Jul 21 2014 2:00pm
Last to Know: A New Excerpt
Last to Know by Elizabeth Adler is standalone mystery set on a Massachusetts lake once known for its peacefulness, but now the home for a killer on the loose (available July 22, 2014).
Evening Lake: an idyllic, peaceful, western Massachusetts getaway with a close-knit community of families. Detective Harry Jordan sees his lake home as a respite from solving crimes on the streets of Boston...until crime comes to Evening Lake. Harry Jordan is out for a walk when the night is rocked by an explosion: the Havnel house is engulfed in a conflagration and Bea Havnel is seen fleeing, hair on fire, plunging into the lake. Mysterious, rough-around-the edges, and private, Bea and her mother Lacey are newcomers to Evening Lake and nothing like the well-heeled families of the community. Bea survives the fire, but her mother does not, and Harry is pulled into the investigation. As is young Diz Osborne, who, unbeknownst to any of them, carries a weighty secret about who else he saw rowing on the lake that night. When it’s discovered that Lacey Havnel died not from the explosion but from a knife wound, it’s clear that a murderer is on the loose. And this murderer is poised to strike again, and again.
EVENING LAKE, Massachusetts, 3 A.M.
Harry Jordan’s wooden vacation house was certainly the smallest, as well as one of the oldest, on Evening Lake, a resort where nothing bad, like murder, ever happened, but which in recent years had become a little too smart for Harry’s style: too cocktail-partyish; too many lonely blond wives with hungry eyes; too many miniature dogs peeking out of Range Rover windows. Mind you Harry’s own car, a classic ’69 souped-up E-type, British racing green with tan leather seats, was certainly a head-turner, but then Harry owned that car because he loved it with a passion, not for show. And the dog usually to be seen gazing from its windows was a large silver-gray malamute-mix that looked remarkably like a wolf, but with astonishingly pale blue eyes.
The dog’s name was Squeeze and it went everywhere with Harry. Which, since Harry was a homicide detective on the Boston squad, meant that Squeeze had seen a cross section of hard life on the streets as well as the plusher environment of Harry’s own Beacon Hill apartment. Not only did Squeeze know that the best place to eat in town was Ruby’s Diner near the precinct, he also knew the locations of the best bars. Squeeze had it pretty good and so, Harry had thought, did he, until last week when the woman he was going to marry left him and went to Paris instead. Which was the reason he was here at Evening Lake. Alone. But for the dog.
Squeeze was Harry’s alarm clock. At five thirty every morning, even on Harry’s infrequent days off, it waited, eyes fixed on the flickering green digital display of the clock, zapping it with a fast paw at the first ring. Usually all that happened was that Harry would roll over onto his back. After another couple of minutes the dog would leap onto the bed and lay its massive head on Harry’s chest, staring fixedly at him. Another couple of minutes and Harry would groan under the dog’s weight, open his eyes and stare straight into the dog’s. It would not move and Harry had no option but to get up. That was their morning routine. The difference now was that it was not yet morning.
It was 3 A.M., the darkest hour of the night. And they were on vacation at the lake. So what, Harry wondered, was up with Squeeze anyway. He always left the door leading to the porch open so the dog could push in and out as needed. Something must be wrong.
He sat up and looked at the dog, standing by the door, taut as a hot-wired spring, staring intently back at him. Knowing he had no choice he got out of bed and went in search of his pants.
At forty Harry looked pretty good, six-two, muscular despite a lack of serious exercise and his erratic diet of junk food eaten on the run. There were a few furrows on his brow now and his dark hair was beginning to recede a bit at the temples and somehow never looked as though it had been combed, and maybe it hadn’t if he was in a hurry, which he mostly was; his level gray eyes under bushy brows seemed to notice everything about you in one sweeping glance and he never seemed to have time for a decent shave, so sometimes he had a rough beard. Stubble became him. At least that’s what women thought. They found him attractive. His colleagues did not agree. They called him “the Prof” because of his Harvard Law degree, earned the hard and, for Harry, bitterly boring way. He’d given it up years ago and become a rookie in the police department instead. The reason he’d used was that he didn’t want to waste his time getting criminals off on legal technicalities for large fees; he would rather be out on the streets catching them.
Harry had worked his way up from patrol cars to senior detective. And he was good at what he did.
What very few of his colleagues knew about Harry—because to him it was not important, and besides it was nobody’s business—was that at the age of thirty he’d inherited a trust fund set up by his grandfather that made him rich. At least, rich enough to buy the brownstone on Boston’s Beacon Hill, which he’d converted into apartments. He rented out the three top floors but kept the apartment on the garden floor for himself. He redid this to his own specifications, walled in the garden, and later bought himself a pup. The malamute.
Harry’s fiancée had not enjoyed sharing her man with a very large, very present dog. She objected when Squeeze jumped first into the Jag and sat shotgun next to Harry, while she was expected to struggle into the small space in the back that almost could be called a seat. She also had not liked Harry’s hours, especially the nocturnal ones. “You never take me out to dinner anymore,” she’d complained, though she did like it when Harry cooked.
For a man who existed on food eaten on the run Harry happened to be a very good cook, though only old-fashioned things like pasta Alfredo, scampi Livornese, spaghetti Bolognese—all recipes taken directly from his rare and treasured copy of the Vincent Price cookbook with its menus and recipes from some of the great restaurants of the world, circa 1970. Exactly Harry’s era, taste-wise. Forget today’s avant-garde chefs and what Harry called tortured food: he liked it simple and, if he was lucky, good. If not then a burger was just fine.
He was fussy about his wine though. Harry enjoyed a good Claret. He never called good red wine “Cabernet,” nor did he trust “Chardonnay”—he preferred a Graves or white Bordeaux.
Anyhow, Harry thought now, swinging his legs out of bed and gazing out the window at Evening Lake, glimmering blackly on this moonless night; anyhow, the fiancée whom he’d loved dearly, Mallory Malone, the girl of his dreams, had had enough. Paris, she had told him, would be more fun than another night alone in Boston waiting for the phone to ring or sharing more takeout fried chicken and a bottle of his good red. “I can share a bottle of good Bordeaux with anyone I like in Paris,” she’d added.
Harry had seen the tears in Mal’s eyes as she walked out the door for the last time, not slamming it, though he guessed she had every right to. He had not gone after her. It would not have worked; he knew it, and she knew it. Not the way things were, with him dedicated to his work. While she had given up her own successful special investigations TV show, which looked further into unsolved crimes of the past, for him.
He’d called his best buddy and colleague, Carlo Rossetti, broken the news, and for the first time in his police career said that he needed to take time off. He needed a break. He wanted time out from stabbings and shootings and killings on the streets. He needed to rethink his life. He needed to be alone and the old gray wooden fishing shack on the lake that had been his grandfather’s was just the place.
It consisted of two sparsely furnished rooms, a corner kitchen with a hot plate and a microwave, a white-tiled shower that needed regrouting—a job Harry promised himself to do while he was there—a porch with an old three-legged orange Weber barbecue with a lift-up lid and several years’ worth of burned-on grease. There was a narrow wooden jetty and a small rowboat with a little outboard motor. Powerboats were not allowed on the lake, only sails and boats like Harry’s. A copse of birch trees, trunks gleaming silvery in the night, protected him from the sandy road that led around the lake, giving him privacy, though he did have an excellent view of nearby houses, much larger and grander than his own, and also of those on the other side of the lake, the largest of which was owned by a flashy blonde with a daughter who looked about eighteen, though when Harry glimpsed them in the mini-market, he thought that with her pale straight hair and elusive blue gaze, she might be closer to thirteen. It occurred to him looking across the lake now, that it was odd, with such a big house, so little entertaining was done. Unlike with the rest of the summer people there were no cocktail parties, no barbecue nights, no boozy laughter. And apparently no friends for the young daughter. Quite different from the Osborne family who lived a couple of houses away. He’d encountered Rose Osborne on his early morning walks. She too, seemed always to be alone. They’d exchanged morning pleasantries. She’d said please come by, they kept open house, but Harry never had. He found Rose attractive: a sumptuous-looking woman, round and full and … welcoming … was the best word he could use to describe her, with her wildly curling long hair, often pulled in a messy ponytail, her intense brown eyes, her long legs and—of course he had noticed—her slender ankles. She always seemed last-minute thrown-together in a sweatshirt, capris, and sneakers, and sometimes she was on her bike: “Getting my morning exercise in,” she’d call cheerfully in passing, throwing him a smile that, lonely man that he was now, Harry really appreciated. Still, maybe because he was attracted to her he had never taken Rose up on her offer, never gone by for that cup of coffee or that evening drink. He respected marriage and married women were not his style. Besides, he was still a man in love. With Mallory Malone. Or at least he thought he was. Thought maybe she was too, in love with him. Maybe a little bit.
Every now and then, though, he would see other members of the Osborne family dashing in and out, a remote-looking college-age son, who gave off “keep away from me” vibes that spelled a problem to Harry; a couple of fluffy teenage girls; and a boy, elevenish, small, skinny, ginger-haired and, unlike the rest of that busy household, always alone. Harry noticed things like that and it made him wonder why the kid was always alone. He also noticed that the boy would hide up in the fig tree where a branch led, he guessed, to his bedroom window. So the kid sat up there and spied on his family and the rest of the world. He would probably make a good detective.
And then there was the husband, Wally Osborne. The famous writer. Wally wrote scary novels that could make the hair stand up on the back of your neck and which were made into films that made you want to shout out loud, “Look behind you, the killer’s there!”
You might expect a writer of evil books to look evil, or at least a bit mad. Wally Osborne looked neither. He was tall, lean, and handsome with permanently tousled blond hair, deep blue eyes, and a light summer tan which, Harry knew, must send the local women into raptures. He thought Rose Osborne probably had a hard time keeping tabs on a husband like that. But that was none of his business.
Anyway, he was at Evening Lake, it was three in the morning, and he was climbing into the sweatpants he wore to the gym and a soft dark blue sweater, a present from his ex, thrusting his feet into sneakers, grumbling as he laced them up, glancing at the dog, still expectantly waiting.
“So, okay, let’s see what’s up, Squeeze,” he said resignedly. He wasn’t sure what it might be but the dog surely knew something, and since he was still a cop, even though he was thinking about quitting, Harry needed to investigate.
The Osborne house nearby Harry’s sat squarely on the edge of Evening Lake. “Sat” rather than “perched” because this was a solid house, built to last, ninety years before by a generation that respected solid workmanship and the art of a true craftsman.
It still sat, rather than perched, all these much-lived-in generations later, a white clapboard structure, raised on stilts at the waterfront with a veranda, or “porch” as it was always to be called, running the length of it lakeside, and a jetty where variations of small boats were moored. Omar Osborne was one of the first settlers and certainly one who voted for the irrevocable rule that no motorboats be allowed. Evening Lake would remain unpolluted, he hoped, for his descendants.
New houses now edged the lake, some of them Gatsbyish in their size, but local laws kept them to “simple” splendor, and many of the first old shacks were still there, the brown wood faded to a silvery gray, a reminder of times past though still lived in and enjoyed.
The house was traditional. A row of French doors opened onto the porch, fronting a spacious light-flooded room with oversized “lived-in” sofas covered in nut-brown heavy linen, and comfy chairs with rarely plumped-up cushions, covered in cream brocade, obviously brought from some other house to join the mix-and-match melée, because this house had never felt the hands of a “decorator.”
“It all simply came together, the way it should,” was what Rose Osborne told her visitors, apologizing for the trek up the wide creaking wooden staircase—she never knew when asked whether it was oak or chestnut, and was always surprised by the question because she was too worried about guests having to march up three floors to their rooms.
The main guest room was on the second floor and had gables jutting like eyebrows over the short windows. Rose’s favorite color was turquoise, and she’d had the gables painted that cheerful color, though now because they weren’t too keen on having the upset caused by repainting every three years they had faded to what Rose called her “passionate blue.”
“Why ‘passionate’?” guests would ask and be rewarded with a smile and Rose’s answer that many people had asked her that, but it was her secret. Hers and her husband, Wally’s. She had never even told her three children what it meant. Which, in fact, was that it was exactly the color of the pure silk nightgown her husband had surprised her with on their honeymoon, bought in some outrageously expensive boutique and which they certainly could not afford, but that he’d said he’d just known would look wonderful on her and that he wanted to make love to her wearing it.
So he had. They had. And the nightgown was still there, wrapped in special tissue to preserve the silk, in the second left-hand drawer of her vanity, under lock and key. A memory preserved. Occasionally, dreaming of the past, Rose would unlock the drawer, take out the package, carefully unwrap the tissue, and look at the most beautiful garment she had ever owned. Its pale champagne lace trim was as delicate as ever, its blue as turquoise as the Mediterranean on a summer evening when that coast turned luminous in the fading light.
In back of the house a forest of birch mounted the hill, silver at dawn and evening, blank and peeling in the full light of day. Atop the hill, brambles tangled at a walker’s feet, thorns scratched childish hands seeking blackberries, and old wells, dry now but once the area’s only source of fresh water, crumbled, away from the main paths with warnings posted to “take care.”
The small town of Evening Lake, only a village really, lay two miles down the sandy road that led behind the house, which had a sharp gravelly turnoff that you had to watch out for or you would miss it. There was a lean-to on the left where cars could park, and a would-be vegetable garden struggled on the right where tender Boston lettuces pushed through the sandy earth and radishes grew to giant size and where, if left un-netted, birds or animals ate all the tiny sweet tomatoes that here were more true to their fruity origin than mere salad fixings.
Two chimneys sat atop the Osborne house and in winter smoke plumed straight up. The builder had done a good job on those flues, as he had on everything else.
There was a “mud room” to the left of the front door. It was called the “front” door because it faced onto the road, though no one ever used it, they always walked directly into the kitchen by the side door, now painted Rose’s turquoise blue. Fishing tackle and wellington boots, tennis rackets, dog leads and raincoats, a vacuum cleaner, buckets and a whiskery old broom were stored in there.
Rose and Wally’s “boudoir” was above the living room, a spacious sprawl with a big old brass bed. Dylan’s song “Lay Lady Lay” (across my big brass bed) used to be Wally’s favorite song: they had played it endlessly on their old hi-fi in those early days, so of course Wally had finally had to buy his big brass bed. A long white chaise stood under the window where Rose would read; there was a pretty vanity against the wall where the light fell perfectly onto the mirror; and a smallish bathroom in pale marble with a tub deep enough for soaking, and big enough for two.
Beyond that, down the hall, was the twins’ room, a girly pastel horror of dropped clothing, still-plugged-in curling irons, spilled powder and abandoned tubes of lipstick. The cat they had rescued from the side of the road as a minute kitten that had to be fed by an eyedropper slept on their beds. Now hefty, he was called Baby Noir because of his luxuriant black fur, and he scared the hell out of everybody who came near him, except, of course, Madison, whose beloved he was. There was also Peggy the Pug: beige, flat-black-nosed, soppy and snoring, and Frazer’s best friend.
Roman rarely allowed anyone into his room, which he kept in almost total darkness. He had the whole top floor to himself, accessed by a stairway leading from the kitchen, as well as from an outside flight of, by now, rather rickety wooden stairs, something Rose had always had her doubts about, especially with a teenager. When he was younger she had locked that door and pocketed the key. Now Roman was eighteen and objected to “being locked in.” His father had come out on his side and the key had been handed over, though not without misgivings on Rose’s part.
“What if he escapes at night, runs off in the dark, partying, drinking … doing lord knows what?” she’d asked Wally. But her husband had laughed her fears off with the same old same teenager get-out card.
“Look at him,” he told Rose. “He’s a quiet, well-behaved, responsible young man. He works hard, gets good grades, he’s on course for a scholarship to a good college, let him have his fun.”
It was Wally’s opinion that his son was far too quiet and could use a bit more “fun,” and should get out alone more. He stayed home too much, hung around the house, always on his phone or his tablet, always somewhere else in his head.
“That’s teens for you,” Wally emphasized to Rose. But Rose wasn’t buying in to that cliché and she worried. She wished he was more like the twins, outgoing, lovable, touchable, hugs and kisses all round. As well as “teens” she guessed “boys would be boys.” In fact all the clichés seemed to suit her son. Right now, that is.
A big house, then, though never grand. A true family house, filled with friends and people of all kinds. This was the Osborne house. Charming, calm, friendly. Until that night. When everything would change.
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Elizabeth Adler is a self-confessed romantic, a travel addict and a foodie, all of which she brings to the reader in her novels, along with a tough thrust of suspense and an unfolding mystery that keeps you on your toes.