Countdown City

by Ben H. Winters

Countdown City

Paperback, 316 pages, Random House Inc, List Price: $14.95 | purchase

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Countdown City
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Ben H. Winters

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Book Summary

Former detective Hank Palace agrees to help a woman from his past find her missing husband in a world that is rapidly descending into apocalyptic chaos.

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NPR stories about Countdown City

The view down Main Street in Concord, N.H., reflects the community's small-town feel. Author Ben Winters doesn't live in Concord, but he sets his mystery novels there — he says the city's peaceful, unpretentious atmosphere makes it an appealing setting. Michel Gagnon/Flickr hide caption

itoggle caption Michel Gagnon/Flickr

Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: Countdown City

1.

"It's just that he promised," says Martha Milano, pale eyes flashing, cheeks flushed with anxiety. Grieving, bewildered, desperate. "We both did. We promised each other like a million times."

"Right," I say. "Of course."

I pluck a tissue from the box on her kitchen table and Martha takes it, smiles weakly, blows her nose. "I'm sorry," she says, and honks again, and then she gathers herself, just a little, sits up straight and takes a breath. "But so Henry, you're a policeman."

"I was."

"Right. You were. But, I mean, is there . . ."

She can't finish, but she doesn't need to. I understand the question and it floats there in the air between us and slowly revolves: Is there anything you can do? And of course I'm dying to help her, but frankly I'm not sure whether there is anything that I can do, and it's hard, it's impossible, really, to know what to say. For the last hour I've just been sitting here and listening, taking down the information in my slim blue exam-taker's notebook. Martha's missing husband is Brett Cavatone; age thirty-three; last seen at a restaurant called Rocky's Rock 'n' Bowl, on Old Loudon Road, out by the Steeplegate Mall. It's her father's place, Martha explained, a family-friendly pizza-joint-slash-bowling-alley, still open despite everything, though with a drastically reduced menu. Brett has worked there, her father's right-hand man, for two years. Yesterday morning, about 8:45, he left to do some errands and never came back.

I read over these scant notes one more time in the worried silence of Martha's neat and sunlit kitchen. Officially her name is Martha Cavatone, but to me she will always be Martha Milano, the fifteen-year-old kid who watched my sister Nico and me after school, five days a week, until my mom got home, gave her ten bucks in an envelope, and asked after her folks. It's unmooring to see her as an adult, let alone one overturned by the emotional catastrophe of having been abandoned by her husband. How much stranger it must be for her to be turning to me, of all people, whom she last laid eyes on when I was twelve. She blows her nose again, and I give her a small gentle smile. Martha Milano with the overstuffed purple JanSport backpack, the Pearl Jam T-shirt. Cherry-pink bubblegum and cinnamon lip gloss.

She wears no makeup now. Her hair is an unruly brown pile; her eyes are red rimmed from crying; she's gnawing vigorously on the nail of her thumb.

"Disgusting, right?" she says, catching me looking. "But I've been smoking like crazy since April, and Brett never says anything even though I know it grosses him out. I have this stupid feeling, like, if I stop now, it'll bring him home. I'm sorry, Henry, did you — " She stands abruptly. "Do you want tea or something?"

"No, thank you."

"Water?"

"No. It's okay, Martha. Sit down."

She falls back into the chair, stares at the ceiling. What I want of course is coffee, but thanks to whatever byzantine chain of infrastructural disintegration is determining the relative availability of various perishable items, coffee cannot be found. I close my notebook and look Martha in the eye.

"It's tough," I say slowly, "it really is. There are just a lot of reasons why a missing-persons investigation is especially challenging in the current environment."

"Yeah. No." She blinks her eyes, closed and then open again. "I mean, of course. I know."

Dozens of reasons, really. Hundreds. There is no way to put out a description on the wires, to issue an APB or post to the FBI Kidnappings and Missing Persons List. Witnesses who might know the location of a missing individual have very little interest or incentive to divulge that information, if they haven't gone missing themselves. There is no way to access federal or local databases. As of last Friday, in fact, southern New Hampshire appears to have no electricity whatsoever. Plus of course I'm not a policeman anymore, and even if I was, the CPD as a matter of policy is no longer pursuing such cases. All of which makes finding one particular individual a long shot, is what I tell Martha. Especially — and here I pause, load my voice with as much care and sensitivity as I can — especially since many such people left on purpose.

"Yeah," she says flatly. "Of course."

Martha knows all of this. Everybody knows. The world is on the move. Plenty still leaving in droves on their Bucket List adventures, going off to snorkel or skydive or make love to strangers in public parks. And now, more recently, whole new forms of abrupt departure, new species of madness as we approach the end. Religious sects wandering New England in robes, competing for converts: the Doomsday Mormons, the Satellites of God. The mercy cruisers, traveling the deserted highways in buses with converted engines running on wood gas or coal, seeking opportunities for Samaritanship. And of course the preppers, down in their basements, hoarding what they can, building piles for the aftermath, as if any amount of preparation will suffice.

I stand up, close my notebook. Change the subject. "How is your block?"

"It's fine," says Martha. "I guess."

"There's an active residents association?"

"Yes." She nods blankly, not interested in the line of questioning, not ready to contemplate how things will be for her alone.

"And let me ask, hypothetically, if there were a firearm in the home . . ."

"There is," she begins. "Brett left his — "

I hold up one hand, cut her off. "Hypothetically. Would you know how to use it?"

"Yes," she says. "I can shoot. Yes."

I nod. Fine. All I needed to hear. Private ownership or sale of firearms is technically forbidden, although the brief wave of house-to-house searches ended months ago. Obviously I'm not going to bike over to School Street and report that Martha Cavatone has her husband's service piece under the bed — get her sent away for the duration — but neither do I need to hear any details.

Martha murmurs "excuse me" and gets up, jerks open the pantry door and reaches for a tottering pile of cigarette cartons. But then she stops herself, slams the door, and spins around to press her fingers into her eyes. It's almost comical, it's such a teenage set of gestures: the impetuous grab for comfort, the immediate and disgusted self-abnegation. I remember standing in our front hallway, at seven or eight years old, just after Martha went home in the evenings, trying to catch one last sniff of cinnamon and bubblegum.

"Okay, so, Martha, what I can do is go by the restaurant," I say — I hear myself saying — "and ask a few questions." And as soon as the words are out she's across the room, hugging me around the neck, grinning into my chest, like it's a done deal, like I've already brought her husband home and he's out there on the stoop, ready to come in.

"Oh, thank you," she says. "Thank you, Henry."

"Listen, wait — wait, Martha."

I gently pry her arms from around my neck, step back and plant her in front of me, summon the stern hardheaded spirit of my grandfather, level Martha with his severe stare. "I will do what I can to find your husband, okay?"

"Okay," she says, breathless. "You promise?"

"Yes." I nod. "I can't promise that I will find him, and I definitely can't promise that I will bring him home. But I'll do what I can."

"Of course," she says, "I understand," and she's beaming, hugging me again, my notes of caution sliding unheard off her cheeks. I can't help it, I'm smiling, too, Martha Milano is hugging me and I'm smiling.

"I'll pay you, of course," she says.

"No, you won't."

"No, I know, not with money money, but we can figure out something . . ."

"Martha, no. I won't take anything from you. Let's have a look around, okay?"

"Okay," she says, wiping the last of the tears from her eyes.

Excerpted from Countdown City by Ben H. Winters. Copyright 2013 by Ben H. Winters. Excerpted by permission of Quirk Books.

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