Authors: Archer Mayor
|Scent of Evil|
|Joe Gunther |
|USA : (1992)|
When the body of a fast-living young stockbroker is found in a shallow
grave, suspicion first falls on a cuckolded policeman. Lt. Joe Gunther
investigates the increasingly bizarre details of the crime, but finds
that he’s too far behind events to prevent a second murder. Indeed,
whoever is responsible always seems to be a few steps ahead, as if
there’s a leak on the force. Sweltering August heat does nothing to calm
the increasingly agitated town selectmen, who demand results.
I was becoming comfortable with my writer’s voice at this third stage in the Gunther series. The first and second books had been positively greeted by readers and critics alike, the voice of Joe had begun to grow roots; even his support characters had started to take hold as members of an extended family.
Scent of Evil
, which I nicknamed “The Nose Knows,” if only to myself, I envisioned the setting to be Brattleboro again (I’d placed its predecessor in northeastern Vermont,) and the climate to be the worst heat wave the state had endured in years. I thought I’d have some fun at the expense of Vermont’s image as the poster child of all things cold and snowy.
I also gave in to a fascination with politics, albeit in a small town setting. I had been brought up in Europe, where politics is a constant source of debate and argumentation. I had worked in a gubernatorial race in California a decade earlier, back when Jerry Brown surfaced as the winner, following a bruising and heavily populated Democratic primary. I thought it might be neat to bring this interest to bear in a quirky town like Brattleboro.
I kept thinking of a greenhouse or a sauna as I went forward, and made sure that very little of the action took place beyond the town limits. From the elected leaders to the press to the general population, pressure builds on the police to quickly address a growing pile of bodies and crimes.
One of my favorite scenes involved a tour I took of the C&S Grocers shipping and storage facility—an enormous plant and at the time the area’s largest employer. Using an approach I’ve employed countless times since, I harkened back to that tour to conjure up a chase scene that runs from one end of the building to the other, ending with the theft of an eighteen-wheeler and the crashing of same against the guardrails of an interstate bridge—where the cab winds up dangling 150 feet above the shallow waters of the West River.
There again, for that last image, I’d been inspired by reality: an unfortunate trucker from the south had recently lost control of his rig in mid-winter, and had encountered that very bridge in the same fashion, losing his life by plummeting to the water far below.
Scent of Evil
firmed up what’s become a trademark of mine by now: The use of the commonplace—politics, a traffic accident, a minor drug deal—in the telling of a dramatic story.
A HUMAN HAND STUCK OUT
of the fresh dirt like a pale succulent plant, except this plant was wearing a silver ring, which twinkled fiercely in the burning sun.
“Want us to check it out?”
I turned at the quiet voice, looking over my shoulder to the top of the embankment. Two young men in white shirts with “Rescue, Inc.” shoulder patches stood above me. The taller one had a medical kit in his hand. Behind them, only half visible from where I stood, was a large, boxy ambulance, its flashing lights anemic in the bright sun.
I shielded my eyes with my hand, feeling the sweat on my forehead. It was the hottest recorded August in Vermont history, with no reprieve in the forecast. I motioned to a fresh path in the slope connecting the street to the narrow dirt ledge we were occupying. “Maybe just one of you. Try to keep on the path so you don’t add to the footprints.”
The tall paramedic who had spoken sidestepped carefully down the path and joined me and Detective Sergeant Ron Klesczewski on the ledge. Klesczewski and I stepped back from the funnel-shaped hole in which the hand was nestled. The medic got to his knees and reached down to the bottom of the hole. I could see the sweat glistening on the hairs of his arm, and the damp impression his shoulder blades and spine made on his uniform shirt.
He felt for a pulse, checked for capillary refill by pressing the pale fingernails, and finally manipulated the fingers themselves. Even I could see they were as stiff as wood and clean. If the heavy ring was any indication, it meant we might be dealing with a man of means. Fancy rings are uncommon among Vermont men, they get in the way when you’re working with your hands, and can be downright dangerous around machinery. More to the point, however, the possibility that wealth was a factor here, and therefore publicity, made me particularly unhappy.
The medic got up and shook his head. “Sorry.”
The tone of his voice made me look at him more carefully. His gold name tag said John Huller. He was somewhere in his mid-twenties, with blond hair, a fair complexion, and eyes pale and sad. I regretted we’d had to call him and his partner in on this. For them, trying to save lives was often difficult enough; confirming obvious deaths seemed unnecessarily trite. Unfortunately, that was protocol.
I nodded to Huller. “Rigor mortis in the fingers?”
I mulled that over. On average, rigor was complete in six to twelve hours, nearer to six in this heat, with flaccidity returning in twenty-four to forty-eight hours again—the hotter, the sooner. Since daylight seems to inhibit most clandestine gravediggers, I had to assume the hand with the ring, and whoever was attached to it, had been planted last night.
“Okay. Thanks for coming.”
I watched Huller scramble up the embankment. This part of Canal Street crossed what originally had been a broad swale descending from the hills behind us to Whetstone Brook below. Some town fathers, well over a hundred years ago, had terraced that gap with an earthen embankment, on which Canal Street had then been built, buttressed by a stone retaining wall on the low side. Unfortunately, engineering arrogance had failed to heed the small spring that was buried under this wide balcony of dirt and rubble, and nature, three weeks ago, had finally reasserted itself. The old retaining wall had crumbled from spring-fed erosion, taking a good two-hundred-foot section of Canal Street with it.
The people of Brattleboro had become thoroughly riled—not a rarity in this outspoken town; and amid pointed questions as to why the road crew had patched ever-widening cracks in the road over the years without looking for their cause, the Department of Public Works had quickly set about replacing the old retaining wall with a heavily reinforced concrete dam, capable of shoring up an eight-lane freeway.
It was on this half-completed dam—or rather the leveled dirt fill packed in behind it—that I now stood with Klesczewski. The dam still had about eight feet to go before it reached the level of the street above.
I took out my handkerchief and mopped the sweat from my brow. From our manmade terrace, we could look down across the brook, over the warehouses lining Flat Street, and the trees interspersed throughout, and up the opposite slope to where Elliot Street was hidden by the town’s typically intermixed hodgepodge of residences and small businesses. Despite the openness and proximity of running water, there wasn’t the slightest hint of a breeze. The whole lumpy, hilly, topsy-turvy town might as well have been stretched out flat on an Arizona frying pan.
“I take it the State’s Attorney and the Medical Examiner have been contacted?”
Klesczewski let out a small snort. “You can take it their offices have been notified. And Tyler should be here any minute with his toys.”
J.P. Tyler was as close as our police department got to a forensics team. He did what print lifting, photographing, and chemical analysis he could, given the tools and training we could afford. What he couldn’t handle we sent either to the State Police Lab in Waterbury or to the F.B.I. in Washington.
Klesczewski was still talking. “I took the liberty of telling Dispatch to round up all the detectives and to activate the night-patrol shift early for a neighborhood canvass.”
I smiled at that. “All the detectives” came to two besides Klesczewski, Tyler, and myself, who headed the squad. On the other hand, the uniformed night shift consisted of six people, including the shift sergeant. Adding them to the five-man day shift and ourselves would create a good-sized crew for Klesczewski’s proposed door-to-door canvass of potential witnesses. I only hoped someone wouldn’t knock over a bank at the far end of town in the meantime.
Ron Klesczewski had reached the same conclusion I had concerning the time of death. “I take it we’re asking about something happening last night.”
“That’s what it looks like. Who found him?”
Ron pointed up the embankment to a man sitting on the running board of a large dump truck, smoking a cigarette in the shade. There were other workers around, but they were clustered farther off, as if the smoker had acquired some dubious aroma. “Name’s Ernie Wallers. He was doing the soil borings, to make sure they’d compacted the earth hard enough, when he hit… that.” He checked his watch. “We were called only about fifteen minutes ago.”
“He’s the one who dug the hole, too?”
“Yeah. The foreman said it kind of bummed him out.”
Even from fifty feet, I could see Wallers’s cigarette was clamped in the fist of one hand. “Bummed out” was the most lighthearted label I would have hung on him.
“You talk to him yet?” I asked.
“No. Lavoie was the responding officer—he talked to him a bit and gave me the gist of it. I thought you might like the first real crack.”
Ron Klesczewski had been made my number-two man only five months ago. He deserved the promotion, and had proved more valuable than I might have guessed, especially in managing the office, but he still had a bit of the blushing bride in him—a shyness about seeming too bold.
I patted him on the shoulder as I eased by, heading for the path up to the road. “Thanks, Ron. Did Lavoie take pictures of all this?”
“Yeah, a whole roll.”
Lavoie was good with a camera—J.P. wouldn’t have to worry about the results. “You better tell Tyler that when he comes—it’ll save time. I’d like this guy dug up as soon as possible.”
“You got it.”
I’d left my jacket in the car, but even so I was soaked with perspiration, especially after struggling up the loose-dirt embankment.
Like many a native Vermonter, I didn’t do well in the heat. I paused to catch my breath on the road. There was no traffic to worry about—the street had been closed for weeks, which made keeping the press and the general population at bay much easier—a luxury I’d soon be without.
A death of this sort in a town the size of Brattleboro, with an average of one homicide every three years, would be front-page news for days, and that was only if we cleared it up fast.
I approached Ernie Wallers casually, taking time to wipe a spot on the truck’s running board before sitting next to him. It felt good to be out of the sun.
“Pretty bad deal, huh?”
He shook his head, his eyes on the ground in front of him.
“Sure as hell didn’t make my day.”
“I’m Lieutenant Joe Gunther, from the police department. You’re Ernie Wallers, right?”
He gave me a cursory glance and a slight nod. “The guy was murdered, wasn’t he?”
“Dunno yet. It’s a pretty good guess. I hear you were taking soil samples when you found him; what made you dig him up? Didn’t he just feel like a rock or something?”
Wallers straightened slightly and took a deep drag on his cigarette, which was burning perilously close to his fingers. “No way. We’re putting clean fill in there—I would’ve dug it out if it had been a rock. Besides, it was a little soft when I pushed. I didn’t know what the hell it was—just that it wasn’t supposed to be there.”
I looked around. “What do you use for your soil borings?”
He pointed to a long, thin cylinder a little thicker than a walking stick. One end of it was protruding from the back of a nearby pickup truck.
“You pound that in, or twist it?”
“Twisting’s best. That’s what I was doing.”