A Distant Grave by Sarah Stewart Taylor: New Excerpt
By Crime HQApril 13, 2021
The cold was different here.
It got inside you, the raw knife edge of it slipping beneath your clothes at your collar and your cuffs, taking your breath and setting your nerves to alarm. The skin on his face and neck stung; his hands and feet were going about the business of going numb, but until they did, they were going to do their best to warn him.
He turned his face away from the wind coming off the water, rubbed his upper arms and hopped in place to try to generate a little body heat. If she didn’t appear soon, he’d have to go back and wait in the car; otherwise he was going to get frostbite. For the third time, he pulled up the sleeve of his blazer and checked his watch. He’d been waiting thirty minutes now. He’d give it another ten and then he’d have to assume she was standing him up.
Cursing, he jogged from one end of the narrow little strip of sand and rocks to the other, then stopped to watch the streetlights from the marina play on the surface of the water. Behind him, the masts and hulls of sailboats wrapped in white plastic for the winter rose like mountains. Ahead of him, the expanse of the Great South Bay lapped the rocks. Beyond it were the barrier beaches. Yesterday, he’d driven over the two long bridges to the west to stand on the sand at the edge of the Atlantic and listen to the roar and rush of the waves coming in. He’d felt a moment of awe, as he always did standing at the edge of the sea. He had grown up deep inside his own country, near lakes and rivers and water that played at the shore, rather than raged at it. The sea represented freedom to him, joyous movement, a bridge between places, something that couldn’t be contained. The countries where he’d worked, so many of them already in his life, were mostly dry and barren places, deserts, plains, or humid jungles, far from the ocean. When he got home, he always went for a walk by the sea ﬁrst thing, to remind himself that he was free.
Where was she? He hopped around some more.
Suddenly, it seemed obvious she wasn’t coming. The disappointment felt like a blow. He wanted this, wanted to see her, wanted to tell the story, wanted it over with so he could be free of it. He searched for an out. Maybe there’d been some sort of delay—trafﬁc, a late train. Ten more minutes. He could wait that long.
Jesus, the cold. It reminded him of the cold in the blue house, the way it came through the concrete and seeped through your skin and into your bones, the way you could never get on top of it. He had always thought of warmth as an intangible, a state of being, but he had learned the truth: that it was something that could be taken away, then given back; something that could be handed to you, like a blanket.
Or a story.
He hadn’t understood, before the blue house, that a story could be a gift, too. When you told someone your story, you were sharing a piece of yourself. That was why there was also a cost to telling your story. Once it had been heard, it couldn’t be unheard. You took on the burden of the story when you heard it. He knew what he was asking of her, to listen to his story, to have to take it in and reckon with what it meant.
He turned back toward the parking lot, the water at his back, and felt the shimmer of awareness he had become used to over the years, the animal sense that someone was there and meant him harm.
No face appeared, but he was sent back to the blue house, to the cold and the darkness and the voices coming through it, those gifts of the inner thoughts and histories of other human beings. He had told his story. They had all told their stories, made offerings of them. He had wanted to tell this story, but when he heard the voice, saying his name, he knew he never would.
Of course. Of course death would look like this. It made perfect sense, as logical as the conclusion of a well-told tale. Of course this was it.
And it was then that the bullet found him, so quickly that when he died, he was still thinking of stories, and endings, and of the sea, the sound of it, how it ﬁlled your head so you couldn’t think of any other thing.
Friday, February 17, 2017
Marty is waiting for me in the parking lot. I know he’s nervous because he can’t keep his hands off the buttons of his coat and from across the parking lot I can see that his forehead is creased with worry. He’s wearing one of his beige suits that looks like it time-traveled from 1972, and he’s even got a tie on, brown, with rust-colored ﬂowers, ugly as sin.
Martin Cascic is the commander of the Suffolk County Homicide Squad, and my boss. He’s also my friend and I feel a little guilty prick of conscience that he has to take this meeting because of me. I’ve brought him a danish to make up for it. “Here you go,” I say handing it over. “It’s pineapple.”
He nods. Pineapple danish from a deli on New York Avenue is his favorite, for some reason I can’t even begin to fathom, and he takes a giant greedy bite of it, knocks a few crumbs off his chin, then opens his car door and puts the rest of the pastry on the dash. “Ready?” he asks me.
“As I’ll ever be.” We look up at the front of the county building. The district attorney’s ofﬁce is in the Suffolk County ofﬁce building complex in Hauppauge. The building looks like a concrete egg carton; it’s hard to believe anyone ever thought people would want to work in a building like that.
We do the ID-and-metal-detector routine, check our service weapons, and head to the second ﬂoor. District Attorney John J. “Jay” Cooney Jr. steps out to greet us, a big smile on his face. He’s an objectively nice-looking man, no way around it, with a squared-off head; full, thick hair that’s still mostly light brown though he’s past ﬁfty now; a narrow, aristocratic nose; and eyes a startling shade of blue. If his mouth were a different shape, he’d look like a Kennedy, and he’s got a little of that charisma. There’s something robust yet elegant about him; his suits ﬁt perfectly, his shoes are perpetually shiny, and he always looks like he’s just had a fresh shave. I once saw him running an electric razor over his face in the back of a car just before a press conference. I’ve never been inside his house, but I suspect the décor involves a lot of whales. He’s a Republican, but a moderate one, and before this past November, he usually got a lot of Democrats to vote for him, too. It’s dicier now. But the fact that his father, John J. Cooney Sr., known as Jack, was a longtime Suffolk County judge and then DA before him doesn’t hurt; voting Cooney for DA is a habit around here.
“Please sit down,” Cooney says. “Do you want coffee?”
Marty does, but he shakes his head. I shake my head, too, because I’ve had the coffee here before and know it’s bad. Cooney even once told me he knows it’s bad, which made me like him a tiny bit more than I did before, which still wasn’t much.
He doesn’t say anything else, so Marty gets us going. “Jay, thanks for agreeing to meet with us. As you know, Maggie has some questions about your decision not to charge Frank Lombardi. Maggie, do you want to explain the new information you have?”
I’ve been practicing all morning. I know I need to keep my voice even, my emotions in check. But the ofﬁce is too warm, the old furnace chugging away in the basement of the building.
I ﬁx my gaze on the family photo behind Cooney’s desk to try to keep myself calm. It shows Cooney and his wife with their three children, two teenage girls and a boy of about ten, all wearing matching white outﬁts on a beach somewhere. Right in the middle are an older couple, also wearing white. I focus on the black Lab sitting in front of them, its tongue lolling. The frame around the picture is polished sterling silver, simple, masculine. Cooney’s ofﬁce is drab, painted beige, standard-issue desk and chair from the ’90s, and the frame and the picture clash with their surroundings. Jay Cooney’s not your average civil servant, I think they’re meant to convey.
“I know the statute of limitations on the rape charge is up,” I say. “But I’ve been thinking about something. I think we might have a good case against Frank for impeding a criminal investigation. Even though the case was being investigated in Ireland, there was an initial report made by my uncle to the Suffolk County P.D. and later to the FBI. The Garda told him to do it. Now, that case was never closed and so any actions by Frank over the past twenty years would be within the scope of what we could charge.” I hand him a folder ﬁlled with typed notes. “I had a conversation with someone who is willing to testify that Frank asked someone who had been at the party to keep quiet about it as recently as ﬁve years ago, and I can— ”
Cooney’s been sitting on his desk, leaning back and pretending to listen, but now he stands and says, “Maggie, let me just stop you there. I know this has been a hard time for your family, and I know you want to see justice, but we made the decision not to pursue any charges against your ex-brother-in-law here and I don’t want to waste your time. It’s not here. The evidence, the legal basis, none of it.” He waves the folder in the air. “Too much time has passed, and pursuing something so . . . uncertain takes resources away from the cases we can win.”
I try to keep my voice upbeat, collaborative, as they say. “But if you’ll just read what I have. I talked to one of Erin’s classmates, who was at the—”
He smiles sadly. “Maggie. Please. We have limited resources, limited manpower. We need to focus it on more recent crimes. The MS13 threat is growing in Suffolk County. You know that better than anyone. And there are bad people out there, people who are committing crimes now. Let’s work together to direct our resources toward getting those people.”
Marty clears his throat next to me.
“You don’t think people are in danger?” I ask Cooney. “You have no idea whether Frank Lombardi is a danger to anyone right now or not. He’s a sociopath, Jay. I found diaries in my basement, in Brian’s things. Frank was awful to him when they were kids. He was controlling and abusive. And what’s the message to the women of Suffolk County here? Are we telling them we couldn’t give two shits about them, about what happens to them?”
Marty puts a hand on my arm and says in a low voice, “Maggie.”
But Cooney rises to the bait. His face is red now, his upper lip curling in anger. If I’m honest, I get a thrill of satisfaction when I see how rattled he is, when he gathers up all of his six feet one inch and looms over me, trying to scare me, trying to make me shut up.
“Maggie, we don’t have a legal basis to charge. We just don’t. There’s not enough here and it’s been too long to go out on a limb on this. And your connection to the case—you know this, I don’t need to tell you—it taints everything. It just does. I told Marty this. I don’t know why—” He looks at Marty, whose discomfort radiates from him like a fever.
“You have everything you need,” I say. “You know you do. I saw Marty’s wrap-up. The interview with Devin O’Brien. It was corroborating. It was!” Marty’s grip on my arm is ﬁrmer now, telling me stop.
Cooney says, “It was twenty-seven years ago! I’m not going to risk the good reputation of this ofﬁce in order to satisfy some personal grudge. I know this has been an incredibly difﬁcult time for your family, but I’m done. I’m done talking about this. Marty, take care of it.”
The air in the room feels thick and hot, crackling with tension.
Marty looks right at Cooney and says, “She’s not a child to be managed, Jay. She’s a lieutenant on the homicide squad and she has every right to lodge a complaint about a case. But I think she’s done that, so we’ll be going now. Thank you for your time. We appreciate you being willing to hear us out.”
The us makes my throat seize up. Marty didn’t want to do this. I had to convince him to ask for the meeting. He must have known it was going to go like this. But he did it for me.
“Okay. Goodbye.” Cooney’s hands are in ﬁsts at his sides, and as we leave the room, I can feel him waiting to release all his anger. Something’s going to get knocked over or thrown once we’re out.
Marty’s silent all the way back through security and out to the cars. I try to break the awful quiet by saying, “That went well.”
Marty looks at me, doesn’t smile. He’s sixty-two, wiry and compact. He looks more like a high school wrestling coach than a cop. He’s a small guy, only ﬁve feet seven or so, with a gray buzz cut and a slightly elﬁn face that’s usually set in a judgmental frown. But he and I are close now, and I get to see his truly face-transforming smile more than a lot of the other detectives on the squad. He was right there with me after my ex-husband Brian’s suicide. And Marty was the ﬁrst person I told about Brian’s brother Frank and his friends raping my cousin Erin when she was in high school and about what actually happened all those years ago in Ireland.
Marty took statements from my ex-brother-in-law, Frank, from Frank’s friends. He gathered all the evidence to present to Cooney’s ofﬁce, even though he must have known they weren’t going to do anything with it. Marty sat in my living room with me and my daughter, Lilly, for hours in the days afterward, as the whole thing unspooled here and over in Ireland. I shiver, remembering.
But his smile isn’t there right now.
“Listen, Mags. I’ve got something to tell you,” he says. He’s worried, chewing at his lip as he ﬁddles with his key fob.
“You ﬁring me?”
The edges of his mouth turn up, just a little. “Nah, not today. No, it’s about, uh, Anthony Pugh.”
Adrenaline surges through my veins. My vision goes starry. Anthony Pugh is a suspect in the killing of at least four women on Long Island’s South Shore between 2011 and 2014. Three years ago, I tracked him down, and we arrested him as he was driving toward the beach with a woman named Andrea Delaurio in the back of his car. He’d been assaulting her for days. I believed with every ﬁber of my being that he was taking her to the beach to kill her. So did she. We saved her life, but, tormented by what Pugh had done to her, she killed herself before we could charge him. We weren’t able to get him on the murders, for lack of evidence, and he only served a year in prison on related charges. He lives in Northport now, about ten miles from my house.
“The guys from the Second Precinct who we have checking in on him once in a while called me up just as I was leaving. A couple times, last month or so, they followed him into Alexandria. Seemed like he was just cruising, you know, maybe nothing to it. Then, last Thursday, he drove by your house.” He reaches up to scratch his forehead. He’s nervous.
“What the fuck? Why didn’t they tell me?”
“They weren’t sure he meant to drive by. He didn’t stop, didn’t look at your house.” He pushes the unlock button. We both hear the beep. But he waits. There’s something else. He doesn’t want to say it. “This morning, ﬁve a.m., he did it again. Except this time he slowed and looked up at your house, sat there ten or ﬁfteen seconds, then drove away.”
I look out across the parking lot, toward Veterans Memorial High-way. It’s one of those February days where you might be fooled into thinking spring is on its way. The sun is down low in the sky, shining up a scrubby, empty ﬁeld across the way. “What should I do?” I ask Marty.
“You don’t have to do anything. We can have someone on the house, if you want. We’ll deﬁnitely keep an eye on him. You’ll know if he’s coming your way, if he’s anywhere near the high school. You and Lilly are heading over to Ireland soon for vacation, right?”
“Sunday. But, what the fuck, Marty?” An image of Anthony Pugh’s face when I arrested him ﬂashes into my head. Pale gray eyes, grayish-blond hair; the kind of guy you’d never notice, the kind of guy who looks completely harmless. Even then, when I had him down on the pavement on a shoulder of the LIE, my handcuffs around his wrists, he looked so innocent, so normal, like the battered, drugged-up woman in the back of his car was there by accident. He should be in jail. I shouldn’t have to think about him at all.
Marty opens the passenger door for me. “I know. You going on vacation is good, buys us some time. We can try to ﬁgure out if he has anything up his sleeve.”
“Okay,” I say, but I’m still agitated, angry at Cooney.
Marty knows it. “You did your best,” he says. “We need to let it go. Let’s get back.”
I nod, get into my car, tell him I’ll see him back at headquarters. I have a ton of paperwork to do today and then I have to go get Lilly from school. I’m exhausted from working and managing her grief over her father’s death. The sun goes behind a cloud and once more, it looks like what it really is: a dreary mid-February day, with many more dreary winter days to come. I crank the heater, not sure if I’m cold because of the chill or the idea of Anthony Pugh, out there waiting for something, waiting for me.
The LIE is packed for a couple of exits, then starts emptying out the farther east I drive.
I’m almost back to headquarters when my phone rings. Seeing Marty’s number, I answer on the car system and say, “I know that was fun, but come on, Marty.”
He snorts. “Ha, no, Mags, we got a body. Just heard from dis-patch. The pleasure of your company’s required down on the South Shore. Guy got shot on the beach near that water park in Bay Shore Manor. You’ll see the cars. Third Precinct got the call. Lab’s already on the way.”
I feel my stomach drop. Shit. “Okay. I’ll get off and head down there. They tell Dave?” My partner, Dave Milich, lives in Port Jefferson, on the North Shore.
“Yeah, when they couldn’t get us. He’s on the way already.”
“I’ll give you an update later. Bye, Marty.”
I swing into the right lane, get off in Holbrook, and, feeling like I haven’t gained any ground at all this morning, head back the way I came.
Bay Shore, Long Island, is a prosperous town on the South Shore, part of the bigger town of Islip, and this narrow handlebar of sand with a little park and a pier on one side and a marina with boat slips and access to the bay on the other is sandwiched strangely between a homeowners’ association ﬁlled with big waterfront houses with views to the west, and a tight little neighborhood of rentals and smaller ranches to the east. The wind coming off the Great South Bay is stiff and chilled; the waves out beyond Fire Island and the barrier beaches are tall and dangerous on days like this.
They’ve got the marina entrance blocked off already, and the parking lot is full of marked and unmarked cars, a crime lab van, and a mobile operations unit trailer. Dave is talking to some of the uniforms from the Third Precinct, but he detaches from the group when he sees me and comes over. Dave’s a decade younger than me, a startlingly good-looking guy with dark hair and big brown eyes, fully aware of his effect on women. Dave was adopted in Florida when he was a baby. His birth parents were teenagers from Mexico and he loves when people up here eye him up and ask him where he’s “from” and he can say, “Coconut Grove. How about you?” He’s in a leather jacket he wears year-round, and I’m cold just looking at him. I once offered to buy him a parka and he said, “No thanks, Mom.” Now I let him shiver.
“Hey,” he says. “Dog walker called it in, six ten this morning. They secured the scene and looked for ID, but haven’t found any yet. No witnesses they can ﬁnd so far. Looks like it must have happened overnight.”
I point to the busy parking lot. “Any cars here that aren’t ours?”
“Nope.” He’s holding a lidded paper cup of coffee that still has a whisper of steam coming out of the hole in the top. It smells sweet and milky.
“Give me some of that,” I say. I tug the cup out of his hand and take a slug. He frowns and I hand it back. “Let’s look at the body.”
There’s a kids’ water park next to the entrance that looks like it’s under construction, and a run-down playground. Along the water is a thin strip of sand and chunks of asphalt piled for a breakwater, a few wooden benches here and there, and then a narrow boardwalk leading to the pier, which is named after some local dignitary. The white-plastic-wrapped boats loom behind us like ghost ships.
Our victim is lying on his back on the sand, right next to the rocks. He’s a middle-aged white man in jeans and a gray tweed blazer. The only thing that explains the unique stillness of his torso, the unnatural way his legs and arms have arranged themselves on the beach, is a coin of congealed blood on his right temple. There’s some blood on the sand beneath him and his skin is already waxy and bluish. It was in the thirties last night. He would have cooled down fast.
The latex gloves Dave passes me go on rough over my cold hands. I hold back one side of the guy’s blazer and pat the empty breast pocket, then check the side pockets and the pockets of his jeans. Nothing. No cough drops. No crumpled receipts. No phone. No wallet. No keys. Nothing except a small, smooth pebble from the beach, the kind that looks prettier when it’s wet.
“He got robbed,” I say.
But it’s more than that. I think he’s lying where he fell. He wasn’t running away, wasn’t ﬁghting. Whoever killed him just . . . shot him. It feels like an execution to me. I look at the man’s face, the part of it I can see, anyway. He’s slender, my age—forty-six—or a bit older, I think. His hair is dark, going gray, as is his neatly groomed beard. No wedding ring, and no tan lines to tell me if the ring was there before the robbery. His eyes are brown, and he’s staring up at the gray winter sky with a placid, almost peaceful look on his face. It isn’t true that the last expression on someone’s face gets frozen there when they die; rigor mortis can do strange things to people’s faces. But he doesn’t look like he was fearful or in pain. He looks . . . resigned, almost beatiﬁc. I think of martyred saints in paintings, their bodies in pain but their faces calm.
A ﬁnal look at the guy’s face and then I nod to the lab techs so they can start setting up the tent and collecting evidence. A deputy medical examiner will get a body temp and make initial observations before they take him back to Hauppauge for the autopsy. “I don’t see any shoeprints in the sand,” Dave says. “It’s wet enough they’d show. What do you think? They were standing right there and he fell onto the sand after he was shot?”
“Yeah, I think that’s it. Look at the depression the body made. There was some force behind that.”
Dave puts a hand out to represent the bullet. He brings it toward his right temple and hits it hard with his index ﬁnger. I watch as he lets his body fall, then catches himself.
“It came more from that direction,” I say, pointing to the east. “He fell on his back.”
“Yeah, we’ll get something better from the ﬁrearms division at the lab, but I think you’re right,” Dave says. “The shooter was over there.” He gestures toward a spot on the ground. “They were standing here.” He does a little shufﬂe to the side to show where the victim was standing. “And the shooter was here.” Shufﬂe, shufﬂe. “The shooter held the gun right about here, and bam.” He’s holding his hand up about a foot from his forehead. He’s probably right. Dave’s got a nose for ﬁrearms evidence, always has. He’s a vet; he was in Afghanistan before he became a cop, and he knows guns.
“Bullet casing and autopsy will tell us,” I say.
Dave nods. I look up. The marina is full now, people suddenly spread out across the parking lot. A TV van is trying to get in and the Third Precinct uniforms are talking to the driver through the window, explaining that they can’t be on the scene.
“It was a cold night for a walk on the beach,” Dave says, emphasizing walk just a little. I know exactly what he’s saying. This guy was here to meet somebody. Chances are, he was here to buy something. Top two things people buy on cold beaches late at night: drugs and sex.
I look down at the body again. His clean brown leather shoes, heathery blue sweater, blazer, and fashionable jeans are high-quality stuff. He’s dead, and still I can tell he was a handsome guy when he was alive. But handsome guys in nice clothes buy drugs and sex, too, I remind myself. They buy them all the time.
Dave tucks his head and neck down into the collar of his leather jacket and, from deep inside the collar, says what I’m thinking: “Could be a drug thing, could be a sex thing.” Dave’s growing a moustache for a fundraiser—cops with cancer, I think—and the moustache sits on top of his collar like a small animal. Normally I’d mention this, but we’re at a crime scene, so I save it for later. You gonna bring your little friend with you? You wouldn’t want to leave him alone out here. There might be predators.
I shrug. “Drug thing, more likely. Something went wrong here and he got shot. Little cold for a sex thing.”
“Yeah,” Dave says, shaking his head. “I wouldn’t want to take my pants off with that wind coming off the water.”
“First thing is, we need an ID. Maybe get them out doing door-to-doors and looking for the car?”
“Yeah, car is the ﬁrst thing.”
I’m looking down the beach, trying to remember what I know of the neighborhood. “He could live around here. Let’s make sure no one’s been reported missing this morning.” I point to the seafood place down by the marina. “We should check and see if that restaurant was open last night. They might have seen something. And then check all the bars and restaurants on Main Street. Let’s get the description out to the employees who worked last night. See if he was out last night in town.”
“Sounds good.” Dave waves the Third Precinct uniforms over so we can give instructions.
They get moving, fanning out to arrange the canvassing, assign the restaurant jobs. I stand there for a moment, ﬁxing the scene in my mind: the stillness of the body, the water stretching out away from the rocks.
Dave comes up behind me, touches me gently on the shoulder. “You okay?” he asks. Dave and I both have our things. His is loud noises, explosions. Mine is bodies on beaches. For a couple of reasons now. We check in with each other when they come up.
“I’m okay,” I say, though I’m not really. I take a deep breath. “I was just thinking how odd it is, nowadays, to not be able to identify someone right away. No phone, no wallet. It’s like he fell out of the sky, you know?”
Dave looks out at the water. “Or like he washed up from the ocean,” he says. “Like some kind of mermaid.”
Copyright © 2021 by Sarah Stewart Taylor.
About A Distant Grave by Sarah Stewart Taylor:
Long Island homicide detective Maggie D’arcy and her teenage daughter, Lilly, are still recovering from the events of last fall when a strange new case demands Maggie’s attention. The body of an unidentified Irish national turns up in a wealthy Long Island beach community and with little to go on but the scars on his back, Maggie once again teams up with Garda detectives in Ireland to find out who the man was and what he was doing on Long Island. The strands of the mystery take Maggie to a quiet village in rural County Clare that’s full of secrets and introduce her to the world of humanitarian aid workers half a world away. And as she gets closer to the truth about the murder, what she learns leads her back to her home turf and into range of a dangerous and determined killer who will do anything to keep the victim’s story hidden forever.
With the lyrical prose, deeply drawn characters, and atmospheric setting that put The Mountains Wild on multiple best of the year lists, Sarah Stewart Taylor delivers another gripping mystery novel about family, survival, and the meaning of home.