“MASTER SERGEANT, HAVE I told you how incredibly hot you look tonight?”
“Exactly eight times so far,” Des responded as she and the unlikely man in her life strolled arm in arm through the Dorset Street Historic District, taking in the wondrous sights.
Truly, there was no lovelier time of year in the historic New England village of Dorset than the Christmas season. Especially if enough snow had fallen for it to qualify as a genuine white Christmas. And this December had delivered an epic amount of snow. Three monster blizzards had already blanketed the village in forty inches of the white stuff, and Christmas day was still a whole week away. The gem of Connecticut’s Gold Coast had been transformed into an idyllic winter wonderland, one part theme park, two parts Currier and Ives print. Giggling kids were riding their sleds right down the middle of Dorset Street. Families were out building giant snowmen in their front yards. Red-cheeked carolers went from door to door spreading Yuletide cheer as the eggnog flowed at house parties throughout the village. Horse-drawn sleighs took giddy revelers to and fro. Candles burned in the windows of the Historic District’s colonial mansions to welcome them.
Yet another nor’easter was due to blow in by tomorrow morning. But tonight was frosty and clear, with a bright half-moon and stars twinkling in the sky. And so they strolled, swaddled in their winter coats, scarves and hats. Des Mitry, the Connecticut state resident trooper, a lithe, long-limbed, six-feet-one-inch woman of color. And Mitch Berger, the weight-challenged Jewish film critic from New York City whose only experience with violence before he’d met Des had consisted of the films of Mr. Sam Peckinpah.
“Well, I just may have to mention it a ninth time,” he said. “I’m still in a state of awe.”
“Mitch, I’m just wearing my new jeans.”
“Your new skinny jeans. Do you have any idea how spectacular a double-bill this is—your booty and a pair of skinny jeans? Hell, you’re lucky I don’t throw you down in that snow bank over there.”
“Yeah, good luck with that, wild man.”
“Don’t you know what a hottie you are?”
“I know I’ve never worn pants this tight in my life. They feel like dark-washed Saran Wrap. Are you sure they don’t make me look like a skanky teenager?”
“Yeah,” he said dreamily.
“Yeah what?” She came to a halt, shoving her heavy horn-rimmed glasses up her nose. “You’d tell me straight up if I looked silly, right?”
“Of course. But how can you even think that?”
“Because I’m not fifteen years old anymore.”
“And I for one am glad. If you were we’d have zero to talk about plus I’d be a felon and … hold on a sec, you’ve got something on your face.”
“What is it?”
He took her in his arms and kissed her. “Just me.”
She touched his beaming face with her fingers. Never before had a man made her feel this happy. “Doughboy, are you ever going to act your age?”
“I wouldn’t count on it.”
They were on their way to an eggnog party at old Rut Peck’s house. Rut had served as Dorset’s postmaster for thirty-seven years and seemed to be related to everybody in town. He definitely knew everybody. And he’d lived across from the firehouse in the same upended shoebox of a farmhouse on the corner of Dorset Street and Maple Lane ever since he was born. Until last summer, that is, when the eighty-two-year-old widower got lost driving to his dentist across the Connecticut River in Old Saybrook. When the police stopped him for running a red light two hours later he was sixty miles away in Bridgeport and not sure how he’d gotten there. A small stroke, his doctor determined. Rut wasn’t allowed to drive after that. Nor did it seem like a good idea for him to be living alone. His cousins, Marge and Mary Jewett, the no-nonsense fifty-something sisters who ran Dorset’s volunteer ambulance service, had moved him into a unit at Essex Meadows, an assisted-living facility, and put his house on the market. But because of the Great Recession he still hadn’t gotten a single decent offer. When Marge and Mary asked the old postmaster what he wanted for Christmas this year, he told them he wanted to come home for an old-time eggnog party. And so they’d obliged him. His cleaning lady, Tina Champlain, who continued to keep the place tidy for prospective buyers, had set up a tree in the parlor and decorated it. There was a wreath on the front door and electric candles in every window. Tina’s husband, Lem, had cleared all of the snow from the driveway and front walk.
Rut was waiting right there at the door to greet them, happy to be home again with so many friends. He was a short, stocky old fellow with tufty white hair and a nose that looked remarkably like a potato. His eyes were an impish blue behind his thick black-framed glasses. He wore hearing aids in both ears and a big red Christmas sweater that one of his many widowed lady friends must have knitted for him.
Inside, the parlor smelled of nutmeg and fresh spruce. A fire crackled in the potbellied wood stove. Dozens of bright-eyed people were chattering excitedly as they sipped eggnog and nibbled at the high-cholesterol circa-1957 hors d’oevres that Dorseteers seemed to love. Mitch could not get enough of them. After he’d shed his coat he headed right for them, salivating with fat-boy delight over the array of deviled eggs, cocktail weenies, and chicken livers wrapped in bacon. There was an entire sliced ham, cheeses, a basket of bread and rolls. There was wine and assorted soft drinks to go along with the eggnog which, judging by the decibel level of the revelers, was spiked with bourbon but good.
Rut was one of those rare people whose friendships cut across Dorset’s class lines. Bob Paffin, the blue-blooded first selectman, was standing right there sipping eggnog alongside a full-blooded Swamp Yankee like Paulette Zander, Dorset’s current postmaster, whose father, Gary, had maintained the village’s septic tanks. Paulette was there with her live-in boyfriend, Hank Merrill, who was a postal carrier as well as assistant chief of Dorset’s volunteer fire department. Actually, it looked as if half of the fire department was there.
Des was also happy to spot Bella Tillis, who until very recently had been her housemate and now lived practically next door to Rut’s place at the Captain Chadwick House, the Historic District’s choicest condominium colony. She’d moved in two weeks ago along with three of the six feral kittens she and Des had rescued from behind Laysville Hardware. Bella, a feisty seventy-eight-year-old bowling ball of a Jewish grandmother from Brooklyn, was Des’s next door neighbor in Woodbridge when Des’s ex-husband, Brandon, had dumped her for another woman. Des wouldn’t have survived without Bella. And part of her missed having Bella around. Although it was awfully nice to have the bungalow overlooking Uncas Lake to herself again. Des’s studio was spread out all over the living room. Her heart-wrenching drawings of the murder victims she’d encountered were tacked up here, there, everywhere. She drew them in the early light of dawn, deconstructing the haunting memories line by line, shadow by shadow. It was how she dealt.
“How are you, girl?” Des asked, hugging Bella warmly.
“I’ve been groped by three different old coots already. I don’t know if it’s the eggnog or what. I do know that not one of them can finish what they started. But enough about me. Those jeans you’re wearing…” Bella eyed her up and down. “Are they new?”
“Why are you asking?”
“Because they make you look like a runway model, that’s why.” Bella glanced over at Mitch, who was shoving a deviled egg into his pie hole as he stood chatting with Lew the Plumber. “Does that man know how lucky he is?”
“I try to remind him from time to time.” Des reached over and squeezed her hand. “I miss you, Bella.”
“Tie that bull outside, as we used to say on Nostrand Avenue. You two need the house to yourselves. Now you can cavort around naked whenever, wherever you feel like it.”
Des smiled at her. “And, God knows, we cavort a lot.” Usually, two or three nights a week at Mitch’s antique caretaker’s cottage out on Big Sister Island. And another two nights a week at her place. They had no particular schedule. They were comfortable with where they were. Or weren’t—which was ready to live together full time. Plus he had to be in New York a lot for screenings and still had his apartment there. It wasn’t a conventional arrangement, but nothing about them was conventional.
Tina Champlain came over to them toting platters of deviled eggs and cocktail weenies.
“You’re Rut’s guest tonight,” Des reminded her. “You don’t have to serve.”
“Yeah, I do,” Tina responded. “If I don’t, your boy will eat all of them.”
It wasn’t just Mitch. Deviled eggs and cocktail weenies were catnip to the male of the species. Tina’s husband, Lem, was already hovering close to her.
Tina and Lem made for one of Dorset’s odder couples. She was a tiny, high-strung Chihuahua of a woman in her thirties with frizzy black hair and slightly protruding dark eyes. Nice little figure, although she hid it underneath a baggy fleece top and loose-fitting jeans. Lem was a gruff bear who reveled in looking menacing. It was how he got a measure of respect from the blue bloods. The man was not only mammoth but he shaved his head and wore a ZZ Top beard halfway down his chest. He also carried a large knife in a sheath on his belt, just in case he needed a blade at an eggnog party. Lem owned Champlain Landscaping. During the warm months he and his crew of mow boys tended the lawns in Dorset. This time of year they plowed driveways and delivered firewood. Between Lem’s business and the money Tina made cleaning houses, they made out pretty well for a couple of teen sweethearts who’d barely finished high school. Tina was already pregnant with their daughter, Kylie, by then. Kylie was eighteen now and when you saw her and Tina around town together you’d swear they were sisters. Kylie was tiny like she was.
“How’s Kylie doing?” Des asked them.
“Don’t get me started,” Lem growled.
“She’s fine,” Tina said, shooting a look at him—and then at Mitch, who had inched his way over by her side. “No more weenies for you.”
“Does that mean I can have a deviled egg?”
“One,” she allowed.
“I love you, Tina,” Mitch said, popping it into his mouth.
“Kylie’s not fine,” Lem muttered at her.
“We want her to go to nursing school,” Tina said with a weary sigh. “All she wants to do is party and shop.”
“That girl can’t be trusted with a credit card,” Lem said. “I had to take hers away and tear ’em up.”
Tina’s cell phone vibrated in the pocket of her fleece top. “Hold these for a sec, will you, Lemmy?”
He took the platters from her so she could read the text message on her phone’s screen. “You’re as bad as Kylie,” he complained as she thumbed out a response. “On that damned thing every second.”
“It’s my mom, will ya? She moved in with her cousin in Philly last month,” Tina explained, her eyes never leaving the screen. “And now she texts me a hundred times a day. There, all done, okay?” She tucked the phone back in her pocket and took the platters back from him. “What were we talking about?”
“Kylie.” Des couldn’t help notice the chippy vibe Tina and Lem gave off. “Is she seeing anyone special these days?”
“She’s been spending a little time with Pat Faulstich,” Lem replied.
“Well, that won’t last,” Tina assured him. “I don’t want her mixed up with one of your plow monkeys.”
“Pat’s a good kid. He works hard.”
“He’s a no-good cheesehead.”
“Hey, I have a great idea,” Hank Merrill put in as he snatched a cocktail weenie from Tina’s platter. “Why don’t we fix her up with Casey?”
Lem let out a huge laugh. “Brilliant idea.”
“Isn’t it? What do you think, hon?” Hank asked Paulette as she joined them. “Kylie Champlain and your bouncing baby boy?”
Dorset’s postmaster considered her response carefully before she said, “I think that you’d better slow down on that eggnog. And don’t be nasty.” Paulette was Hank’s boss, if anyone cared to get technical. She’d gone to work as a carrier for Rut Peck back when she was in her twenties. She was in her early fifties now. A tall, taut, good-looking woman with a strong jaw and long, beautiful black hair streaked with silver. Also a tight-lipped, controlled woman who seemed to be under a great deal of strain. Worry lines furrowed her brow. Casey was her twenty-eight-year-old son from a marriage that had ended in divorce long ago. Paulette had wangled him a part-time job as a weekend carrier. He lived in the basement of the house she shared with Hank.
“I’m not being nasty,” insisted Hank, who was evidently well into the high-octane eggnog. “Just saying Casey and Kylie would make a nice couple. Am I right or am I right?” he asked Lem.
“Totally right,” Lem assured him with a big grin.
Lem liked Hank. Everyone liked Hank. He was a goofy, amiable and extremely active fellow around Dorset. In addition to his duties on the fire department, he coached the girls’ high school basketball team and played tuba in the Dorset town band. Most Saturdays, he could be found working the second chair for John the Barber. Hank was lanky and splay footed with thinning sandy-colored hair and an extremely large, busy Adam’s apple. He had the wheezy laugh of a longtime smoker. He also had a habit of sucking on his teeth, which were crooked and rather horsy.
“Casey ought to find himself a nice girl,” Hank went on, pausing to take another gulp of his eggnog. “Not to mention a full-time job and his own place to live. He spends all day in our basement stuffing his face and watching TV. And all night at the Rustic drinking beer and watching TV. That kid must spend eighteen hours a day in front of the TV.”
“Sounds good to me,” Mitch said. “I’d take that deal.”
“So would I,” Hank agreed. “I’d like to know how he got so lucky.”
“Casey has issues,” Paulette said to him in a distinctly cool voice.
“He’s not the only one,” Bella interjected, wagging a stubby finger at Hank. “I have an issue with you. I have gotten no mail for the past two days, mister. Not so much as a single Chanukah card. And I still haven’t received my three-month supply of Lipitor. My online pharmacy mailed it to me from Dayton, Ohio, ten days ago.”
“It’s the snow, Mrs. Tillis,” Paulette explained. “Our out-of-state-mail isn’t coming in at Bradley Airport because the planes can’t land. And our trucks can’t make it here from Norwich because the governor keeps closing the highways.”
“That part I understand.” Bella turned her piercing gaze back at Hank. “But how come you didn’t say one word about the marble cake I left in my box for you? I baked it for you special.”
Hank’s mouth opened but no sound came out. He looked totally thrown.
Paulette stepped into the awkward silence. “Lem, all of this snow must be good for your business.”
“You’d think so,” he acknowledged, scratching at his beard with a thumbnail the size of a clamshell. It wasn’t a very clean-looking thumbnail. It wasn’t a very clean-looking beard either. “Only, I’ve been working harder than I ever have, plowing day and night, and I’m practically going broke. They keep jacking up the price of road salt for one thing. And, well, this is Dorset. People don’t pay their bills.” He glanced over in the direction of First Selectman Paffin. “Especially the rich ones. Keep telling me they left my money out in their mailbox. Except, guess what? The money’s not there.”
“How do you explain that?” Des asked.
He shrugged his big shoulders. “Easy. They got no problem lying to people like me.”
“Get out, my next door neighbors decided to show,” Mitch exclaimed as Bryce Peck and Josie Cantro started across the parlor toward them.
Bryce Peck was the black sheep of Dorset’s blue-blooded founding family. An aging wild child who’d spent his entire adult life running away from his life of privilege only to return home this past August as a gaunt, weathered burnout case. Bryce’s extremely tight-assed older brother, Preston, was allowing him to winter over in the family’s prized eight-bedroom summer house out on Big Sister in exchange for Bryce serving as the island’s caretaker. Des imagined that Bryce had been quite dashing in his youth. He was tall and broad shouldered, with deep-set dark eyes and high, hard cheekbones. But now, at age forty-six, he was a haunted shell of a man, his face ravaged by decades of hard living. Word was he’d been a heavy drinker. Heavy into any drugs, legal and illegal, that made you numb. Those deep-set eyes of his had a frightened look in them. And his work-roughened hands never stopped trembling. Mitch got along well with him. Mitch was gifted that way. But Bryce stayed away from most people. He was a moody, withdrawn man who was uneasy in social settings.
Especially now that he was clean and sober thanks to Josie Cantro, a blonde who was fifteen years younger than Bryce. Josie didn’t come from money. Didn’t come from Dorset. She was from somewhere up in Maine. But she’d built herself a thriving little business as Dorset’s resident life coach. Josie was one of those relentlessly upbeat women who helped other people do things like lose weight. She’d helped Bryce wean himself off of booze and pills. And in the process they’d fallen in love. She’d moved in with him just before Thanksgiving. Josie was always perky, always smiling that sunny smile of hers. She practically glowed. Not exactly a beauty. Her face was too round. And she had a turned-up little pug nose. But she was definitely a honey, with big blue eyes, a long mane of creamy blond hair and a slammin’ bod. A health food junkie and fitness freak who’d taken to dragging neighbor Mitch out for morning beach runs in the snow. Also to rummaging through his kitchen for evil junk food. Josie’s heart was in the right place. Des had no doubt it was because of her that Bryce had shown up here to pay his respects to his cousin Rut. She also had no doubt that Josie had done many people around Dorset a lot of good. And yet, Des couldn’t shake the feeling that something about the woman was wrong. It was not, repeat not, a jealousy thing. Des didn’t worry about Mitch. But her cop instincts kept telling her that nobody was as unfailingly smiley faced as Josie Cantro was—not unless they were fronting.
“Hey, naybs, are you up for a snow run tomorrow morning?” Josie asked Mitch brightly when she and Bryce reached them.
“Absolutely, naybs,” Mitch answered just as brightly.
Or maybe I’m just being bitchy because I hate the stupid nickname that he and his vanilla blonde neighbor have for each other.
Bryce, meanwhile, stood there looking as if he wanted to flee through the nearest exit. When Mitch put a hand on his shoulder the poor man practically jumped out of his skin.
“Easy there, pardner,” Mitch said. “You’re among friends.”
Bryce nodded his head, shuddering. “For a second I-I just couldn’t…”
“Couldn’t what, Bryce?”
“Remember what I was doing here.”
Josie turned her attention to Hank. “Dude, how are you doing?”
“Doing great.” Hank patted his shirt pocket. “Got my nicotine gum right here if I need it. So far I haven’t.”
“And he hasn’t had a cigarette in two months,” Paulette put in proudly. “All thanks to you, Josie.”
“It wasn’t me. It was all Hank. Hank’s the man.” Now Josie’s blue-eyed gaze fell on Des. “I am so totally hating you right this second.”
“And this would be because?…”
She was staring longingly at Des’s skinny jeans. “I exercise two hours a day. I subsist on wild greens and tree bark. And when I tried on a pair of those I looked like I ought to be playing left tackle for the New England Patriots.”
“I find that hard to believe.”
“Believe, Trooper Des. These thighs are seriously chunky. And we won’t even discuss my butt.”
Old Rut waddled his way over toward them, his face aglow. “Thanks again, young lady,” he said to Tina. “This is a wonderful evening.”
“My pleasure, Mr. Peck.”
“Everybody enjoying that eggnog?”
“You bet,” Lem said.
Rut raised an eyebrow at Mitch. “There’s, um, something I want to show you down in the cellar, young fella.”
“Are we talking about what I think we’re talking about?”
Rut nodded. “I saved one last case for a special occasion. And this here is it.” Clearly, they were talking about a case of the old postmaster’s home-brewed stout. “Would you mind lugging it upstairs for me?”
“You are on,” Mitch assured him.
“Fine and dandy. I’ll meet you down there in half a tick. Just have to stop off and take a pee. Or try. I may be a while, if you catch my drift.”
Nonetheless, Mitch headed off toward the kitchen with him.
Des watched them go, then turned to discover Josie was smiling at her. “You and Mitch are so fortunate that you found each other,” she said.
“Yes, we are,” Des said politely, all the while thinking: I really don’t like Josie Cantro.
Copyright © 2012 by David Handler