Community activist Hannah Fox gains dangerous enemies when she becomes involved in a murder investigation.
Raised in the sixties on picket lines and peace marches, Hannah can’t turn her back when a friend’s land is targeted by a fraudulent eminent domain scheme that threatens her Catskill Mountain town. When the developer behind the scheme is murdered and her young friend becomes a suspect, Hannah probes the dead man’s shameful past. She faces hard choices, convinced the murder was a heroic act even when it’s clear she may be the killer’s next victim.
The room had the smell of an old house in summer, the sweet dry scent of wood beams behind plaster walls. Which house was she thinking of? Oregon, maybe, the summer she was seven. Chasing fireflies across a scruffy yard while the grownups sang Dylan and Woody Guthrie and smoked dope on the back porch.
The windows were open, the evening air dissipating the heat that had built up all day. Nothing to do now but wait for a call. Hannah read through the script again though she had it memorized. SafeHarbor. This is Hannah Fox. How can I help you? They’d stressed that during training. Say your name. Make it easy for the caller to ask for help.
Andrea Dubois, a thin redhead in a black tank top, was working on her laptop at the next desk. Another volunteer, Rose, was on the phone at a desk across the room. In her fifties, Hannah guessed. A striking woman in a loose coral shirt, a hint of the West Indies in the lilt of her voice as she invited the caller to make an appointment.
The phone rang, and Hannah glanced at Andrea who shot a finger at her. This was it, her first call. At Andrea’s nod, they each picked up a receiver. “Like riding a bike with training wheels,” Andrea had promised. “You may wobble, but you won’t fall.”
“SafeHarbor,” was all she got out before the woman at the other end began crying, her words garbled. Forget the script. Hannah, scribbling the number of the incoming call on the recording sheet, asked, “Are you hurt? Can you tell me what happened?”
The woman was trying, but she was difficult to understand. She sounded like she’d had six shots of Novocain. Or been punched in the mouth. Pregnant, Hannah finally made out. Then, dog’s chain. He’d hit her with the chain.
Andrea was cueing Hannah, covering the mouthpiece of her phone. “Get the location!”
“Tell me where you are so we can get you help,” Hannah said.
Something Road, the woman said. One garbled syllable. “Say that again,” Hannah said, and the woman repeated it. One syllable starting with B. “Ball Road?” Hannah asked, and let out a breath when the woman said, “Yes.” Yesh.
“Where on Ball?” Andrea demanded, and Hannah nodded, the question already out of her mouth. “Can you tell us where on Ball? What’s the nearest cross road?” Nothing. “Is there a house nearby? Something we can look for?” Nothing.
“Shit.” Hannah ran a hand through her hair, the phone still to her ear. “Her cell must have died. Now what?”
“You want me to call 9-1-1?” Rose was at her desk.
“Let’s see if she gets the signal back so we can pinpoint her location,” Andrea said. “It’s almost three miles from one end of Ball to the other.”
“Hold on. I think…” Hannah grabbed her pencil. “Hey, there you are.” She nodded at Andrea. “I understand. It could have been your husband. Good thinking, moving into the woods when you heard the car.”
Hannah wrote down what the woman was saying, repeating it aloud for Rose. A barn, a farmhouse way back from the road, then woods on the left. The woman sounded a bit calmer, easier to understand. Woods, a farmhouse, a barn. How many farmhouses were along that three-mile stretch?
“We’re calling the police this minute,” Hannah said. “Duck back in the woods if you need to, but keep a lookout for the police car. You’ll see the flashing lights. Okay?”
Yes. The woman understood.
“Do you want me to stay on the phone with you until the police come?”
“No,” the woman said, “it keeps cutting out.”
“Name,” Andrea prompted.
Of course. Jesus. “I never got your name,” Hannah said.
“Mary—” the woman said, and then screamed. Then a gunshot so loud it sounded as if it were in the room.
Hannah was on her feet, yelling into the phone, “Mary, are you there? Can you hear me?” The phone went dead. Shit. SHIT!
“You got all that?” Andrea asked Rose, who was nodding, already making the 9-1-1 call. Then, to Hannah, “I’m going out on this one. Do you want to come?”
Hannah ran down the stairs, following Andrea to the parking area behind the building. Music blasted from the house next door. Somewhere in the house a baby was crying. A woman yelled in Spanish, probably to turn down the damn music.
Hannah got into the car, fumbled with the seat belt, then braced herself as Andrea took the turn out of the driveway on what felt like two wheels.
“The cops aren’t going to be thrilled to see us. Just so you know.”
“We make the call, they go to the scene. That’s how it’s supposed to work. If the victim requests it, the cops call us and we send someone over.” Ignoring the stop sign, Andrea turned onto Central Avenue, Coopersville’s wide main drag, and headed west.
It was after nine-thirty. Except for a gas station and a sad-looking bar called Sweet Dixie’s, Central was dark. The diner at the east end of the village would be open, but that was it. Unlike years before, when the hotels were thriving and tourists swarmed up from the city every summer. Way before Hannah’s time.
“So, why are we going tonight?”
“The gunshot changed the rules as far as I’m concerned. If she’s alive, she’s probably not in any condition to make a request.
So we’ll just assume she wants us there. I’ll handle the cops.”
If she’s alive. What were the chances? The shot sounded like he was on top of her. Hannah replayed the voice on the phone. Age? Hard to tell. Fear and pain, that’s what she’d heard. Punched in the mouth and beaten with a dog’s chain. And pregnant. How had she managed to get away from him?
Hannah looked out the side window, trying to see a street sign. “You know there’s a shortcut to Ball. Turn onto Elder, which I think is the next corner, and take it to the end.”
“I know it.” Andrea took the turn at fifty . They were out of the village now.
Hannah watched the speedometer hit seventy. “Do you get many calls like this?”
“We opened for business, if you can call it that, on August 1, 2002. Three months exactly after my sister landed in the ER with two black eyes and a broken jaw. For the record, this is the first time a woman’s ever been shot while we had her on the phone.”
“I blew it. I should have asked her name right away.”
“You got the phone number, the location. Don’t do the mea culpa thing, okay?”
Hannah didn’t respond, surprised by the irritated tone from a woman she hardly knew. Tonight was only the second time they’d met. The first had been during one of the training sessions when Hannah asked, “Do you do this full time? Is this your job?” And Andrea, who was in her mid-thirties, Hannah guessed, about ten years younger than she, answered, “It’s my life.”
“Goddamn!” Andrea swerved onto the shoulder, gravel pinging against the car, narrowly avoiding a deer that leaped across the road. Hannah pitched forward against the restraint of the seatbelt and grabbed the armrest. Seconds later they were back up to speed.
“Ball Road’s the next turn, I think.” Hannah peered out the window, hand still gripping the armrest. In summer, half the county road signs were hidden by overgrown foliage. They almost shot past it, but Andrea turned in time, a wide turn that she took without slowing down. Hannah pressed her feet to an invisible brake, hoping they wouldn’t meet another deer.
The road was narrow, two lanes, no shoulder, woods on either side. Moonlight filtered through a thin cloud. First woods, then a farmhouse, the woman had said. No sign of the farm yet. Wasn’t there a gated community off Ball Road? The locals thought it was a joke. Who are they trying to keep out? The bears?
They drove on in silence, the only car on the road, their headlights tunneling into the dark. Then they went around a curve and the night was blazing with flashing red and white lights. Town and state police vehicles were parked at a slight angle, headlights illuminating the trees. A Winchester town cop, flashlight in hand, waved them to keep going.
Andrea stopped and rolled down the window. She explained who they were and that they’d called in the 9-1-1. The cop leaned down, peering into the car. “The chief’s been trying to find you.” He indicated a spot where they could pull off the road. “Stay in the car. I’ll let him know you’re here.”
Andrea parked where she was told, but they both got out of the car. Hannah spotted the barn a short distance beyond where they’d parked. She didn’t see a farmhouse, but it might be set way back. Across the road, spread out along the edge of the woods, half a dozen flashlight beams seemed to be waved by invisible hands, their light moving in arcs against the dark like giant fireflies.
Town of Winchester Police Chief Rich Cleary, Hannah’s neighbor, crossed toward them. Tall and thin, backlit by headlights. If he was surprised to see Hannah, he didn’t show it. But that was Rich. Laid-back was an understatement.
She started to introduce Andrea who cut her off with a brief, “We’ve met.” Then, “I take it you haven’t found her.”
“Not yet,” Rich said. Then he asked for details, wanting to know exactly what the woman had said. “You’re sure it was a gunshot, not a car backfiring?”
“It was a gun.” Eighteen years living in the mountains during hunting season, Hannah knew what a gunshot sounded like.
“We’ll keep looking. We’ve got the state cops in on this. There’s no point you two hanging around.”
“We’ll stay,” Andrea said.
“In that case, please get in your car. Some hotshot could come speeding over that hill.”
“Yes sir,” Andrea said. Just snotty enough to make an impression, Hannah thought.
Rich left, with a small shake of his head.
When they were back in the car, Hannah asked, “You have a problem with Rich Cleary, or with cops in general?”
Andrea didn’t respond right away. Then she said, “One night last summer, some asshole is smacking his girlfriend around. This is outside Randazzo’s.”
Hannah knew the place, a couple of miles west of where she lived in Laurel Pond.
“Someone in the restaurant saw what was going on and called 9-1-1. Before the sheriff’s deputies got there, the guy yanks his girlfriend by the hair and smashes her face into the hood of his car. By the time the deputies show up, she’s hysterical, screaming and the boyfriend’s Mr. Cool. So this deputy tells her, if she doesn’t calm down and stop screaming they’re going to arrest her. Then he tells Mr. Cool he can leave. That’s the shit we’re dealing with in this county.” Andrea half turned toward Hannah. “So, no. I don’t have anything personal against Rich Cleary. Is he a friend of yours?”
“Friend and neighbor,” Hannah said. “The Clearys live two doors away. I taught their three boys. Great kids.” She’d once said to Rich and Olivia that they should give lessons, teach this new crop of parents that it was okay to say no once in a while.
She and Andrea sat for a time without talking, turning in their seats to watch the flashlights, which were moving up their side of the road now. When the lights converged across the road, Andrea got out of the car to see what was going on.
“They’re finished with this stretch,” Andrea said when she got back. “Cleary’s right. There’s no point hanging around. If they were going to find her, I have a feeling it would be here, somewhere near the barn.”
“Maybe she got away.”
“Or maybe he dragged her out of the woods.”
Or maybe he shot her and dragged her deep into the woods and left her to die, Hannah thought.
Andrea was about to make a U-turn, when a bulky figure approached the car and walked around to the passenger side. Jack Grundy, Senior Investigator for the New York State Police. Hannah rolled down her window. “Hey,” she said. That little tripping in her chest had no business being there.
“Rich said you took the call.” Grundy stooped to talk to Hannah through the window, acknowledging Andrea with a brief nod.
“I did,” Hannah said.
“Did you recognize her voice? Maybe someone who’d called before?”
Hannah looked at Andrea who shook her head.
“You’re sure this was the spot she called from?”
“Pretty sure, not a hundred percent.” Hannah repeated the landmarks the woman mentioned. As Grundy started to leave, she said, “Jack, one thing I forgot to tell Rich. The woman ducked into the woods at one point while I was talking to her, and we lost her signal. But when the shot was fired, the signal was good, so she had to be close to the road.”
“Good to know. Thanks.” Then he was gone.
Andrea made her U-turn. “Another friend of yours?”
Hannah said yes, and let it go. She and Grundy weren’t exactly friends. On the cusp, maybe.
They didn’t speak much on the ride back to Coopersville. When Andrea pulled into the SafeHarbor lot, she said, “Eighty, ninety percent of the women we deal with? Talk to them long enough and they’ll take the rap for whatever their husbands or boyfriends did to them. ‘I was nagging him.’ ‘I wouldn’t give him sex.’ Bullshit. It drives me crazy, women blaming themselves. So if I jumped down your throat before when you said you blew it, that’s where I was coming from.”
“Don’t worry about it.”
“I used to do it too,” Andrea said, “beating myself up every time we didn’t get a woman help fast enough, or every time a woman went back to a lousy situation.”
“That’s a good way to burn out.”
“And drive yourself nuts.” After a pause, Andrea said, “Just so you know, it’s not like this every night. I hope you’re not going to pack it in.”
Pack it in? It hadn’t crossed her mind. “I’ll see you Thursday,” Hannah said.
She took the back way home, windows open, the night air heavy with the scent of pine. Every curve was familiar on the winding mountain road that connected Coopersville, in the southeast corner of Winchester Township, to Laurel Pond, nine miles north. Again she replayed the phone call, certain she’d never forget the terror in the woman’s voice. Telling herself that tomorrow they should have some answers. She was glad Rich had called in the state police. If the woman, Mary, was in the woods, they’d find her. And if she wasn’t, the police had her cell number. They’d track her down, hopefully in time to get her help.
First the thud of the newspaper against the porch steps, then the dog yapping. Hannah had been listening for those sounds in her half-sleep after a restless night. She pulled on a T-shirt and shorts and went downstairs. The street was silent, buried in fog. A damp July morning. The Bentleys’ cat, in the middle of the road, blended nicely into the gray mist. Owen Cleary, age nine, waved to her before tossing a newspaper at the Bentleys’ porch.
She flipped through the paper while waiting for the water to boil, dreading the worst. Casino Gambling Talks Stalled. Property Owner Cries Foul. $50,000 in Bad Checks Buys Ticket to Jail. Nothing about the police finding a body off Ball Road, which was a relief. Of course, it might have happened too late to make the first edition. She’d call Grundy later. In her gut, she doubted this story would have a happy ending—not if the woman, Mary, was back in the hands of the man who’d beaten her with a chain.
The dog’s pathetic look won out over the whistling kettle. Hannah snatched a flannel shirt from the hook behind the cellar door and stooped to clip Brooklyn to his leash. His matted white coat cried out for grooming. Something else she’d neglected this summer. “This weekend, baby, we’ll make you beautiful.”
She let the dog stop at every tree from her house to the corner, and then encouraged him to match a human pace when they turned onto Lake Street. A red truck with a faulty muffler roared up the hill. Other than that, no traffic. When they got to Main Street, Hannah turned north. The street was shut tight except for the convenience store at the corner and the diner that opened at five for the truckers passing through Laurel Pond.
A shabby mountain town, but she loved it. Loved it enough to resist moving back to the city seven months earlier when her husband William, desperate to leave a public relations stint at the county hospital, got a magazine job in New York. Long distance marriage. People did it all the time, right? They’d take turns traveling to spend weekends together until he was settled in his job. Then they’d see. Somehow they’d make it work.
Hannah tightened her grip on the dog’s leash as he tried to leap at a runner who’d come pounding up the street behind them. One problem—William dreaded the Friday afternoon bumperto-bumper exodus from the city. Problem number two—the place he’d found on Craigslist was a bedroom in an Upper West Side apartment, sharing a bathroom with the landlady’s son. It gave them no privacy. The weekends they did have together weren’t exactly mini-honeymoons.
She continued on Main for a few blocks, then turned up Mountain View. That would loop back to Lake, just above where her street cut in. The sun was beginning to burn through the fog. Hannah took off her flannel shirt and tied the sleeves around her waist.
When the school year ended, she’d told William she wanted to put their house on the market. They needed to be living under the same roof. But William pulled the same argument she’d given him months earlier. Things were unsettled. It didn’t make sense for her to move down yet. What did make sense then? she’d asked. He had no answers to that, just withdrew into that silent place she knew so well, his refuge whenever things heated up.
“I’m trying not to overreact,” she’d said to her friend Rebecca that past Sunday over pizza and chardonnay in Rebecca’s living room. “Every time a little voice tells me I should be worried about what he’s up to in the city, I tell it to shut up.”
Rebecca, veteran of a messy divorce, said, “I’m going to give you one piece of advice. You can’t change his behavior. Figure out what you want and what you’re going to do about it.”
Brilliant. Why hadn’t she thought of that? What she wanted was for them to talk. She’d called William that same evening, expecting an argument when she announced she’d be down on Friday. But he’d said, “Good.” She’d spent an hour mulling the tone of that one word, searching it for subtext, before she let it go.
Back at the house, she tossed Brooklyn his biscuit, then tried Grundy while she refilled the dog’s water bowl. It was just past seven. The angle of sunlight coming through the windows picked up the grime on her kitchen floor. She added mopping to her mental list.
“The man who never sleeps,” she said when Grundy picked up.
“I caught a few hours. What’s happening?”
“That’s what I was going to ask you.”
“Nothing yet. We sent up an FLIR-equipped helicopter around midnight, but they didn’t find anything.”
“I don’t know what that means.”
Grundy explained. Forward-looking infrared equipment detects body heat, even a couple of hours after death. If the woman was in the woods, dead or alive, they would have found her. “We’re going out now to do another ground search,” he said. Then, “Will you be home?”
“I’ll be at the library from ten until four.”
“I’ll catch you later. There’s something we need to talk about.”
Meaning what? But he was gone.
She’d showered, dressed, fried herself an egg and was upstairs checking email when the dog began barking and a voice called hello. Joy Fisher.
Hannah found her in the kitchen, murmuring endearments to Brooklyn while avoiding his tongue. Joy, twenty-three, was a tall blonde with close-cropped hair, not conventionally pretty but with a transforming smile. The knockout smile, her father used to say. Hannah and William had known her since she was a kid, flying in from California to spend vacations with her dad, their good friend Marty. Gone now. Hannah still caught herself searching for his face in a crowd.
“What are you doing here?” Hannah asked.
“Nice greeting.” Joy rummaged in a cupboard, taking down cereal, helping herself to milk from the fridge. “You’re supposed to say, ‘I’m thrilled to see you.’”
“I’m thrilled,” Hannah said. But not thrilled at the shadows under Joy’s gray eyes, or the way the violet silk T-shirt hung loose on her frame. She hadn’t seen Joy in a while and the change was striking. The summer internship with a Wall Street law firm might be helping Joy’s career, but she looked gaunt and exhausted.
They settled at the table, Joy with her cereal and Hannah with tea. “So what’s the story?” Hannah asked. The look on Joy’s face telegraphed bad news.
Joy reached into the purse hanging on the back of her chair and pulled out a folded sheet of paper. She slid it across to Hannah.
Hannah opened the letter and read it. Then she read it again, as if the words might rearrange themselves and the message magically become benign. It didn’t. The town board was holding a hearing at seven o’clock on July sixteenth to discuss the seizure, under eminent domain, of the Laurel Pond property Joy had inherited from her father. Hannah could almost feel Marty’s presence in the room, hear him roar: Those bastards are doing what?
Hannah glanced at Joy, then scanned the letter for dates. July sixteenth? Tonight? “When did you get this?”
“You’re going to think I’m a moron.”
She’d signed for the registered letter weeks ago, Joy said, but hadn’t actually opened it until last night. She’d assumed it was notice of some kind of zoning hearing. Her only excuse: she was working insane hours, letting mail pile up, except for bills. “I drove up right after I read it,” Joy said. “Then I spent half the night online researching eminent domain cases. A lot of good it did. My brain was too fried to process.”
Eminent domain. How could she have failed to make the connection? Hannah flipped through the newspaper and found the article she’d skimmed earlier. Property Owner Cries Foul. She handed the newspaper to Joy, watching her while she read. The owner of a bungalow colony down the road from Joy’s place had charged that the town was using eminent domain to go after his land for the sole purpose of turning it over to Wright Enterprises. George Wright—very rich and very connected—had been trying for years to buy Marty Fisher’s land for Paradise Mountain, his proposed condo, resort and retail development that would restore the town to its glory days, or so he claimed.
“No surprise, right?” Joy’s tone was bitter as she tossed the paper aside. “George thought I’d be an easy touch after Dad died, but I told him to screw off. So now he’s teaching me a lesson. The town seizes my land, pays me maybe half of what he’s been offering, and hands it over to him.” She shoved her chair back and carried her bowl to the sink.
Against the sound of running water, Hannah remembered a Friday evening at Filly’s Tavern about a year ago. She and Marty were having a beer while they waited for William, Marty laughing off George’s latest bid. “That sonofabitch can’t get it through his head that I don’t want his money. I’d eat cat food before I’d sell to him and watch him turn my place into a parking lot.” Marty’s voice, the smell of beer, the scarred wooden table—she could almost touch that moment. Except she couldn’t.
When Joy came back to the table, drying her hands on a dish towel, Hannah said, “You want company at the meeting tonight?”
“If you’re up for it that would be great. Just to keep life exciting, when I called my office this morning to say I wouldn’t be in, I was told I better change my plans. One of our clients filed for bankruptcy and there’s a ton of paperwork that has to be done yesterday. I told them this was a family emergency, which it is. Silly me. Family and emergency are not in the corporate lexicon. But you know what? They’re going to have to suck it up.”
“Not a great career move,” Hannah said.
“What choice do I have? My father died in December. Now these people are trying to take his land away from me.” Her eyes filled. “I won’t let them do that. You know what the place meant to him.”
Hannah did. After his daughter, his land was what Marty loved most. Then came the Mets. How often had she heard him say those words? “Joy, listen. This is a hearing. The board won’t make any decisions tonight. Why don’t you go to work, and let me cover it for you. I’ll take notes and I’ll call you as soon as it’s over. ”
“Absolutely not. I won’t dump this on you because I screwed up and didn’t open my mail.”
“You’re not dumping, I’m offering.”
A silence, then she said, “It doesn’t feel right.”
Hannah heard her hesitation and seized it. “We’re talking about a two-hour hearing. Not a big deal. I’ll call Rebecca and ask her to go with me. This isn’t her field of law, but she’ll have a better sense of what’s going on than either of us would.”
“I don’t want to interfere with your plans.”
“I’ll fold laundry and watch my DVD of The Wire tomorrow night.”
Joy searched her face, then said softly, “You must miss having William home.”
“I’m managing.” With a smile. “So what do you say? Rebecca and I cover the hearing, you drive back to the city.”
“Thank you. As if you guys haven’t done enough for me.” Then, fighting tears, “I can’t tell you how I felt when I read that letter last night. Losing that land would be like losing my dad all over again.”
“We’re not going to lose,” Hannah said. “Because if we do, your father’s going to come back and haunt us. And as much as I loved him…” Her voice caught in her throat. “Sorry. Stupid joke.”
“Not stupid.” Joy reached for a napkin and blew her nose. “I swear I heard him cursing a blue streak when I was driving up last night.”
“I won’t ask what he was saying.”
A teary laugh. “Nothing we haven’t heard from him before.”
Anita Page’s short stories have appeared in anthologies, ezines and print journals including Murder, New York Style: Fresh Slices, The Gift of Murder, and The Prosecution Rests. She received the Derringer Award in 2010 for her story “’Twas the Night.” She blogs at Anita Page, Writer, and at Women of Mystery.