The French doors were open.
From where Dave Gurney was standing by the breakfast table, he could see that the last patches of winter snow, like reluctant glaciers, had receded from the open pasture and survived now only in the more recessed and shadowed places in the surrounding woods.
The mixed fragrances of the newly exposed earth and the previous summer’s unmowed hay drifted into the big farmhouse kitchen. These were smells that once had the power to enthrall him. Now they barely touched him.
“You should step outside,” said Madeleine from where she stood at the sink, washing out her cereal bowl. “Step out into the sun. It’s quite glorious.”
“Yes, I can see that,” he said, not moving.
“Sit and have your coffee in one of the Adirondack chairs,” she said, setting the bowl down in the drying rack on the countertop. “You could use some sun.”
“Hmm.” He nodded meaninglessly and took another sip from the mug he was holding. “Is this the same coffee we’ve been using?”
“What’s wrong with it?”
“I didn’t say anything was wrong with it.”
“Yes, it’s the same coffee.”
He sighed. “I think I’m getting a cold. Last couple of days, things haven’t had much taste.”
She rested her hands on the edge of the sink island and looked at him. “You need to get out more. You need to do something.”
“I mean it. You can’t just sit in the house and stare at the wall all day. It will make you sick. It is making you sick. Of course nothing tastes like anything. Have you called Connie Clarke back?”
“When I feel like it.”
He didn’t think it was a feeling he was likely to have in the foreseeable future. That’s just the way he was these days—the way he’d been for the past six months. It was as though, after the injuries he’d suffered at the end of the bizarre Jillian Perry murder case, he had withdrawn from everything connected with normal life—daily tasks, planning, people, phone calls, commitments of any kind. He’d gotten to the point where he liked nothing better than a blank calendar page for the coming month—no appointments, no promises. He’d come to equate withdrawal with freedom.
At the same time, he had the objectivity to know that what was happening to him wasn’t good, that there was no peace in his freedom. His predominant feeling was hostility, not serenity.
To some extent he understood the strange entropy that was unwinding the fabric of his life and isolating him. Or at least he could list what he believed to be its causes. Near the top of the list he’d place the tinnitus he’d been experiencing since he emerged from his coma. In all likelihood it had actually begun two weeks before that, when three shots were fired at him in a small room at nearly point-blank range.
The persistent sound in his ears (which the ear, nose, and throat specialist had explained wasn’t a “sound” at all but rather a neural anomaly that the brain misinterpreted as sound) was hard to describe. The pitch was high, the volume low, the timbre like a softly hissed musical note. The phenomenon was fairly common among rock musicians and combat veterans, was anatomically mysterious, and, apart from occasional cases of spontaneous remission, was generally incurable. “Frankly, Detective Gurney,” the doctor had concluded, “considering what you’ve been through, considering the trauma and the coma, ending up with a mild ringing in your ears is a damn lucky outcome.”
It wasn’t a conclusion Dave could argue with. But it hadn’t made it any easier for him to adjust to the faint whine that enveloped him when all else was silent. It was a particular problem at night. What in daylight might resemble the harmless whistling of a teakettle in a distant room became in the darkness a sinister presence, a cold, metallic atmosphere that encased him.
Then there were the dreams—claustrophobic dreams that recalled his hospital experiences, memories of the constricting cast that had held his arm immobile, the difficulty he’d had in breathing—dreams that left him feeling panicky for long minutes after awakening.
He still had a numb spot on his right forearm close to where the first of his assailant’s bullets had shattered the wrist bone. He checked the spot regularly, sometimes hourly, in hopes that its numbness was receding—or, on bleaker days, in fear that it was spreading. There were occasional, unpredictable, stabbing pains in his side where the second bullet had passed through him. There was also an intermittent tingling—like an itch impervious to scratching—at the center of his hairline where the third bullet had fractured his skull.
Perhaps the most distressing effect of being wounded was the constant need he now felt to be armed. He’d carried a gun on the job because regulations had required it. Unlike most cops, he had no fondness for firearms. And when he left the department after twenty-five years, he left behind, along with his gold detective’s shield, the need to carry a weapon.
Until he was shot.
And now, each morning as he got dressed, the inevitable final item he put on was a small ankle holster holding a .32 Beretta. He hated the emotional need for it. Hated the change in him that required the damn thing to always be with him. He’d hoped the need would gradually diminish, but so far that wasn’t happening.
On top of everything else, it seemed to him that Madeleine had been watching him in recent weeks with a new kind of worry in her eyes—not the fleeting looks of pain and panic he’d seen in the hospital, or the alternating expressions of hopefulness and anxiety that had accompanied his early recovery, but something quieter and deeper—a half-hidden chronic dread, as if she were witnessing something terrible.
Still standing by the breakfast table, he finished his coffee in two large swallows. Then he carried the mug to the sink and let the hot water run into it. He could hear Madeleine down the hall in the mudroom, cleaning out the cat’s litter box. The cat had recently been added to the household at Madeleine’s initiative. Gurney wondered why. Was it to cheer him up? Engage him in the life of a creature other than himself? If so, it wasn’t working. He had no more interest in the cat than in anything else.
“I’m going to take a shower,” he announced.
He heard Madeleine say something in the mudroom that sounded like “Good.” He wasn’t sure that’s what she said, but he didn’t see any point in asking. He went into the bathroom and turned on the hot water.
A long, steamy shower—the energetic spray pelting his back minute after minute from the base of his neck down to the base of his spine, relaxing muscles, opening capillaries, clearing mind and sinuses—produced in him a feeling of well-being that was both wonderful and fleeting.
By the time he’d dressed again and returned to the French doors, a jangled sense of unease was already beginning to reassert itself. Madeleine was outside now on the bluestone patio. Beyond the patio was the small section of the pasture that had, through two years of frequent mowings, come to resemble a lawn. Clad in a rough barn jacket, orange sweatpants, and green rubber boots, she was working her way along the edge of the flagstones, stamping enthusiastically down on a spade every six inches, creating a clear demarcation, digging out the encroaching roots of the wild grasses. She gave him a look that seemed at first to convey an invitation for him to join in the project, then disappointment at his obvious reluctance to do so.
Irritated, he purposely looked away, his gaze drifting down the hillside to his green tractor parked by the barn.
She followed his line of sight. “I was wondering, could you use the tractor to smooth out the ruts?”
“Where we park the cars.”
“Sure . . .” he said hesitantly. “I guess.”
“It doesn’t have to be done right this minute.”
“Hmm.” All traces of equanimity from his shower were now gone, as his train of thought shifted to the peculiar tractor problem he’d discovered a month ago and had largely put out of his mind—except for those paranoid moments when it drove him crazy.
Madeleine appeared to be studying him. She smiled, put down her spade, and walked around to the side door, evidently so she could take off her boots in the mudroom before coming into the kitchen.
He took a deep breath and stared at the tractor, wondering for the twentieth time about the mysteriously jammed brake. As if acting in malignant harmony, a dark cloud slowly obliterated the sun. Spring, it seemed, had come and gone.
A Huge Favor for Connie Clarke
The Gurney property was situated on the saddle of a ridge at the end of a rural road outside the Catskill village of Walnut Crossing. The old farmhouse was set on the gentle southern slope of the saddle. An overgrown pasture separated it from a large red barn and a deep pond ringed by cattails and willows, backed by a beech, maple, and black-cherry forest. To the north a second pasture rose along the ridgeline toward a pine forest and a string of small abandoned bluestone quarries that looked out over the next valley.
The weather had gone through the kind of dramatic about-face that was far more common in the Catskill Mountains than in New York City, where Dave and Madeleine had come from. The sky had become a featureless slaty blanket drawn over the hills. The temperature seemed to have dropped at least ten degrees in ten minutes.
A superfine sleet was beginning to fall. Gurney closed the French doors. As he pulled them tight to secure the latches, he felt a piercing pain in the right side of his stomach. A moment later another followed. This was something he was used to, nothing that three ibuprofens couldn’t suppress. He headed for the bathroom medicine cabinet, thinking that the worst part of it wasn’t the physical discomfort, the worst part was the feeling of vulnerability, the realization that the only reason he was alive was that he’d been lucky.
Luck was not a concept he liked. It seemed to him to be the fool’s substitute for competence. Random chance had saved his life, but random chance was not a trustworthy ally. He knew younger men who believed in good luck, relied on good luck, thought it was something they owned. But at the age of forty-eight, Gurney knew damn well that luck is only luck, and the invisible hand that flips the coin is as cold as a corpse.
The pain in his side also reminded him that he’d been meaning to cancel his upcoming appointment with his neurologist in Binghamton. He’d had four appointments with the man in less than four months, and they seemed increasingly pointless, unless the only point was to send Gurney’s insurance company another bill.
He kept that phone number with his other medical numbers in his den desk. Instead of continuing into the bathroom for the ibuprofen, he went into the den to make the call. As he was entering the number, he was picturing the doctor: a preoccupied man in his late thirties, with wavy black hair already receding, small eyes, girlish mouth, weak chin, silky hands, manicured fingernails, expensive loafers, dismissive manner, and no visible interest in anything that Gurney thought or felt. The three women who inhabited his sleek, contemporary reception area seemed perpetually confused and irritated by the doctor, by his patients, and by the data on their computer screens.
The phone was answered on the fourth ring with an impatience verging on contempt. “Dr. Huffbarger’s office.”
“This is David Gurney, I have an upcoming appointment that I’d—”
The sharp voice cut him off. “Hold on, please.”
In the background he could hear a raised male voice that he thought for a moment belonged to an angry patient reeling off a long, urgent complaint—until a second voice asked a question and a third voice joined the fray in a similar tone of loud, fast-talking indignation—and Gurney realized that what he was hearing was the cable news channel that made sitting in Huffbarger’s waiting room insufferable.
“Hello?” said Gurney with a definite edge. “Anybody there? Hello?”
“Just a minute, please.”
The voices that he found so abrasively empty-headed continued in the background. He was about to hang up when the receptionist’s voice returned.
“Dr. Huffbarger’s office, can I help you?”
“Yes. This is David Gurney. I have an appointment I want to cancel.”
“A week from today at eleven-forty a.m.”
“Spell your name, please.”
He was about to question how many people had appointments on that same day at 11:40, but he spelled his name instead.
“And when do you wish to reschedule it?”
“I don’t. I’m just canceling it.”
“You’ll need to reschedule it.”
“I can reschedule Dr. Huffbarger’s appointments, not cancel them.”
“But the fact is—”
She interrupted, sounding exasperated. “An existing appointment can’t be removed from the system without inserting a revised date. That’s the doctor’s policy.”
Gurney could feel his lips tightening with anger, way too much anger. “I don’t really care much about his system or his policy,” he said slowly, stiffly. “Consider my appointment canceled.”
“There will be a missed-appointment charge.”
“No there won’t. And if Huffbarger has a problem with that, tell him to call me.” He hung up, tense, feeling a twinge of chagrin at his childish twisting of the neurologist’s name.
He stared out the den window at the high pasture without really seeing it.
What the hell’s the matter with me?
A jab of pain in his right side offered a partial answer. It also reminded him that he’d been on his way to the medicine cabinet when he’d made his appointment-canceling detour.
He returned to the bathroom. He didn’t like the look of the man who looked back at him from the mirror on the cabinet door. His forehead was lined with worry, his skin colorless, his eyes dull and tired.
He knew he had to get back to his daily exercise regimen—the sets of push-ups, chin-ups, sit-ups that had once kept him in better shape than most men half his age. But now the man in the mirror was looking every bit of forty-eight, and he wasn’t happy about it. He wasn’t happy about the daily messages of mortality his body was sending him. He wasn’t happy about his descent from mere introversion into isolation. He wasn’t happy about . . . anything.
"Verdon, who rejuvenated the impossible crime in his 2010 debut, Think of a Number, shows there's much more that can be done with the serial killer plot in his breakneck, knockout third Dave Gurney whodunit (after 2011's Shut Your Eyes Tight). Retired detective Gurney, dubbed 'the NYPD Supercop' by the media for his phenomenal homicide clearance rate, once again can't resist the opportunity to match wits with a brilliant murderer in this case, the self-named 'the Good Shepherd,' the subject of a reality TV project that a journalist asks his help on. Never identified, the Good Shepherd struck six times in the Syracuse area a decade earlier, targeting drivers of black Mercedes as part of his crusade against the wealthy. Gurney takes an iconoclastic approach to the cold case while tackling other, possibly unrelated investigations. The tension is palpable on virtually every page of a story that perfectly balances the protagonist's complex inner life with an elaborately constructed puzzle. Agent: Molly Friedrich, the Friedrich Agency. (July)" Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
JOHN VERDON is a former Manhattan advertising executive who lives with his wife in the mountains of upstate New York. His first two Dave Gurney novels, Think of a Number and Shut Your Eyes Tight, are both international bestsellers.