Bookseller-turned-amateur detective Delhi Laine is back with another atmospheric mystery, but this time, it’s a family affair.
Nineteen years ago, Delhi Laine’s two-year old daughter disappeared. After a frantic but inconclusive search, authorities determined that she must have drowned, her body washed away from the picturesque English park in which she was playing.
Delhi’s heart has never healed, yet her family has since soldiered on. But when a mysterious letter arrives containing the ominous words, YOUR DAUGHTER DID NOT DROWN, their lives are once again thrown into turmoil. With her family torn between fighting for the past and protecting the future, Delhi is caught in the middle. For a mother, the choice to find her daughter seems easy. But for a family left fractured by the mistakes of the past, the consequence, and the truth, may be infinitely more costly.
Fans of Carolyn Hart will be swept away by this story of a family on the brink – and their hunt for the truth.
In those days photography had been my passion, my way of escaping from the endless rounds of dirty diapers and runny noses and tears. At home, as soon as the children were bedded down, I’d fled to my darkroom, working into the early hours printing and tinting photos. The quiet darkness was an addiction. As sleepy as I often was during the day, I came alive in those night hours.
I had been taking photos in Stratford to work on, to enlarge and color when we got home.
After that day by the river, I never took another. Growing up I had never daydreamed about having a family, of being surrounded by children. I’d read endlessly, imagined myself in exotic places, even saw myself as an archeologist. So when I met Colin . . . I loved the children, they were mine, but they were part of the scenery of my life.
When I lost one of them due to my preoccupation, I vowed never to let anything distract me again. Not even photography. Especially not photography.
“You thought falling asleep sounded better?” Colin felt menacing beside me, as if he might grab my shoulders and shake me.
I knew then that I should have told him about the note first, that we should not be having this conversation in front of everyone. “I—yes . And after I kept saying it a part of me started believing it. When I finally admitted the truth and told someone else, she pointed out that if I was standing right by the water, I should have heard a splash or seen Caitlin fall in. And I was, right by the edge of the river. I–”
“But the police must have investigated all that?” Patience couldn’t keep out of it any longer.
“Of course they did.” Colin boomed. “They interviewed everyone who’d had been in the park that day. We even hired a private detective. Who found nothing.”
Through the miasma of wine and coffee I tried to remember what had been in the detective’s report. Surely, for all the money we borrowed from Colin’s parents to pay him, he had turned up something. “But the police never found her. They said that was unusual for that part of the river.”
“But not impossible.” Colin held up a professorial hand, a gesture he would use to silence a classroom. Everyone looked at him, waiting. He addressed the girls first. “I’m sorry you had to learn this from someone in a drunken stupor. It’s something that happened long ago. We didn’t want you to grow up thinking something terrible would happen to you too. We didn’t want it to overshadow your childhoods. It was the worst thing that ever happened to us. But your mother has conflated another day when she was taking pictures with the day it actually happened. All I can say is, memory is notoriously unreliable.”
I was so furious that I couldn’t think of which calumny to address first. I was not in a drunken stupor. I was not mixing up the days. But I needed to explain why I was bringing it up now. “What I was doing that day isn’t the point.” I reached in my Mexican jacket pocket and pulled out an envelope. “This is the point.”
A rustling, a squeaking of chairs, as everyone craned to look.
It was a square white envelope, the size of a small greeting card, addressed to “The Fitzhughs.” On the front were stamp images of Queen Elizabeth in red and green and a postmark I could not read. I pulled out the white paper inside, unfolded it, and laid it flat on the table so that the people closest to me could see. In large black letters it read: YOUR DAUGHTER DID NOT DROWN.
When Colin and the girls had seen it I passed it to Pat who scanned it and gave it back so I could show it to Ben. “This came in the mail Monday,” I said. “I can’t tell what part of England it’s from.”
Colin picked up the envelope and studied it. Again, everyone seemed to be waiting for his official pronouncement. “A mean trick,” he said finally. “Someone’s idea of a bad joke.”
A bad joke? “But why now?” I argued, shocked. “Almost twenty years later? Who would know anything about it now?”
“Maybe they ran a story in the local Stratford papers,” Ben said. “Maybe the detective who investigated it is retiring or something.”
“And that would make somebody track us all the way over here to taunt us, a mention in a retirement story? I don’t buy that. It wasn’t even a criminal investigation, they just thought she’d drowned. No policeman would be remembered for it.”
“Maybe that’s what the story was about then, people drowning in the river.” Ben brightened as if he had solved the problem. I told myself he wasn’t trying to be cruel, that he just liked to fix things.
“They’d hardly go to the trouble of finding Delhi and Colin’s address in another country. That’s ridiculous,” Patience said. “It sounds like whoever wrote it knows something definite.”
“Can’t we have the handwriting analyzed?” Jane interrupted. “Or have it dusted for fingerprints?”
Colin sighed, playing with a small glass salt shaker that had been left on the table. “That note is hardly a criminal matter. They wouldn’t go to the trouble. Besides, the real point is if Caitlin did somehow survive, it’s too late now. Too much time has passed. It’s like an adoption, it’s final.”
“No!” It came out of me as a wail.
Patience gasped. “It is not like an adoption. If your daughter didn’t drown, then she was kidnapped! She has every right to know her real family.”
“Patsy,”—Colin lapsed into her old nickname–“it’s not that simple. You can’t assume a kidnapping. If she didn’t drown, she probably wandered off and someone found her.”
“Daddy, what are you talking about?” Jane grasped his forearm. She was flushed, probably with cabernet, and furious. As close as they were, she often lost her temper with Colin. “People don’t keep lost children. They find a policeman and get them back to their parents! It’s not like a stray kitten that you decide to take in.”
“No, Daddy’s right,” Hannah looked up from where she had been tormenting a cuticle. “How would you feel if someone contacted us and claimed after nineteen years that I had been stolen and was part of their family? That everything I’d thought was true was a lie and they wanted me to come live with them. Anyway, I don’t want a twin. I’m fine just as I am.”
Colin pushed back from the table. “I think it’s time for us to go.”
“But we haven’t had our walk,” Ben protested. “We have to take our beach walk!”
Poor Ben. If he’d been on the Titanic, he would have been demanding his nightly whiskey as the ship went down.
“Yes, go on your walk. I have to show Delhi something of our mother’s that I found. We’ll catch up.”
I knew we wouldn’t.
“Can I see?” Jane asked eagerly.
Patience and I exchanged a look.
“Sure,” I told her.
JUDI CULBERTSON draws on her experience as a used-and-rare book dealer, social worker, and world traveler to create her bibliophile mysteries. She has co-authored five illustrated guides with her husband, Tom Randall, of such cities as Paris, London, and New York. She is also the author of the acclaimed nonfiction titles SCALING DOWN and THE CLUTTER CURE. She lives in Port Jefferson, New York, with her family.