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Ron Klesczewski drove with both hands on the wheel, his eyes intent on the twisting dirt road ahead.
"Do we know for sure this isn't a dog or a dead deer or something?" Tyler asked from the backseat.
I twisted around to face him. "Not according to Sheila. She checked it out. It's definitely a man."
J. P. Tyler scowled silently into his lap. "A suicide, I bet," he said glumly. The forensics expert of my four-member squad, he was along for good reason, but he'd been having a bad day, and was obviously convincing himself the rest of it had just vanished down the tubes. I was counting on his natural curiosity to resurface once we reached our destination.
A sudden lurch made me turn back toward the road.
Ron smiled apologetically. "Sorry. Don't guess this sees much traffic."
He nervously drove us through a huge muddy hole, accelerating to make sure we didn't get stranded in the middle. Trees to both sides of us canopied overhead, allowing only an ineffectual dappling of late summer sun. I checked their crowns in vain for the first faint blushings of the coming fall foliage, always first to appear in the high, colder hills surrounding downtown. We were off of Ames Hill Road, west of Brattleboro, an area as seemingly remote as Vermont's deepest backwoods, and yet only fifteen min-utes from the office. Half our department's beat looked like this, yet we were perhaps the fifth largest community in the state.
"There it is, up ahead," Ron commented, easing us around a copse of trees and up a final, narrow driveway to an opening haphazardly cluttered with beaten trucks, rusting cars, one police cruiser, andhalf a dozen barking dogs. Directly before us was a small, open-sided barn, filled with a battered assortment of woodworking equipment and an ancient generator. To our left, connected to the generator by a heavy electrical cable, an outhouse-sized cabin, with one closed door and no windows, sat perched on the edge of a large concrete slab covered with a plywood deck.
"What the hell is this?" Tyler muttered, fingering the door handle and suspiciously eyeing the circling dogs.
"Doesn't look like anybody's here," Ron echoed, craning his neck.
I watched the dogs for a moment, reading their body language. I'd spent enough time in Vermont's most isolated region—the Northeast Kingdom—to know the careful protocol of a newcomer. Despite our now being some two hundred miles south of there, almost touching the Massachusetts and New Hampshire borders, I recognized the need to follow the old rules.
I opened the door slightly, sticking a foot out first for the dogs to sniff, before slowly emerging from the car, my empty hands visibly open and slack by my sides. Cool, wet noses filled my palms in flurried, competitive greeting.
"Hey there," I murmured, slowly crouching, running my fingers lightly through shifting tufts of hair. "How's it going?"
The dogs were light, dark, tall, short, rangy, and compact. All were scruffy, their hair thick and matted. Their eyes stayed watchful throughout this ceremony, their haunches muscled up in preparation for instant fight or flight.
They skittered away as the door to the distant shed opened, revealing a tall, slim woman in a police uniform. She paused at the top of a stepladder connecting the ground to the concrete slab and waved at us.
"They're okay," she called out. "The owner wants to meet you before I show you what we got."
"All of us?" I asked.
"Just you, Lieutenant." She laughed suddenly. "Maybe you guys can play catch with your new friends."
"Not goddamn likely," Tyler said under his breath, having tentatively joined me by the side of the car.
I crossed the rutted parking area, circling a pickup truck perched on cinder blocks, and approached what now looked more like a toolshed balanced on the edge of a missile silo hatch. It was all situated slightly higher than where we'd parked, so that as I drew abreast, I discovered a row of three narrow basement- style windows lining the edge of where the slab emerged from the earth.
Sheila Kelly tilted her head toward the broad, flat expanse as I climbed the four-step ladder to join her. "It's a work in progress," she explained. "They put in the cellar a few years back and capped it. Someday they're going to tear this thing off," she patted the shed wall, "and replace it with a log cabin. Least that's what the owner says. His name's Billy Whitehurst—he found the body. He's a little twitchy about letting too many people on his property, though. That's why the introduction."
I nodded. "That's fine. Is it far from here?"
"Not too. Maybe half a mile up the road you came in on, and then into the woods a bit."
I now saw the shed's sole purpose was to protect a set of stairs leading into the basement. Below us, dim lighting revealed the bottom few steps, and the poured cement floor beyond. I gestured to Sheila to lead the way.
The atmosphere that rose to meet us was clammy, cool, and aromatic—enriched by decaying food, unwashed bodies, and stale, unmoving air—both curiously sweet and rancid. Daylight barely seeped through the three cloudy windows I'd noticed earlier, and was anemically assisted only by a single bulb hanging over a distant kitchen sink. A man stood there, with the water rushing, laboring over something I couldn't make out. His back was turned toward us.
Lining the damp walls were counters, stacks of boxes, two bunk beds—one cradling a small, wide-eyed child—and a clothes dryer being emptied by a silent, furtive woman in a tie-dyed skirt. In one corner was an ominous-looking bank of interlinked car batteries, connected to a fuse box, which, I assumed, ran to the generator in the barn outside. The other three corners were demurely walled off with bedsheets nailed to the ceiling joists.
I imagined a family living here for several years, and tried not to think of the psychological toll.
"Mr. Whitehurst?" Sheila said as we crossed the cool, sweating floor. "This is Lieutenant Joe Gunther, our chief of detectives—the police officer I told you about."
The man at the sink turned away from what I now recognized as the heart of a carburetor, and looked at me from under a shaggy pair of gray eyebrows. I didn't offer to shake hands, nor did he, both of us following the same code of conduct I'd recognized was in play from the start.
"You want some coffee?" he asked.
"I'm okay, thanks." I leaned my hip against the counter, waiting him out.
He wiped his hands ineffectually on a red rag he extracted from his back pocket, and poured himself a cup from a nearby coffee machine. His fingers left dark smudges on the dingy white plastic.
"Hell of a thing, something like that."
"How did you find it?"
"Checking the woodlot with one of my boys. There's a soapstone deposit a little ways from here, with a small quarry. Every time we're near it, the kids fool around with it—chip some off, or mark it up. It's soft and easy to work. Supposedly, they make talcum out of it. Years back, somebody had plans—that's how the quarry got started—but they crapped out. One of these days, maybe I'll do something with it. They use slabs of it for woodstoves and heating stones. You can cut it with a chain saw, it's so soft."
I nodded, my silence as eloquent as any verbal prompting.
He took a deep swallow of coffee. "Anyhow, the boy found it first. Called me over. I saw right off what it was. Sent another of my kids to call it in on a neighbor's phone."
I glanced at Sheila.
"I took a look, just to confirm it, but that's all," she said. "There's another unit there now, sealing it off."
"You recognize the body?" I asked Billy Whitehurst.
He shook his head. "Guy's facedown in the water, but he's wearing city clothes. Nobody I know."
"And you didn't touch anything."
"How 'bout any traffic around here recently? Or something that might've set off the dogs?"
"Been pretty quiet."
"When was the last time you visited the quarry?"
"A few weeks ago."
"Is there another way to get there, other than right by your driveway?"
"The road goes on through. It's rough—nobody else lives on it—but you can do it if you're in the right kind of rig."
I scratched my cheek, glanced out the dim window, and pushed away from the counter. "Okay, Mr. Whitehurst. If you don't mind, we'll go take a look."
He nodded silently, and watched me until we'd both almost reached the foot of the stairs, before addressing what was really on his mind. "This going to be a big deal? Lots of people and what-all?"
I shrugged. "Not if you don't want it to be. It's your property. We have to have access, especially if it turns out to be something bad, but you can stop anyone else from coming on your land, same as always. Promise me you won't use the dogs, though, okay?"
He pushed his lips out slightly, but said nothing.
"For our part," I added, "we'll keep the location out of the papers. That work for you?"
* * *
I emerged as from a dank grotto and tilted my head back to face the sunlight, the warm smell of the nearby woods clearing the dampness from my nostrils.
"Think he might be involved?" Sheila asked after shutting the door.
"I doubt it. Just happened to be in the wrong place. You ought to check him out when we get back to the office, just to be sure. Could be Mr. Whitehurst is a retired ax-murderer."
We waded through the dogs toward the others, and eventually backed both cars down the driveway to the road. Ron gingerly followed Sheila for ten minutes more, until we found another patrol car parked to one side. We both pulled over behind it, tilting precariously on the edge of a ditch. Tyler—short, thin, and still pissed off—struggled to lug his equipment cases out of the uphill door onto the road. "Jesus, Ron. It's not like we'll be holding up traffic."
Ron smiled and lent him a hand, recognizing as I had that the bite was out of his bitching, and that it wouldn't be long before the J. P. we were used to had returned. Whatever it was that had gotten us all out here, any field work was better than the office drudgery we'd saved him from.
In fact, Tyler's road to recovery barely took him five paces.
He set down his cases like a weary airport traveler and stood a moment in the middle of the road, getting his bearings. Suddenly, he crouched and touched the dirt at his feet. "This is the quickest way to the site?" he asked Sheila.
"So it's the logical place to park if you're going to dump a body," he said, almost too softly to hear.
It was more than a simple statement of fact; there was also a hint of reproach in his voice. Three cars were now parked where a previous one might have paused in the commission of a crime, obliterating all hopes of identifying either tire tracks or trace evidence.
Tyler straightened, apparently unconcerned. "Doesn't matter. That, though," he added, pointing at the woods, "is something else. Did anyone think to restrict people to a single corridor, in and out?"
Sheila smiled, and pointed to a rock by the side of the road. "I put that there when I first got here. The rest of the way's marked with surveyor tape."
We lined up at the rock and gazed into the trees. Bright pink scraps of plastic ribbon, tied to branches twenty feet apart, stretched uphill into obscurity.
"I chose this spot because I saw fresh tracks over there," Sheila added, pointing just beyond the parked cars. "Well," she then corrected, "maybe not tracks, exactly, but some crushed plants and scratch marks in the dirt."
Tyler's eyes gleamed. "Nice work." He wandered over to appraise her discovery.
Ron Klesczewski turned toward our car. "I'll call for one of the Fish Cops to see what they can pick up."
The Fish Cops was the nickname for the wardens at Fish and Wildlife. The term was one of affection, since we all knew the best of them could track a squirrel over bedrock. At least that's what they had us believing.
"Sheila," J. P. called out. "Where did you say the body was?"
She pointed into the woods. "'Bout a quarter mile that way."
He returned to us, his brow furrowed. "Whoever it was wasn't taking any chances. Looks like he took a route where he could leave as few tracks as possible."
Each of us hauling one of Tyler's cases, we set out on Sheila's blazed trail, leaving Ron behind to radio in. Five feet into the woods, it became obvious that protecting the integrity of a potential crime scene wasn't the only reason to have marked a pathway. The surrounding trees became almost instantly indistinguishable from one another, looking as dense and untouched as remote Canadian hinterland. Without those plastic pink flashes of color, we would have been hard-pressed to know what direction to take, or how to find our way back to the road.
One hundred and fifty years earlier, Vermont had consisted almost entirely of farmland and pasture, wrested from a prehistoric virgin forest that had given the lumber industry a lucrative start. Now, some eighty percent of the state looked like our present dense surroundings and gave visiting tourists the erroneous impression that they were traveling the same paths used by the Abnaki Indians. Only the odd stone foundation or field wall gave a clue to the truth.
Several hundred yards up our gentle ascent, the trees thinned out, the earth beneath us yielding to moss- and lichen-covered rock, and we found ourselves following the spine of a long, rocky crest, like ants traveling the length of a sleeping dinosaur. Here the surveyor's tape was pinned in place by small stones.
"Clever," Tyler said. "A spur of this same surface is what I noticed near the road, where those scratchings were. Guy obviously knew the terrain."
"Unless," Sheila cautioned, almost hopefully, "we're talking about a hiker who just tripped and broke his neck."
J. P. didn't bother looking back. "Wearing a business suit?"
No one answered him.
There was no view from the ridge. The forest surrounding the outcropping we were traveling was too tall to allow for one. But it was brighter, and a small breeze brushed our faces, easing the claustrophobia of moments earlier.
The figure of a man suddenly rose as from the earth itself, standing up near the edge of the clearing. He waved at us. "Hey, Lieutenant. Over here."
Patrolman Ward Washburn came our way, speaking as he approached. "The quarry's right there. It was kind of hard to rope off."
He led us to the edge of a sudden drop-off—a small quarry cut into the stone like a bite into a wheel of cheese. A yellow streamer of tape marked "Police—Do Not Cross" lay awkwardly on the stone, until it reached the woods at the foot of the quarry and began looping more authoritatively from tree to tree. Between the base of the small cliff we were standing on and those woods, nestled in the palm of the crescent-shaped quarry, was a pool of dark, shallow, stagnant water. Facedown in its middle floated a small, thin man, spread-eagled, his arms extended as though desperately signaling a bus to stop.
The odd thing about him, though, wasn't his attire, which looked like a throwback to the fifties. It was more the lack of it. His feet were bare.
J. P. Tyler smiled slightly, at last wholly in his element. "Well, it ain't no deer."
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