In the Winter Woods
Isabelle Adler © 2020
All Rights Reserved
At first glance, there was nothing sinister about the lakeside village of Maplewood, Vermont.
In fact, there wasn’t much of anything in the village. I had passed the post office, the fire station, the town hall, and a big billboard announcing the construction of some sort of theme park, all situated along the half-mile stretch of Main Street before parking my car in front of the convenience store. It abutted the first gas station I’d seen in the last few hours. The faded sign at the front was fitted with twinkling lights and plastic green holly garlands that had seen better days. Despite the general shabbiness, there was something charming and distinctly Christmas-y about it, like looking at a vintage postcard.
I got out and tightened my parka around me. Snow crunched under my sneakers, which were hardly suitable for the weather. I’d forgotten just how cold the winters here in Vermont could be, and now I was paying the price for neglecting to properly equip myself for the long trip from Manhattan’s Upper West Side all the way to Lake Champlain.
Granted, it had been a spur-of-the-moment decision. Not the part about leaving New York City, but coming here to Maplewood. I didn’t remember much of the town, having last been here with my family when I was thirteen or fourteen, but I doubted it’d changed much in the last twenty years.
The doorbell chimed as I entered the store. It seemed to be empty aside from a gray-haired elderly lady behind the counter, who looked up and offered me a distracted smile before turning back to a talk show on a small TV set tucked beside the register.
I blew on my hands and rubbed them together, then picked up a basket and started off down the aisle toward the refrigerators in the back. I suspected I would have to stock up on everything before going up to the cabin. It hadn’t been used for something like five years, since the last vacation my sister Jenny and her husband had taken there after being married, when the cabin still belonged to our parents. Everything still lurking in the depths of the pantry would have to be thrown out anyway.
Between grocery shopping and another full tank of gas, this retreat was turning out more expensive than I initially imagined. And it was a retreat, I told myself firmly, a writer’s retreat of one. Jenny would say I was running away from my problems, but it was the opposite, really. I’d come here to tackle them head-on.
I wanted to do battle with my lingering writer’s block somewhere where I wouldn’t have to stretch my dwindling income to cover rent for a Manhattan apartment. It’d come down to either living in the center of the known universe or, well, eating. And whoever had come up with the idea an artist had to starve to produce great art was clearly full of it.
The first thing that caught my eye was a display rack of Champ the Champlain Lake Monster merchandise. Much like the Loch Ness monster in Scotland, “Champ” was a popular piece of local folklore and somewhat of a draw for holidaymakers all around the lake. A cardboard cutout of Champ wearing a Santa hat invited the customers to peruse the display. I glanced at the selection of postcards and printed T-shirts and moved into the food isles.
I picked some sensible items—dried pasta, canned tomato sauce, eggs, bread, and some packaged vegetables. Then (because I wasn’t living in complete denial) I added instant coffee and a box of sugary donuts.
The doorbell rang again as I was contemplating adding cocoa to the selection. I glanced briefly above the shelves and saw a tall man in a dark blue uniform step inside. He wore one of those heavy-duty puffer jackets and a hat.
I hadn’t heard another car or a bike pull up, so I assumed he’d walked here. His cheeks were red, his pale skin flushed with the bracing cold of midday winter air. Maybe he was one of those people who found regular outdoor exercise invigorating. I shuddered.
The uniform clearly marked him as some sort of law enforcement officer. He was also handsome in that macho, all-American-good-looks kind of way I found inexplicably irritating. The blue eyes and chiseled jaw reminded me of the D-list actors who drifted from one episodic role in a network show to another for the length of their careers, relying on their appearance rather than talent to get them through.
The officer’s gaze swept over the store and lingered on me for a split second before he turned to greet the shopkeeper. I tuned out their chatter as I tried to figure out what else I needed for the next week or so. The cabin wasn’t that far away, but I preferred to avoid making frequent trips to the village if I could help it.
Having finally concluded my shopping, I took my basket over to the counter, which was decorated with green and silver tinsel. Both the newcomer and the elderly lady fell silent at my approach.
“Hi,” I said awkwardly.
The shopkeeper put on the spectacles that hung on a dainty beaded chain around her neck and began scanning my items. She looked for all the world like a prim schoolmistress in her pale-pink sweater and upswept hairdo, her gray hair almost white against her deep brown skin. However, the look she gave me above the glasses now perched on the tip of her nose was friendly enough.
“Renting a cottage or just passing through?” she inquired.
The officer turned to examine a rack of magazines near the window, but for some reason I got the distinct impression he was listening in.
“Renting. That is, I’m staying in one of the cabins, up near the lake. It’s my family’s, actually. The Kensingtons?”
“Oh, yes!” Her face lit up. “I remember. Such a lovely family; came here nigh every year in the summertime. But not anymore.”
This wasn’t phrased as a question, precisely, but her voice rose expectantly at the last bit.
“My parents died last year.” Saying it still hurt, but I’d made my peace with it enough by now to be casual about it. “The cabin passed down to me. Well, to my sister Jenny and me, but I don’t think she has much interest in coming to Vermont anymore.” Neither did I, for that matter, but I wasn’t about to say so in front of the locals. “My name is Declan Kensington.”
The old lady raised her head, her eyes going wide behind the thin golden rims.
“The Declan Kensington? The mystery writer?”
“One and the same,” I said.
The man finally picked a newspaper and moved to stand behind me. He was definitely paying attention to our conversation, though why it would interest him, I had no notion. He didn’t seem in any hurry to leave, in any case.
“My goodness!” the shopkeeper gasped. “You know, I’ve never made the connection with the Kensington family. I’m a huge fan of your work.”
“Oh, yes, Mr Kensington, am I ever!”
I was somewhat surprised that an old-fashioned-looking small-town shopkeeper would be reading crime thrillers that featured an openly gay protagonist, but perhaps I was being unnecessarily judgmental. Times were changing, after all—at least according to my Twitter feed.
She continued, oblivious to my incredulity.
“I’m Janice. Janice Bentley. I have all your books! Well, most of them,” she added almost apologetically.
I knew what she meant, of course. Even the most die-hard fans of my Owen Graves mystery thriller series had been loudly critical of the last books I’d produced, and the rest voted with their wallets. Which was why I was here, in Maplewood, in an attempt to cut down on my living expenses by taking up in an old family cabin while I worked on my next masterpiece.
And boy, did I need a masterpiece.
“Strange timing for a lakeside weekend getaway,” the man said. We both turned to look at him, and he shrugged. “It’s freezing.”
As if the fact wasn’t self-evident.
“I’m not here on a vacation,” I said icily. “I’m here to work.”
Not that it was any of their business, of course, but it struck me that saying it out loud was a commitment of sorts, as if their expectations would somehow keep me accountable. It was a bit pathetic, really, that I had to resort to such excuses to trick myself into writing, but I had to face the truth. I was fumbling my way through the worst writing block of my career, and I had to take all the incentives I could claw out. If I didn’t force the words out somehow, and soon, I might as well throw in the towel and become a junior analyst in my mother’s (and now my sister’s) financial advisory firm, waiting for a nice zombie apocalypse to put me out of my misery.
“Your light is broken,” the man said.
He nodded toward the parking lot.
“The Honda Accord. It’s yours, right? I saw one of the taillights was busted when I walked by. You should get it fixed.”
“I’ll take care of it, officer,” I said, still reeling from the unpleasant way his words echoed my grim musings. “Unless you’d rather slap me with a fine.”
I don’t know why I was being snappish, really. The officer wasn’t being belligerent, but something in his careless standoffishness irked me. That, and I was already in a foul mood; not much was needed to set me on edge.
He didn’t exactly roll his eyes at my challenge, but I got the distinct impression he did so in his mind.
“The roads here can be dangerous in winter if you’re unfamiliar with them, especially at night,” he said with a hint of reproach. “If someone is driving behind you, you might be putting them at risk. Better be safe than sorry.”
I felt instantly bad. The man gave me no reason to be rude. And besides, my behavior smacked of the kind of privileged white-male arrogance I was doing my best to check myself on.
Clearly, I wasn’t doing a very good job.
“Sorry,” I said, hoping I sounded sincere this time. “I’ll have it fixed.”
The officer nodded and pushed a couple of dollar bills across the counter to pay for his newspaper, which turned out to be The St. Albans Messenger.
“Have a nice stay, Mr. Kensington,” he said and headed out. I saw him throw another glance at my Honda before walking off down the road, the newspaper tucked under his armpit.
“That’s Curtis Monroe, our public safety commissioner,” Janice said, dropping her voice conspiratorially, even though he couldn’t possibly hear her. “He’s a sweetheart, really.”
From our very brief acquaintance, “sweetheart” wouldn’t be the word I’d associate with Commissioner Monroe, but the last thing I wanted right now was to argue the point with Janice.
“Commissioner? So you have a large public safety department here at Maplewood?” I asked, looking longingly at the till. The light was beginning to fail ever so slightly, and I was itching to be off.
Janice laughed as if I were being purposefully funny.
“Oh, heavens, no! It’s just him and Jack Gleason, his deputy. It’s such a small, peaceful village; we hardly have any trouble going on except for the tourist season. And even then, it’s mostly folks having one too many drinks and making a ruckus. You’ll be bored with us quite soon, Mr. Kensington, I’m sure.”
“You know, maybe boredom is exactly what I need right now to focus on my work,” I told her, handing her my credit card. “It looks like the perfect place to get some peace and quiet.”
In retrospect, I couldn’t have been more wrong.