A Forgotten Murder – Jude Deveraux

Puck didn’t expect to find a body. She certainly hadn’t been looking for the skeleton of a man no one seemed to remember. How she had mourned him when he disappeared. Her mother told her to stop sniveling, that at fourteen she had no idea what love was. But she did know! Now, so many years later, she was still at Oxley Manor, and this morning she was hiding from her mother—as usual. The absurdity that she was thirty-eight years old and still trying to escape Mummy wasn’t lost on her. If her beloved cottage hadn’t been gifted to her, she would leave Oxley. Maybe. There were perks to living where she did. Today she’d been planning on going wildcrafting in the Preserve at the north end of the 130-acre estate. She’d made sure her phone’s sound was off, put it in her shirt pocket and buttoned the flap. When her mother inevitably called and couldn’t reach her, she’d say that yet again she’d forgotten the gadget. She let no one know that she used her phone to photograph all the plants she found on the estate so she could catalog them. One of the farmers told her his grandmother used to pick yellow-leaved wild thyme there. She could use the herb in the wreaths she made and sold.

The Preserve was a dozen fenced-in acres that the owner, Mrs. Guilford, said were to be left untouched. No machines, not even people were to walk across it. Wildlife only. She had installed signs warning of danger, but everyone knew that Mrs. Guilford was trying for some conservation award so she could use it in the hotel’s publicity. At the edge of the thorn-filled woods, Puck stopped and listened. She was good at hearing what others didn’t, adept at seeing what they couldn’t. No one was nearby. She was thin and knew how to move without disturbing plants or animals.

Not even the birds ran from her. There was a lock on the gate and Puck knew the key was hanging on a rack in the kitchen, but she hadn’t dared take it. It might be missed. Instead, she’d climbed over the fence. Inside, she walked slowly, leaving few crushed plants in her wake. She didn’t want anyone to know she’d been there. She walked in quite a way, across about four acres. Briars scratched her legs and something bit her on the neck. After a couple of hours, she hadn’t seen any wild thyme so she thought she should turn back. She decided to go out a different way so she’d be less likely to leave a path.

She’d walked only a few yards when the ground suddenly gave way under her. She fell straight down for what had to be ten feet. Fortunately, she landed on moss and years of composted vegetation. It was a relatively soft landing but she was dazed. Sitting up, she tested her body to see if anything was broken. Her ankle hurt and she was going to be bruised, but she was all right. When she looked up, she could see the sky overhead. It was going to rain soon, and she was at the bottom of a wide, deep hole. Part of the sides were stone, some bare ground. Covering the top was a vine-covered roof made of very old iron bars.

They had rusted to the point that, when she’d stepped on one side, the bars had given way. The question now was how she was going to get out. Standing, she checked her phone. It was working. The smartest thing to do would be to call for help. One of the farmers would show up with a rope and pull her out. And then what? She was where she shouldn’t be. People would delight in yelling at her. Treating her like a moron. Threatening her.

Legally, she could be denied permission to roam the estate. She didn’t want to think what her mother would say. The consequences weren’t worth asking for help. As Puck looked for a way out, she wondered what the place had been made for. Ice storage? A root cellar? From the look of it, it was a few hundred years old. At some point, the top had been covered —and then left to rot. There were a few animal skeletons on the ground. Poor things had fallen in and couldn’t get out. She moved her foot around, testing the damage. Not bad.

That was good, since she was going to have to climb up. The stones on one side were too smooth, too big for climbing, but she thought she could make footholds in the dirt part of the wall. Looking up, she saw that a few feet down from the top was a place that had been hollowed out to form a ledge. She could see loose rocks along the lip. They looked like they’d been stacked there. Above the ledge, the ground tapered back and there were hanging roots she could use to pull herself up. If she could just get to that shelf, she could get herself out. The soles of her shoes were thick and not flexible enough for climbing. She’d be better off barefoot. She untied her shoes and took them off.

What to do with them was a question. String them around her neck as she climbed? Too distracting. She tossed a shoe up toward the ledge. The first one missed but she landed the next throw. It took five tries to get the second shoe up there. When some of the rocks rained down, she covered her head. The climb was easier than she thought it would be. Years of tree climbing helped her place her feet. She didn’t realize how scared she was until she reached the ledge. In relief, she leaned back against the rocks.

When they scattered, she didn’t mind. It was good to be off the bottom—and to be safe. The rest of the way up would be easy. Leaning back on her elbows, she gave herself a few minutes to calm her heart. Too bad she’d never be able to tell anyone about this adventure. Instead, she’d have to cover the top of the big hole and hope no one else fell in. She drew her knees up to her chest and rubbed her ankle. The movement shifted the dirt enough that she saw something metal on the floor of the ledge. When she dug it out, she discovered it was a watch, dirty and corroded. She tried to see the dials but there was too little light.

She wondered how it got there. Had someone dropped it over the side? There were some sticks in the dirt and she used one to dig around a bit. What else was hidden in there? It was too dark to see much so she took her phone out of her pocket and turned on the flashlight. There was dirt, pebbles and sticks. Nothing interesting. She was about to turn it off when she realized that what she was holding wasn’t a stick. It was a bone. With a gasp, she dropped it. Slowly, afraid of what she was going to see, she turned the light around. Behind her, deep in the shadows, stretched out, was a full, human skeleton.

Strands of dark hair clung to its skull. Pieces of rotted clothing were beneath the bones. As Puck turned off the light, she was shaking. Her trembling fingers touched the buttons to call her mother. Come and get me! Rescue me! she wanted to cry. No! she thought, and disconnected. She had visions of what would happen if she told of her find. The police and newspaper reporters would come with their flashing lights. The hotel would fill with tourists who loved the macabre. Oxley Manor would become an entry in books about Places of Death.

Puck took a few breaths and looked at the way up. She put the phone and the watch in her pocket and climbed out. Once she got to the top, she threw up. Her stomach retched and heaved and emptied itself. Still barefoot, she made her way to a tree and sat down. She needed time to think about what to do. When her heart had calmed enough, she looked at the watch. Using her thumbs, she cleaned off the back, then held it up to the light. It was engraved on the back. TO SEAN THORPE.

FIRST PRIZE. 1991. Puck leaned back against the tree and closed her eyes. Sean had been her friend, a true friend. That his body was here was proof that he had not run away as everyone said he had. But then Puck had never believed what they’d said about him. The affair. The betrayal of everyone. They even blamed him for all that happened later. She’d heard them say, “If it hadn’t been for Sean, Nicky would still be alive.

” Puck told them that Sean wasn’t like that. If nothing else, he wouldn’t have left the horses without food or water. “Something happened to him,” she’d cried. “I know it did.” But no one would listen to her. Certainly not the police. She put the watch in her pocket, covered the broken opening with branches and left the Preserve. For the next two years she didn’t enter that area of the estate. And she never came close to telling anyone about what she’d seen. Her only reaction to the horror of what she’d discovered was that she kept even more to herself.

She’d always been a loner, but the effect of what she’d seen deepened her reputation of being “odd” and “different.” But that was all right. Better that than being the one who had introduced murder to Oxley Manor. Her silence wasn’t altogether altruistic. She worried that the person who had put Sean in that place would find her shoes there. And that person would know what she’d seen. OXLEY MANOR PRESENT DAY Puck was out of sight in the pantry when she first heard the name Sara Medlar. “Never heard of her,” Puck’s mother said to Mrs. Isabella Guilford, the owner of Oxley Manor. “She paid to restore this place, Mrs.

Aiken,” Isabella said. “I owe her—” She waved her hand. “I don’t want to think of that, but let me say that I cannot turn her away. She and two others are flying in from Florida in three days.” “The house is closed.” Puck’s mother slammed a heavy copper pot down on the big oak table. Even though it had been years, she refused to accept that her beloved Oxley Manor was now a hotel. “That’s why she’s coming. She’s bringing her niece and her honorary grandson, Jack.” “‘Honorary grandson,’” Puck’s mother muttered as she began chopping carrots.

“I guess you expect me to cook for them.” Isabella gritted her teeth. Since the hotel was closed all of March and there were no guests, yes, Mrs. Aiken would need to do the cooking. Bella knew the cantankerous old woman would love being the boss of what she still considered “her” kitchen, but she also knew she’d have to coax her. Why oh why couldn’t Sara come when the place was staffed? “Just three of them?” Mrs. Aiken asked. “And all Americans? I don’t know how to make pizza. Or those two-pound hamburgers.” Bella refrained from rolling her eyes.

Instead, she straightened her shoulders. “This weekend will be a full house. There will be seven guests in total. All but Sara will leave on Monday. Her two are going to tour the Highlands.” “So what about her?” Mrs. Aiken asked. “What’s she going to do?” “I assume you mean Sara. ‘She’ as you call her, can do anything she bloody well wants. But she’s staying here alone so she can write.

” “About what?” Mrs. Aiken snapped. Bella had her hand on the doorframe. “I don’t know. She said she found some old story on the internet that everyone had forgotten about. Something about a couple of lovers who ran off together.” She stepped into the hallway. “Wait!” Mrs. Aiken called, and Bella looked back into the kitchen. “You mean that girl and the man in the stables?” Her voice was hoarse.

“I guess so. That was before my time.” “Who is coming?” Mrs. Aiken whispered. This time Bella did roll her eyes. “I don’t remember their names. Sara said they were part of a club and had a party the night the couple ran away together.” “Nadine, Byon, Clive and Willa,” Mrs. Aiken said softly. “They’re the only ones left.

” Her face had drained of color. Bella hadn’t thought of it, but Mrs. Aiken was probably there the night the couple ran off together. From Mrs. Aiken’s expression, Bella knew she should be sympathetic. But why was that so traumatic to her? “Yes, I think those are the names. Sara wants to talk to them. I think she wants to use the runaways as a plot for a book.” Bella sighed. “Since she retired from writing, that makes no sense.

Maybe she’s just bored. Whatever the reason, they’ll need food. Can you do it? If not, I’ll hire a caterer.” Mrs. Aiken seemed incapable of speaking, but her nod was good enough for Bella. In a few minutes, six girls were coming to clean and she needed to oversee their work. She quickly walked down the hall. “Deliver me from drama,” she said, then hurried to answer the bell on the front door. In the kitchen, Puck was still in the pantry, unseen by anyone. She watched her mother as she tried to put the sliced carrots into the pot.

But her hands were shaking too badly. She dropped the carrots onto the floor, then went out the back door. Puck slipped out of the pantry, went through the house, then outside. She hurried to her own house and grabbed her laptop. She wanted to find out who this Sara Medlar was. Thirty minutes later, she leaned back in her chair, her heart pounding in her throat. She’d read through all the hype: sixty million books in print, years on the New York Times Bestseller List, etc. That meant nothing to her. What mattered was a small article in the Miami Sun Sentinel. A reporter said it was strongly rumored that Sara Medlar, along with her niece and her “almost grandson” had solved two old murders.

“Murders that others dismissed,” the reporter wrote. When the Morris women were brutally murdered, people cared so little no one even noticed they were missing. They were Forgotten Murders. The police deny it, but the scuttlebutt is that the Medlar trio solved the case. Puck stared at the screen. It was the same with Sean. Everyone had forgotten about him. And what about Diana? Was her body in that odious pit with Sean’s and she’d missed it? She made herself a mug of tea and sat back down. She hadn’t kept up with the others who’d been in Nicky’s group. After that horrible night, she’d never wanted to see any of them again.

But now she was wondering what had become of them. She spent the rest of the day researching and reading

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