The Second Mouse (2006)

The Plot

The Second Mouse takes Joe Gunther and his team off their Brattleboro home turf, forty-two miles west, to chip-on-its-shoulder, blue collar Bennington.
In Wilmington, VT, Gunther encounters the lifeless body of Michelle Fisher. Her corpse, pale and seemingly at peace, offers him no clues about who she was or how she died. There are no signs of violence, no disorder. Snapshots and postcards show a woman who laughed hard and lived harder. Yet diaries reveal a rootless life marred by depression and drink. Suicide seems a reasonable conclusion, but Gunther suspects foul play. The house is for sale, after all, and Michelle was its only tenantresisting all efforts to have her evicted. The unsavory landlord is a prime suspect, but safely equipped with an impressively air-tight alibi.
To uncover the truth about the fate of this discarded, all but forgotten woman, Gunther must follow a confusing trail of half leads and mounting crimes. He draws near to a violent and careless trio of criminals, whose leader is hell bent on making the career move of a lifetime—and uncaring of who might get in his way.

An excerpt from The Second Mouse

“Watch out for the cat.”

Joe Gunther froze by the door, his hand on the knob, as if expecting the creature to materialize from thin air.

The young Vermont state trooper stationed on the porch looked apologetic. “I don’t know if we’re supposed to let it out.”

Gunther pushed the door open a couple of inches, watching in vain for any movement by his feet.

Encouraged, he crossed the threshold quickly and shut himself in, immediately encircled by the room’s strong odor of cat feces, wafting in the summer warmth.

“I vote for letting it out,” he murmured softly.

He was standing in one corner of a large, cavernous, multi-windowed room — almost the entire ground floor of a converted nineteenth century schoolhouse, some five miles south of Wilmington. Contesting the smell, sunlight poured in through a bank of open windows, nurturing a solid ranking of potted and hanging plants. Old but well-loved furniture, none of it expensive and most of it bulky, did a convincing job of filling the expanse with a selection of oasis-like islands — a grouping around the wood stove, another in a far corner flanked by floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, a third before a blank TV set. The most distant wall was dominated by an awkwardly linear kitchen — an orderly parade of ice box, range, dishwasher, sink, and counter space. Gunther imagined any truly inspired cook here needing running shoes and patience, or a gift for organization. Giving the place a hint of old Africa — or what he knew of it from the movies — were several still ceiling fans with brass housings and long, dark wooden blades.

The pine floor was covered with a hodge-podge of worn, non-descript rugs, which in turn bore several small gifts from the missing feline. That detail aside, the entire space looked homey, rambling, a little threadbare, and quietly welcoming.

The house was also imbued with the silence that only death can visit upon a place — a sense of suspended animation, striking and odd, as when a stadium full of people simultaneously holds its breath.

This absence was why Joe was there.

At the far end of the row of windows, a shadow appeared in a narrow doorway.

“Joe?”

Gunther nodded. “Hey, Doug. Good to see you.” Watching where he placed his feet, he approached his state police counterpart, Doug Matthews, the detective assigned to this region. Younger by several years, but a veteran like Joe, Matthews was experienced, low-key, and easygoing. Unlike many cops, he kept his opinions to himself, did the job, and maintained a low profile. To Joe, in a state with only a thousand full-time officers — an oversized family compared with some places — such self-effacement was to be valued.

He stuck his hand out as he drew near. “How’ve you been?”

“Pretty good,” Doug replied, accepting the handshake with a smile, his eyes remaining watchful. “Better than some. Come on in. I’ll introduce you.”

They entered a much smaller room, tacked onto the building later in life, and on the cheap. It didn’t have the bearing of its mother ship — the windows were cramped and few, the plywood floor covered with thin wall-to-wall carpeting. Low ceilinged and dim, it was paneled in fake oak, chipped and cracked.

But the furniture, also battered and old, was the same ilk as its brethren, supplying a foundation of comforting familiarity. The dresser, the heavy desk, the solid four-poster bed were of dark hardwood, and the dents and scars appearing on them spoke not of neglect, but of simple domestic history, the passage of generations.

This feeling of simmering life was echoed by the postcards and photographs adorning the walls and horizontal surfaces. Some inexpensively framed, others merely attached by tape or thumbtack, these pictures displayed vacation spots or loved ones, sun-drenched or laughing, and gave to the room, along with its furnishings, a warmth and intimacy it lacked utterly in its bare bones.

Lying across the broad bed, as if she’d been sitting on its edge in a moment of contemplation before falling back in repose, was an attractive dead woman.

Matthews kept to his word about the promised formalities. “Joe Gunther,” he said, “Michelle Fisher.”

Joe nodded silently in her direction, and Matthews, knowing the older man’s habits, kept quiet, letting him get his bearings.

Dead bodies don’t usually present themselves as they’re portrayed in the movies or on TV. In the older shows, they look like live actors with their eyes shut; in the modern, forensically-sensitive dramas, it’s just the reverse — corpses are covered with enough wounds or artificial pallor to make Frankenstein swoon.

The truth is more elusive. And more poignant. In his decades as a police officer, Joe had gazed upon hundreds of bodies — the young, the old, the frail and the strong. What he’d discovered, blandly enough, was that the only common trait they shared was stillness. They displayed all the variety that they had in life, but in none of the same ways. In silent pantomime of their former selves, instead of quiet or talkative, gloomy or upbeat, they were now mottled or ghostly white, bloated or emaciated, transfixed into grimace or peaceful as if sleeping. Nevertheless, for those willing to watch and study, the dead, as if trying to slip free of their muted condition, still seemed capable of a kind of frozen, extraordinarily subtle form of sign language.

That limited communication worked both ways. Everyone Joe knew, including himself, began their interviews with the deceased by simply staring at them searchingly, awaiting a signal. He asked himself sometimes how many of the dead might have struggled fruitlessly to be heard in life, only to be scrutinized too late by total strangers anxious to see or hear even the slightest twitch or murmur.

So it was that Joe now watched Michelle Fisher, wondering who she’d been, and what she might be able to tell him.