Read an Excerpt
By Preston, Douglas
Grand Central Publishing Copyright © 2011 Preston, Douglas
All right reserved.
Cairn Barrow, Scotland
AS THEY MOUNTED THE BARREN SHOULDER of Beinn Dearg, the great stone lodge of Kilchurn vanished into the darkness, leaving only the soft yellow glow of its windows tingeing the misty air. Attaining the ridge, Judson Esterhazy and Special Agent Aloysius Pendergast paused and switched off their flashlights to listen. It was five o’clock in the morning, the cusp of first light: almost time for the stags to begin roaring.
Neither man spoke. The wind whispered through the grasses and moaned about the frost-fractured rocks while they waited. But nothing stirred.
“We’re early,” said Esterhazy at last.
“Perhaps,” murmured Pendergast.
Still they waited as the faintest gray light crept into the easternmost horizon, silhouetting the desolate peaks of the Grampian Mountains and casting a dreary pall over the surroundings. Slowly, the landscape around them began to materialize out of the darkness. The hunting lodge stood far behind them, turrets and ramparts of stone streaked with damp, surrounded by black fir trees, heavy and silent. Ahead rose the granite ramparts of Beinn Dearg itself, disappearing into the darkness above. A burn tumbled down its flanks, dropping into a series of waterfalls as it made its way to the black waters of Loch Duin, a thousand feet below, barely visible in the faint light. To their right and below lay the beginning of the great moorlands known as the Foulmire, overspread by rising tendrils of mist, which carried upward the faint smell of decomposition and swamp gas mingled with the sickly scent of overblooming heather.
Without a word, Pendergast reshouldered his rifle and began walking along the contour of the shoulder, heading slightly uphill. Esterhazy followed, his face shadowed and inscrutable under his deerstalker cap. As they climbed higher, the Foulmire came into direct view, the treacherous moors stretching to the horizon, bounded to the west by the vast black-sheeted waters of the great Inish Marshes.
After a few minutes, Pendergast halted and held up a hand.
“What is it?” Esterhazy asked.
The answer came, not from Pendergast, but in a strange sound echoing up from a hidden glen, alien and dreadful: the roar of a red stag in rut. It throbbed and bellowed, the echo resounding over the mountains and marshlands like the lost cry of the damned. It was a sound full of rage and aggression, as the stags roamed the fells and moorlands fighting one another, often to the death, over possession of a harem of hinds.
The roar was answered by a second, closer in, which came boiling up from the shores of the loch, and then yet another cry rose from a distant fold of land. The scattered bellowings, one after another, shook the landscape. The two listened in silence, noting each sound, marking its direction, timbre, and vigor.
Finally Esterhazy spoke, his voice barely audible over the wind. “The one in the glen, he’s a monster.”
No response from Pendergast.
“I say we go after him.”
“The one in the Mire,” murmured Pendergast, “is even larger.”
A silence. “Surely you know the rules of the lodge regarding entrance into the Mire.”
Pendergast made a short, dismissive gesture with a pale hand. “I am not one who is concerned with rules. Are you?”
Esterhazy compressed his lips, saying nothing.
They waited as a gray dawn bled suddenly red into the eastern sky and the light continued to creep over the stark Highland landscape. Far below, the Mire was now a wasteland of black pools and ribbons of marshy water, quaking bogs and heaving quickmire, interspersed among deceptive grassy meadows and tors of broken rock. Pendergast extracted a small spyglass from his pocket, pulled it open, and scanned the Mire. After a long moment, he passed the glass to Esterhazy. “He’s between the second and third tor, half a mile in. A rogue stag. No harem.”
Esterhazy peered intently. “Looks like a twelve-point rack on him.”
“Thirteen,” murmured Pendergast.
“The one in the glen would be much easier to stalk. Better cover for us. I’m not sure we have even the ghost of a chance of bagging the one in the Mire. Aside from the, ah, risks of going in there, it’ll see us a mile away.”
“We approach on a line of sight that passes through that second tor, keeping it between us and the stag. The wind is in our favor.”
“Even so, that’s treacherous ground in there.”
Pendergast turned to Esterhazy, gazing for a few awkward seconds into the high-domed, well-bred face. “Are you afraid, Judson?”
Esterhazy, momentarily taken aback, brushed off the comment with a forced chuckle. “Of course not. It’s just that I’m thinking of our chances of success. Why waste time in a fruitless pursuit all over the Mire when we have an equally fine stag waiting for us down there in the glen?”
Without responding, Pendergast delved into his pocket and extracted a one-pound coin. “Call it.”
“Heads,” said Esterhazy reluctantly.
Pendergast flipped the coin, caught it, slapped it on his sleeve. “Tails. The first shot is mine.”
Pendergast led the way down the shoulder of Beinn Dearg. There was no trail, only broken rock, short grass, tiny wildflowers, and lichen. As night gave way to morning, the mists thickened over the Mire, eddying about the low areas and streaming up the hillocks and tors.
They moved silently and stealthily down toward the verge of the Mire. When they reached a small hollow, a corrie, at the base of the Beinn, Pendergast gestured for them to halt. Red deer had an extremely acute suite of senses, and the men had to take exquisite care not to be seen, heard, or scented.
Creeping to the brow of the corrie, Pendergast peered over the top.
The stag was about a thousand yards off, moving slowly into the Mire. As if on cue, he raised his head, snuffled the air, and let out another ear-shattering roar, which echoed and died among the stones, then shook his mane and went back to sniffing the ground and taking odd snatches of grass.
“My God,” whispered Esterhazy. “He’s a monster.”
“We must move quickly,” murmured Pendergast. “He’s heading deeper into the Mire.”
They swung around below the rim of the corrie, keeping out of sight, until they had lined up the stag with a small tor. Turning, they approached the animal using the hummock as cover. The edges of the Mire, after the long summer, had firmed up, and they moved quickly and silently, the soft hillocks of grass acting as stepping-stones. They came up in the lee of the hill, then hunkered down behind it. The wind was still in their favor and they heard the stag roar again, a sign he was unaware of their presence. Pendergast shivered; the end of the roar sounded uncannily like that of a lion. Motioning Esterhazy to remain behind, he crept up to the hill’s edge, cautiously peering through a tumble of boulders.
The stag stood a thousand yards off, nose in the air, moving restlessly. He shook his mane again, the polished antlers gleaming. He raised his head and roared once again. Thirteen points: at least five hundred inches of antler. Strange that this late in the rutting season, he had not accumulated a sizable harem. Some stags, it seemed, were just born loners.
They were still too distant for a reliable shot. A good shot wasn’t good enough; one could never chance wounding an animal of this caliber. It had to be a certain kill.
He crept back down the side of the hill and rejoined Esterhazy. “He’s a thousand yards off—too far.”
“That’s exactly what I was afraid of.”
“He’s awfully sure of himself,” said Pendergast. “Since nobody hunts in the Foulmire, he’s not as alert as he should be. The wind’s in our faces, he’s moving away from us—I think we can chance an open stalk.”
Esterhazy shook his head. “There’s some treacherous-looking ground ahead.”
Pendergast pointed to a sandy area adjacent to their hiding spot, where the track of the stag could be seen. “We’ll follow his track. If anyone knows the way through the Mire, he does.”
Esterhazy held out a palm. “Lead the way.”
They unshipped their rifles and crept out from behind the tor, moving toward the stag. The animal was indeed distracted, focused on scenting the air coming from the north, paying little attention to what lay behind him. His snuffling and roaring covered the sounds of their approach.
They advanced with the utmost care, pausing whenever the animal hesitated or turned. Slowly, they began to overtake him. The stag continued to ramble deeper into the Mire, apparently following an airborne scent. They continued in utter silence, unable to speak, keeping low, their Highland camouflage perfectly adapted to the moorland environment. The trail of the stag followed almost invisible rivels of firmer ground, the path snaking among treacly pools, shivering morass, and grassy flats. Whether from the untrustworthy ground, the hunt, or some other reason, the tension in the air seemed to increase.
Gradually, they moved into shooting range: three hundred yards. The stag paused yet again, turning sideways, nosing the air. With the faintest of hand gestures, Pendergast indicated a halt and carefully sank into a prone position. Pulling his H&H .300 forward, he fitted the scope to his eye and carefully aimed the rifle. Esterhazy remained ten yards behind, crouching, as motionless as a rock.
Peering through the scope, Pendergast settled the crosshairs on a spot just forward the shoulder of the animal, took a breath, and began to squeeze the trigger.
As he did so, he felt the cold touch of steel against the back of his head.
“Sorry, old boy,” said Esterhazy. “Hold your rifle out with one hand and lay it down. Slow and easy.”
Pendergast laid down the rifle.
“Stand up. Slowly.”
Esterhazy backed away, covering the FBI agent with his hunting rifle. He suddenly laughed, the harsh sound echoing over the moorlands. Out of the corner of his eye, Pendergast saw the stag startle and bound away, disappearing into the mists.
“I’d hoped it wouldn’t come to this,” said Esterhazy. “After a dozen years, it’s a bloody tragedy you didn’t leave well enough alone.”
Pendergast said nothing.
“You’re probably wondering what this is all about.”
“In fact, I am not,” said Pendergast, his voice flat.
“I’m the man you’ve been looking for: the unknown man at Project Aves. The one Charles Slade refused to name for you.”
“I’d give you a fuller explanation, but what’s the point? I’m sorry to do this. You realize it’s nothing personal.”
Still no reaction.
“Say your prayers, brother.”
Esterhazy raised the rifle, aimed, and pulled the trigger.
A FAINT CLICK SOUNDED IN THE DAMP AIR.
“Christ!” Esterhazy said through clenched teeth, shooting open the bolt, ejecting the bad round and slamming a new one in place.
In a flash Pendergast leapt to his feet, scooping up his rifle and leveling it at Esterhazy. “Your not-so-clever stratagem failed. I’ve suspected it since your ham-handed letter asking which firearms I’d be bringing with me. I’m afraid the ammunition in your rifle is doctored. And so the thing goes full circle: from the blanks you put in Helen’s rifle to the blanks now in your own.”
Esterhazy kept working the bolt, frantically ejecting the bad rounds with one hand while delving into his musette bag with another, scooping out fresh rounds.
“Stop or I’ll kill you,” said Pendergast.
Ignoring him, Esterhazy ejected the last round and rammed a fresh one into the receiver, then slammed the bolt into place.
“Very well. This one’s for Helen.” Pendergast pulled the trigger.
A dull thunk sounded.
Instantly realizing the situation, Pendergast threw himself back, diving for cover behind an outcropping of rock as Esterhazy fired. The live shot ricocheted off the outcropping, spraying chips. Pendergast rolled farther behind cover, ditching his rifle and pulling out the Colt .32 he had brought as a backup. He rose, aimed, and fired, but Esterhazy had already taken cover himself around the other side of the small hill, and his return fire smacked into the rocks just in front of Pendergast.
Now they were both behind cover, on either side of the tor. Esterhazy’s laugh once again cut across the land. “Looks like your not-so-clever stratagem has also failed. Did you think I’d let you out here with a working rifle? Sorry, old boy, I removed the firing pin.”
Pendergast lay on his side, hugging the rock, breathing hard. It was a standoff—they were on either side of the same small hill. That meant whoever got to the top first…
Leaping to his feet, Pendergast scrambled spider-like up the side of the tor. He arrived at the summit at the very moment as Esterhazy did and they came together in a violent embrace, grappling on the high point of the hill before toppling off, rolling down the rocky face in a desperate clinch. Shoving Esterhazy back, Pendergast swung his .32 around, but Esterhazy slashed at it with the barrel of his rifle, the two weapons clashing like swords, both going off simultaneously. Pendergast seized the barrel of Esterhazy’s rifle with one hand and they struggled over it, Pendergast dropping his pistol in an attempt to wrest away Esterhazy’s weapon with both hands.
The mano a mano continued, all four hands on the same rifle, twisting and thrashing, each trying to shake the other off. Pendergast bent forward and sank his teeth into Esterhazy’s hand, ripping into the flesh. With a roar Esterhazy head-butted him, knocking the FBI agent back, and kicked him fiercely in his side. The clash brought both of them down onto the frost-split rocks again, their camouflage ripping and tearing.
Getting his hand on the trigger, yanking and twisting, Pendergast fired it again and again to empty the magazine. He let go and drove his fist into Esterhazy’s skull just as the man swung the rifle around, club-like, slamming Pendergast in the chest. Seizing the stock, Pendergast tried to wrench it free again but in a surprise move Esterhazy jerked the agent forward while delivering a savage kick to his face, almost breaking his nose in the process. Blood spurted everywhere and Pendergast fell back, shaking his head, trying to clear it as Esterhazy fell on top of him, slamming his face again with the rifle stock. Through the fog and blood he could see Esterhazy scrabbling fresh rounds out of his bag, shoving them into the rifle.
He kicked up the muzzle and threw himself sideways as a shot rang out, seized his own handgun from where he had dropped it, rolled and returned fire. But Esterhazy had already scrambled for cover behind the tor.
Taking advantage of the temporary lull, Pendergast leapt up and raced down the hill, turning to fire several times, keeping Esterhazy pinned down while he sprinted away. Reaching the bottom of the hill, he darted into the Mire, heading for a hollow, where he was quickly enveloped in a swirl of dense fog.
There he paused, surrounded by quaking mud. The ground under his feet shook strangely, like gelatin. He probed ahead with the toe of his boot, locating firmer ground, and headed deeper into the Foulmire, stepping from hillock to hillock, stone to stone, trying to keep clear of the sucking pools of quicksand while putting as much distance as possible between himself and Esterhazy. As he moved, he heard a series of shots from the direction of the tor, but they went wild; Esterhazy was firing at shadows.
Making a thirty-degree turn, Pendergast slackened his pace. There was little cover on the Mire beyond the odd tumulus of broken rock; the fog would be his only protection. That meant keeping low.
He continued on, moving as swiftly as prudence would allow, often pausing to probe with his foot. He knew Esterhazy would be following; the man had no choice. And he was a superb tracker, perhaps even superior to Pendergast himself. As he walked, he slipped a kerchief out of his bag and pressed it to his nose, trying to stem the flow of blood. He could feel the grating of a broken rib in his chest, a result of the fierce struggle. He silently reproached himself for not checking his rifle immediately before their departure. The rifles had been locked in the lodge’s gun room, as the rules required; Esterhazy must have used some ploy to get at his weapon. It only took a minute or two to remove a firing pin. He had underestimated his adversary; he would not do so again.
Suddenly he paused, examining the ground: there, in a gravelly patch, was the track of the stag they had spooked. He listened intently, peering behind from whence he had come. The mists were rising from the Mire in tattered columns, momentarily obscuring and disclosing views of the endless moors and distant mountains. The tor on which they had fought was wreathed in mist, and his pursuer was nowhere to be seen. A deep gray light lay over all, with a darkness looming to the north, occasionally shot through with flickers of lightning—an approaching storm.
Reloading his Colt, Pendergast headed still deeper into the Mire, following the faint track of the stag as it picked its way along an invisible path known only to itself, threading ingeniously between quaking bogs and sucking pools.
It wasn’t over. Esterhazy was in hot pursuit. There could be only one outcome: one of them would not return.
PENDERGAST FOLLOWED THE FAINT TRACK of the stag as it meandered through the shivering fens of the Mire, keeping to firm ground. As the storm moved in, the sky grew darker and distant thunder rolled over the moors. He moved swiftly, pausing only long enough to examine the ground for signs of the stag’s passage. The Mire was especially treacherous this time of year, when the long summer had allowed green grass to overspread many of the pools of quaking bog, leaving a deceptive crust that would break under the weight of a man.
Lightning flashed and rain started down, heavy drops whirling out of the leaden sky. The wind rose, rustling over the heather, carrying up a miasmic smell from the Inish Marshes to the west: a vast, sheeted surface of water covered with patches of reeds and cattails, swaying in the wind. For more than a mile, he followed the stag’s trail. It gradually led to higher and firmer ground, and then—through a sudden gap in the mists—Pendergast spied a ruin ahead. Silhouetted against the sky at the top of a rise stood an old stone corral and shepherd’s hut, fitfully illuminated by the flickering lightning. Beyond the hill lay the ragged edges of the marshes. Examining the broken furze, Pendergast noted that the stag had passed through the ruins and continued toward the vast swamp on the far side.
He mounted the hill and quickly explored the ruin. The hut was unroofed, the stone walls broken and covered with lichen, the wind moaning and whistling through the tumbled remains. Beyond, the hill fell away to a swamp that lay hidden in a murk of rising vapors.
The ruin, commanding the high ground, offered an ideal defensible position, with unobstructed views in all directions: a perfect place from which to ambush a pursuer or stand against an attack. For those reasons, Pendergast passed it by and continued down the hill toward the Inish Marshes. Again he picked up the track of the stag and was momentarily puzzled; the stag seemed to be heading into a dead end. The animal must have felt harried by Pendergast’s pursuit.
Circling back along the verge of the marsh, Pendergast came to an area of thick reeds where an esker of cobbled ground ambled out into water. A string of glaciated rocks provided a small but obvious cover; he paused, removed a white handkerchief, wrapped it around a stone, and placed it in a precise location behind the boulders. He then passed by. Beyond the finger of cobbled ground, he found what he had been looking for: a flattish rock just under the surface of the water, surrounded by reeds. He could see that the stag had also gone this way, heading into the marshes.
The natural blind was an unlikely place to take cover and an even more unlikely place to attempt a defense. For those reasons, it would suffice.
Wading out to the stone, being careful to avoid the morass on either side, Pendergast took a position among the reeds, well hidden from view. There he crouched, waiting. A spur of lightning split the sky, followed by the crash of thunder; more fog came rolling in from the marshes, temporarily obscuring the ruins on top of the hill. No doubt Esterhazy would arrive soon. The end was in sight.
Judson Esterhazy paused to examine the ground, reaching down and fingering some gravel that had been pushed aside by the passage of the stag. Pendergast’s footprint was much less obvious, but he could see it in the form of pressed earth and flattened stems of grass nearby. The man was taking no chances, continuing to follow the stag on its winding course through the Foulmire. Clever. No one would dare venture in here without a guide, but a stag was as good a guide as any. As the storm rolled in, the fogs thickened; it became dark enough that he was glad to have the flashlight—carefully shielded—to examine the trail.
Pendergast clearly intended to lure Esterhazy out into the Mire to kill him. For all his pretensions to southern gentility, Pendergast was the most implacable man he had ever met, and a dirty bastard of a fighter.
A bolt of lightning illuminated the desolate moors and he saw, through a break in the mist, the ragged outline of a ruin standing on a rise a quarter mile away. He paused. That would be a logical place for Pendergast to go to ground and await his arrival. He would approach the ruin accordingly; ambush the ambusher… But even as his practiced eye roamed over the site, he considered that Pendergast was too subtle a man to take the obvious course of action.
Esterhazy could assume nothing.
There was very little cover in this barren landscape, but by timing his movements he could take advantage of the heavy fogs coming in from the marshes to provide the cover he needed. As if on cue, a new bank of mist rolled in and he was enveloped in a colorless world of nothing. He scurried up the hill toward the ruins, able to move fast on the harder ground. About a hundred yards below the summit, he circled the hill so as to approach from an unexpected direction. The rain came down, heavier now, while the rumblings of thunder marched away over the moors.
He crouched and took cover as the fogs cleared for a moment, allowing him a glimpse of the ruins above. No sign of Pendergast. As the fog rolled back in he moved up the side of the hill, rifle in hand, until he reached the stone wall surrounding an old corral. He moved along it, keeping low, until another break in the mist allowed him to peer through a gap in the rocks.
The corral was vacant. But beyond it stood the roofless hut.
He approached the structure from along the perimeter of the corral, keeping below the wall. In a moment he had flattened himself against its rear wall. Creeping up to a broken window, he waited for another gap in the fog. The wind picked up, sighing through the stones and covering the faint sounds of his own movement as he readied himself: and then, as the air cleared a little, he swung around into the window and swept his rifle across the inside of the hut, covering it from corner to corner.
Vaulting over the sill, he crouched inside the hut, thinking furiously. As he suspected, Pendergast had avoided the obvious. He had not occupied the strategic high ground. But where had he gone? He muttered a curse; with Pendergast, only the unexpected could be expected.
Another bank of fog rolled in and Esterhazy took the opportunity to examine the area around the hut, looking for Pendergast’s track. He found it with difficulty: it was quickly disappearing in the heavy rains. Continuing down the far side of the hill toward the marshlands below, he could glimpse the lay of the land through gaps in the mists. It was a dead end of sorts—beyond lay only the Inish Marshes. So Pendergast must have taken cover somewhere along the marsh edge. He felt a low-grade panic take hold. Through the breaking mists, he scanned the area; surely the man wouldn’t be hiding in the reeds or cattails. But there was a finger of land that extended into the marshes; he pulled out his spyglass and noted a scattering of glacial boulders that provided just enough cover to hide a man. And by God, there he was: a patch of white, just visible behind one of the rocks.
That was it, then: he had taken the only cover there was, and was waiting in ambush for Esterhazy to pass as he followed Pendergast’s trail along the edge of the marsh.
Once again: the unobvious thing. And Esterhazy saw just the way to thwart him.
The welcoming fog returned; he started down the hill and was soon back among the treacherous bogs of the Mire, following the double track of Pendergast and the stag. As he approached the verge of the marshes, he found himself stepping from one hillock to another over quivering sheets of morass. He regained firmer ground, moving off the trail, toward a position where he would have a clear line of fire to the area behind the rocks concealing Pendergast. Taking up a position, he crouched behind a hillock, waiting for the mists to part so he could take a shot.
A minute passed; a gap appeared in the mists. He could see the little bit of white from Pendergast’s hidden position; it appeared to be part of his shirt and it offered enough of a view to accept a bullet. He raised his rifle…
“Stand up ever so slowly,” came the disembodied voice from behind him, almost as if from the marsh water itself.
ESTERHAZY FROZE AT THE SOUND OF THE VOICE.
“As you rise, hold your rifle in your left hand, extended away from your body.”
Still, Esterhazy found himself unable to move. How was it possible?
Whing! The round smacked into the ground between his feet, kicking up a spray of dirt. “I won’t ask again.”
Holding his rifle out by his left hand, Esterhazy stood up.
“Drop the rifle and turn around.”
He allowed the rifle to fall, then turned. There was Pendergast, twenty yards away, pistol in hand, himself rising from a clump of reeds apparently standing in water—but Esterhazy could now see there was a small meandering path of glacially deposited rocks at the water’s surface, surrounded on both sides by quickmire.
“I just have one question,” said Pendergast, his voice thin in the moaning wind. “How could you murder your own sister?”
Esterhazy stared at him.
“I require an answer.”
Esterhazy couldn’t quite bring himself to speak. Looking into Pendergast’s face, he knew he was a dead man. He felt the unutterably cold fear of death fall upon him like a sodden cloak, mingling with horror, regret, and relief. There was nothing he could do. He would not, at least, give Pendergast the satisfaction of an undignified exit. Even with his death, there would be pain enough for Pendergast in the months ahead. “Just get it over with,” he said.
“No explanations, then?” asked Pendergast. “No whining justifications, no abject pleading for understanding? How disappointing.” The finger tightened on the trigger. Esterhazy closed his eyes.
And then it happened: a sudden, overpowering crash of sound. Esterhazy saw an explosion of reddish fur, the flash of antlers—and the stag burst through the reeds, one antler swiping Pendergast, catching his gun and sending it flying into the water. As the stag bounded away, Pendergast staggered and thrashed—and Esterhazy realized he had been thrown into a pool of mire with only a skimming of water covering its surface.
Seizing his own rifle from the ground, Esterhazy aimed and fired. The round caught Pendergast in the chest, slamming him backward into the pool. Esterhazy aimed, preparing to fire again, then paused. A second shot, a second bullet, would be impossible to explain—if the body was found.
He lowered the rifle. Pendergast was struggling, held fast now in the mire, his strength already ebbing. A dark stain was spreading across his chest. The shot had struck him off center but was sufficient to do catastrophic damage. The man looked a sight: clothing torn and bloody, pale hair streaked with mud and darkened by rain. He coughed, and blood came burbling from his lips.
That was it: as a doctor, Esterhazy knew the shot was fatal. It had punctured a lung, creating a sucking wound, and its placement left a good possibility it had torn up the left subclavian artery, which was rapidly filling the lungs with blood. Even if he wasn’t sinking irretrievably into quicksand, Pendergast would be a dead man in a few minutes.
Already up to his waist in the quaking bog, Pendergast stopped struggling and stared up at his assassin. The icy glitter in the pale gray eyes spoke more eloquently of his hatred and despair than any words he might have spoken, and it shook Esterhazy to the core.
“You want an answer to your question?” Esterhazy asked. “Here it is. I never did murder Helen. She’s still alive.”
He couldn’t bear to wait for the end. He turned and walked away.
THE LODGE LOOMED UP, THE WINDOWS CASTING a blurry yellow light into the driving rain. Judson Esterhazy grasped the heavy iron door ring, heaved it open, and staggered into the entry hall, lined with suits of armor and huge racks of antlers.
“Help!” he cried. “Help me!”
The guests were standing around a roaring fire in the great hall, drinking noontime coffee, tea, and small glasses of malt. They turned and looked at him, astonished.
“My friend’s been shot!”
A boom of thunder temporarily drowned him out, rattling the leaded windows.
“Shot!” Esterhazy repeated, collapsing to the floor. “I need help!”
After a moment of frozen horror, several people rushed over. On the floor, his eyes closed, Esterhazy felt them crowding around, heard the low babble of voices.
“Step back,” came the stern Scottish voice of Cromarty, the lodgekeeper. “Give him air. Step back, please.”
A glass of whisky was pressed to his mouth. He took a swallow, opened his eyes, struggled to sit up.
“What happened? What are you saying?”
Cromarty’s face loomed over him: neatly trimmed beard, wire spectacles, sandy hair, angular jaw. The deception was easy enough; Esterhazy was genuinely horror-struck, chilled to the bone, barely able to walk. He took another swallow of whisky, the peaty malt like a fire in his throat, reviving him.
“My brother-in-law… we were stalking a stag in the Mire—”
“The Mire?” said Cromarty, his voice suddenly sharp.
“A real giant…” Esterhazy swallowed, tried to pull himself together.
“Come to the fire.” Taking his arm, Cromarty helped him up. Robbie Grant, the old gamekeeper, bustled into the room and took Esterhazy’s other arm. Together they helped him shuck off his saturated camouflage jacket and led him to an armchair by the hearth.
Esterhazy sank down.
“Speak,” said Cromarty. The other guests stood around, faces white with shock.
“Up on Beinn Dearg,” he said. “We spotted a stag. Down in the Foulmire.”
“But you know the rules!”
Esterhazy shook his head. “I know, but he was a monster. Thirteen points. My brother-in-law insisted. We tracked him deep into the Mire. Down to the marshes. Then we split up—”
“Are you bloody daft, man?” It was the gamekeeper, Robbie Grant, speaking in a shrill tenor. “You split up?”
“We had to corner him. Drive him against the marshes. The fogs were coming in, visibility was poor, he broke cover… I saw movement, fired…” He paused, heaved a breath. “Hit my brother-in-law square in the chest…” He gasped, covered his face.
“You left an injured man on the moors?” Cromarty demanded angrily.
“Oh, God.” Esterhazy broke into racking sobs, hiding his face in his hands. “He fell into the bogs… Got sucked down…”
“Hold on,” said Cromarty, the tone of his voice as cold as ice. He spoke slowly, quietly, enunciating every word. “You’re telling me, sir, that you went out into the Mire; that you accidentally shot your brother-in-law; and that he fell into a bog? Is that what you’re telling me?”
Esterhazy nodded wordlessly, still hiding his face.
“Christ Jesus. Is there any chance he’s still alive?”
Esterhazy shook his head.
“Are you absolutely sure of that?”
“I’m sure,” Esterhazy choked out. “He went down. I’m… I’m so sorry!” he suddenly wailed. “I’ve killed my brother-in-law!” He began rocking back and forth, head in his hands. “God forgive me!”
A stunned silence.
“He’s out of his head,” the gamekeeper muttered. “As clear a case of moor fever as I’ve ever seen.”
“Get these people out of here,” Cromarty rumbled, gesturing at the guests. He turned to the gamekeeper. “Robbie, call the police.” He swung on Esterhazy. “Is that the rifle you shot him with?” He gestured roughly at the rifle Esterhazy had carried in, now lying on the floor.
He nodded miserably.
“Nobody touch it.”
The guests left in murmuring groups, speaking in hushed tones, shaking their heads. The lightning flashed, a boom of thunder following. Rain lashed the windows. Esterhazy sat in the chair, slowly lowering his hands from his face, feeling the welcome warmth of the fire creeping through his wet clothing. An equally marvelous warmth crept into his inner being, slowly displacing the horror; he felt a sense of release washing over him, even elation. It was over, over, over. He had nothing more to fear from Pendergast. The genie was back in the bottle. The man was dead. As for his partner, D’Agosta, and that other New York City cop, Hayward—killing Pendergast had cut the head off that snake. This was truly the end. And by all appearances, these Scottish dunces were buying the story. There was nothing that could come to light to contradict anything he’d said. He had gone back, collected all the shells except the one he wanted them to find. Pendergast’s rifle and the shells from their fight he had deposited in a bog on his way back, and they’d never find that. That would be the only mystery—the missing rifle. Nothing strange in that: a rifle could easily get permanently lost once sunk in the Mire. They knew nothing about his handgun, and Esterhazy had made that disappear as well. The stag’s tracks, if they survived the storm, would be fully consistent with his story.
“Bloody hell,” muttered Cromarty, going to the mantelpiece, grabbing a bottle of scotch and pouring himself a tumblerful. He drank it in small gulps, pacing before the fire, ignoring Esterhazy.
Grant came back in. “The police are on their way from Inverness, sir. Along with a Northern Constabulary Special Services team—with grapnels.”
Cromarty turned, downed the glass, poured himself another, and glared at Esterhazy. “You stay put till they get here, you bloody damned fool.”
Another peal of thunder shook the old stone lodge, and the wind howled across the moors.
THE POLICE ARRIVED MORE THAN AN HOUR LATER, their flashing lights striping the gravel drive. The storm had passed, leaving a leaden sky of swift-moving clouds. They were dressed up in blue slickers, boots, and waterproof hats, tramping across the stone entryway, looking self-important. Esterhazy watched them from the chair, reassured by their unimaginative stolidity.
The last one to enter was the man in charge, and the only one not in uniform. Esterhazy examined him surreptitiously; he was at least six foot five, bald with a fringe of pale hair; he had a narrow face and blade-thin nose and carried himself tilted forward, as if cutting his way through life. His nose was just red enough to compromise the appearance of seriousness, and he occasionally dabbed at it with a handkerchief. He was dressed in old shooting clothes: tin oil pants, a tight twill sweater, and a scuffed Barbour jacket, unzipped.
“Hullo, Cromarty,” he said, extending an easy hand as Cromarty bustled over. They huddled at the far end of the hall, speaking in low tones, occasionally glancing in Esterhazy’s direction.
Then the officer came over and took the wing chair next to Esterhazy. “Chief Inspector Balfour of the Northern Constabulary,” he said quietly, not offering his hand, but leaning forward, elbows on his knees. “And you are Judson Esterhazy?”
He slipped out a small steno pad. “All right, Dr. Esterhazy. Tell me what happened.”
Esterhazy went through the story from beginning to end, pausing frequently to collect himself or choke back tears, while Balfour took notes. When he was done, Balfour shut the pad. “We’re going to the scene of the accident. You’re coming with us.”
“I’m not sure…” Esterhazy swallowed. “… that I’m up to it.”
“I’m quite sure you are,” said Balfour crisply. “We’ve two bloodhounds. And Mr. Grant will be coming with us as well. He knows the byways of the Mire.” He stood up, consulting a large marine watch. “We’ve five hours of daylight left.”
Esterhazy got up with a long, mournful face and a show of reluctance. Outside, the team was gearing up with packs, ropes, and other equipment. At the end of the graveled drive, a dog handler was exercising two leashed bloodhounds around the greensward.
An hour later, they had tramped over the side of Beinn Dearg and arrived at the edge of the Foulmire, the boggy ground marked by a ragged line of boulders. A mist lay over the moors. The sun was already sinking in the sky, the endless landscape disappearing into gray nothingness, the dark pools lying motionless in the heavy air. There was a faint smell of vegetal decay.
“Dr. Esterhazy?” Balfour looked at him, frowning, arms folded over his chest. “Which way?”
Esterhazy glanced around, his face a blank. “It all looks the same.” No point in giving them too much help.
Balfour shook his head sadly.
“The dogs have a scent over here, Inspector.” The thick brogue of the gamekeeper drifted through the mist. “And I see a bit of sign.”
“Is that where you went into the Mire?” Balfour asked.
“I think so.”
“All right. The dogs will lead the way. Mr. Grant, you stay with them up front. The rest of you follow. Dr. Esterhazy and I will come last. Mr. Grant knows the good ground; follow in his footsteps at all times.” The inspector took a moment to remove a pipe, which had been pre-packed, and lit it. “If anyone gets mired, don’t the rest of you rush in like damn fools and get mired yourself. The team has ropes, lifesaver rings, and telescoping hooks for retrieving any who get stuck in quicksand.”
He puffed away, looking around. “Mr. Grant, do you have anything to add?”
“I do,” said the small, wizened man, leaning on his walking stick, his voice almost as high as a girl’s. “If you do get caught in it, don’t struggle. Lean back into it gently, let your body float up.” He fixed a bushy eye on Esterhazy, glaring. “I’ve got a question for Dr. Esterhazy: when you were traipsing over the Mire after that stag, did ye see any landmarks?”
“Like what?” Esterhazy said, his voice confused and uncertain. “It seemed awfully empty to me.”
“There’s ruins, cairns, and standing stones.”
“Ruins… yes, it seems we passed by some ruins.”
“What’d they look like?”
“If I remember correctly—” Esterhazy frowned in mock recollection—“they appeared to be a stone corral and a shelter on a sort of hill, with the marshes beyond and to the left.”
“Aye. The old Coombe Hut.” Without another word the gamekeeper turned and began tramping through the grass, moss, and heather, the bloodhounds with their handler hurrying to keep up. He walked fast with his head down, his short legs churning, walking stick swinging, his shaggy hair like a white halo around a tweed cap perched on top.
For a quarter of an hour they moved in silence, interrupted only by the snuffling and whining of the dogs and the murmured instructions of their handler. As the clouds thickened again and a premature gloaming fell over the moors, some of the men took out powerful flashlights and switched them on. The beams lanced through the cold mists. Esterhazy, who had been feigning ignorance and confusion, began to wonder if they hadn’t gotten lost for real. Everything looked strange and he recognized nothing.
As they descended into yet another lonely hollow, the dogs suddenly stopped, snuffled all around in circles, and then charged forward on a scent, straining their leashes.
“Easy, now,” the handler said, pulling back, but the dogs were too excited and began to bay, a deep-throated sound that echoed over the moors.
“What’s with them?” Balfour said sharply.
“I don’t know. Back. Back!”
“For God’s sake,” shrilled Grant, “pull them back!”
“Bloody hell!” The handler pulled on the leashes but the dogs responded by lunging forward, in full throat.
“Watch out, there!” cried Grant.
With a scream of pure terror the handler suddenly went down into a quagmire, breaking through a crust of sphagnum, slopping and struggling, and one of the dogs went in with him, the baying turning into a shriek. The dog churned, his head held up in terror.
“Stop your struggling!” Grant hollered at the handler, his voice mingling with the cries of the dog. “Lean back!”
But the handler was in too much of a panic to pay attention. “Help me!” he screamed, flailing away, splattering mud.
“Bring the hook!” commanded Balfour.
A member of the Special Services team had already dropped his pack and was untying a rod with a large rounded handle on one end and a broad loop of rope on the other. He snapped it out like a telescope and knelt at the edge of the bog, wrapped the rope around his waist, and extended the end with the handle.
The dog yelped and paddled.
“Help me!” the trapped man cried.
“Grab hold, ye damn fool!” cried Grant.
The high-pitched voice seemed to have penetrated and the man grasped its meaning. He reached out and grabbed the handle at the end of the rod.
The rescuer leaned back, using his body to leverage the man out. The handler clung on desperately, his body emerging slowly with a sucking noise, and was dragged onto firmer ground, where he lay shivering and gasping for breath, covered with clinging muck.
Meanwhile the dog was shrieking like a banshee, churning and slapping the bog with his front legs.
“Lasso his front quarters!” shouted Grant.
One of the men already had his rope out and was fashioning it into a loop. He tossed it toward the dog, but it fell short. The dog struggled and screamed, his eyes rolling white.
The man tossed it again, and this time it fell over the dog.
“Tighten and pull!”
He pulled but the dog, feeling the rope around his neck, twisted and struggled to avoid it, letting it slip off.
Esterhazy watched in mingled horror and fascination.
“He’s going under!” said the handler, who was slowly recovering from his fright.
Another man readied a loop, this one tied with a slipknot, lasso-style, and he crouched at the bank, giving it a gentle toss. It missed. He pulled it in, loosened the noose, prepared to toss it again.
But the dog was going down fast. Now only his neck was above the muck, every tendon popping, the mouth like a pink cavern from which came a sound that went beyond a scream into something not of this world.
“Do something, for the love of God!” cried the handler.
Ooowooo! Oooowooo! came the sound, horribly loud.
“Again! Toss it again!”
Again the man tossed the lasso; again he missed.
And suddenly, without even a gurgle, there was silence. The sound of the dog’s last smothered cry echoed across the moorlands and died away. The muck closed up and its surface smoothed. A faint tremor shook the bog, and then it went still.
The handler, who had risen to his feet, now sank to his knees. “My dog! Oh, great Christ!”
Balfour fixed him with a stare and spoke quietly but with great force. “I’m very sorry. But we have to continue.”
“You can’t just leave him!”
Balfour turned to the gamekeeper. “Mr. Grant, lead on to the Coombe Hut. And you, sir, bring that other bloodhound. We still need him.”
Without further ado they continued on, the dog handler, dripping with mud, his feet squelching, leading the remaining bloodhound, who was shaking and trembling, useless for work. Grant was once again walking like a demon on stubby legs, swinging his stick, stopping only occasionally to viciously stab the end of it at the ground with grunts of dissatisfaction.
To Esterhazy’s surprise, they weren’t lost after all. The land began to rise and, against the faint light, he made out the ruins of the corral and hut.
“Which way?” said Grant to him.
“We passed through and went down the other side.”
They climbed the hill and passed the ruins.
“Here, I think, is where we split up,” said Esterhazy, indicating the place where he had departed from Pendergast’s trail in the effort to flank him.
After examining the ground, the gamekeeper grunted, nodded.
“Lead on,” said Balfour.
Esterhazy took the lead, with Grant right behind, holding a powerful electric torch. The yellow beam cut through the mist, illuminating the rushes and cattails along the edge of the marsh.
“Here,” Esterhazy said, halting. “That’s… that’s where he went down.” He pointed to the broad, still pool at the verge of the marsh. His voice broke, he covered his face, and a sob escaped. “It was like a nightmare. God forgive me!”
“Everyone stay back,” said Balfour, motioning the team with his hand. “We’re going to set up lights. You, Dr. Esterhazy, are going to show us exactly what happened. The forensic team will examine the ground, and then we’ll drag the pool.”
“Drag the pool?” Esterhazy asked.
Balfour glared at him. “That’s right. To recover the body.”
ESTERHAZY WAITED BEHIND THE YELLOW TAPE laid on the ground as the forensic team, bent over like crones, finished combing the area for evidence under a battery of harsh lights that cast a ghastly illumination over the stark landscape.
He had followed the evidence gathering with growing satisfaction. All was in order. They had found the one brass casing he’d deliberately left behind, and despite the heavy rains they managed to find some faint tracks of the stag, as well as to map some of the crushed marks in the heather made by himself and Pendergast. In addition, they had managed to confirm where the stag had burst through the reeds. Everything was consistent with the story he’d told.
“All right, men,” Balfour called. “Pack away your kits and let’s drag the pool.”
Esterhazy felt a shiver of both anticipation and revulsion. Gruesome as it was, it would be a relief to see his adversary’s corpse dragged up from the muck; it would provide that final act of closure, an epilogue to a titanic struggle.
On a piece of graph paper, Balfour had sketched out the dimensions of the pool—a small area twelve feet by eighteen—and drawn a scheme of how it would be dragged. In the glare of the lights, the team clipped a claw-like grapnel to a rope, the long steel tines gleaming evilly, and then fixed a lead weight to the eye. Two men stood back, holding the coil of rope, while a third balanced himself on the pool’s edge. With Balfour consulting his drawing and murmuring directions, the third man gave the hook a toss over the shivering bog. It landed in the muck on the far side, the weight carrying it down. When it finally came to rest on the bottom, the other two behind began hauling it back in. As the grapnel inched through the bog, the rope straining and tightening, Esterhazy tensed involuntarily.
A minute later the grapnel surfaced, trailing muck and weeds. Balfour, clipboard in hand, examined the tines with a latex-gloved hand, then shook his head.
They moved eighteen inches along the shore and gave another toss, another pull. More weeds. They moved again, repeated the process.
Esterhazy watched every emergence of the muck-coated grapnel, a knot of tension growing in the pit of his stomach. He ached all over, and his bitten hand throbbed. The men were approaching the spot where Pendergast had gone down. Finally the grapnel was tossed over the very spot, and the team began to retract it.
It halted, arrested by a submerged object.
“Got something,” one of the men said.
Esterhazy held his breath.
“Easy, now,” said Balfour, leaning forward, his body tense as bowed steel. “Slow and steady.”
Another man joined the rope-line and they began to haul it in, hand over hand, with Balfour hovering over them and urging them not to rush things.
“It’s coming,” grunted one.
The surface of the bog swelled, the muck running to the sides as a long, log-like object emerged—mud-coated, misshapen.
“Take it slow,” Balfour warned.
As if they were landing a huge fish, the men held the corpse at the surface while they ran nylon straps and webbing under it.
“All right. Bring it in.”
With additional effort, they eased the corpse up, sliding it onto a plastic tarp laid on the ground. Mud drained away in thick rivers from it and a hideous stench of rotting meat suddenly washed over Esterhazy, propelling him a step back.
“What in blazes?” murmured Balfour. He bent over the corpse, felt it with his gloved hand. Then he gestured at one of the team members. “Rinse this off.”
One of the forensic team came over. Together they bent over the misshapen head of the carcass, the man washing the quicksand off with a squeeze bottle.
The stench was hideous, and Esterhazy felt the bile rise in his throat. Several of the men were hastily lighting cigars or pipes.
Balfour abruptly straightened up. “It’s a sheep,” he said matter-of-factly. “Drag it off to the side, rinse this area down, and let’s continue.”
The men worked in silence, and soon the grappling hook was back in the water. Again and again they dragged the pool; again and again the claws of the hook emerged from the muck with nothing more than weeds. The reek of the suppurating sheep, lying behind them, covered the scene like a pall. Esterhazy found the tension becoming unbearable. Why weren’t they finding the body?
They reached the far end of the pool. Balfour called a discussion, the team conferring at one side in low tones. Then Balfour approached Esterhazy. “Are you sure this is where your brother-in-law went down?”
“Of course I’m sure,” Esterhazy said, trying to control his voice, which was on the edge of breaking.
“We don’t seem to be finding anything.”
“He’s down there!” Esterhazy raised his voice. “You yourself found the shell from my shot, found the marks in the grass—you know this is the right place.”
Balfour looked at him curiously. “It certainly seems so, but…” His voice trailed off.
“You’ve got to find him! Drag it again, for God’s sake!”
“We intend to, but you saw how thorough a job we made of it. If a body was down there…”
“The currents,” said Esterhazy. “Maybe the currents took him away.”
“There are no currents.”
Esterhazy took a deep breath, desperately trying to master himself. He tried to speak calmly, but could not quite get the tremor out of his voice. “Look, Mr. Balfour. I know the body’s there. I saw him go down.”
A sharp nod and Balfour turned to the men. “Drag it again—at right angles this time.”
A murmur of protests. But soon the process began all over again, the grappling hook being tossed in from another side of the pool, while Esterhazy watched, the bile cooking in his throat. As the last of the light drained from the sky, the mists thickened, the sodium lamps casting ghastly bars of white in which shadowy figures moved about, indistinct, throwing bizarre shadows, like the damned milling about in the lowest circle of hell. It was impossible, Esterhazy thought. There was absolutely no way Pendergast could have survived and gotten away. No way.
He should have stayed. He should have waited to the bitter end… He turned to Balfour. “Look, is it at all possible someone could manage to get out—extract themselves from this kind of mire?”
The man’s blade-like face turned to him. “But you saw him go down. Am I correct?”
“Yes, yes! But I was so upset, and the fogs were so thick… Maybe he could have gotten out.”
“Highly doubtful,” said Balfour, staring at him with narrowed eyes. “Unless, of course, you left him while he was still struggling.”
“No, no, I tried to rescue him, just as I said. But the thing is, my brother-in-law’s incredibly resourceful. Just maybe—” He tried to inject a hopeful tone into his voice, to cover up his panic. “Just maybe he got out. I want to think he got out.”
“Dr. Esterhazy,” said Balfour, not unsympathetically, “I’m afraid there isn’t much hope. But you’re right, we need to give that possibility serious consideration. Unfortunately the remaining bloodhound is too traumatized to work, but we have two experts who can help.” He turned. “Mr. Grant? Mr. Chase?”
The gamekeeper came over, with another man whom Esterhazy recognized as the head of the forensic team. “Yes, sir?”
“I’d like you both to examine the larger area around the bog here. I want you to look for any evidence—any at all—that the victim might have extracted himself and gone off. Search everywhere and cut for sign.”
“Yes, sir.” They disappeared into the darkness, just the beams of their flashlights remaining visible, stabbing about in the murk.
Esterhazy waited in silence, the mists congealing into fog. Finally, the two men returned. “There’s no sign, sir,” Chase said. “Of course, we’ve had very heavy rains that would have destroyed anything subtle. But a wounded man, shot, perhaps crawling, bleeding profusely, covered with mud—he would have left some evidence. It’s not possible the man escaped the Mire.”
Balfour turned to Esterhazy. “There you have your answer.” Then he added: “I think we’ll be winding up here. Dr. Esterhazy, I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to remain in the area until the inquest.” He removed a handkerchief, dabbed at his running nose, put it away. “Do you understand?”
“Don’t worry,” said Esterhazy fervently. “I fully intend to remain here until I learn exactly what happened to my… my dear brother-in-law.”
New York City
DR. JOHN FELDER FOLLOWED THE POLICE VAN as it jounced its way down the one-lane road that traversed Little Governor’s Island. It was warm for an evening in early October, and the swampy marshland on either side was dotted with pools of mist. The trip south from Bedford Hills had taken just under an hour, and their destination now lay directly ahead.
The van turned into a lane of long-dead chestnut trees, and Felder followed. Through the trees, he could see the East River and the numberless silhouetted buildings of Manhattan’s East Side. So near, and yet so very, very far.
The van slowed, then stopped outside a tall wrought-iron gate. A guard stepped out of the security booth beside it and walked up to the driver. He glanced at a clipboard the driver handed him, then nodded, returned to his booth, and opened the gate with the press of a button. As the two vehicles entered the compound, Felder glanced at a bronze plaque on the gate: MOUNT MERCY HOSPITAL FOR THE CRIMINALLY INSANE. There had been some effort recently to change the name to something more modern, less stigmatizing, but the massive plaque looked like it was there to stay.
The van pulled into a small, cobbled parking area, and Felder stopped his Volvo beside it. He got out and stared up at the vast gothic pile, its grand old windows now covered by bars. It had to be the most picturesque—not to mention unusual—asylum in all America. It had taken him a great deal of time and paperwork to arrange for the transfer, and he was not a little irritated that the man who had promised to “reveal all” about the prisoner in return for this favor seemed to have disappeared from the face of the earth.
His gaze quickly shifted from the building to the police van. A prison guard had gotten out of the passenger seat and walked to the rear doors, unlocking them with a key on a large key ring. A moment later, the doors opened and a police officer, uniformed and armed with a shotgun, stepped out. While he waited, gun at the ready, the prison guard reached into the van to help out the other occupant.
As Felder watched, a young woman in her early twenties stepped out into the evening air. She had dark hair, cut in a short, stylish bob, and her voice—when she thanked the orderly for his assistance—was low and even, its cadence reserved and antique. She was dressed in a prison uniform, and her wrists were handcuffed before her, but as she was led toward the entrance her head was held high, and she walked with grace and dignity, her carriage erect.
Felder joined the little group as they walked by.
“Dr. Felder,” she said, nodding gravely at him. “A pleasure to see you again.”
“Likewise, Constance,” he replied.
As they approached the front door, it was unlocked from within and opened by a fastidious-looking man wearing a white medical jacket over an expensive suit. “Good evening, Miss Greene,” he said in a calm, quiet voice, as if speaking to a child. “We’ve been expecting you.”
Constance gave a faint curtsy.
“I’m Dr. Ostrom, and I’ll be your attending physician here at Mount Mercy.”
The young woman inclined her head. “A pleasure to make your acquaintance, Doctor. Please call me Constance.”
They stepped into the waiting area. The air was warm and smelled faintly of disinfectant. “I know your, ah, guardian, Aloysius Pendergast,” Dr. Ostrom went on. “I’m very sorry we couldn’t have brought you here sooner, but it took longer than expected to get the necessary paperwork cleared.”
As Ostrom said this, his gaze briefly met Felder’s. Felder knew that the room Constance was assigned at Mount Mercy had—after a thorough search—been very carefully cleaned, first with bleach, then antiseptic, and then repainted with three coats of oil-based paint. These measures were deemed necessary because the room’s prior occupant had been notorious in her fondness for poisons.
“I’m most grateful for your attentions, Doctor,” Constance said primly.
There was a brief wait while Dr. Ostrom signed the forms handed him by the prison guard. “You can remove the handcuffs now,” Ostrom said as he returned the clipboard.
The guard complied. An orderly let the guard and police officer out and locked the front door carefully behind them. “Very good,” Ostrom said, rubbing his hands together lightly as if pleased by the transaction. “Now Dr. Felder and I will show you to your room. I think you’ll find it quite nice.”
“I have no doubt that I will, Dr. Ostrom,” Constance replied. “You’re very kind.”
They made their way down a long, echoing corridor, Dr. Ostrom explaining the rules at Mount Mercy and expressing hope that Constance would find herself comfortable with them. Felder shot a private glance at Constance. Anyone would find her an unusual woman, of course: the old-fashioned diction, the unreadable eyes that seemed somehow older than the face they were set in. And yet there was nothing about her looks or her manner that could prepare one for the truth: that Constance Greene was deeply insane. Her presentation was unique in Felder’s experience. She claimed to have been born in the 1870s, to a family long gone and forgotten, save for scattered traces in public records. Most recently, she had returned by ship from England. During the voyage, she had—by her own admission—thrown her infant son overboard because, she’d insisted, he was the embodiment of evil.
In the two months since he’d become involved with her case, Felder had—first at Bellevue, then at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility—continued his analysis of Constance. And while his fascination with the case had only sharpened, he had to admit that he’d made no progress at understanding either her or her illness.
They waited while an orderly unlocked a heavy metal door, then they turned down another echoing passage, at last stopping before an unmarked door. The orderly unlocked this in turn, and Dr. Ostrom ushered them into a small room, windowless and sparsely furnished. All the furniture—bed, table, single chair—was bolted securely to the floor. A bookcase was fixed to one wall, containing half a dozen volumes. A small plastic flowerpot with daffodils from the hospital’s garden sat on the table.
“Well?” Ostrom asked. “What do you think, Constance?”
The young woman looked around, taking in everything. “Perfectly satisfactory, thank you.”
“I’m pleased to hear that. Dr. Felder and I will give you some time to settle in. I’ll send a matron by with more appropriate attire.”
“I’m much obliged to you.” Constance’s gaze settled on the bookcase. “My goodness. Cotton Mather’s Magnalia Christi Americana. Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography. Richardson’s Clarissa. Aren’t these Great-Aunt Cornelia’s books?”
Dr. Ostrom nodded. “New copies of them. This used to be her room, you see, and your guardian asked us to purchase the books for you.”
“Ah.” For a moment, Constance flushed with what appeared to be pleasure. “It’s almost like coming home.” She turned to Felder. “So nice to carry on the family tradition here.”
Despite the warmth of the room, Felder felt a cold thrill of dismay course down his spine.
LIEUTENANT VINCENT D’AGOSTA STARED DOWN at his desk, trying not to feel depressed. Ever since he’d come off sick leave, his boss, Captain Singleton, had placed him on modified duty. All he seemed to do was push paper from one side of the desk to the other. He glanced out the door into the squad room. There, people were busily coming and going; phones were ringing; criminals were being processed. Stuff was happening. He sighed, glanced back down at the desk. D’Agosta hated paperwork. But the fact was, Singleton had done it for his own good. After all, just half a year ago he’d been lying in a hospital bed in Baton Rouge, fighting for his life, a bullet having nicked his heart. He was lucky to be alive at all, let alone vertical and back at work. Anyway, desk duty wouldn’t last forever. He just had to fully recover his old strength.
Besides, he told himself, he should be looking on the bright side. His relationship with Laura Hayward had never been better. Almost losing him had changed her somehow, softened her, made her more affectionate and demonstrative. In fact, once he was back to one hundred percent he was seriously thinking of proposing. He didn’t think the average relationship counselor would recommend getting shot in the chest, but it had sure worked for him…
He realized somebody was standing in his office doorway and glanced up to see a young woman staring back at him. She was maybe nineteen or twenty, petite, dressed in jeans and an aging Ramones T-shirt. A black leather bag, studded with small metal points, hung from one arm. Her hair was dyed a severe black and he could see a tattoo on her upper arm peeking out from beneath her shirt, which he recognized as an M. C. Escher design.
“Can I help you, ma’am?” he asked. Where was the damn secretary to screen these people?
“Do I look like a ma’am to you?” came the reply.
D’Agosta sighed. “What can I do for you?”
“You’re Vincent D’Agosta, right?”
She stepped into the office. “He mentioned you a few times. I’m usually bad with names, but I remembered that one because it was so Italian.”
“So Italian,” D’Agosta repeated.
“I don’t mean that in a bad way. It’s just that where I come from, in Kansas, nobody has a name like that.”
“The Italians never made it that far inland,” D’Agosta replied dryly. “Now, who’s this ‘he’ you mentioned?”
“Pendergast?” D’Agosta couldn’t keep the surprise out of his voice.
“Yup. I was his assistant out in Medicine Creek, Kansas. The ‘Still Life’ serial murders?”
D’Agosta stared. Pendergast’s assistant? The girl was delusional.
“He must have mentioned me. I’m Corrie Swanson.”
D’Agosta frowned. “I’m vaguely familiar with the Still Life killings, but I don’t recall him mentioning your name.”
“He never talks about his cases. I drove him around, helped him scope out the town. With that black suit and all he stuck out like a sore thumb—he needed an insider like me.”
D’Agosta was surprised to hear this but realized she was probably telling the truth—if exaggerated. Assistant? He found his irritation give way to a darker emotion. “Come in,” he said belatedly. “Have a seat.”
She sat down, metal jingling, and swept back her raven hair, revealing a streak of purple and another of yellow. D’Agosta leaned back in his chair, carefully disguising his reaction. “So. What’s up?”
“I’m in New York for the year. Got here in September. I’m a sophomore, and I’ve just transferred to the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.”
“Go on,” D’Agosta said. The John Jay part impressed him. She was no idiot, although she was doing her damnedest to look like one.
“I’m taking a class called Case Studies in Deviance and Social Control.”
“Deviance and Social Control,” D’Agosta repeated. Sounded like a course Laura might have taken—she’d been big on sociology.
“As part of this, we’re supposed to do a case study ourselves and write a paper. I chose the Still Life killings.”
“I’m not sure Pendergast would approve,” D’Agosta said carefully.
“But he did approve. That’s the problem. Back when I first arrived, I set up a lunch with him. It was supposed to be for yesterday. He never showed. Then I went to his apartment at the Dakota—nothing, all I got was the runaround from a doorman. He’s got my cell number, but he never called me to cancel or anything. It’s like the guy vanished into thin air.”
“That seems odd. Perhaps you got the appointment wrong?”
She fished in her little bag, pulled out an envelope, and handed it over.
D’Agosta extracted a letter from the envelope and began to read.
1 West 72nd Street
New York, NY 10023
Ms. Corrie Swanson
844 Amsterdam Avenue, Apt. 30B
New York, NY 10025
My dear Corrie,
I’m pleased to hear that your studies are going well. I approve of your choice of courses. I believe you will find the Introduction to Forensic Chemistry to be most interesting. I’ve given some thought to your project and agree to take part, provided I may vet the final product and that you agree not to reveal certain minor details in your paper.
By all means let’s get together for lunch. I will be out of the country later this month, but I should be back by mid-October. October 19 agrees with my calendar. Allow me to suggest Le Bernardin on West 51st Street at 1 PM. The reservation will be in my name.
I look forward to seeing you then.
D’Agosta read the letter twice. It’s true he hadn’t heard from Pendergast in a month or two, but that in itself wasn’t especially unusual. The agent frequently disappeared for long periods of time. But Pendergast was a stickler about keeping his word; not showing up for lunch, after making plans, was out of character.
He handed the letter back. “Was there a reservation?”
“Yes. It had been made the day after he sent the letter. He never called to cancel.”
D’Agosta nodded, covering up his own growing concern.
“I was hoping you might know something about his whereabouts. I’m worried. This isn’t like him.”
D’Agosta cleared his throat. “I haven’t spoken to Pendergast in a while but I’m sure there’s an explanation. He’s probably deep in a case.” He ventured a reassuring smile. “I’ll check into it, get back to you.”
“Here’s my cell number.” Pulling a pad of paper across the desk toward her, she scribbled a number onto it.
“I’ll let you know, Ms. Swanson.”
“Thank you. And it’s Corrie.”
“Fine. Corrie.” The more D’Agosta thought about it, the more worried he became. He almost didn’t notice her picking up her bag and heading out the door.
Excerpted from Cold Vengeance by Preston, Douglas Copyright © 2011 by Preston, Douglas. Excerpted by permission.
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