Bury the Lead: New Excerpt
Bury the Lead by Archer Mayor is the 29th book in the Joe Gunther series, where Gunther and the VBI team are investigating a murder and an arson case―both potentially related to an outbreak of Ebola.
When the body of a young woman is found near a trail at a popular ski mountain, the case falls to Joe Gunther and his team at the Vermont Bureau of Investigation (VBI). They quickly have a suspect, Mick Durocher, and a confession, but not everyone on the team is convinced. Despite Mick’s ready admission, investigators quickly sense there might be more going on than is immediately apparent.
At the same time, a large local business is being targeted with escalating acts of vandalism―a warehouse fire, a vandalized truck, a massive cooling system destroyed―resulting in loss of life. And either by coincidence, or not, Mick Durocher, the self-confessed murderer, was once employed by this very company.
These two puzzling cases―now possibly connected―are further complicated by the sidelining of a key member of VBI, Willy Kunkle, who undergoes surgery at a hospital that appears to be having an unlikely―and suspiciously timed―outbreak of Ebola.
Joe and his team pursue these cases, uncovering motives that might link them, while proving that trust betrayed can be a toxic virus, turning love into murderous loathing. Indeed, behind the mayhem and murder, Joe must uncover a tragic history before another victim dies.
Joe entered the autopsy room unnoticed, stepped to one side of the broad door, and leaned against the wall to watch. The recently deceased Jane Doe he’d followed to Burlington through morning commuter traffic, behind the funeral home’s unmarked minivan, lay inside an unzipped body bag on the nearest of two steel operating tables.
The room was at its standard level of activity for a homicide. Fortunately, Vermont didn’t get too many of these—an average of eleven a year.
But business had just been delivered a pick-me-up.
That’s why he was here. Joe Gunther was head of operations for the state’s independent major case unit, the Vermont Bureau of Investigation, or VBI, which one of his own colleagues had once irreverently labeled “the FBI in barn boots.” Nevertheless, it was responsible for situations like this: a young woman found dead—as someone had quaintly suggested—through “unknown misadventure.”
It was early yet—the body had been discovered by a hiker only this morning in southwestern Vermont, by the side of a trail at the peak of Bromley Mountain, eleven miles northeast of the popular and affluent town of Manchester. But things were already looking ominously elusive, starting with a complete lack of identifiers. She was just a girl, probably in her twenties, clothed in a light sundress and sandals. Appropriate to Vermont’s early summer weather at noon, perhaps, but hardly suitable for a mountainous hiking trail in the dark of night.
Joe continued watching as the medical examiner and her assistant—called a diener in the trade—worked together, the former scrutinizing the body’s hands and collecting its fingernails for later analysis, while the latter separated the body bag from the white sheet on which the young woman was actually resting, placed there at the scene by investigators to keep potential evidence from being lost.
In the meantime, the state trooper assigned as the office’s law enforcement liaison got ready to collect fingerprints, take photos, and eventually gather the clothing for analysis by the forensics lab in Waterbury. Additional personnel in the room consisted of an assistant medical examiner, two medical students on their pathology rotation, and another cop shadowing the trooper to learn the ropes.
They were in the basement of the University of Vermont Medical Center, the state’s largest, also its highly regarded primary teaching facility. There were often extra people at autopsy as a result of this latter role, brushing up on one of medicine’s least appreciated disciplines, but Joe suspected that a young female homicide victim’s appearance on the day’s caseload calendar also played a part.
He, by contrast, largely ignored the distracting bustling. His attention was on the medical examiner—tall, slender, and blond—whose back was currently turned. She was Beverly Hillstrom, the chief ME, Joe’s trusted associate for decades, and—more recently, unexpectedly, and happily—his romantic partner. That development had certainly made all professional visits to this corner of the state much more pleasant.
Todd, the diener, blew Joe’s cover. Looking up from his labors, he delivered a friendly nod and asked, “This one yours?”
Hillstrom turned at the inquiry. Even obscured by plastic glasses and a mask, her eyes betrayed her pleasure. “Joe,” she said. “There’s a treat. I was hoping you’d be tagging along. Typical that you didn’t give me a heads-up.”
“You would’ve worn something more fabulous?” he asked.
Everyone laughed, since they were all garbed in shapeless pale green scrubs, including Joe, who’d changed in the office’s small locker room. In fact, Joe’s comment wasn’t entirely off the mark: Whether by design or oversight, Beverly was wearing an elegant gold necklace, which looked all the more glamorous in this incongruous setting.
He left his spot to stand at the other side of the autopsy table, putting the dead girl between them like an inconsiderate intruder. Neither Joe nor Beverly paid any attention. They’d been in this same place too many times to count.
“You know me,” he explained. “All that cell phone and texting stuff. I prefer to just show up.”
“I do know that,” Beverly said, circling around to let the others prepare things for her turn.
She stood close enough to give him a little bump with her hip. “Good to see you,” she said very softly.
“You, too,” he replied in like style. “It’s been a long four days.”
“You were counting,” she chuckled. “How sweet.”
* * *
They stood studying the case before them, each subconsciously noting telling details as they surfaced, their combined experience in this realm allowing them a seeming insouciance, when in fact they were utterly focused.
Beverly spoke first, as Todd expertly removed the sundress and slipped off the thong underwear beneath it, placing both on an adjoining table—again on a clean sheet—for Beverly to refer to as she worked. Jane Doe was wearing nothing else besides the sandals. “I realize it’s warming up,” Beverly commented, “but that’s not much. Where was she found?”
“Top of Bromley Mountain, beside a combination hiking trail–dirt access road.” He leaned into her slightly before adding, “So you’re right: The clothes are wrong.”
“Any evidence that she was brought there after the fact?”
“Crime lab’s still on-site. It probably is a dump job, but why there, I have no clue. Makes no sense at the moment. It’s in the middle of nowhere, but like I said, near two well-traveled paths.” He shook his head slightly. “That’s one reason I’m keeping her company: I’m hoping you’ll find something I can use.”
They were silent for the few minutes it took Todd and the cops to finish. Then Beverly said, “Well, let’s see what she has to tell us.”
They resumed their places across from each other. The deceased, nude on her back, her shoulder blades supported by a small metal block that made her head tilt back, looked relaxed, uncaring about her audience. Her ink-stained hands lay curled beside her; her eyelids were half closed, ready for sleep. She was slightly built, with shoulder-length fair hair and no piercings, tattoos, or visible scars from random past injuries—or any self-cuttings increasingly common among the young. Her pubic area had been shaved, as was currently trendy.
To Joe’s eyes, so used to such sights, there was an additional detail, one he found slightly disturbing. Studying the girl’s face, he couldn’t but think there was a remaining luminance still in place. It wasn’t anything as bland as beauty, but a lingering radiance. He couldn’t help imagining that she’d been someone others had noticed, and enjoyed keeping their eyes on.
Beverly’s first step consisted of an external physical exam—an inch-by-inch journey down the length of the body, both sides, with multiple pauses to take notes on a pad as she went, noting every scar, mark, scratch, or bruise, regardless of age or size.
Then, scalpel in hand, she paused a moment as usual, looking down, seemingly torn between leaving nature’s handiwork intact and visiting upon it her own meticulous, almost artistic talents. Inevitably, as always, she chose the second, unerringly drawing a V-shaped incision with her blade, from one shoulder down to the sternum, back up to the opposite shoulder. Virtually in the same gesture, she followed with a smooth slice from the sternal notch down to the pubis. It was soundless, effortless, and graceful—and because of the utter lack of flowing blood—seemed curiously benign. Indeed, in response, even Jane Doe appeared to slacken overall, one final bit, suggesting that she and Beverly had somehow conspired to finalize her release.
Beverly next reached into the incision with her fingers, and, while severing connective tissue with her blade as she went, lifted away each half of the outer torso—as if delicately opening the sides of a zippered sweatshirt—folding the diminutive breasts facedown on the table near the armpits and fully exposing the body’s glistening pink rib cage.
This was always an autopsy’s watershed moment for Joe, marking the divide between seeing a fellow human as someone’s recently lost companion or child and simply discovering—piece by piece—what had once made it function.
Beverly’s technique helped the illusion. She was gentle, soft-spoken, almost soothing, while she probed, cut, removed, and weighed organs, lending credence to the notion that she was more disassembling a complex and visceral puzzle than carving into a once-sentient creature.
She wrote down her findings as she went, or in this case, the lack of them, as she cataloged her way down the interconnected complex of body parts that nestle inside us all. One by one, the heart, lungs, major vessels, stomach, liver, and the rest were removed, placed on the scale, transferred to the dissection table, sliced open, and scrutinized. Periodically, per protocol, samples were collected and preserved in small, formalin-filled containers. They would be kept on file, in lieu of the body itself, in case further study was needed down the line. These were all medicolegal examinations, after all, open to court-sanctioned challenges and/or inquiries that no one could imagine right now.
Indeed, at the moment, Jane Doe was completely unknown to them, making this—on a forensic level—the ultimate blind date, with both parties shy and inarticulate.
Along those lines, Hillstrom hesitated after shifting from the exposed lower body to her patient’s head and moving the metal block farther up accordingly. There, her masked face hovering over the dead girl’s like a mother checking for a fever, she touched the cold, still forehead with her gloved fingertips, and observed, “She must be almost exactly Rachel’s age.”
Joe was surprised and moved by the comment. Rachel was the younger of Beverly’s two daughters—unmarried, fresh from college, looking for a job. Joe had no children, although he’d aspired to as a young married man, long ago, while a rookie cop in Brattleboro, in Vermont’s southeastern corner.
His wife had been taken by cancer, however, along with such hopes of normalcy. Life had progressed. There’d been other women, offering opportunities of fatherhood. But he’d never taken them; never even discussed the matter. That option died with the only woman he’d married.
Recalling his own appreciation of the dead girl’s appearance, he looked at her anew, after Beverly had moved past her fleeting maternal gesture to the jarring contrast of peeling the body’s scalp down over its face and removing the skullcap beneath. Joe’s eyes drifted to the half-opened hands, thinking of all this young woman might have aspired to shape with them—the interrupted sculptor of her own destiny—and he suddenly experienced the pathos of this sterile setting as he rarely did anymore.
Cops, EMTs, medical examiners, and firefighters aren’t so unfeeling as they’re often portrayed by actors. Nor are they masking tormented inner souls that are raging against cruelty and injustice, as in other equally commonplace clichés. The middle ground of reality is more mundane than that. For the most part, they’re simply overexposed to what the uninitiated refer to as the horrors of humanity. Like hunting dogs inured to the sound of steady gunfire, they tend to experience these moments on a practical level. It may be a defense mechanism, but more likely, it’s just part of the job.
Which made the upswell of Joe’s emotion startling and a little unnerving.
“Are you all right?” Beverly asked him.
He blinked at her unusually subdued tone and looked up, his eyebrows raised. “What?”
“I was wondering where you went. You seemed to have drifted off.”
He glanced around to see if she’d been the only one to notice what must have been a more extended mental absence than he’d imagined. “Sorry,” he said, sparing her the real explanation. “I was reviewing the case in my head.” He indicated the exposed brain with a toss of his chin. “You find anything?”
Beverly’s voice became businesslike again. She nimbly lifted out the brain after severing the spinal cord. “Serious impact trauma. Enough to have fractured the posterior of the skull.” She pointed out the cracks with her pen. “In itself, evidence of either a fall or a blow.” She switched their attention to the brain in her hand. “But as you can see from the lack of any contrecoup injury to the anterior—otherwise typical in a fall—I’ll be ruling this a homicide, not that you’re surprised by that.”
He slid over beside her to observe the damage to bone and tissue she’d discovered, confirming the implication that their girl had been lethally struck from behind.
“A bat?” he asked.
She gave him a warning look. “You know me better than that. I will say the injury’s consistent with a bat. And you should see this.”
She led him back to the dissection table, which was serving as a generalized storage area for the collected samples. “I extracted bile, vitreous, pericardial, and cerebrospinal fluids as I went,” she explained. “As well, I always throw in a test for human chorionic gonadotropin, or hCG. It was positive across the board, which confirms what I found physically.”
“Okay,” he said patiently, preparing for the punch line. For all her scientific and objective posing, Beverly was not beyond the occasional flourish.
“She was pregnant,” she concluded. “Very early on, judging from the uterus, but undoubtedly.”
“Can you get the fetus’s DNA?” he asked.
Copyright © 2018 Archer Mayor.