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Published on May 23, 1997
Debuted at #1 on The New York Times Best Sellers list!
Wounded in the line of duty, NYPD homicide cop John Corey is convalescing in rural eastern Long Island when an attractive young couple he knows is found shot to death on the family patio. The victims were biologists at Plum Island, a research site rumored to be an incubator for germ warfare. Suddenly, a local double murder takes on shattering global implications - and thrusts Corey and two extraordinary women into a dangerous search for the secret of PLUM ISLAND…
Through my binoculars, I could see this nice forty-something-foot cabin cruiser anchored a few hundred yards offshore. There were two thirtyish couples abroad, 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 withThe 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 know 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, and 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.
In development with SONY-TV