The Marble Mask (2000)

The Plot

The Marble Mask marks the first full-fledged case for the new Vermont Bureau of Investigation, of which Joe Gunther is second-in-command. The story begins with the discovery of a frozen body on the top of Mount Mansfield near Stowe. This is no big news until it is found that the presumed lost hiker actually died fifty years ago and has been artificially frozen ever since. Not only that, but he’s soon found to have been a French Canadian crime boss from Sherbrooke, Quebec, whose descendants are now on the brink of a major gang war. Why was he killed? Why was he kept frozen? Why has he resurfaced in such a dramatic way so many years later? Joe and his new squad travel between the cultural divide of Canada and Vermont, uncovering – among other things – some long lost secrets dating back to the Italian campaign in W.W.II, and the existence of a combat group nicknamed The Devil’s Brigade.

An excerpt from The Marble Mask.

“Joe. You still there? Talk to me, buddy.”

I didn’t open my eyes. It was so dark I felt if I did, more light might fall out than enter, sapping what little energy I had left. I remembered having the same sensation once as a kid, when my brother Leo and I had hidden in one of my father’s grain boxes in the barn, closed the cover over us and shut out all light and air. Lack of oxygen wasn’t the issue, though-we were out of there, pale and laughing too loudly, long before suffocation became a threat. It was darkness that had defeated us-invasive, all absorbing, reaching in through our wide open eyes to extract whatever was keeping us alive. Squeezing my lids shut had been like hanging onto a cliff edge with my fingertips.

Which paradoxically made me wonder if suffocation could be a problem here, entombed as I was. Certainly I felt sleepy, which I’d heard was one of the signs, but then that counted for cold, too, and God knows I was cold.

“Joe? We need to know if you’re still okay. Give us an indicator at least-hit the transmit button a couple of times if you don’t feel like talking.”

I really didn’t. I was talked out–talking to them, talking to myself. I wasn’t even sure where the radio was anymore. I’d shoved it under my coat when I’d pulled my arms out of the sleeves to turn my parka into a thermal straight jacket and better preserve my body heat. Besides, assuming I could find it, I doubted my fingers could operate the damn thing. That was probably why they’d told me to just hit the transmit button-they were guessing I was almost gone.

I thought about that for a moment, which was no mean feat in itself. My mind had been wandering for hours, easily bringing up images of my parents, life on the farm, Leo, times during combat I’d thought were the coldest a man could endure.

Until tonight.

But pondering the here and now was both a challenge and a bore-an impediment to more pleasant things. The vague memory that I hadn’t lost the radio at all, but was still holding it in a numb and senseless hand, barely caused a flicker of concern. I was far too busy leafing through my life’s album, evoking sunny, warm, open places.

And pictures of Gail.

I saw her above me, straddling my hips as I lay on the floor, her eyes narrowed, her mouth open just slightly. There was a faint shimmer of sweat on her upper lip as she raised her arms slowly, smoothly, and stripped off her T-shirt.

“Joe? It’s Willy. Hang in there, pal. You croak, they’ll nail me for sure. Don’t be so goddamned self-centered.”

What a guy, I thought-always the right word at the right time. What must his parents have been like?

I tried retrieving that last image of just seconds ago, remembering only that it had been of something pleasant and warm. I was beginning to feel warm again myself, in fact. At long last.

“Won’t be too much longer,” Willy resumed. “They say the storm’s almost over-at least enough to try another sortie. Give us some kind of signal, though, will you? This playing coy shit is driving me nuts.”

He’d always been an impatient man-always in a hurry and with nowhere to go. Not like Sammie, for example, equally driven but headed straight up the professional ladder.

Gail was ambitious, too, although a lot more complicated-one of the reasons we no longer lived together. Not that the love could be diminished-no matter the test.

I furrowed my brow, or thought I did. Sam and Willy and Gail and I were becoming blurred in my mind. Maybe there were similarities I’d never glimpsed before-he and I sort of stuck in our ways, the two women either using us as anchors, or fighting the pull of our inertia.

Surely there had to be more to it than that.

The radio spoke again, sounding like the last man to enter a noisy, crowded room-too far off to be understood. And I had too much to ponder anyway.

Let it go, I thought. Let me be.