Sam MacLeish is the private eye in Bill Armstrong's COLD AS ICE. Obsessed with the vicious shooting murder of his friend Lynn Harding at her Vermont farm house, and the disappearance of her young daughter, Macleish is determined to solve the crime. Making his primitive vacation cabin high in the nearby hills his base, he tries to ferret information from an array of unsavory local characters. In the course of his investigation he manages to alienate the county sherriff and even his own friends. Making blunder after blunder, he finally zeroes in on the murderer, in the process setting himself up as the killer's next victim. The mysterious, awesome beauty of a cold and snowy Vermont winter forms a strangely lyrical backdrop for the mayhem that follows. COLD AS ICE provides a strong dose of nail-biting suspense wrapped in a lovely pastoral setting. Add to that a sharp-eyed look at the backwoods characters and chronic alcoholism of deepest Vermont, and the result is more than unusual, it is irresistible.
Excerpts from COLD AS ICE
All excerpts copyright©1999 by William Armstrong
The stuffed deer had been displayed in the window of the Reedville country store for as long as I could remember. When I pulled into the lot just before closing time, I noticed that the deer was now wearing sunglasses and an orange Day-Glo watch cap, and there was a Luger squirt gun slung around its neck. Two men I didn't know were sitting on the porch in front of the store, wearing orange camouflage suits, high lace-up infantry boots and hats much like the deer's; the way the men were positioned the squirt gun was aimed right at one of their heads.
As I walked up the porch steps and into the store I nodded to the men, but they didn't return the gesture.
"Hi, Sam," said Sally over the counter top, and gave me a pretty smile. "It's been a while."
"What's new in Reedville?" I asked, returning the smile and knowing the answer.
"Not much," she confirmed, running her hand through the gray hair that floated around her head. "Everything alright up at your camp?"
"I don't know. I haven't been up yet," I said.
I was hungry after the long drive up from Boston so I ate a microwave ham and cheese sandwich. I took a case of Rolling Rock out of the cooler and cut a slab off the wheel of local Vermont cheddar.
I was opening the door to the jeep, when a black pick-up skidded into the lot and three men tumbled out, drunk and excited. I heard one of them claim that he'd have his deer by noon tomorrow. Then he saw the deer in the window and said, pointing, "There's a big buck right there."
He leaned back inside the truck and took a rifle off the rack above the seat. He put it to his shoulder and aimed it at the window, where Sally was hidden behind the deer. "I'll get the sucker," he said and put his finger to the trigger.
"Put the gun down," I yelled, just as the man let off an imaginary shot and said, "Kapow, I got him."
He swiveled toward me, the rifle barrel swinging up at my face.
"What's that you said?" he demanded in a beery slur.
"I said put the gun down. It's not funny. There's a woman standing behind the deer"
"Is that right?" he said and our eyes locked.
"Yeah, that's right."
"Hey guys," he said turning to the other two stooges, "you get extra points for women, don't you?" and he started laughing like a crazy man.
I got in the jeep and drove off, disgusted. I'm not a deer hunter. I come up to my camp at this time of year just to keep an eye on the place.
I grew apprehensive as I approached the turn-off to my road. My cabin had been broken into a number of times in the twenty years since I'd built it - always in mid-November, during deer season. There wasn't much to steal, but knowing that my sanctuary had been violated - and could be again - disturbed me deeply. I drove the two miles up the muddy dirt road, my fingers nervous on the wheel.
When I pulled into my dooryard and my headlights swung across the gate, I saw that the padlock was intact and I breathed a little easier. I grabbed a flashlight from the glove compartment, squeezed myself between the gate and post, and walked up the path through the tunnel of spruces that shield my cabin from the road. When I panned the flashlight, the beam caught on something - there was a board leaning up against the front door. Someone had been here.
I ran up the last bit of the path, my heart kicking against my ribcage. I stumbled up the steps to the door and saw that it was only a note wedged behind the board to secure it from the wind. No broken windows, no jimmied door.
The tension in my neck and shoulders melted and I sat on the step for a second and relaxed - happy now, but irritated that I had to go through this every year. I lived in the city, for Christ's sake, and yet my apartment there had never been burglarized. I'd never even been mugged on the street.
I unfolded the piece of paper and read, "If you get this note, come over and visit. I've been here all week and Jim came up this morning." It was dated today, Friday, November 9, and signed Lynn and Jim and there was a little happy face next to the signature. The handwriting was Lynn's delicate swooping curlicue, and the stationery, marbleized paper; just like her to write the note ahead of time, in case I wasn't around.
The Hardings owned a farmhouse across the valley. I was glad they'd be here for the weekend; I hadn't seen them in months.
It's an odd sensation to open up camp after a long absence. Everything is both familiar and strange, and the cabin is a frozen tableau of my exact state of mind on departure: sometimes unmade beds, dishes in the sink, other times - like tonight, I was pleased to see - dishes put away, the floor swept clean.
It took a couple of trips to the jeep to unload my gear and groceries, and some time start a fire in the wood stove, turn on the propane tank, unlock the trap door to the attic and bring down my radio and my toolbox. I'd wait until morning to turn on the generator and run the pump to fill my holding tank.
After I had the place cozied up, I opened a can of beer and sat out on the deck. The sky was overcast and the air was still. I let the cold silence wash away the city-dirt: I'd been investigating a securities fraud case and it seemed like everybody I'd been talking to recently was a professional liar.
I stayed on the deck, knocking off cans of beer until I merged into the darkness.
I woke up early enough in the morning to surprise my hangover. Sometimes it happened that way. I went downstairs and threw a log in the wood stove. When I rummaged through the provisions I'd brought I discovered that I'd forgotten to buy coffee; I had a cold beer for breakfast.
I'd called Ben Griswold earlier in the week and asked him to cut out some boards at his mill, so I could replace a section of siding in back of the cabin that was rotted to hell. He'd told me he'd probably go hunting Saturday morning, but said he'd leave the lumber where I could find it.
The jeep came to life on the first turn of the key. She's a 1972 Wagoneer, once red, but now faded more to pink, with a smiling front bumper and a fickle personality; today she was behaving herself. I drove slowly down the mountain on the winding dirt road. At the bottom I turned north on the main road, and a mile later, turned up Ben's road and passed the Hardings. The farmhouse was quiet, no lights were on, and a thick mist was rising from the fields. Lynn's new red Subaru was in front of the house and Jim's old Toyota pick-up was parked beside the barn. I was surprised I didn't see Jim's VW Rabbit: the pick-up was just a farm truck. Maybe he'd gone hunting.
I noticed that the Christmas tree farm across the road from the house was doing well, and that pleased me. Last spring Jim and Lynn had planted an acre with Balsam fir seedlings, as sort of a trust fund for their daughter, Margot. I'd helped them one afternoon: it was backbreaking work and I'd tired quickly, but Jim and Lynn kept at it for hours, with Lynn handling each seedling as tenderly as if it were her child, and Jim carefully lining up each row straight as a plumb bob. Margot was a lucky girl, I thought, to have a forest planted in her name - and to have parents who would do such a thing.
On the way to Ben's there were jeeps and trucks at every pull-out and I heard muffled reports in the woods. Eleven and a half months of the year this was the most peaceful place imaginable, but for two weeks in November it turned into a war zone.
I pulled into the mill; there was no one around. I looked over the piles of boards by the saw, scuffing through the deep sawdust and breathing in the smell of fresh-cut hemlock, but I didn't see anything the size I'd ordered. If Ben had forgotten me, that was par for the course. I waited around for a while and drank the can of beer I'd brought with me, leaning against the hood of the jeep. He didn't show up.
On the way back, the jeep suddenly went out of control, skidding toward the ditch on the side of the road. I slammed on the brakes and fought against the wheel, but couldn't turn it, and the jeep came to rest with its nose in the ditch.
The right front tire had blown out and the jeep was angled deep into the ditch. I could see it was going to be a bitch to find a place to slip the jack under the chassis. Fortunately the spare was intact and there was a jack and lug wrench in the back of the jeep, but I didn't have any gloves and by the time I got the rear raised enough to get the wheel off my fingers were frozen to the bone.
I remembered there was a flask of scotch in the glove compartment. I took a sip to warm myself. I struggled with the wheel lugs but they were on machine tight and I had to jump on the bar to loosen them. While I was working, shots rang out in the woods. I couldn't tell where they were coming from, the way they echoed off the surrounding hills, but they were pretty close. I didn't think I was in much danger standing in the road next to the red jeep, but there were nuts out there who shot at anything that moved and I was wearing a brown jacket. All I needed was a hat with a white pompon, maybe some white mittens, and I'd be a perfect target.
I took another sip off the flask and went back to work, hurrying now. Once the whiskey was warm in my veins it was difficult to keep my hands off the flask, and by the time I had the spare on, it was empty. I locked the hubs into four wheel drive and the jeep came out of the ditch on the second try.
When I passed the Hardings it was about eleven in the morning, and had turned into as fine a day as November can deliver. Both the Subaru and the Toyota were there, still no Rabbit. I decided to stop in and visit Lynn. My day wasn't off to a great start; maybe she'd cheer me up and I knew I could use a cup of her good coffee. I thought I held my liquor well, but after two beers and a flask of whiskey on an empty stomach, I had to be a little drunk.
I parked the jeep, went up to the house and knocked on the front door, but there was no answer. I opened the door, stuck my head in and yelled, "Hello, Lynn, Jim, anybody home?" Still no response. I stood in the doorway for a minute and listened to the grandfather clock ticking in the hallway. Petey, Lynn's brindled tom cat, appeared from the kitchen and greeted me with a plaintive meow. I hollered again. Silence except for the click of the swinging pendulum. I decided to leave a note. As I walked down the hall, Petey followed, brushing his static-charged fur against my leg.
Lynn was sitting at the kitchen table in a bathrobe with her back toward me and her head leaning against the wall, as if she were looking out the window. I walked over to her, thinking - in my alcoholic haze - that she must be have been asleep, and what a strange place to be taking a nap in the middle of the morning. It was only when I got closer that I saw the ragged hole in the side of her head and the line of blood tracing down her cheek onto her blouse. On the table there was a red-brown stain, and leading away from it, a trail of bloody paw prints.
I swept back her blond hair, and pressed my fingers to her neck. My hand recoiled: her skin was cool and waxy to the touch. I forced my hand back and held it there, but I already knew there would be no pulse. Her flesh was a dull custard, her half-parted lips were completely colorless. Her eyes were open and clear, but as empty as a drained tub, and her arms were held together in front of her by a pair of handcuffs that was threaded around one of the table's legs. Then I sort of faded out, not really a black-out, more of a brown-out.
The next thing I remembered I was talking to the operator on the phone hanging on the kitchen wall. She got hold of the police in Hargrove, which was the closest station. The voice on the other end of the line belonged to Chief Dubois. I had to repeat myself three times before I was confident that he got the picture. Eventually he seemed to get it, though, and told me to stay there and not touch anything.
I checked her pulse again to make sure she was really dead. Dead. Lynn Harding dead in her own kitchen on a beautiful morning. I went outside and sat on the lawn and smoked a cigarette. I was pretty sure Jim had gone hunting, but where was Margot, their four-year-old daughter? I hoped to God Jim had taken her to some baby-sitter's house.
Against my better judgement, I went back into the house. The liquor cabinet was in the living room, so I didn't have to go back in the kitchen. There was a bottle of Wild Turkey in it that was more than half full. I preferred scotch, the drink of my ancestors, but I had nothing against good bourbon.
Back out on the lawn I opened the bottle and took a long pull. I didn't know if it was going to make me feel better, maybe it would make me feel less. After a while I went back in the house again and went upstairs to look around. I didn't find anything of interest: the beds were unmade, but there were no signs of theft or violence. While I was upstairs I heard a car go by and thought it might be the cops, but it kept on going. I went back outside and sat in the jeep with the bottle of bourbon.
It took a long time for the police to show up. Finally I heard the distant siren, then a squad car came screaming up the dirt road, with its siren blasting and lights flashing, dirt spraying out behind it. The police car skidded to a stop with unnecessary drama and two officers got out. I got out of the jeep.
"What seems to be the trouble here?" asked the older and obviously senior of the two. He was a big man, wearing a brown felt hat with a large brim and a round peak, like the Mounties wear. The chin strap was pulled so tight the cord dug into his jowls and under his chin, emphasizing the folds of his skin. His eyes were small and pinched together. I doubted he always got his man.
"Are you Chief Dubois?" I asked.
"Uh-huh," he affirmed, barely moving his lips, but stepping in close, so our noses were inches apart.
"I'm Sam MacLeish," I said stepping back. "There's a body in the house that belongs to the woman who lives here, Lynn Harding. She's dead."
"Uh-huh," he repeated, moving in again. "Have you been drinking, Mr. Mclish?"
"The name is MacLeish, Chief, and what's it to you? I'm not drunk," the booze answered for me.
Dubois didn't say a word but his jaw tightened. He and the deputy walked to the house, Dubois lumbering slowly, and the deputy, a younger, thinner man walking behind him. I followed. I had the desperate hope that when we walked in to the kitchen Lynn would be making coffee and ask us, smiling, if we wanted a cup.
Dubois surveyed the grisly scene, looking as if he didn't know quite what to do.
"You better call an ambulance and some back up," I said.
He gave me a deep, menacing stare and said, "Mister Mclish, I'm in charge here and would appreciate it if you remember that."
"It's MacLeish, Chief."
"Uh-huh," he grunted.
He waddled over to Lynn's body and nonchalantly picked up her hands to check her pulse. I noticed that he managed to smear his fingerprints all over the handcuffs in the process.
"Don't touch those cuffs," I blurted out.
Dubois glared at me and said, "If you don't shut up, Mister, I am going to put you under arrest. Drunk and disorderly."
So I shut up, for the moment. But I was seething with anger. After he discerned that she was dead, he went over to the phone and dialed headquarters. He reported the situation and ordered an ambulance and back up.
"Let's go outside," he ordered.
We went outside.
"Okay, Mr. Mclish, tell me what exactly what happened."
I told him how I'd gone by in the morning, gone to the sawmill, had a flat, come back and stopped to visit. How I went into the house and found the body. My mind fought the booze, alternately clear and fuzzy, but I thought I was making sense.
"Where is Mr. Harding?" he asked.
"I have no idea. I assume he went hunting this morning, but I don't know for sure. They also have a daughter who's not around. They always bring her with them when they come up here."
"Come up here?"
"They live in Massachusetts. This is their vacation home."
"Uh-huh," he telegraphed his disdain for flatlanders. They were the ones who brought all the trouble.
"And where do you live?" Dubois asked.
"Boston, I have a camp near here."
We went back and forth for a while, nothing very productive. Chief Dubois didn't like me anymore than I liked him. Finally he said, "Okay, Harold, take him to the station and have him sign a statement and then he can go home. I'll wait here for the ambulance."
We got in the police car and Harold drove off. If Dubois was in charge of the investigation, I was sure it would go down as unsolved. The drive to the station was made in silence. I made my statement to a secretary who seemed as bright as Dubois was dull. Afterwards Harold gave me a ride back to get my jeep. When we got back to the Hardings there were three State Police cars and a lot of activity. When Dubois saw us he asked, "What the hell are you doing here? I thought I told you to go home?"
"What was I supposed to do, walk?" I said pointing at the jeep. "You moron," I mumbled under my breath. I couldn't help myself. As a rule I don't like cops much; some people say I have a bad attitude, but I hated this guy.
I'm certain he heard me well enough.
"Now you go home, Mclish. And mind your own business. If I see you back here again I'm taking you in. Keep your mouth shut about all this - there's gonna be an investigation and I don't want you messing it up."
"It won't be me messing it up," I said and saw the anger flash in his eyes.
A half mile later I took a right on what I hoped was Slater Brook Road; none of the roads are marked here, but there was a stream tumbling down a staircase of ledges - foamy white risers above limpid, black treads. A few miles further down the road I came to a bridge crossing the brook.
I saw the mailbox out of the corner of my eye, freshly painted black, with bright yellow lettering, primitively hand-scrawled without a stencil. S. Kincaid it said, the "S" almost twice as big as the "K" and in a swooping curlicue. Below it a board had been nailed to the mailbox post, and on it, also scrawled in paint, but this time red and obviously much older, it said "FIRE WOOD FOR SALE." I eased gingerly onto the bridge, carefully guiding the jeep so that its wheels lined up on the two planks laid across the open joists of the bridge.
The house was set in a small clearing in the woods that was shady even in the mid-afternoon. It was a log cabin, not built from a kit, but from huge, skinned logs chinked with mortar and topped with a shake roof. The real McCoy.
The lawn was mowed, scrappy with weeds and crabgrass, but it was mowed, and in this shady spot, about as suburban as it could be. There wasn't any junk around in front of the house, but there were bicycles scattered leaning on the ground all over. I counted six. I walked up to the house and knocked and a woman came to the door and stood behind the screen. I couldn't see inside the house too well, but the vague outline of her presence looked wide.
"I saw the sign about wood for sale," I said.
"Willie's in the back, around that way," she said pointing to her left.
The backyard was filled with wood. There was a huge pile of logs on one side with an orange Poulin chain saw leaning against it, next to it was a pile of at least twenty cords of wood, cut in lengths but not split, next to that was a smaller pile of split wood and next to that was Willie Kincaid, axe in one hand and a split log in the other looking like a splinter in his massive mitt.
"Nice day," I said.
"Ahyup," he replied, putting down the axe and squinting up at the perfect, cloudless sky, "if it don't rain."
He unfolded from his splitting crouch and I sized him up, and up and up. Now I'm a good size fellow myself, but this man was big. He must have been six foot six and hefting a good two fifty, maybe more. Through his white T shirt, I could see a slab of meat around his waist. Some fat, but more muscle. More muscle in his biceps than on my whole body.
His feet! If you ran across his tracks in the snow you'd swear it was the Yeti. I didn't know they made shoe sizes that big. His feet must have been size twenty. If he had a cock to match, Mrs. Kincaid would be a satisfied woman, and that would explain all the bikes in the yard.
But on top of his tremendous frame, he had a surprisingly small head. Small and pointy. What was most surprising about his head, though, was not its size, but that it was covered with a mat of raven black hair, parted in the middle and sloping down on each side of his ears into two pigtails that were braided half way-down his torso and knotted off with brightly colored elastics, one pink and one green. Willie Kincaid was a full-blooded Native American.
"I saw your sign about firewood. Thought I'd ask," I said.
Willie took a crumpled cigarette pack out of his pants pocket and offered me one.
"How much do you need?" he asked.
"Just a cord." It looked like this trip was going to cost me some money, but I could always use the wood. It made me think, though, that I wasn't working on an expense account any more.
"Well, most of this is spoken for," he pointed to the pile, "but I suppose I could help you out. A little late in the season, though."
I could feel the price going up.
"Yeah, I know. I got some split but I need a little just to be on the safe side."
"Supposed to be a long winter, that's what they say anyway."
"Uh-huh," I agreed. Apparently "they" had been up this way too.
"How much are you asking?"
"Where's it going?"
"Wade's Hill in Reedville."
"Ninety the cord, cut to size and delivered, green as clover, though."
"Well, I don't know, eighty is what I've been paying."
"Well, I guess I could do it for eighty five."
"Sounds fair," I said, and it did. That was the going rate. Willie and I had both known it all along, but you have to dicker. It wouldn't be right otherwise.
"I could split and load it and bring it over this afternoon."
"Today means tomorrow though," he chuckled.
We shook. I thought my little finger was broken.
"Come inside," he said.
We went in, which was what I'd hoped for. The house was modest but neat. The one thing in the living room that wasn't modest was the walnut-stained gun rack against the wall, filled with a fine array of rifles and two pistols, but none of them were .22's.
Willie took my name and address and wrote down directions to my camp and made me out a receipt. I offered him twenty dollars down, which he refused. I told him I didn't have a phone, but would be there all day tomorrow. He said he wasn't sure when he'd be up, but if I wasn't there he'd leave the wood and catch up to me later. I believed he would.
I had to shake hands again before I left. This time I pushed my hand way up into his so his grip came around the heel of my hand. I escaped without any broken bones. Just as I was getting in the jeep, Willie yelled out after me.
"I just remembered, I've got to deliver a load in Waitsfield tomorrow afternoon. How about I come over the day after?"
"Fine," I said.
I continued my lazy way home, enjoying the scenery. Not a bad afternoon's work, all in all. Too bad I wasn't getting paid. I liked everything about Willie Kincaid. I thought that when he came up to my house, I could work the conversation around to the murder over a cup of coffee. I didn't think he did it, but if he'd been around that day he might have seen something.
When I passed over the gap on the way back I realized that I still felt good: easy and relaxed. Maybe the obsession of guilt had indeed been lifted permanently.
But when I got to town and passed the pay phone, I thought of Vinnie Buscemi again. He scared me.
I drove back up the hill, passed my house, and continued up the road. After about two miles I took a right at an intersection known as Four Corners. I put the hubs in four wheel drive. The jeep bounced along as the road got progressively worse. I was deep in the woods now, no houses on either side. Eventually I came to another turn off, not much more than a rutted trail: Bumpy's dooryard. I nosed in slowly, but bottomed out with a thud. The jeep came to a halt. I gunned the motor. I was stuck straddling a rock. I put it in reverse and came free with a roaring sound. I looked in the rear view mirror; lying innocently next to the rock, was the useless, twisted hunk of metal that had once been my muffler.
The jeep limped toward Bumpy's, letting out a ferocious roar. Bumpy lived in a small geodesic dome way back here in the middle of nowhere; he'd let some hippies build it on his land back in the sixties and then moved in when they abandoned it. It was just a black ball covered with tar paper, and surrounded by enough beer bottles and cans to start a redemption center.
There were junked cars everywhere, noses of hoods and roofs sticking up from the underbrush. The heaps had been there so long trees had grown up around them - a nightmare version of an enchanted forest.
Bumpy came out and slouched in front of the dome. He had shaved his head clean since I'd last seen him. It was shiny as a trailer hitch, glistening in the rain, and he had a full beard now, beneath his chrome dome, so it looked as if his head were on upside down.
"Hi, Sam," he said in a toneless growl. "Did you come up to buy a muffler?"
"Fuck you and the horse you rode in on," I said, knowing he knew perfectly well that I'd just lost the damn thing.
"Don't be so ornery. I can fix you right up."
He went off into the underbrush and came out, lugging a rusted old muffler.
"This is a from a Cherokee Wagoneer ten years younger than yours. Mint condition."
He yelled out instructions as I fitted and bolted the thing on to the jeep, lying on my back in the mud.
"That'll be fifteen bucks for the muffler," he said. "But I'll give you a deal on the installation. Only ten bucks for that."
"You gotta be kidding me," I said in disbelief. "That was me lying on my back in the mud."
"Oh, that was just laborer's work. I charge for managing the installation. Any idiot can turn the bolts. Besides, that muffler has the Midas guarantee. Guaranteed for life," he said with a dopey look.
"The life of the jeep?" I asked smelling a rat.
"No, you jackass, the life of the muffler."
"You're too much, Bumpy."
"So what brings you up this way?" he asked looking in the jeep. "I see you've got some beer. Good man."
He grabbed it and we went into the dome. The inside walls were blackened with soot, but the stove was going and at least it was warm and dry. Well, mostly dry. There was a leak in the ceiling dripping into a bucket. It smelled like the men's room at Fenway Park. I lit a cigarette to cut the odor; he snatched the pack from me, lit one and put one over each ear. There was a cot, the pot bellied stove, some clothes lying around, a pin-up on the wall, beer bottles and the one window let in enough light so I could see pretty well. Better than I wanted to.
"Now about the money you owe me," he said.
He was relentless and had been conning me for years. I always felt it was a fair deal, though: he'd con me out of beer, cigarettes and small bills and I'd get to hear his stories in return. I peeled off a ten and a five and gave them to him. After all I'd just sold my apartment. He stuffed the bills in an old shoe by his bed - probably his total net worth at the moment.
He drained the first beer and opened another. I hated to bring him beer, but he wouldn't have anything to do with me if I didn't, and I wanted to loosen his tongue. I didn't know if he was already drunk or not. That was one thing you could say for Bumpy: he never acted drunk. Or rather, he never acted sober. What I mean is, he never acted much different than he was now. He had achieved the state where the smallest amount of booze would make him drunk and a large amount wouldn't make him any drunker. And even if he wasn't drinking, he was still drunk from the day before, so basically, Bumpy was always drunk.
"Arncha gonna have a beer?"
"No, I'm not drinking today," I said, liking the sound of my answer.
"All the better for me I guess, though it doesn't seem right, to drink alone when there's company. How's things at your place?"
"Pretty good, getting ready for winter."
"I told you fifteen years ago you'd try to move up here someday. You won't make it through the winter, though. You flatlanders, you ain't mountain people. When the going gets tough, you'll move back. You mark my words. It's lonely up here."
I brushed off his comments, just macho bullshit, but I remembered how sad I was to see the leaves matted on the deck and the cold mist settling on my land. It was going to be a long winter and there wouldn't be much company. Except for him, of course.
Eventually the conversation worked itself around to the murder without any guidance from me.
"I hear you're doing some detective work."
As usual the news had travelled.
"Maybe I am."
"That Lynn was a nice lady and her daughter was a cute kid. I guess they should have stayed down in the city where they belonged. It's too bad, though, that the old bastard got away with it."
"Old bastard? Who?"
"You wouldn't believe it if I told you I know who did it, would you?"
"No, probably not," I said.
"There ain't nothing goes on around here that old Bumpy don't know about. 'Course I know who did it."
He opened another beer and paused, knowing he had me hooked.
"Well who did it then?"
"Why should I tell you? Just 'cuz you are a goddamn detective?"
"There's no reason to tell me, if you don't want to, but you should tell the police."
"Already did. I told the chief and he didn't believe a word of it, told me I was a crazy old drunk. No respect. But I saw it with my own eyes, I did."
I was trying to hide my excitement. Dubois hadn't made any mention in his report of Bumpy saying anything. Maybe he didn't even check it out. But remembering the incident with Bumpy's false accusation of Jerry Hitchcock, I could see why. After all Bumpy was a crazy old drunk. What the hell was the old geezer talking about? I'd get it out of him, but I had to be patient.
"Now, I just said I got no reason to tell you. I might just have to think about whether I ought to tell you or not. You know it wouldn't do Lynn any good if I told you. But I'll think about it and maybe some night if I got drunk enough, on some good sipping whiskey, like Jack Daniels, for instance, I might just decide to tell you what I know."
I got the picture and changed the subject to the weather. Like everybody else Bumpy was predicting a long winter, but he wasn't giving away his sources on that either.
I let the conversation follow itself to some kind of conclusion and made an excuse to leave. I'd had about enough of this run around.
I got the jeep back to the main road alright without losing my "new" muffler. "What a fucking crazy old bastard," I swore. He could actually know who did it and put a price of a bottle of Jack Daniels on the information. He was that incorrigible. Of course it was ten to one that he was just conning me from the start to get some more booze out of me. But anyway I looked at it, I was going to have to go back up there with a bottle of Jack Daniels and play the sucker.
When I got home I caught up on my notes. I tried not to think about Bumpy and his tantalizing con, but I couldn't help it, maybe the whole case was going to open right up. After all, it was hard to imagine that a woman could be killed and her daughter disappear in such a small town with such a watchful population without somebody knowing something.
The lot wasn't plowed out, so we parked on the road. There were a couple of other cars there, too. People had been skiing already and there were tracks criss-crossing the fields; we wouldn't have to break trail all afternoon.
The track was smooth and fast and the snow still crisp, even under the noonday sun. We skied across the landing strip and into the woods. Sandy went first. She had a smooth, effortless stride and was getting a lot of glide out of her kick. I had to push myself to keep up. But I was inspired: the view of the mountains and fields was good, but it was nothing compared to the view I had skiing right behind her.
I followed her through a sugarbush of maples, their trunks elegant as marble columns against the snowy expanse. We crossed the track of a hare; its prints smudged in the powder made it look like a giant rabbit. The beech saplings still had their leaves and they were a dry, papery light-brown, stunning against the white background. The hardwood forest gave way to spruce and suddenly we were tunneling through thick snow-laden conifers, a silent world of deep green and white.
The trail headed gradually up and I followed hard on Sandy's butt. She was in good shape and I hoped I wasn't going to embarrass myself; my breath was already coming faster. At the top of the hill, we came out into an orchard and she stopped. As I pulled up behind her I did my best to breath deeply and slowly, not give away how out of shape I was.
"This is great," she said, and I was relieved to see her chest heaving under the exertion.
"It sure is. You keep a good pace."
"I'll probably run out of steam pretty soon at this rate."
Whew, I wasn't going to have to do this all afternoon.
The orchard sloped away from us, completely white with snow, as if it were mid-February. We cruised down across the orchard, floating on top of the snow, carving big wide turns. At the bottom, the trail headed along a stream bank and then back up a long hill toward the State Forest. Up and down we went, across fields, then back into the forest, then out into fields again. And her pace was blistering. By the time she stopped again my lungs were on fire, my arms dead weights, and my legs rubbery.
"Shall we have lunch at the top of the meadow?" she asked pointing with her pole.
She flogged on. Finally she stopped. We found a fallen tree near the edge of the forest and I swept the snow off it and spread my windbreaker out on the log for us to sit on. We had to sit pretty close together. In front of us the entire ridge of the Green Mountains was white against the sky. We could see all the way to Mt. Mansfield. We ate the sandwiches and apples and cheese in silence. This sure beat sitting in a bar in Boston, drooling into a mug of cheap beer. I had a lot to be thankful for. But at the same time I couldn't help but think that a cold bottle of Chablis would put the final touch on this scene. I had to remind myself that wasn't how it would've been: if I had the bottle of wine with me now, I would've had two last night and wouldn't be here with her.
After lunch the temperature dropped rapidly and a breeze came up. I got my second wind and it was a good thing, because Sandy was hell bent. When we finally got back to the jeep I was truly punished.
She suggested hot chocolate at The Den and I didn't refuse.
Over the steaming mugs we overheard one of the waitresses saying that they were going to open the mountain in the morning. Our eyes met and we both smiled simultaneously.
"They're going to open the ski area? Fantastic," she said.
"Do you want to go skiing?" I asked.
"No question about it. I'll be there early, where do you want to meet?"
"How about at the lift at ten?"
We finished our chocolates and I tried to act nonchalant. I couldn't believe how this was going.
On the way home I stopped at the top of the notch. The sun was just dipping over the mountains, the sky cascading with irregular bands of orange and purple. I rolled down my window and stuck my head out; the wind had kicked up and snow was dancing on the peaks. I hoped it would be sunny in the morning, but another storm would suit me fine too.