The Sniper's Wife
By Archer Mayor
Published by Warner Books 
October 2002; 0-892-96767-6; 304 pages

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The Sniper's Wife by Archer MayorChapter 1

Willy Kunkle dipped his large right hand into the sink and scooped a splash of warm water onto his face, washing away the last of the shaving soap. He straightened, used the edge of a towel hanging to the right of the mirror to mop his cheeks and chin with the same hand, and studied his reflection in the harsh fluorescent light.

He wasn't looking for flaws in his shaving. And, God knows, there was no narcissism taking place. Willy was the first to acknowledge his was a purely functional appearance. He had what was necessary: a nose, two eyes, a mouth, none of it particularly remarkable. As far as it went, it was just a face.

And yet he studied it every morning the same way, carefully, warily, especially watching the eyes for any deepening of the intensity which even he found disturbing. Had he seen them on somebody else, they were eyes that would have given him pause-eyes which troubled him all the more that they were his. They were what made of the whole truly something to remember, and although he didn't know it, they were the one feature almost everyone remembered about his face.

His scrutiny drifted lower, again as usual, to his neck, to his collarbone, and finally to his left shoulder and the useless arm below it. He'd been symmetrical once-at the very least that. Now he was someone who carried an arm as an eccentric might perpetually lug around a heavy stuffed animal.

Except that his burden wasn't that interesting. It was just an arm, withered, pale, splotchy with poor circulation-something straight out of Dachau but pinned to his otherwise healthy body-put there by a rifle bullet in a police shootout years ago. In fact, the scar marked the dividing line between the alive and the dead of his body the way a ragged and permanent tear identifies where a sleeve has been torn from a shirt.

 

It did draw attention away from the eyes, though. People overlooked them altogether when describing him as "the cop with one arm." Which was an advantage, as far as Willy was concerned. He appreciated that a lesser but adequately flamboyant deformity covered for a far more telling one. It suited his personality. And his need. As he'd watched those eyes every morning-those windows into the workings of his head-he'd actually become grateful for the arm. It was his own built-in red herring.

He reached up and turned off the light. Time to go to work.

Winter had passed by at last, even mud season was nearing an end. A year's worth of weather in Vermont has been called nine months of winter and three more of damned poor sledding, but a quantity of subtleties is lost there. In fact, to those brought up in its midst, Vermont offers as many temperature and mood swings as any moderately complicated marriage, which is also how many natives view their relationship with the state.

Willy Kunkle was not a native. A "flatlander" by birth, transplanted from New York almost twenty years before, he didn't much care about the local fondness for climatology. It was either hot or cold to him, dry or wet. And discussing it wasn't going to change anything. Still, this was a very pleasant morning, and despite himself, he enjoyed the almost uncomfortably cold air drifting in through the open car window on his drive downtown.

Willy lived in Brattleboro, Vermont, a topsy-turvy, nineteenth century, postindustrial town of some twelve thousand residents squeezed into the state's southeast corner, hard by the Connecticut River and straddling three of Interstate 91's first exits out of Massachusetts.

This was a significant geographical detail. It made of Brattleboro the first taste of small-town Vermont to all those high-speed travelers coming out of the south, which is why a multimillion-dollar, high-tech welcome center had just been erected below Exit 1, and helped explain the town's financial survival when other historical mementos, like Springfield, Bellows Falls, and Windsor farther north, complete with similarly picturesque redbrick hearts, had faded to become mere economic ghosts of their former selves.

More specific credit for Brattleboro's stamina came from another unlikely flatlander source: back during the sixties, a small army of disaffected social dropouts, dizzy with blurry images of sylvan splendor and a thirst for isolation, barely crossed the state line to set up communes, natural food restaurants, and back-to-the-earth farms. Eventually, once the spiritual glow had either faded or aged, these erstwhile hippies amended enough of their more doctrinaire enthusiasms to become an integral part of an interestingly quirky, often contentious social fabric.

To the local police, however, Brattleboro's proximity to New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and the interstate had been slowly transforming the town from what the chamber of commerce called the gateway to Vermont into its doormat, a magnet for all the ills leaking out of the urban south-a cynical and narrow view, no doubt, but allowable given the source.

It also helped explain Willy Kunkle's presence here.

An ex-New York City patrolman, a Vietnam vet, and a dedicated alcoholic, Willy had ended up in Brattleboro first because he'd needed gas on his way to someplace-anyplace-he hadn't been to before, perhaps Canada. It hadn't been love at first sight or like having a revelation, but the double discovery of Brattleboro's busy downtown and a poster advertising openings at the police department had conspired to make him stay.

He'd begun by walking the streets, shunning patrol cars in exchange for the traditional beat, and had honed a talent for making contacts and connections in those parts of town few upstanding citizens cared to acknowledge. In the process, he'd become the one cop who most reliably could extract information where others came up empty-handed.

Thus, a serendipitous stop for gas and a job had led to a personal and professional progression he'd tried since to forget. Marching less to his own drummer and more as if on autopilot, Willy went through the standard evolutionary motions, watching himself like a spectator at a private parade. He met a local girl more confused than he, married her without much thought from either one of them, got transferred to the detective bureau in reward for his good work, and began hitting the bottle as never before.

Over a long, slow, agonizing period of years, he became like a gambler, his stake eroding to nothing, fully aware that his chances of winning were nil, but unwilling to change strategies and unable to leave the table. The alcohol abuse and disillusion led to self-loathing and anger, to wife abuse and a preordained divorce. He was crippled by a bullet in the line of duty, transferred off the police force, and came within half a step of joining the people he'd once been paid to arrest.

Then, in defiance of the gravitational pull he should have followed straight to the bottom, and with much the same disappointed bewilderment experienced by a drowner miraculously pulled back from a death finally become soothingly seductive, he was put back on the police payroll, told to fill in the proper paperwork, and accepted as a member of a newly created, statewide investigative agency called the Vermont Bureau of Investigation, with five regional offices, including one in Brattleboro.

Thus encouraged-almost cajoled-he'd gone from the edge of oblivion to getting on the wagon by his own sheer willpower, finding himself romantically involved with a female co-worker, and being regarded as one of the elite in his profession.

A roller-coaster ride of mixed and paradoxical emotions, and a happy, bittersweet end result entirely due-as he saw it in a typically angry dismissal of his own personal efforts-to a man named Joe Gunther.

Willy frowned and sighed heavily at the thought, cresting the top of High Street as it descended to intersect Main downtown, nearby Mount Wantastiquet in neighboring New Hampshire looming over a wall of buildings directly before him like a sleeping giant.

Joe Gunther hung on Willy's mind almost as much as the dead arm now resting in his lap.

Willy had read somewhere-unless he'd seen it at the movies-that in certain cultures, if you saved someone's life, that poor bastard was stuck having to return the debt and therefore keep you company until the day he could make good. If ever.

Well, much as he hated to admit it, Willy probably owed his life to Joe Gunther. Joe had been his boss on the police department's detective squad, had hovered sympathetically when he'd wrestled with booze and the divorce. He'd threatened to invoke the Americans with Disabilities Act and sue the town to get Willy back on the force after his injury. He'd cut him slack time and again, hadn't taken offense when Willy did his damnedest to give it, and had acted as a go-between when Willy had fallen in love with Sammie Martens-the other detective who'd made the move from the PD to the Bureau. Finally, after the legislature had created the VBI and the commissioner of public safety had tapped Joe as its field force commander, he'd made it clear that he wouldn't take the job unless Willy's application was given a fair review, after which he'd persuaded Willy to apply.

Why? Because Joe was a decent guy who acted the same way with everyone, and because, while he might not have been the life of any party, he was like a dog with a bone when it came to doing the right thing.

There were times, lots of times, when Willy raged at this man.

He waited at the stoplight, preparing to turn left up Main. There was a shorter route to the office, but driving through downtown every morning had become a ritual.

The pedestrian walk sign began flashing, accompanied by an obnoxious chirping sound designed to help the blind cross safely. Willy shook his head. Only in Brattleboro, capital city of granola heads, where nothing ever happened without everyone worrying about how everyone else felt about it. There was enough hot air in this town to pop the Titanic back to the surface like a cork.

This cynicism belied Willy's years of service to this community, and his caring for its vital signs the way a doctor would a patient's every ache and pain.

He drove north, up Main toward the new, modern courthouse, perched on a grassy knoll like a shiny anchored ship, forcing the street to split around it like a current. Across the way, balanced on a second hill, was a complete architectural contrast: the ancient municipal building. A remodeled high nineteenth century school, all bricks and spires and wrought-iron knickknacks, it was where Willy used to work as a cop and still did as a special agent, since the VBI had a small office located on the monstrosity's second floor.

His morning rounds completed, Willy circled the courthouse, cut around the block, and parked in the lot behind the municipal building.

Upstairs, Sammie Martens paused by the window at the end of the central hallway just outside the ladies' room, holding a pitcher of water intended for the office coffee machine. She saw Willy get out of his car, cross the parking lot, and vanish from view as he entered the building.

She waited to greet him, knowing he'd come straight up, as usual. She preferred seeing him first in private, if possible, especially if they hadn't spent the previous night together. It helped prepare her for whatever mood he might be in. Dark to middling was the standard she'd grown used to before they'd become intimate, although nowadays, she was happy to note, there was the occasional suggestion that he was lightening up.

She listened in vain for his footsteps coming up the stairs, eventually resting the pitcher on the windowsill. It seemed he'd run into someone in the lobby.

She glanced out the window again, attracted by a sudden movement below, and saw Willy running back to his car, fumbling for his keys.

Surprised, she returned to the office, placed the water beside the coffeemaker, and addressed the older man sitting behind one of the four corner desks.

"Joe, did we just have a call come in? My pager didn't go off."

Joe Gunther looked up from what he'd been reading and gave her a thoughtful look before answering. "Not that I know of."

"I just saw Willy go running back out of the building to his car."

Her boss sat back in his chair and pursed his lips. "Maybe he forgot something at home."

She wasn't convinced. "Maybe. It didn't look like that. I saw him drive up like usual and waited for him at the top of the stairs for almost five minutes. He never made it."

Sue was suddenly struck by her own odd choice of words.

Gunther was used to Willy's ways. In the past, it had usually paid to give him a little leeway, and sometimes much more than a little. Whether Willy was the son Joe had never had or merely possessed by a spirit Joe found perversely irresistible, the bottom line remained that Willy Kunkle was one of the most instinctive police officers Joe had ever worked with, and therefore worth a little more than the usual slack.

"Give him half an hour, Sam. That'll allow for a round trip home and then some. After that, we can start shaking the bushes. If he's on to something, the first thing he'll want is to be left alone."

Sammie Martens went back to making coffee, unsatisfied and faintly apprehensive.

Exactly one-half hour later, she glanced at Gunther again, who merely caught her eye and nodded without comment. Sammie picked up the phone and called Willy's house.

There was no answer.

Frustrated, she rose and headed for the door. "I'm going downstairs-see if I can find out what set him off."

She turned into the radio dispatch area on the first floor and rapped on the bulletproof glass separating the dispatchers from the public. A woman half rose in her seat to peer over the console between them. "Hey, Sam." Her voice was made metallic by the two-way intercom.

"What's happenin'?"

"I'm looking for Willy. You see him this morning?"

The woman's expression registered surprise, then confusion. "He didn't tell you guys?"

She gestured to the side. "Come around to the door."

Sammie moved down the hallway to a locked door that opened almost as soon as she reached it. The dispatcher took her through the patrol officer's room to an empty office normally used by the PD's parking enforcement division, calling through the door of her own office as she did so, "Wayne, cover for me a sec, will you?"

"It was kinda funny," she explained to Sammie. "We got a call from a New York City detective asking if we could send an officer to locate someone named William Kunkle, who supposedly lived in Brattleboro. I started laughing and told him no one went out of their way to dig up Willy if they could avoid it. The guy was dead quiet, so I explained that Willy was a cop who worked upstairs. Which was exactly when Willy walked by the window. So I shouted to him to take the call on the wall phone. I was watching when he answered. He looked really intense for a couple of minutes, and then he hung up and vanished, just like that." She snapped her fingers. "I figured he was booking it upstairs to see you."

Sammie Martens shook her head. "I saw him through the window, running back to his car. What was the name of the New York cop?"

"Hang on." The woman crossed the narrow hallway into the dispatch area and retrieved a pad from her console desk. "Detective Ogden." She handed the pad over. "That's the number."

Sammie placed her hand on a nearby phone. "This okay?"

The woman nodded before resuming her seat at the console.

Sammie dialed and heard a deep, clear, almost radio-quality male voice pick up on the other end. "Detective squad-Ogden."

"Detective Ogden, this is Special Agent Samantha Martens of the Vermont Bureau of Investigation in Brattleboro. You just talked to a colleague of mine, Willy Kunkle?"

"That I did."

"I don't want to step on any toes here, but could I ask what you talked about? He took out of here like a jackrabbit and didn't tell us what was up."

There was a long hesitation.

Sammie tried to help the man out. "I could have my supervisor call you. Or you can call him, so you'd know for sure I am who I say I am. VBI's in the phone book."

Ogden relented. "It's nothing that confidential. We were looking for a next-of-kin for a DOA we have down here."

Sammie was stunned and increasingly confused, having had to make a few calls like that herself. "Oh, my God. One of his family? But why call him? He has relatives right in New York that could act as next-of-kin."

"It's not that easy. The woman we have isn't strictly family. In fact, we don't know who she's related to. All we found in her apartment were her divorce papers from Mr. Kunkle. That's why I called him. I was looking for a blood relation and thought he could help. I didn't realize he took it so hard. That didn't come across in his voice."

Sammie nodded at the familiarity of that. "Did he give you a name?"

"Her mother's, but he said it would be a waste of time. And he was right. I just hung up on her. Told me her daughter had been dead to her for years already-that she didn't want anything to do with her. Actually, I'm kind of glad you called, 'cause we need a definite ID on this woman-"

"Mary," Sammie interrupted. "That was her name."

Ogden was caught off guard. "What? Oh, right. Sorry. Did you know her?"

"We met once, a long time ago. Department picnic."

"Okay. Well, anyway, we really need someone to ID Mary, and it's looking like William might be it, if he's willing. Mary's mother said that would suit her fine."

Sammie was filled with sadness, anxiety, even a perverse pinch of jealousy. She'd only met Mary Kunkle that single time, true enough, but she knew of their history as a couple, and the guilt that Willy carried for having beaten her once in a drunken rage and bringing the marriage to ruin. Never an emotional brick at the best of times, Willy was going to take this hard.

"What did she die of?"

"We're looking good for an accidental overdose. You think you could help me out?" Ogden asked.

Oh, Christ, Sammie thought, the word "overdose" rising like a snake from hiding. Now she knew for sure what channel Willy was on, which made her all the more fearful. "I don't think I need to," she answered. "He's already on his way."

Copyright 2002 Archer Mayor
Reprinted with permission.

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Synopsis

Archer Mayor has gained enormous critical and popular acclaim for his Joe Gunther detective novels. Now Mayor breaks bold new ground as he follows the trials of Gunther's sidekick Willy Kunkle, a Vietnam vet who will make a rocky descent into his own tormented past. Torn from pastoral Vermont to the squalid tenements of New York City, Willy will hunt relentlessly for justice, redemption, and the whole truth about...

The call to Detective Willy Kunkle came from the NYPD. Willy's ex-wife, Mary, had been found dead in her New York apartment and he was asked to provide the next-of-kin ID. Although he hadn't been in touch with Mary since their divorce, Willy knew he was the only one left to vouch for her remains. Now, years after fleeing the city, Willy returns laden with misgivings that are deepened all the more by seeing Mary's pathetic corpse on a gurney. With a fresh puncture mark in her arm and heroin still in the syringe, the police think she overdosed. But while the evidence is compelling, Willy's instincts tell him something is missing.

Driven by his loss, his doubts, and a blossoming guilt, Willy defies the authorities in an increasingly dangerous search for answers along New York's mean streets. Pulled deeper and deeper into a past before Vermont, before the drunken abuse he inflicted on Mary, before his abandonment of his family and friends, Willy encounters his ghosts from Vietnam-where he was known as "the sniper," a lethal loner who struck without mercy.

From gutted slums to the townhouses of Brooklyn Heights, Willy Kunkle will plummet through the dark shadows of his past, confront his demons…and live up to his menacing nickname.

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Author

Archie MayorArcher Mayor wrote history books before he turned to writing fiction full time. He has been variously employed as a scholarly editor, a researcher for TIME-LIFE Books, a political advance man, a theater photographer, a newspaper writer/editor, a lab technician and photo editor for Paris-Match in France, and a medical illustrator. Mayor gives talks and workshops all around the Northeast (or wherever else he's invited,) including the Bread Loaf Young Writers conference in Middlebury, Vermont, and the Colby College seminar on forensic sciences in Waterville, Maine. He also works as a volunteer firefighter/Emergency Medical Technician for the NewBrook Fire Department, and is town constable in Newfane, Vermont, where he lives with his family. As of earlier this year, he is also an assistant medical examiner for the state of Vermont.

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