Unlicensed P.I. Duck Darley has found a comfortable niche above the streets of Manhattan. But a desperate text from Cass Kimball, the partner Duck once took a bullet to protect, lures him back into sworn-off vices and the sinister world of professional sports . . .
Cass cries murder after her boyfriend tumbles to his death in the Catskills while researching the history of sports doping in East Germany during the Cold War. Following the brutal killing of a champion javelin thrower, Cass herself is arrested on charges of double homicide, leaving Duck on an impossible quest for answers. Caught between the illicit underbelly of competitive sports and the shadowy criminals stalking him, it’s sink or swim as Duck stumbles through a reckless investigation that endangers both his life and that of anyone he allows himself to hold dear.
“Here be the beginnings of a superb series.”
—Ken Bruen on Under Water
About the Author
Casey Barrett is a Canadian Olympian and the co-founder and co-CEO of Imagine Swimming, New York City’s largest learn-to-swim school. He has won three Emmy awards and one Peabody award for his work on NBC’s broadcasts of the Olympic Games in 2000, 2004, 2006, and 2008. His debut novel, Under Water, was nominated for a 2018 Shamus Award. Casey lives in Manhattan and the Catskill mountains of New York with his wife, daughter, and hound. He can be found online at caseybarrettbooks.com.
Read an Excerpt
We'd just finished. I was fetching Kleenex after a strenuous round while she lay on her back gathering her breath. My knees buckled as I limped to the bathroom and gave myself silent praise. Well done, Duck. Her response was reward enough, but I couldn't help thinking of the envelope of cash that would be waiting bedside in the morning.
My employment was difficult to define these days, but it had its perks.
I returned to bed, offered her the cleanup Kleenex, and kissed her on salty lips. She returned it with hunger and pulled me closer. I gave slight resistance and she laughed lightly into my mouth. "I'll give you a few minutes to recharge," she said.
My employer slash lover was a catch of considerable status in certain circles. Juliette Cohen: divorced, one child, worth a couple hundred bucks. Art dealers and headmasters and various hat shakers would genuflect in her presence. She was a long-legged blonde, who dressed like the fashion editor she once was. Now in her early forties, money was something to be spent, not earned.
Ostensibly, my job was tutor and swim teacher to her eight-year-old son, Stevie. I had surprised myself with competence. Stevie had responded to me, I'd managed to teach him a few things of value: like how not to drown, and how to play a bit of piano. His mother told me I was the only male he'd ever listened to. Never mind the father, his bitterness at losing a reported 300 million dollars in the divorce left him uninterested in parenting a son produced by that greedy slut. He was off on family number two now, with a pair of daughters and a younger wife who signed a favorable prenup.
* * *
I met Juliette in the usual way, on a case, a simple matter of deterring an overeager suitor. Divorcées with that kind of money become a mark. Eyed by rising finance guys, the sort who worship hedge fund managers like A-list celebrities. They keep an eye on ladies like these, tracking the constellations of fortunes like astronomers. This one was a chiseled smiling sack of flesh named Bret, a VP at Fortress. He made the common miscalculation, confusing proximity to wealth to possession of it. He was caught throwing a coke party at her Village apartment, while mother and son were out at their place in Amagansett. When she found out, he took a helicopter out east, and billed it to her account. He told Stevie to shut up when he tried to intervene in an argument. And finally, one high Saturday night, he refused to leave after too much blow prevented him from performing. He did not take the breakup well. He wouldn't leave her alone.
I was referred by a mutual acquaintance, one Margaret McKay, whose life I helped wreck after she hired me to find her missing daughter a year earlier. The search — and eventual horror show of discovery — had shattered both of our lives. I was still a cracked shell; I was surprised she was still alive. In the aftermath I was confident that suicide was inevitable for her. I'd set my own odds at 50/50, and so far the coin toss was settling on this side of life. I had Juliette to thank for that.
It didn't take much to deter the determined Bret. The threat of physical violence tends to backfire with these sorts. They want to fight back, and if that looks like a losing battle, they'll hire reinforcements. But the threat of shame is always effective. An email to the boss, a humiliating confrontation during a business meal at Per Se, these things put the fear of the money god into a man. He learns that it's easier than he thought to be excommunicated from the church of the Street. He falls in line and learns to set his sights a bit lower than the Juliette Cohens of his world.
I should have learned as much.
Instead I filled his bedroom void. It was a subtle arrangement with a noble cause. The night we settled our case, which ended with an emailed pledge from Bret never to contact her again, we enjoyed a few bottles of Chateau Latour. The conversation was easy and interesting and flirty, the sort that leads to the inevitable, but that night Stevie was having a sleepover. With a trio of eight-year-olds and multiple nannies mulling about, it would have been inelegant to stay late. We ended our evening by eleven, with me agreeing to give Stevie a swim lesson at their building's rooftop pool the next day.
Eight months later I was a part of her staff. I hadn't worked a case since. I felt like a rescue dog picked up by his best-case scenario, only to resent the taming process. I was healthier than I'd been in years, and trying to keep a lid on the self-loathing. Juliette helped keep me off the bourbon and painkillers. Our only indulgence was expensive wine and a bit of weed. It was as close to clean living as I cared to get.
She was disciplined in all things in her life, but sex. Her body preserved by a strict regime of yoga, Soul Cycling, and vegan eating. In the evenings she allowed herself a moderate amount of wine, followed by a single small bowl of sativa, inhaled from a one-hitter and exhaled with eyes-shut bliss through a cracked living-room window. She claimed to dislike the high of the healthier trend of vaping; burning fresh weed the old-fashioned way was her one private vice.
Then she would drag me off to the master bedroom, where I would earn my income. Since my teaching rates for her son were never clarified, the arrangement was loose but impossible to misunderstand. The thickness of envelopes bore no relation to Stevie's progress. They were based on the pleasure I provided after he'd gone to bed.
* * *
Juliette wiped between her legs and handed me the Kleenex.
"Love, would you mind getting me a glass of water?" she asked.
I swallowed a grumble and moved back toward the bathroom.
"From the kitchen, darling," she said. "You know I can't drink it from the tap."
Another gulp of sleepy pride, then I stepped into a pair of boxers and left to make the walk across the endless apartment. The floors did not creak. No sounds of the city filtered up through the windows. They were hermetically sealed to ensure total silence. The effect of lifeless luxury was unsettling. Large modern art from Gagosian and Zwirner stared down at me through the darkness with incomprehension. The sound of the refrigerator opening felt like an intrusion. On my way back I found myself tiptoeing aware of the slightest disturbance. As I approached the bedroom, I noticed a light shining beneath the door. Inside, Juliette was sitting up in bed, staring at my phone.
"You have a text," she said, icy as Arctic.
"From who?" I offered the water, reached for my cell.
She ignored the glass, looked down at the offending screen.
"From Cassandra Kimball," she said. "It reads, 'Need you. Please call.'"
I snatched the phone from her grip. Ice water splashed from the glass across Juliette's bare chest. "Watch it, asshole!" she said.
She dried herself with the sheets, glared up at me.
"You're fucking her again?" she asked. "How dare you."
I looked at the screen, confirmed the message; I looked down at my snarling lover. "I never was," I said.
"Oh, bullshit. I'm supposed to believe that?" She kicked at the phone in my hands. I dodged the painted toes. Then she flung herself from bed and fled to the bathroom.
I looked back at the text. Need you ...
It had been twenty months since we'd seen each other. Twenty months since I'd almost gotten her killed. At the end of the McKay case, Cass had absconded to the country. The bullet in her gut left a scar, but nothing like the psychic wounds we would both forever nurse. I didn't blame her for going. It was too much for anyone to process. But I blamed her for not coming back. After she left, I did my best to sober up. I rode the wagon like a good boy as I put mind and body back together. But then one day I received a letter from the still-missing girl, Madeline McKay. It brought back all the failures and demons and soon I was reaching for the bottle. I dove into the whiskey abyss, deep as I could go. I would have kept diving until I reached the land without light, if not for Juliette. No, that's not quite right — if not for her eight- year-old kid.
The day I showed up for his swim lesson was the first day I hadn't taken a drink before lunch in months. It was selfishness at first, and greed. Like Bret and plenty of others, I was seeing his mother as a mark, even if I wasn't admitting it to myself. She had overpaid me in the blithe way of wealth for my services with her spurned lover. I figured she was good for another easy payday for teaching her kid. I just had to stay sober until after the class. I did. Then for reasons unclear to me I did not drink to unconsciousness later that night. So began another reluctant limp back to sober-ish living.
And now with a four-word text I was on the cusp of being thrown from this well-paid paradise. The thought made me smile. This was not the facial expression desired by Juliette when she emerged from the bathroom.
"How dare you," she said. "You smile ..." I watched as she searched for something to throw. She chose an elephant figurine, the trunk used as a ring holder. Juliette grabbed it and flung it, end over end, at my head. I ducked and heard it shatter over the bed.
"Get out," she said.
I scurried for my clothes. She watched as I dressed. Maybe she expected me to plead, to gush out all the perfect words that would soothe her raging ego. I stayed quiet, kept smirking. Then came the slaps. Her fury exceeded the jealousy of an ill-timed text, no matter how threatened she was by Cass. It was my response, my grin. There was no denying it. I couldn't wait to call.
When her blows abated, I tried to explain that there must be something wrong, how long it had been. My lover was not interested. After all I've done for you was the prevailing theme. I reached the bedroom door with one shoe on and my t-shirt backward. Tears came next. The untrusting, burned divorcÃ©e alone again behind a wall of fortune that prevented basic human bonds. She gathered herself while I lingered, wondering if there was some way to appease her. Juliette wiped at her damp blue eyes and inhaled a long breath through her nose like her yoga training taught her. She exhaled, tilted her sharp chin up to me. "Don't come back here," she said. She closed the door.
In the living room I found my keys, wallet. I took some parting mental snapshots of this gorgeous apartment. From the open kitchen through the dining and living areas, the loft stretched some seventy feet across, with a dozen high windows from end to end. Large silk rugs in an aqua palate covered the blond hardwood floors. The décor was Turkish inspired, with exotic lighting and richly patterned pillows across plush couches and low-slung designer chairs. Tossed on one was Stevie's backpack. I wondered for a brief mad second if I should go wake him and bid my farewell. Then I heard his voice behind me.
"Duck, what's going on?" he asked, rubbing at his eyes.
"Hey, buddy, I'm sorry to wake you," I said. "I need to head out."
I took a step closer to him, reconsidered and backed up again. "A friend of mine is in trouble," I told him. "I need to see if she's okay."
"What happened?" he asked.
"Well, I don't know yet, she just asked me to call."
"You said she was in trouble."
"I think she is, or I'm sure she is, but I don't know what's happened."
I lowered myself to his eye level, then reached out and patted his shoulder. "I'm sure everything will be okay. Just go back to sleep, all right?"
"Are you coming over tomorrow?" he asked.
"I hope so, buddy, but I'm not sure," I said. "Ask your mom, okay?"
He nodded, understanding. Already the scar tissue of divorce had built its layers of protection. Stevie turned and shuffled off toward his bedroom without looking back.
It was one a.m. I stood before the building's private garage next to the lobby doors on 13 Street. Still early to my old way of thinking, the bars would be open for another three hours. I salivated at the thought. When was the last time I'd drunk till closing? When had I last savored the amber on my tongue? Too long. I considered the nearest suitable venues. There was Black & White over on 10, Old Town up on 18, an array of others for all ages in between. Then I remembered why I'd been kicked to the curb: Cass. Please call. I took out my cell and walked toward University and listened to it ring.
"Thank you," she whispered. "I wasn't sure if you would call back."
"You know that's not true," I said.
"Something terrible's happened, Duck," she said. "I really need your help."
"My boyfriend," she said. I seized at the word, wanted to hang up and hear no more. "His name was Victor Wingate. It was serious. We were living together. It was the first real relationship of my life. We were ... I think we were in love."
"What happened, Cass?"
"He fell, from the top of a waterfall near our house. I don't know how. They think he jumped, but I know he didn't. He ..."
She stopped and I listened to the silence. The gulf between us had never been so wide. There was emotion in her voice I had never heard before. I thought Cass was beyond all notions of romance. This was the woman who worked as a dungeon mistress for years at the Chamber. This was the imperious dominatrix who whipped and tortured men for a couple hundred bucks an hour.
"I'm sorry," I said, without much depth.
"I need to see you," she said. "I need your help."
"Where are you?"
"The Catskills. About three hours on the bus, I can pick you up."
She told me the details and I told her that I'd see her tomorrow.
Then I walked three blocks over to Black & White. The dark bar was playing early White Stripes, "You're Pretty Good Looking (For a Girl)." The tables were filled with rocker types and the girls who like them. There was one seat left at the bar, next to a tattooed couple talking close and ending each sentence with a kiss. They didn't acknowledge me. I motioned to the bartender and ordered a double Bulleit. I roared the whiskey down. Ordered another. He smiled with indulgence, asked if I wanted to open a tab. I handed him a card, looked down into the amber, lifted the glass and took a sip. It never tasted so good.CHAPTER 2
I woke early, with the old confusion, to an empty apartment. All senses were blunt and worn, ground down from misuse. My subterranean flat had the stale smell of neglect. Of late it was used for stopovers, a change of clothes, a remembered book. I spent the occasional night when Juliette and Stevie were out in the Hamptons without me, but I'd more or less taken up residence at their eight-figure loft on 13 Street, which was roughly eight times the size of my one-bedroom cave four blocks away.
I rolled over and sought the warmth of the one being I could depend on. All that was left was his ghost.
Elvis died a few months back. He wasn't young, but I thought we had a few more years together. He never quite recovered from the beating on the night of the double murder at my apartment. The night it was almost a triple when Cass flatlined in the ambulance.
The hound healed from his kicked-in ribs and the internal bleeding, and he lay by my side every day as we put ourselves back together again. There were plenty of nights when his loyalty was the only thing that kept me from swallowing down a pint of Drano and being done with it. Instead I'd rub his belly on the couch and turn the pages of another book full of blood and suffering, taking solace in the shared misery. Until one day in September when I woke beside him in bed and he didn't stir. Elvis died peacefully in the night, pressed against my side. There are worse ways to go.
I spent a week on a blow bender, staying at the St. Marks Hotel, afraid to return to my dog-free apartment. When Juliette Cohen contacted me, through none other than Margaret McKay, I took it as an omen. I accepted the case in hopes that the McKay curse would ruin me further. The coke hangover left me a jangled, depressed mess. I took it out on her lover, Bret. At Per Se one night I confronted him in front of a dozen colleagues. I pretended to be the enraged husband of a woman he was screwing. I shoved him across the table and told his dinner companions that he'd given my soon-to-be ex herpes. Threatened castration if he ever came near her again.
If Elvis had been alive, I wouldn't have stayed over at the Cohen apartment quite so often. I would have had the good sense to get away postcoitus and keep my distance. But in my loss home was a space to be avoided, so I accepted her invitations to stay, waking with a romp each morning, until the envelopes fattened and her son grew used to seeing me at breakfast. It was an untenable position, but I can't say I resisted the gilded setting. I always wanted to be rich again.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Against Nature"
Copyright © 2018 Casey Barrett.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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