To Darkness and to Death

The Agatha, Anthony, Dilys, Barry and Macavity Award-winning author delivers another suspenseful tale of faith and murder featuring the Rev. Clare Fergusson and Police Chief Russ van Alstyne.

Julia Spencer-Fleming raises the stakes in the fourth entry in her best-selling series set in the quiet town of Millers Kill, New York. Taking a cue from the smash hit television series, 24 Hours, the thrilling plot of her latest plays out over a single day. An early morning missing persons report sends Chief van Alstyne scrambling to one of the last great Adirondack summer estates. One of the heirs to a fortune is missing amidst evidence of foul play. As Clare and Russ race against time to solve the mystery, an unseen hand seeks to foil the search, destroy key evidence, and destroy the searchers as well. As the tension ratchets up, will Russ and Clare succeed in keeping their growing bond a secret from others, or even from themselves?

It’s a complex, atmospheric mystery from Spencer-Fleming, a writer who’s latest effort is sure to please the dedicated and growing following of this masterful series.

Episcopalian priest Clare Fergusson and married police chief Russ Van Alstyne are constantly battling the growing attraction between them, but each time they promise themselves to stay apart, a crime in their small upstate New York town pulls them together. It’s a woman’s disappearance that roils the peace of Millers Kill this time. Family heirs are on the verge of selling one of the last Adirondack “camps”--grand mansions built in the woods or on the lakeshore, where their wealthy owners go to “rough it” in the summer. This particular camp is about to be sold, but contention over the woman’s disappearance holds up the final signing.

Praise

“Clare Fergusson and Russ Van Alstyne make a fresh and unusual detective partnership, and I always welcome Clare’s impetuous but wise take on the world around her.”
—Sara Paretsky, author of the V. I. Warshawski novels
“A Rube Goldberg plot that crams all manner of secrets and crimes into the most hectic 21 hours in Millers Kill's history...the results show that God has both endless compassion for mortal screw-ups—and a terrific sense of humor.”
—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“A rich and fulfilling story...time spent with these characters is to be cherished.”
—Chicago Sun-Times
“A rich and fulfilling story...time spent with these characters is to be cherished.”
—Chicago Sun-Times
“Disparate elements fuse with elegant plotting...Spencer Fleming parcels out the excitement until the stunning conclusion. She also continues her sensitive handling of the tension between Clare and the very married chief of police she's fallen in love with.”
—Rocky Mountain News (Grade: A)
“Spencer-Fleming makes effective use of her vividly realized Adirondack setting, and she keeps the story moving at a good clip...the fourth installment in a satisfying series.”
—Booklist
“The friendship of these solid, down-to-earth characters moves closer to romance, and the intrigue continues to build, revealing a riveting, well-plotted criminal adventure.”
—Romantic Times Bookclub Magazine (starred review)

Excerpt

When the wicked man turneth away from his wickedness that he hath committed, and doeth that which is lawful and right, he shall save his soul alive. Ezek. 18. 27.

5:00am

Cold. The cold awoke her, creeping underneath her blanket, spreading like an ache along her hip. She tried to move, to burrow into some warm space, but the cold was beneath her, and then there was a hard hot twinge of pain in her shoulders and she had a panicky moment of where? What? She tried again. She couldn’t move her arms. They were pinned behind her back, her wrists fastened by something sticky and implacable.

Scream. Her cheeks and lips didn’t move. Here eyelids felt like they were glued together, but she blinked and blinked until the sting of cold air brought tears to her eyes. Open, closed, the darkness was the same. The darkness, and the cold.

Her brain didn’t want to make sense of anything she was feeling. Was she drunk? Was this some sort of game? What had she done? She couldn’t remember. She remembered dinner. She had chickpea stew. Homemade bread. Red wine. She could picture the table, laid with her mother’s best china. She could remember looking down the long view across the table to where her father’s picture hung on the wall, thinking, I know he’d approve. I know he would. But them what? Nothing. A blankness more frightening than the cold blackness around her. Because it was inside her. A hole in her mind.

She suddenly remembered a trip to Italy they had taken. She had been ten or eleven then. It was the summer after Gene’s mother had died, the only summer they didn’t come up to the camp. Daddy had hired a driver to take them on the drive through the mountains to Lake Cosmo, but the morning they were to leave Pisa, he had canceled. An American had been kidnapped. She had been whiny, bored with the university town, eager for the water-skiing and boat rides she had been promised. Daddy pulled up a chair and explained they couldn’t risk it. That they would make very good targets. That was the word he used, targets. Because we’re American? She had asked. Because we’re rich, he had answered. It was the first time, the only time he had ever said that. Because we’re rich.

Kidnapped. Oh, God. She squeezed her eyes shut against a spill of hot tears and wished, for the thousandth time, that her father was still alive. To make everything all right.

5:15am

Ring. Ring. The phone. She snarled, rolled onto her stomach and pulled her pillow over her head, but the damn thing wouldn’t give up. Once. Twice. Three times. With an inarticulate curse, she reached out from under the covers and grabbed the receiver. “H’lo,” she said.

“Reverend Fergusson? Did I wake you?” She was spared coming up with an answer worthy of the question, because her caller went on. “It’s John Huggins, Millers Kill Search and Rescue. I’m calling you on official business.”

I’m so glad it’s not personal, she thought, but the only thing her mouth could manage was, “Me?”

“You signed up, didn’t you?” She could hear the rustle of paper over the line. “Air Force training in survival, search and rescue? Nine years Army helicopter pilot? Physically fit, has own gear?”

She shoved the pillow beneath her and propped herself up on her elbows. The only word her sleep-sodden brain latched on to was pilot. “You want me to fly?”

“Not hardly. We got a young woman reported missing. Went out for a walk last night, never returned. Her brother called it in this morning after he discovered her bed hadn’t been slept in.

This morning? She squinted at the blackness outside her window. Didn’t look like morning to her. “Why me?”

“Because we’re down to the bottom of the list.” Huggins said, his voice laced with exasperation. “Two thirds of the crew are off on loan to the Plattsburgh mountain rescue. They got an old lady wandered away from her home and a pair of hunters who haven’t reported in for three days. Can you do it, or not?”

The bishop’s visit. She pushed away the last of her muzzy-headedness. Half the congregation of St. Alban’s would be at the church today, preparing for the dog-and-pony show that was the bishop’s annual visit. She should be there. But... The search and rescue team needed her. She did sign up. And hiking through the woods is a lot more appealing than counting napkins and polishing silver, a treacherously seductive voice inside her pointed out. “Sure, I can do it,” she said. “Where should I meet you?”

“A place called Haudenosaunee.”

“What’s that? A town?”

“Naw, it’s an old-time estate. What they call a great camp. Inside the Blue Line.”

“The Blue Line?”

“Inside the boundary of the Adirondack State Park.” Huggins sounded as if he were having second, maybe third thoughts about calling her.

She rolled out of bed. There was a pencil and a pad of paper on her nightstand. “Give me the directions,” she said. “I’ll be there as soon as I can.”

5:15am

Ed Castle was sitting in the dark. There was no reason for it, really. He had crept out of his unlit bedroom to avoid waking his wife, but with their door safely shut, he could have snapped the hall lights on. Or turned on one of the lamps in the living room when he unlocked the gun cabinet and tucked his rifle under his arm.

Maybe it was because for so many years he had been up early winter mornings, long gone before his family awoke or the sun rose. Tip-toeing past the doors that had once led to his daughters’ bedrooms, he felt a tug, like a hook from out of the past embedded in his heart, and he had wanted to open the doors once again to see them sleeping, all silky hair and boneless limbs.

In the kitchen, he had started the coffee and found his Thermos by touch and the green glow of the microwave clock. He thought maybe he’d need some light to find the box of shells he kept hidden behind Suzanne’s baking tins on the top shelf, but he hadn’t. Now he sat in the dark and thought about the years of his life, which were doled out, it seemed to him, winter by winter, tree by tree, marked by a chain tread and a scarred path leading into the woods. Leading to where he could not see.

The light snapped on, starting him upright in his chair. Suzanne stood in the orange and gold halo of the hanging tulip lamp, zipped into her velour robe, her graying hair every which way. “What on earth are you doing here, sitting around with no lights on?” She stepped toward him, her slippers shush-shushing over the vinyl floor.

He shrugged. “I was thinking about when the girls were little. This was the only quiet time I had back then.”

“Well, you’re going to get a chance to relive those days.” She crossed to the counter and opened a cupboard to retrieve her coffee cup. “I’m watching Bonnie’s boys while she’s finishing up that big sewing job and Becky’s coming home for the weekend.”

He grunted. She waved the pot in his direction and he held out his mug. “She coming up here to gloat?”

“Stop that,” Suzanne said sharply. “She didn’t force you to put the business up for sale. You can’t make the Adirondack Conservation Corporation the bad guy in all this. It was your decision.”

“I wouldn’t have had to make any decision if the ACC wasn’t going to cut off my lumbering license.” He buried his nose in his coffee cup. “I can’t believe my own daughter turned into a damn tree-hugger.”

Suzanne seated herself at the table. “It’s your own fault. You used to sneak her out to your cut sites when she wasn’t big enough to tie her own shoes.”

One half of a smile crooked his cheek. “You used to carry on something fierce about that.”

“A lumbering camp is no place for a four year old.”

He laughed. “Remember how she would stomp around in a fit if she couldn’t come with me?”

“Uh huh.” Suzanne looked at him pointedly over the rim of her cup. “So now she’s grown up into someone who loves the woods, is hot-tempered, always speaks her mind--and you can’t figure out where she gets it from.” She snorted. “The only thing she doesn’t favor you in is her hair.”

Ed ran his hand over his nearly-bald scalp and grinned.

Suzanne rolled her white crockery mug between her hands, a gesture he had seen her make on a thousand cold mornings like this one. “What’s really bothering you?”

“Sellin’ off the business.”

“Thought so.”

“I know it makes sense. If this land trade-off goes ahead like it’s supposed to, by this time tomorrow the van der Hoeven wood lot is gonna be off-limits to lumbering. By this time next week, the crew and I’d have to head fifty miles north to the nearest open woods. A hundred extra miles a day. Six hundred a week. With fuel prices the way they are, Suze--”

“I know.”

“Not to mention the increase in the insurance premium once we start putting that many open-road miles on our trucks.”

“I know.”

“And we’ll be getting hit with more maintenance on the trucks.”

“I know.”

“I just don’t see how we can take the increased cost and survive.” He looked down at the rifle resting in his lap. It had been his dad’s, along with the timber business. For a moment, he felt cut loose in time, unsure if he was sixty or sixteen. The gun, the woods, the coffee, even. All the same in his father’s time. In his grandfather’s.

“I always hoped to keep it in the family somehow. Maybe leave it to Bonnie’s boys. They love the woods.”

She nodded. “They do. On the other hand, do you want them risking their necks sixty hours a week to bring home twenty-five thousand a year?”

He looked at her, surprised. “You never complained.”

She laughed quietly. “I was a lumberman’s daughter. I knew what I was getting into when I married you.”

He put down his coffee and took her hand. The feel of her skin under his thumb was another bright spot against time and the dark. “I called the boys on the crew yesterday. Told ‘em I wasn’t going out this winter. It’s a hell of a thing to do, to tell a man he ain’t got the job he’s been counting on. But if I sell out now to one of the larger companies, I can get a good price for the equipment. Not great, not with fuel prices high and interest rates low, but decent. Good enough so’s we could get a place in Florida. Become snowbirds. Would you like that?”

He watched her roll the thought around in her mouth, tasting it. “It’d be nice,” she finally said. “Wearing short sleeves all the time. Gardening year round.”

“No more dark mornings,” he said.

She smiled a bit at that. “I’d miss seeing Bonnie and the boys, though. And it would be odd having Christmas where it’s sunny and warm.” She looked at him more closely. “What are you going to do? I can’t imagine you not timbering.”

He glanced down at the old rifle in his lap. That was the question, wasn’t it? “Man and boy, I’ve hauled wood out of those mountains forty years now. I don’t know what I’ll do if I’m not a lumberman. But change is coming, Suze.” He rubbed his thumb over her hand again. “And if we don’t change with it, we’ll get left behind.”

5:30am

Dressed in insulated camos and a blaze orange vest, Russ padded downstairs in his stocking feet. Every chair, sofa and table in the parlor was piled high with meticulously folded draperies, glossy stripes and chintzes that made the room look like a dressmakers shop gone mad. He shifted a deeply ruffled swag to grab the new Lee Child novel he’d been reading last night and heard the dry crunch of tissue paper stuffed into the folds. No wrinkles for these babies. Unlike him. The smell of coffee drew him on to the kitchen. He poured himself another cup from the coffeemaker. Boxes of rings and hooks and other curtain-hanging hardware took up all the available space on the kitchen table, so he stood by the sink, looking out the window into the pale darkness, Jack Reacher’s adventures abandoned on the counter.

He heard the stairs creak. “Can I help you load any of this stuff in the car?” he called out.

“Not yet,” Linda said, toting what looked like a ball gown through the kitchen. “Let me get rid of this and I’ll be right back.” She kneed open the mudroom door and clattered down the steps into the unheated summer kitchen they used for storage. That room led to the barn, where Russ had spent most of the last summer prying up the uneven plank flooring and laying down heavy-duty joists, making it a usable garage for the first time since the horse and buggy days. He was actually looking forward to the first big storm of the season, just for the novelty of getting into his truck without knocking snow off first.

“Okay, birthday boy, you ready?” She peeked around the mudroom door. “I couldn’t wrap it, so this is all the surprise you get.” She emerged into the kitchen cradling a pristine quilted canvas rifle case.

“Whoa,” he said.

“Take a look inside.” She handed it to him. He unzipped the case. Nestled in the well-padded interior was a .378 Weatherby Mark V.

“Oh. Honey.” He drew it out reverently, running a hand along the gunstock walnut, smooth and warm to the touch, like a living thing. “It’s beautiful.” Rosewood and maple gleamed in the kitchen light. He drew his fingers across the bolt sleeve, etched with scrollwork from another century. “I don’t know what to say. This is amazing.”

Linda dimpled at him, glowing with cleverness.

“How on earth did you know what to get?” he asked.

“I asked Lyle McAuley for a list of recommendations.” His deputy chief was an avid hunter. “Last time I went to New York to buy fabric, I got it. I‘m glad you like it.”

“Like it? I love it. I didn’t think I’d ever handle a Weatherby outside of a gun shop.” He glanced up at her. “Are you sure we can afford it?”

Her dimples vanished. “Russ.”

“Don’t get me wrong. I love it, I really do. But Weatherbys cost an arm and a leg. I don’t want you to be shorting your budget just to get me a pretty gun.”

“Stop worrying about the money. I’ve got more business than I can handle right now with this commission from the Algonquin Waters resort. And if I can pull it all off in time for their grand opening tonight, I’ll be able to pick up tons more business.”

“Yeah...” he replaced the gun in the carrying case. “If that’s what you want.”

She tugged a dishrag off the faucet and swiped the immaculate counter. “Don’t start with me. This is absolutely the right direction to take the business. No more running up curtains for one room or even one house at a time. The spa has almost five hundred installations, counting the interior accent decorations. That’s a year’s worth of work. It’s my chance to step up to a whole different level.”

“I just don’t like to see you working so hard--”

“Russell! Hello? Is this the man who can’t take a vacation because the police department might fall apart without him?” She tossed the rag into the sink and faced him head on. “For years, I’ve been supportive and understanding when you’ve left dinner on the table to run to a crime scene, or when you’ve stayed out until four a.m. working a case, or when you’ve missed Thanksgiving or Christmas because you’re taking someone else’s shift. Now it’s your turn. I’ve finally found something I love to do, something I’m good at, something people will pay me for. You’ve always had that. I haven’t. You should be happy for me.”

“I am. I know when we retired from the Army it was hard on you. I’m glad you’ve found something to do with yourself.” She opened her mouth disbelievingly and he winced. “I didn’t mean it like that. It’s just...you’re spending all your time at the spa these days.”

“Have you run out of groceries? Is the house a filthy mess? Are the monthly bills unpaid? I’m keeping up my end, so get off my back.”

“Linda.” He was making a mash of this, but some shambling monster of marital discord made him open his mouth and wedge his foot deeper in. “It’s not the time. You’re...I hate that you’re working with John Opperman.” He couldn’t stop his voice from tightening when he said the resort developer’s name.

She shoved one of the wooden chairs against the table. “Mr. Opperman has been both a perfect gentleman and a generous employer who’s committed to hiring locally. If he had gone with a big commercial furnishings company, he’d have his curtains up this morning, instead of having to wait and wonder if I can pull it off before the opening ceremonies tonight.” She stalked into the living room. “I have to load the rest of this into my car. You can help, or you can go. Whatever.” She scooped up a stack of quilted shades piled so high they looked like bedding for the Princess and the Pea.

“For chrissakes, give me those. They must weight a ton.” He relieved her of the stack. “I’ve dealt with Opperman. He smiles at you and he talks real smooth, and all the time he’s got the knife out, waiting to stick it in.”

“You haven’t dealt with him. You’ve investigated him. Of course you think he’s the boogieman.” She shook out a plastic bag and slid several tissue-stiffened swags inside. “One of his business partners was murdered. His other partner tried to kill him. I’m sorry if the case didn’t turn out like you thought it would. But honey, it’s been over a year. The trial has come and gone and Mr. Opperman wasn’t implicated in any way. Don’t you think it’s time to let it go already?”

He stomped through the kitchen with unnecessary force.

“He could have taken the insurance money and run,” Linda went on. “Instead, he built the resort. He gave a lot of local people jobs, including yours truly.” She trailed him through the open mudroom door, into the summer kitchen. “Let’s face it, honey, you divide the world into two categories; criminals and potential criminals.” Her words made vapor puffs in the cold air. “I’ve worked with him. Believe me. He has a clear conscience.”

In the barn, Russ lifted the back gate of her boxy old Volvo wagon and slid the quilted shades in. “Careful of those sheers,” she said.

“Jeffrey Dahmer had a clear conscience, too, you know.”

She dropped her swags in the back and slammed the tailgate. “You. Are. Impossible.” She stomped up the barn steps, strode through the summer kitchen, and let the mudroom door swing in his face.

“Honey,” he started, but she held up her hand.

“I don’t know why you’ve been such a grouchy old bastard lately, but it’s going to stop.” She threw open the refrigerator and pulled out an insulated lunchbox. “Here. I made you a lunch. Take your pretty new gun and go shoot something.”

“Honey...” he tried again.

She paused in the doorway between the kitchen and the living room. “And don’t think all this talk about how terrible Mr. Opperman is will get you out of going to the grand opening party tonight. I expect you to be here, wearing your tux, car keys in hand, by 7:30 tonight. Do us both a favor and work out your aggressions on the deer, okay?” She leaned against the door jamb, crossing her arms over her chest. “Okay?”

“Okay.”

He was rewarded with the dimples again. “You’re impossible, but I love you.”

“I am impossible,” he agreed.

“And...”

“And I love you, too.”

That’s the bear of it, he thought as she disappeared into the living room. I do love her. I just don’t know if it’s enough anymore.

Critical acclaim

“Add harrowing tension à la TV’s 24 to Julia Spencer-Fleming’s always lyrical prose and beautifully drawn characters, and you have one of the year’s must-reads! Spencer-Fleming has topped an already shining series with this fourth outing.”
—Deborah Crombie, award-winning author of Dreaming of the Bones and In a Dark House

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Mass Market Paperback:
384 pages
Publisher:
Minotaur Books; first edition (March 14, 2003)
ISBN-10:
0312986769
ISBN-13:
978-0312986766

Millicent van der Hoeven

has decided to sell her family’s Adirondack estate to a nature conservancy. But on the day of the land transfer, her brother frantically calls the police. Millie has disappeared in the cold November forest…

Reverend Clare Fergusson gets an early morning phone call to join the Millers Kill search and rescue operation. As a former Army helicopter pilot trained in survival skills, she can’t refuse the request—even though it’s the day of the bishop’s annual visit. Worse for Clare, the search operation will link her up with Russ Van Alstyne, the very married local police chief who is her greatest temptation. Now, as Clare and Russ race time to find Millie van der Hoeven, they soon discover the secrets of someone who is desperate to stop the sale...and a deadly madness waiting to destroy them all.