The historic New England village of Dorset has actually elected a living, breathing woman as its First Selectman. And now she's about to undertake the Historic District's biggest public works project in a generation–the widening and re-grading of Dorset Street. The job has needed doing for ages but the previous First Selectman, Bob Paffin, always opposed it. So did a lot of Dorset's blue-blooded old guard.
The long put-off dig uncovers a body buried underneath the pavement in front of the Congregational Church. It belongs to Lt. Lance Paffin, Bob Paffin's older brother, a dashing U.S. Navy flyer who went missing off his sailboat the night of the country club's spring dance more than forty years ago. Everyone had assumed he just left town. But now it's clear Lance has been under Dorset Street this whole time, and that he was murdered.
Des and Mitch soon discover that there are deep, dark secrets surrounding Dorset's elite, and some very distinguished careers have been built on lies. The Coal Black Asphalt Tomb is the tenth in David Handler's original and very funny Berger and Mitry mystery series featuring this engaging biracial couple.
About the Author
DAVID HANDLER is an Edgar Award winner and Anthony, Derringer, and Dilys Award finalist. He has written extensively for television and films. David is the author of Runaway Man, Snow White Christmas Cookie, Blood Red Indian Summer and Shimmering Blond Sister. He lives in a two-hundred-year-old carriage house in Old Lyme, Connecticut.
David Handler's first book in the Berger and Mitry series, The Cold Blue Blood, was a Dilys Award finalist and BookSense Top Ten pick. David is also the author of several novels about the witty and dapper celebrity ghostwriter Stewart Hoag and his faithful, neurotic basset hound, Lulu, including Edgar and American Mystery Award winner The Man Who Would Be F. Scott Fitzgerald. David lives in a two-hundred-year-old carriage house in Old Lyme, Connecticut.
Read an Excerpt
Ba-Boomp-Boom-Pah ... Baboomp-Boom-Pah ...
Des still couldn't get used to it as she idled there in front of the firehouse in her Crown Vic, heater blasting on this damp, chilly April morning. She couldn't get used to these privileged, pigment-challenged high school kids blasting gangsta rap on the sound systems of their BMWs and Mini Coopers as they came roaring through the Dorset Street Historic District to school, slowing their preppy selves down to the twenty-five mph speed limit only because they saw her there. How was it possible that these Jennifers and Trevors from the gem of Connecticut's Gold Coast got off on some thug rapper lipping about a life that would totally freak them out if they ever actually experienced it for themselves?
Ba-boomp-boom-pah ... Ba-boomp-boompah ...
Dorset's Resident Trooper didn't get it, possibly because she was the only woman of color currently residing in this New England WASP Eden, population seven thousand, at the mouth of the Connecticut River. Then again, maybe if she were ten years younger she'd get it. Instead, these kids made her feel, well, not young. Spring's arrival was doing that to her this year. For the first time in her life, the season of renewal was making her feel, well, not new. Her twenties had started to disappear in her rearview mirror. And on a raw, cold morning like this, she got out of bed feeling what her time on the job had done to her. The ache in her right forearm from when she'd gotten shot with a .38 up at Astrid's Castle. The stiffness in her lower back from that time a crack dealer shoved her down a flight of steps in the Frog Hollow projects. A tightness in her right hamstring for which she had no explanation at all. Face it, her body was not as limber or forgiving as it once was. Not like these teenagers cruising past her.
Ba-boomp-boom-pah ... Ba-boomp-boompah ...
Not that Des wanted to be sixteen again. She was happy to have left all of that confusion, panic and acne behind. But time kept on slipping, slipping, slipping into the future faster than she cared for. And what did she have to show for it? She'd been a hotshot homicide lieutenant on the Major Crime Squad before she nuked her career and ended up here, busted down to a master sergeant, her prospects for advancement nil. As for her drawings of the murder victims who she'd encountered on the job — the gruesome, luminous art that gave her life purpose and passion — she'd slammed headfirst into a creative wall. Des had been upping her game at the renowned Dorset Academy in her spare time. Or trying to. Had absolutely loved the advanced life drawing class she was taking from an inspiring young teacher named Susan Vail. But a rash of home invasions on Griswold Avenue last month forced her to miss so many studio sessions that she'd had to drop out. And now she could feel how her skill set was holding her back. Couldn't get down on paper what she saw in her head. Needed to spend more time drawing and less time idling here watching these kids, and life itself, pass right on by.
Des allowed herself one wistful sigh before she eased her cruiser out into Dorset Street, with its picture postcard colonial mansions and white picket fences. Her destination was Dorset's stately white-columned Town Hall, where she maintained a cubbyhole and mail slot. From the outside, Town Hall looked the same as it always had. But the old place was totally different inside. The sleepy hush was gone. So was the musty smell. The wall-to-wall carpeting that reeked 365 days a year of mildew, mothballs and Ben Gay had been taken up, the oak plank floors underneath stripped and refinished. Des still wasn't accustomed to hearing the thunk of her polished black size 121/2 AA square-toe oxfords as she strode down the hallway to her cubbyhole. But she liked it. She liked the new vibe.
It had finally happened. Dorset had a new leader. And not just any new leader. For the first time in history Dorseteers had elected a living, breathing first selectwoman. Des's snowy-haired nemesis, Bob Paffin, the weak-chinned patrician noodge who'd done nothing but disrespect, undermine and hose her ever since she became resident trooper, had finally been unseated after serving Dorset for the past thirty-four years. Bob Paffin had been first selectman for so long that hardly anyone could remember what he used to do for a living. Turned out he'd been in real estate, as in the Paffin family owned a lot of it. Publicly, Des had stayed neutral throughout the campaign. Privately, she was absolutely thrilled that Bob was out.
And Glynis Fairchild-Forniaux was in. Glynis was a pretty little blue-eyed blonde in her late thirties. She and her husband, Andre, Dorset's mobile veterinarian, had three young children together. And Glynis, a tough, savvy graduate of Harvard Law School, had the oldest and bluest of Dorset's blue-blood law practices. Glynis took it over from her late father, Chase Fairchild. Glynis had represented Des when she bought her house. Des liked Glynis and had long thought she'd make a great first selectwoman.
Not everyone in Dorset had agreed. Her candidacy had been bitterly opposed by the old guard, most notably Clyde "Buzzy" Shaver, who was the editor and publisher of Dorset's weekly newspaper, The Gazette. Not to mention Bob Paffin's oldest friend and most ardent backer. In the closing weeks of the campaign Buzzy had blasted Glynis in a front page editorial as "untested, inexperienced and dangerous." To which Glynis had responded, "A radiation spill is dangerous. I'm an attorney, a wife and a mother." When the dust settled Glynis had won by a whopping nine votes. Two recounts had to be held before Bob Paffin finally conceded.
Glynis was someone who cherished Dorset's quaint New England charm. But her election represented a tectonic shift of generational sensibilities in the serene village that Des and the Jewish man in her life, Mitch Berger, a film critic from New York City, now called home. The new first selectwoman had insisted that Dorset needed to modernize its infrastructure so as to be more responsive to the needs of its young families. From now on all public meetings would be available to residents via live podcast on the town's spanking new Web site. From now on, Glynis would post regular video updates and stay in touch with Dorseteers via Twitter and Facebook. Bob Paffin? Bob Paffin thought social networking meant having lunch at the country club every day with Buzzy Shaver and a gaggle of old cronies.
But the first selectwoman's most ambitious undertaking was the historic district's boldest public works project in more than a generation. And one that the old guard was incredibly miffed about. Everybody agreed that Dorset Street needed repaving. It was strewn with boulder-sized potholes and hadn't been repaved in years. And even that had been merely a resurfacing of the existing road — which was typical of Bob Paffin's penny-pinching stewardship. Not only was the drainage terrible, but Dorset Street still had all of those bumpety-bumps under it from where the old trolley tracks used to be. The entire roadbed needed to be dug up and regraded, Glynis believed. She also wanted to widen Dorset Street so as to accommodate a bike lane. And she wanted sidewalks where there were none, most notably where Dorset Street met up with McCurdy Road in front of the steepled white Congregational Church. This meant that three towering Norway maples that had stood in front of the church since forever would have to go.
The old guard was not happy.
Buzzy Shaver, who'd taken to denouncing the project in The Gazette as "Queenie's Folly," had labeled the Dorset Street project a "seizure of sovereign land by jackbooted thugs." But no amount of opposition could deter Glynis. Put a wall in front of Dorset's new first selectwoman and she would simply run through it. She had to be the most determined woman Des had ever met.
Town Hall was swarming with computer techies and electricians that morning. In fact, Des discovered an electrician on his knees under the desk in her very own office, with his butt facing the door. Electrician's crack, she decided, was every bit as uninviting as carpenter's crack. However, the presence of this man and his butt crack meant she would finally have enough outlets in there to power a desktop computer, modem, printer and window air conditioner all at the same time. Imagine that.
As she stood there in the doorway, leafing through her mail and wondering when her right hammy would stop throbbing, Des heard brisk footsteps clack-clacking toward her in the oak-planked hallway. Bob Paffin used to creep around the carpeted hallways, the better to eavesdrop. Not Glynis. You knew she was coming from fifty feet away. And she was always in a hurry — all five-foot-three of her.
"You are just the person I wanted to see," she said excitedly, her blue eyes gleaming up, up at Des, who towered over her at six-foot-one. Glynis had a fluty little voice that could lull the unsuspecting into thinking she was an airhead. The unsuspecting soon learned otherwise. She wore a charcoal pants suit with a cream colored silk blouse and pearls. Her hair was gathered back in a tight ponytail. "It's all happening, Des. The tree crew will be arriving this morning at ten o'clock sharp to take down those nasty old maples in front of the church. And the people from Wilcox Paving have confirmed that they will definitely start the regrading tomorrow at dawn."
Des shoved her heavy horn-rimmed glasses up her nose. "Did you just say tomorrow?"
"This is incredibly short notice," Glynis acknowledged. "But they had another job fall through, their equipment's available and we'll be saving the town nearly two hundred thousand dollars if we squeeze them in now rather than waiting for the peak summer season."
"Which is when our elementary school, middle school and high school aren't all in session," Des pointed out. "Not to mention the Dorset Academy."
"I know it'll be a total traffic nightmare for you. But they've promised me they'll keep one lane of Dorset Street open at all times. And provide their own flagmen. And the weather forecast looks decent. They'll be in and out in three days. We'll email and robo-call every resident in our database to let them know. And I'll need you to kick-start our parking ban. Also our traffic plan. I've just alerted the boys at public works to get all of the barricades ready. They're bitching and moaning like a bunch of old women, I must say."
"Not to worry, they'll deal," Des assured her. "We'll all deal."
"Thank you, Des. I'd be lost without you." Glynis rubbed her small hands together gleefully. "I watched the video of the equipment Wilcox uses. Did you know there are no jackhammers anymore? They have this amazingly huge asphalt grinder that rolls along at the rate of seventy-five feet per minute and eats the pavement. Chews it up and spits it out through a conveyer into dump trucks. After the roadbed has been graded and rolled, the trucks feed an equally huge paver thingy that heats up the old pavement and extrudes it smooth as new. They did warn me that the equipment's loud. And I understand it'll make everything shake. But when it's all done Dorset Street will be beautiful."
"I'm sure it will."
"The boys at public works can take care of the sidewalks after they're gone."
"I'm sure they can."
"But step one is those darned trees." Glynis puffed out her cheeks. "And you know how irrational some folks can get about such things. Don't get me wrong: I understand about wanting to keep things as they are. But great gosh almighty, we're talking about three half-dead maples, not the lighthouse out on Big Sister. Four different licensed arborists have pronounced them diseased. The darned things are likely to come crashing down on the power lines any day now. They have to go. But certain people refuse to face facts." Glynis glanced up and down the hallway, then lowered her voice. "My mother has heard a rumor ..."
"What kind of rumor?"
"A few of the old-timers are talking about staging an Occupy Wall Street type of protest. Meaning there may be a small, tasteful stink when the tree crew shows up this morning. I need you there in case it gets unruly, Des. Not that I think it will. But I'll feel better if you're there."
"I'll be there. Do you have any idea who's leading the protest?"
"A very good idea. It's Sheila Enman."
"The old schoolteacher?"
"Old battleship is more like it. Apparently, those trees are very special to her. God knows why. She's been telling people that we'll have to remove them over her dead body. Sheila is ninety-four years old. Can't get around without a walker. Can't drive a car. I can't imagine how she'll even get there from her house."
Des showed Glynis her smile. "Oh, I think I have a pretty good idea how."
Mitch had been up since well before dawn in his antique post-and-beam caretaker's cottage out on Big Sister Island. A big fire was roaring in his fieldstone fireplace and at this very moment none other than Mr. James Brown himself was exhorting him to "Get on up" by way of the digitally remastered funk classic "Sex Machine," which Mitch had discovered was absolutely incredible to sit in with on his sky blue Fender Stratocaster with its monster stack of twin reverb amps. Feeling it, bringing it, blasting his riffs off of Bootsy Collins's thudding funkadelic bass.
By the time the sun came up Mitch had already devoted thirty minutes to his yoga practice, powered down a bowl of steel-cut oatmeal and watered the tiny green shoots that were germinating in seed trays under the grow light in his bay window. Then he'd polished off one of the two freewheeling essays he wrote every week for the ezine he'd gone to work for after he'd resigned as lead film critic for what used to be New York's most distinguished newspaper before it was gobbled up by an evil media empire. Today's essay, "The Unbearable Lightness of Spencer Tracy," was a reflection on how it was possible that a man who'd been universally lauded as the greatest actor of his generation, an Oscar nominee for Best Actor a record nine times and back-to-back winner in 1937 and 1938 for Captains Courageous and Boys Town, didn't happen to be the star of one movie that was on anyone's top ten, top twenty or even top fifty list of the greatest English-language movies of all time. Even those fondly remembered comedies Tracy had made with Katharine Hepburn such as Adam's Rib and Pat and Mike were stale beer compared to the fizzy champagne of Bringing Up Baby, the screwball classic she'd made with Cary Grant — who never won an Oscar. Meanwhile Joseph Cotten, who was never even nominated for an Oscar, had starred in two of the greatest movies of all time: Citizen Kane and The Third Man. And Dana Andrews, no one's idea of an Oscar-caliber talent, had played the male lead in two of Hollywood's most beloved classics: The Best Years of Our Lives and Laura. So what was the deal? Had Tracy been overrated at the time? Were Cotten and Andrews simply lucky to have landed in such great movies? Or were those movies great because they were in them? For a screening-room rat like Mitch, such questions were a gourmet meal he could feast upon for hours.
In the silence after the final emphatic note of "Sex Machine" Mitch heard a thud against his door. Quirt, Mitch's lean, mean outdoor hunter, was announcing his proud return home by banging his hard little head against the door. Mitch opened it and was immensely gratified to find a fresh-killed bunny on the welcome mat, sans head.
"Why, thank you, Quirt," he exclaimed as the cat darted inside to the kibble bowl that he shared with Clemmie, who seldom roamed outside or went after anything more menacing than a dust bunny. "I feel cherished."
Quirt had been bringing Mitch a gift every morning for the past week. April was officially headless-bunny season out on Big Sister Island, the forty wooded acres of Yankee paradise that Mitch was lucky to call home. There were five houses on the island, not counting the old lighthouse — the second oldest in New England — and his own two hundred-year-old post-and-beam caretaker's cottage. The island had its own beach, tennis court and dock. A rickety quarter-mile wooden causeway connected it to the mainland at the Peck's Point Nature Preserve.
Excerpted from "The Coal Black Asphalt Tomb"
Copyright © 2014 David Handler.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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