The Ragman’s Memory (1996)

The Plot

A small girl brings Joe Gunther a bird’s nest-made partially of human hair. In his search to put a body, and an identity, to the hair’s owner, Joe comes upon an unexplained death, a grisly murder, a sudden disappearance, and travels the social strata of his hometown from the elite to the homeless, amid a maelstrom of corporate greed, personal betrayal, and blackmail. In the end, Joe discovers the key to this puzzle locked inside the shell-shocked brain of a WW II veteran nicknamed The Ragman, whom he must get to talk before murder strikes again.

An excerpt from The Ragman’s Memory

“Joe? You’ve got a visitor.”

I looked up from the paperwork spread across my desk. Harriet Fritter, the squad’s administrative assistant, stood in the doorway with a half-smile on her face.

I glanced at the calendar thumb-tacked to the wall before me, wondering what appointment I’d forgotten. There was nothing under today’s date.

Harriet stepped aside and gestured to a small, skinny girl with large, thick, wire-rim glasses, looking very serious. I guessed her to be about twelve years old. Her shoulder-length, straight dark hair was still dusted with the snow that had been falling heavily outside for the past twenty-four hours. She was holding a small brown grocery bag tightly with both hands.

“Lieutenant Joe Gunther, this is Norah Fletcher.”

I half rose from my chair and shook the girl’s slim hand. She had a firm grip, which both surprised and pleased me. “Miss Fletcher. Please have a seat. Would you like to take your coat off?”

I gestured to my guest chair as Harriet faded from view. Norah Fletcher declined to remove her overcoat, and sat nervously on the edge of the seat, the brown bag between her knees.

“How can I help you?” I asked.

Her dark eyes rose from her rubber boots, which were creating small puddles on the carpeting. She studied me with great intensity. “I know about you from newspaper stories, and I thought you should see this. My mom said I shouldn’t, but I think something’s wrong.” She thrust the paper bag out to me.

I took it from her gingerly, noticing its light weight, and placed it on my desk. “What is it?”

Her eyes narrowed slightly, with a child’s surprise at my not tearing into the package without pause. “It’s a bird nest, but I want you to look at it before I say any more.”

I was impressed, both at her poise and her unusually mature strategy. Still, yielding to a cop’s instinct to control, I prolonged Norah Fletcher’s anticipation.

“May I call you Norah?”

She nodded without comment.

“If your mother was against the idea, how did you get here? You live nearby?”

“I walked from school. My mom thinks my lunch was in there.” She nodded toward the bag.

It was mid-afternoon. “Doesn’t she expect you back home?”

She hid any irritation at my delay, refusing to join the game I was only half-consciously playing. “I walk to the library every day. She picks me up there after work. She’s a secretary.”

“Where’s home, Norah?”

“Hillcrest Terrace-off the Guilford Street Extension.”

“Just you and your mom?”

She nodded, with the smallest flicker of a smile. “And Oreo. My cat.”

Maybe it was this resurfacing of the child from behind the serious face that made me abruptly cave in. I reached for the bag. “Let’s take a look.”

I peered into the dim opening, saw a cluster of dry grass and twigs, and poured it out into the hollow of my hand.

“It’s a chickadee nest,” Norah explained. “I have a birdbox on a post in my back yard, near the field. A couple of chickadees have been using it for years. I clean it out because they like to build a new one each year. That’s why it looks a little weird-kind of boxy.”

I placed the nest on my desk and poked it with my finger, studying how the birds had woven their intricate home together. Its outer sides had retained the distinct shape of a surrounding small box.

“Turn it around,” Norah urged, for the first time showing a little impatience.

I did so gently, rotating it on the table top without picking it up. As its far side came into view, I better understood Norah’s interest in what I’d seen as a perfectly normal abandoned nest.

The overhead fluorescent lighting caught it first, revealing among the scratchy, dull-colored hay a swatch of something smooth and reflective. I leaned forward to look at it more carefully.

“It’s human hair,” she stated with certainty.

I didn’t argue with her. It appeared she was right.

I sat back, opened my desk drawer and withdrew a Tiger Milk bar, which I offered her. “You must be hungry.”

She nodded and took the bar with another fleeting smile. As she peeled back the gold wrapper, I thought about her discovery, and what it might mean to us.

The fact that human hair was intertwined within a nest didn’t come as a surprise. My own mother had cut my brother’s and my hair outdoors so the birds could use it during the spring, and my father had once had a hunk of hair painfully plucked out by a bird while he was working in one of our fields.

But these memories brought me no comfort here, nor did they prompt me to dismiss Norah Fletcher’s concern with some patronizing lecture on symbiotic relationships.

For the long, thick twist of discolored strands was no mere tuft of cut or plucked hair. It was bound at its base by a small, withered, leathery patch of scalp.

The snow had stopped falling by the time we gathered in Norah Fletcher’s back yard on Hillcrest Terrace, high above Brattleboro, Vermont. The street marked the abrupt end of the town’s urban expansion to the southwest. On one side, in front of Norah’s home, was a modest, middle class neighborhood, clinging to the side of a steep hill, and overlooking the town, the distant mountains, and the interstate slicing through it all. On the other side-neatly sheeted in glistening, pristine white-was a vast, empty, featureless field that stretched up and away to the horizon like a frothy, frozen sea.

Separating Norah’s back yard from that barren field, a split-rail fence stood guard like the shaky railing of some decrepit ancient ship-a faint and picturesque reminder of how much of Vermont remains dominated by its natural surroundings, despite the ambitions of urban developers and condo builders alike.

Norah, her mother Ann, my second-in-command Sammie Martens, and I stood in a cluster by the back door under the pale gray sky, and silently took in the implications of Norah’s discovery.

“If there is a body out there,” Sammie muttered bluntly. “It’ll be a neat trick finding it.”

Ann Fletcher shook her head, resting her hand lightly on her daughter’s shoulder. “Birds use hair all the time in their nests. I told Norah that. I asked her not to pester you people.”

Norah didn’t react. She remained motionless, looking out at the wooden birdhouse that was nailed to an upright by one of the fence posts outlined like a ship’s crow’s nest against the fathomless pale expanse beyond it. She didn’t shake off her mother’s hand, which was there more in support than as a rebuke in any case, but I could sense the restless energy between them-of single parent and single child, strained by the mutual need to be independent, yet united by the strong bonds of steady companionship. Ann had told me earlier, when we’d dropped by her office to pick her up, that Norah was a loner-a studious perfectionist who preferred the tranquillity of her own company to the chaotic tumble of her schoolmates-and that she sometimes lacked the benefit of other people’s opinions in forming her own thoughts.

A loner myself, I sympathized with the child.

“We’re glad she did pester us, Mrs. Fletcher. You’re right about the hair. We’ve even found marijuana growers collecting it from barber shops to ward off deer. But what Norah found wasn’t cut.”

I let the unstated implication float in the frigid air, interlaced with the mist from our breathing.

“Oh,” Ann Fletcher finally murmured.

“Norah,” I asked the girl, “From what you’ve told me, I guess you monitor those chickadees pretty closely.”

She kept her eyes on the fence. “I watched them every day.” Her tone reflected her sorrow that such constant friends had become involved in something so grim.

“When did they build the nest?”

She didn’t hesitate. “Early July. That’s late for chickadees. I tried to look up why, but I couldn’t find it anywhere. Maybe it was because June got so hot all of a sudden, after May was so cold. They might’ve gotten confused. Or they could’ve tried to nest someplace else that didn’t work out, so they came back here. I don’t know.”

That all sounded reasonable to me, who had but a layman’s knowledge of such things. I waved a hand toward the fence like a genial host. “Let’s get right up to it.”

We shuffled through the thick, soundless snow up the tilting yard until we were standing around the birdbox, nailed about head-high on its pole. There were several small evergreens planted in a row parallel to the fence, their presence further emphasizing the emptiness before us. Far to our right, however, coinciding with the end of the block, I saw a straight line of dark, prickly, bare-branched woods running along one side of the field-up and over the crest of the hill, vanishing from view to the south.

Norah caught my look. “That’s their territory. They never nest too far from woods. A single pair needs at least two or three acres. This box is a little far away, but I coaxed them here with some good food, and I lined the box with sawdust. They like that… at least they did.”

I put my own hand on her shoulder and gave her a small squeeze. “They’ll be back. This kind of thing only bothers us.”

“I guess so.”

Sammie-small, muscular, and energetic, an ex-Army Ranger prone to action-was becoming restless with my tempered approach. She leaned her elbows on the railing and nodded toward the field with her chin. “How many acres do you figure?”

“About fifty,” Ann Fletcher answered from slightly behind us.

I turned to her, wondering if her hanging back was the product of embarrassment for having downplayed her child’s discovery, or fear of what it might yield. “Is it used for anything?”

She shook her head. “No. It’s owned by someone from Florida. They have a big house on the other side. It used to be farmland, but it just sits there now.”

“Do people use it for picnics or hikes or anything?” Sammie asked.

“The children play along the edges sometimes, and go exploring in the woods. But nobody I know goes out into the middle.”

“It’s a little scary,” Norah added softly.

“How so?” I asked.

She looked up at me for the first time since we’d arrived here. Her eyes were magnified by the thick glasses, giving her a dreamy quality. “It’s just so big, and it’s tilted so you can see everything in the valley,” she pointed north, beyond her house. “It makes you kind of dizzy-and it’s hot and buggy in the summer.”

I kept my eyes on hers, probing for any knowledge possibly lurking below the surface, conscious or not. “What do you think happened out there, Norah?”

Next to me, I could hear her mother’s small intake of breath.

The child answered in the form of a question, “Someone died?”

“Besides the hair in the nest, is there anything else that makes you think that?”

I sensed Ann Fletcher’s alarm, her yearning to speak on her daughter’s behalf. But there was something else, too-a hesitation that spoke of her concern that Norah might know more than she’d previously let on.

But Norah looked genuinely baffled. “I don’t understand.”

I shrugged slightly, privately relieved. “Something you saw, heard —”

“Smelled,” Sammie finished abruptly.

Norah wrinkled her nose, dissipating the tension. “No. I would have remembered that.”

I turned to Sammie. “Better get a team together. We can’t do anything with that,” I gestured toward the snow-covered field. “But maybe one of the neighbors can tell us something. And try to find somebody from Fish and Game. If Norah’s chickadees used the hair, maybe some other animals were busy, too. We need to know where to look.”

Sammie shook her head. “That could take some time. They’re already short-staffed in this area. I heard about a guy who’s trained dogs for this kind of thing.”

I knew the man she was meant-the owner of specialized, so-called “cadaver dogs.” I’d called him at his office in Maine before coming here, and now passed along what he’d told me. “Too cold. A body out there doesn’t smell any more than what’s in your freezer.”

“Miss Evans might be able to help,” Norah said quietly.

We both looked at her.

“She’s my science teacher-a naturalist. She’s the one who got me interested in birds. She knows all sorts of stuff.”

I glanced at Ann Fletcher, who nodded reluctantly. “That’s true. She’s very good-Christine Evans. I could give you her number.”

“Give it to Detective Martens here. She’ll be organizing all this.”

Sammie and Norah’s mother walked back to the gray house, their gestures exaggerated by having to wade through the deep snow. Norah was back staring at the field, her gloved hands resting on the railing-the pensive loner, I reminded myself. I wondered what was going through her mind.

“You really think somebody’s out there?” she asked as I took up position next to her.

“We may not know for sure till the spring, but your birds got that hair from somewhere-either the field or the woods-and when I showed it to him, our forensics expert confirmed it came from a human. Of course, it might’ve been someone old and sick with no family, who just chose this spot to die in peace. That happens sometimes.”

She startled me then with a child’s typical lack of lasting melancholy, “It’s kind of neat.”

I didn’t argue the point. From her perspective, that’s exactly what it was. But even had I wished it, I couldn’t be so detached. My curiosity wasn’t restricted to the fact that the mysterious shank of hair had once belonged to someone alive. I had to discover the cause of death, and odds were it hadn’t been as benign as the picture I’d just painted for Norah.