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Authors: Death in Paradise

Tags: #Mystery & Detective, #General, #Women Sleuths, #Henrie O (Fictitious Character), #Women Journalists, #Fiction, #Detective and Mystery Stories, #Contemporary Women, #Kauai (Hawaii), #Hawaii, #Mystery Fiction

Carolyn G. Hart_Henrie O_04

BOOK: Carolyn G. Hart_Henrie O_04
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CAROLYN HART
DEATH IN PARADISE

A HENRIE O MYSTERY

Contents

one

I struggled to breathe. If I'd come upon a cobra,…

two

The television film flickered on the screen. The whop-whop of…

three

Lou Kinkaid looked around the elegant dining room with the…

four

I reached the outskirts of Pottsboro. I doubted the main…

five

The jeep squealed to a stop. I stared at the…

six

Belle Ericcson stood next to a waist-high cloisonné vase filled…

seven

Torches on the lanais above me suddenly glowed as well…

eight

Torches flared along the cliff railings. The flames were reflected…

nine

I wasn't going to bed. I had other plans. It…

ten

I stood on the edge of my lanai. Mist obscured…

eleven

I slipped quickly and quietly into Belle's office. I didn't…

twelve

Belle rose. It was difficult from the low couch. She…

thirteen

I stepped carefully along the cliff path. I'd waited half…

fourteen

I had to talk to Belle. It was no longer…

fifteen

This was a room designed for tranquillity: the wide expanse…

sixteen

A thirtyish patrolman with shiny black hair and a flat,…

seventeen

I wanted to run after her, but I forced myself…

eighteen

My plane would leave soon. My bags were packed and…

I
struggled to breathe. If I'd come upon a cobra, hood flared, deadly tongue flickering, I could not have been more transfixed.

Yet, once my eyes saw the shiny white posterboard in its entirety, once my vision encompassed all of it—the cut-out pictures and story, the artfully pasted letters, the single stark sketch, and the taped plastic bag—a sickening acceptance washed over me.

The glistening cardboard had been folded in half to slip easily into the postal service's two-day, red-white-and-blue priority mailer. No cover letter, no note, no return name and address, simply the decorated posterboard.

I opened the envelope casually, standing by the walnut butler's table in my narrow entryway. I had no sense of impending drama, no inkling that my life would never be the same.

I unfolded the poster. There were six separate representations:

The first was my late husband Richard's obituary with the accompanying one-column news photo and the caption “Richard Lattimer Collins.” A red pencil had underlined the words: Collins fell to his death at the remote cliffside home of Belle Ericcson on the island of Kauai. Ericcson is a legendary foreign correspondent whose credits include Vietnam, the Six-Day War and El Salvador.

I was swept by the hideous sense of emptiness I'd felt when I'd held a current newspaper in my hand, seen the story that spelled an end to the invincible joy of a happy marriage. I'd written obits in the course of almost a half century as a newspaper reporter. That's how young reporters started in my early days. It became a quick, automatic ordering of the facts of a life, typewriter keys clacking. I didn't realize then the pain of seeing a loved one's existence reduced to lines of type:…“Survivors include his wife of thirty-nine years, Henrietta O'Dwyer Collins; his daughter, Emily Collins Drake, and her husband, Warren; two grandchildren, Diana and Neal Drake. Collins was preceded in death by his son, Robert Lattimer Collins…”

The second consisted of cut-out letters and numerals in two straggly lines, forming the dates March 30 and April 1.

March 30 held no significance for me. April 1 was the day Richard died. I could never laugh again on April Fool's Day, a day meant for lighthearted games, silly teasing, elaborate jokes. Richard had loved April Fool's Day, and he and the children had outdone one another with straight-faced evocations of absurdities. “Hey, Dad, did you see that huge bird that just flew by? Big as a boxcar!” Richard looked inquiringly at Emily and Bobby. “Bird? What bird?” Emily grinned, “Why, Dad, it's a favorite bird of yours.” “Really?” Richard craned his head, peered out the window. “Gosh, I don't see it.” Then Bobby hung from the window, flapped his hand.
“Over there, Dad, over there.” Richard peppered them with questions, but each time the bird flew by, he just missed it. Finally, he clapped his hands together and shouted, “There it is. It has to be. The bluebird of happiness. Right?” I heard the children's whoops of glee and Richard's dramatic declamations as if they were here beside me, close enough to hug, the three of them, Richard and Emily and Bobby. Then the happy voices subsided, plunged back into the recesses of my mind, there to be summoned but never again to sound in a careless present.

The third was a magnificent photograph of a steep cliff. Lush vegetation in every shade of green, from palest jade to darkest emerald, glistened in bright sunlight. Silvery falls splashed over sharp black rocks.

My hands trembled. The poster wavered. I didn't have to ask what cliff this represented, though I'd never seen the site where Richard died.

The fourth was a clip from an advertisement showing two gloved hands, palms forward, fingers outspread. The brown gloves had the rich sheen and texture of expensive leather.

The pulse thudded in my throat. Hands move at the direction of a mind. Human choice. Not chance. Not accident. I'd survived loss before. My foreign-correspondent father disappeared in the deadly melee of fleeing refugees and strafing guns after the fall of Paris in World War II. War is brutal and rapacious and incalculable, but its destruction is catastrophic, like a tidal wave or an earthquake. There is no individual to be held accountable. I could bewail the world, the human passions that result in bloody destruction, but not a single mind or pair of hands. Richard and I together mourned the death of our son Bobby in a car wreck. We grieved horribly, but it was an accident. No one deliberately snuffed out Bobby's young life. I blamed myself because I was the one who insisted we travel on the twisting mountain road to a fiesta. The brakes went out in the decrepit old truck that
rammed us. But the driver's little girl was buried that next week, too. I could blame poverty, timing, my own willfulness.

But not a pair of hands.

The fifth was a sketch of a stick figure tumbling backward toward the jagged points of boulders far below.

The drawing was haphazard, almost childish, pressure unevenly applied to the thick black grease pencil. But no child had drawn that plummeting body. Before my eyes, the stick figure metamorphosed into Richard, my Richard, flailing toward bloody death.

The sixth was a sandwich bag taped to the bottom of the poster, beneath the scrawled boulders.

Through the slick plastic, I saw pieces of slate-gray cardboard. Whatever those pieces meant, I knew it would cause me pain.

More pain.

It was as if the intervening years vanished and I was once again caught up in the shock and despair of Richard's death, my mind arguing that it had to be a mistake, that the call would come, the phone would ring, and it would be Richard saying, “It's okay, honey, I'm coming home.” As he had come home through the years from odd and distant places, a first-rate newspaperman and the man I'd loved above all others.

But there was no call, there was only emptiness, a world swathed in steel-gray, all color gone. I could see the vivid hues, but there was no warmth in my soul. I was alone.

I walked into my kitchen, carrying the posterboard in one hand, the mailer in the other. Thin March sunlight angled through an east window. I placed the posterboard on my kitchen table and ripped the bag loose, spilling out the cardboard pieces into a pool of sunlight. Despite the sorrow washing over me, lapping around me, a rising tide of misery, I understood what I saw. The uneven, oddly cut pieces of
cardboard were a puzzle, a puzzle created just for me by a nameless, faceless, cruel correspondent.

I almost scooped up the pieces, crushed them into a wad of smashed paper. My hands came close to the table. Somehow I made myself stop. It would not staunch the memories—or the agony—to destroy these little pieces of cardboard.

I don't know how long I stood there, aching with loss.

The thin sliver of sunlight moved and now the cardboard pieces were dull, making them even more chilling.

What damnable message awaited me?

I started to reach down, hesitated. But I felt abruptly sure that I could touch these pieces with impunity, that there would be no fingerprints to smudge. The person who had so carefully and coldly created this hellish exercise would be far too intelligent to leave any trace.

I arranged the pieces.

They formed a tombstone. Black letters—R. I. P.—scored the granite gray. A thick question mark was scrawled on the tombstone, over the letters.

My eyes moved from the tombstone to the tumbling stick figure. But I didn't see the drawing. Instead, nausea clawing at my throat, I saw Richard's body—
felt
Richard's body—plummeting faster and faster, inexorably, the law of gravity bleakly enforced, to slam painfully into rough black volcanic rock.

Oh, God, the pain Richard must have known! And the hideous heart-stopping terror of falling out of control…

It takes so long—so eternally long—to fall.

That's how Richard's life ended, the brutal obliteration of a mind and body that had given me pleasure and delight through the years. His laughter was forever stilled. No more quick and clever thoughts, no more vivid, concise writing, no more passion or effort or joy.

My heart raced. I struggled to breathe. But through the
pain of imagining, remembering, reliving, I understood the point—the vicious, mind-bending point—of this ugly collection.

Richard was pushed to his death. Gloved hands shoved him over the edge of that faraway cliff.

Richard was murdered.

That was the meaning of this motley, cleverly contrived collection. Yes, there was no doubt of the message.

I slumped into a kitchen chair. My entire body shuddered. I wasn't prepared on this cold spring day to have an all too recent wound torn asunder. There is never an end to mourning. Yes, the soft warmth of the sun, a smile, a child's laughter can connect you once again to the miracle and wonder of life. But the joy, the deep welling of utter happiness, is gone forever.

Richard. Oh, Richard.

Tears burned my eyes. My head throbbed. A flush flooded my face. I felt as though I might explode as anger warred with sorrow, bubbled beneath the shock. Who had put together this macabre display? And why? Oh, yes, most importantly, why? Why on this March morning was the hard-won equilibrium of my life shattered?

I tried to sort it out in my mind.

It was Belle Ericcson who first called with the news of Richard's death. It was the only time I ever spoke to her, and she broke my heart. Now I couldn't even remember the sound of her voice, that sound was gone as much of my memory of that hideous day was gone, mercifully buried where old pain is hidden. At first, I'd refused to believe it, tried to deny it even after I talked to the police in Kauai. I can't now remember those days. They are a fog of misery. I was adrift in a limbo of despair for months. Some days I wept. Some days I worked furiously, and now I have no idea what work it was. Some days I remembered the past: Richard showing Bobby how to put a minnow on a hook, the touch
of Richard's hands in the sweet deepness of night, Richard stroking a tennis ball to Emily. Some days I'd railed against the futility of it. Richard, my surefooted, graceful Richard, falling from a mountain trail.

But I never questioned that his death was anything other than what it seemed to be, a heartbreaking accident that took from us the kind of happiness that poets celebrate and lovers alone can understand.

Did life itself seem worthless?

Oh, yes.

But Richard would have me finish the course. No matter how long and hard and lonely the way.

Some realities are inescapable. There is no greater reality than death. I accepted reality. Richard was gone. Forever.

If, if, if…If he hadn't responded to the call from Belle Ericcson…If he had arrived on Kauai another day…

But no matter how the mind turns and twists, seeking respite, death is unequivocal, unchangeable, unrelenting.

So I mourned, spending an aimless, gray year, no longer finding excitement in covering late-breaking news. I'd spent a lifetime as a reporter, and much of that lifetime in tandem with Richard, willing to go where the news happened—at a trial, a hurricane, in war, in peace. Of late years we had accepted only occasional assignments, though we weren't quite retired. But we were talking of retirement, of spending days at art galleries, in traveling to exotic places, spending time with Emily and our grandchildren.

The year I lost him, I didn't accept any assignments. The world had lost its flavor. Without Richard, the old fire was tamped.

But I am too restless, too driven not to work. I needed work to fill the lonely hours. Finally, through a call from an old friend, I'd ended up on a quiet Missouri campus with a teaching job, a job that would end with this semester.

Throughout that time, I'd never questioned the circumstances of Richard's death.

The police detective I talked to—Kanoa, John Kanoa—had been gentle, but he confirmed Belle Ericcson's call. Richard had died in a fall from a canyon trail at the house where he had been visiting.

Ahiahi.

That was the name of Belle Ericcson's home high atop a remote cliff on the still unspoiled, as yet little developed island of Kauai.

Not that I'd ever seen Belle's house.

Not the house on Kauai. Nor the one in Dallas. Nor any of the others. The cities drifted through my mind like autumn leaves—London, Paris, Zermatt, San Francisco. She had a home, well-known architecturally, in each. It was odd that I knew this about Belle Ericcson. But through the years I had accreted little facts, unimportant facts, about a woman I'd never really known, a woman I'd carefully avoided knowing.

Oh, yes, I knew some things about Belle Ericcson, information likely familiar to the cognoscenti of popular culture. Belle Ericcson was rather famous in her own way, known as people know Barbara Walters or Judy Woodruff or Diane Sawyer.

Without thought or plan, I'd absorbed throwaway facts over the years: Belle's several marriages, her prize-winning exploration of the dumping of the mentally ill into the streets and alleys of America, the year she won the Powder Puff derby in her single-engine Cessna. And, of course, the great heartbreak of her life, a loss I understood only too well.

One of the wire-service stories about Richard's accident—but it wasn't an accident, was it?—had included a description of the remote, closed-to-public-view Ericcson home on Kauai and a translation of the name: Ahiahi—Evening.

All of Belle's homes had names. That's pretentious, isn't it? Or did I think that simply because I didn't like her.

Be fair, Henrie O. I could not in good conscience say that
I disliked Belle Ericcson. I didn't know her well enough to have an honest opinion.

Richard tried several times to bring us together. Belle came to Hong Kong and we were to meet for dinner at a restaurant high on a hill overlooking the city. I don't look back on that evening with pride. I tried hard throughout our years together to be honest or not to speak. That night I feigned a headache. That's the old excuse, isn't it? But I could not meet Belle. I was afraid. I knew that if I saw them together and surprised a look of intimacy, it would break my heart. And I could not say this to Richard because wouldn't I have then been accusing him of unfaithfulness?

BOOK: Carolyn G. Hart_Henrie O_04
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