Pride, paranoia and paranormal forces all conspire to derail Detective Marcella's investigation into a series of suspicious suicides in New Castle, Massachusetts. In this sequel to The Witch's Ladder, Marcella learns that because of the ties that bind their pasts, every potential victim is also a possible suspect.
I had that dream again, the one where Doctor Lowell has me tied to a tree and is coming at me with a knife. Only in my dream I'm younger, much younger, like maybe by forty years. Lilith is there, too, but she isn't tied to the tree with me this time. I can see her standing on the sideline with Carlos, talking and laughing and playing with that confounded witch's ladder. I try screaming for one of them to untie a knot on the ladder. They pay no attention. They can't hear me. My screams are only in my head. Carlos leans in and kisses Lilith. She pulls back and giggles. I think to myself, that's so unlike her. I've never seen her giggle before. Then the two of them look back at me and wave before the mad doctor plunges his knife into my chest.
That's when I wake up, dripping in sweat, my heart pounding harder than a sixty-four-year-old heart had a right to. In the old days I could shrug something like that off, grab a cigarette and a shot of whiskey and then go back to bed. But my days of smoke and whiskey seem more distant than that young detective I left tied to the tree in my dreams. Best I can do now-a-days is to get up and fix myself a grapefruit and guava smoothie, and so that's what I did.
As I sat drinking my concoction, thumbing through that silly string of beads I brought down from New Castle, the phone rang. I looked at the clock on the wall. It was almost midnight. I knew right away who it was.
"Hello, Carlos," I said after answering. "What do you want?"
"Tony. How did you know it was me?"
"I could tell from the ring."
"No, but what do you want?"
"Jeez, Ton, can't I call an old pal to say hi? I didn't wake you, did I? I mean I know how you like to stay up late watching old westerns and.... You were up, right?"
"I was up, yes, but it's nearly midnight. I know you didn't call just to say hi. Is everything all right up there?"
He grew silent. My experience told me that he had a whole ice-breaking spiel ready for me, but I derailed his train of thought. It was selfish of me, really. I guess I owed him that much. We hadn't talked for a while, not since I moved away. It all came to a head after our last case together. I just sort of lost it. I grew despondent and my carelessness nearly got us both killed in a car wreck. That's when I knew I had to retire. I had been thinking about it anyway. My captain recommended the condominiums at Del Rio Vista. Said his mother lived there and loved it. He said it was a great place to launch the exciting second half of my life.
What he meant was it's a great place to go and die. Just look at his mother. For years he sent her checks every month for room and board, and a card on Mother's Day that said, Thinking of you, Mom, on your special day. Last month she slipped into a coma and passed. It took four days before anyone noticed. I suppose living at Del Rio Vista was just too much excitement for the old girl. In the back of my mind, I believe the captain found some relief in the news. He had to know that his mother was fading like old denim.
But Carlos never expected I would hate it in Florida. I'm sure he hated to see me leave New Castle, but he believed it was for the best. He promised he would come down a couple of times a year to do some fishing with me. He hasn't yet. I don't blame him, though. Detective work is all-consuming. It's the reason he's still single, the reason I never married. I let him stew in silence awhile longer before finally letting him off the hook.
"Carlos, it's okay that you haven't called me before now. I know you're busy."
"Sure. I've been busy, too."
"You kidding? Man, what with all the biking, swimming, canoeing, golfing, shuffleboard, bingo, cocktail parties and socializing, I don't know if I'd have had the time to talk anyway."
All right, so I lied to him. Truth was that I hadn't done half those things in years. The other half I had never done at all.
"Really?" he said.
"Yeah, but I have time for you now. So tell me. How have you been? You make captain yet?"
"Me? Come on, Tony. That's not my gig. I'm a field guy. You know that. The minute they promote me to captain, I'm taking that retirement train straight down to Florida where I can start really enjoying life--like you."
"Right, like me. Well, all in good time. Don't rush things, my friend. So tell me. You keeping busy up there?"
I said that and he went quiet again. It's funny how two friends can sense when something is not quite right between them. I thought for a moment he had detected the discontent in my voice, but I wasn't sure. Carlos Rodriquez and I had worked together for nearly thirty years, and in that time we both learned more about the other than either intentionally divulged. I assumed he was simply feeling the void in my words, but as soon as he spoke again I realized it was his misapprehensions I felt, not he feeling mine.
"Carlos? Is something wrong?"
"Tony, I probably shouldn't have called you tonight. You have your life there now. It's late. I didn't realize. How `bout I call you back another time and we'll--"
"Carlos, no! Look. I'm up. You called me. There's something going on that you thought I should know. What is it?"
He hesitated. "I don't...."
"All right. You sure? I mean, I don't want to burden you. It's just that...."
"Damn it, Carlos. Spill it!"
I heard him take a deep breath and snort it out like a bull. "Okay, I'm just looking for advice, though, that's all."
"Fine. That's all you'll get."
"I have this case I've sort of been working on."
"I figured that."
"Yeah, but it's not just any case. It's a real conundrum, and if you're not looking at it just right, it appears not much of a case at all."
"Maybe it's not," I said. "Sometimes things are what they seem."
"Yes, but if there's one thing I learned working with you, it's that you've got to trust your instincts, and my gut instincts tells me there's something going on here. Something big."
"All right, wait a minute." I set the phone down on the kitchen table and poured another glass of grapefruit and guava. I took a sip, smacking my lips for the tartness before returning the pitcher to the fridge. As I put the phone back to my ear, I heard Carlos rambling on without pausing between breaths.
"Carlos!" I said. I think I was laughing. "Carlos, slow down! I told you to wait a minute. I was getting something to drink. Start over."
"What? You didn't hear what I said?"
"Not a word. Now, start from the beginning, and slow down. I think half of what you said was in Spanish, anyway."
"Tony." He sounded frustrated. "There's been a number of suicides in New Castle lately."
"Yes, and all very suspicious."
"You think they weren't suicides?"
"I can't see it. Tony, the last suicide we had in New Castle was Gordon Walsh, who hung himself in our jail cell the night--"
"Yes, Carlos, I remember Gordon Walsh. Damn it. How could I forget? I'm the reason he--"
"Whoa, Tony, easy! I'm sorry. I didn't...What I meant was, before Gordon the last suicide in New Castle was back in 1952. Now we have three in as many weeks, all seemingly unrelated."
"No. Adults. All women."
"Are you thinking serial?"
"I don't know. Maybe."