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Verses for the Dead
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ISABELLA GUERRERO—KNOWN to her friends and fellow bridge club members as Iris—made her way demurely through the palms of Bayside Cemetery. Overhead stretched an infinite sky of pale azure. It was seven thirty in the morning, the temperature hovered at seventy-eight degrees, and the dew that still clung to the broad-bladed St. Augustine grass drenched the leather of her sandals. One plump hand clutched a Fendi bag; the other gripped the leash against which Twinkle, her Pekingese, strained ineffectually. Iris walked gingerly through the graves and coleus plantings—only three weeks ago Grace Manizetti, laden with groceries, had lost her balance while coming back from the local Publix and broken her pelvis.
The cemetery had opened half an hour before, and Iris had the place to herself. She liked it that way—Miami Beach seemed to get more congested with every passing year. Even here in Bal Harbour, at the north end of the island, traffic was worse than she remembered from the congested New York of her childhood, growing up on Queens Boulevard. And that dreadful mall they'd built a few years back north of Ninety-Sixth had only made things worse. Not only that, but an undesirable element had begun to creep up from the south, with their bodegas and casa this and tienda that. Thank goodness Francis had had the foresight to buy the condominium in Grande Palms Atlantic, right on the beach in Surfside and safe from encroachment.
Francis. She could see his grave ahead now, the headstone a trifle bleached by the Florida sun but the plot clean and neat—she had seen to that. Twinkle, aware their destination was approaching, had ceased tugging on the leash.
She had so much to be thankful to Francis for. Since he'd been taken from her three years ago, she'd only grown more aware of her gratitude. It had been Francis who'd had the foresight to move his father's butcher business from New York City to the Florida coast, back when this section of Collins Avenue was still sleepy and inexpensive. It had been Francis who'd carefully built up the establishment over the years, teaching her how to use the weighing scales and cash register and the names and qualities of the various cuts. And it had been Francis who'd sensed just the right time to sell the business—in 2007, before real estate fell apart. The huge profit they'd made had not only allowed them to buy the Grande Palms condo (at a rock-bottom price a year later) but also ensured they could enjoy many years of comfortable retirement. Who would have guessed he'd be dead of pancreatic cancer so soon?
Iris had reached the grave now, and she paused a moment to look beyond the cemetery and admire the view. Despite the crowding and traffic, it was still a tranquil sight in its own way: the Kane Concourse arching over the Harbor Islands toward the mainland, the white triangles of sailboats tacking up Biscayne Bay. And everything drenched in warm, tropical pastels. The cemetery was an oasis of calm, never more so than early in the morning, when even in March—at the height of the tourist season—Iris knew she could spend some reflective time at the grave of her departed husband.
The little vase of artificial flowers she'd placed by the headstone was somewhat askew—no doubt thanks to the tropical storm that had blown through the day before yesterday. Knees protesting, she knelt on the grave. She righted the vase, plucked a handkerchief from her handbag, wiped off the flowers, and began to tidy them. She felt Twinkle tugging on the leash again, harder than before.
"Twinkle!" she scolded. "No!" Francis had hated the name Twinkle—short for Twinkle Toes—and had always called the dog Tyler, after the street where he'd grown up. But Iris preferred Twinkle, and somehow now that he was gone she didn't think Francis would mind.
She pressed the vase into the turf to anchor it, patted the grass all around, and leaned back to admire her work. Out of the corner of her eye she saw movement—the groundskeeper maybe, or another mourner come to pay their respects to the dead. It was almost eight now, and after all, Bayside Cemetery was the only graveyard on the whole island: she couldn't expect to have it all to herself. She'd say a prayer, the one she and Francis had always said together before retiring to bed, and then head back to Grande Palms. There was a board meeting at ten, and she had some very definite things to say about the state of the plantings around the condo's entrance loop.
Twinkle was still tugging insistently at the leash, and now he was yapping, too. She scolded him again. This wasn't like him—normally the Pekingese was relatively well behaved. Except when that awful Russian blue in 7B set him off. As she rose to her feet, mentally preparing the prayer in her mind, Twinkle seized the moment to bolt, the leash slipping off Iris's wrist. He went flying away across the damp grass, dragging the leash and barking.
"Twinkle!" she said sharply. "Come back here this instant!"
The dog came to a frantic halt at a headstone in the next row. Even at this distance she could tell the stone was older than Francis's, but not by much. There was a scattering of fresh flowers at the base and what appeared to be a handwritten note. But this was not what caught Iris's attention; flowers and notes, as well as a variety of cherished mementos, could be found on half the graves in Bayside. No: it was Twinkle himself. He'd apparently found something lying at the base of the headstone—and was making a fuss over it. She couldn't see what it was, as the object was blocked by his body, but he was hunched over it, busily sniffing and licking.
"Twinkle!" This was unseemly. The last thing Iris wanted was to make a scene in this place of repose. Had he found an old dog toy? A piece of candy, perhaps, dropped by some passing child?
The prayer would have to wait until she'd grabbed the dog's leash.
Stuffing the handkerchief back into her handbag, she strode toward Twinkle. But as she approached, scolding and tut-tutting, the dog grabbed his newfound prize and scampered off. With a mixture of dismay and embarrassment she saw him disappear into a grove of cabbage palms.
She sighed with vexation. Francis would not have approved; he'd always maintained that dogs should be well disciplined. "Fluffy little cur," he would have said. Well, Twinkle would get some discipline tonight: no Fig Newton with his Purina.
Muttering to herself, Iris followed in the direction the dog had run, stopping when she reached the stand of palms. She looked around. Twinkle was nowhere to be seen. She opened her mouth to call his name, then thought better of it—she was in a cemetery, after all. Chasing after a dog that had gotten loose was bad enough. Besides, the movement she'd noticed earlier had now resolved itself into a group of three people, two girls and a middle-aged man, standing in a semicircle around a grave to her left. It wouldn't do to make a scene.
Just then, a flurry of movement caught her eye: it was Twinkle. He was some twenty yards ahead, down near where the graveyard met the water, and he was digging frantically in an amaryllis bed. Dirt was flying everywhere.
This was terrible. Iris hustled forward as quickly as she could, clutching her bag. The dog was so engrossed in his digging that he did not notice as she came up behind, grasped the leash, and gave him a tug. Surprised, Twinkle did a half somersault, but despite being dragged away by the collar he refused to let go of his prize.
"Bad dog!" Iris scolded as loudly as she dared. "Bad dog!" She tried to grab whatever it was that Twinkle had found, intending to yank it away, but he evaded her swipe. It was the size of a miniature toy football, but it was so covered by dirt and dog slobber that she could not tell what it was.
"Drop that, do you hear me?" Twinkle growled as Iris reached for it again, and this time she managed to grab one end. She knew he wouldn't bite her—it was just a question of pulling the thing out of his jaws. But the dog's prize was disgustingly slippery, and he was holding on to it with tenacity. The two struggled, Iris dragging the dog toward her, Twinkle resisting, digging his paws in the grass. She glanced over her shoulder apprehensively, but the group at the other grave site had not noticed.
The nasty tug-of-war lasted nearly thirty seconds, but in the end the thing was just too big for the dog's small jaws to maintain a firm grip, and with one determined tug Iris managed to yank it away. As she straightened up, checking that both her handbag and leash were secure on her wrists, she registered that the thing was a piece of meat. A gluey, reddish ooze had seeped out of it during the struggle, staining her hand and dirtying Twinkle's muzzle. At the same time, she realized how unusual a piece of meat it was—tough and leathery. Her first instinct was to let go in disgust, but Twinkle would only have seized it again.
With Twinkle yapping and leaping, trying to reclaim his find, Iris reached into her handbag, pulled out the handkerchief, and began wiping the thing off. What on earth was it doing lying on a grave?
She cleaned one side, and a short, thick crimson tube—like the end of a radiator hose—sprang into view. Suddenly she stopped, frozen in horror. She had been a butcher's wife long enough to know now exactly what was in her hand. It had to be a dream, a nightmare; it could not possibly be real.
The sense of unreality lasted only a split second. With a shriek of revulsion she dropped the thing as if it had burned her. Instantly, the dog grabbed it in his gore-drenched jaws and once again slipped free, running off in triumph, leash flapping. But Iris did not notice. There was a strange roaring in her ears, and she suddenly felt a wave of heat come over her. Black spots danced around the edges of her vision. The roaring grew louder, then louder still, and the last thing she saw before crumpling to the ground in a dead faint was the group around the other grave running in her direction.
ASSISTANT DIRECTOR IN CHARGE Walter Pickett, clad only in a damp towel wrapped around his waist, relaxed in the cedar-walled sauna. It was large, with two racks of benches, and it was empty save for one other man—young and tall, with a swimmer's build—sitting at the far end near the door. Pickett himself had taken a position beside the dipper of water that helped control the sauna's heat and humidity. Pickett preferred to be in control of any situation in which he found himself.
A single sheet of paper, protected in a sheath of clear plastic, sat on the bench beside him.
He glanced over at the thermometer set into the wall, beads of moisture partly obscuring its face: a pleasant 165 degrees.
The sauna adjoined the men's dressing room and shower complex deep inside the Federal Auxiliary Support building, on Worth Street. "Auxiliary Support" contained not only a variety of satellite offices, but also a shooting range and such amenities as squash courts, a pool, and of course this sauna—and it was just around the corner from his office in 26 Federal Plaza. It was a far cry from the spartan Denver FBI office where he'd been special agent in charge until three months ago.
Since graduating from the Academy, Pickett had moved up quickly through the ranks, making a name for himself in the counterespionage and criminal enterprise divisions, as well as the Office of Professional Responsibility. All along he'd had his eye on this job: head of New York City operations. It was one of the truly top positions in the Bureau and the logical stepping-stone to Washington. Everything depended now on running a tight ship and scoring big on high-profile cases…and Pickett had no doubt of his ability to do both.
He settled back against the wall, pressing his bare shoulders to the hot wood. He could feel his pores opening in the moist heat. It was a pleasant sensation. He let his eyes half close as he ruminated. Pickett was supremely confident in his abilities, and he assiduously avoided what he had seen derail many other talented agents—he was not a blowhard, an obvious careerist, or a martinet. One of his most valuable posts had been in High-Value Detainee Interrogation, where he'd spent several formative years after the Academy. That, along with his stint in OPR, had given him a degree of psychological insight rare in an FBI supervisor. Ever since, he had put to good use what he'd learned about human behavior and the nature of persuasion.
When he'd taken over the New York Field Office, he'd found it in a state of disarray. Morale was low and case clearance rates were below average. The office felt top-heavy with desk jockeys. He had solved the latter problem via a series of transfers and early retirements. He wasn't a micromanager by nature, but he'd taken the time to look at each division, find the most promising individuals, and entrust them with positions of greater responsibility—even if it meant elevating them above their longer-serving peers. Turning the office into a true meritocracy had solved the morale issue. Despite his tenure in OPR—like all law enforcement, FBI agents distrusted people who'd worked in internal affairs—he'd earned the respect and loyalty of his subordinates. And now the New York office had become a humming, well-oiled machine. Even the case clearance rate was starting to take care of itself. He'd managed to turn things around, and do it in a single season. It was a job well done, but he was careful to conceal any trace of self-congratulation.
Despite all this, there was one issue left to deal with. It was a thorny personnel matter inherited from his predecessor. He had left this particular issue for last.
Over the years, Pickett had dealt with his share of troublesome agents. In his experience, such people were either antisocial loners or chip-on-the-shoulder types who'd come into the Bureau with a lot of personal baggage. If they were deadweights, he did not hesitate to transfer them the hell out—after all, Nebraska needed its share of field agents, too. If they showed promise, or boasted impressive records, then it came down to reconditioning. He would thrust them out of their comfort zone; dump them into an unexpected environment; give them a wholly unfamiliar task. Make sure they knew a bright light was shining on them. The technique had been effective in interrogations and internal misconduct investigations—and it was just as effective in bringing rogue agents back into the FBI family.
If this agent's file was anything to go on, the man was about as rogue as they came. But Pickett had parsed his personnel jacket—at least, its unclassified sections—and outlined a course of action designed to address the problem.
He looked up at the clock: 1:00 PM exactly. As if on cue, the sauna door opened and a man stepped in. Pickett glanced over with practiced casualness and had to restrain himself from doing a double take. The man was tall and thin, and so blond that his carefully trimmed hair was almost white. His eyes were a glacial hue and as cold and unreadable as the ice they resembled. But instead of being stripped and wearing a towel around his waist, the man wore a black suit, impeccably tailored and buttoned, along with a starched white shirt sporting a perfectly dimpled knot at the collar. His shoes were polished to a brilliant shine and were of the expensive, handmade sort. Of all the thoughts that could have wandered into Pickett's temporarily stunned mind, the foremost was: Did he actually walk through the locker room, showers, and pool dressed like that? He could only imagine the fuss it must have caused as the agent broke all the rules on his way to the sauna.
The other man in the sauna, sitting near the door, looked up, frowned in brief surprise, and glanced down again.
Pickett recovered immediately. He knew this agent had a reputation for being epically eccentric. That was why he'd chosen not only to change up the man's duty orders, but this location to discuss them. In his experience, atypical situations—such as meeting naked in a sauna—helped throw challenging subjects off balance, giving him the upper hand.
He'd let things play out.
Before speaking, he picked up the wooden dipper from the water barrel, filled it, then poured it over the sauna stones. A satisfyingly thick gush of steam wafted through the room.
"Agent Pendergast," he said in a level voice.
The man in black nodded. "Sir."
"There are several banks of lockers beyond the showers. Would you care to change out of your clothes?"
"That won't be necessary. The heat agrees with me."
Pickett looked the man up and down. "Take a seat, then."
Agent Pendergast plucked a towel from a pile near the door, walked over, wiped the bench next to Pickett free of moisture, then folded it neatly and sat down.
Pickett was careful not to show any surprise. "First," he said, "I want you to accept my condolences on the death of Howard Longstreet. He was a superb intelligence director, and I understand something of a mentor to you."
"He was the finest man I ever knew, save one."
This was not the reply Pickett had expected, but he nodded and stuck to his agenda. "I've been meaning to speak with you for some time. I hope you won't mind my being blunt."
"On the contrary. Unlike knives, blunt conversations make for the quickest work."
Pickett looked at Pendergast's face for any hint of insubordination, but the agent's expression was utterly neutral. He went on. "I'm sure it won't surprise you to learn that, in my few months as head of the New York Field Office, I've heard a lot about you—both official and unofficial. To put it frankly, you have a reputation of being a lone wolf—but one who enjoys an exceptionally high percentage of successful cases."
Pendergast accepted this compliment with a little nod, such as one might make to a partner at the beginning of a waltz. All his movements, like his speech, were measured and catlike, as if he were stalking prey.
Now Pickett delivered the backhand of the compliment. "You also have one of the highest rates of suspects not going to trial because, in the FBI vernacular, they were deceased during the course of investigation."
Another graceful nod.
"Executive Associate Director Longstreet was not only your mentor. He was also your guardian angel in the Bureau. From what I understand, he seems to have kept the inquiry boards off you; defended your more unorthodox actions; shielded you from blowback. But now that Longstreet is gone, the top brass is in something of a quandary—when it comes to dealing with you, I mean."
By now, Pickett had expected to see a degree of concern flickering in the agent's eyes. There was none. He reached for the dipper, poured more water on the stones. The temperature in the sauna rose to a toasty 180 degrees.
Pendergast straightened his tie, refolded one leg over the other. He did not even appear to be sweating.
"What we've decided to do, in short, is give you rein to continue with what you do best: pursue psychologically unorthodox killers, using the methods that have brought you success. With a few caveats, naturally."
"Naturally," Pendergast said.
"Which brings us to your next assignment. Just this morning, a human heart was found left on a grave in Miami Beach. The grave belonged to one Elise Baxter, who strangled herself with a bedsheet in Katahdin, Maine, eleven years ago. On the grave—"
"Why was Ms. Baxter buried in Florida?" Pendergast interrupted smoothly.
Pickett paused. He did not like to be interrupted. "She lived in Miami. She was in Maine on vacation. Her family had her body flown home to be interred." He paused to make sure there were no other interjections, then he picked up the sheet of plastic-enclosed paper. "On the grave was a note. It read—" he consulted the paper— "'Dear Elise, I am so sorry for what happened to you. The thought of how you must have suffered has haunted me for years. I hope you will accept this gift with my sincere condolences. So let us go then, you and I—others are awaiting gifts as well.' It was signed, 'Mister Brokenhearts.'"
Pickett paused to let this sink in.
"Very obliging of Mister Brokenhearts," Pendergast said after a moment, "although the gift does seem in rather poor taste."
Pickett frowned through the sweat gathering around his eyes, but he still caught not the slightest whiff of insubordination. The man sat there, cool as a cucumber despite the heat.
"The heart was found by a cemetery visitor at around seven forty-five this morning. At ten thirty, the body of a woman was discovered beneath some shrubbery on the Miami Beach Boardwalk, about ten miles to the south. Her heart had been cut out. Miami Beach PD is still working the scene, but we already know one thing: the victim's heart was the one found on the grave."
Now, for the first time, Pickett saw something flash in Pendergast's eyes—a gleam, like a diamond being turned toward the light.
"We don't know the connection between Elise Baxter and the woman killed today. But it seems evident there must be one. And if this mention of 'others' in the note can be trusted, more killings might be in the offing. Elise Baxter died in Maine, so even though it was a suicide, interstate jurisdiction means we're involved." He put the piece of paper down on the bench and slid it toward Pendergast. "You're heading for Miami to investigate this murder, first thing tomorrow morning."
The gleam remained in Pendergast's eyes. "Excellent. Most excellent."
Pickett's fingers tightened on the sheet as Pendergast reached for it. "There's just one thing. You'll be working with a partner."
Pendergast went still.
"I mentioned there would be a few caveats. This is the biggest. Howard Longstreet isn't around to watch your back anymore, Agent Pendergast, or to bring you home after you've gone off the reservation. The Bureau can't ignore your remarkable record of success. But neither can it ignore the high mortality rate you racked up achieving it. So we're partnering you up, which of course is normal FBI protocol. I've assigned you one of our sharpest young agents. You'll be lead agent on the case, naturally, but he'll assist—every step of the way. He'll function as both a sounding board…and, if necessary, a gut check. And who knows? You may come to appreciate the arrangement."
"I should think that my record speaks for itself," Pendergast said, in the same silky antebellum drawl. "I function best on my own. A partner can interfere with that process."
"You seemed to work well enough with that New York City cop, what's his name—D'Agosta?"
"He is exceptional."
"The man I'm giving you is also exceptional. More to the point, it's a deal breaker. Either you accept a partner, or we give the case to someone else." And let you twist in the wind until you come around, Pickett thought privately.
During this brief speech, an expression had come over Pendergast's features: a most peculiar expression, one that Pickett could not, for all his long psychological experience, identify. For a moment, the only sound was the hissing of the sauna stones.
"I'll take your silence as assent. And now's as good a time as any to meet your new partner. Agent Coldmoon, would you mind joining us?"
At this, the silent young man sitting in the far corner stood up, snugged the towel around his waist, and—bathed in a sheen of sweat—came over to stand before them. His skin was a light olive brown, and his features were fine and, in some respects, almost Asiatic. He glanced dispassionately at the men seated before him. Trim and erect, he looked almost a model agent. Only his hair—jet black, worn rather long, and parted in the middle—did not fit the image. Pickett smiled inwardly. His pairing of these two was a masterstroke. Pendergast would be in for a surprise.
"This is Special Agent Coldmoon," Pickett said. "He's been with the agency eight years, and already he's distinguished himself in both the Cyber Division and the Criminal Investigative Division. The fitness reports submitted by his superiors have never been short of exemplary. Eighteen months ago, he was awarded the FBI Shield of Bravery for meritorious service during an undercover operation in Philadelphia. I wouldn't be surprised if someday he collects as many commendations as you have. I think you'll find him a quick study."
Agent Coldmoon remained expressionless under this panegyric. Meanwhile, Pickett noticed, the strange look had left Pendergast's face, to be replaced with a genuine smile.
"Agent Coldmoon," Pendergast said, extending his hand. "A pleasure to make your acquaintance."
"Likewise." Coldmoon shook the proffered hand.
"If your credentials are anything like ADC Pickett here describes," Pendergast continued, "I'm sure you will prove a great asset to what promises to be a most interesting case."
"I'll do all I can to assist," Coldmoon said.
"Then we shall get along famously," Pendergast said. He glanced back at Pickett. Except for a single bead of moisture on Pendergast's forehead, the heat didn't seem to have affected him in the slightest: the man's shirt and suit looked as crisp as ever. "We leave for Miami first thing tomorrow morning, you say?"
Pickett nodded. "Ticket and a summary of your orders are waiting on your desk as we speak."
"In that case, I had better prepare. Thank you, sir, for considering me for this case. Agent Coldmoon, I shall see you on the morrow." He nodded at each in turn, then stood and exited the sauna—with the same light, easy movements with which he had entered.
Both men watched the sauna door close behind him. Pickett waited a full minute before speaking again. Then, when he was sure Pendergast was not coming back, he cleared his throat. "Okay," he said to Coldmoon. "You've just heard me outline your cover. You're going to play second fiddle on this case."
"Any questions about what your real assignment is regarding Pendergast?"
"Very good. I'll expect regular reports."
"That will be all."
- "Multifaceted and complex. Legendary. Working together, Preston and Child are masters at crafting a story that goes beyond a simple mystery or thriller ... Readers unfamiliar with Pendergast will find this novel a fantastic launch point. He's a modern-day Sherlock Holmes, and the story reads like classic literature."—Associated Press
- "Doug Preston and Lincoln Child's master detective A.X.L. Pendergast is every bit the modern equivalent of Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot. And his investigative skills have never been sharper than in the altogether brilliant VERSES FOR THE DEAD.... A throwback to classic crime fiction while maintaining a sharp, postmodern edge."—Providence Journal
- "The 18th installment in the Pendergast series by Preston and Child gives the hero a partner in the hunt for a strange killer... Pendergast is highly successful in closing cases on his own but 'was about as rogue as they came,' and suspects tend not to survive his investigations. Agent Coldmoon's secret assignment is to keep a close eye on his partner, 'a bomb waiting to go off' ... [VERSES FOR THE DEAD has] a nerve-wracking finish. Readers will love the quirky characters in this clever yarn. Pendergast and Coldmoon make an excellent pair. "—Kirkus (starred review)
- "This is mystery thriller writing of the highest order."—Providence Journal, on CITY OF ENDLESS NIGHT
- On Sale
- Dec 31, 2018
- Page Count
- 352 pages
- Grand Central Publishing