Death by Thunder (Martha Patterson Mysteries)

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9780312347673: Death by Thunder (Martha Patterson Mysteries)
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After several years on the West Coast, photographer Janet Upton is home, relieved to be newly unmarried and with her family in the mountains of her Hudson River hometown.

In spite of a vicious thunder storm---and also because of it---Janet and her camera are on a mountainside trying for dramatic photographs when she hears a cry and sees a body flying down from the rocks above her. She hurries to the bottom to find citizens and emergency personnel with the body of Broderick Hale (Janet's uncle by marriage).
Phillips Landing is a town where everyone knows everything about everyone else
---almost. Broderick Hale was a man who spoke his mind, had strong opinions, and lots of money. No one seems to see the event as anything but an unfortunate accident, just as no one did eight years earlier when a wealthy woman building her "dream" home fell from that same mountain. When Janet's film from this stormy day is destroyed, however, she has to wonder, Did Broderick fall, or was he pushed?

In this stand-alone tale of intrigue, Gretchen Sprague has captured the dangerous beauty of her beloved Hudson Highlands. Death by Thunder boasts the strong characters and solid stories that have characterized all her Martha Patterson mysteries.

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About the Author:

Gretchen Sprague was a legal services lawyer in Brooklyn, New York, for eleven years. She retired to the Hudson Highlands to write the Martha Patterson mysteries. Sprague died in 2003, making Death by Thunder this gifted storyteller's last mystery.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Death by Thunder
PART ONENovember 1987PaulONEBlasphemy and TrespassThe sign stood on the shoulder of Oak Hollow Road, tilted a little on its portable frame:CAUTION BLASTING TURN OFF TWO-WAY RADIOSPaul Willard hurled the van into the tight curves that followed the course of the stream. At the mouth of Henley Lane, he braked hard, wrenched the wheel right, scattered gravel between third-growth stands of black birch. The blast permit was tacked to a tree beside a driveway cut at the top of the first steep rise.Blasphemers.Paul slowed, turned right and jounced up the rutted clay track between felled trees and uprooted stumps. A couple of hundred yards up, he left the van skewed behind a parked dump truck and continued on foot, passing a parked backhoe and then Alta's red Mercedes, tucked in next to an oak. Fifty yards farther up, two people in hard hats beside a parked van looked around at the sound of his footsteps; then the shorter one headed down the track toward him.Alta.Alta Ferguson, blasphemer-in-chief.Health-club fit inside a scarlet ski jacket, her strategically faded jeans tucked into work boots, she picked her way down the ruts toward him as sure-footed as a doe. When they came within easy earshot, she said, "Hello, Paul." Out of sight behind her, a drill screamed in rock. Below the brim of her hard hat, the artfully natural fine-boned face smiled. "To what do I owe the pleasure, neighbor?""Oh--" His bare hands deep in his mackinaw pockets, Paul bore down on the local drawl he'd been perfecting for twenty years: two slow syllables--"O-oh--" and a pause, as if to gather the words. "Neighborly curiosity, I guess." Pause. "You're in an almighty rush to blast, it looks like."She smiled as if he'd wished her well. "You know construction. If we don't get the footings in before frost, we'll be held up until summer."He knew construction. These days, everybody knew construction.Five or six snowflakes meandered through the air. Snow! he shouted silently. Blow! C'mon, Earth, gimme a blizzard! Gimme a "B," gimme an "L," gimme an "I"--But Earth wasn't to be chivvied; the first week of November was too early for serious snow. Paul eased into a stroll again, passing Alta and ambling on up the rutted track to the edge of the flat, stony hilltop where the van was parked. DELEO CONSTRUCTION--COMPLETE EXCAVATION SERVICES was lettered on the door. The man beside it was in the first half of his forties, stocky and fit, with the alert diplomat's eyes of the independent contractor.The drill/screech stopped, leaving Paul's ears ringing. Twenty yards farther on, a man in protective gear was wrestling a drillalong the base of a treeless mound of bedrock that bulked against the mottled gray sky.Paul extended his hand to the man by the van. "Paul Willard."The man accepted it. "Tony DeLeo.""The man in charge?""Blasting contractor."Paul nodded sideways toward the bulk of stone. "Big job."DeLeo's eyes didn't move from Paul's face, but his head rose a millimeter in what might have been the beginning of a nod."Yes," Paul acknowledged. "We-ell, I think maybe it'd be a good idea if you held off on the blasting.""Oh?""Until I have a chance to see your insurance coverage."A couple of beats of silence. "You from the state?""In a manner of speaking.""Paul," said Alta. "Really. He isn't from the state, Tony. He's from dreamsville. He lives down the road and he doesn't want me to build my house where he can see it from his front deck.""Correction," Paul said. "I'm a citizen, therefore I'm from the state. I'm from the Town of Claysburgh, the County of Putnam, the State of New York--""Paul," said Alta."--the United States of America, the planet Earth, the planetary system of Sol, the galaxy dubbed Milky Way, the universe, seen and unseen--""Paul, get out of the way," said Alta. "We're about to blast.""Not until I inspect Mr. DeLeo's liability coverage.""Paul--""It's my right under New York law.""Oh, God."He turned a smile toward her. "I'm a neighboring property owner who might be at risk from the blasting. I have a right to know if I'm covered.""Oh, my God, everybody's a lawyer. You're not at risk. Your precious fifteen acres are a mile away.""A mile by the road. A good deal less by crow flight.""How far do you think a rock can fly?""We-ell--" A sideways glance at DeLeo, whose face showed nothing. "When did you last look at a bedrock map?""A bedrock map? What are you talking about?""You didn't think about it? I'm surprised, Alta, an active little builder like you. What I'm concerned with, as a landowner at risk, is that this outcrop here"--he tapped his boot toe on the stone they were standing on--"that you want to blast away to put up your big glass house and your double tennis court and your Olympic swimming pool--"Alta was smiling.He stopped.He started over, tamping down rage with rehearsed pedantry. "This outcrop, as you'd know if you'd paid attention, is part of a faulted granite sheet that underlies the Oak Hollow watershed. As everybody knows who has ever looked at a highway cut, the faults in this granite are full of water. This granite is our aquifer. If you blast here, you've got a chance of shutting down my well, and five or six others besides." He matched Alta's smile. "Then you'd see lawyers.""My God, you are full of it." Alta moved a couple of steps down the track. "Tony, let's get on with the job. Paul, you can come back down out of range or you can stay up here and get some of that faulted granite on your skull. You want to make Marion a widow?"Tony DeLeo said, "Just a second, Mrs. Ferguson."Alta stopped.DeLeo said, "There's a copy of the policy in the van. I don't have any problem letting him look at it.""He's bullshitting you, Tony.""That's okay." DeLeo leaned into the van and pulled a scuffed portfolio from behind the seat. He unzipped it and thumbed through a sheaf of papers, took out four long, densely printed sheets, and held them out to Paul. "If you can make any sense out of it."Paul nodded and took the papers. He began reading at the top. Over at the stone mound, the drill screamed, drowning the crisp rustle of paper. Presently it stopped; things clattered, and after a few minutes the workman came across to the van lugging the drill. DeLeo went around and opened the back for him. He came back and said, "I think the part you want is on the third page."Paul looked up and nodded again. He turned slowly to page three and read a turgid paragraph.Alta said, "Paul, come on."He ignored her and read through to the end. Slowly he folded the policy, then handed it to DeLeo, who tucked it back into the portfolio and said, "All okay?""Well--" (We-ell) "I don't know." He was running out of stalls.Alta said, "Oh, shit.""Mr. DeLeo," Paul said, "just let me show you something." He started past the van toward the drilling site. Behind him, Alta said, "Tony--"DeLeo said, "Don't worry," and caught up with Paul. Their boots rasped on the stone. Paul stopped for a moment and ran his toe across grooves in the surface. "Ice age glaciation.""Mm-hm," said DeLeo.Paul crossed to the base of the stone mound, where a scarp angled steeply down to the floor of the valley called Oak Hollow. The unweathered rock inside the drill holes was salmon pink. "She's blowing away half of this rock so she can have a pool beside the house," he said. "A pool with a view.""Mm-hm." DeLeo was humoring him. Fine; better indulgence than impatience.They were overlooking a winding stretch of Oak Hollow Road. Far below, a fuel-oil truck and three cars swung into the curves. "I just want to show you why I'm concerned," he said. "My house is right through that fold, just south of that stand of hemlocks." He moved his head to show the direction, but didn't take his eyes from the road. "It's weathered cedar, so it's hard to see from here."DeLeo said, "I like a house that fits in.""Like this one will," said Paul.DeLeo was silent.Down on the road, a silver subcompact flashed into view, taking the snaky turns at speed, slowing just before it passed out of sight. Even from up there, Paul could see the right turn signal begin to blink.He tipped his head toward the uneven face of the mound. "From below, this looks like an animal head. My wife and I call it Big Bear.""An Indian name?" Still indulging him."Just private between us. Earth laid down this stone a billion years ago. It's the oldest visible stone in North America.""That's what they say.""It's blasphemy," said Paul.DeLeo said nothing."But just another job."Silence, then, "I can't get used to a woman using language like she does." He took his hand from the stone. "Okay, let's go."Alta still stood next to DeLeo's van. "Satisfied, Mr. Citizen of the Universe?""Hard to tell." Paul's ears strained.But it was Alta who was the first to hear it. "Somebody's coming up," she said. Then Paul heard the laboring motor and the crunch of tires on the dry clay, and moments later the silver Civic with the dented right-rear fender came jouncing around the last bend in the track."Well, well," said Alta, "it's your wife."Marion braked behind DeLeo's van, opened the car door, and stepped out. Laugh crinkles were active behind her glasses."What brings you up here, Marion?" said Alta. "Tracking down your wandering spouse?"Marion reached back across the front seat and brought out a manila envelope. "Tracking you down, actually." She undid the clasp, pulled out a bundle of papers stapled into a blue backing sheet, and held them out. "Brought you a little present."Alta made no move.Marion stooped, laid the papers at Alta's feet, straightened, and said, "You have been duly served with a court order signed by His Honor Justice Whalen, directing you to appear in New York Supreme Court for the County of Putnam on Friday morning, November sixth, to show cause why your building permit shouldn't be revoked, and staying any further work on this project until all parties may be heard. In other words, Alta, no blasting today unless you want to go to jail for contempt of court.""Are you serious?""Read it.""Fuck it."Marion smiled. "If that's your taste, but I do suggest you read it first.""Fuck it. You people are out of your minds. Judge Whalen is out of his mind. You cannot possibly have any grounds for a court order. I have, for God's sake, danced around this town's land-use maypole for three fucking years. I have every permit for every goddamn move I need to make. So help me God, I think I even have a permit to take a piss at three A.M. on alternate Thursdays. There can't possibly be any reason to stop this project.""Well, Judge Whalen thinks there may be," said Marion. "It seems there may be something funny about your building permit. The judge wants to hear about it Friday morning.""My building permit? You can't be serious. So help me God, this isn't law, it's harassment." Alta turned to DeLeo. "Forget the building permit. I've got the blasting permit. Tony, blow that fucking rock."Nobody moved. Then DeLeo bent and picked up the papers. He flipped through, read something in the middle, looked at the last page for a longer time. Finally he refolded it and held it out. "You'd better have your lawyer look at this, Mrs. Ferguson. I can't do any blasting until this gets cleared up.""Tony--"He shook his head. "Sorry, but I've got a license to think about."Another silence; then Alta wheeled on Paul and Marion. "You two will hear from my lawyer. Now get off my land, both of you. You're trespassing."DEATH BY THUNDER. Copyright © 2005 by Elmer Sprague. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y 10010.

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