Authors: Mike Stewart
Tags: #Thriller, #Mystery
2002 Best Mysteries of the Year,
“The perfect summer read … a paranoia-inducing, smart suspense novel. It’s the best legal thriller of its type since
—but it’s written better.”
“Stewart’s third mystery … combines the suspense, richly textured plot, picturesque Alabama settings, double-crossing characters and sparkling writing that set his first two novels apart from the pack.… Stewart throws a curveball in the surprising conclusion that will leave mystery fans eagerly awaiting the fourth in the series.” —
“Stewart knows how to build a solid case for his sleuthing attorney.”
“A tense, nerve-wracking narrative, nonstop action, and a tightly mortared plot keep the pages turning. A good choice.”
“For fans of character-driven legal thrillers—such as those written by Phillip Margolin, John Lescroart, and Scott Turow—this one’s a definite keeper.” —
A PERFECT LIFE
“Already one of my candidates for the best books of 2005 … This is a book for readers, but it should also be loaded into the backpack of any young person who aspires to be a crime writer.”
“Laced with page-turning tension and memorable scenes … Rich details and smart use of dialogue help make this a near-perfect ride.”
“Thrillers are supposed to be twisted, tortuous, perplexing. But Mike Stewart’s
A Perfect Life
is more raveled, roiled and contorted than most.”
—Los Angeles Times
“This is the kind of read that keeps you up at night. The action is fast, the writing is smart and the story is excellent.… Stewart’s plot twists are persuasive and surprising enough to keep you guessing.”
“A compelling thriller …”
—Atlanta Journal Constitution
“Mike Stewart knows how to wring every bit of suspense out of a story, so don’t expect to get much sleep once you start reading.…”
A CLEAN KILL
A Dell Book
G.P. Putnam’s Sons hardcover edition published January 2002
Dell mass market edition / June 2006
A Division of Random House, Inc.
New York, New York
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
All rights reserved
Copyright © 2002 by Mike Stewart
Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 2001031851
Dell is a registered trademark of Random House, Inc.,
and the colophon is a trademark of Random House, Inc.
The invisible worm
That flies in the night
In the howling storm
Has found out thy bed
The soft glow from a gas carriage light played across the Volvo’s door as it rolled to a stop alongside the curb. The Baneberrys had a two-car garage under the house and at the end of a downward curving driveway, but Kate was bone tired—physically and mentally exhausted by a solid week on jury duty. She didn’t want to contend with a temperamental garage door. She wanted to be inside her house. She wanted to eat and sleep and have a weekend to forget about lawsuits and lawyers.
Kate Baneberry stepped out into the damp November night, swung the car door shut, and pulled her boiled wool topcoat tight around her shoulders. In the moonlight, her blonde hair shone white above startlingly blue eyes that seemed to gather and reflect light wherever she looked.
On the small front porch, she jangled her keys to find the one that fit the door, slipped it into the lock,
and turned the dead bolt. She paused to reach inside the black box next to her door and pull out a handful of mail.
Inside the neat two-story colonial, Kate set her purse, her mail, and a white paper bag on the deacon’s bench in the entry hall. She peeled off her coat, draped it over the backrest, and carried the mail and the paper sack into the kitchen, where she flipped on overhead lights.
Outside, through the window over the sink, the last gray smudges of dusk disappeared into black. Tension flowed out of Kate’s neck and shoulders and dissipated into a tingling chill along her spine.
Her gaze drifted from the window to the blank screen of a small television on the counter; then she turned away as if changing her mind about something. She took a blue-tinted tumbler from the cabinet next to the window and filled it from the cold-water dispenser built in to the freezer door. She drank deeply as she crossed back to the granite-topped island and pulled two fast-food roast beef sandwiches from the bag. She began to flip through the stack of envelopes and holiday catalogs.
And she froze.
The rush of Kate’s own heartbeat and quickened breathing filled her ears. She pulled in a deep breath, and she listened as a domino line of thoughts tumbled through her mind. She could have sworn she had heard a sound—maybe the soft brush of a foot on carpeting or the whispered friction of a man’s pant legs as he walked—only she couldn’t be sure she’d heard anything, and she wondered if it was possible to somehow sense noises too slight to hear.
Standing under bright kitchen lights and framed by the empty window, she stood perfectly still and tried to focus. Her perception of the thing that had made her heart race seemed to hover somewhere between sound and premonition. It was neither, exactly. But whatever it was had filled her with the uneasy sense that she was not alone.
She had been holding the holiday Williams-Sonoma in one hand, thinking vaguely of starting her Christmas shopping. She dropped the catalog on the counter and walked to the back door. As she closed her fingers around the knob, a small scratching noise—a rodent noise—seemed to come from the hallway off the living room.
She shook her head from side to side and said, “Oh, good Lord,” out loud. Kate walked back into the entry hall and through the living room and down the short hallway to the bedroom she shared with her husband. As she went, she flipped on lights as her fingers found familiar wall switches without her needing to look or think about what she was doing. And, all the while, she listened for squirrels on the windows or mice in the walls. She smiled to convince herself to smile, but the same strange sense still hung heavy in the house. And, in her bedroom, she caught the barest whiff of some vague, indefinable scent. It wasn’t unpleasant—just foreign and, it seemed to her, masculine.
A clicking sound startled Kate, and her heart popped hard in her chest. Someone was in the kitchen.
Painted walls and pale carpeting blurred as she rushed through a familiar jumble of rooms and hallways. She was just outside the kitchen door and still moving fast when the realization hit that she was hurrying
noise and not running away. Maybe she was angry. Maybe it was territorial. She was standing on the tiled kitchen floor before she had time to think about it. And she was alone.
For the second time that evening, Kate crossed the room and closed her fingers around the backdoor knob. She twisted the cool metal to make sure the door was still locked; then she turned and hurried back through her house, jiggling outside doors, scanning windows for open locks or broken glass, and finally peeking out front to make sure her station wagon was still parked by the curb, still visible in the glow of the gaslight.
She stopped in the small foyer and listened. Seconds ticked by. She forced her breathing to slow. The thumping in her chest subsided and then faded away. A few seconds passed, and Kate had convinced herself that nothing more ominous than squirrels in the attic or bats in the chimney had prickled her already frayed nerves. And she began to feel foolish.
She walked back into the kitchen, where she clicked on the television to feel less lonely. An ad for a BMW convertible flickered across the screen. A silver sports car swerved through curves on the California coast, and Kate thought how glad she would be when that awful trial was over and she and the rest of the jurors could get back to their lives. The whole thing, she thought, was making her a little nuts.
As she dragged up a wrought-iron stool next to the center island, the commercial ended and Channel Five started a news story about a road-rage shooting on the Daulphin Island exit ramp off I-10. The male anchor introduced the pretty blonde reporter with the great
laugh—the one Jim, her husband, had a little crush on—for a background piece on gun control.
Kate squirted packets of red sauce inside her sandwiches. She stood and poured her water into the sink, refilled the glass with ice cubes, and then covered the ice with cold tea from the refrigerator. She felt a second wave of tension melt away as she sipped the comforting, bitter brew flavored with bright green mint leaves from her garden. She climbed back onto the stool and ate dinner.
Twenty-six hours later, Kate Baneberry—an attractive, middle-aged housewife who heard noises and sensed danger and ate roast beef sandwiches for dinner—was pronounced dead at Bayside Hospital.
Two little boys with blond bowl cuts were playing in the yard. Over and over, one tore across the lawn, holding a football overhead like the skull of an enemy, and then dove into a pile of dead leaves. The second kid piled on and they rolled around in the leaf pile, fighting like wild dogs over the football; then the victor would pick up the ball and take off for another running dive into a new pile. I remembered doing pretty much the same thing twenty years earlier in a different small town with my brother.
Some things are eternal. Young or old, rich or poor, human beings love to beat the hell out of each other.
I sat down on the brick front steps across from a pretty blonde woman, balanced a plate of food on my knee, and watched. She smiled, and I motioned at the kids. “Are they yours?”
She shook her head. “No. I think they’re Sara’s.” I didn’t know Sara, so I arranged some turkey and dressing
and cranberry sauce on a fork and put it in my mouth. She said, “Looks like they’re having fun.”