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Authors: Cecilia Dominic

The Mountain's Shadow

BOOK: The Mountain's Shadow
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Dedication

To all who have the courage to make their own stories better and especially to my own Scottish lion, who has supported and encouraged me to follow my dreams.

Chapter One

The two letters arrived the same day.

I expected the first: my official termination letter from Cabal Industries. Having it in my hands, smoothing the creases, and looking at the stark black print—Bookman Old Style font—on twenty-five pound cotton-bond paper, Robert’s favorite for official business, made my heart thud. The company had been sold, and my lab—with all my data and backups—had been immolated in a fire. The conflagration and the expense of rebuilding my research program during a difficult merger was the ostensible reason for my being fired, and no, I wouldn’t forgive the pun. The company’s symbol, the black silhouette of a wolf howling against a full yellow moon, cried out for me.
“Unfair! Unfair!”

The second letter held more promise. This one came on plain computer paper with a name on top in block letters: Lawrence Galbraith, Attorney-At-Law. Two hours later, I stood in front of a two-story yellow brick building off Markham Street, just west of downtown Little Rock. A sign in the second-floor window read, “For Rent: Commercial Space”. Mr. Galbraith didn’t have a secretary, but a bell rang when I opened the door. After five minutes, I wasn’t so sure he’d heard me and began the internal argument of whether I should knock on the heavy oak door that separated the sparse waiting room from what I imagined to be the plush inner sanctum. I made up my mind and walked to the door, but when I raised my fist, I heard a male voice from inside.

“That’s bullshit, Galbraith!”

“Mr. Bowman, please keep your voice down.” This second one I recognized from the telephone. I had spoken with him earlier. “Doctor Fisher is in the waiting room.”

“I don’t give a damn about Doctor Fisher.” He sneered my name. “Look, that land is ours by right, and I don’t care if the old man never changed his will. And to bring that overgrown—”

“How Mr. Landover felt about you during his life is irrelevant if it is not on paper.” Galbraith spoke over him. “I’m sorry, Leonard. You and the others may have to find other grounds for your sport.”

Leonard’s next statement came out as a cross between a hiss and a whine. “It’s not sport, Lawrence, and you know it. You’re the only one who can help us.”

“There’s nothing I can do.”

I jumped back from the door just before this Leonard person burst through it like a ball of energy—dark energy. With his olive skin, dark wavy hair, and brooding black eyes, he would earn a second look from most women. I barely got a first one as he snarled at me and stalked out of the office. The bell on the door jangled with the force of his exit.

“Doctor Fisher, I hope Mr. Bowman didn’t disturb you.” Lawrence Galbraith looked down his aquiline nose at me and pursed his thin lips. With his mane of gray hair and simple black suit with a long jacket over a white shirt, no tie, he could have stepped out of a mid-twentieth-century movie about an undertaker.
 

“He certainly seemed upset about something.” I wanted him to say more about what this brooding young man wanted with my grandfather’s estate, but he evaded the implied question.

“Most of my clients are, Doctor Fisher. If they’re not disturbed about something, they’re dead. Otherwise they wouldn’t need a lawyer.” He held out a chair and scooted it under me as I sat.

“I understand. Now about my grandfather’s estate?”

I expected him to do the lawyer thing and pull out a file bursting with paper and tell me to look through it and see if I had any questions. Instead, he sat back and steepled his fingers.
 

“I knew your grandfather quite well, Doctor Fisher. He was very proud of Wolfsbane Manor.” He studied me through narrowed eyes. “You visited there quite often as a child, yes?”

“I spent my summers there.”

“And your twin brother?”

“It was after my brother died. Andrew never knew my grandfather. It wasn’t until my parents started fighting that my mother had the guts to visit him again. Apparently he and my father didn’t get along.”

“He spoke to me about the rift, how it broke his heart to lose his only daughter. He told me you were a lot like your mother.”

When I thought about my mother, I remembered the gentle hands that so quickly turned hard when she slapped me. I hadn’t spoken to her since I had gotten my first assistantship in graduate school and no longer needed her financial support.

“I don’t think so.”

“How much do you know about your grandfather’s estate?”

“I know it’s up in the mountains and used to be really far away from everything. It took forever to drive there on winding mountain roads. There’s a stream that bubbles up from underground near the top of the hill where the house is, and it goes to a river.”

“Anything else?”

I thought back and tried to untangle murky threads of childhood memory. “The house is huge, old-fashioned, with a ballroom and a mural on the ceiling. I don’t know what my grandfather did to earn his money, but he seemed to have a lot of it and was careful spending it.”

“He was immensely careful. Consequently, his estate, with house and property and all, is worth five hundred million dollars.” He ignored my astonishment and continued, “I told him he had plenty to share between you and your mother, but he insisted the bulk of it go to you. Something about your research.”

“He didn’t even know what I did.”

“Ah, but he followed your career quite closely.”

“He did? He always seemed so remote, especially after I stopped going up there when I was in high school.”

“Yes, he did. He was a researcher in his own right.”

“Is there anything in there for Mother?” Guilt welled up. It’s amazing how childhood training kicks in, like it was my fault he left everything to me.

“A small annuity to keep her comfortable until she passes on.” He waved my concern away with one hand. “It won’t dent your fortune at all.”

“What am I supposed to do with all that money?”

“Whatever you want. I think you will find enough up there in the hills to keep you busy.”

“What do you mean?”

“Have you ever heard of the Landover curse?”

“The what?” This was new. I remembered whispers about something wrong with Mother’s side of the family from early childhood—worried conversations outside the room where my brother and I slept in twin beds.

“If it pops up, you’ll know. It supposedly skips a generation.”

“What is ‘it’?”

“You probably have nothing to worry about, Doctor Fisher. I recommend you go and claim your property as soon as you can. I can help you with arrangements to break your lease and move your things from Memphis.”

“Okay. No, wait, what? I can’t just move.” My head was in a fog, still worried about the curse. What was the curse? Insanity? Some weird genetic disease? And underneath all his assurances, Galbraith seemed worried. A little line had appeared between his brows.

“…will arrange to have movers pack and ship your apartment’s contents to the Manor,” he was saying as he picked up the telephone.

“Whoa, wait a second here.” I held up my hands. “This is too much right now. I can’t just break my lease, pick up, and go.”

“I understand.” He reached across the table and patted my hand. “You need a little while to absorb all of this. But I assure you, it is imperative you move up there and take possession of the property.”

My eyes blurred with tears. “I don’t even know how my grandfather died.”

Galbraith rubbed his temples. “I was afraid you would ask.”

“Why?”

“Because I don’t know, either.”

 

 

When I arrived at Bistro, a little French place in West Little Rock, my head was still spinning. The key to Wolfsbane Manor was nestled in my purse between my cell phone and my wallet on a keychain that read in bright pink letters, “So NOT a morning person”. I had handed over the apartment keys to Galbraith, who assured me he would take care of everything and I could expect my belongings in a few days’ time. I’d tried to argue the hastiness of the move, but I may as well have been talking to the stone lions outside the manor’s door.

Lonna, my best friend, had arrived before me and sat in a booth along the wall. When she saw me, she waved with one of her long, tanned arms, which looked particularly dark in the white sleeveless top she wore.

“Somebody’s been to the tanning booth,” I teased as we hugged. I only came up to her shoulder, but I smelled the orange and coconut conditioner she used in her long, dark hair.

“It’s my guilty indulgence. I figure, with this job, it’ll be a miracle if skin cancer kills me first.” Even though she meant it as a joke, there was something serious in her topaz-colored eyes. A private-investigator-turned-social worker with the Department of Family and Child Services, she didn’t have an easy job to begin with.

I slid into the booth across from her and picked up a menu. “What’s going on over there?”
 

“Just the typical bureaucratic bullshit. Not all that interesting, so you go first. You said earlier you had big news.”

I opened my mouth to reply, but she interrupted me.

“Oh, and how’s Robert? You guys haven’t come over in a while.”

“We’re not together anymore.” It hurt to remember our little road trips from Memphis to recruit research participants from the Little Rock pediatricians’ offices.

“Did his wife find out?”

“Worse. I got fired, so no more excuses to see each other.”

“Ouch! When?”

“I got the letter today. I kept hoping there would be some sort of appeal or something, but no dice. I didn’t want to tell you until it became official.” The fact Robert hadn’t even stood up for me hurt the most.

“I wish I could understand you, Joanie. How could you not tell me?”

“You’re my best friend. You’re supposed to understand.”

She didn’t fall for the guilt trip. “So was that the big news?”

“No, I also found out today I inherited my grandfather’s estate, so I’ve got the dinner check.”

“Congratulations, but not so fast there, Fisher.” She gave me a stern look over the menu. “Let’s tackle one thing at a time. You got fired. Tell me more.”

“It was after the lab caught fire. They still don’t know what started it.” For a second I thought I could feel the heat and smell the smoke from the blaze. Sweat jumped to my forehead, and I had to take a sip of water. This was why I hadn’t spoken to her about it in detail before—the memory made me panic.

“I’m sorry, Joanie.” She reached across the table and put a hand on my arm. “You don’t really have to talk about it if you don’t want to.”

I smiled at her implied question. “But details are important? You’re such a private detective.”

She grinned. “How else are you going to figure out what exactly happened?”

“Good point, although it’s not like it matters much now.” I took a deep breath. “One night about a month ago, I was compiling data, pediatric charts, in our statistical spreadsheet…” Just talking about it brought me back there. “I had been sitting on a stool checking to make sure the information in the files had converted into the correct columns in the spreadsheet when I heard my car alarm go off. I jumped down, really annoyed because I was on the cusp of running the first analysis, and my lab coat caught on the stool. Really caught. Like the corner of it had somehow gotten stuck in the middle joint where you adjust the height and then twisted in there. I turned to free it and was just giving it a last tug when the smoke alarm went off. When I opened the lab door, the hallway was in flames. I panicked. I shut the door and tried to go out the back way, but the door wouldn’t open. It was getting hotter and hotter, and I started coughing from the smoke. Finally I took the damn stool and threw it through a window, I don’t know how.”

“You’re a tough little thing.” Lonna rested her chin on her hands. “Even if you don’t look it.”

Caught in the story, I had to keep going. “So I jumped through and got scraped up a little.” I rolled up the sleeve of my T-shirt and showed her my left shoulder, which had a long, thin, barely healed cut. “That one was the deepest. Fifteen stitches.”

BOOK: The Mountain's Shadow
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