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Archer Mayor

Open season

1

“So what did she use?”

“A shotgun.”

The snow lay before our headlights like a freshly placed sheet, draped from curb to curb without a wrinkle and pinned in place by white-capped parking meters. The snowstorm had passed quickly, leaving a star-packed sky and a freezing clarity that made me feel we were driving into a black-and-white photograph.

We were on Main Street, inching our way downhill to where Main becomes Canal before climbing the opposite slope.

“Slippery?”

The patrolman driving the car gave an embarrassed smile. “Well, I think so. You wouldn’t. I haven’t really gotten used to this stuff yet.”

This was his first New England winter-he’d only been here for six months or so. Marshall Smith had been a deputy sheriff in Florida before coming here and he was getting a lot of ribbing for his fumbling in the snow. During the first light dusting of the season, he’d rear-ended a truck

“Floor it a little at the foot of the hill-it’ll give you more traction.”

Flooring it brought us up to twenty. It didn’t matter. The car had snow tires and we were in no rush. From what I’d heard, everyone was dead who was going to die, at least for tonight.

You don’t get many killings in a town the size of Brattleboro. In ten years, we’d had four, and for some reason they’d all been clumped together. The last of them had been about three years ago.

I placed both hands against the roof behind my head and arched my back in a stretch. The car’s heater was making me drowsy. I rolled the window down a crack and watched the run-down buildings slide by. In the reflection off the glass, I noticed Smith turn his head to glance at me. Lit only by the car’s green panel lights, his face had a ghostly, dreamlike translucence, as if he, like the pajamas I wore under my clothes, had been part of my sleep only ten minutes earlier.

“Did you have a nice Christmas, Lieutenant?”

“Not bad.”

“Me too. I went back home. Expensive, but the wife and I thought it would feel strange having Christmas here.”

I couldn’t think of anything stranger than Christmas in Florida.

We drove beyond the hospital and turned left onto Clark Avenue. Ahead, halfway down the block, two cruisers and an ambulance blocked the road, their sparkling colored lights imitating some cockeyed Christmas scene. I noticed discreet lights on in several neighboring houses. It was 3:48 A.M.

I slid out of the car’s warm cocoon and stood in the snow for a moment, watching Smith return to Canal Street. His rear lights glowed fiercely just before he got to the corner and cautiously swung right. The day, despite the darkness, had begun.

I looked over to the house. By New England standards, it was not old-maybe built in the forties-but it looked ancient. Its skin was peeling and blotched with rot. The roof line, mercifully covered with snow, sagged in the middle like a swayback horse. Where boards had once met squarely with precision, time and neglect had instilled a blurry vagueness. I doubted the entire building contained a single intended ninety-degree angle.

A shadow detached itself from a tree near the street. “Hi, Joe.”

“Stan, Stan, the newspaper man. Hot on the trail?”

“I heard about it on the band. What happened?”

“You tell me. I just woke up.”

“Can I tag along?”

“Nope.” I walked across the sidewalk and up the uneven porch steps, nodding to the patrolman guarding the door. Once inside, I was standing in a hallway running the length of the house. At the far end were the shattered remains of the back door, its top half looking like an artillery target. In the middle of the floor halfway down the hall, lays, he hall a toppled hardback chair. Next to it was a shotgun.

A bull-shaped patrol sergeant stepped out from one of the side doors. “Hi, Joe. Sorry to get you out of bed.”

“That’s okay. What happened?”

“Old lady got a bunch of obscene phone calls over the last few days. The guy finally said he’d visit tonight and do to her what he did to the cat. She waited for him in that chair and blew him away when he opened the back door.”

“What he did to the cat?”

The sergeant, George Capullo, approached the fallen chair and motioned at a doorway. I stepped over the chair and looked around the corner. It was a bedroom, cluttered but neat, lit from a single bare bulb on the wall.

“On the bed,” said George. He stayed where he was.

I approached the bed, a ramshackle iron spider’s web held together with crisscrossed wires. Covering it was an old quilt, not especially pretty but carefully made, and under the quilt was a small lump. I flipped back the corner.

The cat lay on its back, spread-eagled, its dry eyes wide in arrested agony. It had been slit open from neck to crotch and its innards pulled out for display: lumpish, red, and still slightly wet. I swallowed hard and dropped the quilt back.

“Christ, George. You could have told me.”

“Gross, huh?”

“More like weird. Did somebody call the State’s Attorney?”

“Do unto him like I did unto you?”

“Spare me. And spare him too. He doesn’t have my sense of humor. Is J.P. here?”

“Yeah, and I already called the SA. He should have been here by now. J.P.’s out back taking pictures.”

I returned to the hallway. “Did you respond first?”

“About two-thirty. She called it in herself. The neighbors claim they didn’t hear a thing. That’s bullshit, of course. She let loose with both barrels at once. Must have made the whole block jump.”

“Who’s the body?”

“Don’t know. We haven’t searched him yet.” George hesitated. “To be honest, I didn’t get too close. He makes the cat look good.”

I glanced at the shattered door. “Where’s the woman?”

He jerked his head down the hall. “In the kitchen. A Rescue guy’s with her.”

“She all right?”

“Yeah. A little shaky.”

“Okay. I’ll see her last.”

George nodded and led the way to the back. He pulled open the splintered remains of the door and ushered me through.

J.P. Tyler, the departt=', the dment’s only detective with any forensic training, was standing in the yard with his back to us. He was taking a photograph. “Look at the shoe,” he said without turning around.

On the top step, lying on its side, was a loafer. I leaned down and picked it up. It was expensive-glove leather, designer label, more of a moccasin really. Real terrorist apparel.

About six feet from the foot of the steps, surrounded by a dazzling white circle of flood lamps, lay the body. Like the cat, it was flat on its back, arms and legs outstretched. For a second I thought of when I used to lie like that in the snow, as a kid, making snow angels. But here the gentle arc formed by the arms was uninterrupted by a

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