StoneDustby Justin Scott
Ben Abbott is back in StoneDust, a complex, richly plotted, and enthralling mystery that tests this witty, literate realtor and fledgling detective as never before.
The Fisks' weekend party, a "sleep-over" for select couples, remains the talk of the town long after Reg Hopkins' body turns up in an isolated covered bridge. For Reg may have paid the
Ben Abbott is back in StoneDust, a complex, richly plotted, and enthralling mystery that tests this witty, literate realtor and fledgling detective as never before.
The Fisks' weekend party, a "sleep-over" for select couples, remains the talk of the town long after Reg Hopkins' body turns up in an isolated covered bridge. For Reg may have paid the party a fleeting visitbefore dying in a way everyone swears was impossible. Ben, who used to play backyard baseball with Reg and all the party guests, must take up the matter with a hometown cast of friends, foes, and familyincluding his ninety-year-old Aunt Connie, the rising politician and his sometime lover Vicky McLachlan, the comely and ambitious State Police Detective Marian Boyce, and a pair of deadly housebreakers. Soon everybody's getting much more in the way of kicks than they bargained for.
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By Justin Scott
Poisoned Pen PressCopyright © 1995 Justin Scott
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Fisks' weekend party, a sleepover for select couples, was the talk of the town, even after we found Reg Hopkins's body in the covered bridge.
My friend Scooter MacKay—who mourned Reg no less than I—applauded Newbury's gossips, said they displayed a healthy preference for the antics of the living. I told Scooter he could afford such generosity because he lived an orderly life.
Rumors had started when Zweig Plumbing installed a Jacuzzi-for-eight under a mirror in the Fisks' new party room. Reports from their cleaning woman that Duane and Michelle had laid a carpet as soft as a mattress fleshed out voyeurs' dreams. "Facts" were netted by the Fish Line, Newbury's keep-in-touch telephone network for senior citizens: Several couples, all close friends of the Fisks, had arranged to send the kids to Grandma's Saturday night.
Sounded good to me. Though I suspected a night somewhat more innocent than the gossips hoped. The Bowlands, the Barretts, the Carters, and the Fisks were solid couples. While too young to be pillars of the community, it was fair to say they were pillars-in-waiting.
The wives were wonderful women, each special in her way: Georgia Bowland, a stylish honey blonde, new in town, with a witty outsider's take on the world; Susan Barrett, the group's great beauty, a seasoned nurse, yet so ethereal she seemed to float; Sherry Carter, supple as a gazelle and Newbury's premiere flirt; Michelle Fisk, a feisty businesswoman, sexily round.
Their husbands were hardworking good guys—not exactly orgy material, except maybe handsome Ted Barrett, whom women did go silly for—good friends and friends of mine. (I assumed I'd have been invited too, had I a spouse to contribute to the proceedings.)
When word about the party got around, Duane and Michelle Fisk were besieged by people trolling for invitations under the guise of asking whether they themselves were free Saturday night for dinner? For drinks? A barbecue? A beer? I even overheard Steve La France at the Liquor Locker inquire whether Duane could stop by with his Sawzall to enlarge a hole in his deck that was strangling his maple; to hear Steve tell it, the tree was firewood unless Duane saved it Saturday night.
I was surprised they didn't postpone. Most people would have issued rainchecks, but Michelle was bold, a real counterpuncher. She countered with a two-stage party—similar to the two-tier stock offerings I'd helped float back in my Wall Street days, where the insiders got dividends and the commoners bought promises. We commoners were invited at six for a cookout on the lawn. Six to nine, Michelle said in her cheerily firm way. The insiders stayed late, quietly drifting indoors around nine-thirty while Michelle and Duane eased stragglers into their cars and waved them down the drive.
* * *
On the morning after, the Fisk follies were topic one at the General Store. I retreated—preferring my Sunday New York Times with a quiet Bloody Mary in the Yankee Drover's cellar bar—and had just ventured a tentative "hello" to First Selectman Vicky McLachlan outside, whenTrooper Moody's steel-gray state police cruiser came briskly up Main Street. His siren whooped a "don't even think about it" warning at a pickup truck about to pull away from the General Store and another of the "let's exert some discipline here" variety at a family of bicyclists wobbling out of their driveway.
"Where is he going?" asked Vicky.
Ordinarily Newbury's resident state trooper directed traffic as the churches clustered around the flagpole on the corners of Main and Church Hill let out eleven-o'clock services. But Trooper Moody growled through the intersection. His hopped-up Fury continued up Main, gleaming darkly in the shade of elms and maples arched overhead, past bright Colonial houses smothered in pink azalea, and stately mansions on broad, green lawns. At the edge of town, it dug its tires in and roared north.
Vicky peered anxiously after him. She was facing a stiff primary challenge from Steve La France of the Liquor Locker—an antitax troglodyte with an angry citizenry on his side—so any breach of the peace made her nervous.
She and I had had an on-and-off sort of thing born of friendship, occasional loneliness, some memorable heat in the dark, and delusions on Vicky's part. She tended to ignore certain flaws in my character, till I found some method I later regretted of reminding her.
The latest incident was fairly recent, which was why I had greeted her tentatively. Vicky's problem was that she didn't hold grudges, so she said, "Good morning, Ben," with a warm smile and another worried look after Oliver Moody.
An active mass of curly chestnut hair framed Vicky's fine features, a crown that made a petite woman look bigger than she was and drew cameras on the campaign trail like a black hole drinking stars. Until Steve's challenge, no one had doubted she'd be governor of Connecticut before she was forty. Now no one was more aware than she that the New England landscape was littered with public servants who had failed to springboard out of their small towns when they were young.
"Where is Ollie going?" she asked again.
"Probably just an accident."
She was wearing dark sunglasses, not her style at all.
"What's with the shades?"
"Headache—Come on, Ben, we better help."
At the flagpole, Episcopalians, Congregationalists, and Catholics were blundering around with tight smiles. Vicky plunged into the automobile traffic, sorting cars with emphatic gestures and a two-finger whistle. I walked old Mrs. Adams and her sister from Pough-keepsie across the street, then lent an arm to Scooter MacKay's grandfather, up from the MacKays' winter place in North Carolina.
I next offered my arm to my great-aunt Constance Abbott, who was waiting to cross to her Federal mansion. Connie, who admitted to ninety, was ramrod straight, with a magnificent head of thick white hair. She wore a half-veil Lily Daché hat this morning and a pale blue suit she'd bought at B. Altman for a welcome-home Lucky Lindy tea dance.
My chinos and tieless shirt received a look that could freeze gasoline. And I, a witheringly formal reproach in the tones of a diplomat informing a pesky warlord that he deserved the cruise missiles headed his way.
"I missed you in church, Benjamin Abbott."
About the only slack she cut me was that she used neither my middle name (Constantine, it being the custom of the Abbotts to bond newborns to their wealthiest relative), nor my ordinal (III).
"I'm sorry, Connie. I was showing a house."
She softened, slightly: Industry ran a close second to Godliness and Honesty in her book. "To early-rising infidels?"
"They had an eleven-thirty tennis date. Help you cross? Trooper Moody's off preserving the peace."
Connie shooed me aside with her silver-headed walking stick. "Incidentally, Ben: Would you please inform Pinkerton Chevalley that I am not at all happy with the repairs on my car? It's developed a rattle."
Her car was a thirty-year-old Lincoln. Pink, who ran the Chevalley Enterprises garage, was my wrong-side-of-the-tracks cousin. My mother was the only one in the large and disorderly Chevalley clan for whom Connie had affection.
Traffic stopped dead as she strode onto Main Street. It stayed stopped while Connie paused in the middle of the busy intersection to greet the First Selectman with a spirited, "Good morning, Victoria," and to shake her hand—a grande dame seal of approval artfully calculated to garner Vicky a hundred votes in the primary.
The traffic jam of the week dispersed in minutes.
Vicky was still gazing worriedly up Main Street. "I wonder where Ollie went."
"Come on, we'll check it out."
I dropped my paper on the Yankee Drover's porch. Then I led Vicky up the street to my house, a white Georgian with black shutters, my "Benjamin Abbott Realty" shingle out front, and a red barn at the end of the driveway.
To Vicky's puzzlement, instead of going into the house, I took her past the barn and squeezed through the privet hedge. She squeezed after me, grinning like a kid stealing apples, and whispered, "Where are we going?" We emerged in the back yard of Scooter MacKay, publisher, editor, and ace reporter of the Newbury Clarion.
Scooter's barn was white. Inside it smelled of dry rot, pine mulch, and gasoline. Spider-webbed windows cast daylight on a shiny green Range Rover. Beside the luxury wagon crouched a fourteen-thousand-dollar Kubota lawn tractor better suited to mowing estates than Scooter's in-town yard.
I indicated a pile of mulch bags Vicky could sit on and mounted the Kubota. Bracketed to the tractor's instrument panel was a Bear-cat radio scanner.
"What are you doing?"
"Now you know how Scooter never misses a moving-violation story." Scooter kept scanners running twenty-four hours a day in his car, office, and bedroom.
Programmed to troll police, emergency, and tow-truck frequencies, they'll do so forever, hour after hour, scanning, scanning, scanning, as patient and hopeful as a clutch of teenagers waiting for something to happen in the Grand Union parking lot.
We listened awhile.
Vicky was looking particularly accessible in a summer dress and smelled delicious. She paced, ran into spider webs, and retreated hastily to my side. I offered a comfortable lap, which she refused.
Every now and then the scanner locked on to a signal. The volunteer ambulance responded to a homeowner-electric hedget-rimmer confrontation; and Pinkerton Chevalley was conducting a heated discussion with his tow-truck driver, who'd managed to get lost on Morris Mountain. Otherwise the CB waves were Sunday morning quiet.
Pink, a large man with a temper, started losing it.
"If I were that driver," I told Vicky, "I'd find my way to the Bridgeport Ferry and send the truck back UPS."
"Why isn't Ollie reporting in?"
In truth, I doubted we'd hear Ollie. Trooper Moody was a loner. He ruled his sixty square miles of Newbury turf by sowing terror in the hearts of any who might even consider breaking the law and was unlikely to radio the Plainfield State Police barracks for backup against anything short of Serbian artillery. But suddenly the Bearcat fixed onto a state police frequency.
"What are all those numbers?" Vicky asked.
"Code, so snoopy citizens like you and me can't eavesdrop."
"It must be important. He wouldn't bother for a traffic accident."
Just then I caught a phrase from the dispatcher that made me lean closer to the scanner: "Hold on, Trooper. I'm patching you in to Sergeant Boyce's home phone...."
"Marian Boyce," I explained. "She—"
"I know who Marian Boyce is," Vicky reminded me icily. My occasional dinners with Marian were not the high point in Vicky's week.
"She made sergeant. Major Case Squad. Maybe Ollie found a dead body."
"Don't even say that."
"Relax, it's not your fault."
The scanner locked in on Marian's strong, resonant voice. She sounded damned proud of her promotion, as well she should. The state police were never generous with rank; young sergeants were rising stars. "Sergeant Boyce. What's up, Trooper Moody?"
More numbers. I thought I heard a "Four-four," which was trooper code for "Untimely Death," but the signal was breaking up and I was not sure. Suddenly the trooper and the Major Case sergeant got down to the kind of stuff you can't put in numbers.
"Okay," said Ollie. "What you do is you drive north on Main, past the flagpole, and continue out Route Seven four miles, left on Crabtree, follow Crabtree along the river, till it turns to dirt. Stay on the dirt eight miles, bearing left at the forks. Just before the Indian reservation you'll hit a covered bridge. Give me a holler if you get lost, only remember you gotta get up out of those swamps before I'll copy your radio.... No, it's not on the reservation, we're okay.... No, the bridge is ours."
"Lucky you," I told Vicky. "Or they'd have to call the Federales."
Marian said, "According to my map, I could drive there through Frenchtown. Or cut across further up Seven."
Ollie wasn't that bright, but he'd had twenty years' experience maintaining his independence from the barracks in the county seat. While not insubordinate, his answer conveyed clearly that the only thing he disliked more than a superior officer from Plainfield was a female superior officer from anywhere. "Yes, ma'am, you could, but you'll get lost."
Marian said she would call the medical examiner.
Vicky was gnawing her lip. As Newbury's first selectman, she had inherited all the misery of the Republican prosperity that had gutted the local economy, and the Reagan-Bush tax reforms that had made a shambles of state and local finance. All she could promise frightened voters was cost control and honest, hardworking Vicky McLachlan stability; while anything that went wrong, from a Main Street break-in to a brawl at the high school, lent credence to the grim generalizations that her challenger dispensed across his busy counter.
"Want me to drive you out there for a look?"
"Can't, Ben. It's not my place."
"Want me to check it out for you?"
"That's really kind. You know I'm worried." She stood up on her tiptoes and kissed my mouth.
I wasn't in love with Vicky—I had a long history of directing that overwhelming emotion at women disinclined or unable to reciprocate and was currently pursuing one who was fashioning macramé from my heartstrings—but Vicky was one of the sweetest kissers I had ever known. I was just about to suggest Bloody Marys upstairs next door in my four-poster, when the barn door slid open and Scooter MacKay burst in like a Saint Bernard in a hurry. He was a big guy with a booming voice.
"What are you two—Oh—What's the matter, Ben, no hay in your hayloft?"
"We were just listening to your radio scanner," the first selectman informed the newspaper publisher.
"Sure. Eleanor and I used to come out here and do the same thing.... Before the kids."
"Shut up, Scooter."
"Have fun." He backed the Range Rover out and raced down his drive.
"You think there's really hay up there?" I asked.
"Ben, he heard it too. He thinks it's important. Could you please ..."
She was really distracted—bed was the furthest thing from her mind—so I said I couldn't think of anything that would give me greater pleasure and ran back through the hedge into my barn, fired up the Olds, and headed north.
My Olds—my father's sedate old Oldsmobile, his very last car—had come with a standard engine better suited to powering a Brazilian sawmill than an American automobile. When I inherited the sedan, my cousin Renny—the best of the Chevalley boys—had in payment for a loan installed a lovingly bored and stroked Cadillac V-6. With Pirelli tires and beefed-up shocks and struts, the car, as Renny used to say, hauled freight. (Pink said that if General Motors had built 'em like that back in '85, the Japanese would have stuck to Walkmans.)
I sped north on an empty Route 7, secure in the knowledge that the only cop in twenty miles was babysitting a crime scene in the deep woods.
It was glorious late June. Apple, shad, and native dogwood had faded, but the mountain laurel was bleeding pink and hemlock forests hung heavy with pale green new growth. The only disappointment on the drive was a minor one, a slight shimmy in the low hundreds when, on a short straight, I rocketed past Scooter's Range Rover.
Once Crabtree turned to dirt, it was a full twenty minutes before the covered bridge hove into view around a bend. Ollie's cruiser blocked the road. Ollie stood behind it, facing me. His flashers were off. He didn't even bother raising a hand. He just stood there—mirrored sunglasses and full gray uniform, six-foot-five plus hat, arms folded like anvils across his chest—the message clear as an electric roadwork sign: STOP. TURN AROUND. GET LOST.
I couldn't see much past him and his car, but it looked like someone had parked a dark Chevy S10 Blazer in the shadows of the one-lane bridge and left the driver's door open. The bridge itself, which spanned a fair-sized brook, running low this dry spring, was about fifty feet long with a shingled roof and barn-siding walls. A couple of square holes were cut between the timbers as unglassed windows, and in the light spill from one I saw an arm hanging white out the open door of the Blazer.
Excerpted from StoneDust by Justin Scott Copyright © 1995 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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Meet the Author
Justin Scott 's novels include The Shipkiller and Normandie Triangle; the Ben Abbott detective series; and modern sea thrillers published under his pen name, Paul Garrison. He is the coauthor with Clive Cussler of four previous Isaac Bell novels. He lives in Connecticut.
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