Bellows Falls

The Plot

A routine call asking Joe Gunther to investigate a seemingly minor complaint against a young officer of the Bellows Falls police department leads to the uncovering of a cauldron of spousal abuse, debauchery, teen crime, drug running, and cold-blooded murder. Joe must travel the length of Vermont, from the beleaguered town of Bellows Falls, to the big city of Burlington, and the cold waters of Lake Champlain beside it.

An excerpt from Bellows Falls

To set the stage: On assignment with the Attorney General’s office, Joe and colleague Jonathon Michael have driven to Burlington, Vermont, to pursue a hunch, enlisting the help of the local police department. Two local detectives – Audrey McGowen and Duncan Fasca – have set up a meeting between one of Fasca’s snitches – Lenny Markham – and Joe.

From the sidewalk, Burlington’s Flynn Theatre on Main Street is at best unprepossessing. One-and-a-half stories high, it is by all appearances solid and well-built, with a white stone facade demurely but elegantly carved with its name, but in that it is no different from an old bank building or a pretentious post office. The striking thing about it is the marquee crowning its bank of front doors like a jester’s gaudy hat. Multi-hued, ornate, and speckled with hundreds of flashing colored bulbs, at night it draws in theatergoers like moths to a flame.

It was not at night that we gathered under that marquee, however, but shortly before ten o’clock the next morning, the time specified by Lenny Markham for his meeting with Duncan Fasca. We’d never considered making this a one-on-one affair, of course, but with the discovery of Jasper’s body, and of what we were presuming was one of his runners, our wariness of Lenny’s role had ratcheted up several notches. No longer were we content with merely stacking the meeting in our favor numerically. Now we were going to stake out the whole building, curious to learn what Lenny might do following our talk.

Unfortunately, our team had not grown much in size, the Burlington PD not being in a position to supply us reinforcements for a case they didn’t own. Our adjusted plan of attack, therefore, was for Fasca and me to meet with Lenny, while Audrey McGowen, Jonathon, and a single plainclothes officer Audrey had begged from Patrol kept watch on the various exits around the building. We all had portable radios, turned off until needed so Lenny wouldn’t be spooked by an inadvertent transmission.

Following some last minute detailing, therefore, Duncan Fasca and I separated from the others and entered the lobby. Like the exterior, it was tastefully low key-terrazzo floor tiles, antique marble half walls, niched display cases, alternating with mirrors and gentle lighting. The farther we walked, the more that lighting lit the way, allowing for an elegant transition from the glare off the sidewalk. The first sign that the theater’s muted facade was in fact a charade surfaced as we passed from the lobby to the foyer. It soared overhead well in excess of two stories, dwarfing us physically, and injecting an element of wonder. The back of the building was not only taller than its entrance, but being sited on the slope of a hill, extended downward as well.

The effect of this architectural slyness reached completion upon entering the performance hall itself. Even warned of something grand by the foyer’s sneak preview, I was totally unprepared for the enormity of what we encountered. Huge, dark, cavernous, and as resonant as a tomb, the hall seemed more grotto than man-made structure. The orchestra seats swept down and away toward the enormous distant stage, taking full advantage of the site’s natural incline, while the walls, ornate in lavish Art-Deco, hurtled skyward to meet in an elaborate, graceful curved ceiling, some forty feet above our heads. It had been like entering a modest house, discovering an impressive living room, and then proceeding into a cathedral at the rear. I was so taken with the effect that despite our reason for being here, I tilted back my head, let out a quiet laugh, and said, “Jesus. This is wonderful.”

Fasca glanced at the ceiling, muttered, “Yeah, I guess,” and pointed to a staircase along the side wall. “Let’s head up and see if we can find him.”

We didn’t look far. As we reached the mezzanine, we were stopped by a teenager lounging by the guardrail, watching some 80 musicians tuning their instruments.

“You want to see Lenny?” the boy asked, visibly uncomfortable with the setting, obviously not an employee.

“Yeah,” Fasca answered.

“Follow me.”

He led us past an “employees only” sign up another set of stairs, to a landing with a steel ladder leading to a small, square opening some eight feet off the ground. “He’s up there on the grid. Make sure you don’t got nothin’ in your pockets that’ll fall out-pens, pads, stuff like that.”

The boy stood there, waiting for us to go on without him. Fasca hesitated, struck as I’d been by the meaning behind his instructions, remembering what Audrey had said about it being no place for those with vertigo.

“Where will he be?” Fasca finally asked.

“Over the stage. I gotta go.” The boy bolted downstairs and vanished.

“This setup bother you?” I asked Fasca, “knowing Lenny?”

He shrugged and grabbed the first rung of the ladder. “He’s used rug rats before.”

Beyond the square hole at the top of the ladder, there was a tiny landing, a flight of three steps, and a broad wooden catwalk running from one side of the theater to the other, high above the mezzanine, and parallel to the stage. Not that any of this was clearly visible. The lighting was like the dead of night, with only occasional glimmers casting the vaguest of shadows.

I pulled a penlight from my pocket, having ignored the boy’s warning, and turned it on.

We were enmeshed in a spider’s web of enormous steel girders, crisscrossing the air space between the roof overhead and the ceiling I’d admired from below. Shooting off from our catwalk were two others, each at a ninety-degree angle, leading to the grid over the stage. Killing my penlight for a moment, I could see the barest outline of a man, far in the distance, moving around a large, dark piece of equipment.

“I think that’s him,” Fasca muttered and headed gingerly in that direction, as conscious as I was that a fall off the narrow plank bridge would take us right through the ceiling to the seats far below. None of the catwalks had railings.

As we got nearer, I returned the penlight to my pocket. The glow from the cavern beneath us filtered up around the feet of the man ahead, revealing the source of his attention to be a large, extinguished spotlight, sharply angled to pinpoint objects on stage. It was bolted to a thick stanchion, which was attached to an open-mesh steel grate. Its dark, tapered head-an oversized parody of a monk’s cowl-peered down through an open rectangular hole in the grid, also without a rail.

The man, whom I could now see was wearing black pants and a black, long-sleeved turtleneck, turned and straightened as we reached him. In the light from below, his features were sharply highlighted, making him look like a silent movie Dracula. “Who the fuck is this, Duncan?”

His voice was an urgent whisper, incredulous that the sacrament of a cop and his snitch was being so cavalierly breached. Under our feet, through the mesh of the grid and the hole at the base of the light, a crowd of small figures, casually dressed, sat in a large semicircle of chairs, instruments in hand. The familiar sweet jumble of their tuning up revived an instant mental snapshot of the first time my mother took me and my brother to a concert. We’d both thought that initial swelling of incoherent sound was the start of the program, and we’d been entranced.

From this height, I felt like I was looking down from a low-flying airplane.

Fasca’s voice brought me back to the present. “This is Joe Gunther, Lenny. He’s from the AG’s office.”

Lenny Markham glared at me. “My pleasure. Now get the hell out of here. It’s a restricted area. No tourists allowed.”

“He knows you’re my CI.”

Markham looked at both of us in stunned silence.

“The reason I’m here,” I put in, “is that I think your life may be in danger.”

Lenny rolled his eyes heavenward. “No shit, Sherlock.” He pointed at Fasca. “You come sailing in here with a cop from Montpelier, say, ‘He knows you’re my CI, Lenny,’ and you tell me my ass is up for grabs? What kind of fucking idiot do you take me for?” He suddenly stabbed Fasca in the chest with his finger. “You being straight with me?”

Fasca looked confused. “Sure, Lenny. That’s why we came.”

“Then tell me: is this bozo the only one who knows about me?”

The answer should have been an immediate and unequivocal “Yes.” Instead, Duncan hesitated a split second and glanced at me. His “Sure,” came too late.

Markham stepped back as if we’d just exposed him to the plague. “You cocksucker. I take care of your fucking career, and you run me up the flagpole.” He shifted to me abruptly. “So who’s out to kill me, besides you two assholes?”

“Norm Bouch.”

Mimicking a bad melodrama, a sudden burst of orchestral music filled the air, causing both Fasca and me to instinctively look down. Lenny’s reaction was more original. He grabbed the narrow end of the spotlight and swung it with all his strength. It spun around, smacked me on the side of the head, and sent me sprawling against Fasca.

Fasca fell back against one of the steel girders. I continued past him, and stepped through the open hole in the grid.

I have often wondered at the written accounts of people in times of peril. Does time slow down? Do you suddenly reminisce? As my feet slipped past the comforting plane of the grid, and I felt the sudden lurch of abrupt acceleration, neither of those impressions struck me. All I thought, and all I managed to say, was “Shit.”

But that may have been because I wasn’t given more time. Instead of having the full distance of the drop to come up with something more satisfying, I was jarringly interrupted by my right hand grabbing onto the edge of the hole as it went by.

There was a near-mystical feeling to it all in the end, however. Hanging there by one hand, the raised teeth of the grid’s mesh cutting into my fingers, the pain from my shoulder just starting to set in, I did enjoy a moment of almost weightless euphoria. The music which had distracted me now filled the air in which I was suspended, sliding off the curved ceiling and hitting me with a wonderful, swelling vibration. I even knew the tune-the “Infernal Dance,” from Stravinsky’s Firebird-which my mother had exposed us to as children on the record player, another example of her campaign to bring us culture.

Between my dangling feet, the orchestra was hard at work, laboring over their instruments in perfect synchrony, their heads bent over the music. The conductor, in jeans and a colorful shirt, cut the air with her baton, which from here looked as large as a single shaft of straw. I felt warm, and stimulated, and washed with beauty.

I could also feel my hand getting very tired.

“Joe?”

I tilted my head back to look up, half resentful of the intrusion. The movement made me dizzy, and I suddenly remembered how the spotlight had smacked my temple. Seeing Duncan’s terror-filled eyes, I realized for the first time that I was in real trouble. Falling through a hole half-conscious hadn’t seemed all that terrifying at the time. Having interrupted the process, however, and regained an element of focus, I was now all too aware of what was about to happen.

A surge of panic hit me. “I can’t hang on much longer.”

He reached down tentatively and touched my forearm.

“You won’t be able to hold me,” I grunted, the pain in my hand becoming excruciating.

“Right, right,” he muttered. “Can you get your other hand up?”

“I don’t dare try. I can’t feel my right one anymore.”

“Shit,” he said loudly, echoing my own thoughts precisely. Then, “hang on,” and he vanished from view.

I took that last comment as literally as possible.

I no longer wanted to look down, no longer thought the music beautiful and soothing. I was drowning in it now, felt it pulling at my legs. I shut my eyes briefly and thought about letting go. The relief from the pain, even though brief, might be worth it.

Fasca’s excited voice brought me back. “I found something, it’s like a safety strap. I’ll try to get it around you.”

It looked like an oversized leash with a heavy clasp at one end. He quickly slung it around my arm, clipped it to itself, forming a lasso, and then lowered the loop to the middle of my chest.

“Put your left arm through it, so I can snug it up to your armpit.”

I did as he asked and felt the comforting bite of the strap against my body. Still looking up, I saw Fasca stand and straddle the hole, his legs braced for my weight, the strap snaking across the back of his neck and shoulders.

“Okay, now listen. When I tell you, let go with your right hand and lower that arm-fast. I don’t want this thing slipping off. Ready?”

I was intellectually, but nothing happened with my hand. I could no longer feel it, much less control it. My whole body was given over to pain and exhaustion. I shut my eyes.

“Now.”

It worked, although I don’t recall how. There was a sudden drop, a great tightening around my chest. Fasca grunted once, loudly, as if he’d been hit by a branch, and I remember swaying, as I’d enjoyed doing as a child from high in a tree.

Fasca’s strangled voice barked out, “Grab on,” moments later, and I reopened my eyes to see the edge of the hole at eye level. My right arm throbbing, I hooked my left onto the grid and began hefting myself on board. Duncan stopped pulling on the strap and quickly grabbed the back of my belt. With a final heave, he dumped me like a duffel bag at his feet.

He collapsed sprawling onto the catwalk. “Jesus H. Christ. That was close.”

“Radio,” I whispered weakly.

He shook his head in anger. “Damn,” he said, and grabbed a portable from his pocket. As soon as he turned it on, we heard Audrey saying, “He’s gone back in. Joe? Duncan? You there? Come in.”

Fasca keyed the mike, “Audrey. You see Lenny? He clobbered us and split.”

Still flexing my right hand, I turned on my own radio and added, “Call for backup. Aggravated assault of an officer. Is he still in the building?”

“Yeah,” Audrey answered. “He came barreling out the front door, saw me, and ducked back in.”

“Okay. Stay put till reinforcements come, then check out the lobby and foyer. Duncan and I’ll start working down from the grid.”

I directed Duncan to the nearby ladder running down to the stage below, while I returned the way we’d come, sweeping the area as I went with my penlight. By the time I reached the short ladder to the staircase, my arm, though painful, had regained its feeling and mobility.

I first checked out the control room at the top of the stairs, where I found people manning computers and lighting equipment, and from where the stage could be seen through a row of thick glass windows. No one there had seen Lenny go by.

Returning to the mezzanine, I quickly ran up the aisle alongside the deserted seats, looking for anybody who might be curled up on the floor. After finding myself alone, I used the radio again. “Audrey, it’s Joe.”

“Go ahead. The lobby and foyer are clear.”

“Same with the grid, the control room, and the mezzanine. Is the building sealed off?”

“People’re coming from all over. I have an idea, though. Meet me just inside the performance hall doors.”

I quickly descended the last flight of stairs and found her standing by a small hatch, much like the one we’d taken to the grid, mounted halfway up the wall.

“Where’s this lead?” I asked.

“It’s like the grid in reverse-they call it the plenum. It’s a crawl space between the floor and the dirt, used to circulate air – 1930s ventilation technology. It’s got fans big enough to replace all the air in the building in three minutes.”

She pulled on the handle and swung it open. Immediately, I heard and felt the rush of a steady wind sucking by the door. “And it’s unlocked, which it shouldn’t be.”

She hopped up onto the threshold, reached inside and hit a light switch. Before me was an enormous concrete chamber, gray, featureless, and about four feet high, stretching away in a downward curve as far as I could see. The dirt floor, covered in thick plastic sheets, alternated between broad avenues leading in the direction of the stage, and six-foot deep trenches that ran alongside.

“Those are for any water run-off,” Audrey explained, “in case of flood or whatever. I bet my butt he went through here. There’s a door connecting it to the fan room.”

I hesitated, although I liked the notion that I couldn’t fall any distance from here. “Are the two of us going to be enough?”

She was already swinging her legs inside. “Sure. It’s wide open and well lit.”

I climbed up beside her as she updated the others by radio. It was true that by simply walking the entire breadth of the building stooped over, we could check on the ditches just as I had the rows of seats in the mezzanine-and with similar results. The difference in environments however, was considerable. Where the first had been lofty, dark, elegant, and filled with music, the plenum was claustrophobic, starkly lit, and energized by a dry, odorless, virtually soundless wind. I felt I’d stepped from an opulent prior century into the vision of a lifeless future.

Audrey eventually led the way downslope to the chamber’s back wall, and to another door next to a large wire mesh window. Here the wind was at its most powerful, being sucked from around us in a steady, dull cyclone, lifting our hair and riffling our clothes, drawn through the opening by an enormous, ancient impeller fan that moved in a blur, but emitted no more sound than the element it was consuming.

Audrey drew open the door, ushered me through, and followed me into a bare cement room dominated by the fan. Over our heads, in place of a ceiling, was a louvered panel through which the air was pushed through the rest of the building. We left the room through a solid steel door and found ourselves standing, incongruously disheveled, in a brightly lit, silent, cement walled hallway.

Audrey spoke in a whisper. “The way things stand now, the top, the bottom, and the front of the building have been checked. I’ve sent people in to clear the main hall and business offices. Duncan and Jonathon’re covering the area above and behind the stage. That leaves this area,” she gestured around us. “Three floors of hallways, dressing areas, utility rooms, and Christ knows what else, all tucked under the stage. We’re at the bottom now. I figure if we just head up floor by floor, room by room, we can squeeze him between us and the people up top.”

I merely nodded as she radioed the others, enjoying being a part of someone else’s attack plan. I assumed the pain in my shoulder would disappear in time, but I was happy to be one of the soldiers for once.

Audrey’s strategy worked well for the floor we were on. It had a single staircase heading up at the far end of the hallway, so we were able to cover one another during the room-to-room search. The next floor, however proved another matter.

Reaching it, Audrey explained, “Two halls, two staircases, a shit-load of rooms. This and the one above are where most of the action is when things are up and running. I’ll take the far end and work this way. You start from here and meet me. Keep your radio handy.”

I was too slow reacting. I didn’t like her proposal, and knew it wasn’t necessary. If Lenny was stuck between us and the others, it meant time and patience were on our side. Flooding the next two floors with people as they became available was the prudent course. But fatigue had kicked in, creating a numbing submissiveness. I merely watched her trot down the hall and vanish through a fire door without saying a word.

Once she was gone, however, doubt became apprehension. All the standard protocols had been overwhelmed by spontaneity and a crisis mentality. I knew that with extra personnel already spreading throughout the building, calm would soon be restored, probably with the arrival of a senior officer. I’d been beaned by Lenny’s spotlight barely fifteen minutes ago, after all, not long in the life of an emergency. I could even hear the music still reverberating throughout the building.

But as I began going from door to door, my discomfort grew.

I was pulling open the third door along the hallway when I heard a distant thump, dull enough to be barely noticeable. I stood stock-still, waiting for something more. Then I tried the radio. “Audrey? You okay?”

The dead silence sent me running.

I found her struggling to get to her feet in the hallway beyond the fire door. “You all right?”

She pushed me away, already staggering toward the distant staircase. “Son of a bitch jumped me. Went up.”

I grabbed her arm to steady her, noticing a smear of blood and a large swelling by her temple, along with a look of determined rage. It never occurred to me to try to get her to sit down. I did, however, update everyone by radio.

The stairs led straight up to stage level, dark, grandiose, and reverberating with music. After the bright, bland corridors below, the contrast was disorienting. Stepping onto the stage itself, I saw people with flashlights running down the aisles from the front of the theater, and heard, for the first time, the orchestra begin to falter.

A sonorous crash indicated why. Springing from beneath the scaffold-like risers on which the rearmost musicians were seated, Lenny Markham made a dash for the opposite side of the stage, using the middle tier of the orchestra as a shortcut. Like a football player with the crowd cheering him on, he pushed and shoved his way along, scattering bodies and instruments to an accompaniment of shouts and curses, with Audrey and me in close pursuit.

But Lenny had the advantage. Following in his destructive wake proved slow going, and by the time we reached the other side, he’d disappeared into the wings.

By now, people were converging from every corner. Audrey ignored them all. With her knowledge of the building’s details and her passion to nail the man who’d made her look bad, she steamrolled her way past everybody and disappeared through a door in the far wall. The most I could do was ride shotgun.

We descended another set of stairs to a hallway much like the one we’d just left-well-lit, empty, and utterly quiet.

“You sure he came down here?” I asked.

“He didn’t have a choice,” she answered, checking the first door.

It led to a large, dark, ghostly room with two oversized furnaces squatting in its middle like prehistoric monsters. We walked around them, sweeping the corners with my small light.

I was headed back out when Audrey stopped me. “Hang on. There’s one other place.”

She stepped up to a door I hadn’t noticed, about three feet tall, mounted flush to the building’s exterior wall. “It’s the old coal bin,” she explained. “Used to feed the furnaces before they converted to oil.”

She crouched and grabbed the door’s handle. At that moment, it flew back and smacked her in the forehead, sending her spread-eagled on the floor. I glanced at her quickly as I stepped past and saw her weakly reach for her head. I huddled by the side of the door and pushed it wide open with my foot, gun in hand. “Lenny, this is the police. Come out with your hands up.”

I heard a frantic scrambling, as from a huge rodent struggling to run up a gravel hill. Gun and penlight held as a unit, I swung around the corner to look inside.

What confronted me was a room so vast and dark, and so filled with cloying dust, it virtually swallowed what little glimmer my small light could put out. I could barely discern, as if through a fog, a slight, pale distant blur, at which I shouted, “Stop,” to predictable results.

I stepped inside the room, aiming to give chase.

It was then the meaning of the strange noise I’d heard became clear. My ankles disappeared into a crunchy quicksand of loose coal, throwing me off balance and pitching me forward. The bin, long abandoned, still housed a half load of fuel, probably dating back decades, and it was through this that I had to pursue the pale figure up ahead, stumbling, slipping, and choking on a cloud undisturbed for years.

Half way across the bin, a sudden flash of light made me instinctively leap to one side. The acrid, dust-choked tomb was abruptly filled with diffused sunshine, sparkling off millions of dark airborne particles like a perverse parody of a religious revelation. I squinted at its source and briefly saw the haloed outline of Lenny Markham as he scrambled into the light, and escaped to freedom.

My headache returning with a vengeance, I slowly reholstered my gun.