Chief James Campbell made his official ruling. His brother, Charles Olmstead, accidentally rode his bike into the water, tumbled over the falls, and was swept away by the current.

“But your mother didn’t believe that?” Nick said.

“Apparently not.”

Kat, who had been quiet up to that point, leaned forward. “What do you believe?”

“I honestly have no opinion. Charlie’s gone. In my mind, he’s always been gone. I’m just hoping you’ll be able to find out what exactly happened to him.”

“But why now?” Nick asked. “It’s been more than forty years since your brother disappeared.”

“It was my mother’s dying wish.”

Eric had inherited it, along with Maggie’s house, her car, and whatever money she had managed to tuck away over the years. He planned to sell the house. The car would be donated. The cash, too, would go to charity. When it was all gone, Eric would only be left with the words. Although nearly two weeks had passed, he still heard his mother’s urgent whispers, riding on her final breaths.

They didn’t believe me. They’ll believe you. Find him. Find your brother.

At the time, Eric had been too overwhelmed by emotion to fully comprehend those last words. He thought Maggie had been delusional as death approached and wanted him to summon his brother, gone so many decades before. It was only a few days later, after a funeral service mostly attended by people he didn’t know, that he realized the importance of her words. His mother had truly meant what she said. She wanted him to find Charlie. It was the last order from mother to son in a lifetime that had been full of them.

This was confirmed the day after the funeral, when his mother’s lawyer contacted him about the house, the car, the cash. The lawyer then dropped this bombshell: for the past four decades, Maggie had been convinced that Charlie was kidnapped. In her will, she had set aside a small amount of money devoted to finding out if that actually was the case. Eric’s responsibility was to oversee it.

He waited a few days before making a few calls to private investigators he had interviewed as research for his books. All of them told him the same thing Nick Donnelly did—that details of the case were so sparse it would be hard to uncover anything. Yet Eric proceeded to ask each of them for help. All politely declined.

A few more days went by as he considered his next course of action. Then he stumbled upon an article in the
Philadelphia Inquirer
about the Sarah Donnelly Foundation. Eric appreciated its mission of offering hope to the hopeless. He finally got around to calling Nick Donnelly on Friday. Now it was Wednesday, and Nick was sitting in front of him asking, “Do you have any idea why your mother thought kidnapping was involved?”

Kat added, “All this time, she could have talked to me or to my father.”

“I wish I could tell you,” Eric said. “She never shared her abduction theory with me.”

Nick piped up. “I would love to help you try to uncover the truth about your brother’s disappearance. But in order to do this, we’re going to need a lot more information.”

Eric looked to Kat. The uniform she wore managed to seem both fitting and surprising. Knowing her sense of duty and honor, Eric realized it was appropriate that she wore a badge, yet when he looked at her, he still saw the sweet-faced teenager he had known so many years ago.

“I assumed Kat would help with that,” he said. “Or is this not an official police matter?”

“It’s not,” Kat quickly answered. “I already told Nick he could have full access to our records. But I doubt abduction is mentioned in them, so they likely won’t tell us anything.”

“That leaves family,” Nick said. “Is your father still alive?”

Eric nodded, although he knew Ken Olmstead would be of little help. When Eric was growing up, his father was never there when he needed him. Eric saw no reason why he would start now.

“Or neighbors,” Kat suggested. “Lee and Becky Santangelo are still around. So is Glenn Stewart.”

Of course she would know that. But Eric assumed that, like his father, none of them would be useful. Although the Santangelos had lived across the street his entire life, he barely knew them. His mother had a falling-out with them before Eric could even walk. Their only exchanges were icy stares when their paths crossed while pulling out of the driveway or fetching the mail.

And when Lee was stumping for votes, of course. During election time he was happy to come over and chat. That was politics for you.

Then there was Glenn Stewart next door. Amazingly, Eric knew less about him than he did the Santangelos. His presence on the street was so minimal that Eric usually forgot about him entirely. His house—so tall and rickety—might as well have been empty, just like the one Mort and Ruth Clark used to live in.

“That’s a start,” Nick said. “I’ll talk to them and see what they remember about that night. If we’re lucky, maybe one of them saw something suspicious around Sunset Falls.”

Eric shrugged, something Mitch Gracey never did. Even though Eric was his creator, Gracey was the complete opposite of himself—decisive, hard-charging, certain of everything. For instance, Gracey would already have been pounding on the Santangelos’ door, demanding they spill their secrets. He wouldn’t have remained in the dining room like Eric did, listening to Nick Donnelly move on to the next order of business.

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