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Authors: Luanne Rice

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BOOK: Last Day
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“I am sure,” Kate had said to her grandmother, loudly enough to be heard over the noisy single engine, “you knew your stuff
better
than the guys.”

“You’re right,” Mathilda said. “We trained as hard as they did. Eleanor Roosevelt said we were ‘a weapon waiting to be used.’ Instead, they kept us off to the side, never sent us overseas. They expected us to come home from the war and take care of the men, have their children.”

“But you did have a kid,” Kate said. “Mom.”

“Yes,” Mathilda said. “But I did it without getting married, and I was damn glad she was a girl, because I wanted to raise someone strong and independent enough to know the idea this is a ‘man’s world’ is a bunch of bullshit.”

“Why did you join the WASPs?”

“I wanted to serve my country,” she said. “And live up to Jacqueline Cochran.”

“Who?”

“My idol,” Mathilda said. “Jackie finished first in the Bendix Race of 1938, beating every man. First woman to break the sound barrier, and even till this minute, she’s broken more altitude, speed, and distance records than anyone, including men. It was her idea to train women exactly like men in the air corps—the army way.”

“The way you’re tough on us,” Kate said.

“Girls have to be dauntless,” Mathilda said. “And twice as excellent. That’s what I taught your mother, and it was what she was teaching you and Beth. And what I still am teaching you.”

“Beth is already excellent,” Kate said. “She doesn’t need lessons in it.” And it was true. Despite that day and night in the basement, what Kate had come to think of as
the basement hours
, her sister made high honors. While Kate’s life was in shambles, her inability to start college filling her with shame, Beth stayed focused.

Still in high school, Beth had plans to attend Connecticut College, near enough to Black Hall so she could take over the gallery from the executor and start to run it as soon as possible. In the meantime, she wrote papers on the early American Impressionists—familiarizing herself with the family collection. Not only that, she volunteered at the Marsh View Nursing Home and the New London soup kitchen.

“Beth’s the kindest, most generous person I know,” Kate said. “Isn’t that excellence?”

“It is,” Mathilda said. “But who’s up in the plane with me?”

“Beth is more of an on-the-ground person,” Kate said. “Dad always said that about her. She’s feet on the ground, and I’m head in the clouds.”

“That monster,” Mathilda said. “Leave it to him to sum up his daughters in such simplistic terms. But if you want to speak in clichés . . .”

Kate cringed, sorry she’d mentioned her father.

“You have to have your head in the clouds to shoot for the stars,” Mathilda said. “Do you hear me, Katharine?”

“Yes,” Kate said. They were flying toward the southern tip of Block Island. Soon she would make the turn over Great Salt Pond and begin to angle down toward the airport.

“You don’t need to live a conventional life. You don’t need to do anything people say you should do. Shoot for the stars, just like you’re doing.”

Kate had banked left then, starting her descent for Block. That was over twenty-three years ago, and she banked left now, descending toward the Barred Owl Airport to pick up Sam. It was a short runway, but the Saratoga could handle it.

She thought about a conventional life—Mathilda would never know how much Kate had wished she could have one. Mathilda had chosen the path she wanted—despite family pressure, she had never married, even when she had had a child. Instead she had fallen in love
with Ruth, and they had lived together at Cloudlands, the big house on Sachem Hill.

Kate knew herself in terms of her career and passion for flying. Her personal life was another matter. At thirty-nine, like Mathilda, she had never married. People saw her laughing, driving, flying, and they didn’t realize they were seeing a ghost. No one knew that ghosts could freeze—just like mist or vapor forming lacy crystals on windows in the winter—but Kate’s spirit had turned to ice that day in the basement. It had been November, and the cellar had been damp, but all three of them jammed together, all that body heat, had given her a fever. Despite feeling scalded, Kate had been frozen, and when she had thawed, her life force, every possibility of desire, had trickled out of her.

She didn’t care about owning a house in Black Hall, about tending an English country garden. She and her sister had been bequeathed many paintings by the Black Hall Impressionists, but unlike Beth, she displayed few. She didn’t think about having a child and sending her to the right schools, the best camp. In her mind, she longed to be touched and held and loved, but her body refused it. Ghosts couldn’t feel.

Kate had watched Beth and their two best friends—Lulu and Scotty—flirting and dating and talking endlessly about the exquisite torments of love and passion. Kate convinced them she didn’t care about such things. She kept busy trying to outfly all the male pilots she knew, just as Mathilda had done in the war and beyond.

Beth had been the one to do those other things. She had met Pete when he’d visited the gallery, fallen madly in love and married him at twenty-two, had a perfect daughter. She had taken over the gallery, leaving Kate free to fly. She was great at cultivating wealthy collectors, and she assisted law enforcement agents and insurance investigators on the trail of criminals who had stolen paintings from museums and other galleries. She had become something of an expert in the psychology of art thieves—whether those who made it their careers or one-timers, like their father.

He had been behind the crime. He had needed money to fund his gambling habit. Beth’s theory was that all thefts and cons were born of insatiable need and that their father’s had been to restore his bank account—as much for the sake of the family as himself. Kate considered that to be bullshit. If he had had any insatiable need, it had been to keep blowing money at the casino and supporting his young mistress. The fact that his wife had died, and that she and his daughters had gone through hell, had been less important than achieving his goal.

And even after what he did, convicted and locked away for life, Beth was kind to him. She was all good. Through everything, she’d never stopped volunteering—especially at the soup kitchen and homeless shelter. She had been as excellent as anyone on this earth could be. Thinking about her sister, Kate felt her eyes blur with tears. She had to squint hard so she could see the dangerously short runway. She judged the length, determined a steep approach, maintained speed, reduced throttle, and touched down.

Mathilda would have been proud of her landing, especially through teary eyes. And that made Kate sad, because Mathilda had never felt truly proud of Beth. She had loved her. She and Ruth had enjoyed holidays at the Lathrops’ house, occasionally attended openings at the gallery that Mathilda’s parents had founded. Mathilda had been happy she’d lived to meet Samantha, her great-granddaughter. But she’d always felt Beth had taken the expected way, the society-approved path as a woman.

Although she’d never said it out loud, Kate knew that Mathilda hadn’t truly believed that Beth had attained excellence.

But Kate believed it. She always had—her sister had been excellent in more ways than anyone knew. Anyone but Kate. Because they were sisters. Forever. Even now. Especially now. Kate climbed out of the cockpit and took a deep breath. It was time to go find her niece.

5

The state police helicopter landed at the Martha’s Vineyard airport, and a police officer from West Tisbury drove Detectives Conor Reid and Jennifer Miano to Coast Guard Station Menemsha. An American flag snapped on a tall flagpole outside the USCG’s big white red-roofed building on the hill above the harbor.

Reid stood on the dock, watching a forty-seven-foot boat coming through the inlet. His brother, Tom, a Coast Guard commander, had been on his cutter in Woods Hole, across Vineyard Sound, about fourteen miles away. As a courtesy to the Reid brothers, Menemsha Station had deployed one of its forty-seven-foot motor lifeboats to pick up Tom, and the vessel had met
Huntress
in Vineyard Sound to escort it to the USCG pier in Menemsha Harbor.

The Coast Guard boat docked, and Reid watched Tom and a crew member jump onto the dock to help cleat off
Huntress
’s lines. When the sloop was secure, Reid walked toward Tom. It didn’t happen often enough, but because he worked in coastal towns, Reid’s investigations sometimes intersected with the Coast Guard.

“Thanks for getting the husband here,” Reid said, shaking his brother’s hand.

“Husband, not suspect?” Tom asked.

“Remains to be seen,” Reid said.

“I can’t believe it’s Beth Woodward,” Tom said. “Shit, Conor.”

“I know.”

“Have you talked to her sister yet? What’s her name again?”

“Kate. And yeah, I talked to her. She found the body.”

“Jesus.”

“What do you think of him?” Reid asked, gesturing down the dock toward Pete. “First impression.”

Tom glanced over his shoulder. Pete and his friends were clustered by the stern of the boat, all talking on cell phones. “Arrogant, that’s for sure,” Tom said. “Just now, when they were docking, I heard him giving everyone else orders. You know—‘You take the bowline; you stay in the stern.’ Does he own the boat?”

“No.”

“He’s a dick,” Tom said.

“Sounds like it,” Reid said. “Can you hang around? I want to speak more after I interview him.”

“Yeah. I’m off for the weekend. Heading home.”

“Great, you can ride back on the chopper. Thanks for helping with this.”

“No problem,” Tom said.

“There’s something else,” Reid said. “The painting was stolen again. Cut right out of the frame.”

“Which painting?” Tom asked.

“You know the one.”

Tom stood there, obviously shocked. He had played a role in catching the girls’ father’s accomplices and, therefore, helping to bring Garth Woodward to justice. Of the several paintings stolen the night Kate, Beth, and their mother were tied up,
Moonlight
was the most valuable and the one that captivated the jury. Tom shook his head now and clapped his brother on the shoulder.

Reid walked toward
Huntress
. Jennifer Miano stood by the sleek sailboat’s stern, speaking to each man and taking notes. He saw her
writing down their names in her notebook. As he approached, he noticed a very tan, very blond man standing off to the side, his posture straight.

Reid recognized Pete. He’d seen him often enough over the years, and earlier that day, he had examined some framed photographs around the Lathrop bedroom. One, next to the window with the air conditioner, had shown him in a tuxedo, standing beside Beth in a black gown, surrounded by old and valuable-looking paintings. The thing that had struck Reid then was the fact that the monogrammed sterling-silver frame had been coated with frost. The air-conditioning had been that cold.

“Mr. Lathrop,” he said. “We spoke on the phone. I’m Detective Reid.”

“Can you take me to Beth?” Lathrop said, his voice quavering. “Right now? I’ve got to see her.”

“Yes, very soon,” Reid said.

“I have to know—what did they do to her?”

“‘They’?” Reid asked.

“Or he, whoever. You said she was murdered.”

“I said she was deceased,” Reid said.

“No, I distinctly heard . . . never mind. Just, can we go? Please.”

That had been a big slip on Pete Lathrop’s part, Reid thought. It would be helpful to use in court. He wished Miano had heard the exchange. Seeing the empty frame with the canvas cut out, it would have been normal to assume Beth’s murder was part of an art theft, possibly connected to the old crime, to what the Woodward girls’ father had done.

Reid thought it was more complicated than that. Based on Pete’s callousness toward Beth in other areas of his life—his infidelity and general lack of respect—Reid could not help believing that the missing painting was part of a staged scene. The connection to the earlier crime
might have been Pete adding psychological torture, wanting to remind Beth of what had happened before.

The torn underwear, though: that was a new element. A stranger had broken in, raped, and murdered her? No, Reid didn’t believe it.

The medical examiner had made a very preliminary estimation. He had told Reid that, based on Beth’s body temperature and the fact it was still in rigor, it appeared that Beth had died a full day after Pete had left on the sailing trip. But there were other factors to take into account to gauge the time of death, starting with the piles of dog shit. Popcorn hadn’t been walked in days. There were five copies of the
Day
, New London’s newspaper, in and around the delivery tube by the road.

Once an autopsy was performed and they were able to determine her last meal, the time of death could be narrowed down even more. The bruises between her legs indicated sexual assault; if she had been raped, there would be semen or at least traces of fluid.

And now—Pete, on this hot summer day, was wearing shorts and a long-sleeved shirt.

No, Reid thought again—not a stranger.

“Why are you dressed so warmly?” Reid asked, pointing at the shirt.

“It’s sun protection, special fabric. My wife bought it for me so I wouldn’t burn.”

“Would you please roll up your sleeves and show me your arms?”

Pete recoiled. “What? Are you kidding? I need to get home.”

Reid didn’t lift his gaze from the cuffs, buttoned tight around Pete’s wrists. Strangulation victims often fought to get the ligature from around their necks, raking their killer’s skin in the process. He recalled how Beth’s hands had appeared to be unharmed, her fingernails unbroken, but he hoped that his initial assessment was wrong and that she had scratched her killer.

“Is there a problem with showing me your arms?” Reid asked.

“Yes,” Pete said, glaring. “I’m not going to stand here and be treated like a criminal when you can ask
anyone
how much I loved my wife.”

“Okay,” Reid said, nodding. “Fair enough. You don’t want to show me—that’s your decision.”

“Can I please leave?” Pete asked.

BOOK: Last Day
9.61Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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