Some years ago six women were murdered in the Connecticut River Valley of Vermont and New Hampshire in quick succession, some of the crimes committed within only a few months of one another. The killings were quickly determined to be the work of a single perp: first the women were strangled and then they were stabbed to death.
Because the communities in this rural area are relatively small, many not only knew the victims but considered them almost extended family. The murders were the major topic of conversation in town meetings, in supermarkets and diners.
It was during this unsettling and uncertain period that I began living in the Connecticut River valley and first rented a large sparsely furnished house perched on the edge of a pasture. I moved there in one of the coldest, snowiest Decembers on record. I was trying to write a new novel while commuting to New York City once a week to teach creative writing at New York University.
Shortly thereafter a strange routine started. At night I would be reading or scribbling at a large table in the dining room, which faced a road only several hundred yards uphill from a covered bridge. I noticed that cars, after crossing the bridge, would continue along the road then pull directly into my driveway. The headlights, like two burning eyes, would blister into the house, causing a sharp and strange illumination. The cars would remain stationery in the driveway; nobody got out. Unnerved, I’d watch them for however long they paused in their journey. Eventually, the cars would reverse and proceed back down the hill, back toward the covered bridge. I concluded they were probably searching for a famous Bed and Breakfast located not far from my house. And even though I wasn’t likely to be the next victim of the serial murderer still at large, I was nevertheless agitated by the strange procession of cars whose lights intruded upon my ritual of living and writing in complete solitude.
Six weeks into my stay in mid-January there was a terrible blizzard. Very early the next day a snowplow driver found a single stranded car packed with snow in a parking lot of a northbound rest area along Route 91. The car doors had been left wide open, and this irregularity was enough to make the driver climb out and investigate. In the front seat he found a pair of ski pants and a pocketbook. The snow that had blown into the car was stained a deep dark red, the stain of blood.
A nurse who from a local hospital had gone skiing the previous day and never made it home. Once the blood was matched to the missing woman, it was assumed that she was yet another victim of the serial killer. The discovery made front page headlines in the area, but searches for her body and investigations into her disappearance led nowhere.
Two months later a woman (who, in years to come, would become a very close friend of mine) went for a walk during an unseasonal thaw. As she was passing an apple orchard she saw somebody in a pink parka leaning against a tree. The temperature had climbed to 60 degrees, positively balmy for the end of March, and she assumed that the person had decided to take in some sun. Until strolling home a half hour later, she noticed that the woman was in exactly the same position, her head tilted back at a slightly odd angle. It was then that she thought to wade through the deep snow and discovered the missing nurse who’d been dumped into a deep trough of snow and had lain there frozen for two months.
Finding a murdered body took its traumatic toll, and it was a long time before my friend could put the event behind her. One of the ways she dealt with it was by telling and retelling the story of her walk, of how she saw the pink parka and eventually realized whom exactly she’d found lying against the tree. After she told me the story a number of times, it began to take on a life of its own, created its own after-image in my imagination much in the same way as did the burning headlamps of the lost cars. Two powerful images fused together into a narrative about a woman living alone who writes a household hints column. One day this woman finds a dead body and is slowly drawn into the investigation for a serial killer who might be a local resident, who just might be somebody she already knows.
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