Winter is on the wane in Northwestern Vermont. The moon hangs bright and cold in the silvery night sky over hundreds of square miles of a peaceful, dormant landscape of dairy farms. Bobby Cutts—young, heartbroken, and unable to sleep—enters the family barn to tend to the beasts within… and encounters the last nightmare of his life. Suddenly and explosively surrounded by bolts of fire racing in all directions, Bobby and the entire herd perish in a searing, stampeding, Hellish circle of flames.
Called to the scene to investigate, Joe Gunther instantly recognizes arson. But why, and by whom? And for what possible reason? There is little insurance, the family is loving and tightly knit, and there are few neighborhood animosities.
But murder this is, and Gunther quickly discovers it’s just one of a series of recent barn-related arsons. Someone is wreaking havoc across the bucolic farmlands surrounding the town of St. Albans, and before Joe can discover who that is, he must dissect the social fabric of the community, the soul of Bobby’s family, and the complex, cut-throat business of farming lurking under its placid exterior. This journey will take Joe and his sidekick, Willy Kunkle, from the country to gritty Newark, New Jersey, where they will get lessons in the ways of both big city cops, old-time Mafia soldiers, and the power of money.
Before it is all done, Joe will engage in a deadly game of chess that transcends mere police work, and confront at last an opponent with nothing to lose, whose final mission in life is to destroy the woman closest to Joe’s heart.
and when the Oberfeldt case takes a turn for the unexpected, Joe realizes that he is faced with a politically perilous situation—and a possibly lethal one personally.
An excerpt from St. Albans Fire
There are few more frightening discoveries than the odor of something burning in a hay loft. A farmer’s nightmares are full of fire, from a carelessly tossed match, to a spark from a worn electrical wire, to a fluke bolt of lightening. Even the hay itself, if put up too damp and packed too tightly, can spontaneously ignite and bring about disaster. More than one farmer in Bobby’s experience, Calvin Cutts included, wrapped up every day before bed by giving the barn a final fire check. To say that such vigilance smacked of paranoia was to miss the larger point: fire to a farmer was like a diagnosis of cancer—survivable perhaps, but only following a long and crippled struggle, and only if you were lucky.
Bobby had two choices: to investigate and perhaps stifle a problem before it got worse, or to run back to the house, raise the alarm, and get as many people and equipment coming as possible.
Typically, sadly, and unsurprisingly, he yielded to a young man’s faith in his own abilities, and set out to discover what was wrong.
Bobby’s sense of smell led him away from the bales and toward the sealed off, so-called fuel room that Calvin had built as far from any flammable materials as possible. Here was kept the gas and oil and diesel for their machines, locked behind a heavy, wooden door.
He could hear more clearly now, as he approached that door, the hissing sound that had drawn his attention. But as he unhooked the key from a nearby post, and freed the fire extinguisher carefully placed beneath it, he remained convinced of his course of action. It was a closed room; whatever lay within it was contained and could thus be controlled.
Which is when he heard a second sudden hissing, accompanied by a distinct snap—behind him—sharp, harsh, like the bite of a rat trap, far across the loft.
He swung around, startled—frightened. He’d been wrong. The noise beyond the door wasn’t all that he’d heard earlier. And this second one, he realized with a sickening feeling, was accompanied by a flickering glow. A second fire had started near where he’d just been.
Bobby Cutts began to sweat.
Distracted now, not thinking clearly, he clung to his initial plan of action. First things first. Ignoring the heat radiating from the lock as he slipped in the key, he twisted back the deadbolt, readied the fire extinguisher, and threw open the door.
The resulting explosion lifted him off his feet and tossed him back like a discarded doll, landing him flat on the floor with a sickening thud to the back of his head. His mouth was bleeding copiously from where the extinguisher had broken several teeth as it flew from his hands.
Dazed and spitting blood, a huge, curling fireball lapping at his feet, Bobby tried scrambling backwards, screaming in pain as he put weight on his shattered right hand. He rolled and crawled away as best he could, the smell of his own burned hair and skin strong in his nostrils. In the distance, at the loft’s far end, he could see a second sheet of flame working its way up the face of the stacked hay bales.
He got to his knees, staggered to his feet, and began stumbling back toward the ladder, his remaining instincts telling him to return below and free as many cows as possible before escaping himself.
It wasn’t easy. His eyes hurt and weren’t focusing properly, he kept losing his balance from a brain hemorrhage he knew nothing about, and as he reached the top of the ladder, the injury to his hand returned like a hot poker. The only saving grace was that he could see anything at all, the hayloft being high-ceilinged enough that the red, glowing smoke stayed above him.
He grabbed the ladder’s upright with his good hand, fumbled for the first rung, and began his descent, hearing the tethered animals starting to get restless.
Halfway down, just clear of the inferno overhead, he stopped for a moment to adjust to the stable’s contrasting gloom. There, hanging by one hand, praying for salvation, he watched in stunned disbelief as all around him, one bright rope of fire, then two, then three, magically appeared on the walls from the ceiling and dropped like fiery snakes to the floor, shooting off in different directions and leaving lines of fire in their wakes, stimulating a loud, startled chorus of bellows from the frightened creatures below him.
The fire spread as if shot from a wand, in defiance of logic or comprehension, racing from one hay pile to another. Bobby tried continuing down. But the cows had panicked in mere seconds, and were now, all sixty of them, struggling and stamping and heaving against their restraints, lowing and roaring as the encircling fire, progressing with supernatural speed, changed from a series of separate flames into the sheer embodiment of heat.
One by one, the animals broke loose. Stampeding without direction, corralled by fire, they began generating a stench of burning flesh in the smoky, scream-filled vortex of swirling, lung-searing air. A broiling wind built up as it passed by the dying boy, the trapdoor directly above him now transformed into a chimney flue. Bobby Cutts clung to his ladder as to the mast of a sinking ship, weeping openly, the fire overhead filling the square opening with the blinding, blood-red heat of a falling sun.
His hair smoking, all feeling gone from his burning body, he gazed between his feet into the twisting shroud of noise and flames and fog of char, no longer aware of the contorting bodies of the dying beasts slamming into his ladder, splintering it apart, and uncaring as he finally toppled into their midst, vanishing beneath a flurry of hooves.