Leo Gunther gingerly closed the squeaky door of his beloved and battered Ford Mustang and glanced up at the low-hanging sky. He was a butcher by trade, a collector of vintage cars from the 60s, who still lived with his mother on the family homestead. But while also the second son of a lifelong Vermont farmer, now long passed on, he wasnt any more connected to the soil or dependent upon the weather than the average bank teller. Even as a kid, hed mostly only accompanied his taciturn father back and forth along the dry dirt runnels of the familys cornfields. But traditions remained, and his weather eye was always on the lookout, as were so many others, across this mountainous, rural, ancient New England state.
Leo crossed the parking lot, pulled open the door to Mitchells Dry Goods, and exchanged the charged, gunmetal outdoors for the dimly lighted embrace of a cluttered, tight-fitting country store, jammed with cans and boxes lining bowed wooden shelves, and crowded with square-built men holding Styrofoam cups in blunt-fingered hands. Mitchells was where local loggers, farmers, heavy equipment operators, and the town road crew met every dawn to authoritatively trade information about everything, anything, and everyone within their combined realm of knowledge.
Except that on this Sunday, no one was headed to work, and it was already long past dawn.
Leo, one of the men called out over the noise of the TV set mounted in the corner, near the stained ceiling. What dya think?
Leo shrugged as he crossed to the magnum-sized coffeemaker and poured himself a cup. There was only one topic of conversation that morning. I think Irene is a lousy name for a hurricane.
Tropical storm, corrected someone, to an underswell of mutterings.
Whatever, a third intoned, I think itll be a rainy daythats it. These weather guysre just looking for better ratings.
A heavy, bearded man laughed as Leo turned to look at the TV screen. Thats no rainy day, Jesse. That reporters in Jersey, and he looks like hes drowning.
They said wind. Theres no wind out there.
Leo quietly nursed his coffee. Mitchell, of the name above the door, had been running this store for forty years, handing out free coffee to all of themalthough readily accepting donations, which were surprisingly forthcomingand acting like both the towns radio station and newspaper, since the greater Thetford township hosted neither amenity. Located near high-profile Hanover, New Hampshirejust across the Connecticut RiverThetford had been all but eclipsed by its neighbors ritzier reputation.
In truth, Leos own butcher shop across the street bragged of the proximity in its advertisements, which worked to lure meat lovers from thirty miles away. It had helped propel him from homegrown boy to businessman of renown, featured in glossy travel and food magazines, and even the occasional television piece out of Boston.
The governor made it sound pretty bad, he said softly, recalling the recently declared state of emergency.
What the hell does she know? someone said darkly. Goddamn hippie New Yorker.
Leo smiled. Their chief executive had been that, first appearing in Vermont decades earlier at a commune outside Brattleboro. He knew her well. His brother, Joe, had dated her for years. But she would forever be a flatlander with this crowd. No getting around it. That was just the way it was in Vermont.
Which hadnt stopped her being elected governor. Probably helped, in fact.
Leo pointed with his chin at the screen. Im with Mitchshe knows enough to look at those satellite pictures. Irenes a big girl. I think were gonna get the brunt of her.
The National Guards been put on alert, a voice added somberly.
I heard the power companys doubled its crews.
Its the wind, Mitch said from behind his counter. Thats the killer, every time.
Its not the wind; its the flooding, someone countered. Always has been; always will.
There is no wind, the same voice repeated from earlier.
That had struck Leo as well. He drifted over to a window overlooking the dirt parking lot, foreseeing its dull silver surface becoming pockmarked by raindrops. Hed heard that Irene had produced winds of 110 miles per hour at her peak, a few days ago, down south. Even Governor Zigman had mentioned strong winds. Winds were attentiongetters. Mitch was right there. Cars, houses, power lines. The whole state could look like a pile of pick-up sticks if Irene got pissed off. Leo was old enough to have seen similar damage from tornadoes and ice storms.
But water was worse, as proven by those wet reporters. Water could make wind look like a minor irritation. Vermont was called the Green Mountain State for good reason. It was a dented, twisted, punched-out washboard from overhead, with barely a flat acre across its surface. And it featured a dinosaur-aged spinal column of mountain peaks down its middle, which forced the roads to parallel a spidery maze of waterways lining the bottoms of countless valleys, ravines, and vales. There were dams here and there, put up during the Depression after a couple of killer floods, but Vermont had grown since then, with more people, more pavement, and more communities. As far as Leo was concerned, Gail Zigman was rightthey were in for something big. The water would come guttering down the slopes, accumulating in mass and strength until it became its own uncontainable force, capable of feats beyond imagining.
Leo knew that much from personal experience. He had been in and around water all his life. Fishing, swimming, canoeing, hiking along its edge. Hed come to see it as a noncompressible, shape-changing solidheavy, forceful, and relentless. As a member of his local fire department, hed helped extract more bodies than he could recall from one watery embrace or another, and theyd all looked the same: pale blue, limp and pruney, smeared with silt and often bruised and battereddrained of vitality in a way peculiar to drownings, as if the water had sucked the heart out of them.
He looked through the window again into the thick, laden, featureless sky, the coffee mugironically, to his way of thinkingwarm and comforting near his chest.
He didnt feel good about any of this.
Time to head back home.
Willy Kunkle stopped in his tracks, forcing Joe to come up short behind him. You gotta be shitting me.
Kunkle squatted down in the dim light behind the gas station. This guy doesnt need jail time. He needs therapy.
Joe Gunther crouched beside his colleague to see what had caught his attention. It was a wet, banded wad of dollar bills, still startlingly crisp, even in the rain.
He dropped it? he asked rhetorically.
More like it fell out of his stupid bag. Willy looked over his shoulder and gestured for Ron Klesczewski, head of Brattleboros detective squad.
Joe stood back up, as much to ease his knees as to minimize the amount of water soaking his pants. It had been raining for several hours by now, from well before sunup, and was slated to get worse. He stepped out of the way to let Ron in. They were working a gas station robbery togetherthe PD and Joes own Brattleboro-based Vermont Bureau of Investigation squad. Normally, the locals would have handled it on their own, but Ron was alone this morning, his small team having worked late into the night, trying to coax people away from the trailers and affordable housing units that were locatedas they were commonly across the countryamong the lower-cost floodplains.
Klesczewski also had considerable exposure to this specific type of crimeBrattleboro had suffered a rash of them recently. But despite Joes VBI being a statewide, exclusively major crimes unit, such distinctions seemed trivial in the face of what was bearing down on them. Besides, most of this particular VBI crew had worked for the PD once, before jumping ship for a better offer a few years back. Both the PD and the VBIs one-room office were even located in the same building. In the light of all that, opportunities like this robbery felt more like reunions.
Willy was correct with his scorn for this crimes complexity. Theyd known who did it upon first glance at the stores surveillance tape. Caspar Luard was a twenty-something half-wit repeat offender whod found flipping burgers a challenge and so took up crime as a fallback. This time, with predictable forethought, hed approached a gas station, put a paper bag on his head in full view of the exterior camera, walked inside to relieve the counterman of the registers cash, and then exitedto again pose for the camera as he removed the now half-torn bag and filled it with money before taking his leave.
Not all police work was a brainteaser.
Boss? Willy addressed him.
Gunthers cell phone buzzed at the same time. An older-generation cop, Joe frequently remained surprised by the notion of a phone going off in his pants. He pulled it out and said, Hang on a sec, while he turned toward Willy, his eyebrows raised in inquiry.
Kunkle was holding his own phone aloft. Its Sam, he explained. She was waiting for Caspar when he got home. He cant believe we figured this out.
He still have the rest of the money? Joe asked.
Less than half of it. He lost the rest. We take this route to his apartment, well probably find it scattered like rice at a wedding, assuming some other loser isnt already buying beer with it.
Joe nodded and returned to his own phone. Sorry. Hi.
Hey, Joe. Its Harry. You knee-deep or can you come over to the command center?
Sure. Bout five minutes.
Gunther took his leave, crossed the gas station apron to Main Street, and stood at the curb, waiting for the crosswalk light to favor him. It was a quasi-idiotic gesture, he knew, given that the town appeared as empty as a movie set awaiting a crew. There were no cars in motion, a couple of people barely visible two blocks in the distance, and very few vehicles parked by the meters. Even for a Sunday morning, it had an eerie, abandoned air to it, andwith the lowering, rain-sodden sky feeling fifty feet off the groundit also looked like a black-and-white photograph, set off here and there with hand-applied painterly touches, like the brilliant yellow slickers of those far-off pedestrians.
His caller, Harry Benoit, was the towns fire chief and the head of emergency operations. Over the years, Harry had made it his business to figure out how to manage chaos, from major fires to natural mishaps to protesters thronging the streets for assorted causes. And, through a combination of grant money, political arm-twisting, equipment acquisitions, and training involving a network of like-minded agency heads, he had succeeded in building a pretty solid organization across Windham County.
Joe tilted his head back and let the rain wash his face under the brim of his hat.
There was no wind to speak of; no lightning or thunder. Tropical Storm Irene, now that shed arrived, was feeling like a summer shower.
But with something more malevolent lurking within her.
Joe took his hat off briefly and let the rain hit him fully. It was a farm boys variation on a cooks dipping his finger into the sauce to finalize his appraisal of it.
This was no summer shower, Joe concluded, at last crossing the street to the signals steady chirping. There was a steadiness to this rain, and a weighta sense of permanence that foretold it would be with them for a long time. It was the kind of rain that hed loved in 1930s melodramas, supplied by pipes and sprayers kept just out of the frame.
Harrys command post was in the basement of the towns municipal building, which also housed the town offices, the police, andon the second floorthe VBIs cramped quarters. It looked like a structure that the Addams Family might have called home, and had begun as the local high school, before being steadily and repeatedly remodeled from the 1800s onward. Through the decades, every tenant had groused about its inefficiencies, its layout, and its temperature fluctuations. Joe had always enjoyed the antiquity of the place, and sympathized with a cranky old behemoth that, like him, had quietly endured the finicky technology forever being thrust upon it. In that way, he was reminded of the entire states dilemma, struggling to keep current in an ever-more-modern world while touting tourist-friendly images of photogenic cows, tasty syrup, crusty locals, and hot spot ski resorts.
The Emergency Operations Center, or EOC, like so many of its ilk across the nation, was located out of sight in a windowless, subterranean corner enclave. Joe had found it a curiously common habit of government bureaucracies to locate such centers in the heart of structures most likely to suffer from damage or pointed attack. Typical had been New York Citys, located on the twenty-third floor of the World Trade Center, after the 1993 bombing of the parking garage had revealed the buildings appeal as a target.
Joe had once mentioned all this to Harry, but all hed found was a kindred spirit equipped with a gallows sense of humor, resigned to following directives from politicians far away and far removed.
And so they made do with the basement, with fingers crossed.
Joe climbed the steep approach of broad, uneven granite steps leading up to the municipal buildings entrance. They were set into a hill overlooking Main Street and the district court across the wayadmittedly a location that alleviated most concerns about water doing much more than flatten the grass to both sides of him.
Still, as he well knew, water had a way of doing as it liked. Just ask New Orleans.
He paused in the old buildings lobby, shaking off the rain and slapping his damp hat against his leg, before descending a nearby staircase made of much-painted, scarred, and splintered wood, massive and old enough that it might have been pried off the Ark for reuse. There was a fitting thought, Joe mused.
The basement was normally a somber, tomblike place, relegated to storage, an officers rarely used gym, a Titanic-sized furnace, miles of awkward overhead wiring, and the usually darkened EOC.
But not today. Joe entered a beehive of activity, with people milling about and the smell of coffee strong. The air was electric with talk, ringing phones, buzzing printers, and the background chatter of TV weather stations and news programs.
He stopped on the threshold of the Emergency Operations Center itself and took it in. He recognized over three-quarters of the people there. Hed lived his entire adult life in this town, and knew most of the cops, firefighters, EMTs, social service folks, and politicians by name. But there were more than those here now. The room was packed with people typing, talking on phones, and conferring over wall maps covered with pins, overlays, and grease pencil scribblings. It was a low-ceilinged, cramped version of a war room.
Kinda cool, huh?
Joe turned at the voice by his shoulder and took in Harry Benoit, a steaming mug of coffee in his hand. An affable, disarmingly funny man in normal times, hed been in the fire service from high school onward. Hed made crisis a primary food group.
But despite his opening one-liner, he didnt seem to be enjoying himself right now.
You look like hell, Harry, Joe told him.
Benoit smiled tiredly. Thanks. Been up most of the night. Not smart, considering what were facing today. This wasnt supposed to hit till late morning. Its six hours early. Now is when I was figuring for some shut-eye. He paused to drink from his mug before adding, Best-laid schemes.
Joe caught his implication. This really going to be bad?
Harry gave him a serious look before suggesting, They call these things Hundred Year Storms for good reason, Joe. Were on the verge of a world of hurt.
Bonnie Swift looked out one of the windows of what had been evasively retitled the Vermont State Hospital. Built in the 1890s in Waterbury as the Vermont Hospital for the Insane, and chartered to address the care, custody, and treatment of insane criminals of the state, it was now a kinder, gentler place, in both name and practice. Bonnie had been an RN here for twelve years, and despite the ribbing she got from her outsider friends, she enjoyed both patients and coworkers.
Not that there werent timesfrequentlywhen the two contributed to a Kafkaesque nightmare. Still, she had always enjoyed the offbeat, and what better place for that than a now politically correct loony bin?
Today, however, the tensions were coming from the outside, and the entire facility had been injected with an unusual camaraderie, as if the certifiably sane and those aspiring to that status had come together against some ominous threat.
Bonnie Swift leaned in close to the windowpane, blocking out the light behind her to better see into the surrounding gloom. It was midmorning, and yet as dark as dusk, with the sky uniformly heavy. She didnt need a forecasters warning to know a natural train wreck when she saw it coming.
It wasnt just the wind and rain she was considering. The remnants of the hospital were located at the rear of a sprawling state-office complex that had slowly overtaken the old hospital buildings as the patient population retreated from its 1,700 heyday to about 50 now. The campushousing dozens of agencies as diverse as hers and the Department of Public Safety, across the drivewayeven bragged of the totally renovated State Emergency Operations Centerone of the few in the country to be located above ground level. The upper-floor placement struck her as propitious, since the SEOC not only acted as the go-to place for all of the EOCs across Vermont, but the entire campus was situated on a floodplain.
She wiped the pane free of the mist from her breath. She couldnt actually see the Winooski River. An earthen berm had been built alongside the lowermost parking lot, in a mainly psychological effort to keep the water contained. To her mind, it served the same purpose as drawing a thin curtain against the sight of a raging fire.
Waterbury, being so close to the capital, Montpelier, had been an overflow parking place for state facilities for decadesdependent on the fact for its financial vigor. But it bordered Vermonts second-longest river, and despite the Winooskis having overflowed multiple timesdrowning twenty people in 1927the town, along with the building Bonnie Swift was in, had slowly expanded to the rivers edge.
One of the doctors stepped into the hallway from his office and noticed her by the window. He had arrived from Boston a year ago.
Hows it looking? he asked. We going to float away?
She glanced at his smiling face. I cant say we wont, she said seriously. The river surrounds us on three sides. Where we are hangs down like the udder on a cow.
He turned to study her, struck by her tone of voice. You dont make that sound good.
I just hope our evacuation plan works, she concluded, breaking away to return to her rounds. Or that we even know where we filed it.
Copyright 2013 by Archer Mayor