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«Winter House», Carol O’Connell

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This book is dedicated to a woman who had two wedding rings. My mother’s only marriage had outlasted the original gold band. On a cold day in February, I found that first ring my father had given to her. It was worn until it was worn out, thin and brittle, but not broken. And then she died.

 

Acknowledgments

Many thanks to researcher Dianne Burke, who answers legal and medical questions and can chart the paths of binary stars with equal facility. And thanks to Phillip Skodinski, attorney-at-law. Any errors in this novel are surely my own. And any untoward humor at the expense of the legal profession is expressed by fictional people (not me); and, said humorous, though disparaging, remarks would not have been made if they had not been important to the plot – really – no, really.

And thanks to my brother Bruce for the gift of time; and thanks to cousins Norman, Melinda, Camille and Noel for an eleventh-hour visit that meant the world to me.

Chapter 1

THE HOUR WAS LATE. THE TRAFFIC WAS SCARCE. A FEW CARS crawled by at the pace of bugs attracted by house lights, five flights of electric-yellow windows.

The narrow mansion was not a rarity in New York City, home to millionaires and billionaires. However, its nineteenth-century facade was an anachronism on this particular block of Central Park West. The steep-pitched roof was split by a skylight dome, and attendant gargoyles were carved in stone. Wedged in tight between two condominium behemoths, this dwelling was in the wrong place at the wrong time and regally unrepentant, though the police were at the door.

And in the parlor, up the stairs and down in the cellar.

So many police.

Nedda Winter sat quietly and watched them pass her by on their way to other rooms – and they watched her for a while. Soon they came to regard her as furniture, but she took no offense. She turned on the antique radio that stood beside her chair. No one reprimanded her, and so she turned up the volume.

White hot jazz.

Benny Goodman on the clarinet and other ghosts from the big-band era flooded the front room and infected the steps of people in and out of uniform, passing to and fro.

Lift those feet. Tap those toes.

Miss Winter repressed a smile, for that would be unseemly, but she nodded in time to the music. The house was alive again, drunk on life, though the party revolved around the dead man at the center of the floor.

Miss Winter was well named. She had the countenance of that season. Her long hair was pure white, and her skin had the pallor of one who has been shut away for a long time. Even her eyes had gone pale, leached of color, bleached to the lightest tint of blue. She was so well disguised by time that the police continued to ignore her, demanding no apologies, nor any explanation for her long absence. They had even failed to recognize this house, an address that was infamous when the music on the radio was young.

Fifty-eight years earlier, in the aftermath of another violent crime, which remained unsolved, a twelve-year-old girl had vanished from this house, and now the lost child, grown up and grown old, had come back home.

 

The medical examiner’s vehicle was parked at the curb, and behind it was another van with the CSU logo of the crime-scene technicians. The front windows of the house were all alight, and the silhouettes of men and women moved across pulled-down shades and closed drapes.

A warm October breeze of Indian summer rippled the yellow crime-scene tapes that extended down the stone steps to include a patch of the sidewalk. The tape did the restraining duty of a velvet rope for theatrical productions, though tonight’s audience amounted to only three stragglers, refugees from a saloon in the hour after closing time. Happy intoxication was in their stance and in their badly sung song, which was grating on the nerves of a uniformed officer. The spinning cherry lights of police units made the officer’s face alternately beet red and pale white as he waved off the drunks with a loud „Get the hell outta here!“

Charles Butler parked his Mercedes behind a police car and stepped out into the street, unfolding and rising to a stand of six feet four. Smooth grace in motion served as compensation for his foolish face. Bulbous eyes the size of hens’ eggs were half closed by heavy lids and pocked with small blue irises that gave him a look of permanent astonishment, and his hook of a nose might perch two sparrows or one fat pigeon. Otherwise, the forty-year-old man was well made from the necktie down and well turned out, though he had omitted the vest from his three-piece suit.

He had dressed in a hurry. Mallory was waiting.


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