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There is a claw print scorched into the wall, and the stench of sulfur chokes the air.
When FBI Special Agent Pendergast investigates the gruesome crime, he discovers that thirty years ago four men conjured something unspeakable.
Has the devil come to claim his due?
Some things can’t be undone.
About this Book
About the Author
About the Agent Pendergast Series
Also by Preston & Child
Table of Contents
dedicates this book to
Barry and Jody Turkus.
dedicates this book to
his daughter, Veronica.
Agnes Torres parked her white Ford Escort in the little parking area outside the hedge and stepped into the cool dawn air. The hedges were twelve feet high and as impenetrable as a brick wall; only the shingled peak of the big house could be seen from the street. But she could hear the surf thundering and smell the salt air of the invisible ocean beyond.
Agnes carefully locked the car—it paid to be careful, even in this neighborhood—and, fumbling with the massive set of keys, found the right one and stuck it into the lock. The heavy sheet-metal gate swung inward, exposing a broad expanse of green lawn that swept three hundred yards down to the beach, flanked by two dunes. A red light on a keypad just inside the gate began blinking, and she entered the code with nervous fingers. She had thirty seconds before the sirens went off. Once, she had dropped her keys and couldn’t punch in the code in time, and the thing had awakened practically the whole town and brought three police cars. Mr. Jeremy had been so angry she thought he would breathe fire. It had been awful.
Agnes punched the last button and the light turned green. She breathed a sigh of relief, locked the gate, and paused to cross herself. Then she drew out her rosary, held the first bead reverently between her fingers. Fully armed now, she turned and began waddling across the lawn on short, thick legs, walking slowly to allow herself time to intone the Our Fathers, the Hail Marys, and the Glory Bes in quiet Spanish. She always said a decade on her rosary when entering the Grove Estate.
The vast gray house loomed in front of her, a single eyebrow window in the roof peak frowning like the eye of a Cyclops, yellow against the steel gray of the house and sky. Seagulls circled above, crying restlessly.
Agnes was surprised. She never remembered that light on before. What was Mr. Jeremy doing in the attic at seven o’clock in the morning? Normally he didn’t get out of bed until noon.
Finishing her prayers, she replaced the rosary and crossed herself again: a swift, automatic gesture, made with a rough hand that had seen decades of domestic work. She hoped Mr. Jeremy wasn’t still awake. She liked to work in an empty house, and when he was up, everything was so unpleasant: the cigarette ashes he dropped just behind her mop, the dishes he heaped in the sink just after she had washed, the comments and the endless swearing to himself, into the phone or at the newspaper, always followed by a harsh laugh. His voice was like a rusty knife—it cut and slashed the air. He was thin and mean and stank of cigarettes and drank brandy at lunch and entertained sodomites at all hours of the day and night. Once he had tried to speak Spanish with her but she had quickly put an end to that. Nobody spoke Spanish to her except family and friends, and Agnes Torres spoke English perfectly well enough.
On the other hand, Agnes had worked for many people in her life, and Mr. Jeremy was very correct with her employment. He paid her well, always on time, he never asked her to stay late, never changed her schedule, and never accused her of stealing. Once, early on, he had blasphemed against the Lord in her presence, and she had spoken to him about it, and he had apologized quite civilly and had never done it again.
She came up the curving flagstone path to the back door, inserted a second key, and once again fumbled nervously with the keypad, turning off the internal alarm.
The house was gloomy and gray, the mullioned windows in front looking out on a long seaweed-strewn beach to an angry ocean. The sound of the surf was muffled here and the house was hot. Unusually hot.
She sniffed. There was a strange smell in the air, like a greasy roast left too long in the oven. She waddled into the kitchen but it was empty. The dishes were heaped up, and the place was a mess as usual, stale food everywhere, and yet the smell wasn’t coming from here. It looked like Mr. Jeremy had cooked fish the night before. She didn’t usually clean his house on Tuesdays, but he’d had one of his countless dinner parties the prior evening. Labor Day had come and gone a month before, but Mr. Jeremy’s weekend parties wouldn’t end until November.
She went into the living room and sniffed the air again. Something was definitely cooking somewhere. And there was another smell on top of it, as if somebody had been playing with matches.
Agnes Torres felt a vague sense of alarm. Everything was more or less as she had left it when she went away yesterday, at two in the afternoon, except that the ashtrays were overflowing with butts and the usual empty wine bottles stood on the sideboard, dirty dishes were piled in the sink, and someone had dropped soft cheese on the rug and stepped in it.
She raised her plump face and sniffed again. The smell came from above.
She mounted the sweep of stairs, treading softly, and paused to sniff at the landing. She tiptoed past Grove’s study, past his bedroom door, continued down the hall, turned the dogleg, and came to the door to the third floor. The smell was stronger here and the air was heavier, warmer. She tried to open the door but found it locked.
She took out her bunch of keys, clinked through them, and unlocked the door. Madre de Dios—the smell was much worse. She mounted the steep unfinished stairs, one, two, three, resting her arthritic legs for a moment on each tread. She rested again at the top, breathing heavily.
The attic was vast, with one long hall off which were half a dozen unused children’s bedrooms, a playroom, several bathrooms, and an unfinished attic space jammed with furniture and boxes and horrible modern paintings.
At the far end of the hall, she saw a bar of yellow light under the door to the last bedroom.
She took a few tentative steps forward, paused, crossed herself again. Her heart was hammering, but with her hand clutching the rosary she knew she was safe. As she approached the door, the smell grew steadily worse.
She tapped lightly on it, just in case some guest of Mr. Jeremy was sleeping in there, hungover or sick. But there was no response. She grasped the doorknob and was surprised to find it slightly warm to the touch. Was there a fire? Had somebody fallen asleep, cigarette in hand? There was definitely a faint smell of smoke, but it wasn’t just smoke somehow: it was something stronger. Something foul.
She tried the doorknob, found it locked. It reminded her of the time, when she was a little girl at the convent school, when crazy old Sister Ana had died and they had to force open her door.
Somebody on the other side might need her assistance; might be sick or incapacitated. Once again she fumbled with the keys. She had no idea which one went to the door, so it wasn’t until perhaps the tenth try that the key turned. Holding her breath, she opened the door, but it moved only an inch before stopping, blocked by something. She pushed, pushed harder, heard a crash on the other side.
Santa María, it was going to wake up Mr. Jeremy. She waited, but there was no sound of his tread, no slamming bathroom door or flushing toilet, none of the sounds that signaled his irascible rising.
She pushed at the door and was able to get her head inside, holding her breath against the smell. A thin screen of haze drifted in the room, and it was as hot as an oven. The room had been shut up for years—Mr. Jeremy despised children—and dirty spiderwebs hung from the peeling beadboard walls. The crash had been caused by the toppling of an old armoire that had been pushed up against the door. In fact, all the furniture in the room seemed to have been piled against the door, except for the bed. The bed, she could see, was on the far side of the room. Mr. Jeremy lay on it, fully clothed.
But Agnes Torres knew there would be no answer. Mr. Jeremy wasn’t sleeping, not with his charred eyes burned permanently open, the ashy cone of his mouth frozen in a scream and his blackened tongue—swelled to the size of a chorizo sausage—sticking straight up from it like a flagpole. A sleeping man wouldn’t be lying with his elbows raised above the bed, fists clenched so hard that blood had leaked between the fingers. A sleeping man wouldn’t have his torso scorched and caved in upon itself like a burned log. She had seen many dead people during her childhood in Colombia, and Mr. Jeremy looked deader than any of them. He was as dead as they come.
She heard someone speaking and realized it was herself, murmuring En el nombre del Padre, y del Hijo, y del Espíritu Santo... She crossed herself yet again, fumbling out her rosary, unable to move her feet or take her eyes from the scene in the room. There was a scorched mark on the floor, right at the foot of the bed: a mark which Agnes recognized.
In that moment, she understood exactly what had happened to Mr. Jeremy Grove.
A muffled cry escaped her throat and she suddenly had the energy to back out of the room and shut the door. She fumbled with the keys and relocked it, all the while murmuring Creo en Dios, Padre todopoderoso, creador del cielo y de la tierra. She crossed herself again and again and again, clutching the rosary and holding it up to her chest as she backed down the hall, step by step, sobs mingling with her mumbled prayers.
The cloven hoofprint burned into the floor told her everything she needed to know. The devil had finally come for Jeremy Grove.
The sergeant paused from stretching the yellow police tape to take in the scene with a jaundiced eye. It was a mess that was about to become a fucking mess. The barricades had been set up too late, and rubberneckers had overrun the beach and dunes, ruining any clues the sand might have held. Then the barricades had been set up in the wrong places and had to be moved, trapping a matched set of his-and-hers Range Rovers, and the two people were now out of their cars, yelling about important appointments (hairdresser, tennis) and brandishing their cell phones, threatening to call their lawyers.
That wet sound over his shoulder was the shit already hitting the fan. It was the sixteenth of October in Southampton, Long Island, and the town’s most notorious resident had just been found murdered in bed.
He heard Lieutenant Braskie’s voice. “Sergeant, you haven’t done these hedges! Didn’t I tell you I wanted the whole crime scene taped?”
Without bothering to respond, the sergeant began hanging the yellow tape along the hedge surrounding the Grove Estate. As if the twelve-foot hedge with the concertina wire hidden within wasn’t enough to stop a reporter, but the plastic tape was. He could see the TV trucks already arriving, vans with satellite uplinks, and could hear the distant dull thud of a chopper. The local press were piling up against the Dune Road barricade, arguing with the cops. Meanwhile, backup squad cars were arriving from Sag Harbor and East Hampton along with the South Fork homicide squad. The lieutenant was deploying these newcomers along the beaches and dunes in a failing attempt to keep the public at bay. The SOC boys were arriving, and the sergeant watched them entering the house, carrying their metal crime lab suitcases. There was a time when he would have been with them, even directing them—but that was a long time ago, in another place.
He continued hanging tape on the hedges until he reached the dunes along the beach. A few cops were already there, keeping back the curious. They were pretty much a docile crowd, staring like dumb animals toward the shingled mansion with its peaks and turrets and funny-looking windows. It was already turning into a party. Someone had fired up a boom box and some buffed-up guys were cracking beers. It was an unusually hot Indian summer day and they were all in shorts or swimming trunks, as if in denial over the end of summer. The sergeant scoffed, imagined what those cut bodies would look like after twenty years of beer and chips. Probably a lot like his.
He glanced back at the house and saw the SOC boys crawling across the lawn on hands and knees, the lieutenant striding alongside. The guy didn’t have a clue. He felt another pang. Here he was, pulling crowd control, his training and talent wasted while the real police work went on somewhere else.
No use thinking about that now.
Now the TV trucks had unpacked, and their cameras were set up in a cluster, with a good angle on the mansion, while the glamour-boy correspondents yammered into their microphones. And wouldn’t you know it: Lieutenant Braskie had left the SOC boys and was heading over to the cameras like a fly to a fresh pile.
The sergeant shook his head. Unbelievable.
He saw a man running low through the dunes, zigzagging this way and that, and he took off after him, cutting him off at the edge of the lawn. It was a photographer. By the time the sergeant reached him, he’d already dropped to his knee and was shooting with a telephoto as long as an elephant’s dick toward one of the homicide detectives from East Hampton, who was interviewing a maid on the veranda.
The sergeant laid a hand on the lens, gently turning it aside.
“Officer, come on, please—”
“You don’t want me to confiscate your film, do you?” He spoke kindly. He’d always had a soft spot for people who were just trying to do their job, even if they were press.
The man got up, walked a few paces, turned for one final quick shot, and then scurried off. The sergeant walked back up toward the house. He was downwind of the rambling old place, and there was a funny smell in the air, like fireworks or something. He noticed the lieutenant was now standing in the middle of the semicircle of TV cameras, having the time of his life. Braskie was planning to run for chief in the next election, and with the current chief on vacation, he couldn’t have gotten a better break than if he’d committed the murder himself.
The sergeant took a detour around the lawn and cut behind a small duck pond and fountain, keeping out of the way of the SOC team. As he came around some hedges he saw a man in the distance, standing by the duck pond, throwing pieces of bread to the ducks. He was dressed in the gaudiest day-tripper style imaginable, complete with Hawaiian shirt, Oakley Eye Jacket shades, and giant baggy shorts. Even though summer had ended over a month ago, it looked like this was the man’s first day in the sun after a long, cold winter. Maybe a dozen winters. While the sergeant had some sympathy for a photographer or reporter trying to do his job, he had absolutely no tolerance for tourists. They were the scum of the earth.
The man looked up.
“What do you think you’re doing? Don’t you know this is a crime scene?”
“Yes, Officer, and I do apologize—”
“Get the hell out.”
“But, Sergeant, it’s important the ducks be fed. They’re hungry. I imagine that someone feeds them every morning, but this morning, as you know—” He smiled and shrugged.
The sergeant could hardly believe it. A guy gets murdered, and this idiot is worried about ducks?
“Let’s see some ID.”
“Of course, of course.” The man started fishing in his pocket, fished in another, then looked up sheepishly. “Sorry about that, Officer. I threw on these shorts as soon as I heard the terrible news, but it appears my wallet is still in the pocket of the jacket I was wearing last night.” His New York accent grated on the sergeant’s nerves.
The sergeant looked at the guy. Normally he would just chase him back behind the barriers. But there was something about him that didn’t quite wash. For one thing, the clothes he was wearing were so new they still smelled of a menswear shop. For another thing, they were such a hideous mixture of colors and patterns that it looked like he’d plucked them randomly from a rack in the village boutique. This was more than just bad taste—this was a disguise.
“I’ll be going—”
“No, you won’t.” The sergeant took out his notebook, flipped back a wad of pages, licked his pencil. “You live around here?”
“I’ve taken a house in Amagansett for a week.”
“The Brickman House, Windmill Lane.”
Another rich asshole. “And your permanent address?”
“That would be the Dakota, Central Park West.”
The sergeant paused. Now, that’s a coincidence. Aloud, he said, “Name?”
“Look, Sergeant, honestly, if it’s a problem, I’ll just go on back—”
“Your first name, sir?” he said more sharply.
“Is that really necessary? It’s difficult to spell, even more difficult to pronounce. I often wonder what my mother was thinking—”
The sergeant gave him a look that shut him up quick. One more quip from this asshole, and it would be the cuffs.
“Let’s try again. First name?”
The man spelled it.
The pencil in the sergeant’s hand began writing this down, too. Then it paused. Slowly the sergeant looked up. The Oakleys had come off, and he found himself staring into that face he knew so well, with the blond-white hair, gray eyes, finely chiseled features, skin as pale and translucent as Carrara marble.
“In the very flesh, my dear Vincent.” The New York accent was gone, replaced by the cultured southern drawl he remembered vividly.
“What are you doing here?”
“The same might be asked of you.”
Vincent D’Agosta felt himself coloring. The last time he had seen Pendergast he had been a proud New York City police lieutenant. And now here he was in Shithampton, a lowly sergeant decorating hedges with police tape.
“I was in Amagansett when the news arrived that Jeremy Grove had met an untimely end. How could I resist? I apologize for the outfit, but I was hard-pressed to get here as soon as possible.”
“You’re on the case?”
“Until I’m officially assigned to the case, I can do nothing but feed the ducks. I worked on my last case without full authorization, and it, shall we say, strained some high-level nerves. I must say, Vincent, running into you is a most welcome surprise.”
“For me, too,” said D’Agosta, coloring again. “Sorry, I’m really not at my best here—”
Pendergast laid a hand on his arm. “We shall have plenty of time to talk later. For now, I see a large individual approaching who appears to be suffering from emphraxis.”
A low-pitched, menacing voice intruded from behind. “I hate to break up this little conversation.” D’Agosta turned to see Lieutenant Braskie.
Braskie stopped, stared at Pendergast, then turned back to D’Agosta. “Perhaps I’m a little confused here, Sergeant, but isn’t this individual trespassing at the scene of a crime?”
“Well, uh, Lieutenant, we were—” D’Agosta looked at Pendergast.
“This man isn’t a friend of yours, now, is he?”
“As a matter of fact—”
“The sergeant was just telling me to leave,” interjected Pendergast smoothly.
“Oh, he was, was he? And if I may be so bold as to inquire what you were doing here in the first place, sir?”
“Feeding the ducks.”
“Feeding the ducks.” D’Agosta could see Braskie’s face flushing. He wished Pendergast would hurry up and pull out his shield.
“Well, sir,” Braskie went on, “that’s a beautiful thing to do. Let’s see some ID.”
D’Agosta waited smugly. This was going to be good.
“As I was just explaining to the officer here, I left my wallet back at the house—”
Braskie turned on D’Agosta, saw the notebook in his hand. “You got this man’s information?”
“Yes.” D’Agosta looked at Pendergast almost pleadingly, but the FBI agent’s face had shut down completely.
“Did you ask him how he got through the police cordon?”
“Don’t you think maybe you should?”
“I came through the side gate in Little Dune Road,” Pendergast said.
“Not possible. It’s locked. I checked it myself.”
“Perhaps the lock is defective. At least, it seemed to fall open in my hands.”
Braskie turned to D’Agosta. “Now, at last, there’s something useful you can do. Go plug that hole, Sergeant. And report back to me at eleven o’clock sharp. We need to talk. And as for you, sir, I will escort you off the premises.”
“Thank you, Lieutenant.”
D’Agosta looked with dismay at the retreating form of Lieutenant Braskie, with Pendergast strolling along behind him, hands in the pockets of his baggy surfer shorts, head tilted back as if taking the air.
Lieutenant L. P. Braskie Jr. of the Southampton Police Department stood beneath the trellis of the mansion’s grape arbor, watching the SOC team comb the endless acreage of lawn for clues. His face wore a stolid mask of professionalism as he thought of Chief MacCready playing golf in the Highlands of Scotland. He pictured in his mind the links of St. Andrews in autumn: the narrow doglegs of greensward, the grim castle, the barren moors beyond. He’d wait until tomorrow to give the chief a call, let him know what was going on. MacCready had been chief for twenty years, and this golf trip was one more reason why Southampton needed fresh blood. Braskie was a local boy with roots in the town and friends in City Hall, and he’d also managed to build up some powerful relationships among the summer people. A favor here and a favor there worked wonders. A foot in both worlds. He’d played his cards well.
And now this. They’d have the perp in the bag in a week or two, and come November and the elections, he’d be a shoo-in. Maybe he’d call MacCready the day after tomorrow: Gee, Chief, I really hesitated to interrupt your hard-earned vacation...
Braskie knew, from long experience in South Fork homicide, that the first twenty-four hours of a murder investigation were often the most crucial. Fact was, if you didn’t get on the trail and follow it right away, you might as well hang up your hat. Find ingress and egress, and everything that followed—forensic evidence, murder weapon, witnesses, motive—would form a chain leading to the perp. Braskie’s job wasn’t to do the work himself but to make sure everyone else did theirs. And there was little question in his mind that the weak link in this chain was Sergeant Vincent D’Agosta. He didn’t do what he was told. He knew better. Story was, D’Agosta had once been a homicide lieutenant himself in the NYPD, and a good one. Quit to write mystery novels, moved to Canada, went broke, and had to come back with his tail tucked firmly between his butt cheeks. Couldn’t get a job in the city and ended up out here. If Braskie were chief, he’d never have hired someone like that in the first place—the guy might know his stuff, but he was guaranteed trouble. Not a team player. Had a chip on his shoulder the size of Manhattan.
Braskie checked his watch. Eleven o’clock, and speak of the devil. He watched D’Agosta approach the trellis—a real type, fringe of black hair hanging over his collar, growing gut, attitude oozing from his pores like B.O. Here in Southampton, he stuck out like a bunion. No great surprise the man’s wife had decided to stay behind in Canada with their only kid.
“Sir,” said D’Agosta, able to make even that single word a trifle insolent.
Braskie shifted his gaze back to the SOC team combing the lawn. “We’ve got an important case here, Sergeant.”
The man nodded.
Braskie narrowed his eyes, looked toward the mansion, toward the sea. “We don’t have the luxury of screwing it up.”
“I’m glad to hear you say that. I have to tell you, D’Agosta, that ever since you came on the force, you’ve made it pretty clear that Southampton isn’t where you want to be.”
D’Agosta said nothing.
He sighed and looked straight at D’Agosta, only to find the pugnacious face staring back at him. His “go ahead, make my day” face. “Sergeant D’Agosta, do I really need to spell it out? You’re here. You’re a sergeant in the Southampton Police Department. Get over it.”
“I don’t understand what you mean, sir.”
This was getting irritating. “D’Agosta, I can read your mind like a book. I don’t give a shit what happened before in your life. What I need is for you to get with the program.”
D’Agosta didn’t answer.
“Take this morning. I saw you talking to that intruder for a good five minutes, which is why I had to intervene. I don’t want to be riding your ass, but I can’t have one of my sergeants eating up his time explaining to some shitcake why he has to leave. That man should’ve been ejected immediately, no discussion. You think you can do things your way. I can’t have that.”
He paused, scrutinizing Sergeant D’Agosta carefully, thinking he might have detected a smirk. This guy really had a problem.
The lieutenant caught the glimpse of a loudly dressed presence to his right. It was that same scumbag in the Hawaiian shirt, baggy shorts, and expensive sculpted shades, approaching the grape arbor as cool as could be, once again inside the police cordon.
Braskie turned to D’Agosta, speaking calmly. “Sergeant, arrest that man and read him his rights.”
He couldn’t believe it: D’Agosta was going to argue with him. After everything he’d just told him. His voice became even quieter. “Sergeant, I believe I just gave you an order.” He turned to the man. “I hope you brought your wallet with you this time.”
“As a matter of fact, I did.” The man reached into his pocket.
“No, I don’t want to see it, for chrissakes. Save it for the booking sergeant down at the station.”
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