In The Bleak Midwinter: First in Series Excerpt

In the Bleak Midwinter by Julia Spencer-FlemingIt’s a cold, snowy December in the upstate New York town of Millers Kill, and newly-ordained Clare Fergusson is on thin ice as the first female priest of its small Episcopal church. Chief of Police Russ Van Alstyne dismisses her as a naive do-gooder and her blunt manner, honed by eight years as an Army chaplain, receives a a chilly reception. When a baby is abandoned and a young mother is brutally murdered, Clare has to pick her way through the secrets and silence that shadow the town like the ever-present Adirondack mountains. As the days dwindle down and the attraction between the avowed priest and the married chief grows, Clare will need all her faith, tenacity and courage to stand fast against a killer’s icy heart.

Chapter 1

It was one hell of a night to throw away a baby. The cold pinched at Russ Van Alstyne’s nose and made him jam his hands deep into his coat pockets, grateful that the Washington County Hospital had a police parking spot just a few yards from the ER doors. A flare of red startled him, and he watched as an ambulance backed out of its bay silently, lights flashing. The driver leaned out of his window, craning to see his way between cement rails.

“Kurt! Hey! Anything for me?”

The driver waved at Russ. “Hey, Chief. Nope. Heart attack stabilized and heading for Glens Falls. You heard about the baby?”

“That’s why I’m here.”

Kurt continued to back out, almost to the end of the parking lot. “Jesum, hard to imagine sumpin’ like that here in Millers Kill—” The rest of his commentary was lost as he heeled the ambulance into the road. Russ waved, then pushed open the antiquated double doors to the emergency department.

His glasses fogged up within seconds in the moist heat of the foyer. He pulled off the wire frames and rubbed them with the end of his scarf, mentally cursing the myopia that had finally led him, at forty-eight, to cave in and wear the damn things full time. His stomach ached and his knee was bothering him and for a moment he wished he had taken that security consulting job in Phoenix like his wife had wanted.

“Hey! Chief!” A blurry form in brown approached him. Russ tucked his glasses over his ears and Mark Durkee, one of his three night-shift officers, snapped into focus. As usual, the younger man was spit-and-polished within an inch of his life, making Russ acutely aware of his own non-standard-issue appearance: wrinkled wool pants shoved into salt-stained hunting boots, his oversized tartan muffler clashing with his regulation brown parka. Hell, Mark was probably too young to get a cold neck, even with the back of his head shaved almost bald.

“Hey, Mark,” Russ said. “Talk to me.”

The officer waved his chief down the drab green hallway toward the emergency room. The place smelled of disinfectant and bodies, with a whiff of cow manure left over by the last farmer who had come in straight from the barn. “Man, it’s like something out of an old Bing Crosby movie, Chief. The priest at Saint Alban’s found the little guy bundled up at the door of the church. The doctor’s checking him out now.”

“How’s the baby look?”

“Fine, as far as they can tell. He was wrapped up real well, and the doc says he probably wasn’t out in the cold more’n a half hour or so.” Russ’s sore stomach eased up. He’d seen a lot over the years, but nothing shook him as much as an abused child. He’d had one baby-stuffed-in-a-garbage-bag case when he’d been an MP in Germany, and he didn’t care to ever see one again.

Mark and Russ nodded to the admissions nurse standing guard between the ER waiting room and the blue-curtained alcove where patients got their first look-see. “Evening, Alta,” Russ said. “How’s business?” The waiting room, decorated with swags of tired tinsel and a matching silver tree, was empty except for a teenager sprawled over one of the low sofas.

“Slow,” the nurse said, buzzing them into the emergency treatment area. “Typical Monday night.” The old linoleum floors carried the rattle of gurney wheels and the squeak of rubber-soled shoes.

“Over there,” Mark said, pointing. Framed by limp white curtains dangling from ceiling tracks, an athletic-looking woman in gray sweats was leaning on a plastic incubator, writing in a pocket-sized notebook.

“Who the hell’s that?” Russ asked. “I swear, if they let a reporter in here before we’ve cleared the facts I’ll—” he strode toward the incubator. “Hey, you,” he said.

His challenge brought the woman’s chin up, and she snapped her head around, zeroing in on the two policemen. She was plain, no makeup and nondescript dark blond hair scraped back in a ponytail. She had that overbred look he associated with rich women from the north side of town: high cheekbones and a long thin nose that was perfect for looking down at folks. Mark grabbed his arm, grinning. “No, no. That’s the priest, Chief.” He laughed out loud at the expression on Russ’s face. The priest? Christ on a bicycle. She gave Russ a look that said, “Wanna make something of it?” He felt himself coloring. Her eyes were the only exceptional thing about her, true hazel, like granite seen under green water.

“Officer Durkee,” she said, her gaze sliding off Russ as if she had already weighed and found him wanting. “Any word yet from the Department of Human Services?” There was the barest trace of a Southern accent in her no-nonsense voice.

“No, ma’am,” Mark said, rocking back and forth on his heels. “But I’d expect that. They got a lot of ground to cover around here, and not many people to cover it with.” He was still grinning like a greased hyena.

Russ decided the best defense was a good offense. “I’m Russell Van Alstyne, Millers Kill chief of police.” He held out his hand. She shook fi rm, like a guy.

“Clare Fergusson,” she said. “I’m the new priest at Saint Alban’s. That’s the Episcopal Church. At the corner of Elm and Church.” There was a faint testiness in her voice. Russ relaxed a fraction. A woman priest. If that didn’t beat all.

“I know which it is. There are only four churches in town.” He saw the fog creeping along the edges of his glasses again and snatched them off, fishing for a tissue in his pocket. “Can you tell me what happened, um…” What was he supposed to call her? “Mother?”

“I go by Reverend, Chief. Ms. is fine, too.”

“Oh. Sorry. I never met a woman priest before.”

“We’re just like the men priests, except we’re willing to pull over and ask directions.”

A laugh escaped him. Okay. He wasn’t going to feel like an unwashed heathen around her.

“I was leaving the church through the kitchen door in the back, which is sunken below street level. There are stairs rising to a little parking area, tucked between the parish hall and the rectory, not big, just room enough for a couple cars. I was going for a run.” She looked down and waggled one sneaker-shod foot. Her sweatshirt read ARMY. “The box was on the steps. I thought maybe someone had left off a donation at first, because all I could see were the blankets. When I picked it up, though, I could feel something shifting inside.” She looked through the plastic into the incubator, shaking her head. “The poor thing was so still when I unwrapped him I thought he was already dead.” She looked up at Russ. “Imagine how troubled and desperate someone would have to be to leave a baby out in the cold like that.”

Russ grunted. “Anything else that might give us an idea of who left him there?”

“No. Just the baby, and the blankets, and the note inside.”

Russ frowned at Mark. “You didn’t tell me about any note,” he said.

The officer shrugged, pulling a glassine envelope out of his jacket pocket. “Reverend Fergusson didn’t mention it until after I had called you,” he explained. He handed Russ the plastic-encased paper.

“That’s my fault, yeah,” said the priest, not sounding at all apologetic. Russ held the clear envelope at arm’s length to get a better view. “I didn’t call DHS until I was over here, and I wanted to make sure they knew what the baby’s parents intended.” She looked over his arm at the note. “I’m sorry, but I handled it without thinking about any fingerprints or anything.”

It was an eight-by-eleven sheet of paper ripped from a spiral-bound notebook, the kind that you could get anywhere. The handwriting, in blue ink, was blocky, extremely child-like. Russ guessed that the note’s author had held the pen in her left hand to disguise her printing. “This is our baby, Cody,” it read. “Please give him to Mr. and Mrs. Burns here at St. Alban’s. We both agree they should have him, so there won’t be any trouble later on with the adoption. Tell our baby we love him.”

Russ lowered the note and met the priest’s green-brown eyes. “Kids,” he said.

“That would be my guess,” she said.

“Who are the Burnses?”

“Geoffrey and Karen Burns.”

“The lawyers,” Russ said, surprised.

“They’re parishioners of St. Alban’s. I understand they’ve been seeking adoption for over two years now. They’ve been on the Prayers of the People list for the past two weeks, and as I recall, our secretary told me that’s a regular thing for them.”

“This is something published? Or what?”

“Prayed out loud, every Sunday during the service.”

He looked closely at her. “Sounds like at least one of the baby’s parents might go to your church.”

She looked uncomfortable. “Yeah. Although I’m sure that everyone who knows the Burnses also knows they’re looking for a baby.”

“Why leave it at St. Alban’s then? Why not on the Burnses’ doorstep?”

Reverend Fergusson swept her hands open wide.

Russ handed the note back to Mark. “What time did you fi nd the baby?” he asked the priest.

“About… nine-thirty, quarter to ten,” she said. “There was a welcoming reception from the vestry tonight that finished up around nine. I changed in my office, checked messages, and then headed out. I already gave Officer Durkee the names of the people who were there.”

Russ squinted, trying for a mental picture of the area where Elm branched off the curve of Church Street. One of Tick Soley’s parking lots was across the street from the church, one light on the corner but nothing further up where the houses started. “What did you say was behind the little parking area?”

“The rectory, where I live. There’s a tall hedge, and then my side yard. My driveway is on the other side of the house.”

Russ sighed. “The kids—the parents—could have parked in any one of those spots and snuck over to the stairs with the baby. I somehow doubt we’re gonna get an eyewitness with a license number and a description of the driver.”

The priest tapped the glassine envelope. “Chief Van Alstyne, exactly how hard do you have to look for the parents of this baby?” For the first time Russ let himself take a long look into the portable incubator. The sleeping baby didn’t look any different from every other newborn he had ever seen, all fat burnished cheeks and almond-shaped eyes. He wondered how hard up or screwed up or roughed up a girl would have to be to pull a perfect little thing like that out of her body and then leave him in a cardboard box. In the dark. On a night when the windchill hovered at zero degrees.

He looked back at the priest. She was leaning toward him slightly, focusing on him as if he were the only person in the whole hospital. “I don’t need to tell you that leaving a baby like that is called endangering a child,” he said. She nodded. “And of course, if we can’t find the parents, it’s going to take longer for DHS to actually get the baby out of foster care and into an adoptive home. But the thing is to find out how voluntary this really was, giving up the baby.”

Her mouth opened and then snapped shut. He continued. “When a woman really wants to give up her kid for adoption, she usually gets in touch with an agency, or a lawyer, or somebody, well before the baby is born. These throwaway situations—”

“She didn’t throw Cody away. Whoever she is.”

“No, she didn’t. Which makes me think it’s not one of those times when the mother is a druggie or a drunk or a psycho. But it does make me wonder if her boyfriend or her father forced her into it. And if she’s not already regretting what she did, but is too scared of us or of him to come forward and reclaim her son.”

“I never thought of that,” Reverend Fergusson said, biting her lower lip. “Oh dear. Maybe I shouldn’t have—”

The emergency room doors opened with a hydraulic pouf. Russ recognized the small, bearded man in the expensive topcoat and the striking brunette woman at his side, but he’d know who they were even if he had never seen them in the Washington County Courthouse before, just from the look on Reverend Fergusson’s face.

“We got here as soon as we could,” Geoffrey Burns said. His voice was tight. His glance flicked around the treatment area, lighting on the incubator. His wife saw it at the same time.

“Oh…” she said, pressing one perfectly manicured hand to her mouth. “Oh. Is that him?”

The priest nodded. She stepped aside, allowing the Burnses a clear view of the sleeping baby. “Oh, Geoff, just look at him…” Karen Burns hesitated, as if showing too much eagerness might cause the incubator to vanish.

Her husband stared at the baby for a long moment. “Where’s the doctor who’s been treating him?” he said. He looked at Russ. “Chief Van Alstyne. I take it the Department of Human Services hasn’t seen fit to send anyone over yet.”

“Mr. Burns.” Russ nodded. “I expect we’ll see somebody soon. They’re a little overwhelmed over there, you know.”

“Oh, don’t I just,” Geoff Burns said.

“I take it Reverend Fergusson called you about the note that was found with the baby?” Russ glanced pointedly toward the priest, who lifted her chin in response. “You folks know that it’s way too early to start thinking of this boy as your own. No matter what the parents wrote.”

Karen Burns turned toward him. “Of course, Chief. But we are licensed foster parents without any children in our home right now, and we intend to press DHS to place Cody with us.” Mrs. Burns had a voice so perfectly modulated she could have been selling him something on the radio. Russ glanced at Burns, thin and short, and wondered at the attraction. His own wife was one hell of a good-looking woman, but Karen Burns would put her in the shade.

“Under the standard of the best interests of the child, it’s preferable that a pre-adoptive child be fostered with the would-be adoptive parents, if there are no natural relatives able to care for the child. Young v. The Department of Social Services.”

Russ blinked at the lawyer’s aggressively set brows. “I’m not contesting you in court, Mr. Burns,” he said. “But we don’t know that there aren’t any natural relatives. We don’t know if the mother gave him up of her own free will or not.” He shifted his weight forward, deliberately using his six-foot-three-inches as a visual reminder of his authority here. “Isn’t it a little odd for a professional couple like you to be foster parents?”

Karen Burns laid her hand on her husband’s arm, cutting off whatever he was about to say. “I work from home as well as from my office, part time. On those times we’ve had a child in our care, I just cut way back.”

“I assure you we’re properly licensed and have passed all the state requirements,” Burns said, his face tight. “We are fully prepared to make the sacrifices necessary to care for a child. Unlike the biological parents of this boy.”

Karen Burns twisted a single gold bangle around her wrist. “Of course you have to look for the parents, Chief Van Alstyne. And I’m sure that anyone who took such care to make sure their baby would be found immediately, and left a note asking us to be his adoptive parents, would only confirm that request.”

Her husband spoke almost at the same time. “We intend to file for TPR immediately, on grounds of abandonment and endangerment.” There was a pause. The Burnses looked at each other, then at Russ. They both spoke at once.

“I hope you do find her. She undoubtedly needs help and counseling.”

“I hope you don’t find her, to be frank. It’ll be better for the baby all around.”

Reverend Fergusson broke the awkward silence. “What’s TPR mean?”

“Termination of parental rights,” Russ answered. “Usually happens after the court takes a DHS caseworker’s recommendation that there’s no way the child ought to go back to the parent. Takes months, sometimes years, if DHS is trying to reunite the family.” He rubbed his forehead with the palm of his hand. “During which time the kid is in foster care.”

“Unless, as in this case, the child is an abandoned infant and the parents can’t be found,” Geoff Burns said, tapping his finger into his palm in time to his words.

“Uh huh,” Russ agreed. “Unless they can’t be found.”

Chapter 2

The pediatric resident, bright-eyed and way too young for comfort, entered the treatment area from behind a blue baize curtain. “Oh, hey!” he said. “You must be the Burnses! Your priest here told me about you. Hey, you wanna hold Cody here or what?” He unlatched the top of the incubator and scooped up the baby expertly, placing him in Karen Burns’s arms before she had a chance to respond.

“Oh,” she said. “Oh.” Her husband put his arm around her, turning her away from the others. Russ, rubbing away at the headache building behind his eyebrows, felt the weight of attention on him. He glanced down at Reverend Fergusson, who was looking at him instead of at the would-be-parents. It took him a moment to identify the expression on her face, it had been so long since he’d seen it directed at him. Sympathy.

The resident was trying to give his report to Durkee, who was just as doggedly pointing him in Russ’s direction. “Hey,” he said, “You’re the police chief? Really neat.”

“I think so.” Over the doctor’s shoulder, Russ could see Reverend Fergusson’s lips twitch.

“The baby’s in real good shape,” the doctor said, pulling out several sheets of paper stapled together. “Here’s a copy of his tests and the examination results. I place the time of birth within the last two or three days. No drugs in his system, no signs of fetal alcohol syndrome, no signs of abuse. His cord was cut and wrapped inexpertly, but somebody kept it nice and clean. We’ll have to wait until he’s had a bowel movement, but I’m guessing he’s been fed formula.”

Russ scanned the report, noting the blood group—AB negative— and the notation that the baby had been bathed at some point in his brief life. “Okay,” he said. “Mark, get me the box and the blankets, we’ll see if we can get anything from those. I want you to stay here until somebody from DHS arrives, unless you get a squawk.” Mark nodded and disappeared into the examination cubby. Russ folded the medical report and tucked it into his jacket pocket.

“Here you go, Chief,” Mark said, returning with the box. He passed it to Russ, who examined it without much hope of anything useful. It was sturdy, new-looking, marked with the logo of a finger Lakes orchard. Lane’s IGA and the Grand Union probably had hundreds just like it tossed in their storerooms. The blankets were a mix: an old, well-worn gold polyester thing, a heavy woolen horse blanket in plaid, and what looked like two brand-new flannel baby blankets, the kind his sister had by the dozens. Russ had a sudden image of himself going door-to-door, asking, “Ma’am? Do you recognize any of these blankets? And has anyone in your household given birth lately?”

Reverend Fergusson had gone over to the Burnses and was talking softly to them. Karen Burns said something, looking at her husband, and he nodded. All three of them bent their heads. Russ realized with a shock that they were praying. Openly displayed religion made him as uncomfortable as hell, and it didn’t help when the priest signed the cross over both of them and then laid her hands on the baby and blessed him. She really was a priest. Jesus Christ. A woman priest. Were Episcopalians like Catholics? He’d have to ask his mother, she’d know.

When Reverend Fergusson broke away from the Burnses and walked straight toward him, he thought for one guilty moment she must have read his mind and was coming over to give him what for.

“Chief Van Alstyne, will you be leaving soon?” she asked.

“Yeah,” he said, warily. Did she want to pray over him, too?

“Ah. Well, Karen and Geoff are going to stay here until after the caseworker arrives, and I, um…” She worried her lower lip some, hesitating. “I called an ambulance, you see, ’cause I thought Cody ought to be seen as soon as possible, and I, I don’t have…”

The light dawned. “Do you need a ride home, Reverend?” Russ said.

“I don’t want to impose…”

“I’d be glad to give you a lift, if you don’t mind me stopping by the station to drop this off before we get to your house. I want to make sure our fingerprint guy has it first thing in the morning.” He hefted the box.

“I’m not in any hurry,” she said. “On the other hand, I did want to get to the rectory sometime tonight, and I understand that the taxis in Millers Kill aren’t the quickest to respond to a call…”

Russ snorted. “If you’re talking about In-Town Taxi, you’re right. One car is their whole fleet, and when the driver decides he’s done for the day, you’re outta luck.” He waved good-bye to Mark and gestured for the priest to precede him through the emergency department doors.

“ ’Night, Chief,” the admitting nurse called.

“ ’Night, Alta,” he said.

The dry, cold air outside the overheated hospital was like a good stiff drink after a hard day. Russ breathed deeply. He noticed the priest wasn’t carrying a coat. “Hey, Reverend, you can’t go outside in just sweats this time of year. Where are you from, anyway?”

She looked down at her unseasonable outfit. “It shows, huh? Southern Virginia. And when I was in the army, I managed to never get myself stationed any place where the temperature dipped to below freezing.”

“Neat trick,” he said. In the army? A woman priest in the army. What next? She parachute out of planes dropping bibles?

“I was a helicopter pilot,” she said. “Late of the Eighteenth Airborne Corps. You’d be surprised how often we needed to drop men and gear into overheated climates.”

“No, I wouldn’t,” he said. “I was career army. first in the infantry, then an MP. I retired about four years ago.”

“Really?” She stopped in her tracks. “We’ll have to compare postings.” She looked up at him curiously. “It’s just that the way you knew everybody, I assumed you’d lived in Millers Kill all your life.”

Russ pulled open the passenger-side door of his cruiser. She slid into the seat, yelping at the chilly vinyl. He crossed to the other side, dropped the box into the backseat, and got behind the wheel. “I was born here, lived here my first eighteen years.” He started up the car, turned on the radio, and grabbed the mike. “Ten-fifty, this is Ten-fifty-seven. I’m rolling, en route from the hospital to the station.” The radio crackled and Harlene’s voice came on the line. “Ten-fifty-seven, this is Ten-fifty. Acknowledged you en route from the hospital to the station. We’ll see you soon.”

The woman beside him was shivering, her arms clasped around herself, her knees drawn up. “Sorry,” he said. “The heater in the old whore takes a long time to warm up.” A second after he spoke, he remembered he was talking to a priest. “Oh, Jesus,” he said, caught himself, then blurted out, “Christ!” at his own stupidity before he could help it. He hung his head, laughing and groaning at the same time.

“You! Swearing in front of a priest!” She pointed her finger at his chest. “Drop and gimme twenty!” He stared at her, not sure he was hearing right. She smiled slowly, her eyes half-closing. “Gotcha.”

Russ shook his head, laughing. “Okay, okay. Sorry.” He shifted the cruiser into gear and eased it out of the hospital parking lot onto Burgoyne Avenue. Nearing midnight on a Monday, there was hardly any traffic on the normally busy road.

Reverend Fergusson shifted in her seat, exclaiming briefly when she hit a particularly cold spot. “You were telling me you were born and raised right here…”

“Oh, yeah,” he sighed. “Probably would have gotten a job at the mill and never left town. But I got out of high school in ’sixty-nine and my number came up in the Instant Loser Lottery. Next thing I knew, it was good-bye New York State, hello Southeast Asia.”

He checked the gauge on the heater. “Turned out the army and I made a pretty good match. We went from Vietnam to the Gulf together.” He switched the blower to high and the interior began to warm up. “After I retired,”—no need to go into detail about that phase of his life—“I decided the time was right to finally come home. The old chief was retiring, and they needed someone with experience who wanted to live the quiet life up here in Washington county. It’s a good outfit, eight officers and four part-timers, and I liked they way everyone worked together. My wife, Linda, loved the idea of us finally settling down somewhere other than a big city or busy post”—well, that was half-true, she had wanted him to settle down—“and she likes being so close to my mother and my sister.” Now that was a whopper. But it was the party line, and he stuck to it. “So that’s how I wound up back in my old home

town a quarter-century after I left.”

“Does your wife work?”

“Oh, yeah.” He swung into the right-hand lane and turned onto Morningside Drive. The lights from the new Wal-Mart turned the night sodium orange. “She has her own business, making custom curtains. It’s been more successful than either of us imagined.” He slowed, checking out the cars in the parking lot. He didn’t like all-night stores, they were targets for trouble. “She’s getting into mail orders now, says she wants to make up a whole catalogue. It’s great, it’s been really just great.”

“Sounds like she found her vocation. Good for her. It can be hard for some military families to readjust to civilian life. You two have any kids?”

“No,” he said. “What’s your story? You came from Virginia originally?”

“Born and bred in a small town outside of Norfolk,” she said. “My family owns a charter and commercial air business. I had always thought I wanted to be part of it someday, so after college, I joined the army as a helo jock. The military is still the best way to train for a career as a pilot, you know. And the army was putting on a big push to get female recruits into non-traditional fi elds. I was the only woman in my unit.”

“Must have been tough,” he said. Now that he thought about it, she did seem less like a bible-tosser and more like the type to be dropping arms in an LZ.

“At times, yeah. It was good though.” Taking his eyes off the road for a second, he could see a one-sided smile flash across her face. “But, as it turned out, I had to put my piloting plans aside when I was called to the priesthood. I went back to Virginia to go to seminary, which was really good for my parents.”

Russ didn’t want to get into the murky mystical depths of how someone was “called to the priesthood.” “How’d you wind up here?” he asked.

“I spent a summer as an assistant curate in the Berkshires. I had never been in this part of the country before, and I just fell in love with it. I started looking for a position somewhere in New England, and when St. Alban’s came open, I thought, well, it’s only a half-hour drive from Vermont…”

“Ah ha,” Russ said. “So you haven’t experienced a North-country winter yet.” The light at the intersection with Radcliff Street turned red, and he pumped his brakes to avoid skidding on the icy spots.

“Therein lies the rub, as they say. My internship ran from May through September, so I was a little unprepared for six inches of snow before the end of November. I’ve only been here for three weeks, so I’m not exactly acclimated yet. I do have a coat, though. But when I stumbled over the baby, I was on my way out for a run.”

He looked at her again. She was obviously fit, but she wasn’t a big woman, scarcely up to his shoulder standing. “Just because this is a small city and we look like Bedford Falls from It’s a Wonderful Life, don’t be fooled into thinking bad things can’t happen here. They can, and do, so watch where you run if you’re out at night alone.”

She waved a hand, unconcerned. “I can take care of myself,” she said.

“Lemme guess, you know karate, you’re trained in the art of self-defense…”

“Nothing formal. But the army made sure I could break somebody’s arm if I needed to.”

The light turned green. He rolled onto Radcliff, causing an ancient Chevy Nova that had been barreling down the street to brake hard in an attempt to get under the thirty-five-mile-an-hour speed limit. “Lemme tell you, Reverend, somebody tries to mug you, they aren’t gonna get close enough for you to break their arm. Every ass—uh, jerk on the streets today’s got a gun. Even up here. They come up outta New York City, just like the drugs do.”

He glanced at her when he made a left turn onto Main. She was studying the peaceful storefronts and frowning, absently rubbing her forearm with one long-fingered hand. “Is that a big problem in Millers Kill? Drugs?” she asked.

Russ sighed. He knew when he was being side-stepped. “Not too bad, no. Alcohol is the number one drug of choice up here, like you’ll find in a lot of rural areas. My biggest single crime problem is domestic violence, and nine times out of ten there’s alcohol involved.”

He pulled the cruiser up in front of the station. “I’ll leave the car running for you,” he said. “Be back in a minute.” He grabbed the box and took off through the icy air, bounding up the stairs two at a time.

There was nobody at the front desk at this hour. Instead, he loped into the dispatch room, where Harlene was just pouring herself a cup of coffee. “Harlene, you good lookin’ woman!” he said. Harlene was some ten years his elder, a big, square woman with an uncannily organized mind and a photographic memory of every highway, lane, and dirt road in three counties.

“One of these days, I’m going to slap you with a sexual harassment lawsuit,” she said, hefting herself into her chair and curling her headset over her springy gray hair.

“And let Harold know how much fun you’re having over here? No way.” Her husband Harold had recently retired, and was riding Harlene pretty hard to quit work and stay at home with him. “I’m gonna lock this into evidence,” Russ said, waggling the box. “Will you leave a note for Phil to get on it first thing in the morning? Prints, hairs, anything he can come up with.”

Harlene peered at the cardboard. “You want him to send it on to the state if nothing pans out?”

“No. No need to spend the money. This is that abandoned baby Mark called in. More likely than not the mother’ll surface within a week or so. You know how these things run.”

Harlene nodded. The teenager wound up in the hospital with postpartum complications. Or she broke down and told a friend, who told another, until there wasn’t any secret anymore.

“Okay, Chief, you got it.” She pointed to the coffeemaker. “Just brewed a fresh pot,” she said.

“Gotta haul it,” Russ said, stuffing the ends of his scarf back into his jacket. “I’m giving the priest who found the baby a ride back to St. Alban’s rectory.”

“You and a priest.” Harlene snorted. “I’d give good money to hear how that conversation goes.”

“Actually,” Russ said, enjoying his moment as much as Mark had his, “She’s very easy to talk to. She’s old army, too.”

Harlene was gratifyingly surprised. “Well! Didn’t know they could have women priests.” She looked into the middle distance for a moment. “Ask her what she thinks of my sexual harassment suit,” she said.

Russ bit back a laugh and grabbed the locker key off the hook on the wall. He clattered downstairs and unlocked the evidence cage, tagging the box and scribbling his entry information in the dog-eared logbook. Within two minutes he was running back upstairs, shouting a good-night to Harlene, and out the front door again.

When he got into the cruiser, Reverend Fergusson jerked her hand away from the radio. “Sorry,” she said. “I couldn’t resist. I wanted to see if it sounded like it does on all those television shows.”

“And?” Russ said, backing the car out of his parking spot.

“And it sounds like the state police have wa-a-a-ay too much time on their hands,” she said. “One guy was going on and on about some fishing tournament he’d gone to. It sounded more like Bassmasters than Dragnet.”

They both laughed. “Yeah, well…” Russ said. “Mondays are the quietest night of the week. You come cruising with me on Friday, then you’ll really hear something.”

She pinned him with those clear hazel eyes. “Could I?”

Startled, he almost ran a red light. He looked at her. “Reverend, why on earth would you want to do something like that?” he said.

“Because I want to get a feel for the problems of Millers Kill that I won’t get in a vestry reception,” she said. “Because I need to figure out what kind of outreach ministry my church ought to be doing, instead of just what my parishioners feel comfortable doing right now. And because,” she grinned, a reckless, one-sided grin that made him think she must be mistaken about a priestly calling, “I’m a recovering adrenaline addict. Who hasn’t had a fix in a while. Green light.”

“Huh.” He drove on. “Doesn’t your church have a mass or whatever it is on Fridays? I recall seeing cars there in the evening. And besides, I’m out pretty late. Don’t you, I dunno, get up early to pray or something?”

She made an amused sound in the back of her throat. “Saturday’s a day off for me. At least, it’s supposed to be. So I can sleep in. If worse comes to worse, I can double up. Praise God while I’m making pancakes, thank the Lord while I’m doing the week’s shopping.” She began to sing almost inaudibly, “And He walks with me, and He talks with me…”

“Uh-huh. I may not know much about religion, but I can tell when I’m being sold a bill of goods.”

“So can I come?”

How do I get myself into these situations? he thought. “Okay, yeah,”

he said finally. “But you do what I say, when I say it, and if I decide for

whatever reason that it’s not safe, you get left behind. No arguments.”

“Do I strike you as the argumentative type?” she asked. He snorted. Along Church Street, the municipal Christmas decorations had been hung on the lampposts. Same fuzzy plastic candy canes and reindeer that had been there when he was a kid. Same fake greenery around the poles, same fat outdoor bulbs. He wondered where they got replacements from. No way anyone was still making lights like that. He turned onto Elm. The rectory was a pretty Dutch Colonial from the turn of the century.

“Here it is, on the left.”

“Nice,” Russ said, parking in the drive. “Bet you’ve got great woodwork in there.”

The priest groaned. “I can’t tell,” she said. “The place is all over boxes, most of ’em completely unlabeled, so I have no idea what’s in there. I have some I filled before my last posting to Fort Rucker and haven’t unpacked in seven years. They could contain anything from ’eighties-style miniskirts to relics of the True Cross for all I can remember. Somehow, there always seems to be something more interesting to do than unpacking and housecleaning…”

He slung his arm over the seat and turned toward her. “You gotta get one of those ladies’ committees over to do their thing. Have you set up and sparkling in no time.”

“Oh, yeah,” she said. “And they’d do a great job, too. But you know, you get the place clean and organized at the start and forever after, whenever one of my parishioners came over for a visit, they’d be thinking, My! She certainly didn’t keep this up very well!” She looked up the drive to her house, smiling a little. “Ah, it’s just the new-posting blues. A new town, all new faces. It can get…”

“Lonely.”

“Yeah.”

They sat in companionable silence, not in any hurry to end the ride.

The radio squawked. “Ten-fifty-seven, this is Ten-fifty. I’ve got an accident reported out on Route Thirty-five, at mile fifteen.”

Russ clicked in the mike. “Ten-fifty, this is Ten-fifty-seven. Acknowledged. I’m rolling to Route Thirty-five, mile fifteen.” He spread his hands apologetically. “Duty calls. Good-night, Reverend Fergusson.”

“Oh, for heaven’s sake, call me Clare.” She opened her door and slid out, leaning down to keep him in view.

“Clare,” he said. “And you can call me Chief.” She laughed loudly. “No, no, call me Russ. After all, if we’re going to be partners next Friday…”

She nodded. “I’ll be there. Russ. Good night, now.” She slammed the door. He waited until she had reached her front door and let herself in. Without keys. He made a mental note to get on her about that come Friday. He backed out of her drive and hit his lights, unaccountably smiling all the way to Route Thirty-five.

The girl unlocked the deadbolt and turned the latch. It was cold in the kitchen, but then again, she had been desperately cold all night long. A light had been left on for her in the hall. She walked to the stairs and tried to remember what she was supposed to be doing. Concentrate. Upstairs. She hefted her overnight bag and gasped as a cramping pain shot through her abdomen. She stopped, pressed her fi st against her belly. Nothing to worry about. It was normal. The book had said it was normal to have cramps for several days afterwards.

She picked up her bag again and trudged up the bare wooden stairway. In the upstairs hall, she stared stupidly at the closed doors. Everything was totally foreign to her. Her breasts were aching and damp. She shut her eyes and breathed in deeply, and when she looked again, she saw her own bedroom door in front of her.

Inside, she dropped her luggage and sagged onto the bed. The springs creaked loudly. “Mmmm,” came a voice from the other side of the room. “Katie, is that you? Geez, it’s late.”

“Yeah, Emily,” she whispered. “It’s me.” From across the street, she heard a dog barking and barking. It would go on for an hour or more some nights, a frustrated sheepdog chained to a barren circle of dirt.

“That damn dog,” groaned Emily. “Why don’t they do it a favor and take it out to the country and let it go?”

“It’s not that… it’s not that…” Katie gulped loudly and began to cry.

“Katie, honey, what’s wrong?” Emily snapped on a tiny bedside lamp. “Oh sweetie, tell me what’s wrong.”

Katie shook her head, crying harder. Emily crossed to her bed and sat beside her, hugging her tight. Katie leaned on her shoulder, sobbing open-mouthed, while outside the dog barked and howled into the freezing air.
 

Chapter 3

The case clock in St. Alban’s meeting room rang twelve slow, ceremonious hours. The donation of a grateful parishioner who had made a fortune carpetbagging in the post–Civil War South and returned to retire in his native eastern New York, it had a place of honor between two enormous diamond-paned windows. Where, Clare reflected, it had undoubtedly sat unmoved since 1882. She was beginning to suspect the congregation of St. Alban’s didn’t exactly embrace novelty and innovation. Hiring the first female head of a parish in this area may have exhausted their reserves of daring for the next ten years.

Norm Madsen, a basset-faced gentleman in his seventies, tapped the sheet of paper before him reproachfully. “This isn’t an agenda, Reverend Fergusson. We always have an agenda for the vestry meetings.”

“And the Wednesday lunch meeting is always financials, to get anything ready to pass on to the stewardship committee Thursday night.” Terence McKellan, the head of commercial loans at AllBanc— until recently The first Alleghany Farmers and Merchants Bank, he had taken pains to tell her—laced his hands across his commodious middle. “No offense, but articles about unwed mothers ought to go before the activities committee.”

“What sort of activity do you want them to take up, Terry?” Robert Corlew snorted with laughter. The wide-shouldered, bull-necked developer had an improbable mass of hair that Clare was sure must be a toupee.

Mrs. Henry Marshall, the only woman on the vestry board, looked quellingly at Corlew. “Since most of the ladies on activities are my age, Bob,” she poked a pencil at her silver waves, “I expect they won’t be adding to the unwed mother population any time soon. Though most of them are unwed by now,” she said thoughtfully.

Clare breathed slowly and deeply. In. Out. “I’m sorry I didn’t compile an agenda. I’ll be sure to do that next meeting. As for the newspaper article and the figures sheet in front of you,” she leaned forward, resting her arms on the massive black oak table that dominated the room, “you all know about the baby found abandoned here Monday night. That inspired me to do some research into what facilites are available to help single teen mothers.”

“There’s plenty of aid in Millers Kill,” Vaughn Fowler said, popping an antacid tablet into his mouth. “Welfare and low-income housing and a Goodwill store. We even support a soup kitchen with the other churches in town.” The retired colonel rapped the table with his chunky West Point ring as he enumerated each item.

“That’s true, Mr. Fowler. No teenager with a baby is going to starve here. But did you know seventy percent of the girls who get pregnant in their teens drop out of Millers Kill High?”

“Not to sound unsympathetic,” Fowler said, “but what makes you think these girls would have finished high school in the first place?”

Clare had seen that question coming since yesterday, when she had woken up with her inspired idea. “If you look to page four, you’ll see an article I copied from The Washington Post, about a Junior League program I helped with when I was a seminarian.”

“Junior League?” Mrs. Marshall adjusted her reading glasses and bent to the paper. “That’s always a good recommendation.”

“In their area, the League had found that one of two things tended to happen when a girl had a baby. Either she dropped out of high school to care for the child or her mother stopped working, and often went on welfare, to care for the child.” Terry McKellan read along, his plump cheeks quivering as he nodded. “Drop-outs were at very high risk for further pregnancies, drug abuse, and domestic abuse. Girls whose mothers gave up work to stay at home with the baby finished high school in higher numbers, but few of them found work afterwards, leading to the same sort of dependencies as their sisters with no diploma.”

Corlew frowned. “Couldn’t find work? Or didn’t look for it?”

“Most of these girls had no experience with or example of combining motherhood and work. That’s what the Junior League program did. It partnered girls with mentors, who tutored them in everything from parenting skills to how to interview for a job. It provided free day care for the girls during the school day and a quiet space for them to do homework after school. Girls who went through the program not only had a ninety percent graduation rate, but most of them then went on to either community college or to work.”

Fowler rapped the table with his ring. “Funding?”

Clare quelled the urge to respond, “Yes, sir.” Colonel Fowler was the double of several commanding officers she had served under, complete with graying brush cut and age-defying figure. He expected her to assess problems, devise solutions, and act. Or at least, that’s what he had told her during the interview process for this parish. She flipped open to the last page. “Initial funding came from the League, who paid for the day-care workers, some equipment and baby supplies, and a part-time grant writer to raise money independently. Area churches donated the space. Girls who used the facilities after they had started working paid an hourly fee, adjusted to their income.” She looked around the table, meeting the eyes of every man and woman, gathering each vestry member in. “I propose St. Alban’s start a similar project here. To be funded out of the general funds, using either the parish hall or the old nursery room for the day care. We could have a powerful effect on the lives of young women and children who otherwise don’t have much of a future.”

The room was silent for a moment. “You want us to be a home for unwed mothers?” Sterling Sumner raised his bushy eyebrows in disbelief. “Outrageous.” He flipped the ends of one of the English-school scarves he always affected.

“How much would this cost us?” Terry McKellan asked, scribbling some notes on the margin.

“What about insurance? State licensing requirements for running a day-care facility? Transportation to and from the school and the girls’ homes?” Fowler rapped his ring on every point. “This isn’t like opening our nursery for members’ children during the Sunday services.”

“No, si—no, it’s not. All of those are issues that will have to be researched. I don’t have a whole, detailed proposal to present yet. But I would like the approval and support of the vestry before I call up a committee or start running down licensing requirements. I’d like to know this project has your support so long as the general fund isn’t unduly strained by it.” Nervous energy forced her out of her seat to stride around the table. “It’s innovative, it’s meeting an unmet need in the community, it will open St. Alban’s doors to new faces, young faces. It exemplifies Christ’s charge to us to be his disciples by serving others.” She reached her chair and leaned against the worn green velvet back. “I believe those were some of the things you said you wanted me to accomplish as your priest.”

Vaughn Fowler’s bright blue eyes seemed to be assessing her for leadership potential. “One of the most important goals we set for you was to grow St. Alban’s. Bring in new families. Kids.”

“More pledges,” Corlew muttered.

Fowler shot him a curt glance. “This… unwed mother outreach sounds commendable. But will it attract more of the kind of members we want? Or will it scare some families away?”

Clare went blank. “What?”

“In other words,” Sterling Sumner said, “Will the quality families we want to attract stay away because we’ve filled our landmark Eighteen-fifty Gothic Revival sanctuary with Daisy Mae and Queen Latisha!” He swiped at the table with one end of his scarf, as if wiping away contamination.

“My grandfather would have been more blunt,” Clare said, crossing her arms. “He would have come right out and said ‘poor white trash’ and ‘uppity coloreds.’ ”

Fowler held up one hand. “No name calling. Reverend Clare, please.” He gestured, flat-handed, for her to resume her seat. She did so, ungraciously. “Sterling was being melodramatic, as usual. But the core of the thing is a matter of concern. St. Alban’s was one of the first Episcopal churches in this area. We’ve been able to draw members from even beyond the Millers Kill-Cossayaharie-Fort Henry townships because we have traditional worship with wonderful music in a beautiful setting. Many of us,” his gesture encompassed the rest of the vestry, “are from families that have been congregants for generations.” Clare opened her mouth. “Let me finish. The parish needs to grow. It needs new blood and, realistically, new money. Before you plunge ahead with your teen-mother project, I’d like to see you do something to encourage families in. Something to draw favorable attention to St. Alban’s.”

Around the table the other vestry members were nodding. Clare folded her hands. “I can handle two assignments simultaneously, si— Mr. Fowler.”

His mouth tilted in the suggestion of a smile. “I’m sure you can.”

“Perhaps organizing some meet-the-parishioners teas?” Mrs. Marshall said.

“No, no, no.” Robert Corlew shook his head. His hair did not move. “We need something that’ll get us in the papers. Free advertising.”

“Tours of the church? An evening organ concert series!” Sterling Sumner brightened.

“You were inspired, you said, by the baby abandoned at our back door. I suggest you help the Burnses to foster him. That’s—” Fowler’s ring rapped for emphasis, “the kind of image and publicity that says we’re a family-friendly place. Helping a couple become a family by supporting their efforts to adopt.”

“But—not that I wouldn’t want to focus my time and effort on the Burnses, but isn’t that up to the Department of Human Services? And the legal system? And as much as I’m sure we’d all like to see them become parents, I don’t see how that will help us attract new members.”

“You don’t know what this town is like.” Terry McKellan laughed. “Word of mouth is a way of life here. Plus, the news about the baby is already in the paper. Why the heck not make sure they say a few nice things about us, huh?”

Clare looked out a leaded-glass window to where snow flurries were spinning through the air. Ideas crowded her mind, far-fetched, practical, too expensive, possible— “We could start by enlisting parish support,” she said. She returned her attention to the table. “A letter-writing campaign to the DHS and the governor’s office. Get volunteers to help them transition from a couple to foster parents. Hold a Blessing of Adoption and invite the local press. Invite adoption support groups to meet at St. Alban’s.”

“Good! Excellent! Knew you would be the priest for us,” Fowler said.

Clare looked sharply at him. “What about my mother-baby project?”

“You show us you can organize and get results on the Burnses’ adoption, and we’ll back you to the hilt on day care for unwed teens.” Fowler glanced around the table, registering assent from the rest of the vestry. “Agreed? Agreed.”

Clare blew out her breath in a puff. “Then let’s adjourn.” Before anyone can think of something else to keep out the undesirables, she thought. Everyone stood, stacking papers and collecting coats.

“I’ve gotta make it to Fort Henry Ford by one-thirty,” Terry Mc-Kellan said, buttoning his wool coat across a wide expanse of midsection. “My daughter blew out the electrical system in her Taurus, so we swapped her my wife’s Mazda while she was home for Thanksgiving. Now she wants to keep it. Can you imagine what our insurance is gonna be with her driving in Boston?” He looked at Fowler. “What did you get Wes?”

“A Jeep Wrangler. Good in the snow, appeals to an eighteen-yearold’s idea of ‘cool.’ Unfortunately, it couldn’t carry all his stuff down. I’m off to West Point tomorrow with another load. We should have just traded the Expedition with him during the holiday.” Clare attempted to edge past the men as they drifted toward the hallway. “And speaking of vehicles, Reverend Clare, that car of yours is totally impractical.”

Clare had already heard several people’s opinion of her bright red ’92 MG. She smiled brightly. “Your son goes to West Point? And you’re a graduate, too. You must be very proud.”

Terry McKellan roared with laughter. “It was a disappointment to them when he couldn’t get into the Culinary Institute…”

Vaughn Fowler ignored the witticism. “He’s the fifth generation of Fowlers to be an Academy man. Edie and I are very proud, yes.”

Clare touched his arm. “Wonderful.” She glanced at her watch. “Oh, look at the time. Gentlemen, I’ve got to run.” She waved to the remaining vestry members and quick-stepped down the hall before the subject of her car could come up again.

She ducked into the parish office and caught her secretary, Lois, with a mouthful of nonfat yogurt and raw bran. Lois looked like a strawberry-blond Nancy Reagan, and she kept her size-two figure, as near as Clare could tell, by eating less than any other human being she had ever seen.

“Mmph!” Lois put down the yogurt and waved her hands.

“I’m escaping comments about my car,” Clare explained.

“Mmmm,” Lois said, swallowing. “It’s too tiny. A Lincoln Town Car, that’s comfort and styling. And if you have blond hair, you can get the leather seats to match.”

Clare made a face. “I’m a dirty blond. I’d have to have dirty seats. Besides, I’m too young for a Town Car.”

Lois made a noncommittal noise.

Clare poked at the Rolodex next to Lois’ white-and-pink book of message slips. “The vestry says they’ll support my young mother’s outreach project if I can help the Burnses successfully adopt Cody.”

Lois sniffed.

“Now I just have to figure out how to influence New York State’s Department of Human Services.”

Lois’ eyebrows arched.

“I think I’m going to need some help on this one.”

“I think you might,” Lois agreed.

 

Her desk chair creaked as Clare tilted back, looking out the window. flurries swirled through the air outside, making tiny ticking noises as they hit the glass. The only help she could think of was Chief Van Alstyne. Whom she had already impositioned for a ride from the hospital and bulldozed into offering to take her along on his Friday-night patrol. He was going to think she was only ever after him for something at this rate. Which was a shame, because she had really liked him. He was good people, as grandmother Fergusson would say. He reminded her of friends she had in the army, friends who could always see her, no matter what uniform she was wearing at the time.

Okay. She could ask how the search for Cody’s birth mother was going. find out what was happening with DHS—surely he’d be up to date on that. And if she gave him a chance to change his mind about Friday night, it would probably be the right thing to do. She should do that. Well. Maybe. She picked up the receiver in one hand and the Millers Kill directory in the other.

Russ was having one of those days that, if it were on video, you’d fast-forward through until you got to a good part. One of his officers had called in with a suspiciously early-in-the-season flu that was probably being treated with shots of cherry brandy and a long ride on a snowmobile. When Russ had taken a break from patrolling and shown up for an unexpected lunch at home, Linda had been too busy sewing up another order of curtains to eat with him. And she had asked him to drop off her loan application at the bank, when she knew he hated running personal errands in uniform. He always ran into somebody who would make some crack about how he was using the taxpayer’s dime.

He had a mountain of paperwork covering his ugly gray metal desk, stuff he’d been putting off and putting off until it had become a full day’s job. When he’d bitched about it to Harlene, she told him if he’d worked at it a little at a time, he wouldn’t be staring down the barrel now, which he already knew, which made him even more pissy.

And now this little gem. Circled in red in the Post-Star courtesy of Officer Pollack, who always brought in his copy before his shift. Russ had been expecting the article about the baby, of course. He’d given the beat reporter an interview, explaining what the police were doing to find the mother, saying the boy had been found “outside an area church” and omitting all mention of the note tucked in the box with the baby. She had gotten the resident from the hospital to describe the overall good health of the child. And a line from the Department of Human Services confirming the baby was being placed with an experienced foster mother.

The usual stuff. What was making him grip his coffee mug to keep from throwing it across the room was the paragraph devoted to the Burnses. How the hell the reporter had found out about them he didn’t know, but there it all was, in glorious black and white: Saint Alban’s, the note, Burns complaining about DHS, and a plea to the mother to contact the couple directly. “We only want to help,” Karen Burns was quoted. “We believe what the mother did was courageous, not criminal.”

He looked out his window, almost lost between the bulletins and WANTED posters and advisories taped up all over his wall, and watched the hard, dry snow spitting through the air. Temperature dropping, cold night tonight. He thought about Cody-No-Last-Name, thought about what might have happened if Reverend Fergusson hadn’t been heading out for a run that night. Maybe whoever had left the baby had been nearby, watching and waiting for someone to discover the box. Maybe not. Courageous. Yeah.

The phone rang. Through the frosted glass window in his door, he could see Harlene’s outline as she crossed the office to pick it up. A moment later his line buzzed. “Hey, Harlene, can you get me some more coffee while I take this?” he yelled. He couldn’t hear her reply distinctly, but he thought it was something about being the dispatcher, not a geisha girl. He lifted the receiver.

“Chief Van Alstyne? Clare Fergusson. I hope I’m not calling at a bad time.”

“No, no,” he said, “Not at all. I’m staring at about a thousand state and county reports I’m supposed to have filled out sometime in November and I’m contemplating whether I can throw Geoff Burns in jail for interfering with an investigation. I can use a break.”

“You’re contemplating what?”

“I take it you haven’t read today’s paper. The article about the abandoned baby.”

“No. It’s here somewhere…” There was a rustling and a thumping sound. “Got it. Where is it?”

“Right on page three. Take a look at where Geoff Burns offers his protection and free legal services to the mother!”

There was silence on the other end of the line. “Holy crow,” Clare said after a moment.

“Yeah. After I had deliberately left out the note and the location where Cody was found. It’ll serve that little weasel right when he starts getting crank calls from half the teenagers in the county, claiming to be the baby’s mother.”

“Is that what you mean by interfering with an investigation? Because, you know, if the reporter had come to me, I wouldn’t have known I wasn’t supposed to say anything about the note.”

“It’s not just that, Reverend… Clare. This crap about protecting the mother from misguided officials. Burns might as well come right out and say ‘Come to us, and we’ll see the police never lay a hand on you.’ What are they gonna do, give her ten thousand and ship her off to Bolivia? Geez, that really frosts my cookies.” There was a strangled sound from the other end of the line. After a moment, he realized Clare was trying not to laugh. “Well, it does.”

“I’m sorry, it’s really not funny.” She snickered. “ ‘Frosts my cookies’?”

“Now you know one of our quaint local expressions.” The sound of her muffled laughter took the edge off his anger. He sighed.

“Okay. Do you really think that Karen and Geoff might make contact with the mother and not tell you?”

“Yes.”

Now she sighed. “Me, too. Is there anything you can do now the information about where Cody was found is out in the open? You can’t really mean to arrest the Burnses.”

“I’d like to. At least, I’d like to arrest Geoff Burns. Jesus Christ, what an arrogant little snot. Sorry.” Russ held the newspaper out at arm’s length to reread the paragraph. “But no, I don’t have any grounds. As much as he’s pushing the line, he hasn’t gone over it. There’s nothing illegal about giving your opinion on what the mother did or in offering free legal aid.”

“So you can’t put the proverbial cat back in the bag. That leaves the problem of the mother turning to the Burnses for help instead of turning herself in to the police.”

“There is that problem, yes.”

“What if you offered to help them get the baby?”

“What?”

“They want to be Cody’s foster parents now. Think about it. That way, they not only have the note in their favor, they also will have bonded with Cody. They’ll be able to argue it’s in his best interests to stay with them.”

“Yeah, but…”

“I think they’ll be less anxious about who finds the mother first if they have Cody already. You can offer to use your influence with the Department of Human Services to get the baby assigned to them. In exchange, they promise to let you know right away if the mother contacts them.”

“My influence with DHS, huh?”

“Oh, c’mon. You must know a few people.” Her slight Southern drawl was more noticable over the phone, he thought. “I’ll tell you, I’m under the gun here, too. My vestry wants St. Alban’s to pitch in and help the Burnses. I’ve decided to get a letter-writing campaign going among the parishioners. All the well-heeled Republicans here? There must be a few who’ve donated enough to make some politicians sit up and listen when they ask for a little consideration for this deserving couple, who have waited so patiently for so long to be a family.”

He whistled. “You’re good. You ever think of running for office?”

She snorted. “Preachers and politicians are kissin’ cousins, didn’t you know that?”

“I guess it’s worth a try. Anything’s better than waiting for Geoff Burns to get ahold of some scared kid and wave money in her face to make her disappear. When were you planning to enlist your letter-writing troops?”

“Putting it into my sermon this Sunday would be the simplest thing. Dang, and I was going to preach on what I saw going on patrol with you this Friday. Maybe I can work them both in…” There was a pause. “Um…you haven’t changed your mind, have you? About taking me?”

“If I had, I’ve been effectively wangled into taking you now, huh?”

Clare groaned. “I didn’t mean it that way…”

Russ laughed. “Guess I’d better keep my end of the bargain, or you might get your parishioners to write to the aldermen and have me tossed out on my ear. What time can I pick you up?”

“Evening Prayer’s at five-fifteen, so I’ll be free by six.”

“Six is good. Wear a coat this time, okay? And some heavy boots.”

“I’ll bring two pair of mittens and electric socks. I’m really looking forward to seeing the authentic Millers Kill, Chief. Thank you.”

“It’s Russ, remember? And don’t thank me until the night’s over. You may be so bored, collecting stacks of letters might seem like a big thrill.”

 

Standing behind the patrol car’s open door, Clare banged her knees together and kicked her feet against the front tire, hoping to keep her circulation going. Wishing she were in her office, writing letters.

“I didn’t do nuthin’! Get your hands off me!” In front of a large video arcade, Russ was toe to toe with an angry, drunken young man.

The kid was several inches over six feet, as tall as the police chief, and beefy. Clare glanced at the radio. On television cop shows, people were always calling for backup. Was she supposed to do that? How? She stomped her feet a few more times. If she had stayed home, she could be sitting down to the ten o’clock news with a cup of hot chocolate right now.

Teens were crowded along the sidewalk outside the arcade. Its huge picture windows blazed with neon signs and the hypnotic flash of the cruiser’s red lights, giving the place a cinematic, high-tech look that jarred badly with the no-nonsense blue-collar bars and the depressed little shops that were its neighbors. The chief was leaning forward, talking to the kid in low tones. Not touching him, but ready to move if he had to. She couldn’t hear what he was saying over the insistent bass thumping from the inside of the arcade.

Clare scanned the crowd, looking for any sign of someone else willing to take on trouble. She shivered inside the roomy police parka that Russ had loaned her. When she had stepped out of the church in her leather bomber jacket, he had laughed at it. Sure enough, within an hour she was begging for something warmer. At the station house, where they dropped off a drunk driver Russ had arrested, Harlene dug through the lockers and emerged with a regulation brown parka large enough to fit a moose. Or the young man who had been brawling in the arcade.

Russ leaned back, said something, crossed his arms. The kid hung his head, and for the first time, Clare could see an oversized boy instead of a threat. From the crowd, another boy sporting several piercings said something she couldn’t make out. The kids around him laughed. Russ snapped his head around and pointed a finger at them, bellowing, “You damn well bet he is. And that’s what’s gonna keep him alive past seventeen. How about you, mister?” The boys in the group visibly shrank back. “I don’t want to hear any more from you, got it?” A few nods.

Russ beckoned to two teens who had been hovering near him during the confrontation. Clare couldn’t make out his words, but it looked as if he was putting the troublemaker in their care. One of the boys clapped an arm around his inebriated friend. Russ pinned the big kid with a glare, raising his voice so everyone could hear. “If I have to come here again tonight, I’m arresting anybody involved. Got it?” There was a shuffle-footed assent from the crowd. “Good. Now get inside or go

home. It’s too damn cold to be hanging out here on the sidewalk.”

Russ trudged through the slush at the curbside and tugged open his door. He looked wearily across the roof at Clare, the whirling lights emphasizing the lines in his face. He seemed older than he had at the start of the night’s patrol. “Idiot kids,” he muttered, sliding behind the wheel. Clare gently kicked against her door, knocking snow off her boots before joining him inside the car.

“You’re not going to arrest the boy who was fighting?”

“Ethan? Naw. He didn’t hurt anybody.” Russ reached for the radio. “Ten-fifty, this is Ten-fifty-seven.”

“Come in, Ten-fifty-seven.”

“Harlene, will you call the Stoners and tell them to pick up Ethan at Videotek? And tell ’em he missed a drunk and disorderly by the skin of his teeth.”

“Will do, Chief.”

“We’re headed out to the kill. See if there are any other kids out tonight making fools of themselves. Ten-fifty-seven out.”

“At the kill. Ten-fifty out.”

He hung up the microphone and fastened his seatbelt.

“You have got to tell me something.” Clare buckled herself in. “What, exactly, is the kill?”

“Huh?” He glanced at her. “You mean, like in Millers Kill?”

“Yeah. What is it?”

“Kill’s the old Dutch name for a shallow river or a big creek. Lotta towns around upstate have ‘kill’ in their names—fishes Kill, Eddys Kill…our kill runs from the Hudson to the Mohawk Canal.”

“A big creek? I’ve crossed over it a few times and it looks more like a full-fledged river.”

“It was dredged out during the building of the canal system in the early eighteen hundreds. Between the river traffic and the mills, it made the town. Geez, you’re gonna live here, you need to learn some geography and history. I’ll see if I can find you a few books to read.”

He shifted and pulled into traffic. They headed west, cruising slowly down the strip, past bars, a liquor store, a tightly shuttered pawn shop. No candy canes and reindeer hanging from the battered old light poles here.

“Why didn’t you take the boy in?” she asked.

“I know the Stoners. His dad has a thirty-five, forty acre dairy farm that barely supports the family. Ethan’s not a bad kid.” Russ signaled, turned down a narrow street, and drove past two dark, boarded-up warehouses. Another turn took them into the parking lots behind the buildings. The headlights picked out churned-up snow and tire tracks crisscrossing randomly. “He’s just like a hundred other kids in this area. They drink, they do drugs, they get into car wrecks and fights because they’ve got nothing to do with their lives.”

Russ swung the cruiser slowly out of the shadowy parking lot. The rear of the car slid in the snow, and he eased into the skid. “Nothing around here for average kids with high school diplomas and no money for college.” Back on Mill Street, the cruiser turned west again. Clare watched through the window as the commercial buildings gave way to shabby-genteel houses. Homemade signs hammered into snow-covered lawns gave mute testimony to the struggle to make ends meet: LITTLE LAMBS DAYCARE. DOLLHOUSES BUILT TO ORDER. PLOWING AND HAULING. DEER DRESSED OUT.

“Thirty years ago, that boy could have gone straight into one of the textile mills and made a good wage. Or gone to work for one of the big dairy farms in the area, saved up his money to buy land of his own. Or gone into the army.” Russ pinched the bridge of his nose beneath his glasses. “Voluntarily or not, it gave a guy a chance to learn a trade or get money for college.”

The houses were fewer and farther apart. They drove past the last streetlight into the darkness. “This is Route One-Thirty-Seven. We call it the Cossayaharie Road,” he said. The pines and alders crowded in along the road, and beyond the trees, the Adirondack piedmont closed the horizon around them. The dark bulk of the hills looked like breaching whales outlined in starlight, old and powerful.

The car cocooned them in warmth, made them fellow travelers into the wilderness. Clare unzipped her parka and stretched her legs. The glow from the dashboard picked out Russ’s large, blunt hands, securely controlling the steering wheel. “Thirty years ago, you could get married and buy a house and have a family once you got out of school. And you didn’t have to leave the area to do it. But nowadays, there’s nothing for Ethan Stoner to do when he graduates next spring except maybe flip burgers part time. So he drives his old beater too fast and gets into fights and goes down to Albany to party with his buddies who’ve already left for good.”

He turned the cruiser into a narrow lane overhung with snowy branches. The road was noticeably bumpier. They were silent, Russ peering forward to negotiate the barely-plowed road, Clare considering Ethan Stoner. They came to a dead end in a clearing marked by a few tire tracks.

She stared into the snow and darkness. “Where are we?”

Russ opened the door. Cold air rushed around the unzipped edges of her parka. “This is the lot for Payson’s Park,” he said, reaching behind her seat for two long, heavy flashlights. “In the summertime, the town puts out picnic benches and grills, and somebody always ties a few tire swings to the big branches overhanging the kill. It’s real nice.”

She accepted a flashlight and got out. “There aren’t any cars here,” she pointed out. “Don’t tell me your young lovers are rolling in the snow somewhere. I know teenagers are hot-blooded, but…”

Russ walked through the beams from the headlight toward the edge of the clearing. “There’s a trail that runs along the river for several miles. When I was a kid, you went on foot or you didn’t go at all, but nowadays everybody’s got four-wheel drive. And here we are, tire tracks.”

He aimed the light into the woods and Clare could see where the trail ran past the open picnic area and over a rise. They tromped forward, following the tire tracks marring the otherwise untouched snow.

“Half a mile upstream there’s an abandoned railroad bridge that crosses over the kill. That’s another spot we like to keep an eye on, for drinking or doing drugs. There’s a sheer slate embankment from the old train bed to underneath the bridge. A lot of people would rather get there by driving the trail instead of risking the climb down.”

“I can’t help think there must be more comfortable places to have a drink,” she said. Her breath hung in the air, glowing in the reflected light of her flashlight.

“Oh, yeah,” he said, ducking to avoid a snow-heavy branch. “But Napoli’s Discount Liquors and the infamous Dew Drop Inn are less than a mile up the road, offering a last crack at booze before you cross the town line into Cossayaharie. Which is one of the last dry towns in New York State.”

“So the good people of Cossayaharie drink here in the park instead?”

“Don’t know if I’d say the good people, but—”

Clare slipped where the trail took a downward turn, and Russ caught her arm, steadying her. She added boots with serious treads to her growing list of things to buy.

“Watch it,” he said, pointing his light to the left. The land sloped steeply down to the half-frozen edge of the river, visible between tangled bushes and slim stands of trees. “You don’t want to fall in in this weather.” She nodded and walked more slowly, staying between the tire tracks, emulating Russ’s steady tread. “I remember last year, some idiot came out here to jack deer, fell in the kill instead, and nearly died from the hypothermia. ’Course, it didn’t help that he’d been keeping himself entertained with blackberry brandy.”

“Jack deer?” She caught a flash of something dark and gleaming near the water. A deer? She aimed her flashlight toward the thicket it might be hiding in.

“Poaching. At night. If you shine a light into a deer’s eyes you can freeze it long enough to shoot.”

The gleam looked funny, familiar but out of place. She moved the beam of light to the right. And saw a hand, barely distinguishable from the snow it rested on. The dark gleam, that was hair. That was someone’s long, dark—

“Russ,” she said.

“What?”

“Russ,” she repeated. She pointed, part of her amazed at how steadily she was holding the flashlight. “Down there.”

“Oh my God!” he said. He scrambled down the slope, falling and sliding and catching at trees. “Oh Jesus, oh God, oh Jesus, no.” He yanked a bush almost out of the ground, stopping his headlong descent before he plunged into the water. Clare held her light tightly. She wasn’t sure if she could move it at this point. Russ squatted in the snow and bent over the…her mind tried to slide over the word “body.”

“Oh no. Oh, Jesus, oh no.” He hunkered down for a moment. She could see him backlit by the glow of his flashlight, shaking his head over and over. Then he straightened, wiped his face. Turned toward her. “It’s a girl. She’s dead.”

 


Julia Spencer-Fleming is a bestselling author and winner of the Agatha, Anthony, Macavity, Dilys, Barry, Nero Wolfe, and Gumshoe Awards, also an Edgar and Romantic Times RC Award finalist.  One Was a Soldier is the seventh novel in the Clare Fergusson/Russ Van Alstyne mystery series.

Comments

  1. Saundra Peck

    What a refreshing new premise…gotta read!!!

  2. Marg

    This series was one of my favourite discoveries of this year.

  3. SALLY GASS

    I BEGAN FOLLOWING CLARE AND RUSS FROM THE FIRST NOVEL WHEN OUR TOWN LIBRARY ISSUED THE BOOK . I HAVE CONTINUED READING EACH SUCCEEDING BOOK AS SOON AS THE LIBRARY PURCHASED IT. THANK YOU JULIA FLEMING SPENSER.

  4. bridgnut

    I read this book in 2006 and really enjoyed it and have read more of her writing. Would love to win the books.

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