Tangled Threat by Heather Graham

 

Prologue

The History Tree

“They see her...the beautiful Gyselle, when the moon is high in the sky. She walks these oak-lined trails and sometimes pauses to touch the soft moss that drips from the great branches, as if she reaches out for them to touch what is real. In life she was kind and generous. She was beloved by so many. And yet, when brought so cruelly to her brutal and unjust death at the infamous History Tree, she cast a curse on those around her. Those involved would die bitter deaths as well, choking on their own blood, breath stolen from them as it had been from her,” Maura Antrim said dramatically.

The campfire in the pit burned bright yellow and gold, snapping and crackling softly. All around them, great oaks and pines rose, moss swaying in the light breeze. The moon overhead was full and bright that night, but cloud cover drifted past now and then, creating eerie shadows everywhere.

It was a perfect summer night, and perfect for storytelling. She was glad to be there, glad to be the storyteller and glad of the response from her audience.

Maura’s group from the resort—teenagers and adults alike—looked at her, wide-eyed.

She refused to smile—she wanted to remain grave—though she was delighted by the fascination of the guests assembled around her. She had been grateful and pleased to be upgraded to her position of storyteller for the Frampton Ranch and Resort, an enterprise in North Central Florida that was becoming more renowned daily as a destination. The property had been bought about five years back by billionaire hotelier Donald Glass, and he had wisely left the firepit and the old riding trails as they were, the History Tree right where it grew, the ruins of the old plantation just as they lay—and amped up the history first, and then the legends that went along with the area.

Maura wasn’t supposed to be on tonight—she shared the position with Francine Renault, a longtime employee of Donald Glass’s hotel corporation, probably second in command only to the main resort manager, Fred Bentley. The two of them were known to argue—but Francine stayed right where she was, doing what she wanted. Despite any arguments, Donald Glass refused to fire either Francine or Fred, who, despite his stocky bulk, moved around the resort like a bat out of hell, always getting things done.

Fred Bentley had watched Maura at the start of the evening; she thought that he was smiling benignly—that he approved of her abilities as a social hostess and storyteller.

It was hard to blame him for fighting with Francine. She was...a difficult personality type at best.

And sharing any job with Francine wasn’t easy; the woman had an air of superiority about her and a way of treating those she considered to be “lesser” employees very badly. Francine was in her midthirties—and was a beauty, really, a platinum blonde, dark-eyed piece of perfection—and while Maura had turned eighteen, Francine considered all of Donald Glass’s summer help annoying, ignorant children.

The young adults—or “camper” summer help—were fond of gossiping. It was rumored that Francine once had an affair with Donald Glass, and that was how she held on to her position—and her superiority.

Glass was married. Maybe Francine was blackmailing him, telling him that if she wasn’t given a certain power, she’d tell his wife, Marie, and Marie—or so rumor had it—could be jealous and very threatening when she chose to be. Hard to believe—in public Marie was always the model of decorum, slim and regal, slightly younger than Donald but certainly older than Francine.

Teens and young adults loved to speculate. At Maura’s age, the thought of any of the older staff together—all seeming so much older than she was at the time—was simply gross.

Tonight, by not being there, Francine had put herself in a bad position.

She hadn’t shown up for work. A no-show without a call was grounds for dismissal, though Maura seriously doubted that Francine would be fired.

Maura looked around, gravely and silently surveying her group before beginning again.

She didn’t get a chance—someone spoke up. A young teenager.

“They should call it the Torture Tree or the Hangman’s Tree...or something besides the History Tree,” he said.

The boy’s name was Mark Hartford, Maura thought. She’d supervised a game at the pool one day when he had been playing. He was a nice kid, curious and, maybe because he was an adolescent boy, boisterous. He also had an older brother, Nils—in college already. Mark’s brother wasn’t quite as nice; he knew that many of the workers were his own age or younger, and he liked to lord his status as a guest over them. He was bearable, however.

“The Torture Tree! Oh, lord, you little...heathen!”

Nils had a girlfriend. Rachel Lawrence. She was nicer than Nils, unless Nils was around. Then she behaved with a great deal of superiority, as well. But, Maura realized, Nils and Rachel were at the campfire that night—they had just joined quietly.

Quietly—which was amazing in itself. Nils liked to make an entrance most of the time, making sure that everyone saw him.

Rachel had her hands set upon Mark’s shoulders—even as she called him a heathen. She looked scared, or nervous maybe, Maura thought. Maybe it was for effect; Nils set his arm around her shoulders, as a good, protective boyfriend should. They made a cute family picture, a young adult male with his chosen mate and a young one under their wings.

Maura was surprised they were on the tour. Nils had said something the other day about the fact that they were too mature for campfire ghost stories.

“Torture Tree—yes, that would be better!” Mark said. He wasn’t arguing with Rachel, he was determined that he was right. “Poor Gyselle—she was really tortured there, right?”

Mark and the other young teens were wide-eyed. Teenagers that age liked the sensational—and they liked it grisly.

“She was dragged there and hanged, so yes, I’m sure it was torture,” Maura said. “But it was the History Tree long before a plantation was built here, years and years ago,” Maura said. “That was the Native American name for it—the Timucua were here years before the Spanish came. They called it the History Tree, because even back then, the old oak had grown together with a palm, and it’s been that way since. Anyway, we’ll be seeing the History Tree soon enough,” she said softly. “The tree that first welcomed terror when the beautiful Gyselle was tormented and hanged from the tree until dead. And where, so they say, the hauntings and horrors of the History Tree began.”

Maura saw more than one of her audience members glance back over the area of sweeping, manicured lawn and toward the ranch, as if assuring themselves that more than the night and the spooky, draped trees existed, that there was light and safety not far away.

The new buildings Donald Glass had erected were elegant and beautiful. With St. Augustine just an hour and a half in one direction and Disney and Universal and other theme parks just an hour and half to the south—not to mention a nice proximity to the beaches and racetrack at Daytona and the wonder of Cape Kennedy being an hour or so away, as well—Frampton Ranch and Resort was becoming a must-see location.

Still, the ranch had become renowned for offering Campfire Ghost Histories. Not stories, but histories—everything said was history and fact...to a point.

The listeners could hear what people claimed to have happened, and they could believe—or not. And then they’d walk the trails where history had occurred.

“You see, Gyselle had been a lovely lost waif, raised by the Seminole tribe after they found her wandering near the battlefield at the end of the Second Seminole War. She was ‘rescued’ by Spanish missionaries at the beginning of the Third Seminole War, though, at that point, she probably didn’t want or need rescuing, having been with a Seminole family for years. But ‘saved’ and then set adrift, she found work at the old Frampton plantation, and there she caught the eye of the heir, and despite his arranged marriage to socialite Julie LeBlanc, the young Richard Frampton fell head over heels in love with Gyselle. They were known to escape into the woods where they both professed their love, despite all the odds against them—and Richard’s wife, Julie. Knowing of her husband’s infidelity, Julie LeBlanc arranged to poison her father-in-law—and let the blame fall on Gyselle. Gyselle was hunted down as a murderous witch, supposedly practicing a shaman’s magic or a form of voodoo—it was easy to blame it on traditions the plantation workers didn’t really understand—and she was hanged there, from what was once a lover’s tree where she had met with Richard, her love, who had promised to protect her...”

She let her voice trail. Then she finished.

“Here, in these woods, Gyselle loved, not wisely, but deeply. And here she died. And so they say, when the moon has risen high and full in the night sky—as it is now—those who walk the trails by night can hear her singing softly ‘The Last Rose of Summer’ with a lovely Irish lilt to her voice.”

“What about the curse?” a boy cried out.

“Yeah, the curse! That she spoke before she died—swearing that her tormenters would choke on their own blood! You just said that she cursed everyone, and there are more stories, right?” Mark—never one to be silent long—asked eagerly.

Maura felt—rather than saw—Brock McGovern at her side. He was amused. Barely eighteen, he’d nevertheless been given the position of stage manager for events such as the campfire history tour. He’d been standing to one side just behind her as she told her tale with just the right dramatic emphasis—or so she believed.

He stepped forward, just a shade closer, nearly touching her.

“Choking on their own blood? Kind of a standard curse, huh?” he teased softly and for her ears alone.

Maura ignored him, trying not to smile, and still, even here, now, felt the rush she always did when Brock was around.

Brock was always ready to tease—but also to encourage and support whatever she was doing. He had that ability and the amazing tendency to exude an easy confidence that stretched far beyond his years. But he was that sure of himself. He was about to leave for the service, and when he returned, he planned to go to college to study criminology. Barely an adult, he knew what he wanted in life. She was sure he was going to work hard during basic training; he’d work hard through the college or university of his choice. And then he’d make up his mind just where he wanted to serve—FBI, US Marshals, perhaps even Homeland Security or the Secret Service.

He shook his head, smiling at her with his unusual eyes—a shade so dark that they didn’t appear brown at times, but rather black. His shaggy hair—soon to become a buzz cut—was as dark as his eyes, and it framed a face that was, in Maura’s mind, pure enchantment. He had already had a fine, steady chin—the kind most often seen on more mature men. His cheekbones were broad, and his skin was continually bronzed. He was, in her mind, beautiful.

He’d often told the tales himself, and he did so very well. He had a deep, rich voice that could rise and fall at just the right moments—a voice that, on its own, could awaken every sense in Maura’s body. They had known each other for three years now, laughed and joked together, ridden old trails, worked together...always flirting, nearly touching at first, but always aware that, when summer ended, he would head back down to Key West and she would return to West Palm Beach—about 233 miles apart, just a little too far for a high school romance.

But this summer...

Things had changed.

She had liked him from the time she had met him; she had compared any other young man she met to him, and in her mind, all others fell short. He’d been given a management job that summer, probably because he was always willing to pitch in himself, whether it came to working in the restaurant when tables needed bussing or hauling in boxes when deliveries arrived. He’d gained a lean and muscular physique from hard work as much as from time in the gym, and he had a quick mind and a quicker wit, cared for people, was generous with his time, and was just...

Perfect. She’d never find anyone so perfect in life again, Maura was certain, even though she knew that her mother and father smiled indulgently when she talked about him in glowing terms—she was, after all, just eighteen, with college days and so much more ahead of her.

This summer they’d become a true couple. In every way.

A very passionate couple.

They’d had sex, in her mind, the most amazing sex ever, more meaningful than any sex had ever been before.

Just the thought brought a rush of blood to her face.

But...she believed that they would go on even through their separation, no matter the distance, no matter what. People would think, of course, that she was just a teenager, that she couldn’t be as madly in love as she believed she was. So she was determined that no one would really realize just how insanely fully she did love him.

She turned to Brock. He was smiling at her. Something of a secret smile, charming, sexy...a smile that seemed to hint that they always shared something unique, something special.

She grinned in return.

Yep. He had become her world.

“Take it away,” she told him.

“The curse!” he said, stepping in with a tremor in his voice. “It’s true that while being dragged to the tree—which you’ll see soon on our walk—the poor woman cried out that she was innocent of any cruel deed, innocent of murder. And she said that those who so viciously killed her would die in agony and despair. The very woods here would be haunted for eternity, and the evil they perpetrated on her would live forever. They had brought the devil into the woods, and there he would abide.”

He smiled, innately charming when he spoke to a group, and continued, “I think that storytellers have added in the choking-on-blood part. Very dramatic and compelling, but...there are records of the occasion of the poor woman’s demise available at the resort library.” He set his flashlight beneath his chin, creating an eerie look.

“And,” Maura said, “what is also documented is that bad things continued to happen on the ranch—under the same tree, the condemned killer, Marston Riggs, tortured and killed his victims in the early 1900s, and as late as 1970, the man known as the Red Tie Killer made use of the tree as well, killing five men and women at the History Tree and leaving their bones to fall to the ground. But, of course, we don’t believe in curses. The History Tree and the ranch are perfectly safe nowadays...” She looked at Brock. “Shall we?” she asked.

“Indeed, we shall,” he said, and the sound of his voice and the look that he gave her made her long for it to be later, when they had completed the nighttime forest tour—and were alone together.

They walked by the grove, where there was a charming little pond rumored to invigorate life—a handsomely written plaque commemorating the Spaniard Reynaldo Montenegro and his exploration of Florida.

Brock said to the tour group, “Here we are at the famous grove where Reynaldo Montenegro claimed to have found the Pond of Eternal Youth.”

It was as great tour; even the adolescents continued to ask questions as they walked.

“I’m happy to have been the tour guide tonight,” Maura murmured to Brock. “But I can’t believe that Francine just didn’t show up.”

“If I know Francine, she’ll make a grand entrance somewhere along the line, with a perfect reason for not being on time. She’ll have some mammoth surprise for everyone—something way more important than speaking to the guests. Hey, what do you want to bet that we see her somewhere before this tour is over? Here, folks,” Brock announced, “you’ll see the plaque—an inquisition did come to the New World!”

The copse, illuminated only by the sparkling lights that lit the trail, offered a sadder message—that of tortures carried out by an invading society on the native population it encountered.

They passed the ruins of an old Spanish farm and then they neared the tree.

The infamous History Tree.

The tree—or trees—older than anyone could remember, stood dead center in the small clearing, as if nothing else would dare to grow near. Gnarled and twisted together, palm and oak suggested a mess of human limbs, coiled together in agony.

Maura stopped dead, hearing a long, terrified scream, then realizing that she’d made the sound herself.

From one large oaken branch, a body was hanging, swaying just slightly in the night breeze.

She didn’t need to wonder why Francine Renault had been derelict in her duty.

She was there...part of the tour, just not as she should have been.

Head askew, neck broken. She was hanging there, in the place where others had been hanged through the years, again and again, where they had decayed, where their bones had dotted the earth beneath them.

Brock had been right.

Francine Renault had indeed shown up before the tour was over.

* * *

THEPOLICEFLOODED the ranch with personnel, the medical examiner and crime scene technicians.

The rich forest of pines and oaks and ferns and earth became alive with artificial light, and still, where the moss sagged low, the bright beams just made the night and the macabre situation eerier.

Detective Michael Flannery had been put in charge of the case. Employees and guests had been separated and then separated again, and eventually, Maura sat at the edge of the parking lot, shivering although it wasn’t cold, waiting for the officer who would speak with her.

When he got there, he wanted to know the last time she had seen Francine. She told him it had been the night before.

Where she had been all day? In the office, in the yard with the older teen boys and at the campfire.

Had she heard anyone threaten Francine?

At least half of the resort’s employees. In aggravation or jest.

The night seemed to wear on forever.

When she was released at last, she was sent back to her own room and ordered to stay there until morning.

When morning came, her parents were there, ready to take her home.

She desperately wanted to see Brock.

Her parents were quiet and then they looked at each other. Her father shook his head slightly, and her mother said softly, “Maura, you can’t see Brock.”

“What?” she demanded. “Why not? Mom, Dad—I’m about to leave home. Go to college, really be on my own. I love you. I’m going to come home. But...I’m almost eighteen. I won’t go without seeing Brock.”

Her father, a gentle giant with broad shoulders and a mane of white hair, spoke to her softly. “Sweetheart, we didn’t say that we wouldn’t let you see Brock. We’re saying that you can’t see Brock.” He hesitated, looking over at her mother, and then he continued with, “I’m so sorry. Brock was arrested last night. He was charged with the murder of Francine Renault.”

And with those words, it seemed that her world fell apart, that what she had known, that what she had believed in, all just exploded into a sea of red and then disappeared into smoke and fog.