Fall Guy by Archer Mayor: Featured Excerpt
By Crime HQAugust 9, 2022
Joe Gunther crested the hill overlooking a small cluster of flashing, multihued vehicles below. They made him think of a swarm of fireflies, settled untidily by the side of the road, but in fact were a group of cruisers and unmarked cars much like his own. They appeared randomly scattered, as if abruptly stopped by a startling event.
They had in fact been summoned here, in the looming twilight of a fading Vermont winter day, as they often were by mishap or catastrophe, to sort through another mess left in humanity’s wake. Their common dismissal of parking protocols was due mostly to this road having been closed to traffic. But, beneath it, Joe recognized a fondness for flouting convention, perhaps because police officers were so often called upon to enforce it. Cops could be rebels that way: trained to the rule of law, obedient to procedure, policy, and authority, they are also drawn by the occupation’s spontaneity, adrenaline, and the rewards it offers creative thinkers.
Anyone can mentally retire while still on the job and merely put in the hours. Police officers are no different. But veteran investigators tend to rise to a higher calling. They are the profession’s theorists, and when placed among the right peers, the best of them can be almost termed artists.
Joe was such a man, a veteran of decades of police work, and he was about to join a group of colleagues honed by experience to the same edge. He was the field force commander of the Vermont Bureau of Investigation, and they were all about to lay open the inner workings of an untimely death.
* * *
It was late winter—cold, harboring decaying, crunchy snow, and punctuated by surrounding bare-armed trees, their dark branches upthrust in surrender or supplication. It was getting warmer—slightly—the days longer, the lakes melting from their edges, and snowfall more frequently turning to rain. Winter was dying, for which Joe was grateful. He liked New England’s seasons, had known them all his life, and cherished living where, for six months at least, nature could be lethal. But it was the variety that gave the place life, and everyone he knew was ready for the coming spring, especially now that the annual maple sugarers were done collecting their product.
Everyone apart from the person responsible for their spontaneous gathering, who presumably no longer cared.
Joe rolled to a stop by the side of the road, the only vehicle not using his strobes.
A man, narrow, intense, unsmiling, approached with watchful eyes. His lame left arm was pinned to his side by its hand being tucked into his Tyvek suit’s pocket. This was Willy Kunkle, one of Joe’s small special unit, whose injury had been incurred years earlier in a shoot-out, but whose natural talent—and Joe’s influence—had kept him employed.
“Hey, boss,” he said in greeting, his accent betraying a hint of his New York City roots. He opened Joe’s door and stood back to let the older man out.
Joe looked at him inquiringly as he straightened and stamped his feet.
Willy answered the unstated question. “It’s a clusterfuck. We’re gonna earn our pay with this one.”
Joe nodded, looking around. “Who else is here?”
“Who isn’t?” Kunkle counted off. “We got state police, sheriff deputies, our crew, the ME’s office is responding, EMS just left, and the local fire department is working the detour. We’re only missing the town constable. Even the wrecker showed up early to rubberneck.” He gestured toward a shallow ravine running between the woods and the hard-packed dirt road. “But that wasn’t what you meant, I know. Sam’s down there. Lester’s wrapping up a case at the office. Should be here soon.”
Sam was Samantha Martens, another squad member and the mother of Willy’s child, Emma. Lester Spinney was the last of the VBI’s southeast regional team—one of the agency’s smallest despite its caseload, which was not something this tight-knit group wanted to change. They’d become family over time and preferred no outside meddling.
As he pulled on the type of white coveralls everyone else was already wearing, Joe indicated the roof of the abandoned car he could see from this angle. “Looks fancier than your average used pickup.”
“By about a hundred grand,” Willy agreed. “Mercedes four-door. Crap car, in my opinion. All flash for a lotta cash. You could do as well with a GM. Course, that’s just me. It’s registered in New Hampshire and was reported stolen five days ago.”
Joe was beginning to grasp his colleague’s point about complications. “Therefore not belonging to the dead man I was told was inside?” he asked doubtfully.
“You wish. Let’s just say the word inside is a matter of interpretation. He’s in the trunk, which they made way too small, natch.”
“Stolen five days ago?” Joe asked. “No one traced its GPS? They should’ve found it within hours.”
Willy hitched one shoulder. “Beats me. Supposedly, they tried but got no signal. Who knows?”
* * *
Felony crime scene reconstructions tend to be oddly leisurely paced affairs. Perimeter and access avenues are established and roped off, vehicles come and go on assorted tasks, tents are set up, specialist teams delicately work around one another like dancers of a minuet, and quiet conversations occur in small clusters, with hands curled cupped around paper cardboard cups of hot coffee. In some instances, as here, the natural daylight gradually yields to a spindly forest of powerful LED lamps, a growling thrumming of generators adding to the already running car engines.
Thousands of images are taken throughout, by patrol officers, investigators, medical examiners, and a special crew manning a FARO 3D digital camera designed to preserve the whole scene as a form of hologram—this to be available long after the surrounding reality has been dispatched to the morgue, the wrecker’s yard, or fed into VBI computers for analysis, consolidation, and distribution.
At some point, state crime lab investigators arrive in a large truck and collect, bag, and inventory anything from cars to computers to footprints and finger smudges. Collectively named the CSST, or Crime Scene Search Team, they catalog and store bag after bag until, finally—many hours later—the ant-like activity slows and dissipates, the cruisers, vans, tow trucks, and SUVs thin out, and at last, the reopened road and surrounding bare trees get to witness once more the gentle creaking of cold branches in the quiet breeze, and the rare passage of a car whose driver has no idea of the theatrics preceding his appearance.
Having arrived long before that end point, indeed at the height of the activity, Joe stepped off the road and gingerly worked his way downslope, following one of the staked-out avenues to the rear of the thoroughly stuck four-door sedan. He ended up beside a slightly built but wiry, intense young woman who was aiming her camera at the interior of the car’s trunk.
“Hey,” he greeted her quietly.
“Hey back,” Sammie Martens replied, still shooting.
“We have an ID yet?”
“Course not. Can’t be that easy.” She lowered the camera to study the curled-up body before them, nestled like a sleeping stowaway resting on his side, one hand tucked under his cheek.
“The ME hasn’t moved him yet,” she added. “He might have a wallet.”
“Despite your having already checked.”
She cast him a look. “That would be a breach of protocol, boss. You know I’d never do that.”
Her voice lost its hint of playfulness as she indicated the young man’s blue-jeaned hip. “I’m betting it’s gone. You can see the faded outline of a billfold in his back pocket. He was probably relieved of it before getting shoved in here.”
“To steal his documents and money or to hide his identity?” Joe asked.
“Questions to be answered, for sure.”
“When you weren’t checking for an ID, did you also not notice how he might’ve died?”
Sam tapped the side of her head. “Don’t know what’s going on under his clothes, but he caught something hard with his temple. It looks ugly enough to be fatal.”
“We know who the car belongs to yet?”
“One Lemuel Shaw,” she offered. “If you can believe that. I hope for his sake he has a nickname.”
“Old New England moniker,” Joe said. “Where from?”
“Gilsum, New Hampshire, between Keene and Marlow,” she told him. “On Route 10. If the car’s any sign, I’d say Mr. Shaw eats high on the hog.”
“How do you know this isn’t Mr. Shaw?”
“Wild guess? There’s about a fifty-year age difference, according to Shaw’s DMV photo.”
“Willy doesn’t think much of the car. I overheard somebody say it looked like a teenager’s bedroom.”
Sam led him to one of the rear doors, open to reveal a lightly stained and dirty back seat. “Most of what was in here’s been removed for inventorying, but you can still see how it was all just tossed in. There wasn’t room for our friend, even if that had been an option.”
“So what’s your theory?”
She answered immediately. “I don’t think it was moving day. It all amounted to easy-to-carry tech toys, booze, silverware, and a piece or two of jewelry. And money, just thrown in. A real jumble.”
“A magpie nest,” Joe surmised.
She nodded. “But is our dead man the magpie?”
“And who were the drivers?”
“Drivers?” she asked, before catching herself. “Right. Dumb. The one who drove here and the one who picked him up after.”
Joe made light of it. “He could’ve driven a corpse here and then stuck his thumb out to hitch a ride. Not a stretch, considering some of the people we’ve arrested.”
Sam accepted his kindness. “True, but unlikely.”
“How ’bout foot- or tire prints?” Joe asked, moving on.
“Yes on the first, cast and photographed, not that I’m putting much faith in them. Negative on the tire marks. The first responders didn’t totally destroy the scene before they left, but the road still had nothing to tell us. CSST did a complete exterior sweep; they have yet to do the car’s inside, just so you know. They’re waiting till they get better lighting and more heat. And they haven’t grabbed the electronic black box.”
“Speaking of which,” Joe said, “Willy told me nobody got a fix on the GPS after it was reported stolen. What’s that about?”
“I was told they got no joy. Maybe something short-circuited the unit.”
“How many times did they try?”
“Beats me,” she replied. “Nor do I know which agency was asked.”
A waving flashlight beam caught their attention. Willy was above them, signaling from the edge of the road. “Got something interesting up here.”
“Maybe the driver did stick his thumb out and got run over,” Sam commented.
“We could never be so lucky,” Joe replied, joining her in the steep but short climb back up.
On top, Willy indicated the open rear doors of the CSST truck, whose glaring interior was equipped in part like a mobile office, complete with stools and workbenches.
“Jim found something you’ll love,” Willy added, his tone thick with irony.
Jim Collins was the CSST leader, whom they found seated near the front after clambering into the truck. He was situated before a rectangular container with a glass viewing window cut into its top and two holes into which he’d thrust his hands to work on something inside.
“Joe, good to see you. Sorry I can’t greet you formally.” He nodded toward the box holding his hands. They knew what he was doing. Standard search protocol regarding electronics dictated that officers first and foremost protect all phones, tablets, and computers from possible self-destruct signals sent remotely by their owners. They do this by using so-called Faraday pouches, designed to shield devices from outside impulses until they can be delivered to the lab. However—given the unlikely yet fortunate circumstance of a computer lab readily available by the side of the road at night, complete with an even larger, full-fledged Faraday box—an initial quick peek was too hard to resist.
“There were only six phones recovered from the car,” Jim was saying, “so I thought, what the hell, right? This being the only one without encryption, why not take a look? You might be glad I did.”
Joe peered over the top of the man’s Tyvek-hooded head to look into the lighted box. The hand holes Jim had used for his hands were fitted with gray metallic gloves inside, making the box’s interior as secure in its way as a miniature biohazard vacuum room, and Joe could admire how Collins’s fingers were expertly manipulating the phone’s controls to reveal its contents.
“Kiddie porn,” Jim explained, scrolling through images of pale, hairless, exposed young flesh. “Found it in an email where the sender said that if the recipient likes what he sees, there’s more available, quote-unquote, the usual way.”
Joe straightened, sadly not surprised. “Swell,” he said darkly. “Just what we needed.”
Blessedly, Vermont was no hotbed of child abuse, but it had enough of its share to make these images depressingly familiar.
Willy was standing within earshot. “It might be. Jim says the phone’s also from New Hampshire. All this—the car, the body, the contents—is looking more and more like a dump job, although there’s no saying the guy in the trunk wasn’t killed over here.”
Joe turned toward him. “Keep going.”
Willy indicated the Faraday box. “That email could legally give us cross-border access to New Hampshire. Underage porn is a federal rap, and those photos are date-stamped recently enough to maybe make them an ongoing crime, not to mention the peer-to-peer implications of the text, which point to trafficking. We could use all that to mother-may-I the AG’s office and get the ICAC task force activated. Keep us involved, regardless of jurisdiction.”
Collins spoke without looking up. “If you do cross the river, Fred Houston’s your man—he’s ICAC out of Cheshire County and a federal task force officer, to boot. Incredible resource. Nice guy, too.”
Joe listened without responding, processing Willy’s suggestion. ICAC stood for Internet Crimes Against Children, the umbrella organization representing dozens of task forces across thousands of police agencies nationwide, all aimed at interdicting and prosecuting the offenses advertised in its name.
Meeting this form of criminal activity on its own terms, ICAC overrides the usual limited local jurisdictional reach by creating units trained by Homeland Security, armed with federal laws, that travel where they’re needed.
There’s little regional pushback. Local cops are more than happy to have ICAC task force officers—also called TFOs—take these often costly, always technical, and certainly viscerally unpleasant cases away.
What Willy had suggested, however, went beyond handing over the sex crime aspect of this investigation to ICAC. Joe, Lester, Willy, and Sam had received special training several years ago and were themselves certified as TFOs, qualified to interact with Homeland Security not only in internet child sex offenses, but drug investigations and other crimes as well.
Given the disparate layers they were already facing here—a hot car from New Hampshire full of stolen electronics, some of it containing pedophilia, and equipped with a dead body—the option of maintaining jurisdictional control was very appealing.
“It’s not like we get to play our TFO card very often,” he said softly.
* * *
“The ME’s here,” a trooper called into the truck’s interior. “Wants to know if she can have at the body.”
Joe turned, smiling broadly. “The ME herself? The chief?”
“I didn’t ask for her ID, but yeah,” was the answer.
Joe was delighted. That meant Beverly Hillstrom had made the trip from Burlington to Rockingham township in person, to support her local investigator. This was a rarity, and only seen in major cases. There were but two forensic pathologists for the entire state, and they usually stayed put to conduct the hundreds of autopsies called for every year. A trip across the state by one of them happened once or twice a year, at best.
None of which had anything to do with Joe’s reaction. Beverly also happened to be his romantic other half, whom he got to see once a week if each of their schedules allowed it. He suspected her arrival tonight had less to do with the importance of the case and more with their not having seen each other in a fortnight.
Willy, unknown for his subtlety, laughed, stood back, and ordered everyone in the truck, “Make a hole. Special Agent Gunther needs to show proper respect.”
Sammie scowled at her partner and said, “You are such a dork,” as Gunther made his way toward the exit, unconcerned, already used to Kunkle referring to the chief medical examiner as Joe’s “special friend.”
He returned to the ditch-bound car to find the scene considerably altered. Now that the search team had finished with the vehicle’s exterior, a tarp had been laid out at the edge of the trunk, lights repositioned, and a half dozen people summoned for the body’s extraction and examination.
Beverly, tall, athletic, her fair hair tied back, gave Joe the smallest of half smiles as he came into view, not an expression she universally wore. Her decades-long renown for following procedure, bordering on severity, preceded her within the ranks. You minded your step around Hillstrom.
Not breaching that aura, Joe merely sidled up beside her, barely bumped her with his hip, and softly said, “Very sneaky, Doctor. You going to claim this as a happy coincidence?”
She kept watching the proceedings and replied in kind. “Not in the slightest, Agent Gunther. I have spies documenting your every move.”
The body, stiffened by time and low temperature, was awkwardly removed like a life-sized mannequin and placed onto the tarp. Beverly stepped closer, but let her local investigator actually disrobe and study the remains, section by section, alongside one of the search techs. Sammie Martens, befitting her driven personality, eavesdropped on their comments, asking questions as they went.
By the time the body had been almost stripped nude, Joe asked Beverly, “We were thinking a blow to the head. You agree?”
Reflective of her scientific approach, she responded cautiously, “I agree that’s what we can see, and it appears to be a fracture, but who knows what’s going on inside? The autopsy will tell us more in a few hours, and I’ll rush the toxicology. I overheard someone saying you’d found child pornography among the contents of the car?”
“Unfortunately,” he admitted.
“There’s barely any blood in the trunk,” Lester Spinney announced generally, having joined them unobtrusively ten minutes earlier. The only member of Joe’s small unit not dating back to the Brattleboro Police Department days the rest of them had in common, Lester was an ex–state trooper, once a member of their Bureau of Criminal Investigation. Lofty, alarmingly skinny, and with a disarming manner, he was Joe’s dependable Everyman—steady, constant, hardworking. He was a family man with a son in law enforcement, a daughter in college, and a wife who worked as a nurse.
“Anything else?” Joe asked from the other side of the tarp.
Spinney’s lanky body was half-consumed by the trunk. He was holding a flashlight. “Not visibly,” he reported in a muffled voice.
Jim Collins appeared and motioned to one of his folks to ease Lester out of the way—a telling sign of the continual if subtle competition between agencies.
Joe spoke to Beverly again. “The theory is that the car was abandoned here after crossing over from New Hampshire, where it was stolen a week ago. Now it looks like the body was dumped, too, having been killed elsewhere and transported here. That sound reasonable?”
She agreed. “Based on the wound and the little blood Lester just mentioned, yes.” She raised her voice slightly so her own investigator could hear. “Ted, you’ve ruled out as best you can that the damage to the temple didn’t come from a bullet or some other penetrating object?”
Ted looked up quickly over his shoulder. “It looks like more of a crushing blow, spread out and spongy. I can’t see an actual hole. Course, there might be one. Hard to tell here and now.”
“Still nothing identifying him?” Joe asked Sam.
As she shook her head in response, Jim Collins said, “I wouldn’t mind running a little experiment that might help.” He held up a zippered back pouch, adding, “This is on loan from a sales rep. It’s supposed to lift electronic fingerprints and make ’em readable for comparison with what we’ve got on file, in state. I have to relay the image through the truck’s computer, but it should be quick enough.”
“Give it a shot,” Joe encouraged him.
“Just like Ducky,” someone cracked, referring to the pathologist on the TV show NCIS.
* * *
By the time Collins returned from completing his test, the body had been tagged and bagged and was being wrestled up the slope for transportation by a local funeral home for an autopsy by Beverly later on.
“Any luck?” Joe asked, meeting him by the roadside.
Collins pointed at the black body bag on the gurney, trundling toward the hearse. “Joe Gunther? Meet Don Kalfus.”
Everyone within earshot looked at him.
“Really?” Joe replied. “You got a hit?”
“Complete with photo printout.” The CSST leader handed over a recognizable printout of a mug shot, lifted off the truck’s onboard computer. “A native son with a rap sheet featuring burglaries and car thefts in both New Hampshire and Vermont. Looks like he has family in Brattleboro. Perfect fit.”
“Any sex crimes?” Willy asked.
“Not known to us. Don’t know what might be lurking beyond a records search. The phone we looked at wasn’t registered to him, not that that means much.”
“Who does it belong to?” Lester asked.
“Lisa Rowell, Keene address.”
“Unless it’s like a boy named Sue,” a voice said from beyond the light.
Female child porn peddlers were known to account for only 2 percent of the offending population.
“I’d bet Lisa’s being screwed by her boyfriend,” Willy cracked. “In more ways than one.”
“We’ll find out soon enough,” Joe told him, “after we disturb a few people tonight to get our paperwork rolling.”
“Hot damn,” Willy reacted.
Joe took advantage of this commingling of senior people, including his own squad, to address them all. “Without wanting to sound dramatic, I’d like everyone to consider this a red ball situation. Above and beyond the unexplained presence of Mr. Kalfus in Mr. Shaw’s purportedly stolen Mercedes, we’ve got Lisa Rowell’s phone with what appear to be recent photos of at least one child being exploited. I don’t have to tell you how important it is that we draw a line under that last item as fast as we can. Willy and Jim both mentioned invoking ICAC and Homeland Security’s TFO program so we can maintain control of all parts of this mess, regardless of what state border might lie in the way. I think that’s a great idea and worth making a few people grumpy to make it happen.”
He glanced at Collins to ask, “Did you get any information on the car owner beyond his name?”
Collins opened a file he was holding and produced another photo, this one from the New Hampshire DMV website. “I did a criminal check, but no luck aside from an old DUI and a couple of speeding tickets. He might just be a victim, pure and simple.”
A snort from Willy reflected what he thought of that phrase. As a combat vet, a retired sniper, a recovering alcoholic, and a survivor of personal violence, he considered his skepticism of all things human hard-earned and richly deserved.
Perhaps cued by the reaction, Joe turned to him and requested, “Could you call Ron Klecszewski and tell him about the late Don Kalfus? What with their past warrants, Brattleboro PD obviously has a dog in this fight. Ask him if we could use their sally port so Jim and his folks can finish processing the inside of Shaw’s car in more comfort, along with a corner of their office we can use for the rest of the night.”
“Déjà vu all over again,” Willy said, extracting his phone and stepping away. Ron Klecszewski was the lieutenant heading the department’s detective squad—the same position and office that Joe used to have when Ron, Willy, and Sam were cutting their teeth in younger days.
“Does that work for you, Jim?” Joe asked his colleague. “Moving the car to Bratt to finish your examination?”
“And download its infotainment system,” Collins replied. “If it’s rigged the way I think it is, that’ll tell us everywhere the car’s been since leaving Shaw’s dooryard, along with everything its driver did—from where he went, when he did it, how many times he opened and closed his doors, and what calls he might’ve made using the car’s Wi-Fi uplink. You name it. For that matter, in case he doesn’t have receipts, we should be able to figure out where and when he gassed up so you can find those stations and get video footage.”
“I heard the GPS wasn’t working, which is why it took a passing motorist to call this in.”
Collins was puzzled. “It worked a few minutes ago. I activated it to check. Whoever tried the day it vanished probably hit a glitch and gave up. Wouldn’t be the first time.”
“Okay,” Joe said, moving on. He caught Lester’s attention and suggested, “We need a bunch more background on these names, not to mention whatever new ones crop up after processing the other smartphones. You might as well start with fusion background checks, but get hold of NESPIN, too. They’ve created a pawnshop database, which might be perfect for finding out where Kalfus was hawking his ill-gotten wares.”
NESPIN was the New England State Police Information Network, serving Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont.
“Got it,” Lester replied.
“Sam,” Joe continued, “could you coordinate all this with everybody here and make sure no one’s left hanging or in doubt about what to do? I’ll call the AG’s office and get Tausha Greenblott to disturb her Homeland Security counterpart at home so we can get the thumbs-up for a task force. She can do the same to the Vermont ICAC commander and get him to alert his New Hampshire equivalent that we’ll be showing up.”
He asked Collins, “What was the name of the ICAC guy you mentioned?”
“Fred Houston. He’s badged out of the Cheshire County Sheriff’s Office but is plugged into everybody and anybody across the state. Say what you will about New Hampshire, their ICAC setup is sharp and really well coordinated.”
Joe nodded once. “Okay. That’s it. We all know more or less what to do. Any questions, Sam’s your go-to person for the night. Sorry about the midnight oil. I hope you all drink coffee and that you got a good night’s sleep twenty-four hours ago, ’cause it ain’t gonna happen tonight.”
Joe took Beverly’s elbow as he saw her split away to walk to her car, on the edge of what had become a ground fog of light, colorful and pulsing like a fanciful castoff of a Christmas long past.
“I sense a groggy workday in your future,” she said, slipping her arm around his waist as they entered the calming darkness.
“I don’t guess you’ll be getting much sleep, either,” he replied. “Not if you’re going to open up Mr. Kalfus in the morning.”
“Oh, I read between the lines,” she said, leaning against the fender and unzipping her coveralls. “Even if you didn’t give me marching orders.”
“I would love to know if there’s more to find,” he admitted. “He sounds like a serious player, whether the porn is his or not.”
She opened her car door and sat down to remove the rest of her Tyvek suit. He took advantage to admire her coming into better view.
“You’ll be going to New Hampshire, from what it sounds,” she commented, not looking up.
“If we reach the right people in the right order for permission,” he agreed. “With what Jim found on that computer, and the fact that Kalfus clearly hasn’t been dead long, we need to move fast.”
“Why not call in their state police?”
“We could, but they work differently than we do. Here, a cop has jurisdiction border-to-border. Over there, the only true equivalent is the federal route Willy brought up. You still have to bow and scrape to be polite, but you can go anywhere you want, complete with subpoena and warrant powers. It’s pretty slick.”
“And you get to keep the case,” she added with a slightly raised eyebrow.
He bent down to kiss her. “Takes a bloodhound to love a bloodhound,” he said.
“It certainly doesn’t hurt,” she agreed.
Copyright 2022 by Archer Mayor. All rights reserved.
About Fall Guy by Archer Mayor:
A high-end stolen car is discovered in Vermont. A car filled with stolen items from a far-flung two stage burglary spree. But it’s what is in the trunk that brings Joe Gunther and his team from the Vermont Bureau of Investigation. In the trunk is the body of burglar in question – one Don Kalfus. Complicating matters, while the body was found in Vermont, it appears he was probably killed in the next state over, New Hampshire.
The task force charged with finding out why Kalfus is murdered soon faces another problem. Within the pile of stolen cell phones found in the car is evidence of a notorious unsolved child abduction case from years earlier.
Now the seemingly simple case has become more complicated and deadly, leading Gunther’s team to be pulled from the New Hampshire coast to near the Canadian border as they attempt to find and capture the psychopath responsible for a tangled, historical web of misery, betrayal, and loss.
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