As the sun gained the eastern sky, I drove my truck through a meadow and toward Maid-en’s Grove Lake. On the hills, aspen trees leafed out like pale green clouds, and scattered in the grass below, violets stood up to the wet, cold spring. Everywhere you looked, summer was promised.
Who named the lake Maiden’s Grove I do not know, probably the same person who named our township Wild Thyme, back two hundred years ago when northern Pennsylvania was still frontier. They arrived and there it was, a deep glacial rut fed by springs and spilling into January Creek, hooking into the Susquehanna at some point south, and then running hundreds of miles out to the Chesapeake Bay.
I came to a right turn and took the road to where a dozen cottages sat on the shore. They’d been built in the thirties, when the family that owned most of the surrounding land had sold off a few parcels to raise cash. The family, name of Swales, had evidently grown rich again down in Luzerne County. Until recently, they’d left the other three-quarters of the lake wild. The south shore cottagers were a house-proud and wealthy few who prized quiet and solitude. They stocked the lake with trout and forbade motorboats. At Cottage Seven, I pulled in next to a navy Mercedes wagon and walked to the side yard. The midmorning sun scattered white light across the lake’s blue surface. You could smell the light. Rhonda Prosser a slender middle-aged woman with the wiry limbs of a distance runner, crouched in front of a broken basement window. On my arrival she stood. She wore gray dreadlocks with silver rings and charms woven in. Her face was severe and beautiful, the face of a white woman, to be clear, dreadlocks notwithstanding. I’d seen her and her husband at monthly township meetings in the summer months. They’d made it a project to beleaguer the township supervisor—my boss, Steve Milgraham—over fracking. In particular, where was the EPA looking after us, and where was the Act 13 money going? For this they had become notable in Holebrook County despite being themselves residents of New York State, north of the border.
Rhonda peered at me over half-glasses clamped onto the very tip of her nose.
“Henry Farrell, Wild Thyme,” I said.
“Yeah, I know. I was expecting state police,” she said.
“Well,” I said.
“So you’re going to handle this? Because I called before. I left messages on your machine. People raising hell at Andy Swales’s place, and you won’t lift a finger.”
It was true. Andy Swales was prince of the family and had, that past year, built a stone castle on a hill overlooking the northern shore, along with a small boathouse and a dock. From the Prossers’ cottage, you could see a turret.
Swales leased some of his land and a trailer up there to a young couple named Kevin O’Keeffe and Penny Pellings, in exchange for their caretaking the house and grounds. Yet them two were not known for care. Child Protective Services had removed their newborn girl, Eolande, about a year ago, in a case that saw a bit of publicity. In addition to the occasional check-in relating to their efforts to get Eolande back, I’d been on a domestic call to the trailer that winter, nothing too bad, just hippies in a squabble that went too far.
Point being, with Kevin and Penny living up there, a certain local element had new access to the lake, and the cottage owners didn’t like it. Starting that spring, any chance they got, they called about some scandal up to Maiden’s Grove, somebody playing music too loud too late or bait-fishing their trout. I told them once you stock a public lake, the fish are the commonwealth’s. But I’d called Andy Swales about the noise. He’d told me his tenants could do what they pleased, as long as they didn’t get carried away, his words. Me, I also figured it was a free country and people were allowed to get drunk at the wrong lake if they wanted.
Worst of all to the cottagers on the southern shore, worse than their new neighbors to the north, Swales had signed a gas lease. At some point in the future, they all might look out across the lake to see a derrick punching poison into the earth with nothing but a thin concrete well protecting their water supply.
“Well,” I said, “the state called the county, and the county called the township, and the township is me, so.”
“The nearest state barracks is an hour away,” I said. “I may work with the county on suspects and that. Show me around?”
We went inside. The interior of the cottage was white and spare. The spaces beneath tables and chairs were empty, the countertops clean, the shelves filled with art books. Life preservers and baseball mitts hung on hooks in a shale-floored mudroom with a bench and a view to the lake. Unlike most of the homes I visited on the job, there was not a thing in this one you could call junk. In fact, the cottage was so little disarranged that I had a hard time believing it had been burgled until I came to the wall fixture that had once held a flat-screen TV, and saw the outlines where a stereo had once sat on a chest painted in blue milk wash. According to Rhonda, two vintage stringed instruments had been taken, but not the priceless barn harp, which was crumbling into something more like folk art. She showed it to me and strummed it; it did not play well. In an upstairs bedroom, the burglars had forced open a locked drawer in a nightstand and taken an HK 9mm automatic handgun. Rhonda said it was her ex-husband’s, for coyotes, described it as black, hadn’t touched it since the divorce. There was a touch of weariness in her voice when her ex-husband came into the story. It was the first I’d heard of the split, so I guessed it was recent. She didn’t know if the gun was loaded; it may well have been. There was a nearly empty box of 124-grain full metal jacket ammunition still in the drawer. All the liquor was gone. Downstairs in the basement, any tools not bolted down had been taken. We headed back up to the ground floor.
Fateful Mornings by Tom Bouman is published in July by Faber & Faber.
Buy it from SHOTS A Store.