Fortunes of the Dead: A Novel

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9780743463898: Fortunes of the Dead: A Novel

Private investigator Lena Padget, fearing that her relationship with a homicide detective is being compromised by his obsessive and unsuccessful search for a missing college intern, becomes suspicious about a field agent's confession that he murdered the missing woman.

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About the Author:

Lynn Hightower's previous novels include Fortunes of the Dead, High Water, and the Shamus Award winner Satan's Lambs. She studied creative writing with Wendell Berry at the University of Kentucky and holds a degree in journalism. She lives in the South.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One

I have had nightmares all my life. I do not know if this is unusual. But sometime late last September, when the leaves were on the verge of turning, and the sun was still strong in the afternoons, I started sleeping the night through. Gone were the two A.M. sweats; the late nights surfing the Net; flipping channels to catch a movie at four A.M.

It felt like happiness.

I stood on the front porch of a gray stone cottage on a gentrified and tree-lined street. I held a newly made key in my right hand, a bucket of paint in my left. The wind blew rain at my back and a sudden gust toppled the Sold sign in the middle of the yard.

Joel and I started looking for a place to buy together six months ago, in September. I knew as soon as we pulled into the driveway of 1802 Washington Avenue that this cottage was it, and before Joel had even stopped the car, I told him this was our place.

Joel never gets excited. He glanced up at the porch where the realtor was waving and said, "You want to make an offer now, or should we take a quick look around?" Joel's humor is so low-key and dry that he has friends who don't know he makes jokes.

Our little cottage is in an eclectic neighborhood called Chevy Chase. Due to the ever-rising real-estate values in Lexington, Kentucky, this means we pay top dollar for our square footage. We are close to the university, not too far from downtown, and a ridiculously short drive from Billy's Barbecue. Chevy Chase Inn, a watering hole popular with divorcées in their forties, is right across from Billy's, as is an ice-cream store, a doughnut place, and a bar that used to be called The Library. The bar has burned down twice that I know of. After that the name was changed to Charlie Brown's, and it hasn't burned down near as much since.

If you want to go dancing you can hit the Blue Moon Saloon, which is on the opposite side of the road from Charlie Brown's. Some nights they have a line of people waiting to get in. This strikes me as funny. Lexington is not big enough to have clubs with long lines, but at least they don't have velvet ropes.

It took a moment for me to work the key in the lock -- old doors always have little tricks. The door was a solid oak arch with black hinges. Inside, to the left of the foyer, a staircase went straight to the second floor, or you could go right, through an arched doorway that opened into the living room.

I went right.

The smell of fresh paint made the cottage seem like a brand-new gift. The house was built when ten-foot ceilings were run-of-the-mill, all floors were wood, and heating registers blew warm air through scrolled metal grilles in the floor. My boot heels sounded loud. They echoed.

It was chilly in the house and I looked at the fireplace, wishing. It was the last day of February, the rain was cold, and I was damp and shivery. February is the worst month of the year in Kentucky.

Rain pounded the windows -- broad, heavy panes of glass that stretched from midwall to a foot below the ceiling. The glass was so old it looked wavy. The fireplace was flanked by built-in bookshelves enclosed with diamond-paned wooden doors, in the style of barristers' bookcases. It was the shelves that sold Joel the house.

And I was missing Joel, who was supposed to help pick out the paint. He was in charge of drop cloths and brushes, and today was his scheduled day off. But Joel was a cop, a homicide cop, and days off were a maybe at best. He'd left in a hurry this morning without saying why, and I'd been edgy all day, because it was the Cheryl Dunkirk case that he worked. Joel had spent eight sleepless weeks on the trail of this girl, and had yet to come up with anything other than her car -- neatly parked in the lot of her apartment house, stained with traces of blood and bodily fluids, and ravaged by a web of newly made cracks in the windshield. Her trail ended abruptly at a Pilot gas station on Richmond Road.

Joel did not know that I was considering taking Cheryl Dunkirk's family on as clients. And I saw no reason to tell him until I made up my mind. I will have no argument before its time.

Cheryl's stepfather, Paul Ellis Brady, a Pittsburgh developer who dealt in multimillion-dollar commercial and government projects, was dead set on hiring me to "do anything" I could. He and his daughter, Miranda, who lived in Lexington, were due in less than an hour to work out the details -- as in look me over, and bring me a check. Brady was very clear on the phone. He wanted me to keep the investigation going until I could find out every detail of what happened to his daughter. He wanted me to take up the slack in the official investigation.

The first thing I told him was that there wasn't any slack in the police investigation. This I knew firsthand, though I didn't tell Brady that. I tried to talk him out of hiring me. Uncertainty is the hardest thing to live with, but in the case of Cheryl Dunkirk, I didn't think she would ever be found.

I was uneasy about Joel's reaction to me working this case. I'd almost told him the night before, when he came to bed after working late, and had been deciding exactly what to say when he pulled me close, my back to his front, and put his arms around me to keep me warm. The truth is that I chickened out, but what I told myself was that it was better to make a decision on my own, uninhibited by the thought of his disapproval. Because that's how women get lost in relationships -- pleasing everyone but themselves.

Joel and I had been together for two years and counting, and I found that the longer we were together the happier I was. We bought this house jointly and were scheduled for official cohabitation in two days. Our loan folder was so new it was still piled in some In-box, waiting its turn to be filed. The mortgage papers had been signed, the closing, always tense, had been endured, and everyone who was anyone had taken a percentage from our fees.

It took me two years to completely commit -- to Joel, or to happiness, or both. Joel, ever patient, was delighted, if you can use such an energetic word for his understated ways. I was good for him. In the months we'd been together, his face had filled out and he looked younger. The lines of fatigue in his brow had smoothed; the stress creases that ran from his nose to his lips had faded.

We began our evenings in the kitchen. Joel cooked and I watched. We talked long into the night about the things that interested us -- why people kill, why men beat women, how a mother could be so drug addicted she would aid and abet a nightmare childhood for her kids. We talked forensics and DNA, and our most heated arguments involved either the death penalty, or how much garlic should go into the pasta. Joel is a "less is more" kind of cook, and I am a "more the merrier." So we talked and argued about food and work: the merits of wheat beer over ale; Joel's job in homicide; and mine as a private detective -- a woman's equalizer, specializing in cases involving women and children who fall between the cracks of the legal system.

I set the paint bucket down gently so as not to mar the floor. The heating control was a simple round dial, likely installed before I was born. Turning it on reminded me of the combination locks you use in school. There was that moment of hesitation, when you think, Hey, does this work?, then a rumble and a sigh as the compressor kicked in; the noise of air rushing through cramped, old-fashioned vents; and the toasty smell of burning dust.

And I was home. More at home than in Joel's austere warehouse loft; more at home than in my sister Whitney's haunted suburban ranch -- recently sold to make a substantial down payment on this cottage. Joel and I had agreed that I would make the down payment and he would handle the bulk of the mortgage -- a reasonable arrangement. Joel had a regular salary, generating cash flow and good credit. I was paid by economically challenged women in the midst of domestic chaos. I survived by a form of medieval barter.

It's a complex system that generates satisfaction, a million-odd privileges, but very little ready cash. There is no financial security, and none of the sort of documentation that impresses mortgage companies or any reputable bank.

On the other hand, my freezer was stocked with homemade meatballs, chicken casseroles, and Chicago steak fillets. My car insurance would be provided for the next eighteen months. I could walk into the Asian Pearl and have free martinis, which was a shame, since I didn't drink martinis. My yard maintenance would be taken care of for the next year, a bouquet of flowers arrived from Ashland Florist every two weeks, and I had gift certificates on hand to spend whenever I wanted: one from Lazarus for $175; another for Victoria's Secret for $50; and one I had just cashed in at Joseph Beth Booksellers for a Miles Davis CD. One very grateful client had signed over a 1994 Mazda Miata with 85,000 miles and a tear in the tan canvas roof. Another had a brother who kept the Miata in good repair. Clients cleaned my oven, brought over casseroles on a scheduled dinner plan, offered me the professional services of family members who moved furniture, worked in restaurants, and repaired antiques.

The arrangement has advantages for the lazy at heart. That would be me.

I thought about making coffee while I unwrapped the new CD and put it in the portable stereo. Coffee would require me to go back outside. On the other hand, it was coffee.

I went back out to the car, avoiding the lawn and the mud loosened between the drowning blades of grass. Rain had been steady for six days straight and the ground was saturated. It had been a miserable soggy month, nothing but gray skies. The scent of wood smoke was so strong that it seemed every household must be using a fireplace or wood-burning stove.

I hauled my essentials out of the car -- a corkscrew, a bottle of Chilean Merlot that met my exacting qualifications (under ten dollars, eye-catching label), a bag of salt and vinegar potato chips, coffeemaker, cream, my favorite New Orleans coffee mug that said American Belle on one side and Absolutely Pure Coffee on the other. I picked it up at Kroger's just last week. I was drinking Yuban coffee because it had been on sale, but it was nothing like the rich black Italian roast that is full-bodied rather than bitter -- and currently out of my price range.

I shut the door on the rain and slipped out of my wet shoes -- red alligator high-heeled boots I had no business wearing in this weather. I left my stuff in the foyer and headed for the kitchen. Joel had left his toolbox on the Italian marble countertop (another strong selling point), anticipating, as was his habit, exactly what we would need to have on hand for the move. In the refrigerator was bottled Dasani water, Becks, Miller Lite, and chocolate biscotti. Joel had come alone to bring these few things roughly a week ago and had not set foot in the house since. I'd wandered in almost every day.

Like his pantry, his closet, even his underwear drawer, Joel's toolbox was neat, organized, and spotless. The tools were worn, but clean, as if Joel wiped them down with a soft cloth every time he used them, which he probably did. I found a screwdriver in a plastic tray that held several screwdrivers arranged according to size. I mixed them up on purpose, grabbed one, and snapped the lid shut.

I rustled through my pile of stuff until I found the bag of potato chips, then sat cross-legged to consider the bucket of paint. Joel and I had sorted through a hundred and one color strips and settled on leaving the trim in the living room Manhattan Chalk White, and repainting the walls Lido Beige. I had been perfectly content with the Lido Beige. But standing in the paint aisle at Home Depot, the Sienna Sun Red called my name.

I had always wanted a red room, but red was something of a tricky color. Candy-apple red would be disgusting, and I would loathe any shade that looked the slightest bit orange, which let out everything with a Southwest motif. Maroon was unacceptable -- a good color for a high school marching band, but not my living room.

And then I saw it -- the red I had always imagined, the red that would be dramatic and elegant, the red I could live with day in and day out. The big question was did I have the right to paint the living room whatever color I liked. Living with someone meant compromise, and I had agreed without agony to the Lido Beige.

I turned up the music and opened the bag of chips. Fingers sticky with salt and vinegar, I used the screwdriver to pry open the paint.

So beautiful. I ripped the plastic off a brand-new paintbrush, and dipped the bristles into the placid and virginal surface. I made an arclike smear on the wall, followed by another swath of red, this one bigger. Drips of paint slid like oil down the side of the can and dropped to the newly buffed wood floors.

Joel says that disorder follows wherever I go. It's not intentional. But it is true that I have never decorated on my own before, and never picked out paint, or furniture, or dishes, without someone weighing in with a heated opinion. My ex-husband, Rick, had a place of his own when we moved in together, and we didn't change much after we got married. And when my sister was murdered, and Rick and I split, I moved into Whitney's little suburban ranch and changed not a thing that didn't involve cleaning or replacing the carpet and baby bed that had been soaked with blood and tears. It took me by surprise, this strong vision I had of how my house should look.

I set the paintbrush on the metal rim of the bucket, and stood back from the wall. Two coats would do it, and I'd leave the woodwork as it was.

The doorbell rang twice. This was the first time I'd heard the doorbell in the house, and I liked the way it sounded -- it's the little things that make you proud.

I was not looking forward to having to explain that it was entirely possible we would never know what happened to Cheryl Dunkirk. The family never gives up. Paul and Miranda Brady still had hope. But Cheryl had likely been dead for the last eight weeks, and her passing, much like Whitney's, was not an easy one; this much I knew, and very little else. I also knew Cheryl's death would haunt her sister, Miranda, the same way Whitney's violent murder haunted me.

The bell rang again -- that made three. I wiped my hands on the back of my Victoria's Secret Five Button Fly Boyfriend Jeans and went to open my arched front door.

My client was not what I expected, and it was clear from the way her mouth hung open that the reaction was mutual. She was young. If I were a bartender I would card her as a formality only before I escorted her out the door. I looked over her shoulder but did not see her father. Miranda had come alone.

She stepped forward to look at me more closely, and I could see that she was still struggling with those tricky issues of complexion. The small spray of whiteheads on her forehead were barely visible, buried beneath a generous application of cream-based foundation. She had likely selected the color during the summer w...

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