Red Herring (2010)

The Plot

A woman is raped and murdered at home. Joe Gunther and his VBI team begin conducting interviews and canvasses. A suspect list is begun. And then another woman dies at home, an apparent suicide by hanging. Totally unrelated? It certainly seems that way. There are no connections between the two.

Aside for one very odd similarity: A single drop of blood is found at both scenes. And while they don’t belong to either victim, they also don’t come from a single source. So, whose are they?

A third person is found dead—a young man, far north of the other two, seemingly a case of drunk driving, with death resulting from an accident. But a third drop of blood is discovered on the smashed vehicle’s dashboard.

It has clearly become a case involving a literal RED HERRING.

But who is the culprit? Why does he sign his death scenes so? What is his purpose? And why all the theatrics?

Three cases, designed to look like what they are not. But do they deserve to be linked when there’s but one clue connecting them? The VBI needs to follow every lead, which not only takes them across all of southeastern Vermont, but also to the Brookhaven National Lab on Long Island, in order to use that facility’s cutting edge equipment and expertise. The few available clues have to be analyzed down to the atomic level in order to discover their secrets.

And in the meantime? Vermont is abuzz with a gubernatorial campaign, in which popular maverick Gail Zigman is competing against a long-time incumbent—and her popularity and omnipresence is putting Joe’s new love-in-life, Lyn Silva, onto the sidelines. Additionally, as Joe brings increasing pressure to bear on the killer, the latter begins to ponder how he can best shatter the life of his law enforcement nemesis.

And what better way than to attack those closest to Joe’s heart?

An excerpt from Red Herring
—published September, 2010

Chapter One

Doreen Ferenc slipped her nightgown over her head and let it fall the length of her body and gently settle onto her shoulders. This was the reward of every day, this threshold moment, when, as though dropping a heavy burden, she exchanged her regular clothing, complete with belts, buttons, zippers, and elastic, for the sensual, almost weightless comfort of a simple shift of light cotton.

Not that the day had been more onerous than usual. Her mom had been in good spirits, minimally judgmental of the nursing home staff. They’d served Indian pudding for lunch, a perennial favorite. Her mother had once been an expert at the dessert, and it had led them both down a path of happy memories while they’d worked on the quilt for Doreen’s new nephew. Doreen’s brother, Mark, had recently married a much younger woman in Nevada, where they lived, and she’d just delivered their first child.

Doreen and Mark weren’t particularly close, as siblings went, but they got along, and their mom loved them both. She preferred Mark, as Doreen well knew, but only because he was in a position to present her with a grandchild. Doreen had never found marriage appealing, and by and large didn’t like kids, which, thank God, she was now safely beyond having anyway. The quilt had become a salutary talisman of good tidings to which Doreen could contribute guilt-free.

She left the bedroom in her bare feet and dropped her clothes into the laundry hamper in the darkened bathroom, pausing a moment to admire the unexpected snow falling from the night sky onto the enormous skylight she’d spent too much money having installed. The house was an almost tacky prefab ranch—virtually a trailer with pretensions—but she knew in her heart that it was also the house she’d most likely die in, so why not splurge a little, like on the skylight and the heat she poured on to make the whole house as toasty as in mid-July? She loved winters in Vermont, including flukily premature ones like this year’s. She’d known them her whole life, and had, at various times, enjoyed skiing, snowball fights, and even shoveling the driveway. But no longer. Now she just wanted to watch the weather from the comfort of an evenly heated, boring modern house that was fussed over by a handyman man complete with a snowplow—assuming he’d attached the plow to his pickup yet. She had started working fulltime at seventeen, decades earlier, and now she was going to enjoy all the fruits of a slightly early retirement.

Entertaining such thoughts, she pursued the next step in her nightly routine, and entered the small kitchen. There, she dished out a single scoop of vanilla ice cream, splashed an appreciable quantity of brandy over its rounded top, and retired to the living room couch, which was strategically angled so she could watch TV from a reclining position.

It was snowing—heavily, too—and only October. People hadn’t switched to snow tires, sand deliveries were still being made to town road crews, and cars were going to be decorating ditches all over the state by morning. But Doreen didn’t have to care about any of it. She was as snug as the proverbial bug.

Settled at last, she hit the remote, dialed in her favorite channel, and heard the doorbell ring.

“Damn,” she murmured, glancing at the digital clock on the set. It was just before ten pm. “Who on earth?”

She placed her bowl on the coffee table, struggled up from her place of comfort, and sighed heavily as she crossed the room to the tiny mudroom and the front door beyond it.

Enclosing herself in the mudroom to preserve the heat, she slipped on an overcoat from the row of nearby pegs, hit the outside light and called out, “Who is it?” She could see the outline of a man standing before the frosted glass of the door.

A weak voice answered, “You don’t know me, ma’am. My name’s Lyle Robinson. I’ve just wrecked my car about a half mile up. I was wondering if I could use your phone.”

So much for keeping immune from the woes of poor weather. She then heard him cough and bend over as he clutched his chest.

“Are you all right?”

“I think so, ma’am. I wasn’t wearing my seatbelt, like a damn fool… Sorry. Don’t mean to offend. I think I just bruised my chest, is all.”

She hesitated.

“Ma’am?” he said next. “Not that it’ll matter, but I’m a cousin of Jim and Clara Robinson. They used to live just outside Saxtons River. I don’t know if you know them.”

“I do,” she blurted out. “So, you’re related to Sherry?”

“Yes, ma’am, although what she’s doing way out west is beyond any of us.”

Doreen threw open the door.

She was only aware of two things after that: the bare blade of an enormous knife, held just two inches before her eyes, and, behind it, a man disguised by a hooded sweatshirt worn backwards, two holes cut in the fabric for his eyes. She now understood why his voice had sounded weak.

“Okay, Dory,” he said. “Drop the coat and step back inside. You and I are gonna get acquainted.”