By David Ellis
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WHEN HIS eyes pop open, it is still dark outside, the air cool and crisp through his window. Normally, he wouldn’t be up for another hour yet, but he could hardly sleep last night waiting for today. He’s not sure, in fact, that he slept at all.
He sees the long, narrow trombone case in the corner of his bedroom and his heartbeat ratchets up. All those rehearsals, all those hours of practice until his hands and shoulders ached, until his head throbbed, all of that preparation comes down to today. It’s finally here!
He quickly brushes his teeth and puts on his Halloween costume. He picks up the trombone case and his school backpack and heads downstairs quietly, not wanting to wake his mother.
He rips open the cellophane and drops two Pop-Tarts into the toaster and pours himself a glass of milk. He drinks the milk but doesn’t touch the pastries. His stomach is churning too wildly. He will eat later, after his performance.
It is still dark, a nip in the fresh air, as he leaves his house, backpack over his shoulder, trombone case in his left hand. At the end of his street, he looks to his right, where a half mile away he can see the fog of the Atlantic, dark and endless. His eyes invariably move to the house by the ocean, perched up on the hill, the haunted mansion that, even from a distance, scowls at him.
No one ever leaves alive
The house at 7 Ocean Drive
A shiver runs through him. He shakes it off and turns left, moving north on Ocean Drive. He alternates the trombone case between his left hand and his right, because it’s heavy, and he doesn’t want it to affect his performance today.
He perks up as he approaches the school from the south end. The morning air begins to warm, a refreshing break in the chill. The sun peeks through the treetops. Leaves of assorted colors dance in the wind. He stifles the instinct to skip along like an eager little boy.
But he’s no little boy. It’s not like he’s eight or ten anymore.
He’s the first one here, just as he planned, alone with an acre of grass, nothing but an expanse of open field, leading up to the baseball diamond and playground to the south of the brick building. No trees, no shrubbery, no brick walls, nothing for the length of half a football field at least.
He turns toward the woods on the east side and finds his perch. He opens the trombone case and removes the rifle, already fully loaded.
He holds the rifle in his hands and takes a deep breath to calm his nerves. His heartbeat is at full throttle, catching in his throat, bringing a tremble to his limbs.
He looks at his Star Wars watch, which he is wearing over his Halloween costume. The first bell, the warning bell, will come soon. Some of the students will arrive early, congregating near the back door, dispersing into their little cliques or tossing a football or Frisbee around. The playground equipment, for the younger kids.
But it’s not the younger kids he wants.
He looks back at his watch, where Darth Vader tells him the time is drawing near. He wanted to dress up today as Darth, fitting for the occasion but too clunky with the oversize helmet—visibility through the rifle’s scope was nearly impossible when he tried it out.
He loses himself in his thoughts, in his fantasies, in the dancing leaves, and suddenly time has crept up on him. They are arriving. Small kids holding their parents’ hands, bouncing with animation. Older ones walking together. Superman and Batman and Aquaman, vampires and clowns, kittens and bunnies, Cinderella and Snow White and Tinker Bell, Pocahontas and Woody from Toy Story, Ronald Reagan and Simba from The Lion King and Mr. Spock—
—and the oldest ones at the school, the juniors and seniors, a few of them with some obligatory face paint or semblance of costume but generally too cool to dress up like their younger classmates—
“Showtime,” he says. He heard that word in a cable movie he wasn’t supposed to watch and thought it sounded cool. His body temperature jacks up beneath his costume.
“Showtime,” he says again as he raises his rifle, but this time he finds his voice, strong and confident, and then everything changes, like the flip of a switch inside him. A sense of calm sweeps through him, itself exhilarating: Look at him! Look at him patiently walking out from the tree cover, rifle raised, aiming and firing and clicking in the next round, aiming and firing and clicking, aim-fire-click while he walks toward the unsuspecting masses. The pop of the rifle, with each pull of the trigger, is the most invigorating sensation he’s ever felt.
Jimmy Trager howls in a combination of pain and surprise as his back arches and he staggers to the ground. Roger Ackerman, that asshole, clutches his arm and tries to run but stumbles into the leaves.
Visible in the clearing now, he drops to one knee to steady himself as screams and cries fill the air, as fifty, sixty kids scatter in all directions like cockroaches, bumping into one another, tripping over one another, dropping their school bags and covering their heads, unsure initially which way to run, heads whipping in all directions, only knowing they should run, run, run—
“By the trees!” one parent yells.
“The parking lot!” cries another.
He fires and clicks in the next round, aim-fire-click, while panic propels the population of students like a strong gust of wind. Their squeals are like music. Their terror is his oxygen. He wishes this moment would never end.
Six hit, seven, eight in the clearing near him. Another half dozen farther away.
And then he raises his rifle with a dramatic flair and takes a moment, just a moment, to savor the delicious scene, the power he holds, the havoc he has created. It’s like nothing he’s ever felt. It’s beyond words, this rush, this thrill coursing through him. And then his vision blurs, and it’s a moment before he realizes it’s not the wind causing it but his own tears.
There are probably a dozen pellets left in his BB rifle, but he’s out of time. Faculty will pour out of the building any second. The STPD will be called. And he accomplished what he wanted, anyway. Just some superficial pellet wounds.
But wow, was that fun!
And I’m only twelve years old, he thinks. You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.
NOAH WALKER stands carefully on the roof of his house, takes a moment to ensure his balance, and removes the Yankees cap from his head to wipe the sweat off his brow under the scorching early-June sun. He never minded roofing work, but it’s different when it’s your own roof, the place you’re renting, and the only reason you’re doing it is the landlord will take six months to get to it, and you’re sick of water spots on the ceiling.
He runs his hands through his thick, wavy hair. The Matthew McConaughey look, Paige calls it, noting that he has the physique to match. He’s heard that comparison for years and never thought much of it. He never thought much of what anyone thought or said about him. If he did, he sure as hell wouldn’t still be living in the Hamptons.
He hears the crunch of car tires down the road, the hum of a powerful, well-maintained engine. The unpaved roads just off Sag Harbor Turnpike are uneven at best, sometimes bumpy and other times outright treacherous. Not like the roads by the ocean, by the forty-thousand-square-foot mansions where the elite like to “summer.” Not that he should bitch too much about the blue bloods; he makes twice as much from May to August, doing their bidding, as he does the rest of the year combined. He fixes what they need fixed. He digs what they need dug. He stomachs their condescension.
“Paige,” he says to himself, even before her black-on-black Aston Martin convertible pulls into his driveway and parks next to his nineteen-year-old reconstructed Harley. She’s not being discreet. She should probably be more careful. But back here in the woods where he lives, people don’t mingle with the wealth, so there’s no real danger of this getting back to Paige’s husband, John Sulzman. It’s not like his neighbors are going to run into Paige’s husband at some high-society event. The closest people like him have ever come to a tuxedo is watching penguins on the Discovery Channel. Same zip code, different world.
Paige floats out of her convertible with the same grace with which she always carries herself. Noah feels the primal yearning that always accompanies the first sight of her. Paige Sulzman is one of those people for whom beauty is effortless, a privilege, not a chore. In her white hat and polka-dot dress, one hand holding the hat in place in the wind, she looks every bit the Manhattan socialite she is, but she hails from upstate originally and has maintained a sense of proportion and humility.
Paige. There’s something refreshing about her. She is a natural beauty, with her shiny blond hair and killer figure, her softly upturned nose and stunning hazel eyes. But it’s not just her looks. She has a sharp wit, the ability to laugh at herself, the manners of a well-raised girl. She’s one of the most sincere and decent people he’s ever known.
She’s pretty good in bed, too.
Noah climbs down the back and meets her inside the house. She rushes to him and plants her lips against his, her hands on his bare chest.
“I thought you were in Manhattan,” he says.
She gives him a mock pout with those juicy lips. “That’s not much of a greeting, mister. How about, ‘Paige, I’m so very thrilled to see you!’”
“I am thrilled.” And he is. He first saw Paige three years ago when he was cleaning the gutters on the Sulzman estate. Her image lingered with him long after. It was only six weeks ago that the stars aligned.
The prospect of Paige has always been both exhilarating and terrifying. Exhilarating, because he’s never met someone who could light that flame inside him quite like she can. And terrifying, because she’s married to John Sulzman.
But all that can wait. The electricity between them is palpable. His big rough hands trace the outline of her dress, cup her impressive breasts, run through her silky hair, as she lets out gentle moans and works the zipper on his blue jeans.
“I’m going to leave him,” she says to him between halting breaths. “I’m going to do it.”
“You can’t,” says Noah. “He’ll…kill you.”
She lets out a small gasp as Noah’s hand reaches inside her panties. “I’m tired of being afraid of him. I don’t care what he—what he—oh—oh, Noah—”
He lifts her off her feet and they bump against the front door, pushing it closed with a thud, a sound that seems to coincide with a similar sound, another door closing outside.
Noah carries Paige into the family room. He lays her down on the rug and rips her dress open, buttons flying, and brings his mouth to her breasts, then slides down to her panties. A moment later, her underwear has been removed and her legs are wrapped around his neck, her moans growing more urgent until she is calling out his name.
He moves upward and works his jeans down, freeing himself. He braces himself over Paige and gently slides inside her, her back arching in response. They find a rhythm, first slow and then urgent, and the sensation courses through Noah, the intensity building, a dam about to burst—
Then he hears another door closing. Then another.
He stops, suddenly, and raises his head.
“Someone’s here,” he says.
NOAH PULLS on his underwear and scrambles to his haunches, staying low. “Are you sure your husband—”
“I don’t see how.”
She doesn’t see how? John Sulzman has endless resources, more money than some small countries. He easily could have tailed someone like Paige, who is far too innocent to notice something like that.
Noah takes one deep breath; his heartbeat slows and his veins turn icy. He finds his jeans on the floor and fishes the knife out of his back pocket.
“Go upstairs and hide,” he tells Paige.
“I’m not going anywhere.”
He doesn’t bother to argue the point. Paige wouldn’t listen, anyway.
And besides, they’re not here for Paige. They’re here for him.
Noah hears movement outside, not voices and nothing deliberate, which makes it worse—they aren’t announcing themselves. He stays low and slips out of the living room, but not before catching a glimpse through the window of bodies in motion, some rushing around the side of the house, others toward the front door.
A small army is descending on his house. And he has nothing but a roofing knife.
In the hallway now, he faces the front door. There is little point in hiding. If he hid, they’d find him, and they’d be braced for action when they did, their guns poised, fanned out in some defensive formation. No, his only option is to get them when they come in, when they think they’re sneaking in on a lovers’ tryst, when they think Noah won’t be ready for them. Surprise them, hurt them, and escape.
He hears the back door slam open at the same time that the front doorknob turns slowly. They’re coming from both directions at once. He has almost no chance.
But he has nothing to lose, he figures, as he tightens his grip on the knife.
He moves one leg back, like a sprinter locking into his blocks before a race, ready to spring toward the front door with his knife, as the doorknob completes its rotation, as his pulse drums in his throat, as the front door pops open.
He lunges forward, ready to sweep the knife upward—
—a woman, a redhead dressed in blue jeans and a flak jacket, a gun held at her side, a badge dangling from a lanyard around her neck—
—he tries to halt his momentum, falling to his knees, sliding forward. The woman spins and kicks up her leg, and Noah sees the treads of her shoe just before impact. His head snaps back from the kick. His body arches and his head smacks the floor, stars and jagged lines dancing on the ceiling.
“Drop the knife or I drop you!” she says evenly. “STPD.”
Noah blinks hard, his heartbeat still hammering. STPD.
“Toss the knife, Noah!” says the redheaded cop as several other officers flood in behind her.
“Jesus, okay.” Noah drops the knife to the floor. Blood drips into the back of his mouth. A searing pain shoots through his nose and eyes.
“Don’t move!” the other officers yell at Paige. “Hands in the air!”
“Don’t hurt her!” Noah says. “She didn’t do any—”
“Noah, you resist me again and I’ll put you in the hospital.” The redhead puts her foot on his chest. Despite his predicament, and the pain drumming through his head, and the fear gripping his heart, he registers this cop for the first time, her striking ice-blue eyes, her shiny red hair pulled back, her confidence.
“What—what is this?” he manages. His initial reaction of relief—nobody’s going to kill him—is short-lived, especially with the crew of cops flooding in from the back now. Ten officers, he guesses, all wearing bulletproof vests and heavily armed.
“You don’t have the right to do this!” Paige shouts from the other room. It comes out as half protest, half lecture, the kind of thing a person with money would say, someone who doesn’t shrink in the face of the cops like others might.
About the only thing Noah can see, through his blurred vision, is the female cop staring down at him. He’s in his underwear, flat on his back with her foot on his chest and a pretty good shiner developing from the kick to his face. But hearing Paige’s cry sets off something within him.
“This is my home,” he hisses, his hands forming into fists. “You have a problem with me, knock on my door and tell me.”
“We have a problem with you, Noah,” she says. “Feel better?”
Noah’s eyes catch Detective Isaac Marks, whom Noah has known for years, going back to school days. Marks doesn’t give much of a reaction, save for a small shrug of one shoulder.
The redhead orders Noah to roll over. She cuffs him and yanks him to his feet. The sudden movement, coupled with the concussive effects from the kick to his face, leaves Noah’s legs unsteady.
“This is ridiculous,” he says. “Does Dr. Redmond say I took his Rolex again? Tell him to look in the couch cushions.” It wouldn’t be the first time one of the gazillionaires misplaced something and accused the help of pilfering it. A movie producer once had Noah arrested for stealing his golf clubs, only to realize later he’d left them in the trunk of his car. “And do you think you brought enough cops?”
“Is that why you rushed me with a knife?” asks the redhead. “Because you thought I wanted to question you about a watch?”
“He knows this isn’t about a Rolex.” Noah recognizes the voice before he sees Langdon James swagger into the house. He’s been the chief of the Southampton Town Police Department for over fifteen years. His jowls now hang over his collar, his belly over his belt, and his hair has gone completely gray, but he still has the baritone voice and thick sideburns.
What the hell is the chief doing here?
“Detective Murphy,” the chief says to the redhead, “take him to the station. I’ll handle the search of his house.”
“Will someone tell me what’s going on?” Noah demands, unable to conceal the fear choking his voice.
“Be happy to,” says the chief. “Noah Walker, you’re under arrest for the murders of Melanie Phillips and Zachary Stern.”
THE FUNERAL for Melanie Phillips is heavily attended, filling the pews of the Presbyterian church and overflowing onto Main Street. She was all of twenty years old when she was murdered, every day of which she lived in Bridgehampton. Poor girl, never got to see the world, though for some people, the place you grew up is your world. Maybe that was Melanie. Maybe all she ever wanted was to be a waitress at Tasty’s Diner, serving steamers and lobster to tourists and townies and the occasional rich couple looking to drink in the “local environment.”
But with her looks, at least from what I’ve seen in photos, she probably had bigger plans. A young woman like that, with luminous brown hair and sculpted features, could have been in magazines. That, no doubt, is why she caught the attention of Zach Stern, the head of a talent agency that included A-list celebrities, a man who owned his own jet and who liked to hang out in the Hamptons now and then.
And that, no doubt, is also why she caught the attention of Noah Walker, who apparently had quite an affinity for young Melanie himself and must not have taken too kindly to her affair with Zach.
It was only four nights ago that Zachary Stern and Melanie Phillips were found dead, victims of a brutal murder in a rental house near the beach that Zach had leased for the week. The carnage was brutal enough that Melanie’s service was closed-casket.
So the crowd is due in part to Melanie’s local popularity, and in part to the media interest, given Zach Stern’s notoriety in Hollywood.
It is also due, I am told, to the fact that the murders occurred at 7 Ocean Drive, which among the locals has become known as the Murder House.
Now we’ve moved to the burial, which is just next door to the church. It allows the throng that couldn’t get inside the church to mill around the south end of the cemetery, where Melanie Phillips will be laid to rest. There must be three hundred people here, if you count the media, which for the most part are keeping a respectful distance even while they snap their photographs.
The overhead sun at midday is strong enough for squinting and sunglasses, both of which make it harder for me to do what I came here to do, which is to check out the people attending the funeral to see if anyone pings my radar. Some of these creeps like to come and watch the sorrow they caused, so it’s standard operating procedure to scan the crowd at crime scenes and funerals.
“Remind me why we’re here, Detective Murphy,” says my partner, Isaac Marks.
“I’m paying my respects.”
“You didn’t know Melanie,” he says.
True enough. I don’t know anyone around here. Once upon a time, my family came here every summer, a good three-week stretch straddling June and July, to stay with Uncle Langdon and Aunt Chloe. My memories of those summers—beaches and boat rides and fishing off the docks—end at age eight.
For some reason I never knew, my family stopped coming after that. Until nine months ago when I joined the force, I hadn’t set foot in the Hamptons for eighteen years.
“I’m working on my suntan,” I say.
“Not to mention,” says Isaac, ignoring my remark, “that we already have our bad guy in custody.”
Also true. We arrested Noah Walker yesterday. He’ll get a bond hearing tomorrow, but there’s no way the judge is going to bond him out on a double murder.
“And might I further add,” says Isaac, “that this isn’t even your case.”
Right again. I volunteered to lead the team arresting Noah, but I wasn’t given the case. In fact, the chief—my aforementioned uncle Langdon—is handling the matter personally. The town, especially the hoity-toity millionaires along the beach, just about busted a collective gut when the celebrity agent Zach Stern was brutally murdered in their scenic little hamlet. It’s the kind of case that could cost the chief his job, if he isn’t careful. I’m told the town supervisor has been calling him on the hour for updates.
So why am I here, at a funeral for someone I don’t know, on a case that isn’t mine? Because I’m bored. Because since I left the NYPD, I haven’t seen any action. And because I’ve handled more homicides in eight years on the force than all of these cops in Bridgehampton put together. Translation: I wanted the case, and I was a little displeased when I didn’t get it.
“Who’s that?” I ask, gesturing across the way to an odd-looking man in a green cap, with long stringy hair and ratty clothes. Deep-set, creepy eyes that seem to wander. He shifts his weight from foot to foot, unable to stay still.
Isaac pushes down his sunglasses to get a better look. “Oh, that’s Aiden Willis,” he says. “He works for the church. Probably dug Melanie’s grave.”
“Looks like he slept in it first.”
Isaac likes that. “Seriously, Murphy. You’re looking for suspects? With all you know about this case, which is diddly-squat, you don’t like Noah Walker for the murders?”
“I’m not saying that,” I answer.
“You’re not denying it, either.”
I consider that. He’s right, of course. What the hell do I know about Noah Walker or the evidence against him? He may not have jumped out at me as someone who’d just committed a brutal double murder, but when do public faces ever match private misdeeds? I once busted a second-grade schoolteacher who was selling heroin to the high school kids. And a teenage volunteer who was boning the corpses in the basement of the hospital. You never know people. And I’d known Noah Walker for all of thirty minutes.
“Go home,” says Isaac. “Go work out—”
Already did this morning.
“—or see the ocean—”
I’ve seen it already. It’s a really big body of water.
“—or have a drink.”
- On Sale
- Sep 28, 2015
- Page Count
- 480 pages
- Little, Brown and Company