White River Burning by John Verdon by John Verdon - Read Online
White River Burning
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Editor’s Note

“New release…”Taps into our current racially charged times as ex-NYPD detective Dave Gurney gets called in to investigate the killing of a cop on the one-year anniversary of police shooting a black motorist. An elaborate puzzle that’s rewarding to piece together.
Scribd Editor


"It’s always a pleasure to watch a keen mind absorbed in a difficult puzzle, which is how Dave Gurney distinguishes himself in John Verdon’s tricky whodunits." —The New York Times

Tensions have been running high in White River as it approaches the anniversary of a fatal shooting of a black motorist by a local police officer. The racially polarized city is on edge, confronted with angry demonstrations, arson, and looting. In the midst of the turmoil, a White River police officer is shot dead by an unknown sniper. As the town spirals out of control, local authorities approach Dave Gurney to conduct an independent investigation of the shooting.

The situation in White River becomes truly explosive as more killings occur in what appears to be an escalating sequence of retaliations. But when Gurney questions the true nature of all this bloodshed, and zeroes in on peculiar aspects of the individual murders, his involvement is suddenly terminated. Obsessed with evidence that doesn't support the official version of events, Gurney cannot let go of the case. Despite intense opposition from the police, as well as from dangerous fanatics lurking in the shadows, he begins to uncover an astonishing structure of deception—learning that nothing in White River is what it seems to be.

White River Burning is the most provocative and timely book yet by the author hailed by The New York Times as "masterly."
Published: Counterpoint on
ISBN: 9781640090644
List price: $26.99
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White River Burning - John Verdon

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Page 1 of 1


Wolf Lake

Peter Pan Must Die

Let the Devil Sleep

Shut Your Eyes Tight

Think of a Number

White River Burning

Copyright © 2018 by John Verdon

First hardcover edition: 2018

All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission from the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embedded in critical articles and reviews.

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events is unintended and entirely coincidental.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Names: Verdon, John, author.

Title: White River burning : a Dave Gurney novel / John Verdon.

Description: Berkeley, CA : Counterpoint Press, [2018]

Identifiers: LCCN 2017057561 | ISBN 9781640090637 | eISBN 9781640090644

Subjects: LCSH: Detectives—New York (State)—New York—Fiction. | Serial murder investigation—Fiction. | GSAFD: Suspense fiction. | Mystery fiction.

Classification: LCC PS3622.E736 W48 2018 | DDC 813/.6—dc23

LC record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2017057561

Jacket designed by Jarrod Taylor

Book designed by Jordan Koluch


2560 Ninth Street, Suite 318

Berkeley, CA 94710


Printed in the United States of America

Distributed by Publishers Group West

10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

For Naomi




Dave Gurney stood at the sink in his big farmhouse kitchen, holding one of Madeleine’s strainers. He was carefully emptying into it what appeared to be several dirt-encrusted brown pebbles from a very old tinted-glass jar.

As he washed away the soil, he could see that the pebbles were smaller, lighter in color, and more uniform than they’d first appeared to be. He laid a paper towel on the sink-island countertop and eased the contents of the strainer onto it. With another paper towel he carefully patted the pebbles dry, then carried them along with the glass jar from the kitchen to his desk in the den and placed them next to his laptop and large magnifying glass. He started the computer and opened the document he’d created with the archaeological graphics program he’d acquired a month earlier—shortly after discovering the remnants of an old laid-stone cellar in the cherry copse above the pond. What he’d found in his examination of the site so far led him to believe that the cellar may have served as the foundation of a late-seventeenth- or early-eighteenth-century structure—perhaps the home of a settler in what then would have been a wild frontier area.

The archaeology program enabled him to overlay a current photograph of the cellar area with a precisely scaled grid, and then to tag the appropriate grid boxes with identifying code numbers for the items he’d found at those locations. An accompanying list linked the codes to verbal descriptions he’d provided along with photos of the individual items. Those items now included two iron hooks that his internet research told him were used for stretching animal hides; a tool fashioned from a large bone, probably a flesher for scraping hides; a knife with a black handle; the rusted remains of several iron chain links; and an iron key.

He found himself viewing these few objects, barely illuminated by his scant knowledge of the historical period with which they seemed to be associated, as the first tantalizing bits of a puzzle—dots to be connected with the help of dots yet to be discovered.

After recording the location of his newest find, he then used his magnifier to examine the bluish, slightly opaque glass jar. Judging from the pictures on the internet of similar containers, it seemed consistent with his estimate of the foundation’s age.

He turned his attention to the pebbles. Taking a paper clip from his desk drawer, he unbent it into a relatively straight wire and used it to move one of the pebbles around, turning it over this way and that under the magnifier. It appeared relatively smooth except for one facet that consisted of a tiny hollow spot with thin, sharp edges. He went on to a second pebble, in which he saw the same structure; and then on to a third, a fourth, and the remaining four after that. Close examination revealed that all eight, while not quite identical, shared the same basic configuration.

He wondered about the significance of that.

Then it occurred to him that they might not be pebbles at all.

They could be teeth.

Small teeth. Possibly human baby teeth.

If that’s what they were, some new questions came immediately to mind—questions that made him eager to get back down to the site and dig a little deeper.

As he stood up from the desk, Madeleine came into the den. She gave the little objects spread out on the paper towel a quick glance along with that slight flicker of distaste that crossed her face whenever something reminded her of the excavation now blocking the little trail she liked so much. It didn’t help that his approach to the site reminded her of the way he would have approached a murder scene in his days as an NYPD homicide detective.

One of the persistent sources of tension in their marriage was the gap between her desire for a clean break with their past lives in the city, an unquestioning embrace of their new lives in the country, and his inability or unwillingness to shed his career-long mindset, his persistent need to be investigating something.

She put on a determinedly cheerful smile. It’s an absolutely glorious spring morning. I’m going to hike the quarry trail. I should be back in about two hours.

He waited for the next sentence. Usually, after informing him that she was going out, she would ask if he wanted to come along. And usually he would make some excuse, involving something else that needed doing. The simple fact was that walking in the woods never gave him the same sense of inner peace it gave her. His own sense of peace, a sense of strength and self-worth, came not so much from enjoying the world around him as from trying to figure out what exactly was going on and why. Peace through investigation. Peace through discovery. Peace through logic.

This time, however, she didn’t offer him an invitation. Instead, she stated with a conspicuous lack of enthusiasm, Sheridan Kline called.

The district attorney? What did he want?

To talk to you.

What did you tell him?

"That you were out. He called just before you came back up to the house with those things. She pointed at the pebble-teeth. He refused to leave a message. He said he’d call again at eleven thirty."

Gurney looked up at the clock on the den wall. It was now a quarter to eleven. He didn’t give you any hint of what he wanted?

He sounded tense. Maybe it’s about the trouble over in White River?

He thought about that for a moment. I can’t imagine how I could help him with that.

Madeleine shrugged. Just guessing. But whatever he really wants from you, he’ll probably be less than truthful about it. He’s a snake. Be careful.


While Madeleine was lacing up her hiking boots in the mudroom, Gurney made himself a cup of coffee and took it out to one of the Adirondack chairs on the bluestone patio next to the asparagus patch.

The patio overlooked the low pasture, the barn, the pond, and the little-used town road that dead-ended into their fifty acres of woods and fields. It was a long time since the place had been a working farm, and what he and Madeleine liked to refer to as pastures were now really just overgrown meadows. Disuse had made them, if anything, more naturally beautiful—especially now in the early days of May with the first burst of wildflowers spreading across the hillside.

Madeleine emerged from the French doors onto the patio wearing a fuchsia nylon windbreaker half open over a chartreuse tee shirt. Whether it was the exuberant sense of life in the spring air or the anticipation of her outing, her mood had brightened. She leaned over his Adirondack chair and kissed him on the head. Are you sure you’ll hear the phone out here?

I left the window open.

Okay. See you in a couple of hours.

He looked up at her and saw in her soft smile the woman he’d married twenty-five years earlier. He was amazed at how rapidly the tenor of their relationship could shift—how fraught small events and gestures could be and how contagious were the feelings they generated.

He watched as she made her way up through the high pasture, her jacket shining in the sun. Soon she disappeared into the pine woods in the direction of the old dirt road that connected a series of abandoned bluestone quarries along the north ridge. He suddenly wished that she had invited him along, wished that Kline’s call would be coming to the cell phone in his pocket rather than to the landline in the house.

He checked his watch. His thoughts about the objects he’d found in the old buried cellar were now fully eclipsed by his efforts to imagine what was on the district attorney’s mind. And how obscure the man’s intentions would be.

At eleven thirty Gurney heard the distant sound of a car coming up the narrow town road below the barn. A minute later a gleaming black Lincoln Navigator passed between the barn and the pond, hesitating at the point where the gravel surface ended, before lumbering up the rutted farm track through the wild pasture grass to an open area beside the house and coming to a stop by Gurney’s dusty Outback.

The first surprise was that it was Sheridan Kline himself who emerged from the big SUV. The second surprise was that he emerged from the driver’s seat. He’d come in his official car but without the services of his driver—a notable departure, thought Gurney, for a man in love with the perks of his office.

Sharply dressed, Kline gave a couple of quick tugs to straighten the creases in his pants. At first glance the man seemed to have gotten smaller since their last meeting, ten months earlier, in the messy legal aftermath of the Peter Pan case. It was an odd perception, as well as an unpleasant reminder of the occasion. A lot of people had died in the horrendous finale of the Pan investigation, and Kline had appeared quite willing to have Gurney indicted for reckless homicide. But as soon as the media’s preference for portraying Gurney as the hero of the case had become clear, Kline had supported that narrative—with a cordial enthusiasm that Madeleine had found nauseating.

He approached the patio now with a fixed smile, taking in the immediate area with a series of assessing glances.

Gurney rose to meet him. I thought you were going to call.

The smile remained in place. Change of plan. I happened to be in White River, meeting with Chief Beckert. Just forty miles from here, forty-five minutes with no traffic. So why not do it face-to-face? Always better that way.

Gurney inclined his head toward the Navigator. No chauffeur today?

"Driver, David, not chauffeur, I’m a public servant, for Christ’s sake. He paused for a moment, radiating restless energy. I often find driving relaxing." A small tic was playing at the corner of his determined smile.

You drove here directly from White River?

As I said. From a meeting with Beckert. Which is what I want to talk to you about. He nodded toward the Adirondack chairs. Why don’t we have a seat?

Wouldn’t you prefer to come inside?

He made a face. Not really. Such a beautiful day. I spend too much time indoors.

Gurney wondered if the man was afraid of being recorded and considered the patio safer than the house. Perhaps that was also his reason for avoiding the phone.


Not right now.

Gurney gestured toward one of the chairs, sat down in the one facing it, and waited.

Kline removed the jacket of his expensive-looking gray suit, draped it neatly over the chair back, and loosened his tie before perching on the edge of the seat.

Let me get right to the point. As you can imagine, we’re facing a hell of a challenge. Shouldn’t have been totally unexpected, given the inflammatory statements coming out of that BDA bunch, but something like this is always a shock. You spent twenty-five years in the NYPD, so I can only imagine how it feels to you.

How what feels to me?

The shooting.

What shooting?

Christ, how cut off from the world are you up here on this mountain? Were you even aware of the demonstrations going on all week over in White River?

For the one-year anniversary of that traffic-stop fatality? Laxton Jones? Hard not to be aware of all that. But I haven’t checked the news yet this morning.

A White River cop was shot dead last night. Trying to keep a racial mess from getting completely out of hand.


Jesus. Goddamn right.

This happened at a Black Defense Alliance demonstration?


I thought they were a nonviolent group.


The cop who was shot. Was he white?

Of course.


Sniper. Fatal head shot. Somebody out there knew exactly what the hell he was doing. This was no coked-up idiot with a Saturday-night special. This was planned. Kline ran his fingers nervously back through his short dark hair.

Gurney was struck by the emotional intensity of the district attorney’s reaction—natural in most people but noteworthy in such a coldly calculating politician, a man Gurney had come to believe evaluated every event by how it might facilitate or obstruct his own ambitions.

There was the obvious question—which Kline addressed on cue as Gurney was about to ask it. You’re wondering why I’m bringing this problem to you? He shifted on the edge of his chair to face Gurney squarely, as though he believed that direct eye contact was essential to communicating an attitude of forthrightness. "I’m here, David, because I want your help. In fact, I need your help."


Sheridan Kline stood silently at the open French doors, watching as Gurney prepared two mugs at the coffee machine in the kitchen. Neither man spoke again until they were back outside on their chairs—the district attorney still looking stiff and uncomfortable, but perhaps feeling assured from his own observation of the coffee-making that Gurney hadn’t taken the opportunity to slip a recording device into his pocket. He took a few sips from his mug, then set it down on the flat wooden arm of the chair.

He took the deep breath of a man about to dive into a cold pool. I’ll be perfectly frank with you, David. I have a huge problem. The situation in White River is explosive. I don’t know how closely you’ve been following it, but there’ve been outbreaks of looting and arson all this past week down in the Grinton district. Constant stink of smoke in the air. Sickening. And it could get a hell of a lot worse. Keg of dynamite, and these BDA people seem to be trying to set it off. Like this latest attack. Cold-blooded assassination of a police officer. He fell silent, shaking his head.

After a few moments Gurney tried to nudge him toward explaining his visit. You said that you drove here directly from a meeting with the White River chief of police?

Dell Beckert and his number two, Judd Turlock.

About how to respond to the shooting?

Among other things. A discussion of the whole situation. All the implications. Kline made a face as if he were regurgitating something indigestible.

Is there some connection between that meeting and your coming here?

Another pained expression. Yes and no.

Tell me more about the ‘yes’ part.

Before answering, Kline reached for his cup, took a long sip from it, and replaced it carefully on the chair arm. Gurney noted a tremor in his hand.

The situation in White River is delicate. Feelings are running way too high on all sides. I called it a keg of dynamite, but that’s not right. It’s more like pure nitroglycerin—tricky to handle, unpredictable, unforgiving. Stumble, whack against it the wrong way, and it could blow us all to pieces.

I get that. Racial sensitivities. Ugly emotions. Potential for total chaos. But—

But how do you fit into this? He flashed an anxious politician’s smile. David, never in my career have I encountered a greater need to marshal all our available resources. I’m talking about brains—the right kind of brains. The need to understand the angles. See around the corners. I don’t want to get blindsided because we didn’t look into things closely enough.

You think Beckert’s department might not be up to the job?

No, nothing like that. You won’t hear any criticism of Beckert from me. The man’s a law-and-order icon. Hell of a record of achievement. He paused. There’s even a rumor about a run in the special election for state attorney general. Nothing definite, of course. Another pause. He could be the perfect candidate, though. Right image. Right connections. Not everyone knows this, he certainly doesn’t advertise it himself, but his current wife happens to be the governor’s cousin. Right man in the right place at the right time.

Assuming that everything goes well. Or at least that nothing goes terribly wrong.

That goes without saying.

So what exactly do you want from me?

Your investigative instincts. Your nose for the truth. You’re very good at what you do. Your NYPD homicide record speaks for itself.

Gurney gave him a puzzled look. Beckert’s got the whole White River Police Department at his disposal. You’ve got your own investigative staff. If that’s not enough, you could leverage the racial element of the situation and bring in the FBI.

He shook his head quickly. No, no, no. Once the FBI comes in, we lose control. They talk a cooperative game, but they don’t play one. They’ve got their own agenda. Christ, you ought to know how the feds operate. Last thing we want to do is lose our ability to manage the process.

Okay, forget the FBI. Between your staff and Beckert’s, you’ve still got plenty of manpower.

Might seem like we do, but the fact is my staff is at an all-time low. My right-hand guy, Fred Stimmel, hit his magic pension number six months ago and headed for Florida. My two female investigators are both on maternity leave. And the rest of the crew are locked into assignments I can’t pull them away from—not without a major prosecution going down the tubes. You may think I’ve got ample staff. Fact is I’ve got zip. I know what you’re thinking. That the investigation belongs to the White River PD in any event, not the county DA. The ball is in Beckert’s court, so let him handle it through his own famously effective detective bureau. Right? But I’m telling you there’s way too much at stake to play this game with anything other than a full-court press. That means with all I can muster on my side as well as Beckert’s—period! A small vein in Kline’s temple was becoming more prominent as he spoke.

You’d like me to join your staff as some sort of adjunct investigator?

Something like that. We’ll work out the details. I have the authority and contingency funds. We’ve worked together before, David. You made huge contributions to the Mellery and Perry cases. And the stakes in this case are sky-high. We need to get to the bottom of this police killing fast—and we need to get it right, so nothing comes back later to bite us in the ass. Get it wrong and it’s chaos time. What do you say? Can I rely on you?

Gurney leaned back in his chair, watching the vultures soaring lazily above the north ridge.

Kline’s smile tightened into a grimace. Do you have any concerns?

I need to sleep on this, discuss it with my wife.

Kline chewed on his bottom lip for a moment. Okay. Just let me repeat that there’s a hell of a lot at stake here. More than you might think. The right outcome could be enormously beneficial for all concerned.

He got up from his chair, straightened his tie, and put on his jacket. He pulled out a business card and handed it to Gurney. The politician’s smile reappeared in full force. My personal cell number is on the card. Call me tomorrow. Or tonight if you can. I know you’ll do the right thing—for all of us.

Two minutes later the big black Navigator passed between the pond and the barn, heading down onto the town road. The crunch of the tires on the gravel surface soon faded into silence.

The soaring vultures had disappeared. The sky was a piercing blue, the hillside a painter’s palette of greens. Next to the patio, in the raised planting bed, the day’s growth of asparagus was awaiting harvest. Above the tender new shoots the airy asparagus ferns were swaying in an almost imperceptible breeze.

The overall picture of spring perfection was tainted only by the slightest hint of something acrid in the air.


Gurney spent the next hour visiting various internet sites, trying to get a broader view of the White River crisis than the perspective Kline had presented. He had the feeling that he was being manipulated with a carefully arranged account of the situation.

Countering an impulse to go to the most recent news of the shooting, he decided to search first for coverage of the original incident—to refresh his recollection of the fatal shooting that occurred the previous May and that the Black Defense Alliance demonstrations were commemorating.

He located an early newspaper report in the online archive of the Quad-County Star. The front-page headline was one that had become disturbingly common: Minor Traffic Stop Turns Deadly. A brief description of the incident followed:

At approximately 11:30 PM on Tuesday White River Police Officer Kieran Goddard stopped a car with two occupants near the intersection of Second Street and Sliwak Avenue in the Grinton section of White River for failing to signal prior to changing lanes. According to a police spokesman, the driver of the vehicle, Laxton Jones, disputed the officer’s observation and refused several requests to present his license and registration. Officer Goddard then directed Jones to switch off the ignition and step out of the vehicle. Jones responded with a series of obscenities, put the vehicle in reverse, and began backing away in an erratic fashion. Officer Goddard ordered him to stop. Jones then placed the vehicle in drive and accelerated toward the officer, who drew his service weapon and fired through the windshield of the approaching vehicle. He subsequently called for an ambulance as well as appropriate supervisory and support personnel. Jones was declared dead on arrival at Mercy Hospital. The second occupant of the vehicle, a twenty-six-year-old female identified as Blaze Lovely Jackson, was detained in connection with an outstanding warrant and the discovery of a controlled substance in the vehicle.

The next relevant article in the Star appeared two days later on page five. It quoted a statement issued by Marcel Jordan, a community activist, in which he claimed that the police version of the shooting was a fabrication designed to justify the execution of a man who had embarrassed them—a man dedicated to uncovering and publicizing the false arrests, perjury, and brutality rampant in the White River Police Department. The officer’s claim that Laxton was attempting to run him down is an outright lie. He posed no threat whatever to that officer. Laxton Jones was murdered in cold blood.

The Star’s next mention of the event appeared a week later. It described a tense scene at Laxton Jones’s funeral, an angry confrontation between mourners and police. The funeral was followed immediately by a press conference at which the activist Marcel Jordan—flanked by Blaze Lovely Jackson, out on bail, and Devalon Jones, brother of the deceased—announced the formation of the Black Defense Alliance, an organization whose mission would be the protection of our brothers and sisters from the routine abuse, mayhem, and murder carried out by the racist law-enforcement establishment.

The article concluded with a response from White River Police Chief Dell Beckert. The negative statement issued by the group calling themselves the ‘Black Defense Alliance’ is unfortunate, unhelpful, and untrue. It demeans honest men and women who have dedicated themselves to the safety and welfare of their fellow citizens. This cynical grandstanding deepens the misconceptions that are destroying our society.

Gurney found little in other upstate papers and virtually nothing in the national press regarding the shooting of Laxton Jones or the activities of the Black Defense Alliance for the next eleven months—until the BDA’s announcement of demonstrations to mark the one-year anniversary of the shooting and to raise awareness of racist police practices.

According to the ensuing media coverage, an initial peaceful demonstration was followed by sporadic instances of violence throughout the Grinton section of White River. The unrest had been going on for a week, becoming more confrontational and destructive with each passing day and generating increasingly dramatic media coverage.

The fact that he’d been only partially aware of this was the result of his and Madeleine’s decision to leave their TV behind when they moved from the city to Walnut Crossing and to avoid internet news sites. They felt that news was too often a term for manufactured controversy, superficial half-truths, and events about which they could do nothing. This meant he had some catching up to do.

There was no shortage of current coverage of what one media website was calling White River in Flames. He decided to make his way through the local and national reports in the sequence in which they’d been posted. The rising hysteria evident in the changing tone of the headlines as the week progressed suggested a situation spinning out of control:











Gurney’s reading of the articles added little to the information in the overheated headlines. His quick perusal of the comments section after each article reinforced his belief that these reader involvement features were mainly invitations to idiocy.

His main feeling, however, was a growing sense of unease at Kline’s eagerness to pull him into the gathering storm.


When Madeleine returned from her hike, radiating the satisfaction and exhilaration she derived from the outdoors, Gurney was still in his den, hunched over his computer screen. Having moved on from the internet news sites, he was exploring the physical reality of White River with the help of Google Street View.

Although it was only an hour’s drive from Walnut Crossing, he’d never had a compelling reason to go there. He had a sense that the place was emblematic of the decline of upstate New York cities and towns, suffering from industrial collapse, agricultural relocation, a shrinking middle-class population, political mismanagement, the spreading heroin epidemic, troubled schools, eroding infrastructure—with the added element of strained police relations with a sizable minority community, a problem now vividly underscored.

The image of White River was further clouded, ironically, by the looming presence of the area’s largest employer and supplier of much of its economic lifeblood: the White River Correctional Facility. Or, as it was known locally, Rivcor.

What Gurney could see, as Google Street View led him along the city’s main avenues, supported his negative preconceptions. There was even a clichéd set of railroad tracks dividing the good section of town from the bad.

Madeleine was standing next to him now, frowning at the screen. What town is that?

White River.

Where all the trouble is?


Her frown deepened. It’s about that traffic-stop shooting of a black motorist last year, right?


And some statue they want removed?

Gurney looked up at her. What statue?

A couple of people were talking about it at the clinic the other day. A statue of someone connected to the early days of the prison.

That part I wasn’t aware of.

She cocked her head curiously. Does this have something to do with your call from Sheridan Kline?

Actually the call turned out to be a visit. By the man himself.


He said something about not being that far away and preferring face-to-face meetings. But I suspect that coming here was always his plan.

Why didn’t he say that from the beginning?

Knowing how manipulative and paranoid he is, I’d guess he wanted to take me by surprise to keep me from recording our meeting.

The subject was that sensitive?

Gurney shrugged. Didn’t seem so to me. But it would be hard to know for sure without knowing what he wants from me.

He came all this way and didn’t tell you what he wants?

Yes and no. He says he wants my help investigating a fatal shooting. Claims he’s short-staffed, running out of time, with the city on the verge of Armageddon, et cetera.

But . . .

But it doesn’t add up. Procedurally, the investigation of homicides is strictly a police matter. If there’s a need for more personnel, that’s a police command decision. There are channels for that. It’s not up to the DA or his investigatory staff to take this sort of initiative—unless there’s something he’s not telling me.

You said there was a fatal shooting. Who was killed?

Gurney hesitated. Law-enforcement deaths had always been a sensitive subject with Madeleine, and more so since he himself was wounded two years earlier at the end of the Jillian Perry case. A White River cop was hit last night by a sniper at a Black Defense Alliance demonstration.

Her expression froze. He wants you to find the sniper?

That’s what he says.

But you don’t believe him?

I have the feeling I haven’t gotten the whole story yet.

So what are you going to do?

I haven’t decided.

She gave him one of those probing looks that made him feel as if his soul were on display, then switched gears. You remember that we’re going to the big LORA fund-raiser tonight at the Gelters’, right?

That thing is tonight?

You might actually enjoy it. I understand the Gelters’ house is something to see.

I’d rather see it when it isn’t full of idiots.

What are you so angry about?

I’m not angry. I’m just not looking forward to spending time with those people.

"Some of those people are quite nice."

I find the whole LORA thing a little nuts. Like that logo on their letterhead. A goddamn groundhog standing on its hind legs and leaning on a crutch. Jesus.

It’s an injured-animal rehabilitation center. What do you think their logo should be?

Better question: Why do we have to attend a fund-raiser for limping groundhogs?

When we’re asked to take part in a community event, it’s nice to say yes once in a while. And don’t tell me you’re not angry. You’re obviously angry, and it has nothing to do with groundhogs.

He sighed and gazed out the den window.

Her expression suddenly brightened in one of those transformations that was part of her emotional wiring. Want to take the pasture walk with me? she asked, referring to the grassy path they kept mowed around the perimeter of the field on the slope above the house.

He screwed up his face in disbelief. You just got back from a two-hour trek on the ridge, and you want to go out again?

You spend too much time bent over that computer screen. How about it?

His first reaction went unvoiced. No, he didn’t want to waste time trudging pointlessly around that old pasture. He had urgent things to think about—the protests verging on all-out riots, the cop killing, Kline’s not-quite-believable story.

Then he reconsidered—remembering that whenever he took one of Madeleine’s annoying suggestions, the result always turned out better than he’d anticipated.

Maybe just once around the field.

Great! We might even find a little creature with a limp—for you to bring to the party.

As they reached the end of the path, Gurney suggested they go on to his archaeological project in the cherry woods above the pond.

When they reached the partly exposed foundation, he began pointing out where he’d uncovered the various iron and glass artifacts he’d catalogued on his computer. As he was indicating the spot where he’d found the teeth, Madeleine broke in with a sharp exclamation.

Oh my God, look at that!

He followed her gaze up into the treetops. What do you see?

The leaves, the sun shining through them, the glowing greens. That light!

He nodded. He tried not to let his irritation show. What I’m doing here bothers you, doesn’t it?

I guess I’m not as enthusiastic about it as you are.

It’s more than that. What is it about my digging here that annoys you so much?

She didn’t answer.


You want to solve the mystery.

What do you mean?

The mystery of who lived here, when they lived here, why they lived here. Right?

More or less.

You want to solve the mystery of what brought them here, what kept them here.

I suppose so.

That’s what bothers me.

I don’t understand.

Not everything has to be figured out . . . dug up, torn apart, evaluated. Some things should be left alone, in peace, respected.

He considered this. You think the remains of this old house fall into that category?

Yes, she said. Like a grave.

At 5:35 PM, they got in the Outback and set out for the LORA fund-raiser at Marv and Trish Gelter’s famously unique residence, located on a hilltop in the chic hamlet of Lockenberry.

From what Gurney had heard, Lockenberry was close enough to Woodstock to attract a similar crowd of artsy weekenders from Manhattan and Brooklyn, yet far enough away to have its own independent cachet, derived from the poets’ colony at its core. Known simply as the Colony, it was founded by the town’s eponymous whale-oil heiress, Mildred Lockenberry, whose own poetry was revered for its impenetrability.

Just as the value of property within Lockenberry was affected by how close it was to the Colony, the value of any property in the eastern part of the county was affected by how close it was to Lockenberry—a phenomenon Gurney noted in the postcard perfection of the nineteenth-century homes, barns, and stone walls lining the last few miles of the road leading into the hamlet. The restoration and maintenance of these structures could not be inexpensive.

Although the natural endowments of the land and buildings in the immediate vicinity of Lockenberry had been groomed and highlighted, the entire route from Walnut Crossing, winding through a succession of rolling hills and long river valleys, was, in its uncultivated and unpolished way, amazingly beautiful—with wild purple irises, white anemones, yellow lupines, and shockingly blue grape hyacinths scattered among the delicate greens of the spring grasses. It was enough to make him understand, if not feel as deeply, Madeleine’s enthusiasm for the display of sunlit leaves over his excavation by their pond.

When the GPS on the dashboard of their Outback announced that they would be arriving at their destination in another five hundred feet, Gurney slowly pulled over onto the road’s gravelly shoulder and came to a stop by an antique iron gate in a high drystone wall. A freshly graded dirt-and-gravel driveway proceeded from the open gate in a wide curve up through a gently rising meadow. He took out his phone.

Madeleine gave him a questioning look.

I need to make a couple of calls before we go in.

He entered the number of Jack Hardwick, a former New York State Police investigator with whom he’d crossed paths a number of times since they’d met many years earlier pursuing in different jurisdictions a solution to the sensational Peter Piggert murder case. Their unique bond was formed through a kind of grotesque serendipity—when they discovered, separately, thirty miles apart, on the same day, the disconnected halves of Piggert’s last victim. Who happened to be Piggert’s mother.

Gurney and Hardwick’s subsequent relationship had had its ups and downs. The ups were based on an obsession with solving homicides and a shared level of intelligence. The downs were the product of their conflicting personalities—Gurney’s calm, cerebral approach versus Hardwick’s compulsive need to debunk, irritate, and provoke—a habit responsible for his forced transition from the state police to his current role as a private detective. The recording on the man’s phone was, for him, relatively inoffensive:

Leave a message. Be brief.

Gurney complied. Gurney here. Calling about White River. Wondering if you know anyone there who might know something that’s not already in the news.

His second call was to the cell number Sheridan Kline had given him earlier that day. Kline’s recorded voice was as oleaginously cordial as Hardwick’s was curt. Hello, this is Sheridan. You’ve reached my personal phone. If you have a legal, business, or political matter to discuss, please call me at the number listed on the county website for the office of the district attorney. If your call is personal in nature, when you hear the beep leave your name, number, and a message. Thank you.

Gurney got directly to the point. Regarding your description earlier today of the situation in White River, I came away feeling that some critical factor had been left out. Before I decide whether to get involved, I need to know more. The ball’s in your court.

Madeleine pointed at the dashboard clock. It was 6:40 PM.

He weighed the pros and cons of making a third call, but making it now in Madeleine’s presence might not be a good idea. He restarted the car, passed through the open gate, and headed up the spotless driveway.

Madeleine spoke without looking at him. Your security blanket?

Excuse me?

I got the impression you were touching base with the reassuring world of murder and mayhem before having to face the terrifying unknowns of a cocktail party.

Half a mile into the Gelters’ property the driveway crested a gentle rise, bringing them suddenly to the edge of a field planted with thousands of daffodils. In the slanting sunlight of early evening the effect was startling—almost as startling as the massive, windowless, cubical house overlooking the field from the top of the hill.


The driveway led them to the front of the house. The imposing dark wood facade appeared to be perfectly square, perhaps fifty feet in both height and width.

Is that what I think it is? asked Madeleine with an amused frown.

What do you mean?

Look closely. The outline of a letter.

Gurney stared. He could just barely make out the distressed outline of a giant G—like a faded letter on a child’s alphabet block—imprinted on the house.

While they were still gazing at it, a young man with chartreuse hair, wearing a loose white shirt and skinny jeans, came running toward the car. He opened the passenger door and held it while Madeleine got out, then hurried around to the driver’s side.

You and the lady can go right in, sir. He handed Gurney a small card bearing the name Dylan and a cell number. When you’re ready to leave, call this number and I’ll bring your car around. Flashing a smile, he got into the dusty Outback and drove it around the side of the house.

Nice touch, said Madeleine as they walked across the patio.

Gurney nodded vaguely. How do you know Trish Gelter?

I’ve told you three times. Vinyasa.

Vin . . .

She sighed. My yoga class. The one I go to every Sunday morning.

As they reached the front door, it slid open like the pocket door of an enormous closet, revealing a woman with a mass of wavy blond hair.

Mahdehlennnne! she cried, giving the name an exaggerated French inflection that made it sound like a jokey endearment. Welcome to Skyview! She grinned, showing off an intriguing Lauren Hutton gap between her front teeth. You look fabulous! Love the dress! And you brought the famous detective! Wonderful! Come in, come in! She stood to the side and, with a hand holding a frosted blue cocktail, waved them into a cavernous space unlike any home Gurney had ever seen.

It seemed to consist of a single cube-shaped room—if anything so big could be called a room. Cubical objects of various sizes were being used as tables and chairs on which clusters of guests perched and conversed. Sets of cubes pushed together served as kitchen counters at each end of a restaurant-sized brushed-steel stove. No two cubes were the same color. As Gurney had noted from the outside, the five-story-high walls had no windows, yet the whole interior was