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Richard Butler owns little on earth but land. Cedars are taking his outer fields. Now and then he earns some cash blasting ledge for a builder surprised to find granite where a cellar was anticipated, and he sells firewood when he finds time to split it. When the VA deposits his monthly check, he jokes that the only way a dairy farmer can make a living is to get shot serving his country.
His neighbor is a celebrity statesman—Henry King, the "Silver Fox"—who cut his diplomat teeth negotiating a long, bloody end to the Vietnam War. Retired from public service, King earns millions advising governments and international corporations.
Their lands intersect like crazed pottery. King has named his Fox Trot and enclosed it with an electric deer fence. Mr. Butler's hardscrabble acres cap the summit of Morris Mountain and sprawl to boundaries stacked of stone half a century before the American Revolution.
He mounts marble stairs, fails to identify a brass fox head as the bell pull, and bangs on the door. Neither he nor King's morning-coated houseman know what to make of each other. But when Henry King rushes into the foyer Mr. Butler shouts, "Get those pipes off my land."
"They're only temporary," King starts to placate him. "For drainage while I build my lake." But it galls King that he has to oblige a hostile neighbor whose net worth is less than he earns in a day, and the statesman blunders: "As it's not precisely your land anyway, I presume you'll accommodate—"
"If you cross my fences again, I'll sue you."
King flushes darkly, the memory of a stinging defeat in the local court fresh in his mind. "Show him out."
The houseman hesitates, unsure whether the farmer's eyes burn with rage or insanity. There's a shotgun in his truck.
* * *
That's where I came in.
Although at the very moment they were cementing their feud, I was up a tree—steeple high in a Main Street elm—trying to rescue the Meeting House cat, who was stuck where the branches got thin. A voice loud enough to hail friends across an interstate boomed up from the frozen ground.
"Hey Ben! Guess who just got out of Somers."
Somers Correctional, security-five state prison.
Far below, my audience had doubled: Alison Mealy, the skinny eleven-year-old shivering in a hand-me-down ski parka who had talked me into this mercy mission, had been joined by Scooter Mackay, publisher, editor and ace reporter of the Newbury Clarion. Bulky as a bear in Eddie Bauer goose down, he had brought his thirteen-megapixel digital Kodak in case I fell.
A gust of wind set the flag thundering over Church Hill. My branch began to sag. I extended a gloved hand to the cat, a brindly calico that looked like a dirty tablecloth.
"Hear me? Guess who just got out of Somers."
Scooter's family had owned the Clarion since the invention of linotype. The weekly earned him an awful lot of money, but few opportunities to wow the town with breaking news.
"Dicky Butler," I told him.
"How the hell did you find out?"
None of Scooter's business.
My reticence provoked explanatory roars: "Appellate Court threw out the intent-to-sell conviction. He'd already served enough time on the assault."
"Tell that to the assaulted."
Dicky Butler was a vicious brawler. He had a screw or two loose that made him violent. But he wasn't stupid, and the possession case had been shaky from the start: Newbury's resident state trooper Oliver Moody had stretched Supreme Court guidelines to lengths that would have raised Saddam's eyebrows; then the jury refused to disregard Dicky's reputation for punching the lights out of innocent Newburians while roaming the town between convictions and voted that Connecticut would be a safer state with Dicky Butler behind bars.
The cat hissed. I faked a tail yank, and, when the dummy fell for it, scooped her off the branch and into the laundry bag I'd tied to my belt.
Horns blared. Brakes screeched. Startled, I slipped off my branch as a speeding caravan of Range Rovers forced Hopkins Septic's tanker off the road. Arrogant DPL-plated sons of bitches from Henry King's Morris Mountain estate. I hung for my life like a three-toed sloth.
"Don't drop her," screamed Alison, and the Kodak's shutter began clattering eagerly.
Upside down, from elm height, Newbury looked like a Currier and Ives New England miniature enameled on Grandma's brooch: clapboard churches clustered around the tallest flagpole in Connecticut; snug colonials; snow white mansions; barn red general store; a sturdy bank; and Town Hall. All crisp in the piercing March sunlight. No one had had the nerve yet to unwrap their winter-burlapped rhododendrons, but a breath of yellow on the willows in the Rams Pasture warned country house shoppers to buy soon or spend summer in the city. So if I were in my office, instead of up a tree, I'd be answering my telephone with high hopes of business, "Benjamin Abbott Realty."
I slothed my way down toward a friendly fork. Scooter, conceding he had lost the photo opportunity of the winter, yelled, "Dicky's dad says they're going to sue for false arrest."
"You want to hold the ladder?"
Branch to branch, then down the rungs, a smile ready when Scooter snapped my landing: "Realtor Rescues Cat"—the kind of front page advertising you just can't buy.
Alison unbagged the animal, which eluded her consoling hug and ran into the road in the path of a pickup truck, survived that somehow, and started up a tree in my Aunt Connie's front yard.
My knees were shaking. "What does Ollie say?"
"Nothing I can print. He says he'll tear Dicky's head off if he steps out of line."
"That should be exciting."
Dicky was like Joe Frazier: he got an adrenalin rush when someone hit him. Trooper Moody enjoyed inflicting pain.
"I thought you'd want to know," said Scooter. Then he got embarrassed and looked away.
"Thank you. I appreciate it."
Dicky and I had hung out the summer we were twelve, the summer before Scooter and I were enrolled in Newbury Prep as day students and Dicky was shipped off to the Manson Youth Institute at Cheshire. We'd not seen a lot of each other since.
Except when I was released from Leavenworth Penitentiary—three years for the sins of an overly meteoric yuppie career on Wall Street—and Dicky had stopped by with a six-pack to see how I was adjusting to hometown life. So I owed the man a visit.
Scooter's stage whisper was audible at the flagpole. "I hear Alison wants a cat."
"Actually, she wants a dog. But she can't have a dog because it would bark all day while her mother's working and she's in school." I winked at Alison. She snarled back, braces flashing like razor wire. "And she can't have a cat because her Mom's allergic."
They'd lived in the old stablehand's apartment over my barn since I'd found them hitchhiking and homeless on Route 7. By logic beyond my grasp, I was in line for a proxy pet.
"Naomi's pregnant, again. Should I reserve a kitten?"
"Send the whole litter. There's a Mongolian hotpot recipe—"
Scooter said goodbye. I carried my ladder back to the barn. Alison trailed me into the house. I nuked us a couple of mugs of hot apple cider, which we took to my office in the glassed-in front porch.
"A cat would help out by eating scraps."
"I have a compost heap."
"You get lonely in this great big empty house."
I reminded the child that while Abbott House—a Georgian Colonial with ink-black shutters and snow-white clapboards—might dwarf Newbury's older saltboxes, it was modest compared to my great-aunt Connie's Federal mansion across the street and the Greek Revival and Second Empire residences that the fast-money crowd had thrown up in the nineteenth century.
Nor did it feel empty, crammed with furniture that frugal Abbotts never threw out. But how to explain to my prepubescent friend that when lonely, I hoped less to connect with a cat than with a fellow human of the warm and feminine persuasion? (Hopes dashed of late.)
The telephone rang, cutting short my hunt for euphemisms and halting an unwelcome lapse into mournful reflection.
"Benjamin Abbott Realty."
"Mr. Abbott," said a woman who sounded used to being obeyed. "Henry King wants you to come up to Fox Trot."
I took my feet off my desk.
Henry King was pouring serious money into the old Zarega place, which he had renovated, rebuilt, and added on to. I had heard that he was trying to run some land deals by his neighbors—"buying to the horizon," as WASP New Englanders put it.
Not that King was old Connecticut. Far from it, despite elocution and polo lessons. But having cashed in a career in personal diplomacy for Republican presidents, this Harvard-educated son of a Red Hook longshoreman had earned the means to acquire the accoutrement.
My aerial photo map indicated several possible sales of unused pastures and woodlots. But the prize was a hundred acres on the summit, which belonged to, of all people, Dicky Butler's father.
My gut told me that's what King wanted. It also told me that Mr. Butler wouldn't sell. And yet, farmers got tired. He had struggled alone for years—no wife to bring in steady cash with a part-time job, no kids to share the chores, Dicky being incarcerated most of the time and raising hell when he wasn't. He just might appreciate a way out. If so, I would earn a handsome commission—but from a buyer I wouldn't be proud to do business with.
I didn't hold with former public servants augmenting their pensions by selling publicly paid-for contacts. The practice devalues their office and skews their judgement in favor of their future benefactors. By rights, I should tell Henry King to take his business to my competitors.
But face it, I needed the business. Wall Street's collapse had downsized my natural customers, while those still employed were spending differently than well-off folk used to. McMansions and Mega-mansions wired for wall to wall wide-screen TV were the hot items now for those who could still afford them. My listings of "antiques"—authentic colonials and nineteenth century farm houses—had all the appeal of ris de veau in a rib joint. (Unless the antique had a extra slice of land that a builder could get permission from Planning and Zoning to grace with a gross new neighbor.)
I weighed a potential good deed for Mr. Butler. I reminded myself that I cared more about swinging deals than the money involved—ignoring memories of hot water that had landed me in in the past. I told myself I was curious for a peek at King's estate, rumored to rival Kublai Khan's.
"Mr. King has people coming for lunch. Join us at noon."
Alison was watching, her big eyes guarded.
"Hold on, please." I covered the phone. "Is your Mom working?"
"'Yes,' not 'yeah.'"
School days, Mrs. Mealy cleaned houses; Saturdays, she helped Main Street matrons prepare their dinner parties. "There's tuna in the fridge. Why not invite Dora and Patty for lunch?"
Dora and Patty were capo and consiglieri of the girls-only Main Street bicycle gang. Alison, capo di tutti i capi.
She pretzeled deeper into her chair and studied the pattern on the worn oriental carpet. "We're not talking.... We had a fight."
"Call a peace conference. Frozen yogurt for dessert."
"Can't. They're riding Patty's horse. With Patty's mother."
I'm rarely violent. But if Patty's parents had walked in at that moment I would have slugged them. Alison had enough problems with an abusive drunk for a father—absent, on my orders, until the day world peace was declared and he got sober—and the frightened daughter of a hardscrabble farmer for a mother. She didn't need more grief from social climbers.
"Go on, Ben. I'll watch TV."
I said to the lady on the phone, "I'm afraid I'm tied up. I'll be there after lunch."
"Mr. King specifically requested you come to lunch."
"Please give him my regrets. I'll see him at two."
"Make it one-thirty."
A point getter. "One-thirty it is, Ms.—?"
"Julia Devlin. They'll have your name at the gatehouse, Mr. Abbott."
I hung up thinking, gatehouse? Gates alone were considered a tad pretentious in Newbury, more appropriate to strivers' driveways in commuter towns like Greenwich.
Alison said, "A compost heap won't curl up in your lap."
"If Mr. King offers me a ride to Washington D.C. in his helicopter someday, I won't have to say, 'Sorry, Mr. King, I have to go home and feed the cat.'"
"I'd feed her."
"What if you had band practice? Or stayed late for your computer course? By the time one of us got home we'd be down to compost anyway."
We settled around the kitchen table for tuna sandwiches, Aunt Connie's bread-and-butter pickles, and a little chat about Dora and Patty. It didn't help much.
* * *
Henry King's gatehouse looked like an English country railroad station—a fanciful structure of stone, steep gables and leaded windows. An iron gate sufficiently strong to keep locomotives out was guarded by Albert and Dennis Chevalley, rambunctious young cousins of mine from the wrong side of the tracks.
I'd heard they'd found work dynamiting tree stumps for Henry King, until some government killjoy, obliged to report back to the Department of Homeland Security, ruled that the argument that Dad and Granddad "always blew stumps" did not automatically qualify the boys to be state-licensed pyrotechnicians. Particularly with explosives borrowed from a highway construction site. Nonetheless, it appeared they had been promoted to full-time Fox Trot retainers: parked by the gatehouse gleamed a jet-black four-by Chevy diesel pickup with "Fox Trot" emblazoned on the door; the boys themselves were decked out in their first-ever garments from L.L. Bean, "Scottish tartan" flannel shirts.
Dennis hulked at the gate controls. Albert held a clipboard that looked like a playing card in his large and hairy paw. They were dark-haired and dark-eyed like most Chevalleys, medium-size by clan standards (quite enormous). Albert was of typical intelligence, which made finding his shoes each morning something of a project. Dennis could be more complicated.
"Hi, guys," I said. "Neat truck."
"What's your name?"
"You know my name, Albert. You're my cousin, for crissake."
"We got orders. Gotta ask everybody's name. And check the list."
Legend has the Chevalley clan founding the Frenchtown district of Newbury around the time of the Revolution, the first arrival variously described as a French army deserter, a runaway indentured servant, or a Hudson Bay trapper way off course. In fact, Chevalleys have been around Newbury almost as long as Abbotts. Borough records locate one Anton "Chevalier" in Newbury's first stockade. The charge was "carousing" and not a lot has changed since. My mother's brothers, cousins and nephews are excellent companions in bar brawls, off-season deer hunts, and drag races. Their women learn young to cope.
I stared. Albert stared back.
Dennis lumbered closer. Dennis seemed dumb as Albert. But he was a secret watcher—eyes mean and busy—like a pig waiting to see who wandered close enough to eat.
"Security," he explained.
There was plenty of that: motion detectors to turn on the floodlights, laser eyes between the gate posts, a seven-strand electric deer fence that took up where the walls ended. There was even a pressure plate in the driveway, which curved up into the deep woods that blocked any sight of the house. On the gatehouse roof a TV camera panned the approach.
"I'm not going to tell you my name."
"Then we can't let you in."
I picked up my cell phone. "If you don't open that gate I'm going to tell our mutual cousin Pinkerton Chevalley to bring the new wrecker." (The "new" wrecker was a 1973 Peterbilt for hauling tandem tractor trailer trucks out of deep ditches.) "We'll hook that goddammed gate right off the posts and drag it up the driveway and tell Mr. King you and Dennis made us do it."
Excerpted from FrostLine by Justin Scott Copyright © 2003 by Justin Scott. Excerpted by permission of Poisoned Pen Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted December 9, 2008
When Henry King, former chief of the national security council, moves to Newbury, Connecticut, he buys the Zarega homestead and turns it into a country estate, Fox Trot. Mr. King¿s land is right where he plan to build a lake. King¿s next door neighbor, dairy farmer Ron Butler, leases a piece of land that the ex-statesman wants to buy but the two men can¿t come to any agreement.<P> King asks the town real estate agent Ben Abbot to try and mediate the dispute but Mr. Butler is a stubborn man who just wants to be left in peace on land his family owned for three generations. When Henry throws a house party, an explosion occurs and the man-made lake is destroyed. Killed in the blast is Mr. Butler¿s son and the state police believe that the former, an expert in setting explosives, set the bomb. They arrest him and Ben is hired to help his lawyer find some evidence to clear his client because if Mr. Butler isn¿t released from jail soon, he is going to go insane.<P> After writing HARDSCAPE AND STONEDUST Justin Scott took a hiatus from the Ben Abbott mysteries until now. Ben Abbot returns in FROSTLINE and this novel is even better than the first two books in the series. This is not a pretty novel and for the most part the characters aren¿t likable but it is a very interesting and colorful amateur sleuth tale starring a hero who did time and turned his life around. Using misdirection and red herrings M0r. Scott keeps the reader guessing about the identity of the bomber until he chooses to reveal it.<P> Harriet KlausnerWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted January 21, 2010
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