by Brandon Barrows Genre: Mystery
Politically blacklisted detective Luke Campbell's last chance in law-enforcement is a job with the police department of rural Granton, Vermont. It's a beautiful town, home to a beautiful, intriguing girl who's caught his eye, and it's a chance at redemption. Even if his new boss seems strange, secretive, and vaguely sinister, Campbell is willing to give this opportunity a shot. And no sooner does he make that decision than the first in a series of murders is discovered, starting a chain of events that will change the lives of everyone in this once-quiet town.
The tall bag of bones swung a vicious right that seemed to whistle in the stillness of the thin night air, scraping through the empty space between my chin and throat, just barely avoiding contact with flesh. Seemingly in the same motion, as if using the momentum from his swinging fist, he turned and dashed off into the dim recesses of the alley he’d been hanging around the mouth of – for hours, if Rosalie Stompanato was to be believed. I had no reason to doubt her.
“Police! Get back here!” Shouting was pointless, but I had to try. I gave chase to the already-vanished figure, plunging after him into the deeper darkness between two aging apartment houses. My fist, which I only then realized I was making, unclenched and I reached for the holster under my left shoulder, muttering, “God damn it.”
It was pushing midnight and in just over nine hours, both Rosalie Stompanato and I were due in court for the attempted murder trial of her mid-level racketeer husband, Thomas “Tommy Stomper” Stompanato. Stompanato, loosely connected to the much larger Castella crime organization, had been on a lot of people’s radars for years, for everything from small-time protection rackets to credit card scams and money laundering for bigger outfits. Major investigations by Albany city police, New York state police and even federal authorities produced charges and convictions against numerous Stompanato pawns, and even a couple of lieutenants, but Tommy Stomper himself somehow always remained clean enough to skate away. It took a domestic situation, a middle of the night, literal knock-down-drag-out in which he pulled Mrs. Stompanato out of their lavish home in suburban Malta and, according to witnesses and Rosalie herself, tried to remove her teeth with the aid of a conveniently placed curb. “Stomper” wasn’t just a clever play on his family name.
When I got the tip about a disturbance at the Stompanato residence from a state-trooper friend, I couldn’t help being just a bit grateful for this bit of rage-fueled stupidity. The man had been so clever for so long that it looked like he’d never fuck up, that we’d never find the crack that would pull open his operation and let us drag him out into the light. For Rosalie Stompanato, it was a nightmare, but a lot of us who were after her husband felt gratitude and guilt in equal measures. One woman’s nightmare was a godsend for multiple agencies.
After the incident, Rosalie Stompanato moved out of her stylish home in nearby Malta to a small apartment in the area where she grew up, inside the city proper. Family and friends she knew there were long gone, but the return to a familiar place apparently brought a measure of comfort. It was understandable and it made both the county prosecutor’s work in prepping her for the trial, and my department’s in protecting her, that much easier. Despite the charges against him, not to mention his associations, Stompanato made bail and his organization worked on. With a trial looming over his head, but no date set, the mobster seemed to keep his nose relatively clean, knowing the state’s attorney would be more than happy to tack additional charges onto the list he was already facing. That and time, as weeks became months, allowed Rosalie Stompanato to make a life for herself unmolested.
“At least the kids are already grown and out on their own,” Rosalie told me once, in a private moment. “If this happened ten years ago…” She broke down without finishing, but I knew what she was thinking.
I kept in regular touch with her after that, partially because I felt she needed the support, but also hoping to pick up something that would further widen the chink in Tommy Stomper’s armor. She seemed to be doing as well as could be expected. She was even starting to feel safe again, she told me – until the night before the trial finally began.
It was past eleven o’clock when I received the woman’s call; I’d given her my home number and told her to call any time, for any reason. She noticed a figure, she said – a tall, gangly man she didn’t remember ever seeing in the neighborhood before, who spent hours standing in the mouth of the alley directly across from her apartment.
“It’s probably nothing,” I told her, as much to convince myself. Tommy Stomper proved he wasn’t stupid, but with so much riding on the events of the next day, maybe he was becoming desperate. “But I’m happy to check it out.”
When I arrived on Rosalie’s street, fifteen minutes after her call, I saw exactly who she was worried about and exactly why. He stood just outside the circle of light cast by a streetlamp, hanging around the mouth of an alley. I watched for a few minutes and he did nothing at all – not so much as light a cigarette, shuffle his feet or cough. He wasn’t worried about seen.
I exited the vehicle and approached.
Closer up, I could see he was a sickly thin young man, skin so pale it almost seemed to glow in the dimness. He wore a faded blue hooded sweatshirt that hung from him like laundry on a line and his hair was short, mussed and unwashed, making it look like blond barbed wire. I’d have bet his diet consisted largely of amphetamines.
The guy’s eyes, watchful and wary, scanned me as I approached. I flashed my badge and said, “Evening.” That was all it took. Those animal-alert eyes went wide and his fist swung out in an arc and then he was gone, rabbiting towards the nearest hole.
My feet pounded the pavement, echoing sharply in the narrow, trash-strewn space, all senses searching for signs of the danger I was rushing headlong into. Light beckoned from a short distance and after a moment, I burst out into the next street. Even the soft yellow glow of sodium lamps seemed brilliant after the pitch-dark of the alley and, as my eyes adjusted, I turned left then right, spotting a figure disappearing around the corner. I followed, telling myself I was being stupid, telling myself I should go back to Rosalie Stompanato’s, make sure she was all right, call it in, ask for additional officers, all while my feet took me closer to where I saw that retreating form.
I turned the corner, saw a flash duck around yet another corner. At the mouth of the alley, I allowed myself an instant’s rest before entering. Even from the street, it was clear this was a dead-end. There was nothing but darkness down this brick corridor – the alley was blocked up midway down.
I drew my weapon, fumbled in my coat pocket for my penlight, flicked it on, then aimed it and the weapon down the length of the alley, sweeping the narrow width of the space.
“C’mon out. There’s nowhere left to go.”
My heart pounded in my chest and there was a stitch in my side, but I felt good all the same. Stompanato’s intimidation failed, and I caught his crony in the act. Witness tampering charges would be a bonus year or two on Stompanato’s sentence.
There was a rustle behind a pile of discarded cardboard boxes. “Let’s go,” I commanded. “Now.”
The figure rose like a scarecrow in a concrete field, arms lifted in a half-hearted pose of surrender. I flicked the flashlight’s beam upwards; he shied away, blinded by the brilliance, his head turning and one arm flying up to protect his eyes. I shifted the light so I could hold both it and my weapon in my right hand then started forward, plucking a pair of handcuffs from my pocket. With my left hand, I reached for the man’s wrist. Up close, I could see he was barely more than a kid.
“You’re under arrest for disobeying a lawful command, resisting an officer and—“
I never got to finish.
The fist I’d narrowly avoided before thrust out again, catching me hard in the right shoulder, a wave of pain and shock jolting down the length of my arm. He was a lot stronger than his frailness suggested. He followed up with a two-handed push that sent me spinning off to one side, banging my other shoulder off of the rough stone wall of the alley, before rushing past, trying again to escape.
I threw out a hand, grabbing a fistful of his sweatshirt. It stopped him, but only long enough for him to half-turn and chop an open-handed blow down onto my elbow. Fresh pain skittered along my nerves, but I didn’t let go, instead raising my right hand, only to discover it was empty. Somewhere in those chaotic two or three seconds, I dropped my gun.
I cursed and struggled for a better grip on the kid’s clothing. He was thrashing wildly, yelling, “Let go! Let go!” his voice shrill and his mind going into panic mode. The decision between fight or flight was no longer his to make, but it seemed as if he was trying to choose both options simultaneously.
“Settle down! Cut it out, God damn it!” I snarled, freeing one hand to cuff him alongside the back of the neck, trying to startle him into a semblance of calm. “Nobody’s going to hurt you, but you’re digging yourself one hell of a hole!”
He ignored the words and continued to flail around. I tried to tackle him around the waist and ended up dragging both of us down to the filthy floor of the alley, where we rolled around for a few seconds, trading a punch a two. We were making enough noise that lights in the surrounding buildings came on. I hoped someone would have the sense to call 911, but even if they did, I knew nobody would arrive soon enough to help me get out of this. I was on my own.
Just as the thought flew through my head, the kid stopped moving. I allowed myself to hope he was coming to his senses at last. Then his hand shot out, straining to reach beyond my head, and when it came back into view, his fingers were wrapped around a chunk of brick the size of a small loaf of bread. He reared up, holding the thing above his head, prepared to end things between us. In the scant light of the nearly forgotten flashlight, his eyes looked huge and empty.
My own eyes flew all around, frantic, searching for a way out. The other man was straddling my chest and his knees kept me effectively pinned to the ground, but my arms were free and my fingers scrabbled across the rough, cold ground, searching for something, anything, to break this deadlock. They closed around something even colder, something metallic and familiar.
As the brick came down, my fist came up, and the explosion of noise and light only inches from my face all but knocked me senseless.
Brandon Barrows is the award-nominated authors of the novels Burn Me Out and This Rough Old World as well as over fifty published stories, selected of which have been collected into the books The Altar in the Hills and The Castle-Town Tragedy.
He is also the writer of nearly one-hundred individual comic book issues.
He is an active member of both the Private Eye Writers of America and International Thriller Writers.
Hi. I’m Brandon Barrows. Maybe we’ve met before. Maybe you know me from my previous novel Burn Me Out, or from stories of mine that have appeared in various magazines and anthologies. Burn Me Out and many of those stories are lodged firmly in the noir category of crime fiction, so Strangers’ Kingdom is something a little different for me: a true mystery. It’s also a police procedural set in rural Vermont, which was harder to write than it sounds.
So it’s something different for me as a writer. So what, you might think. Well, I’ll tell you: because it’s a novel I put a tremendous amount of effort, heart, and hopefully you’ll agree, soul into that I know you’ll enjoy.
Let’s start with the basics – the blurb.
Politically blacklisted detective Luke Campbell’s last chance in law-enforcement is a job with the police department of rural Granton, Vermont. It’s a beautiful town, home to a beautiful, intriguing girl who’s caught his eye, and it’s a chance at redemption. Even if his new boss seems strange, secretive, and vaguely sinister, Campbell is willing to give this opportunity a shot. And no sooner does he make that decision than the first in a series of murders is discovered, starting a chain of events that will change the lives of everyone in this once-quiet town…
How does that grab you? Interested in knowing a little more, hopefully?
Well, the setting came first. While the town of Granton is fictional, the area where the book is set, Vermont's Northeast Kingdom, is very real. In fact, it’s where my mother grew up and a place I still have family. Being in a sort of triangle between two states and Canada, there's a lot that goes on up there, probably more than we'll ever know. Despite everything that can happen in such a setting, though, for most people, a rural town is a very small world and that’s certainly true of the main character, Luke Campbell. Luke grew up in Vermont, but lived most of his adult life in Albany, New York before coming to Granton. Because of that, it’s less a homecoming for him than it is a brand-new world, something both he as the protagonist and I, as the writer, were continually discovering while I wrote it.
So why a police procedural mystery? Truthfully, it didn’t start out that way. It began as a rural noir, like many of my short stories, but I discovered early on that it just wasn’t working for me. I couldn’t tell the story the way it needed to be told if I stuck to that and I liked the ideas I had for this book so much, I wasn’t willing to create something I felt inferior, so I played around with the format, switched it up, and ended up creating an entirely new protagonist to go along with the new format.
And you know, I really liked Luke Campbell, right from the start. He’s had a rough go of it, and he’s still trying to make the best of it, while going out of his way to help people—like a lonely, bullied little boy and his mother, both of him Luke comes to care about deeply—even though he’s got every right to be bitter about his situation.
Of course, he’s just one of the characters, but he is the main character and I like to think he both embodies the central theme of the novel and recognizes it for himself in the course of the work: that there are no "bad guys" or "good guys" out there, just people. Everyone does terrible things at some point in their life—whether intentionally or not—and not one of us is completely "bad". Everyone is just trying to get along and do the best they can. Sometimes we fail at that. There are certainly criminals in this novel, but everyone in it is guilty to some extent and everyone has their good qualities, too. I always try to infuse my work with emotion, and this is something that really hit me as I was writing Strangers’ Kingdom, so I hope it’s something that comes across to you, the readers.
As I said, this is a book I put a lot of effort into. It took me nearly three years, off and on, to write – longer than any of my other novels, by far. But it was worth it. I’m very happy with it and I hope you will be, too. So do us both a favor and give it a read, will you? If you like mysteries, crime, and small-town stories about people doing their best I know you’ll love it as much as I do.
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