Read an Excerpt
By Justin Scott
Poisoned Pen Press Copyright © 2007 Justin Scott
All right reserved.
Chapter One It was too gorgeous a summer day to kill someone. Rain last night left high pressure in its wake and every leaf and every blade of grass gleamed. Even if you felt too angry, envious, betrayed or thievish to appreciate such weather and shot him in the back, I would have thought that the air was too sweet, the sky too blue, the sun too soft, and the breeze too crisp to roll him over and shoot him twice more in front.
Besides, Newbury's Village Cemetery was already jam-packed with the living.
Half the town was there, led by my Great Aunt Constance Abbott who steadied herself with one gloved hand on her silver-headed cane and the other on my elbow as we walked grave to grave to watch neighbors costumed in period dress portray the ghosts of "Newbury Notables-Gone But Not Forgotten."
Newburians were having a fine time that summer celebrating our Tercentennial by resurrecting the past. A baseball game played by 1879 rules was scheduled next for our 300th birthday party, then a fireworks picnic that the fire marshal swore would burn down the woods. All this commemorating was having the wonderful effect of introducing newcomers to old. And if long-time residents of modest saltboxes were not yet shaking hands with Hummer-house arrivistes, they were at least exchanging smiles.
Aunt Connie and I stopped to listen to Rick Bowland, an IBM commuter who was impersonating Silas Barrett in vest and shirt sleeves. Silas had founded the first general store on Church Hill Road. Rick had moved to Newbury a few years ago and worked hard on volunteer boards, committees, and commissions. A cross-every-t-and- dot-every-i fellow, he had nailed old Silas right down to his merchant's pursed lips as he read aloud from general store account books. We listened for as long as we could.
Moving on, we could hear faintly the voice of my life-long next-door neighbor Scooter McKay-publisher, editor, and ace reporter of the weekly Newbury Clarion-sailing uphill from the Abbott plots, "Yo, ho, ho and a ..."
I hurried Aunt Connie in the opposite direction.
This change of course stood us face to face with an aggressive addition to the burying ground-a brand new mausoleum purchased for half a million bucks from a website that offered to "Engrave your family name above the door." Tall, wide, and gaudy, sporting mirror-polished granite, a bronze door embossed with acanthus leaves, and a spiked fence to hold back the riffraff, it stuck out like a McMansion in an apple orchard. Frequenters of the Yankee Drover's cellar bar had nicknamed it, "McTomb."
The only other mausoleum in the ancient graveyard was a 19th Century structure erected by the first generation of McKays to mint money publishing the Clarion. Call me old-fashioned, call me too old for my years, but it seemed somehow more substantial than the new one. Smooth-not polished-blocks of Vermont granite stood on a firm base of rough-cut stone, and it had fluted pillars and a Greek Cross on its peaked roof. A stained glass window depicted a scantily-clad Pre-Raphaelitic fellow, lither than any McKay I ever met, cranking a printing press.
* * *
The cemetery hosted other smaller eruptions of eternal ego scattered here and there: squat monuments, narrow obelisks, fenced family plots. But when I cast my eye up and down the wide, gentle slope I could see that most Connecticut Yankees who died in Newbury deemed a simple headstone marker enough in this world. Even the McKays, always public spirited, opened their spare catacombs to their neighbors as a sort of deep-winter purgatory when the ground was frozen too hard to dig graves.
Connie liked the new one even less than I did. It loomed over the modest headstones of two of her schoolmates, twins who had died of scarlet fever in 1923. "What on earth could possess a young man to erect such an extravagant memorial?"
The "young man" was in his forties.
My great aunt loved the English language and took pleasure in full sentences delivered with a flourish. Knowing she would find no joy in "Afraid of kicking off early?" I answered, "Perhaps he fears an early demise."
"Then he's recklessly immodest, considering the demands of the afterlife. Better to embark steeped in humility. And, Ben-" She fixed me with remarkably clear stone-blue eyes. Her fine features were framed by white hair and a straw picture hat. Beauty lingered. On a good day like this one, she could still pass for eighty.
She stared a long moment, then shook her head as if dodging a mosquito. "Sorry. Lost my thought."
Connie-my Aunt Connie-Miss Constance Abbott of Main Street-stood with the help of her cane and my elbow almost as tall as she had learned to at Miss Porter's. Always abstemiously slender, she was getting much too thin. And her memory had begun to lock up, occasionally-unpredictably-terrifyingly. The transient ischemic "mini-strokes" that preyed upon her brain had swept the ground out from under my hope that she was indestructible. But her voice was still as clear and noble as her standards.
"What is that chiseled on the lintel?" she asked, squinting dubiously at the mausoleum and pretending to read:
'Made a pile of money? Afraid no one will notice when I die? Now they'll never forget me?'"
Grand-nephew-ic obligations included acting the straight man for a woman who remembered vaudeville: "I think it says, 'Grose.'"
"Well gross he is."
"The English Grose, with an 'e'."
"I know who Mr. Grose is. I have heard things that would curl your hair."
Little escaped Connie's attention in Newbury. She cherished the town and nourished it with gifts like our grand Town Hall and a library as comfortable as a Fifth Avenue club.
"What things that would curl my hair?"
"I do not repeat gossip."
Too bad. Gossip was the lifeblood of my dual career: real estate agent and private investigator. Gossip snared me exclusive listings of old estates before my competitors learned they were for sale. Gossip hinted where the bodies were buried.
The gossip I had already heard repeated speculated that Brian Grose had moved to Newbury from California, where he had struck it rich developing shopping centers or condos or some such blight on the land, and now telecommuted part-time to a venture capital group that specialized in real estate. Nothing hair-curling about that: we're close enough to New York City to visit for pleasure, but way too far for a daily commute; and Brian Grose was not the only entrepreneur who had moved to Newbury to enjoy the pleasures of emailing in his bathrobe.
Otherwise, Developer Grose seemed to be in youthful semi-retirement, thank God. All he had developed here was his own mega-mansion atop Mount Pleasant Road, which he slathered with stucco, a building material better suited to drug-lord enclaves of Miami than New England's stony hills. Fortunately for passing drivers, Grose's extravaganza was screened by Newbury Forest Association trees. When Grose tried to cut the trees to extend his view, a famously-rapacious New York negligence lawyer, to whom I had sold an "antique" weekend retreat, had sent a chilling letter on behalf of the Forest Association, of which he was a trustee. Grose wrote a huge check to the Forest Association's open-space fund and everyone calmed down. Briefly.
Soon after the tree battle, Grose had somehow gotten invited to serve on the board of the venerable Newbury Cemetery Association, and before that turned into the current cat fight with lawyers, injunctions, and appeals, he had managed to grace the Village Cemetery with his shiny new mausoleum.
The old timers who had ten or twelve generations under the hillside had gone predictably nuts and wrested control of the Cemetery Association back from the gross insurgents. Someone had gotten mad enough to graffiti-paint in blood red, "Go Back To California And Take This With You" on it. (Congenitally decent as most Newburians, the vandal had applied his or her elegant copperplate script with water-base paint that had washed off without a trace.)
But Grose had allies among the recently-moved-to-town Mega-Mansion horde who were thrilled to discover a hot new one-ups-ing contest that reduced the purchasers of six-hundred-thousand BTU stainless-steel outdoor grills and gold-accented Lexi to piker status. So if the courts settled the imbroglio in Brian Grose's favor, his would be neither the last nor the gaudiest eternal self-storage unit crowding the green slopes.
Scooter McKay's voice echoed like distant thunder. "... and a bottle of rum."
I maneuvered Connie toward Sherry Carter, a world-class exhibitionist, who was jumping around temptingly in a tight, thin leotard playing Madame Irinakov-a dancer friend of Isadora Duncan, who had kept a summer place in Newbury in the 1920s, back when passenger trains still delivered vacationers.
Connie touched a glove to her ear. "Why do I keep hearing Scooter McKay?"
Fortunately, another noise distracted her, a remarkably loud thump! thump! thump! interrupted by the eardrum-slitting skreeeeeeek! of a buzz-saw.
The Chevalley clan had wheeled a clattering, belching, hissing antique one-cylinder stationary gas engine beside the 1905 headstone of Ezra Peck, who had been the first Newbury farmer to invest in modern technology. Snaggle-toothed Sherman Chevalley, mean and lean as a very tall snake-and larcenous as a packrat-tended the machine which was transmitting power by long belts to a corn sheller, a water pump, and a circular mill saw of the type silent movie villains used to threaten maidens. He wore a period farm-hand costume that looked much like his daily attire, minus the Budweiser cap. Recently paroled, again, Sherman had been persuaded by his mother that community service would look good on his resume? in the event he had occasion to discuss his aspirations with some future parole board.
Sherman had protested that the show was too "Main Street," for a swamp Yankee from Frenchtown. But now that he was drenched head to toe in black grease, bleeding from a monkey-wrench-skinned knuckle, choking on blue exhaust fumes, and deafened by the shrieking buzz saw, Sherman was so happily engaged with his machinery that he would not have noticed being shackled to the front pew of Newbury First Congregational.
"If an object makes a racket," Aunt Connie said, "a Chevalley will buy it."
I suggested the far more likely, "Borrow or steal."
I'm a Chevalley on my mother's side. My father, in the one bold act of his orderly life, scandalized Main Street by marrying a dark-haired beauty of French extraction back when his parents' and grandparents' generations still embraced Yankee prejudices that predated the Indian wars. The Chevalleys, descendants of Anton Chevalier, first resident of the town stockade (Acarousing," the charge) live on the cold, wet north slopes of Frenchtown, most in double-wide house trailers. When it became time to build the railroad in 1840 no one had doubted that the tracks should define the border between the two communities.
At the next grave stop, Rick Bowland's lovely, flaky wife Georgia played a 19th Century portraitist who had made a career painting the wives of men who had bought summer estates in Newbury after striking it rich in the Civil War. Nearby, Ted and Sally Barrett, the handsomest couple in town, portrayed an 18th Century minister and his wife who had led breakaway Congregationalists into the Church of England in the days when the town took schisms seriously.
First Selectman Vicky McLachlan-one-time love of my life-and her live-in fellow, my old friend and lawyer Tim Hall, read from the love letters of a couple who had been buried side by side during a small pox epidemic. I got tears in my eyes and a sidelong glance from Vicky that I'm still trying to decipher.
"What is Scooter McKay doing in the Abbott plot?" Connie asked, her tone reminiscent of a banker contemplating a felon in the vault. The way the Notables course was laid out, I had been unable to prevent us from drifting ever closer to the "Yo, ho, ho-ing" in the original section of the cemetery where the head stones were too weathered to read the names.
Connie led the way and there was no stopping her. Leaning hard on her cane she covered a lot of ground for a lady in her nineties.
"Is that a parrot on Scooter's shoulder?"
"I believe Scooter rented one this morning."
The parrot complemented the latex saber scar glued to Scooter's cheek, his black eye patch, his cutlass, the pigtail slung over his shoulder, and the incredibly valuable brace of 18th Century matchlock pistols Scooter was holding for his black-sheep brother, Scupper McKay: a well-known antique dealer whom Federal agents wanted to know better. (I was looking into it for Scooter who was worried. The Feds, it seemed, wondered if Scupper was the missing link in a chain that already entangled a former governor, a politically-connected New Haven developer, a Watergate condo in the name of a wife not wed to the former governor, and a lowball appraisal of an extremely-rare Connecticut highboy, which had mysteriously vanished along with Scupper's arch business rival.)
Scooter's wife, Eleanor, was shooting photographs for the Clarion. Their daughters were cowering behind a elm, praying that Constantine's Abbott's grave would swallow Scooter up before their friends came along. And Lorraine Renner, an angular, quite striking brunette who had a small business making wedding DVDs, was video-ing every piratical grimace in hopes, I presumed, that Scooter would exchange some free advertising space for a record of his performance.
Connie's lips drew tight as piano wire.
She is the sole heiress of the wealthy Abbott line, sired by Constantine who had sensed winter coming several weeks after founding Newbury and skipped out to seek his fortune at sea. Less adventurous Abbott cousins stayed behind to chop down trees, dam the river, plant crops and shovel snow. Twenty years later, when they had carved out the beginnings of a nice little town, Constantine came home from the sea one of the richest men in the Colonies. His progeny got busy investing in clippers to ply the China trade, canals, whale ships, railroads, repeating rifles, brass, clockworks, shipyards, helicopters (a Russian refugee named Sikorsky was tinkering down in Stratford), and land-always land-never touching capital and cautiously diversifying. Or, strictly speaking, "money laundering," as the common name for Constantine's maritime riches was "pirate loot."
In case anybody failed to get the message, Scooter had planted a skull and crossbones on a staff beside old Constantine's headstone, which had not weathered one bit since an 1870 great-great-great grandchild-Connie's grand-father-replaced the original sandstone with expensive granite.
Connie's lips barely moved. "It seems to me that Scooter MacKay could have portrayed some member of his own family-such as the swineherd who founded their newspaper-instead of ours."
Her "ours" was kind, but not entirely accurate. While my full name is Benjamin Constantine Abbott III, the Constantine only reflects an Abbott custom of hanging wealthy relatives' names on kids in the futile hope that those in the more direct line of fortune will open their coffers. My side of the Abbotts, those cousins who stayed behind, kept on being farmers, tradesmen, preachers, horse traders and, starting with my great-grandfather, real estate agents. They often served as selectmen of their nice little town, which was no way to get rich if you were honest, which they were. I was the only one who had ever made a ton of money, but that was during a misspent youth on Wall Street doing yeoman service for bubbly exuberance-and the loot hadn't lasted longer than it deserved to.
"Scooter McKay!" Connie raised her cane.
On the verge of blurting, "Aye, Me Hearty!" and unsheathing his cutlass, Scooter lost his nerve and turned pale. There were few men in Newbury under seventy who did not recall delivering the newspaper to Miss Abbott's mansion, or raking the front yard under her watchful eye, and Scooter had lived his whole life directly across the street from her. How he thought he could get away with this act was beyond me.
His daughters crept toward a bigger elm. Eleanor got very busy swapping out her camera's memory card, and Scooter fell back on the manners we learned as day-students at Newbury Prep. He swept his pirate hat off his head and bowed low. "Good afternoon, Miss Abbott."
Excerpted from Mausoleum by Justin Scott Copyright © 2007 by Justin Scott. Excerpted by permission.
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