An overworked sheriff and a string of condo burglaries at a luxurious ski resort have Lieutenant Joe Gunther and the newly minted Vermont Bureau of Investigation digging deep for clues. But it doesn't take long for Joe to find the most likely thief missing and 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.
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Archer Mayor is the author of the highly acclaimed Vermont-based series of mystery novels featuring detective Joe Gunther, of which Tag Man was a New York Times bestseller. He is a past winner of the New England Book Award for his body of work, the first time a writer of crime literature has been so honored. He also works as a death investigator, a sheriff's deputy, and a volunteer firefighter and EMT. He lives in Newfane, Vermont.
Baker Street is just a block beyond one of Brattleboro’s more beaten paths — an overlooked extension west of an otherwise busy four-way intersection. The other three streets either lead downtown or to shortcuts to the south side. But Baker falls off a slight embankment, part of a closed loop bordering a large empty field near the Whetstone Brook — out of sight and largely out of mind.
The buildings along it run from decrepit to slightly better, in varying stages. The address Don Matthews had given me was a two-story apartment building, once a home, now cut into four small, dark sections, each one neglected, stagnant, but cheap. The windows were all covered with familiar brittle and tattered plastic wrap, once put up to help stop the freezing air from whistling through the gaps, but left to age through all four seasons, year after year, until its only remaining effectiveness was to proclaim the hopelessness of those barely sheltered behind it.
Willy and I had decided on a quiet approach, parking up the street and coming around the corner on foot. The weather was good — clear, sharp, and cold enough to make your nose hairs tingle — and I didn’t mind the chance, however oddly presented, to be outside and away from the stifling indoor heat most people found comforting during the winter.
We walked down the middle of the street. There was no traffic, and the sidewalks had been left to reemerge in the spring, typical of most of the town’s less stringently tidy neighborhoods.
“Anything we should know about Jorja Duval?” I asked Willy as the house loomed nearer.
“Nothing you couldn’t guess,” he said. “On welfare, on drugs, small history of dealing, tricking, and petty theft. Featured in a few domestics, according to Bratt PD, always as the punching bag. I knew her father back in the old days. Always figured he was banging her, although no charges were ever brought. He’s at St. Albans now on a manslaughter charge. Jorja had a brother, too, but he OD’d about five years ago.”
“How old is she?”
Willy hesitated. “Twenty-five? Maybe younger.”
We drew abreast of the house, took it in quickly with a practiced eye, and then struggled our way up a pathway that had been cleared in the Walter Skottick fashion — not at all.
The peeling front door sported four rusty mailboxes by its side, none of them labeled. There were also no doorbells. I raised an inquiring eye at Willy.
He pointed to the window above us and to the right. “That one,” He said softly, and twisted the doorknob.
The door swung back to reveal a gloomy, barefloored hallway with a set of stairs heading up. The odorous fog that crept out to envelope us was rancid and flavored with mildew and a smell of humanity reminiscent of an overripe diaper pail. Neither one of us reacted, since as working environments went, this was pretty standard fare.
We both paused for a moment, watching and listening, taking nothing for granted, knowing full well that inhabitants of such places were capable of anything.
Hearing nothing, we headed upstairs. There was an extra stillness to the cold air I didn’t like, though, and I could sense Willy felt the same way. He unbuttoned his coat, and removed his gun from its holster.
Walking on the balls of our feet to partially muffle our shoes and the squeaking of old floor boards, we moved to either side of Jorja Duval’s apartment door and paused once again, listening to nothing but our own breathing.
I finally reached out and rapped on the door, looking up and down the hallway as I did so for any movement from the other two apartments on the landing. “Jorja Duval? This is the police. Open up.”
The response was immediate, otherworldly, and psychologically chilling. From inside, we heard a single, high-pitched animal howl, followed by a series of thuds, crashes, and the sound of claws scrabbling across bare wood at high speed. It was as if my knock had unleashed some demonic pin ball that was now smacking off every wall and obstacle inside the apartment.
“What the hell?” I muttered, and grasped the door knob, twisting it slowly.
The door opened and a tabby cat flew out and froze for a split second at the sight of us, its hair on end, before shooting off like a rocket down the stairs. But not before I’d seen that all four of its paws were crusty with dried blood.
“Jesus,” Willy burst out, his hand tight on the gun.
Still recovering from the surprise, I chanced a fast glance around the corner, my own gun out as well. Pulling my head back, I described what I’d seen to Willy. “Short hall, two closed doors opposite each other. Big room beyond. All I could see there were two legs sticking into the middle of a big blood stain, and red paw prints all over the place.”
“We call for backup?” he asked.
I paused, thinking of the eerie stillness I’d noticed earlier. “No time. Ready on three?”
I held up three fingers, one at a time, and the two of us entered the small hallway as one, covering both the distant room and the two closed doors.
The precautions proved unnecessary. The place was empty except for the dead woman in the middle of the floor, lying face up, spread-eagle, with her throat cut wide. The room was dingy, dark, barely furnished, splotched with blood, and seemed far less comfortable than the average coffin.
“This Jorja Duval?” I asked Willy.
He holstered his weapon. “Was.”(Archer Mayor)
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