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When reclusive reporter Miren Lassiter inherits her scientist uncle’s riverside cottage, her carefully guarded world is upended. She discovers the body of a local historian hanging from antique gallows in a museum, and soon becomes a suspect in his murder. Mysterious intruders break into her home. When she catches one of them in the act, he is the last person on earth she expects to see.
As Miren struggles to get answers from scientists, history buffs, and nosy neighbors, she must face the reasons behind her fear of intimacy and commitment and reach out to others to identify a murderer...before she becomes the next victim.
Page Count: 278
Word Count: 66954
My hands were tied behind my back, so I had to pull the panel closed with my feet. I was in total darkness, in a space just big enough to hold a seated person. There wasn’t room to stand. Someone had made this space, had hollowed out the side of the massive fireplace, then split the stones to veneer and fitted them onto a hinged panel.
I couldn’t tell if the panel had latched behind me. It had been used—or at least intended—to conceal someone who was being hunted.
I wondered what had become of whoever had hidden here, more than one hundred and fifty years ago. Were they trapped? They must have gotten out, or the space would be full of bones.
Then I thought, how do I know it isn’t full of bones?
Tires crunched on the gravel drive outside. But the sound faded.
I was on my own.
Then a closer sound: a whiny, querulous voice. Slightly muffled, but I heard panic through the stone.
A pause, then louder.
I stopped my lungs as long as I could. There was breathing right outside the panel. In the fireplace. When I inhaled, I caught the faint odor of lamp oil and soot. Then, the grind of the damper, stiff with rust, and the slight patter of residue as it dropped onto the flagstone hearth. I pictured the oil lamp, held aloft. Now my name came from very close, from higher up, in the base of the flue.
Footsteps. Close, then distant. Back and forth. Hurried. A disorganized search. They became fainter, then stopped. I was alone, undetected. For now. I got to work on the knot behind me.
Time went by. The knot yielded slightly, softening as I wiggled it back and forth. My fingers and wrists were probably bleeding, and I didn’t care. And finally, I felt the hard nub of the knot turn into a loop, just big enough to fit my fingers through and pull. More time went by. Finally, the rope fell away. My hands were free. My shoulders resisted as I moved my arms painfully forward and flexed my fingers.
I was afraid to open the panel. Who would I find outside? How long could I wait, without food or water? Should I try to escape while I had the advantage of darkness?
I thought back to how it all started. It seemed so routine, in retrospect. That day at The Bucks County Clarion when everyone worried about their jobs as newsroom positions evaporated.
Back then, I was afraid of losing my job.
Now I was afraid of dying.
The ax fell on Friday.
We arrived in the newsroom that August morning to find security guards stationed at pivotal points along the corridors.
Then the phones rang, one by one, as editors and reporters were summoned to the office.
As the newsroom thinned out, dread and apprehension settled over us like a storm cloud. I was on automatic pilot, finishing a lightweight story about an antique car show in New Hope. I searched the cloud for silver linings, but it wasn’t easy. I needed this job. I needed my own place, my independence.
I sent my file to the features desk and contemplated those silver linings. I didn’t have a mortgage. No kids or pets depended on me. I’d been through worse, and I’d get through this.
And then my turn came. I stood before F.X. Rosenzweig, harried and gray in his shirtsleeves. He motioned me to a chair. “We appreciate all you’ve done for the Clarion over the past year, Miren. Unfortunately, our profit paradigm is such that the mission can no longer sustain our current level of…” His voice trailed off.
He waved his hands in a you-get-my-drift motion and sighed. “We’re reducing the newsroom staff by a third. I’m told it’s still possible to put out a paper, but we’ll have to do more with less, as they say.”
He shuffled through a nest of folders on his desk. “Lassiter, Lassiter…here it is. You will receive severance based on years of service, which in your case will amount to—oh dear.”
I know, I thought. Bupkis and change.
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