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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

The Company She Kept

A Joe Gunther Novel

Joe Gunther Series (Volume 26)

Archer Mayor

Minotaur Books

MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK

CHAPTER ONE



"Pull over, Doug. I want to get a shot of this."

Uncomplaining, Doug Nielsen checked his mirrors, slowed down shy of the interstate crossover-marked EMERGENCY USE ONLY-and eased their rig across the empty northbound lane, to the scenic pull-off his wife had indicated. A cautious man, he was wary of any black ice that could launch them through the slender barricade and over the straight drop beyond it into Margie's planned panorama.

He didn't fault her artist's eye. The view from this ledge was vast, inspiring, and beautiful. The Connecticut River, far below, lined by glimmering fresh snow, sparkled in the late afternoon sun, which itself was the only object visible in a stark, freezing, ice blue sky. A few farms stretched out to both sides of the winding river, empty of crops or livestock, until their fields bumped up against the opposing Vermont and New Hampshire foothills. Several homes sported thin plumes of woodsmoke from their chimneys, making Doug think of feather quills protruding from toy-sized inkwells. He thought it might have been the sheer antiquity of everything before him that stirred up such an old-fashioned image, since-barring a barely visible utility line and a narrow paved road far in the distance-he guessed that little before him had changed much in over two hundred years.

He and Margie had been vacationing for the past week in the Green Mountain State, whose famous mantle had been deeply powdered by a recent spate of snowstorms. This had been good news for them, since they'd driven up from southern New Jersey to exercise the two snowmobiles they were now towing back home. There had been trips to New England in the past where the cover had been less than ideal for dedicated so-called sledders. But not this time. This visit had been perfect.

Doug rolled to a stop and they both got out, the cold air tingling their nostrils and biting the backs of their throats. The lot was deserted, which suited him fine, considering the combined length of his car and trailer. He'd been able to ignore the row of parking spaces hashed into the cleared asphalt, and simply park alongside the barricade.

"Isn't this incredible?" his wife asked, pulling out her smartphone.

"Pretty nice," he answered briefly, no less impressed by the vista, but sensitive to the near-total stillness accompanying it. "Quiet, too," he added, encouraging his wife to take in more of what he was appreciating.

But there, she had her own style.

"I know," she said, ordering up the phone's photographic function. "Can you imagine how this would be next to the Jersey Pike? I'd have to hope the pictures wouldn't blur, for all the vibration from passing trucks."

He nodded and began walking the length of the extended pull-off, putting some distance between them.

"Don't go too far, Doug," she called out. "I want to take a selfie of us in front of the view."

Refusing to break his inner code of silence, Doug raised his gloved hand without turning and stuck a thumb up in acknowledgment. Margie went back to concentrating on her shot.

Doug had lived in New Jersey his entire life, in the city, amid people. He worked in a large building, at a desk in a room the size of a football field, under an endless stuttering of overhead fluorescent tubes and surrounded by an army corps of cubicles, all like his own. He and Margie had a good life. The house was almost paid for, and in good shape, compared to some on the street. They were all more or less of the same architectural model, which made any standouts that much more glaring. And Doug was happy. The kids had turned out okay, Margie and he were pretty healthy, retirement was looking feasible in another ten years or so-assuming the world didn't go to hell in a handbasket.

He stopped walking, Margie now much smaller in the background.

And last but not least, he had moments like this, when he could absorb the spectacular vestiges of prehistoric phenomena like glaciers, fluvial erosion, and the efforts of mankind to make a living off the land. It gave him a comforting sense of being in touch with what so many of his coworkers back home couldn't even imagine.

He turned from the view at the sound of a car speeding by on the interstate, attracted by how lonely it sounded, and how quickly the sound of it was swallowed by the surrounding immensity. It brought back Margie's comment about the Jersey Pike, which in turn made him think that he ought to get back to her to pose for that photograph.

He paused a moment longer, though, his eyes not on the hundred-foot rock wall across the pavement, looming as high above them as the cliff dropped off to his back. Instead, he found himself drawn to a sharp but distant twinkling of gold, perched on the edge of the roadway, bordering the southbound lane.

Intrigued, he went up to the edge of the parking area's barricade, and climbed atop one of the short wooden posts there to get a better angle on the distant object.

"I'll be damned," he said to himself, recognizing a large handbag, its clasp reflecting the sun's blaze.

"What're you looking at?" his wife asked from surprisingly nearby.

He wobbled briefly on his post, turning and laughing. "Whoa. Honey. You snuck up on me." He pointed across the double lanes. "That thing caught my eye. Probably fell out of a car."

She squinted in the direction he was indicating. "That purse? Why would it fall out of a car? We're miles from the exit. Stuff like that only happens when you're leaving-like when you forget your coffee cup on the roof or something."

Doug was scanning the road up and down, as much for an explanation as in preparation for a quick sprint over to retrieve the purse. Margie, however, had tilted her head back to take in the towering cliff above.

Several years earlier, the Department of Transportation had been delivered some bad news: As a by-product of the construction of Vermont's two interstates back in the sixties, rocks from the cliffs alongside the roads had begun breaking loose. Most of the overhangs had been expensively angled back with drills and blasting. A few, like the one facing the Nielsens now, had been deemed too daunting and had received the alternate treatment of a steel retaining mesh, dropped before the rock face like a chain-link curtain, to prevent any debris from bouncing onto the pavement.

"Oh, my Lord," Margie whimpered softly, her gaze halfway up.

The distress in her voice caught Doug's attention. "Holy Mother," he said.

Some forty feet up, hanging from a rope, was the body of a woman, dangling before the retaining screen like a talisman on display.

Margie, acting instinctively-her reflex as modern as her surroundings were primordial-snapped a picture.



Copyright © 2015 by Archer Mayor