Seth Augustine picked up two pieces of firewood from the neatly-stacked pile on the porch, and turned around in time to see the front door of the cabin close with a bang.
Then there was the sound of a lock turning.
He strode up to the door, and kicked it twice with his bare foot.
“Hey, what the hell?” he said. “Let me back in!”
Bethany Hale’s voice came from the other side. “Not until you admit I was right.”
“You heard me.”
“It’s fifteen degrees out here, and I’ve got nothing on except my boxers!”
“Then that gives you a little incentive, doesn’t it?”
Seth set down the firewood, and gave the door handle a futile jiggle.
“Seriously?” he said.
There was a snort from the other side of the door. “How long have you known me?”
The wind blew a spray of snow onto Seth’s bare back, and he gave an involuntary squawk. “C’mon, Bethany, I’m freezing to death out here!”
“You’re still talking, so you’re not beyond hope of resuscitation. Admit it, you were wrong and I was right.”
“Are you even kidding me right now?”
“Hmm, maybe I’ll get into the hot tub. Yeah, that’ll be nice. Too bad you’re out there, or you could join me.”
Seth gave a strangled, inarticulate noise of outrage.
“Hey,” came a voice.
Seth looked over to the next cabin, only about thirty feet away. An old lady in a plaid bathrobe, wearing a bright orange stocking cap, was standing on the front porch, leaning on the railing, watching Seth with obvious interest.
“Yeah?” Seth said, his teeth chattering.
“If your girlfriend won’t let you in, honey, you can come over and warm up in my cabin,” the old lady said.
“No, that’s okay,” Seth said, his voice rising in alarm. He rubbed the backs of his arms with his hands. “Bethany, dammit, let me in!”
“Wow, the water is really nice and warm,” Bethany said. “Oh, yeah, and I’m not wearing anything. Just thought I should mention.”
“Fuck,” Seth said under his breath. “Fine. You win. I admit it, you were right, and I was wrong. The Earth is closer to the Sun in winter. Even though it feels pretty goddamned far away at the moment.”
There was a click as Bethany, wrapped in a towel, unlocked and opened the door, and she motioned him in. “There,” she said. “Was that so hard?”
“If she locks you out again, you’re welcome here any time!” the old lady shouted after him as the door closed.
The warmth of a wood fire struck his skin, and he shuddered a little. “You are ruthless.”
She kissed his cheek. “Damn skippy I am. Now, come on, get into the hot tub and warm up. You could have caught your death of cold out there, you know.”
Seth glared at her, then dropped his boxers, and put one foot into the bubbling water, and yelped.
Bethany slipped her towel off, and stepped into the hot tub herself, settling in with a sigh. “Oh, c’mon, you big baby. It’s not that hot.”
“Easy for you to say,” he said. “You didn’t just narrowly escape hypothermia.” He climbed the rest of the way in, then sat down, wincing a little, and leaned back and closed his eyes. “It was that important to you for me to admit I was wrong? I mean, we looked it up on your laptop, and you proved your point, and everything.”
“Yeah, but you didn’t say it. ‘You were right and I was wrong.’ So I decided that you need practice. After all, if I had been wrong, I would have admitted it graciously. But I, unlike you, remembered my high school Earth Science class, wherein Mr. Grunder explained in some detail that axial tilt causes the seasons, and that the Earth is actually closer to the Sun when the Northern Hemisphere is having winter.”
“In my Earth Science class, I was too busy thinking about how to get into Jennifer Kaplan’s pants to pay much attention to orbits and so on.”
“You have a one-track mind.”
“Yeah, but I like that track. And you seem to be pretty fond of it, yourself, Ms. Hale.”
Bethany reached over and rubbed his shoulder. “Are you having fun up here?”
Seth opened his eyes, and smiled. “Of course. Aren’t you?”
“I love it. I’ve always thought the Adirondacks were gorgeous. And this is my first real vacation in years, unless you count visiting my mother.”
“That’s not a vacation.”
“No, it’s not. So this is nice. I’m glad we came here, together.”
“Me too. Even if you do periodically try to kill me.”
She laughed. “Relax. I wouldn’t kill you for real. I’m happy not to be hip deep in murder for a change.”
“Same.” He looked over at her. “But are you serious about not killing me?”
“Of course. Why?”
“Because I left the firewood on the porch.”
The next days were filled with cross-country skiing and snowshoeing, followed by basking in front of the fire, sipping wine, and reading. Seth had brought along his Kindle, and was absorbed in a spy thriller; Bethany preferred actual books, and her tastes ran more to historical fiction. But both of them settled quickly into the sweetness of shared down-time, Bethany lying on the sofa with her book propped up in front of her, and Seth sitting with her legs across his lap, one of his hands and his Kindle resting lightly on her ankles.
It was on the fourth day there that they decided to venture down into Finn Hill, the nearest village, for some groceries and a change of scenery. Finn Hill was nothing more than a few businesses and some widely-scattered houses and churches, but it was picturesque and quaint and looked as if it could provide at least a couple hours’ diversion.
They made a stop at the Nice ‘n’ Easy and Kwik Fill, where they bought bacon, eggs, milk, and provisions for lunches and dinners. Then it was off on a brisk walk through the town. The walk was made even more brisk by the frigid temperatures, although the sun was high in a brilliant blue sky, making the snowbanks almost too bright to look at.
The main road was lined with a row of businesses, of which the first two – a bakery and an antiques store – seemed the most interesting. They purchased scones at the bakery and then went next door to Parker’s Antiques. The door shut behind them, and the jingle of the bell coincided with a sour voice saying, “You can’t bring that in here.”
Seth looked up and saw that he was being scowled at by a rail-thin old man, mostly bald, with wire-rimmed glasses.
“What?” Seth said, his mouth full.
“Food,” the old man said. “Sign on the door. ‘No Food Inside.’”
“Oh,” Seth said, and popped the rest of the scone in his mouth. “There,” he said, a little indistinctly. “All gone.”
“What about her?” the old man said, gesturing with one gnarled finger at Bethany.
Bethany wrapped up the remaining half of her scone in a napkin, and put it into her purse. “There we go. I promise I won’t take it out until we leave.”
The old man turned away with a snort, mumbling something about “Damned out-o’-towners,” and disappeared into the back of the store.
“Charming gentleman,” Seth observed, as Bethany went over to a display of old mantelpiece clocks, each with hand-carved scrollwork surrounding the face.
“My uncle had one of these,” Bethany said. “I’ve always wanted one.”
“Don’t they ring every hour?”
“His did. Also the half-hour.”
“How do people sleep with that racket?”
She smiled. “I never found it disturbing. It was kind of soothing, really.” She lifted the tag, and gave a low whistle. “Never mind.”
“Jesus. For a clock?”
She shrugged. “I guess some people will pay that. Not me, however.”
Seth looked briefly at a box full of ancient tennis rackets and baseball bats. He picked up one of the rackets, examined its worn wooden frame and gut strings, and took a tentative swing with it. “Man, this thing weighs like fifty pounds. I’ll keep my carbon-fiber racket and just go lift weights if I want to bulk up.”
“Young man,” came the nasal voice of the elderly proprietor, who apparently had the ability to appear out of nowhere whenever anyone did something that was against the rules. “Please do not swing around my merchandise. Anything that you break, you must pay for.”
“Gotcha,” Seth said, rolling his eyes a little, and put the tennis racket back into the box.
Bethany wandered over toward a shelf lined with old books. She ran her finger lightly down the worn cloth-bound spines, and then pulled one out. She smiled and motioned Seth over. “Hey, this one is right down your alley,” she said. “Babu the Jungle Boy.”
“What are you saying, dear?” Seth said, joining her in front of the shelf.
“Well, it appears to be about an uncivilized savage who runs around without any clothes on, and how he was tamed and taught etiquette. Maybe I should buy it. You know, for suggestions on how to proceed.”
“Good luck with that. And don’t forget that as you try to civilize me, I’m trying to wild you. And I think, all things considered, I’m making more progress than you are.”
She shut the book with a snap, and pulled another one off the shelf. “Hey, look,” she said, her voice rising in excitement, “it’s a murder mystery by Dorothy Sayers. I love Dorothy Sayers. The Nine Tailors. I haven’t read that one.” She opened the cover. It creaked a little, and Seth got a whiff of the familiar dusty old-book smell. Inside was a pocket, now empty, that said, “Property of Finn Hill Public Library.” Underneath was a word stamped in purple ink that said, “WITHDRAWN.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever read anything by her,” Seth said.
“Amazing writer. And her detective, Lord Peter Wimsey, is the pinnacle of civilization, just so you know.”
“I’m sure. But I thought you were glad to get away from murder.”
She gave him a sheepish grin. “Actually, I miss it a little.” She rifled the pages. “I’m kind of looking forward to getting back to it, to tell the truth.”
And that was when a yellowed piece of paper, folded in quarters, fell out of the book.
Bethany leaned over and picked it up, then gently unfolded it. Seth looked over her shoulder. It was handwritten, in a sloped, scrawly cursive. It read:
I expect by the time anyone reads this, I’ll be dead. Maybe long dead. I’d tell the authorities, but who would believe me? I tried to tell my uncle, because he’s the only one I can trust, and he just told me that I read too many fanciful stories and now I think they’re real.
Maybe, though, someone will find this. So I guess I’ll talk directly to you, person in the future who is reading this; if I’m dead, it wasn’t an accident or natural causes or any of that sort of thing. I was murdered because of what I heard at Denny Goldsmith’s funeral, and what I know because of it.
I’m not asking for revenge, or whatnot. It’s just that I think someone should know the truth. Even if it’s too late for me, the truth should get out somehow.
“Wow,” Seth said, in a hushed voice. “Be careful what you wish for.”
Bethany turned toward him, her face a little pale. “This has got to be a prank, right? No one would do this seriously.”
“I dunno. It doesn’t sound like a prank.”
One corner of Bethany’s mouth curled upwards a little. “You can tell the difference?”
“Yeah, I think I could. Don’t you think if it was some kind of joke, they’d put in less detail? Why mention names? Just write, ‘I’m in danger. People are trying to kill me, because of secret stuff. Please send help!’ The names make me wonder.”
“Hmm,” Bethany said, frowning. “Maybe you’re right.”
“Can I hold it?”
Seth reached out and took the slip of paper, and pressed his fingertips against the faded print. Through the point of contact, he got a confusing array of sensations; fear, distrust, arrogance, curiosity, anger. And loneliness. Pervasive, all-encompassing loneliness.
He looked up to find Bethany watching him, her eyebrows drawn together in a concerned expression. “What?” she said. “What are you getting?”
“Well,” he said, quietly, “it’s real, I think. I’m assuming that the last person who held it was the one who wrote it – that’s the impression I’m getting. And I think that the note is truthful at least in the sense that the person who wrote it thought she was being persecuted. But whoever wrote it – Martha Darnell? – she was a drama queen. Highly emotional. And not very honest, I’d say. Of course, that doesn’t mean that what she wrote was a lie.”
“Well, we can see what the shopkeeper knows,” Bethany said.
“Good luck with that. He’s the human porcupine, as far as I can tell.”
“Well, I can try.” She turned, still holding the book in one hand and the note in the other, and walked across the wood-plank floor toward the register at the back of the store. The sour-faced old man was standing behind the counter, leafing through some receipts, and didn’t look up until the third time Bethany said, “Excuse me?”
“Yes?” he said, and gave a harsh little sigh of annoyance.
“Do you know of families around here named Darnell and Goldsmith?”
He looked at her through narrowed eyes for a moment, as if he was trying to figure out a good reason to refuse to answer. Finally he said, his voice heavy with suspicion, “Yes. Couple of Darnell families hereabout. Matt and Lawrence Darnell. Brothers. Both live up on the north end of the village. Lots of Goldsmiths. Old family name in this part of the county. Goldsmiths and Parkers and Jenkses, and a couple of others, founded this village back in the 1700s.”
“How about a Martha Darnell and a Denny Goldsmith?”
There was a long pause. “Why’d you want to know about them?” He peered over at the note, but Bethany had it angled upwards so he couldn’t read it from where he was standing.
“Just curious,” she said, with a smile.
“Both of ‘em died a long while back. Maybe thirty years ago.”
“And the two deaths – they happened right around the same time?”
He frowned. “Yes. I reckon so. But why…”
“Do you know anything about how they died?”
The old man had evidently reached his tolerance level for answering questions. “Nope,” he said.
“You’re sure about that?”
“Yup,” he said, and his mouth shut tight.
“I want to buy this book,” Bethany said, setting it down on the counter and tucking the note into her purse.