White River Burning

John Verdun

The following is an exclusive excerpt from White River Burning, a tense procedural concerned with complex issues, including police culpability, fake news, and the long shadows of institutional racism, from internationally bestselling author John Verdon.

They said little during the drive home. Madeleine rarely spoke when they were in the car at night. For his part, he’d been making an effort not to be critical of social events she’d involved him in, and he could think of little positive to say about the party at the Gelters’. As they were getting out of the car by the mudroom door, Madeleine broke the silence.

“Why on earth would they keep that television on all evening?”

“Postmodern irony?” suggested Gurney.

“Be serious.”

“Seriously, I have no idea why Trish would do anything. Because I’m not sure who she is. I don’t think the packaging is particularly transparent. Marv might like to keep the TV on to keep himself angry and right about everything. Bilious little racist.”

“Trish says he’s a financial genius.”

Gurney shrugged. “No contradiction there.”

It wasn’t until they were home and Gurney was starting to make himself a cup of coffee that she spoke again, eyeing him with concern. “That moment . . . when the officer . . .”

“Was shot?”

“Were you . . . all right?”

“More or less. I knew it had happened. So the video wasn’t a total shock. Just . . . jarring.”

Her expression hardened. “News, they call it. Information. An actual murder on screen. What a way to grab an audience! Sell more ads!” She shook her head.

He assumed that part of her fury was indeed provoked by the profit-based hypocrisy of the media industry. But he suspected that most of it arose from a source closer to home—the horror of seeing a police officer, someone like her own husband, struck down. The price of her deep capacity for empathy was that someone else’s tragedy could easily feel like her own.

He asked if she’d like him to put on the kettle for some tea.

She shook her head. “Are you really planning to get involved in . . . all of that?”

With some difficulty he held her gaze. “It’s like I told you earlier. I can’t make any decision without knowing more.”

“What kind of information is going to make—” The ringing of his cell phone cut her question short.

“Gurney here.” Though he’d been out of NYPD Homicide for four years, his way of answering the phone hadn’t changed.

The raspy, sarcastic voice on the other end needed no identification, nor did it offer any. “Got your message that you’re looking for insider shit on White River. Like what? Gimme a hint, so I can direct you to the type of shit you have in mind.”

Gurney was used to Jack Hardwick’s calls beginning with bursts of snide comments. He’d learned to ignore them. “Sheridan Kline paid me a visit.”

“The slimebag DA in person? Fuck did he want?”

“He wants me to sign on as a temporary staff investigator.”

“Doing what?”

“Looking into the cop shooting. At least, that’s what he says.”

“There some reason the regular White River PD detective bureau can’t handle that?”

“Not that I know of.”

“Why the hell’s he getting involved in the investigation? That’s not his turf. And why you?”

“That’s the question.”

“How’d he explain it?”

“City on the verge of chaos. Need to make solid arrests fast. Pull out all the stops. No time for turf niceties. Full assets into the breach. The best and the brightest. Et cetera.”

Hardwick was silent for a bit, then cleared his throat with disgusting thoroughness. “Odd pitch. Distinctive odor of horseshit. I’d be careful where I stepped, if I were you.”

“Odd pitch. Distinctive odor of horseshit. I’d be careful where I stepped, if I were you.”

“Before I step anywhere, I want to know more.”

“Always a good idea. So what do you want from me?”

“Whatever you can find out fast. Facts, rumors, anything at all. About the politics, the shot cop, the department, the city itself, the old incident with Laxton Jones, the Black Defense Alliance. Anything and everything.”

“You need all this yesterday?”

“Tomorrow will do.”

“You don’t ask for much, do you?”

“I try not to.”

“Very fucking kind of you.” Hardwick blew his nose about an inch from the phone. Gurney wasn’t sure whether the man had a perpetual sinus problem or just enjoyed producing unpleasant sound effects.

“Okay, I’ll make some calls. Pain in my ass, but I’m a generous soul. You free tomorrow morning?”

“I’ll make myself free.”

“Meet me in Dillweed. Abelard’s. Nine thirty.”

Ending the call, Gurney turned his attention back to Madeleine, recalling that she’d been in the middle of asking him something.

“What were you saying before the phone rang?”

“If you don’t remember, you probably don’t want to talk about it. It’s been a long day. I’m going to bed.”

He was tempted to join her, but the questions on his mind about the situation in White River were making him restless. After finishing his coffee, he got his laptop from the den and set it on the table in the breakfast nook. He pulled up a chair and typed “White River NY” into the browser. As he scrolled through the results, looking for articles he might have missed earlier in the day, a few items caught his eye:

An article in the Times, emphasizing the ongoing nature of the problem: “Police Officer’s Death Deepens Upstate Racial Divide.”

A shorter, punchier Post article: “Cop Gunned Down at BDA Rally.”

A muted approach in the White River Observer: “Mayor Shucker Calls for Calm.”


After skimming the articles attached to these headlines and finding nothing that he didn’t know already, he scrolled on. When he came to a link to the official White River municipal website, he clicked on it. It was a predictable presentation of city departments, budget data, upcoming events, area attractions, and local history. A section on “Career Opportunities” listed a job opening for a part-time waitress at the Happy Cow Ice Cream Shoppe. A section titled “Community Renewal” described the conversion of the defunct Willard Woolen Socks Factory into the Flying Goose Artisanal Brewery.

There were pictures of clean but deserted streets, redbrick buildings, and a tree-shaded park named after Colonel Ezra Willard, of the sock manufacturing family. The first of the two Willard Park photos showed a statue of the eponymous colonel dressed in a Civil War uniform astride a fierce-looking horse. A biographical note below the photo described him as “a White River hero who gave his life in the great war to preserve the Union.”

The second park photo showed two smiling mothers, one white and one brown, pushing their giddy toddlers on adjacent swings. Nowhere on the website was there any reference to the fatal shooting or the hate-driven violence tearing the city apart. Nor was there any mention of the correctional facility that provided the area with its main source of employment.

The next item that attracted Gurney’s attention was a section devoted to White River on a site called Citizen Comments Unfiltered. The site seemed to be a magnet for racial attacks posted by individuals with IDs like Truth Teller, White Rights, American Defender, and End Black Lies. The posts went back several years, suggesting that the city’s overt racial animosities were nothing new. They brought to mind a wise man’s comment that few things on earth were worse than ignorance armed and eager for battle.

He returned for a moment to the section of the White River website that showed the park and the statue of Colonel Willard, wondering if that might be the statue that Madeleine had told him was one of the objects of the current protests. Finding nothing there that answered the question, he decided to do a Google search—trying various combinations of terms: Ezra Willard, Civil War, statue, New York State, White River, racial controversy, Correctional Facility, Willard Park, Union, Confederacy. Finally, when he added the term “slavery” to the mix, he was led to the answer in the journal of one of the Civil War historical societies.

The article was about the federal fugitive slave laws that legalized the capture in the North of slaves fleeing from slave owners in the South. Among the examples given of this practice was the “establishment in 1830 by the mercantile Willard family of upstate New York of a detention facility to house captured runaway slaves while payments were negotiated for their return to their Southern owners.”

A footnote indicated that this lucrative practice ended when the war began; that at least one family member, Ezra, ended up fighting and dying on the Union side; and that after the war the former detention site became the core of what was gradually rebuilt and expanded into a state prison, now the White River Correctional Facility.

Pondering the ugly nature of the seed from which the institution had grown, Gurney could understand the impulse to protest the memorialization of a Willard family member.

Pondering the ugly nature of the seed from which the institution had grown, Gurney could understand the impulse to protest the memorialization of a Willard family member. He searched the internet for more information about Ezra, but could find nothing beyond brief news references to BDA demands for the removal of his statue.

Putting the historical issue aside, he decided to return his focus to getting as up to date as he could on the current turmoil. He revisited the RAM website in the hope that he might be able to extract some useful information from the opinionated noise they retailed as “news and analysis.”

The site was slow in loading, giving him time to consider the irony of the internet: the world’s largest repository of knowledge having become a megaphone for idiots. Once it appeared, he clicked his way through a series of options until he reached the page titled “Battleground Tonight—Live Stream.”

He was puzzled at first by what he saw on the screen—a close aerial view of a police car with siren blaring and lights flashing, speeding along a thoroughfare. The angle of the shot indicated that the camera was above and behind the cruiser; when the cruiser made a fast right at an intersection, so did the camera. When it came to a stop in a narrow street behind three other cruisers, the camera slowed and stopped, descending slightly. The effect was similar to a tracking shot in a movie chase scene.

He realized that the equipment involved must be a sophisticated drone equipped with video and audio transmitters. As the drone maintained its position, its camera slowly zoomed in on the scene the cruiser had been racing to. Helmeted cops were standing in a semicircle around a black man who was leaning forward with his open hands against the wall of a building. As the two cops from the cruiser joined the others, the man was forced to his knees and handcuffed. A few moments later, after he was pushed into the back of one of the original cruisers, a line of text crawled across the bottom of the screen: 10:07 PM…DUNSTER STREET, GRINTON SECTION, WHITE RIVER… CURFEW VIOLATOR TAKEN INTO CUSTODY… SEE DETAILS ON NEXT RAM NEWS SUMMARY.

As the cruiser pulled away, the video switched to a new scene—a fire engine in front of a smoldering brick building, two firemen in protective gear holding a hose and directing its powerful stream through a shattered ground-floor store window. A worn sign above the window announced the burned-out remains of Betty Bee’s BBQ.

The camera’s elevated point of view was similar to that of the first camera, indicating that its source was a similar high-end drone. It would seem, Gurney noted with interest, that RAM was applying significant resources to its coverage of White River.

The next video segment was a street interview between a mic-wielding female reporter and a large fireman whose black helmet displayed in gold letters the word “captain.” The reporter was a slim dark-haired woman whose expression and voice projected great concern. “I’m Marilyn Maze, and I’m talking to Fire Captain James Pelt, the man in charge of the chaotic scene here on Bardle Boulevard.” She turned toward the big man, and the camera zoomed in on his jowly, ruddy-skinned face. “Tell me, Captain, have you ever seen anything like his before?”

He shook his head. “We’ve had worse fires, Marilyn, worse in terms of the heat and the combustion of toxic materials, but never in conditions like this, never this wantonness of destruction. That’s the difference here, the wantonness of it.”

She nodded with professional concern. “It sounds like you’ve concluded that these fires are the intentional work of arsonists.”

“That’s my preliminary conclusion, Marilyn—subject to analysis by our arson investigator. But that’s what I would say the conclusion would be.”

She looked appropriately appalled. “So what you’re telling us, Captain, is that these people—some of these people, I should make that clear right now, that we’re talking about just a percentage, the law-breaking percentage of the population— some of these people are burning down their own neighborhood, their own stores, their own homes?”

“Doesn’t make a darn bit of sense, does it? Maybe the whole idea of sense isn’t part of the thinking here. It is a tragedy. Sad day for White River.”

“All right, Captain, we thank you for taking the time to talk to us.” She turned to the camera. “Interesting comments from Captain James Pelt on the insanity and tragedy of what’s happening in the streets of our city. I’m Marilyn Maze, reporting live for Battleground Tonight.”

The scene shifted back to the earlier talking-heads format. As before, the video was partitioned into three sections. A female newsperson now occupied the center position. She reminded Gurney of a certain kind of girl on a cheerleading squad—blond hair, straight nose, wide mouth, and calculating eyes—every word and gesture a tactic for success.

She spoke with a cool smile. “Thank you, Marilyn, for that thought-provoking exchange with Captain Pelt. I’m Stacey Kilbrick in the RAM News Analysis Center, with two high-powered guests with colliding points of view. But first, these important messages.”

The video went black. With key words flashing in bold red type against the dark background, an ominous voice intoned over the rumble of distant explosions, “We live in dangerous times . . . with ruthless enemies at home and abroad. As we speak, conspirators are plotting to strip us of our God-given right to defend ourselves from those out to destroy our way of life.” The voice went on to offer a free booklet revealing imminent dangers to American lives, values, and the Second Amendment.

A second commercial promoted the unique importance of gold bullion—“the one commodity the world has always valued” and apparently the only secure medium of exchange “as our debt-ridden financial system approaches collapse.” An ancient anonymous authority was quoted: “Wisest of all is the man whose treasure is in gold.” A free booklet would explain it all.


From White River Burning. Used with the permission of the publisher, Counterpoint Press. Copyright © 2018 by John Verdon. 

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