“Crosscut”: New Excerpt

"Crosscut"

Archer Mayor

Joe Gunther Short Story

July 23, 2019

“Crosscut” is the very first short story from Archer Mayor’s much-loved Joe Gunther series.

Going into the previously unexplored history of VBI Detective Sammie Martens, Archer Mayor reveals the story of how Sammie first met Joe Gunther and Willie Kunkel.

Sammie Martens, raised by a single mother in a chaotic household, returns home after leaving the Army only to have her mother’s current boyfriend kick her out of the house. When her mother is arrested the next day on a charge of armed robbery, Sammie is convinced her mother’s boyfriend set it up and is now up to no good. Warned to stay away by the seemingly uninterested police, Sammie does exactly the opposite and starts her own investigation.

Excerpt

Sammie Martens steadied her hands by clenching the steering wheel before her.

“Breathe,” she told herself softly.

But her body wasn’t cooperating. Her knuckles stayed white, her heart kept hammering, and her face remained flushed.

She tried looking outside, at the dimly lit street lined with old New England tenements designed for workers a hundred years earlier and barely maintained or improved since. The scene’s gloominess was only enhanced by a blanketing of two-week-old snow, now soiled, trampled, and compacted into a hostile, slippery, ice-coated shell. The similarities between that image and how she was feeling did little to lift her spirits.

She started the car, if just to get the heater working in under fifteen minutes. Piece of crap. Almost four years of military service, constantly fighting the combination of a boys’ club mentality and her own compulsive drive to succeed, and here she was, sitting in the cold in a rusted-out, fourth-hand Subaru—Vermont’s version of an official state vehicle—right back where she’d begun.

Her gaze shifted to the building she’d left moments ago and the second-floor windows of her mother’s apartment, blanked out by dirty, yellow, translucent shades. What was it about the woman, that she would commit the same mistake again and again? Sam’s own father had been one of them, the memory of him almost lost to time. Sam recalled the raspy beard, the rheumy eyes, the breath that smelled of beer. He’d been a happy drunk at least. As much as she could recall.

At least he hadn’t looked at her the way a man does whose appetite needs a refill. Those guys had come later, among the long line of surrogates who’d replaced him in her mother’s bed.

She unclenched her fingers at last, brought her hands to her face, and rubbed her eyes wearily.

They’d had a fight, of course, she and her mother, Hell-on-Wheels Helen. About Don, or Duke, or maybe it was Doug. Whoever. The latest one, in any case. It was Doug, of course. She had to admit she knew that much about him, whether she chose to or not. Helen had broken the news that Doug didn’t want Sammie living with them—with him standing right behind her in near-catatonic silence, staring menacingly. He was paying half the rent, supposedly, so even though Sam’s one room was at the end of the hall, nearest the door, and she was rarely in residence anyhow, Helen had caved to his demand. So much for Hell-on-Wheels.

Sam suspected it was because he didn’t want witnesses to what he was up to, whatever it was.

All her life, Sam had made a study of her mother. There had always been only the two of them, not counting the string of men passing through. Monitoring Helen like a science experiment had supplied Sam with a survivalist’s distance from reality. The fights, the drunk fests, the noises emanating from the bedroom—amorous and far less so—had become data. Through it all, the burgeoning girl had learned to read the older woman’s expressions and body language. Sam had become a handicapper of sorts: This guy was a beater and would soon tire of his routine. This other was a user, and Sam’s mom would eventually wipe him away like a spill. By analyzing each one, Sam bought herself emotional space, while protecting herself from the vortex of Helen’s attending depressions, complete with criticisms, accusations, and name-calling.

Like an air traffic controller watching planes crash on radar, these blips in Sammie’s life were thus rendered more remote—less personally destructive to her than if she’d emulated her mother and allowed them past her defenses.

Not one of them had ever worked to have her ejected from her own home, though. Creepy Doug was the first.

And his timing… Sammie had returned yesterday night—admittedly a week ahead of schedule and by surprise—and yet here she was, only twenty-four hours later. A homecoming welcome it was not.

Faced with that, without acknowledging him with word or glance, Sam had turned on her heel, collected her belongings, and left.

She blew out a thin stream of air, briefly fogging the windshield. The heater was actually beginning to work, and so was her own self-therapy.

Honestly? What did she have to complain about? This eviction notwithstanding, she’d never been assaulted by any of Doug’s ilk. Ogled, sure. Occasionally touched or inappropriately hugged. She had friends who’d consider such encounters mere speed bumps.

And she wasn’t a kid, anymore. She was a goddamned veteran, for Christ’s sake. With advanced training and combat experience, no less. She’d fired in anger, and watched fellow soldiers get hit by bullets and explosives. She should be living on her own.

How the hell would she view an adult daughter still living with her mother, were she a man on the prowl for a pair of open arms and a cheap roof over his head? Could she actually fault Doug for wanting a wide field of play?

And who was Sam to judge Helen anyhow? Had Sammie done any better, moving from one boyfriend to another, starting at the ripe age of fifteen, treating sex as casually as hand-holding?

She ran her fingers through her short blonde hair, twisting her neck as if ridding herself of a crick, catching sight of her large duffle bag stretched out on the rear seat.

Time to get practical.

* * *

Brattleboro in the nineteen nineties was a town finding its footing. Vermont’s seventh most populous city, it still laid claim to fewer than twelve thousand people. But it was also a hub community in the state’s southeast corner, meaning very close to Massachusetts, and stretched along the first three exits of the interstate, which flatlanders had driven since the sixties to ski, peer at fall foliage, fawn over cows, and occasionally sell drugs.

But being that the internet and mobile phones and the world they promised were only just starting to spread like a tar pool, with Vermont at its outermost reach, Bratt, as locals called it, was at once traditionally rooted and scratching its head in wonder. Whatever the future might bring—even among growing rumors that the Y2K threat would cripple everything anyhow—the town and its politically active denizens knew they’d have to be receptive, while being mostly clueless about what to expect.

They’d been there before. Created prior to the Revolutionary War, Bratt had seen boom and bust and weathered it all, even maintaining an appearance that spoke strongly of its New World antiquity. As with its slow and measured acceptance of modernity, so had it resisted earlier architectural temptations to revamp, renew, or reinvent itself. Most of the stolid buildings that defined Main Street had been constructed following a cleansing downtown fire in the late 1800s.

The small city that Sammie was now driving through, late at night, wouldn’t have totally flummoxed a horse-drawn carriage driver, freshly returned from World War I France.

That all suited Sam. Despite her present troubles with Helen, she’d missed this place while in the military. A childhood of frustration, anger, confusion, and want notwithstanding, she’d never blamed those emotions on her environs. In fact, the town had been where she’d escaped during stress at home, traveling the hills and gullies and stream beds and neighborhoods like a Huck Finn on the river, replacing her home tensions with discoveries of new people and places.

Just as she’d managed living with her mother by employing a quasi-scientific process, so had she turned Brattleboro into an arena of higher learning. And now, despite any initial stumbling, she’d come home to find a job and get on with life.

* * *

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She didn’t own a mobile phone and doubted they worked up here anyhow, and she didn’t want to abandon the hard-won warmth of her car to pull over and use a payphone. Instead, stimulated by the resolve she was using to eclipse the anxiety Helen had introduced, she drove directly to Mick’s.

She knew this had its perils. Her mother’s taste in men, she acknowledged, might have had a genetic component—not to mention that she and Mick hadn’t seen each other in months.

Perhaps influenced by this last thought, she left her duffel in the car as she negotiated the dubiously constructed and minimally maintained outdoor staircase of Mick’s apartment building, eventually knocking on his door.

It opened to reveal a handsome, long-haired man with tattoos peering from over the top of his black T-shirt.

“Hey, Mick,” she greeted him.

He shook his head. “You stupid bitch.”

“Hi to you, too.” She leaned forward as if to enter, perhaps only reacting to the warmth spilling out of the apartment behind him.

But either way, he extended his hand and placed it against her chest. “Oh, no you don’t.”

Her response was pure instinct, on the face of it. But instinct can be monitored and controlled, especially by the well-trained. And Sam was nothing if not that. Faster than either one of them could see it, her hand snatched up his wrist, twisted it, and used it as a fulcrum to force him to his knees before her, all in a single motion.

His face contorted with pain. “Fuck, Sam. What the hell?”

She bent at the waist, keeping hold of him and putting her face inches from his. “It’s been a bad night, Mick. You got someone in the sack, that’s cool. Just say it. Don’t pretend you’re all macho when you’re not.”

“Someone is here,” he admitted plaintively. “I’m sorry. You coulda let me know you were back. It’s not like we’re married.”

She released him and stepped back. “No, but we used to be civil. That’s a big thing to me right now.”

* * *

Home that night ended up being the motel near the interstate’s exit 1, sandwiched between Brattleboro’s ambulance service and a large grocery store. This was the so-called poor section of town, housing the hospital, the high school, and a long stretch of ramshackle buildings sprinkled along the streets and up the hillsides, packed with tenants often living hand-to-mouth. It was not only a neighborhood with which Sam was well acquainted, but it included the very building block from which her mother and Doug had turned her out.

In part because of all that, Sam began the next morning by reconnecting with familiar landmarks and some of the people inhabiting them, driving and walking around, beginning a homecoming she’d expected upon knocking on Helen’s door—and to a lesser extent Mick’s—but which she now realized would have to be of her own making.

Slowly, Sam Martens was catching up to an evolution featuring her in a new role of emerging adult, free of the sometimes paradoxical cocoons of both family and military. Abrupt and unpleasant in its genesis, a simple night’s sleep—not to mention the intervening four years of hardening and independence—had sufficed if not to quell the pain of betrayal, then at least to relegate it to something she could manage through her own resources.

As she progressed through the day, reestablishing contacts and inquiring about a place to rent and what jobs might be available, she even came to see her mother’s catering to Doug’s hostility as something obliquely beneficial.

So it came as somewhat of a shocking reversal when one of her old friends, walking up to her as she enjoyed a cup of coffee with three others, gave her a quick hug and announced, “I don’t know if you heard, Sam, but your mom’s just been arrested.”

* * *

Copyright © 2019 Archer Mayor.

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