After a stunned silence, Elaine asked haltingly, “What do you mean ‘all hell broke loose’?”
Warren didn’t answer right away, instead reaching for his mug with a shaky hand. For several minutes he sipped his coffee, his unfocused eyes staring straight ahead. I got the distinct impression that he was deciding how much of the story he could safely reveal. At last, he began, “One night I managed to sneak out of my parents’ house and get in to Appleton–never mind how I did it.” Elaine and I exchanged amused smirks before he continued, “I let myself into the bell tower and hid behind one of the beams close to the stairs to see if Mary would come up. Sure enough, just before midnight, the door opened, and Mary came sneaking up the stairs carrying a big book and a handful of candles. I got a little riled up when I saw that that part of the rumor was true. I was tempted to confront her right then, but I decided to wait and see what happened.” He went on to tell us that Mary knelt down on the floor between the clock face and the bell mechanism, arranged the candles in a circle and lit them, and opened the book. Then she waited, and so did Warren.
There was another pause as Warren gathered his thoughts; again I sensed that he was mentally sifting through which details he would share and which details he would keep to himself. “Mary sat there real quiet for a few minutes. Just as I was about to show myself and ask what she was doing…” Warren pursed his lips and looked down at his clenched fists. Elaine and I sat motionless, knowing that if we pushed him at this crucial point in his story, he would likely retreat into himself once more, and we would never hear what happened. Suddenly, he continued as though in a rush to get the words out, “The door opened again, and someone else came running up the stairs.” His steely eyes stared hard at his mug, and I noticed his white-knuckled grip ont he handle. “It was a man dressed in a long black overcoat with the collar turned up. I had to fight the urge to jump out then and there and beat the pulp out of him, but I waited. He crossed the room to Mary and pulled her to her feet and said…” Again a hesitation.
Elaine reached over to place a hand on his shoulder. I could see the sympathy in her eyes as she heard her uncle’s story for the first time.
Warren drew a shaky breath and went on, “He said, ‘Mary, my dear, I’m glad you agreed to meet me here tonight.’ That was enough for me; I figured the rumors were true. I stepped out and confronted them both.”
“Oh, Uncle Warren!” Elaine exclaimed tearfully. “How awful for you! Who was he?”
A strange look passed over Warren’s face, but was gone in an instant, and I knew his next words would be less than truthful. “I…I really don’t know who he was. I had never seen him before. Didn’t matter anyway.” The hard, closed look was back in his eyes as he finished his story in halting sentences, “He and I began fighting. Mary tried to break us up. One of us accidentally pushed her. She fell into the circle of candles and started the fire. Chil…the other man ran away while I tried to help Mary. Her clothes had caught fire, and she screamed for me to stay with her. Somehow she fell through the floor. I couldn’t help her myself, so I ran to call the fire company. By the time they got there, it was too late; Mary was gone.”
Two pieces of his story jumped out at me, and I wondered if Elaine had noticed. Warren had said he didn’t know the other man, but I could have sworn he almost gave a name when he said the other man ran away. The second thing that stood out was Mary pleading for him to stay with her. I wondered if her frightened, tearful “Stay with me” had somehow become the chilling “Die with me” that we’d captured the night of the fire.
Warren seemed to calm down somewhat after he’d told his story. Elaine’s expression was puzzled, as though she couldn’t understand why his story had remained a secret for so long. Finally she ventured, “Uncle Warren, that must have been so hard seeing Mary suffer like that and to not be able to help her…”
Elaine seemed unsure of what to say next, so I asked hesitantly, “The newspaper reports we saw only mentioned that you were in the bell tower with her. Didn’t they know…didn’t you tell them that there was someone else?”
Warren’s eyes were hard as he responded bitterly, “I was in all kinds of trouble that night, being in the women’s dorm after curfew, a fire, the death of a student. I told my parents about…the other man, but since no one had seen him, no one believed me. They tried to say I’d killed her. Of course, my father being a professor there, he didn’t want the scandal following him, so he smoothed things over, got me off the hook as best he could. But the whole damn story became a blight on the school and on the town. Dad soon resigned his position at the college and left academics altogether.” His eyes filled with sorrow and shame, and I felt sorry for the burden this man had carried for so many years. I wondered if it had been wise to urge him to dredge it all up again now.
Elaine slid her chair closer to Warren’s and put her arm around her elderly uncle. “I’m so sorry, Uncle Warren,” she began. “To have to go through so much at such a young age, and then no one believed your story. Is that why you and Dad really didn’t get along?”
My eyes flew open at the mention of a brother. Of course, I realized, if Warren was her uncle, then he’d have to have had at least one sibling. Warren nodded sadly and replied, “Well, Lainey, we’d never really gotten along that well. Lex was the perfect son, successful, smart, married a nice girl and had a beautiful family. I was the spoiled brat slacker, and it always bothered him that I was named after Dad. When this whole scandal broke, he accused me of bringing shame to Dad’s good name. We didn’t talk much after that.”
Our conversation turned once more to other things, and before long, I thought it best to take my leave. I thanked them both for speaking with me, although I wasn’t sure how the new information could get us any closer to putting Mary’s spirit to rest. Elaine hugged me once more and offered to exchange phone numbers; her eyes suggested that she shared my suspicion that Warren hadn’t told us everything just yet.
I leaned over to embrace Warren, and he held tightly to me for a moment. “Kyr, you’re such a sweet girl. Hold on to your Spooky fella; he’s a good man, even if his hair is too long.” Elaine and I laughed, and he drew back to look sharply at me. “Believe in each other, Kyr. Through all the doubts, through all the hard times. That’s what love is.” A cloud seemed to pass over us at that moment, although I could see the sky was still clear and the sun shone brightly. I sensed once more that there was much more to the story that he hadn’t told us.
During the short drive back to Willow Lake, I turned Warren’s story over and over in my mind, trying to read into his words whatever he wasn’t telling us, and I was certain there was something significant he wasn’t telling us. What happened to Mary was unquestionably tragic, and I could understand Warren’s–and even his father’s–desire to keep the details of that night from the public, but why would the college, the community and so many others want to keep the secret for so long? Something just didn’t add up, and I wondered if we’d ever know the truth.
By the time I got back to Willow Lake, it was late morning–too late for breakfast, but too early for lunch. Still, I felt guilty for running out on Spook, so I wanted to bring back something to eat. Spying a coffee shop, I decided to pick up coffee and sticky buns.
When I got back to the room, I put my ear to the door for a moment. It sounded like Spook was talking to someone, and I wondered if Ed and Phil had stopped by. I hoped not. I’d have enough explaining to do to Spook; I doubted Phil would take it well that I’d gone to see Warren alone.
Taking a deep breath, I unlocked the door and went inside. Thankfully, I saw that Spook was alone. He was sitting up in bed talking to someone on his cell phone. Our eyes met, and he raised an eyebrow at me as I bit my lip guiltily. “Hey, Grant,” he said, giving me a lopsided smile. “I’ll call you later. My little wanderer just came in.”
Spook tossed his cell phone on the nightstand and beckoned to me with his finger. His expression was stern, but there was a playful gleam in his eyes. As I walked hesitantly towards him, he eyed the coffee shop bag like a curious puppy. A slow smile spread across his lips, and he asked, “What’s in the bag?”
I sat down on the bed, set the coffees on the nightstand and handed him the bag. “Sticky buns,” I replied apologetically as he opened it and peeked inside. “I hope you like them.”
He pulled one of the gooey pastries out of the bag and regarded it. “I’ve never had one,” he said with a funny expression. I watched as he took a big bite, dripping carmelized sugar down his chin. I giggled and handed him a napkin. “You think it’s funny?” he asked, quickly setting the sticky bun on the napkin and planting a gooey kiss on my lips. I protested, laughing, and he kept kissing me till he had kissed off all the sugar.
We settled in and made short work of the sticky buns and coffee. After I popped the last bite of sticky bun into my mouth, I reached across Spook to grab a napkin to wipe my sticky fingers. He reached out quickly to grasp my wrist. “Where are your manners, young lady?” he asked, giving me a reproachful look. My eyes widened in surprise at his unexpected sternness, and I was about to apologize when he brought my hand to his mouth and continued huskily, “Allow me.” His dark eyes held mine as he slowly licked the sugar off my fingers; I stared wordlessly at him as chills raced down my spine at the intimate touch.
When all the sugar was gone, he kissed his way up my arm, pulling me closer as he did so. I giggled and snuggled closer to him as he wrapped his arms around me and nuzzled my neck. He raised his head to look down at me before whispering into my hair, “I was disappointed when I woke up alone this morning. I was looking forward to waking up with my beautiful girlfriend.” He kissed my temple and continued, “I was afraid you’d changed your mind about us.”
I couldn’t tell if he was serious or just teasing me. As I slipped my arms around his waist and started to assure him I hadn’t changed my mind, my eyes drifted down to his lap and lingered there as I recalled details from our night together. Blushing, I realized I was staring and forced myself to look away as I answered, “No, Spook, I didn’t change my mind.” I met his eyes tentatively and explained, “I just had something I had to do. Alone.”
Spook let out a long breath and regarded me seriously. After a long moment, the corners of his mouth twitched, and he asked, “So what did you find out from Warren?”
I gaped at him for a second and countered, “How did you…?”
“Elementary, my dear Watson,” he interrupted, laughing at my expression. Narrowing his eyes and leaning his forehead against mine, he continued, “I saw the wheels turning in your head last night when we were all talking in the parking lot, and I had a hunch you might pull something like this.”
Lowering my head guiltily, I gave him a crooked smile and said, “Then I guess my hunch was right; I had a feeling you knew what I was planning to do, and I was afraid you’d either try to stop me or want to come along.”
Spook crossed his arms behind his head and laid back on his pillow, laughing. “I did consider busting you out and coming along with you, but I know Warren doesn’t particularly like me. I didn’t want to mess up your chance to get some real information.”
I stretched out next to him and traced my finger across his chest for a moment before telling him, “Well, Warren still doesn’t like your long hair, but he admitted that you’re a nice guy.” When Spook gave me a questioning glance, I responded, “He said if I liked you, then you must not be so bad.”
“I think you could charm the scales off a snake, Kyr,” he joked, shaking his head. “Now how about you tell me what you found out. I’m sure there had to be something, as long as you were gone.”
Something in the way he said that told me that he’d heard me leave this morning and chose to let me go, but I said nothing. “Well,” I began, not knowing where to start. “We were right in thinking there was more to the story than what he told us last night.” My eyes met his anxiously. “And I can almost guarantee we still don’t have the whole story.”
Spook stared up at the ceiling and listened intently as I related the details Warren had given us about his relationship with Mary and what happened that night in the bell tower. When I told him about the other man who showed up that night, he sat up with a spark of interest in his eyes and asked, “Did he say who it was?”
“No,” I responded dejectedly. “The strange thing was that at first he claimed to not know who the man was, but when he told us about the fire, I could swear he almost let a name slip.” I paused, pondering the story Warren had told Elaine and me.
“Kyr,” Spook said excitedly, grasping my shoulder. “Last night in the parking lot, your ‘slip of the tongue.’ You said you sensed that Warren was hiding from someone…”
My eyes snapped up to meet his. I was certain I knew where his thoughts were headed because the same thing had crossed my mind. “You’re wondering if Warren might be hiding from whoever it was that met Mary in the bell tower.” A nod of his head confirmed that we were on the same track. I looked at him curiously. “But that hardly makes sense. Warren has to be close to 80, so if the mystery man in the bell tower was a fellow college student, he’d be about the same age. If he was someone older…” A sudden chill raced down my spine, and I got up to pace around, shaking my head.
Spook finished my thought for me. “Would someone older still be alive?”
i stopped pacing and turned to look at Spook. My voice sounded strange as I ventured, “Whoever that person was, I have a feeling he is still alive.” I didn’t voice my feeling that the person was someone older, but I sensed Spook watching me as though he thought I was withholding something. With more certainty than I should have felt, I continued, “Spook, that man is still alive, and Warren knows it. And whoever he is, he’s got some kind of hold over him. He’s the reason Warren won’t talk about what happened. But what could an 80- or 90-year-old man do to another 80-year-old man?”
Spook and I gazed at each other silently for a long moment before he replied mysteriously, “Well, I guess that depends on who the other man is. You said Warren slipped up and almost gave a name; what did he say?”
I knit my brows in concentration as I tried to recall what Warren had said. “He stopped before he gave the whole name, and he said it so fast I almost missed it. It sounded like Chill or Shill…something like that.”
“That’s not very much to go on,” Spook responded, the wheels in his head also turning. “Even if we’d scour the local phone books looking for similar names, that wouldn’t guarantee we’d find anything.”
I shrugged and added, “That was sixty years ago anyway. There’s no guarantee that this mystery man even lives in the area anymore.”
Spook regarded me for a moment before his eyes lit up. “We may not be able to find the mystery man’s name in a phone book, but we might find it in an old yearbook.” I looked back at him curiously, not following him at first. Then the light bulb went off, and I knew what he was suggesting. “Are you up for a visit to the campus library?”
My shoulders slumped as I realized that wouldn’t work. “It’s a holiday weekend, and classes have only just started, so the library won’t be open till Tuesday,” I replied dejectedly. Then a second light bulb went off. “But we might be able to get a hold of Mrs. Rutter and see if we can look at her mother’s yearbook again.”
We quickly decided that that was a plan, so while Spook hopped in the shower, I tracked down Mrs. Rutter’s home phone number and gave her a call. She seemed only slightly surprised to hear that we were back in Willow Lake still trying to get to the bottom of the Appleton bell tower mystery, but when I explained the situation and what we needed, she was more than willing to oblige.
It turned out that Mrs. Rutter lived with her mother only a few blocks from the hotel, so Spook and I took advangtage of the warm, sunny day and walked there. I sighed contentedly as we strolled down the tree-lined street. The leaves on the maple trees were just beginning to turn yellow, and I fondly recalled going for long walks in the fall simply to enjoy the beauty of the autumn foliage. As I glanced around, noting some of the changes to the neighborhoods, I caught Spook gazing tenderly at me. I returned his smile and asked, “What’s that look for?”
He took my hand and brought it to his lips before responding, “You really do love this place, don’t you?”
I rested my head against his shoulder and said, “I do. I don’t know what it is, but I feel so at home here.” Even after all that had happened with the investigation, Dr. Harris’ belligerent attitude over the findings, and the secrecy surrounding whatever had occurred in the bell tower, my love for Willow Lake was still strong. I glanced at Spook sheepishly; certain that he was thinking I was a sentimental fool.
Chuckling, he put his arm around my shoulders and drew me close. “That’s one of the things I love about you, Kyr. When you love something…” He kissed the top of my head. “…or someone, you love deeply, and it’s obvious to everyone.”
I lowered my gaze to the sidewalk and muttered, “Unfortunately, it also means I get hurt deeply.”
A shadow passed briefly over Spook’s face as he replied almost bitterly, “Been there, done that; believe me.” He didn’t meet my eyes, but instead stared intently at the ground as we walked. He laughed shortly, and when I looked up at him, he was giving me a sheepish, lopsided smile. “And then I put up walls to keep people from getting close to me.”
I slipped my arm around his waist and added, “I know what you mean. I threw myself into my work so I didn’t have time to go out and meet people.” I thought about how many times JoEllyn and Aunt Julia had accused me of that after Trevor and I broke up. I had vehemently denied it, and in fact even believed it until Spook came barreling into my life.
Spook was quiet for a moment before he gave my hair a playful tug and half chuckled. When I gave him a questioning glance, I saw mischief in his eyes as he teased, “Of course, some people I know just develop crushes on married celebrity paranormal investigators they know they have no chance with.”
My face flushed as I stopped dead in my tracks and gaped at him; he had never let on that he knew about my one-time crush on Grant, and I suddenly felt silly knowing that he had known all along. Looking away guiltily, I defended, “Not anymore, I don’t.”
He laughed out loud and pulled me into a hug. I buried my face in his chest, remembering his first impression of me as a TAPS groupie and had a sudden picture of how bad I must have appeared in his eyes. He pulled back and leaned his forehead against mine, growling, “I certainly hope not. Although I know I don’t measure up to him by a longshot.”
I forgot my discomfort as my eyes darted up to his face. He wasn’t quick enough to hide the briefest flash of insecurity in his eyes. When he turned to me, I could see uncharacteristic vulnerability in his expression. My voice was thick as I teased, “True, you’re no Grant Wilson.” I smirked at his raised eyebrow and finished, “You’re so much more.”
“You don’t wish I were more like Grant?” he asked skeptically, flipping his long, chestnut- brown hair out fo his face.
My stomach flip-flopped, and my knees weakened as I shook my head. “I thought I really wanted someone like Grant. But I guess I needed someone like you. Sometimes I can’t even remember why I was so crazy over him” I stood on tiptoe to wrap my arms around his neck and kiss his lips gently.
Spook wrapped his arms tightly around me as he returned my kiss. Then he tenderly stroked my cheek and teased, “And I never saw myself falling for a timid, klutzy, red-headed librarian, but I couldn’t be happier.”
As we stood gazing at each other with puppy-dog eyes, a leaf suddenly fell from one of the trees, dropping unceremoniously on Spook’s shoulder. We both snapped out of our reverie and remembered where we were headed. Spook gave me one final peck on the cheek, and we continued walking.