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Authors: Paul Robertson

road to nowhere

Road to Nowhere
Paul Robertson
Baker Publishing Group (2008)
Rating:
****
Tags:
ebook, book

### From Publishers Weekly

In his savvy sophomore suspense novel, former indie bookseller Robertson (*The Heir*) uses multiple points of view to set up a seemingly innocuous story line—the proposal to build a road—that will keep readers glued. Octogenarian Joe Esterhouse has served enough decades on the Jefferson County, NC., Board to smell a rat, and something disturbs him about a proposal to bring Gold River Highway over the mountain into tiny Wardsville. Board members are dying and nothing is what it seems on the surface. Self-interest threatens to override the common good, and what is truth and what is perceived to be truth become nebulous. Robertson creates some of the most engaging characters and relationships encountered in faith fiction: Joe is a genuine sage, and other characters are no less captivating. Although the rapid-fire point of view changes are reminiscent of a novice stick-shift driver (and threaten whiplashlike confusion early on), once readers get the rhythm they will be compelled along. This top-notch offering features genuine humor, clever writing, a surprise ending and a strong portrayal of evil's power that doesn't succumb to clichéd violence. It deserves a wide audience. *(Apr.)*
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

### Review

"Robertson's descriptions and dialogue speak with authority.... Road to Nowhere is a really well-written story." -- *Jae Anderson, 1340MagBooks.com*

"genuine humor, clever writing, a surprise ending and a strong portrayal of evil's power that doesn't succumb to clichéd violence." -- * Publishers Weekly*

"... a novel about a road--and murder, suspense, and intrigue--that is at turns funny, engaging, and thoroughly engrossing." -- 5MinutesforBooks.com

Road to Nowhere

ROAD TO
NOW HERE

Road to Nowhere
Copyright © 2008
Paul Robertson

Cover design by Paul Higdon

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means—electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise—without the prior permission of the publisher. The only exception is brief quotations in printed reviews.

Published by Bethany House Publishers
11400 Hampshire Avenue South
Bloomington, Minnesota 55438

Bethany House Publishers is a division of
Baker Publishing Group, Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Printed in the United States of America

ISBN 978-0-7642-0658-0 (Trade Paper)

The Library of Congress has cataloged the hardcover edition as follows:

Robertson, Paul J., 1957-
  Road to nowhere / Paul Robertson.
    p. cm.
  ISBN 978-0-7642-0325-1 (alk. paper)
  1. Murder—Fiction.   2. North Carolina—Fiction.   I. Title.
  PS3618.O3173R6    2008
  813’.6—dc22
2007036381

A community is a commonality—we are the people who know the same streets;
the rain falls and the sun shines on us all together; the decisions we each make
affect us all; and we believe and hope differently, but together.

When there is tragedy, we all feel it together. My prayers and blessings go out
over my home of Blacksburg, Virginia.

And Lisa, thank you. Only you know how much.

.
. . said to Him, “What is truth?”

. . . then handed Him over to them . . .

Table of Contents

January

February

March

April

May

June

July

August

September

October

November

December

Acknowledgments

About the Author

January

January 2, Monday

Time to start. Bang the fool gavel.

“Come to order.” Dead quiet anyway. “Go ahead, Patsy.”

“Mrs. Brown?”

“Here.”

“Mr. Esterhouse?”

“Here,” Joe said, and he hated that he was. Wicked, evil business.

“Miss? . . . Gulotsky?”

“Please. Just Eliza. I am here.”

“Mr. Harris?”

“Here.”

“Mr. McCoy?”

“Right here.”

“Everyone’s here, Joe.”

“Thank you, Patsy,” he said. “Jefferson County North Carolina Board of Supervisors is now in session.”

So many names over the years. Thirty, maybe, or forty. It wouldn’t be easy to remember them all. “Motion to accept last month’s minutes?”

“I’ll move that we accept last month’s minutes.”

“I’ll second that.”

He didn’t even listen to who said which. It was usually Louise Brown, then Randy McCoy. Now that the meeting was started, he just wanted to be done.

“Motion and second,” he said. “Go ahead, Patsy.”

“Mrs. Brown?”

“Yes.”

“Mr. Esterhouse?”

“Yes.”

“. . . Miss . . . Eliza?”

“Just Eliza. I vote no.”

“You what?” Wade Harris said, beside her. “You’re voting against the minutes?”

“Well, she wasn’t even here last month.” That was Louise, from the other end of the table. “It’s her first meeting.”

“Go on, Patsy,” Joe said.

“Mr. Harris?”

“I vote yes. For Pete’s sake.”

“Mr. McCoy?”

“Yes. Sure.”

“Four in favor, one opposed,” Patsy said.

“Motion carries,” Joe said. “Minutes are accepted.” Just be done, that was all. “Next is receiving public comment.” He raised his voice to talk to the audience. “Any of you have anything you’d like to say to us?”

Nothing. There were only three people sitting in the rows of chairs. The newspaper reporter was sleeping in his corner, and the two others were each there for a reason of their own, and not this.

Those three. Five board members. Patsy, the clerk, at her desk, and Lyle, the county manager, quivering beside her. Just ten people in the whole big fancy room.

And not Mort. Joe couldn’t bring himself to look to his left, past Wade Harris, where Mort Walker should have been. Where Mort had been for thirty-two years.

It didn’t seem worth it anymore and he was tired of it. There was no purpose to the bickering and anger. Tonight there’d be plenty of that. He looked down at the pages on the table in front of him, a letter as wicked and full of trouble as anything he’d ever seen.

He set his other papers on top of it.

“We’ll get on with the agenda. Everyone’s got a copy?”

“Left mine at home.”

That was Wade Harris. The man could just barely be bothered to come to the meetings. And likely as not, he had some hand in the letter and its trouble.

Patsy handed Wade a copy of the agenda.

“First item,” Joe said. “Contract to pave five miles of Marker Highway. Winning bid was Smoky Mountain Paving. We need a motion to award the contract.”

“I’ll move.”

“Second.” Louise and Randy again.

“Motion and second. Any discussion?”

“Wait.” Wade again, of course. “Which road?”

“Marker Highway,” Randy McCoy said. “From Wardsville to past the interstate.”

“What happened to Gold River Highway? I thought that was next.”

“That’s next on the list. It’s not funded yet.”

“So when does Gold River Highway get paved?” Wade asked.

“Whenever it gets funded,” Randy said.

“Any more discussion?” Joe asked. The little there’d been had been more than enough. He didn’t know Wade enough to trust him, and he didn’t much care to know him better anyway. And tonight he was trusting him even less.

“Voting to award the contract,” he said. He wanted the meeting to be over, more than he ever had. “Go ahead, Patsy.”

“Mrs. Brown?”

“Yes.”

“Mr. Esterhouse?”

“Yes.”

“Eliza?”

“I vote no.”

“Mr. Harris?”

“What if we all vote no?” Wade asked.

Randy answered, “I’ll be voting yes.”

“I mean, what if the board votes no?” Wade said. “The road doesn’t get paved?”

“Lyle,” Joe said, and Lyle startled. The poor county manager was as jumpy as a rabbit, anyway. “Explain what happens if we don’t award the contract.”

“Uh . . . Joe, when we sent out the request for bids, we said the contract would be awarded to the qualified low bidder. If you don’t award it, they could bring a lawsuit.”

“So why do we even vote?” Wade asked.

“The county can’t enter into a contract without the supervisors voting,” Lyle said.

“So we have to vote, but we have to vote yes. Whatever. I vote yes.”

“Mr. McCoy?” Patsy said.

“Yes,” Randy said.

“Four in favor, one opposed.”

“The motion passes,” Joe said.

Why was she voting that way? Every vote she’d be reminding him that Mort wasn’t here.

The reporter was awake and scribbling.

Keep going. “Next item.” There’d be more bickering about this one, too. “Nomination to a county board. Mr. Stephen Carter has agreed to serve on the Planning Commission, to fill the open seat.” Joe checked his watch again. He’d give them five minutes for their squabble. “You see his qualifications. Is there a motion to appoint him?”

Wade Harris stifled a yawn. “I move we appoint him.”

Louise. “I’ll second.”

“Motion and second,” Joe said. “Any discussion?”

“Joe.” Randy McCoy was shaking his head. “I’m not sure about it. Mr. Carter certainly seems to be a nice man, and real smart, and I appreciate his willingness. But I just think someone should live here in the county for a while before we appoint him to the Planning Commission.”

Carter himself was in the audience. “How long have you lived here, Mr. Carter?” Joe asked.

“Five years, sir.”

“How long do you think he should have to live here?” Wade asked.

Randy frowned. “Well, maybe longer than that. Especially if he doesn’t live right here in town.”

Wade frowned back at him. “Now, that’s your real problem, isn’t it? He doesn’t live right here in town. Your problem is that he lives in Gold Valley.” He held up five fingers. “We’ve got five places on the Planning Commission. One’s empty, that we’re filling, and one’s Duane Fowler, and he lives in Marker.” He folded down two fingers. “And the other three are Ed Fiddler, who’s your next-door neighbor, and Humphrey King, who’s your cousin, and you.” He pointed right at Randy. “Well, I think it’s about time there was someone from Gold Valley on the commission. It’s as much a part of the county as Wardsville.”

Joe just watched and waited.

With Mort and Louise on the board, there’d been three of them with a lick of sense and they’d get done what they needed. Without Mort it would be different. But even just the two of them would most often be enough. It would be tonight for appointing Carter.

“Now, Wade,” Randy was saying, “it’s not that he lives there in Gold Valley, which I know is part of the county, that’s not what I’m saying. I’m only worried that, if he hasn’t lived here but a couple years . . .”

“Five years.”

“. . . that he might not really have a good feel for how people do things here.”

Joe checked his watch. He knew Randy plenty well and didn’t trust him, either. Three more minutes.

And after this, they’d take up the letter.

Wade was getting hot. “And since I’ve only lived here four years, what’s that supposed to mean exactly? None of the rest of you has ever lived in Gold Valley for a week, and it’s as much a part of the county as Wardsville. In Raleigh the Planning Commission was divided by districts so everyone had a representative. . . .”

“You aren’t in Raleigh anymore, Wade,” Randy said.

“You don’t need to remind me. It is
really obvious
. . . .”

“And you really don’t need to remind us about Gold Valley being part of the county, because like I just said—”

“As long as we just pay our taxes and shut up—”

That was enough. Joe tapped his gavel. “As there is no further discussion, I think we’re ready to vote.” He’d have given them two more minutes if they’d stayed civil.

Louise patted Randy’s arm. “It’s only fair,” she said.

The reporter wasn’t even looking up, just writing. He’d have his article finished before the meeting was. Always sat in the back corner.

“Go ahead, Patsy,” Joe said.

“Mrs. Brown?”

“Yes.”

“Mr. Esterhouse?”

“Yes.”

“Eliza?”

“I vote no.”

“Mr. Harris?”

“Yes, yes, yes. Yes!”

“Mr. McCoy?”

“Well . . . yes. But I still don’t think he’s necessarily the best person.”

“We couldn’t find anyone else, anyway,” Louise said. “Thank you, Mr. Carter. We really do appreciate that you’re willing.”

“I’m glad to, Mrs. Brown.”

“That’s four in favor, one opposed,” Patsy said.

“Motion carries,” Joe said. Louise was right. Taken two months to find someone willing. “Next item.”

This was the one.

If he’d felt like it, and if he’d had time, he’d have called someone in Raleigh to ask a couple of questions. Or he might have just ignored the letter and never said a thing about it. But there was a chance good might come of it. It was likely evil already had.

He took the letter out from his pile, as wicked evil as anything he’d ever seen.

It was about a road.

There was no trouble like there was with a road. A whole year of strife in one letter from Raleigh, and that would be for any road. This one would be worse.

“ ‘North Carolina Department of Transportation has announced a limited one-time grant program to complete highway projects meeting certain criteria.’ ” He was reading the first page. “ ‘The program is intended for high-priority projects of long standing.’ ” He glanced at Wade, but the man looked as ignorant as ever. “We would need to vote to apply.”

“I’ll move,” Louise said.

Randy was frowning. “What project would we be applying for?”

“I’m sorry,” Louise said. “Does that have to be in the motion?”

“It does,” Joe said. “There’s a pile of rules. We only have one project on the county plan that qualifies.”

“What would that be?” Wade asked.

Joe leaned back and said the words. “To bring Gold River Highway over the mountain into Wardsville.”

And that did it.

Everyone acted up together, even Louise. Even Patsy and Lyle. Right away there was a hubbub and people sitting up straight and the few of them in the room sounding more like twenty, like a chicken coop with a snake at the door. And that’s what it was, anyway.

“Where did you get that?”

It was the reporter, from the audience, shouting over everyone else. Joe tapped his gavel. “We need that road,” Wade said.

“Read it again,” the reporter called.

“Patsy will make copies after the meeting,” Joe said.

“Good gravy,” Randy said. “You don’t mean they actually might build it?”

“Why not?” Wade said, turning on Randy.

“Well, that’s not what I’m saying,” Randy was saying, “not that it shouldn’t, it’s just that I don’t think we’ve ever really expected it. Joe, wasn’t that on the plan even before you were on the board?”

“No, it wasn’t.” Even Gold River Highway wasn’t that old. He could remember the hand-drawn maps and the engineer up from Asheville presenting them. “It was added in 1967.”

“Lot has changed in thirty-nine years,” Randy said.

“You bet it has,” Wade said. “Like four hundred houses built in Gold Valley. I’ll second that motion.”

“Her motion didn’t count,” the reporter said.

“I don’t think it did,” Louise said.

“Then I’ll do it,” Wade said. “I move that we apply for this grant, whatever it is, to get Gold River Highway put over the mountain.”

“Second?” Joe said.

“I’ll second,” Louise said.

“Now we can discuss it.”

The reporter had moved up to the front row.

“What’s to discuss?” Wade said. “That road is the most important project in Jefferson County.”

“Well, now, I think we should discuss it,” Randy said. “Like I said, a lot has changed in thirty-nine years. You know, that road would come over Ayawisgi Mountain right into Hemlock Street, and there’s a lot of houses in there, too.”

“Does it have to come in right there?” Louise asked.

“We’ve been over it on the Planning Commission a dozen times. The only place it can get over the mountain is through the gap, along where the dirt road is now, and right into Hemlock. The high school’s on one side and the furniture factory’s on the other side. That’s the only place it can go.”

“That’s where it should go,” Wade said.

“That is a residential neighborhood,” Randy said, “and it’s no place for a big highway.”

“But that’s where the road needs to go, for Pete’s sake.” Wade was practically yelling. “That’s the point! So people in Gold Valley can get to the school and the factory and into town at all without having to go all the way out to the interstate.”

“I don’t think any of the city people with their vacation houses in Gold Valley are wanting to get to the furniture factory, or even the high school,” Randy said.

“The furniture trucks might want a better way out to the interstate than right through Wardsville.” If Wade had been surprised by all this, he was sure recovering fast. “And I’ve got a daughter at the high school who rides a bus forty minutes each way. Look, this has been the plan all along. And all that development in Gold Valley has been based on the plan.”

“Maybe it’s the plan, but nobody ever expected it to happen.”

“That’s what a plan is, Randy.” Wade was about as exasperated as a man could be. “A plan is what you’re expecting to happen. Everybody in Gold Valley sure has been expecting it.”

“Joe,” Louise said, giving people a chance to calm down, “I thought the state didn’t have any money for new roads this year.”

“It says there’s twenty-five million dollars here in this program.”

“Twenty-five million?” Randy said. “That’s nothing.”

“It’s enough to build Gold River Highway,” Wade said.

“But every county in the state is competing for it. Our share wouldn’t be enough to put in a traffic light.”

“We can still apply,” Wade said.

“Is there a deadline, Joe?”

“February first.”

“That’s three weeks,” Randy said. “We don’t even have time.”

“Four weeks,” Wade said. “And how long does it take to vote on a resolution? Two minutes?”

“But there’ll be forms to fill out and engineering drawings to be made. We couldn’t do all that in three weeks.”

“We only need the resolution,” Joe said. “If we get approved, the state will do the planning.”

“Is this the only vote we’d have?” Louise asked.

“What’s the timetable?” It was the reporter again.

Joe ignored him. “We’d vote again. What we’re doing now is not the final vote. If our application is approved, we’d vote again when we saw the plans.”

“Yeah, what is the timetable, anyway?” Wade asked.

Joe found the page of the letter. “ ‘Application, February first.’ ”

“Wait a minute.” The fool reporter again. He’d dropped his notebook and was on the floor getting it. “Okay, go ahead.”

“Announcement of projects approved, April board meeting,” Joe said. “Presentation of engineering concept drawings, July board meeting. Public comment period following. Final county board approval by January first of next year. Detailed engineering and putting out for bids, approximately one more year. Construction begins after that.” He handed the page to Wade. “If we were approved, we’d vote in December. They’d start work about a year and a half later.”

“There is no way we’ll get accepted,” Randy said. “Now, in my opinion, I don’t think we should apply if we’re not even going to be approved. Those folks in Raleigh have plenty to do as it is without going through a bunch of papers from us way out here that don’t have any chance of being accepted anyway.”

Wade was staring at him, full flabbergasted.

“Are you flat crazy?” he finally said.

Joe tapped his gavel. “Any more discussion?”

Louise had a question. “Joe, why only four weeks? I’ve never heard of such a short deadline.”

“The letter came back in October.”

“Nobody saw it?” she asked.

“It came to Mort,” Joe said. Then he had to wait a minute. “He was the county contact for the Department of Transportation. It was out at his house. I only saw it yesterday.” He glanced out at the audience, at the one person who hadn’t yet said a word. “I think we’ll vote now.

Go ahead, Patsy.”

“Wait a minute!”

Joe was already plenty angry without the fool reporter interrupting every two minutes. “The board is not accepting public comment,” he said.

“You can’t just vote!” the reporter said. “Nobody even knows what you’re doing!”

“There’s no requirement to schedule public hearings before we apply. Go ahead.”

“Mrs. Brown?” Patsy said.

“Joe, you’re sure we’d vote again if it’s approved?” Louise said.

“That’s what it says.”

“Well . . . I’d want to think more about it. But to apply, I’ll say yes.”

“Mr. Esterhouse?”

“Yes.”

“Eliza?”

“I vote no.”

“Mr. Harris?”

“Yes, so it passes. Good.”

“Mr. McCoy?”

“Well, it’s already passed, so it doesn’t matter.”

Patsy waited. “Are you abstaining?”

“What? Oh. Well, I really don’t think we should apply, and even more I don’t think we should build a road, but I hate to vote no and seem contrary when something’s already passed.”

“What are you voting?” Wade asked.

“I suppose I’ll say yes, since it doesn’t matter anyway. But I know it won’t get approved.”

“That’s four in favor, one opposed,” Patsy said.

“Motion carries,” Joe said. “Lyle, you’ll make sure someone in the office fills in the forms?”

“I will, Joe.” Lyle would probably do it himself. He was about all the engineering staff the county had. Patsy would check it over to make sure it was done right.

“And if it does get approved, somehow,” Randy was saying, “I think a lot of people will have a lot to say about it.”

“You bet they will,” Wade said.

“There will be time for public comment,” Joe said. “Everybody will have plenty of opportunity to say their piece.”

“But it won’t get accepted,” Randy said. “So it doesn’t really matter.”

They’d know soon enough. Joe put the papers back in the envelope and handed it to Lyle. He might still call Raleigh, or he might just wait. There was nothing he could do to head off the fight they’d surely just started.

Roads were a mess, and this one would be like nothing any of them had ever seen. The reporter would stir it up even worse. That’s what the man thrived on. He already had another page filled with his scrawls.

And it wasn’t just that people here in the county could fight with each other. This would have people outside fighting, too. That made Wade worth watching.

Or maybe it wasn’t worth anything, not anymore. Just let the lot of them have their way and do what they wanted.

He was still hating being here. Because now was time for the last item, and the hardest one. Not hard for the others—just for him, and maybe for Louise. “Final item. Proposal to put up a suitable monument in the flower bed outside the courthouse in honor of Morton Walker and his service to the county.”

Silence. For this, not one of them dared to say anything. None of them had any right to say a word, even Louise. For thirty-two years Mort had been on this board, a better man than these two schoolchildren arguing over every blame thing.

Everyone in the county had known him, and not a one would have even run against him for respect of what an upright man he was. Not a one, but her.

Who knew how the idea had got into her head ten years ago. She’d run in every election she could since then, and never gotten more than a dozen votes. She’d run last November against Mort, an insult to the whole county, but nothing to even take notice of.

Then Mort had died three days before the election.

Joe forced himself to look to his left, past Wade, and there she was, sitting where Mort should have been sitting right now. She’d gotten her usual ten votes in the election, but there was no else who’d got any, because Mort, his friend, was dead.

He hated it.

“Go ahead, Patsy.”

“Mrs. Brown?”

“Yes. Of course.”

“Mr. Esterhouse?”

“Yes.”

“Eliza?”

He didn’t want to hear her even speak. What right did she, of all people, have to be here voting on this, of all things?

“I vote no.”

Silence, again.

“Keep going,” Joe said.

“Mr. Harris?”

“Yes.”

“Mr. McCoy?”

“Yes.”

“Four in favor, one opposed,” Patsy said.

“Motion carries,” Joe said. “Any other business?”

He waited just long enough for it to be a wait. “This meeting is adjourned.” He stood and walked to his right, behind Randy and Louise.

“Joe?” That was Minnie Walker. The one other person in the audience. “Thank you. Mort would appreciate it.”

“The least we could do.”

“I hope that letter doesn’t cause any trouble. I’d have brought it before but I kept forgetting.”

“It doesn’t make a difference,” he said.

He tried to leave the room before anyone would say anything else, but Wade Harris was talking to Louise. He tried not to hear it but he did.

“Mort would have voted for the road,” Wade was saying. “Bad luck he died right when he did.”

Not even eight-thirty. That was one thing about old Joe being chairman, he kept the meetings short. Wade popped the Yukon into drive and started around the block.

What a joke. Everything around there was a joke. That loony tune Board of Supervisors was a joke, the town of Wardsville was a joke.

Just look at the buildings. Another plank of siding had fallen off the drugstore. Smack downtown, right beside the courthouse. Didn’t that look dandy? At least the place was still open. Half of them weren’t. What a shabby heap the town was, piled next to the river and straggling up the mountainside. The county was too cheap to put up even one streetlight, but the full moon shining on the snow was plenty bright to see it all. And top it all off, it was bitter cold.

He was behind the courthouse now. That was one building that would last a while—solid granite head to toe, and decked out like a wedding cake with arches and pillars and gables and a dome half the size of old Mount Ayawisgi.

Louise was standing in the back doorway, with about four coats on and a big white hat over her big white hair. He rolled down his window.

“Hey, you want a ride to your car?”

“Thanks, Wade, but I’m just looking for Eliza.”

“So, what’s her problem?” Wade said. “She said ten words the whole night, and they were all ‘I vote no.’ That’s what we have to look forward to for four years?”

“It was her first meeting, and nobody said a single thing to her except you being mean.”

“You were expecting Joe to give her a kiss? He looked like he was going to slug her there at the end.”

“And you and Randy carrying on,” she said. “You’re all terrible. She was probably scared to death.”

“Not her. Hey, weren’t we supposed to swear her in or something?”

“Patsy said she refuses to take oaths. So Joe said to skip it.”

“Whatever.” He glanced up the street. For Pete’s sake. . . . “Hey Louise, here she comes.”

And there she came, all right, Eliza Gulotsky, looking like an unmade bed. Her hair straight out in every direction, and whatever she was wearing for a coat looking more like a ratty old quilt.

In his mirror he saw Louise coming out to meet her, and then he had a chance to think about the real bombshell.

Gold River Highway, and that was no joke. Where in the world did that come from? He’d have to call Charlie.

But first the Big Decision. Which way to get home? Option A, drive south three miles down Marker Highway to the interstate, drive twelve miles north, around the mountain, to the Gold Valley exit, and drive five miles back south on Gold River Highway to his house. Option B, one mile north on Hemlock through Mountain View and past Randy and all his cousins, two miles on Ayawisgi Road over the mountain to the south end of Gold River Highway, and north one more mile home.

Four miles or twenty miles, and the twenty would be faster because Ayawisgi was the mountain road that cars had nightmares about.
Dirt
road
made it sound better than it was. Washboard dust or foot deep mud, and about twenty hairpins—the only good thing about it was the views, and those were looking out over sheer drops without guardrails. Someday, someone was going over one of those cliffs.

There it was up there, old Ayawisgi itself, shining under the moon. Nobody even knew what the name meant. It looked like a big pile of snow looming over the town, right in the way of everything and no use to anybody.

Except . . . people want to live in the mountains, and Ayawisgi was one big mountain, and that’s why he was here. Somebody had to sell the people their big, beautiful, expensive mountain homes.

Gold River Highway! He was still dialing through the possibilities. Putting Gold River Highway over the mountain would make those houses a lot more accessible, and a lot more expensive.

What a wondrous thing a road was. Wardsville might be dilapidated and Gold Valley might be more speculation than reality, but a road would change everything. Wardsville would be worth developing, and Gold Valley would explode. This was big bucks. Real big bucks. And he had to make that call to Charlie in Raleigh.

That meant option A, the interstate, because cell phones were out of luck on the mountain, except at the very top. He pointed the Yukon south.

“It is
too cold
!” Louise set herself right down in front of the television. Byron was watching some basketball game. “I don’t think I’ve
ever
been so cold.” She hadn’t even taken off her coats.

“Fix yourself some hot cocoa,” he said. Just the thought of it made her tingle.

“I think I will.”

“And while you’re at it . . .”

She jumped right back up and marched into the kitchen. And stopped. Goodness sakes!

“You couldn’t have even put the food away?”

“Forgot.”

That Byron. To think she’d put up with him for forty years. “Then I’m going to be a while.” Angie said they should get a dishwasher, but Louise could wash dishes just fine, and she enjoyed doing it. She put some milk on the stove to heat. “Eliza Gulotsky was there tonight.”

“It’s a disgrace,” Byron said. The television room was just across the hall from the kitchen and most of their talking was through the two doorways.

“Oh, it isn’t! It’s sad about Mort, but besides that there’s no harm her being there. And I told her to come in to the salon and visit.” She had the sink filled with soapy hot water and she put her hands deep down into it and just stood and felt the warm go all through her.

“What’d she say?”

“She said it would be splendid. That was what she said.” Louise put the plates and cups in the drainer and took a good stiff scrubber from under the sink to do the pots. She had to concentrate. Everything had dried on, but it was her own fault, leaving it for Byron. He wouldn’t have known where to start!

But there hadn’t been a minute to spare and Joe couldn’t abide anyone being late.

Wade turned onto the bridge, downtown Wardsville arrayed in all its glory behind him along the Fort Ashe River. It was almost quaint in the moonlight. Just as long as a person didn’t look too close.
Quaint
and
derelict
were about three steps apart, and this place had already taken two of them.

What they needed was a good flood to get rid of a few buildings and clean off the rest.

At the far end was mighty King Food with its seven, count them, seven aisles of groceries. Cornelia drove all the way to Asheville instead of setting foot in that dump.

Time to call Raleigh. “I want to talk to Charlie.” Right after the Fort Ashe bridge, the road got in range of a cell tower for a mile.

He’d covered half of it before he finally heard, “Charlie Ryder.”

“Hey, boss, it’s Wade. I was at the supervisors’ meeting tonight and something came up.”

“Zoning again?”

“No. A road. The road from Gold Valley over the mountain into Wardsville.”

No answer.

“Charlie, are you there?” It was dead. This was too hard. No use trying in these hills—he needed to be on the interstate if he was going to have a phone conversation. So he got himself to the interstate, and didn’t waste time doing it.

But he still had enough time to think. Charlie always had some deal up his sleeve. Usually too many deals. The more Wade thought about Gold River Highway, the more it was starting to look like a setup.

Right when he hit the ramp, his phone rang.

“What road did you say?” Charlie said.

Yeah, and hello to you, too. “Gold River Highway into Wardsville. Brand-new paved highway.”

“They said that at the meeting?”

“It’s some special funding from the state,” Wade said. “It’s just a chance, though, not a sure thing.”

“I want that road.”

“I know, Charlie.” Like talking to a three-year-old. “That’s why I called. Do you know anything about it?”

There was static. “I couldn’t hear you,” Charlie was saying.

“I’m just saying, if you’re going to fix something in Raleigh, you could let me know first.”

“You just take care of it at your end,” Charlie said. “I could start two hundred houses up there the minute that road is announced.”

“I know. But we don’t have the money yet. We’re just asking Raleigh for it.”

“I’ll take care of Raleigh.”

“It’ll still have to be approved here, too.”

“Then approve it.”

“It’s not easy. We have to vote on it. The Board of Supervisors.”

“Aren’t you a supervisor or something?”

“One of five.”

“Then fix it with the others, who are they, anyway?”

“That’s why it would have been nice to have a little warning. Just a minute.” He set the phone down to pass a truck. And take a deep breath. “Okay, here it goes. I represent Gold Valley. That’s one yes vote. Randy McCoy represents Wardsville. He’ll vote against it because it’ll come right down into his neighborhood.”

“Does it have to?”

“That’s what they say.”

“So forget him for now. Who else?”

“Joe Esterhouse is a tobacco farmer, and his district is all the farms around Marker. He doesn’t care, he’ll vote for it. Louise Brown will probably vote for it. Her district is southeast—it’s called Coble.”

“That’s enough votes?”

“Maybe. When all the people in Mountain View in Wardsville start unloading on her, she could change her mind. She’s pretty touchy-feely.”

“Who’s the fifth?”

“Eliza Gulotsky. Nutcase, certified. She just got elected as the at-large member and it was her first meeting. She’ll vote no. Unless maybe it’s a full moon or her tea leaves tell something different.”

“Then work on the other lady.”

“And besides, Joe the farmer, he’s eighty. He’ll vote yes if he lives long enough, but the guy could keel over tomorrow. That’s what happened to Mort, the other geezer. He was the guy before Eliza. They found him in his barn, heart attack or stroke or something. Too bad, he would have voted for the road.”

“Get that lady’s vote,” Charlie said. “Is there any way to persuade her?”

“I’ve already thought about it, Charlie. I don’t think so. It would probably backfire.”

“Well, do whatever you need to, a deal or cash or anything. Five thousand would be nothing.”

“I’ll see what I can do. Hey, bribe me. I’d take five thousand.”

“I already own you, Wade.”

You don’t— Wade bit off his answer, just barely. “Look, Charlie, tell you what. After the vote, I’m coming back to Raleigh.”

“You’re moving back?”

“Cornelia’s a sport, but we’ve both had enough. Four years.”

“We’ll talk about it later.”

“Yeah. Once the road’s built you won’t need me to sell houses up here. Everybody in the office there will want to. You can take your pick.”

“Then get the road built.”

“I will.”

Somehow.

The milk was hot, so Louise put it in two mugs with some cocoa and marshmallows. She gave Byron his and settled herself back into her big soft chair, and there they were, two big marshmallows themselves.

It was just a little room and filled with cute things, and she loved it. New houses didn’t have shiny varnished paneling like this, or the red linoleum in the kitchen that looked like a brick floor. It was all so cozy.

The basketball game was ending on the television.

“And you’ll never guess what we voted on tonight,” she said. “They might go ahead and put through Gold River Highway over the mountain.”

“Believe it when I see it.”

“Well, sure. It probably won’t happen. But you should have seen Randy and Wade, like cats and dogs.”

“I see plenty of that every day at the furniture factory,” Byron said. “And I can read it in the newspaper if I want to, and I won’t want to.”

“I’ll want to see what Luke puts in his newspaper,” Louise said. “He sure got excited about the road.”

The news had come on. She stared and listened for a minute. “Oh, turn it off. I don’t want to hear that.”

It seemed like every night it was the same pictures and the same story. “He’ll be all right,” Byron said.

“I still worry. And Angie does, too.”

“Matt can take care of himself.”

“I don’t like him being there . . . wherever that is.”

“Baghdad. In a big army base.”

“Angie says we should get a computer so he could send us e-mails. He sends her one every day.”

“She’s his mother. And who’d show you how to use a computer?” That was about the last thing Byron would spend money on.

“I could learn,” she said. “The girls at the salon could show me. They send e-mails.”

“It’s a bunch of nonsense. They had computers at the furniture factory and they never worked right.”

She was up again, taking the mugs, and she patted his shiny bald head. “I think
you’re
the one who doesn’t work right, you old stick-in-the-mud.”

“It’s the computers. When Jeremy left, nobody took care of them.”

“Well, can’t Mr. Coates find someone else who likes computers?”

“He wouldn’t want to. It was Jeremy that put them in. Mr. Coates never trusted computers. That’s part of why the two of them fell out, Jeremy always wanting to change things around and Mr. Coates not wanting any of it. When Jeremy left, Mr. Coates took them all out.”

“Those two. It’s a shame they can’t get along.”

“No one can fight like a father and his son,” Byron said. “And those computers were one more bone between them.”

She was tired of fighting. “There are too many bones, and mine are tired.
I’m
getting ready for bed.”

January 3, Tuesday

Randy McCoy was having a somewhat unpleasant morning.

“Now look, Everett,” he was saying, but it wasn’t much use, as the gentleman was not listening.

“You voted
for
it?”

“It wasn’t exactly that I voted for it . . .”

“It says right here that you did.” Everett Colony slapped the newspaper with the back of his hand, and Randy knew just how the poor thing felt.

“It was just a first vote,” Randy said. “It had already passed, and you know I don’t like voting against everyone else.”

Dr. Colony was only getting angrier. “Then why are you on the board? If that road comes through Mountain View, it’ll destroy the place.”

“There’s no cause for alarm. It was just one vote, to apply to get the funds, and there’s not much chance of that happening.”

Randy was hunched up over his desk, the way he usually was when a constituent had come to his office to express his or her views, because it seemed to lessen the impact of the blows. Not real blows, it hadn’t come to that—yet, of course.

He’d always leaned back when he was selling insurance, but this old wooden chair was none too stable. Once he’d been elected to the board and started getting to hear so many people’s opinions, he’d worked out that having his elbows up on the desk made him feel more steady.

“That road better not happen.”

“I really don’t think it will, Everett.” It would not be good for Everett to have a heart attack or a stroke right at this minute since he was the main doctor here in town and it was a long way to the hospital in Asheville. “Every county in the state’s going to be grabbing at that money, and we were late off the starting line anyway.”