Read by Rene Auberjonois
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A mysterious shipwreck.
A murder in the desolate salt marshes.
A seemingly straightforward private case turns out to be much more complicated-and sinister-than Special Agent A.X.L. Pendergast ever could have anticipated.
Pendergast, together with his ward Constance Greene, travels to the quaint seaside village of Exmouth, Massachusetts, to investigate the theft of a priceless wine collection. But inside the wine cellar, they find something considerably more disturbing: a bricked-up niche that once held a crumbling skeleton.
Pendergast and Constance soon learn that Exmouth is a town with a very dark and troubled history, and this skeleton may be only the first hint of an ancient transgression, kept secret all these years. But they will discover that the sins of the past are still very much alive. Local legend holds that during the 1692 witch trials in Salem, the real witches escaped, fleeing north to Exmouth and settling deep in the surrounding salt marshes, where they continued to practice their wicked arts. Then, a murdered corpse turns up in the marshes. The only clue is a series of mysterious carvings. Could these demonic symbols bear some relation to the ancient witches’ colony, long believed to be abandoned?
A terrible evil lurks beneath the surface of this sleepy seaside town-one with deep roots in Exmouth’s grim history. And it may be that Constance, with her own troubled past, is the only one who truly comprehends the awful danger that she, Pendergast, and the residents of Exmouth must face . . .
When the knock sounded, Constance Greene stopped playing the Flemish virginal and the library fell silent and tense. She glanced in the direction of Special Agent A. X. L. Pendergast, sitting by a dying fire, wearing thin white gloves, having gone quite still while leafing through an illuminated manuscript, a glass of Amontillado half-finished on the side table. Constance recalled the last time someone had knocked on the door of 891 Riverside Drive—the rarest of occurrences at the Pendergast mansion. The memory of that awful moment now hung in the room like a miasma.
Proctor, Pendergast’s chauffeur, bodyguard, and general factotum, appeared. “Shall I answer the door, Mr. Pendergast?”
“Please. But do not let the person in; get their name and business and report back.”
Three minutes later, Proctor returned. “It is a man named Percival Lake, and he wishes to hire you for a private investigation.”
Pendergast raised a palm, about to dismiss this out of hand. Then he paused. “Did he mention the nature of the crime?”
“He declined to go into any details.”
Pendergast seemed to fall into a reverie, his spidery fingers lightly tapping on the gilded spine of the manuscript. “Percival Lake… The name is familiar. Constance, would you be so good as to look that up on… What is that website? It was named after a large mathematical number.”
“Ah, yes. Google him for me, if you please.”
Constance raised her fingers from the age-yellowed ivory keys, moved away from the instrument, opened a small cupboard, and slid out a laptop on a retracting table. She typed for a moment.
“There’s a sculptor of that name who does monumental work in granite.”
“I thought it rang a bell.” Pendergast plucked off the gloves and laid them aside. “Show him in.”
As Proctor left, Constance turned to Pendergast with a frown. “Are our finances so sadly reduced that you must resort to moonlighting?”
“Of course not. But the man’s work—though rather old-fashioned—is stimulating. As I recall, his figures emerge from the stone much like Michelangelo’s Slave Awakening. The least I can do is give him an audience.”
Moments later Proctor returned. A striking man stood in the doorway behind him: perhaps sixty-five, with a great shock of white hair. The hair was the only thing that looked at all old about him; he was close to six and a half feet tall, with a craggy, handsome face bronzed by the sun, a trim, athletic bearing, wearing a blue blazer over a crisp white cotton shirt and tan slacks. He radiated good health and vigorous living. His hands were massive.
“Inspector Pendergast?” He came striding over with his arm extended and enveloped Pendergast’s pale hand in his own gigantic paw, giving it such a shake that it almost knocked over Pendergast’s sherry.
Inspector? Constance winced. It looked as if her guardian was going to get his stimulation.
“Pray sit down, Mr. Lake,” said Pendergast.
“Thank you!” Lake took a seat, threw one leg over the other, and leaned back.
“Can I offer you anything to drink? Sherry?”
“Don’t mind if I do.”
Proctor silently poured him a small glass, placing it by his elbow. The sculptor took a sip. “Excellent stuff, thanks. And thank you for agreeing to see me.”
Pendergast inclined his head. “Before you tell me your story, I’m afraid I can’t claim the title Inspector. That would be British. I am merely a special agent of the FBI.”
“I guess I read too many murder mysteries.” The man shifted in his chair. “Let me get right to the point. I live in a little seaside town in northern Massachusetts called Exmouth. It’s a quiet place, off the tourist trail, and not well known even among the summer crowd. About thirty years ago, my wife and I bought the old lighthouse and keeper’s quarters on Walden Point, and I’ve been there ever since. It’s proven an excellent spot for my work. I’ve always been someone who appreciates fine wine—red, don’t bother with white—and the basement of the old house was a perfect place for my rather large collection, being dug into the ground with stone walls and floor, fifty-six degrees summer and winter. Anyway, a few weeks ago, I went away for a long weekend to Boston. When I returned, I found a rear window broken. Nothing had been taken in the house, but when we went to the basement, it was cleaned out. My wine cellar was gone!”
“How terrible for you.”
Constance thought she could just detect the faintest note of contemptuous amusement in Pendergast’s voice.
“Tell me, Mr. Lake, are you still married?”
“My wife died several years back. I now have a, well, lady friend who lives with me.”
“And she was with you the weekend the cellar was stolen?”
“Tell me about your wine.”
“Where to start? I had a vertical collection of Chateau Léoville Poyferré going back to 1955, along with excellent collections of all the notable years of Chateau Latour, Pichon-Longueville, Petrus, Dufort-Viviens, Lascombes, Malescot-Saint-Exupéry, Chateau Palmer, Talbot—”
Pendergast stemmed this flood with an upraised hand.
“Sorry,” Lake said with a sheepish smile. “I tend to go overboard when it comes to wine.”
“Only French Bordeaux?”
“No. More recently I had been collecting some wonderful Italian wines as well, Brunellos, Amarones, and Barolos mostly. All gone.”
“Did you go to the police?”
“The Exmouth police chief is worthless. An ass, in fact. He came out of Boston, and he’s going through the motions, but it’s clear to me he isn’t taking it seriously. I suppose if it was a collection of Bud Light he might be more concerned. I need someone who’s going to find that wine before it gets dispersed or, God forbid, drunk up.”
Pendergast nodded slowly. “So why come to me?”
“I read those books about your work. The ones by Smithback. William Smithback, I believe.”
A moment passed before Pendergast replied. “I fear those books grossly distorted the facts. In any case, to the degree that they are true, you must realize I focus my attention on human deviancy—not purloined wine. I’m sorry I cannot be of more assistance.”
“Well, I hoped you might, since I understood from those books that you’re a bit of a connoisseur yourself.” Lake leaned forward in his chair. “Agent Pendergast, I’m a desperate man. My wife and I spent untold hours assembling that collection. Every bottle has a memory, a history, especially of my wonderful years with her. In some ways I feel like she’s died all over again. I’d pay you a very good fee.”
“I’m indeed sorry I can’t help you in the matter. Mr. Proctor will show you out.”
The sculptor rose. “Well, I knew it was a long shot. Thanks for listening.” His troubled look eased slightly. “All I can say is, thank God the thieves missed the Haut-Braquilanges!”
The room fell silent.
“Chateau Haut-Braquilanges?” Pendergast said faintly.
“Yes, indeed. A full case of ’04. My prized possession. It was set aside, in one corner of the cellar, in the original wooden case. The damned idiots just overlooked it.”
Proctor opened the door to the library, waiting.
“How did you happen on a case of the ’04? I thought it was long gone.”
“And so did everyone else. I’m always on the lookout for wine collections for sale, especially when the owner dies and his heirs want to turn it into cash. My wife and I found this case in an old wine collection in New Orleans.”
Pendergast raised his eyebrows. “New Orleans?”
“An ancient French family of means that fell onto hard times.”
As Constance watched, a look of irritation crossed Pendergast’s face—or was it vexation?
Lake turned toward the open door just as Pendergast rose from his chair. “On second thought, I will take on your little problem.”
“Really?” Lake turned back, his face breaking into a smile. “Wonderful! As I said, whatever your fee is I will be glad—”
“My fee is simple: a bottle of the Haut-Braquilanges.”
Lake hesitated. “I was thinking more along the lines of a financial arrangement.”
“The bottle is my fee.”
“But to break up the case…” His voice trailed off and a long silence ensued. At last, Lake smiled. “Ah, well, why not? You obviously aren’t in need of ready funds. I should be glad to have your help. In fact, you can have your pick of the case!” Flushed with his own gesture of generosity, Lake extended his hand once again.
Pendergast shook it. “Mr. Lake, please leave your address and contact information with Proctor. I will join you in Exmouth tomorrow.”
“I’ll look forward to seeing you. I haven’t touched anything in the basement; I left it just as is. The police came through, of course, but they did precious little besides take a few photographs with a cell phone—if you can believe it.”
“It would be helpful if you found an excuse to keep them out, should they return.”
“Return? Little chance of that.”
In a moment he had left, trailed by Proctor. Constance turned toward Pendergast. He returned her look with amused, silvery eyes.
“May I ask what you’re doing?” she said.
“Taking a private case.”
“My dear Constance, New York City has been depressingly free of serial murders these last few months. My plate, as they say, is empty. This is a perfect vacation opportunity: a week or two in a charming seaside town, in the off-season, with an amuse-bouche of a case to occupy one’s time. Not to mention a congenial client.”
“Blustery and self-aggrandizing would be a more suitable characterization.”
“You’re a worse misanthrope than I am. I for one could use the bracing, autumnal air of the seaside after the events of late.”
She glanced at him privately. It was true—after the ordeal he’d endured over the summer, any diversion might be welcome. “But a bottle of wine as payment? Next you’ll be offering your services in exchange for a Shake Shack hamburger.”
“Unlikely. That wine is the reason, the only reason, I took the case. In the nineteenth century, Chateau Haut-Braquilanges produced the finest wines in France. Their signature claret was the product of a single vineyard, of about two acres, planted in Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot. It was situated on a hill near Fronsac. Unfortunately, that hill was violently contested in World War I, drenched with mustard gas and poisoned forever, and the chateau leveled. There are at most two dozen bottles left of the vintages from that chateau known to exist. But none from the greatest vintage of all—1904. It was believed extinct. Extraordinary that this fellow has a case of it. You saw how reluctant he was to part with even the one bottle.”
Constance shrugged. “I hope you enjoy the vacation.”
“I have no doubt it will be a most amiable holiday for us.”
“Us? You want me to go with you?” She felt a creeping sensation of heat in her face.
“Indeed. I think you’re ready for a vacation like this, away from familiar surroundings. In fact, I insist. You need a holiday as much as I do—and I’d welcome a chance to duck those letters from the Botanic Garden administration for a spell, wouldn’t you?”
Constance Greene could smell the sea air as soon as Pendergast turned their vintage Porsche roadster onto the Metacomet Bridge, a decaying pile of rusted trestles and struts that spanned a broad salt marsh. The mid-October sun momentarily glittered off the water as they sped along. On the far side of the marsh, the road plunged momentarily through a dark pine wood, then broke free again. There, lying along a curve where the marshlands met the ocean, lay the town of Exmouth, Massachusetts. To Constance, it looked as she imagined a typical New England town should: a cluster of shingled houses along a main street; several church steeples; a brick town hall. As they slowed and passed down the main street, she examined her surroundings with interest.
The town had a faint air of benign neglect that only added to its charm: a seaside village with white clapboard buildings, seagulls wheeling overhead, uneven brick sidewalks and local shops. They passed a gas station, several old storefronts with plate-glass windows, a diner, a funeral parlor, a movie theater turned into a bookstore, and an eighteenth-century sea captain’s mansion, complete with widow’s walk. A sign out front identified it as the Exmouth Historical Society and Museum.
The few townspeople strolling on the sidewalks stopped and stared at them as they passed by. Constance found herself surprised at her own curiosity. Although she’d never admit it, she knew that, despite her voluminous reading, she had seen so very little of the world that she felt like a Marco Polo in her own land.
“Do you see any likely wine criminals?” Pendergast asked.
“That elderly gentleman in the madras jacket with the purple bow tie looks suspicious.”
Pendergast slowed and carelessly eased the roadster to the curb.
“We have a little time. Let us try what I understand to be a local delicacy: the lobster roll.” As they got out, the gentleman in the madras jacket passed with a nod and smile, and continued on.
“Definitely suspicious,” murmured Constance.
“He should be locked up on the strength of that bow tie alone.”
They walked along the sidewalk and turned down a lane leading to the waterfront. A cluster of fishing shacks mingled with shops and a few restaurants, and a row of piers led into a bay at the mouth of the tidal marshes. Beyond, over the waving sea grasses, Constance could see a bright line of ocean. Could she live in a town like this? Absolutely not. But it was an interesting place to visit.
Alongside the commercial pier stood a seafood shack, with a hand-painted sign of a lobster and a clam dancing to a row of mussels playing instruments.
“Two lobster rolls, please,” said Pendergast as they stepped up to the shack.
The food quickly arrived: massive chunks of lobster in a creamy sauce, overstuffed into a buttered, split-top hot dog roll and spilling out into their cardboard trays.
“How does one eat it?” Constance said, eyeing hers.
“I am at a loss.”
A two-toned police squad car eased into the nearby parking lot and made a circuit. The car slowed and the driver, a large man with captain’s bars on his shoulder, eyed them for a moment, gave a knowing smile, then continued on.
“The chief himself,” Pendergast said, tossing his uneaten lobster roll into a trash can.
“Something seemed to have amused him.”
“Yes, and I believe we shall soon discover why.”
As they strolled back up the main street, Constance saw a ticket fluttering on the Porsche’s windscreen. Pendergast pulled it out and examined it. “It seems I parked straddling two spaces. How remiss of me.”
Constance saw that Pendergast had indeed parked the car squarely across two painted parking-space lines. “But the entire street is practically free of parked cars.”
“One must obey the law.”
Pendergast tucked the ticket into his suit pocket and they got into the car. He started it up and eased back out into the main street. In a moment they had passed through town and were out the other side, the shop buildings already giving way to modest shingled houses. The road rose up through grassy meadows bordered by massive oaks before coming out on higher land overlooking the Atlantic. Ahead, toward the bluffs, Constance could see the Exmouth lighthouse—their destination. It was painted bone white with a black top and stood out against the blue sky. Next to it rose the keeper’s residence, austere as an Andrew Wyeth painting.
As they approached, Constance also made out a scattering of sculptures in a meadow along the edges of the bluff—rough-cut granite forms with polished and somewhat sinister shapes emerging from the stone: faces, body forms, mythical sea creatures. It was a striking location for a sculpture garden.
Pendergast brought the roadster to a halt in the graveled drive alongside the house. As they got out, Percival Lake appeared in the door, then strode onto the porch.
“Welcome! Good Lord, you certainly travel in style. That’s a ’55 Spyder 550, if I’m not mistaken,” he said as he came down the steps.
“A ’54, actually,” Pendergast replied. “It’s my late wife’s car. I prefer something more comfortable, but my associate, Miss Greene, insisted on it.”
“I did not,” she interjected.
“Your associate.” Constance did not like the way the man’s eyebrows rose in ironical amusement as he looked at her. “Pleased to see you again.”
She shook his hand rather coldly.
“Let us visit the scene of the crime,” said Pendergast.
“You don’t waste any time.”
“In a criminal investigation, there is an inverse relationship between the quality of evidence and the length of time it has been awaiting examination.”
“Right.” Lake led them into the house. They passed through a front hall and parlor with sweeping views of the ocean. The old house had been immaculately kept up, airy and fresh, with the sea breeze swelling the lace curtains. In the kitchen, an attractive bleached blonde in her thirties, slender and fit, was dicing carrots.
“This is my associate, Carole Hinterwasser,” Lake told them. “Please meet Agent Pendergast and Constance Greene. They are here to find my wine collection.”
The woman turned with a smile, displaying white teeth, dried her hands on a cloth, and shook their hands in turn. “Excuse me, I’m just making a mirepoix. I’m so glad you could come! Perce is really devastated. Those wines meant a lot to him—way more than the value.”
“Indeed,” said Pendergast. Constance could see his silvery eyes darting about.
“This way,” said Lake.
At the back of the kitchen stood a narrow door. Lake opened it, flicked on a light switch. It illuminated a set of steep, rickety stairs going down into darkness. A rich, cool smell of damp earth and stone rose up.
“Take care,” he cautioned. “These stairs are steep.”
They descended into a mazelike space, with stone walls covered in niter, and a stone floor. In one alcove was a furnace and water heater, in another a finished room with a collection of air tools, sandbags, protection suits, and equipment for polishing stone.
They turned a corner and came into the largest room in the basement. One wall was covered, floor to ceiling, with empty wooden wine racks. Curling yellow labels were tacked to the wood or strewn about the floor, along with broken bottles and a heavy perfume of wine.
Pendergast picked up a piece of a broken bottle, reading the label. “Chateau Latour, ’61. These burglars were singularly careless.”
“They made a mess of the place, the cretins.”
Pendergast knelt before the closest rack, examining it with a bright LED penlight. “Tell me about the weekend of the theft.”
“Carole and I had gone away to Boston. We do that frequently, to dine, go to the symphony or a museum—recharge our batteries. We left Friday afternoon and returned Sunday evening.”
The light probed here and there. “Who knew you were gone?”
“Pretty much the whole village, I imagine. We have to drive through town on our way out, and as you can see Exmouth is a small place. Everyone knows we make frequent trips to Boston.”
“You said they broke a window. I assume the house was locked?”
“Is there an alarm system?”
“No. I suppose in retrospect that seems stupid. But crime is almost nonexistent here. I can’t remember the last time there was a burglary in Exmouth.”
Now a test tube and tweezers appeared from somewhere in Pendergast’s suit. Using the tweezers, he plucked something from the wine rack and put it in the tube.
“What is the history of the house?” he asked.
“It’s one of the oldest north of Salem. As I mentioned, it was the lighthouse keeper’s place, built in 1704, and added on to at various later dates. My wife and I bought it and took our time with the renovations. As a sculptor I can work anywhere, but we found this to be an idyllic location—quiet, off the beaten track yet close to Boston. Charming and undiscovered. And the local granite is splendid. There’s a quarry just on the far side of the salt marshes. Some of the pink granite used to build the Museum of Natural History in New York came out of that quarry. Lovely stuff.”
“I should like a tour of your sculpture garden sometime.”
“Absolutely! You’re staying at the Inn, I assume? I’ll be sure to arrange a viewing.”
While Lake was praising the local granite, Constance watched as Pendergast moved about on his knees, getting his suit filthy, scrutinizing the cellar floor. “And the bottles of Braquilanges? I assume they are in that case in the far corner?”
“Yes, and thank God they missed them!”
Pendergast rose again. His pale face seemed troubled. He went over to the wine, which sat by itself in a wooden crate with the crest of the chateau stamped on it. The top was loose, and he lifted it up and peered inside. Ever so gently he reached in and removed a bottle, cradling it almost like a baby.
“Who would have believed it?” he murmured.
He put it back.
Crossing the floor, feet crunching on glass, Pendergast returned to the empty wine racks. This time he examined the upper sections. He took a few more samples, shone his light along the ceiling, and then along the floor, where the racks were anchored. Suddenly, he grasped two wooden braces holding up the center part of the racks and gave a mighty pull. With a cracking and groaning of wood the rack came away, exposing the wall behind, laid with dressed stone.
“What in the world—?” Lake began.
But Pendergast ignored him, pulling more pieces of the wine rack away, until the entire central area of the mortared wall behind the rack was exposed. Now, taking out a small penknife, he inserted it between two of the stones and began to scrape and cut, wiggling free one stone and pulling it out. He laid it with care on the ground and shone his penlight through the hole he’d made. With surprise, Constance realized there was a space behind.
“I’ll be damned,” said Lake, coming forward to look.
“Step back,” said Pendergast sharply.
He now removed a pair of latex gloves from a suit pocket and snapped them on. Then he took off his jacket and spread it on the grimy floor, placing the stone upon it. Working more rapidly, but still with great care, he removed another block of stone, and then another, arranging them faceup on his jacket. Constance winced; already the English bespoke suit looked beyond redemption.
A shallow niche gradually became exposed. It was empty, save for chains set into the stone at the top and bottom of the back wall, from which dangled wrist and leg irons. Constance contemplated these with cool detachment; she had long ago discovered similar articles in the subbasement spaces of Pendergast’s own Riverside Drive mansion. The FBI agent himself, however, had grown even paler than usual.
“I’m floored,” said Lake. “I had no idea—”
“Silence, if you please,” Constance interrupted. “My guardian—that is, Mr. Pendergast—is occupied.”
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- Nov 10, 2015
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