Read Death Falls Online

Authors: Todd Ritter

Death Falls (7 page)

It was also difficult to imagine Eric’s brother being snatched by a stranger in the woods. Certainly, it was possible. About 80 percent of child abductions by strangers were committed a quarter mile from the victim’s home. But this was a remote area, with only one way in or out. Someone on the street would have noticed a stranger coming or going.

They had reached the base of Sunset Falls. The path leveled off and the trees receded a bit, giving way to a pebble-strewn shore. The waterfall emptied into a deep pool that swirled and churned from the impact. According to official town records, the drop was thirty feet. But from Kat’s vantage point, it looked much higher.

“If someone went over, do you think they could survive?”

“I doubt it,” Eric said. “But someone could get lucky.”

They’d have to be very lucky. A handful of ragged rocks jutted from the water at the base of the falls. They looked sharp and menacing, making Kat think of dinosaur teeth waiting to catch and destroy whatever fell their way.

Beyond them, the creek continued its journey, cutting a path through the land toward the horizon. Was Charlie Olmstead’s body somewhere along its banks? Maybe dragged underwater by branches or lying somewhere in the trees, hidden from view. That was assuming, of course, that he had gone over the falls at all.

“Do you really think my mother was right?” Eric asked.

“I don’t know. But Nick will find out as much as he can.”

Despite tagging along with him, Kat still didn’t want to get involved in the investigation. Her intention had been to stop by, see how Eric had changed—for better or for worse—and let the two of them try to solve the unsolvable mystery that was Charlie Olmstead. She had no desire to waste time before coming to the same conclusion her father had reached.

So Kat took one last look at the falls before retracing her steps along the path. This time, the climb made it even more arduous. By the time they reached the top, both she and Eric were out of breath. Back on the bridge, Kat saw Nick climb to his feet with the help of his cane. Apparently alone time with Eric was over.

“I think the native is getting restless,” she said.

Eric took the lead and crossed the bridge quickly. “Nick seems like a pretty determined guy. Am I right?”

“You have no idea. Once he sets his mind on something, he doesn’t quit until he gets it.”

Kat, following Eric off the bridge, heard a loud creak that stopped her cold. The noise came from beneath her feet, soon changing from creaking to outright cracking. Then, before Kat had a chance to move, the plank beneath her splintered and fell away.

She managed a strangled yelp before falling with it, slipping helplessly into the gap the missing board had created. She came to a stop halfway through it as her rib cage and chest lodged between the boards on either side of her. Kicking her legs, Kat felt one foot splash into the creek. The broken board knocked against her ankle as it floated on the water’s surface. It soon slipped past her and headed toward the falls.

In a flash, Eric was standing over her, gripping her arms. Kat, who had a prime view of his sneakers, saw the board beneath him start to bend from the weight and movement.

“Stop,” she said. “Get on your stomach. Distribute the weight.”

Cautiously, Eric moved into a crouch. Then he was on his stomach, sliding toward her. Just over his shoulder, Kat saw Nick step onto the bridge.

“Kat? Are you hurt?”

He took several quick steps, his cane smacking against the boards. Beneath them, the support beams groaned under the sudden addition of a third person. Kat felt herself drift backward an inch or so as the entire bridge shifted. She and Eric proved that it could support two people. There was no way of knowing if it could handle a third.

“Get off the bridge!” she yelled. “It’s too much weight.”

Nick shuffled backward until he was once again on land. Eric moved backward, too, gripping Kat’s forearms and shimmying until she had enough space to pull herself up and out of the hole. When she heaved herself forward onto its surface, the bridge shifted again, this time in the opposite direction.

Kat got to her feet with Eric’s help. The bridge still felt wobbly as they crossed to solid ground, but she suspected the sensation was just her body, which was shaking uncontrollably. She took a few deep breaths to calm herself. For the most part, she was unscathed. Other than her trembling body, the only sign of her close call was a streak of dirt across the front of her uniform. Kat tried to wipe some of it away as she turned back toward the bridge.

“Someone,” she said, “needs to take a chain saw to that thing.”

A half hour later, Kat was on the phone in her office. She was talking to a skeptical Burt Hammond about the danger posed by the bridge over Sunset Falls. The mayor, probably because he was still miffed about earlier that morning, wasn’t buying it.

“I understand your concern, Chief,” he said, “but that bridge has been closed for going on fifteen years now.”

“Putting a sawhorse in front of it isn’t the same as closing it. It needs to be demolished. I practically fell through the thing this morning.”

“Why were you on the bridge in the first place?”

It was a question Kat should have seen coming. But still rattled from the bridge incident, she hadn’t considered what the mayor would say once she called him. She only knew she couldn’t give him the real reason. Burt Hammond would consider that a waste of manpower.

“It doesn’t really concern you,” she said weakly. “But the condition of that bridge should concern everyone.”

“The town council and I will consider that.”

Which meant they wouldn’t consider it at all. In order to get any results, Kat needed to put it into terms the mayor could understand.

“If someone steps on the bridge and falls through it, he’ll most likely go over the falls,” she said. “If that happens, he’ll probably die and his family will sue the town. Now, I don’t know about you, but I don’t want an expensive settlement on our hands.”

When Burt responded, it was with a subdued, “I hadn’t considered that.”

Kat couldn’t resist a smug smile of satisfaction. Her mission had been accomplished.

“I’m glad we agree on this matter,” she said. “Maybe it means we can agree on a police budget, too.”

Her smile faded when Burt said, “Considering all you’re asking for, I highly doubt that.” He then bid her a terse good-bye and hung up.

“Asshole,” Kat muttered.

Nick, who was sitting in front of her desk, looked up in surprise. “Was that for me or the mayor?”

“The mayor, of course.”

“I was just checking. You did slam a door in my face earlier today, although I think I deserved it.”

“You did deserve it,” Kat said. “But I’ll forgive you if you forgive me.”

“Deal.”

Between them was a club sandwich and French fries picked up from the Perry Hollow Diner. Kat grabbed a quarter of the sandwich and nibbled off a corner. Nick practically inhaled a fry and grabbed the file on Charlie Olmstead, which they had retrieved from the basement. When he opened it, a tuft of dust rose from the pages.

He read the report with care, not skipping a single word. In all her years as a cop, Kat had never known such concentration existed until she met Nick Donnelly. When he investigated something, it was like a spell had been cast over him.

“This is interesting,” he said. “After Charlie vanished, your father questioned everyone on the street.”

“Including Glenn Stewart?”

“Yep. He said he went to bed at nine and missed all the commotion.”

“Convenient alibi,” Kat said.

“Speaking of alibis, Lee Santangelo also said he was home alone that night. His wife was out of town. But according to Maggie Olmstead, Mrs. Santangelo was also there. She saw her in an upstairs window.”

“What did Becky Santangelo have to say about it?”

Nick grabbed his own piece of club sandwich and chewed slowly, lost in thought. With his mouth full, he said, “That she was visiting her sister that night. The sister backed up her story. So did half a dozen other guests.”

“At least my father was thorough,” Kat said, grabbing a French fry, “although I doubt he ever imagined I’d be looking through one of his old police reports.”

“Your father didn’t write the report.”

Kat froze, the French fry drooping an inch from her mouth. “Who did?”

“Deputy Owen Peale. Know him?”

“No. But I know someone who most likely does.”

They left her desk and edged out of her office. Lou van Sickle sat at her workstation, chowing down on her own club sandwich. When Lou saw them approach, she instinctively covered her fries.

“What do you know about the Charlie Olmstead case?” Kat asked.

“That was forty-two years ago,” Lou said. “How old do you think I am?”

Kat called her bluff. “Old enough.”

Lou gave her the stink eye, which was reserved for occasions when she was especially pissed off. Still, she answered the question. “I know what everyone else does. It’s no great mystery what happened to him. Or is it?”

Kat loved Lou like family, even though she was the town’s gossip champion. There was no way she was going to tell Lou how they were investigating the Olmstead disappearance.

Nick, however, showed no such discretion.

“His mother thought he was kidnapped,” he blurted out. “And we want to talk to the deputy who wrote the report.”

Since she had already used the stink eye, Lou gave Kat a you-know-better-than-to-get-yourself-messed-up-in-this look. Kat had seen it many times before, most notably when she had started sleeping with the colleague who would later become her ex-husband. That time, Kat should have followed Lou’s silent advice. This time, she plowed ahead.

“His name was Owen Peale,” she said. “I didn’t know him, so he had to have stopped working here when I was very young.”

Lou swiveled her chair until she was once again facing her lunch. “He quit before you were born. Went into private security because it paid more and he had three mouths to feed. Left without incident or animosity. I baked his good-bye cake. Vanilla with chocolate icing. Not my best work, if I recall. Anything else?”

“Is he still alive?” Nick asked.

“Last I heard he was. You can find him at Arbor Shade nursing home in Mercerville, because I know that’s what you’re going to ask me next.”

Kat gave her a hug and a peck on the cheek. “You rock, Lou. Seriously, you do.”

Nick also approached Lou, but instead of a kiss, he stole one of her French fries. Lou slapped his hand until he dropped it.

“Try that again,” she said, “and I’ll break your other leg.”

FIVE

Sitting on the back porch, Eric held his cell phone in one hand and a lit cigarette in the other. He lifted them simultaneously, placing the phone against his ear and the cigarette against his lips. Both made him inhale.

He blew out a stream of smoke as the phone rang. And rang. And rang. He had never been much of a smoker, limiting it to a few bummed cigarettes in college dive bars and during breaks at stultifying writing conferences. He didn’t start in earnest until after he returned to Perry Hollow to care for his mother. The excuse he told himself was that it was spurred on by stress. That might have been true, but the real reason was more complex. It was his own little rebellion—a reckless laugh in the face of the sickness all around him.

Eric inhaled again as the phone ceased buzzing. In its place was a small blip, the telltale sign his call was going to voice mail. It was followed by a voice more tired and hoarse than the last time he had heard it.

“This is Ken. I’m not around. Leave a message.”

Eric closed his eyes. He wanted to hang up but resisted the urge.

“Dad,” he said. “It’s Eric. I guess you’re on the road making a delivery. Or—”

Drunk. That’s what he almost said. Drunk in the living room of whatever crumbling trailer he now called home or in some shithole roadside bar outside some shithole town along his trucking route. Instead, he settled on the more generic “somewhere.”

“Listen. I hired someone to find out what happened to Charlie. Mom wanted me to. I guess she always wondered what happened. Anyway, this guy asked me to ask you if you knew anything about it. I told him you probably didn’t, but he—”

Eric heard a sharp beep, followed by a click as the line went dead. He had rambled so much he was cut off.

“Crap.”

He dialed his father’s number again and waited through the requisite ringing before being connected to voice mail again. This time he was brief.

“Just call me back.”

Eric dropped the cigarette, ground it out with his sneaker, and went inside. In the kitchen, he placed the phone on the table and stared at it, more to kill time than anything else. He didn’t expect his father to return the call. He and Ken rarely talked. Just the usual birthdays and holidays, and sometimes not even then. So his hopes weren’t high.

Even if he did call back, Eric was certain Ken would have no idea why his mother suspected something more sinister about Charlie’s disappearance. As far as Eric knew, they rarely communicated after the divorce. His mother never talked about him. Ken Olmstead was another part of her painful past. Just like Charlie and his sealed-off bedroom.

The bedroom.

Eric knew he needed to look there eventually. The house was his now. In order to sell the place, he’d have to clear the whole thing out, including Charlie’s room. If there was something inside that could help the investigation, that was even more reason to search it.

“No time like the present,” he told the phone. It responded with silence.

He trudged upstairs and stopped in front of Charlie’s room. Unlike the rest of the doors in the house, which had been replaced over the years, this one was an original. Brass doorknob. Old-style keyhole. Although he knew the door was locked, Eric tried the handle anyway. It barely turned. In order to open it, he’d need one of two things—a key or a crowbar. Mitch Gracey would have gone straight for the crowbar. Eric opted for the key.

Wherever that was.

Before his mother’s death, little had been done in terms of planning. Other than the instructions in her will, Maggie did nothing to ensure Eric knew what to do when she was gone. Some of it, like learning when bills had to be paid, he had picked up easily. Other bits, such as knowing where the key to Charlie’s room was hidden, had eluded him.

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