The Orphan’s Guilt by Archer Mayor: New Excerpt
By Crime HQSeptember 9, 2020
Searching the Weeds
“Brattleboro Reformer. Rachel Reiling speaking.”
“Hi, Rachel. It’s Anne Proctor, from Proctor and Harris? Remember me?”
“Sure.” Rachel pulled up her contacts on the screen and rediscovered that Proctor and Harris was a funeral home in Westminster, and thus the source of some biographical tidbits in the past—not that she’d ever actually met Anne Proctor. Theirs had been a phone relationship exclusively.
For Rachel, that was mostly a reflection of Anne’s location. Westminster was a township she’d rarely visited or could characterize. Almost fifty square miles in area, located just below Bellows Falls, it had a minimalist town center and only a couple of major roads cutting through it. The rest was trees and fields. There were dozens of such tiny municipalities across the state, remnants of days when a few farmers had clustered together to keep each other company.
Rachel slipped on the demeanor of a long-absent friend. “Anne. How’re you? It’s been a while.”
“Not since the Ferguson funeral,” Anne reminded her brightly. “You did such a nice job describing that, and the pictures you took were just beautiful. The family talked about them for weeks after. It was so appreciated.”
“Glad to help,” Rachel said, glancing at the newsroom clock on the wall, marking a starting point and praying this wouldn’t go on too long. As with every reporter she knew, time loomed overhead like a threatening schoolmarm of old, equipped with a willow switch and a short fuse. “What can I do for you?”
“Well, it’s kind of along the same lines,” her caller explained. “But a lot sadder than the Ferguson story. That’s for sure. I mean, that was just an old lady, loved by everybody, whose death was a tragedy, of course, but she was ninety-five. I mean, how long can you live?”
“Right,” Rachel agreed, hoping her sigh hadn’t been audible.
“So this is a completely different situation,” Anne forged on. “And because of that, Henry and I were thinking maybe you’d want to write a human interest story about it. It’s got so much sacrifice and generosity to it.”
“You ever hear of Peter Rust?” Anne asked her.
Rachel blinked. “Should I have?”
“Well, no. Probably not. Anyway, he’s the one who died. Just twenty-eight years old. Isn’t that terrible?”
Depends, Rachel thought, before responding, “Absolutely. Was he ill?” She suddenly fantasized about the headstone reading, “I told you I was sick,” and pursed her lips not to smile.
“Born that way. I don’t know what they call it, but he was in really bad shape his whole life. His mother died, his father walked out. That left his brother, John, to take care of him.”
Rachel stopped fiddling with the pen she’d idly picked up. “How long ago was that?” she asked.
“The brother took care of him that long?” Rachel asked. “On his own?”
“Pretty much. He had a house, but that’s what I’m telling you. And you should have seen that poor boy. Only sixty pounds, all curled up, pale as a ghost. But he was beautiful. I mean, you hear of these things all the time, how the sick person gets covered with sores and develops problems and has to wear a diaper. It’s heartbreaking. Well, believe me, I looked at Peter all over, top to toe, ’cause that’s what we do, including the cremation cases, and even Henry was saying how perfect he was. Not a mark on him. Hair washed, clean shaven, nails neatly clipped. That was all John. He dedicated his whole life to the boy. I just thought you’d find that interesting.”
“I do,” Rachel admitted, by now entertaining various approaches to the story. “What’s up with John now?”
“Well, that’s it, isn’t it? Can you imagine? All of a sudden, he’s got nothing. He never married, never had kids. Peter was his whole world.”
Rachel, hardly a veteran newswoman in her mid-twenties, had nevertheless developed what her boss called a bullshit meter. “What’re you not telling me, Anne? If I do this, I’ll find out anyhow.”
Proctor was clearly embarrassed at being caught out so bluntly, not knowing that Rachel came by her candidness genetically. Her mother, Beverly Hillstrom, was the state’s medical examiner, and famous in her rarefied world of cops, politicians, and funeral directors for her frankness, impatience, and high standards.
“Oh,” Anne said, “was I that obvious? I’m so sorry. I don’t want to speak ill of anyone, you know.”
Rachel tried to coax her along to the point of her call. “I realize that. I won’t tell a soul. We protect our sources. You know that.”
“I know, I know. Well, it’s nothing horrible. And it never had a bad effect on Peter. But truth be known, John could take a drink now and then. And who can blame him?”
“Not me,” Rachel quickly threw in, hoping it might undercut her caller’s yearning to say more.
It didn’t. “Can you put yourself in his place? Day in and day out? Caring for every little detail, and for someone who can’t even say thank you. I have kids, and I tried to give them everything, like a parent naturally does, but there’s feedback, you know? They laugh and hug you and give you joy in a hundred different ways, every day. But John? With Peter? Everyone needs to escape a little, now and then.”
Rachel decided to pull the parachute cord. “I gotta go, Anne. Give me John’s contact information. I’ll check this out.”
“He lives in Westminster,” Anne said. “Just down Route 5 a ways from us.” She delivered the street address and phone number.
“Got it,” Rachel told her. “And thanks for the tip. Bye.”
“Of course. Now, you’ll be sure not to let John know that I…”
But Rachel had hung up.
Anne Proctor smiled and did the same at her end before replacing her cell phone carefully into her purse. “Was that all right?” she asked. “I hope I didn’t overdo it. Henry says I can be a real ham.”
Scott Jezek patted her shoulder. “It was Oscar-quality stuff, Anne. Assuming this reporter takes the bait, John’ll only benefit. You did good work for a friend and neighbor. Trust me.”
To Sally’s way of thinking, she should’ve submitted her final invoice to Jezek by now. But, to his credit—and according to him, at the urging of his client—he was keeping her on. John Rust had been stunned by her discovery, Scott reported, since he’d supposedly been fed the same line as everyone else about Peter’s being born handicapped. Now he wanted as many details as Sally could dig up.
“This is still on his tab, correct?” Sally had asked Scott protectively, knowing the lawyer’s propensity for impulsive altruism.
“It is,” the lawyer had reassured her, which made her again wonder where this money was coming from. Maybe, along with probing for details of Pete’s trauma, she’d try taking a peek at a few financials.
First things first, however, which is why she was parked on Route 5, in Westminster village, studying the neat lineup of homes along the street. Laid out on a straight, flat, four-thousand-foot stretch of road—itself an oddity in the well-named Green Mountain State—the village felt a little prefabricated, like an antique Lego town grown to human proportions. What made the impression more remarkable was the place’s claim of being the oldest “existing” such town in the entire state, citing a birth date of 1735, forty-two years before Vermont came into being.
Regardless of any debate surrounding this assertion, it did establish Westminster as a very old place, which ran completely at odds with its almost suburban appearance now.
Sally had never made sense of it.
Today, however, its small size and orderliness played to her advantage. Without having to sneak up and down narrow alleys, or among ancient, heavily intertwined buildings, she could at a glance get a feel for how John Rust’s home was situated amid his neighbors, and which of them had the best sightlines of the family’s daily comings and goings—and perhaps the best insights.
She was, after all, in the business of peering behind the veil of day-to-day life, be it the camouflage of social behavior, or any facts and figures only supporting the appearance of normalcy.
Scott Jezek had hired her to supply an alternate image of his client, who was going to be portrayed by the prosecution as a drunken menace to society. People in John’s position normally fell prey to the system’s nuts and bolts—the arresting officer’s affidavit, the blood alcohol content, the video of the arrest, and usually an overtaxed public defender—unless they had a team like Jezek and Kravitz.
But what if Sally was about to lay bare a man less savory than either Scott or she had been expecting? Every time she set out on a mission of defense mitigation, that possibility had to be considered.
Pondering this and more, Sally exited her car, took in a deep breath of the spring’s awakening warmth, and crossed the road to the house just south of John Rust’s home to begin her process.
She’d already conducted some research, dropping by the town offices to discover who lived where in the neighborhood. As a result, she was half expecting the young woman who answered her knock, and inquired, “Yes?”
“Are you Peggy Munroe?” Sally asked, pretending to consult a clipboard she’d brought along as a prop.
“That’s me.” Munroe had long brown hair, tied back in a ponytail, and was wearing an apron over a work shirt and jeans.
“I’m really sorry to interrupt,” Sally said, smiling, pulling a business card from her pocket and handing it over. “Did I catch you in the middle of something?”
Munroe was caught between reading the card and maintaining eye contact. “Not really. Just cleaning. Who are you? I don’t want to buy anything. Or find religion.”
Sally stuck out a hand. “No, no, no. Sally’s my name. I work for a firm that’s settling some estate business for John Rust. Do you know John?”
Munroe looked confused and glanced again at the card, which had a name only printed on it, over INVESTIGATOR. “John? Not really. To exchange pleasantries, but that’s about it.” Her voice lowered sympathetically. “I do know what happened to his poor brother, of course.”
Sally was encouraging. “Then you understand why I’m here, to fill out some of the details that come up with these transitions. It’s really to help John get to a better place, emotionally and financially. Tough times, as you can guess.”
Munroe’s reaction was thoughtful. “Yes. I had to explain to the kids what was going on when the funeral home came and took him. Actually, I didn’t, really. I kind of lied about that.”
Sally dropped her voice slightly. “What did you tell them?”
“I said John was having a piece of furniture moved out. My son Jack asked if it was a sofa—the gurney, you know? So I just went along with it.”
Sally touched the woman’s hand. “Oh, good Lord. Don’t feel bad, Peggy. I think you were really smart. Why do they need to know so much, so soon? Did you ever get to meet Peter?”
Peggy made an apologetic face. “No. I mean, it would’ve been hard. You know he was in a coma, don’t you? Or whatever they call it.”
“Well, yes.” Sally gestured with the clipboard. “My firm’s trying to help John sort out his life after all that, so I knew Peter wasn’t well. Still, after so many years…”
She let the sentence die suggestively. Sensing the other woman’s lingering resistance to invite her in, however, she fell back onto some well-practiced acting skills and suddenly changed her expression to help force the issue. Using a slightly pleading tone, she said, “Peggy, I’m really sorry, and I know it’s not professional, but could I use your bathroom—superfast? I totally understand if you don’t…”
But the door had already swung back on its hinges and Peggy was urging Sally inside, saying, “Of course. Oh, my gosh. Sure. It’s just down the hall and to the left. You can’t miss it.”
Thanking her profusely, Sally took her directions, closed the bathroom door behind her, stood there for a couple of minutes, flushed, ran the tap, and reemerged, still looking contrite.
“I am so sorry,” she repeated. “I should have prepared better for the drive, but I was running late.”
They were standing by the kitchen, which was separated from the living room by only a barlike counter. Now facing a guest rather than someone at the door with a clipboard, Munroe indicated one of the stools and said jokingly, “Now that you’ve done that, would you like to refill with some coffee?”
Sally accepted with a smile. So far, so good.
She circled to the living room side of the counter and sat on a stool, surrounded by a scattering of toys and children’s clothes decorating the floor and furniture in a comfortably lived-in way.
“How do you take it?” Peggy asked.
“A little milk, if you have it,” Sally replied. “How long have you lived here?” she inquired.
Peggy had her back turned as she prepared the cups. “Oh, about eleven years. Brad got a job at the plant above Bellows Falls.”
“You like it?”
“Sure. What’s to dislike? The shopping’s pretty convenient, and across the river, so there’s no sales tax, and Keene’s not too far away. The only thing I don’t like is the way some of the kids drag race down Route 5 at night.”
She sat opposite Sally, cups and milk spread out between them.
“Eleven years,” Sally mused aloud. “That’s a pretty good stretch. What do your neighbors say about the traffic?”
Peggy shrugged. “Oh, what’re you going to do? We can’t put out speed bumps. The snowplows won’t stand for it. It’s always something.”
“Did John Rust complain, too?” Sally asked. “He strikes me as a quiet sort.”
“No,” Peggy allowed. “I never saw him at any meetings. Of course, I’m sure he had his hands full.”
“I bet. Not only his brother, but the whole homeowner thing. My understanding is that he’s not married and has no other siblings, so everything fell to him. That can be a lot.”
Peggy looked equivocal, and silently took a sip of her coffee.
Seizing a possible opportunity, Sally filled the gap, again touching Peggy’s hand. “I don’t want to put you in a spot, but I can tell you’re a little uncomfortable. Let me say one thing really clearly, Peggy. Everything I learn is confidential. My boss is a nut about that. But by the same token, I do need to know what there is to know, to avoid any surprises at the end. You hear what I’m saying?”
Her hostess was sympathetic. “Of course. I don’t want to get you in trouble. You’re just doing your job.”
“So what’s on your mind?” Sally pressed her.
Peggy made a face before admitting, “It’s not anything huge. It’s not like we ever suspected he was running drugs out of there or anything. But what you said about the homeowner thing being a lot to handle kind of rang a bell inside here.” She tapped the side of her head.
Sally primed her for more. “Really?”
“Brad works hard so I can stay with the kids and give them an old-fashioned upbringing, you know? And he does pretty well. I’m not at all complaining. But living next door to John has been a little weird. He has people in and out all the time. Not funny people. I mean house cleaners and yard maintenance guys and health-care types. And we’d see big TV sets getting moved in, and a fancy van that could handle Peter’s chair, and new furniture. He’s had the house worked on several times, and either painted or touched up every year, which we sure can’t afford. I think John’s into something having to do with computers, ’cause there’re cardboard boxes at the curb for recycling sometimes, with high-end computer logos on them. But whatever his job was—or still is—it didn’t seem to take much of his time, considering how much activity goes on over there. We just never got the feeling that John was ever hurting, if you get what I’m saying.”
“I do. The guy was loaded, in other words.”
“It sure looked that way. There’s no crime in that, of course,” Peggy stressed. “But the few times we have talked, sort of neighbor-to-neighbor, I never got the feeling he was anything special. He doesn’t speak like an educated man, or seem particularly clever.”
She suddenly straightened, swinging her ponytail. “Listen to me. That sounds awful.”
Sally moved quickly to bring her back. “Not at all. I think it’s fascinating, and really insightful. You’re a great reader of human nature. So there was a disconnect between how he presented personally and how he lived?”
Peggy’s eyes opened in surprise. “Yeah. That’s it exactly. It was like if you put me in a formal gown and had me walking around some English garden party. Brad and I used to joke sometimes that John was maybe in the witness protection program, or Peter didn’t really exist, but was some life-sized doll John moved around to put on a show.”
She shook her head in wonder and stood up, signaling to Sally that it was getting time to leave. “I shouldn’t be saying this. The guy probably had some insurance policy that paid for it all, and was just doing his best to make his poor brother as happy as possible. I should’ve kept my mouth shut. I didn’t tell you earlier, probably out of guilt, to be honest, but Brad and I actually attended Peter’s service at the funeral home. We just felt we should do something, especially after thinking those terrible things.”
Sally rose as well, circling around into the kitchen to give Peggy a two-handed shake. “You did nothing wrong,” she soothed her. “There’s no malice in having a little fantasy about the neighbor. We all do that. It’s not like you called the cops on him. Come on. And, for what it’s worth, right now, you’ve helped me a ton. Some of the hardest things I wrestle with are gaining the kind of psychological insight you just supplied. You’ve been a huge help.”
The embarrassed woman’s body language was still suggesting a desire to retreat from what she’d said. For Sally’s part, however, her own last statement was the most truthful thing she’d uttered since knocking on Peggy’s door.
There was more going on with John Rust than anyone presently knew, and Sally—out of loyalty to Scott Jezek if nothing else—felt a heightened obligation to bring it out.
Copyright © 2020 by Archer Mayor. All rights reserved.
About The Orphan’s Guilt by Archer Mayor:
John Rust is arrested for drunk driving by a Vermont state trooper. Looking to find mitigating circumstances, John’s lawyer hires private eye Sally Kravitz to look into the recent death of John’s younger brother, purportedly from a childhood brain injury years earlier. But what was the nature of that injury, and might its mechanism point more to murder than to natural causes? That debate brings in Joe Gunther and his team.
Gunther’s efforts quickly uncover an ancient tale of avarice, betrayal, and vengeance that swirled around the Rust boys growing up. Their parents and the people they consorted with—forgotten, relentless, but now jolted to action by this simple set of circumstances—emerge with a destructive passion. All while the presumably innocent John Rust mysteriously vanishes with no explanation.
Comment below for a chance to win a copy of The Orphan’s Guilt by Archer Mayor!
To enter, make sure you’re a registered member of the site and simply leave a comment below.
The Orphan’s Guilt Comment Sweepstakes: NO PURCHASE NECESSARY TO ENTER OR WIN. A purchase does not improve your chances of winning. Sweepstakes open to legal residents of 50 United States, D.C., and Canada (excluding Quebec), who are 18 years or older as of the date of entry. To enter, complete the “Post a Comment” entry at https://www.criminalelement.com/the-orphans-guilt-by-archer-mayor-new-excerpt/ beginning at 4:00 p.m. Eastern Time (ET) September 9, 2020. Sweepstakes ends at 3:59 p.m. ET September 16, 2020. Void outside the United States and Canada and where prohibited by law. Please see full details and official rules here. Sponsor: Macmillan, 120 Broadway, New York, NY 10271.