The Vermont Bureau of Investigation (VBI) has been pulled onto three cases at the same time; meanwhile, VBI head Joe Gunther has to take time off to care for his ailing mother.
Those cases are now in the hands of the individual investigators. Sammie Martens is assigned a murder case. The victim is a young woman, the roommate of the daughter of Medical Examiner Beverly Hillstrom. A recent transplant from Albany, New York, Sammie must find out what put a hit man on the trail of this seemingly innocent young woman.
Lester Spinney takes over a famous cold case, a double murder where a state trooper and a motorist were killed in an exchange of gunfire. Or so it has seemed for years. When Lester is told that the motorist’s fingerprints were planted on the gun he’s supposed to have fired, it opens the questionwho really killed the state trooper?
Willy Kunkle’s case starts with a child's discovery of three teeth on a railroad track, leading eventually to a case of possible sabotage against critical military equipment.
In cases that lead the team all over Vermont and nearby, Archer Mayor once again shows why his novels featuring Joe Gunther and the VBI team are among the finest crime fiction today.
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
Jayla Robinson looked out across Albany's Lancaster Street at the three matching brownstones opposite. They were shorter than the one she was in, but more ornate, with arched first-floor entrances and windows, which made them appear classier, like squatty, potbellied rich men immaculately dressed in tailored suits.
She'd liked them at first, as she had the whole street and the lifestyle it reflected, back when. Now she needed to escape — this house, this neighborhood, this city. Above all, this man.
She switched focus to her reflection in the window's antique ripply glass, the midnight darkness of the street blending with the black room behind her and the chocolate cast of her own skin.
Somewhere between "coal black" and "high yellow," in the loaded vernacular of her culture. She recalled her darker-hued mother gazing at her sadly as a child, ruing that she hadn't "turned out lighter." The comment had baffled Jayla then, and angered her later. She was proud of being black, and of being a woman. Her mother's clear ambivalence about the first, and implied resignation concerning the second, had fueled Jayla's rebelliousness as she passed through high school and entered college.
They had also influenced some of her decisions — her hairstyle, her choice of clothing and jewelry, her music. Even her name. Jayla was her own creation. Charlotte Anne was what she'd been born with. In retrospect, her life since high school had been a succession of mile markers, all leading to the contradiction that had finally put her here, in this house, at this watershed moment.
Because, as with so many youthful journeys of self-discovery, especially for people with the means to choose their way, Jayla's progression had been stamped with awkward inconsistency. She had been blessed with her parents' work ethic, broadmindedness, and, unacknowledged by her, occasional thick skin. And she had gained from their insistence on good schools, self-respect, and a regard for others. Educators both, and living embodiments of responsibility, they had been evenhanded, generous, forgiving, and encouraging.
Which at times had driven her crazy.
In part, if only that, it helped explain how she'd ended up as the college-dropout mistress of a scary white man with a short fuse and an inexplicably large income. Of course, even that had begun benignly enough: Jared Wylie had shown up as a guest-speaker expert on lobbying at a poli-sci class and had, over the first half year of their relationship, appeared urbane, educated, worldly, funny, and, most ironically now, kind.
She stepped back into the living room, still dressed in one of the short, sheer nightgowns he preferred — and which had gone from once making her feel sexy and appreciated to seeing herself as his latest and, given how she was feeling now, increasingly short-lived acquisition.
Things had not been going well over the past few months. For reasons unexplained to her, Wylie had shape-shifted from being the sophisticated, savvy monitor of Albany's politically charged government corridors to something less definable and much more ominous. A purported lobbyist, yes, and a lawyer from what she'd gotten off the framed documents lining his office. But Jared was clearly something more. Something malevolent.
Prompted by the thought, she raised her fingertips to her left breast, still sore after his latest assault. Not a blow this time. Nothing that overt. He clearly was a fast learner. Rather, just the latest in a series of escalating manipulations spread over a longer time than she was willing to admit. All delivered by hand or mouth or instrument and couched in the guise of erotica. But finally unmistakable to her as increasingly unbridled sadism.
Which fit other aspects of his persona, in her delayed perception. As she would have benefited from a blinding light swinging away from her eyes, in search of newer targets, she'd at last recognized the mannerisms she'd judged earlier to be eccentricities, or even intriguing in their novelty, as the harbingers of menace.
Brutal confirmation of this unease had come a couple of months ago. By convention or cliché, he should have been drunk at the time, in order to rationalize his excess. But he'd been sober and angry and very, very cold. Stimulated by what, she hadn't known, he'd come at her out of the blue, torn her clothes, thrown her about, hurting her in the process, and finally raped her on the kitchen floor. What had followed was almost boringly predictable — the apologies, the excuses, the promises of better behavior. Unimpressed, she'd called 911.
Only to then receive an unexpected education.
In response to her action, knowing he couldn't stop the police from appearing at their front door, Jared had made it crystal clear what would happen if she went beyond calling the cops and actually told them what had happened.
He'd been convincing enough that when two uniformed men did show up, she downplayed the assault, stating that she'd wanted to get back at her boyfriend for a perceived infidelity.
Beyond the humiliation of that moment, it had made her queasy to realize that Jared's feigned sensitivity and good manners had masked a man of Machiavellian and amoral propensities — a frightening mixture that had eventually imprisoned her.
At first, despite his displays of evil, she tried writing off her doubts as youthful paranoia. She challenged reality by ascribing his actions to a really bad day at the office and tried showing more independence. She went for a dinner with friends and looked up an old boyfriend for an after-dinner drink. The friends were quickly targeted with Facebook revelations of past indiscretions, with the implication that she'd been their source; the old boyfriend was mugged by a stranger and put into the hospital. The message was clear: Jayla was under surveillance, her privacy gone, and Jared's brutal tendencies no longer restricted to the odd sexual outburst.
Jared hadn't confessed to these two actions, but he hadn't denied them, either, making it clear that her efforts to distance herself carried a promise of future violence, to her and her friends and family, and that he was capable of worse, were she to challenge that conclusion.
She realized that her life had gone from uncomfortably claustrophobic to out of control. Only then had she focused — since by now she was barely allowed out of the house — on Jared's interactions with some of the people who entered his ground-floor office. Almost to a person, they looked trapped, as if visits to Jared Wylie were for root canal surgery, a sensation she now shared.
She'd considered calling the police again, before realizing she had nothing to report and no credibility in any case. She'd thought of her parents, and then remembered the old boyfriend's trip to the ER. And she'd already been made to imagine what might happen if she simply told Jared to screw himself, and returned to her life of old.
She was stuck. And, after tonight's near rape, assisted by so-called toys, she was struggling not to panic. Nothing in her short, happy, sheltered life so far had prepared her for anything like this. To her own embarrassment, she wasn't finding within herself any of the militant self-reliance she'd so admired in idols of her past. Now that such grit was being called for within herself, all she could think of was to run.
She sat on the bottom step of the staircase to the bedrooms overhead and ran her fingers through her long hair, pressing her palms against her temples.
"What're you doing?" she heard from above.
She whirled around, half collapsing onto the floor, her legs splayed out. Jared stood naked in the shadows at the top, more a menacing outline than a man.
"Get your ass to bed," he ordered.
Her earlier frustration and anger yielded to fear as she gathered herself together, saying, "I couldn't sleep."
He let out a short laugh. "I'll give you something that'll wear you out. Come on."
His shadowy arm gestured to her to join him, which she did meekly and without protest, feeling the dread rise, along with the soreness that he'd visited upon her hours earlier. As she drew up next to him, he slipped a hand beneath her nightgown and groped her painfully.
The effect was electric. Unlike ever before, without thought or hesitation, she countermanded all her paralyzing self-doubts, swung on her heel, and drove her raised elbow into his temple.
With a grunt, he fell from view and tumbled down the stairs, landing in a heap at the bottom.
Jayla stood stock-still in the sudden silence, her arm suspended in midair, staring at his motionless form. In the light from the street, she could just make out his chest moving slightly.
She reacted to that as to a starter's pistol, running to their bedroom. She dressed quickly in jeans, tennis shoes, and a top and raced downstairs to the front door as if wolves were on her heels, which, in her mind, they might as well have been as she jumped over Jared's still motionless body, expecting him to lash out and seize her ankle.
At the door, she grabbed a hoodie he'd left there upon coming home that night, swept up her small backpack containing phone and wallet, and without pause ran onto the brownstone's landing, slamming the door behind her.
It was spring, the night air cool but comfortable, making the hoodie all she needed to begin running east along Lancaster, toward Albany's downtown. By instinct, she was heading for the bus station. With no destination in mind, she was convinced of two things: She needed to get away from Jared fast and far, and she couldn't lead him toward anyone she knew or loved.
Because, as ignorant as she'd been of his true character upon meeting him, she knew in her bones that he was going to pursue her — the irony being that with her violent reaction of minutes ago, she'd just legally turned the tables on their mutual grievance. Jared Wylie, as she interpreted the law, had become the primary injured party — meaning that she'd officially cut off her own access to the police. Assuming she hadn't actually broken his neck, she'd given Jared free rein to hunt her down.
At the end of the block, she came up against a high, blank, shimmering marble wall, as subtle as anything once associated with Berlin, put there decades ago by New York governor Nelson Rockefeller as part of Albany's most startling and controversial landmark: the nearly one-hundred-acre-large Empire State Plaza.
Jayla ran to her left, along South Swan Street, before entering the plaza via a pedestrian path that cut across the marble expanse.
It was ghostly, eerie, and deeply disquieting, given what she'd just been through — abruptly being transported from a quaint collection of historic brownstones in Albany's trendy Center Square to what felt like the set of a cold and dystopian movie. The builders of this monument to ego and power had tried here and there to soften the place's sharp edges with some trees, but beyond such minor touches lay the plaza's primary feature, which no degree of subtle plantings could ameliorate — a vast, flat, featureless stone expanse, empty aside from a row of towering, monolithic office slabs and a huge half sphere that looked like a giant's abandoned golf tee but was referred to as the Egg, which it didn't come close to resembling.
Crossing this no-man's-land at full tilt, the thought of Jared fresh in her mind, Jayla had never felt so vulnerable or minute — a single speck populating a gigantic, white-painted architectural model. She stared down at her pounding feet as she went, half expecting them to start fading from view as she vanished into nothingness.
Relief came inside the blocks-long covered pedestrian corridor at the far end — which led to the parking garage adjacent to the Times Union Center. By the time she stepped free of the whole interconnected, labyrinthine mass, onto the relative normalcy of Beaver Street, Jayla felt she'd survived an imaginative rite of passage through fire. She paused for only a minute, her hands on her knees, blowing off some of the accumulated stress and collecting her thoughts, before proceeding more calmly down a couple of side streets to the bus depot on Liberty.
She'd come to a decision. Perhaps it wasn't well thought out, but it played to her need for something familiar while simultaneously — she hoped — supplying a solution at once unexpected and idiosyncratic.
If Jared was going to come after her, he'd start with her family and friends, her old haunts, and maybe places where he'd think she'd go to blend in — like New York or Boston. She racked her memory as she ran, trying to recall any trips or vacations she'd ever mentioned to him, knowing what an extraordinary memory he had for people's personal details.
She'd finally hit on an answer, if perhaps only short term: a spot she'd been to briefly years ago, while shopping for colleges, and rejected for some of the very reasons she was now finding it attractive.
She entered the flat, ugly, virtually abandoned Greyhound station, walked up to the counter, donning a pair of plastic sunglasses she found in the pocket of Jared's stolen hoodie, and bought a one-way ticket to Burlington, Vermont.
Joe Gunther opened his eyes at the phone's ring, distinguishing between it and the sound of his cell phone. No one called him on the landline anymore, not even Beverly.
He was lying on the couch, as usual, having dozed off rather than going to bed — one of the perks of living alone. His cat, Gilbert, was asleep on his chest. Or he had been; he was now eyeing Joe balefully at being disturbed.
"Hello?" Joe asked, expecting his mother's voice. An ancient woman with predictably aged habits, she avoided calling cell phones on principle.
But it wasn't her. "Joey?" his brother asked. "You okay? You sound weird."
"It's near midnight, Leo," he answered, checking his watch. "I was asleep."
"Oh, right. Well, I was at work till really late — couldn't get to a phone."
Leo ran a butcher shop in the town where they had been born — Thetford, Vermont — and lived with their mother, tending to her, supposedly, although she was famously and stubbornly low maintenance. Still, what could have been a pretentious comment from anyone else was probably true for Leo. The shop, their mother, and what time he had left for a social life did make for a very busy man.
"I hear you," Joe sympathized. "What's on your mind?"
"Mom. She's in a bad way."
Joe straightened, causing Gilbert to leap for safety. "What happened?"
Leo had expected the reaction. Joe was a cop, after all, had been for decades, trained to expect the worst. "I'm sorry, Joey. I didn't know how else to phrase it, but it's the same crap she's been denying for a couple of weeks. She couldn't hide it anymore. It was getting worse, so I forced her to go to the doc."
"Headaches, sleepiness, the tingling — all of it. But here's the pisser, Joey. It's Lyme disease. And that's not the worst of it."
By now, Joe had swung his feet onto the ground and was hunched forward. "What's that mean?"
"He called it Lyme encephalitis. It's gone to her head, and I know that's true, 'cause just today, she started acting really weird."
"Where is she?" Joe asked, hoping to cut through the escalating emotion in his brother's voice.
Leo paused. "I had to put her in the hospital. That's why I'm calling so late."
Joe stood up, still speaking. "Where are you?" "I'm there, too — Mary Hitchcock."
That was the old name of what had become decades earlier the Dartmouth — Hitchcock Medical Center, in Lebanon, New Hampshire, which made it about a seventy-minute drive from Joe's home in Brattleboro, Vermont, near the Massachusetts border.
"Take a breath, Leo," he counseled, locating his shoes by the door. "Have you eaten yet?"
"No." Leo sounded calmer — and grateful.
"Grab a sandwich," Joe said. "I'll be there in forty-five minutes."
It was a late night as well for Dr. Tina Sackman, working at home in Moretown, Vermont, a tiny village bordering the Mad River, near her office at the crime lab in Waterbury.
Vermont had a disproportionately impressive forensic facility, given the state's small size. It was spacious, modern, well equipped, and very professionally staffed. From the old days when an ever-changing rotation of state troopers cycled through the lab, learning the ropes — more or less — before yielding to the next newcomer in line, this modern incarnation, made up entirely of civilian experts in their fields, was a remarkable improvement.
Given, of course, the realities of a largely rural state with little industry, a small budget, a hefty tax burden, and a population of just over a half million.
Which in turn meant that for all its impressive attributes, the lab had a few noticeable gaps. One of them being a freestanding latent prints department.
Excerpted from "Trace"
Copyright © 2017 Archer Mayor.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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