The Surrogate Thief (2004)

The Plot

In present-day Vermont, a woman kills her ex-husband with an old, second-hand gun that turns out to have a history with Det. Joe Gunther. Thirty-two years earlier, as Joe and his then wife Ellen struggled with her terminal bout of cancer, local store owner Klaus Oberfeldt was robbed and beaten to death by a local thief using that same gun. Overwhelmed by Ellen’s illness, however, Joe’s personal grief hampered his investigation, and the suspect, Pete Shea, vanished before they could catch him. As Gunther and the Vermont Bureau of Investigation delve into this now suddenly renewed case, they discover that the political opponent of Joe’s longtime girlfriend, Gail Zigman (who is running for state senate) has close financial ties with one of the suspects in the old Oberfeldt investigation. But the deeper he digs, the deeper Joe becomes immersed in his own personal history with Ellen and with Gail, 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 The Surrogate Thief

Gloucester, Massachusetts is one of the grand old New England towns, as renowned in maritime history as Cape Ann—on which it’s perched—was famous among vacationing artists of old. The same holds true for both places today, but more sentimentally than in fact. Gloucester, while still fully functional as a fishing port, is but a pale glimmer of its past. And to Joe’s jaundiced eye, Cape Ann’s genteel and frugal Yankees were being overrun by Hummer-equipped mega-consumers seemingly bent on proving they had more cash than sense.

The population shifts reflect this latter aspect. From a year ‘round total of some 30,000 locals, the region bloats up to three times that number over the summer.

But he couldn’t really blame either tourists or part-timers. Even if addicted to the latest trend in vehicle or cell phone, the most hopeless among them could only be impressed by Cape Ann’s simple, breathtaking charm. It is a perfect commingling of history, good food, soothing scenery, and proximity to Boston. Despite the traffic, the boutiques, and a cheek-by-jowl crush of million dollar homes, the whole place remains wedded to the qualities that came long before—the gulls, the fishing boats, the smell of salt in the shifting air, and the huge, swelling, slightly ominous sea supporting it all.

Not surprisingly, there is a parallel arc of economic extremes, from the mansion owners spending most of their time away, to the dock and fish factory workers constituting the core of Gloucester’s ancient heart. It is the latter who continue the traditions of lore and trade, and who occupy—in a feudal comparison—the role of peasant on whom the lords rely for food. Similarly, they also bear the brunt of a dangerous and unstable profession, and are as exposed to the vagaries of the sea as their landlocked medieval forebears were to drought, disease, and foreign invasion.

In light of all this, it almost goes without saying that Gloucester is a hard drinking town, run through with a steady stream of nameless people of no particular address.

An ideal place for someone on the run.

The Gloucester Police Department is located along with the county’s district court in a modern, largely windowless, red brick building at the top of Main Street’s modest humped back. Joe parked on the street, noticing as he did how the crest of the hill marked a social watershed of sorts, with the eastern slope leading toward the wharves, the older businesses, and some of the cheaper housing, and the western slope hosting more upscale, trendy shops and outlets. The majority of the pedestrian crowd, still clad in summer brights, was clearly weighted toward the latter.

Joe found the police department located off the building’s lobby, in a dark room fronted by a bullet proof glass panel. He could just dimly see what looked to be a dispatch center beyond. A phone was mounted to one side of the window.

“Hello? Gloucester Police.”

“Hi. My name’s Joe Gunther. I’m from the Vermont Bureau of Investigation, in town running a check on an outstanding warrant.”

There was a pause from the other end, followed by, “Hang on. A detective will be right out.”

In three minutes, a barrel-shaped man in a polo shirt and khakis appeared at the far door. His expression was guarded as he stuck out his hand. “Hi, I’m Sgt. Wilkinson. May I help you?”

Joe reintroduced himself, presenting his credentials at the same time.

“Long way from home,” Wilkinson said, opening the door wider and smiling thinly at last. “Come on back.”

Joe followed him down a couple of dark, cluttered hallways, and into a tiny office. For all its outward appearance of clean lines and modernity, the building’s interior seemed cramped and oddly designed. Wilkinson waved Joe to a guest chair wedged between his own desk and a side table loaded with portable radios in chargers. Joe had to watch out for his knees as he sat.

“They told me you’re looking for someone.” Wilkinson stated.

Joe pulled an updated arrest warrant from his pocket and placed it before his counterpart. “Peter Shea. Suspected of homicide thirty-two years ago in Brattleboro, Vermont. I got an AFIS hit last night that you folks arrested him for unpaid parking tickets a couple of months ago.”

Wilkinson’s whole expression changed from reserve to bafflement. “You’re kidding me.”

Joe smiled. “Yeah—long story. Talk about a cold case. You have him in your files under the name …”

“Norman Chesbro,” Wilkinson finished.

Just hearing the name out loud was a relief. After all this time, his own misgivings and self doubt, Joe suddenly began to believe that the end might be within grasp. He wondered how it would feel to finally speak with the elusive ghost of a half a lifetime.

“I guess you two met.”

But Wilkinson was looking unhappy. “You could say that. We fished him out of the water early this morning. With a hole in his chest.”

Gunther stared at him.

The Gloucester cop opened a file before him and slid a Polaroid picture over without comment.

Joe picked it up and saw a drenched man, his face pale as bleached rubber, lying on a stretcher on a dock. In one of those moments when shock calls out for distraction, he also noticed how the body was ringed by the tips of people’s shoes, all caught in the margins of the photographer’s frame. “Sorry to ruin your day,” Wilkinson said. “Was that your guy?”

Vermont is shaped like a broken wedge pointed south.

It’s barely over 40 miles across at the bottom, 90 across the top and 160 in length. It has two interstates—I-91 running north-south, and I-89, which it inherits from New Hampshire in a diagonal jaunt from Boston to Montreal. The Green Mountains sew the state together like a protuberant spinal column, the vertebrae a series of picturesque, tree-topped peaks that slope down to the Connecticut River on the East, and Lake Champlain to the West.

It is tiny, rural, landlocked, un-industrialized, politically quirky, among the whitest states in the Union, and the 49th in population. Its capital, Montpelier, is the smallest of its ilk in the nation, and the only one not to have a McDonald’s restaurant.

Ask anyone in the country about Vermont, and you are almost sure to be given some impression, however inaccurate. From the Green Mountain Boys to maple syrup, skiing, fall foliage and cows— not to mention civil unions and some surprisingly high-profile, plain speaking politicians—Vermont tends to stick in people’s minds, if not always benignly.

It is a place with resonance beyond its modest statistics, and for Joe, a world in itself.

He knew it better than most, too. Even when he worked at the Brattleboro PD, he made it a point to get out and visit other departments. There are only about 1,000 full-time police officers in Vermont, and no jurisdictional boundaries—a cop is a cop anywhere in the state, fully certified and responsible to act as such if necessary. Gunther was keenly aware of that fact, and saw the whole as a single tribe, if made up of different factions. His joining the VBI, in truth, had less to do with personal advancement, and more with easing the turf struggles he saw slowly fading among many of the almost 70 law enforcement agencies across the state.

It was a great source of satisfaction to him, seeing how the growth in information sharing had resulted in a commensurate decline in unsolved crimes.

Which only added to the irony that he’d been the one involved in—and possibly responsible for—one of the more notorious of the state’s still open cases.

Thirty-two years ago.

He watched the familiar countryside roll by as he drove toward Waterbury and the forensic lab along one of the most beautiful traffic corridors in the Northeast. It was a trip he never tired of, and one he’d come to use, in good weather and poor, as an opportunity for reflection. If meditation was best pursued in peaceful, supportive, nurturing environments, Joe could think of none better that this smoothly curving road through the mountainous heart of his home state.

And in this instance, such solace was a blessing, for the long dormant thoughts created by the discovery of Purvis’s gun were a muddle of loss and mourning and lasting disappointment.

Thirty-two years ago, Gunther had been a fresh-faced detective on the Brattleboro force. A bright, hard-working patrolman, he’d made the transition to plainclothes quickly and had been in the unit about a year. He was good at what he did, made his bosses happy, and had a reputation around town for fairness and discretion.

The latter was crucial back then. The department had no more than fourteen officers total—versus twice that today—the town was the same size as now, and the crime rate seemed rampant. Many a time, Joe had to choose between arresting and processing someone and thereby leaving the street, or letting him go and hoping a lecture would suffice. Sometimes a phone call to an overworked but decent parent was enough, sometimes a little old-fashioned intimidation was called for. Miranda rights had just barely been introduced, and were undergoing judicial adjustment. They certainly weren’t yet routine. A police officer’s discretion—and his knowledge of whom he was dealing with—was often the better guide than the rule book. Shoving a night stick down someone’s pants and frog walking him across the bridge to Hinsdale, New Hampshire, to get rid of him for the evening had worked more than once.

But discretion could be pushed too far. On the night that Klaus Oberfeldt was found battered and unconscious on the floor of their store by his wife, the ambulance was called and the bare facts recorded. But it wasn’t until the next day, when Joe came back on duty, that he first heard of it. No neighborhood canvass had been conducted, no evidence collected, no statements or photographs taken. The beat cops at the time had written it off as a mugging and had filed it for a detective follow-up.

Nobody had liked old man Oberfeldt, as the lack of initiative revealed.

Joe dropped by the store the next morning to see Maria Oberfeldt, Klaus’s wife. He was embarrassed by her incredulity at the official poor showing, which helped him bear her tongue lashing. She, like her husband, was short-tempered, judgmental, imperious, and distrustful. Together, they’d turned the area around their small grocery store into a social fire zone. Kids, animals, vagrants, and often customers knew to expect a hostile and suspicious reception. The police were called regularly to investigate thefts and vandalisms and even loitering that often couldn’t be substantiated. Not that some abuse didn’t exist. The town in those days was a magnet for teenagers on the loose, who often threw eggs or paint at store windows for the hell of it. To many, as a result of this chemistry, the Oberfeldts only got what they deserved.

Nobody argued with Klaus’s beating being wrong, but few were surprised and no one besides Maria grieved for him.

She greeted Joe at the store’s locked door—she hadn’t opened that morning—and gave him an earful for thirty minutes straight. Then she stopped, fell apart, and collapsed crying into his arms.

It turned out that not only was Klaus comatose, but they’d been robbed of twelve thousand dollars—a small fortune in earned savings that they’d kept under a floorboard in the back room.

Joe finally led her back upstairs to where she and Klaus had an apartment, and convinced her to take a small drink and lie down for a rest. He then returned to the store, grateful it hadn’t been overly contaminated since the attack, and began treating it as it should have been from the start: a major crime scene.

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