The legendary ninety-four-year-old Ada Geiger was one of the twentieth century's most illustrious, controversial and remarkable cultural figures--- the only person, living or dead, who had been a colleague of both Amelia Earhart and the Rolling Stones. She was also one of Mitch's absolute idols.... When Les, the innkeeper, had contacted Mitch a few weeks back, Mitch was thrilled to participate in the event planned for Ada's return.... Les had promised him that it would be a dignified, low-key symposium.
- from David Handler's The Burnt Orange Sunrise
But Les lied. He had much bigger plans, full of Hollywood heavy-hitters, supermodels, rap music stars, high-profile athletes, and camera crews from every celebrity TV show in America. They are all to gather at the faux castle that Ada's husband had built for her in little Dorset, Connecticut. All of them would come to celebrate the return of Ada Geiger from self-imposed exile---just the kind of event Mitch Berger hates, even though idolizing Ada was one of the things that had led him into the film world as a critic. But it's too late to pull out now.
Then Mitch has a lucky break---or so he thinks at the time. The snowiest winter anyone under the age of ninety could remember has hit Dorset and vicinity with what seems like six more inches every three days. Soon, the regrets and "have to wait till tomorrows" come flowing in. The gathering is pared down to what Les had falsely promised---just a few people: Ada's immediate family, Mitch and his lover, beautiful police officer Des Mitry, and a few "deserving" others make a manageably small group. When it snows even harder, they are all prisoners of the storm.
The reduced guest list makes the job a little easier for Des and Mitch when one by one the people at the Castle are killed off. Since our two friends have no intention of waiting to pinpoint the murderer until he---or she---is the only one left standing, Des and Mitch dare to dive into a breathtaking climax that has Des taking a terrible chance, and Mitch taking a worse one.
About the Author
David Handler's first book in the Berger and Mitry series, The Cold Blue Blood, was a Dilys Award finalist and BookSense Top Ten pick. David is also the author of several novels about the witty and dapper celebrity ghostwriter Stewart Hoag and his faithful, neurotic basset hound, Lulu, including Edgar and American Mystery Award winner The Man Who Would Be F. Scott Fitzgerald. David lives in a two-hundred-year-old carriage house in Old Lyme, Connecticut.
Read an Excerpt
The Burnt Orange Sunrise
By David Handler
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2004 David Handler
All rights reserved.
It was Mitch's first stay on the Connecticut Gold Coast in February — the official off-season. As in a lot of Dorset, locals shut off their water, bled their pipes and headed somewhere — anywhere — else. Mitch was discovering that there was a very good reason for this. Those refreshing summer sea breezes off of Long Island Sound were now howling thirty-five-miles-per-hour arctic blasts that never let up. Especially out on Big Sister Island, where Mitch's quaint little antique post-and-beam carriage house offered very little in the way of insulation. Make that none. His big bay windows, with their breathtaking water views in three different directions, offered so little wind resistance that they might as well have been thrown open wide. It was very difficult to keep the temperature inside his house above a gusty fifty-five degrees, even with the furnace running nonstop and the fireplace stoked with hickory logs.
And then there were the storms.
Like the wicked Nor'easter that blew in on the last day of January, flooding his kitchen and crawl space, ripping half of the roof from his barn and, for good measure, washing away a section of the quarter-mile wooden causeway that connected the forty-acre island to the mainland, rendering it unsafe for vehicular traffic. The only way Mitch could cross it now was on foot.
All of this plus it happened to be the snowiest winter anyone under the age of ninety could remember. It seemed as if every three days another six inches fell. Mitch had personally measured seventy-eight inches since the first flakes appeared back on Thanksgiving Day. The banks of plowed snow that edged the town roads had to be ten feet high.
In spite of these rigors, Mitch Berger, lead film critic for the most prestigious, and therefore the lowest-paying, of New York's three daily newspapers, stayed on. This was his off-season, after all. The season when the studios released only what was officially known in the movie trade as "Post-Holiday Crap." Nothing was due out until Memorial Day that didn't star either Martin Lawrence or David Spade. Or, God forbid, Martin Lawrence and David Spade. Besides, Mitch was finding the beach a surprisingly beautiful place to be in the winter. He had never seen a full moon shine so brightly as it did on a cover of pure white snow. He had never seen sunsets such as these; the crystal-clear winter sky offered up such awe-inspiring pink-and-red light shows that he'd taken to photographing them many afternoons. Honestly, he couldn't understand why anyone would want to leave such a winter wonderland.
So he stayed. He also had his responsibilities, after all. He'd promised the other islanders, all of whom had migrated south to the Peck family compound in Hobe Sound, that he'd keep an eye on their houses for them. Plus three of Dorset's elderly shut-ins were counting on him to deliver their groceries. This, Mitch had learned, was part of the social contract when you lived in a small town. Those who were able-bodied looked out for those who were not.
And Mitch was not exactly idle professionally. He was busy making notes for Nothing But Happy Endings, a book he wanted to write about the pernicious influence of Hollywood escapism on contemporary American politics. Washington and Hollywood were one and the same, Mitch felt. The nation's halls of power nothing more than sound stages, its politicians merely actors mouthing carefully scripted, substance-free dialogue, its journalists nothing more than compliant pitchmen eager to peddle that day's feel-good story line. Every policy issue, no matter how knotty and complex, was now being reduced to a simplistic, highly commercial morality tale. Even war itself was nothing more than just another cable entertainment choice, complete with blood-free battles, awesome computer-generated graphics and soaring background music. As Mitch had watched Hollywood's escapist mindset steadily engulf and devour the nation's public discourse, he'd found himself growing more and more alarmed, because if there was one thing he knew, it was this:
Life is not a movie.
And so he wanted to write about it. At age thirty-two, Mitch had written three books so far, all of them lively film encyclopedias that were popular with armchair video and DVD fans. But he had never written a serious book, a book that required a lot of long walks on the beach and solitary evenings spent before the fire, searching his soul while he squeezed out notes on his beloved sky-blue Fender Stratocaster. It was something he needed to do. Mitch wanted his career to be about something more than a mountain of film trivia. Sure, he could readily provide the answer to a question like, say, "Who is Sonny Bupp?" (Sonny Bupp was the child performer who played Orson Welles's son in Citizen Kane.) But so what? Mitch was a critic, not a game-show contestant. Partly, his desire to write Nothing But Happy Endings was fueled by the new, socially involved life he was leading in Dorset. Partly it was the influence of Dorset's tall, gifted and babe-a-licious resident trooper, Desiree Mitry, whose commitment to her art and her work was boundless.
The only problem was that he really couldn't seem to get started on it. Oh, he had lots of ideas. Just no coherent structure or vehicle for them. No outline. No plan. No, well, book. Possibly, he didn't have it in him. Possibly, he was out of his league. Such thoughts had occurred to him. But he would not give in to them. Just kept on walking the beach and making more notes, believing that his breakthrough would soon come.
Mitch also had a certain matter weighing on his mind that he needed to get straight with Des. It was something heavy, something unavoidable, something he had to tell her. And he would, when the time was right. But to date, beyond one oafish attempt that he desperately wished he could take back, he still hadn't gotten it done. And it was beginning to create some tension between them. Because anytime he edged anywhere near the subject, a melon-sized lump would form in his throat. Sensing his discomfort, Des would immediately morph from his green-eyed sweet patootie into a taut, six- foot-one-inch predatory cat. Her Wary, Scary Look, he'd taken to calling it.
Quickly, he would change the subject. She did carry a loaded semiautomatic weapon, after all.
Still, Mitch looked forward to each winter day out on Big Sister with great enthusiasm. All except for this getting-out-of-bed part, he had to admit as he lay there listening to the early-morning snowflakes patter softly against the skylight over his head. Mitch's sleeping loft happened to be unheated, aside from the open trapdoor in the floor. During the summer the trapdoor helped to ventilate the loft. Now it allowed the heat from the kitchen below to waft upward at suppertime, warming the loft just enough so that Mitch didn't have to look at his breath when he climbed into the feathers. Trouble was, by morning it was a meat locker — and Mitch was just so nice and warm buried there under two Hudson Bay blankets, a goose-down comforter, a Clemmie and a Quirt. Quirt, who was Mitch's lean, sinewy, outdoor hunter, had taken to sleeping on his chest. Clemmie, his lazy meat loaf of a house cat, lay on Mitch's belly. The cats assumed these same sleeping positions every night, by some territorial arrangement that they'd worked out between themselves. They never varied.
Reluctantly, Mitch awakened them, and the three musketeers shared a huge morning yawn. First Clemmie, who passed it to Mitch, who passed it to Quirt. Then, as they began stretching and washing themselves — the cats, that is — Mitch got up and coaxed his pudgy self down the steep, narrow stairs to crank up the heat, shivering in his gray sweatpants and complimentary red sweatshirt for Rob Zombie's House of 1,000 Corpses.
Mitch had one very open, good-sized room to live and work in downstairs, with exposed, hand-hewn chestnut posts and beams, a big stone fireplace and views — views everywhere. He had a kitchen and bath. And, upstairs, his sleeping loft. It was a tiny house by most people's standards. But it was everything Mitch had ever wanted.
There was still a good warm bed of coals in the fireplace. He fed the fire and got it going again, then put his coffeemaker on, first preheating the pot with hot tap water. If he didn't, the boiling water would shatter its ice-cold glass on contact. Mitch had learned this the hard way.
The thermometer outside his kitchen window said it was a balmy two degrees this morning. An oil barge was heading for the big tanks in New Haven, riding low. No one else was out on the water. Even though it was snowing pretty steadily, there was a thin sliver of burnt orange sunrise layered in between the waterline and the cloud cover. Mitch had never seen such a sunrise phenomenon before. He went and fetched his camera, but by then it was already gone — all that was left was a faint orange glow on the water. Red sky at morning, sailor take warning. What did orange mean? Was this a good or a bad omen?
He turned on the Weather Channel, which was something he'd taken to doing no more than twenty times a day since winter had arrived. The National Weather Service was predicting three-to-five inches of new snow on the Connecticut shoreline this morning, tapering off to flurries by afternoon and followed by — surprise, surprise — gale-force winds. And this was actually good news. What they were experiencing was the relatively harmless northern edge of winter storm Caitlin, which was heading out to sea south of Long Island by way of the Delmarva Peninsula.
He shaved and drank his coffee while he made himself a large bowl of Irish oatmeal topped with dried cranberries and Vermont maple syrup. Oatmeal was Mitch's main form of cold-weather sustenance before noon. After that, he moved on to his world-famous American chop suey, which he cooked up by the vast pot load, reheating the pot again and again until it had formed a truly magnificent crust.
Mitch had owned a good, arctic-weight Eddie Bauer goose-down parka for years, but out here it was not nearly enough protection. Not without layers and layers underneath it. First a T-shirt, then a cotton turtleneck, then a wool shirt, then a heavy wool fisherman's sweater. He'd never needed long Johns when he'd lived in the city. Now he wore a pair made of itch-free merino wool under beefy twenty-four-ounce wool field pants. He'd never bothered with a hat either. Now he owned a festive red-and-black-checked Double Mackinaw Wool number complete with sheepskin earflaps. His socks were heavy-duty wool. His boots were insulated Gore Tex snow boots. His gloves were lined with shearling. Much of his new winter wardrobe he'd ordered from C.C. Filson and Company, the Victoria's Secret catalog of foul-weather geeks the world over.
Properly swaddled and insulated, earflaps down, collar up, Mitch slogged his way out into the two-degree snow, feeling very much like the Michelin Man's heavyset Jewish cousin. The snowflakes stung his cheeks a bit. Otherwise he was plenty warm. Three or so inches of fresh powder had already fallen, the snow creating a wondrous muffled silence, as if cotton batting were wrapped around everything. There had been some frozen rain last night before the snow came. His boots crunched hard against it as he plowed his way toward the barn, where he filled his wheelbarrow with firewood. He rolled it back to the house and stacked the wood by the door under the overhang. Then he trudged down the narrow path toward Big Sister's beach. Each and every tuft of tall, golden meadow grass was swathed in white. Snowflakes dusted the sharp green of the cedar trees and clung to the gnarly, iron-gray bare branches of the old sugar maples.
Mitch walked Big Sister's beach every morning, no matter the weather. There was a desolate, windswept beauty to the beach in the winter. And he felt it was a precious gift to be here. After he'd lost his beloved wife, Maisie, to ovarian cancer, Mitch had promised himself he would never again take a moment of happiness for granted. And he'd kept that promise.
The water was choppy this morning and the tide was going out, leaving a crust of ice behind on the sand. Blocks of ice as big as manhole covers had floated down the Connecticut River and washed ashore like so many pieces of a giant jigsaw puzzle. Mitch had to navigate his way through them as he made his way along the water's edge. A dozen or so giant tree trunks had washed up, too, encased in ice, looking very much like dinosaur bones. A few hardy gulls and mergansers were poking along for their breakfast. Supposedly there were eagles around, although Mitch still hadn't seen one. As he passed the old lighthouse, he came upon the broken remains of a Hobie Cat that someone with too much money and too few brains had left behind on the town beach at summer's end. Each morning now, it turned up in a different place out on Big Sister's beach, its mast long gone.
Mitch shared Big Sister with the surviving members of the blue-blooded Peck clan, who had held title to it since the sixteen hundreds. There were five houses in all, not counting the decommissioned lighthouse, which was the second tallest in New England. When he reached Bitsy Peck's mammoth shingled cottage, he dutifully climbed the snow-packed wooden steps to her door and poked his head inside to make sure her furnace was running. Then he retraced his footsteps and continued on to Evan Peck's stone cottage. The Pecks didn't believe in shutting their island houses down over the winter — sometimes they felt like using them. The furnaces had to be kept running or their pipes would freeze, so someone had to keep an eye on the places. A caretaker, in other words. Mitch had happily volunteered.
His daily rounds completed, Mitch arrived at the island's highly compromised wooden causeway, which had so many planks and railings missing it reminded him of a suspension bridge in an Indiana Jones movie. As he stepped gingerly across it, mindful of the frigid, choppy surf directly below, he hoped that his cottage's 275-gallon fuel tank didn't run dry before he was able to get the causeway repaired. Because no oil truck could make it out there right now. If he was careful, he had enough oil to last him for another month. But if he ran short in March, he'd have to tote emergency supplies out in five-gallon cans.
His bulbous, kidney-colored 1956 Studebaker pickup was parked by the gate under a blanket of snow and ice. Paul Fiore, Dorset's plowman, hadn't been by yet, so the dirt road that curved its way back through the Peck's Point Nature Preserve to Old Shore Road was invisible save for the slender guide poles that Paul used. The Preserve was a windswept peninsula that jutted right out into the Sound at the mouth of the Connecticut River. The Pecks had donated it to the Nature Conservancy for tax reasons. During warm months, it was very popular with local bird-watchers, dog walkers and joggers. There were footpaths along the bluffs. A meadow tumbled down to the tidal marshes, where osprey, least tern and the highly endangered piping plover nested.
Mitch kept a scraper, an ice pick, a can of W-D 40 and a shovel in the back of the truck under a tarp. He scraped the snow and ice from the windows, grabbed hold of the driver's side-door handle and tried to yank it open. No chance — it was frozen solid shut. He carefully chipped away at the ice with the pick, sprayed W-D 40 in the crack and tried again, putting every ounce of his considerable weight to the task. The top third of the door pulled open, the bottom two-thirds remained stubbornly shut. More W-D 40, more big boy pulling ... and success. Mitch jumped in and tried the ignition. The engine kicked right over on the first try. The battery was brand new, plus his Studey was steadfast and true, aside from the fact that it had no heat. He stamped his feet on the floorboards to warm them up, found first gear and went roaring off, skidding on the sparkling blanket of virgin white snow as he slalomed his way between the guide poles. He did have snow tires, and two sixty-pound bags of sand over each rear wheel. But when there was ice under the snow, traction was not easy to come by.
Excerpted from The Burnt Orange Sunrise by David Handler. Copyright © 2004 David Handler. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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