The Price of Malice (2009)

Plot Summary

Wayne Castine is found savagely stabbed to death, leaving the crime scene covered in blood. Castine, a suspected child predator, had ties to an extended local family in Brattleboro, Vermont, including possible liaisons with both the mother and her 12 year old daughter. Any member of this clan had the opportunity, not to mention a motive, to commit murder. However, as Joe Gunther’s Vermont Bureau of Investigation team tries to unravel the case’s complexities, Joe himself is distracted by a more personal matter — he has learned that his girlfriend Lyn Silva’s fisherman father and brother, believed lost at sea off the Maine coast years ago, might have been murdered instead. While Gunther doesn’t have enough information to act officially, Lyn has no such constraints; she returns home to investigate on her own. Periodically, therefore — irritating both colleagues and bosses — Joe goes AWOL to help Lyn in Maine. It’s a good thing, too, for as more evidence emerges, it appears Lyn’s father and brother may not have been simply innocent victims, but possibly involved with a gang of vicious smugglers — men who wouldn’t hesitate to kill Lyn if she keeps pushing. Torn between his conscience and his heart, a murder investigation and a personal search for the truth, Joe Gunther finds that betrayal and loyalty are often a matter of viewpoint.  

An excerpt from The Price of Malice

Chapter Thirteen

Sam slowed down at the entrance of the West Bratt Mobile Park, a name conjured up, she imagined, by a developer with a loathing for polysyllables and a marginal sense of subtlety. It was a middling place on the economic scale, neither high class—with picket fences, concrete slabs, a central clubhouse, and above ground pools—nor subsistence level. The roads were dirt but free of roots and car-sized pot holes; some effort had been made to preserve a few trees, instead of either clear-cutting or wedging the homes amid a tangle of half-dead, mature evergreens destined to fall over and crush the nearest roof.

For that matter, it wasn’t far from what Sam herself had called home as a child.

She glanced down at the printout she had cradled in her lap and drove down the road, killing the air conditioning and rolling down all the windows. She wanted to feel and hear what this neighborhood experienced daily, if only in passing.

It was incredibly hot, and very quiet, the temperature having either driven everyone indoors, or reduced their activities to merely breathing, like iguanas on a rock. In fact, she did see a few people, sitting in the shade, moving as little as possible.

Sam reached the address and slowly rolled to a stop, the back of her shirt already sticking to the car seat.

She opened the door, got out, and looked around. The heat almost buzzed inside her head—echoing the sound of distant grasshoppers and the gentle hum of traffic.

“My mom’s not here.”

She tried locating the source of the boy’s voice, but saw nothing moving.

“How do you know I’m looking for her?” she asked.

“You’re a cop, right?”

“Your mom get a lot of visits from us?”

“Wouldn’t you know that?”

Sam smiled at the emptiness all around her. “Yeah, we probably would.”

“So, you either know or you didn’t check, which makes you pretty sloppy.”

That made her laugh. “Ouch. Are you the family member who gets all the high grades?”

“I hate school.”

“Maybe you’re too smart for it.”

There was no answer. For a moment, she wondered if that would be an end to it, and that she’d be left wondering if the conversation had ever taken place.

But the suspense was broken by a single word, “Here,” and the tiniest movement of what looked to be a child’s finger, wiggling from between the criss-crossed slats skirting the foundation of the trailer.

Sam crouched low by the latticework. “That your clubhouse?” she asked.

“I don’t call it that,” the voice answered. She could make out the faintest of shadows in the gloom.

“Right,” Sam agreed. “Kind of dorky.”

“Yeah. What’s your name?”

“Sam.”

“Really?”

“Yeah. It’s short for Samantha, but nobody calls me that.”

“Just Sam?”

“And Sammie, sometimes. I don’t mind that. What’s yours?”

“Richard. Nobody calls me that, though.”

“Why not?”

“They like Ricky, or Richie. I hate those.”

“Kid stuff,” Sam agreed. “Okay if I call you Richard?”

She could hear the pleasure in his voice. “Yeah.”

“What’s your last name?”

“Vial.”

She passed her sleeve across her forehead. She was squatting in the full sun and it was starting to bear down on her.

“You wanna be where it’s cooler?” Richard asked.

“I wouldn’t mind it. I’m cooking out here. Is anyone home?”

“Just me.”

Suddenly, a section of the latticework popped away from its surroundings, revealing a narrow entrance. “Come in. You’ll like it.”

She hesitated. She only had his word for it that he was alone, didn’t know when that might end, and also had to assume that the lair he was offering came with a decades-long accumulation of dirt, pet shit, and garbage—exactly what he would never notice, but which would force her to maybe throw out her clothes afterward.

But she liked him, and liked having even an underage ally on site. Given what little she already knew of this address and its residents, this was not likely to be a one-time visit.

She pulled open the slat and slipped in beside the boy, closing the latticework behind her. To her double surprise, she found herself on an old, fairly clean rug, and ventilated by a nearby oscillating fan.

She laughed gently, looking around. There were toys, books, bedding, and assorted childish accoutrements. “These are quite the digs,” she commented.

He smiled in the gloom. “Yeah. I sleep down here sometimes.”

“I bet,” she said admiringly. “Lot of people know about this?”

“Not too many,” he admitted.

She stuck her hand out for a shake. “Well, I’m privileged to be one of a small group, then.”

He took her hand awkwardly, and only for a second. His hand was tiny, cool, and as muscular as a piece of liver.

“You been a cop for long?” he asked.

She studied him closely, now that she was out of the glare and could actually see him. He was thin, with a blade-like face and worried, watchful eyes.

“Yeah—years.”

“You local or state?”

“Neither, really,” she told him. “VBI.”

She was about to explain, as was her habit, but his eyes widened. “No shit? The Bureau? That’s really cool. I read about you guys. You do all the big cases.”

She smiled and nodded. Leave it to a kid to nail it when half the adult population still had no clue. “Yup.”

“That’s gotta be neat.”

She couldn’t argue. “It’s interesting. I get a charge out of it.”

“I bet. You done murders and everything, right?”

“Right.” She figured him for being about ten, precociously poised between childhood’s receptive innocence and the vast expanse of the storm-tossed teens—at least according to her own experience.

He nodded thoughtfully. “I think I would like that.”

She grabbed her opportunity. “What would you like the most?”

“To put things right,” he said without hesitation.

She was struck by this choice from among so many. “There’s a lot of that to do,” she commented.

“I know.”

She lay on her stomach beside him and took in the world beyond the latticework—the cars, the dusty, dazzling road, the other silent trailer homes. A couple of dragonflies were darting over the weeds near the bumper of her car.

“This is a really nice spot.”

He rested beside her, his chin cupped on his fist. “Yup.”

“Guess it’s not always this quiet.”

“Nope.”

“What happens?”

He thought a moment. “Cars and fights, and people drinking.”

“Bet that makes this hiding place pretty safe.”

He glanced up at her and smiled. “Yeah. Most of the time.”

She rolled her eyes to look overhead. “You live with a lot of people?”

He frowned slightly. “Don’t you know?”

She laughed. “People think we know more than we do. We have records about some of them—mostly when they’ve broken the rules—but the computer’s not great about keeping addresses up to date. The rest of them—like you? We have no clue. I didn’t know you even existed, Richard.”

That clearly struck him as interesting. He went back to gazing at the street. “Huh.”

She didn’t interrupt. She thought he might appreciate the time to think.

“There are six of us, more or less,” he finally answered.

“Wow. That’s a lot. All at once?”

“Most of the time. When she’s kidding around, my mom calls it a hotel. I think she likes it that way.”

“Not someone who prefers being alone?”

He laughed, but it seemed almost private. “Nope.”

“Just so I get it right,” Sam asked, “Your mom is Karen Putnam, right?”

“Yup.”

“So, you have a lot of brothers and sisters.”

He paused before saying, “Kinda.”

“Like a mixed family?”

“That’s it, all right,” he responded freely. “None of us has the same last name; well, Nick changed his. Basically, I have two brothers and a sister—Nick, Ryan, and Becky. But nobody knows we’re related. That used to be kinda funny sometimes, when we were little.”

It sounded like the reminiscence of an old man.

“No dad?” Sam asked quietly.

But Richard wasn’t so sensitive. He laughed. “I have more dads than I can count.”

Again, the line sounded stolen from an adult. Sam wondered what the age gap was between the four siblings.

“Why’re you here?” he suddenly asked.

Sam thought a moment before answering. From what she and Willy had separately gathered from less than reliable sources, Karen Putnam had been sleeping with a man who might have been also abusing her daughter. It seemed a dicey subject to dangle before a ten year-old, even if he might be a bit of a philosopher.

“A name came up in one of my investigations,” she said, instead. “I wanted to fly it by your mom.”

The next question was a given, even if he seemed to understand its futility. “And you’re not gonna tell me.”

Sam abruptly changed her mind. “Wayne Castine. Why wouldn’t I tell you, Richard?”

He smiled broadly. “’Cause grownups don’t. What’s your excuse?”

She laughed with him.

“I know Wayne,” he admitted.

She watched his face. “And?”

He looked away—back toward the street. “I don’t like him.”

“Why not?”

She was about to rephrase the question when he didn’t immediately answer, but then stopped, letting silence work for her.

“He makes me feel dirty.”

She kept her voice neutral. “Has he done anything bad to you?”

Richard shook his head silently.

“But he has to other people?” she asked.

His answer was small and fragile. “Yeah.”