Authors: Archer Mayor
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Mystery; Thriller & Suspense, #Mystery, #Police Procedurals, #Brattleboro (Vt.) --Fiction., #Police --Vermont --Brattleboro --Fiction., #Gunther, #Joe (Fictitious character) --Fiction.
To Annie and Brantz
for their relentless optimism.
is the flagship book for me. The one that began it all. It not only introduced my readers to Joe Gunther, but it brought Joe and me together with Vermont as well.
Written over several years and completely retooled three times, it was less an exercise in plot development and more a road of discovery. Indeed, the very first draft was written in the third person, placed in Virginia, and featured a plot to subvert the U.S. Congress. Talk about wandering far afield!
I was working as an itinerant historian in those days (the mid 1980s), traveling the country and learning about whatever I’d been hired to research—from lumber, to oil and gas, to Henry Ford’s recreational habits at a hunting and fishing club in northern Michigan.
I spent weeks at a time on the road, sometimes in pretty desolate spots, locating primary sources and people to interview. During the weekends, I holed up wherever I found myself and set to work inventing Joe Gunther.
I was also becoming aware of how we relate to our native geography. And how important the question “Where are you from?” really is.
As I grappled with each version of what turned into
, I recognized the value of being less fanciful with my plot. And of honoring my Vermont home. I found a true comfort zone in describing how “regular people” sorted out their problems, appropriately or not, and I also discovered that I didn’t need the spectacular, over-the-top plot notions that I’d previously believed were crucial to this form of writing.
In shorter terms, I learned to “come home” with my story telling.
By the time I approached the third and final version of the book, I was comfortable enough with the guidelines I’d set that I not only wrote the whole thing in three months flat, but also recognized that I’d tumbled to a cast of characters and a place which I’d be happy to chronicle for the foreseeable future.
“SO WHAT DID SHE USE?”
The snow lay before our headlights like a freshly placed sheet, draped from curb to curb without a wrinkle and pinned in place by white-capped parking meters. The snowstorm had passed quickly, leaving a star-packed sky and a freezing clarity that made me feel we were driving into a black-and-white photograph.
We were on Main Street, inching our way downhill to where Main becomes Canal before climbing the opposite slope.
The patrolman driving the car gave an embarrassed smile. “Well, I think so. You wouldn’t. I haven’t really gotten used to this stuff yet.”
This was his first New England winter—he’d only been here for six months or so. Marshall Smith had been a deputy sheriff in Florida before coming here and he was getting a lot of ribbing for his fumbling in the snow. During the first light dusting of the season, he’d rear-ended a truck and had half a cord of wood dumped on his cruiser. That obviously wasn’t going to happen again—not if he kept driving at fifteen miles an hour.
“Floor it a little at the foot of the hill—it’ll give you more traction.”
Flooring it brought us up to twenty. It didn’t matter. The car had snow tires and we were in no rush. From what I’d heard, everyone was dead who was going to die, at least for tonight.
You don’t get many killings in a town the size of Brattleboro. In ten years, we’d had four, and for some reason they’d all been clumped together. The last of them had been about three years ago.
I placed both hands against the roof behind my head and arched my back in a stretch. The car’s heater was making me drowsy. I rolled the window down a crack and watched the run-down buildings slide by. In the reflection off the glass, I noticed Smith turn his head to glance at me. Lit only by the car’s green panel lights, his face had a ghostly, dreamlike translucence, as if he, like the pajamas I wore under my clothes, had been part of my sleep only ten minutes earlier.
“Did you have a nice Christmas, Lieutenant?”
“Me too. I went back home. Expensive, but the wife and I thought it would feel strange having Christmas here.”
I couldn’t think of anything stranger than Christmas in Florida.
We drove beyond the hospital and turned left onto Clark Avenue. Ahead, halfway down the block, two cruisers and an ambulance blocked the road, their sparkling colored lights imitating some cockeyed Christmas scene. I noticed discreet lights on in several neighboring houses. It was 3:48 A.M.
I slid out of the car’s warm cocoon and stood in the snow for a moment, watching Smith return to Canal Street. His rear lights glowed fiercely just before he got to the corner and cautiously swung right. The day, despite the darkness, had begun.
I looked over to the house. By New England standards, it was not old—maybe built in the forties—but it looked ancient. Its skin was peeling and blotched with rot. The roof line, mercifully covered with snow, sagged in the middle like a swayback horse. Where boards had once met squarely with precision, time and neglect had instilled a blurry vagueness. I doubted the entire building contained a single intended ninety-degree angle.
A shadow detached itself from a tree near the street. “Hi, Joe.”
“Stan, Stan, the newspaper man. Hot on the trail?”
“I heard about it on the band. What happened?”
“You tell me. I just woke up.”
“Can I tag along?”
“Nope.” I walked across the sidewalk and up the uneven porch steps, nodding to the patrolman guarding the door. Once inside, I was standing in a hallway running the length of the house. At the far end were the shattered remains of the back door, its top half looking like an artillery target. In the middle of the floor halfway down the hall, lay a toppled hardback chair. Next to it was a shotgun.
A bull-shaped patrol sergeant stepped out from one of the side doors. “Hi, Joe. Sorry to get you out of bed.”
“That’s okay. What happened?”
“Old lady got a bunch of obscene phone calls over the last few days. The guy finally said he’d visit tonight and do to her what he did to the cat. She waited for him in that chair and blew him away when he opened the back door.”
“What he did to the cat?”
The sergeant, George Capullo, approached the fallen chair and motioned at a doorway. I stepped over the chair and looked around the corner. It was a bedroom, cluttered but neat, lit from a single bare bulb on the wall.
“On the bed,” said George. He stayed where he was.
I approached the bed, a ramshackle iron spider’s web held together with crisscrossed wires. Covering it was an old quilt, not especially pretty but carefully made, and under the quilt was a small lump. I flipped back the corner.
The cat lay on its back, spread-eagled, its dry eyes wide in arrested agony. It had been slit open from neck to crotch and its innards pulled out for display: lumpish, red, and still slightly wet. I swallowed hard and dropped the quilt back.
“Christ, George. You could have told me.”
“More like weird. Did somebody call the State’s Attorney?”
“Do unto him like I did unto you?”
“Spare me. And spare him too. He doesn’t have my sense of humor. Is J.P. here?”
“Yeah, and I already called the SA. He should have been here by now. J.P.’s out back taking pictures.”
I returned to the hallway. “Did you respond first?”
“About two-thirty. She called it in herself. The neighbors claim they didn’t hear a thing. That’s bullshit, of course. She let loose with both barrels at once. Must have made the whole block jump.”
“Who’s the body?”
“Don’t know. We haven’t searched him yet.” George hesitated. “To be honest, I didn’t get too close. He makes the cat look good.”
I glanced at the shattered door. “Where’s the woman?”
He jerked his head down the hall. “In the kitchen. A Rescue guy’s with her.”
“She all right?”
“Yeah. A little shaky.”
“Okay. I’ll see her last.”
George nodded and led the way to the back. He pulled open the splintered remains of the door and ushered me through.
J.P. Tyler, the department’s only detective with any forensic training, was standing in the yard with his back to us. He was taking a photograph. “Look at the shoe,” he said without turning around.
On the top step, lying on its side, was a loafer. I leaned down and picked it up. It was expensive—glove leather, designer label, more of a moccasin really. Real terrorist apparel.
About six feet from the foot of the steps, surrounded by a dazzling white circle of flood lamps, lay the body. Like the cat, it was flat on its back, arms and legs outstretched. For a second I thought of when I used to lie like that in the snow, as a kid, making snow angels. But here the gentle arc formed by the arms was uninterrupted by a head. A tall man in a pea jacket rose from his crouch by the body—Alfred Gould, the regional medical examiner.
Gould walked over to us. “Morning, Joe.”
I nodded to him. “Hi, Al. Anything to add to the obvious?”
Gould half smiled and shook his head. “I would like to talk to the old lady, if that’s all right.”
“Sure, be my guest.” I stepped out of the way and let him pass.
The snow all around the body had been trampled by a small army.
“Were there any prints before all this happened?”
“Nope, just his. I got shots of it all.” J.P. put his camera down, a pleased look on his face—a man in love with his work. “I’m wrapping up out here. I still have to check out the gun. Hit the lights when you’re through, okay?”
I nodded and he squeezed between us, heading inside.
“The head’s over here.” George pointed to a dark hole in the snow not three feet from where I was standing. I instinctively looked down and saw a half-shadowed face staring at me, its eyes enormously wide. My stomach turned over.
“You’re getting a kick out of this, aren’t you?”
George smiled and shrugged. “You’re a tough guy.”
I took the flashlight he had hanging from his belt and shone it on the head. The shock over, it looked like a plastic fake.
“Al said the blast ‘atomized’ the guy’s neck—his word, not mine. He said it was kind of like pulling a tablecloth out from under a bunch of plates—it just sort of fell off when the body went sailing into the wild blue yonder.”
I handed the flashlight back and went down the steps to check out the body.
There wasn’t much blood visible. The ragged chunk between the man’s shoulders lay at the edge of a small black hole of melted snow. The whole thing had an almost tidy air about it. I realized then I was probably standing over an aquifer of blood spread out between the snow and the earth below. I dropped a nearby blanket over the stump and hole. Then I crouched by the body’s side and began to search.
Whoever this had been, he was no pauper. The blood-spattered scarf was cashmere, the long coat camel hair, the pants fine wool. Layer by layer, his clothes never dropped below $50 per item, including the tailored pale blue shirt with the monogram “J.P.” Inside his jacket, I found a leather wallet with, among the usual documents, ten new $100 notes.
A shadow fell across the body and I looked up to see State’s Attorney James—never Jim—Dunn. Vermont state’s attorneys, elsewhere called district attorneys, have to be at the scene of any “unattended death.” James Dunn had two assistants with whom he rotated being on call, but he hardly missed showing up personally at the dramatic ones, regardless of time or weather. He wasn’t married, which must have helped, and he was good at his job, so we didn’t complain. He never said much, certainly never touched anything, and generally stayed out of the way. In a few instances, he had even been a help, pointing out the occasional legal pothole. Still, I didn’t like him. He was a cold and snotty man.