Read an Excerpt

The Granite State Mysteries

Live Free or Die

Beulah Price’s body looked like a hotdog that had been left on the grill too long.  Charred skin stretched taut over her ribcage and collar bones.  A wisp of hair clung to her scorched skull.  Baked into her right pinky was a garnet ring that had belonged to my grandmother.

The entire museum had sustained damage before we could control the fire but the area around her body was the worst. A kerosene heater lay on its side between Beulah’s remains and a set of stairs leading up to the clock tower.

Harold Seeton, the Fire Chief, had taken one look at Beulah’s body and dropped with a heart attack. The ambulance standing by hauled him down to Riverton Memorial Hospital and left me in charge.

When I was convinced to accept the position of assistant chief I was promised that the responsibilities were minimal and that nothing ever happened except an occasional chimney fire and the odd drunk tossing liquor bottles on a bonfire. And car crashes. There were frequently car crashes out on the highway. Looking back, I should’ve realized there was a reason no one else volunteered. It wasn’t that I was a good leader or well organized. It was definitely not that the department, exclusively staffed by men, was eager to jump on the equal rights wagon. It was that the job entailed a lot of paperwork and get your ducks in a row crap they knew enough to avoid.

I wanted to run out of the building and puke behind a tree but I already had enough problems being taken seriously by the other firefighters. Respect doesn’t come easy when you’re forty-seven years old and look like a slightly overweight Shirley Temple. I’m cursed with sandy sausage curls, big brown eyes and dimples you could lose a truck in. Add to that the fact that the oldest guys on the crew could remember when I wore dresses with pinafores and tights with ruffles across the seat. The only thing going for me was a willingness to hand over the whole thing to the State Fire Marshal’s investigator as soon as he could find his way to Winslow Falls.

We’d been working steadily for three hours, pulling down plaster and checking for hot spots and it didn’t look as though there was much left to do but wait for the coroner and the guy from the state. I trudged outside, tugged off my turnout coat and settled on the fire engine’s running board.  I took stock of the museum. Much of the roof line had been eaten away by flames. A full white moon hung over the sodden stump that had been the clock tower. Nothing at all was left of the giant wooden hand ornament that decorated its steeple. And, as much as I didn’t like to think of it, there wasn’t much left of Beulah either.

The cold air felt good and it was a relief to take a break. I wished for a cup of coffee and a shower. I wished I’d never volunteered for the fire department.

“Whadaya got on?” Clive Merrill rounded the corner of the truck reeling up a hose in time to get an eyeful.

I glanced down and remembered I was wearing my pajamas. They were flannel printed with sushi rolls and takeout boxes. I received them in the mail that morning from my son, Owen, since he wouldn’t be able to make it home for Christmas. His card said that they represented the extent of my abilities in the kitchen: raw foods or takeout.

“No one expects you to recognize lingerie when you see it, Clive.” Winston Turcotte spat a gob of tobacco into a used paper coffee cup, pushed back his helmet and scratched his bald head.

“It’s not lingerie. Don’t start saying I showed up in the middle of the street in lingerie.”

Ray Twombley, the police chief, turned his camera on me just before I pulled my coat back on.  “It’s not my idea of lingerie.” Ray pressed a button on the camera with a hairy forefinger.

“Ray, why don’t you put that thing to good use and take photos of the fire scene instead?” I crammed my helmet onto my sprongy curls and stomped back into the museum. Winston and Clive clomped up the stairs after me. I surveyed the sooty, clammy space wondering what to do next. Everywhere my eye landed there were puddles and filth. In light of the clean up ahead of us, I could see Harold lucked out by having a heart attack. I was thinking of what to tackle next when Winston came up with a suggestion.

“Maybe we oughta move the body,” he said, burying a plug of chew between his ruddy cheek and his yellowed dentures.

“I think we’d better wait for the state investigator.” I wondered again how long it was going to be before he showed up.

“She looked pretty well baked on. Ya think any of her’ll stick?” Clive stuffed a piece of gum into his mouth and began blowing droopy bubbles. I felt the wave of heat in my body that comes with nausea and tugged off my coat again. Credibility be damned, my supper was on its way back up. I tore out the door and barely made it down the front steps before the roiling became uncontrollable. The icy December wind stung my face as I heaved.

“Are you all right?” asked a voice. I shook my head and heaved some more.

“Feeling better?” asked a man I didn’t recognize.

“Not even close.” I wiped my mouth on my sleeve, tipped my head back and looked him in the face. At only five foot three myself everyone appears tall but I was certain he was just under seven feet tall. His mustache and beard were such flaming red I’d a fleeting thought of turning a fire hose on his face.

“Sorry to bother you. I’m looking for the Fire Chief.”

“Then you’ll have to head to the hospital in Riverton,” I said. “Harold had a heart attack when he saw the body.”

“If it was that bad, I’m not surprised you needed a little air,” he said. “So, who is in charge?”

“Gwen Fifield.” I stuck out my hand. “I’m the Acting Chief, until Harold gets back on his feet.”

“Hugh Larsen, with the Fire Marshal’s office.” Hugh grasped my hand with his enormous paw. If I had to guess I’d have said he left a Viking ship docked out front instead of a pick-up or SUV.

“You can’t imagine how glad I am to see you.”

“Are you feeling up to heading back inside?” he asked, releasing his grip.

“I’ll never hear the end of it if the guys think I shirked my duties.” I led the way back towards the museum. “Besides, I don’t think I’ve got anything left in my stomach.”

“So, what is this place?” Hugh reached out for the door and held it open for me. I glanced around at the museum. The first floor remained standing but every surface was wet. As the door slammed behind us, a chunk of plaster fell from the ceiling landing at my feet. At least the place was wet instead of gutted. Considering all the flammable items in the building it was surprising we weren’t staring at a cellar hole.

“It’s a museum the victim started as a pet project about fifty years. The Historical Society uses it for their meetings. Most of the displays are of local interest.”

“Do they get much business?” Hugh glanced around at soot smeared cast-offs from nearby homes.

“Not really. There isn’t much to see unless your taste runs to old canning equipment and arthritic typewriters.”

“Hey buddy, this is a restricted area.” Ray scowled at us. “Did you let him in, Gwen?”

“This is Hugh Larsen, from the Fire Marshal’s office,” I said.

“Did Harold authorize this?” Ray asked.

“Harold was too busy receiving CPR to give orders,” I said.

“State law mandates that the Fire Marshal’s office investigate whenever a body is found in a fire,” Hugh said. “But, Acting Chief Fifield is officially in charge. No one else has jurisdiction until she releases the scene.” Ray grunted and turned back to his camera. My stomach turned over again at the thought of being in charge. This was a lot more complicated than drunks at a bonfire.

Winston and Clive stood in front of a display of model trains that had been the museum’s most popular exhibit. Clive bent low over the track and patted a tiny fake fir tree with a bony finger. Scale model houses and tunnels were grimy and wet. The miniature village looked like an industrial town that had never been visited by the EPA. Both men shook their heads then turned back to the clean-up.

“I need to take a look at the body. Are you up to showing me the way?” Hugh asked. I nodded and headed for the stairs to the second floor. I stopped just short of  the clock tower room at the front of the building. I didn’t want to see what was left of Beulah again. I always expected she would keel over in the museum one day, just not like this. I kept my eyes fixed on the tower window and focused on the way a street light lit up the dumpster behind the general store.

“So tell me,” Hugh squatted next to the body. “What do you think happened here?”

“It looks like she fell down the clock tower stairs,” I said. “And then the kerosene heater tipped over and started a fire.”

“How can you be sure the victim was the museum founder?”

“It’s got to be Beulah Price. She wore that ring every day.”

“That’s not much to go on. Are you sure about identifying the ring? Could someone else be wearing it?”

“She and my grandmother were best friends for most of their adult lives. When my grandmother died she left the ring to Beulah. Once we settled up my grandmother’s estate I took it to her myself. As far as I know, she wore it every day for the last eleven years.” I wiped an unprofessional tear on my pajama sleeve and hoped he hadn’t noticed.

“Ok. We’ll work from the assumption it’s her until we get an i.d. from the coroner.”

“There’s something I should mention.” I said. “We’ve had a rash of fires in the village over the last few weeks and they’ve been escalating in damage. This could be one more of them.”

“Ok.” Hugh stood, pulled a small notebook out of his coat pocket and clicked open a pen. “What else was torched?”

“It started eight weeks ago,” I said, “with an abandoned chicken coop. The next week there was a fire in a stack of green lumber at the sawmill. The coop was no big loss and the lumber just steamed and smoked. No real damage was done.”

“Anything else?” Hugh jotted an entry in his notebook.

“Unfortunately, yes.” I began pacing the floor, stamping my feet to get the circulation flowing. Now that the flames were out, the building was bitterly cold. “Someone tossed something flammable under the porch of an empty house. Most of the porch burnt before we could put it out. Then a garage caught on fire. A few days later an old camp down by the river burnt to the ground. Last week a house was badly damaged but we managed to save most of it.”

“That’s quite a list in such a short time span,” said Hugh. “What does your Fire Chief have to say about it?”

“He thinks it’s carelessly tossed cigarettes or faulty wiring. I wanted to call you guys in when the camp burned but Harold wouldn’t hear of it.”

“It does seem like a lot of calls for such a small community,” Hugh said. “Do you usually have so many?”

“I’ve lived here my entire life, except for college.” I stopped pacing and craned my neck to look Hugh in the face. “And we’ve never had anything like this happen in all that time.”

“This is the first time someone was in the building when the fire started?”

“Yes. All of the other fires occurred in outbuildings or unoccupied homes. I guess we’ve been lucky no one was hurt before now.”

“Should the museum have been unoccupied?”

“It was after hours and no meetings were scheduled. And, there’s no reason I can see that Beulah should’ve been here.” I breathed on my hands and rubbed them together. I could hear Clive and Ray, down on the first floor, arguing about who was going to get to stay overnight in front of the building in case of a flare-up.

“Six months ago she hired someone to take over the daily operations of the museum because she’d had a hip replacement and the stairs had gotten to be too much for her. What would have made her come out here tonight?”

“Maybe she missed being at the museum,” Hugh said. “Maybe she left her favorite sweater here the last time she was in.”

“She was 91 years old. With her mobility problems she wouldn’t have run out for a sweater. It would have been faster for her to knit a new one.”

“It doesn’t sound likely.” Hugh inclined his helmet towards the steps. “Would anyone have wanted to do this to her?”

“Beulah was elected Honorary Mayor for most of the last thirty years. She baked cookies for neighborhood kids and took casseroles to the bereaved.”

“Do you have a suspect in mind for the arsons?” asked Hugh. “Anyone at all?” I stared out the window, mulling over village gossip. Accusations towards an immigrant family had been flying since the first fire broke out. New Hampshire is a typical New England state. Generally, citizens are leery of people from away. Even people from neighboring Massachusetts are suspect. And Brazil is about as “away” as you could get.

Through the window, towards the back of the building I saw movement. In the darkness I could just barely make out Diego DaSilva glancing up at me before darting off through the trees. I hoped that he was just a curious kid wanting to see what all the excitement was about. The DaSilvas were making it easy for someone to suggest that they were responsible. It just wasn’t going to be me. I turned back towards Hugh.

“I could give you plenty of suspects if Ethel, the woman who took over the museum, was lying over there instead of Beulah. Plenty of people in the village would be happy to light the museum on fire if they could be sure Ethel would be in it.”

“You think someone set this fire to kill the museum curator?” Hugh cocked an overgrown russet eyebrow at me in surprise.

“She’s the human equivalent of a canker sore.” I crossed my arms over my chest. “Nursing mothers avoid her to keep from curdling their milk.”

“If someone wanted to kill the curator there are simpler ways to do it,” Hugh said.

“You asked for suspects. More people would be tempted to get rid of Ethel than Beulah. And it makes more sense that she would have been in the building.”

“Were you one of those people?” Hugh pulled his notebook back out of his pocket.

“You think I did this? I’m a firefighter.” Who did this guy think he was? I thought he was supposed to be helping me, not accusing me.

“More fires are started by firefighters than I’d like to admit.” Hugh said. “Where were you this evening when it started?”

“At home. I’d already gotten ready for bed.”

“So I see.” Hugh nodded towards my pajama top.

“I dashed out when I got the call.” I gnawed on my thumbnail. “Changing into street clothes wasn’t my priority.”

“Can anyone verify that you were home?”

“No,” I said. “You’ll have to take my word for it.” Hugh jotted something else in his notebook and gave me a long look.

“Any family?”

“Two sons,” I said. “One’s graduated the other’s still in college.”

“You don’t have any plans to go out of town for the holidays, do you?”

“I’m the postmistress.” I shook my head. “We don’t get vacation time at Christmas. It’s our busiest season.” Winston stopped to add his two cents as he passed by carrying a push broom.

“Gwen doesn’t go on vacation,” Winston said. “We count on her to keep everyone up-to-date on all the goings on around here.”

Postmistresses have a reputation of being busybodies. It’s been my experience that the average postal employee in a small town is on the receiving end of a lot more information than she asks for. I know about the hangnails, root canals and ailing aunts of the majority of my customers and by in large I have never solicited that information. I have never, to my recollection, asked what someone thought of the current president, the quality of the pie at the last Grange supper or whether anyone thought that the pastor was a bit long winded the previous Sunday morning. I don’t even think of myself as a good listener but when people see me standing behind that window they see an audience for the story of their lives. They don’t hand it out all in one day but over the years a picture of each of them builds up. I don’t mind really, it’s just the reputation of being a gossip is irksome considering I never wanted to know any of it to begin with.

“She seems like she’s right in the thick of things. Since you’re the head of the information bureau is there anyone who should be informed of the victim’s death?” Hugh asked.

“Good Lord,” I said. “I’ve got to call Augusta.”

 

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