What happens when a master of disguise tries to be herself for once? If you’re private investigator Kat Stone, trouble seems to find you with or without your favorite wig.
Kat knows she’s living on borrowed time, waiting for her violent past to catch up with her. Still, she doesn’t expect men to start falling from the sky. On a desolate morning in Fort Washington Park, Kat discovers the body of her building’s French expat maintenance man atop the Jeffrey’s Hook Lighthouse. The NYPD is quick to dismiss his death as suicide, another lost soul leaping from the bridge overhead. Kat is less than convinced, especially when she learns about his dangerous side hustle, finding jobs for immigrant members of their community.
Her investigation turns up unexpected connections to Manhattan’s tony art world, not to mention a host of dark superstitions. When she goes undercover with a deep-sea fishing company, she gets a little too cozy with a colorful cast of characters and a couple of jellyfish. Will she find his killer before her past drags her under? From one of the most acclaimed new mystery writers working today comes a riveting novel of suspense that will have you guessing until the last page is turned.
About the Author
Erica Wright's debut crime novel The Red Chameleon was one of O, The Oprah Magazine's Best Books of Summer 2014. Her latest, The Granite Moth, was called "brisk, dark, slinky" by USA Today and was a 2016 Silver Falchion Award Finalist. She is also the author of two poetry collections, Instructions for Killing the Jackal and All the Bayou Stories End with Drowned. She is a senior editor at Guernica Magazine as well as an editorial board member for Alice James Books. She grew up in Wartrace, TN and received her B.A. from New York University and her M.F.A. from Columbia University. She now lives in Washington, DC.
Visit her online at www.ericawright.org or @eawright.
Read an Excerpt
The George Washington Bridge disappeared halfway across the Hudson River. More than six hundred feet in the air, the suspender cables and steel beams towered over me like some sort of robot giant, content to rest for a minute before crushing the land under its weight. But it had been resting since the Great Depression, and there was no reason to suppose a crisp April morning would drive it into action. Its bright lights strained against the fog, but the effort was no use. Here one minute then gone — poof. A neat magic trick, and one I often wished I could perform on myself.
Most of what I knew about the historic structure came not from a meticulous study of my city's landmarks, but from a children's book, The Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge. My mother had bought two copies, one for reading and one for decorating. From the second one, she cut out all the illustrations and taped them up in my bedroom, intending perhaps for the message to seep into my admittedly stubborn head: you don't have to be the biggest to make a difference in the world. I could be accused of a lot, but thinking myself the biggest — the best at anything — wasn't on the list anymore. I liked to call leaving the New York Police Department my retirement, but since I had been a few decades away from a pension at the time, that particular lie didn't hold up under interrogation. I had quit, planning to never look back, planning to vanish.
The unusual darkness of the morning had driven me from my apartment early. This was my favorite spot, even more so on those lucky occasions when the trails were deserted. A recluse's paradise. I walked closer to the lighthouse, its diminutive size toy-like compared to the bridge. It wasn't any taller than the trees in Fort Washington Park, and its lantern only shone on special celebrity-filled occasions these days. The children's book had helped it get declared as a national treasure, and I remembered a single sentence taking up a full page: "Behind it lay New York City, where the people lived." That had never seemed truer as I looked around at the empty picnic tables. Mostly when I wandered there, I was wary of bicyclists flying down the paths. That day, the whole place was vacant, downright godforsaken, and I felt a thrill of ownership. Mine.
Of course, it was risky to ever have such a blasphemous thought. As soon as the city got wind of your possessiveness, she would close your go-to restaurant and put up a bank. It was a dysfunctional relationship, sure, but one that eight million residents knew all too well. I pulled a thick scarf over my nose. The calendar may have said spring, but it still felt like winter, another charming aspect of my hometown; she bullied spring, letting tulips emerge then snapping them with frost or sometimes a full-blown snowstorm. It happened every year, and yet the flowers would return, their optimism downright quixotic. To be honest, I could relate. After years of feeling useless — or feeling little at all, more accurately — I discovered that I rather liked solving cases as a private investigator. No safety net, sure, but no boss either.
My eyes watered, and my bare hands were pink. Even so, I was reluctant to break the morning's spell, and climbed up on one of the boulders for a better view. Up close, it was easy to see how well-maintained the lighthouse really was. Being called a landmark had its perks, not least of which was a fresh paint job. I had always wanted to see inside, but the gate was kept locked. As a teenager, I might have snuck in, maybe tagged my name on the side, but I followed the laws these days. Give or take a few illegal cars, a couple of incidents involving bolt cutters and duct tape.
I squinted up at the small watch room, imagining what it would have been like for a keeper to pull an overnight shift in the country's most populated city without a soul in sight. Peaceful, I decided, helping ships navigate their cargo to the docks then helping them return to sea. I blame that daydream for not noticing the arm at first, one hand dangling over the platform's edge. When I finally saw the body, I thought it was another trick of light, the strange mist making me mistake a broom for a ghost. But no, the sight was all too human, the tan flesh in sharp contrast to the bright red. Was there a darker stain as well? I yelled for help, knowing even as the words flew from my mouth that nobody would come.
Praying for reception, I pulled out my cell phone and dialed 911, hoping the dispatcher could understand me as I scrambled back down the rocks and onto the gravel path. I was panicked by the time my hands reached the metal railing, and I hung up on the woman telling me to wait for paramedics. Even with their fast response time, it would take at least fifteen minutes to navigate an ambulance to this hidden spot. I cried out to the person, but he was unresponsive and most likely injured. I understood the curiosity that led to his current unconscious state. That could have been me, I thought. Only a few years earlier I would have been foolhardy enough to break into the place just for kicks.
It was hard to maneuver between the spikes, but I managed to flipped myself over the bars, landing with a thud. My knees slammed down into the concrete slab, but I barely felt the impact. The door was within reach, and I used the handle to haul myself upright. I expected the entrance to be open since I was following someone else's path, but it was shut tight, and the padlock made me pause. Besides my phone and keys, I'd come empty-handed, not expecting trauma. I had on heavy winter boots, though, and adrenaline pushed me to act recklessly. I turned sideways and slammed my foot against the metal. I made a dent in the door, but the lock didn't budge. I would never get used to the jolt of using myself as a battering ram, but I regained my balance and struck again. Two somewhat steady kicks later, and a pop let me know I succeeded.
The stairs began immediately, and I ran up, grateful this wasn't one of those record-breaking monstrosities down in Florida. I wasn't sure about seventeen, but four flights I could handle. I was winded when I got to the widow's walk, and in the end, my rush was pointless. The victim was long past first aid, his skull smashed and limbs twisted into impossible angles. His body looked churned, as if caught in the claws of some great beast. His eyes were open, staring up at the bridge, and I turned to stare too, half expecting to see the monstrosity come to life and swoop down on us. There was no demon, though, only the solemn overpass and a few streaks of sun trying to push through the clouds. Neither heaven nor hell, it was just an ordinary day except for men falling from the sky.
I stepped around the pool of blood to get a closer look. The almond-shaped, caramel eyes were too familiar for my liking; I was looking at my apartment building's maintenance man, Tambo Campion. Rocking back, my throat constricted, and I gagged. Would I have felt less sick if the man had been a stranger? This wasn't the first time I'd stumbled across a dead man — my violent past intent on catching up with me — but it was the first time black spots swarmed my vision. I shook my head, forcing myself to look again at Tambo's face. He deserved whatever respect I could muster.
His eyes weren't his sole unique quality. He was the only Frenchman I'd ever met in my predominantly Dominican neighborhood. And while he was as slow to respond as any other super in a low-rent address, he'd also been kind to me on more than one occasion. Replacing my deadbolt when my paranoia peaked, for example, as it usually did once a season. It was hard to see him in this smashed-up state, even if we were more acquaintances than friends. I was sure he didn't even know my real name, Kathleen Stone.
My lease said Katya Lincoln, my preferred alias of a dozen or so. It wasn't exactly a blessing, being able to turn into Kat or Kitty or Katya, being indistinguishable in a crowd, but it had some benefits. My nondescript appearance was the main reason I'd excelled at undercover work, then it was my fallback plan when I left the police force to chase philanderers as a private investigator. I was three years into that gig and no closer to running away from my past. But that was a pity party for another day, I told myself, mumbling something about resting in peace over the prone body. If there was any peace to be had in such an ending, I wanted Tambo to find it.
When I turned away, I was surprised to find that I could see the other side of the river, now visible. I could see cars on the bridge, too, crawling toward work. Had someone watched him fall, I wondered? Had they bothered to report the incident? I called to let the police know the situation was no longer an emergency.
"A jumper," the dispatcher said. "I see."
This time, the woman hung up on me, and I started waiting for anyone with a badge. It wasn't the kind of vigil I wanted to last very long. I'd lived nearby when a bullied teen had made headlines with a social media post and a headlong flight into the water. He'd joined fifteen others that year. I'd only ever heard of ocean sirens, those winged creatures luring sailors to their deaths with pretty songs and prettier faces. Were there river ones, too? Were they calling now? All I could hear was the occasional honk from above and, finally, real-world sirens, nothing mythological about the piercing sounds of ambulances and police cruisers. Giants, beasts, ghosts, and mermaids. I knew better. The fog might make the landscape look otherworldly, but it was always people who did the most damage, sometimes even to themselves.
* * *
A couple of stringers nagged me for quotes, but I waved them off, refusing even the steaming cup of coffee one held under my nose. My commendation would be sent via post, I assumed. The milling cops were less interested in my story, jotting down a few notes, mostly asking me to repeat why I was outside so early in such "piss-poor weather." It turned out, not everyone had a beloved spot for reciting a laundry list of personal failures. When they asked for my name, my impulse was to lie, but obstruction of justice wasn't something I wanted to add to my resume (read: rap sheet) with the NYPD.
When I joined the force after college, my aspirations had been meager. I'd been using my real name at the time and Detective Kathleen Stone had a nice ring to it. To be fair, I did have that title for a hot minute. But after two years of brutal undercover work, a hand-to-mouth life as a private investigator made more sense at the time. Fast forward, and I was finally getting my bearings. A steady stream of referrals meant I didn't have to advertise, didn't have to wave even my fake name around, much less my real one. But since the biggest bad from my past life had already found me, what was the point of all the secrecy anyway? Flaunting wasn't really my style, but at least for once, it was an option.
The young officer asked again for my name, and I coughed up Kathleen Stone. I almost laughed when I saw him write down Catherine Stein. I didn't even have to try sometimes. This group was ready to turn the potential six o'clock news items over to the Parks Department and call it a day. I couldn't help but be bothered by their cavalier attitude, even though I knew they had other cases that needed their attention. It had been less than an hour, and medical personnel were already wheeling a gurney toward the ambulance.
"Wait," I called, surprising myself. One of the EMTs glanced at me, the visible veins in her eyes suggesting the end not the beginning of her shift. Tambo's body lay covered in front of her, a once imposing figure reduced to an unwieldy package. Rigor mortis must not have set in yet because he was in a more standard position than the one I'd found. They had straightened him out, and I didn't have time to marvel at the sangfroid of the team who had moved his arms and legs until they looked human again. "Wait," I said again, more forcefully this time.
"Lady, you can't see the body," the first paramedic said, stopping the cart to glare at me. She crossed her arms in front of her chest and widened her stance, making her already imposing self into a shield.
What kind of creep did I look like, I thought, momentarily forgetting my purpose. "No, I just want to ask if it's normal for jumpers to miss the water."
"Normal? Ain't nothing normal about making state employees clean your guts up."
Yep, definitely the end of her shift.
"Come off it, Delores," her partner said. He was younger, in his early thirties maybe, and looked only eighty percent ready to collapse. "Everybody gets desperate sometimes."
"Desperate, but that's why God made pills. You make a mess, you make a mess in your own damn bathroom."
Delores wouldn't stand for being detained any longer, and the gurney wheels squeaked as she pushed them forward. I turned back toward the cops, wanting to be released and think over my uneasiness alone in my apartment. Not that I'd be able to enter the building again without seeing Tambo's dead, caramel eyes. And didn't that unnerving stare explain my qualms? I couldn't shake the feeling that rushing to declare his death a suicide was insensitive, but I was probably looking for trouble where there wasn't any. It wouldn't be the first time I stuck my hand in a mousetrap, and, eventually, we learn our lessons, right? After we lose a finger or two?
A park ranger joined the officers and gesticulated wildly at the lighthouse. I walked closer then stopped when I caught snippets from his tirade: "door" and "damaged" and "replacement." If the man was more worried about a dent than a dead human being, it was little wonder that he'd been assigned this solitary post. I took a few steps backward, as quietly as possible in my bulky boots, but was caught trying to escape.
"Miss Stein," an officer called, smiling at his own personal joke. "Perhaps you'd like to apologize for the property damage." His smiled turned into a laugh, and the others joined in, relieved perhaps to have a distraction — or a scapegoat.
"This guttersnipe?" He jabbed his finger into my chest but didn't take his eyes off the men in charge.
I'd been called worse, but his tone was little better than a sneer. Which was to say, politeness eluded me.
"I promise to use my key to the city next time," I said.
The man looked directly at me then, his expression as wild as his gray hair sticking up in one great tuft. Mr. Rhinoceros was past retirement age, and I almost excused his bad attitude. It was early and cold and his castle had been stormed by someone who — from a distance or with a little subterfuge — could be mistaken for a teenage boy. Keith was one of my better disguises, but I was mostly trying to be myself these days and clearly not succeeding. What did it mean to pass as yourself? I hoped to live long enough to find out. See? I was practically a ball of sunshine.
As if to prove my point, the laughing officer mispronounced by last name again and said I was free to go. I turned toward the path, noticing for the first time that the tips of tree branches were turning green. They looked dipped in paint, ready for their debut. Nature could come as a surprise in the city. Visitors sought out the bright canary of taxis, not the hawk-colored river. They might visit the botanical gardens, but missed the daffodils growing up Madison Avenue. "Chassez le naturel, il revient au galop," I remembered Tambo saying once while fixing a broken pipe beneath my sink. I think he was blaming spiders for what seemed to be a rusted gasket. Nonetheless, the translation he offered stuck with me: "Chase away what's natural, and it will gallop back."
The others were probably right, I told myself again. They were professionals. If depression affected fifteen million Americans each year, why not the man tenants called when their showers were clogged? And yet, there was that one pesky detail tugging at my mind, refusing to be ignored. If it was a watery grave you were after, why take the plunge over land?(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Blue Kingfisher"
Copyright © 2018 Erica Wright.
Excerpted by permission of Polis Books, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Ms. Wright's character, Kathleen Stone (or whoever she may be at the time), stumbles across a body in a very unlikely location... and she recognizes the individual. Soon, she becomes involved in solving his death, as well as staying ahead of those on her trail. The ending will have the reader's heart racing... all the way through the final sentence.