S.W. Hubbard Take the Bait

ISBN 13: 9780743466530

Take the Bait

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9780743466530: Take the Bait
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The mountains guard their secrets....

The remote village of Trout Run lies inside New York State's vast Adirondack Park, a tiny community cloistered within deep forests and rugged mountains. You can drive for miles without seeing another soul -- so when high school senior Janelle Harvey vanishes while walking home along a lonely forest road, only the trees are mute witnesses to her disappearance.

Police Chief Frank Bennett is new to Trout Run, and he's determined not to make another mistake in judgment like the one that cost him his previous job. But no one -- family, friends, or clergy -- seems willing to tell all they know about Janelle. Yet as the search goes on, Frank determinedly peels back the layers of mystery...only to find that even in a town where everyone knows your name, there are some secrets no one wants shared.

"synopsis" may belong to another edition of this title.

About the Author:

S.W. Hubbard, an avid hiker and canoeist, has spent many happy hours exploring the High Peaks area of the Adirondacks, where her family built a vacation home on the banks of the West Branch of the Ausable River. She has worked for more than twenty years as a marketing promotions writer and lives in Morristown, New Jersey, with her husband, two children, and cat. Take the Bait, her debut mystery featuring Police Detective Frank Bennett, was published by Pocket Books.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One

Make no mistake -- spring is not a season of unrestrained joy in the Adirondack Mountains. Too late for skiers and too early for hikers, spring brings financial grief to everyone who relies on the tourist trade. At best, it's muddy; at worst, the melting snow and rain push rivers and streams above their banks, uprooting trees and flooding low roads. The same warm weather that coaxes the leaves onto the trees also draws the blackflies out of their larval state.

Still, a palpable joy coursed through Trout Run, New York, on that first balmy Saturday at the end of April, marking the end of winter's long siege. People shed their heavy coats and walked around wearing T-shirts and even shorts, despite that in the shade, the air was still cool enough to raise goose bumps. Everyone was outside: babies who'd been born over the winter got their first stroller promenades, children drew hopscotch grids on driveways, gardeners dug with unchecked optimism.

And Janelle Harvey, walking the half mile between Al's Sunoco and her home, disappeared.

* * *

Frank Bennett tried to ignore the phone ringing over the shrill whine of his table saw, but the caller's persistence got the better of him. Brushing the sawdust from his sleeves, Trout Run's police chief took the stairs from his basement workshop two at a time, arriving at the phone cross and out of breath.

"Yeah?" he rasped.

"Hello, Frank. It's me. We have a missing persons case. I think we have to get on it right away." Earl's voice was so loud, Frank had to hold the phone six inches away from his ear.

"Who's missing?"

"Janelle Harvey. Jack's daughter."

The name meant nothing to Frank. He had lived in the town for less than a year, and as small as Trout Run was, there were still people he didn't know.

"A little girl?" Frank asked, keeping his voice calm although he could already feel a knot of dread forming in his gut at the mere mention of a missing child. "What, did she wander out of her yard?"

"She's not a little kid, she's a teenager," Earl informed him. "She's been missing for four hours."

"Oh for Christ's sake, Earl!" Disgusted with himself for that moment of panic, Frank lashed out at his young assistant. "That's what you're so worked up about? Kid's probably at her boyfriend's house." Missing teenagers were not the same as missing children. They almost always had taken off in some act of underhanded or intentional defiance, and turned up again soon enough, dragging their tails.

"Uh, her father checked that out," Earl said. The slight hesitation in Earl's voice was enough to tell Frank that the kid was lying. No doubt he had been so rattled by this report of a serious crime while he was on duty that he had failed to question Jack Harvey thoroughly. "He's real upset. He wants us to help him search. He asked for you specifically," Earl added.

Frank smiled as he kicked off his work boots. Certainly no one in town would specifically request Earl. Now that the police chief's position had been filled, everybody expected to get their money's worth from Frank. "Don't worry, Earl, I won't send you out there to deal with Mr. Harvey yourself. I'll swing by the office and pick you up."

Not bothering to change into his uniform, Frank jumped into his truck and drove toward Trout Run. He'd stop by the Town Office and pick up Earl, then head out to Jack Harvey's place.

Three roads led into Trout Run. Where they intersected, a sort of haphazard town square had been formed. The village proper didn't amount to much. It had sprung up near the spot where Stony Brook widens and deepens, forming an ideal habitat for trout. The village had none of the postcard quaintness that towns across Lake Champlain in Vermont leveraged into big tourist dollars. There was no revolutionary war hero standing in a town green, no white steepled church, certainly no chintz-bedecked tea shops or pricey antiques stores.

And yet, Trout Run possessed a definite charm. Perhaps it was the way the mountains surrounded it, holding the town in their protective embrace. Perhaps it was just the carefree way children pedaled their bikes through the streets, dropping them heedlessly in front of the general store, where they went in search of ice cream and candy.

The Town Office, a little clapboard building painted barn red, sat on the north side of the square. On one side of the center hall the tax collector, water authority, and road department were each represented by metal desks.

Today the building was empty except for Earl, the civilian assistant Frank had inherited from his predecessor. When he entered the police department's side of the building, Frank fully expected to find Earl in his characteristic posture -- scrawny backside perched on the edge of the swivel chair, work boots up on the metal desk, slightly grimy hands clasped behind his head. But instead, Earl was pacing the five steps from window to phone and back again.

"What took you so long?" he demanded as Frank walked in.

"I didn't even stop to change!" Frank protested, dusting wood shavings from his pant leg. Then, annoyed at himself for offering Earl any excuse at all, he snatched the incident report Earl had completed from Jack Harvey's call and scanned it quickly.

"Maybe you think I could have handled this myself," Earl said.

Frank shook his head. There was very little he thought Earl could do by himself, including filing things alphabetically, driving the patrol car without denting it, and directing traffic without causing a major pileup. "You did the right thing. Let's go out and get this settled, huh?"

Earl filled him in on the Harveys as they drove. For all his faults, Earl was invaluable as a source of background information on every citizen in Trout Run. He categorized everyone he knew as either "from around here" or "not from around here." Earl himself fell into the first group -- his family had been scratching out a living in the beautiful, harsh Adirondack Mountains for over a century. Frank would forever remain in the second group. Even if he lived to be ninety-eight, he would only have spent fifty years in Trout Run, hardly enough to make him "from around here."

"Jack's in his early forties I guess," Earl began. "Works over at the lumberyard. His wife, Rosemary, died from some disease when Janelle was real little, so it's just him and Janelle. You see them around together a lot. He started up a girls' softball league and coaches it, just so she'd have a team to play on.

"Jack's sister Dorothy lives in the house right behind theirs. They inherited the property from their parents, and Dorothy built a new little house behind the old farmhouse."

"Is she married?" Frank asked.

"She was till two years ago. Her husband was coming home from the Mountainside Tavern on a rainy night and skidded right into Long Lake. Drowned."

"Sounds like a family with a lot of bad luck."

"Maybe not so bad in that case. Dorothy's husband was real mean. Drank a lot and never worked much. Seems like she supported them and their son, Tommy. Everyone kinda felt she was a lot better off without old Tom."

"What about Janelle -- you know her well?"

"Not really. She started high school a year after I graduated."

"You're twenty-one, so, that makes her seventeen."

"Yeah. Tommy's a year older, but they're both seniors. I think she skipped a grade in grammar school. This is the driveway," Earl added as they were nearly past it.

They pulled up to the house with a squeal of tires and a cloud of dust, providing the kind of drama that Frank knew Earl enjoyed.

The Harveys' house, tucked back on a side road branching off Stony Brook Road, was plain and square and white, with a big front porch. The grass was a little tall and there were no flowers, but Frank could see a vegetable bed being prepared for planting in the side yard. He knocked on the storm door and peered through to the tidy hall and living room as he waited for someone to answer.

"I've been calling Janelle's friends and no one's seen her," Jack Harvey said as he walked down the hall to the door. He was a well-built, competent-looking man, but his voice carried a high-pitched edge of panic. "Dorothy's out driving around now looking for her, but she said I better wait here for you."

"Good, good." Frank clapped him on the back. "Let's sit down and go over this right from the beginning. I'm sure there's nothing to worry about."

There was something reassuring in Frank Bennett's appearance and manner that made people want to believe what he said, even when there was no good reason to. At forty-eight, his short hair was still quite dark, and his arms and legs were strong, although he was not a big man. It was only recently that he had accepted the expansion of his waistline to a size thirty-four. The addition of a few wrinkles had not significantly altered his midwestern farm boy's face. His brown eyes could be both kindly and stern -- small children recognized him as a pushover, but one icy stare could silence the protests of speeders and barroom bullies.

Jack Harvey's hunched shoulders visibly relaxed. "I was repairing our lawn tractor and Janelle was keeping me company while I worked. I thought I was closing in on the problem, but then I realized I hardly had any gas, and I didn't want to start her up and then have to stop again to fill it. Tommy was out in Dorothy's car, so Dorothy had borrowed my truck to go to the supermarket. I asked Janelle if she'd mind walking up to Al's Sunoco to get some gas. I told her just fill the can halfway or it'll be too heavy to carry. It's less than a mile. She's been walking up there since she was a little kid to buy candy and sodas." Jack's tone had turned plaintive, as if someone had accused him of intolerable cruelty for asking his daughter to run this errand.

"When she didn't come back by twelve-thirty, I started to wonder what was keeping her, but I figured she ran into someone she knew and lost track of time."

"Did she go back in the house before she left? Maybe she called someone to meet her," Frank suggested.

Jack shook his head. "When I asked her to go she took right off. I called Al and he told me she got there at about quarter to twelve and bought the gas and a candy bar. He said he could see her walking back until she turned the corner onto Stony Brook Road. That's when I started getting worried." Jack's upper lip, covered with weekend stubble, trembled slightly. He clenched his teeth for a moment, took a deep breath, and continued in a steady voice. "By one Dorothy came home with the truck. We've been looking for Janelle ever since."

"What about your nephew, Tommy?" Frank asked. "Is he still out? Maybe Janelle's with him."

"No!" Frank thought Jack answered a little louder than necessary. "I mean, he got back right after Dorothy did. He hasn't seen Janelle."

"Is he looking for her now, too?" Earl asked.

"No, he's out back." Jack jerked his head to indicate the expanse of yard that separated his house from Dorothy's. "Building something."

Rhythmic hammer blows echoed through the quiet spring air. Frank hadn't registered them before. Apparently Tommy wasn't as worried about his cousin as the adults in the family.

Frank rose. "Let's go talk to him -- he must know all the kids' hangouts."

"That's a waste of time!" Jack objected. "I told you Tommy doesn't know where she is. I want to show you where I found the gas can on Stony Brook Road."

Frank brought his head up sharply. "Did you leave it there?"

"Yes. Otherwise I thought I wouldn't remember exactly where it was, " Jack answered.

"Good. All right, let's go there now before someone disturbs it. We can talk to Tommy later."

Jack gazed intently out the car window, keeping up a rambling monologue without any prompting from Frank. "Janelle's had a very busy week: softball practice, cheerleading, lots of homework. She must've gotten tired, the can was too heavy for her, so she set it down. And then..."

Frank nodded. Then, keeping his eyes focused on the road ahead, as if driving on this deserted country lane demanded his full concentration, he asked, "Did you have any, uh, disagreements with Janelle lately? Could she be staying away just to assert her independence a little?"

There was no immediate answer, and Frank cast a casual glance at his passenger. Jack seemed stunned into silence, so Frank continued, "It's not unusual. Just a teenager's way of letting her parents know they're not totally in control."

The reaction, when it came, was explosive. "My daughter is not playing some prank to teach me a lesson!" Jack screamed. His fair face turned bright red so quickly, you could almost see the blood coursing beneath the taut skin. His hands formed tight fists and he pounded the dashboard. "She wouldn't do that to me!"

Frank offered no response, just drove slowly until Jack's fury played out. He'd expected maybe indignation or annoyance, not rage, and he wondered how often Jack's fuse was lit. Although tall and strong, Jack had come across as gentle, even sensitive. But Frank no longer trusted first impressions. They could set you off down the wrong path, and by the time you realized it, the opportunity to turn back was gone.

He stopped the car a quarter of a mile down Stony Brook Road, when Jack made a mute gesture. Frank got out and stared at the red metal gas can, which stood upright about six feet from the edge of the road. A straggly bush shaded it but did not completely conceal it.

"You didn't move it at all? It was standing like that when you found it?"

Why would the can be so far back from the edge of the road, almost, but not quite, hidden? A vague uneasiness niggled at Frank.

Jack nodded. "I told her a million times never to hitchhike." He gave the ground a ferocious kick. "I can't believe she would."

"It's doubtful she was hitching. She would have taken the can with her if she was looking for a ride home. Earl, watch where you're walking," Frank added, not missing a beat.

Earl gave a guilty little leap backward, mostly out of reflex, since he almost never knew what Frank was yelling at him about. Frank paused to examine the ground where his assistant had just stepped, along the shoulder of the road. There were no footprints leading up to the gas can. Janelle, mindful of the spring mud, had apparently walked on the macadam road.

"These your tire tracks?" Frank asked.

"Yeah. When I spotted the gas can I pulled off the road and stopped real sudden," said Jack, explaining the deep grooves in the spongy earth.

The wide truck tires were the only visible disturbance of the spring mud; no other vehicle tracks marked the ground.

Frank made a broad loop through the meadow that bordered Stony Brook Road, and approached the gas can from the opposite side. Jack watched him work, continuing a shouted conversation from the road.

"So if you don't think she was hitchhiking, you think someone followed her from the gas station and grabbed her?"

Frank lay flat on his stomach and vi...

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