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After closing his private investigation firm and moving to a small cabin in the Vermont woods, Oakley Tyler can finally begin his retirement. But his peace is interrupted when Jeremiah Smith visits and asks the ex-PI to help him stop unidentified men from killing his grandson, a local newspaper reporter. Tyler is reluctant to take the case, wishing to get back to a life of leisure, but when Smith is killed in a hit-and-run car accident, Tyler is convinced someone has silenced the old man to protect a secret. Delving into the mystery, Tyler finds himself investigating the world of genetic engineering and its potentially devastating impact on the environment. And after enduring numerous attempts on his life, Tyler begins to wonder if he’ll live long enough to bring the killer to justice.
|Publisher:||Chicago Review Press, Incorporated|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.70(d)|
About the Author
Thom Hartmann is a former psychotherapist, a progressive radio talk-show host and liberal commentator, and a bestselling nonfiction author of several books, including The Crash of 2016. He lives in Portland, Oregon.
Read an Excerpt
Death in the Pines
An Oakley Tyler Novel
By Thom Hartmann
Chicago Review Press IncorporatedCopyright © 2015 Thom Hartmann
All rights reserved.
You had to be crazy to do this. On a morning when the Vermont winter sun shone pale and weak across six crisp inches of fresh snow, when the temperature hovered somewhere between twenty and twenty-five degrees Fahrenheit, I spent a long time searching for ten stones.
They had to be the right stones, of a certain weight and shape: heavy, but not so heavy they exhausted me, rounded, but not so much so that they would roll from the place where I set them. It took hours to find all ten of them, searching in the sheltered places where the dry, powdery snow was easier to scrape aside. Then they had to be lugged to the spot I had selected, mindless beast-of-burden work that made me sweat inside my down-lined jacket. I stacked the stones carefully into a hollow, truncated pyramid. Anyone coming across that pile of stones in ten or a hundred years would know they weren't dropped there haphazardly by a retreating glacier. This was a made thing, too small to be a cairn, too insignificant to be the remnants of a wall.
I guess you could call it an altar.
The ashes were in a bronze urn, far too small to contain the spirit of my friend John Lincoln. The container had stood on the shelf in my cabin for too many months. The new year had just arrived, and with it a belated first snowfall of the season, and the combination of the two had finally persuaded me it was time to do something about the urn. Holding it in the chill near-silence of the forest, I stood over the structure I had made and looked off into the distance, seeing but not seeing the brownish shafts of pines streaked with snow, the bare gray trunks of maples, the white-and-gray columns of birch, the deep shaded greens of white-burdened firs. At that moment the urn felt heavier than the stones themselves.
This was why I was here.
The mind drifts at such times. Even after six years I could recall the particular night that had caused me to travel to this place. On that night my mentor — no, by that time my friend — John and I had been slumped in the rotting front seat of an ancient, rusting '55 Ford, parked in the heavy, humid midnight of Central America. Despite the choking reek of insect repellent, voracious mosquitoes whined in through the open windows, and from time to time we slapped an offender, reducing it to a moist crumple of tissue to be flicked off a fingertip. Still warmer than blood heat even at that hour, the dark air sizzled with cicadas. We had left our home base in Atlanta a week before and had taken a circuitous route to this dark clearing hacked from jungle. We were waiting for either three or four men to emerge from a blacked-out warehouse, and we had no idea whether those men knew we were watching or how well they might be armed. What we would do depended on how many came out: if only three, we would move in and recover what had been stolen. Four would make the recovery problematic, because that would mean that at least one of the men would be a local, complicating the calculus of violence.
As I stood over the stone altar, every detail of our conversation went through my mind, a tape rewound and replayed. By that point in our lives, John and I had been partners for so long that we didn't bullshit each other, had no need to strain for machismo, no use for phony heartiness. We were a good team. We could finish each other's sentences, catch body-language signals that amounted to a silent code, recognize unspoken concerns and anxieties in time to be prepared for the unexpected. We'd told all our jokes to each other years before. Once in a while one of us might mutter two or three words of a punch line. The other would chuckle in appreciation or exasperation, as the mood took him.
That night in stop-and-start fashion we each spoke of good times we'd had. Waiting in the dark gave each of us a natural urge to talk. That was the one and only time that John had spoken in his quiet way of the forested hills of Vermont, thinking of the coolness of a New England autumn in that hellish tropic night. I had never known that he had been to Vermont. He had lived in Buckhead, a suburb of Atlanta, the whole time I'd known and worked with him. But in those suffocating hours of darkness, cool green Vermont was on his mind. "Beautiful place, very peaceful," he'd said. "I'd like to go back there when it's all over."
I didn't have time then to ask what he meant or when what would be over — the job, the summer, the career, the life. At that moment dim yellow light from a kerosene lantern appeared on the black face of the warehouse, first a line, then a thin rectangle, then a fat square as the three men inside pushed open the double doors. John and I climbed out of our borrowed car and did our job.
In the six years that followed that night, John never had gone back to Vermont, had never even spoken of it again, and now for him it really was all over. After the memorial service, after the will was probated, I didn't feel like hanging around Atlanta, so I made arrangements, gave most of my liquid assets to a community for abused kids in New Hampshire, and bought a cabin on two hundred acres in the woods of Vermont. It was here I'd brought my old friend to the place he had talked about. Pondering the finality of it all, I held the urn containing his ashes, a few bone fragments, and pieces of his teeth, ready to fulfill a promise I had never made.
Such a time demands words. I took a deep breath of icy air and looked up toward the top of a towering birch. A squirrel had made an untidy, tangled nest up there in the highest branches, and the animal itself — or maybe another squirrel, who could tell? — hung below the nest, head-down on the trunk, apparently gazing at me. I imagined the squirrel's bright black eye held accusation. The fall had gone on so long, probably for half of the animal's lifetime, so what was the idea of all this snow? Was I to blame?
Clearing my throat, I reached far back into memory, groping for the prayers I had last recited as a child. I heard myself say, "Dear God." My words took flight toward the washed-out sky on puffs of vapor. As far as I could tell, no one heard them but me and the squirrel. My voice had a harsh tone even to my own ears, a rusty-hinge catch. "Whoever, whatever is there. Spirits of the forest, of the living world, whatever. My good friend John has come to rest here. Take care of him." I opened the urn and shook the contents out, over the pyramidal altar and on the bare earth around it — the place I'd scraped free of snow.
Human ashes are as gray and coarse as cement mix. In the frigid, still air of January the mortal remains of John Lincoln pattered down, not drifting at all, falling straight as sand trickling through an hourglass. I emptied the urn, then set it down inside the open center of the hollow pyramid. The last stone covered it and completed the altar. "Take care of him," I repeated, and in the silence I added, "And tell me just what the hell I'm supposed to do with my life now."
With my gloved hands, I scooped up the loose, clean snow from the edge of the clearing and dropped it down over the pyramid and the place where I'd sprinkled the ashes. More snow would fall, the spring thaw would come sooner or later, the snowpack would melt, and the trickling water would carry the ashes down through the thin soil, down to the stone heart of the hills.
My eyes stung, but not with cold. I took a long breath, gave John a last nod, and turned to trudge up the hillside. Up there past the end of the old logging road, my cabin waited for me, dry and warm and stocked with wine.CHAPTER 2
A little more than two weeks passed with more snow and then a warming, the kind of false thaw that turns the forest wet and sets streams of clear water gurgling just under the snowpack. The air smelled of pine and mulching leaves on the floor of the forest. When I woke up on that deceptively warm morning, I didn't figure it for the kind of day somebody was about to die.
At around three in the afternoon, as I surmised from the shadows on the windows, I sat reading an insider's account of life in the Central Intelligence Agency, noting the many inaccuracies. A sound distracted me: boots crunching in the snow. I set my book aside and reluctantly left my rocking chair in front of the woodstove, faintly irritated at the intrusion. I finished the last of my third glass of wine and stood at the front door, which I had cracked an inch or so to let in fresh air.
Through the opening I saw him, still halfway down the hill. He walked deliberately, an old man in work-faded jeans and paint-spattered brown leather jacket trudging through a snow cover that, away from the protection of the evergreens, had drifted two feet thick. It was a steep half-mile climb from the old logging road, and he breathed hard, rasping out ragged pennants of vapor in the still air.
I didn't want visitors. I was more than eight months along in my latest attempt at retirement. I didn't recognize the man toiling up toward my front door, and that made me want to talk with him even less.
But he wanted to talk to me. Still a hundred feet from the cabin, he roared, "I know you're there, Oakley Tyler!" His voice carried a full load of gravel. "They say you're some kind of hermit, but I think you'll wanna see me." Once he reached the stamped-down snow that was the record of my coming and going on firewood errands, he made better time, and stopped just short of the steps up to the little porch, slightly stooped, chest heaving, getting his breath back.
I pushed the front door open, stepped out onto the porch, and said, "I'm not buying any."
"I'm not sellin' any." He wore a beard, mostly gray and neatly clipped at two inches long, and he had pulled back his half-gray, half-brown hair into a ponytail that fell six inches below his shoulders. The afternoon light made his wrinkled skin look like furrowed cropland seen from the air, his face weathered and his forehead pocked with small, angry pink welts as if he'd been careless frying up a big pan of bacon and had been spattered and burned. The outer edge of his left eyebrow had been heat-frizzled, too, and was much shorter than his shaggy right brow, giving him a kind of off-balance look. Spidery capillaries lent the only vital color to his nose and cheeks, a faint red web under yellow-gray skin. He stood about four inches shorter than my six foot two.
He took in a long breath, then looked from me to the door behind me. "That's not the original door, is it?"
"The original was rotten. I made this one of old barn wood," I told him, surprised that his eye could spot the difference. I had tried for a close match.
He grunted. "Thought you'd be living in a fancier place than this," he said. "This's just an old huntin' camp. Nobody's used it in twenty, twenty-five years." His blue eyes sparkled, although the whites were faintly yellowed.
"It suits me just fine," I said, feeling a touch of self-righteous pride in my simple one-room home, furnished with things I'd bought at the Salvation Army or found at yard sales. "Keeps the taxes low."
The old man chuckled and said, "'I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach.' That it, Tyler?"
I might have pegged him as an old hippie. "I'm not Thoreau," I said. "And this ain't Walden Pond."
One corner of his mouth lifted in a crooked smile and he snorted, a half-laugh. "Maybe not. But a famous detective like you, I figured you'd have a big house. You been wrote up in all the newspapers, even in Time magazine, some of the cases you and John Lincoln cracked." He pulled his head back and looked at the forest around us, then back at me. "Although you might have somethin' about the taxes at that. What you got here, about three hundred acres?"
"I don't discuss American literature or my real estate holdings with strangers," I told him, sending him into a spell of guffawing.
"OK, I'm sorry," he said. His blue eyes squinted at me shrewdly. "You're being more hospitable than I expected, at that. Half thought you might meet me with a rifle in your hands."
"Shotgun," I told him. I'd bought one five weeks earlier and had fired it on only one occasion, not killing a thing but just trying the weapon out. "I only bring it out when missionaries come to call." That was a lie, because none ever troubled with the climb up to my cabin, though the fleeting fantasy of sending them packing with a shot over their heads did make me smile.
"Well, I'm not peddlin' Gospel either, son," he told me, glancing down at his splattered black lace-up work boots. "I can understand your being sort of stranger-shy, so let me tell you who I am. Name's Jeremiah Smith. Actually related distantly to Joseph Smith. He was born just about ninety miles from here, you know. Nearly two hundred years ago."
"So you're a Mormon? Maybe I should have picked up the shotgun."
He stepped up onto the porch, and then I could smell his yeasty breath. He looked irritable, no longer the twinkly-eyed ex-hippie. "I ain't no Mormon, and ain't here to bother you with anything like that!" He straightened up, as if reaching for dignity. "I come up to hire you."
"You wasted your time, Mr. Smith. I'm retired."
He cocked his head to one side and squinted his left eye. "The hell you say! You ain't a day over forty."
"Good pension plan," I told him, and turned to go back inside.
His voice stopped me: "Wait! Tyler, listen to me. I need a private eye, or whatever the hell you are, 'cause they're planning to kill my grandson. Now, I know I don't look it, but I got money. I can pay you. It's my grand-boy, Tyler. My only livin' relative."
So maybe the wine had mellowed my mood, or maybe I was tired of sitting indoors for days on end without seeing another human being, only going out to get firewood or to collect snow to melt for water or to use the outhouse.
For whatever reason, I pulled the door open and said, "Come on in out of the cold."
Jeremiah Smith stepped inside and closed the door behind him, stomped the snow off his boots on the rough pine floorboards, and followed me over to the two rocking chairs on the coiled-rag rug in front of the woodstove. I gestured him into the plainer one.
"Ain't really cold," he said conversationally as he settled in. "Gotta be above freezing. Maybe thirty-four, thirty-six degrees. Thank you for hearing me out."
"Glass of wine?" When he nodded, I got an extra glass from the cupboard and filled it and my own. I set the bottle on the floor, next to its empty brother.
As I settled into the other rocker, the bentwood one that I favored, Smith leaned forward, both hands holding his glass, and asked, "How long you been drinkin'?"
"About three hours. Since lunch."
"You don't seem drunk."
I realized Smith had assumed I'd knocked off most of two bottles of wine. I didn't bother to tell him that the first bottle had been emptied the day before. Actually, I drank slowly, just keeping a soft buzz on, reading my book as I alternated glasses of wine with glasses of melted snow-water. I shrugged and said, "I hide it well."
He finally took a sip, tilted his head thoughtfully, and nodded his approval. "Now," he said with an air of getting down to business, "before I tell you about my problem, what is this crap about being retired, Tyler?"
"When the senior partner of my firm died, I packed it in. Decided to leave Georgia and come up to Vermont. I had some savings. I can stretch it out by living simply."
"Simply, yeah," he said, tilting back his glass.
"Or maybe I wanted to front the essential facts of life, Mr. Smith." I completed the quotation from Thoreau that Smith had started outside: "'... and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.'"
He chuckled, though his blue eyes held no amusement. "Or maybe you're just brushing me off because they got to you already. You working for Caleb Benson?"
The sharp way he asked it showed that he was trying to startle me into reaction. I shook my head. "Never heard of him. Who is Caleb Benson?"
He stared down into his Merlot, in a crystal-cut juice glass that I'd found at a yard sale for ten cents, and then took a long drink. "It don't matter. Look, let me tell you what's on my mind. Then you decide whether you're retired or not."
Excerpted from Death in the Pines by Thom Hartmann. Copyright © 2015 Thom Hartmann. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I just finished reading Thom Hartmann's first mystery novel. It is really good. I hope he will write more with Oakley Tyler. I thoroughly enjoyed this book!
Death in the Pines is not only a great mystery but much more. It gives a new interpretation of history, mankind, and the mycellium below our feet. It is well written and easily read. Treat yourself and buy it now.