Authors: Luanne Rice
“Is there an alarm?” she asked. “Is it silent?”
“Yes, there is one. No, it’s not silent. It’s a siren,” Kate said. “But I know the code. I can disarm it.”
“Get back,” McCabe said. She pulled on latex gloves, took her baton from her black leather belt, and smashed the door. The glazed glass shattered into a thousand tiny squares, but they held in place. She gave it one extra-forceful tap with the butt of her baton, and the pieces rained down onto the blue tile floor. She reached in to unlock the door from the inside.
The alarm didn’t go off. It hadn’t been set.
The officers stepped into the kitchen, but Kate pushed past them.
“Beth!” she shouted.
“Wait,” McCabe said, grabbing Kate’s arm. “Please step outside until I tell you to come in.”
“There’s no way,” Kate said and disappeared through the kitchen.
McCabe kept her hand on her hip holster, following Kate. Hawley petted the dog, let him outside into the fenced yard, and then followed the other two up the stairs.
“Beth!” Kate called. She was on the stairs, mounting them two at a time, McCabe just behind her. McCabe heard the air conditioner humming behind a closed door at the top of the staircase. Kate started to grab the knob, but McCabe clamped her wrist to stop her. Kate’s hand was shaking.
“Wait out here, Kate,” McCabe said.
Kate took a step back, letting Hawley pass, seeming to comply.
McCabe turned the brass knob—even through her glove, the metal felt like ice.
Inside, the bedroom was freezing cold, the air conditioner running hard. The room smelled sickly sweet and rotten. Beth lay on her right side facing the window, her back to the door. Flies, sluggish in the chilled air, buzzed around her head. Kate ran past both officers to her sister.
“Beth,” Kate said, crouching down to look into her face. She let out a sharp, instant shriek of wild, immediate grief. “No, Beth, don’t let it be this—don’t let it.”
“Don’t touch her,” McCabe said.
“Oh, Beth,” Kate said.
Hawley and McCabe approached the bed.
Beth’s eyes were half-open, her lips parted and protruding tongue blue and swollen. There was a purple line around her neck, a lace pattern imprinted into her skin. The left side of her face was bruised, her head split open behind her ear, her hair caked with dried blood. The blue sheets were disheveled and stained with fluids, the top one pulled up just enough to cover Beth’s pregnant belly. Black bikini panties, the filigreed elastic stretched and torn, lay bunched on the floor. A lacy black bra, sides and straps ripped, hung off the side of the bed.
Kate stood still, fists pressed to her chest, weeping. McCabe put her arm around her shoulders, led her to the bedroom door. Kate didn’t put up a fight. Her body felt rigid, her chest heaving with sobs.
“Who should I call?” McCabe said. “To come and get you?”
“I’m not going anywhere,” Kate said.
“You can’t be in the room, though,” McCabe said.
She looked into Kate’s tear-flooded green eyes to make sure she understood, really got it. Kate shook her head, paced back and forth a few times, went into the hall, and sat heavily on the top step.
McCabe started to tell her she couldn’t, that the stairs were part of the crime scene, but instead she just tapped Kate’s arm.
“Don’t touch anything, Kate,” she said. “Not the wall, not the banister, not anything.”
Kate didn’t reply, just sat there crying.
McCabe returned to the bedroom, closing the door behind her.
“Jesus,” Hawley said.
McCabe glanced at him and nodded. She knew it was his first murder scene—hers too. Black Hall was one of the quietest, most affluent towns on the Connecticut Shoreline, and nothing like this ever happened here.
“You want to call it in, or should I?” he asked.
McCabe unclipped the radio from her belt and called Marnie, the dispatcher.
“We have a homicide at 45 Church Street,” McCabe said.
“The Lathrops’ house?” Marnie asked, taking in a sharp breath. This was a small town. “Good Lord. Is it Beth? Or Pete? Not the girl; gosh, what’s her name—she’s two years behind Carrie. I can’t remember . . .”
“Call Major Crime for us, Marnie,” McCabe said, referring to the Connecticut State Police’s squad of detectives assigned to murders and kidnappings and bank robberies and deliberately not answering the question.
“Roger. I’ll do that now,” Marnie said.
She glanced down at the iPhone beside the bed, touched the home button with her gloved thumb, and saw the screen light up. It didn’t ask for a password, which told McCabe that Beth had trusted the people around her. “Look at all these calls and texts. Two days’, three days’ worth?” There was a slew of messages and missed calls from Kate, but the three most recent came up as “Pete.”
“And the dog hadn’t been out in a while, from the looks of all that shit by the door.”
“Yeah,” McCabe said.
“Rape too?” he asked, gesturing at the torn panties and bra.
“Maybe,” McCabe said. She crouched by the bed. A marble sculpture of an owl lay half-under the fabric skirt. The bird’s head was smeared with red-brown dried blood.
“Murder weapon?” Hawley asked, pointing at the gash behind Beth’s ear.
She stood up, staring. Blood had coagulated around the wound, bizarrely bright red in the sunlight. Her gaze moved to the bruised indentation around Beth’s neck. “That or strangulation,” she said.
“Nice house for something like this,” Hawley said. “Expensive everything. Mercedes in the driveway.”
“I know,” McCabe said, looking around the room. The Lathrops obviously liked order. Except for the lingerie, there were no clothes strewn around. Books on the nightstand were perfectly stacked. The furniture looked to be antique—fine wood, burnished with age. Landscapes of local scenes, framed in museum-type gilded frames, hung around the room. McCabe looked at one, saw the signature
in the lower-right corner. She had grown up in town and recognized the name of one of the most famous Black Hall artists—a fortune right here on the wall. There was also an empty frame, with ragged shreds of canvas fiber clinging to the wood.
“Look,” she said. “What was there? Think someone cut the painting out?”
“Could be,” Hawley said. “The husband owns the Lathrop Gallery, right?”
“Isn’t that a little sexist?” McCabe asked. “Assuming he owns all this?”
“It used to be called the Harkness-Woodward Gallery,” McCabe said. “It’s always been in the victim’s family.” A high-end art gallery in the center of Black Hall, it specialized in the same kind of paintings that hung on the walls. McCabe’s mother had taken the kids there on Saturdays, after their father had died—anything to distract them.
As soon as she’d heard Kate’s last name, it had all come back to her. The gallery had belonged to Kate and Beth’s grandmother. There had been a scandal associated with it, back when McCabe was just a kid. A robbery and a death, she remembered. Paintings stolen, a mother and her daughters tied up. People in town had talked about it nonstop. Even on the beach, on the most perfect days of summer, the whispers had been about cheating, greed, and murder. Sometimes she wondered whether that crime, burned into her consciousness at such a young age, had been the impetus for her
to become a cop. And now, staring at Beth: Had she and Kate been those girls in the basement?
McCabe wondered what the missing painting might have to do with Beth’s murder. Seeing the torn lingerie made her feel sick; what had the killer put Beth through? “God, it’s freezing in here.” She shivered in the blast of icy air.
“Time to turn that thing off,” Hawley said, heading toward the air conditioner. The compressor cycled, pumping hard; it sounded ready to give out.
“No, leave it till the Staties get here.”
McCabe had two years more than Hawley on a force so small the selectmen were considering merging it with the department in the next town. She lived in Norwich now, a tougher place to work, and she felt lucky to have gotten a job in sleepy Black Hall. It was a postcard-beautiful village on Long Island Sound, a beach resort in summer, a place that had attracted artists since the late 1800s, and a bedroom town for executives of Electric Boat and professors at Yale, Connecticut College, and the Coast Guard Academy. Until today, her worst calls had been domestics and bad car accidents.
She leaned closer to Beth, looked at her injuries. The edge of the panties had left a pattern of lace in the deep-purple bruised circle around her neck. She cringed at the sight but couldn’t look away. It was at least as brutal as the cracked skull, even more disturbing with its hints of sexual violence.
“The husband is always the killer,” Hawley said. “But not this time. What did the sister say? He’s on a boat out in the Atlantic somewhere. Besides, I can’t imagine a husband doing this.”
McCabe didn’t answer. She’d learned early, from a case very close to home, that even nice-seeming people could do terrible things.
“We’ve got to notify him,” Hawley said. “That’s going to suck for him, off on a nice sailing trip, getting news like this. If we can even get
through. There’s probably no cell reception. I go fishing in the canyons behind Block Island; there’s a major dead zone out there.”
“There’ll be a radio.”
“Yeah, forget that. A bunch of guys on vacation aren’t going to be listening to the marine band.”
“It’s Major Crime’s problem,” McCabe said. Kate had said Pete took the sailing trip every summer, with the same bunch of guys, and that this voyage would be the last before his new baby was born.
That thought made McCabe stare down at Beth’s belly.
The baby was dead too.
Detective Conor Reid parked in front of 45 Church Street, the Major Crime Squad van not far behind. He’d been investigating a credit union robbery in Pawcatuck until late last night, and he still had on the same blue blazer and gray slacks. He’d changed his white shirt, though, and put on a striped tie. His brown hair, a little too long for the Connecticut State Police, was salty from an hour spent fishing. Instead of going straight home after leaving the scene at dawn, he’d hit the Charlestown Breachway to go surf casting. It was the second week of July, and stripers were just starting to run. He had a heavy caseload, and there never seemed to be enough time for fishing or haircuts or much of anything but work.
The dispatch call had pulled him away from the fish. Hearing the Black Hall address was a bullet to his heart. He had sat in front of the house often enough, wondering about the woman inside. The fact a crime had occurred to this family hit him with a bolt from the past. The news was all he needed to throw his rod and tackle box into the trunk of his car. Speeding south toward Black Hall on I-95, he knew this case had to be his.
After getting out of his car, he took in the scene—a large white sea captain’s house, typical of this affluent part of Black Hall. A boxwood hedge surrounded the property. Mature oak and beech trees shaded the lawn, and blue hydrangeas bloomed along an old lichen-covered stone
wall. He noticed pink gardening gloves, clippers, and a flat basket full of wilted cut flowers at the foot of the wall. A white canvas sun hat lay on the ground. A green hose was draped over the wall, water trickling from the spray nozzle, sending a thin stream down the hill toward a wild meadow. Someone had been interrupted while gardening.
He walked over to the hat, crouched on his heels, and saw that the fabric glistened with morning dew, as if it had been left on the grass overnight or longer. The crime techs had arrived, and he gestured at the hat and gardening equipment, letting them know to photograph and process them as part of the crime scene.
Black Hall police officers had been the first to arrive. He spotted two uniforms next to a cruiser and headed toward them. A dark-haired woman, clearly distressed, stood between them. The sight of Kate stiffened his spine. He stared at her, thinking how she had changed yet somehow looked the same.
The female officer caught his eye and broke away from the others.
“Hello,” he said, holding out his hand. “I’m Conor Reid.”
“I’m Peggy McCabe, and that’s my partner, Jim Hawley. Beth Lathrop is the victim here,” McCabe said. She nodded toward the woman standing with Hawley. “That’s Kate Woodward, her sister.”
Reid stared at Kate, wondering if she would recognize him. He tried to control his breathing.
“Who called you here?” he asked McCabe.
“Kate. Before I tell you anything else, we did break the door to get in. We went upstairs and discovered the body. We debated getting a search warrant.”
“Okay,” Reid said. He shoved his emotions aside, thinking down the road to some defense lawyer using it against them.
“Kate had been trying to reach Beth for three days. She was pretty frantic. The sisters were close. They spoke every day—sometimes many times a day. Beth was pregnant, and apparently the pregnancy wasn’t
easy. Kate felt nervous after the second missed call, but at first she assumed Beth was working at the family business.”
“The art gallery,” Reid said.
“Yes,” McCabe said. “Or out on the beach with the dog, in the garden, whatever. She wasn’t a big cell phone user. She often left it at home.”
“But there were missed calls?”
“Oh, lots. The sister was out of town, calling and calling. Other numbers in the call log too, including from the husband. Kate couldn’t get here to check until this morning. She cut her trip short, flew home first thing to get here.”
“What kind of trip?” He felt dishonest asking questions to which he already knew the answers.
McCabe looked blank, then reddened. “Sorry, I didn’t ask.”
“Don’t worry,” Reid said. He looked past her toward Kate Woodward. He couldn’t keep his eyes away.
“Anyway, the husband is sailing—a yearly thing with the guys, several days offshore. And sorry, I didn’t ask where.”
“We’ll find out,” Reid said. He nodded with what he hoped was reassurance at McCabe. He had started out as a police officer in New London, then had spent two years as a trooper for the state police before becoming a detective with the Major Crime Squad. It wasn’t the local cops’ job to investigate a crime. It was his, and in the byzantine world of his relationship with the Woodward sisters, he knew more than he would ever tell this officer.