Authors: Luanne Rice
Reid wondered how she thought she might have done that, what the relationship between the sisters had become. Had those hours when they’d been tied up in the gallery basement pulled them closer or driven them apart? Did they have any choice, controlling the course their lives took, or had they been programmed, even ruined, from the moment the intruder entered the gallery?
It had certainly controlled him. Standing close to Kate now, he felt his hands shaking and jammed them into his pockets so she wouldn’t see. The Woodward sisters’ pain was his white whale, his torment.
You have no idea how much I hate him,
she had said about her brother-in-law. He actually did have an idea about that. Keeping an eye on the Woodward sisters meant he saw what the other people in their lives were up to. He felt uncomfortable, most likely knowing more about her sister’s marriage than Kate did.
“Did Beth and Pete have a good marriage?” he asked, keeping his tone steady because he knew the ugly answer.
“No,” she said flatly.
“Were there other people involved?”
“On his part—yes,” she said.
He waited for her to say the name
, but she began to cry softly, burying her face in her hands.
The muffled sound of a ringing phone came from inside the house. He hesitated, hating to leave her in tears. Then he turned away, so she wouldn’t pick up on his fixation on her and her sister and their shared history. What had happened in that basement had happened to him too. He walked toward the front door, wondering what was the first time she’d let something bad happen.
It was time to go see Beth.
The forensics team had arrived and was ready to start processing the scene, but Reid wanted to enter the room first. He grabbed a pair of disposable gloves from a box on the sidewalk and snapped them on. The house smelled stale, as if no fresh air had entered in days. When he reached the top of the stairs and opened the bedroom door, he felt the blast of cold and tasted the sweet stench of decomposition.
He stood back, gazing at Beth. From this angle, looking at her from behind, he could almost imagine she was sleeping: her reddish-gold hair spread across the pillow, the curve of her hip, and the languid way her arm covered her eyes to block the morning light. But as he moved closer, the illusion was shattered.
Approaching the edge of the bed, he nearly tripped on the bloodstained marble owl. He circled around to the other side.
He saw that Beth’s skull had been cracked behind her ear, the wound deep and red with fine slivers of bone stuck in the dark blood. A bruise of ligature marks encircled her throat. There were impressions of lace; a torn bra and panties lay on the floor. He stared at them: evidence of a sex crime?
Her swollen tongue jutted between clenched teeth, and the whites of her clouded eyes were full of red-and-purple pinpoint dots, petechial hemorrhages indicating strangulation. Dry, almost invisible whitish
crust had formed around her lips and run down her chin, and Reid knew the medical examiner would find amylase-rich saliva. Her legs were bruised.
“You were so young,” he said out loud.
He wasn’t talking to the teenage Beth he’d rescued all those years ago but to the thirty-something-year-old Beth who lay on the bed before him. He stared into her cloudy eyes as if she were looking back at him. He heard the air conditioner chugging so hard it rattled in the window frame. Instinctively, he knew Beth hadn’t turned it on—her killer had.
Whenever he drove by this house—not as often as he patrolled Kate’s loft, but at least once a week—he noticed that the windows were always wide open. The curtains might be rippling in the breeze; he’d hear voices from inside, or music coming from the daughter’s room, or the TV on in Pete’s study. Beth liked fresh air. Kate did too. Reid figured the preference came, partly, from having been shut up in that dank cellar for nearly twenty-four hours.
The killer had left the UPS note on the door, had turned up the AC, had wanted everyone to think Beth had been alive longer than she actually had. Reid would be checking for sex offenders in the area, but why would a rapist care about messing with the time of death?
His gut told him this was something else. The killer had needed to build in time, enough for him to establish his alibi—such as getting onto a sailboat with his buddies and heading offshore, hundreds of miles away, where he couldn’t possibly have killed his wife.
Gazing into Beth’s face, Reid couldn’t stop shaking. He was in the process of breaking a cardinal rule of investigation: making up his mind before reviewing all the facts. Two men who were supposed to have loved Beth—her father and now her husband—had destroyed her. Reid glanced across the room at the empty picture frame and wondered if Pete had gotten ideas from the earlier crime. He turned back to Beth.
Suspicion wasn’t enough. He needed hard evidence, and he started by looking at Beth’s hands. Her fingernails had been manicured recently; there were no scratches or bent or broken nails, no obvious skin or blood caught under the nail tips. Why hadn’t she grabbed for him while he was strangling her? Why hadn’t she scratched and slashed and tried to break his grip, to yank the ligature away from her throat, snagging some of his DNA under her nails? Perhaps she had, and Reid simply wasn’t seeing it. The coroner would tell him.
Outside the bedroom, in the upstairs hall, the forensics team was getting impatient. He could hear them talking. Although he knew they would document the scene with detailed video and photographs, he removed his iPhone from his jacket pocket and took photos of Beth, the bloodstained pillowcase, and the owl. Before leaving the room, he walked to the wall where the empty picture frame hung. The gilded frame itself gave him a jolt. It brought back the past; he would know it anywhere.
On the bureau a sketch pad lay opened to a page with small ink drawings of a sailboat, a row of beach umbrellas, and an ornate antique key. There were notations beside each sketch, and he recognized Beth’s handwriting from the note downstairs:
The husbands go sailing away—Pete and Nick and their pals—so Beth and Scotty and Kate and Lulu get to be beach girls for a week!
Reid pictured Pete somewhere off the coast, on a beautiful boat sailing on the deep blue sea, feeling safe and smug. The gallery president who didn’t do anything. Another husband who wanted it all—just like Kate and Beth’s father—and figured it was his for the taking.
He photographed the empty frame and the page of drawings. He stood beside the bed, his gaze moving from Beth’s head wound to the strangulation marks around her neck to the ripped lingerie on the floor. Had she been hit or strangled first? If it had been a rape-murder, would Beth’s attacker have stolen the painting as a trophy? Again, his instinct told him that a stranger had not done this.
Reid heard the house phone ringing downstairs. He left the bedroom, and the techs entered. He hurried downstairs, and just as he got to the kitchen door, the landline stopped ringing. He imagined the call going to voice mail. He pulled out his cell phone, and, reading the house phone number printed on the telephone base, he dialed and heard Beth’s voice:
Hi, you’ve reached the Lathrops, and we’re probably out walking Popcorn, so leave your message, and we’ll call you just as soon as we get back from the beach!
A few seconds after he hung up, the phone rang again. Reid picked up but didn’t say anything. He just held the receiver to his ear.
“Hello?” a man’s voice said. “Beth? Bethie! Are you there? Why haven’t you been answering? You having too much fun with the girls? I’ve called your cell, and you’re not calling me back, and I’m going a little crazy . . .”
“Who is this?” Reid asked, although he already knew.
“Who the hell is
?” the voice asked.
“Detective Conor Reid of the Connecticut State Police. Who am I speaking to?”
“Pete Lathrop. Did I dial a wrong number? I’m calling my wife.”
“You have the right number,” Reid said.
“Where is she?”
Reid paused for a beat. “Mr. Lathrop, I am very sorry to tell you that your wife is deceased.”
“Christ, no!” Pete shouted. “You’re lying. You’ve got to be. God, Beth!” The phone clattered, as if he had dropped it.
Over the course of Reid’s career, he had had occasion to play 911 tapes to juries: perpetrators phoning in supposed discoveries of their own crime scenes. You could almost always tell real from manufactured shock. Pete’s reaction was so instantaneous, so canned, it came off as rehearsed.
“What is your position?” Reid asked.
“We’re approaching Oak Bluffs, on Martha’s Vineyard,” a different voice said.
“Who’s on the line?”
“Leland Ackerley. A friend of Pete’s. And Beth’s.”
“What’s the nearest Coast Guard station?” Reid asked.
“Okay, then. Go to Menemsha, and I’ll meet you there,” Reid said.
Sisters were forever. They were made from the same blood and bone. Kate remembered when she was six and Beth was five, Beth had pointed at their mother’s belly and said, “We came out of the same stomach!” It was true. Since the minute Beth was born, until today, Kate had never known a moment on earth without her sister. She had always been able to feel her sister’s breath in the summer breeze, hear her voice whenever their favorite songs played on the radio, hear her laughter when anything reminded her of one of their private jokes.
Kate had to tell Sam. That’s what kept her going right now—the fact that Sam would need her, and Beth would want Kate to take care of her child. But even that thought was too insane—the fact that Kate had to tell Sam her mother was dead—because Beth couldn’t be dead. Kate couldn’t stand it if she was: this could not be true.
Pretend she’s not,
she said to herself.
Talk to her as if she is here. Right here with me. Sisters together forever! Right, Beth? Are you with me?
But then Kate pictured her sister on the bed, the expression on her face—that was barely a face anymore. Beth’s skull, shattered like broken glass. Kate had stared into a hole in her sister’s head and seen pieces of white bone clumped in her blood.
Sam was at camp, and she didn’t know. Stories like this made the news and spread fast. Kate had firsthand experience of that fact—nothing went viral faster than small-town crimes, murdered
mothers. If she didn’t get to Sam fast, some kid would read about it on Facebook. So she called the camp and asked that Sam be kept away from the media, and then the camp manager reminded her that cell phones and laptops and iPads weren’t allowed, that Sam would hear nothing until Kate arrived.
The last time Kate had visited Sam at camp was two years ago, and Beth had been with her. Sam had just been a camper then, but now she was a junior counselor. The sisters had driven north in Kate’s Porsche with the top down and the radio on. They’d traveled almost the whole way on back roads, through pine woods, past farms and wide-open meadows. Although they lived relatively near each other, they didn’t get enough time together—Kate’s flight schedule was intense, and Beth was so busy with Pete and Sam and running the gallery. The road trip had been just what they’d needed: nonstop stories and laughter.
Kate couldn’t stop feeling the need to talk to Beth. She wanted to tell her about Detective Reid, how he’d tried to be circumspect but had been so clumsy that Kate had no doubt he knew every detail about what had happened to them. Probably every cop in Connecticut did. Sometimes Kate could still feel the ropes around her wrists, forearms, chest, and ankles. She flexed her right hand now. She could still smell the blood, all her mother’s body fluids pooling around them. She and Beth almost never spoke about those hours at the gallery—they had locked the experience in a vault, just to stay sane and move on.
Camp Orion was in Down East Maine, on an island off Roque Bluffs. Kate had thought about driving today, but it was a seven-plus-hour drive, not counting the ferry ride. She needed to get to Sam right away. And the idea of retracing the route she’d driven with Beth, with the seat empty beside her, pierced her heart clear through.
She drove to the Groton-New London Airport, where early that morning she had landed the Citation X chartered by the Higginsons. She and Tallulah Granville, her best friend since childhood, co-owned a single-engine Piper Saratoga and kept it there. Lulu was a captain on
Delta, active in the pilots’ union. Normally Kate would check with her to make sure she didn’t have plans to fly. Last week Lulu had been in Atlanta training on a new aircraft. Kate wasn’t sure where her schedule was taking her today. The idea of having to tell her about Beth right now, when she hadn’t yet seen Sam, was too excruciating to think about.
The Saratoga was high performance, an all-metal beauty with retractable landing gear and tapered wings. Kate removed the chocks from around the plane’s wheels and climbed into the cockpit. She ran through the preflight check, put her headphones on, and called the tower to request clearance for takeoff.
The airplane taxied down the runway, took off like a dream, banked over Long Island Sound with a view of three states—Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New York—and began to climb into the clear blue sky.
Kate had caught a tailwind back from LA, landing less than five hours after taking off from hot Van Nuys Airport in the San Fernando Valley. Because there had been a second pilot in the cockpit, her max allowable hours today were nine instead of eight, and that would give her just about enough flying time to get to Maine and back. Rules were important in the air and everywhere. Her grandmother had taught her that.
Her grandmother had also taught Kate to fly. Mathilda Harkness, even at eighty-two, had been the best pilot Kate had ever flown with. She had served in the WASP in World War II, but she’d never earned her wings.
“We knew our stuff as well as any man,” she’d said on Kate’s fifth lesson in a chartered Cessna. Kate was seventeen. It was the summer she should have been getting ready to go to college—she’d gotten into Sarah Lawrence—but she had deferred attending. She couldn’t stop reliving those hours in the gallery’s basement. Missing her mother and facing her father’s legal troubles made the idea of going away to college unbearable. And Mathilda had insisted she and Beth get intense therapy
for what she said was trauma—and Mathilda would have known. She’d been in the war.