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Authors: Mary Daheim

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“The children don’t live nearby,” Justine said. She opened a cherrywood sewing box next to her chair and took out what looked like a new needlepoint canvas. “Our son and our daughter have their own lives. They’re better off not being close to me. I would only make them unhappy. They never knew their Aunt Julia, you see.”

“Why did she marry Hans in the first place?” I asked.

“She was in love.” Justine grimaced as she carefully threaded a needle with pale blue yarn. “Julia was brilliant. She’d never dated much, she was always too wrapped up in her studies. Then Hans came along when they were in graduate school at Wisconsin. He was actually quite good-looking then, one of those lean, dark-haired types who probably reminded her of a Brontë hero. And of course he was very bright. Our parents favored the match.” She paused and pursed her lips. “Much more so than they did my own. They called Nat ‘that Mexican who’s on the make.’ It was Hans who was on the make, not Nat. My parents were poor judges of people. So was Julia.”

“Did you ever confront Hans after he went to work for the college?”

“I avoided him.” Justine looked away as if she could see him sitting in my place. “I couldn’t bear the sight of him. When Nat would mention his name I’d have to exert every ounce of self-control not to react.” Her gaze fixed on the empty canvas and she began to stitch with automatonlike precision. “Then, this past year, we gave a Christmas party. Hans rarely attended faculty social gatherings, but that girlfriend he had, Rita, apparently insisted that they go. To be honest, I don’t know if Hans knew who I was. I mean, as far as being Julia’s sister was concerned. We weren’t identical twins. But I took one look at him in our house and I couldn’t stand it. I . . . I’d had a couple of cocktails, and I told him that if he ever came to our home again, I’d kill him.” She hung her head. “Nat didn’t know what had gotten into me. I told him Hans had damaged one of my needlepoint pieces.”

I twisted around in my place. It wasn’t just the chair’s construction that was making me uncomfortable. “Was that when you decided . . . something had to be done?”

Resuming her stitchery, Justine nodded slowly. “That and the fact that Nat told me if he took another position, he might recommend Hans for the president’s job. I had no idea what I should do. Then Destiny asked me to read her play. She wanted my opinion. It was dreadful, of course, but I didn’t have the heart to tell her. But it gave me an idea. The only comment I made to Destiny was that I felt she should change the part of the café owner to a man. I spoke to Clea—she’s become somewhat of a friend—and asked her to insist on casting Hans. Naturally, Clea wanted to please me, so she did. The only sad part—ironic, really—was that it was Nat who had to pull the trigger. There was no way around it, of course, and he did it in all innocence.”

I tried not to fidget, though it was very difficult to keep my feet and hands still. “When did you switch the blanks for the bullets?”

Justine looked up from her work. “Cartridges, not bullets.” She almost smiled. “My father collected guns. He taught Julia and me how to shoot.” She bent her head to complete a vertical row at the top of the canvas. “I’d bought the bullets out of town in early February,” she continued. “I went backstage before the last act on the pretext of using the rest room for the cast and crew. No one paid any attention to me. They were all so busy. By chance, Boots Overholt was helping Reverend Poole with his angel wings. It was really quite easy to make the exchange.”

It probably was. Justine knew guns. She had gifted fingers—for exacting needlework and for sleight of hand with blanks and bullets. But I wondered what would have happened if Nat had missed Hans and hit one of the other actors. Or no one at all.

The silence between us had grown awkward. Justine obviously noticed it. “Are you certain you won’t have that drink?” she asked, as well mannered and constrained as ever.

“Yes. I mean, no, I’m fine. I have to drive home in this wind. I need to stay alert.” I was alert, but not fine, hoping my hostess wasn’t a reincarnation of Lucrezia Borgia, wondering if I should jump up and race out the door, praying that I would be allowed to leave this unhappy house that seemed more like a cell.

Justine held up the canvas. “I’m going to make a small tapestry to hang in the upstairs hall. The pattern is an angel. I’m starting with the sky.”

An avenging angel, maybe.
“That sounds lovely,” I said.

Justine put the canvas on the top of the sewing box and stood up. “I hope you won’t think too ill of me,” she said. “The newspaper has always treated the college most fairly.”

I stood up, too, though I stumbled over the hooked rug by the chair. “The college has benefited the town most admirably,” I replied, sounding as formal and stiff as Justine.

“Yes, it has,” she replied. “It’s saved Alpine in many ways, in great part because Nat has been so dedicated to its success. Nothing should be done to besmirch the school’s reputation. Or his.”

We were walking to the door. I felt faintly queasy, but I forced myself to speak. “Does Nat have any idea of . . . what happened?”

“I don’t really know,” Justine responded. “If he does, he’ll keep it to himself. As you will, I’m sure.”

I must have worn an uncertain look on my face. Justine offered me one of her cool smiles. “You have no proof, you see. If you were ever to mention any of what we’ve discussed, I’d simply deny it. All the sheriff would have is surmise. I understand Milo Dodge doesn’t like that sort of thing.”

Justine opened the door. I felt the wind blow into my face. It appeared that she was letting me go.

I stumbled again.

“Be careful,” Justine urged, grabbing my arm to keep me from falling. She and I both looked down. The mourning wreath had blown off the door onto the porch. “Oh, no!” she cried, and bent down to gather up the wreath. I watched her as she hugged it to her breast and then examined it closely. “It’s not really damaged. I’ll wait until the storm’s over before I put it back.”

I was standing on the bottom stair. “Don’t,” I said.

She stared at me. “What?”

“Don’t,” I repeated. “It’s over.”

She kept staring and then, still clutching the wreath, went back inside her cold, cold house and closed the door.

∗ ∗ ∗

I knew it wasn’t over for Justine Cardenas. She would be haunted for the rest of her days. She’d already served eight years of a life sentence.

No. That wasn’t quite right. She could still walk and talk and ply her needle, but she was dead inside.

That was the worst punishment of all.

∗ ∗ ∗

The news that Nat Cardenas had resigned as college president reached me as I was going into church the next morning. Mary Jane Bourgette came rushing up to me before I could get through the double wooden doors.

“Nat’s taking a job at a two-year college in upstate New York,” she announced in a breathless voice. “That’s what the emergency meeting was all about. You’ll get the full story for the paper first thing Monday.”

I was stunned, though upon reflection, I shouldn’t have been. Mary Jane obviously took my expression for mere surprise. “Now the college will have to find a new president
and
a new dean of students. Nat leaves at the end of March. We tried to talk him into staying through the academic year, but he was adamant. Honestly, you’d think he wouldn’t want to rush off. It sure puts us in a pickle.”

In her no-nonsense manner, Mary Jane hurried inside. I waited a moment, absorbing the news. It was just as well. Leaving Alpine was the best thing for Nat and Justine Cardenas. I’d pray for them. And for me. My conscience was unsettled.

Father Den’s homily for the first Sunday in Lent was about forgiveness and understanding. We mustn’t condemn others for their actions, he said. We don’t know what’s in their hearts. Only God knows; only God can judge.

My conscience quieted.

After communion, I looked up at the altar where Father Den had placed a large, bare wooden cross. After the glories of Rome, St. Mildred’s seemed so plain, so homely. But faith is simple. Lent reminds us that we all have to carry our cross. Milo carried loneliness and disappointment. Tom had borne the burden of his unstable wife, Sandra. I carried Tom’s loss. Justine’s cross had drained her of life.

Father Den’s addition to the altar didn’t look like a T. It looked like a cross.

Ben hadn’t wasted his money after all.

B
Y
M
ARY
D
AHEIM

The Alpine Advocate

The Alpine Betrayal

The Alpine Christmas

The Alpine Decoy

The Alpine Escape

The Alpine Fury

The Alpine Gamble

The Alpine Hero

The Alpine Icon

The Alpine Journey

The Alpine Kindred

The Alpine Legacy

The Alpine Menace

The Alpine Nemesis

The Alpine Obituary

A Ballantine Book

Published by The Random House Publishing Group

Copyright © 2004 by Mary Daheim

All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright
Conventions. Published in the United States by The Random House
Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, and
simultaneously in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto.

Ballantine and colophon are registered trademarks of Random House, Inc.

The Alpine Pursuit
is a work of fiction. Names, places, and incidents are
either a product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.

www.ballantinebooks.com

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data is available from the publisher upon request.

eISBN: 978-0-345-47224-3

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