Authors: Archer Mayor
|Joe Gunther |
|USA : (2001)|
An overworked sheriff and a string of condo burglaries at a luxurious
ski resort have Lt. Joe Gunther and the newly-minted Vermont Bureau of
Investigation digging deep for clues. But it doesnt take long for Joe to
find the most likely thief missingand his girlfriend dead. As the
complications mount, from drug dealing to environmental terrorism to
attempted murder, Joe and his team go undercover to infiltrate the
closed society of a one-company town, populated by bored millionaires
and supported by a small legion of resort employees, not all of whom are
what they seem.
I WAS DETERMINED AT THE START
of my career chronicling Joe Gunther and “his” Vermont that I would avoid the pretty postcard versions of the state, most commonly reduced to cows, maple syrup, pretty leaves, and ski resorts. My ambition then—as it remains—was and is to portray my home as the real place it is, complete with the woes and mishaps all too familiar to us humans.
It is, of course, a beautiful and nurturing place to live, and the likes of what I write about are spread more thinly here than in many other states. But it exists nevertheless.
So it was that I found, not surprisingly, that the ski industry in Vermont suffers, here and there, from the occasional dark shadows cast by this more ominous world. I therefore assembled a small but highly experienced group of experts in my office for a background briefing and a few anecdotes, and from them compiled what I needed to bring Tucker Peak to fruition.
There was one small wrinkle in this process, however. You may notice that the acknowledgments page in this book—normally pretty well populated—is here a thin thing. I asked all these advisors if they’d enjoy appearing there, as a token of my thanks. The unanimous response? No, thank you very much—it’s a small industry within a small state, and we all want to keep our jobs.
Make of that what you will. I tried to honor them, if not by listing their names, then by being true to what they told me.
I GLANCED OVER SNUFFY DAWSON’S WELL-PADDED
shoulder at the snow drifting by out the window. It was falling in thick, light flakes, like goose down meandering earthward after a well-conducted pillow fight.
An avuncular man, Snuffy was the sheriff from the county next door—called Daniel only by his oldest female relatives—and as canny a politician as he was old-fashioned a police officer. He liked things simple and straightforward, or so he said, which put him increasingly at odds with a complex and confusing world. It also prompted him to affect a slow and deliberate manner, which helped explain why my attention was beginning to wander. He’d been standing awkwardly in the woodworking shop attached to my small Brattleboro, Vermont, house for fifteen minutes already, and I still hadn’t figured out why.
“You sure you don’t want some coffee?” I asked for the second time. “I have a fresh pot in the kitchen.”
He looked around at all the tools I’d lovingly, even compulsively, hung on several Peg-Board sheets along the walls. They were almost like a museum display, they were so tidy. A keen observer might have ventured that such neatness implied more show than action. And it was true that the shop was more a personal escape valve than it was some master craftsman’s studio. I was happy enough to be what my brother called a “wood butcher.”
“How’re you liking your outfit so far, Joe?” Snuffy suddenly asked.
The “outfit” was the Vermont Bureau of Investigation, or VBI, a new statewide detective squad drawn from the best officers of every law enforcement agency in Vermont—previously a plainclothes function belonging exclusively to the state police’s Bureau of Criminal Investigation, or BCI. This new, more democratic, seemingly reasonable configuration, created by the legislature just one year ago, had caused some serious ripples across the law enforcement community. It had provoked deep resentment from the state police, whose BCI officers were now restricted to more localized coverage areas, and had to hand over their major crimes to VBI.
“I like it a lot,” I told him, absentmindedly running a piece of sandpaper along some wood I’d just cut out on the table saw. “People are still getting used to us, but we’ve gotten high marks from the ones we’ve helped. Is that why you’re here?”
But he wasn’t being rushed. “I heard the state cops weren’t too happy.”
I repressed a sigh, irritated both by the familiarity of the topic, and that it was being voiced in this one place of retreat. I hadn’t done much woodworking since I was a kid on the family farm upstate, but once my brother Leo made me a gift of our late father’s refurbished tools—right after I’d moved in here—it had become a reborn passion.
“Some are, others aren’t. If any of their detectives want to go back to doing statewide major crimes, they can sign up and join us,
keep their bennies intact. Not that that’s any secret—most of our agents are ex-troopers, anyhow. My bet is the majority of bent noses either belong to people who don’t know what we do, or who were turned down when they applied. We are tough to get into, as we should be.”
I didn’t state the obvious, that the additional rub was the perceived affront of it all—that the VBI was proof that the BCI wasn’t capable of doing its job. In fact, the opposite was true. BCI had been so successful the politicians had merely opened up the opportunities it offered to a wider pool of qualified people.
Snuffy didn’t look overly impressed. Police officers are a conservative bunch. The test of time is what they use to tell a good idea from a bad one—and we hadn’t been around nearly long enough.
“I suppose,” he said vaguely, idly running his finger through a thin film of sawdust on the table saw’s otherwise gleaming black surface.
I figured I’d now fulfilled my social obligations. It was Saturday, and despite Snuffy’s having driven so far for whatever reason, I was eager to get back to what I’d been doing. “So, you got something on your mind, or are you just running away from your paperwork?”
He smiled and shook his large, close-cropped head. “Nah. I either don’t do it or I give it to somebody else. I just wanted to run something by you—sort of to be polite, you know?”
I wasn’t sure I did, but I nodded to keep him going now that he’d finally gotten started.
“We had a burglary at Tucker Peak last night—one of the condos. The owner had a watch stolen and a bunch of other stuff. We spread the word as usual, but it’s probably a little early yet.”
He paused as if expecting a response. For lack of options, I played straight man. “Nice watch, huh?”
He raised his eyebrows. I had apparently done well. “Oh, yeah. Twenty thousand dollars worth.”
I whistled. “Jesus. What else did he lose?”
“Some jewelry, plus the standard portable stuff: a small TV, a cordless phone, a couple of radios, some silverware. About thirty grand total, but it was the watch that turned his crank.”
Another lull, another nod from me. “Too bad.”
“Yeah, well. He said he wanted you guys in on the investigation.”
That caught me by surprise. I put the piece of wood down on the bench before me. “No kidding. He asked for VBI by name?”
Snuffy frowned slightly. “Yup. Said he was a friend of the governor—wanted the best of the best, not a bunch of Deputy Dawgs.”
He stopped again, but this time I knew he was fishing for more than an encouraging head nod. “You tell him to eat shit?” I asked.
He laughed, obviously pleased with my response. “Not in those words, but yeah, sort of. What pissed him off is that one of my men moonlights as security for the mountain, which made the rent-a-cops and us look like one and the same. That was after he implied the security people might be in cahoots with the crooks. Real jerk.”
He hesitated briefly and then ruefully admitted to his credit, “Not that it’s not possible—in theory, anyway.”
I dusted my hands on my jeans. “Well, he’s out of luck. That’s not how we work.”
His eyes narrowed. “This below you?”
“No,” I answered pleasantly. “It’s felony theft—we handle that. But we only come in when the home turf agency invites us.”
That wasn’t a hundred percent true, of course. The VBI’s charter allowed it more room than that. But I wasn’t about to ruin a good mood for no reason—Snuffy’s presence here spoke for itself.
“What if he does call the governor?”
I shrugged. “Same answer. We’re a support service, not a lead unit. You don’t want us, we don’t come. If we do, though, I should add that we come equipped with our own prosecutor, especially assigned to us from the AG’s office. You know her—Kathy Bartlett—tough as nails, been there for years, and makes the lawyering end of any problems we run into fast and efficient, always a plus if you need legal advice in the middle of the night.”
He mulled that over as I added, “And we always report to whoever calls us in—no separate press conferences, no leaks to the media. Just like we did in Stowe last month.”
His expression showed he understood the reference. Our last big case had been under Stowe police aegis, and our profile had been so low most of the public hadn’t even heard about us. Law enforcement had, though; we’d made sure of it.
“Okay,” Snuffy said, but he didn’t sound elated.
“This theft the only thing you got going?”
“Hardly,” he answered. “Just the latest in a string of burglaries, and the worst. And then there’s a bunch of tree-huggers bitching about new developments planned for over there, too. Tucker Peak’s become a pain in the ass.”
“You don’t have any leads?”
“Nah, and I’m stretched for coverage.”
I chose my phrasing carefully. “Tough spot—tight on manpower and a potential conflict of interest if the victim’s right about your deputy.”
“The victim’s full of crap. I already looked into that. I can’t swear the security outfit’s clean, but my guy is.”
I ducked that debate. “What’s the victim’s name, by the way?”
“William Manning. Flatlander, of course—New York.”
This time, I was the one to let silence fill the room. Snuffy knew the political realities. Not to use us would be foolish, given the circumstances. But he had his pride, and I didn’t want him claiming later that I’d twisted his arm.
Finally, he rubbed his chin with one large hand, stared at his shoes for a moment, and then slowly looked up at me. “So, how’s this work exactly?”
· · ·
Willy Kunkle stared incredulously at me from across the office, his coat still on and his standard dour expression darker by several degrees. “A stolen watch? It’s Saturday, for Christ’s sake. I thought we were like the Un-frigging-Touchables—murder and mayhem only. We’ll be ticketing cars next.”
We were on the top floor of Brattleboro’s Municipal Building, two flights above the police department we both used to call home. Only now, instead of sprawling across half the ground level and most of the basement in a cluster of mismatched rooms and windowless caverns, we and two other so-called special agents shared a single large office, our desks backed like wary opponents into all four corners. Willy and I were alone for the moment, making the room look emptier than usual. This sensation was only enhanced by a general barrenness. Nothing had been hung on the walls yet, and while we’d been given a few file cabinets and computers, the use of things like a copier and a fax machine could only be had through the good graces of our downstairs neighbors. VBI’s budgeting and equipment needs were still works in progress.
“It’s the latest in a string,” I said, not really expecting to win him over. “This last victim suspects the rent-a-cops are in on it.”
Kunkle waved his hand dismissively in the air. “Hell, they all say shit like that. Rich guy in a fancy condo, leveraged up the wazoo—probably pawned his junk for the insurance. Why can’t Dawson handle it, beside the fact that he’s too dumb?”
“We got it, Willy,” I told him, my tone indicating the conversation had run its course. “Saturday or not.”
He studied me for a moment, perhaps reflecting on how many times we’d jousted in the past. Proud, judgmental, cynical, dismissive of others, and incredibly rude to almost everyone he met, Willy was also a workaholic who’d used law enforcement as a lifeline to pull himself free of a coterie of devils, from the Vietnam War, to alcohol abuse and a self-destructive, violent divorce, to a crippling bullet wound he’d received when we’d both worked downstairs, which had left him with a withered, useless left arm. Through it all, and despite many who’d urged me to cut Willy loose, I’d made it a point to ensure he was measured by his abilities instead of his attitude. Which is how he’d paradoxically ended up among the VBI’s first recruits. The Commissioner of Public Safety had tapped me as the Bureau’s field force commander and the Southeast Division’s agent-in-charge. I’d accepted both jobs, but only in exchange for Willy’s being considered on his merits, and not his personality.