Once a week, three women get together for book club in Kingsland, a private, gated community full of neighbors looking to do their business away from prying eyes. On the same night, their husbands meet up to play poker, where much more is being planned than anyone could guess.
But on this particular night, something goes terribly wrong. When all three men end up dead or hospitalized, and the entire town is being questioned, no one seems to be able to answer the only question that really needs asking: What the hell happened?
This is a riveting story, not just of powerful women or vengeful men, but of secrets, neighbors, blackmail, business gone wrong, and the most intimate of desires spilling into full view.
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|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
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"Mrs. Barnes?" Silvestri and I have cleared the house and, finding no one on the premises, have called the widow inside. She's seated next to me on the one-armed chaise lounge in the lavishly appointed parlor near the front door of the home, several rooms away from the scene we've been called here to investigate. My partner stands off to the side, leaning against the priceless Steinway in the corner.
We'd only been on the clock for around fifteen minutes when the call came in about the incident at the Barneses' home. A spate of car thefts in the tonier sections of Stony Brook and its surrounding towns have accounted for the bulk of the department's cases in recent weeks; individuals hot-wiring luxury cars and taking them for joyrides before abandoning them in remote locations. Silvestri and I clocked in tonight shortly after one such call came in and were relieved we'd dodged that bullet. Now here we sit, on the eve of the Fourth of July, kid-gloving a woman whose husband's been murdered under this very roof.
"Please," she manages, in a trembling, shock-soaked monotone. "Call me Victoria." Her gaze rests somewhere against the far wall, without a fixed point to anchor it. She blinks slowly, heavily, as if having been drugged. Yet even in her current state, her rangy frame maintains a naturally formal posture, suggesting a woman long accustomed to an easy elegance. She's quite striking; chestnut hair flowing to her shoulders, emerald eyes bright amid the emotional turmoil, barely a thread in her tailored designer ensemble out of place. Her hand involuntarily finds mine, and I feel her palm pushing back against my knuckles, fingers floating, as if trying to stave off the tragedy that's befallen her. "I'm sorry I panicked," she says. "On the phone earlier. With the operator. The fireworks must have spooked me."
"Completely understandable, given the circumstances," I say steadily. "Victoria, we know you've been through quite an ordeal. Would you be able to run us through the events of the evening as best you can?"
She blinks deliberately, still dazed, and turns her eyes to mine. "I, um, was over at our friend Monica's with my sister, Laura. We hold our book club there every week while the husbands play poker here." Her eyes shift in the direction of the den, like a character in a horror film turning their attention to a closet that's just produced an unexpected sound. "We kind of lost track of time, and then Terry texted to say that they were wrapping up for the night."
"Uh-huh." I nod, subtly slipping the notepad and pen from my pocket. "And who were the 'they' in this case?"
"Oh, um, let's see; my husband, Terry Barnes. Spencer Nichols-that's Monica's husband. And then Laura's husband, Gil Mathers. My brother-in-law." I've got my pen at the ready as she ticks off the names, though I barely need to jot them down; Terry Barnes, the former congressman and very-well-connected resident of Kingsland-and probably the lowest of the three on the notoriety scale-who managed to court his own share of controversy in certain sectors by staying in the good graces of the NRA with his staunch support of pro-gun legislation. I flash momentarily to the gruesome scene in the den and flinch at the morbid irony. Next up is Spencer Nichols, the disgraced former CEO of Galapagos, Inc., the geotracking company that touted the groundbreakingly small scale of the nanotech it developed-devices tiny enough to fit on the head of a pin, I remembered reading. Nichols was all over the news last year after Galapagos was found guilty of defrauding investors; and last but certainly not least, Gil Mathers, the deliriously successful motivational speaker whose career was undone after video leaked of him at a party, surrounded by drugs and underage women, drunkenly belittling the very people who looked to Gil for inspiration to better themselves.
"Okay," I say. "And was that everyone in attendance, Victoria?"
"As far as I know," she answers, nodding slightly. "They sometimes had other people sit in, but that was the core group."
"A regular get-together, then?"
"Yes." She nods. "Every Sunday evening."
"I see. Now, you mentioned your husband having texted you after the game wrapped up. What time was that?"
"Let's see." She retrieves a cell phone from next to her on the chaise with a shaky hand and taps the screen. "Um, 10:32."
"Okay," I say, making a note. "And how much time would you say elapsed between that text and your arriving home?"
She raises a hand to her forehead and kneads the skin with her fingers. "Around thirty minutes, give or take. Terry always let me know when the boys were finishing up their last drink of the evening-the 'nightcap text,' I call it. I usually built in half an hour before I left Monica's house to walk back here."
"I see. So the Nicholses live nearby."
"Yes, they're both close. My sister lives around the corner at 88 Dogwood, and Monica's down the road from her at 22 Bayberry. We can all walk to one another's houses. Comes in handy when we've, you know, had a bit." She tilts her wrist back lazily.
"Of course," I say. "Now, when you returned home this evening, did you have a sense that anything was noticeably amiss, before you discovered your husband?"
She blinks hard and blots the corner of her eye with the back of her wrist. "I, um . . . the front door was cracked open. Just slightly ajar. I assumed that whoever left last hadn't latched it all the way, you see? But then, when I . . ." She bites her bottom lip.
"I understand," I say, saving her the pain of having to recall the moment out loud. "And you haven't touched anything in the house, moved anything?"
"No, I just . . ." Her mouth hangs slack. "No."
"Okay, good. We know you've had a terrible shock, Victoria. We're going to get you out of here in just a minute. Do you have a place you can stay tonight?"
"Yes, I can . . . sure."
"Good," I say, nodding to Silvestri, who dips into the hallway. "I'm going to have one of the officers take you down to the station to file an official report. You'll tell them what you told me. Then they're going to swab your hands for gunpowder residue, so that we can go ahead and eliminate you as a suspect. Standard procedure. Once that's done, they'll drive you to wherever you're going to stay for the night. Does all of that sound okay, Victoria?"
"Yeah." She nods absently. "That's fine."
"Great." Silvestri returns with the uniformed officer as I rise from the chaise lounge and help the widow to her feet. The officer leads her out of the house as my partner and I start down the long hallway, in the direction of the den, to get a look at the scene while we wait for forensics to show up.
"Let's see what we can see." Silvestri snaps on a pair of nitrile gloves as we survey the room. The wall to our left appears to be a shrine of sorts to Barnes's hunting habit. A bolt-action rifle with a scope affixed to it sits on a display rack, surrounded by a series of photographs depicting Terry and his hunting buddies in camo outfits and flanked by big-game carcasses. As I scan the images, I recognize a number of prominent figures-celebrities, politicians, and a few CEOs of major corporations.
In the center of the den, on a round oak table set on a sprawling carpet, lay the remnants of tonight's game-a deck of playing cards set to the side with loose cards fanned out, faceup, in three separate piles. Next to each pile sits an empty crystal tumbler rung around the inside with the golden residue of the half-empty bottle of twenty-year-old Pappy Van Winkle that stands next to the deck of cards. My partner lets out an impressed whistle.
"Treated themselves to the good stuff, eh?" I ask, stretching my fingers inside the gloves.
Silvestri nods. "You don't drink this for the taste, pal. You drink it for the price tag."
"Well," I say, taking in the splendor of the room. "No expense spared, I guess."
"Nope. And it looks like it was a party of three, like the wife said."
"Right." We cross the room to the magnificent hand-carved desk, where I finally take a good look at the body sitting lifelessly in the leather office chair behind it, head slumped to the side. I've only ever seen Terry Barnes via his image in the papers and find that encountering the familiar figure in person has the effect of compounding the usual disorientation that occurs when coming across a body sapped of life. Absent are any signs of the brash, charismatic personality that had announced itself at every turn. Death, the great leveler, has robbed him of his presence, leaving a meek husk in its wake.
As I study the corpse, it occurs to me that Barnes is smaller than anticipated, and the impression of him I'd developed through photos begins to click more clearly into place: the seemingly spring-loaded tension he carried himself with; the confrontational gleam in his eye, suggesting a mix of suspicion and insecurity; the clean-cut good looks and arrogant smirk that gave him the appearance of a guy you'd love to get in the dunk tank at a county fair.
The chest is a mess; whoever shot him got him right through the heart, it looks like. Blood has bloomed across the entire front of his pink polo shirt, and the backspatter has stained the top of the desk in a reddish brown half circle. I walk around to get a look at the rest of the body and notice the framed photo propped on the desk-an image of the happy couple, now tinged with tiny projectiles of blood.
As I scan the scene, my eye catches the edge of a cell phone wedged between Barnes's thigh and the side of the chair. I carefully pluck it out, bag it, and drop it into my pocket. I check the back of the chair and find the remnant of a slug poking out of the leather. "Bullet went clean through him," I tell Silvestri.
"Okay." He nods, crouching next to the body. "Hey, take a look at this." He points to the arms, hanging limply on either side of the chair. "There's barely a trace of blood on the hands or forearms, considering all the blowback. It's like he was relaxed when he got plugged. No defensive reflexes."
"Never raised his hands. Barely saw it coming. He knew whoever it was who shot him."
"Right. Single pop, nice and clean, from . . ." He stands and crosses to the front of the desk, straightens his arm, and extends a finger as he backpedals to a spot six feet or so in front of the body, eyeballing the angle of entry. "Right about here?"
I visually align the entrance wound with the hole in the back of the chair, to estimate the trajectory. "Yeah, I'll buy that."
"So." Silvestri begins scanning the carpet below him. "The game wraps up. What happens with the guests? One stays, one goes? They both stick around, and one distracts him while the other takes him out? Is it someone else altogether?"
"If the wife's telling the truth, that's a pretty tight timeline for a third party to get in the mix," I point out.
"True," he agrees. "Plus, it would have to be someone else he knew."
"Right." I pause. "Okay, let's hit it this way; what's not in the room?"
"Yes, sir," he says, tapping his middle finger against his palm. "Okay, there's a gunshot wound but no gun." He drops to his knees and lowers his face to the carpet like a bloodhound on the trail.
"And there's a card game but no cash. Any chance someone lost big and got sore over it?"
He pauses mid-crawl and looks up at me. "With a two-thousand-dollar bottle of bourbon sitting on the table? I don't think losing a little walking-around money was going to get any of these guys exactly homicidal."
"Two grand?!" I sputter. "Jesus. That why you gave up the sauce?"
"Yeah, that was the reason." He smirks and continues his hunt. He parks himself near the corner of the desk, where the carpet abuts the carved wooden foot. "Peekaboo," he says, pointing at an empty shell casing.
"What do you got?"
He squints to get a better look. "Nine mil," he concludes.
"So, we're thinking one of these two shot him and took off in a hurry?"
"Or the wife did it, and stashed the gun. From that range, the shooter wouldn't have caught the spatter."
"Right. Now, if she's not being straight about the timeline-"
I'm interrupted by the buzz of his phone. He stands up, retrieves it from his pocket, and answers. "Silvestri . . . uh-huh . . . yeah, we're still in Kingsland." He cocks a brow and glances in my direction, a look of curiosity spreading across his face. "Wait, 22 Bayberry Lane?" He stretches each syllable to make sure I catch it, and I retrieve the pad, check the address against my notes, and nod to my partner, who speaks back into the phone. "You don't say . . . right . . . okay, thanks." He ends the call and pockets the cell.
"What was that?" I ask.
"Well, now." He tilts his head. "Looks like we may have confirmed ourselves a suspect."
We're on the walkway in front of the Barneses' home when I notice a nosy neighbor standing on the porch next door, arms crossed over her chest, craning her neck to get a better look at us. As I catch Silvestri's eye and nod in her direction, she waves a hand, descends the steps, and hurries across the lawn toward us.
"Officers," she chirps. "What's going on? How's Vicky?"
"Ma'am," I say, which causes her to wince. "Can I ask your name?"
"Millicent Addison-LeFleur," she answers pointedly. "My neighbors call me Milly. Vicky ran to my house earlier, after the incident." She corkscrews her mouth into an expression of distaste, but the gleam remains in her eye.
"Uh-huh," I respond. "Milly, did you see or hear anything out of the ordinary leading up to the incident?"
"I'm afraid I didn't," she says, frowning. "My husband and I had come in from the back porch, where we'd been watching the fireworks earlier with a glass of wine. People tend to light their own in their yards throughout the evening, so I might have heard the shot and not even realized it."