Gatekeeper (Joe Gunther Series #14)by Archer Mayor
Vermont detective Joe Gunther vows to stop the flow of drugs into his beloved state when in the course of a week a young heroin addict is gunned down while trying to rob a convenience store, a narcotics dealer is found hanging from a bridge, and the granddaughter of political bigwigs dies of an overdose. See more details below
Vermont detective Joe Gunther vows to stop the flow of drugs into his beloved state when in the course of a week a young heroin addict is gunned down while trying to rob a convenience store, a narcotics dealer is found hanging from a bridge, and the granddaughter of political bigwigs dies of an overdose.
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By Archer Mayor
Mysterious PressCopyright © 2003 Archer Mayor
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThat's five dollars even."
Arnie Weller looked over the shoulder of the balding man holding out a ten-dollar bill and checked on the whereabouts of the young woman he'd seen entering a few minutes earlier.
"Out of ten," he automatically chanted, not bothering to meet his customer's eyes. Where was she? He turned to the cash register, his fingers dancing across the keyboard in a blur. He caught the spring-loaded drawer against his hip as it opened, quickly made change, and proffered it to the man.
"Want a bag?" he asked, back to surveilling the rear of the store.
There was a telling pause from the customer, forcing Arnie to reluctantly focus on him. "What?" The man smiled. "I bought gas."
Arnie stared at him, at a total loss. "Sorry. Have a nice night."
Shaking his head, the man slipped from Arnie's line of vision, through the double glass doors to the right, and into the night, where his pickup was parked beside one of the gas pumps.
Arnie saw what he thought was the top of the girl's head pass behind a row of stacked boxes and six-packs near the bank of fridges along the far wall. Hardest place to see anyone, he thought angrily, still nursing a grudge. Two weeks ago, he'd asked a so-called security expert for an estimate on rigging the place with cameras. One week later, he'd bought a gun instead. For a whole lot less. Bastard.
Arnie Weller ran a clean store, paid his taxes, took care of his employees, most of whom were worthless. He dealt with the chiseling gas company, the wholesale suppliers who screwed him out of habit, and the endless state forms issued monthly to make his life difficult. He paid his insurance, although they never settled his claims, donated to charitable causes he didn't agree with, and belonged to a chamber of commerce he thought was as useless as tits on a bull. He even cleaned the bathrooms twice a day, despite and not because of the disgusting condition he found them in, each and every time. If his customers were pigs, it didn't mean he'd join them.
And he put up with the disrespect, the surliness, the petty thefts, and the general offensiveness of the young people and trailer trash who supplied most of his retail business.
All in all, Arnie believed, he was a model businessman, employer, and patriotic citizen. And he despised every aspect of it.
Three times he'd been robbed in the past two months, once by a man with a hammer and twice by people carrying guns. Arnie had known the kid with the hammer and had told the cops right off. They'd caught him hours later buying drugs with the till money. The little jerk had ended up with barely a scratch, being underage. No record, no jail time, just a few weeks in rehab. To Arnie's thinking, hardly the penalty for threatening a man's life. This was Vermont, after all, famously one of the best states in which to break any law you liked.
But Arnie had suffered nightmares for weeks, envisioning that hammer coming down on his skull. And that was before the two guys with guns. They had really scared him. The first had been so nervous, Arnie had worried more about the gun going off accidentally-the ultimate irony.
The kid had worn a ski mask, dark with sweat, his hand had trembled as if he'd been sick. Even his voice had cracked. If the barrel of the gun hadn't been so real, Arnie might've even felt sorry for the poor bastard. But the gun had been real, and the son of a bitch had hit Arnie across the head with it just before he left, for no reason at all. They'd caught that one, too-a drug user like the first- and him at least they'd put away. But Arnie still had the scar, along with the flash of realization that had accompanied its acquisition that one of these days he might actually be killed for running this marginal, ball-busting convenience store.
Then the latest one had shown up.
Not a kid. Not nervous. An out-and-out bad man. The gun had been bigger, the hand hadn't shaken, and he'd worn the hood of his sweatshirt pulled down over half his face, giving him an almost demonic appearance. And he'd clearly enjoyed his work. He'd come around the counter, forced Arnie to the floor facedown, and had emptied the cash drawer himself. He'd even stuffed some Slim Jims into his pocket as an afterthought. Then he'd knelt next to Arnie's head, had shoved the barrel of his gun into Arnie's ear, and had cocked the hammer, chuckling all the while.
"Tell me where you live, little man," the man had whispered.
Arnie had told him, the dread rising up in him, making it hard to breathe.
"Now we both know. If you're planning on calling the cops, you might want to remember that."
After which he'd reached with his gloved hand between Arnie's legs and had given his testicles a hard, painful squeeze. "I got you here, little man. Never forget it. Keep your mouth shut or this'll be nothing compared to what's next."
Arnie hadn't told anyone about him. Not the cops, not his wife, not his buddies. He'd swallowed the loss, had struggled with the fear, had consulted with the security man.
And had bought the gun.
That hadn't turned out too well. Instead of supplying him with the comfort he'd hoped for, the gun had nestled under Arnie's untucked shirt like a tumor threatening his life. He started judging everyone who entered the place in relationship to the gun-would they force him to use it or not? The anger he'd channeled into visions of shooting the hooded man, were he to dare to show his face again, was gradually replaced by the fear that he really might return- and that Arnie would die for having presumed a cold-bloodedness he knew he didn't possess.
Tentatively, as he'd done a hundred times since buying the damn thing, Arnie touched the butt of the gun through his shirt with his fingertips, as if the bulk of it against his stomach weren't enough to confirm its presence. They were alone in the store, the girl and he, and he knew goddamned well she was hiding back there, biding her time to step forward.
He'd recognized the type, of course, as soon as he'd caught sight of her-underfed, dirty hair, her clothes a mess and probably not her own. Her body language upon entering hadn't met the two standards of legitimacy-either looking around to get a bearing or heading straight for a known product. Instead, it had been like a rat's running for cover-from the door to the aisle offering the most cover from Arnie's view. He'd seen that in shoplifters before. And with both the hammer kid and the nervous man with the ski mask. Although not the last guy.
Still, she was only a girl. "Miss?" he finally called out, doubtful of the authority he tried to inject into his voice. "Is there something I can help you find?"
"The money," she answered from a totally different direction. And very nearby.
He swung around, startled, stumbling slightly as his feet tangled. She hadn't stayed by the fridges. Somehow she'd circled around, coming at him from behind his own counter, slipping through the narrow gap beyond the hot dog machine at the far end. She was ghostly pale, her red, sunken eyes resting on dark pouches of swollen skin. She looked barely able to stand, much less resist an attack by him.
But in her hand she held a knife, large and glinting in the light, and the gun against his abdomen suddenly felt like an ice cube, sending a deep wave of cold from his stomach out to his extremities. "Take it easy," he said. "Give me the money," she ordered, her voice barely a whisper. "You need a doctor."
She stepped closer and gestured with the knife. What strength she had was clearly being routed to that hand. He had no doubt whatsoever she could harm him if necessary.
And yet, inexplicably to him, staring at another weapon in still another loser's fist suddenly reversed the coldness he'd just experienced, flushing his face with rage and making him at least think of some heroic counteraction. But that's where it stayed-in the thought process. The impotence remained, compounding his anger. He turned toward the cash register, humiliated, presenting her with his back. "You fucking bastards."
The sound of the till springing open matched the electronic ding of someone crossing the threshold of the store's far entrance-the one near the hot dog machine behind the girl.
Despite it being summertime, the man entering had the hood of his sweatshirt pulled partly over his face. They were a team.
Seeing his nightmare brought back to life threw Arnie into a second reversal. Yielding to fear and fury combined, he pulled his gun from under his shirt, swiveled to face the girl, who was looking over her shoulder at the man in the hood, and fired.
The explosion was huge, deafening Arnie, reverberating off the walls, dropping the girl like a pile of clothes to the floor, and sending the hooded man staggering back in alarm against the door behind him.
His hood slipped from his face as his head smacked against the glass, and Arnie, his gun now trained on him, his finger tight on the trigger, saw a wide-eyed, pimply teenager he knew well from past transactions.
They stared at each other for a long, very quiet moment before the teenager finally managed to stammer, "Oh, shit. Please don't."
Arnie saw him raise his empty hands in surrender and finally lowered the gun, the realization of what he'd just done settling on him like a fog.
Crumpled and silent on the floor, the girl began leaking a dark puddle of blood.
Joe Gunther didn't bother showing his badge to the Brattleboro patrolman guarding the convenience store entrance. They knew one another. Gunther had once been his superior.
"Hey, Larry. Who's running this?"
"The detective's inside. How'd you hear about it? We barely got here."
Gunther smiled. "Scanner. Hard to break old habits." The patrolman opened the door for him, and Gunther stepped from a cool summer darkness filled with flashing red and blue strobes into the store's harsh fluorescent lighting, suggestive of an operating room.
Or a morgue.
A tall young man with an oddly hesitant manner rose from behind the counter. His face broke into a broad smile as he recognized the new arrival.
"Lieutenant. Good to see you. God, it's been a while. I didn't think the VBI went in for things like this."
He stuck out a hand, realized it was sheathed in a latex glove, and began struggling to remove it. Joe Gunther quickly grasped him by the forearm in greeting.
"It's okay, Ron. It's not worth the hassle to put it back on."
He didn't bother correcting the other man on his outdated rank. Gunther hadn't been a lieutenant in several years. It was "Special Agent" now, a burdensome title he still found absurd, but one that the political birth mothers of the new Vermont Bureau of Investigation had chosen in a typical effort to impose profundity where it could only be earned over time. "And I'm not here officially-just offering help if it's needed. You okay with my dropping by?" Ron Klesczewski shook his head in amazement. "You kidding? Just like old times. Not that we need help. This is more like the inevitable finally happening."
"I just heard it was a shooting." Klesczewski invited Gunther to look over the far edge of the counter at the wide pool of drying blood now spread from one edge of the narrow space to the other. It was smeared and covered with lug-soled boot prints, he presumed from the ambulance crew he'd also heard sum-moned on the scanner. If not for the slaughterhouse color, it might have looked like the aftermath of a playful struggle in a mud bath.
"Storekeeper shot a nineteen-year-old woman. She's still alive-barely. He used a .357. Real cannon. I don't think he had any idea what he was doing."
Gunther tilted his chin toward a carving knife lying at the edge of the crimson mess. "That hers?"
Klesczewski nodded and glanced at the small notepad in his hand. "Arnold Weller's the owner. He says he's been robbed twice recently, once at gunpoint, once by a guy with a hammer. He bought the gun out of frustration. Said he wouldn't have shot her if he hadn't thought the other guy was involved, but I'm not so sure."
Gunther looked at him briefly without comment. Klesczewski answered the implied question. "Some teenage kid walked in just as these two were facing off. He had his sweatshirt hood down low over his face-it's a fad right now, plus it's a little on the cool side. Arnie swore he thought he was a bad guy, why, I don't know."
"The kid was clueless?" Gunther asked. "Oh, yeah. Went to the hospital, too. He could barely talk, he was so shaken up. Like I said, the whole thing was just waiting to happen-more and more dopers doing more and more rip-offs. Storekeepers getting cranked by the week. Matter of time before somebody killed somebody. Maybe this one was itching for an opportunity, maybe he was just frazzled to the limit."
Despite the nature of the conversation, Gunther suppressed a smile at his young colleague's seasoned attitude. Ron Klesczewski had been a fresh-faced detective when Gunther had run the Brattleboro squad a few years back. He'd been given command of it upon Joe's departure only because Gunther had taken the most obvious successor along with him to his new job. A natural with paperwork and computers, Klesczewski had been slow gaining self-confidence otherwise, although things had obviously improved now that he was top dog. Gunther's amusement was in adjusting the new to his memories of the old. "She was on drugs?" he asked.
Klesczewski shrugged. "Blood tests'll probably tell us before she will-assuming she survives. But she has the look, all the way down to the fresh track marks in her arm."
Gunther gazed once more at the gore covering the linoleum behind the counter-a body's lifeblood diluted with the root cause of its own destruction. Ron Klesczewski was perfectly correct about the inevitability of Brattleboro's increasing dilemma, but he could just as easily have extended it to include the entire state. While bent on pushing the same old romantic, fuzzy image of cows and maple syrup and grizzled farmers muttering, "Ah-yup," Vermont was in fact facing a heroin epidemic. Almost one hundred fatal overdoses had been racked up in the past ten years, and countless more reversed in hospitals and ambulances. Small potatoes compared to Boston or New York, but not so negligible on a per capita basis, in a state of a half million residents. And it was climbing fast. The state police drug task force, which used to count heroin busts in the single digits five years back, was now spending 50 percent of its time on these cases alone.
"What's her name?" he asked, almost as an afterthought. Klesczewski again consulted his notes. "Laurie Davis." Gunther became very still, catching his younger colleague's attention.
"You okay? You know her?" "She a blonde?" Gunther asked.
Excerpted from Gatekeeper by Archer Mayor Copyright ©2003 by Archer Mayor. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Archer Mayor is the author of the highly acclaimed, Vermont-based series featuring detective Joe Gunther, which the Chicago Tribune describes as “the best police procedurals being written in America.” He is also a past winner of the New England Independent Booksellers Association Award for Best Fiction—the first time a writer of crime literature has been so honored. In 2011, Mayor’s 22nd Joe Gunther novel, TAG MAN, earned a place on the New York Times bestseller list for hardback fiction.
Before turning his hand to fiction, Mayor wrote history books, the most notable of which concerned the lumber and oil business in Louisiana from the 1870s to the 1970s. This book was published by the back in 1988 and very well received; it has been republished as a trade paperback in 2009.
Mayor—who was brought up in the US, Canada and France—was variously employed as a scholarly editor, a researcher for TIME-LIFE Books, a political advance-man, a theater photographer, a newspaper writer/editor, a lab technician for Paris-Match Magazine in Paris, France, and a medical illustrator. In addition to writing novels and occasional articles, Mayor gives talks and workshops all around the country, including the Bread Loaf Young Writers conference in Middlebury, Vermont, and the Colby College seminar on forensic sciences in Waterville, Maine. In addition, Archer is a death investigator for Vermont’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, a detective for the Windham County Sheriff’s Office, the publisher of his own backlist, a travel writer for AAA, and he travels the Northeast giving speeches and conducting workshops. He also has 25 years experience as a volunteer firefighter/EMT.
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You just cannot put the book down. Expanded story line to Massachusetts gives it a twist from the Vermont setting.