Excerpt: The Lost Artist

Prologue:
Anna, Illinois: Present Day

Book Cover for The Lost ArtistThe empty grave changed everything.

She stood on the porch, watching the car’s taillights disappear down the gravel road, until only darkness and thunder remained, and the old house looming over her with intent.

She could smell the rain coming, feel the electricity sizzle the night air.

Rain; it had begun with rain—insistent, unrelenting, washing away the soil, loosening the old oak roots, exposing the empty grave.

The local press would be all over the story, all over her, all over her house. She could see the front-page headline: “Early settler’s body missing from grave.” Below it, a grainy photo of her house. And the tag line: “The 1836 Braun house still stands in Anna, Illinois. Professor Karen Caffrey is the house’s present owner.”

But there was no way anyone could tie her to the theft. She’d been too careful.

Suddenly a scissor of heat lightning illuminated the landscape, and a dark figure appeared at the edge of the woods near the house. He was back.

“Sick, sick, sick,” she said, digging in her skirt pocket, yanking out her cell phone. She held it up in his direction so he could see it. Then she flipped it open. “I’m calling the sheriff,” she shouted. Even as she said it, she knew it was an idle threat.

The restraining order said “one hundred feet.” The woods were more than two hundred feet from the house. Besides, the police were the last thing she wanted now.

The phone rang off to message and she heard her sister’s voice, then the beep. She must have mistakenly hit Rose’s number. With her eyes still riveted on him, she finished the charade, then put the phone back in her pocket. Slowly he disappeared into the woods, until all she could see were the trees swaying in some silent dance only they knew.

Quickly she opened the front door, her hands shaking. Once inside she locked the door, went into the front parlor, shut the windows, locking them and drawing the curtains. For a moment, she stood listening for his footsteps on the porch, wondering if the fake phone call had scared him off. Or would this be the night he would follow through on his threats? She ran her hand over the cell phone in her pocket. Maybe she should call the police.

When she didn’t hear anything, she peered through a slit in the curtains. Nothing. She let out a deep sigh. Her ruse had worked. She was safe.

Intimidation, that’s what he wanted. He wouldn’t risk touching her again.

The kitchen door. Damn, she said to herself, running down the hall. She turned the back-door lock and shut the windows. Another flash of heat lightning blazed the kitchen with light and rain started pinging the windows.

As she walked back down the hall, and up the wide plank stairs, she realized she was shaking again. I can’t let him get to me like this.

Once upstairs, she paused outside her study and glanced across the narrow hall. Her desire to gaze at the murals was so strong she almost gave in to it. There was no time for that now, she told herself, turning and walking into her study.

The rain was falling in sheets now, glazing her windows with sound. She switched on the overhead light, sat down at her computer, and powered it up, nervously tapping her foot. Tonight her cocoon-like study with the walls of books didn’t have its usual calming effect; instead it intensified her sense of things closing in on her. She was finding it hard to breathe.

When the screen appeared, she typed in her password, clicked on her hard drive, scrolled down to the file entitled Syllabi, and opened it. There were her meticulous notes in chronological order from the purchase of the farmhouse to the discovery of the diary to the restoration of the three mural walls.

July 3, she typed. Emily Braun’s grave is empty. Lawrence claims the oak tree tumbled over and exposed the empty grave. What happened to Emily?

She closed the file, renamed it, and sent it to her Newberry Library account in Chicago.

As she waited for the e-mail to be sent, she took an envelope from her top desk drawer and addressed it to her sister, the only person she trusted. Irresponsible and feckless as Rose was, she was also fiercely loyal. She dashed off a quick note: “Rose, Keep this in a safe place. I’ll explain later.” And shoved the note inside the envelope.

Once the file was safely sent, she moved the file to trash and then emptied the trash. Another rumble and flash of lightning startled her, sending her heart racing. She stood up, pulling down on her short skirt.

Maybe I should change first, she thought, glancing at the rickety wood ladder resting against the closet door.

No, let’s get this over with.

She dragged the ladder across the wood floor to the towering bookshelves against the back wall. As she struggled to open the ladder, a splinter caught in her thumb.

“Great,” she said aloud, biting at the splinter.

She gazed up at the top shelf, which nearly crested the ten-foot ceiling, her fear of heights making her woozy. What had possessed me to hide it there of all places? Then she remembered that day she’d stolen the diary pages, the euphoria like a drug coursing through her body, sustaining her as she’d climbed the ladder, the pages snuggly hidden inside the book Obsessed, her little joke. She’d finally done the unexpected, and it was a heady feeling.

All fear gone, she shook the ladder to steady it, kicked off her spiky shoes, took in a deep breath and began to climb slowly. Not looking down, she kept her eyes focused on the books in front of her as she went from one step to another, her hands clutching the ladder, the uneven rungs digging into her bare feet. With each step, the ladder shuddered and she waited until the shuddering stopped before taking the next step.

Finally, she was at the top step, her short compact body leaning against the top rung. She put one hand on the bookcase and with the other she reached for the book. The ladder shook, swaying with her effort. She stopped, took in another deep breath and reached up again, this time stretching her body farther, the rung digging into her thighs. But she couldn’t reach the book.

Then, tentatively, she raised her left leg and put her foot on the open rung, her one hand inching up on the bookcase, the other stretching toward the book. Her fingers caught the edge of the book, and carefully she eased it out. Now the ladder was swaying and shuddering precariously. Almost there, she reassured herself.

She shoved the book under her arm, and brought her foot down to the top step, sighing with relief.

Just as she took another step down, the room went dark. The shock of the darkness paralyzed her. Then lightning tore the room open with light and she saw him.

He was standing in the doorway, a hulky shadow.

“How did you get in here?” was all she managed to say before he lunged for the ladder and jerked it backwards away from the bookcase.

For a moment she was airborne, then her body hit the hard floor with a thud, the book falling with her, scattering the loose pages like snow.

She tried to sit up, but nothing happened. She tried to call out, but no words came. Her body was dead to her. As he stood over her, she gasped for breath that didn’t come. Then she looked past him toward the dark watery window. She didn’t want his face to be the last thing she saw.

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