During the height of a harsh Vermont winter, the body of a woman is found hanging from the steel-mesh retaining net lining the cliffs along the interstate. She was brutally murdered, with the word "dyke" carved into her chest. She was also a state senator and best friend and ally of the current governor, Gail Zigman. At Zigman's personal request, Joe Gunther and his Vermont Bureau of Investigation team agree to help the Vermont State Police in their investigation before the victim's high profile and powerful friends create the inevitable publicity maelstrom.
Raffner was indeed a lesbian, and the word carved into her chest might be evidence of a hate crime, or it might be a feint designed to confuse and mislead investigators. But the question remains-what was she involved with, who wanted her dead, and what company was she keeping? What Gunther and his team discover during their initial investigation isn't the stuff of a simple murder. Someone killed a prominent figure and fabricated an elaborate scene for a purpose.
And this might only be the beginning...in Archer Mayor's The Company She Kept.
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The Company She Kept
A Joe Gunther Novel
By Archer Mayor
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2015 Archer Mayor
All rights reserved.
"Pull over, Doug. I want to get a shot of this."
Uncomplaining, Doug Nielsen checked his mirrors, slowed down shy of the interstate crossover — marked EMERGENCY USE ONLY — and eased their rig across the empty northbound lane, to the scenic pull-off his wife had indicated. A cautious man, he was wary of any black ice that could launch them through the slender barricade and over the straight drop beyond it into Margie's planned panorama.
He didn't fault her artist's eye. The view from this ledge was vast, inspiring, and beautiful. The Connecticut River, far below, lined by glimmering fresh snow, sparkled in the late afternoon sun, which itself was the only object visible in a stark, freezing, ice blue sky. A few farms stretched out to both sides of the winding river, empty of crops or livestock, until their fields bumped up against the opposing Vermont and New Hampshire foothills. Several homes sported thin plumes of woodsmoke from their chimneys, making Doug think of feather quills protruding from toy-sized inkwells. He thought it might have been the sheer antiquity of everything before him that stirred up such an old- fashioned image, since — barring a barely visible utility line and a narrow paved road far in the distance — he guessed that little before him had changed much in over two hundred years.
He and Margie had been vacationing for the past week in the Green Mountain State, whose famous mantle had been deeply powdered by a recent spate of snowstorms. This had been good news for them, since they'd driven up from southern New Jersey to exercise the two snowmobiles they were now towing back home. There had been trips to New England in the past where the cover had been less than ideal for dedicated so-called sledders. But not this time. This visit had been perfect.
Doug rolled to a stop and they both got out, the cold air tingling their nostrils and biting the backs of their throats. The lot was deserted, which suited him fine, considering the combined length of his car and trailer. He'd been able to ignore the row of parking spaces hashed into the cleared asphalt, and simply park alongside the barricade.
"Isn't this incredible?" his wife asked, pulling out her smartphone.
"Pretty nice," he answered briefly, no less impressed by the vista, but sensitive to the near-total stillness accompanying it. "Quiet, too," he added, encouraging his wife to take in more of what he was appreciating.
But there, she had her own style.
"I know," she said, ordering up the phone's photographic function. "Can you imagine how this would be next to the Jersey Pike? I'd have to hope the pictures wouldn't blur, for all the vibration from passing trucks."
He nodded and began walking the length of the extended pull-off, putting some distance between them.
"Don't go too far, Doug," she called out. "I want to take a selfie of us in front of the view."
Refusing to break his inner code of silence, Doug raised his gloved hand without turning and stuck a thumb up in acknowledgment. Margie went back to concentrating on her shot.
Doug had lived in New Jersey his entire life, in the city, amid people. He worked in a large building, at a desk in a room the size of a football field, under an endless stuttering of overhead fluorescent tubes and surrounded by an army corps of cubicles, all like his own. He and Margie had a good life. The house was almost paid for, and in good shape, compared to some on the street. They were all more or less of the same architectural model, which made any standouts that much more glaring. And Doug was happy. The kids had turned out okay, Margie and he were pretty healthy, retirement was looking feasible in another ten years or so — assuming the world didn't go to hell in a handbasket.
He stopped walking, Margie now much smaller in the background.
And last but not least, he had moments like this, when he could absorb the spectacular vestiges of prehistoric phenomena like glaciers, fluvial erosion, and the efforts of mankind to make a living off the land. It gave him a comforting sense of being in touch with what so many of his coworkers back home couldn't even imagine.
He turned from the view at the sound of a car speeding by on the interstate, attracted by how lonely it sounded, and how quickly the sound of it was swallowed by the surrounding immensity. It brought back Margie's comment about the Jersey Pike, which in turn made him think that he ought to get back to her to pose for that photograph.
He paused a moment longer, though, his eyes not on the hundred-foot rock wall across the pavement, looming as high above them as the cliff dropped off to his back. Instead, he found himself drawn to a sharp but distant twinkling of gold, perched on the edge of the roadway, bordering the southbound lane.
Intrigued, he went up to the edge of the parking area's barricade, and climbed atop one of the short wooden posts there to get a better angle on the distant object.
"I'll be damned," he said to himself, recognizing a large handbag, its clasp reflecting the sun's blaze.
"What're you looking at?" his wife asked from surprisingly nearby.
He wobbled briefly on his post, turning and laughing. "Whoa. Honey. You snuck up on me." He pointed across the double lanes. "That thing caught my eye. Probably fell out of a car."
She squinted in the direction he was indicating. "That purse? Why would it fall out of a car? We're miles from the exit. Stuff like that only happens when you're leaving — like when you forget your coffee cup on the roof or something."
Doug was scanning the road up and down, as much for an explanation as in preparation for a quick sprint over to retrieve the purse. Margie, however, had tilted her head back to take in the towering cliff above.
Several years earlier, the Department of Transportation had been delivered some bad news: As a by-product of the construction of Vermont's two interstates back in the sixties, rocks from the cliffs alongside the roads had begun breaking loose. Most of the overhangs had been expensively angled back with drills and blasting. A few, like the one facing the Nielsens now, had been deemed too daunting and had received the alternate treatment of a steel retaining mesh, dropped before the rock face like a chain-link curtain, to prevent any debris from bouncing onto the pavement.
"Oh, my Lord," Margie whimpered softly, her gaze halfway up.
The distress in her voice caught Doug's attention. "Holy Mother," he said.
Some forty feet up, hanging from a rope, was the body of a woman, dangling before the retaining screen like a talisman on display.
Margie, acting instinctively — her reflex as modern as her surroundings were primordial — snapped a picture.CHAPTER 2
Joe Gunther was studying Gilbert's face from inches away, watching for any indicators of what might be going through his mind. But Gilbert was a cat, and fast asleep on Joe's chest at the moment, so the challenge was probably insurmountable, even for a veteran cop.
Joe had never been a pet owner, not since leaving the family farm as a young man, where his father had kept dogs. Gilbert had been thrust upon him. Actually, thrown at him by a woman trying to distract him as she drew a gun. That had worked, in the short-term, even though she'd then been bested by one of Joe's colleagues. In any case, Gilbert had ended up in permanent residence, no worse for the adventure.
Which Joe had found surprisingly to his liking. His young roommate had settled in without a ripple, greeting him when he came home, sleeping peacefully with him at night, and snuggling unobtrusively whenever he had a moment to sit and read late at night.
Gilbert Gumshoe — as Sammie Martens, Joe's sole female squad member, called him — had become a gentle grace note at this point along an eventful, sometimes tumultuous life.
Of course, as Willy Kunkle — another member of the team, and Sammie's "other half" — had put it in cruder terms, older people need pets as they get decrepit.
Joe smiled at the memory of the line. He did like his ragtag family of eccentrics. Just as he liked Gilbert.
The phone rang beside the couch, where Joe and the cat were stretched out. Gilbert half opened his eyes, assessed his chances of remaining undisturbed, and decamped for the floor in a graceful leap.
"Gunther," Joe answered.
"Susan's dead," a woman's distraught voice said.
"Gail?" Joe asked, recognizing his long-standing romantic partner of several years ago, now the governor of Vermont. Still a friend who called periodically — although usually not so dramatically — Gail Zigman had become an enigma to him, at times longing and sentimental, at others imperious and borderline ruthless. He had sadly found himself watching his choice of words with her — a caution he'd never practiced in the past.
"She was murdered."
"Susan Raffner?" he asked, sitting up, noticing at the same time that another call was coming in.
He ignored it for the time being. "Tell me what happened."
"I don't know. I just got a phone call. They found her dead near the interstate. I don't understand what that means, but they definitely said she'd been killed. They told me they called because she was my friend."
"Of course," he said soothingly, not adding that it was also because of Susan's being a state senator. The two women had begun in politics together, decades ago, when Susan had backed Gail for a place on the Brattleboro selectboard. She had been Gail's political adviser and trusted sidekick ever since.
"Did you get the name of the cop on the case?" he asked out of habit.
"I didn't talk to him," she said, sounding surprised. "They called the governor's office, not me directly. Rob told me." There was a sudden catch in her voice, and when she resumed, she was choked with emotion. "What does it matter, Joe? Who cares?"
"You're right, you're right," he said, ignoring her flash of irritation. Rob Perkins was her chief of staff. "I'll get that later."
"You'll do this, Joe?" she pleaded. "You'll find out who did it?"
"I'll do my best," he promised.
"I already gave orders that VBI was to have the case, no questions asked, but I want you leading them. If you get any shit from anybody, you call me, okay?"
"Of course, Governor," he assured her. "I'll get on it now. I'll keep you informed. Promise."
His use of her title seemed to steady her, transcending their past intimacy to introduce a stabilizing formality.
Following a moment's hesitation, she said, "Thank you, Joe. I'll wait to hear from you."
"I am sorry, Gail," he told her.
He heard her sob as she hung up. He checked his phone to find out who'd called. It was Bill Allard, head of the VBI — the Vermont Bureau of Investigation — of which Joe had been the field force commander since its inception.
"You calling about the governor?" he asked as soon as Allard picked up.
"I'm calling about Senator Raffner," Bill replied, sounding nonplussed.
"I was on the phone with the governor. She called to say she'd asked us to look into this."
"Asked is hardly the word," Bill corrected him, not a fan of Gail. "But it does look like our kind of case."
"With me as lead?" Joe asked.
"Ah," Allard reacted. "She told you that, too, huh? Yeah. That's what she wants."
"I understand if you have to conflict me out," Joe told him. "Having the governor's old boyfriend running the investigation into her closest ally's death might get sticky."
"Not for me, it doesn't," Bill countered. "Raffner was a sitting state senator. I want my best team on it. We can't sacrifice quality to play politics — we don't have the manpower. Handpick whoever you want. We'll shift personnel around to cover, if need be."
The phone indicated a third incoming call. Joe said, "Roger that. Just thought I'd float the question. I'll call you back when I got something."
He hit a button on the phone. "Gunther."
"It's Sam," said his second-in-command, the weekend's on-call officer. "You hear yet? Hell of a way to start a sunny Sunday."
Her natural intensity reverberated over the line. She had a perpetual level of commitment — whether to him, the job, her baby daughter, or the acerbic Willy Kunkle — that radiated like a heat source.
"I just hung up on the governor and Allard," he told her. "Nobody's told me much beyond that Susan Raffner was found murdered."
"That's how it's looking," Sam said. "Unless she took herself out in the weirdest suicide I ever heard."
"She was found hanging from one of those steel-mesh retaining nets they dropped across the cliffs lining the interstate. A couple of tourists called it in. It almost sounds like when a farmer hangs a dead fox from his fence, to warn other foxes. Totally crazy."
"But it's not a suicide?" he asked pointedly.
"VSP is guarding the scene," she reported, using the familiar initials of the Vermont State Police. "They're keeping everything as clean as possible for us, but it looks like a homicide, unless you know something I don't. For one thing, they're saying there's no car parked nearby. It could be a suicide combined with a car theft. Stranger things have happened."
Joe shook his head at the phone. "Okay. It's not like Raffner and I hung out. I barely saw her over the years. But suicidal? I never got that — she was way too full of piss and vinegar, protesting every cause under the sun. You did hear we've been assigned to head this up?"
"Yup," she said, sounding happy. "I'm at the office right now, packing stuff up. Who do you want to come along?"
"The way the cages are being rattled," Joe said, "everybody, so we start on the same page."
He could almost hear her grinning. "Cool. I already got Willy calling the babysitter, and Lester said we could pick him up at the gas station off exit seven."
Which was one of the many reasons Joe had made her his Number Two. "I'm headin' out," he said gratefully. "See you in a few."
* * *
Joe had once imagined that if you took a sheet of paper, crumpled it up into a ball, and then flattened it out — creased lengthwise, like a small, rectangular tent — you would have the rough approximation of a 3-D map of Vermont. The mountains run down its middle, the right and left edges are calmed and flattened by water — the Connecticut River and Lake Champlain, respectively — and the rest of the state's surface is as bumpy, irregular, and furrowed as the Ice Age relic that it is.
He loved every square foot of it. As he sat in the passenger seat of the unmarked car, with Sam at the wheel and Willy and Lester in the back, he watched the Connecticut River come into and out of view in the valley below them. The interstate this far north was never heavily traveled — certainly not by urban standards — and had been declared by various magazines as one of the country's most scenic byways.
And yet, he mused ... There was always a flip side, as his long career attested: For all its sylvan beauty and apparent tranquility, despite its sparse population and square miles of emptiness, Vermont was also poorly financed, nonindustrialized, and far off the beaten path for everyone except tourists, and — more recently — drug dealers. None of that made it a crime magnet, but this very trip north was proof enough to Joe of humanity's chronic inability to live as peacefully as these calming environs suggested.
The VSP had sealed off an entire section of the road between two exits, rerouting the scant traffic to a parallel two-lane highway. Sam maneuvered their vehicle between the cones manned by a young trooper who waved them through, and continued for four miles along a pavement now as empty of traffic as an abandoned movie set.
"Spooky," Lester commented from the back. "It's like some spaceship beamed up everybody but us."
"I doubt it beamed up the people we'd like to see gone," Willy said sourly, grabbing his withered left arm and shifting it so he could sit more comfortably. They were all dressed for the outdoors, in addition to carrying their standard tactical gear. "Be typical if only the good guys got zapped."
The other three smiled at the comment, typical of the speaker. Willy's arm — a reminder of a career-threatening encounter with a bullet on a case many years earlier — was a testament to both the one-liner and Willy's overall Eeyore outlook.
Excerpted from The Company She Kept by Archer Mayor. Copyright © 2015 Archer Mayor. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I've traveled with Joe Gunther since the very beginning of his story. Archer Mayor is one of my all time favorite authors. I've had the pleasure of hearing him speak of his books and the writing process several times. "The Company She Kept" is another stellar effort on Mayor's part. I am really appreciating the effort he seems to make in his last few books to develop Gunther's character more, as well as the other characters. One thing about a long-standing series is that sometimes they fall into the same lines each time. Not so here. And one thing I was struck with in this novel was that I appreciate the fact that Mayor lends a subtle hand to the violence and gory details in the stories he writes. There are some novels I have read lately that go into high detail with the violent crimes. Not that there isn't a place for that, but I just really appreciated the fact that I didn't have nightmares after reading this book. If this is the first book of the Gunther series that you read, I'd urge you to go back to the first, or the earliest you can find, and read the series as a whole. I don't think you'll be disappointed.