Cover Of Night (Chapter 3)

Cate got up at five AM to begin preparations for the day. The first tiling she did was look out her side window into the parking area below, to see if Mr. Layton had returned during the night and was perhaps sleeping in his car, since she hadn't been awakened by any pounding on the front door. The only vehicles there were her red Ford Explorer and her mother's rental, which meant Mr. Layton was still a no-show. Where on earth was that blasted man? The least he could have done was to call and tell her… something: when he'd be back or, failing that, what to do with his stuff.

She was so annoyed she decided she would pack up his things and charge him a second night's stay for her trouble. It wasn't as if she had a lot of free time on her hands today – or any other day, come to that.

But first she had to start the coffee and get ready for the morning influx of customers. The big house was silent except for the ticking of the grandfather clock in the hallway, and though she had a lot to do, she treasured the peacefulness of these early hours when she was the only one awake and she could be alone. Only this early did she have the opportunity to think without the constant interruptions of children and customers; she could talk to herself if she wanted or listen to music while she worked. Sherry would arrive shortly before seven, and at almost seven thirty on the dot the twins would come galloping downstairs, as hungry as bears emerging from hibernation, but for these two hours she could sneak in a little time for Cate the woman. She even got up a little earlier than she really needed to so she wouldn't be rushed and could have an extra few minutes to savor.

As sometimes happened, she found herself wondering if Derek would have approved of her decision to move to Trail Stop.

He had really liked this area, hut as a visitor, not an inhabitant. And they both had adored this B and B when they'd stayed here. The memories of the good times they'd had – going on muscle-burning, treacherous climbs during the day, then coming back here both exhausted and exhilarated and falling into the soft bed, only to discover they weren't that exhausted after all – had definitely influenced her when she'd been looking for someplace less expensive than Seattle to live.

She felt close to Derek here. Here, they'd known only happiness. And while she had also been happy with him in Seattle, that was where he had died and it held a host of bleak associations with those last terrible days. Sometimes, when she still lived there, the memories would overwhelm her and she would feel as if she were living the nightmare all over again.

This street was the one she had driven down on the way to the hospital. There was where she had stopped to pick up his dry cleaning, never dreaming she was picking up the suit he would be buried in. Here was where she'd bought the dress she'd worn to the funeral, the dress she had thrown in the trash as soon as she'd removed it, sobbing and cursing and trying to tear the hateful garment from neck to hem. Their bed was where he'd lain, burning with fever, before he became so sick he agreed to let her take him to the ER – and by then it was too late. After he died, she had never slept in that bed again.

The memories, as much as sheer economics, had driven her from Seattle. She missed the city, missed the cultural entertainments, the bustle and character, the Puget Sound and the ships. Her family was there, and her friends. But by the time she was able to go back the first time for a visit, she had spent so much time here in Trail Stop, working on the house, getting herself and the boys settled, trying to improve business by every means she could think of, that she had somehow become more of here than of there. She was now a visitor to her home city, and home was… here.

To the boys, of course, this had always been home. They'd been so young when she moved that they had no memories of living anywhere else. When they were older and the B and B was – please, God! – more successful, she intended to take them to visit her parents more often instead of the other way around. While in Seattle she could lake them to concerts, to ball games, to plays and museums, and round out their experiences so they knew there was more to life than this little end-of-the-road community.

She didn't dismiss the good aspects of living here. In a place so small that everyone knew everyone else the boys could safely play outside while she kept an eye on them from the window. Everyone knew her and the boys – knew where they belonged, and wouldn't hesitate to bring them home if they were seen wandering too far from the house. Their days consisted of one chore – putting away their toys at the end of the day – and hours and hours of playing, finishing up with story time and brief, repetitive lessons on their letters, numbers, and colors and the few short words they could read. Baths at seven thirty, bedtime at eight, and when she tucked the covers around them, she saw little boys who were both tired and contented, and utterly secure. She had worked hard to give them that security and was happy that, right now, they had everything they needed.

The other big plus of living here was the beauty that surrounded her. The landscape was majestic and awe-inspiring, and almost unbelievably rugged. Trail Stop was, literally, the end of the trail. If you went any farther, you went on foot – and not easily.

Trail Stop existed on a little spit of land that rose from the sloping valley floor like an anvil. To the right rushed the river, wide and icy and treacherous, with sharp, jagged rocks jutting above the spray. Even white-water rafters didn't try the rapids here; they started their adventures about fifteen miles downriver. On both sides rose the Bitterroot mountains and the vertical expanses of rock that she and Derek had climbed, or attempted to climb and abandoned as too difficult for their level of expertise.

Trail Stop was basically in a box, with one gravel load linking it to the rest of the world. The peculiar geography protected them from snowslides, but sometimes during the winter she would hear the roar of snow collapsing and rushing down the steep slopes, and she would shiver in reaction. Life here was complicated, but the inconveniences and lack of cultural opportunities were offset by the breath taking natural beauty surrounding them. She missed being close to her family, but her money went much further here. Maybe she hadn't made the best possible decision, but overall she was satisfied with her choice.

Her mother came yawning into Che kitchen and without a word, went to the cabinet to retrieve a cup then back out into the dining room to get some coffee. Cate glanced at the clock and sighed. Five forty-five; her two hours of solitude had been cut short this morning, but the payoff was she'd get to spend some time with her mother without the boys clamoring for their Mimi's attention. Here, too, there was balance. She missed her mother, wished they could see each other more often.

Her face practically buried in the coffee cup, Sheila reentered the kitchen and, with a sigh, sat down at the table. She wasn't a morning person, so Cate suspected she had set the alarm in order to have some mother-daughter time before the twins got up.

"What kind of muffins today?" Sheila finally asked in a hoarse tone.

"Apple butter,'" Cate said, smiling. "I found the recipe online."

"Bet you didn't find the apple butter at that dinky little store across the road."

"No, I ordered it online from a place in Sevierville, Tennessee." Cate ignored the dig because, first of all, it was true, and second, she knew that even if she'd moved to New York City, her mother would have found something wrong there, too, because her core problem was that she wanted her daughter and grandchildren nearby.

"Tanner's talking more," Sheila observed a moment later, pushing her blond hair out of her face. She was a very pretty woman, and Cate had often wished shed inherited her mothers looks instead of the mishmash of features she sported.

"When he wants. I've almost decided he hangs back so Tucker can be the one who gets in trouble." Grinning, she related the tale of Mr. Harris's tools, and how Tanner had somehow figured out the basics of simple math so he knew he had only eight minutes left in the naughty chair.

Her mother laughed, but her expression was full of pride. "I've read that Einstein didn't talk until he was six, or something like that. Maybe I'm wrong on the age."

"I don't think he's the next Einstein." Cate would settle for healthy and happy. She had no ambitions for her sons; standards, yes, but not ambitions.

"You never can tell." Sheila yawned. "My God, I couldn't face getting up this early every day. It's barbaric. Anyway, you can't tell how a child will turn out. You were a total tomboy, always playing softball and climbing trees, plus you were in that climbing club, and now look at you: your entire career is domestic. You clean, you cook, you waitress."

"I run a business," Cate corrected. "And I like cooking. I'm good at it." Cooking was, for the most part, a pleasure. Nor did she mind waiting tables for her customers, because the one-on-one contact helped bring them back. On the other hand, she hated cleaning, and had to force herself to do it every day.

"No argument there." Sheila hesitated. "You didn't cook much when Derek was alive."

"No. We split it about evenly, plus we'd order in. And we ate out a lot, at least before the boys were born." Carefully she poured milk into a large measuring cup, bending down to eye the level markers. "But after he died, I spent every night at home with them and I got bored with the fast food I'd pick up, so I bought some recipe books and started cooking." It was difficult to remember that that was only three years ago; the processes of measuring and mixing were so second nature now she felt as if she'd been cooking forever. The early experiments, when she had tried all sorts of exotic dishes, had also been a way to occupy her mind. She had also thrown out a lot of those efforts, judging them inedible.

"When your dad and I first married and you kids were little, I used to cook every night. We didn't have the money to eat out; a burger from a fast-food joint was a luxury. But I don't do it much now, and I don't miss it."

Cate eyed her mother. "But you still make those huge meals for Thanksgiving and Christmas, and you always baked our birthday cakes."

Sheila shrugged. "Tradition, family; you know the drill. I love everyone getting together, but to be honest, I'd just as soon skip the huge meals."

"Then why don't I do the cooking for our get-togethers? I like it, and you and Dad can play with the boys and keep them occupied."

Sheila's eyes lit up. "Are you sure you wouldn't mind?"

"Mind?" Cate gave her a look that questioned her sanity. "I'm getting the best end of the deal. They find new ways every day to get into trouble."

"They're just being boys. You were adventurous, but Patrick's first ten years came close to turning my hair white – like the time he set off that 'bomb' in his room.'

Cate laughed. Patrick had decided firecrackers weren't loud enough, or powerful enough, so one Fourth of July he somehow collected over a hundred of them. With a knife filched from the kitchen he had carefully split open each firecracker and dumped the gunpowder contents onto a paper towel. When he had all the gunpowder in a pile, he asked for an empty tin can, which, thinking he intended to make a can-and-string "telephone," Sheila had cheerfully provided.

He had read about the old muzzle-loading rifles, so he figured his bomb would follow the same premise, except he hadn't been exactly certain what went where. He'd packed the tin can with toilet paper, tiny gravel, and the gunpowder, then twisted a length of thread together and soaked it with rubbing alcohol to make his fuse. To keep the floor from burning, he set his "bomb" on a cookie sheet – and as a finishing touch, he took his old fish bowl and turned it upside down over the can. with one side of the bowl propped up just a little bit so the thread could run under the rim and up to the can. His thinking had been that the bowl would contain everything and he'd get the noise and flash without having to clean up a mess.


The one good thing Patrick had done was to take cover behind his bed after lighting the fuse.

With a loud bang the fishbowl shattered, sending glass and gravel flying around the room. The wad of toilet paper, having caught on fire, disintegrated into small flaming pieces that floated down to cover the bed, the carpet, even getting inside the open door of Patrick's closet. When his parents burst through the door, Patrick was busily stamping out sparks on the carpet and trying to put out the nice little flame spreading on his bedspread by spitting on it.

It hadn't been funny at the time, but now Cate and Sheila looked at each other and burst into laughter.

"I'm afraid that's what I have to look forward to," Cate said, torn between amusement and horror. "Times two."

"Maybe not," Sheila said, a trifle dubiously. "If there's any justice in the world, though, Patrick will have four kids who are just like him. My dearest wish is that he'll call me in the middle of the night because his kids have done something horrendous and he'll sob while he apologizes from the bottom of his heart."

"But poor Andie will have to suffer, too."

''Well, I do love Andie, but this is about justice. If she has to suffer, too, my conscience will hold up under the burden."

Cate snorted with laughter as she sprayed the muffin pans with butter-flavored nonstick spray, and then began spooning batter into the cups. She adored her mother; she was strong-willed, a bit irascible, and she loved her family to distraction while letting her children get away with nothing. A line Cate fully intended to use on the twins when they were older was one she'd heard her mother shout at Patrick after listening to him whine for an hour because he had to mow the lawn: "Do you think I carried you for nine months and suffered through thirty-six hours of agonizing labor to bring you into this world so you could sit on your butt? (ret out there and mow that lawn! That's what I had you for!"

Sheer genius.

After another hesitation, Sheila said, "There's something I want to talk to you about, let you think on it while I'm here."

That sounded ominous. Her mother looked ominous. Cate felt an automatic tightening in her stomach. "Is something wrong, Mom? Is Dad sick? Are you sick? Oh, my God, you aren't gelling divorced, are you?"

Sheila stared at her, eyes wide, then in tones of awe said, "Good God, I've raised a pessimist."

Gate's cheeks flushed. 'Tin not a pessimist, but the way you said it, as if something is wrong – "

"Nothing's wrong, I promise." She took a sip of coffee. "It's just that your dad and I would like to have the boys come home with me for a visit, since he hasn't seen them since Christmas. They're old enough now, don't you think?"

Played. Cate rolled her eyes. "You did that on purpose."

"Did what on purpose?"

"Made me think something terrible was wrong" – she held up her hand to halt her mother's protest – "not by what you said but how you said it, and your expression. Then, by comparison to all the horrible things I thought, the idea of the boys going home with you would seem minor. Harmless. Mom, I know how you operate. I took notes, because I intend to use the same tactics on the boys."

She took a breath. "It wasn't necessary. I'm not categorically against the idea. I'm not crazy about it, either, but I'll think about it. How long did you have in mind?"

"Two weeks seems reasonable, considering how difficult the trip is."

Let the negotiations begin. Cate recognized that ploy, too. Sheila probably wanted a week with the boys, and to make sure she got it. she was asking for twice that. It might teach her a lesson if Cate sweetly agreed to the two weeks. Fourteen days of unrelieved supervision of rowdy four-year-old twins could break even the strongest person.

"I'll think about it," she said, refusing to be drawn into a discussion about the length of the visit when she hadn't yet agreed to let the boys go. If she didn't stay on her toes, Sheila would have her so tied up in the details that the boys would be in Seattle before Cate realized she hadn't said "yes."

"Your dad and I will pay for their plane tickets, of course," Sheila continued persuasively.

"I'll think about it," Cate repeated.

"You need a little break, yourself. Taking care of this place and those two little hooligans doesn't give you much time for yourself. You could get your hair cut, get a manicure, pedicure…"

"I'll think about it."

Sheila huffed out a breath. "We really need to iron out the details."

"There'll be plenty of time for that later… if I decide they can go. You might as well give up, because I'm not committing myself until I think about it for more than the two minutes you've given me." Just for a second, though, she thought longingly of the hair salon in Seattle she had used. It had been so long since she'd had her hair done that she no longer had a recognizable style. Today, her wavy brown hair was simply pulled back and secured by a largetortoiseshell clip at the back of her neck. Her fingernails were short and bare, because that was the most practical way to keep them given how much her hands were in dough, and she couldn't remember the last time she'd painted her toenails. Just about the only extra grooming she had time for these days was keeping her legs and underarms shaved, which she did because – well, just because. Besides, all it took was an an extra three minutes in the shower.

The boys were so excited about their Muni visiting that they came thundering downstairs in their pajamas a full half hour before their usual time. Sherry had just arrived, three customers followed her in, and Cate was glad to hand the boys off to her mother to entertain and feed them their breakfast. Her own breakfast was one of the muffins, which she snatched a bite of whenever she could.

It was a beautiful day, the early September air crisp and clear, and it seemed as if almost even1 inhabitant of Trail Stop came in that morning. Even Neenah Dase, a former nun who, for reasons of her own, had left her order and now owned and operated the small feed store – which meant she was Mr. Harris's landlady, since he lived in the tiny apartment over the store – came in for a muffin. Neenah was a quiet, self-possessed woman in her mid-forties and one of Gate's favorite people in Trail Stop. They didn't often have a chance to chat, and this morning was no different, because they each had a business to run. With a wave and a cheerful hello, Neenah was out the door and gone.

What with one thing and another, it was after one o'clock before Cate had a chance to get upstairs. Her mother was still keeping the boys occupied so Cate could get things ready for the guests coming in that afternoon. Mr. Layton still had neither returned nor called, and she was now as much worried as she was annoyed. Had he had an accident? The gravel road could be treacherous if an inexperienced driver took one of the mountain curves too fast. He had been gone for over twenty-four hours without word.

She made a swift decision and went to her room, where she called the county sheriff's department and after a brief hold was transferred to an investigator. "This is Cate Nightingale in Trail Stop. I own the bed-and-breakfast here, and one of my guests left yesterday morning and hasn't returned. All of his things are still here."

"Do you know where he was going?" the county investigator asked.

"No." She thought back to the morning before, when she'd seen him step back from the dining room door. "He left sometime between eight and ten. I didn't talk to him. But he hasn't called and he was supposed to check out yesterday morning. I'm afraid he might have had an accident."

The investigator took down Mr. Layton's name and description, and when he asked for the car's license plate number, Cate went downstairs to her office to pull the paperwork. The investigator, like her, thought Mr. Lay ton might have had an accident and said he would first check the local hospital and would get back to her later that afternoon.

She had to be satisfied with that Going hack upstairs, she went into Mr. Layton's room and looked around to see if he'd left any clue as to where he might have gone. The top of the dresser in room 3 was bare except for some small change scattered across the polished surface. A change of clothes was hanging in the closet, and the open suitcase on the luggage stand revealed underwear and socks, a small plastic shopping bag from Wal-Mart with the handles tied in a knot, a bottle of aspirin, and a silk tie rolled up. She wanted to look in the shopping bag, but was afraid the county investigator would disapprove. What if Mr. Layton had been the victim of a crime? Cate didn't want to leave her fingerprints on his things.

In the small attached bathroom, a disposable razor and a can of shaving cream lay on the edge of the sink, and a can of spray deodorant sat next to the cold-water handle. An open Dopp Kit sat on the back of the toilet, and inside it she could see a hairbrush, a tube of toothpaste, and a toothbrush holder, as well as a few loose Band-Aids.

There was nothing here of" value that she could see, but people tended to cling to their things. If he'd left all this behind, surely he'd intended to return. On the other hand, he had climbed out the window, for all the world as if he'd been escaping instead of simply leaving.

Maybe that was it. Maybe he wasn't simply nuts. Maybe he'd escaped.

The question was: from what? Or whom?