Read an Excerpt
There was no taking it back now, no do-overs. Never. He had said yes, so he was going. There were storm clouds over Paradise as Jesse Stone looked out at the Atlantic and remembered his last night in L.A., staring out into that other ocean. What Jesse thought was that water color in sunlight was beside the point. At night, all oceans were black. He understood that a lot of people, maybe most, believed the ocean symbolized endless possibility, better days, bright futures. Jesse knew better. He took a sip of his Black Label and soda. He was alone, with only the ocean and his regrets for company. You can gaze at the road ahead of you all you want, but your future is in your rearview mirror.
“Jesse . . . Chief Stone,” a busboy called to him.
Jesse was too busy time-traveling there on the dock behind the restaurant to hear.
“Excuse me, Chief Stone,” the kid tried again.
This time Jesse heard him and turned. He nodded at the kid.
“The boss, he wants you to stop by the office before you leave.”
“I’ll be right in.”
It was the usual kind of thing in a small town. Dan Castro, chef and owner of the Lobster Claw, was a squat man with sad brown eyes and the weight of the world pressing down on him. The place had been up and running for only two months and Dan had discovered why it was easier to want to own a restaurant than to actually own one. He wanted to know if Jesse could talk to the health inspector. Jesse was the police chief, so he must have a lot of pull with the selectmen, the Health Department, the dogcatcher. Jesse tried listening, without much success. Stared at Dan’s moving lips, watched his gestures, but Jesse wasn’t exactly in the moment. He was thinking about tomorrow’s drive down to New York City, about the reunion. He had been thinking about it on and off for the last six weeks, ever since he’d gotten the invitation from Vic Prado and sent back the little RSVP card with a check in the yes box. As the date got closer, it was all he could think about. He said something reassuring to Dan and left. It must have been good, because Castro’s eyes weren’t quite so sad, nor did he seem as much a victim of gravity.
As Jesse drove back home through the streets of Paradise, he tried to recall exactly what he had said to the restaurant owner. For the life of him, he couldn’t remember. That’s how distracted he was by what lay ahead of him over the next few days. The scotch hadn’t helped with his memory and this reunion hadn’t helped with the scotch. Jesse’s tug-of-war with booze no longer held any romance for him, nor anyone else. He had a problem with drinking. It was like a given in a geometry equation. When he realized his words to Dan Castro were lost to him, Jesse shrugged and moved on. He remembered he was a cop, the top cop in a town fifteen miles outside of Boston. A million miles from L.A.
The rain came in a light spray not even heavy enough for Jesse to use the wipers. He studied the streets. He had settled into the rhythms of town life, but thought that only someone who didn’t know him would describe Paradise as his adopted hometown. He’d grown up in Tucson, lived in L.A., and now Paradise. Were any of them really home? That was for someone else to ponder. For the moment Jesse Stone was running through his checklist for tomorrow, making sure everything was set before he went down to New York. As he turned for home, the skies opened up, the rain falling in sheets so thick that he could no longer make out the streets of Paradise. He was no longer paying much mind to the rain or the streets. Distracted again, Jesse Stone was caught in a rundown between his past and New York City.
The Salters’ place was a red brick Victorian nestled on an ocean bluff just north of the yacht club. As Victorian houses went, it was more reserved than most, smaller than the sprawling manses that dotted cities and towns throughout New England and points south. There was one spire, two chimneys, a widow’s walk. No gazebo, no wraparound porch, no whimsical paint job, no whimsy at all. It stood solid and restrained as Harlan Salter, the dry-goods magnate who had commissioned it in 1888. The Salters still owned the place, but these days most of them split their time between Boston and the Vineyard.
Mostly it just sat up there on the bluff and reminded Paradise of a faded past.
There was one light on in a small bedroom on the second floor.
“This place is so freakin’ creepy and so cool, Ben,” said Martina Penworth.
Benjamin Salter made a face. “We only use this place in the summer, and then not always.”
“No. Plenty of spiders, though.”
She slapped his biceps. “I hate spiders.”
“Don’t worry. I’ll protect you.”
“Mmm,” she said and stepped closer to him. “I just bet you will.”
She angled her head up to his and planted her lips on Ben’s. He returned the favor and it didn’t take long for them to advance beyond kissing. When they came up for air, Ben grabbed the bottle of Pappy Van Winkle and took a swallow.
“Hey,” she said, grabbing at the bottle, “what about me?”
Ben smiled, yanking the bottle out of her reach. “Patience, baby, patience.”
He took another swig but was careful not to swallow. He winked at Martina, pressed his mouth hard against hers. She parted her lips just enough so that the warm amber fluid drained slowly into her mouth from his. When she’d taken it all in and swallowed, she sighed, and her body shuddered involuntarily. Ben reached for the hem of her T-shirt and lifted it over her head. She did the same for him and she kissed his chest, brushing her hand across his nipples. As Ben fingered the clasp of her bra, Martina pushed him away. She strolled around to the opposite side of the big cherrywood bed and swayed while she unhinged the silvery silken bra. She swung it over her head and threw it at him.
He snatched it out of the air, took in her scent, and stared at her pert breasts. Her nipples were red, erect, perfect, and he said so. There wasn’t much about Martina Penworth that wasn’t perfect. She had that sun-streaked blond hair other girls spent hundreds to imitate but could never quite pull off. Her eyes were a shade of deep blue that he hadn’t seen before. Her lips, her nose . . . they were all amazing. Nor did it hurt that Martina had the body of a cheerleader and the brain of a professor. He didn’t much care about the latter at the moment. He knew he was lucky to have her. He wasn’t bad-looking. He had been with plenty of girls before, but not girls like Martina. That was why he had brought her here. No dorm room beds or cheap Boston motels for her.
Just as Martina unbuttoned her jeans and began wriggling out of them, she thought she heard something coming from downstairs. Ben saw the look on her face.
“It’s an old house and it’s storming like crazy. Don’t worry about it.” He half smiled. “Maybe it’s a ghost. Like I said, I’ll protect you.”
“That was from spiders.”
“Spiders and ghosts.”
He walked around to her. He had waited long enough. They fell into bed together.
When they were done, she lay with her head on his hairless chest. They were silent. First times, even at their best, come with a certain amount of awkwardness. Besides, wanting and having are two very different things. Then the silence was broken, but not by either Ben or Martina.
The bedroom door flew back so hard that the old hinges nearly pulled away from the oak frame. As it was, the brass doorknob had made an oval dent in the plaster and lath. A tall man dressed in matte black military-style garb strode into the room. He wore a black balaclava over his head and face. Only his shark eyes and crooked mouth were visible. In his right hand he held a black sidearm with a sound suppressor extending from the barrel. He turned to face the two nude college freshmen, pointing the tip of the suppressor at them. Martina wanted to scream, but her fear swallowed it up. Instead, she dug her nails into Ben’s biceps. He didn’t feel it, not even when he bled.
“Look, mister, my parents have a lot of money,” Ben said, his voice cracking. “They’ll pay you anything you want.”
The gunman shook his head.
Ben realized this guy might be here for Martina. She was so hot, so perfect. Here she was for him, undressed and vulnerable.
“Don’t even think about touching her,” Ben warned. This time his voice was strong and steady.
“She’s not as good as you’d think,” he said, because he couldn’t think of what else to say. “She—”
The gunman stifled a little laugh and put his left index finger across his lips to shush the boy. The boy shushed. The gunman waved the tip of the suppressor at Ben, gesturing him away from Martina. When the kid hesitated, the gunman put a round in the wall above the headboard. Ben got out of the bed, shaking. The gunman motioned for Ben to get on his knees at the side of the bed. Ben got on his knees.
“Don’t worry, baby,” Ben reassured Martina. “He wants me, not you. Isn’t that right, mister? You want me.”
The gunman nodded, stepped close to Ben. Now there was something in the gunman’s left hand. Before Ben could figure out what it was, he pressed it to Ben’s neck and stunned the kid. Ben Salter collapsed to the floor, his convulsing body thumping against the bare wood. Tears streamed down Martina’s face as the gunman turned the tip of the suppressor in her direction. The gun barked twice and Martina Penworth stopped crying forever.
Jesse Stone stared at himself in the full-length mirror as he adjusted his bow tie. He had always looked good in uniform—Albuquerque Dukes, USMC, L.A.P.D., or Paradise PD dress blues, it didn’t matter. A tuxedo, he thought, was just another kind of uniform. He had been away from baseball for many years now, but he kept in good shape. He was no more than five pounds heavier than when he was a soft-handed shortstop prospect in the Dodgers’ organization. While he hadn’t been a five-tool phenom, he had the requisite skills to make it to the bigs: great glove, cannon arm, quick pivot, adequate speed, average bat, less-than-average power. What he lacked in natural physical skills he compensated for with what sports types called intangibles. He rarely made mental errors. Bonehead plays were what other guys made. He was like a manager on the field, mentally tough. That much hadn’t changed. When some wiseass pitcher tried backing him away from the plate with a little chin music, Jesse dusted himself off, and stood a few inches closer to the plate for the next pitch. As one scout wrote, “Stone always seems to be in the right place at the right time.” Not always.
It was precisely because he had been in the wrong place at the wrong time that he was forced to trade in his baseball uniform for all the others. Now the closest he was ever going to get to the infield dirt at Dodger Stadium was the softball fields of Paradise, Mass. He was the terror of the team, playing for the police department slo-pitch squad. His less-than-average power in pro baseball made him the Hank Aaron of the softball diamond, but that wasn’t much compensation for a man who was once a phone call away from the Dodgers. He made one last adjustment to his tie before heading downstairs. Time to face the music.
Jesse Stone wasn’t big on irony, but even he couldn’t ignore the fact that there was almost nothing standard about The Standard, High Line. The angular glass, steel, and concrete beast straddled the elevated High Line park that ran along the west side of Manhattan from the Meatpacking District to West 30th Street. He couldn’t decide whether he liked the exterior of the building or not. It was like both something out of the 1960s and a sci-fi movie. Not that he had seen many sci-fi movies. He didn’t much care for movies, except Westerns and they didn’t make many Westerns anymore. The interior was just weird, provocative for provocative’s sake. Until he arrived and read up on the place, Jesse hadn’t been aware of the least standard thing about The Standard: its reputation. The Standard was infamous for couples renting rooms, pulling back their curtains, and having sex in front of the floor-to-ceiling windows for people strolling the High Line to see. The Standard had always seemed like an odd choice for a reunion of a minor-league baseball team from Albuquerque, New Mexico. Now that Jesse had seen it, knew its rep, the place seemed an even less likely choice. He shook his head.
At the elevator, he fidgeted with his tie some more. When the elevator door opened, Jesse got his first gut punch of the evening. He had anticipated taking some blows, but not this one, not so soon. Inside the elevator was a dazzling woman with yellow-green eyes and jet-black hair cut in a perfect wedge. The hair that fell over the light mocha skin of her left cheek made a crisp angular line from her delicate cleft chin to her bare collarbone. Her plush red mouth neither smiled nor frowned at the man getting into the elevator with her, though her nose twitched ever so slightly. She wore a tight, satiny champagne-colored gown that made her look like she was moving in the wind even as she stood motionless. There was a rope of diamonds around her long, tanned neck. Sprinkled in among the diamonds were blood rubies, emeralds, and sapphires.
“Kayla,” Jesse said as the door closed behind him. “You look lovely.” He bent and gave her an awkward kiss on the cheek.
“Jess.” She touched his cheek once and then quickly put her hand down by her side. “You keep a portrait in your attic? You haven’t aged a day.”
“Thanks. No portrait. Vic?”
She let out an exasperated sigh. “He’s down at the bar already with the boys.”
They rode the remainder of the way to the bar level in uncomfortable silence. Their story was an old one. Jesse had been dating Kayla for a few weeks after getting the bump up to the Dodgers’ triple-A team. She was a beautiful girl even then, if not the finely polished trophy she was now. They weren’t too serious, but the sex had been ferocious and Jesse thought there might be a future for them together. That lasted only until a slow ground ball was hit in the right-side hole and was smothered by Jesse Stone’s roommate, Vic Prado. Instead of getting the sure out at first, Prado got to his knees at the edge of the outfield grass and threw across his body to Jesse, who was just coming across second base. The runner went hard into Jesse, trying to take him out and prevent an accurate throw to first. Mission accomplished. He took Jesse out, all right: right out of a career. Jesse’s throw was legless and awkward. He had no balance and crash-landed on the hard infield with the point of his right shoulder. Jesse’s initial thought: Did I get the runner at first? His second: I’m screwed. By the time he came back from the hospital in L.A., post-surgery, Kayla had switched roommates from the one whose future had recently passed to the one scheduled for a September call-up to the big club.
When the elevator car came to a halt, Jesse gestured for Kayla to exit first. As she did, she said, “I still think about you, Jess,” and left. He stood in place. Almost from the moment he had checked the yes box on the RSVP card and mailed it back, Jesse Stone had wanted to undo it, but he also knew he had demons in him that needed to be exorcised. Now he had a better idea of just how many there were to deal with and how difficult a deal it might be. When the elevator door began to close again, Jesse stuck out his right arm to stop it. He stepped out of the car, finally, and headed for the bar and into his past.
The first thing Ben Salter sensed was the vague odor of car exhaust. Then there was the pain. He felt as if he’d been rolled down an endless flight of stairs. He was conscious of the full-body soreness even before he opened his eyes and realized the hurt meant he was still alive. Martina! Where was Martina? Was she safe? Was she— The car hit a bump and he thought his head would split open. He howled in agony and from the suffocating fear—fear for himself, but especially for Martina. He tried remembering what had happened, tried piecing it together, but after he’d knelt down at the side of the bed, it was all a jumble.
Blinding tears poured out of his eyes. He tried moving his hands to hold his head, to wipe away the tears, but he might as well have tried wishing himself to Oz. His hands were cuffed behind his back, the metal bracelets too tight, cutting into the skin of his wrists. It didn’t help that his ankles were bound with rope and that the rope was looped around the handcuffs. When he pulled his legs down to gauge if there was any slack in the rope, he felt like his wrists would snap off, and the cuffs chewed more deeply into his flesh. It was no good. Another pothole. For a brief second Ben Salter was weightless. Then he fell to earth, his head smacking down on the cold metal of the carpetless trunk. His body stiffened and he was completely consumed by pain.
When the jolt of it eased, the fear returned, the fear for himself and the panic over Martina. She had to be all right. Obviously, the guy in black had come for him. He really hadn’t seemed interested in Martina at all. Maybe he’d tied her up as he was tied up. Sure, that was it. He’d tied her up and shoved her under the bed or put her into a closet. She’d be a little worse for wear, but someone would find her soon enough. Ben’s dad and uncle kept the property impeccably maintained. Gardeners and handymen were stopping by all the time. She’d be okay. She’d be okay. She’d be okay. He kept silently repeating it as if it was a prayer. Maybe it was.
At least he hadn’t been gagged. He took a deep gulp of air and screamed, “Help me!” Only it wasn’t much of a scream. His throat was so dry with panic that it came out flat and brittle, barely loud enough to hear above the road and engine noise. It also sent a fresh wave of pain through his head. He weathered the pain. Forced himself to relax, willing his mouth to moisten, letting some saliva drip down to lubricate his throat. He tried it again. “Help me! Somebody help me.” Better. He collected himself again. “Help me! Help, some nut’s got me trapped in here. Help!” Better, much better. He repeated the process over and over again until there was nothing left of his voice and the pain in his head demanded he stop. He was spent and felt himself slipping into unconsciousness.
As his eyes were fluttering shut, the car jerked to a stop. Ben’s panic was reborn and the shelter of unconsciousness was suddenly lost to him. Panic seemed to be the only thing in his universe of which there was an infinite supply. The trunk latch released with a telltale click. The trunk lid popped open a few inches and night rushed in. With it came the strong salt smell of the sea and a final acrid whiff of tailpipe fumes. The car swayed on its suspension. A car door slammed. Footsteps came his way. The trunk lid was raised up. The shark-eyed gunman loomed above Ben.
“Where’s Martina? Is she safe?” Ben asked, his voice a dry, cracked whisper.
The gunman’s mouth formed itself into a cruel half-smile. He slowly shook his head from side to side as he placed the stun gun to Ben’s neck once again. Ben Salter understood his captor’s silent message. Ben’s silent prayer would go unanswered. Martina was dead. With the fervor of a martyr, Ben retreated into a netherworld of muscle spasms and guilt.
Malo Enriquez was the first to say something as Jesse Stone walked into the bar.
“Hey, look, boys, it’s the commish, man,” he shouted in an over-the-top Chicano accent. Malo was a left-handed reliever for the Dukes at the very end of his career, just hanging on for a paycheck and one last shot at the majors when Jesse was promoted from double A to triple A. Malo had been the oldest member of the team. The guys had called him Viejo, old man, out of respect. After all, Malo had been in the bigs, on and off, for more than a decade. He had been to baseball’s Promised Land, a land of significant meal money, plane travel, smooth infields, and three-tiered stadiums. He was more than ten years older than most of his former teammates. The age difference hadn’t been as noticeable back then. It was now. His once-purple-black hair was gray and thinning. His waistline was moving in the opposite direction. He was thick around the middle, but Malo looked happy in a way Jesse could never quite imagine himself looking.
“Chief of police, Viejo,” Jesse Stone said, clasping Malo’s meaty right hand in his. Jesse felt an odd rush of respect and jealousy for Malo. Was it because Malo had made it to the top of the mountain or because the old reliever was happy? Both seemed like perfectly adequate reasons.
Only sixteen of the men who had played with Jesse were in attendance. A few had simply turned down the offer of an all-expenses-paid trip to New York City. Some men just didn’t like looking behind them. Jesse thought there was something to be said for that. A couple had fallen through the cracks, beyond even Vic Prado’s considerable reach. Two were dead: Paulie Hamacher in a car crash, Johnny Wheeler by a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Jesse knew about Paul and John, but he hadn’t paid attention to the e-mail updates concerning the reunion Vic had sent along every week leading up to the event.
Jesse knew each of the men in attendance by face and by name in spite of the fact that he hadn’t seen or spoken with any of them since the day he packed his duffel bag and left Albuquerque. And as he went teammate to teammate, shaking hands, Jesse read their life stories on their faces. Not much got past Jesse Stone. Not then. Not now. Julio Blanco, the catcher, was still a cold, pock-faced bastard with a handshake like a vise. Robbie Townes, the first baseman, had the beatific smile of a man who had found God. Good thing, too, because he had never found a way to hit a curveball. Cal Manley, the right fielder, had the restless look of a man in two places at once.
“Cal,” Jesse said, shaking the outfielder’s hand.
Cal’s unfocused eyes looked past Jesse. “Stoney.”
Neither man was much of a talker, but just the distracted way Cal spoke Jesse’s name told Stone that Cal was in a bad place.
One look at Jimmy Neidermeyer, the Dukes’ old third baseman, told Jesse that Jimmy had probably been up to no good. He had a prison physique: all upper body, no legs. He also had the bloated look of a juicer: acne, thinning hair, the feral eyes of a man spoiling for a fight.
The other guys, the guys who had had at least a cup of coffee in the majors, all seemed to be in better places. Not that they had made fortunes in real estate, restaurants, and venture capital like Vic or even that they had achieved a level of status equal to Jesse’s. In fact, Jesse was doing better than most of them. By some measures, he had gotten further in life than anyone except Vic Prado. That’s not how Jesse saw it. What Jesse saw was a runner barreling into him at second base. Moses had nothing on Jesse Stone. Neither had made it to the Promised Land.
Vic Prado, the man behind this whole affair, seemed to be purposely hanging back. It was like opening-day festivities when the team is introduced to the crowd, called out one by one, then waits along the first or third base line. Each player pops out of the dugout and shakes the hand of all the guys introduced before him. And there was Vic, waiting at the end of the line for Jesse. He looked like a million bucks, tens of millions. Everything from the manicured hands and the straight white teeth to the perfectly tailored tuxedo and the Patek Philippe on his wrist spoke of pampered wealth. It didn’t hurt that Vic was still a handsome son of a bitch.
“What’ll you have, old buddy?” asked Prado, squeezing Jesse’s hand.
“Black Label and soda. Tall glass.”
“Good taste in scotch for a shortstop, but don’t be shy, Jesse. Have a Macallan or a Blue Label. It’s on me. Think of it as helping me with my taxes.”
“Cop,” Jesse said, correcting his former double-play partner and taking back his hand. “Black Label suits me.”
“Black Label and soda, tall glass, for my friend here,” Prado shouted to the barman.
The word friend stuck in Jesse’s craw. They weren’t friends. They had been roommates once for a few months, and a very good combination on the field. Friends? Not that he was aware of. Over Vic’s right shoulder, Jesse spotted Kayla talking to another woman. The woman was spectacular-looking, if in a blond kind of way. He turned his attention back to Prado.
“Skip’s not here,” Jesse said.
Vic stared directly at Jesse. “No skipper. No coaches or organization people, either. Just us.”
Us? Jesse got a weird vibe. Vic was talking about the players from the team, but it felt like he was being even more selective than that. He sensed that Vic was talking about just the two of them. Jesse knew that couldn’t be the case. No one would go to such elaborate lengths just to celebrate with a guy he had shared a room with half a lifetime ago. Not even a man as flush as Vic Prado.
Prado stepped away from Jesse, raising his glass. “To the Dukes,” he called out in his rich baritone. Then, looking back at Jesse, “To us.” They drank. Vic clinked Jesse’s glass. “Okay, guys, the limos are out front. We’ll be heading down to the steakhouse now.”
Vic walked out first. Jesse stayed back to finish his drink. He had the feeling the limos weren’t going anywhere without him. He didn’t know why he should think that, but he did. And if he was wrong, so what? He’d walk.
“Hello, Jess.” It was Kayla, the blonde at her side. “This is my friend Dee Harrington.”
Dee was quite a friend, and on closer inspection, spectacular didn’t quite do her justice. She was otherworldly. More striking even than Jenn, Jesse’s ex-wife. She was a few years Kayla’s junior and had the fire in her eyes that Kayla no longer seemed to possess. Dee looped her arm through Jesse’s.
“Do you mind,” she said. “I feel like a spare wheel. I’m here to keep Kayla company, but I’ve got no one to keep me company.”
“Sure.” Jesse put his empty glass on the bar. When he turned back to Dee, he noticed Kayla’s eyes. The fire was back. Jesse held out his other arm for her.
She took it and put her lips very near to his ear. “We need to talk, Jess. But not here and not now.”
Jesse nodded and the three of them made their way out of the bar.
After stashing the kid, Joe Breen had showered and swapped out his matte black outfit for a green-and-white Celtics warm-up suit. He’d stopped by his local for a few pints of Harpoon while he chowed down on hard-boiled eggs and hot mustard. Doing violence always put him in the mood for hard-boiled eggs and hot mustard. It also put him in the mood for comfort, to hold someone in his arms and to please them. He liked that best of all, pleasing his lover. He was particularly fond of art-school girls, all pale-skinned and deep. They could be so very lonely, not unlike himself. But he dared not scratch that itch until he had gone to see the boss. And it was at Mike Frazetta’s front door that he found himself.
Mike’s wife answered the door. She was dressed in a long T-shirt and fuzzy pink slippers. She had her bottle-black hair pulled tightly back behind her head, but she hadn’t yet removed her makeup. Joe didn’t get the attraction. He guessed Lorraine was pretty enough, but, Jesus, she was a pushy broad. And that voice of hers . . . it grated on you like the constant buzzing of mosquito wings. Given the chance, he’d have liked to take his uncle’s hurley stick to her or to have used his fists to shut her up. Breen was certain she’d be easier for Mike to replace than himself, and he smiled at the thought. He didn’t always enjoy killing, but there were times he took a religious joy in it. So it would have been with Lorraine Frazetta.
Lorraine was no happier to see Breen than he was to see her. And being the boss’s wife, she had no compunction about showing her displeasure. She rolled her eyes at him.
“You!” She packed a lot of contempt into one syllable. “Ever hear of this thing called a phone? Even you could learn to use it because the numbers are all single digits from zero to nine and you only have to use one finger. If you called ahead, I’d know you were coming and I could have someone else answer the door.”
“You know he doesn’t favor me using the phone,” Breen said, stepping inside. “And you did buzz me through the gate.”
“No one else is around.” Lorraine nodded to her right. “He’s in there.”
Mike Frazetta was seated on a long black leather-and-steel couch opposite a flat TV screen that dominated an entire wall of his office. Frazetta was watching Unforgiven, the Clint Eastwood Western, and he was reciting the dialogue along with Eastwood’s character, Bill Munny, when Joe Breen came through the door.
“Funny thing, killin’ a man. You take away everything he’s got and everything he’s gonna have.”
What a load a shite, Breen thought. Philosophical killers were crap. You think about it, you’re lost. “Boss!” Joe screamed above the movie.
Frazetta muted the sound and turned to face Breen. Mike Frazetta was a lean man of six feet, with vulpine eyes and thin lips. He had dark brown hair, slicked back and sprayed into place. He wore an expensive gray sweater that hung loose over his thin frame and black wool pants.
“The kid?” he asked Breen, getting up and moving to the bar.
“Stashed. His head will be aching for some time to come, but he won’t be a bother.”
Frazetta poured himself a Chopin vodka on the rocks, threw in a wedge of lime. He didn’t offer one to Breen. “Any problems?”
“A bit. He had a girl with him. A shame, really. Pretty slip of a thing.”
“Did you have to do her?”
“What was I supposed to do, send her to summer camp?”
Frazetta shrugged. “You know best. Anyways, the kid’s father as good as condemned her when he wouldn’t listen to reason. This way maybe he’ll take us a little more serious that we’re not jerking around here.”
“About the father . . . you want me to—”
“Nah, let that WASPy bastard sweat a little bit. Let him come to us. Where’s Vic, just in case the father gets nervous quicker than I expect?”
“In New York.”
Frazetta shook his head. “That fucking little-league reunion.”
“Why’d you say yes to that, Boss?”
Frazetta shrugged. “You gotta let the man have his fun. Even marionettes need to think they got some control of things sometimes. Besides, Vic’s our shiny side. We need him to look good to the world. When everyone in this town whispers my name the way they used to whisper Whitey Bulger’s, it’ll be worth it. We’re gonna show people some old-time religion like they ain’t seen in years. Now get outta here. See you at the office in the morning.”
As he headed out the front door, past the gate and the surveillance cameras, Joe Breen noticed that itch had gotten considerably stronger. Now there was nothing standing between him and getting it scratched, and scratched good.
The steakhouse was all dark wood paneling, red leather banquettes, and testosterone. The testosterone level went up a few notches after the old Albuquerque Dukes strode through the place and into the private dining room at the back. That’s what steakhouses are really about, red meat and testosterone. In the private room, two walls of the dark paneling had been supplanted by clear glass. On the opposite side of the glass were wooden racks filled with hundreds of bottles of wine. The other two walls were bare red brick, chipped and pitted with age and a hundred years of construction. There were two long tables set close together, with ten seats each, running lengthwise in the dining room. Jesse sat at the end of one table, with Julio Blanco to his left. An empty seat next to his least favorite ex-teammate was his reward for getting there late in the last limo. At least Dee had taken the seat directly across from Jesse. Her beautiful face was almost compensation enough for Blanco’s presence. Almost.
Vic and Kayla were at the head of the other table. Vic was in his glory. This was his show. As he got up to speak, Jesse noticed that there were two guys in attendance whom he’d spotted back at the hotel bar but hadn’t connected to the reunion. They were both ten years younger than the youngest member of the old Dukes, and neither of them looked like baseball players. Football, maybe. Not baseball, not built the way they were: thick necks, thick arms, tree-trunk legs. Jesse knew the type. They were security. Muscle, probably ex-bouncers with a few ounces of smarts between them. They reminded Jesse of Jo Jo Genest, the musclehead rapist and murderer who’d been part of his unwelcome wagon to Paradise. He hadn’t thought of Jo Jo in years and he didn’t like that these two guys brought Jo Jo to mind. What, he wondered, was a man like Vic Prado doing with clowns like these two? If Vic could afford to foot the bill for this entire gig, he could afford the real thing, lethal Blackwater types you’d never see coming at you. Another thing Jesse noticed was that the two trees in suits hovered very close to Vic, paying more attention to him than to potential danger. They seemed more like keepers than protectors.
Jesse leaned across to Dee. “Who are those bookends up there with Vic?”
“You mean Tweedle Dumb and Tweedle Dumbbell?”
“Security, I guess,” she said, flashing a neon white smile at Jesse. “They drive Kayla crazy. They’re like annoying relatives who never leave.”
He raised his drink to her. She returned the gesture. He liked her smile. There wasn’t much about her not to like. Before they could continue the conversation, Vic started up, making a nice little speech about how, regardless of his years in the bigs, it was the guys here with him tonight who he would remember and treasure. That was why he’d paid to bring them here to be together.
“I made three all-star teams,” he said. “I rubbed elbows with some of the greatest players to ever grace a baseball field. I’ve met Ted Williams, Stan Musial, Willie Mays, Sandy Koufax, and many other hall-of-famers. I played against Wade Boggs, Mo Vaughn, Barry Bonds, Doc Gooden, but it’s you guys that have meant the most to me.”
Everyone applauded but Julio Blanco. All Julio did was grunt. It was an eloquent grunt that said more than all of Vic’s lofty words. If Jesse hadn’t happened to catch a glimpse of Kayla at that moment, he might not have taken the bait. But the dejection and defeat on her face pushed Jesse to say something to Blanco.
“Okay,” Jesse said, “I’ll bite. What was the grunt for?”
“Vic, he loves us like brothers, huh? Funny how I never heard a word from him until six weeks ago. You?”
“Nothing since I left Albuquerque. Never heard from you or any of these guys, either.”
“True that.” Blanco nodded. “And the guy says in his speech it’s all about us, but he does everything but mention his lifetime batting average and on-base percentage.”
“It’s his party.”
Blanco’s smile was cold enough to chill the wine. “He fucked you like he fucked you and you still defend him. I don’t get it.”
“Say what you have to say, Julio.”
“That play, the play in Pueblo when you got taken out . . .”
“What about it?”
“Think about it, jefe. It’s an exhibition game against a bunch of fuckin’ college kids and indie minor-leaguers on a shitty field in Pueblo, Colorado. All Vic has to do is toss the ball to first on that play and it’s you up there making the speeches about all the all-star games you been in instead of him.”
“It was instinct to go for the double play.”
“I call bullshit on that. You forget, I was watching the play as I’m coming up the first-base line to back up. It was a tough play Vic made, sure, but the kid running from first to second got a bad break on the ball. He had to hold up so the grounder wouldn’t hit him. When Vic got to his knees, he hesitated.”
“Yeah, until the kid was almost on you. Then he threw to you.”
“You were always a miserable SOB, Julio.”
“Maybe, Stoney, but that don’t make me no liar.”
Before Jesse could say anything else, the waiter came over and took their orders. After ordering the rib steak, Jesse shook his empty glass at the waiter.
“Black Label and soda, right, sir?” the waiter said.
“Half right. Black Label, rocks. A double.”
“Very good, sir.”
Only it wasn’t very good. None of it. Jesse half ate his steak. He supposed it tasted all right, but he wouldn’t have been able to swear to it. Dee was making pleasant conversation, asking him about his life and about the things Kayla had told her about him.
“She warned me you weren’t much of a conversationalist,” Dee said, after Jesse gave her another one-word answer to a question he forgot as soon as she asked it.
Jesse put down his silverware, the steak and the scotch turning foul and bitter in his mouth. “You want to get out of here?”
Dee smiled her neon smile. “I was hoping you’d get around to asking that.” She was already standing up as she spoke.
Jesse Stone stood, too. Julio Blanco turned, smiling up at him, but the message in his smile was as subtle as a slide trombone. Jesse gave Blanco the dead-eyed cop stare. Blanco wasn’t buying it. He’d gotten into Jesse’s head and they both knew it.
On the way out, Vic Prado grabbed Jesse’s forearm. “Hey, where you going?”
Vic was on his feet now. He made a show of looking happy. He leaned in close to Jesse’s ear. “We need to talk.”
Jesse could tell by Vic’s tone that he didn’t want the world to hear their conversation. “Breakfast tomorrow . . . early,” he whispered back.
“Okay, you guys have a good time. You need a ride to or from anywhere, I’ll send a limo.” Prado wasn’t whispering now.
“We’re all growed up,” Dee said. “We’ll survive in the big city.”
When they were at the door, Jesse turned back for one last glimpse at all of them and saw the look on Kayla’s face. The defeat and dejection were even more profound than they’d been only a few minutes earlier.
She mouthed, “We need to talk.”
He nodded, Dee pulling at his wrist. Everyone needed to talk to Jesse Stone. Talking was the last thing he was in the mood for.
Ethan Farley looked like an escapee from American Gothic. He was bald-headed, sported wire-rimmed glasses, and wore denim bib overalls. All he needed was a pitchfork and a drab wife by his side. Emily, his drab wife, was dead seven years now, and there wasn’t much need of a pitchfork in Paradise. Farley’s family went back as far as the Salter family, and their relationship to the Salters had remained pretty constant over the last century. Plus, the Salters were rich and the Farleys worked for them. Until the boys returned from WWII, the Farleys worked both inside and outside the Salter family houses in Paradise, Boston, and on Martha’s Vineyard. But come the late forties, the Salters realized they were nearly halfway through the new century and that they ought to begin acting like the Gilded Age had actually come to an end. Ethan’s folks and his uncle Harold and his aunt Ruella were the last Farleys to work as house servants for the Salters. Good thing, too, as far as Ethan was concerned. He had never wanted to wear a fancy suit a day in his life and was happy to grow things and fix others. Dirty hands and a wet brow were the measures of a good man.
He hadn’t planned on checking on the Paradise house that day, but the storm had lasted for nearly thirty-six hours. Farley wasn’t worried about the brick structure of the old place. It was as solid a house as had ever been built, but the stone foundation did spring the occasional leak in bad weather and parts of the roof were susceptible to powerful gusts. He’d found over the years that water damage was best dealt with quickly. All those solid wood floors and all that plaster and lath were bad news to deal with when water got in and was left to its own devices.
As Ethan drove up to the noble brick house on the bluff, he got a bad feeling in the marrow of his old bones. You work on a house long enough, you get connected to it. You can read it, feel its distress like a father feels his child’s pain. And something was definitely amiss. Christ, he hoped it wasn’t anything major. With the way the Salters had shifted their focus away from Paradise, he feared they might just sell the place if the damage was too bad. He wasn’t in fear of his livelihood. No, the Salters were good that way. He had been well compensated for his loyalty to the family and wouldn’t want for much as long as he kept it simple. Simple was all he knew. What he worried about was keeping busy if the Salters sold the old house.
Then he spotted the bright red Toyota Scion FR-S parked in the drive and smiled. He didn’t know the Salter kids the way he used to, but Ethan would have laid odds that the little Japanese sports car belonged to Harlan IV’s youngest, Ben. Ethan liked Ben. A college student down in Boston, he was a polite boy, not as full of himself and his money as his two older brothers. Good or not, boys would be boys, Ethan thought. He had witnessed generations of Salter men bringing their women to the house in the off-season for a bit of privacy. Ethan parked his Ford F-150 right behind the kid’s red machine and walked the perimeter of the house. It didn’t look worse for wear, but morning was just now breaking and the light wasn’t the best. Still, experience had taught him that things could look fine from the outside and be pretty bad on the inside.
Ethan didn’t want to walk in on the kid, so he stood on his pickup’s horn and gave two long warning blasts to Ben that he and his female companion were no longer alone. After the second blast, he gave the lovers a few more minutes to get some clothes on. It wasn’t until Ethan placed his hand on the brass thumb latch on the big front door that his smile ran away from his face. The door was unlocked. As he opened the door and walked into the front hallway, he called the kid’s name. The echo of his own voice was Ethan’s only answer. As he climbed the stairs, he detected a faint, unwelcome odor. At the top of the stairs, the odor was stronger, and he noticed a light coming from one of the small second-floor bedrooms. He called Ben’s name again. No reply. As he approached the bedroom, Ethan saw that the door was nearly off its hinges and that the odor was definitely coming from that room.
When he stepped into the bedroom and saw Martina Penworth’s nude, dead body sprawled face-first on the floor beside the bed, it was all he could do not to heave up his breakfast. He didn’t make it very far out of the bedroom before he did. It was only several minutes later that he had collected himself enough to call the police.
Jesse Stone hadn’t dreamed about Pueblo or Vic Prado or Julio Blanco. He hadn’t dreamed about Ozzie Smith, the Wizard of Oz. He hadn’t dreamed. Given the prodigious amount of scotch he had consumed after leaving the reunion dinner, he wasn’t sure he’d had enough functioning brain cells to conjure up a dream. His mouth was as dry as a kiln, and though he couldn’t actually see it, he was certain there was a long, sharp object embedded in his head somewhere. He was impressed. A man who drank as regularly as he did had to work pretty hard to whip up a hangover like the one he was suffering from. It wasn’t all bad, because Dee really was in bed next to him, naked as the day she was born, but looking like a goddess. He hadn’t blacked out, nor had he imagined how intense the sex had been. Jesse hadn’t forgotten the sounds Dee had made, the way her body had shuddered. He had been with many women in his lifetime, and not many were a match for Dee.
It was still dark when Jesse cranked open his eyes and wrestled himself out of bed and into the bathroom. He found a glass somewhere and drank what felt like a gallon of tap water. It was no myth, New York City tap water did taste good. He dug a fistful of aspirins out of his bag and swallowed some more water. He brushed his teeth and showered as quietly as he could, which, given the design of the room, was no mean feat. He couldn’t manage to shave for the throbbing in his head. Before stepping back by the bed, he fantasized about waking Dee up in a way that might inspire another bout like last night’s, but his head was killing him. The fantasy he settled on was a few more hours of sleep. Neither fantasy was going to come true.
Dee was up, and though she smiled as she passed him, some of the glimmer was out of her neon. She’d had a fair amount to drink as well. And the sun was now coming up.
“Listen,” he said, “I promised to meet Vic for an early breakfast.”
“Ooh, can I tag along? I think I need to put some nourishment into my body that wasn’t distilled in the Scottish Highlands.”
“I don’t think so. Vic seemed to have something important to say to me in private.”
“Sounds mysterious. Any ideas?”
“None,” he said. “How are you feeling?”
“About you, pretty fantastic. About my hangover, not so much. Can I see you again later?”
“I’d like that, a lot. After breakfast I’m going to come back and get some more sleep. We can talk after that.”
“I’m heading down to my room,” she said, emerging from the bathroom and slipping into her dress. She put her hand on Jesse’s cheek and rubbed her thumb across his lips. “Are all cops so amazing in the sack?”
“How else do you think I made chief?”
“Don’t make me laugh. It hurts too much.” Dee bundled up her underthings, tucked them beneath her arm, and hooked her shoes on her fingers. “Later, darlin’.” She kissed Jesse’s cheek and left.
He called the hotel operator and asked for Vic’s room. Vic seemed to be waiting by the phone and picked up on the first ring.
“The lobby in five minutes,” Jesse said and hung up.
Though the sharp object in his head had softened around the edges and the pain was duller in kind, Jesse knew he looked like crap. Vic, on the other hand, looked like he got up this early every morning and had a team of valets to put him together. But Jesse saw some cracks in his old double-play partner’s veneer. Vic was on edge, pacing, his head on a swivel, making sure the Tweedle Dumbbell boys weren’t around. When Jesse walked up to him, Vic placed a cup of takeout coffee in his hand.
“I hope you like milk and sugar in your coffee,” he said, urging Jesse toward the front door.
“Fine with me.” At that point, Jesse would have accepted anything that mildly resembled coffee. He took a long swallow and followed Vic out of the hotel onto the street. Even at that hour a fleet of yellow cabs prowled the avenues and traffic was building. Jesse took notice, and Vic noticed Jesse notice.
“God love this town,” Vic said. “When we used to come in to play the Mets—”
Jesse wasn’t in the mood, especially with a hangover, especially after what Julio Blanco had had to say. “You didn’t drag me down here to talk about playing at Shea, Vic. It’s gone now, anyway.”
“Yeah, you’re looking a little green around the gills. So tell me, how was she? I mean, sometimes it’s all I can do not to put the moves on Dee myself.”
“And you didn’t meet me down here at this hour to question me about something I would never talk to you about.”
“You used to tell me all about you and Kayla,” Vic said.
“That was then.”
“You mean before she—”
“Yes, I mean before all of it. That was a long time ago, Vic. A lot has changed.”
“I saw you were sitting next to Blanco last night. What garbage did that miserable prick—”
Jesse’s temporary reprieve from the headache was over. He took another sip of the coffee and said, “Forget Julio Blanco. Forget Kayla and Dee. What am I doing here, standing on the street with you at—”
Jesse Stone never finished the question. His cell phone buzzed in his pocket. Vic’s cell phone went off as well. Only his ringtone was “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” Neither man seemed pleased by their respective calls. It was too early for peanuts and Cracker Jacks.
Jesse saw that the call was from the Paradise PD. He excused himself and stepped away from Prado. “This is Chief Stone.”
“Jesse?” It was Molly Crane, and he didn’t like the tone of her voice.
“Nothing good. You better get back here. The Salter family handyman just found a murdered girl at the old house on the bluff.”
“Murdered how? When?”
“We just got the call. I’m headed out there now.”
“I’m on my way. And call Healy.”
Jesse looked back at Vic Prado, who appeared worse than he had only a few minutes earlier. Prado was still on the phone and he didn’t seem happy with the party on the other end of the line. But that wasn’t Jesse’s problem. He walked back into the hotel and through the lobby. As he hurried to catch the elevator, he saw Vic’s pair of muscleheads rushing to the hotel door.
Vic Prado turned and saw Jesse retreating into the hotel. Fuck! The whole point of this stupid reunion was to get with Jesse. Months of planning, of playing Mike Frazetta, all for nothing. Jesse Stone was going to be his way to get out from under, and now it was all slipping away. But Vic hadn’t put up with all the shit he had had to endure in the minors, the long bus rides, horrible food, and inept coaching, without learning to cope. The only way to survive long enough in the boonies so that you could thrive on the big stage is to be adaptable, and Vic Prado was nothing else if not adaptable.
“Yeah, I see ’em,” he said to Joe Breen as the two pet gorillas emerged from the hotel. “They’re coming out the door right now.”
“What the fuck were you doing talking to that cop without my boys around?”