Halfway along the shadowed passage, the footsteps in the dust came to a halt in front of a door.
Assorted muffled groans reverberated through the panels. Obviously she had discovered Julie and Travis’s secret retreat.
“Oh, yeah, oh, yeah, oh, yeah, baby, that feels so good.”
Travis’s voice rose into a hoarse groan of undisguised masculine satisfaction.
Leonora flushed. She felt like a voyeur standing out here in the corridor, listening to Julie and Travis have sex. Okay, maybe not exactly a voyeur. She couldn’t actually see anything, she reminded herself. Nevertheless, it was a very uncomfortable feeling.
Embarrassed, she hurried off. There was no excuse to hang around here. The small mystery was solved. The pair’s reasons for disappearing upstairs to this floor were now obvious.
She might as well take the opportunity to have a quick look around before she went downstairs.
Three-quarters of the way along the corridor she heard a door open behind her. Panic sizzled through her. She ducked behind the nearest large object, an antique cabinet, and held her breath.
“Your zipper,” Julie said urgently. “Jeez, are you crazy? Do it up. If Mrs. Brinks sees you like that, she’ll probably fire me. We both know I can’t afford to lose this job.”
“Take it easy.” A soft hissing sound announced that Travis had corrected the oversight. “There. All neat and tidy. Happy now?”
“This is serious, Travis.” Julie’s voice sharpened. “I mean it. If you get me fired we’re both going to regret it.”
“Don’t worry, it’s going to be okay. Ready?”
Leonora heard the door to the servants’ staircase squeak when it opened.
“What’s the big rush?” Travis asked. “Brinks went into town for lunch, remember? She won’t be back for at least an hour.”
“There’s something I need to do today if I get a chance.”
The door to the servants’ staircase closed on Julie’s muffled answer.
Leonora waited a few seconds and then stepped out of the protective shadow of the cabinet. She went back along the passageway to the panel door and stepped into the tiny stairwell.
Going down the narrow staircase was more precarious than climbing it. She took her time, keeping the slender beam of the flashlight focused on the steps.
Halfway down, she saw the thin crack of slightly lighter shadow that marked the door that opened onto the second-floor hall.
She was about to continue on down when, out of the corner of her eye, she glimpsed a second line of less dense shadow in the wall to her left. The wall that separated the library office from the staircase.
That explained why she had heard Julie and Travis going up and down the servants’ steps so clearly through the wood. There was another door off the landing that had, at one time, been used to service the library.
She continued down the steps, moving cautiously, not just for reasons of safety but to avoid making noise. The last thing she needed was for someone passing by in the hall on the second floor to hear her and come to investigate the strange sounds emanating from the staircase. Explanations would be awkward.
At the foot of the stairs, she paused to aim the flashlight at the second panel door. She summoned up an image of the layout of the little office. The card catalog was positioned directly on the other side of this wall. Years ago someone had evidently concluded that the servants’ stairs were no longer practical and that there was, therefore, no reason not to shove the heavy wooden catalog up against that wall.
She was about to switch off the penlight and let herself out into the hall when she caught the faint glint of gold. A chill went through her. She lowered the beam of light to the crack that marked the base of the narrow door that had once opened into the library.
Approximately half an inch of what looked like the trailing end of a bracelet or a necklace stuck out below the edge of the wooden panel. It was almost invisible in the shadows. If she hadn’t noticed the second door and aimed her flashlight in that direction, she would never have seen it.
How could anyone lose an item of jewelry in such an odd location? Perhaps it had been placed on top of the card catalog years ago. It could have fallen off the back and landed on the floor behind the catalog.
But in that case, how had a tiny section of it ended up under the old servants’ door?
Curiosity laced with an inexplicable sense of dread drew her toward the bit of gold. She stopped in front of the panel door, searching for a way to open it.
The sound of rustling movements on the other side of the wall made her go cold. Someone was in the library office.
She listened to drawers being opened and closed in the desk. Whoever it was, he or she was moving quickly, as if afraid of being caught.
A moment later the rustling sounds ceased. The faint echo of footsteps hurrying away through the bookstacks announced that the intruder had departed.
She waited until she heard the footsteps go past the hall door before she went to it and opened it very carefully.
She stuck her head out in the corridor just in time to see Julie Bromley turn the corner and disappear down the main staircase.
She thought about that for a moment and then went back to the other servants’ door.
With the card catalog hard against the wall on the opposite side, it was impossible to push the wooden panel inward toward the office. She had to pull it toward her.
She had almost decided to go into the library to find a ruler or some other object she could use to pry the door open when she noticed the small depression in the wooden panel. It was just the right size to allow her to set her fingers into it.
She tugged gently. The door groaned, reluctant to move on its aged and rusty hinges. But in the end she got it open.
She found herself looking at the solid wooden back of the tall card catalog. When she aimed the flashlight at the floor she saw the bracelet.
With trembling fingers she reached down to pick up the slender band of gold links. She didn’t need to see the name inscribed on the small gold plaque to identify the bracelet. She recognized it immediately.
She tightened her fingers around the strand of gold and closed the panel. She went to the other door and let herself out of the dark stairwell into the hall.
A moment later she was back in the library office. She looked around, examining things closely. A few items were askew on the desk. Nothing obvious. She probably wouldn’t have noticed the new position of the pen and the pad of paper if she hadn’t been looking for trouble.