When Ted Wilkerson called me to book a ride, I sensed he was a man with a big presence; I could feel his energy coming through the phone. Meeting him at the airport, I was not surprised that his physical form perfectly matched his voice. Ted was a big, barrel-chested man with tousled salt-and-pepper hair, an easy smile and a firm handshake.
"Now, I think I explained to you — this may take a while at the lawyer's office," he said as we rode into town. "The hearing is tomorrow, and they'll want to carefully go over my testimony. So, I'll call you when we're done?"
"Yeah, that'll work fine," I replied. "I'll be around town, so just give me, like, a 10- to 15-minute heads-up. And, to confirm, I'll be taking you to the Hampton Inn in St. Albans?"
"You got it. They told me it's walking distance from the hotel to the courthouse."
"Yup, I checked the Google map, and it looks like it might be right next door. What's the nature of the case, if you can say?"
"It's a child custody. They're the roughest."
"So I've heard," I said. "Heartbreaking for all concerned, especially the child." I flashed on that stellar 1970s movie Kramer vs. Kramer. "Are you a lawyer, too?"
"No, I'm a private investigator."
"I guess you must appear in court quite a bit. Are you, like, comfortable giving testimony?"
"Oh, yeah," he said, and in my mind's eye, I pictured him on the witness stand, confident and compelling. "In my previous career, I was a police officer, and then a detective, so appearing in court is second nature to me."
I dropped Ted at the lawyer's office, located downtown in what passes for a high rise in Burlington. The tallest building in the entire state is Decker Towers, at 230 St. Paul Street, and it's a mere 11 stories. The New York City kid in me finds that quaint.
Ted called a couple of hours later, and, in a jiffy, we were en route to St. Albans — or, as the locals delight in calling it, S'nalbins. There was still some light in the autumn sky as we motored north on the highway. The setting sun streamed over the Adirondacks and across the lake like a rosy-pink klieg light, transforming the roadside trees into an impressionist watercolor.
I relish Vermont's foliage season, but not without a bittersweet twinge: Summer is over, and the leaves — so glorious in their trippy, multicolored display — are in fact slowly desiccating, soon to be scattered to the winds. The long winter beckons.
Sheesh, I thought, when did I become such a depressive?
It had been a week since the Las Vegas massacre, which had sparked yet another anguished — and probably futile — national debate over gun violence. I asked Ted if he had ever shot his gun in the line of duty when he was a cop.
"No, I never did, and that's typical, by the way, for a police officer. I was fired at, though. It happened during my first few months in uniform. I was in the patrol car and got notice of an active shooter. I rushed over to find my sergeant pinned behind his car, bullets flying everywhere. I pulled over, jumping out to join him, and he screamed, 'Get down, rook! What were you thinking?'
"I had no idea what I was thinking, truth be told. So now the two of us were pinned down. I peered out over the car roof to see if I could locate the shooter, and a bullet whizzed right past my ear before the sarge yanked me back down. The SWAT team arrived in minutes and quickly found and apprehended the perpetrator. It turned out the guy was completely zonked on crack and didn't know what he was doing."
"That's a harrowing story," I said. "How long ago did you retire from the force?"
"It's been four years. If I would have put in another five years, my pension would have risen significantly, but me and the wife prayed on it, and it became clear that it was time for me to get out. It's been great, this second career. Sure, I get a lot of the cheating spouses and the insurance investigations, but often the work feels like I'm really helping people."
"How so?" I asked.
"Well, take this one I'm testifying in tomorrow. It's on behalf of a terrific couple. I mean, really great people, both of them. The husband is seeking custody of his child from a previous marriage. There is no question in my mind that he should get the kid, and I've amassed strong evidence to bolster his case. But, of course, litigation of any kind is always a crapshoot, so..."
We reached St. Albans, and I found the hotel. GPS has simplified that part of my job so much, it almost feels like cheating.
Ted paid the fare, asking, "Could you recommend a good nearby steak joint? I'm famished."
"Couldn't help with that, brother," I replied, "but I'm sure the hotel folks'll know. S'nalbins is just not my town."
All these stories are true, though names and locations may be altered to protect privacy.