Authors: Archer Mayor
PRICE OF MALICE
OTHER BOOKS BY ARCHER MAYOR
The Second Mouse
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
A Joe Gunther Novel
This is a work of fiction. All of the characters, organizations, and events portrayed in this novel are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
THE PRICE OF MALICE
. Copyright © 2009 by Archer Mayor. All rights reserved. Printed in the United States of America. For information address St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.
LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING-IN-PUBLICATION DATA
The price of malice : a Joe Gunther novel / Archer Mayor. — 1st ed.
1. Gunther, Joe (Fictitious character)—Fiction. 2. Murder—Investigation—Fiction. 3. New England—Fiction. I. Title.
First Edition: October 2009
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
To Paco, my longtime friend and sounding board
As always, I owe a great deal of thanks to many people for the creation of this book. I start each new foray into Joe Gunther’s continuing adventures pretty much as a blank slate, dependent on those who know far more than I for the interesting details for which this series has become known. It is those experts and advisors who deserve whatever praise you might have for any interesting and arcane tidbits you’ll encounter. It is left to me to accept the blame for any inevitable mistakes and omissions left over.
My gratitude, therefore, to my readers and to the following:
Dick and Jean Hoyt
Castle Freeman, Jr.
Peter van Wageningen
The Brattleboro Police Department
The Vermont State Police
Immigration and Customs Enforcement
The Vermont Forensic Lab
The Department of Children and Families
PRICE OF MALICE
illy Kunkle gently removed his one functional hand from the bare back of the woman stretched out beside him and reached for the softly buzzing cell phone on the night table. Unlike Sammie Martens—the woman in question—Willy had been termed a “vigilant sleeper,” which sounded like psychobabble to him. He didn’t need a shrink to tell him that he slept like shit.
“What?” he asked in a muted growl, noticing the first pale hint of dawn against the window shade.
“That you, Willy?”
It was Ron Klesczewski, chief of detectives of Brattleboro, Vermont, an old colleague of Willy’s before he and Sam had left the PD to join the Vermont Bureau of Investigation, a new, statewide major crimes unit. As far as Willy was concerned, Ron was a perfect example of the Peter Principle. Way too touchy-feely for Willy’s taste, he’d never have landed the top job if the rest of them hadn’t jumped ship.
“Jesus, Ron. Who do you think it is? You called me.”
Ron laughed, unfazed. “I’m just used to you yelling into the phone. You sound downright demure.”
Willy rolled his eyes, as much at the word choice as at Sam’s stirring from all the noise.
“What the hell do you want?”
“You’re the VBI on call, according to your dispatch,” Ron explained brightly, “and I got something for you.”
“You lock your keys in the car again?”
Klesczewski ignored him, slowly enunciating, “Ho-mi-cide.”
Willy smiled abruptly, his mood improved as if by the flick of a switch. “Say that again for what’s-her-name.”
Ron repeated himself as Willy dangled the phone just above Sammie’s exposed ear. He was rewarded as her eyes opened wide and she sat up in one fluid motion.
“Who is that?” she mouthed silently.
“Your buddy Ron,” Willy said, bringing the phone back to his mouth. “Throwing us a local, at last. What is it, in under a thousand words?” Willy asked Klesczewski.
“Single white male, done in with a knife; unknown assailant,” Ron responded, his smile almost audible. He then gave the exact address on Manor Court, off of Canal, between Clark Street and Homestead—a hard-luck neighborhood a stone’s throw from downtown. He hung up without further ceremony, having given Willy only precisely what he’d requested.
Willy laughed and closed the phone. “That boy’s growing balls.”
Sam was already across the room, getting dressed. “A minor miracle, given how much you bust ’em.”
The name Manor Court sounded like a mass-produced, 1970s, northeastern development, in the way that Flamingo Estates brought to mind a Florida flophouse of fifty squirrel-sized apartments. In fact,
it was neither a development nor a court, and hadn’t been touched by a builder’s level in 150 years. It was a residual holdover of Brattleboro’s nineteenth-century industrial past, when the town cranked out everything from parlor organs to baby carriages and had neighborhoods so clearly class-divided, it felt like some residents required passports for travel.
Manor Court had once been an open-ended street, which—as with some rivers—implied a sense of cleansing circulation. But subsequent traffic engineering had turned it into a J-shaped dead end, a tidal pool of sorts, located in a section of town relatively downtrodden to this day. The dominant architecture was both the famed working-class “triple decker” so much in evidence in a hundred other soot-stained, reinvented, ancient New England towns, and a less definable, two-and-a-half-story structure—often clad in scalloped, gray, pressed-board siding—whose sole distinguishable attribute was that it didn’t look like anything more than a roof over four walls of marginal integrity.
The address Ron Klesczewski had offered was one of the former—and therefore of modest historical merit—minus any grace notes of subsequent care or maintenance. In fact, as Willy swung out of the car he and Sammie shared to get there, he wondered if the electrical and phone lines looping in from the nearby utility pole weren’t the only modern amenities added over the prior seventy-five years.
Including the paint on the walls.
“You ever been here?” he asked his partner.
Sam was reaching into the back seat to grab a canvas shoulder bag she favored for crime-scene investigations. “Seems like our kind of place, but I don’t know for sure.”
Willy was standing by the car, studying the structure in the slowly growing dawn. It was peeling, sagging, and gaping where stair and
balcony railings had vanished over time. His left hand, as always, was stuffed into his pants pocket—the useless tail end of an arm crippled years ago by a rifle round received in the line of duty. His powerful right hand remained empty. No extra equipment for him, not at this early stage.
“A hanging—about eight years ago.”
Sammie pulled her head out of the car. “What?”
“A hanging,” he repeated. “That’s it. About eight years ago. That’s how I know this dump.”
She smiled, if just barely. Trust him to remember that—and almost everything else, in fact, except the everyday rules of social conduct. In that way, he reminded her of an idiot savant who could play the concert piano but not read a comic book. The man was a dinosaur—an old-fashioned, old-school cop—a black-and-white man in a colorful world. She loved him for that, among other quirks.
She adjusted her bag and motioned across the street. “Shall we?”
There were already two PD cruisers parked by the curb, along with an unmarked Impala that should have had “cop” stamped on both doors. A couple of patrolmen were stringing crime-scene tape around the building, and a third was loitering by the entrance at the top of the rickety porch steps, clipboard in hand.
A broad smile creased his weather-beaten face as he caught sight of them approaching.
“Oh, oh—watch out. It’s the cavalry.”
The two of them spoke simultaneously, Sam saying, “Hey, Zippo. How you been?” while Willy responded, “It’s the brain trust, asshole, come to save your butt again.”
Zippo just laughed, knowing them both well. “Beauty and the Beast. God help us.” He jerked his thumb over his shoulder and applied pen to clipboard as he spoke. “Second floor, apartment three.”
They filed by, into the fetid embrace of the dark first-floor lobby, stifling even at this early hour. Summer had kicked in at last, following a winter of more snowfall than the region had seen in years. Typically, it had taken barely a week for everyone to switch from enjoying the warmth to complaining about the heat. New Englanders tend to be hardier in the cold than they are in its absence, making Florida as the terminus for so many of them conceptually rational only because of its universal air-conditioning.
“Jesus,” Willy groaned. As Sam well knew, the man—despite his marginal manners—was a neat freak at heart, and while he spent most of his time working in these environments, his soul quailed at the squalor.
At the second-floor landing, they were met by a poster boy for the average American male Caucasian.
Sammie walked up to him and gave him a hug. “Ron, it’s great to see you. How’s the family?”
Ron nodded to Willy over her shoulder. “Hi, guys. Everybody’s great. How’re you doin’, Willy?”
Willy frowned and glanced at the open door of the nearby apartment. “I’m doin’. This the place?”
Ron broke from Sam and bowed slightly at the waist in mock homage. “It is. We’ve staged down the hall, there. You can get a Tyvek suit and booties and the rest from Phil. I also called the crime lab. Their ETA is maybe another two hours.”