Will, Jeffrey, Evan and Nolan have been friends since their undergrad days at Princeton. Since graduation they then have each forged new lives and careers. Will is a failed musician still reeling from the tragic death of a bandmate, Jeffrey got lucky and then rich from the dot-com boom, Nolan is a state senator with national aspirations, and Evan is about to make partner at a major New York law firm. Their friendships have bent without breaking for years, until one shocking moment changes everything.
One night on a drive, they make a routine stop at a convenience store. Within moments, a manic Jeffrey emerges, dragging a young woman with him. He shoves her into Will’s car and shouts a single word: “Drive!” Shaken and confused, Will obeys.
Suddenly four men find themselves completely out of their element, holding a young girl hostage without the slightest idea of what to do next or why she’s there to begin with. They’re already guilty of kidnapping and robbery; it’s only a matter of time before they find out the terrible depths of what else they might be capable of. For these men, three days will decide their fatebetween freedom and prison, innocence and guilt and life and death. The Three-Day Affair marks the emergence of a truly talented new crime writer in Michael Kardos.
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It almost didn't happen — the kidnapping and everything after. That's the part that gets me, even now.
The phone call came early Sunday morning, waking me out of a dead sleep.
"You're going to have to count me out, man," he said, before identifying himself.
"Who is this?" I'd had to fumble for the telephone in the pitch-black bedroom.
"I should stay in California."
"Guilty as charged," he said. "And completely and utterly in hell."
He would talk this way sometimes, full of woe and melodrama, back in college. But college was a long time ago. "What's going on?" I asked. "Is everybody okay?"
Cynthia was awake beside me then, hand on my arm. I glanced at the clock on my bedside table: 4:55 am.
"Oh, crap," Jeffrey said, "you were asleep, weren't you?"
"Forget it. Just tell me what's the matter."
"Wish I could," he said. "I really do. But I shouldn't even be ..." His voice dropped off; the sudden silence frightened me.
"Ah, shit," he said.
"Nothing. My glass fell over."
It occurred to me that it was 2 am in California and that Jeffrey was slurring his words. "Where are you?" I asked.
"Me? I'm at home."
"Is Sara with you?"
"She's upstairs sleeping. She doesn't know I'm calling."
"Why are you calling?"
"Trust me," he said, "you don't want to know."
Of course I did. After all these years, I was glad that Jeffrey still saw me as someone he could reach out to in the middle of the night with a problem — even if the problem was that he'd been drinking and needed an old friend to dial up, to remind himself he still had old friends to dial up.
"Try me," I said.
"No, I shouldn't have called. Sorry to bother you — but I'm serious about the trip. You don't want me there." He was due to arrive in just a few days, along with Nolan and Evan, my other two best college buddies. "I'm not in a good place. I should really call the airline right now and cancel. I'm serious."
I sat up a little in bed and tried to sound more awake. "Listen to me — we're your friends. We want to see you, even if you're feeling like shit. It'll be good for you. So forget about canceling, all right?" Outside my window, a single car drove by, its headlights briefly casting light on the bedroom shades. I watched the window darken again, thinking that Jeffrey might have fallen asleep at the other end of the line. But then, as if remembering his manners: "So how are you and Cynthia doing?"
Classic Jeffrey. I told him we were doing fine, and that I looked forward to giving him the complete update when I saw him in a few days. "Seriously, though, are you okay?"
I heard him yawn into the phone. "Sorry," he said. "I think I'm a little tired."
"If you want, we can talk tomorrow, when we're both a little more awake."
Another pause. Then: "Yeah, that's a good idea. You always were the smart one." His voice was fading fast. "Okay, good night, Will."
When I awoke again a few hours later, the call already felt like a half-forgotten dream. Except, when I checked my e-mail that afternoon, I had this message:
Hey, Will —
Wow. I'm really sorry to have woken you up like that. And to have been so melodramatic. God, I'm a jerk. A lot of that was the gin. I'm really okay. Anyway, you're a good friend. (Okay, the best.) And you were right — of course I'll be there. A return to Jersey? No way am I missing that.
Looking forward to seeing you and the guys soon.
Your friend, Jeffrey
Neither of us mentioned the call again. I assumed he was probably embarrassed by it, and I knew there'd be plenty of time for us to talk when we saw each other in just a few days. So I waited.
But there it was. He was going to cancel his trip, and I had talked him out of it.
They arrived on Friday.
I'd spent the morning and early afternoon in the recording studio with a band called The Fixtures. Teenage bands could be a headache, but these kids had talent to match their ambition. We were having a productive session, but by three o'clock I had to call it quits and rush everyone out before the traffic leaving New York would clog all the westbound roads, making the drive back to Newfield unbearable.
Walking to the car, I called Cynthia at the house and learned that Nolan had just arrived from Kansas City.
"Tell him I'm on my way," I said.
"I'll tell him," she said, "but don't drive like a maniac, okay? We're fine over here."
I headed home. Though only a dozen miles from the studio, Newfield was like another world, where you heard more birds than cars and the strongest smell was the cypress mulch that people lovingly laid at the base of their shrubs. Our street was lined with neatly pruned maple trees, and at the end of it stood a brick elementary school. Each morning, small children walked past our front yard, chattering like squirrels and lugging their huge knapsacks.
Our craftsman cottage was the smallest house on the block and only a rental, but buying a home would have meant living someplace cheaper, less desirable, less safe. And safety was key. It was the whole point.
The day before, I'd mowed and edged the lawn. Pulling up to the house now, I admired my work. Those were the kinds of things I noticed then: a freshly cut yard. Daisies in terra-cotta flowerpots lining the walkway.
Across the street, Dr. Ferguson was hosing off his Lexus. Sudsy water streamed down his driveway. He waved. I waved back and went inside. Through the kitchen window, I saw Cynthia and Nolan in the backyard kneeling over our empty garden plot, where in a few weeks we would be planting tomatoes and peppers and summer squash. I went out to greet them.
Seeing me approach, Nolan stood and then helped Cynthia up. She was starting to show. I liked how she stood differently now, shifting her weight to accommodate the changing center of gravity.
"Hands off the wife," I told him.
"Take it easy, killer," Nolan said. "She's only been showing me her dirt."
Cynthia and I had both grown up in neighborhoods of brick and concrete, where tall buildings blocked out the sun. We couldn't get enough of our grassy yard. One of our photo albums was full of pictures from our first summer in the house: Cynthia in her cutoffs and Velvet Underground T-shirt, gathering up twigs from the grass. Me mowing the lawn, shirtless and grinning from behind mirrored sunglasses as if our small rectangle of land were a thousand-acre stake.
"It's good to see you, buddy," Nolan said. We hadn't seen each other since our last golf weekend a year earlier. We hugged.
He stood six feet and three inches tall with unlined skin and a full head of black hair — not a speck of gray — that he kept neatly trimmed. At Princeton he'd rowed crew for a year, until it got in the way of his studies, but he still kept himself in shape. When we'd get together, even after a night of drinking, he'd wake up at dawn to run a few miles before breakfast.
"You're looking good," I said, though truthfully his eyes looked tired. I'd been receiving his e-newsletter, From the Campaign Trail, since January, when he declared his candidacy for the U.S. House of Representatives. But I gathered that the trail was weedier and windier than the newsletter was letting on. "You're also looking like you could use a beer."
We went inside, where I got two beers out of the refrigerator and a bottle of spring water for Cynthia.
"I'll take mine for the road," she said. "I'm going to get caught in traffic as it is."
"You can stay," I said. "Honest."
She cocked an eyebrow at me.
I hadn't asked her to clear out for the weekend. But she understood that for my friends and me, these annual reunions were an important tradition. And she figured it would be a good chance to visit her sister, who lived in Philadelphia with her boyfriend and three-year-old daughter.
"Not a chance," she said. "The estrogen is leaving the building. Just do me a favor and don't get into too much trouble while I'm gone." As if this were going to be a wild bachelor party instead of old friends catching up. Playing a few rounds of golf. A little poker. "And maybe carry my suitcase for me."
I brought her bag to her car, asked if the tank was full, if the cell phone was charged. "Call me before you go to bed," I said. We kissed, and my fingertips brushed the small of her back as she bent down to get in the car. I stood on the front lawn, squinting in the sunlight, as she backed out of the driveway, waved her pretty fingers, and drove away.
Back in the kitchen, Nolan tossed me an Albright-for-Congress baseball cap. I stuck it on my head.
"Wear it everywhere," he said. "By the way, Cynthia looks hot."
"Thanks," I said. "And very classy."
"How far along is she?"
"Almost five months."
"This is a pretty sweet life you're leading," he said. This was good form, I knew, rather than honest sentiment. Nolan had no wife, no kids, and was content. "I mean it," he went on, "the house, the garden, great wife, kid on the way ... I'm glad to see things are going so well for you."
For a while I'd hesitated before asking my friends to come visit me here in Newfield. In the nine years since college, Nolan, Evan, and Jeffrey had all become remarkably successful. And as long as I'd been a struggling New York musician, I believed that my world made sense to them. They understood risk taking if the rewards were big enough. But I couldn't help feeling uneasy about them coming here to the suburbs and seeing my current life through the lenses of their own.
I felt ashamed, suddenly, for feeling this way. Friends understood. It was what made them friends.
"I'm a lucky guy," I said.
"Glad you know it." Then Nolan clapped his hands once and leaned forward in his chair at the kitchen table. "All right — so talk.
What's the big mystery?"
I'd asked him to arrive in town before the others because I wanted to discuss something important.
I opened my beer and took a sip. "No big mystery. I've been kicking around a business idea and wanted to run it by you."
"I'm listening," he said.
I had done a lot more than kick the idea around, so I launched right into it: I wanted to start a small record label. The vital parts of a record company were the ability to make a great record and to promote it. I knew how to make a great-sounding record. And Cynthia was the best PR person I knew.
I explained that the owner of the studio where I worked had already agreed to let me record there off-hours for utility costs and a percentage of sales. For fifty thousand dollars, I figured, we could record and promote our first two CDs.
"I know some great musicians out there," I said. "All they need is some exposure."
"How much money have you raised so far?" Nolan asked.
"Raised?" I shook my head. "We've been able to put a few thousand into savings. But now with the baby coming, we wanted to see if we could move things along."
"So you're asking me to invest?"
I didn't like asking Nolan for money. Jeffrey, actually, was the wealthiest of my friends — but Nolan owed me. During his first run for state senate, I'd moved to Missouri for the last four weeks of his campaign. I'd given him my time, because that was all I had.
"Ten thousand," I said, then quickly added, "I know it's a lot. But you'd be part owner, of course."
"That'd be interesting, owning part of a record company." He sipped his beer, set it back down on the table. He looked at the label for a moment. At last he said, "But I won't invest ten thousand dollars. I'm sorry."
So much for that.
"It's okay," I said. "I understand."
He frowned. "Do you?" He drank from his beer, set it down again. "You're going to run into costs you never expected. That's how business works. So if you think you'll need fifty thousand, then you ought to be raising a hundred. So no, I won't invest ten thousand. But I'll invest twenty."
He finished his beer, got two more from the refrigerator, opened them, and handed me one.
"You're joking," I said.
He laughed. "You're my friend and a talented guy. I believe in you. Why on earth wouldn't I invest?"
I had no answer. "So twenty thousand, just like that?"
He snapped his fingers. "Just like that." He grinned. "Now, if we can get twenty grand each out of Jeffrey and Evan, that'd go a long way toward getting those first two records off the ground, wouldn't it?" It sure would. And maybe I'd mention it to Evan at some point over the next few days. But Jeffrey clearly needed a vacation, and I intended to give him one without hitting him up for cash.
The majority of Newfield's citizens commuted to New York City, where for eight or ten hours they pushed and pulled the levers that made America run. Newfield Station was at the center of town. I parked the car, and Nolan and I waited for Jeffrey and Evan to arrive on the 4:12.
In the past, we'd met up in Palm Springs, Hilton Head Island, Bermuda. Once a year, I didn't mind splurging. But now I was trying to save, and so back in January I'd asked them all to consider coming here. My friends worked long and hard, and I didn't like asking them to downgrade their vacation on my account. Yet without a single complaint, they'd all agreed to forgo an exotic locale for a weekend in Jersey.
At least the weather was cooperating. The forecast called for a sunny, mild weekend. The sky was currently a deep blue, with only the thinnest rim of gray on the western horizon.
I'd reserved tee times at two courses about thirty miles to the northwest, in the Kittatinny Mountains, an area I hadn't been to for years. Back when I was a Boy Scout I'd camped there a couple of times but had found the woods frightening. I was a city kid, not used to nature or silence. By high school these same woods had become a place of escape, somewhere to hike around with friends and drink beer. You could forget you were in New Jersey, walking for hours without coming across a single irritated, short-tempered soul.
Tomorrow we'd warm up with the easier course, one with wide fairways and few hazards. Then on Sunday we'd play the top-rated public course in the state, a heavily wooded eighteen holes in a secluded valley, where supposedly it was common to spot eagles overhead.
"You can't imagine how much I've been looking forward to this," Nolan said, when I described the courses to him. "Campaigning can wear you down."
"I remember," I said.
"Nah, that was only a statewide election," he said. "This is a whole different ball game."
I'd wondered whether Nolan would have time for us this year. But when I'd e-mailed him a few weeks earlier, asking if he was sure his campaign could do without him for a weekend, he fired back a philosophical reply: If I can't take a weekend off to see my closest friends, then what the hell is it all for?
The train arrived and spat out dozens of businessmen and women, well dressed but rumpled in the aftershock of their workweek. Jeffrey teetered off the train, suitcase in one hand, golf bag in the other. Seeing us standing by my car, he set the suitcase on the ground and waved. We went over to greet him.
"I didn't see Evan on the train," Jeffrey said by way of greeting. He'd boarded at Newark Airport. Evan was supposed to have boarded the same train earlier in New York.
Just then my cell phone rang, cutting the mystery short.
"Don't even try to imagine all the fucking work that got dumped on me today," Evan said into my ear.
He was a year away from making partner at his law firm. The way he explained it, to make partner at a major New York firm you couldn't simply work eighty-hour weeks. You had to work eighty-hour weeks and ask for more.
When I got off the phone, Nolan and Jeffrey were both looking incredulous. I confirmed their suspicions. "He's tied up."
"Tied up?" Jeffrey said. "What the hell does that mean?"
I shrugged. "Lawyer stuff."
"Oh, for Pete's sake," Nolan said. "Jeffrey made it. I made it. ..."
"He said he'll be here tomorrow morning," I told them. "He promised to be on the first train." I picked up Jeffrey's golf bag and headed to the car. "Come on — you guys must be starving."
They were. We decided on an early dinner. Afterward, we'd go to the golf range and hit practice balls. Then we'd head back to the house for a drink on the porch.
"I bought a bottle of Scotch and some cigars," I said as I lowered Jeffrey's luggage into the trunk.
"None for me," Jeffrey said. I figured, given how drunk he'd obviously been last weekend, that he meant the Scotch, until he added, "I've quit smoking."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Three-Day Affair"
Copyright © 2012 Michael Kardos.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
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