For the last mile or two she’d been alone on the road. Her lights sliced through the misty autumn darkness. Signs gleamed and slid past. Nearly home, now. But where was everybody? There was always traffic on the Post Road.
The car climbed another slope. In the daytime, you could see the light on the Hudson from the top, a brightening beyond the trees. Tonight, Gillian saw a traffic jam. Damn, she muttered. She was already late. At the tail of the line she pulled on to the shoulder and peered ahead. The box of a jackknifed semi-trailer lay across the road. A white blaze of headlights came from the traffic halted on the far side. Car doors were open.
There was no point in waiting. She could take the back road by the ponds. She made a U-turn a few yards behind the last car and started north again. Estelle would be worried, and worry was bad for her heart. Should have bought a car phone, Gillian thought. At least she’d gotten a cordless for Estelle; it would be right next to her on the sofa unless she’d lost it again. The last time, Gillian had found it in the fridge. A distant white spot enlarged, became a floodlit rectangle: the sign for the Dutch House. There were public phones in the bar. She parked the car and got out. The long white porch and weathered fieldstone walls looked the same as ever. A neon martini glass glowed blue behind a mullioned window.
The tavern had once been a house, built by a Dutch settler. Then in seventeen-something it became an inn, a stop on the post road from New York to Albany. The rooms upstairs had still been rented when Gillian was a child. ‘Washington Slept Here’, read a sign over the stairwell. It was possible, but if Washington had slept in every bed that claimed him, the British would have won the war. Now the rooms were closed. In other hands, the Dutch House might have been turned into a restaurant, the kind with duck à l’orange on the menu and overpriced French wines from the wrong years. The rooms would have featured four-poster beds and ruffled pillows and bowls of potpourri. But Frankie Sheridan, the present owner, had no truck with wine lists and linens. Frankie ran a bar.
She stepped into smoke and noise. A row of heads and shoulders watched a thunderous basketball game on the television screen above the bar. She recognized Frankie in his green paisley vest; he’d gone completely bald since she’d last seen him, and his mouth was filled with gold. The room was dimly lit by candle bulbs in brass wall sconces. Two men were playing pool, moving in and out of the light over the table. No one took any notice of her. She walked past a row of empty booths to get to the telephone. Jamming the receiver to her ear, she could scarcely hear the dial tone over the electronic hubbub as a foul was called. Then an ad came on. Balls clicked on the pool table; a soft crescendo of chatter rose from the tables.
Estelle answered the phone. Gillian shouted a few words of explanation, then hung up and turned to go. One of the booths wasn’t empty after all. A man slumped in his seat by the wall, watching her. He was thin, with narrow hunched-up shoulders and bony wrists. He wore a baseball cap. Under it she saw a lined face frosted with stubble. His eyes were startled.
Gillian’s mind darted through a maze of possibilities, hit dead ends. He must be someone she knew. She stood by the telephone, waiting for him to speak. His eyes slid away, and he fumbled for a cigarette in his breast pocket. The sleeves of his checked flannel shirt were frayed. He lit up, squinting at the quaking flame. The ashtray was half full; the two beer glasses in front of him were empty. He sucked on his cigarette, darted a quick glance at her and then exhaled a cloud of smoke, looking down. He wasn’t going to say anything.
She could speak to him. For an instant, Gillian considered it. But she was already late. She saw the glowing tip of the cigarette tremble. Better leave it, she concluded, and walked past him to the door. Outside, out of sight, she paused, wondering. Would she have recognized him in a better light? She made her way back across the parking lot crowded with battered sedans and Jeeps on steroids.
She would come back some Sunday afternoon. She used to like to stop in for a hot rum by the fire. The Hudson Valley had a history, and the inn, with its heavy ceiling beams and great stone fireplace, its scarred, wide-planked floor, was part of it. It was one of the oldest buildings in the county.
Traders, soldiers, landowners, painters had stopped there, traveling to and from New York. Sailboats and steamships had plied the river, armies had fought in the valley. Painters found a new Eden in its wild grandeur. She liked to sit in the Dutch House when it was quiet and feel its connection to the past.
As she swung the car around towards the exit, her lights glided over two gigantic links of chain laid across a bed of white stones. The metal was mottled and dull, weathered to a blackish brown. According to Frankie, they were relics of the Revolution, links from the great chain across the Hudson that barred the way to British warships. It was possible that he believed it.
At the edge of the highway, she could see the distant flash of a patrol car by the overturned truck. She pulled away, looking for Dykeman’s Pond Road. The sign was hard to see.
# # #
‘We’re at Dykeman’s,’ Maya said. ‘I can see the water. How many minutes was that?’
‘Sixteen,’ Lynn answered, breathless. ‘Not bad. Ten more to the Slough.’
It was a clear morning, but the chill of night still hung in the air. The two runners, taller chocolate-brown and shorter freckled redhead, wore identical neon-orange sweatshirts and caps: regulation running gear at Stanton College since 1970, the year a student had been peppered in the thigh by a trigger-happy hunter. They pounded steadily downhill, past Dykeman’s Pond and up the next rise. The road was narrow, a winding track half roofed by trees. Here and there, a house stood in a clearing, well back from the road. Driveways made small openings in the palisade of trunks, running away through the woods to hidden houses further in. An occasional bit of shingled roof showed on the ridge above the road.
They topped the rise. Below them was the Slough of Despond, the wooden bridge, and beyond that the longest uphill section of the team’s usual run, which explained their name for the water. The slough was not really a slough at all, but a sluggish stream and a pond. On maps, it was known as Dee’s Pond.
‘Look. Deer,’ Maya grunted, slowing her pace.
There were two on the near side of the pond, nervously scenting the air.
‘Ten minutes,’ Lynn said. ‘Keep moving.’
A pheasant rocketed upward from the brush beyond the water, and a sharp crack burst the air. The deer bounded away, white hindquarters flashing as they vanished into the trees. The pheasant dropped, flapped frantically in the grass and lay still.
‘Hey!’ Maya yelled.
Silence. The two women stopped. They were on the bridge now. They stood still and listened. Their breathing rasped, loud in the quiet. Nothing stirred, only a little murmur of moving water under the bridge.
‘That was a gun, wasn’t it?’ Lynn said. ‘But the land’s posted. There’s no hunting around here.’
‘Shit. The idiot could have killed us,’ Maya muttered. ‘The poor pheasant. Maybe it’s only wounded. Should we go see?’
‘No way. The guy’s over there somewhere, with his stupid gun.’
‘He must have heard you. He wouldn’t shoot again.’ ‘Unless he’s a nut. He must be hiding in the woods. I wonder if anyone’s home around here.’ Maya turned slowly, trying to stare through the scrim of branches. Sweat rolled down her bare neck. She took off her cap and rubbed her shaved brown scalp. Below the wooden planks of the bridge, water trickled, a secretive sound. She looked over the edge. ‘What?’ said Lynn, as Maya backed away, sucking in a deep breath.
‘Shut up.’ Maya stared around at the woods. ‘Are you sick or something? You look weird.’ ‘Go look.’
Lynn stepped to the rail and looked down. A body lay crumpled in the weeds. A woman, one arm thrust awkwardly behind her. Her face rested at the water’s edge, her body sagging into the spongy mat of grass and reeds. Dark strands of hair plastered her cheek. There was something familiar about her coat. Lynn shrank back from the rail. ‘Is she dead?’ Maya glanced down again and away. ‘Maybe she drowned.’ ‘She looks dead. Come on, we should find a phone,’ Lynn whispered. ‘Let’s go.’ But her feet were welded to the bridge. Her knees wobbled. In the silence she gazed fearfully at the woods across the pond. The air chilled the sweat on her skin.
‘We have to see if she’s still alive.’
Lynn’s instincts said that the woman was dead, but her reason said Maya was right. What if the woman’s heart was still beating? They had to check.
‘Shouldn’t one of us keep a lookout?’ ‘For the hunter? OK, I’ll go down.’
Maya clambered down the slippery bank. Lynn looked up and down the road, hoping for a car. ‘Don’t fall,’ she warned. But Maya, nearly down the bank, didn’t hear her. She was looking at the coat, at the dark hair. ‘It’s Nicole,’ she said. She stumbled, her foot slipping in the weeds, the water gurgling into her shoes. She pulled at the body’s shoulders, pushed wet hair from the eyes.
‘Nicole,’ Lynn said blankly. She couldn’t see the face. ‘It can’t be.’ She forgot the hunter and lurched down the short slope, grabbing at grasses.
Maya fell sideways into the shallow water. ‘Shit.’ She was crying. Fearfully, Lynn peered at the face, closed her fingers around Nicole’s icy wrist. Her skin was stained with brownish ooze, her open eyes coated with scum. Her arm was stiff. Lynn couldn’t lift it. There was no pulse at all. ‘Nicole,’ she said. ‘Nicole, wake up.’ She should at least move Nicole’s head away from the water. She pulled clumsily. The black raincoat was rucked up around Nicole’s neck. Lynn hauled on the collar. It was slimy. She snatched her hand away, but her fingers were brown and slippery. Revolted, she wiped them on the dirty grass. ‘Please,’ she whispered.
‘Christ, what’s that?’ Maya said. ‘Oh Jesus.’
They both saw it, the big bruise on the neck. Dirty water had soaked parts of the white shirt under the coat, wicking from fibre to fibre, but the collar and patches of the shirt front were dyed a darker, rustier colour.
‘Come on,’ Maya whispered hoarsely. Lynn thrust her hands into the stream, rubbing them together in a frenzy. Brown trickles of water ran off her fingers. She’d seen a wound in Nicole’s neck. A vile taste rose in her throat and she retched into the weeds.
Maya shivered in her wet clothes. ‘I’m going,’ she said, struggling up the bank.
‘Wait,’ Lynn wailed.
‘Hurry up!’ Maya was already off the bridge, moving uphill, but she made herself stop and wait. Lynn crawled up the bank to the side of the road and stood up. A movement in the field caught her eye, and she stifled a cry. The wounded pheasant flapped its wings desperately and sank into the grass again. Maya was racing away. Clumsily, Lynn began to run, her feet heavy. Then the adrenaline cut in and she fled up the hill, catching Maya before she reached the summit. Panting, she looked back. Sunlight edged over the treetops, drying the dew. The pond was as flat and opaque as metal, the trees perfectly still. There was nothing to see.