Authors: Archer Mayor
|Joe Gunther |
|USA : (1997)|
Joe Gunther is seconded to the neighboring town of Bellows Falls to
investigate harassment allegations against a fellow officer. What begins
as a seemingly open-and-shut case comes to look more and more like a
frame job as Gunther doggedly pursues the truth, and soon he finds
himself feeling around the edges of a statewide drug distribution
network. As always, Vermont itself is a major character in Mayor's
writing, with Bellows Falls standing in for any number of slowly
decaying once-proud mill towns.
was written on the simple premise of ignorance. What was this small town that I passed by so easily on the interstate? Who were its inhabitants? And why did it have such a rough-and-tumble reputation, when, upon visiting it, the casual outsider saw only a quaint New England town, nestled in a spectacular river-meets-mountain setting?
, therefore, became a double research trip for me, and, I hoped, for my readers. It led me to interview everyone in town who was willing to chat, of which there were many; and it directed me to find out more about life in an economically-challenged environment, a pervasive condition across the rural Northeast. Some have come to view this book as bleak, in part because of its opening scenes, which I purposefully staged somberly.
I see it as a tale of redemption and hope, where, by the end of the story, we can literally witness a rebuilding taking place.
MY DESK LAMP LIGHT BARELY REACHED
the far corners of my small, glassed-in office, leaving the squad room beyond completely dark. The lighting shrouded the whole place with an uncharacteristic intimacy, enhancing the quiet isolation I enjoyed when working after hours. The phone’s sudden, electronic chirping came as a jarring intrusion.
“Lieutenant, this is Marshall Smith. Pierre and I are down at the Retreat. I think we’ve found someone you been wanting to talk to.”
“Jasper Morgan. One of the regulars started smashing chairs at a substance abuse meeting in the cafeteria, so they called us. When we were sorting things out, I saw Morgan trying to look invisible along the back wall.”
“He still there?” I asked.
“They all are. We figured the best way not to spook him was to keep everybody put. Pierre’s stalling for time right now—pretending to figure out who did what.”
“I’ll be right there.”
I left the ancient brick building housing the police department and headed for the Retreat in my car, letting the warm summer air flush out the stale interior. Jasper Morgan was a minor drug dealer, which, given Vermont’s overall activity in that field, made him pretty small fry. In addition, he wasn’t currently on parole, had no warrants outstanding, and had been keeping a discreet profile. But I’d heard rumors his business had picked up lately, and was wondering why. In a town the size of Brattleboro, with some twelve thousand residents, we could still afford to focus on the vagaries of a single crook, and, given the climbing crime statistics in Massachusetts, a mere ten miles south of us, a little mild paranoia seemed like worthwhile health insurance. If Morgan’s recent prosperity was due to some change in either supply or demand, I wanted to know about it.
Not that a single conversation would be all that enlightening. Morgan was experienced enough to know who—between us and his drug business colleagues—was the bigger threat to his health. But a chat would at least remind him of our continuing interest.
The Brattleboro Retreat is one of the town’s largest employers, and with some sixteen hundred acres, its largest landowner. A psychiatric hospital founded two years before Davy Crockett died at the Alamo, it began as an insane asylum, financed by a woman who took exception to a local lawyer being cured of his lunacy with an ice water immersion followed by a fatal dose of opium.
Its campus-like facility occupies a broad, mid-level plain on Brattleboro’s northern edge, below the town’s tree-shaded common, and above a sweeping, shallow backwater marking the confluence of the West and Connecticut rivers, called the Retreat Meadows from the days before a downstream dam turned pastureland into a lake. The Meadows form a natural magnet for the general population, luring fishermen and boaters in the summer, and providing ice fishing and skating when it turns colder. It forms a perfect sylvan backdrop to the Retreat’s impressive sprawl of massive brick buildings and carefully tended trees, all of which make the place look more like a small elite college than a place for the mentally disturbed.
· · ·
I left the traffic circle that cut across the front of the commons, and turned right down Linden Street, which swept down off the hill to the Retreat’s entrance gate, and from which I had a brief overview of the institution’s layout, attractively lit by regularly spaced iron lampposts and discreetly hidden floodlights.
There was also a police car outside the cafeteria entrance, about midway down a long string of connected buildings.
I parked behind the cruiser, walked up to its driver’s window, and leaned in to kill the emergency lights. I saw no need to rile the tenants unnecessarily, especially just below its only high-security floor.
Marshall Smith met me at the cafeteria’s double doors.
Over his shoulder was a large, well-lit room, in the center of which were several overturned chairs and tables, a scattering of splintered wood littering the floor, and a man lying face down with his hands cuffed behind his back. Far to the rear of the room, a disparate group of silent men and women stood facing us, looking like a late afternoon crowd waiting for a bus. Pierre Lavoie was circulating among them, pad in hand, taking down names and statements.
“Where’re the staffers?” I asked Smith, noticing their absence.
“It’s an anonymous meeting. Staff isn’t allowed inside ’cause it’s open to outsiders and residents both. The residents are escorted in, and then the staff waits outside till they’re all done.”
Smith led me farther inside, so I could have a full view of the distant group. “I had Pierre begin to the far left to keep things slow. Morgan’s over to the right.”
With that, pure human instinct overrode all his careful planning. He stared directly at Jasper Morgan and began raising his hand to point. Simultaneously, between Morgan and where Lavoie was collecting statements, a door cracked open to reveal the inquiring face of one of the staffers outside.
The combination was all Morgan needed. He bolted for the door, wrenched it open, hip-checked the man beyond, and vanished from view.
“Oh, Christ,” Marshall muttered, realizing his mistake. “Pierre. Get him,” he shouted.
But Lavoie was already halfway through the door himself.
I pointed at the man handcuffed on the floor. “Stay with him and keep this room secure,” I told Smith, breaking into a run. “And call for backup.” Nearing the door, I saw the crowd beginning to shift indecisively, some backing away, others leaning toward the exit. “Nobody leave the room,” I shouted, and elbowed my way through them, slamming the door behind me.
Facing me was a bright, windowless, cement-walled corridor, its walls decorated with pictures and trophy cases, its ceiling overrun with pipes. The Retreat being built on a slight incline, the first-floor cafeteria connected directly to the adjoining building’s basement. The corridor was empty, except for the fading echoes of rapid footfalls upon the linoleum floor.
I ran to the first corner, rounded it at full tilt, and stumbled over Pierre Lavoie, who was rolling helplessly on the ground, holding his bleeding face with both hands.
“Shit,” I said, instinctively glancing at his holster. It was empty.
I grabbed the radio from his belt. “M-80 from 0-2. I have an officer down and an armed suspect on the loose inside the Retreat. Put out a mutual aid request for manpower, round up everyone of our people you can locate, and activate the Tac Team. This is only about thirty seconds old, so concentrate on locking up the Retreat grounds as tightly as possible. Also close off both ends of Linden Street and position people on the Putney Road in case he gets out and tries to reach it cross-country. Who’s the on-call detective?”
“Martens,” came the brisk reply.
“Have her lead the Tac Team—full combat gear. Put Klesczewski in charge of organizing the perimeter. And a couple of ambulances here—
I crouched near Lavoie’s head. “How’re you doing?”
His voice was muffled. “I think he broke my nose. Jesus, it hurts like hell.”
“Are you breathing all right? Any other injuries?”
“No. I mean, yeah, I’m breathing fine. I’m okay ’cept for the nose. He was waiting when I came around the corner. Must’ve been holding a club or something.”
I glanced around and saw a heavy book lying at some distance on the floor. “He got your gun,” I said.
I patted his shoulder and stood up. “You stay put. I’m going to reconnoiter a bit.”
“Don’t do it, Lieutenant. Wait for the others.”
The hallway ahead was short, leading to another corner. Clearing my own gun, I approached it cautiously but with few expectations. I knew the sounds of running feet I’d heard had been Morgan’s and didn’t think he’d doubled back on tiptoe just to bushwhack me. Predictably, the next stretch of corridor was equally bright and empty. Outside, dulled by the thick walls, a crescendo of sirens approached.
I moved down to the next corner and stuck my head around, more careful now that I was some distance from Lavoie. I’d come to a junction of sorts. The hallway narrowed and became a ramp heading right, while opposite me, a short set of stairs led up to a closed door. It was darker here, beginning to resemble the basement it was.
Keeping my eyes glued to the far end of the ramp, I sidled over to the steps, and climbed up to try the doorknob. It was locked, as I’d hoped.
Relieved, I proceeded up the ramp and risked a quick look around yet another corner. The passageway here was low-ceilinged, dimly lit, cement-floored, and lined by an almost endless row of narrow, closed doors. At its peak, the Retreat had housed some six hundred patients and an appropriately large staff. It was a notorious rabbit warren of hallways, rooms, connector tunnels, attics, and utility crawl spaces, many of them isolated behind locked doors, and many not.
Normally, I would have stopped there, not knowing which of the doors along the corridor might be hiding my frightened quarry. But a splash of light coming off the wall along which I was positioned, and a glitter of broken glass splayed out across the floor, drew me farther along.
My back against the wall, I sidestepped to the source of the light.
What I found was typical of the whole building. Beyond a heavy door, its glass now shattered, lay another hallway, but in contrast to where I stood, it was as opulent as my surroundings were utilitarian. The walls were hardwood paneled, the floor thickly carpeted, antique furniture was placed along its length, and the ceiling was made entirely of lovingly maintained tin bas-relief.
I felt like a fish peering through the porthole of a luxury liner.
I gently turned the doorknob just beneath the gaping hole in the glass. It opened without a sound, but I stayed where I was. I’d been too reckless already and wasn’t about to join Lavoie in a trip to the hospital.
I keyed the radio and told the others where to find me.
· · ·
The next quarter hour was organized bedlam. Officers from the State Police, the Sheriff’s Department, and one each from the surrounding towns of Hinsdale, Vernon, and Chesterfield, all joined us to close off the exits of the Retreat buildings. Sammie Martens, the detective on call and my second-in command, arrived in full black battle dress, complete with body armor and Kevlar helmet, leading seven other similarly outfitted members of the Special Reaction Team, or Tac Team. Finally, to help us make some sense of the facility’s labyrinthine layout, the Retreat’s plant manager, Ben Coven, was asked to join us with a complete set of blueprints.
The approach, unlike my wandering down the hallway, was to be run by the book. The Tac Team would conduct the search in two squads of four, each covering a separate segment of the complex. As they cleared an assigned area, a uniformed officer or two would be left behind to insure Morgan couldn’t slip into their wake and hide. Communications would be over a restricted tactical channel, and geographic updates would be continuous, to ensure one team wouldn’t wind up in a potential crossfire with the other. Coven and I were to roam between the two teams, depending on where we were needed. As the plant manager ruefully pointed out from the start, the blueprints—especially where they covered the oldest buildings—were approximations only. He had more in his head than we would ever find on paper, especially where it came to the fine details.