Read by Scott Brick
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CELEBRATING THE 20th ANNIVERSARY WITH A NEW FOREWORD BY THE AUTHOR
Wounded in the line of duty, NYPD homicide detective John Corey convalesces in the Long Island township of Southold, home to farmers, fishermen — and at least one killer. Tom and Judy Gordon, a young, attractive couple Corey knows, have been found on their patio, each with a bullet in the head. The local police chief, Sylvester Maxwell, wants Corey’s big-city expertise, but Maxwell gets more than he bargained for.
John Corey doesn’t like mysteries, which is why he likes to solve them. His investigations lead him into the lore, legends, and ancient secrets of northern Long Island — more deadly and more dangerous than he could ever have imagined. During his journey of discovery, he meets two remarkable women, Detective Beth Penrose and Mayflower descendant Emma Whitestone, both of whom change his life irrevocably. Ultimately, through his understanding of the murders, John Corey comes to understand himself.
Fast-paced and atmospheric, marked by entrancing characters, incandescent storytelling, and brilliant comic touches, Plum Island is Nelson DeMille at his thrill-inducing best.
Table of Contents
A Preview of Radiant Angel
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Through my binoculars, I could see this nice forty-something-foot cabin cruiser anchored a few hundred yards offshore. There were two thirtyish couples aboard, having a merry old time, sunbathing, banging down brews and whatever. The women had on teensey-weensey little bottoms and no tops, and one of the guys was standing on the bow, and he slipped off his trunks and stood there a minute hanging hog, then jumped in the bay and swam around the boat. What a great country. I put down my binoculars and popped a Budweiser.
It was late summer, not meaning late August, but meaning September, before the autumnal equinox. Labor Day weekend had gone, and Indian summer was coming, whatever that is.
I, John Corey by name, convalescing cop by profession, was sitting on my uncle's back porch, deep in a wicker chair with shallow thoughts running through my mind. It occurred to me that the problem with doing nothing is not knowing when you're finished.
The porch is an old-fashioned wraparound, circling three sides of an 1890s Victorian farmhouse, all shingle and gingerbread, turrets, gables, the whole nine yards. From where I sat, I could see south across a sloping green lawn to the Great Peconic Bay. The sun was low on the western horizon, which was where it belonged at 6:45 P.M. I'm a city boy, but I was really getting into the country stuff, the sky and all that, and I finally found the Big Dipper a few weeks ago.
I was wearing a plain white T-shirt and cutoff jeans that used to fit before I lost too much weight. My bare feet were propped on the rail, and between my left and right big toes was framed the aforementioned cabin cruiser.
About this time of day you can start to hear crickets, locusts, and who knows what, but I'm not a big fan of nature noises so I had a portable tape player beside me on the end table with The Big Chill cranking, and the Bud in my left hand, the binocs in my lap, and lying on the floor near my right hand was my off-duty piece, a Smith & Wesson .38 revolver with a two-inch barrel which fit nicely in my purse. Just kidding.
Somewhere in the two seconds of silence between "When a Man Loves a Woman" and "Dancing in the Street," I could hear or feel on the creaky old floorboards that someone was walking around the porch. Since I live alone and was expecting no one, I took the .38 in my right hand and rested it on my lap. So you don't think I'm a paranoid citizen, I should mention that I was convalescing, not from the mumps, but from three bullet wounds, two 9mm and one .44 caliber Magnum, not that the size of the holes matters. As with real estate, what matters with bullet holes is location, location, location. Obviously these holes were in the right locations, because I was convalescing, not decomposing.
I looked to my right where the porch turned around the west side of the house. A man appeared around the corner, then stopped about fifteen feet from me, searching the long shadows cast by the setting sun. In fact, the man cast a long shadow himself which passed over me, so he didn't seem to see me. But with the sun at his back, it was also difficult for me to see his face or to guess his intentions. I said, "Help you?"
He turned his head toward me. "Oh… hey, John. Didn't see you there."
"Have a seat, Chief." I slipped my revolver into my waistband under my T-shirt, then lowered the volume on "Dancing in the Street."
Sylvester Maxwell, aka Max, who is the law in these here parts, sauntered toward me and plopped his butt on the rail, facing me. He was wearing a blue blazer, white button-down shirt, tan cotton slacks, boating shoes, and no socks. I couldn't tell if he was on or off duty. I said, "There're some soft drinks in that cooler."
"Thanks." He reached down and rescued a Budweiser from the ice. Max likes to call beer a soft drink.
He sipped awhile, contemplating a point in space about two feet from his nose. I directed my attention back toward the bay and listened to "Too Many Fish in the Sea"—The Marvelettes. It was Monday, so the weekenders were gone, thank God, and it was as I said after Labor Day when most of the summer rentals terminate, and you could feel the solitude returning again. Max is a local boy and he doesn't get right down to business, so you just wait it out. He finally asked me, "You own this place?"
"My uncle does. He wants me to buy it."
"Don't buy anything. My philosophy is, if it flies, floats, or fucks, rent it."
"You going to be staying here awhile?"
"Until the wind stops whistling through my chest."
He smiled, but then got contemplative again. Max is a big man, about my age, which is to say mid-forties, wavy blond hair, ruddy skin, and blue eyes. Women seem to find him good-looking, which works for Chief Maxwell, who is single and hetero.
He said, "So, how're you feeling?"
"Do you feel like some mental exercise?" I didn't reply. I've known Max about ten years, but since I don't live around here, I only see him now and then. I should say at this point that I'm a New York City homicide detective, formerly working out of Manhattan North until I went down. That was on April twelfth. A homicide detective hadn't gone down in New York in about two decades so it made big news. The NYPD Public Information Office kept it going because it's contract time again, and with me being so personable, good-looking, and so forth, they milked it a little and the media cooperated, and round and round we go. Meanwhile, the two perps who plugged me are still out there. So, I spent a month in Columbia Presbyterian, then a few weeks in my Manhattan condo, then Uncle Harry suggested that his summer house was a fitting place for a hero. Why not? I arrived here in late May, right after Memorial Day.
Max said, "I think you knew Tom and Judy Gordon."
I looked at him. Our eyes met. I understood. I asked, "Both of them?"
He nodded. "Both." After a moment of respectful silence, he said, "I'd like you to take a look at the scene."
"Why not? As a favor to me. Before everyone else gets a piece of it. I'm short on homicide detectives."
In fact, the Southold Town Police Department has no homicide detectives, which usually works out okay because very few people get iced out here. When someone does, the Suffolk County police respond with a homicide detail to take over, and Max steps aside. Max does not like this.
A bit of locale here—this is the North Fork of Long Island, State of New York, the Township of Southold, founded, according to a plaque out on the highway, in sixteen-forty-something by some people from New Haven, Connecticut, who, for all anybody knows, were on the lam from the king. The South Fork of Long Island, which is on the other side of Peconic Bay, is the trendy Hamptons: writers, artists, actors, publishing types, and other assorted anals. Here, on the North Fork, the folks are farmers, fishermen, and such. And perhaps one murderer.
Anyway, Uncle Harry's house is specifically located in the hamlet of Mattituck, which is about a hundred road miles from West 102nd Street where two Hispanic-looking gentlemen had pumped fourteen or fifteen shots at yours truly, accomplishing three hits on a moving target at twenty to thirty feet. Not an impressive showing, but I'm not criticizing or complaining.
Anyway, the Township of Southold comprises most of the North Fork, and contains eight hamlets and one village, named Greenport, and one police force of maybe forty sworn officers, and Sylvester Maxwell is the chief, so there it is.
Max said, "It doesn't hurt to look."
"Sure it does. What if I get subpoenaed to testify out here at some inconvenient time? I'm not getting paid for this."
"Actually, I called the town supervisor and got an okay to hire you, officially, as a consultant. A hundred bucks a day."
"Wow. Sounds like the kind of job I have to save up for."
Max allowed himself a smile. "Hey, it covers your gas and phone. You're not doing anything anyway."
"I'm trying to get the hole in my right lung to close."
"This won't be strenuous."
"How do you know?"
"It's your chance to be a good Southold citizen."
"I'm a New Yorker. I'm not supposed to be a good citizen."
"Hey, did you know the Gordons well? Were they friends?"
"So? There's your motivation. Come on, John. Get up. Let's go. I'll owe you a favor. Fix a ticket."
In truth, I was bored, and the Gordons were good people.… I stood and put down my beer. "I'll take the job at a buck a week to make me official."
"Good. You won't regret it."
"Of course I will." I turned off "Jeremiah Was a Bullfrog" and asked Max, "Is there a lot of blood?"
"A little. Head wounds."
"You think I need my flip-flops?"
"Well… some brains and skull blew out the back.…"
"Okay." I slipped into my flip-flops, and Max and I walked around the porch to the circular driveway in the front of the house. I got into his unmarked PD, a white Jeep Cherokee with a squawky police radio.
We drove down the long driveway, which was covered with about a hundred years' worth of raw oyster and clam shells because Uncle Harry and everyone before him threw shells on the driveway along with the ash and cinders from the coal furnace to keep the mud and dust down. Anyway, this used to be what's called a bay farm estate, and it's still bayfront, but most of the farm acreage has been sold. The landscape is a little overgrown, and the flora is mostly the kind of stuff they don't use much anymore, such as forsythia, pussy willow, and privet hedges. The house itself is painted cream with green trim and a green roof. It's all pretty charming, really, and maybe I will buy it if the cop docs say I'm through. I should practice coughing up blood.
On the subject of my disability, I have a good shot at a three-quarter, tax-free pension for life. This is the NYPD equivalent of going to Atlantic City, tripping over a tear in the rug at Trump's Castle, and hitting your head on a slot machine in full view of a liability lawyer. Jackpot!
"Did you hear me?"
"I said, they were found at 5:45 P.M. by a neighbor—"
"Am I on retainer now?"
"Sure. They were both shot once in the head, and the neighbor found them lying on their patio deck—"
"Max, I'm going to see all this. Tell me about the neighbor."
"Right. His name is Edgar Murphy, an old gent. He heard the Gordons' boat come in about 5:30, and about fifteen minutes later he walks over and finds them murdered. Never heard a shot."
"No. I asked him. His wife's got okay hearing, too, according to Edgar. So maybe it was a silencer. Maybe they're deafer than they think."
"But they heard the boat. Edgar is sure about the time?"
"Pretty sure. He called us at 5:51 P.M., so that's close."
"Right." I looked at my watch. It was now 7:10 P.M. Max must have had the bright idea to come collect me very soon after he got on the scene. I assumed the Suffolk County homicide guys were there by now. They would have come in from a little town called Yaphank where the county police are headquartered and which is about an hour drive to where the Gordons lived.
Max was going on about this and that, and I tried to get my mind into gear, but it had been about five months since I had to think about things like this. I was tempted to snap, "Just the facts, Max!" but I let him drone on. Also, "Jeremiah Was a Bullfrog" kept playing in my head, and it's really annoying, as you know, when you can't get a tune out of your head. Especially that one.
I looked out the open side window. We were driving along the main east-west road, which is conveniently called Main Road, toward a place called Nassau Point where the Gordons live—or lived. The North Fork is sort of like Cape Cod, a windswept jut of land surrounded on three sides by water and covered with history.
The full-time population is a little thin, about twenty thousand folks, but there are a lot of summer and weekend types, and the new wineries have attracted day-trippers. Put up a winery and you get ten thousand wine-sipping yuppie slime from the nearest urban center. Never fails.
Anyway, we turned south onto Nassau Point, which is a two-mile-long, cleaver-shaped point of land that cuts into the Great Peconic Bay. From my dock to the Gordons' dock is about four miles.
Nassau Point has been a summer place since about the 1920s, and the homes range from simple bungalows to substantial establishments. Albert Einstein summered here, and it was from here in nineteen-thirty-whatever that he wrote his famous "Nassau Point Letter" to Roosevelt urging the president to get moving on the atomic bomb. The rest, as they say, is history.
Interestingly, Nassau Point is still home to a number of scientists; some work at Brookhaven National Laboratory, a secret nuclear something or other about thirty-five miles west of here, and some scientists work on Plum Island, a very top secret biological research site which is so scary it has to be housed on an island. Plum Island is about two miles off the tip of Orient Point, which is the last piece of land on the North Fork—next stop Europe.
Not incidental to all this, Tom and Judy Gordon were biologists who worked on Plum Island, and you can bet that both Sylvester Maxwell and John Corey were thinking about that. I asked Max, "Did you call the Feds?"
He shook his head.
"Murder is not a federal offense."
"You know what I'm talking about, Max."
Chief Maxwell didn't respond.
We approached the Gordon house nestled on a small lane on the west shore of the point. The house was a 1960s ranch type that had been made over into a 1990s contemporary. The Gordons, from somewhere out in the Midwest, and uncertain about their career paths, were leasing the house with an option to buy, as they once mentioned to me. I think if I worked with the stuff they worked with, I, too, wouldn't make any long-range plans. Hell, I wouldn't even buy green bananas.
I turned my attention to the scene outside the windows of the Jeep. On this pleasant, shady lane, little knots of neighbors and kids on bicycles stood around in the long purple shadows, talking, and looking at the Gordon house. Three Southold police cars were parked in front of the house, as were two unmarked cars. A county forensic van blocked the driveway. It's a good policy not to drive onto or park at a crime scene so as not to destroy evidence, and I was encouraged to see that Max's little rural police force was up to snuff so far.
Also on the street were two TV vans, one from a local Long Island news station, the other an NBC News van.
I noticed, too, a bunch of reporter types chatting up the neighbors, whipping microphones in front of anyone who opened his mouth. It wasn't quite a media circus yet, but it would be when the rest of the news sharks got on to the Plum Island connection.
Yellow crime scene tape was wrapped from tree to tree, cordoning off the house and grounds. Max pulled up behind the forensic van and we got out. A few cameras flashed, then a bunch of big video lights went on, and we were being taped for the eleven o'clock news. I hoped the disability board wasn't watching, not to mention the perps who'd tried to ice moi, and who would now know where I was.
Standing in the driveway was a uniformed officer with a pad—the crime scene recorder—and Max gave him my name, title, and so forth, so I was officially logged in, now subject to subpoenas from the DA and potential defense attorneys. This was exactly what I didn't want, but I had been home when fate called.
We walked up the gravel driveway and passed through a moongate into the backyard, which was mostly cedar deck, multileveled as it cascaded from the house down to the bay and ended at the long dock where the Gordons' boat was tied. It was really a beautiful evening, and I wished Tom and Judy were alive to see it.
I observed the usual contingent of forensic lab people, plus three uniformed Southold town cops and a woman overdressed in a light tan suit jacket and matching skirt, white blouse, and sensible shoes. At first I thought she might be family, called in to ID the bodies and so forth, but then I saw she was holding a notebook and pen and looking official.
Lying on the nice silver-gray cedar deck, side by side on their backs, were Tom and Judy, their feet toward the house and their heads toward the bay, arms and legs askew as though they were making snow angels. A police photographer was taking pictures of the bodies, and the flash lit up the deck and did a weird thing to the corpses, making them look sort of ghoulish for a microsecond, à la Night of the Living Dead.
I stared at the bodies. Tom and Judy Gordon were in their mid-thirties, in very good shape, and even in death a uniquely handsome couple—so much so that they were sometimes mistaken for celebrities when they dined out in the more fashionable spots.
They both wore blue jeans, running shoes, and polo shirts. Tom's shirt was black with some marine supply logo on the front, and Judy's was a more chic hunter green with a little yellow sailboat on the left breast.
Max, I suspected, didn't see many murdered people in the course of a year, but he probably saw enough natural deaths, suicides, car wrecks, and such so that he wasn't going to go green. He looked grim, concerned, pensive, and professional, but kept glancing at the bodies as if he couldn't believe there were murdered people lying right there on the nice deck.
Yours truly, on the other hand, working as I do in a city that counts about 1,500 murders a year, am no stranger to death, as they say. I don't see all 1,500 corpses, but I see enough so that I'm no longer surprised, sickened, shocked, or saddened. Yet, when it's someone you knew and liked, it makes a difference.
I walked across the deck and stopped near Tom Gordon. Tom had a bullet hole at the bridge of his nose. Judy had a hole in the side of her left temple.
Assuming there was only one shooter, then Tom, being a strapping guy, had probably gotten it first, a single shot to the head; then Judy, turning in disbelief toward her husband, had taken the second bullet in the side of her temple. The two bullets had probably gone through their skulls and dropped into the bay. Bad luck for ballistics.
I've never been to a homicide scene that didn't have a smell—unbelievably foul, if the victims had been dead awhile. If there was blood, I could always smell it, and if a body cavity had been penetrated, there was usually a peculiar smell of innards. This is something I'd like not to smell again; the last time I smelled blood, it was my own. Anyway, the fact that this was an outdoor killing helped.
I looked around and couldn't see any place close by where the shooter could hide. The sliding glass door of the house was open and maybe the shooter had been in there, but that was twenty feet from the bodies, and not many people can get a good head shot from that distance with a pistol. I was living proof of that. At twenty feet you go for a body shot first, then get in close and finish up with a head shot. So there were two possibilities: the shooter was using a rifle, not a pistol, or, the shooter was able to walk right up to them without causing them any alarm. Someone normal-looking, nonthreatening, maybe even someone they knew. The Gordons had gotten out of their boat, walked up the deck, they saw this person at some point and kept walking toward him or her. The person raised a pistol from no more than five feet away and drilled both of them.
I looked beyond the bodies and saw little colored pin flags stuck in the cedar planking here and there. "Red is for blood?"
Max nodded. "White is skull, gray is—"
"Got it." Glad I wore the flip-flops.
Max informed me, "The exit wounds are big, like the whole back of their skulls are gone. And, as you can see, the entry wounds are big. I'm guessing a .45 caliber. We haven't found the two bullets yet. They probably went into the bay."
I didn't reply.
Max motioned toward the sliding glass doors. He informed me, "The sliding door was forced and the house is ransacked. No big items missing—TV, computer, CD player, and all that stuff is there. But there may be jewelry and small stuff missing."
I contemplated this a moment. The Gordons, like most egghead types on a government salary, didn't own much jewelry, art, or anything like that. A druggie would grab the pricey electronics and such, and beat feet.
Max said, "Here's what I think—a burglar or burglars were doing their thing, he, she, or they see the Gordons approaching through the glass door; he, she, or they step out onto the deck, fire, and flee." He looked at me. "Right?"
"If you say so."
"I say so."
"Got it." Sounded better than Home of Top Secret Germ Warfare Scientists Ransacked and Scientists Found Murdered.
Max moved closer to me and said softly, "What do you think, John?"
"Was that a hundred an hour?"
"Come on, guy, don't jerk me around. We got maybe a world-class double murder on our hands."
I replied, "But you just said it could be a simple homeowner-comes-on-the-scene-and-gets-iced kind of thing."
"Yeah, but it turns out that the homeowners are… whatever they are." He looked at me and said, "Reconstruct."
"Okay. You understand that the perp did not fire from that sliding glass door. He was standing right in front of them. The door you found open was closed then so that the Gordons saw nothing unusual as they approached the house. The gunman was possibly sitting here in one of these chairs, and he may have arrived by boat since he wasn't going to park his car out front where the world could see it. Or maybe he was dropped off. In either case, the Gordons either knew him or were not unduly troubled by his presence on their back deck, and maybe it's a woman, nice and sweet-looking, and the Gordons walk toward her and she toward them. They may have exchanged a word or two, but very soon after, the murderer produced a pistol and blew them away."
Chief Maxwell nodded.
"If the perp was looking for anything inside, it wasn't jewelry or cash, it was papers. You know—bug stuff. He didn't kill the Gordons because they stumbled onto him; he killed them because he wanted them dead. He was waiting for them. You know all this."
I said, "Then again, Max, I've seen a lot of bungled and screwed-up burglaries where the homeowner got killed, and the burglar got nothing. When it's a druggie thing, nothing makes sense."
Chief Maxwell rubbed his chin as he contemplated a hophead with a gun on one hand, a cool assassin on the other, and whatever might fall in between.
While he did that, I knelt beside the bodies, closest to Judy. Her eyes were open, really wide open, and she looked surprised. Tom's eyes were open, too, but he looked more peaceful than his wife. The flies had found the blood around the wounds, and I was tempted to shoo them away, but it didn't matter.
I examined the bodies more closely without touching anything that would get the forensic types all bent up. I looked at hair, nails, skin, clothing, shoes, and so on. When I was done, I patted Judy's cheek and stood.
Maxwell asked me, "How long did you know them?"
"Since about June."
"Have you been to this house before?"
"Yes. You get to ask me one more question."
"Well… I have to ask.… Where were you about 5:30 P.M.?"
"With your girlfriend."
He smiled, but he was not amused.
I asked Max, "How well did you know them?"
He hesitated a moment, then replied, "Just socially.
My girlfriend drags me to wine tastings and crap like that."
"Does she? And how did you know I knew them?"
"They mentioned they met a New York cop who was convalescing. I said I knew you."
"Small world," I said.
He didn't reply.
I looked around the backyard. To the east was the house, and to the south was a thick line of tall hedges, and beyond the hedges was the home of Edgar Murphy, the neighbor who found the bodies. To the north was an open marsh area that stretched a few hundred yards to the next house, which was barely visible. To the west, the deck dropped in three levels toward the bay where the dock ran out about a hundred feet to the deeper water. At the end of the dock was the Gordons' boat, a sleek white fiberglass speedboat—a Formula three-something, about thirty feet long. It was named the Spirochete, which as we know from Bio 101 is the nasty bug that causes syphilis. The Gordons had a sense of humor.
Max said, "Edgar Murphy stated that the Gordons sometimes used their own boat to commute to Plum Island. They took the government ferry when the weather was bad and in the winter."
I nodded. I knew that.
He continued, "I'm going to call Plum Island and see if I can find out what time they left. The sea is calm, the tide is coming in, and the wind is from the east, so they could make maximum time between Plum and here."
"I'm not a sailor."
"Well, I am. It could have taken them as little as one hour to get here from Plum, but usually it's an hour and a half, two at the outside. The Murphys heard the Gordon boat come in about 5:30, so now we see if we can find out the time they left Plum, then we know with a little more certainty that it was the Gordon boat that the Murphys heard at 5:30."
"Right." I looked around the deck. There was the usual patio and deck furniture—table, chairs, outdoor bar, sun umbrellas, and such. Small bushes and plants grew through cutouts in the deck, but basically there was no place a person could conceal him- or herself and ambush two people out in the open.
"What are you thinking about?" Max asked.
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