Excerpt from St Albans Fire by Archer Mayor, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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St Albans Fire

A Joe Gunther Mystery

By Archer Mayor

St Albans Fire
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  • Hardcover: Oct 2005,
    304 pages.
    Paperback: Oct 2006,
    352 pages.

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The full moon above him proved the old man right. Its colorless iridescence imbued the snow with an inner glow and touched the ridgepole of the barn ahead with a near electrical intensity. To the southeast, over the pale and featureless field next door and the trees barely visible beyond, the blackened smudge of a distant ski mountain was pinpricked by the tiny quivering of crisscrossing snow-grooming machines, crawling through the night like earthbound fireflies.

Try as he might to keep his anger stoked against Marianne, Bobby felt it dying down. If she was that eager to do all that seeing of other people, did it make any sense for him to want her for himself?

But then the image of her in the arms of some anonymous other flared up in him again. He resumed walking toward the barn across the dirt road dividing the property.

The entrance they used most was down the far embankment and through a tiny door into the milk room, an oddity given the size of the overall structure. This was technically a bank barn, built against the lower edge of the road to allow direct access to the second floor. It towered forty feet at its apex, ran ninety feet in length, and included a hayloft so vaulting that Bobby's father, Calvin, had made room for a small, rough-floored basketball area to accommodate the occasional pickup game.

Bobby stamped his feet out of habit as he entered the sweet-smelling, warm milk room, although no fresh snow had fallen in over a week. Winter was on the wane, even in these upper reaches of Vermont's northwest corner, and tonight's cold notwithstanding, he knew from long experience that the year's first thaw was not far off, and with it the accompanying flurry of the region's fast and furious maple sugar harvest—along with the gluey mess of mud season.

By the glow of one of the night-lights placed throughout the barn, Bobby glanced at the glimmering steel milk tank sitting like a rocket's spare part in the center of the room. This was nothing new—the use of milk cans and individual deliveries to the local creamery were long gone—but Bobby still found the holding tanks and their tangle of umbilical tubing disconcerting. In contrast to the rest of the barn, filled with livestock, hay, insects, and the smell of manure, the milk room was representative of a faintly menacing future—the tank looking more like an alien incubator than a simple repository.

Bobby quickly passed into the long, low stable where he spent most of his time, his nostrils instinctively flaring in the damp, cloying atmosphere. In the half-light, he could make out the rows of cows, tied in their stalls, many of them settled on their flanks, back sides overhanging the full and gleaming gutters running down each aisle. A cheap battered radio played softly on the far wall, soothing the cows with an endless cycle of innocuous love songs.

Bobby unconsciously let out a sigh at the sight of the room, its floor permanently wet with urine, near-liquid manure, and the water used to routinely wash it all away. Everything was encrusted with manure and/or mud, administered from floor to ceiling by the flickings of cows' tails and the rebound splashings from their round-the-clock voidings. Had it not been for the almost seductive nature of its odor, this whole place by rights would have smelled like a sewer. Instead, to Bobby as to so many others, it ran from being almost unnoticeable to pleasantly familiar.

He glanced over his shoulder at the several portable milk suction units hanging beside him, designed to be moved from cow to cow with a minimum of fuss, and made sure they'd been properly stored. Bobby Cutts might not have been directly in line to inherit all this—his sister and brother-in-law, Jeff, were before him—but he still had a family member's proprietary interest in making sure things stayed shipshape.

Copyright © 2005 by Archer Mayor

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