The Dark Root (1995)

The Plot

A brutal home invasion by Asian gang members against a prominent Brattleboro Asian family set Joe Gunther on the trail of an underground railroad running through Vermont from Canada to Boston, New York and other US urban centers, carrying drugs, illegal aliens, and other contraband. But why the sudden outbreak of violence in what has been a quietly running operation for years? To uncover the culprits amid a vicious turf battle between rival gangs, Joe enlists the help of the FBI, the Border Patrol, and the Canadian Mounties in a chase that takes him right to the heart of Montreal’s Chinatown.

An excerpt from The Dark Root

Three months later, with the snow nestled only into those nooks and crannies where the sun couldn’t reach it, I got a call at home-our home, I was becoming used to saying-which Gail Zigman and I had recently bought on Orchard Street in the quasi-rural no-man’s-land between Brattleboro and smaller “West B,” as the locals call it.

The caller was Sergeant George Capullo, an experienced patrol veteran of many years. “Sorry to bother you, Joe.”

It was after midnight. I blinked at the jet black skylight above the bed, trying to clear my brain. “What’s up, George?” Gail rolled over beside me, her eyes still shut, and slid a naked thigh across my legs.

“We got a call for a disturbance on Wantastiquet Drive about forty minutes ago. A neighbor reported a big commotion and people screaming next door. By the time we got there, everything was quiet and the homeowners wouldn’t let us in.”

“Who’re we talking about?”

“Thomas Lee and family. Owns the Blue Willow. He’s got a split lip and a bad cut on his forehead, but he won’t cooperate — doesn’t want an ambulance, won’t let us in, and claims he fell downstairs. If both he and the neighbor are telling the truth, I’m guessing he took a good half hour to hit the floor.”

“The neighbor see anything?”

“That’s why I’m calling. She saw a dark green sporty number with out-of-state plates peeling out right before we showed up. She didn’t get the registration, but she thought she saw several heads through the car’s back window. Normally, I would’ve forced the issue and demanded entry, to see if everybody was okay, but I really don’t smell a domestic here. I think something else is going on, and I thought you might like an early crack at it.”

I reluctantly slid free from Gail, still speaking softly on the phone. “Okay, George. I’m on my way.”

Wantastiquet Drive is not a neighborhood the police are called to visit much. A gentle, peaceful street, trailing off of the heavily traveled Putney Road, its postwar, middle-class homes are the sort one typically associates with suburban New Jersey. The lawns are littered with swing sets and bicycles, and basketball backboards hang like recreational targets over cluttered two-car garages.

The address George had given me was on the Connecticut River side of the street, although the implication was misleading — any potential view of the river was blocked by several rows of tall, sound-absorbing trees, planted to block the noise from the train tracks at the foot of the steep embankment.

I parked my car behind George’s, a few houses down from the Lee residence. He was sitting alone with his lights out, the gentle country music from his radio occasionally drowned out by some terse murmuring on the scanner. I squatted down by his open window. From what I could see, every single light was on at the Lee’s, in contrast to the tomblike darkness of its neighbors. The effect told less of a nest of night owls, and more of a forlorn desire to ward off evil with artificial brightness.

“Any movement?”

George shifted the chew of tobacco he had stuck in his cheek. “Nope.”

“You said a neighbor heard people screaming. She understand any of it?”

“Not a word. And the car could’ve been from anywhere. She only knew it wasn’t Vermont because the numbers were dark on light, instead of the other way around.”

“Didn’t get the make of the car?”

He laughed softly. “It was dark green, low-slung, and had four wheels. She’d probably swear to that much on a bible.”

I straightened back up. “Well, let’s give it another shot.”

We cut across the lawn to the house’s front door, taking advantage of the angle to peer through the windows as we went. But translucent curtains, while they let the light out, didn’t show much of what was going on inside. I paused for a moment before ringing the doorbell. All was quiet.

It took several attempts at the bell and my pounding on the door to finally rouse a response from the other side.

“Who is it?” The voice was male, slightly high-pitched, and hesitant.

“This is Lieutenant Joe Gunther, of the Brattleboro Police. Could I have a few words with you, Mr. Lee?”

“We already spoke to your men.”

“I realize that, sir, but you have to understand that this is an unusual situation. We need to talk.”

I guessed it was no more than the man’s innate sense of politeness that got him to reluctantly open the door, if only a crack. His injuries, to my unfortunately practiced eye, had all the earmarks of a classic beating.

“I fell down the stairs,” he said in careful English. “I am sorry I disturbed others, but I am all right-in perfect health.”

“Is the rest of your family here?”

“Yes. We are all here. Everyone is okay.”

“May I come in, Mr. Lee?”

There was a cry of pain from somewhere behind him. Lee whirled around, obviously near panic, and called out something in Chinese. A woman’s voice answered. Through the gap in the door, I caught a glimpse of a house in turmoil-two crooked pictures on the one wall I could see, a side table leaning drunkenly on a shattered leg, the hallway rug wadded up and shoved against the baseboard.

Apparently appeased by the unseen voice, Thomas Lee swung back to block my view again. “I have nothing more to say, Lieutenant. Thank you for your concern.” The door moved slightly.

I blocked it with my foot. “Mr. Lee, please. Your closing that door won’t make this situation go away. We know you didn’t fall down any stairs, unless you were pushed. We know several people in a car with out-of-state license plates were here before our first unit arrived. I can plainly see that your house has been ransacked and that someone inside is in pain. Based on all that, we cannot walk away from this.”

The stress on Lee’s face tightened into anger. “We have broken the laws?”

I adopted my most diplomatic tone of voice, hoping to avoid a show of force. “Mr. Lee, look at this from our side. You are a prominent and respected citizen of our town. You have a wife and daughter. It’s our job to protect all of you, if necessary from one another.”

His eyes widened in horror at the implication. “I didn’t do anything to my family. What are you meaning?”

I spread my hands. “How can I answer that? You won’t talk to me. Either your wife or child is hurt in there, it’s the middle of the night, and there was enough noise here to wake up the neighbors. Normally, that adds up to a domestic dispute. Considering the way you look, and the fact that you’re the strongest member of the family, I hate to think what shape the others might be in.”

“This is wrong. You are wrong.” he shouted.

“Then prove it. Let us in. Let me talk to them.”

His face jammed up with frustration. Thomas Lee was no stranger to us. The Blue Willow was a popular, highly profitable restaurant, and almost everyone I knew had at one time or another enjoyed at least one meal there. It also employed a huge and faceless staff of Asian workers, some of whom we suspected had bogus papers. One of the INS’s two Vermont-based investigators had dropped by the restaurant recently, but what he’d found-beside a suddenly diminished crew that day-hadn’t been enough to warrant any action. Nevertheless, it was a common law enforcement assumption that the Blue Willow was one of dozens of way stations along the Montreal-Boston-New-York illegal alien pipeline.

Lee, of course, knew of our suspicions, and no doubt guessed that our present interest fell a little shy of the altruism I’d just spouted. But he also knew we had him over a barrel. Slowly, as if yielding to a great weight, the door finally swung back.

Without a word, he stiffly led us back to the kitchen. Throughout the house, furniture was broken, pictures smashed, closets emptied and their contents ripped and torn, and spray paint had been used on the walls. If this attack had taken a half hour, it seemed a short time for such utter destruction. The people responsible had obviously been experienced.

The kitchen was in similar turmoil, its cabinets empty, the floor covered with a gritty, slippery mixture of food. The refrigerator stood wide open, there being nothing left inside to protect from room temperature.

At the counter separating the breakfast nook from the rest of the room, an exhausted and anguished middle-aged woman was daubing the face of a teenage girl with a wad of alcohol-dampened cotton. The girl, whom I guessed to be about sixteen, was strikingly pretty, despite the livid bruise on one cheek, and the cut on her chin that her mother was trying to tend. The girl’s expression, however, was unmistakable. It was the same blank-eyed look of desolation and loss I’d seen haunting too many victims of sexual assault.

Thomas Lee wordlessly introduced his family with a vague wave of one hand. I nodded formally to both women and introduced myself. The mother didn’t answer; the girl didn’t seem to know I was there.

I stepped closer to them, gently putting my hand on Mrs. Lee’s to interrupt her ministrations. “I need to ask you some questions.”

She shook her head. “No question.”

“Mrs. Lee,” I continued, intending my words more for her husband and daughter than for her, since I remembered hearing she understood little English. “I think I know what happened here. Your home was invaded and you were attacked. Your daughter may have been hurt in ways you don’t want to think about. Is that right?”

“No question.”

I stood in front of the daughter, forcing her to look at me. I kept my voice to just above a whisper. “I’m Joe Gunther. What’s your name?”

She took a long time answering, as if trying to separate me from a crowd of other pictures all shoved together in front of her. “Amy.”

“Amy, would you like to see a doctor?”

Her eyes flickered over to her father, who didn’t move a muscle. Nevertheless, I gestured to George, who immediately escorted Thomas Lee docilely into the other room. Before the door shut behind them, I could hear George starting a conversation, trying on to get Lee to open up. I hoped one of us would get lucky, but I wasn’t counting on it.

“What do you say, Amy?”

She shook her head ever so slightly. “No,” she whispered.

“What happened here is wrong, but we can only help you if you help us.”

“No.”

“You realize this won’t just go away?”

Her eyes seemed to regain their focus slightly. She looked at me with more care.

Instead of answering my own question, I tried a tangent. “These people aren’t like vandals on a joy ride. You saw how fast they worked, how thorough they were. They’re professionals. Do you think there’s anything you can do against them on your own?”

Her voice was barely audible. “No.”

Reluctantly, I played on her fears. “What do you think will happen when they come back?”

Her mother was looking from one of us to the other, at least getting the gist of what I was saying. She put her hand flat on my chest. “No question.”

Her daughter said something conciliatory to her, but Mrs. Lee’s action seemed to have stiffened Amy’s resolve, I hoped to my advantage. I was immediately disappointed.

“My mother’s right. We have nothing to say.”

Knowing what she’d just gone through, I couldn’t keep the frustration from my voice. “Amy, please. I understand your parents’ reluctance. I’ve been to Asia. I know the distrust they have for most cops. But you’ve lived here most of your life. You know what we stand for. We’re the ones that can stop this from happening again, to you or someone else.”

But she shook her head. “Talk to my dad. I won’t go against him.”

“That’s what my partner’s doing right now. You wouldn’t be going against him, anyhow. Do you want these characters to kill your father next time? Or to assault your mother the way they did you?”

She winced at the image, and I was angry at having to use it, but the knowledge that I was about to leave here empty-handed was beginning to burn inside me.

As if in confirmation, she shook her head one last time. “I’m sorry. I cannot speak with you.”

I looked at both of them-their faces haggard, bruised, fearful, but set-and let out a sigh. “All right. I won’t add to your problems.” I pulled out my wallet and removed a business card. “If you want to talk to me for any reason at all, even if it’s unrelated to what happened tonight-please call. I really am here to help.” I took out a different card and wrote Gail’s name on it. “You know about Women for Women? The women’s crisis organization? Gail Zigman is on their board. She’s also a rape survivor. You can call her or them and ask for help, too. They know what you’ve been through. They’re caring and supportive and they have nothing to do with us. Everything you tell them will be confidential. They will only be interested in your recovery. If you won’t talk to us, at least promise me you’ll give them a call.”

She gave me a small smile and nodded, at last, taking both cards.

I reached out and gently touched her shoulder. “Good luck. Think about what I said. Get your folks to let us help.”

I left them to go into the other room-the remnants of a dining room-and found George and Thomas Lee standing against opposite walls, looking like they’d been the cause of the shambles between them. Lee’s expression was a sterner, darker version of his daughter’s determination; George merely rolled his eyes in frustration when I looked at him.

I crossed over to the restaurant owner. “My guess is these people told you to fall into line or be targeted again. Am I right?”

Predictably, he didn’t answer.

I pulled out another business card-one of my own. “You can reach me here, day or night. I’ll give the dispatcher your name and instructions to locate me no matter when. Okay?”

He took the card and nodded.

There was an awkward silence. I rubbed the back of my neck and turned toward the front hallway. “Good luck. I hope all this is worth risking your family.”

Outside, I paused on the lawn to take in a deep breath of cold air.

George Capullo shook his head wonderingly, a lifetime small-town cop, whose experience ran deep but narrow, and didn’t include Asians. “I’m not real clear on what happened in there.”

“I’d say a home invasion-standard Chinatown extortion. Three or more creeps kick down a door, trash the place, rape and/or beat the occupants, rob them blind, and if there’s a business involved, apply a little pressure for future regular payments. Kind of like how Al Capone made gin-joints subscribe to his ‘protection’ service during Prohibition. I’ll order some surveillance of the restaurant to see what comes up, but I doubt they’ll be that obvious.”

“I thought home invasions only happened in Boston and places like that. What’s to be gained here? We don’t have a Chinatown. You think one of the other Chinese restaurant owners worked him over-a little hard-nosed competition?”

Startled by the suggestion’s compelling simplicity, I turned and looked back at the house, as silent now as its occupants, and found my memory returning to the speed stop on the interstate back in January, and to three close-mouthed Asians whose presence had reeked of violence. In the weeks that followed, I’d discovered that Truong Van Loc, while never convicted, was suspected of having organized crime connections in California, and that another man with the same family name-presumably the brother he’d mentioned-had been killed in a gang-related shooting years ago. Two days following that conversation by the road side, the Montreal Police had reported finding one of their own Asian gang members killed execution style, with a bullet in the back of his head.

I glanced at George and began walking back to the cars. “I don’t know, but my gut tells me we’re in for a lot worse than that.”