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It can be a treacherous road, State Route 30, especially rain-slick in the twilight of late winter, but I know it well.
I sped along its badly banked curves faster than legal and faster than necessary. I drove that way just for the charge, pushing the road, feeling its rhythm in my fingers, its speed in the current in my spine.
Water hissed under my tires and my headlights reflected off the fat raindrops that splattered the blacktop in front of me. Years ago, 30 carried a fair amount of tourist traffic, but even then it was people on their way to somewhere else.
Now that the state highway slices through the northern part of the county and the Thruway wraps around it, no one passes through Schoharie anymore unless they mean to stop, and not many have a reason to do that.
The tourist brochures call this countryside picturesque. These rocky hills were never good for much except hunting and dairy farming. I swung in, parked at the edge. I had Mozart in the CD player, Mitsuko Uchida playing the B-flat Sonata, and I lit a cigarette, opened the window, listened as the music ended in triumph and the exhilaration of promises fulfilled.
Then I left the car and strolled over to look across the valley. City habits die hard. Hands in my pockets, I let my eyes wander the far hills, asked myself what I was doing. Raindrops tapped my jacket; a tiny stream ran through the gravel at my feet, searching for the valley.
Then, we just worked together sometimes; if she needed someone while I was gone, there were other PIs to call. The rain was ending. Wind rolled the high black clouds aside, revealing a sky that was still almost blue.
The air was full of the smell of earth and promise, everything ready, tense with waiting. Soon spring would explode through the valley and race up the hills, color and noise engulfing the sharp silence. I stood for a while, watched tiny lights wink on in the windows of distant homes. When the sky was dark I turned and went inside. A golf tournament, all emerald grass and blue sky and palm trees, flickered soundlessly from the TV over the bar. A couple of guys who probably thought golf was a sport were watching it.
A few other people were scattered around, at the bar, at the small round tables. None of them was the woman I had come to meet. I slid onto a bar stool. He looked over at me and nodded. He splashed in a shot of Jim Beam and handed it to me. I oughta charge you for the gas. He turned back to me. I nodded and worked on my bourbon. Tony opened Rolling Rocks for two guys down the other end of the bar.
He racked some glasses, filled a couple of bowls with pretzels. Then he turned, reached the bourbon bottle off the shelf. He put it on the bar in front of me. But that no-good punk pisses the hell outta me.
He never shoulda came to you. He gets his ass in trouble, he oughta get it out. What the hell you see to like in that kid, Smith? I told you to send me his goddamn bill.
I looked at Tony, at the sharp line of his jaw, his brows bristling over his deep-set eyes. Another bourbon and a cigarette later, the door opened and a tall, gray-haired woman stepped into the smoky room. No heads turned, no conversations stopped. She looked around her, reviewing and dismissing each face until she came to mine. She stayed still for a moment, with no change of expression; then she came toward me, contained, controlled.
She wore a down vest over a black sweater, old, stained jeans, muddy boots. Her grip was sure, her hand rough. Her blunt, shoulder-length hair was a dozen shades of gray, from almost-black to almost-white.
I went to get her drink. Wondered about it, at the time. Comes in alone, has a shot, leaves alone. Maybe sometimes she talks cows or apples with somebody. Her eyes were doing work of their own. They probed my face, my hands, swept over the room around us, followed my movements as I drank or lit a cigarette.
When they met my eyes they paused, for a moment. They widened slightly, almost imperceptibly, and I thought for no reason of the way a dark room is revealed by a lightening flash, and how much darker it is, after that.
She took a breath, finally, and spoke, with the cautious manner of a carpenter using a distrusted tool. If I had a dollar for every client who started that way I could have had a box at Yankee Stadium, but there was a difference.
They usually said it apologetically, as if they expected me to expect them to know how to begin. Eve Colgate was stating a fact that I could take or leave. You may be the best of them. She looked at me steadily. She went on, her words clipped. At this point, Mr. You come up here irregularly, sometimes for long periods. Other than that he speaks very highly of you. I understand you helped get his brother out of serious trouble recently—and went to considerable trouble to do it.
I bought that cabin twelve years ago. I sleep in the nude. She looked at me sharply over her brandy. Her movements were small and economical. In contrast to her eyes, her body was composed and still. Before that I was carpenter. I drink, I smoke, I eat red meat. That was territory where no one went. I drank, put my cigarette out. I can use the work, but not the inquisition. I gave you references; call them if you want, ask about me.
We drank in silence for a while. They inspected the cobwebs at the rafted ceiling. Every now and then, unpredictably, they returned to me, settling on my face, my hands, taking off again. Do you know where I live? I want them back. Thank you for the drink, Mr. When the door shut behind her the bar was the same as it had been before, as it had always been. What do you have? And the usual stuff.
I ordered the lasagna. Marie bounced off chomping openmouthed on her gum. I glanced up at the TV. The golf was over, the news was on. I stretched my legs and idly watched an elderly couple a few tables over. They were eating dinner in a silence punctuated only by quiet remarks and small gestures that dovetailed so perfectly they might have been choreographed.
I got up, bought a Mountain Eagle from the pile by the bar. There was federal DOT money coming along and with it the state was planning to replace or rebuild three county roads. Now this was strictly a local road and most of the establishments along it had died slow, lonely deaths. I glanced at the other lead stories. Appleseed Baby Foods was expanding. Appleseed was the only major employer in the county.