Chat (2007)

The Plot

Shortly after the novel opens, Joe’s mother and brother are seriously injured when their car slides down an icy embankment. But was this simply an accident, or an act of revenge for an arrest Gunther conducted a year earlier? At the same time that Joe is wrestling with this huge potential personal loss, an unidentified body, apparently from out-of-state, is found floating in an icy stream outside Brattleboro VT, shortly before a second, similarly mysterious dead man is discovered in a nearby motel room. While juggling both investigations, Gunther discovers that not only did the two dead men share an interest in trolling for underage girls on the Internet, but so did one of the people in the first case use the Internet to conduct drug business. As Joe zeros in on the solutions, his whole family become a target in a very personal and lethal confrontation.

An excerpt from Chat

“Made it, Ma. Top o’ the world.” Leo quoted theatrically, his words shrouding his head in the cold night air. “What would you think if I went out like that?”

His mother twisted around in her wheelchair to look at him balefully. “I don’t understand why such a wonderful dancer would do a movie like that.”

Leo smiled down at her as he pushed her gently along a shoveled path across the broad courtyard before Dartmouth’s Hopkins Center for the Arts, universally nicknamed The Hop. “I warned you, Ma. I told you it wasn’t Yankee Doodle Dandy.”

“You said it was a gangster movie,” she persisted, “Not an ode to a deranged psychopath.”

Leo burst out laughing. “Wow. You make it sound pretty deep. I just liked it when he shot the car trunk full of holes to let the guy inside breathe, or when he went nutso in the prison dining hall after finding out his mother died.”

She faced forward again as they neared the curb. “How did I end up with such a disturbed child?” she asked meditatively.

“Hey,” he told her. “You got one son who’s a cop. Stands to reason the other should go to the dark side. It’s nature’s balance.”

He went to pass by her on his way to unlocking the car when she grabbed his wrist in a quick-moving wiry hand.

This time, her expression was soft and appreciative. “I’ve been doubly blessed, Leo,” she told him. “Both my boys are just right.”

He leaned over and kissed her wrinkled cheek, warm in the evening’s chilliness. “I love you, too, Ma. I hear they’re playing Polanski’s Repulsion next week.”

She tapped the side of his head playfully as he moved away. “Oh, now that sounds like a comedy.”

“You have no idea.” He admitted.

She watched him bustling about, unlocking doors, starting the engine to get the heater going. It wasn’t all that cold, even though it had been dark for several hours. Dartmouth’s trademark commons was coated with a new layer of snow, which shimmered under the glow of dozens of traditionally designed street lamps. They, along with the formal brick buildings looming darkly beyond them and the enormous library’s beautifully lighted steeple at the far end, lent the entire scene a timelessness, as if she might have been waiting for her son to hook up a horse and sleigh, instead of a Subaru.

“All set,” he said, stepping behind her once more and easing her chair off the sidewalk to where it nestled beside the car’s open door.

She reached out and took hold of the two handles Leo had attached just inside the opening, one high and one low, and nimbly used them to assist herself inside. Her legs were too weak to support her, but they did move, which was a godsend in situations like this. She was already attaching her seatbelt by the time Leo opened the car’s rear door to slip in the folded wheelchair.

He joined her moments later, making the car rock as he half fell into his seat. An enthusiast by nature, he never did anything by half measure, including the most mundane of actions.

“You want to stop somewhere for ice cream or cocoa or something?” he asked.

Now she was looking at the front façade of The Hop, from which they’d just come on their weekly Friday night outing. Designed by the same architect who later did Lincoln Center in New York, it even looked like the kind of place that would offer a broad sampling of the arts — a little rebellious by one light, slightly worn by another. She and Leo came here frequently, local beneficiaries of the college’s mission to be a generous cultural neighbor.

“No,” she answered him. “Not tonight. Drive me around the commons, though, will you? I love the buildings.”

Leo backed out of their parking space and slipped into the thin traffic, taking his first left to engage the long eastern reach of the commons.

“Feeling touristy?” he asked.

She was watching the buildings go by, but also the students, huddled in their winter clothing, marching determinately in small groups or singly, intent on their mysterious goals, which could as easily have been the next beer or a rendezvous as some scholarly pursuit. Although she’d been a local her entire life, even if from Vermont just across the river, she’d never had the envious, resentful view of the college so many other “townies” harbored, nor had she delighted in the depiction of the place supposedly made in the movie Animal House. She worshipped education, and while her sons had become a police officer and butcher, each, and hadn’t benefited from Dartmouth’s offerings, she’d made sure they’d developed an appreciation of music and literature and art, and she’d trained them to be analytical, appreciative, mindful, and kind.

She knew college students could be self-indulgent, narcissistic, and careless with the gift they’d been offered. Those were the clichés. But as Leo slowly circled the commons, quietly allowing for her meditation, she relished the fantasy she’d held forever, of places like this being the incubators of the mind, where kids learned to think, sometimes despite their best resistance.

“You should’ve gone here, Ma,” Leo finally said.

She turned away from the buildings to look at him. “I came close enough,” she said after a thoughtful pause. “I got access to that library, and passed along what you and Joe could bear. It would have been fun to actually sit in class, but I can’t complain — I’ve read what a lot of their professors wrote.”

Leo laughed again. “And you got to fall asleep in class. We were always taking books off your lap after you dozed off.”

She whacked his shoulder. “Once in a blue moon, after spending all day chasing you two around.”

“You did good, Ma,” he said after a pause.

It was a gentle taunt. He delighted in mangling English around her, since she worked so hard not to do so herself. But this time, instead of correcting him, she chuckled and admitted, “I think I done good, too.”

He smiled and turned on his right turn indicator at the stop light, preparing to go down North Wheelock and the bridge into Vermont at the bottom of the hill. Of course, much of what they’d just been talking about dated back a few years. His mother had slowed down recently, reading less and watching more television. And since landing in the wheelchair, she’d retired the use of that library card.

Their years together were numbered, clearly.

In the darkness of the car, his smile faded away. As silly as it sometimes sounded when he admitted it out loud, he’d lived with his mother all his life, so far, and he was fair and square beyond middle age. His older brother Joe had been the restless one, leaving home early to join the service, seeing combat half way around the world, going to college for a few years in California. Even now, he lived in Brattleboro, near the Massachusetts border, sixty miles to the south.

But Leo had never seen the attraction. He and their mom lived in the farmhouse he’d been born in, and his room overlooked the fields his father had once tilled. When the old man died, so many years ago, leaving behind two boys and a young widow, the three survivors had looked to each other for their grounding. Joe had used that as a springboard to go forth into the world; Leo had seen it as all he really needed. He began working at the market in Thetford Center, just down the hill from the farm, and settled into a life of dating girls lacking in serious intentions, working in the barn on old cars from the sixties, becoming the most highly prized butcher for twenty miles around, and establishing an easy and permanent friendship with his mother.

Which he knew was closing in on a natural end.

“You’re awfully quiet all of a sudden,” she said softly.

They had just reached the bridge spanning the Connecticut River, a newly rebuilt structure which its designers had accessorized with a series of gigantic, evenly spaced concrete balls — a source of some humor in a school renowned for its testosterone.

“Just thinking about the movie.”

She let it go. Whatever its virtues, White Heat didn’t merit an excess of reflection. Leo had something private on his mind, and she had a pretty good idea what it was, or what she feared it might be. While grateful for a lifetime of Leo’s company, she was not unaware of the peculiarity of a middle-aged son still living with his mother. The thought that she — or her circumstances, first as a widow, and then as an invalid — had encouraged this situation, only made her feel guilty. That having been said, she was also a pretty good observer of people, and her take on her younger son was that he was not only happy with the status quo, but increasingly worried about what to do after she died.

She could sympathize. She’d been in much the same boat when their father had died. A good and decent man, much older than she, he’d had his greatest influence on them all only after his death, when they’d discovered the huge void he’d so quietly filled.

She suspected that Leo, less than Joe, would find the world an oddly empty place, at least for a while, once she followed her late husband’s example.

She stole a glance at him as he turned left onto Route 5 on the Vermont side of the bridge and began heading north, parallel to the Interstate he knew she didn’t enjoy as much.

“Thank you, Leo,” she said.

He looked at her quickly, both his hands on the wheel, a good and practiced driver. “What for? I thought you hated the movie.”

“For taking me anyhow, for not choosing the Interstate, for being a good son. I’m not sure I tell you enough how grateful I am for everything. You’ve given up a lot for me.”

He laughed, if a little cautiously. His mother wasn’t prone to such comments. “Totally selfish, Ma. Do you know how many times I’ve used you as an excuse to shake off some female with big plans? Unbelievable. There are women up and down this valley who think you’re the worst thing since Cruella DeVille. You should be calling a libel lawyer instead of patting me on the back for being such a wonderful son.”

She smiled and shook her head. She should have known better. Leo was her showman, quick to grab a joke when faced with a serious moment.

She decided to allow him his choice. “Really?” she therefore reacted. “No wonder I’ve been getting those strange looks. Good Lord. I always thought it was my breath, or maybe something horrible coming out of my nostril.”

They were surrounded by darkness now, moving quickly and alone along the smooth, twisting road, paradoxically comforted by the dark, semi-frozen expanse of the large river to their right. New Englanders often felt at home while isolated in the cold. It was that aspect of their environment that most outsiders compared to their demeanor, but which they themselves saw as simply encouraging strong character.

Leo was surprised. “Are you kidding about that?” he asked. “Have you really noticed….?”

He suddenly stopped speaking, his hands tightening on the wheel. “Damn…”

Alarmed, she looked first at him, and then out the window, expecting a deer to be standing in the middle of the road, an almost common experience. Instead, the road was beginning to shift away as they slid out of control on a slight curve.

“Shit,” Leo said through clenched teeth. “Hang on…”

She was ahead of him there, clutching both the dashboard and the uppermost handle beside her. “Leo,” she said, almost a whisper.

Ahead of them, the landscape changed from the comfort of the black macadam to a blizzard of white snow as they plowed through an embankment that exploded across their windshield. Beneath them, they could hear the tearing of metal against the remnants of a hidden guardrail, along with their own seemingly disconnected shouting. They were first jarred by several abrupt encounters from buried stumps or boulders, and then became weightless as the car began to barrel roll, causing their heads to be surrounded by flying maps, CDs, lose change, and an assortment of now lethal tools that Leo normally kept in the back.

In the sudden darkness following the loss of both headlights, Leo’s mother focused solely on the sounds around her, muffled and ubiquitous, coming from all sides as they continued farther and farther downhill. She began thinking about the cold water that might be waiting at the bottom — if that’s the way they were headed.

And then it was over. In one explosive flash, she felt a shocking blow to the side of her head, the sense of some metallic object, perhaps a lug wrench, passing before her face, and then nothing.

Leo opened his eyes briefly before shutting them again with a wince, brought up short by a burst of pain in his left eye. He paused a moment, trying to remember, sorting through the throbbing at his temples to remember what had happened.

“Mom?” he asked suddenly, attempting to see again, ignoring the pain. He shifted in his seat, looking in her direction. The car was jet black and utterly silent. Carefully, he reached out and touched her, the tips of his cold fingers slipping on something wet on the side of her head.

“Oh, Jesus,” he murmured. He made to turn toward her and shouted in agony, the entire left side of his chest suddenly spiking as if electrified. He sat back, panting, and coughed, feeling like his lungs were full of phlegm. He gingerly pushed through his overcoat at his ribs with his good hand and winced.

“God damn it,” he said, mostly to hear his own voice. “Mom?” he repeated then, reaching out a second time, but lower, feeling for her shoulder, which appeared to be fine — maybe merely because it was there at all.

But she wasn’t moving.

It was cold, and the other thing his fingers had felt was snow. Somewhere, there was a broken window. He had no idea how long they’d been there, had no clue if they were visible from the road. He didn’t even know if they were both alive.

He followed her shoulder up to her neck, and burrowed his index finger between her collar and the scarf she was wearing, probing for a pulse. He was a butcher, he thought ruefully. At least he knew his way around a body.

His fingers were too cold. If her heart was beating, he couldn’t feel it, but he doubted he could have anyway. At least that’s the comfort he gave himself.

“Okay, okay,” he said softly. “Probably just as well. No pain, no struggling. She’s got her coat on. Could be worse.”

Still using his right hand, he touched the window next to him. Intact. He didn’t feel like they were on their side, and he couldn’t hear running water, which meant they hadn’t reached the river. So far, so good.

He felt down to the door latch and pulled it. Nothing. Probably jammed. With even fewer expectations, he tried the electric window toggle. He was rewarded with a gentle wiring sound and a cool waft of air against his cheek.

“No shit,” he muttered, noticing how hard it was to breath, to actually move his lungs. The window had lowered all the way. He considered shouting, but with the cold air had also come a wider silence, as from a chasm without bottom. He knew this road — it either had traffic or it was empty. There were no pedestrians and few homes.

He had to get out.

He moved his feet and found his lower body uninjured. That was good. But even at a hundred percent, struggling out the side window of a small car wasn’t easy. And he knew by now he was far from a hundred percent. Just like he knew that wasn’t phlegm in his lungs.

“Ma?” he said, barely whispering by now. “Can you hear me? I got to try to get help.”


He sighed, grit his teeth, took hold of the steering wheel with his good hand, and pushed up with his feet, hoping to launch himself at least part way out the window.

The pain was beyond imagination. It felt like lava, filling him with heat and blinding light, exploding inside his head and making him gasp for air. Beyond that, he could feel something fundamental shift within him, as if the cellar of a house had suddenly vanished into the earth, leaving everything above it precariously poised above a void. For a split second, he could almost see himself hovering in the air, somewhere between Heaven and oblivion, like a cartoon character that has just walked off a cliff but hasn’t yet yielded to gravity.

And then he, too, collapsed into the blackness and the utter, all-encompassing quiet of a winter night.

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In Category: Joe Gunther Series
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