Authors: Archer Mayor
Other books by Archer Mayor
ST. ALBANS FIRE
THE SURROGATE THIEF
THE SNIPER’S WIFE
THE MARBLE MASK
THE DISPOSABLE MAN
THE RAGMAN’S MEMORY
THE DARK ROOT
FRUITS OF THE POISONOUS TREE
THE SKELETON’S KNEE
SCENT OF EVIL
Copyright © 2006 by Archer Mayor
All rights reserved.
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First eBook Edition: October 2006
To my mother, Ana Mayor,
with love and thanks for giving a
tough job the appearance of effortless joy.
As always in the writing of these books, I begin in utter ignorance, dependent upon the kindness and knowledge of others to guide me with their expertise. However, while the following book was written thanks to them, whatever faults there may be remain mine alone. My deepest gratitude, therefore (and perhaps apologies), to all the following individuals and organizations:
|Butch Watters||Paco Aumand|
|John Martin||Mike Mayor|
|Steve Shapiro||Steve Adams|
|Peter Barton||Francis Morrissey|
|Miles Powers||Joe Parks|
|Camillo Grande||John Leigh|
|Gary Forrest||Dave Stanton|
|Neal Boucher||Karen Mellinger|
|Suzanne Webb||Jon Peters|
|Richard Gauthier||Stu Hurd|
|Sally Mattson||Kathryn Tolbert|
|Castle Freeman||Julie Lavorgna|
Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center
Office of the Chief Medical Examiner-Vermont
Bennington Co., Vermont, Sheriff’s Dept.
The Town of Bennington, Vermont
The Bennington, Vermont, Police Dept.
The early bird may get the worm,
but the second mouse gets the cheese.
(As passed along to me by Elizabeth Scout Mayor)
atch out for the cat.”
Joe Gunther froze by the door, his hand on the knob, as if expecting the creature to materialize from thin air.
The young Vermont state trooper stationed on the porch looked apologetic. “I don’t know if we’re supposed to let it out.”
Gunther pushed the door open a couple of inches, watching in vain for any movement by his feet.
Encouraged, he crossed the threshold quickly and shut himself in, immediately encircled by the room’s strong odor of cat feces, wafting in the summer warmth.
“I vote for letting it out,” he murmured softly.
He was standing in one corner of a cavernous multiwindowed room—almost the entire ground floor of a converted nineteenth-century schoolhouse located some five miles south of Wilmington. Contesting the smell, sunlight poured in through a bank of open windows, nurturing a solid ranking of potted and hanging plants. Old but well-loved furniture, none of it expensive and most of it bulky, did a convincing job of filling the expanse with a selection of oasislike islands—a grouping around the woodstove, another in a far corner flanked by floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, a third before a blank TV set. The most distant wall was dominated by an awkwardly linear kitchen—a parade of icebox, range, dishwasher, sink, and counter space. Gunther imagined any truly inspired cook here needing running shoes and patience, or a gift for organization. Giving the place a hint of old Africa—or what he knew of it from the movies—were several still ceiling fans with brass housings and long, dark wooden blades.
The pine floor was covered with a hodgepodge of worn, nondescript rugs, which in turn bore several small gifts from the missing feline. That detail aside, the entire space looked homey, rambling, a little threadbare, and quietly welcoming.
The house was also imbued with the silence that only death can visit on a place—a sense of suspended animation, striking and odd, as when a stadium full of people simultaneously holds its breath.
This stillness was why Joe was here.
At the far end of the row of windows, a shadow appeared in a narrow doorway.
Gunther nodded. “Hey, Doug. Good to see you.” Watching where he placed his feet, he approached his state police counterpart, Doug Matthews, the detective assigned to this region. Younger by several years, but a veteran like Joe, Matthews was experienced, low-key, and easygoing. Unlike many cops, he kept his opinions to himself, did the job, and maintained a low profile. To Joe, in a state with only a thousand full-time officers—an oversize family compared with some places—such self-effacement was highly valued.
Joe stuck his hand out as he drew near. “How’ve you been?”
“Pretty good,” Doug replied, accepting the handshake with a smile, his eyes remaining watchful. “Better than some. Come on in. I’ll introduce you.”
They entered a much smaller room, tacked onto the building later in life and on the cheap. It didn’t have the bearing of its mother ship—the windows were cramped and few, the plywood floor covered with thin wall-to-wall carpeting. Low-ceilinged and dim, it was paneled in fake oak, chipped and cracked.
But the furniture, also battered and old, was of the same ilk as its brethren, supplying a comforting familiarity. The dresser, the heavy desk, and the solid four-poster bed were of dark hardwood, and the dents and scars appearing on them spoke not of neglect but of simple domestic history, the passage of generations.
This feeling of simmering life was echoed by the postcards and photographs adorning the walls and horizontal surfaces. Some inexpensively framed, others merely attached by tape or thumbtack, these pictures displayed vacation spots or loved ones, sun-drenched or laughing, and gave to the room, along with its furnishings, a warmth and intimacy it lacked utterly in its bare bones.
Lying across the broad bed, as if she’d been sitting on its edge in a moment of contemplation before falling back in repose, was an attractive dead woman.
Matthews kept to his word about the promised formalities. “Joe Gunther,” he said, “Michelle Fisher.”
Joe nodded silently in her direction, and Matthews, knowing the older man’s habits, kept quiet, letting him get his bearings.
Dead bodies don’t usually present themselves as they’re portrayed in the movies or on TV. In the older shows, they look like live actors with their eyes shut; in the modern, forensically sensitive dramas, it’s just the opposite—corpses are covered with enough wounds or artificial pallor to make Frankenstein swoon.
The truth is more elusive. And more poignant. In his decades as a police officer, Joe had gazed upon hundreds of bodies—the young, the old, the frail, and the strong. What he’d discovered, blandly enough, was that the only trait they shared was stillness. They displayed all the variety that they had in life, but in none of the same ways. In silent pantomime of their former selves, instead of quiet or talkative, gloomy or upbeat, they were now mottled or ghostly white, bloated or emaciated, transfixed into grimace or peaceful as if sleeping. Nevertheless, for those willing to watch and study, the dead, as if trying to slip free of their muted condition, still seemed capable of a kind of frozen, extraordinarily subtle form of sign language.
That limited communication worked both ways. Everyone Joe knew, including himself, began their interviews with the deceased by simply staring at them searchingly, awaiting a signal. He asked himself sometimes how many of the dead might have struggled fruitlessly to be heard in life, only to be scrutinized too late by total strangers anxious to see or hear even the slightest twitch or murmur.
So it was that Joe now watched Michelle Fisher, wondering who she’d been and what she might be able to tell him.
In fact, she was one of the rare ones who did look merely asleep, if unnaturally pale. She was dressed in a short, thin robe, untied at the middle and draped open to reveal her underwear. Her feet weren’t quite touching the floor, and her hands, palms up, lay relaxed by her sides. There was a suggestive intimacy in the pose—she could just as easily have been awaiting the attentions of a lover as yielding to exhaustion at the end of a long day.
She was pretty, barely middle-aged, on the short side, with shoulder-length blond hair. Not thin, but in no way overweight, and from the little she was wearing, Joe imagined she was a woman who paid attention both to her appearance and to what she wanted her intimate companions to discover. Peeking out from the edges of her expensive bra and bikini underwear were two delicately rendered tattoos.
“She live alone?” he asked, not expecting what he then heard.
“Yup,” Doug answered him. “She didn’t used to, but from what I was told, her longtime boyfriend died seven months ago, and there’s been nobody since.”
Joe continued watching her. So it probably had been exhaustion, and the underwear a mere talisman of joys past.
“Who’s your source?”
“Mom.” Doug glanced at his pad. “Adele Redding. Lives in Massachusetts. Had a ritual of calling her daughter every morning over coffee, especially since the boyfriend’s death. When Michelle didn’t answer this morning, Mom called a nearby friend, who found her like this and called us.”
“Door was unlocked?”
“Yeah. And all but one light out.” He pointed to the night table lamp, still burning palely in the sunlight. “That one. The friend said the door was never locked.”
Joe didn’t respond at first, pondering the suggested scenario that Michelle Fisher had died last night as she was getting ready for bed.
“What’s the deal with the cat, then?”
Doug gave him a blank look.
“There’s a litter box by the kitchen door, but the droppings are laid out as if shat on the run. Doesn’t seem like normal behavior.”
“The friend might know,” Doug offered. But there was a slight drop to his voice, as if Joe’s last observation had been taken as a criticism.
Gunther pursed his lips, overlooking or ignoring the change for the moment. “You have cats?” he finally asked.
Gunther nodded, wondering if fright might have caused the anomaly.
He took his eyes off the woman and looked around the room. “What’ve you got so far?”
“I haven’t been here long,” Doug told him cautiously. “There’s an AA pamphlet on the desk in the corner, some recent bank statements that show she didn’t have a hundred bucks.”
“You find a lot of empties?”
Matthews shared his own surprise at that. “No. A couple of beer bottles in the kitchen, but they look old to me. They have dust on ’em and they’re dry inside. I wondered about that.”
Joe had begun circling the room, looking at the snapshots and postcards. He saw the same woman, animated, laughing, keeping company with pets, children, what were probably friends and family, and, time and again, a stocky man wearing a beard and friendly blue eyes.
“That the boyfriend?” he asked.
Doug shrugged. “I guess.”
This time Joe acknowledged his colleague’s affected coolness. He faced him squarely. “What’s up?”
The other man looked slightly embarrassed. “Don’t take this wrong, but I was wondering why you’re here. This could be a natural, like a bad liver. Or even an overdose.”
Gunther couldn’t resist laughing softly, mostly at himself. They were both employees of the state, both cops, but from different outfits, and Doug’s question ran straight to that divide.
Joe was VBI—Vermont Bureau of Investigation. Exclusively a major-crimes unit, it was made up of the best investigators culled from every agency in the state. A recent creation of the governor and the legislature, it had come into being both to give proven talent a place to go, regardless of departmental origin, and to provide the citizens with a truly elite team of skilled professionals.
Doug was VSP—Vermont State Police. Even more complicated, he was BCI, which, in this alphabet-happy environment, meant Bureau of Criminal Investigation. In the recent old days,
had been the state’s major-crimes unit, made up solely of deserving troopers. Now, while still detectives, they’d been restricted in both duties and geographical reach, assigned to specific regions. On paper and on the street, despite the positive spin the politicians had given this change—and the logic it represented—it was still being seen as a huge black eye for the VSP.
Ironically and unsurprisingly, most of Joe’s VBI—he was, in fact, its number two man, the field force commander—was made up of ex-BCI members. Nevertheless, a residual sense of loss and resentment lingered, if less among old-timers like Doug, who in his heart was actually grateful for the diminution of responsibility, if not the loss of prestige. Retirement was looming for him, and he was just as happy to go home on time every night, free of the drudgery and bureaucratic scrutiny that accompanied high profile cases.
“I’m sorry, Doug,” Joe apologized. “Dumb on my part. Not to worry. I’m relaxed either way. I knew you were tight on manpower, heard the call on the radio, and happened to be driving nearby. Consider me backup. But it’s totally up to you, including throwing me out. No bones from me.”
Doug took the statement at face value, as he’d learned he could from this man. Joe Gunther was a law enforcement legend in Vermont. A one-time Brattleboro cop, he’d cracked more big cases than any five other people combined, all without becoming an egomaniac. If anything, he was the opposite, ducking the limelight, quick to give credit to others, a major team player.
In fact, the only criticism Doug had ever heard about Gunther was that he was a bit of a Boy Scout. Not self-righteous in any way, but not one to kid around or carouse or hang out with other cops socially. A loner. And a bulldog with a case.
Nice guy, though. Doug therefore hadn’t really been bent out of shape—more just in need of clarification.
“No, no,” he assured him. “Don’t get me wrong. I was just wondering. You people don’t usually show up until later, is all.” He waved a hand at the messy desk and dresser and offered appeasingly, “Why don’t we just go through all this stuff while we wait for the ME, and see what we find? Could be there’s a smoking gun.”
There wasn’t. They pawed through every document and belonging they could find. After the ME came and had the body shipped to Burlington for autopsy, they expanded their search to the whole house, including the upstairs, which they found totally empty, as if the place were actually a movie set where only certain scenes were to be filmed.
They found no signs of violence, of disturbance, or of anything amiss. Just the home of a single woman who’d been found unexpectedly dead in her bedroom.
And they didn’t find the cat. Despite all the open windows, every screen was tightly in place.
They did manage, however, to expand on Doug’s limited biography of the dead woman. As so often in his career, Joe had been gratified and impressed by how much there was to learn from a person’s possessions and surroundings. Especially one like this, who turned out to be quite a pack rat.
Michelle Fisher, born to an alcoholic, unwed mother and a father she’d never met, in Fall River, Massachusetts, forty-three years earlier, had once been married to an abusive man, with whom she’d had two children, a son and a daughter. The first of these had died of an overdose five years ago. The second had dealt with Mom by severing all ties and moving to California.
That had merely been Michelle’s “productive” marriage—the only one resulting in offspring. She’d also been married to three other men, although not to the one who’d predeceased her earlier in the year. Tax forms, legal documents, medical records, financial statements, reams of correspondence, and no fewer than three volumes of old, no longer maintained diaries all told of a life of turmoil, rootlessness, and long stretches of unemployment, depression, and alcoholism.
They learned of a woman who loved hard and completely, who gave her heart unhesitatingly and without thought, who was the best friend you’d ever have and clearly not much of a friend to herself. She loved kids, animals, men, and beer. She liked the wind in her face, shouting to be heard above a loud band, and eating with her fingers at roadside barbecues.