On a Midnight Clear
A Christmas Mystery
The lives of an enchanting young girl and a determined detective become forever bound following an unconscionable Christmas Eve crime.
It’s Christmas Eve and private investigator Adam Fraley has lost his way while traveling a remote rural road in the foothills of the Colorado Rockies during a heavy snowstorm.
At a loss as to where to turn next, he happens upon an isolated cabin in the woods where he stops to seek directions. There to greet him is the dwelling’s lone inhabitant, an enchanting young girl who invites him in out of the storm.
Puzzled by the circumstances of a child left home alone under such conditions, Fraley soon discovers the horrific reason why, a revelation that launches him into an intensive search for both a killer and a trove of buried gold.
From Chapter One
December 24, 1991
“Do you know where your mother went?” Adam asked. “I saw a car parked in the carport. Is that her car?”
“Yes,” she answered, finishing off the snow cream.
“How did she get where she was going?”
“She was just going for a walk. She likes walking alone in the woods when it's snowing. She usually doesn't go far.”
“Shall we do the dishes?” Adam suggested.
“I'll do them,” Noelle said, snatching her empty bowl from a coffee table and stepping across the room to grab Adam's dish.
“You sure you don't need some help?” he asked.
“I can do them,” she responded and headed off to the kitchen.
Several loud snaps from remaining embers drew Adam's attention to the fireplace. “The fire's about ready to go out,” he called to her. “Do you have any more logs?”
“There are some in the woodshed out back. I'll get more as soon as I finish the dishes.”
“I'll get them,” he said.
Adam donned his gloves and exited the cabin through the front entrance, circling it to the back. The snowstorm gave no indication of abating, piling drifts around trunks of trees and atop the cabin and carport. As he trudged further along, he found himself gradually moving out from beneath the aurora of lights and into the darkness. It was like stepping out from a colored film into a black and white one. Surrounding trees no longer bore decorative ornaments but stood draped in sheets of white. Pieces of their dark bark protruded through the sheets like bodily features, giving them the appearance of hooded Klansmen monitoring his every move.
The woodshed was sizable, maybe twelve by twenty feet with a slanted roof. Approaching it, Adam noted the shed's door was slightly ajar. He checked for footprints and found the heavy snowfall had covered up trail markings for the most part. On second glance, however, faint outlines remained despite the growing accumulation.
Adam nudged the door open with his arm into a shed-full of dark shadows. He stepped inside and paused, letting his eyes adjust to what little light was able to seep in through the opened doorway. Along the far side of the shed, he could make out a large white tarp spread over a mound of something. A pile of logs, he presumed. He edged in its direction but he had barely taken two steps when he bumped his shoulder against an object seemingly suspended in mid-air from the give of it. Startled, he took a step back to focus on the obstruction. Incredulous to what he was seeing, he hurried to the door and shoved it further open to allow in whatever additional light was available. A second look confirmed the worst. A rope was attached to a wooden beam running across the top of the shed. At the end of the rope was a noose, its loop stretched tightly around the neck of a woman's body. A stepladder lay on the floor beneath her.
Noelle's mother was no longer missing.
Adam removed a glove and checked for a pulse on the chance she might still be alive. As expected, her life had been choked out of her. He donned his glove again and wiped the portion of her wrist he had pressed with his fingers. While so doing, a gust of wind entered through the open doorway, followed quickly by the creak of wood as the beam above labored against the weight of the cadaver below. Circling the corpse, Adam carefully eyed the floor beneath it lest he contaminate evidence. For want of light, his observations were superficial at best. He conducted a quick visual exam of the body, noting the clothing, arms, hands, and fingers. Fearful Noelle might decide to join him at any moment, he stepped briskly to the doorway to sneak a peek at the cabin. She was nowhere around. Stepping back inside, he moved to the pile of firewood, lifted the canvas and grabbed four of the logs. He took one last look around before heading back, the wood weighing heavy under his arm, but nothing compared to what was weighing on his mind.
“You're just in time. The fire's about ready to go out,” Noelle said on his return.
She had settled into a fetal position on the couch. A blanket she had retrieved while he was gone covered her from the waist down. A throw pillow served as her headrest. “We were supposed to go to midnight Mass tonight but couldn't because of the snow,” she said, stifling a yawn. “I hope mother gets home soon or she'll have a tough time waking up in the morning.”
Adam pulled back the copper screen protector from the fireplace, placed two logs on the pulsating embers, set aside the two others, readjusted the screen, and returned to the armchair.
“Do you ever go to midnight Mass?” she asked, stretching her legs while trying to muzzle another yawn.
“Not as often as I should,” he answered, thinking a good prayer or two might be in order right about now.
“Did your mother receive any phone calls earlier tonight?” he asked.
“She got one. Why?”
“It might explain why she was late. Do you know who it was from?”
“No,” she said, tossing her body back and forth, trying to find a comfortable position.
“Well, since she's running late, why don't you go ahead and get some sleep?”
“Are you going to babysit me?” she asked.
“Yes. I'll babysit you.”
“Then tell me a bedtime story.”
“A bedtime story?”
“Yes. My babysitters always tell me a bedtime story or else I don’t go to sleep.”
Adam sighed a deep breath. “What kind of a story would you like to hear?”
“One with magic in it.”
Adam wished he could make what he had just seen disappear. He pondered his options while scooting the armchair next to the couch. “Okay, here we go. A long time ago there was this old man who lived on a small island in the middle of the sea with his beautiful daughter...”
“How did they get there?” she asked.
“The old man’s evil brother with the help of an evil king forced them into a tiny boat and they drifted around until they landed there.”
“There was no one else on the island?”
“No, it was deserted,” Adam said. “Anyway, they lived in a cave made out of rocks...”
“Why did they live in a cave?”
“Because there was nothing else to live in,” he said, anxious to hurry the story along. “It was in this cave the old man stored all of his books, which were his second most important possession.”
“What was his most important?”
“His daughter, of course. The books were important since they were all about magic, his favorite subject. Magic became very useful for him because a witch had lived on the island before they arrived, as did many good spirits.”
“Spirits are like angels?”
“Yes. They are very much alike and because the good spirits refused to carry out the witch’s wicked commands, she imprisoned them in the trunks of trees before she died. By using the magic he’d learned from his books, the old man was able to release the spirits who thereafter became his servants. With these spirits he had the power to control the winds and waves of the sea.”
“Why did he want to control the winds and the waves?” she asked.
“Because he wanted to create a big storm. His evil brother and the evil king who helped him were aboard a ship passing by the island. The king’s son was also aboard the ship.”
“He wanted to hurt them?”
“No, he didn’t. What he wanted was to bring his brother and the king to justice for what they had done to him and his daughter. However, when they ended up in the presence of the old man, they were very remorseful, saying how sorry they were for what they had done.”
“Did he believe they were sorry?”
“Yes, and because he believed them, he gave them his forgiveness. He also saw to it that their ship was left safe in the harbor.”
“He and his daughter were left alone again?”
“No, he and his daughter accompanied them back home. As a matter of fact, the old man’s daughter and the king’s son fell in love and became engaged to be married.”
“What happened to the spirits?”
“Before he left the old man set them free.”
“To help other people who become stranded and left all alone. One of those good spirits is always ready to help someone when they feel deserted.”
“Like a guardian angel?”
“Like a guardian angel.”
Noelle wiggled her body back into a fetal position. “I think I'll sleep right here on the couch. I like lying next to the tree,” she said, turning her gaze on him. “If I'm not awake when you leave, are you going to come back and see me?”
“Yes. I'll come back to see you.”
The balm of snow cream and flickering firelight sent Noelle adrift on a deep sleep. Confident her slumber was sound, Adam rose from his chair and walked to a small desk tucked behind the staircase. A phone, along with pieces of stationary and a few unopened letters were scattered on its surface. He picked up the phone with his gloved hand and dialed 9-1-1.
“This is 9-1-1. What is your emergency?” a woman asked in the customary mechanical tone.
“I'm calling to report a woman's death by hanging—”
“Sir, where are you calling from?”
Adam glanced at one of the envelopes on the desk. “Five-two-five Creekside Heights,” he said, knowing the address was already on the woman's computer screen.
“Where did this hanging occur?” she asked.
“It occurred in a woodshed behind the woman's home. There is a child of hers asleep in the home. She is not aware of the hanging. I strongly recommend the responders bring along a child counselor.”
“Is this a suicide?” she asked.
“Maybe...maybe not,” he answered and hung up the phone, avoiding the “please stay on the line” he knew was coming.
Adam shifted the armchair back to its proper position and took one last look around the interior of the cabin, wiping clean any place where he may have left prints, before moving to Noelle's side. He reached down and drew the blanket above her shoulders. “I'll be back,” he whispered under his breath.
Quietly exiting the cabin, Adam decided to take an inspection tour around the perimeter of it via the woods. Weaving in and out of the shadowy trees, he relied on the ghostly light from the cabin’s adornments that appeared to be following him along the way to spot anything out of the ordinary. Satisfied no one was lurking within the vicinity, he trudged back to his truck and turned the ignition, waking the engine. Flipping on the wipers to brush aside the intervening accumulation of snow, he surveyed the surrounding landscape, noting intermittent stands of spruce trees lining a small incline to the left of the roadway. He wheeled the pickup across the road and up the hillside. Despite some fishtailing, he was able to climb it in a semi-circular path, eventually maneuvering the vehicle behind a clump of trees, their branches offering sufficient separation to allow him a clear view of the cabin. Satisfied with his perch, he shut off the engine and began his wait.
For well over an hour Adam kept his gaze fastened on the cabin. Snowflakes the size of cotton balls drifted downward, forming a beaded curtain through which he kept watch. Occasionally, he would run the engine to warm the cab. To his surprise, a couple of vehicles in the interim had slogged their way down the roadway. By now, the snowfall had turned to snow showers, starting and stopping with clockwork regularity. During one of the longer intermissions, he hopped from the pickup and leaned his head back to gaze at length at the clear canvas of the Colorado night sky. Flickering stars hung in the heavens like added ornaments strung to the earthly ones originating not a snowball's throw from where he stood.
It was another light show, a sweep of headlights backed by flashers that drew Adam's attention back to the roadway. Two emergency vehicles, their sirens silent, had arrived with the first responders. He quickly re-entered the cab and checked the dashboard clock—five minutes past midnight. The sight of the cabin slowed the crews' advance, the muffled whirr of their vehicles coming to a stop directly below Adam's vantage point. A man and woman exited each vehicle. One pair headed for the front door, the other pair, flashlights in hand, clomped their way toward the woodshed to the rear of the home. The woman arriving at the front door knocked immediately and waited...knocked again and waited.
“Give her time,” Adam whispered from afar.
She knocked once again. This time the door swung open. For a minute, the woman engaged Noelle in conversation, at the end of which the child stepped back to allow the two to enter.Adam ignited the pickup's engine the moment the cabin door closed. He edged the truck further along its semi-circular path back to the roadway. By the time he was out from under the glow of lights, the snow showers resumed, once again bringing a quiet to the landscape, if not his mind.