Books

Lake Silence

Lake Silence

Ace
March 2018 (hardcover)

Cover design:
Adam Auerbach

available as audio bookavailable as ebook

 



EXCERPT

Copyright © 2018 Anne Bishop. Used with permission.
(Suggested reading age: 15 years and older.)

 

Lake Silence
Chapter 1
Vicki
Moonsday, Juin 12

I wouldn’t have known about the dead man if I hadn’t walked into the kitchen at the exact moment my one-and-only lodger was about to warm up an eyeball in the wave-cooker.

Until that moment, I hadn’t known I had a scream that could crack glass; I hadn’t wondered if an eyeball would puff up and explode in a wave-cooker like those animal-shaped marshmallows; and I hadn’t realized my lodger—Agatha “call me Aggie” Crowe—was that kind of Crow.

She seemed so normal, if you overlooked her timely payment of the rent each week and the fact that she had taken up residence in The Jumble three weeks ago and seemed to be enjoying herself.

“You can’t eat that!” I tried to sound firm, like a responsible human and business owner should. In truth, I sounded a wee bit hysterical, and I wished with all sincerity that I had walked into the kitchen five minutes later.

Then again, since the kitchen was one of the common rooms in the main building, I could have walked in when Aggie was halfway through her lunch, which I’m sure would have been more distressing for at least one of us.

“Why can’t I eat it?” She looked at the eyeball rolling around in the small bowl that was now sitting on the counter. “Nobody else wants it. It’s starting to get squooshy. And the dead man doesn’t need it.”

The words got me past the physical evidence. “What dead man?”

“The one who doesn’t need the eyeball.” Little black feathers suddenly sprouted at her hairline, confirming the nature of my lodger. I was going to have to rework the rental agreement so that there was a space for unimportant bits of information like . . . oh, say . . . species.

“Where did you find the dead man?”

“On the farm track that runs alongside Crabby Man’s place.”

I should have pointed out that Mr. Milford wasn’t usually crabby, but he did get exercised when someone took one bite out of all the ripe strawberries or pinched fruit from his trees, since he and his wife needed the income they made from selling fresh fruit and homemade preserves. But there were other priorities.

“Show me.” I held up a hand. “Wait. And don’t nibble.”

“But . . .”

You can’t eat it. It could be evidence.”

Her dark eyes filled with reproach. “If I hadn’t wanted to warm it up because it was squooshy, you wouldn’t have known about the dead man and I could have had eyeball for lunch.”

I couldn’t refute that statement, so I backed up until I reached the wall phone in the kitchen, and then I dialed the emergency number for the Bristol Police Station. Bristol was a human town located at the southern end of Crystal Lake. Sproing, the only human village near Lake Silence, was currently without its own police force, so Bristol had drawn the short straw and had to respond to any of our calls for help.

“Bristol Police Station. What is your emergency?”

“This is Victoria DeVine at The Jumble in Sproing. One of my lodgers found a dead man.” Okay, Aggie was my only lodger, but there was no reason to advertise that. Right?

I started counting and reached seven before the dispatcher said, “Did you see the body?”

“No, but my lodger did.”

“How do you know the body is dead?”

“I’m looking at an eyeball that used to be attached to the body.”

This time I counted to eight.

“We’ll send someone.” The words were slow in coming, but at least they were said and would be officially noted somewhere.

I didn’t blame the dispatcher for hesitating to send someone to Sproing—after all, the police officer we’d had before last year’s Great Predation had been eaten, and a couple of officers who had answered calls since then had provoked something in the wild country and never made it back to their station—but I resented that I could feel her blaming me for whatever the police were going to find. On the other hand, I did withhold one tiny bit of information.

Just wait until the responding officer realized he had to interview one of the terra indigene.

*****

A bit of useful information. My name is Victoria “call me Vicki” DeVine. I used to be Mrs. Yorick Dane, but giving up my married name was one of the conditions of my receiving valuable property—aka The Jumble—as part of the divorce settlement. Apparently the second official Mrs. Dane didn’t like the idea that someone else had had the name first. Fortunately, she didn’t seem as possessive about Yorick’s Vigorous Appendage. I could have told her that a couple dozen other women had had it before she took possession. But it wasn’t likely that she would keep solo possession of the appendage for long, so let her figure things out the hard way like I did. Of course, if she had been one of those indulgences, then she already knew the signs and might be able to nip them in the bud. Maybe that’s why, before I had moved away from Hubb NE, I had seen her in the garden center buying long-handled loppers—the kind used to prune branches—when I’d heard her loudly proclaiming the previous week that gardening was a hobby for women who couldn’t do anything else and so not of interest to her.

Anyway, I was married to Yorick Dane, an entrepreneur—aka wheeler-dealer—although I never understood what sort of deals were wheeled. He said I didn’t have a head for business. I finally said I didn’t have a head for cheating of any kind. Suddenly, after a decade of marriage, he said I wasn’t living up to the promises that were implied by my name, meaning I wasn’t hot or in any way sexy. The fact that it took him a decade to realize I was five foot four and plump instead of a five-foot-ten pole dancer with big tits was confusing. But once he made that discovery, he decided that he needed someone who would stand by him, and that would not be me.

So that’s how I came to be the owner of The Jumble. According to the story that was muttered by Yorick’s family once they’d had a little too much to drink, The Jumble was conceived and built by Yorick’s great-great-aunt, Honoria Dane, a woman who was equal parts visionary and eccentric. She and her brothers were given equal shares in their father’s fortune, the shares being dispersed upon the child’s twenty-fifth birthday. Great-great (I never heard anyone refer to her by her given name) had sunk her part of the fortune into building The Jumble. It was supposed to be a self-sufficient and self-supporting community. It began its genteel decline almost from the moment Great-great finished building it.

The Jumble consisted of the sprawling two-story main house, which had a small but fully equipped apartment for the owner as well as two suites with private bathrooms for guests. It also had a big communal kitchen, a dining room, a library, a social room, an office for the owner, several empty rooms whose use I couldn’t identify, and a large shower area off the kitchen that could accommodate up to four people at a time as long as they weren’t shy. Besides the main house, there were four sets of cabins—three connected cabins to a set—within easy walking distance from the main building. Each cabin was similar to an efficiency apartment with an open floor plan—no walls or doors for anything but the bathroom. Well, the three lakeside cabins that were closest to the main building had en suite bathrooms. The other nine cabins were a bit more primitive and an ongoing project.

There were acres of land that could be used by the . . . beings . . . in residence—plenty of room for growing food or raising a goat or two for whatever reason one keeps goats. There was even a chicken coop, sans chickens. It was probably sans a few other things, but if the chickens couldn’t pay rent, I couldn’t afford to update their lodgings. But The Jumble had one thing the village of Sproing did not—it included easy access to Lake Silence, which was an afterthought body of water compared to the other Finger Lakes. There was a public beach at the southern end of the lake, but I thought The Jumble’s private beach and dock were a lot nicer.

Whoever negotiated the original lease agreement for the use of the land knew every devious loophole a person might try to use to rezone/repurpose/re-something the land. But the terms were brutally simple: it was The Jumble with its set number of buildings of a particular size and so many acres of cultivated land (being a modest percentage of the overall acreage) or nothing. The Dane inheritance was actually the buildings and their contents. The land could be used only within the terms of the lease.

Last bit of information. Sproing is a human village with a population of less than three hundred. Like most, if not all, of the villages in the Finger Lakes area, it is not human controlled. Sure, we have an elected mayor and village council, and we pay taxes for garbage pickup and road maintenance and things like that. The main difference is this: on the continent of Thaisia, a human-controlled town is a defined piece of land with boundaries, and humans can do anything they want within those boundaries. But villages like Sproing don’t have a boundary, don’t have that distance from the terra indigene. The earth natives. The Others. The dominant predators that control most of the land throughout the world and all of the water.

When a place has no boundaries, you never really know what’s out there watching you.

The surprising thing is there hadn’t been a reported interaction with one of the Others in decades. At least around Sproing. Maybe the Others have been coming in and buying come sproing with me or i [heart] sproingers T-shirts without anyone realizing it, but even though the village lost about a quarter of its residents because of last summer’s Great Predation, everyone still wanted to believe that the Others were Out There and didn’t find us interesting enough—or bothersome enough—to hunt down and have as snacks.

Which made me wonder if the Others came into town seasonally, like tourists. And that made me wonder if everyone had missed the obvious when stores ran out of condiments like ketchup and hot sauce some weekends—and whether a run on ketchup and hot sauce coincided with people disappearing.

Something to ask Aggie once we got past the whole eyeball thing.

dingbat

Chapter 2
Grimshaw
Moonsday, Juin 12

Officer Wayne Grimshaw drove toward the village of Sproing, the cruiser’s flashing lights a warning to anyone else on the road that he was responding to a call and was all business. But the siren remained silent because that sound would have drawn the attention of everything for miles around—and when a man was in the wild country, even on a paved road that was a vaguely acknowledged right-of-way, it was better not to alert the earth natives to his presence.

Dead body reported at The Jumble near Sproing.

Sproing. By all the laughing gods, what kind of name was that for a village? It sounded like some kind of initiation or razzing—have the new guy respond to a call and then have to keep asking for directions to Sproing. Plenty of off-color jokes could be made about that.

Except he knew the name wasn’t a joke. He had seen it on the map at the Bristol station and had been told calls from citizens living around Lake Silence were part of Bristol’s jurisdiction. Added to that, the emergency dispatcher, who was a no-nonsense woman, had sounded reluctant to send him—and he’d been advised a couple of times by other officers at the station that if he had to answer a call around Lake Silence, he should get in and out as quickly as possible because things around that particular lake were a wee bit . . . hinky.

The village had a small police station but no longer had its own police force—not a single cop patrolling its streets. The people there were dependent on the highway patrol that worked out of the Bristol station, and even then . . .

Over the past few months, two officers who had answered calls around Sproing hadn’t returned. One officer was found in his patrol car, which had been crushed by something powerful enough to flatten a car with its fists or paws or some freaking appendage. The other man . . . Most of that officer had been found, but no one knew what had set off the attack or why it had been so vicious. Both deaths were harsh reminders that the highway patrol traveled through the wild country as part of the job, and a man never knew what was watching him when he stepped out of his vehicle.

He’d been patrolling the secondary roads south of Bristol—a loop that would have taken him close to Lake Silence anyway—so when he spotted a sign for the lake, Grimshaw turned on to the dirt road, hoping it would take him to The Jumble, which he’d been told was some kind of resort right on the lake. Instead he found himself in the parking area for the lake’s public beach.
From what he had gathered from his captain’s orientation speech, the land on the western side of Lake Silence was privately owned—or at least privately controlled—as was most of the eastern side. There was no vehicle access to the northern end of the lake, which left only the southern end for anyone who wanted to take a cool dip on a hot day or take a boat out for fishing or recreation.

Grimshaw frowned at the two signs attached to the low stone wall that separated the parking area from the beach.

The first sign read: pack out your trash or else

The second sign read: you may swim, fish, sail, row, canoe,
or float on rafts at your own risk. if you put a motor in the water,
you will die.

Nothing ambiguous about either message.

Grimshaw turned the cruiser around and got back on the main road, heading north. The next turnoff had a weathered sign for The Jumble. He made the turn and followed the gravel access road up to the main building. As he shut off the car, he pressed two fingers against his chest and felt the round gold medal for Mikhos, the guardian spirit of police officers, firemen, and medical personnel—a talisman he had worn under his uniform every day since he graduated from the police academy a decade ago.

“Mikhos, keep me safe.” It was the prayer he whispered every time he answered a call.

A woman stepped into view, looking agitated. Curly brown hair, a pleasant enough face, and a build he would describe as stocky if she had been a man. He couldn’t tell more than that from this distance, so Officer Wayne Grimshaw got out of the cruiser and went to see Ms. Victoria DeVine about a body.

dingbat

Chapter 3
Vicki
Moonsday, Juin 12

“But I can’t!” Aggie wailed, sprouting more feathers when I told her she would have to talk to the police.

The additional black feathers in her hair were less distressing than the ones that suddenly appeared on her face and forearms.

“You have to,” I replied, striving to remain calm. I placed a saucer over the bowl with the eyeball. “You’re the only one who knows where to find the body. You’ll need to show the police when they get here.”

“But I’ll get in trouble!”

My breath caught and my heart thudded. Aggie was petite and had a small-boned physique—and my purse probably weighed more than she did. But being one of those Crows, she could be a lot stronger than she looked.

“Aggie, you didn’t . . . ?” What would I do if she admitted that she had killed a man in order to eat his eyeball? I imagined me being strong and brave and performing some of those kick-ass self-defense moves despite not actually knowing how to do them. Then I imagined me smiling weakly right before I ran away.

I liked the idea of running away. Much more sensible.

“I didn’t kill him!” Aggie sounded insulted. “He was already dead when I found him and only had the one eyeball.”

“What happened to the other one?”

“Dunno. Probably got eaten.”

Since I liked Aggie, I really didn’t want to ask more questions. I grabbed the bowl with the eyeball and went outside to wait for the police. Aggie followed me out the front door but started edging toward the trees.

“Aggie . . .” Hearing tires on gravel, I turned to watch the police car as it drove up within sight of the house and stopped at a spot that blocked the access road. When I turned back, a pile of clothes lay under a tree and Aggie was gone. So I stood there, alone, holding the bowl while I waited for the police officer to get out of the car.

You know those cartoon heroes with the strong lower jaw, sparkly teeth, broad shoulders, and tiny waists? The man who stepped out of the police car could have been the model for the caricature, but he was correctly proportioned and looked real official with all the doodads on his belt. He was still wearing sunglasses, so I couldn’t see his eyes, couldn’t tell if the expression in them was a warm “can I help you, ma’am?” or a cold “you’re being a pain in my ass, so talk fast.”

If he had stopped to help when I was stranded on a dark, lonely road, I would have been happy to see him. But that presence was less reassuring when I wasn’t sure I wouldn’t be labeled the villain.

“Are you the lady who called about a suspicious death?” he asked, approaching warily.

He was a big man and had a big voice. Not that he was yelling at me or anything, but it was the kind of voice that could hammer a person—the kind of voice that, when used with a threatening tone, could trigger a panic attack.

He stopped and studied the claw marks on a tree—marks that were high enough that I hadn’t noticed them because they weren’t in my usual line of sight.

Something to think about on a hot summer night when I’m trying to convince myself that it’s safe to leave the windows open to get some air. Safe from thieves maybe, since I have nothing to steal. Safe from the mysterious Clawman?

I’d read somewhere that an ordinary bear could hook its claws in a car door and rip the door off the hinges in order to get to the snacks someone foolishly left inside. Odds were good that whatever prowled around in The Jumble’s woods didn’t qualify as ordinary, although, to be fair, Aggie was the only terra indigene I had seen—“seen” being the qualifying word. If one of the crows hanging around The Jumble was Crowgard, how many others were more than they seemed?

“My lodger found a body near the farm track that is the boundary between my property and the Milfords’ orchards,” I replied, trying for matter-of-fact helpful. I held out the bowl. “Here. This is evidence.”

He took the bowl, lifted the saucer, and stared at the eyeball. At least, I assumed he stared at the eyeball. Since he was wearing those mirrored sunglasses, he could have been staring at me—and it suddenly occurred to me that if he asked to look in my refrigerator, I had no idea what he might find.

“Wait there.” He walked back to his car and opened the trunk. He returned in a minute without the eyeball. It didn’t look like he was going to return my bowl and saucer either. “I’ll need to speak to your lodger.”

“She’s a little shy about talking to the police.”

He removed the sunglasses. The look in his blue-gray eyes said my lodger better get un-shy in a hurry. Or maybe I was projecting from past experience with men. Man. The one who used to leave me feeling that something was my fault even when I couldn’t have controlled someone else’s actions or thoughts or opinions.

“Did she tell you the location? Can you show me the alleged body?”

I had just given him an eyeball. How alleged could the body be? “I . . .”

“Caw.”

I looked at the crow—or Crow—perched in a tree a couple of yards down one of the bridle paths, of which The Jumble has many.

“Yes, I can.” I set off down the path and hoped really hard that I was following Aggie and not someone else.

The second time I tripped and would have landed face-first in the dirt if the officer hadn’t grabbed my arm and kept me upright, he grumbled, “You might do better watching where you’re walking than looking at the trees.”

Sound advice. I wished I could take it, but I didn’t want to explain that our guide was in the trees because that would require explaining the nature of our guide.

“Stop,” he said after we had been walking awhile. It felt like forever, and since I hadn’t gone back inside the house to get my wristwatch before we headed out, time was measured by how it felt. “Do you have any idea where you’re going?”

“Of course I do, Officer . . .” I realized he hadn’t told me his name. Maybe that wasn’t required?

“Grimshaw.”

“Really?” So not the correct response, especially from someone named Vicki DeVine. “The Milfords’ place is the land between The Jumble and the road that leads to Sproing. The body was found near the farm track between the Milfords’ land and mine.”

“So we should be heading east?”

I was about to agree but the affirmative words stuck in my throat. Were we supposed to be heading east? Was this a trick question? Couldn’t be heading west. The lake was to the west of the main house—could, in fact, be seen from the back of the main house. But that left two other directions unaccounted for.

“Ms. DeVine?” Officer Grimshaw was not a happy camper.

“Um . . .”

“Caw.”

I breathed a sigh of relief. “This way.”

Suddenly there were three crows on the same branch, making me think of the shell game where you have to figure out which shell hid the pea.

Three black birds were sitting in a tree. Which one was A-G-G-I-E?

“Caw.”

Only one took off, so I followed, hoping it was a Crow, and Officer Grimshaw followed me. Big mistake. I probably should have admitted to being geographically challenged before I led him into the woods.

“Caw!”

Open ground. Daylight. The dirt road, aka the farm track. And the body.

“Ew.” That wasn’t a professional response, but I wasn’t a professional and I sincerely hoped I never met this man again. Either man.

“Stay there,” Grimshaw said as he moved closer to the body.

Like I was going to get closer when my knees already felt rubbery and my stomach felt swoopy.

“This body has been disturbed.”

“I’d be disturbed too if I was suddenly dead,” I replied.

He twisted around enough to look at me and must have decided I wasn’t trying to be a smart-ass; I just wasn’t quite in control of what I was saying anymore. Since I had dealt with the eyeball pretty well, the only explanation was that my brain had decided that, with someone else here to handle the problem, it no longer had to be fully functional during this stage of the crisis and could enjoy a mini anxiety attack.

“Not a lot of predation,” Grimshaw said, studying the body. “I don’t think he’s been here long.”

“Aggie said his eyeball was squooshy. That’s why she wanted to warm it up in the wave-cooker. Wouldn’t it take a while for the eyeball to get squooshy?”

I watched him put his sunglasses back on before he turned to face me.

“Aggie is your lodger?” Arctic Voice.

I nodded, glad I couldn’t see his eyes because my insides were quivering as I braced for Arctic Voice to become Hammer Voice.

“I really need to talk to her.”

My quivering insides translated his Officially Polite Voice as more encouraging than scary, so I pointed at the branch above me. “Go ahead.”

His head moved, so I assumed he was looking up. Then, as he turned away, I heard him say, “Crap.” It wasn’t so much spoken as a breath shaped into sound.

Aggie lifted her wings in what might have been an apologetic shrug and let out a timid caw.

Grimshaw pulled out his mobile phone and made a call. The next couple of minutes sounded like a TV show with all the “officer needs assistance” and requests for the medical examiner and transport of the remains.

He hadn’t gotten very far into explaining the situation when seven birds winged toward the body. They landed close and moved closer, despite Grimshaw waving an arm to keep them away.

“Friends of yours?” I asked, looking up at Aggie.

“Caw.”

“Officer . . .”

“I heard.”

Yeah. Regular crows would have been enough of a problem if you wanted to avoid having more body bits and pieces being taken away for someone’s dinner. But dealing with the Crowgard? That made this a potential PR fiasco for the police department—and every other human service that could be affected by the terra indigene taking exception to someone keeping them away from the buffet.

Or was it the body that was so intriguing? I saw a glint of gold. A wristwatch. It looked like someone had been trying to pull it off and had been interrupted. By our arrival?

“I have to stay with the body until the Crime Investigation Unit gets here,” Grimshaw said. “Can you find your way back to the house?”

“Sure.”

Can you find your way back?”

Could we call that a no-confidence vote for the geographically challenged?

“Caw.” At least Aggie was confident of getting us back to the main house.

So there, Officer Smarty-Pants.

I headed back up the path, fairly sure that I could get out of sight before getting lost.

“Ms. DeVine?”

Grimshaw’s voice stopped me but I didn’t turn around. “Yes, Officer?”

“I’ll still need to talk to you and your lodger. Don’t go anywhere.”

Like I could with his big official vehicle blocking the access road that led up to the main house. Somehow I couldn’t see myself taking off on my bicycle in order to escape the law. Besides, all I did was report finding a body. How much trouble could I get into for doing that?


Marked in FleshEtched in Bone, in paperback February 2018