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The Burial Hour Excerpt

“Mommy.”

“In a minute.”

They trooped doggedly along the quiet street on the Upper East Side, the sun low this cool autumn morning. Red leaves, yellow leaves spiraled from sparse branches.

Mother and daughter, burdened with the baggage that children now carted to school.

In my day . . .

Claire was texting furiously. Her housekeeper had—wouldn’t you know it?—gotten sick, no, possibly gotten sick, on the day of the dinner party! The party. And Alan had to work late. Possibly had to work late.

As if I could ever count on him anyway.

Ding.

The response from her friend:

Sorry, Carmellas busy tnight.

Jesus. A tearful emoji accompanied the missive. Why not type the Goddamn “o” in “tonight”? Did it save you a precious millisecond? And remember apostrophes?

“But, Mommy . . .” A nine-year-old sing-songy tone.

“A minute, Morgynn. You heard me.” Claire’s voice was a benign monotone. Not the least angry, not the least peeved or piqued. Thinking of the weekly sessions: sitting in the chair, not lying back on the couch—the good doctor didn’t even have a couch in his, office—Claire attacked her nemeses, the anger and impatience, and she had studiously worked to avoid snapping or shouting when her daughter was annoying (even when she behaved that way intentionally, which, Claire calculated, was easily one quarter of the girl’s waking hours).

And I’m doing a damn good job of keeping a lid on it.

Reasonable. Mature. “A minute,” she repeated, sensing the girl was about to speak.

Claire slowed to a stop, flipping through her phone’s address book, lost in the maelstrom of approaching disaster. It was early but the day would vanish fast and the party would be on her like a nearby Uber. Wasn’t there someone, anyone, in the borough of Manhattan who might have decent help she could borrow to wait a party? A party for ten friggin’ people! That was nothing. How hard could it be?

She debated. Her sister?

Nope. She wasn’t invited.

Sally from the club?

Nope. Out of town. And a bitch, to boot.

Morgynn had slowed and Claire was aware of her daughter turning around. Had she dropped something? Apparently so. She ran back to pick it up.

Better not be her phone. She’d already broken one. The screen had cost $187 to fix.

Honestly. Children.

Then Claire was back to scrolling, praying for waitperson salvation. Look at all these names. Need to clean out this damn contact list. Don’t know half these people. Don’t like a good chunk of the rest. Off went another beseeching message.

The child returned to her side and said firmly, “Mommy, look—”

“Ssssh.” Hissing now. But there was nothing wrong with an edge occasionally, of course, she told herself. It was a form of education. Children had to learn. Even the cutest of puppies needed collar-jerk correction from time to time.

Another ding of iPhone.

Another no.

Goddamn it.

Well, what about that woman that Terri from the office had used? Hispanic, or Latino . . . Latina. Whatever those people called themselves now. The cheerful woman had been the star of Terri’s daughter’s graduation party.

Claire found Terri’s number and dialed a voice call.

“Hello?”

“Terri! It’s Claire. How are you?”

A hesitation then Terri said, “Hi, there. How’re you doing?”

“I’m—”

At which point Morgynn interrupted yet again. “Mommy!”

Snap. Claire spun around and glared down at the petite blonde, hair in braids, wearing a snug pink leather Armani Junior jacket. She raged, “I am on the phone! Are you blind? What have I told you about that? When I’m on the phone? What is so f—” Okay, watch the language, she told herself. Claire offered a labored smile. “What’s so . . . important, dear?”

“I’m trying to tell you. This man back there?” The girl nodded up the street. “He came up to another man and hit him or something and pushed him in the trunk.”

“What?”

Morgynn tossed a braid, which ended in a tiny bunny clip, off her shoulder. “He left this on the ground and then drove away. She held up a cord or thin rope. What was it?

Claire gasped. In her daughter’s petite hand was a miniature hangman’s noose.

Morgynn replied, “That’s what’s so—” She paused and her tiny lips curled into a smile of their own. “Important.”

– – – –

“Greenland.”

Lincoln Rhyme was staring out of the parlor window of his Central Park West townhouse. Two objects were in his immediate field of vision: a complicated Hewlett-Packard gas chromatograph and, outside the large nineteenth-century window, a peregrine falcon. The predatory birds were not uncommon in the city, where prey was plentiful. It was rare, however, for them to nest so low. Rhyme, as unsentimental as any scientist could be—especially the criminal forensic scientist that he was—nonetheless took a curious comfort in the creatures’ presence. Over the years he’d shared his abode with a number of generations of peregrines. Mom was here at the moment, a glorious thing, sumptuously feathered in brown and gray, with beak and claws that glistened like gun metal.

A man’s calm, humorous voice filled the silence. “No. You and Amelia cannot go to Greenland.”

“Why not?” Rhyme asked Thom Reston, an edge to his voice. The slim but sturdy man had been his caregiver for about as long as the line of falcons had resided outside the old structure. A quadriplegic, Rhyme was largely paralyzed south of his shoulders, and Thom was his arms and legs and considerably more. He had been fired as often as he’d quit but here he was and, both knew in their hearts, here he would remain.

“Because you need to go someplace romantic. Florida, California.”

“Cliché, cliché, cliché. Might as well go to Niagara Falls.” Rhyme scowled.

“What’s wrong with that?”

“I’m not even responding.”

“What does Amelia say?”

“She left it up to me. Which was irritating. Doesn’t she know I have better things to think about?”

“You mentioned the Bahamas recently. You wanted to go back, you said.”

“That was true at the time. It’s not true any longer. Can’t one change one’s mind? Hardly a crime.”

“What’s the real reason for Greenland?”

Rhyme’s face—with its prominent nose and eyes like pistol muzzles—was predatory in its own right, much like the bird’s.
“What do you mean by that?”

“Could it be that there’s a practical reason you want to go to Greenland, a professional reason? A useful reason?”

Rhyme glanced at the single-malt Scotch bottle sitting just out of reach. He was largely paralyzed, yes. But surgery and daily exercise had returned to him some ability to move his right arm and hand. Fate had helped too. The beam that had tumbled upon his neck from a crime scene many years ago had severed and crushed many nerves had left a few outlying strands intact, if injured and confused. He could grasp objects—like single-malt Scotch bottles, to pick a random example—but he could not rise from his complex wheelchair to fetch them if Thom, playing nursemaid, kept them out of Goddamn reach.

“Not cocktail hour yet,” the aide announced, noting the arc of his boss’s vision. “So, Greenland? ’Fess up.”

“It’s underrated. Named ‘Greenland’ while much of it’s barren. Not the least verdant. Compare Iceland. Quite green. I like the irony.”

“You’re not answering.”

Rhyme sighed. He disliked being transparent and hugely disliked being caught being transparent. He would appeal to truth. “It seems that the Rigspolitiet, the Danish police, have been doing rather important research into a new system of horticultural spectrographic analysis. A lab in Nuuk. That’s the capital, by the way. You can situate a sample in a much narrower geographic area than with standard systems.” Rhyme’s brows rose involuntarily. “Nearly the cellular level. Imagine! We think all plants are the same—”

“Not a sin of mine.”

Rhyme groused, “You know what I mean. This new technique can narrow down a target area to three meters!” He repeated, “Imagine.”

“I’m trying to. Greenland—no. And has Amelia actually deferred to you?”

“She will. When I tell her about the spectrograph.”

“How about England? She’d love that. Is that show on still, the one she likes? Top Gear? I think the original is off the air but I heard there’s a new version. She’d be great on it. They let people go out on the race track. She’s always talking about driving a hundred and eighty miles an hour on the wrong side of the road.”

“England?” Rhyme mocked. “You’ve just lost your argument. Greenland and England offer the same degree of romance.”

“You’ll find some disagreement there.”

“Not from the Greenlanders.”

Lincoln Rhyme did not travel much. The practical consequences of his disability added a layer of complication to journeys but physically, his doctors reported, there was no reason not to hit the road. His lungs were fine—he’d weaned himself off a ventilator years ago, the chest scar present but not prominent—and as long as such matters as the piss ’n’ shit details—his words—and low-chafing clothing were attended to, there was little chance of being afflicted by the quad’s bane: autonomic dysreflexia. A good portion of the world was disabled accessible now—with most enterprises, from restaurants to bars to museums, offering ramps and special restrooms. (Rhyme and Sachs had shared a smile when Thom pointed out an article in the paper about a school that had recently installed a disabled ramp and bathroom; the place taught only one thing: tap dancing.)

No, much of Rhyme’s reluctance to travel and his reclusiveness were simply because he was, well, a recluse. By nature. Working in his laboratory—the parlor here, filled with equipment and—teaching and writing for scientific journals appealed to him far more than tired sights polished for tourists.

But, given what was on his and Sachs’s agenda in the next few weeks, a trip outside of Manhattan was necessary; even he admitted that one could not honeymoon in one’s own home town.

Plans for trips to labs specializing in horticultural spectrometry, or locales of wooing romance, were, though, put on hold for the moment; the door buzzer sounded. Rhyme glanced at the security video and thought: Well.

Thom rose and returned a moment later with a middle-aged man in a camel-tan suit, which he might have slept in, though he probably hadn’t. He moved slowly but with little hesitation, and Rhyme thought that pretty soon he’d be able to discard the cane, which was, however, a pretty nifty accessory. Black with a silver head in the shape of an eagle.

The man looked around the lab. “Quiet.”

“Is. A few small private jobs recently. Nothing fun. Nothing exciting. Nothing since the Steel Kiss killer.”

A recent perpetrator had taken to sabotaging household items and public conveyances—with tragic and occasionally gruesome results.

NYPD Detective Lon Sellitto, in the Major Cases division, had been Rhyme’s partner—before Rhyme had moved up to captain and taken over the crime scene unit. Nowadays, Sellitto would occasionally hire Rhyme to consult on cases in which special forensic expertise was needed.

“What’re you looking at? Brown is all I had.” Sellitto waved toward his suit.

“Daydreaming,” Rhyme said. “I wasn’t looking at anything.”

Not true, but he hadn’t been regarding either the curious color of or the savage wrinkles in the suit. He was noting, with satisfaction, that Sellitto was recovering well following the attack on him by poison, which had caused major nerve and muscle damage—hence, the cane. While the detective was always fighting his weight, Rhyme thought he looked better on the portly side, like now. The sight of a gaunt, gray Lon Sellitto had been alarming.

“Where’s Amelia?”

“In court. Testifying in the Gordon case. On the calendar first thing. Should be over with soon. Then she was going shopping. For our trip.”

“Buying herself a trousseau? What is that anyway?”

Rhyme had no idea. “Something about weddings, clothing. I don’t know. But she’s got a dress already. Something frilly. Blue. Or maybe pink. Today, she’s shopping for me. What’s so Goddamn funny, Lon?”

“Picturing you in a tuxedo.”

“Just sweats and a shirt. Maybe a tie. I don’t know.”

“And you didn’t complain?”

True, Rhyme had little patience for what he considered affectation. But this occasion was different. For all her edge and edginess and her need of speed and blunt firearms, her passion for tactical solutions, Sachs had a splinter of teen girl within her and she was enjoying the game of wedding planning. This included shopping for a whatever-the-hell-it-was trousseau and a romantic honeymoon, and, if that pleased her, by God, Rhyme was more than happy to accommodate.

Though he really hoped he could convince her about Greenland.

“Well, tell her to shop later. I need her to run a scene. We’ve got a situation.”

A ping resounded within Rhyme the way a submarine’s sonar detects something unexpected off the port bow.

He texted Sachs and received no response. “Maybe on the stand, testifying. Tell me more.”

Thom appeared in the doorway—Rhyme hadn’t realized he’d left. The aide said, “Lon, coffee? Cookies? I’ve been baking. I’ve got a couple of different kinds. One is—”

“Yes, yes, yes.” It was Rhyme answering. “Bring him something. Make a decision yourself. I want to hear his story.”

Situation . . .

“Proceed,” he told Sellitto.

“Anything chocolate,” Sellitto called to Thom’s back.

“Easily arranged.”

“Kidnapping, Linc. Upper East Side. Apparently one male snatched another.”

“Apparently? What requires interpretation?”

“The only wit was nine years old.”

“Ah.”

“Perp grabs vic, tosses him into a trunk. Takes off.”

“The girl is sure about this? Not a figment of her over-active little imagination, stoked by watching too much television, ruining her thumbs on video games, reading too many Hello Pony stories?”

“Hello Kitty. Ponies are a different book.”

“Did Mommy or Daddy Confirm?”

“Morgynn, the girl, was the only one who saw. But I think it’s legit. She found a calling card he’d left behind.” Sellitto held up his phone and displayed a photo.

At first Rhyme couldn’t make out the image. It was a picture of a dark shape, thin, lying on a sidewalk.

“It’s a—”

Rhyme interrupted. “Noose.”

“Yup.”

“Made out of?”

“Not sure. Girl said he set it on the spot where he got the vic. She picked it up but the responding set it back in the same place he’d left it, more or less.”

“Great. I’ve never worked a scene contaminated by a nine-year-old.”

“Relax, Linc. All she did was pick it up. And the responding wore gloves. Scene’s secure, waiting for somebody to run it. Somebody, as in Amelia.”

The noose was made out of dark material, which was stiff, since segments were not flush with the pavement, as would be the case with more limp fibers. From the size of the poured-concrete sidewalk panel, the noose was about twelve to fourteen Inches long in total, the neck hoop about a third of that.

“The wit’s still on scene. With Mommy. Who isn’t very happy.”

Neither was Rhyme. All they had to go on was a nine-year-old schoolgirl with the observational skills and perception of a . . . well, nine-year-old schoolgirl.

“This vic? Rich, politically active, connected with OC, record?”

Sellitto said, “No ID yet. Nobody reported missing. A few minutes after the snatch somebody saw a phone fly outa a car—dark sedan, nothing more. Third Avenue. Dellray’s boys’re running it. We find out who, we find out why. Business deal gone bad, vic has information somebody wants, or the old standby. For-profit ransom.”

“Or it’s a psycho. There was the noose, after all.”

“Yeah,” Sellitto said, “and the vic just happened to be WTWP.”

“What?”

“Wrong time, wrong place.”

Rhyme scowled once more. “Lon?”

“It’s going around the department.”

“Flu viruses—not viri, by the way—go around the department. Idiotic expressions do not. Or should not, at least.”

Sellitto used the cane to rise to his feet and aimed his bulky form toward the tray of cookies that Thom was setting down, like a Realtor seducing prospective buyers at a condominium open house. He ate one, then two, then another, nodded approval. He poured himself a cup of coffee from a silver pitcher and spilled in sweetener, his concession to the battle against calories being to sacrifice refined sugar to pastry.

“Good,” he announced through a mouthful of cookie. “You want one? Some coffee?”

The criminalist’s eyes swiveled instinctively toward the Glenmorangie, sitting golden and alluring on the high shelf.
But Lincoln Rhyme decided: No. He wanted his faculties about him. He had a feeling that the girl’s observations were all too accurate, that the kidnapping had occurred just as she had described it and that the macabre calling card was a taunting message of a death soon to be.

And perhaps more after that.

He texted Amelia Sachs once again.

– – – –

© 2016 Gunner Publications LLC