Gatekeeper

The Plot

A known drug dealer is found hanging from a railroad trestle in Rutland, the daughter of a political bigwig is dead of an overdose in the man’s apartment, and a young woman (Gail Zigman’s niece) is shot while trying to rob a convenience store for drug money. Heroin is hitting Vermont in unprecedented quantities. Vermont Bureau of Investigation special agent Joe Gunther (and Zigman’s long time partner) is called upon by the governor to put his agency’s talents to work staunching this flood. Unfortunately for Joe, headstrong colleague Sammie Martens takes the initiative and goes undercover in Holyoke Massachusetts before a more organized operation can be put in place. Does Joe pull her out, or take advantage of this lucky but very risky break? Is Sammie fully prepared for what she’s about to encounter? Meanwhile, Gail Zigman, stunned by her niece’s plight, heads off on her own to discover what led to this tragedy, and Lester Spinney — another of Joe’s co-workers — finds that the scourge of drugs may have hit inside his own family, forcing him to put his job in jeopardy. Taking place in Holyoke and Brattleboro, Springfield, and Rutland, Vermont, Gatekeeper forces Joe Gunther to choose between possibly saving the lives of countless potential victims, and those of the friends he cherishes. It also offers some insight into the threat that is currently in the headlines of Vermont’s daily newspapers.

An excerpt from Gatekeeper

“That’s five dollars even.”

Arnie Weller looked over the shoulder of the balding man holding out a ten dollar bill and checked on the whereabouts of the young woman he’d seen entering a few minutes earlier.

“Out of ten,” he automatically chanted, not bothering to meet his customer’s eyes. Where was she? He turned briefly to the cash register, his fingers dancing across the keyboard in a blur. He caught the spring-loaded drawer against his hip as it opened, quickly made change, and proffered it to the man.

“Want a bag?” He asked, back to surveilling the rear of the store.

There was a telling pause from the customer, forcing Arnie to reluctantly focus on him. “What?”

The man smiled. “I bought gas.”

Arnie stared at him, briefly at a total loss. “Sorry. Have a nice night.”

Shaking his head slightly, the man slipped from Arnie’s line of vision, through the double glass doors to the right, and into the night where his pickup was parked beside one of the gas pumps.

Arnie saw what he thought was the top of the girl’s head pass behind a row of stacked boxes and six-packs near the bank of fridges along the far wall. Hardest place to see anyone, he thought angrily, still nursing a grudge. Two weeks ago, he’d asked a so-called security expert for an estimate on rigging the place with cameras. One week later, he’d bought a gun instead. For a whole lot less.

Bastard.

Arnie Weller ran a clean store, paid his taxes, took care of his employees, most of whom were worthless. He dealt with the chiseling gas company, the wholesale suppliers who screwed him out of habit, and the endless state forms issued monthly to make his life difficult. He paid his insurance, although they never settled his claims, donated to charitable causes he didn’t agree with, and belonged to a chamber of commerce he thought was as useless as tits on a bull. He even cleaned the bathrooms twice a day, despite and not because of the disgusting condition he found them in, each and every time. If his customers were pigs, it didn’t mean he’d join them. And he put up with the disrespect, the surliness, the petty thefts, and the general offensiveness of the young people and trailer trash who supplied most of his retail business.

All in all, Arnie believed, he was a model businessman, employer, and patriotic citizen.

And he despised every aspect of it.

Three times, he’d been robbed in the past two months, once by a man with a hammer, and twice by people carrying guns. Arnie had known the kid with the hammer and had told the cops right off. They’d caught him hours later buying drugs with the till money. The little jerk had ended up with barely a scratch, being under age. No record, no jail time, just a few weeks in rehab. To Arnie’s thinking, hardly the penalty for threatening a man’s life. This was Vermont, after all, famously one of the best states in which to break any law you liked.

But Arnie had suffered nightmares for weeks, envisioning that hammer coming down on his skull. And that was before the two guys with guns. They had really scared him.

The first had been so nervous, Arnie had worried more about the gun oing off accidentally–the ultimate irony. The kid had worn a ski mask, dark with sweat, and his hand had trembled as if he’d been sick. Even his voice had cracked. If the barrel of the gun hadn’t been so real, Arnie might’ve even felt sorry for the poor bastard. But the gun had been real, and the son-of-a-bitch had hit Arnie across the head with it just before he left, for no reason at all.

They’d caught that one, too–a drug user like the first–and him at least they’d put away. But Arnie still had the scar, and the flash of realization that had accompanied its acquisition that one of these days, he might actually be killed for running this marginal, ball-busting convenience store.

Then the latest one had shown up.

Not a kid. Not nervous. An out-and-out bad man.

The gun had been bigger, the hand hadn’t shaken, and he’d worn the hood of his sweatshirt pulled down over half his face, giving him an almost demonic appearance. And he’d clearly enjoyed his work. He’d come around the counter, forced Arnie to the floor, face down, and had emptied the cash drawer himself. He’d even stuffed some Slim Jims into his pocket as an afterthought. Then he’d knelt next to Arnie’s head, had shoved the barrel of his gun into Arnie’s ear, and had cocked the hammer, chuckling all the while.

“Tell me where you live, little man,” the man had whispered.

Arnie had told him, the dread rising up in him, making it hard to breath.

And had bought the gun.

That hadn’t turned out too well. Instead of supplying him the comfort he’d hoped for, the gun had nestled under Arnie’s untucked shirt like a tumor threatening his life. He started judging everyone who entered the place in relationship to the gun–would they force him to use it or not? The anger he’d channeled into visions of shooting the hooded man, were he to dare to show his face again, was gradually replaced by the fear that he really might return–and that Arnie would die for having presumed a cold-bloodedness he knew he didn’t possess.

Tentatively, as he’d done a hundred times since buying the damn thing, Arnie touched the butt of the gun through his shirt with his fingertips, as if the bulk of it against his stomach weren’t enough to confirm its presence.

They were alone in the store, the girl and he, and he knew goddamned well she was hiding back there, biding her time to step forward.

He’d recognized the type, of course, as soon as he’d caught sight of her–underfed, dirty hair, her clothes a mess and probably not her own. Her body language upon entering hadn’t met the two standards of legitimacy–either looking around to get a bearing or heading straight for a known product. Instead, it had been like a rat’s running for cover–from the door to the aisle offering the most cover from Arnie’s view. He’d seen that in shoplifters before. And with both the hammer kid and the nervous man with the ski mask. Although not the last guy.

Still, she was only a girl.

“Miss?” He finally called out, doubtful of the authority he tried to inject into his voice. “Is there something I can help you find?”

“The money,” she answered from a totally different direction. And very nearby.

He swung around, startled, stumbling slightly as his feet tangled. She hadn’t stayed by the fridges. Somehow, she’d circled around, coming at him from behind his own counter, slipping through the narrow gap beyond the hot-dog machine at the far end. She was ghostly pale, her red, sunken eyes resting on dark pouches of swollen skin. She looked barely able to stand, much less resist an attack by him.

But in her hand she held a knife, large and glinting in the light, and the gun against his abdomen suddenly felt like an ice cube, sending a deep wave of cold from his stomach out to his extremities.

“Take it easy,” he said.

“Give me the money,” she ordered, her voice barely a whisper.

“You need a doctor.”

She stepped closer and gestured with the knife. What strength she had was clearly being routed to that hand. He had no doubt whatsoever she could harm him if necessary.

And yet, inexplicably to him, staring at another weapon in still another loser’s fist suddenly reversed the coldness he’d just experienced, flushing his face with rage and making him at least think of some heroic counteraction.

But that’s where it stayed–in the thought process. The impotence remained, compounding his anger. He turned toward the cash register, humiliated, presenting her with his back. “You fucking bastards.”

The sound of the till springing open matched the electronic ding of someone crossing the threshold of the store’s far entrance–the one near the hot dog machine behind the girl.

Despite it being summertime, the man entering had the hood of his sweatshirt pulled partly over his face.

They were a team.

Seeing his nightmare brought back to life threw Arnie into a second reversal. Yielding to fear and fury combined, he pulled his gun from under his shirt, swiveled to face the girl, who was looking over her shoulder at the man in the hood, and fired.

The explosion was huge, deafening Arnie, reverberating off the walls, dropping the girl like a pile of clothes to the floor, and sending the hooded man staggering back in alarm against the door behind him.

His hood slipped from his head as his head smacked against the glass and Arnie, his gun now trained on him, his finger tight on the trigger, saw a wide-eyed, pimply teenager he knew well from past transactions.

They stared at each other for a long, very quiet moment before the teenager finally managed to stammer, “Oh, shit. Please don’t.”

Arnie saw him raise his empty hands in surrender and finally lowered the gun, the realization of what he’d just done slowly settling on him like a fog.

Crumpled and silent on the floor, the girl began leaking a dark puddle of blood.