Review by Persis Granger, Author, ADIRONDACK GOLD, A SUMMER OF STRANGERS, and SHARED STORIES FROM DAUGHTERS OF ALZHEIMER’S: Writing a Path to Peace
Two divorced strangers meet over a maggot-infested body during the Great Depression. Can romance be far behind?
Freddy Pratter, divorced and determined to stay single, becomes acquainted with Glynis Hampton, a recent divorcee, and their shared love of photography draws them together. Glynis, with her two children, has returned to her family farm in Dalebridge to put her life back together. She is reunited with her lifelong friend Laura Darvey, who is eager to have Glynis help teach riding lessons at her stable.
The tranquility of the rural scene is disrupted by a series of barn fires, known to be arson. Is it the desperate act of bankrupt farmers, burning buildings rather than allowing banks to repossess and sell them? Could it be wanton destruction by vandals? Carelessness by vagrants? The fruits of vicious anti-Semitism? The more fires Freddy Pratter investigates, the more convinced he is that these parties are not to blame. The identity of the arsonist remains maddengly elusive until the predator focuses his attention on Glynis’s father’s farm.
Laurie Loveman tightly weaves intrigue and romance into the fabric of a skillfully-paced story that commands the reader’s attention from start to finish. While arson threatens area farms and lives, ghosts from the past threaten to derail the growing relationship between Glynis and Freddy.
Loveman’s characters are strong and well-developed, people we feel we know. The Depression-era setting is a perfect backdrop for the unfolding drama, and helps the author spin the subplots that drive the action. We feel the pain that the decaying economy inflicts on all segments of society, the stress faced by farmers on the brink of losing their farms and the tension created by some unscrupulous activists. This third book in the Firehouse Family series will leave readers waiting for Laurie Loveman’s next novel.
“Twenty feet north and this would have been Lyle Benson’s problem,” Matt Gardner said, turning in disgust from the body in the drainage ditch. “Goddam Depression…putting people on the road goin’ to nowhere…”
Standing behind Matt, and knowing better than to comment on his boss’s running commentary on the lousy state of the country’s economy, Patrolman Jim Stevenson waited patiently for the Woodhill, Ohio police chief to issue his orders.
Matt ran a hand through his blond-turning-gray hair. Since his fifty-eighth birthday in March, Matt’s waistline had gotten bigger than he liked, but at six-foot-two, he was still an imposing figure, and according to some, still a very handsome man. As usual, an unlit Havana Perfection cigar dangled from the corner of his mouth. “Did you get a statement from the guy who saw the horse?”
“Yessir. He said it just wandered onto the road and he swerved to miss it, and the horse ran back into the cornfield.” Jim pointed to a lane between two plantings of corn, where his fellow officer, Giles Hessing, was holding onto the reins of a small, scraggly gold-colored horse. Every time the horse moved its head the slightest amount, Giles leaped away. Even at this distance Jim could see sweat glistening on Giles’ face and dark patches expanding on his shirt. Giles was definitely not pleased with his current assignment. Jim was tempted to razz him about being a hitching post like the iron ones people put on their lawns, but he resisted the impulse, fearing Matt would make him change places with Giles.
Matt’s immediate concern was to get an idea of how the body in the ditch got there, so he made an effort to ignore Giles’ protests. It was only the third week in June and the corn didn’t have much growth on it yet, but enough corn stalks had been trampled, along with the grass on the lane being grazed down to the ground, to indicate the horse had stayed close to the spot where his rider fell off. Judging from the way maggots covered the man’s body, that could have happened up to a week ago. The maggots’ frenzied writhing made it appear that the man was alive because his clothes billowed and waved as the maggots ate their way through him. The only things left on the man’s skull were a patch of brown hair and part of an ear. The stench of rotting flesh rose from the ditch, but fortunately, a westerly breeze was blowing the odor away from the road. Matt glanced at his watch, muttered, “Damn, it’s three o’clock,” then called over to Giles, “Look in those saddle bags, see if there’s anything to identify the guy.” To Jim, he said, “Go back to town and get Freddy Pratter out here to take photographs, then go to Laura Darvey’s farm and see if she can board the horse until we figure out who the guy is and where he came from.”
- * * *
Captain Freddy Pratter strolled to the front of the Woodhill Fire Department apparatus floor, where all three bay doors were open. Now that the sun had passed overhead and the front of the station was shaded, Freddy felt the beginnings of a breeze. He leaned against the front bumper of Engine Two, a 1930 Ahrens-Fox pumper, and crossed his arms on his chest. It was relaxing to watch the traffic on Court Street. A few cars and delivery trucks passed by and people walked in and out of Rosenfeld’s Department Store and Mercy Drug, on the other side of the street. Also across the street was the First United Presbyterian Church and next to First United was the Masons Hall, with Sylvia’s Lunch Bar on the street level. Locally, the Masons Hall was called the Leaning Tower of Pisa, but it didn’t actually lean, it just looked as though it did because of how the sidewalk angled in front of it. Then came Rosenfeld’s and Mercy Drug, a single building divided into two sections with apartments on the second and third stories. In two of the apartments women were washing windows. Freddy settled lazily into watching the comings and goings, and was close to dozing off when Hank, the red and white hound who had adopted the firefighters a couple of years ago, came up beside him.
“Hoooohooommaa,” Hank yawned, plopping down next to Freddy. She gave a second rumbling yawn and stretched out on her side.
“That’s just how I feel,” Freddy murmured, letting his eyes close and his thoughts drift. The breeze felt good.
Freddy’s best friend, Jake McCann, crossed the vacant middle bay and settled next to Freddy on Engine Two’s bumper. “Awful hot for June,” Jake muttered. He gazed idly at traffic for a minute. “The ambulance has been gone a long time…you know where they went?”
“Nope. You’re the fire chief, Jake. You’re supposed to know everything that goes on in this place.”
“Spare me,” Jake retorted mildly, then was stopped from saying more because the ambulance arrived in front of the firehouse and the driver, First Aid Man Casey Durban, stopped traffic by angling the ambulance on the street in order to back into the middle bay. The engine noise reverberated off the yellow-tile walls and a smelly cloud of purple-gray exhaust fumes billowed onto the apparatus floor. Casey cut the engine, leaving a sudden void of sound that gave people who weren’t used to it a momentary sensation of having gone deaf. Even being used to the phenomenon still occasionally made the vacuum kind of eerie, especially at night when the apparatus floor lights were dimmed.
Leaving the driver’s seat, Casey ran a hand through his wavy red hair and said, “Okay, so you don’t give a damn but I do.”
Alighting from the passenger seat, Lieutenant Eli Sheffler grumbled, “You’re worse than a woman, the way you fuss with your hair.” Eli’s own hair was light brown and perfectly straight. No matter how he combed it, it always returned to flopping over his eyes, which unlike Casey’s vibrant green eyes, were a common brown color.
“The damn cowlick won’t stay down,” Casey said as he followed Eli to the watch office, “worst haircut I ever got.” Casey leaned on the counter at the front of the watch office while Eli went inside and sat down at the built-in desk.
“Thank God it’ll grow back,” Eli said, checking his notes in preparation for writing up his report. “I hate the thought of hearing you cry about it for another month.”
Captain Mickey Justini sauntered over to the watch office, wiping grease off his hands on a rag. “Whatsamatter?” he asked, looking from Eli to Casey and back again. Mischief lurked in Mickey’s blue eyes. At six-foot-three, he towered over Casey’s height of five-foot-seven, and his sandy-colored hair and ruddy cheeks, combined with Casey’s vivid coloring, made Eli’s pale complexion appear even more drab than it was.
Eli raised his eyes from the desk and said, “I’m tired of hearing about bad haircuts. I’m tired of Casey using up every bit of my Vitalis. One of these days, because of Casey, I’ll probably kill his barber and the poor man won’t have the slightest notion why. I’ll either get the electric chair or spend the rest of my life in jail. Either way, I will, at last, not have to hear about Casey’s hair.”
“And here I thought the two of you were best pals. It’s a damn shame to break up the team over a cowlick.”
“Go to hell,” Eli muttered, but Mickey caught the trace of a smile before Eli scowled, warning the men away. “And stay away from my stuff!” Eli yelled as Casey headed for the stairs.
Mickey couldn’t resist. “You’re the one who wanted to live in the firehouse, Eli. You should’ve listened to Freddy and got your own apartment like he did instead of taking his old room upstairs and living here with Jake.”
“I don’t mind living with the chief,” Eli growled. “At least he keeps outta my stuff. And what’s the difference where Freddy lives, anyway? His apartment’s just across the street, so how much better does he have it than I do considering he not only eats every meal here, he cooks for the rest of us? All he’s got is a little more privacy.”
“Yeah, the better to entertain the ladies. Well, back to Engine One,” Mickey said, his voice trailing off as he headed towards the 1926 Ford pumper sitting in the first bay. He was done adjusting the carburetor, he just had to clean up and put his tools away. As he worked, Mickey chuckled over Eli and Casey. They really were good friends regardless of how they argued. They were as much a part of the firehouse family as he, Jake, and Freddy were. Casey and Eli were like brothers. Like we are, Mickey reflected, taking his tool kit into the storeroom behind the middle bay.
Jake McCann was his brother. Freddy Pratter was his brother. Since the day they’d met in firefighter training in the Fire Department of New York City sixteen years ago, Mickey had loved them as he supposed real, blood, brothers loved each other. They were almost the same age. Freddy was a few weeks shy of thirty-five, Jake was thirty-four, Mickey and Eli were thirty-three, and at twenty-five, Casey was the kid.
Mickey returned to the watch office to enter the Engine One repairs in the daily report, then he looked for Freddy and Jake in Jake’s office, which was not much more than a large closet behind the first bay. He didn’t have to go inside because the office had a big plate glass window that faced the apparatus floor. The men weren’t there, but Mickey caught Freddy’s laughter coming from in front of Engine Two. Approaching them, Mickey thought how much Jake and Freddy resembled each other, which was kind of odd since Jake not only had a brother, he and Dave were identical twins.
On second thought, Mickey decided, Freddy didn’t really look like Jake and Dave McCann, because the twins had thick, wavy brown hair and eyes that were a deep rich brown, while Freddy’s hair, which was the same shade of brown, was absolutely straight, and his eyes were blue. You could tell Freddy’s mood by the color of his eyes. They’d be as deep blue as a summer sky when he was happy, but heaven help the guy who saw Freddy’s eyes when they were icy-blue. Oh yeah, Mickey thought, one thing we don’t want is for Freddy to be angry.
Mickey took a spot against Engine Two’s front bumper on the other side of Freddy just as Jim Stevenson drove his police car up to the bay door and called out the open side window, “Hey, Freddy, Matt wants you to bring your camera up on Court, just south of the township line. We got a dead body and he wants pictures.”
“What happened?” Jake asked.
Jim shrugged, “Just another hobo lookin’ for work, at least that’s what Matt thinks. You coming?”
“Yeah, but I’ll drive my own car.”
“Okay, I’m on my way to Laura’s farm now, see if she’s got room to keep the guy’s horse. Talk about a dog food candidate. See ya up there.”
Jim drove off. Freddy sighed and looked at his wrist watch. It was three-twenty. “Well, as long as I’ve got to head north to take pictures, I may as well go to Dalebridge and meet with Chief Roper about those two fires he had.”
“Good idea,” Jake said. “I can’t for the life of me understand why he asked for our help. It was just a couple of field fires, which, for Max Roper, is nothing when you consider that most of Dalebridge is fields. He’s had field fires every year for forty years. I don’t know why he thinks a city boy would investigate better than he can.”
“Well, this city boy thinks it’s an interesting challenge. I should be back around five, maybe sooner. Either of you need anything while I’m out?”
Mickey shook his head, but Jake said, “No thanks, but could you cover for me for about an hour when you get back so I can go to Laura’s farm? I want to see those new hay bales she’s getting today from Ben Barneshill.”
“If you ask me, it’s too goddam hot to fool around with horses,” Freddy said, easing up from the bumper, “but it’s okay, I’ll cover for you.”
- * * *
Twenty-year-old Mark Barneshill was in a touchy mood. Here at Laura Darvey’s horse farm in Woodhill he had no way of knowing if there were any fire alarms at home in Dalebridge, four miles north and four miles closer to Cleveland. As much as Mark loved farming and looked forward to spending his life in the profession, Mark also loved being a volunteer fireman.
Mark had planned to spend today at the Dalebridge firehouse doing some of the odd jobs that awaited someone with extra time on his hands. Instead, here he was, sweating and itching, with his shirt stuck to his back and bugs, dead and alive, caught in his hair or crawling around inside his shirt all because he couldn’t get out of the dairy barn before his father had decided that today would be a good time to bring Laura the load of timothy-clover mix she’d been waiting for. And now the last bale had been tossed off the truck into the loft of Laura’s barn. Mark stepped back, shaking the fabric at the sides of his shirt to loosen it from his skin. At the other end of the loft, Laura and his older sister, Glynis, were rearranging one of the stacks, experimenting with the best way to stack the bales. Mark jumped from the loft door into the bed of the stake body truck, and from there to the ground. At Laura’s outside wash rack, he turned the hose on his head and back, then, dripping wet, he walked around the side of the barn to find his father, Ben, sitting on a park bench that overlooked the pastures and river.
“Pretty, isn’t it?” Ben said when Mark flopped onto the bench beside him. “Look down there at the water…looks like diamonds dancing around that big rock. Almost makes me want to take a swim.”
Mark gave a desultory glance down the slope. Laura’s farm was a mile east of Woodhill on thirty acres bounded on the north by Kips Creek, which was actually a river not a creek. Along the farm property the river widened to about forty feet at a spot where a large flat rock jutted out over the bank. The water there was over eight feet deep, making it a perfect spot for swimming and diving. Laura’s barn sat atop a gently sloping hill that ended at the river. The hill was divided by split-rail fencing into five pastures, with one pasture separated from the others by a lane leading down to the river. Laura’s Appaloosa stallion, Envy, was in his paddock on the far side of the riding ring. The sorrel and white horse drank deeply from his water bucket and when he raised his head, the blaze on his face showed up brightly white against the red of his hair coat. In two of the pastures, four Appaloosa mares and their foals lazily cropped grass. Like Envy, all of the horses were a solid color over most of their bodies, but their rumps were blanketed in white. Small spots–the same color as the main coat color of the horse–dotted the white hair on their rumps.
“Achh,” Ben groaned, “this is gettin’ ‘way too comfortable.” He got to his feet and called up to the loft, “C’mon girls, I don’t have all day.”
Just then Laura and Glynis came out of the barn, each carrying two bottles of Coca-Cola. After giving Ben and Mark each a bottle they dropped onto the grass and took huge, very unlady-like gulps from their bottles. Mark leaned against the pasture fence, letting the breeze cool him off and ease his aggravation while it dried his shirt. Ben sat down again and eyed the women. They were a sight, these two friends who’d grown up horse-crazy. He usually thought of Laura as a five-foot-three bundle of energy, but she sure didn’t fit that description now. Her hazel eyes were glazed from the heat in the barn loft and her chestnut-colored hair straggled out from under a beat-up straw cowboy hat. Glynis was in just about the same sorry state; the only difference between the two women, Ben thought with some amusement, was that Glynis was taller, her hair was lighter, and at this moment she was about twice as filthy as Laura. Just showed she’d been away from farm work too long.
Looking up at the sky from flat on her back, Laura said, “Mr. B, Mark, thanks so much for bringing the hay and helping to stack it. You too, Glynnie. I think I’m going to like this baled hay much better than loose hay. It’s much less work to handle it and I can store twice as much hay in the same space as the loose hay took up.”
“Wait’ll you see how sore your muscles are tomorrow,” Glynis groaned.
Ben chortled, “Get used to it girls. My new hay baler is modern technology, the best of ’34! No more loose hay for me, no siree. And you watch, pretty soon they’ll invent a baler that does the bale-tying for us instead of us having to tie the bales by hand.”
“Next thing to go’ll be Prince and Jasper,” Mark said, watching one of the foals stretch out on its side for a nap.
“Nope, son, the old boys are family. We’ll always have a place on the farm for a good team of draft horses, no matter how many tractors we get.”
Mark snorted, “We’ll probably be the only farm left by the time the banks get done with everyone. You did something right, Dad. I’m not sure what it was, but from how folks are talking, and from seeing how much trouble the Dawsons are in, our place is about the only one around making money.”
“We were part lucky, son,” Ben said as he stood up and gave a stretch. He set his empty Coke bottle on the bench. “Your grandpa died without a single debt, gave me the farm free and clear, and that’s how I intend to leave it for you kids, free and clear. It just goes to prove that there’s times to go with the new ideas and times to hang back and study on it for a bit before you bite off more’n you can chew.”
Ben settled his hat better on his head and nodded towards Glynis. “Well, let’s get a move on, can’t waste the day.”
“Oh, wait ’til I get your hay money,” Laura said, scrambling to her feet, “it’s in my car.” As they walked towards Ben’s truck and Laura’s station wagon Laura said, “Listen, Glynnie, I’m so glad you’re home, and I really mean it about wanting you to help me teach the riding classes.”
Glynis cast an excited glance back at the mares and foals. “I’d love to do it, Laura. It’ll be fun, and I’m looking forward to working with the babies, too. I’ll be here for sure tomorrow and I’ll bring my kids. Cory can go exploring in the woods. That boy’s not happy unless he’s discovering new places.”
Tires crunched on gravel as Jim Stevenson braked the police car to a stop so it blocked both Laura’s station wagon and Ben’s truck. “Hi folks,” he said, getting out of the car. He saw Glynis, and reaching his arms wide, gave her a hug. “Wow, Glynnie, my wife said you called. It’s nice to have you back home! Hey, and you, too, Mr. B, it’s nice to see you after all these years. Sorry I haven’t kept in better touch with you and Mrs. B.”
“You can keep in touch again starting now,” Ben said, shaking Jim’s hand.
“Is something wrong?” Laura asked.
“Oh, yeah. Sorry. Seeing Glynnie made me forget why I came here. We found a dead guy in a ditch near the township line, a hobo, according to Matt, and the guy had a scroungy little horse. Matt wants to know if you’ll come and get the horse and keep it until he finds out who the guy is and if he’s got any family that wants the horse back.”
“No, thank you,” Laura said, shaking her head, “I don’t dare bring a strange horse in here with my mares and babies. No telling what kind of diseases that horse might have. Besides, I don’t have a spare stall.”
“I might be able to help,” Ben said. “Where’d you say the horse was?”
“On Court, just before the township line.”
“Dad!” Glynis exclaimed, “What do you need another horse for?”
“It’s just temporary…we’ve got that small pen at the back of the horse barn. The weather’s warm, the horse can stay out there away from any of our stock. And look, we’ve got the stake body, we can load it right up. It’s on our way home, we’ll stop and take a look.”
Glynis, Mark and Laura knew better than to try changing Ben’s mind when he had that steely expression they all recognized, the look that meant end of discussion.
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