After the deaths of her adopted parents, Arran discovers her long lost sister’s name and, despite a terrifying premonitory dream, embarks on a quest to find Sheena. After reuniting in Scotland, the sisters search for the reason their birth father and his housekeeper mysteriously died and why Sheena’s life is being threatened. Led to a cryptic rhyme rumored to map the way to an ancient hidden treasure buried deep in the bowels of Wraithmoor Castle, the sisters follow the clues. A murderer follows the sisters. Will the secret passages lead them to discovery and triumph, or death and eternal entombment?
Summit, New Jersey, 1985
Arran Hart had been thrashing about in her sleep for the last six nights, only to awaken physically and emotionally spent as daylight lapped at the shadowy recesses of her bedroom like tidewater against a shore. But this, the seventh night, was different.
Her eyes shot open. Blinded by blackness, and gasping for air through the sobs that still shook her body, she sensed the palpable evil that seemed to be permeating the room.
Afraid to call out, she held her breath and listened, frozen and alert. The house was silent except for a dull ticking as the furnace shut off. Nothing. No other sounds.
Pushing up on her elbows, she ignored the perspiration that had matted thick curls to the nape of her neck and wrapped the comforter tighter around her shivering body. As she listened again, straining to hear even the faintest noise, the house gave her nothing in return. At times like this she wished she had a pet to alert her if something were wrong. Everything seemed normal. No intruder. She let out her breath, eased up, sliding her legs over the side of the bed, and reached for the lamp. Safe, warm light swept to fill the corners of the room.
Wide-awake now, she breathed a sigh of relief, trying to relax her tense body. “It must have been the dream that woke me. It’s just a dream, Arran. Only a dream,” she said aloud, hoping the sound of her words would convince her brain. But why was she having this nightmare over and over, night after night? And why was it becoming more and more urgent?
She reached into the nightstand drawer for a tissue and saw the crumpled pack containing one lone cigarette. Not sure her willpower would hold, she’d saved it after she quit smoking, just in case. With trembling fingers she picked it up and pulled out the cigarette. Bringing it to her nose, she closed her eyes and drew in its alluring scent, savoring the thought of lighting up, of feeling the smoke satiate her lungs as she inhaled. If ever she needed it, it was now. She fumbled around in the back of the drawer looking for the lighter. One single little cig wouldn’t make any difference, would it? No! No! No! With a violent jerk, she threw it down and returned her attention to the dream.
Could it be? Again? Those times in the past when I dreamed of events that actually happened later…those were just flukes. Weren’t they? Confusion and doubt streamed through her mind and it seemed reason had no place here. Once more, she knew with that inexplicable kind of knowing, that a message lay within.
“Dad, what is it you’re trying to tell me night after night?” she cried out in resignation. Clutching her arms across her chest, she gave in to the emotions that had been building for days, months. She didn’t know how long she rocked back and forth, or when there were no more tears, but she did remember her exhaustion and a feeling that overtook her right before sleep set in again.
When the alarm went off the next morning, she was jolted out of a heavy, dreamless sleep and it took her a few minutes to realize how late it was. Glad of her habit of setting an alarm in case she overslept, she raced to shower and dress. Still feeling annoyed with herself, she slammed the back door, locked it and hurried to her car. Rushing out of the driveway and turning down Colt Road, she knew this was not a morning to meander through her neighborhood of Tudor and Colonial style homes set back amid vast manicured lawns and century-old hardwood trees. She had an appointment and needed to get to work. Impatiently, she tapped her fingers on the steering wheel, lost in thought, as the town of Summit grew nearer.
Within moments, she was on Springfield Avenue; the tree-lined main street studded with two and three-story Colonial Style buildings. It was pure luck finding a parking space directly in front of her studio. The heck with saving it for customers; she could move her car later. After locking it, she glanced up at the sign that sprawled across the brick building, as she did every day. “Hart’s Academy of Dance,” was emblazoned in red against a white background. Daniel Hart, her late husband, had made this studio possible. They’d shared five loving years of marriage before a drunk driver ended his life.
Now, memories were all she had left of the people she’d loved.
A bell jingled as Arran entered the studio. Liz Appleton, her best friend and business associate, peeked her plump face around the corner of the office and waved a cheerful greeting.
“Hi, Arran. How’re you doing?”
“Actually, I could use a nap. And a cigarette,” she added, trying to catch her breath.
“I thought you quit.”
“Yes, I did. It’s been two very long weeks, and I’d kill for a cig about now.”
“Ah, what you need is a nice hot cup of starter fluid,” Liz said with a smile. She stood and headed for the coffeepot. “How about it?”
“Sounds good. I overslept and in my hurry this morning, I didn’t have a chance to grab a cup. I hate being late.” Arran turned her head to shield her face but knew that Liz had already noticed her swollen puffy eyes. Makeup had been useless.
“No problem. Relax. Mrs. Clancy just called. Something came up and she can’t make our meeting this morning. She’ll reschedule. So, now we don’t have any classes or appointments until noon-thirty.”
“Oh, great. I wish I had known that forty-five minutes ago.”
Pulling two mugs off the shelf, Liz looked at her friend and hesitated, as though choosing her words carefully. “How about we sit down with our coffee and have a little chat?”
Just as Arran’s heart had settled down where it belonged after all that rushing, she could feel it creep back up to her throat. Liz’s face exhibited that motherly expression she had seen so many times before. “Is something wrong?”
“I’m really concerned about you.” Liz handed over the steaming mug. “In the last five years you’ve lost your adopted mom, your husband and now your adopted dad. Something is bothering you. Something more than the expected grieving. Maybe I can help, if you tell me what it is. Please tell me.”
Arran looked at the pleading face in front of her as she blew on her hot coffee, feeling grateful for their close friendship. She hadn’t wanted to burden her, but maybe Liz could help. Even though they were the same age, Liz was more mature than her thirty-three years, probably because she was the oldest of six children and had practically raised the youngest.
“I’m okay, but I’ve been having a recurring dream for about a week now. It’s cryptic, and I have the feeling it’s important, but I can’t figure out what it means.”
“Describe your dream. Maybe together we can make some sense of it.”
Arran nodded, leaned back and closed her eyes. “It starts with a series of photographs all stacked together like a deck of cards. One by one, the images grow until they fill my vision and then vaporize as the next one appears. It’s like an odd slide show with color and movement, but no sound.”
Liz shifted in her chair and uttered an, “Um hmm.”
Arran went on. “The first is of my adopted dad. He is lying in an open coffin looking up at me from his grave. His mouth is moving and he seems to be trying to tell me something. I’m glad to see him but horrified at the same time.” She grimaced, looking over at her friend.
Liz’s eyebrows went up, but she simply said, “Go on, I’m listening.”
Arran closed her eyes again and concentrated, not wanting to leave out any details. “The next series of pictures are stills of major events in my life. It’s as though I’m moving through my personal album: the last foster home, the day of my adoption, the death of my adopted mother, my wedding to Daniel, and the numbing day of his funeral.
“Then, there is a series of pictures that are completely unfamiliar. In the first, there is a young woman standing against a rock wall. Behind her is a castle set on a cliff overlooking the ocean. She’s wearing a long gown that is billowing in the wind. A plaid scarf or something is draped diagonally across her body and her dark chestnut curls are whipping around her shoulders. With one arm outstretched, she seems to be beckoning to me. She reminds me of a figure from one of those Gothic novels I used to read, but as far as I know, I’ve never seen her before.”
Arran opened her eyes to read Liz’s expression and saw only a thoughtful frown, so she went on.
“At this point, the pictures start going by faster so that I’m only able to catch glimpses of them. There are suits of armor, what seems like an underground tunnel, a carved heraldic crest, then flames and smoke coursing upward, and finally a hand holding a gun accompanied by a feeling of great fear.
“The dream ends with the last slide where Dad’s face appears again, just as before, as though imploring me to understand. But understand what? Then last night, for the first time, the dream woke me. I was terrified. It was as though something evil was in the room with me.” She opened her eyes and turned to Liz.
“Wow. Some dream,” Liz said.
“I don’t think I’ll ever forget it. I feel like it’s seared on my brain. You know I’ve had strange dreams before. But never one that kept repeating itself and becoming more forceful each night until it actually woke me up.”
Squinting, Arran reflected, “And once I calmed down, the strangest sensation came over me as I drifted off to sleep the final time; it was a feeling of extraordinary calm, like Dad was comforting me, telling me everything would be all right. I have the distinct notion there is something I’m supposed to learn or do, but I can’t seem to grasp what it is. Do you think I’m crazy?”
“Not at all,” Liz said. “Dreams can be unsettling. I usually work out unresolved issues when I’m asleep. Maybe that’s what you were doing. Or, have you considered you may have been having one of your visions?” She formed quotation marks with her fingers. Before Arran could object, she went on. Seeing your adopted father seems perfectly natural to me since it’s only been three months since he passed away.”
“I suppose,” Arran said, feeling relieved Liz didn’t think she was going off the deep end. “I’ve been so busy trying to settle his estate, I haven’t really had time to think about his death. Until last week, I hadn’t even taken time to read all the papers in his safe-deposit box. I did find my adoption papers, though. Maybe that’s where those images of my early life came from.”
Liz raised her eyebrows and nodded.
“Seeing those words triggered all sorts of memories,” Arran said, “like the details of the morning of my adoption. They’re still vivid, even though I was only four years old. Mama Gladys, who went from being my foster mother to my adopted mother that day, explained to me what would happen in the courtroom and coached me on my answers to the judge’s questions. I guess she was worried that I would be feisty and decide not to cooperate because she was quite adamant that I pay attention to her instructions. I can still remember the blue dress she wore and that her hands smelled like Clorox. Later, I remember how huge the courtroom was and how small it made me feel. I remember the judge looking down on me from way up in his chair and at first, I was afraid. Then I decided I wasn’t going to be afraid of him or anyone, anymore.”
Liz smiled. “You haven’t changed.”
Arran knew Liz’s sarcasm was meant to lighten the moment, and she tried returning her smile, knowing it came out weak. “After that day, though, neither of my adopted parents ever talked to me about my adoption, and instinctively, I knew not to ask. In fact, they were so secretive I’m surprised they kept the documents. Now that I think about it, it’s just occurred to me that my dream started the night after I read them.”
“Now, I think we’re getting somewhere,” Liz said, perking up. “The first series of scenes in your dream were actual events in your life. You probably rehashed your whole childhood after seeing those papers, like you’ve just done in describing your mother on the day of your adoption. The thoughts were fresh in your mind, so it was perfectly natural to dream about them.”
“Yes, but what about the woman in the flowing gown, the castle, the crest, the tunnel, the fire, and that gun. Why was I so afraid?”
“I have no idea. Maybe you’ve seen the woman sometime in your past and have forgotten. Or maybe, like you said, she and the other things came from a book or TV show. Or maybe you’ve been experiencing one of your psychic journeys. Who knows? Wait, I know you don’t want to admit that you have a gift, but I’ve seen it, remember?” Arran was pensive, but silent. “However, since you fell asleep feeling peaceful, like everything was okay, I wouldn’t worry about it.”
“Peaceful…yes,” Arran said, getting up to refill her coffee cup and absently refilling Liz’s without asking. She sat again and looked at her friend. Surely Liz was wrong in thinking she had a psychic gift. Liz was into crystals and weird stuff that she disagreed with. Just because she’d had a couple of dreams where events came true, didn’t mean anything. Her logic said they were mere coincidences. Yet…
Arran’s thoughts drifted back to the people who had pledged to be her parents. “A long time ago, do you remember my telling you that I knew my adopted parents were sensitive about not being able to have children of their own?”
“Yes, and you told me you didn’t want to hurt them by asking questions about where you came from.”
“Right. But even though I’ve felt guilty for doing so, I’ve secretly kept in touch all these years with Mrs. Woodward at the adoption agency. I knew she was the only link to my past, and I had to keep my connection to her. I couldn’t help myself.”
“I can understand that,” Liz said. “When you described your memories of a couple of the foster homes before your adoption, I gathered there were several people in and out of your life early on. Mrs. Woodward was the only real constant; the one person with whom you had a chance to bond amid the turmoil. When you went to live with the Thompsons for that year before your adoption, you were only three years old. What absolutely amazes me is how you instinctively knew Mrs. Woodward was the only connection to your past and that you had the presence of mind to figure out how to remain in contact with her. You have to admit, that’s pretty remarkable for a three year old.”
“I guess. I’ve never really thought about it. When I was little, even though I sensed she was reluctant, Mama Gladys helped me send Christmas cards to Mrs. Woodward, but I think she hoped that with time I’d forget about her.”
“That’s understandable, too. Your adopted mother was afraid she might lose you some day.”
“Don’t get me wrong, I felt tremendous gratitude toward both my adopted parents, but because of that special link with Mrs. Woodward, I couldn’t stop corresponding with her.” Arran had said that last statement with such earnestness, she’d startled the smile off Liz’s face. “I can’t explain what it’s like not having any idea who I really am. You have a big family. You know who they are. You know who you are.”
“No, let me finish. With me, my whole existence has been shadowed by doubt. Most people are aware of the common questions we adoptees have; for instance, why did my parents give me up for adoption? Or, do I have any brothers or sisters? My interests in art, music and dance, where did they come from?” She leaned toward Liz as if drawing nearer would enable her friend to better comprehend what she was saying.
“But, there’s something deeper, more primal that has plagued me all my life. And still does. It’s this huge sense of incompleteness, of loss, like something vital is missing; a deep-seated insecurity that has affected me, and many of the decisions I’ve made in my life. Even though I cover it with bravado, I lack the natural confidence others have that comes from the assurance of knowing their roots. It’s so hard to explain to someone who hasn’t experienced it. And on top of that, the only family I’ve known is now gone. I feel empty and lost.” Arran’s throat constricted as she fought to level her emotions.
Liz was quiet. Arran knew she was trying to think of something comforting to say, but there was also a reticence in Liz of which Arran was unsure.
Long seconds passed as Liz drew a hand through her short blonde curls. Finally she said, “I think I know where this conversation is leading. You want to contact Mrs. Woodward to find out if she can tell you anything about your background. Am I right?”
Arran drew back suddenly and then said, “Yes, I guess I do.” Her eyes brightened. “In fact, I think that’s what my dad has been trying to tell me in those dreams. That it’s okay. He’s been giving me permission, his blessing, only I couldn’t see it until this minute!”
“Arran, I’m worried about you. Lately, I’ve watched you go through the daily motions of life like an automaton; unaware of the toll it was taking. How much weight have you lost? You never had hollows in your cheeks before. Have you seen how sallow your skin has gotten? Have you looked at your hair lately? It used to be so shiny, like burnished copper, not dull and limp. Your beautiful almond eyes aren’t green anymore, they’re mostly red and swollen.”
“Now it’s your turn to let me finish. I’m not trying to be critical. You’ve had to face more than most people have to, and you’ve been braver than I could ever imagine being. But don’t you think it would be wise to take more time to heal? You’re trying to recover from your dad’s death, probably still Daniel’s and your mother’s. Do you think now is a good time to start on a journey that could conceivably be devastating? I mean…you have no idea what you might find. I just don’t want to see you hurt again. You’re my best friend. Please say you understand.”
Feeling the pressure of Liz’s hand on hers, Arran sensed the depth of her caring, and her fears. She squeezed Liz’s hand in return and said, “You’re my best friend, too. I’m grateful you want to protect me, but this is something I must do. It’s exactly what I need right now. A project—-a goal to shoot for. I need your support. Can I count on you?”
“I’m not sure it’s a good idea to delve around in the past, but I know how you are.” She smiled. “Stubborn as all get out. When your mind is set, there’s no changing it. You know I’ll always be here for you.”
While Liz went to run some errands, Arran summoned up her courage, found and dialed the number for the Family and Children’s Society of West Plains, New Jersey, and asked to speak with the Director of Child Placement. She twirled a lock of wavy hair around her finger as one foot jerked up and down rapidly. After a moment or two, a pleasant voice came on the line.
“Hello, this is Mrs. Woodward.”
“Mrs. Woodward, this is Arran Hart.”
“Yes, Arran. How are you getting along?”
“Good. Keeping busy helps. Between running the studio and trying to get Dad’s estate settled, there hasn’t been much time for anything else.”
“You’ve faced a great deal of adversity in your young life. It’s made you strong, and I have no doubt you will be fine.”
“Thank you for your confidence. And thank you for coming to Dad’s funeral. It meant a lot to me.
“Um, the reason I’m calling,” Arran said, ignoring the tightness in her chest, “is because I found my adoption papers and wondered if you could tell me anything about my background. I couldn’t ask before, but now that my adopted parents have both passed away, I’d like to try to locate my original parents. The documents say my name was Arran Buchanan.”
A chill traveled up her spine as she heard her own name for the first time. There was a slight hesitation before Mrs. Woodward spoke again.
“I understand. I’d be glad to help all I can. By the way, the term you’re looking for is ‘birth parents,’ although I prefer the term ‘natural parents.’ Hold the line a minute while I find your file.”
Arran wondered why Mrs. Woodward had paused before saying she’d help. Her answer had seemed open enough, but why the pause? As seconds ticked by like the arrested interlude of Final Jeopardy, she hummed the tune, trying to ward off the disquiet she felt, but her anticipation crescendoed into clammy hands, shaky knees and cotton-mouth.
“Sorry to keep you,” Mrs. Woodward said, sounding a little breathless. “We store the older files in the storage room.” Arran heard papers being shuffled, then Mrs. Woodward spoke again, “There’s not much information I can give you, but if you’d like to come to my office, I’d be glad to discuss what I have.”
Excitement gripped Arran, with fear hiding just below the surface. “Yes. How soon could I make an appointment?”
“I have an opening this afternoon at three or——”
“That’s perfect,” Arran interrupted. I’ll see you then.”
When Liz returned an hour later, Arran told her about the conversation with Mrs. Woodward.
“You certainly didn’t waste any time, did you?” Liz said. Her good-natured sarcasm brought a grin to Arran’s face.
It was all she could do to concentrate on her ballet classes until time to leave for the appointment. Her eyes cut to her watch every few minutes, and she was glad when the last leotard-clad child walked out the studio door.
A few minutes after two, she joined Liz in the office. “I can’t believe how slowly this day has gone. It’s time to leave. I’ll be back to fill you in on my meeting.”
Apprehension was evident in Liz’s forced smile. She simply said, “Good luck.”
Coco, a product of foster care and adoption, spent over fifty years searching for her sister, whom she found in 1994. Thus the idea for SHE HAD TO KNOW was born. She discovered Scottish roots and plays harp and bagpipes, along with piano and cello. The Florida Writer’s Association published a short story of hers in 2009 in their first anthology. Coco is a member of MWA; SinC; FWA; The Alma Society, which aids in family searches; the DorothyL Digest and the Scottish St. Andrew’s Society.