Hemlock Lake: excerpt

Hemlock Lake
From Five Star, July, 2010
ISBN# 978-1-59414-884-2

Carolyn J. Rose

Chapter 1

Fists clenched, I watched the medical examiner’s van wallow along the rutted gravel driveway. With a flicker of brake lights, it turned onto the patched asphalt road that circled Hemlock Lake as Sheriff Clement North laid a weathered hand on my shoulder. I flinched and drove my fingernails into my palms.

“Phil can take care of the rest of this, Dan.” North’s voice was muted, his words tentative. “Why don’t you go on—”

“Home?” I laughed bitterly as the van disappeared beyond a stand of white birches. Yellow leaves fluttered in its wake, drifting through dusty October air. “Is that what you were going to say? That I should go home?”

North’s fingers flexed. “No. Why don’t you ride back to the office with me? Someone will bring your cruiser along later. I called the chaplain. He’ll notify your father.”

“No.” I shrugged his hand away and walked to the edge of the porch, my heels thudding on the thick oak planks. “I can handle this.”

“I know you can handle it, Dan. I’m not questioning your ability. But it would be better if you—”

“No.” I turned on him, glimpsing my pain, dark and knotted, reflected in his eyes. “This is my responsibility. My duty.”

I trudged down the broad steps and along the path toward the rippling indigo water. “It’s all paperwork from here on out, anyway,” I called over my shoulder. “Just like any other accident, any other suicide.”

North didn’t answer, didn’t state the obvious—this time there had been no need to check the bodies for identification, this time I wouldn’t search for next of kin.

The names I’d write the top of the reports would be Nathaniel Justice Stone and Susanna Elizabeth Chase Stone.

My brother.

My wife.

Chapter 2

“I called you in because I’m looking for fresh ideas on a case,” Sheriff North said. “We have damn little to go on.”

I tore my gaze from the tiny buds on the gnarled maple tree outside the window. Spring had come to my wasteland. Each pale leaf and bright blossom seemed to mock my misery. Swallowing long-simmering rage, I watched the sheriff deal six sheets of paper and an equal number of envelopes onto the dog-eared green blotter staking its claim between stacks of worn file folders.

“It’s not much.” North shrugged. “Wasn’t a decent fingerprint once we ruled out the construction chief who opened them. And with the way the system operates now—centralized—all we know is the general area they were mailed from. Used to be easier when every little post office had its own mark.”

I fingered a piece of three-ring binder paper speckled with words sliced from a newspaper and stiff with yellowing globs of dried glue. “You build. We’ll burn.”

“They cut up an Albany newspaper for that one,” the sheriff said. “The type matches. But I’m thinking these threats could be linked to eco-terrorists. Like that case out on Long Island.”

I nodded. I’d read about a group claiming responsibility for explosive devices set in a number of luxury homes under construction. The group had declared it an effort to stop urban sprawl, halt overdevelopment, and preserve farmland. Perhaps they’d decided the Catskills needed saving next. I glanced at the other papers: “Stop construction or we will. Preserve, don’t pillage. You put it up, we’ll burn it down. Don’t desecrate this land.” My fingers curled as I read the final note. “Don’t destroy Hemlock Lake.”

Images of my father’s house and the two bodies I’d found inside rose in my mind. I forced words past my teeth. “Hemlock Lake?”

“Yep.” North leaned back, his worn leather swivel chair creaking, and packed shreds of honey-colored tobacco into his pipe. “Some developer bought a parcel of land across the lake and up aways from your father’s place. He’s putting up ten luxury homes.” Rocking forward, he set the pipe on the corner of the desk and shuffled the letters together. “I thought you could go up there, sort of on a part-time basis, and—”

“No.” The thud of sodden earth against Susanna’s coffin filled my ears. I would never return to the lake. “No.”

The sheriff’s chair rolled against the credenza behind his desk with a dull clunk as he stood and ambled to the map of Ashokan County that covered an entire wall. He splayed mottled fingers across the green-gray mass representing mountains and the blue vein of a stream swelling out of Dark Moon Hollow and feeding Hemlock Lake. “With your dad in that nursing home now, his place probably needs a lick of paint or a few shingles. While you’re making repairs, you can nose around, see if anybody’s seen or heard anything connected to the letters or the other incidents.”

I felt a twinge of curiosity, couldn’t tamp it down. “Other incidents?”

“Vandalism. Minor theft. Graffiti.” He tapped a file folder at the top of one heap. “Here’s the file. Look it over. I’ll clear you to start on this next week.”

I dug my fingers into the scarred oak armrests of the visitor’s chair. “Is that an order?”

He hitched at his pants and scratched a bristling eyebrow with a thumbnail. “Well, no, Dan, it’s not an order. But you’re the best man for this job. You grew up around Hemlock Lake—you know what it’s like. They’ve got cable TV and their calendars show they’re in the new century just like all the rest of us, but they’ve still got one foot in the past. Deep in the past. They keep themselves apart, take care of their own. Hell, for all I know, it’s not tree-huggers behind this, it’s someone local.”

Someone local. I fought to keep my face still, to show no sign of interest.

North slapped the file folders. “I sent an investigator up there twice. Waste of manpower. Nobody saw anything. Nobody knew anything. People up there wouldn’t give an outsider a glass of water if his teeth were on fire.”

I rose from my chair. He’d drawn an accurate sketch and given me a way out. “What good would I do? I’m not an investigator. I’m a patrol sergeant.” I liked it that way, preferred space and stretches of solitude. I didn’t want an office and walls around me—especially now.

North waved me back into my seat, slumped into his own, lifted the pipe, and tamped more tobacco into the bowl. “You’ve had some training.” He dug a pack of matches from his pocket, struck one and touched it to the tobacco. “I’m betting you’ll pick up on something.” He puffed, cheeks reddening.

A cloud of apple-scented smoke swirled around him. I blinked away the image of that black van carrying Nat and Susanna through falling leaves as sunset bloodied the lake.

“And face it Dan, you haven’t been yourself since the, uh . . .” He paused, chewing at the corners of his mustache. “Not that anyone expected you to bounce right back. You went through more hell in one day than any man deserves in an entire lifetime. And then to have your father go down with a stroke . . .” He shook his head. “But we’re comin’ up on May. It’s been almost seven months. You don’t eat enough to keep a bird alive; you’re in that cruiser all night, every night.” He puffed at the pipe again, cursed and set it aside. “And damn it, you’re not calling for backup when you should. It’s just a matter of time before you get hurt. Or hurt someone else.” He leaned closer, narrowed his eyes. “I can’t have that.”

Red anger clogged my throat, distorting my voice. “That won’t happen.”

He held out his hands, palms up. I recognized the gesture from a dozen other discussions. It meant he had no choice, was only doing his job. “Sometimes you can’t carry the weight alone. I’d hate to have to order you to take time off and get counseling, but I will if . . .” He shrugged, leaving it there.

Muscles knotted at the hinges of my jaw and around my eyes. No one would trespass in my mind, dissect my pain.

The sheriff fingered his pipe again. “I’d appreciate it if you’d look into this. As a favor to me.”

I stood and slung the chair into a bookcase crammed with grimy regulation manuals dating back to the Nixon administration. Two appreciation plaques teetered then fell from the top shelf. Glass splintered and skittered across the pitted green linoleum. “Assign me to jail duty. Put me on a desk. Fire my ass if you want. I’ll never go to Hemlock Lake again if I live to be a hundred.”

A wintry smile crossed the sheriff’s face. “Maybe you’ll live that long, son. But maybe you won’t make it through next week. Those two ghosts have a hell of a hold on you. Better lay them to rest before they drag you into a grave beside them.”