A forty-year-old skeleton is found encased in a concrete slab at a recently decommissioned nuclear energy site. It becomes a case for the Vermont Bureau of Investigation (VBI) and its leader, Joe Gunther, since they have the resources and the ability to investigate an old, very cold, missing persons case that has now been reclassified as murder. The victim was Hank Mitchell, and Gunther must chase down old rumors and speculationswho benefited from his death and the disappearance of his body? And was his death somehow tied to New York City mafia money being laundered through the construction project?
But what seems the coldest of cold cases roars back to life when one of the central figures in this mystery is shot to death, right after speaking with Gunther. And when a young police officerthe son of VBI investigator Lester Spinneyis kidnapped, is that meant to be a warning to the VBI team to drop the case?
After all these many years, the truth behind the murder still has to the power to kill, and it’s up to Gunther and his team to capture the living and finally put the dead to rest.
About the Author
ARCHER MAYOR, in addition to writing the New York Times bestselling Joe Gunther series, is a death investigator for the state medical examiner and has twenty-five years of experience as a firefighter/EMT. He lives near Brattleboro, Vermont.
Read an Excerpt
Presumption of Guilt
A Joe Gunther Novel
By Archer Mayor
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2016 Archer Mayor
All rights reserved.
Tony Farnum waited until he saw Barry's face in the driver's-side mirror before motioning him to back up, looking over his shoulder to make sure the concrete mixer's rear wheels didn't hit the staked wooden form bordering the pour site. Satisfied, he held up both hands to a chorus of squealing brakes and a whoosh of compressed air. Barry swung out of the cab, strolled back, extracting a pack of cigarettes, and threw a wheel chock under one of the back tires with practiced ease.
He offered the pack to Farnum, who shook his head. "Too hot," he said. "And I wanna get this load going. Told my old lady I'd take her out tonight."
"Friday night on the town," Barry intoned. "'Summer in the City.'"
Farnum shook his head. "Brattleboro? That's a bar town, not a city. They should call it Dodge and have done with it. We're going to Keene."
Barry raised his eyebrows. "Works for me. You're the flatlander. Bright lights're like oxygen to you."
"Spare me," Farnum said, removing his hard hat, sweeping his hair back, and refitting the rubber band he used to keep his ponytail in place. He jerked his head toward the gigantic construction site across the driveway from their small warehouse project. "We probably got fifteen hundred people working this job. How many you guess are local woodchucks like you?"
Barry shrugged, not willing to argue. He didn't know it for a fact, but he figured this nuclear plant project was maybe the biggest construction job the state had ever seen. One thing was guaranteed: Brattleboro had lost the majority of its available workforce to it. Every carpenter, electrician, contractor, plumber, ditchdigger, and shit shoveler within a hundred miles had found a way to dip into the till down here.
Sign of the times, the way he saw it, and like the song said, the times were a-changin'. Barry left Farnum to his grousing and his dreams of a heavy date, to return to the truck's cab and enjoy his smoke. From Vietnam and the riots to landing on the moon a year ago, the 1960s were going to be a decade people would remember for a long time.
And that meant not just "away," as many Vermonters called the world beyond their borders. The Green Mountain State had changed radically, switching from a hundred-year-old, rock-ribbed Republican bastion in 1962 to the thing in flux it was now, just eight years later. This plant they were working on was just another example, as far as Barry was concerned.
Farnum adjusted the truck's offload chute to hover above the rebar latticework inside the wooden skirting. The warehouse slab was 150 feet by 40, which they'd opted to pour in sections. The main construction site wasn't messing with ten-yard wheeled mixers for its needs, of course. By the time this project was done, they'd have a zillion tons of reinforced concrete in place. But this was a side project — a two-man job with little to no supervision. Custom made for a single truck.
He reached up, switched the drum's auger from charge to discharge, and began slinging a river of gray slurry off the end of the chute, back and forth over his target area.
Until Barry half fell out of the cab, yelling, "Fire."
Farnum threw the flow arrester and stepped back to see what Barry was pointing at. Rising beyond the front of the cab, a thick black vertical cloud of smoke was mushrooming toward the blue sky.
"Far out," he said, and jogged after Barry to see what was up. The Vermont Yankee plant wasn't near being operational yet — much less producing radiation — but that didn't mean that the word "nuclear" wasn't thick in the air. Vernon, the plant's tiny host town, was undergoing a bipolar crisis, reveling in the millions of dollars being spent in its midst, while downplaying the predictions of the nuclear disaster being forecast by the raggedy protesters who gathered weekly by the front gate.
It wasn't a reach for Barry and Tony to imagine something dire in the sight of a dark column of smoke stabbing the construction site's heart like an accusing black finger from above. They were children of World War II, brought up in the dawning light of the Atomic Age, complete with spy trials, missile gaps, bomb shelters, and monster movies like Godzilla. Vermont Yankee's anticipated use of nuclear fission ran hand in hand with the latter's ominous reputation.
"What d'ya see?" Farnum asked, catching up.
Barry looked back at him, surprised. "I thought you were pouring."
"I shut it off. It'll keep a few minutes."
"It looks like it's in the parking lot," Barry reported, rounding the corner of the metal-clad turbine building.
"Oh, man. Say it ain't a red Chevy truck."
They stopped side by side at the edge of the dirt parking lot. "Nope," Barry announced unnecessarily.
Before them, surrounded by a small tribe of men, most of them empty-handed, was a tired-looking van spewing fire from under its hood. One person was trying to pour water on the blaze with a garden hose.
"That's not gonna do much good," Farnum judged.
A bullhorn announcement from behind them urged everyone to stay back and return to work, and advised that the fire department was on its way. As if on cue, an anemic wailing could be heard far in the distance, growing louder.
"I better get back," Farnum said, his interest waning.
Barry kept him company, lighting up another cigarette. As they cleared the front of the mixer, he said, "I thought you said you turned it off."
"Fuck," Tony swore, and ran to the chute controls. "I did." The discharge wasn't fully open, but Barry was right — a thin trickle of concrete had deposited a significant lavalike mound within the form. Fortunately, it hadn't spread above grade. Farnum only had to even it out, and all would be well — especially after the subsequent screeding and floating took place.
No one would be the wiser.
Nelson Smith laid down his jackhammer, shifted his ear protectors to the top of his helmet, and settled down beside the now quiet compressor, propping his back against one of its tires. He adjusted the earbuds he wore virtually all the time, and then rethought the gesture — removing them instead — and reached into his shirt pocket to kill his iPod.
The silence almost startled him. Usually, the outside world was kept at bay in preference to music or phone usage or podcasts, virtually all of it piped into him via the earbuds.
But sometimes, rarely, he yielded to his rural heritage and the early influence of his grandfather and father, both of whom used to take him into the woods to tap trees, gather cordwood, or hunt. Those moments of stillness remained fond memories, especially now that he no longer lived at home — the quiet conversations, the creaking of heavy branches overhead, the sound of distant wildlife, most of which the older men could identify from long experience.
Nelson looked around as he opened his lunch box and extracted his thermos and sandwich. He was hardly in the woods now, although at the moment, it was almost as quiet. Even more so.
He was sitting on the edge of a large, flat, exposed building slab, opposite the largest concrete cube he'd ever seen. He'd worked at the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant for four years now, doing whatever grunt work needed to be done, from digging ditches to shoveling snow, gravel, dirt, and rubble — like today — to anything else the foreman asked of him. It paid okay, filled the day, kept him outside, and mostly allowed him to work alone.
Especially lately. The plant, after forty years, had been decommissioned. From a high of maybe six hundred employees, they were functioning with a skeleton crew. It made him think of an aircraft carrier that he'd once visited in New York, as a kid. Now a museum, the ship was moored by the dock, still floating as designed, but almost totally empty near closing time. Nelson had wandered its length and depths, less impressed by the function of its varied nooks and crannies and more overwhelmed by the enormity of its stillness.
Like this place, right now. Once humming with activity, and a monument to pure energy, it had become a huge receptacle for a slowly dying radioactive heart — a comatose patient with no expiration date.
He shifted slightly against the tire. It was officially spring, after what his old man had termed an "old-fashioned winter" — cold, snowy, and hard on the bones. It wasn't quite T-shirt weather, but getting close. The Connecticut River, a few hundred yards away, hidden by the embankment bordering the plant, was fat and swirling with melted ice from the north. The near monochromatic world of a frozen New England was by now lightly tinted with the coming green of renewed vegetation. Nelson had heard that the Inuits used a hundred names for snow. Too bad we had only the one word, "green," for vegetation, he thought, given the varieties of green he could see from where he was sitting — in the trees and grass and hills beyond the razor-wired borders of the plant's periphery.
There was one exception, however, which he noticed only as the sun drifted out from behind a cloud. His gaze was attracted to the contrasting field of gray wreckage that he'd created in his multiday assignment to crumble the concrete slab of a recently dismantled warehouse. In the sun's sudden glare, Nelson saw a flash of something white and thin amid the lumpish shards.
Frowning, he rolled over onto his hands and knees, preserving his line of sight, and crawled to the lip where the old concrete met the edge of his latest efforts with the jackhammer, a few feet away.
"Damn," he said, the word carried away by the gentle breeze.
What had beckoned him appeared to be part of a human hand — a curved finger, bleached white and encircled by a thin gold ring.CHAPTER 2
Sammie Martens put down the phone. "Huh."
Joe Gunther looked up from his paperwork. "New case?"
She answered indirectly. "Over the years, how many times did you think tensions at Vermont Yankee might get hot enough to trigger a homicide?"
"You're kidding me." He pushed away from his desk, preparing to rise.
Sam, usually first to head out the door, checked him with an upheld hand. "Not that kind of call. This time, I don't think we're gonna find the doer standing over the body."
They were the only two in the small office, on the second floor of Brattleboro's timeworn municipal center.
"Okay," Joe said slowly, letting Sam have her moment.
"Some guy with a jackhammer was taking apart one of the old warehouse slabs and found a skeletonized hand."
"Only a hand?"
She shrugged. "So far. Unlike some of the bozos we've dealt with, sounds like this one knew when to stop. From what I was just told, right now all we got is a finger with a ring on it. I was being generous, calling it a hand."
"The warehouse inside the inner fence?"
"Right beside the reactor building."
"How'd we get the call?" he asked.
"Through the state police. Guess they figured we'd get it eventually. Plus, I bet the last thing they want is another pain-in-the-ass cold case."
Joe nodded. "Okay. Given how that plant's been a publicity shit-magnet since before it was plugged in, you better call the state's attorney while I let our esteemed director know at HQ."
Two minutes later, after they'd both hung up, Joe looked questioningly at his colleague. "I take it you got the same 'mother of God' reaction I did?"
"Along with a prayer that this can be kept quiet for as long as possible," she reported.
He rose and walked to the coatrack by the office's front door. "People's continual belief in miracles never ceases to amaze me." He handed Sam her jacket. "Good news is that at least we'll have a secure scene. That might help delay things."
She laughed. "And we won't need to rig any lights after hours, according to all those glow-in-the-dark rumors."
* * *
Vermont Yankee is located in Vernon, Vermont, about five miles south of Brattleboro. It occupies 130-plus acres, more or less, of sacrificed farmland that sticks out into the Connecticut River like a fat man's belly overhanging his belt.
It's an unusual-looking plant — at least to Joe's eye. Informed as he was by icons such as the four Three Mile Island hourglass cooling towers, he found Vernon's monument brutish and massively squat — a series of huge, utilitarian, blank-faced cubes and boxes, offset only by a single tall, thin, slightly ominous smokestack located on the facility's edge.
He'd been here multiple times over the decades, especially when he'd led the Brattleboro Police's detective unit before becoming head of VBI — the Vermont Bureau of Investigation. Back then, the plant's management was forever inviting local emergency personnel to participate in tabletop terrorist countermeasure exercises, or briefings on catastrophe protocols, or sometimes merely to share security concerns. The latter had become especially topical as relations between the plant's owners and the state's political leaders soured — spurred on by steady protests from area antinuclear activists. Indeed, this broiling antipathy and its attending legal wrangles were touted by observers as having played as big a role in finally shuttering the plant as its advancing years and the advent of cheap natural gas. Certainly Joe was among those who believed Vermont Yankee's management eventually just tired of the squabbling.
One advantage of all this past cooperation was that Joe and his colleagues had come to know the well-armed and highly trained defense force that protected the campus, specifically Jim Matthews, its current leader.
It was Matthews, in fact, who met them at the newly unmanned front gate, on Governor Hunt Road, and directed them to pull over.
He did not look happy.
"Hey," he greeted them, leaning over to look into the car Sam was driving.
"Hey, yourself," Joe answered. "You know anything more than when you called us?"
"Only that we'll be knee-deep in bad press again. I never would've seen this one coming, though. Not in a million." He straightened and pointed them to the right of the entrance road. "Drive down there. One of my guys'll wave you through, right up to the scene. We've had everything cordoned off. You'll see."
As Sam pulled away, Joe saw Matthews reach for his radio to warn others of their approach. For all the talk of decommissioning and downsizing, the power plant remained a nuclear site and, as such, a high-security concern to a lot of people and agencies — a fact highlighted by the number of armed people they saw positioned along their way, not to mention a scattering of watchtowers, camera stations, heavy fences, and even the occasional odd-looking, one-man concrete pillbox, complete with firing ports.
As if echoing his private ruminating, Sammie observed, "Always gives me the creeps coming here. It's like a prison for the undead."
They rolled to a stop beyond the last open gate and got out of the car near the remnants of a flat, half-crushed concrete slab ringed by men with guns, some of whom were further isolating the area with yellow tape and metal barricades.
They were met by a serious young man with a clipboard. "Could I see your identification and get your names, please?"
They complied, although Joe could see Sam suppressing a smile at the formality. But he and she were both ex-military, if a generation apart, and he found value in the ritual nature of the exchange. And as he'd said at the office, he sensed they'd be having few problems maintaining the scene's integrity — often a hassle in the real world.
Free to proceed, they advanced to a couple of dark-clad officers standing next to a twentysomething man in a hard hat — a pair of earbuds dangling over his collar — not far from a jackhammer's compressor.
As they drew near, Joe announced conversationally, "Special Agents Joe Gunther and Samantha Martens, VBI."
One of the security men indicated the man in the hard hat. "This is Nelson Smith. He was breaking up the slab for removal when he found ..." He paused, groping for a description, and finished lamely with, "what he found."
"I stopped for lunch," Smith volunteered, "and saw the sun reflecting off the white bone. I couldn't figure it out, first. Gave me a real shock."
Excerpted from Presumption of Guilt by Archer Mayor. Copyright © 2016 Archer Mayor. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I have ready every book in the series & anxiously await the new one each fall. I'm never disappointed. Never any gratuitous blood & gore, just a great mystery with very real characters.
Always a good read