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Keepsake

Prologue

The women of Keepsake were afraid.

Mothers moved cribs into their bedrooms for the night, and grandmothers jammed kitchen chairs against their back doors. Teenaged girls agog with terror talked late on the phone with their very best friends, while their older sisters who lived alone made their boyfriends promise to stay over. The news that morning had sent shock waves of anxiety from Elm to Upper Main: Alison Bennett's death was no suicide at all, but cold-blooded murder.

If Alison wasn't safe, who was? Her father was strict, her uncle was rich. She was the last girl in Connecticut anyone would have expected to find hanging from a rope above a quarry on a cold October night. That was the consensus as people turned off fewer lights than usual and tried to sleep.

No one wanted to believe that the murderer was one of Keepsake's own--but everyone knew which way the investigation was heading. Only one man in town had been questioned twice by the police, and that was the Bennetts' gardener.

As Keepsake tossed and turned, Francis Leary scanned the single shelf in his bedroom in the gardener's cottage at the foot of the Bennett estate, trying to decide which books to pack. It was an impossible dilemma, like choosing which of a litter of kittens not to drown. Tired, confused, overwhelmed by events, the gardener reached for his Gertrude Jekyl, a signed first edition, and then wondered: could he fit the Olmsted too?

His son suffered no such agonies of indecision. With a lightly-packed dufflebag slung over his shoulder, Quinn Leary poked his head into his father's room and said, "Dad, let's go." He was seventeen and more decisive than his father would ever be.

Francis Leary fully understood his own weaknesses and his son's strengths, but he dreaded the thought of what lay ahead: a stolen truck, a bus ride to nowhere, a life on the run. "Quinn, I know this is my idea, but ... now I'm not so sure."

His son felt a a surge of hope, tempered by exasperation. "You want to stay and take your chances? Fine with me. But the police will be here by morning. You won't have time to change your mind again, Dad. Understand that."

Put that way, the plan to run became more compelling. The gardener took a last look around and said nervously, "Let's go."

They locked up the cottage and waded through dry, unraked leaves to the pickup truck, registered in the name of Alison's uncle up the hill.

Up the hill, in a bedroom with high ceilings and a marble fireplace, the dead girl's seventeen-year-old cousin and classmate lay awake in her four-poster bed as she listened to the trees bend to the moaning wind. Olivia Bennett was broken-hearted over the loss of her cousin and shocked at the news of her pregnancy--but Olivia, who lived closest to the suspect of all, had no fear of him. Francis Leary had been her parents' gardener for ten years, and Olivia was convinced that she knew him well: good men didn't kill.

*****

At seven-thirty, Keepsake dragged itself out of bed after a night of no sleep, only to find that the man it feared had fled in the night with his son. Part of Keepsake was relieved; but the other part, the bigger part, spent the next seventeen years sleeping with one eye on the bedroom door.

Chapter 1

The reindeer were a bigger hit than Santa, no doubt about it. Trekking through falling snow and fading light up the far side of Town Hill, Quinn could see a moblet of small children pressing up against a temporary pen and pitching kernels awkwardly to a pair of tame deer within.

Borrowed from a petting zoo, he figured. Leave it to Keepsake to do Christmas proud. He got a clearer view of the town's copper-roofed gazebo at the top of the hill and saw that Santa, holding court inside, had a fair-sized crowd of his own: the line of kids waiting to read him their lists was impressive for a town so small.

From his vantage on the hill Quinn studied the intersection--controlled by a traffic light now--that was the center of Keepsake, quintessential New England town. The four corners were anchored by the same historic white steepled church, granite town hall, one-story library and sturdy brickfront bank as before. Quinn searched for, and found, the little drugstore where he'd hung out during his high school years. It was a CVS now, which meant the soda fountain would be long gone. He could almost taste the strawberry cabinets that were the old place's specialty; it hurt to think that they were no more.

He scanned for more landmarks and was jolted by the perky pink and white logo of a Dunkin' Donuts. Like the CVS, it was a jarring reminder that time had passed. He was thirty-four now, not seventeen, and on a quest more grim than hopeful. He sighed heavily, then surveyed the crowd gathered to light the town tree.

Plunge right in, or hang around the edges?

Plunge.

The crowd was thickest near the unlit tree. Several hundred citizens were drinking hot chocolate while they waited, as they did every December, for the mayor to plug in the cord and kick off the holiday. The first familiar face Quinn saw belonged to a beefy citizen wearing a jacket in the town's high-school colors. The man had been there a while: his blue cap was white with snow. When he saw Quinn, he did a double take.

"Leary? What the hell are you doing here?"

"Coach," Quinn said, greeting him with a wary nod. "It's been a long time." He held out his hand.

Coach Bronsky stared at it as if it were a bloody stump. "You've gotta be kidding," he said with loathing. He swivelled his head left and right. "Where's your old man?"

"Beyond your reach now," Quinn shot back. "He died last month." He had wondered how he'd break that news to Keepsake. Now he knew.

"Dead!" The coach's face congealed into a dark pudding of anger and resentment. "You have a hell of a nerve, in that case. You think you can stroll up here ... announce that he's kicked the bucket ... and what? Have us carry you around on our shoulders again? You ran, Leary! You left us in the lurch. Left your team ... your town ... everyone. The two of you ran like a couple of scared dogs."

Quinn stood ramrod stiff under the attack, as if he were still a quarterback in the locker room after a so-so half. He didn't have to ask whether Keepsake High had won the state championship that year. The answer was a bitter, resounding "no."

Offering no excuses, he said, "I'm not here either to apologize or to explain. I'm sure not here to gloat."

"Oh yeah? Then what are you here for?"

Quinn's response was a snort. To find out who killed Alison. Shouldn't that be obvious?

"To look up old friends," he said after a deadly pause.

"You won't find any in Keepsake. Get the hell out. Now."

"Thanks for the advice--but I think I'll stick around."

In a snarl the coach said, "Vickers may have other ideas," and brushed past Quinn with the force of a fullback.

Caught off balance by the shove, Quinn staggered but managed to say cheerfully, "Sergeant Vickers! He's still around?"

"Chief Vickers now, pal." The coach muscled his way into the crowd, undoubtedly to spread the word.

Not exactly the Welcome Wagon, but it was about what Quinn had expected. He brushed heavy snow from his bound hair and the back of his neck and wished he'd bought a hat. Too many years in la-la land, he realized. He'd forgotten what a New England winter was like.

The cold wet snow set the mood for his next three encounters, the first of which was with the assistant librarian. When Quinn last saw her, she was a thirty-year-old single woman who always had enthusiastic words of praise for a quarterback who actually read the novels and not the Cliff Notes. The lady whom he approached was easily recognized as a grayer version of herself, but any enthusiasm was in short supply.

Quinn gave her a tenative smile anyway. "Hi, Miss Damian. Read any good books lately?" It used to be a standard greeting between them.

The librarian stared over the rim of her uplifted paper cup. Her eyes got wide and she choked on her hot chocolate, then recovered enough to gasp, "It's you! My God, how did you get here?"

"American Airlines and Hertz," he quipped.

Her voice dropped a scandalized octave. "So your father's turned himself in! All these years people have been waiting, and now--"

"They'll have to keep waiting, I'm afraid. My father passed away last month."

She stared at him. Her distress seemed to increase. "Oh, but ... but how can we be sure?" she blurted. "He could be a fugitive still!"

Quinn blinked. He hadn't anticipated that one. "Trust me," he said dryly. "He died in my arms on November 12."

"Yes ... yes, I'm sure you're right," she stammered. Then she threw down her cup and hurried away.

Quinn indulged in a wry smile. Freddy Kreuger couldn't have frightened her more.

He reached down to the brown stain on the fresh-fallen snow and picked up the paper cup. Come the January thaw, he wouldn't want litter popping up all over the quaint town green. He was a gardener's son, and he'd been trained well.

He was at a loss during the next encounter. The woman clearly knew him---she was sneaking looks from the edge of the crowd--but he didn't have a clue who she was.

Finally he turned directly to her, a matronly woman whose apple-cheeked face was tightly wreathed in fake fur. "Myra? Myra Lupidnick?" he ventured.

"Myra Lancaster now," she said, coming forward with a nervous smile to shake his hand. "I thought it was you. How are you, Quinn?"

"Not bad. It's good to see you, Myra," he said with nostalgic affection. "Really."

Myra was the first person in Keepsake to befriend Quinn after he and his dad moved into the gardener's cottage on the Bennett estate. Quinn had just turned eight. He had made out with Myra under the bleachers shortly afterward; it was Myra who taught him how to French kiss. For at least a year after the Frenching episode, he'd convinced himself that he wasn't a virgin anymore.

"You settled in Keepsake, then?" he asked. She was always going on about moving up and out of it.

"Sure! I got married--George Lancaster, remember him?"

"Tall guy; red hair?"

"He's a plumber now, and doing really good. We have four kids. And a four-bedroom house in Greenwood Estates."

"Hey, that's great," he offered gallantly.

She didn't ask Quinn what he had been up to all those years, which was hardly surprising. He could see the struggle in her face as she debated what to say. Suddenly she seemed to give up the effort. She shrugged and murmured, "Well, I've got to go. The kids'll be wondering where I got lost. I--see you," she said.

She fled from him as well, with only slightly less panic than Ms. Damian the Librarian.

Shit. At the rate he was alienating people, he wouldn't find a friendly ear in the entire town. He had based his whole mission on the belief that after seventeen years, the citizens of Keepsake would have let their guards down about the scandal that had rocked the town like a west coast earthquake; that they'd be mellowed to the point of apathy. So far, apathy was the only response he hadn't got.

He made his way through more of the crowd, searching for people he'd known. Near the cocoa-and-cookies table were stationed half a dozen carollers wearing Victorian capes and top hats. They had been alternating between Santa songs and Christmas hymns and at the moment were belting out a peppy rendition of "Let it Snow." As they sang, Quinn circled behind the listening audience, scanning their faces, looking for anyone who might've been sympathetic to his side.

Instead he found the barber. Quinn practically knocked him over as he was making his way toward the gazebo. Tony something? Tony Assorio, that was it. The man looked the same, exactly the same: small, gray and contained, like one of the bottles of mystery liquid that he kept lined up in front of the mirror on the narrow marble counter in his one-chair shop.

"Mr. Assorio--Quinn Leary," he said, shaking his hand. "You used to cut my hair when I lived in Keepsake." Why Quinn expected the barber to remember him as a customer rather than as the son of a fugitive wasn't clear, even to him.

The barber scrutinized him, then said, "I remember. You always did have a good head of hair. Looks like you could use a trimmin' up," he added, eyeing Quinn's ponytail. "Come in tomorrow. Two thirty. I have an opening."

"Uh-h, yeah, well--thanks. I may do that."

The barber moved on, greeting people like a Rhode Island politician. Quinn made a mental note to drop in on him the next morning. No one had his fingers on the pulse of a town more often than a barber.

Quinn paused where he was, not at all surprised that furtive glances were beginning to be cast his way. He had wanted people to know he was back, and he was succeeding; but he was surprised at how alienated he felt from them all. By the light of the nearby gaslamp, he was able to make out the time: four seventeen. Soon the tree would be lit and people would begin to disperse. He was, he had to admit, disappointed. He'd hoped to meet a friendly face before then. Any friendly face.

The snow was falling now in big, paper cutouts that lay on his jacket for a mere twinkling before melting into oblivion. Quinn held up a sleeve and marvelled at the sheer magic that was coming and going there. Whether it was the carollers or the children, the deer or the snowflakes--for an instant Quinn was a kid again, in harmony with the universe around him. God, how he'd missed New England.

He felt a tug on his jacket and, still smiling, turned to see a small boy looking up at him.

"Mister? Did your daddy really kill a girl in school?"

Quinn gazed down at the kid. He was six, maybe seven. What kind of parents talked about stuff like that in front of a six-year old? Jesus.

"My dad didn't hurt anyone, sport," he said as gently as he knew how. "That was just a rumor."

"What's a roomer?"

"It's when someone tells stories that might not be--"

"Andrew!" a woman said shrilly behind the child. "Get over here right now. Right now!"

She rushed up to the boy and hauled him off with a brutal yank on his parka. For the first time since he'd stepped into the Currier and Ives scene, Quinn felt some of his resolve falter. If every citizen in Keepsake was going to treat him like a leper ....

"Quinn, dear! Quinn! Yoo-hoo!"

Surprised at the enthusiasm in the voice, he turned in time to behold a petite, elderly woman angling a four-legged walker before her as she made her way by lamplight across the snow-covered grass. She wore a black wool coat and was muffled under several circuits of a fluffy red scarf; her red knit hat covered all but a few white curls. Only her eyes showed, and that's all he needed to see.

"Mrs. Dewsbury!"

It was his old English teacher, the first and only mentor he'd ever had. He'd had her for homeroom once and for English twice. Quinn had always known he was a natural athlete; but it was Mrs. Dewsbury who had convinced him that he could compete in the classroom as well.

She had to be eighty by now. He didn't like seeing her using a walker; but he liked the fact that she was still out and about.

"Mrs. Dewsbury, it really is you," he said, grinning as he approached her.

She lifted a welcoming arm for his embrace. He hugged her gently and kissed her cheek and said, "You look great." This time he meant it.

"Oh, tish! I'm old and decrepit and I've got two new knees that I don't trust a damn. And speaking of bones, I have one to pick with you, young man. Where have you been hiding for the last seventeen years? You might have let me know."

"Right; I'm sorry about that. We, uh, took up residence in California."

She cocked her head thoughtfully and said, "You know, I'm not surprised. They hired your father no questions asked out there, am I right?"

"Californians tend to do that," he agreed. "They get lots of practice with illegals."

"Hmph. Well, Frank Leary was a wonderful gardener, and the Bennett estate hasn't looked as good since. Just last fall--early fall, mind you!--their latest gardener went and flat-topped every rhododendron he could reach. The things looked grotesque, and after the inevitable winterkill, they looked even worse. Well, never mind. How have you been, dear? How have you been?" she demanded, squeezing his forearm through his thin jacket. "Oh, my," she added after she did it. "Do you still play?"

"Football? No, I left that all behind me."

"I always watch for you during the Superbowl."

He laughed and said, "I have a masonry business. I do a lot of stonework. I guess that's what's kept me in shape."

She pulled her scarf away from her face and snugged it under her chin. "And your father I just heard has passed on?"

Quinn nodded. "Last month," he said quietly. "Of a stroke. He didn't linger long ... two and a half weeks."

"I"m sorry, dear. I know how close you must have been to him."

Somehow Quinn didn't want to talk about it, despite--maybe because of--the sympathy he heard in her voice. He said, "Can I get you something? Hot chocolate?"

"Actually, I've brought my own refreshment." She reached into the leather handbag that was hooked on her walker and came up with a silver hip flask. "Blackberry brandy is what warms me these long, cold nights."

She tipped it in Quinn's direction. Startled, he shook his head. "Thanks, but I'm driving," he said, wondering about her own ability to operate a walker while under the influence. His old teacher and mentor had always been a free spirit. Obviously that hadn't changed. "How did you get here?" he asked. He wouldn't have been surprised if she'd told him on a Harley.

"The senior citizens' van," she said with a sigh of disgust. "I flunked my drivers' test last year. Macular degeneration in my left eye. And the right one's fading fast," she added. "I can barely read large-print books with a magnifying glass anymore, but I keep trying." Lifting the flask, she glanced around, then took a single prim sip, screwed the cap back on, and tucked the silver container snugly in her purse. "Well, my dear! How long will you be staying?"

He wished he knew. He had a business to run back in California. "That's up in the air. I've just paid a visit to an uncle in Old Saybrook. He's my father's brother and is ailing himself. While I was in your neck of the woods, I thought I'd drop in just to ... to ..."

"To see who got rich, who got fat, and who got out?"

"All those things," he said, smiling. She was making it so easy for him to lie. "And I wanted Keepsake to know that at least one chapter in their history had ended."

"And a sorry chapter it was, condemning your father without a trial! I hope you don't think we were all so foolish," she said, straightening her tiny frame behind the walker.

His response to that was drowned out by the amplified thumps on a microphone being tested for sound. Mrs. Dewsbury explained that the thumper was Keepsake's current mayor, Mike Macoun. Quinn had a vague memory of the man, a resturateur who was undoubtedly well connected both then and now.

After a pretty little speech in favor of Christmas, the portly mayor took one cord and plugged it into another cord, and the twenty-five foot balsam fir lit up to happy oohs and ahs from the crowd. It was a tree for kids, not grownups, all buried in red bows and gaudy colored lights and topped with a giant, lopsided star. There was nothing chic or understated about it, which pleased Quinn. He was tired of the white lights his upscale clients favored.

Someone shot off a cannon and the mayor declared that Keepsake's holiday season had officially begun. Almost immediately, the crowd began thinning. The snow was beginning to pile up, and people were anxious to get on with their chores.

"Where are you staying, Quinn?" the elderly woman asked.

"Let me think, it's newish ... The Acorn Motel."

"Heavens, don't be silly. You're not staying at any motel. You'll take me home and stay at my house while you're in Keepsake."

He protested but she wouldn't hear of it, and soon it was settled. He would stay in her overly large and virtually unoccupied Victorian home for the duration, whatever it ended up being. Quinn liked the idea of having daily access to someone who could fill him in on seventeen years of comings and goings in Keepsake. He insisted on paying for his stay, but Mrs. Dewsbury wouldn't hear of that, either. They ended with a compromise: he would do a few odd jobs around the house, and they would call it even.

After giving the driver of the senior citizens' van a heads-up, they left Town Hill together to scandalized looks and some sly greetings, although no one approached them to chat. Caught up in conversation with Mrs. Dewsbury, Quinn had little opportunity to look around him, but the one time he did, he saw a man whose face he could hardly forget: his father's employer and the richest man for miles around, Owen Randall Bennett. The textile mill owner was deep in conversation with two other men and didn't notice--or pretended not to notice--Quinn, who instinctively altered course away from him. He wasn't ready to deal with the town's patriarch yet, not by a long shot.

"That way's closer to the car," he said to Mrs. Dewsbury, pointing off in another direction. As they shifted course, he found himself wondering: Where were the rest of the Bennetts? Owen was around. Was his wife? What about their two kids? Had Princess Olivia married and moved on? And her brother the Prince? Knowing Rand as well as he did, Quinn guessed that he'd been given an empty title and a corner office by his father.

But it was Rand's twin sister Olivia who came more vividly to mind. Skinny, brainy, infuriatingly competitive--Quinn and the Princess had butted heads over every academic award the school had offered. He half expected her to tap him on his shoulder and challenge him then and there to a spelling bee.

Olivia Bennett. He'd never forgotten her. How could he, when they'd grown up side by side on the same estate, her in the big house, him in the cottage?

He drove Mrs. Dewsbury home with extra caution--the last thing he needed was to smash up a kindly old widow who'd taken pity on him--and then he hovered solicitously as she plowed in her fur-topped galoshes behind the walker through several inches of unshovelled snow on the walk.

Her all-white Queen Anne house was enormous; he was surprised she still lived in it. But her grandparents had built it, and four successive generations had lived in it. It wasn't easy to abandon so much history. The trouble was, her son was settled in a lucrative career as a financial planner in Boston, and her divorced and childless daughter lived out west. Mrs. Dewsbury had dreams--but no real hopes--that after she was gone, one of them would somehow return to live in the family homestead.

"In the meantime," she said, handing Quinn her walker and brushing snow from the banister as she ascended the ambling, wraparound porch, "my daughter wants me to move to a retirement community nearer to where she lives. But I'd be miserable living somewhere else. I wouldn't know a soul and the food would taste different. No, the only way I'm leaving this house is feet first."

She pointed to an exterior light fixture hanging by its tattered fabric cord from the porch ceiling. "One thing you might do for me, dear, is tuck that thing back into its hole sometime. I got on a stepladder the other day, but I was still too short."

Aghast at the thought of her teetering on a ladder in her new knees and poking at a frayed cord, Quinn assured her that the job was as good as done.

They went inside to a house that was cavernous and yet cozy in a varnished, dark-wood way. The ceilings were easily ten feet high, but the arched doorways somehow whittled the rooms back down to size. God knows, there were enough of them: twin parlors, a breakfast room, a music room, a cozy area, a game room, a reading room, a writing room--Quinn got lost just looking for the phone.

But he found it at last, an old black one being used to weigh down a slew of papers and magazines on a cluttered desk in a book-filled nook that smelled of fireplace ashes and potpourri. If rooms had personalities, than this one was smart, interesting, and heedless of other people's opinions. Quinn liked it as much as he liked its owner.

He looked up the number of the Acorn Motel and cancelled his reservation there, then meandered back to the kitchen to reminisce with his old teacher over a pot of spiked tea. The second pot was steeping when they heard a sudden, sickening sound of shattering glass from in front of the house.

An accident, was Quinn's first thought; the street was still unplowed. He ran to the front door and flipped on the porch light which, not surprisingly, didn't work. The wide street was dark, but he could see no cars embraced in a fender-bender on it. All he saw was his rented brown pickup, parked the way he'd left it in front of the house.

Actually, not quite the way he'd left it. The front windshield had been smashed to smithereens.

More surprised than angry, Quinn ran out to the now deserted street. Hard to believe, but someone must have followed him to Mrs. Dewsbury's house. He peered inside the truck. The front seat was buried under a blanket of broken glass. His camera and suitcase were where he'd left them, but the caller had left a welcoming bouquet: red carnations, strewn all over the broken glass.

Somehow they didn't look right. Quinn reached inside and picked up a couple of them.

What the hell? He fingered the blooms. Wet. He looked at his hand. Red.

A clutch of carnations, dipped in blood.

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