The Coal Black Asphalt Tomb: New Excerpt

The Coal Black Asphalt Tomb by David Handler is the tenth book in his Berger and Mitry Mystery series, and this time, long overdue construction on a quaint New England road uncovers a body of a missing friend from long ago (available March 25, 2014).

The historic New England village of Dorset has actually elected a living, breathing woman as its First Selectman. And now she’s about to undertake the Historic District’s biggest public works project in a generation–the widening and re-grading of Dorset Street. The job has needed doing for ages but the  previous First Selectman, Bob Paffin, always opposed it. So did a lot of Dorset’s blue-blooded old guard. 

The long put-off dig uncovers a body buried underneath the pavement in front of the Congregational Church. It belongs to Lt. Lance Paffin, Bob Paffin’s older brother, a dashing U.S. Navy flyer who went missing off his sailboat the night of the country club’s spring dance more than forty years ago. Everyone had assumed he just left town. But now it's clear Lance has been under Dorset Street this whole time, and that he was murdered.

Des and Mitch soon discover that there are deep, dark secrets surrounding Dorset's elite, and some very distinguished careers have been built on lies.

CHAPTER 1

BA-BOOMP-BOOM-PAH … BA-BOOMP-BOOM-PAH …

Des still couldn’t get used to it as she idled there in front of the firehouse in her Crown Vic, heater blasting on this damp, chilly April morning. She couldn’t get used to these privileged, pigment-challenged high school kids blasting gangsta rap on the sound systems of their BMWs and Mini Coopers as they came roaring through the Dorset Street Historic District to school, slowing their preppy selves down to the twenty-five mph speed limit only because they saw her there. How was it possible that these Jennifers and Trevors from the gem of Connecticut’s Gold Coast got off on some thug rapper lipping about a life that would totally freak them out if they ever actually experienced it for themselves?

Ba-boomp-boom-pah … Ba-boomp-boom-pah …

Dorset’s Resident Trooper didn’t get it, possibly because she was the only woman of color currently residing in this New England WASP Eden, population seven thousand, at the mouth of the Connecticut River. Then again, maybe if she were ten years younger she’d get it. Instead, these kids made her feel, well, not young. Spring’s arrival was doing that to her this year. For the first time in her life, the season of renewal was making her feel, well, not new. Her twenties had started to disappear in her rearview mirror. And on a raw, cold morning like this, she got out of bed feeling what her time on the job had done to her. The ache in her right forearm from when she’d gotten shot with a .38 up at Astrid’s Castle. The stiffness in her lower back from that time a crack dealer shoved her down a flight of steps in the Frog Hollow projects. A tightness in her right hamstring for which she had no explanation at all. Face it, her body was not as limber or forgiving as it once was. Not like these teenagers cruising past her.

Ba-boomp-boom-pah … Ba-boomp-boom-pah …

Not that Des wanted to be sixteen again. She was happy to have left all of that confusion, panic and acne behind. But time kept on slipping, slipping, slipping into the future faster than she cared for. And what did she have to show for it? She’d been a hotshot homicide lieutenant on the Major Crime Squad before she nuked her career and ended up here, busted down to a master sergeant, her prospects for advancement nil. As for her drawings of the murder victims who she’d encountered on the job—the gruesome, luminous art that gave her life purpose and passion—he’d slammed headfirst into a creative wall. Des had been upping her game at the renowned Dorset Academy in her spare time. Or trying to. Had absolutely loved the advanced life drawing class she was taking from an inspiring young teacher named Susan Vail. But a rash of home invasions on Griswold Avenue last month forced her to miss so many studio sessions that she’d had to drop out. And now she could feel how her skill set was holding her back. Couldn’t get down on paper what she saw in her head. Needed to spend more time drawing and less time idling here watching these kids, and life itself, pass right on by.

Des allowed herself one wistful sigh before eased her cruiser out into Dorset Street, with its picture postcard colonial mansions and white picket fences. Her destination was Dorset’s stately white columned Town Hall, where she maintained a cubbyhole and mail slot. From the outside, Town Hall looked the same as it always had. But the old place was totally different inside. The sleepy hush was gone. So was the musty smell. The wall-to-wall carpeting that reeked 365 days a year of mildew, mothballs and Ben Gay had been taken up, the oak plank floors underneath stripped and refinished. Des still wasn’t accustomed to hearing the thunk of her polished black size 12½ AA square-toe oxfords as she strode down the hallway to her cubbyhole. But she liked it. She liked the new vibe.

It had finally happened. Dorset had a new leader. And not just any new leader. For the first time in history Dorseteers had elected a living, breathing first selectwoman. Des’s snowy haired nemesis, Bob Paffin, the weak-chinned patrician noodge who’d done nothing but disrespect, undermine and hose her ever since she became Resident Trooper, had finally been unseated after serving Dorset for the past thirty-four years. Bob Paffin had been first selectman for so long that hardly anyone could remember what he used to do for a living. Turned out he’d been in real estate, as in the Paffin family owned a lot of it. Publicly, Des had stayed neutral throughout the campaign. Privately, she was absolutely thrilled that Bob was out.

And Glynis Fairchild-Forniaux was in. Glynis was a pretty little blue-eyed blonde in her late thirties. She and her husband, Andre, Dorset’s mobile veterinarian, had three young children together. And Glynis, a tough, savvy graduate of Harvard Law School, had the oldest and bluest of Dorset’s blue-blood law practices. Glynis took it over from her late father, Chase Fairchild. Glynis had represented Des when she bought her house. Des liked Glynis and had long thought she’d make a great first selectwoman.

Not everyone in Dorset had agreed. Her candidacy had been bitterly opposed by the old guard, most notably Clyde “Buzzy” Shaver, who was the editor and publisher of Dorset’s weekly newspaper, The Gazette. Not to mention Bob Paffin’s oldest friend and most ardent backer. In the closing weeks of the campaign Buzzy had blasted Glynis in a front page editorial as “untested, inexperienced and dangerous.” To which Glynis had responded, “A radiation spill is dangerous. I’m an attorney, a wife and a mother.” When the dust settled Glynis had won by a whopping nine votes. Two recounts had to be held before Bob Paffin finally conceded.

Glynis was someone who cherished Dorset’s quaint New England charm. But her election represented a tectonic shift of generational sensibilities in the serene village that Des and the Jewish man in her life, Mitch Berger, a film critic from New York City, now called home. The new first selectwoman had insisted that Dorset needed to modernize its infrastructure so as to be more responsive to the needs of its young families. From now on all public meetings would be available to residents via live podcast on the town’s spanking new Web site. From now on, Glynis would post regular video updates and stay in touch with Dorseteers via Twitter and Facebook. Bob Paffin? Bob Paffin thought social networking meant having lunch at the country club every day with Buzzy Shaver and a gaggle of old cronies.

But the first selectwoman’s most ambitious undertaking was the historic district’s boldest public works project in more than a generation. And one that the old guard was incredibly miffed about. Everybody agreed that Dorset Street needed repaving. It was strewn with boulder-sized potholes and hadn’t been repaved in years. And even that had been merely a resurfacing of the existing road—which was typical of Bob Paffin’s penny-pinching stewardship. Not only was the drainage terrible, but Dorset Street still had all of those bumpety-bumps under it from where the old trolley tracks used to be. The entire roadbed needed to be dug up and regraded, Glynis believed. She also wanted to widen Dorset Street so as to accommodate a bike lane. And she wanted sidewalks where there were none, most notably where Dorset Street met up with McCurdy Road in front of the steepled white Congregational Church. This meant that three towering Norway maples that had stood in front of the church since forever would have to go.

The old guard was not happy.

Buzzy Shaver, who’d taken to denouncing the project in The Gazette as “Queenie’s Folly,” had labeled the Dorset Street project a “seizure of sovereign land by jackbooted thugs.” But no amount of opposition could deter Glynis. Put a wall in front of Dorset’s new first selectwoman and she would simply run through it. She had to be the most determined woman Des had ever met.

Town Hall was swarming with computer techies and electricians that morning. In fact, Des discovered an electrician on his knees under the desk in her very own office, with his butt facing the door. Electrician’s crack, she decided, was every bit as uninviting as carpenter’s crack. However, the presence of this man and his butt crack meant she would finally have enough outlets in there to power a desktop computer, modem, printer and window air conditioner all at the same time. Imagine that.

As she stood there in the doorway, leafing through her mail and wondering when her right hammy would stop throbbing, Des heard brisk footsteps clack-clacking toward her in the oak-planked hallway. Bob Paffin used to creep around the carpeted hallways, the better to eavesdrop. Not Glynis. You knew she was coming from fifty feet away. And she was always in a hurry—all five-foot-three of her.

“You are just the person I wanted to see,” she said excitedly, her blue eyes gleaming up, up at Des, who towered over her at six-foot-one. Glynis had a fluty little voice that could lull the unsuspecting into thinking she was an airhead. The unsuspecting soon learned otherwise. She wore a charcoal pants suit with a cream colored silk blouse and pearls. Her hair was gathered back in a tight ponytail. “It’s all happening, Des. The tree crew will be arriving this morning at ten o’clock sharp to take down those nasty old maples in front of the church. And the people from Wilcox Paving have confirmed that they will definitely start the regrading tomorrow at dawn.”

Des shoved her heavy horn-rimmed glasses up her nose. “Did you just say tomorrow?”

“This is incredibly short notice,” Glynis acknowledged. “But they had another job fall through, their equipment’s available and we’ll be saving the town nearly two hundred thousand dollars if we squeeze them in now rather than waiting for the peak summer season.”

“Which is when our elementary school, middle school and high school aren’t all in session,” Des pointed out. “Not to mention the Dorset Academy.”

“I know it’ll be a total traffic nightmare for you. But they’ve promised me they’ll keep one lane of Dorset Street open at all times. And provide their own flagmen. And the weather forecast looks decent. They’ll be in and out in three days. We’ll e-mail and robo-call every resident in our database to let them know. And I’ll need you to kick-start our parking ban. Also our traffic plan. I’ve just alerted the boys at public works to get all of the barricades ready. They’re bitching and moaning like a bunch of old women, I must say.”

“Not to worry, they’ll deal,” Des assured her. “We’ll all deal.”

“Thank you, Des. I’d be lost without you.” Glynis rubbed her small hands together gleefully. “I watched the video of the equipment Wilcox uses. Did you know there are no jackhammers anymore? They have this amazingly huge asphalt grinder that rolls along at the rate of seventy-five feet per minute and eats the pavement. Chews it up and spits it out through a conveyer into dump trucks. After the roadbed has been graded and rolled, the trucks feed an equally huge paver thingy that heats up the old pavement and extrudes it smooth as new. They did warn me that the equipment’s loud. And I understand it’ll make everything shake. But when it’s all done Dorset Street will be beautiful.”

“I’m sure it will.”

“The boys at public works can take care of the sidewalks after they’re gone.”

“I’m sure they can.”

“But step one is those darned trees.” Glynis puffed out her cheeks. “And you know how irrational some folks can get about such things. Don’t get me wrong: I understand about wanting to keep things as they are. But great gosh almighty, we’re talking about three half-dead maples, not the lighthouse out on Big Sister. Four different licensed arborists have pronounced them diseased. The darned things are likely to come crashing down on the power lines any day now. They have to go. But certain people refuse to face facts.” Glynis glanced up and down the hallway, then lowered her voice. “My mother has heard a rumor…”

“What kind of rumor?”

“A few of the old-timers are talking about staging an Occupy Wall Street type of protest. Meaning there may be a small, tasteful stink when the tree crew shows up this morning. I need you there in case it gets unruly, Des. Not that I think it will. But I’ll feel better if you’re there.”

“I’ll be there. Do you have any idea who’s leading the protest?”

“A very good idea. It’s Sheila Enman.”

“The old school teacher?”

“Old battleship is more like it. Apparently, those trees are very special to her. God knows why. She’s been telling people that we’ll have to remove them over her dead body. Sheila is ninety-four years old. Can’t get around without a walker. Can’t drive a car. I can’t imagine how she’ll even get there from her house.”

Des showed Glynis her smile. “Oh, I think I have a pretty good idea how.”

CHAPTER 2

SCAREEEEEEEE …

Mitch had been up since well before dawn in his antique post-and-beam caretaker’s cottage out on Big Sister Island. A big fire was roaring in his fieldstone fireplace and at this very moment none other than Mr. James Brown himself was exhorting him to “Get on up” by way of the digitally remastered funk classic “Sex Machine,” which Mitch had discovered was absolutely incredible to sit in with on his sky blue Fender Stratocaster with its monster stack of twin reverb amps. Feeling it, bringing it, blasting his riffs off of Bootsy Collins’s thudding funkadelic bass.

Eeeee-yahhhhhh …

By the time the sun came up Mitch had already devoted thirty minutes to his yoga practice, powered down a bowl of steel-cut oatmeal and watered the tiny green shoots that were germinating in seed trays under the grow light in his bay window. Then he’d polished off one of the two freewheeling essays he wrote every week for the e-zine he’d gone to work for after he’d resigned as lead film critic for what used to be New York’s most distinguished newspaper before it was gobbled up by an evil media empire. Today’s essay, “The Unbearable Lightness of Spencer Tracy,” was a reflection on how it was possible that a man who’d been universally lauded as the greatest actor of his generation, an Oscar nominee for Best Actor a record nine times and back-to-back winner in 1937 and 1938 for Captains Courageous and Boys Town, didn’t happen to be the star of one movie that was on anyone’s top ten, top twenty or even top fifty list of the greatest English-language movies of all time. Even those fondly remembered comedies Tracy had made with Katharine Hepburn such as Adam’s Rib and Pat and Mike were stale beer compared to the fizzy champagne of Bringing Up Baby, the screwball classic she’d made with Cary Grant—who never won an Oscar. Meanwhile Joseph Cotten, who was never even nominated for an Oscar, had starred in two of the greatest movies of all time: Citizen Kane and The Third Man. And Dana Andrews, no one’s idea of an Oscar-caliber talent, had played the male lead in two of Hollywood’s most beloved classics: The Best Years of Our Lives and Laura. So what was the deal? Had Tracy been overrated at the time? Were Cotten and Andrews simply lucky to have landed in such great movies? Or were those movies great because they were in them? For a screening-room rat like Mitch, such questions were a gourmet meal he could feast upon for hours.

Scarreeeeeeee …

In the silence after the final emphatic note of “Sex Machine” Mitch heard a thud against his door. Quirt, Mitch’s lean, mean outdoor hunter, was announcing his proud return home by banging his hard little head against the door. Mitch opened it and was immensely gratified to find a fresh-killed bunny on the welcome mat, sans head.

“Why, thank you, Quirt,” he exclaimed as the cat darted inside to the kibble bowl that he shared with Clemmie, who seldom roamed outside or went after anything more menacing than a dust bunny. “I feel cherished.”

Quirt had been bringing Mitch a gift every morning for the past week. April was officially headless-bunny season out on Big Sister Island, the forty wooded acres of Yankee paradise that Mitch was lucky to call home. There were five houses on the island, not counting the old lighthouse—the second oldest in New England—and his own two hundred-year-old post-and-beam caretaker’s cottage. The island had its own beach, tennis court and dock. A rickety quarter-mile wooden causeway connected it to the mainland at the Peck’s Point Nature Preserve.

Mitch put on a heavy sweater and work boots and went tromping out into the chilly morning fog on burial detail, inhaling the fresh sea air. The deep snow cover from the long, hard winter was gone. The ground had thawed. He could smell the moist, fertile earth. The snowdrops and daffodils were up. The maple trees in the woods were showing their red buds.

By the time he got back to his cottage, Bitsy Peck, his neighbor and garden guru, had arrived with her garden cart laden with cold frames for his seedlings. Bitsy was a round, snub-nosed, bustling little woman in her fifties who had welcomed Mitch from the day he moved out to Big Sister.

“It’s time to force your little charges out into the great outdoors,” she informed him, standing there in his driveway in her denim overalls, floppy hat and garden clogs. “I’ve also brought you some extra cabbage seedlings. You need to grow a lot of cabbage this year, Mitch. More and more studies are finding that sauerkraut is a powerful natural aphrodisiac.”

“And you’re telling me this because…”

“Des is a big healthy girl. I want you to be able to keep up with her.”

“Thank you, Bitsy. I think. But I don’t know how to make sauerkraut.”

“Not a problem, I can teach you. Believe me, by this fall you’ll be pickling like a master.”

Bitsy was always happy to share her garden wisdom. Also her insider’s knowledge of Dorset. There wasn’t anyone or anything she didn’t know about. It was the Pecks who’d first settled Dorset way back in the mid-1600s. Bitsy lived alone in her mammoth, natural-shingled house with its turrets and sleeping porches and amazing water views in every direction. Her husband, Redfield, was no longer around. And her daughter, Becca, a recovering heroin addict, had moved out to San Francisco. Mostly, the lady gardened. Hundreds of species of flowers, herbs and vegetables grew in her terraced beds. Gardening kept her sane. Or at least sane by Dorset standards.

“I wanted to ask you something,” Mitch said, steering her toward the muddy clearing where he had his picnic table and Adirondack chairs. The soil underneath them had gotten so compacted that grass would no longer grow there. “What would you think about me putting in a patio here?”

“Why, I think it would be wonderful,” she exclaimed. “And I have all sorts of bluestone left over from the last walkway I put in. It’s just taking up space in my barn. I’ll bet we can fashion something that’ll be just right for you. I’ll stop by later this afternoon and we can conversate about it.”

“We can what?”

“Conversate.”

“Bitsy, that’s not a real word.”

“It mostly certainly is. Becca uses it in her e-mails to me all of the time.”

“That doesn’t make it a real word. We converse. We don’t conversate.”

Bitsy heaved her chest at him impatiently. “Mitch, we don’t have time for this right now. Not if we’re going to be there before ten.”

He glanced at his watch. “You’re right. If I don’t pick up my prized package by 9:30, she’ll blow a gasket. I’d better scoot.”

“Me, too. I’ve got at least five very anxious people waiting for me at the senior center.” She grinned at him conspiratorially. “Why do I feel like we’re plotting to overthrow the government?”

Mitch grinned right back at her. “Because we are.”

 

His prized package, a ninety-four-year-old retired high school English teacher named Sheila Enman, lived in the lush farm country north of the village, in an old red mill house that was built right out over the Eight Mile River at the base of a twenty-foot waterfall. Sheila had lived there since she was a little girl. Back in those days they generated their own electricity, she’d once told him. And Sheila had attended an actual one-room schoolhouse.

The morning fog was starting to burn off as Mitch piloted his bulbous kidney-colored 1956 Studebaker pickup up Route 156, two hands on the wheel and one of his new toothpicks parked snugly in the corner of his mouth. Hawks circled lazily overhead. Depending on where his gaze fell it was either winter or spring. The magnolias, weeping cherries and Korean azaleas were already in full bloom while the oaks and birches remained bare and iron gray. The wild blackberry, lilac and forsythia that grew in a tangle alongside of the road had just begun to green up.

When he arrived at the red mill house Mitch found the old white-haired schoolteacher standing in the driveway waiting for him, her knobby, arthritic hands clutching her walker for dear life.

“It’s about time you got here,” she barked at him fiercely. “I was afraid you weren’t going to show up.”

“I told you I’d be here, Sheila.”

“Mitch, men have been disappointing me for more than eighty years. Forgive me if I got dubious.”

He helped her into his truck, depositing her walker and shoulder bag in back. The shoulder bag was extremely heavy. It also clanked when he set it down. He jumped back in and started his way back down Route 156, Sheila riding next to him in her ratty yellow cardigan, dark blue slacks and bone-colored orthopedic shoes.

Sheila was a classic cranky Yankee—feisty, opinionated and stubborn beyond belief. But once Mitch got to know her he discovered that she was a sweetie. And sharp as can be. Age hadn’t slowed her mind one bit, just her big-boned body. She’d had a bad hip for years but refused hip replacement surgery. Also refused to abandon her house for an assisted-living facility. Mitch brought her groceries three times a week, picked up her mail at the post office, shoveled her driveway and did odd jobs around the house for her. She paid him with tubs of her homemade tapioca pudding. As far as he was concerned, he was getting the best of the deal.

“I made some calls,” he informed her as they drove along. “Channels Three, Four, Eight and Nine.”

She looked at him hopefully. “Do you think they’ll send someone?”

“I know they will. Local news broadcasts are all about visuals. We’re giving them a visual. It’s tailor-made for them.”

“Good. Because I will not be shoved aside.”

“Not to worry, Sheila. You won’t be.”

She continued to look at him. Or, more specifically, at his new toothpick.

“Something the matter?”

“Why, no,” she said. “Nothing at all.”

Bitsy beat him there. When Mitch pulled up she and her minivan load of five angry, sign-wielding old ladies were already gathered outside of the Congregational Church holding their SAVE OUR TREES signs. He fetched Sheila’s walker and shoulder bag for her and dutifully helped her do what she’d come to do—which was chain and padlock herself to one of the three gnarly old maples out front like a nonagenarian eco-freak, her walker positioned before her for support.

Their timing was excellent. Less than a minute after Mitch had snapped the padlock shut for her, a big bucket truck from Shoreline Tree Service came rolling up, along with a truck towing a wood chipper. Two more vehicles trailed close behind them. One was a town-owned Toyota driven by Dorset’s first selectwoman, the other a Crown Vic cruiser piloted by Mitch’s ladylove.

“Good morning, Master Sergeant,” he said, beaming at her as she strode across the lawn toward him, squaring her big Smokey hat on her head. “Would you slap me down if I mentioned how pert you look today?”

Des narrowed her pale green eyes at him. “Did you just say pert? I don’t do pert. Fluffy little princesses named Amber do.…” She trailed off, frowning at his new toothpick.

“Something wrong?”

“Why, no,” she replied as the Channel Three news van pulled up. The Channel Eight van was right behind it. “What are they doing here?”

“Someone sort of called them.”

“Someone sort of media savvy?”

“Sort of.”

“Sort of like yourself?”

“Well, yes, now that you mention it.”

“Mitch, please tell me why you did this.”

“Because Sheila asked me to. What was I going to tell her—no?”

The vans from Channel Four and Channel 9 arrived now. As the news crews got set up, a tall young guy with a camera came out of the offices of The Gazette, just down the street, and started taking photographs. What with the half-dozen protestors, Mitch, Bitsy and the guys from the tree crew it was turning into a full-fledged crowd by Dorset standards.

Glynis was not pleased. In fact, the first selectwoman was downright steamed. She marched right over to Sheila and declared, “This won’t accomplish a thing, Miss Enman. These trees are diseased and dying. They have to make way.”

“I’m diseased and dying, too,” Sheila roared in response as the TV cameras rolled. “Are you going to haul me away, too? And don’t you dare lecture me, Glynis. I can still remember you running around at the Memorial Day parade with your diaper full of poop.”

“Oh, this isn’t getting us anywhere,” Glynis fumed.

“Perhaps you’d like to take a look at this,” Mitch said, offering Glynis the framed black-and-white photograph that could usually be found on Sheila’s living room mantel. It was an old photograph of a gawky young girl standing in front of this very Congregational Church with a shovel in her hands and a proud expression on her face.

“Okay, what am I looking at?” Glynis demanded.

“This was taken on Arbor Day, 1931,” Mitch explained. “That was the day Sheila personally planted these three trees. It was her prize for winning the Center School essay contest on ‘Why I Love Trees.’”

“Sheila planted them?” Glynis gasped in disbelief. “Why didn’t she tell me?”

“She didn’t feel she had to. She thought it was up to you to do your homework. A bit perverse on her part, I’ll grant you. But Sheila’s getting to be kind of stubborn.”

“Sheila’s always been stubborn.”

“Can’t you accommodate her?”

“How, Mitch? Tell me how.”

Mitch told her how. Glynis looked at him in astonishment, then gave him a wink and started her way back over to Sheila, who remained padlocked to one of her beloved trees. The news cameras moved in closer.

“Sheila, how would you like to plant the new trees?” Glynis offered.

What new trees?” Sheila demanded, scowling at her.

“The three new trees we’ll put in as substitutes for these when we finish the project. You could plant them if you’d like to. Just as you planted these.”

“Don’t you talk down to me, Glynis.”

“You’ve known me my whole life. Have I ever talked down to you?”

Sheila preferred not to answer that. “What kind of trees?”

“I can’t speak for the tree commission,” Glynis replied. “But it seems to me we should be able to plant whatever kind you want.”

“I want copper beeches,” Sheila stated firmly. “No itty-bitty saplings either. Good-sized ones.”

“Then I’ll propose that we install good-sized copper beeches. Would you like that, Sheila?”

Sheila Enman stuck out her chin and responded, “I’ll think it over.”

 

“Boyfriend, have you ever thought about going into politics?”

They were lolling in his bathtub sipping Chianti while the pancetta and onion caramelized on low heat in his cast iron skillet and Workingman’s Dead played on the stereo. The master sergeant’s slender right ankle was hoisted up on his left shoulder so that he could massage her hamstring, which had been troubling her lately.

“Why are you asking?”

“Because you handled that situation with Sheila Enman this morning like a pro. First you invented a crisis for the news cameras…”

“I thought you looked mighty delectable on Channel Three, by the way.”

“All you could see of me on Channel Three was my booty.”

“Like I said, I thought you looked extremely delectable.”

Then you helped solve the crisis. Face it, you’re a natural politician.”

“Am not. I was just trying to mollify the old girl. She’s deeply invested in this place emotionally. Glynis doesn’t seem to get that.”

“She’s a bit focused,” Des acknowledged. “You could help her out.”

“How?”

“By serving on a commission. She’s desperate for young voices. Did you know that the average age of Dorset’s commissioners is seventy-three?”

“Des, I’m a journalist. We don’t do things like serve on commissions.”

“What do you do?”

“Sit back and criticize the people who do. Besides, I already work at the food pantry. I deliver groceries. I drive folks to their doctor appointments. And those town government meetings are excruciatingly slow. If I want to be that bored for that many hours I’ll sit through a Terrence Malick film.” He set down his wine glass and reached for a fresh toothpick, popping it into the corner of his mouth.

She peered at him critically. “Okay, what’s with this toothpick deal?”

“Actually, it’s not a ‘toothpick’ at all. That’s the beauty of it. It’s a Stim-U-Dent plaque remover. Cleans between my teeth and gently invigorates my gums while also giving me a certain Cagney-esque jauntiness. It’s a win-win, don’t you think?”

“What I think is that you’re going to swallow it and I’ll have to rush you to Shoreline Clinic. What brought this on?”

“I went to the dentist when I was in the city last week, remember? When he got done examining me I asked him if I had any cavities. Know what he said? He said, ‘At your age cavities are no longer your biggest concern.’ Then he told me my gums are receding and if I don’t start taking better care of them all of my teeth will fall out. I mean, God, what’s up with that?”

“We’re becoming middle-aged, wow man. Get used to it.”

“I don’t want to get used to it. Do you know that rather powerful, goaty scent that a lot of the old men in Dorset give off?”

She nodded. “Only too well.”

“If I ever start to smell like that will you kindly shoot me?”

“It’ll be my pleasure.”

“Thank you. You’re very kind.” He went back to work on her hamstring, kneading the taut tendon, flexing her foot to stretch it out. “Feel any better?”

“A bit,” she acknowledged. “But I’m still not looking forward to tomorrow. Eating road dust from dawn until dusk is not what I want to be doing at this stage of my life.”

“What do you want to be doing?”

She lay there in silence for a moment. “I don’t know the answer to that. I used to, but now I don’t.”

Mitch studied her, frowning. Something had been eating at her for a while. He had a pretty good idea what, but he also knew that she’d only open up about it when she was good and ready to. That was her way. So he didn’t press her. Instead, he ditched his toothpick, leaned over and planted a kiss on her mouth.

Her eyes gleamed at him. “What was that for?”

“I was just remembering how lucky I am to have you in my life.”

“Right back at you, boyfriend.”

“Hmm … I think my onions are overheating”

Now she was looking at him through her eyelashes. “Is that some kind of Jewish-boy dirty talk?”

“No, it’s our dinner starting to scorch,” he said, sniffing at the air. “I’d better check on it.”

“Be with you in a sec. I’m going to wash my hair.”

He dried off, put on a pair of sweatpants and his New York Giants hoodie and padded into the kitchen to take a spatula to the onions and pancetta before they burned. He hadn’t known for sure if Des would be joining him for dinner. But he was totally cool with their arrangement, which was loose, spontaneous and cautious. Even though they were deliriously happy together they were taking it a day at a time as their wounds slowly healed. Des was still getting over her brutal divorce from that cheating louse Brandon. And Mitch had barely survived losing his wife, Maisie, a Harvard-trained landscape architect, to ovarian cancer at the age of thirty. Both of them needed their own living spaces so they could do what they did in private to cope. Des got up before dawn and drew haunting, viscerally horrifying portraits of murder victims. Mitch? He often sat up all night long watching old movies, sometimes four or five of them at a stretch, losing himself in his comforting alternate universe where good was good, bad was bad and everything turned out like it was supposed to in the end. He and Des enjoyed the time they spent together and enjoyed the time they spent apart. They didn’t dwell on how unlikely a couple they were. And they for damned sure didn’t sweat small stuff like dinner. Mitch kept a few key ingredients on hand so he could put together a tasty meal at a moment’s notice. Tonight he would throw linguine into the skillet with the onions and pancetta, break a couple of farm-fresh organic eggs over it and toss it with a ton of grated aged Parmesan, chopped Italian parsley and fresh ground pepper. There was crusty bread, a bottle of Chianti Classico. What more did they need?

He set the table in the living room while Des showered. It was a drop-leaf table that he’d found discarded in one of his neighbor’s barns along with two moth-eaten overstuffed chairs and a loveseat. Clemmie was parked in one of the overstuffed chairs. Quirt was outside looking to bite the head off something small and furry.

Mitch was putting another log on the fire when there was a tap at his front door. “Come on in!” he called out.

It was Bitsy—and she wasn’t alone. Standing there in the doorway with her was a tall, lanky woman in her seventies named Helen Weidler. Helen was a highly efficient legal secretary who’d gone to work for the first selectwoman’s father, Chase Fairchild, way back when she was in her twenties. Worked for him until he retired, then stayed on when Glynis took over the practice. Helen was still at Fairchild & Fairchild, making sure things ran smoothly.

“How nice to see you again, Helen.” Mitch knew her because Glynis had handled the closing on his house, same as she’d handled Des’s. “Won’t you ladies come in?”

Bitsy made her way straight for the seed trays in Mitch’s bay window, the better to inspect his tiny green shoots. Helen hovered close to the door, wringing her hands and looking exceedingly tense. Her attire suggested she’d come straight from the office. She wore a matching dark gray sweater and slacks, a white blouse and polished black pumps. Helen’s hair was white and she wore it cropped in that severe light-bulb shaped cut that, for reasons beyond Mitch’s comprehension, was favored by many women of her age in Dorset. Helen had a long narrow face and a mouthful of rather prominent teeth. She’d never married, as far as Mitch knew.

Des joined them now, wearing the dove gray four-ply cashmere robe Mitch had bought her in Paris.

“Oh, dear, we’re interrupting your evening,” Bitsy said fretfully.

“Not at all,” Mitch assured them.

“As long as you don’t mind seeing me out of uniform,” Des agreed as she settled into an overstuffed chair, curling her long legs beneath her

Helen remained anchored by the doorway, glancing around the room. Mitch’s desk was an old mahogany door he’d scored at the dump and set atop a pair of sawhorses. His coffee table was an old rowboat with a storm window over it. There were books and DVDs heaped everywhere. Clutter was a constant presence in his life. “So this is where you live,” she observed. “It’s very cozy and charming. Mind you, I’ve always believed that the ambiance of a home is a reflection of the people who live in it, as opposed to the furniture or the artwork.” She cleared her throat. “I apologize for barging in this way.”

“Not to worry,” he said. “Bitsy and I are practically like family. And so are you, Helen. I would never have survived the closing on this place if it hadn’t been for you. Chances are I’d still be hyperventilating in the parking lot outside out of the bank. You’re the one who came out and dragged me inside to sign the mortgage papers. Do you remember what you told me?”

She frowned at him. “Why no, I don’t.”

“You said, ‘Grow a pair, will you?’ Those words meant a lot to me, Helen. Please have a seat here by the fire. Can I pour you ladies some wine?”

“You talked me into it,” Bitsy said brightly.

“I’m not much of a drinker.” Helen perched hesitantly on the edge of the sofa next to Bitsy. “But do you have any Scotch?”

“A very nice Balvenie. How do you take it?”

Helen blinked at him. “In a glass.”

He went into the kitchen and turned off their dinner. Fetched the bottle of single malt Scotch from the cupboard and poured Helen a generous jolt. Then filled a glass with Chianti for Bitsy and returned to the living room.

Helen swallowed her entire glass of Scotch in one gulp, shuddering. “Thank you, Mitch. I needed that. Warms you right down to your toes, doesn’t it?”

“Yes, it does. Would you care for another?”

“I believe I would.”

He refilled it for her. This time she took only a small sip, her hand trembling as she clutched the glass.

Mitch picked up Clemmie and sat down in the chair she’d occupied, settling her in his lap. He sipped his wine. He waited in patient silence.

“Please don’t tell her I’ve come here,” Helen finally blurted out.

“By ‘her’ do you mean Glynis?”

Helen nodded. “I have to tell you something very, very important. If Glynis digs up Dorset Street tomorrow morning this town will be torn to pieces and no one will ever be able to put it back together again. Do you understand me? No one.”

“Have you spoken to Glynis about this?” Des asked her calmly.

Helen looked down into her glass. “I can’t speak to her about it.”

“Why not?”

Helen didn’t respond, just sat there in tight-lipped silence.

“Why can’t Glynis tear up Dorset Street?” Des pressed her.

“Because some things…” Helen took another small sip of her Scotch, gazing into the fire. “Some things are better off left as they are. I was hoping and praying that it wouldn’t come to this, you know. That Bob Paffin would win the recount. That Glynis wouldn’t be able to push through her plan. Why does she have to be so darned good at what she does? Why couldn’t she just be another ineffectual dodo bird like Bob Paffin?” Helen looked at Des imploringly. “Please make sure that they don’t dig up Dorset Street tomorrow morning.”

Des glanced helplessly over at Mitch.

He cleared his throat and dove in. “Why can’t they dig it up?”

“It’s needed regrading for years and years. Haven’t you folks ever wondered why the work was never done? Why they just kept resurfacing it?”

“I figured that Bob didn’t want to spend the money,” Des said. “He was Mr. Small Government.”

“A total cheapskate,” Helen acknowledged with a curled lip. “But that’s not the real reason.”

“Helen, what are you trying to tell us?” Des wondered. “Is something buried underneath the pavement?”

Helen didn’t answer her. Just stared into the fire, her jaw muscles tightening.

“Do you know what this is about?” Mitch asked Bitsy.

“I know that Helen’s not kidding around,” Bitsy replied. “She means what she says. And there’s good reason to believe her. I’ve been hearing about this ever since I was a little girl.”

“Hearing about what?”

Now it was Bitsy’s turn to stare into the fire. “It isn’t talked about.”

What isn’t?” Des demanded. “With all due respect, ladies, you’re both talking in riddles. I have no idea what you’re getting at. And even if I did there’s absolutely nothing I can do at this point. The town has already advanced Wilcox Paving a nonrefundable deposit. The crew will be arriving at the staging area in less than ten hours. I can’t help you.”

Helen bit her lip in anguish. “You have to, Des. Please stop it.”

“I can’t, Helen.”

The old secretary lowered her eyes, crestfallen. “Of course not. I understand. Well, that’s that. I’ve said what I needed to say. I told myself I had to do that much or I wouldn’t be able to sleep tonight. Just remember that I warned you, okay?” She finished off her Scotch and got to her feet. “We’ve taken up enough of their time, Bitsy. They need to eat their dinner and do all of the other wonderful things that young couples do on a raw evening when there’s a fire going and a bottle of wine open.” And with that Helen marched out the door and was gone.

“Sorry for dumping this on you,” Bitsy said. “But she’s an old friend and she was so insistent. Thank you. Both of you.” And then she scurried out the door after Helen.

Mitch headed into the kitchen to turn the burners back on under the skillet and pasta water. “What on earth was that?” he demanded. “Wait, wait, my bad. This one’s in your wheelhouse. You should go first.”

“Thanks, don’t mind if I do.” Des joined him in the kitchen, wine glass in hand. “What on earth was that?”

“If I didn’t know better I’d say Helen’s no longer getting an adequate blood supply to her brain.”

“But we do know better. Helen’s a practical, hard-nosed woman who’s been a trusted legal secretary to the Fairchilds for her entire adult life. Cuckoo she’s not, agreed?”

“Agreed. That was one genuinely frightened woman. Whatever Helen’s freaked out about is real. And it sounds like she’s been sitting on it for a long, long time.” He stirred the pancetta and onion as it began to sizzle again. “What are you going to do?”

“There’s nothing I can do. I don’t have the authority to halt the dig at the very last minute. Only Glynis can do that. It would cost the town a boatload of money and there’s absolutely no way she’ll agree to do it based on a cryptic warning from her own damned secretary who, for reasons known only to Helen, won’t speak directly to Glynis about it.” Des shook her head. “What does Helen think I can do? Why did she even come here?”

“She told you—so she could sleep tonight.”

“Well, I’m glad. That makes one of us.”

The pasta water came back to a boil. Mitch dumped the linguine in, stirred it and set the timer. Then he started chopping the parsley.

“Mitch, I have a very stupid question for you.”

“It’s your lucky night. I happen to specialize in very stupid answers.”

“Have you seen this movie before?”

He thought it over before he nodded his head.

“So tell me.”

“Tell you what, Des?”

“What’s Helen so afraid of? What’s down there?”

“It’s not a what,” he said quietly. “It’s a who.”

Copyright © 2014 by David Handler

 

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David Handler is an Edgar Award winner and Anthony, Derringer, and Dilys Award finalist. He has written extensively for television and films. David is the author of Runaway Man, Snow White Christmas Cookie, Blood Red Indian Summer and Shimmering Blond Sister. He lives in a two-hundred-year-old carriage house in Old Lyme, Connecticut.

Comments

  1. Mike Gora

    Read the whole preview above and liked it very much. But caught a typo that me go to Amazon to see if it was you or the publisher that caused it. It was you. Did you put that in intentionally to make it more likely for me to take a closer look?

    In any case, there’s a “he’d” early in Chapter 1 that should obviously be a “she’d”.

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