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Brett: so wut u doing gIRclass="underline" chatting with u Brett: cool Brett: u in school gIRclass="underline" nope Brett: why gIRclass="underline" home – school get out at 220 Brett: oh cool Brett: so u ain't got no bf to be hanging with gIRclass="underline" nope broke Brett: that sucks gIRclass="underline" i guess

Chapter 2

It was postcard serene-trees coated in white snow, hanging low over a tumbling brook whose boulders were collared with sugar halos of ice, sparkling in the sun. The painfully blue sky overhead daubed the darkly rushing water with the hint of a bruise as it emerged, cascading, from a large, cavernlike culvert projecting from under a quaint backcountry dirt road.

Joe Gunther studied that road a moment. It emerged from the woods like a fairy-tale prop, entered the sunshine, its snowy shoulders dazzling in the light, leaped the culvert, and vanished as magically into the darkness of the trees on the far side. There were no railings hemming it in as it spanned the water, not even a curb. In fact, if viewed from a low enough angle, the road appeared to cross the brook as if by the stroke of a paintbrush.

"What do you think?"

Joe glanced over at Sammie Martens, his only female squad member and as close as he had to a lieutenant.

"I think it's dangerous as hell," he said. "Bet more than one driver's gotten white knuckles crossing this thing."

"Not to mention the odd pedestrian," she added ruefully.

Joe nodded and grunted his agreement, approaching the edge overlooking the water. Sam joined him to stare down at the swirl and tumble of the stream gushing out below them. There was a pile of boulders right at the mouth of the culvert, then a widening where one of the banks tabled out slightly to form a small beach before the trees downstream crowded in once more and narrowed the channel to create a miniature whitewater chute that raced off around a bend.

At the edge of the snow-clad beach, the water slowed and flattened enough to create a pool-no doubt a popular swimming hole during the summer. Not that Joe had been hard-pressed to conjure up such an image, since floating facedown in the middle of the pool was the body of a fully clothed man.

"You think that's what he was?" he asked her.

Instead of answering, Sammie merely shrugged.

By the water's edge, a diver for the Vermont State Police was adjusting the last piece of equipment on his cold-water suit. Before lowering his face mask, he called up to Joe. "You ready for me to go in?"

Joe gave him a thumbs-up.

Another state police officer, this one looking cold despite his zipped and snapped bulky ski parka, approached from the other side of the short bridge. Joe and he had just been introduced minutes earlier. He was Jeff Dupree, originally from Virginia, and he was still getting used to the cold weather, even after five years up here.

"You find anything up that way, Jeff?" Joe asked as he drew near.

The young man shook his head before reporting in a soft Southern accent. "A couple of houses about a third of a mile up. One's empty; the other had no idea-older couple that keep to themselves. They told me the road dead-ends about a mile up, at least in the winter. The town doesn't plow it. I didn't see any tracks by the side of the road along the way that told me anything."

Joe nodded. "Thanks. You got their names and information?"

Dupree tapped his chest with a heavily gloved hand. "Sure do."

Joe smiled at the sight. His own jacket was unzipped and he was without gloves, considering this an unusually warm day. He returned to watching the diver below.

He and Sam were the only representatives from the Vermont Bureau of Investigation, the state's independent major-crimes unit. The others, and there were five of them by now, were all from the state police. It hadn't always been so. In the not so distant past, the troopers would have owned this scene and been led by detectives from their own BCI division. But, recently, by a governor's signature, the VBI had been put in charge of all major cases, the only concession being that, generally speaking, the unit should be invited in by the initial responders rather than simply take charge.

It had been an awkward arrangement at first, and not just with the state police but the large municipal forces as well, with considerable grumbling from all sides. But since VBI was composed of the best from all departments, and since Gunther, as field force commander and number two in the bureau, had bent over backward to be accommodating, supportive, and self-effacing, relations were improving all the time.

It also didn't hurt that a majority of the new VBI was made up of old BCI members who loved the increased autonomy and lack of heavy-handed structure.

Below them, the diver slowly waded into the dark water, eddies collecting around his calves as he picked his way between unseen obstacles. The body floated spread-eagled, as if snorkeling, about ten feet out.

"Any theories yet?" Joe asked more generally. Sam had been here an hour already, ever since a 911 cell phone call from an out-of-town jogger enjoying the sylvan isolation had gotten everyone moving.

She shook her head. "The road's been plowed, the snowbanks don't show anything, there's nothing lying around like a wallet or a bag, there's no car parked nearby, and Jeff just told us what he found-or didn't-up the road. I don't know what the hell happened. If this guy's a drunk who missed his footing, what's he doing way out here? We're fifteen miles from Brattleboro. If he drove here, where's his car? If he was driven here by someone else, what's the story with that?" She glanced over at him, clearly frustrated. "I sure as hell hope he has some ID, 'cause this could be anything. Maybe he fell from a plane."

"You got a canvass going?" Joe asked.

"VSP did that right off the bat. There aren't a lot of houses around here, but they're spread out, so it'll take a while to hear back from everybody. I'm not holding my breath. There's something about this one that makes me think it won't be a slam dunk."

"Foul play, as they say?" he asked.

"Just a hunch."

That counted for something. Sam Martens had been working for Joe a long time by now, dating back to when she was one of his detectives on the Brattleboro PD. Wiry and energetic-and as privately self-doubting as she could be forceful with others-Sam was a dogged, intuitive, natural digger. Joe had been delighted when she opted for the VBI, joining his own three-person, Brattleboro-based squad. This small group, while responsible for cases in Vermont's southeastern corner, had also virtually become a flying squad, often called on to support other VBI teams across the state because of Joe's status within the organization. He wasn't big on pecking orders or playing favorites, but his trust in Sam played a role in making this arrangement possible.

The diver had slipped fully into the freezing water by now, barely disturbing its surface except for the bubbles escaping from his regulator. It had once seemed like overkill to Joe, all this scuba gear for a job that might have been achieved with a pair of waders, but Vermont's waters proved deadly for people who didn't treat them with respect, and by now he'd become easier with a little more caution holding sway over a mishap, especially for a dead body. Besides, as he'd been told more than once, these calls were good practice for when a life did hang in the balance.

The diver, clearly milking the moment, circled the body, examining it from all sides. They even saw the reflected flash of his waterproof camera as he took a picture.

Eventually, though, he reached out and began shepherding the source of his interest toward shore, where a tall, skinny man waited quietly. This was the death investigator from the medical examiner's office, who, along with the state's attorney and the police, formed the judicial three-legged stool on which rested the fate of the unexpectedly dead in Vermont.

     

 

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