Seated at a table near the back, Caroline Ramsey lifted her champagne flute an inch off the table. “Cheers,” she murmured halfheartedly, toasting the bride and groom for what seemed the fiftieth time. Almost immediately, she set the glass back down.
Her husband, Matt, leaned toward her. “Anything wrong?” he said. Through his glasses, his brown eyes looked only mildly concerned.
The groom was a distant relative of Matt’s, and in order to compensate for knowing so few people, he’d gone into his social mode, dancing to every silly wedding song and striking up conversations around the room. He always became vivacious and outgoing in these situations, something Caroline loved about him, since she was more reserved. Yet now she almost wished that he were more of a watcher, like her, someone who hung on the fringes. If that were true, maybe he would wonder now, maybe he would look deeper.
“Nothing’s wrong,” she lied, because she shouldn’t let him wonder. She might not be strong enough. She might tell him what she’d planned. And if she told him, he would talk her out of it. This was something she had to do, though, just one more time. Hopefully, she would get the chance one day to explain.
Matt ruffled her hair, a gesture that usually annoyed her. Tonight, it somehow brought relief.
The wedding was being held in an eight-point tent on the lawn of a Charleston mansion, and the beleaguered jazz band struck up another number as the latest toastmaster finally gave up the microphone. Caroline and Matt both turned to watch the newlyweds taking the dance floor, a surge of guests following and engulfing them. Caroline remembered her own wedding, just four years ago, at an inn on Mount Hood. It had been much smaller, with cheap ivory votive candles and wilted wildflowers instead of silver candelabras and elaborate white lily arrangements, but she’d been filled with promise just like the bride tonight. She’d stupidly assumed that her troubles were behind her, that her new life with Matt would obliterate the old.
“Should we join them?” Matt cocked his head at the dance floor.
She looked at those warm brown eyes, his soft curly hair, which was always a little too long, and the dimple he got in one cheek when he smiled, and she kissed him. He kissed her back, cupping her face. It reminded her of their wedding, except that it was beaming bright that day, the sun relentlessly striking their faces as they stood on the cliff. Matt’s parents had been there, along with his brother and a few friends, but of course her family had been absent. Or maybe “absent” wasn’t the right word, since she hadn’t invited anyone from her past.
“You want to go back to the hotel?” Matt murmured.
She shook her head, finding it hard to talk. “I have to use the bathroom,” she said at last.
“I’ll be here.” He stroked her cheek one more time.
She stood and turned away before she could change her mind, making her way across the flagstone path to the Trembly Mansion where the restrooms were located. According to the history printed on the back of the wedding program, the mansion had been built in 1856 by Arthur Trembly and his second wife, Meredith, who was only seventeen at the time of their marriage. Caroline glanced up at the mansion with its brick front, soaring white columns, wide veranda and leaded glass windows, and she could almost imagine young Meredith stepping out on that veranda, resplendent in a tightly bodiced gown of crimson taffeta, greeting the guests of their latest gala.
It was how Caroline had coped all those years — making up stories and images in her head, filling her mind with fascinating people and intriguing families to compensate for her own lack of friends and family. But she couldn’t let herself go too far down the paths of those tales any longer. Instead of shielding her from reality like they used to, they now reminded her of the memories she’d worked so hard to bury. She quickened her pace and trotted up the side stairway, past a sign with an arrow reading “Powder Room.” The information about the Trembly Mansion also said that this side of the house had been temporarily converted into a catering kitchen and guest bathroom facilities, while the remainder of the home was being renovated by a historical society.
Caroline stepped into a well-lit kitchen. The shiny silver espresso makers sitting atop tan formica counters gave nothing away about what the rest of the mansion might look like. She picked her way through a pack of tuxedoed servers, most of whom held trays of cut cake. One waiter nodded with his head to direct her toward the restroom.
When she came out of the bathroom, the kitchen was empty. There was no one to stop her from changing her direction and ducking under the blue velvet curtain that hung across the arched wood doorway, the one that led into the main part of the mansion. The renovations were supposedly in high gear, with too much dust and equipment to allow guests to view it, but Caroline didn’t care much for rules. Why should she? Except for Matt, no one in her life had followed them.
As the curtain flapped closed behind her, she blinked to let her eyes grow accustomed to the darkness. The only light in the room came from the lanterns hanging in the trees outside, and there was a musty scent in the air. She could hear the tinkle of music from the band and the clatter of dishware from the waiters, who must have returned to the kitchen.
As the dark room became clearer, Caroline made out a massive, mahogany stairway that curled upward in scrolls from the center of the room. Nothing seemed to support the staircase, yet it gave the impression of solemn strength. Caroline felt a trembling inside her belly, a shakiness in her hand. The stairway reminded her of another staircase. One she hadn’t seen in so very long, but one that had, in a way, started it all.
She had to do this. One more time, he’d said. Just one more time.
Caroline tried to draw her gaze away from the stairs but couldn’t. And it didn’t matter, because in her mind, she was seeing that other staircase so long ago.
The trembling deepened, the shaking in her hands grew stronger.
Finally wrenching her eyes away from the staircase, Caroline turned, found the front door, and ran outside into the night.
* * * * *
The lights were blinking, weren’t they? Blinking and flickering and then fading. Or maybe it was him.
Dan Singer stopped trudging and opened his eyes wide to stare at the lights. No. Not blinking. It was a Budweiser sign. Just a yellow and green neon beer sign hanging in a bar window. Jesus, he’d drunk too damn much, and after so many years of sobriety, it had hit him hard. He’d needed courage, and he’d somehow convinced himself that this time the vodka might bring him some. Really, he was drinking to kill time. He was delaying the inevitable.
He’d been in and out of nearly every bar on this street. What was the name of it again? He turned and gazed at the street sign. “Division Street,” it said. That was right. He knew that. Division Street in Chicago. He’d been at a convention here for the last few days, and he’d spent the time with other salespeople in the pharmaceutical industry, acting like he still cared about the new cholesterol drug and his company’s revenues. Yet, as uninterested as he was in the technicalities, he’d reveled in the normalcy of it all, knowing he might not have that for some time.
He turned to the nearest bar and pulled open the big oak door, a rush of laughter and music swelling out to greet him along with the smell of stale beer. Strangely, the scent was comforting, a reminder of college—blurry days filled with classes and parties and bars and girls. He’d been able to escape for a while during those days.
He pushed his way to the bar, drawing a few irritated looks in the process. There were no available stools so he lodged himself between two patrons and waved at the bartender.
“Vodka with a splash of soda,” he said when the bartender reached him.
He watched as she poured his drink. He liked the way she made a dipping motion with the bottle, her T-shirt lifting up and exposing a slice of tanned skin above her jeans. A week ago, he would have tried to flirt with her. He was finally getting back into the dating scene. But that wasn’t an option now.
She slid the glass in front of him. “It’s on me. You look like you could use it.”
He tried to give a lighthearted smile, but her kindness put a lump in his throat, so he just nodded.
He sipped the drink, trying not to think of Annie or how she must have felt when he hadn’t picked her up today. His ex hadn’t helped matters, he was sure. She’d probably told Annie, in a smug voice, that her dad didn’t care enough. She wouldn’t think about how hearing that would make Annie feel. She’d only know that it made her feel superior. His failure to show would only confirm what she thought anyway — that he was irresponsible and not to be trusted. He’d never cheated on her when they were married, but he understood why she suspected it. It was his secretive manner that made her wonder, and when he wouldn’t fill in any of the blanks, when they couldn’t communicate the way she’d been taught on Oprah, she’d assumed the worst. He didn’t try very hard to convince her otherwise. Annie was the loser in their divorce, caught between two people who wanted to move on with their lives. For that he was sorry. It was why he’d never missed any of his weekends or Wednesdays with her, until now.
He was jostled from behind by a group of women who were hugging and shrieking like they hadn’t seen each other in years. Soon, two of the women pushed in beside him, waving dollar bills at the bartender, who took their orders.
“You look amazing!” one woman said to the other, grabbing her friend by the forearm and looking her up and down. “You’re so thin.”
“Oh, stop,” said the other, but she beamed.
They launched into a discussion about who they’d been in touch with, how much they’d missed everyone, how it had been way too long, and yet neither of them sounded particularly surprised to find themselves together again. It made Dan think about how empty his own life was, how devoid of any relationships like that. But it was too late to change. Way too late. And he had to make himself accept, again, that it had all been worth it. If he didn’t get his mind around that, he would snap. He’d given up too much — his family, his hometown, his history for Chrissakes. It had been worth it, he told himself, but his own voice sounded like that of a politician, trying to sugarcoat an international incident.
The ease of the women’s reunion was depressing him, and the vodka seemed to have lost its power. He’d hit that point where he couldn’t get any more loaded, no matter how hard he tried, his veins were already coursing at their alcoholic capacity. He shot a half-hearted goodbye smile toward the bartender, put a few dollars on the bar, then turned and elbowed through the girlfriends.
After he’d walked a few blocks, he saw cars up ahead, flashing by. In the spaces between the cars were intermittent glints of silvery light. He took a few more steps before it hit him. Lake Shore Drive, or LSD as he used to call it in high school, liking how saying that made him sound like he might know a thing or two about illicit drugs. He had nearly reached Lake Shore Drive, which meant he was almost to Lake Michigan.
“Hey, buddy.” The voice startled him so much he flinched. Spinning around, he saw a man crumpled on the sidewalk, against the side of a brownstone. Dan’s first instinct was that the man was hurt and needed help, but in the next instant he saw the stuffed garbage bag at the man’s side and his multiple layers of clothing, and realized he was homeless.
“Spare a couple bucks?” the man said, his voice a rough croak. “Gotta get some food.”
“Yeah, sure.” Dan extracted a ten-dollar bill from the few he had left and crumpled the rest in his pocket. He tossed the bill toward the man, but it caught a breeze, twisting and lilting in the air like a snowflake until the man snatched it.
“Thanks, bud.” The man gave Dan a nod. “Appreciate it.”
Dan stood a moment longer looking at the man. He used to wonder how anyone could be homeless, how someone could shift from a house and a profession to a life on the street. But now he understood better. In fact, it was a possibility that occasionally loomed in his own future, because sometimes he just didn’t care anymore. At those times, he could imagine letting it all go — his sales job, his apartment, his child support payments — until he was fired, evicted, and strapped with a restraining order. What scared him was that oftentimes that possibility appealed to him, because he saw it as way to let go of all the constraints in his life, and maybe that would allow him to let go of the secret, too. A secret that had somehow grown larger and larger over the years, when, in fact, some days he wondered whether it really needed to be hidden at all.
He turned away from the man and kept moving toward the lake. He’d avoided lakes his whole adult life, especially this one. It reminded him too much of the old days; it reminded him of what he had lost. But he felt its pull now, the water’s tug. He kept walking. When he reached the poorly lit tunnel that would take him under LSD and to the lake, he hesitated, waiting for the alcohol to clear his head.
But the fear he expected didn’t come. He took that as a good sign, and descended into the tunnel.
* * * * *
The short letter, a note really, arrived at my apartment on a Thursday. It was one of those random, end of April days in Manhattan when the temperature shot to eighty degrees, sending everyone to Central Park or the outdoor cafes that had rushed to set up their tables. A boisterous, electric feeling was in the air. I called Maddy from my cellphone as I walked home from the subway, and we decided to go for wine and dinner at Bryant Park Grill, a rooftop restaurant where Maddy knew the maitre’ d.
In the terminally slow elevator on the way up to my apartment, I glanced at my mail. There was nothing interesting at first, just a bill and a few obvious pieces of junk, but I stopped when I came to the flat, business-sized envelope with no return address. The envelope looked like it had been printed on a personal computer, and there was a postage stamp with an antique car on it.
Inside my place, I dropped my purse, my briefcase, and the rest of the mail on the front hall table, then slit open the envelope. I pulled out a piece of folded, white paper, and strangely, all my senses went on alert. The apartment was suddenly warm and stuffy. It smelled dusty and stale, and my skin itched from the uncharacteristic heat. Holding the envelope and the still-folded paper, I walked to the windows and cranked them open for the first time that year. Balmy, fresh air seeped into the room.
I sat on the couch, and I unfolded the paper. Only two typewritten lines appeared there.
There is no statute of limitations on murder.
“What?” I said the word out loud, but as I read the note again, some odd glimmer of comprehension began to ruffle my mind. It wasn’t that I recognized the words or the type. I was sure I’d never heard those exact sentences before, and I had no idea who’d written them, yet there was a flicker of understanding.
The breeze from my windows seemed too cool then, but I didn’t move to close them. In fact, I hoped the air would help me breathe. All at once, my chest and throat felt constricted, my lungs making shallow movements. I told myself to stay calm and put the note down. But I couldn’t let go of the paper. I read the words over and over until I felt lightheaded, and the words swam in front of me. Murder, statute, closely….
The ring of the phone rattled me away from the letter. I blinked rapidly, finally getting that deep breath, and grabbed the receiver off the end table.
“Hailey, it’s me,” Maddy said, “I’m early, and I’m two blocks from you, so I’m coming over.”
I dropped the letter in my lap. “I need a few minutes.”
“Why? What’s wrong?”
“Nothing. It’s… It’s nothing.”
“Whoa,” she said, “I know that voice. I’ll be right there.”
Five minutes later, she buzzed from the lobby.
“What’s up with you?” she said when I opened the door, the letter still in my hand. “What’s wrong?”
I handed her the note. “I’m not sure.” I felt both sick and elated, as if on the verge of some discovery.
Maddy read it. “What in the hell is this?”
I shook my head and took it from her. I read it again, letting that flicker of comprehension grow brighter.
“Hailey, what’s going on?” Maddy said, her voice cautious, slightly alarmed. She flicked her dark, wavy hair over her shoulder.
“I just got it in the mail,” I said inanely.
“Who sent it?”
Maddy groaned. “Why are you being so difficult? Give me the envelope.”
I turned toward the couch and pointed to where it had fallen off my lap. It was now almost hidden between the cushions. Maddy’s heels tapped on the wood floor as she crossed the room. For some reason, I noticed that she was wearing an expensive looking tan suit, one I hadn’t seen before.
“It was sent from here in the city,” she said, lifting the envelope and pointing to the postmark. “Do you have any idea who sent it to you?”
“No.” I looked down at the page, although I knew the words by heart already.
“Well, who was murdered? I mean, do you know who it’s talking about?”
I felt that nauseous elation again, a sick swoop and dive of my insides. “Yeah, I think so,” I said. “My mom.”
“Law professor Laura Caldwell deftly weaves together the shared secrets of three separate siblings in Look Closely. A anonymous message to Manhattan attorney Hailey Sutter turns her life upside down and delivers an excellent suspenser that kept me turning all night.”
“Laura Caldwell’s debut novel into the suspense genre is rated an eleven out of ten. Look Closely has a wonderful twist at the end that makes the novel unique. This novel will hold your attention as you discover who and why the mysterious letter is delivered to Hailey. This is a keeper and I hope to see Laura Caldwell write many more suspense novels. Her first is a winner!”
“Suffice to say that Look Closely is a beautifully written, skillfully crafted novel that twists and turns in unexpected ways. Just when the reader thinks the plot is going one direction, the author moves off towards an unexpected turn that reveals even more questions and mystery. The book describes an unraveling of a belief system, a supposed way of life, and a child’s views about her family…. Readers are sure to delight in this romantic suspense. This is a terrific book to take to the beach.”
-The Romance Readers Connection
“Riveting. Laura Caldwell has weaved a haunting story of suspense and family secrets. If you pick up Look Closely, you won’t want to put it down.”
-New York Times best-selling author Mary Jane Clark
“A sensational suspense debut for Laura Caldwell! Look Closely is an action-packed thriller of surprising emotional depth. Caldwell mixes the ingredients — an unexplained death, family secrets, and foggy memories — into a compelling story you won’t want to end.”
-Edgar award-winning author David Ellis
“Look Closely is an intense novel of discovery…. Told mainly in Hailey’s voice, Look Closely is a well-thought-out tale written with fine craftsmanship by a former trial lawyer turned writer and educator. Ms. Caldwell is the author of three Red Dress Ink novels. This is her first suspense, hopefully just the first of many.”
-Romance Reviews Today
“Chick-lit author Caldwell switches gears to draw from her former career as a trial lawyer for her first suspense novel. Manhattan attorney Hailey Sutter flies from Manhattan to Chicago to Portland in search of her estranged siblings and answers that she hopes will shed some light on her mother’s mysterious death. The smooth first-person narrative builds suspense and paints a fine picture of time and place.”
“I loved this book! Look Closely was a page-turner of a novel that I got into immediately. Caldwell has a way of drawing the reader in within the first chapter, and this book is no exception. This book has tons of suspense, mystery, a dash of subtle romance, and some of the usual chick lit elements. I was also pleasantly and completely shocked at the ending.”
“Caldwell has a very unique style of writing that moves very smoothly and keeps the readers attention glued to the story line. The plot moves logically through developing clues — but never hints at the surprise ending. This book is a keeper.”
-The Mystery Reader
“In Laura Caldwell’s fourth novel, she throws in some mystery and suspense to chick-lit, and I think this one of the best she’s written…. Look Closely is an easy read, full of suspense, drama and romance, with all the questions answered at the end. It’s a good story and great for sticking in your beach bag this summer.”
“Look Closely by Laura Caldwell is a fabulous summer selection. Like exclusive beaches, Caldwell’s suspense novel boasts beautiful, charismatic people of great intelligence and greater secrets. And like a summer fling, the breathless pace culminates satisfyingly before the last page’s goodbye. Any gourmet reader will savor such delicious symmetry.”
“Here’s the first book of the summer that you should definitely pick up. Look Closely has all the elements of a “wait up for me, I have to finish one more chapter!” Page after page flew by as I wanted to help Hailey remember that long ago time when her child’s world fell apart and nothing was ever the same again. The story takes us to the Southwest, New Orleans, and back to Chicago and New York. Laura Caldwell moves from one scene to another as the reader travels along for the ride and the clues that may answer Hailey’s questions but may destroy her relationship with her father. Secrets they can tear a family apart.”
-The Beacher Weekly Newspaper
There is no statute of limitations on murder. Look Closely.
That’s all the anonymous letter said, but attorney Hailey Sutter understands the meaning behind the well-chosen words. Someone wants her to investigate what happened to her mother, who died when Hailey was only 7.
The death was ruled accidental, but Hailey begins having flashbacks that tell a different story: a pounding at the door…her mother struggling to stand…a man with a gold ring that flashed in the night as he held her mother’s lifeless body.
Obsessed with uncovering the truth, Hailey can’t trust anyone, especially her father, whose secrecy both unnerves and protects her. Desperate to remember that fatal night, she seeks out the brother and sister who left home after their mother’s death. But that answer is right in front of her — all she was to do is find the courage to look closely….