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WHEN SHE HEARD THE floorboard creak outside her bedroom door, Des dove for the loaded SIG under her pillow, instantly awake. A prowler. A prowler had broken into the house. It was 4:02 A.M. according to her digital bedside clock.
"Coffee's ready, Desiree," a voice called to her through the door.
It wasn't any prowler. It was the ghost of Buck Mitry.
Des stashed her weapon back under the pillow, breathing in and out. She'd slept with it there for years. Felt safe with it there. Happiness was a warm gun. But she'd have to lock it away from now on because she did not, repeat not, wish to blow his fool head off. It merely felt that way sometimes.
"Desiree, are you up?"
"I am now, Daddy." She flicked on her bedside light and fumbled for her heavy horn-rimmed glasses. Reached for the covers that she'd thrown off in the night and pulled them over her. Her room was warm even with the windows wide open. It was freakishly balmy for late October. An official Indian summer, the weathermen were calling it. "Come on in."
Buck Mitry came on in. He wore a fleece-lined jacket over a V-neck wool sweater, plaid shirt and wool slacks. He was always cold these days, no matter the temperature. He'd lost weight since the surgery. The lines in his face were deeper and made him look ten years older to her.
"Daddy, it's four o'clock in the morning."
"You said you wanted to get up early. But if you'd rather sleep…"
"No, this is great. We'll have a chance to sit and chat for three hours until the sun comes up."
His lower lip began to quiver. "I-I'm sorry."
"No, I'm sorry. It's fine, really. I'll be up in a sec, Daddy."
Not that this meek stranger was her daddy. Her daddy was deputy superintendent of the Connecticut State Police—the highest-ranking black man in the history of the state. A fierce, six-foot-four-inch hard-ass known as the Deacon. The Deacon was feared by everyone. Including his only child, who was the resident trooper of bucolic Dorset, the historic jewel of Connecticut's Gold Coast. He was staying with her while he recuperated from quadruple bypass surgery. Doing real well physically. Getting his appetite and stamina back. His cardiologist felt he'd be ready to resume a light office schedule in another ten days. There was only one problem: He'd undergone such a radical personality transplant that Des hardly knew him. The Deacon she knew was strong-willed and demanding, a tower of strength. This Deacon was hesitant, emotionally fragile and listless. He didn't do a thing all day long. Didn't sleep at night. Mostly, he just stared at the television. He'd lost his edge. And if he went back to work in this condition his enemies inside of the Waterbury Mafia would kick his butt around the block.
Des wanted the old Deacon back. True, the old Deacon could make her crazy. But at least he was the Deacon who she'd always known and loved. This one was a stranger.
She padded naked into her bathroom and splashed some cold water on her face, gazing at herself in the mirror. She was an inch over six feet tall, long-legged, high-rumped and, these days, all ribs and hip bones. She'd lost six pounds in the past two weeks. That was her thing. When she was stressed she stopped eating. She returned to her room and put on a cropped T-shirt and gym shorts, her stomach in knots. There was that ghost out there prowling her halls. There was the "urgent" work thing that First Selectman Bob Paffin, an all-around dick, had insisted she attend this morning at eight o'clock. And then there was the situation with the man in her life. A biggie that practically had her jumping out of her skin.
Her cottage overlooking Uncas Lake was airy and open. She'd torn down several walls so that the living room, dining room and kitchen were all one big room. Ordinarily, she shared the place with Bella Tillis, the seventy-eight-year-old Jewish grandmother and fellow cat rescuer who'd been her neighbor back in Woodbridge when Des's husband, Brandon, had left her. Bella was out on the West Coast for the month, attending the weddings of two of her nine grandchildren.
The coffee smelled good. The Deacon liked it strong and black. Her three live-in cats, Christie Love, Missy Elliot and Kid Rock, were noses down in their kibble bowls, thrilled that someone, anyone, was up this early. He poured her a cup, the mug practically disappearing in his hand. The Deacon had the hugest hands she'd ever seen on any man. He'd played first base in the Cleveland Indians organization before he'd joined the state police.
She went out onto the deck and sipped the coffee, gazing out at the blackness of the lake below. The air felt soft and muggy. It was supposed to hit ninety today. The Deacon sat down in one of the Adirondack chairs out there. Kid Rock immediately jumped into his lap and began kneading the Deacon's stomach with his paws. The Deacon stroked him, sipping his coffee in stony silence.
"Are you going to repair that section of railing for me today?"
"If I have time," he answered in a distant voice.
"You carpenters sure are hard to pin down. What are you going to do?"
"Same thing I did yesterday—sit here with my buddy and wonder what the point is."
"The point of what, Daddy?"
Des felt her stomach clenching. "Have you thought about talking to that therapist your cardiologist recommended?"
He made a face. "I don't deal with shrinks."
"Maybe you should try. He said it's real common for people to feel a sense of letdown after this surgery. Nothing to be ashamed of."
"I'm not ashamed, Desiree. And I don't need any help."
"We all need help sometimes."
"I'm done talking about this. I'm fine."
"Sure you are," she snapped. "We're all fine. The whole fucking world's fine."
"Watch your mouth, young lady," he warned her, flaring slightly.
She let out a gasp. "Well, how about that? I finally got a rise out of you. Maybe I ought to start dropping F-bombs more often."
Instead, she went back inside the house before she totally lost it. Since she was up so nice and early she thought about spending some quality time with her sketchpad and a hunk of graphite stick. She'd been neglecting her portraits of murder victims lately. But she just couldn't seem to focus on shapes and shadows while the ghost of Buck Mitry was skulking around the place. Instead, she went down to the gym in her garage and did three punishing circuits of twenty-four reps each with twenty-pound dumbbells until her muscles were popping and the sweat was pouring from her. Then she showered and got herself ready for work, which took her almost no time. Des kept her hair short and nubby and never wore war paint on the job. Rarely wore it, period. Didn't need it. She had almond-shaped light green eyes, a smooth, glowing complexion and a wraparound smile that, in Mitch's words, made Julia Roberts look like ZaSu Pitts. Whoever the hell ZaSu Pitts was. Des dressed in a summer-weight poly/wool blend uniform. Her necktie was the same shade of royal blue as the epaulets on her slate gray shirt. Her high gloss square-toed oxfords were black. So was the Sam Browne duty belt on which she holstered her SIG. Her big gray hat with its band of royal blue and gold waited for her on a table by the front door.
The Deacon was sitting right where she'd left him, his eyes on the water, Kid Rock dozing contentedly in his lap.
"I'm heading out now, Daddy. Have yourself a good one, okay?"
He said nothing in response. Didn't so much as nod.
Des wasn't even sure that he'd heard her.
* * *
Turkey Neck Road was one of Dorset's choicest spots—a bucolic country lane of rolling green meadows and gnarly old trees set behind fieldstone walls that were centuries old. Long, winding driveways led to multimillion-dollar estates that looked out onto the mouth of the Connecticut River and Long Island Sound. Many of the estates had private docks. Turkey Neck was a slice of Yankee heaven. Incredibly peaceful.
Or it used to be. Des ran smack dab into the freak show as soon as she steered her silver Crown Vic off of Old Shore Road. Satellite trucks and news vans lined both sides of Turkey Neck. Camera crews from Connecticut's local news stations, from ESPN and from a dozen assorted cable news networks and tabloid TV shows were crowded around the security gate outside one of those long driveways, along with a wolf pack of paparazzi, print reporters and celebrity gawkers. The gate was new. So was the eight-foot chain link fence topped with razor wire that surrounded the entire twelve-acre estate. A trooper from Troop F barracks in Westbrook was trying to keep the traffic moving along. Another was guarding the gate. The troopers were there at the request of First Selectman Paffin.
Des idled there in the standstill traffic with her windows rolled down, a tropical breeze wafting gently off the water. It was so warm out that it was hard to believe the pro football season was already half over. And what an unusual season this was for Tyrone "Da Beast" Grantham, the famously volatile superstar linebacker who'd been wreaking havoc on the gridiron ever since he was a fifteen-year-old gangbanger back in the mean streets of Compton, California. Da Beast, a six-feet-four, 240-pound meat-seeking missile, was the most dominant, fearsome middle linebacker in the National Football League. A perennial Pro Bowler who last year, at age twenty-nine, had signed a seven-year, $135-million contract extension that made him the NFL's highest paid defensive player.
Truly, the man had it all—including a boatload of personal baggage. Tyrone Grantham had a history of violent personal conduct dating back to his freshman year at USC. He'd gotten into highly publicized physical brawls over the years with not only his teammates and coaches but with any number of adoring fans—in bars, airports, parking lots, wherever they found him. He'd been placed on probation so many times that he'd entered the language of the street: Getting probation was known as getting "Beasted." During his rookie year in the NFL, a New Orleans cocktail waitress had charged him with sexually assaulting her in his hotel room. The charge was later dropped after an undisclosed sum changed hands, but another woman soon lodged a similar complaint against him at the Pro Bowl in Honolulu. Da Beast was ordered to undergo anger management counseling. He did. It didn't help. The man didn't just have anger issues. He had alcohol issues, as in a pair of DWI arrests. He had illegal drug issues—marijuana was found in his car both times he was nailed for drunk driving. He had problems keeping his mouth shut. His frequent on-air interviews and tweets were inflammatory and profane. He had problems with the low-life male company he kept. During a routine traffic stop an unlicensed handgun was found in a friend's car that Da Beast was riding in. The friend was a convicted felon. As for female company, he'd fathered six young children with five different baby mamas, none of whom he was married to.
And then came this past off-season, when Tyrone Grantham had gotten into it with a 150-pound computer programmer named Stewart Plotka at a Dave & Buster's restaurant in Westbury, Long Island. Supposedly, Plotka, a resident of Forest Hills, Queens, was now permanently blind in one eye and had lost the use of his right hand. Da Beast had escaped criminal assault charges—no witnesses had come forth to back Plotka's version of what happened. But he still faced a mammoth civil suit from Plotka, who was claiming that Grantham had "defiled" his fiancée, a nursing student named Katie O'Brien, at a celebrity pro-am golf tournament in 2008. Plotka had hired himself New York City's heaviest hitting limelight lawyer, Andrea Halperin. Not a day went by when she wasn't turning up the heat to pressure Tyrone Grantham into a seven-figure settlement. Thus far, he had stubbornly refused.
Seemingly, Da Beast didn't care about anyone or anything. But an image-conscious NFL did. Already reeling from the unsavory behavior of the likes of Michael Vick, Plaxico Burress and Ben Roethlisberger, the league decided it could no longer afford to look the other way—especially because Grantham played for one of the New York area's two very high-profile teams. And so the commissioner had suspended him from league play for the entire season due to "conduct detrimental to the integrity of and public confidence in the league." It was a season in exile that, in the view of Da Beast's critics, was long overdue. According to his lawyer, the "chastened" football star intended to use this time off to demonstrate to his fans that he really, truly understood the responsibilities of being a modern-day sports celebrity. Da Beast was going to get his act together.
Except he'd chosen to get it together in an ultramodern, eight-bedroom estate right here on Turkey Neck Road in Dorset, much to the dismay of his straight-laced, early to bed and early to white neighbors. Neighbors who cherished privacy and quiet and were immensely displeased by the media horde that had invaded their happy, privileged home. Grantham had said all of the right things when he'd moved in two weeks ago with his new bride, Jamella, who was currently seven months pregnant with his baby. He said he'd turned over a new leaf. He said he wanted to be left in peace.
But his new neighbors were not happy. Especially the conservative blowhard in the house just past his on Turkey Neck—Justy Bond, proud owner of Bond's Auto Mall across the river in Old Saybrook, which was Connecticut's highest-volume GM dealership, not to mention Toyota, BMW and Volvo. It was Justy Bond whom Bob Paffin had asked Des to speak with this morning. She couldn't miss the man as she inched past the media crush and pulled into the driveway of his rambling, circa-1820 natural-shingled cape. The auto dealer was standing out on his front lawn hollering his head off at the snowy haired, weak-chinned Paffin, who'd been first selectman for twenty-four years and wouldn't know how to get or hold a real job if his life depended on it. Des and Bob were not exactly close. Bob was a malevolent noodge who'd done nothing but disrespect her and undermine her from her first day on the job. Right now, he was trying to placate Justy, who was a big-time local celebrity thanks to those grating commercials of his that ran 24/7 on the local TV stations. Justy starred in them personally, always accompanied by a young, scantily clad "Bond Girl" who'd vamp for the camera and repeat his famous slogan: Just ask Justy.
Justy Bond was accustomed to getting his way. And if he was pissed off, then Bob Paffin was supposed to do something about it. Just ask Justy.
Des parked her cruiser and got out. Justy immediately started across the lawn toward her with a big, bright smile on his face—a car dealer through and through. He was a tall, handsome one in his mid-fifties who was trying way hard to come off as boyish in his yellow Ralph Lauren Polo shirt, khaki slacks and Top-Siders. The man's thinning black hair was artfully poofed. His shoulders were thrust back, tummy pulled in. It was, Des supposed, what came from having a hot new trophy wife like Bonita, a former Bond Girl who was twenty years younger than Justy. And had broken up his first marriage, according to local lore. Once she became Mrs. Justy Bond, Bonita relinquished her on-camera role to a former Syracuse cheerleader named Darlene Franklin. Darlene had lasted only a few months before she'd been replaced by Callie Kreutzer, an art student at the Dorset Academy, who happened to be the girlfriend of Justy Junior—or June as he was known. June, age twenty-four, worked for his dad as a salesman.
"Glad you could make it, Master Sergeant Mitry!" Justy's dazzling white smile went all of the way up to his eyes, where it died a sudden death. "I appreciate you making time for me."
"Yes, very good of you, Des," Bob Paffin concurred, baring his own mouthful of dull, yellow teeth. The Dorset old guard didn't whiten. She had no idea why. Just knew it was so.
Justy led them around to the backyard on a bluestone path. There was a swimming pool back there, a patio with a lot of teak furniture and an acre or so of lawn leading down to the water, where a thirty-two-foot Coronado, the Calliope, was tied up at Justy's dock. A tanned, shaggy-haired young man in swim trunks was scrubbing the sailboat's deck. Des waved to June Bond. He waved back. She and Mitch had socialized with June and Callie. Mitch knew Callie's mom and had helped Callie find a place to live when she'd enrolled at the academy.
"What's that damned kid still doing here?" Justy fumed. "I swear, he cares more about that fool yacht than he does the family business. He even sleeps out on the damned thing, even though we have a half-dozen perfectly nice bedrooms in the house."
"A young fellow likes to have his own patch of turf," Bob said.
"A bit of ambition wouldn't hurt either." Justy shot a glance at his Rolex. "When I was his age I'd have made my first three sales of the day by now."
The view from there was pretty spectacular. Des could see downriver all of the way to the lighthouse on Big Sister Island. Upriver, she could make out the picturesque railroad bridge that had been spanning the Connecticut River on its sturdy granite pilings since 1907. She could also see the newly lengthened dock right next door where Tyrone Grantham's flaming orange cigarette boat, Da Beast, was tied up. It was a rather menacing-looking thing—more than forty-five feet long, low to the water and emblazoned from stem to stern with images of snarling lions and tigers. Also faintly silly. Like something out of a comic book.
Justy's gaze followed hers. "I hate that I can see that stupid thing from here. And you should hear it. First time he took her out I thought a jumbo jet was about to crash into our house."
He turned his back on the view and sat down at a teak table by the pool. Des and Bob joined him there.
"What can I do for you gentlemen?" Des asked, setting her big hat on the table before her.
Bob cleared his throat and said, "Have you met this fellow yet?"
"Tyrone Grantham? No, I haven't."
"We were thinking you might want to drop by and introduce yourself."
"And why would I want to do that?"
"To welcome him to Dorset, of course."
"I'm the resident Connecticut State Trooper here, Bob. If you want the Welcome Wagon give Eve Todd a call. She does a very nice job."
Justy heaved an exasperated sigh. "Oh, for crissakes, can we just talk plain?"
"Fine by me," Des said.
"I have had nothing but trouble with this individual since he bought the place. The man does whatever he wants and nobody dares say no. He lengthened that dock of his without town approval. That penitentiary-style fence he's put in between us is two feet taller than the building code allows. And it's topped with razor wire, which isn't allowed either. A twenty-foot stretch of the darned thing is at least eighteen inches over my property line. Plus the cheese heads who installed it mutilated a half-dozen of my trees. Why, I must be spending half of my time every day over at Town Hall filing one official complaint after another. Meanwhile, I've got the paparazzi and who knows what other human filth camped outside of my house twenty-four hours a day."
"You have my sympathy, Mr. Bond."
"I don't want your sympathy. I want you to do something."
"I don't see a role for me here," Des told him. "You do have a traffic situation, but I just saw two troopers out there trying to help out. I don't know what else can be done. We can't strong-arm the media. All we can do is keep the road clear and try to move the gawkers along. My advice is to be patient. They'll move on to another story in a few days and your life will return to normal."
"My life will never be normal as long as that man is living next door," Justy said tightly. "I should not have to put up with this. I have rights, too."
"Of course you do," Bob assured him. "That's why we thought you might have a talk with the gentleman, Des."
"A talk about what, Bob?"
Justy glared across the table at her. "Are you purposely playing dumb?"
"I'm not ‘playing' at anything. I'm the resident trooper. If Mr. Grantham phones 911 and requests my presence I'll oblige him. If he breaks the law I'll—"
"He's broken several laws. I can give you a list as long as my arm."
"You're talking about possible building code violations, Mr. Bond. Those aren't criminal matters."
The two men exchanged an uneasy look before Bob said, "Des, I want to assure you that what I'm about to say is in no way racially motivated…"
"No, of course not," Des managed to say, her face revealing nothing.
"But we have … concerns about the criminal element Mr. Grantham has been known to associate with. We want to make sure he behaves himself."
"And he has," Des said. "Tyrone Grantham is not wanted in connection with any crime. He's a high-profile sports celebrity, period."
"What about his posse or crew or whatever it's called?"
"I believe it's called his wife and family," she replied crisply. "What about them, Bob?"
"Well, one worries about gang-related activity."
"Like one of those drive-by shootings," Justy said, nodding his head. "Bonita hasn't been able to sleep a wink since they moved in next door. She just wanders around the house all night, scared out of her wits."
"I'm unaware of any such gang-related activity," Des said, hearing the crunch of gravel out front as a car pulled in and parked. A car door slammed shut and footsteps started toward them on the bluestone path.
The footsteps belonged to Bonita, who was just back from an early morning tennis game at the country club. Or so her sleeveless white polo shirt and trim little white tennis shorts suggested. Bonita was thirty-six trying real hard to look twenty-six. Her day-glo tangerine lip gloss and nail polish were a bit too young for her. So was the matching tangerine scrunchie that held her shiny blond ponytail in place. Bonita was tall and slim with nice tanned legs and a perky little ass. Good, high cheekbones, a kitteny little nose, playful blue eyes—a vanilla princess through and through. Just the sort of pampered blond bitch whom Des had resented her entire life. But Dorset's many vanilla princesses were not all the same flavor, she'd discovered. Some were actually very nice people. Others were even nastier than she'd ever imagined.
"Hi, darling." Bonita gave Justy a big, smoochy kiss, mussing his carefully coiffed hair. "Greetings, Bob. Hey, Trooper Des," she added coolly.
Des said hey back—with equal coolness. She'd had to pull Bonita over on Route 156 last year for exceeding the posted speed limit by more than twenty mph—and driving on the wrong side of the road. She'd flunked her Breathalyzer test and had not been particularly gracious. In fact, she'd called Des a "hostile twat."
"How was tennis?" Justy asked her, smoothing his hair back down.
"Really hard." Bonita's mouth got all pouty. "And my little pink toes are so hot." She sat on the edge of the pool, took off her sneakers and anklets and dipped those little pink toes in the water, sighing contentedly as she paddled her smooth bare legs back and forth.
Bob Paffin couldn't take his eyes off her legs. The old goat was practically drooling. Justy, Des noticed, paid her no attention whatsoever.
Des also noticed that Bonita had a nasty scalp wound on the back of her head. "What did you do to your head?"
"Cracked it on the kitchen counter," Bonita answered lightly. "I was looking for a muffin pan in the cupboard down below. That'll teach me to cook. What are you three up to?"
"Talking about our new neighbor," Justy replied.
Bonita rolled her eyes. "Are you still obsessing about him? Let it go."
"Your husband was just telling me you're so upset that you can't sleep."
"I'm fine," Bonita assured her. "We're fine."
"We're not fine." Justy narrowed his gaze at Des. "What's more, I resent your cavalier attitude toward this crisis."
"There is no crisis, Mr. Bond. But you've asked me to weigh in so I'm going to. If you're so worried about Tyrone Grantham being a good neighbor then why don't you act like one yourself? Stroll on over there to welcome him to the community. Bring his new bride some flowers. Maybe a lucky horseshoe to hang over the front door. I understand that's a quaint tradition here in Dorset. Seriously, have you done anything other than holler bloody murder about him over at Town Hall? How about you, Bob? Have you rung his bell and introduced yourself?" On their stony silence Des shook her head and said, "We had a word for men like you when I was growing up—wusses."
"God, am I loving this or what?" Bonita whooped.
"Shut your mouth!" Justy snarled at his young wife.
Des parked her big hat on her head and said, "If you folks will excuse me, I'll be going."
June Bond came shambling across the lawn toward them now in his swim trunks, all sun-browned and sweaty. June was lean and broad-shouldered. His jaw was strong, his smile genuine. "Good to see you, Des," he said warmly.
"Back at you, June," Des responded.
Bonita eyed him rather humidly from the edge of the pool, her blue eyes roaming over his tanned, muscular frame. June's own eyes carefully avoided hers. Des would have sworn they had something going on if she hadn't seen for herself how much June and Callie adored each other.
If Justy was aware of anything he wasn't letting on. He was too busy showing who was in charge. "June, what in the hell are you still doing here? You should have been on the showroom floor a half hour ago."
"Just have to jump in the shower, boss. I'll be there in a flash."
"See that you are. Or go find yourself another job. In this family we work for a living, hear me?"
June's mouth tightened. "Yes, sir." He started toward the house at a brisker pace.
"Why are you so rough on him?" Bonita asked.
"I treat him like any other employee. I expect him to move merchandise."
Des tipped her hat and said, "Have a good day, folks."
"Des, what if you were to pay Mr. Grantham a simple courtesy call?" Bob thumbed his receding chin thoughtfully. "You know, just to see if there's any way you can be of service to him regarding the gawkers and so forth."
"The man's not stupid, Bob. He'll see right through that."
"What if he does? I should think he'd be flattered. I know I'd be. Would you do that for us, Des? Ask him if there's any way you can help out? And while you're at it, just, well, see if you can persuade him to accommodate his new neighbors a bit more?"
"The answer is still no, Bob."
"It would be in your best interest, you know."
"My best interest? How so?"
"Because if there's an incident of some kind, God forbid, it will reflect very poorly on your management skills. Your troop commander will take note of that when it comes time for your performance review. Especially because I'm quite certain he'll be made aware of it." Bob Paffin showed Des those yellow teeth of his again. At that moment he reminded her very much of a cornered Norway rat she'd had to shoot one night in the Frog Hollow projects. "Do we understand each other?"
Copyright © 2011 by David Handler