Open Season (1988)

Open Season

The Plot

Originally entitled The Stalking Horse (a title that was used on another book published just a month before this was set to appear,) Open Season concerns a mysterious man in a ski mask, who forces the police to reopen an old murder case by compromising all the members of the old jury. Joe, soon realizing that his department is being used as a stalking horse to flush out the real murderer, must discover who that person is, before the man in the ski mast gets to him first.

An excerpt from Open Season

Joe drives to New York State to confirm the identity of a man who’s been stalking the Brattleboro area in a murderous rampage, and who up to this moment has been known only as Ski Mask, as befits his disguise.

Voorheesville, which I reached by heading due west on Route 9 through Bennington and Troy, was the epitome of the bedroom community. I’m sure it had a town center, or at least a cluster of tasteful buildings passing for one, but from what I could see, it consisted of mile after mile of undulating, well-kept interweaving blacktop, hemmed in by tamed trees and half-seen, tidy houses. Some of these were pretty grand-English Tudor near-misses and combination Federalist/Southern plantations with swimming pools out front-but for the most part they were white, wooden, neat, and reclusive. They clung to the centers of their two-acre lots, surrounded by enough shrubs and trees to shield them from all but a glimpse of their neighbor’s roof.

I stopped at a filling station among an odd and incongruous collection of fake-Georgian commercial buildings and got directions to the address Brandt had given me. It was located in what must have been the low-rent district. The trees were not as tall, the lawns not as large, the shrubs not as fat and the houses, with a couple of garish exceptions, were downright self-effacing. Along a spur marked Dead End, cluttered with split-levels on half-acre lots, I found a mailbox marked Stark.

I pulled into the driveway and parked in front of a one-car garage. Above the door, its six-foot wingspan painted in peeling gold, was a wooden bald eagle. To the right of the garage, parallel to the driveway, was a one-and-a-half story white clapboard house as lacking in distinctive features as the one-dimensional boxes in children’s drawings. I walked up the shoveled path to the front door and knocked.

The door swung back two feet, revealing a short, thin, white-haired woman who instantly struck me as the cleanest, neatest person I’d ever met. There was not a wrinkle or a fold out of place. Her dimly flowered housedress and cardigan sweater looked as if they were on a hanger; her brown lace shoes were spotless and scuff-free; her face and hands pale pink and practically shimmering; every hair was rigidly in place.

“Yes?” Her voice was barely above a whisper.

“Mrs. Stark?”

“That’s right.”

I pulled out my badge, something I rarely did at home. “My name is Lieutenant Gunther. I work for the police department in Brattleboro, Vermont. I called you a few hours ago?”

She nodded, just barely.

“I have no jurisdiction down here, so you’re under no obligation to talk with me, but I was wondering if I could ask you a few questions about your daughter, Pamela.”

Her eyes, which had been focused somewhere over my shoulder, dropped to my shoes. In that one gesture, I sensed some vital part of her anatomy giving away. She said, just audibly, “Of course,” and turning from the door, vanished into the gloom of the hallway beyond.

I hesitated-the door was still barely open-before I followed her inside. From what I could see of it as my eyes adjusted to the dark, the hall was empty. I walked its ten-foot length and looked to both sides. To the left was another hallway leading presumably to some bedrooms; to the right was a totally green living room. Mrs. Stark was sitting on the edge of a straight-backed chair, her immaculate hands in her smooth lap, looking at the green shag carpeting. She seemed so lost in her thoughts, I wasn’t sure she remembered I was there.

The room was dark, the only light a green seepage through thick drapes drawn across a large patio window. Hanging on the walls, along with the occasional half-visible picture, were several military swords-some cavalry, some oriental-four glass-faced display frames filled with medals and insignia, and two oil paintings, both depicting modern battle scenes, one featuring World War II-vintage tanks, the other Vietnam-era helicopters. Above the dark green mantle at the far end of the room was another eagle, surrounded by gold stars. The rest of the room looked more normal-no army cots or pup tents-but I did notice that most of the room’s furnishings were equipped with sanitary fail-safe devices: antimacassars on the backs of armchairs, a doily under every lamp, glass cups under the table legs, small rugs on the carpeting in front of every chair. The entire room was as neat and antiseptic and green as a freshly filled fish tank. The only sound I could hear was a clock ticking somewhere.

I walked over to the sofa and sat gingerly, conscious of squashing its pillows’ perfect plumpness. “Mrs. Stark, when did you last see your daughter?”

She looked up at me slowly. “Three-four years ago.”

“And where was that?”

“Here. She was living at home. She and the Colonel had a fight, only this time she left-forever.”

“The Colonel?”

“My husband.”

“And where is he?”

“Gone. I don’t know.” She went back to staring at the floor.

I looked around the room again. Of all the scenes I’d played in my head prior to coming here, this was not one of them.

“Did he go shopping or something?”

“No. He left.”

“When?”

“A couple of months ago.”

I wanted to return to her daughter, but something tugged at me to keep this line going. “Why did he leave?”

“To find her.”

“Did he?”

I don’t know. He found something.” One hand rose slowly and barely touched her forehead with its fingertips before resettling next to its peer. It was like the kiss from a solicitous bird. “She is dead, isn’t she?”

“Yes, I am afraid so.”

She let out the softest of sighs.

“And now he’s dead too.”

“Your husband?”

She nodded again.

“Not that I know of.” I reached into my pocket and pulled out the photograph of the late Kimberly Harris. “Mrs. Stark, I hate to do this, but I have to ask. Is this a picture of your daughter?”

I crossed the room and laid the picture in her lap, face up. She didn’t touch it, didn’t react, but she did look.

“Yes,” she said simply, her voice unchanged. It was an utterance from someone drained of any emotional reserves. She was like a well of tears long run dry.

“If your daughter left home several years ago, why did your husband wait so long to go after her?”

Another sigh escaped her, a sound so gentle in this quiet green room I could almost see it. “They say fathers and daughters are supposed to have a special bond, don’t they?”

“I’ve heard that.”

“Colonel Stark and Pam had that once, when she was a little girl. They seemed able to talk to each other without saying a word. It troubled me, because of what he did for a living. I was afraid that one day something would happen to him, that he would be gone forever, and she would be destroyed.”

“What did he do for a living?”

She looked surprised. “He was a soldier.”

It was my turn to nod.

She didn’t say anything for a moment. I was afraid my interruption might have broken her concentration, but she went on. “Perhaps that’s what should have happened. She would have loved him if he’d died. Instead, they grew older, and began to fight.”

“About what?”

“Nothing. Everything. Private things. She was no longer a little girl. And she grew up to be a young woman. I think that surprised him. He wanted everything to be the same. Of course, it wasn’t.” The hand fluttered up again and settled down. “It’s a little confusing. I don’t know. Maybe he loved her too much-not like a real father and daughter.”

A sour taste came to my mouth. I remembered Susan Lucey saying something that had struck the same chord. “What do you mean, exactly?”

She shook her head slightly and shrugged.

“The Colonel was more than just a soldier, wasn’t he?”

“Oh, yes. Very special; very secret. He would just go off.”

I thought of the bug I’d found in my apartment. Very special. “So they had one last big fight and she left?”

“That’s right.”

“Then what happened?”

“Nothing.”

“I mean, how did your husband react after her departure?”

“He didn’t.”

“What did he do?”

“He left on assignment for two years.”

“And when he came back?”

“He was different.”

“How so?”

“He talked about her all the time. He thought she’d be here when he returned. He couldn’t believe it-that she had really left. He thought I was lying when I told him I hadn’t heard from her since that day.”

“The day of the fight?”

“Yes”

“What was the fight about?”

She looked at a spot on the wall about a foot above my head. “They fought a lot.”

I took a shot in the dark. “About her behavior… like with men, maybe?”

“Yes.” There was a pause. “Boys her age… the Colonel was a jealous man.”

The odd taste returned to my mouth. “So what happened after he discovered she’d been gone all that time and wasn’t coming back?”

“He was convinced she was dead-that that’s the reason she hadn’t come back to him. Some man must have killed her.” She emphasized the word “man”. “He started looking for her, calling police departments, checking the newspapers in the library, going on trips. Finally, he left for good.”

“About two months ago.”

“That’s right.”

“Do you know where he was headed?”

“No.”

“Did he mention Boston or Brattleboro or Vermont?”

“He didn’t mention anything.”

“The day he left, did you know he was going for good, or did you just think he was off on another of his little outings?

“I felt he was going on duty.”

“How’s that?”

“When he’d get his orders to go somewhere I couldn’t be told about, he’d call that ‘going on duty’. I always knew when that was about to happen because he changed. That’s what it was like.”

“And he’s never gotten in touch?”

“No. But I didn’t expect him to. He didn’t do that.”

“You mean send letters or call home?”

“That’s right.”

“How about when Pam was little?”

“He did then. He’d call her sometimes, but only when she was little.”

“You mentioned he’d go places you weren’t supposed to know about. Was he in Intelligence?”

“Yes. Maybe.”

“You don’t know?”

“Not really.”

“Is he still on active duty?”

“I don’t know.”

“Do you know who to call in the government about something like this? A superior officer or something? What was his branch of service, by the way? The US Army?”

“We started in the Army, but I’m not sure any more; it stopped being normal a long time ago. I don’t know who to call.”

“Has anyone called you about him?”

“No.”

I closed my eyes for a second. This was one weird couple. “I don’t mean to pry, Mrs. Stark, but I think your husband is in big trouble and I need to know everything I can about him. I get the feeling he was a little unusual – that is, he may have had unusual habits. Is there anything you can tell me about him that might help me to find him?”

She frowned and leaned forward in her chair, picking something invisible off the rug and putting it in her cardigan pocket. Then she rose and walked over to the glowing green curtain. I expected her to throw it open and let in the sunlight, but she just stood there, her nose almost touching the fabric. Her hands reached out to either side and her fingers played gently on the folds of the curtain, making it ripple like murky sea water.

Her words, when they came, were slow and carefully chosen. “Our marriage was not a conventional one, Lieutenant. We shared very little. I did as I was told and he supported me. I it hadn’t been for Pamela we might still be together. Having a daughter was very complicated-I don’t know why. Maybe we all got too close.” She shook her head and repeated. “I don’t know.”

I decided not to press it. “Did your husband have an office or a den I could look at?”

She didn’t move. “Yes. It’s upstairs to the right.”

I got up and left the room. I’d noticed the staircase when I’d come in. The office was a small room tucked under the eaves, half its ceiling sliced away by the slant of the roof. But it was white and brightly lit by two unshaded windows-a positive relief from the funereal gloom downstairs.

Again the walls were like those of a military museum, covered with odds and ends: bayonets, several old rifles, more medals, a couple of helmets, photographs of men in uniform, either in the field or all spruced up as if for graduation. I looked for a face common to all the pictures, figuring that would be Stark, but I couldn’t do it. The hats or helmets and uniforms-not to mention the obvious passage of years-made them all look pretty much alike. I did notice, though, that the uniforms weren’t just American. One shot showed what was definitely a French group and at least two others had an anonymous Latin American look to them. Our boy apparently got around.

The room was dominated by a large antique desk. I sat behind it and went through its drawers. Its contents were conspicuously neutral. A filing cabinet against one wall was empty except for one .45-caliber Colt semiautomatic pistol. I copied its serial number and left it there. I looked around a little longer with no results and returned to the living room. Mrs. Stark was sitting again in her chair, just as before.

“Was your husband carrying a lot when he left the last time?”

“No. Just his duffel bag, as usual.”

“What about the contents of his filing cabinet?”

“He came for those later.”

“When?”

“I don’t know. He must have waited until I was out of the house. He did that sometimes.”

“You mean sneak into his own house?”

“Yes.”

I passed on that one. “Would you have a photograph of him and your daughter?”

“Yes.” She got up and pulled a framed picture out of a drawer under the coffee table. It showed the three of them in front of this house, in the summer. They all wore shorts and T-shirts, but each looked pulled in from a different part of the world. Mrs. Stark, old and demure in Bermudas and a sedate polo shirt; the Colonel, hard-eyed, crewcut, tall and lithe, dressed in Marine-style gym clothes; and Pam, her face cold and remote, turned away from the camera, wearing very brief running shorts and a shirt that revealed her bare midriff. None of them touched one another, none of them smiled, and only Stark stared straight into the lens with the pale blue eyes that had so frightened Susan Lucey-and which I had seen for the first time when Ski Mask pulled me out onto the landing of my apartment.

“What was Pamela like, as a daughter?”

“Angry, like her father.”

“She ever get into trouble?”

“Trouble?”

“Yeah, like at school. You know, the usual things nowadays-drugs, sex, stuff like that.”

She looked straight at me for a long moment. It was the first time she’d made direct eye contact. “That was very controversial.”

I waited for more, but that was it. This woman’s laundry was not for public airing-especially this laundry, I thought. I held up the photograph. “Can I borrow this? I’ll send it back as soon as I have copies made.”

“Yes. It doesn’t matter.”

I pulled a business card out of my wallet and handed it to her. “I’ll get out of your hair. Thanks for your help. Do call me if he gets in touch, will you?”

She took the card without looking at it.

I walked toward the entrance hall with the picture in my hand. She stayed where she was. I hesitated at the door. “Mrs. Stark, is there anything you would like to know about your daughter’s death? You can ask me if you’d like-it’s all right.”

She stood there in the middle of the room, arms slack by her sides, again looking into some nebulous middle distance, as abandoned and lonely as the only living bird in a desolated forest. “No.”

 

I let myself out.