Holland Taylor is a PI who does simple background checks and other mostly unchallenging cases. Still wounded by the long-ago death of his wife and daughter, and newly mourning a recently failed relationship, Taylor doesn’t have much interest in more challenging work. But almost by accident, he finds himself in the middle of the crime of the century.
Eleanor Barrington, the doyenne of a socially prominent family of great wealth, has been arrested for the murder of Emily Denys, her son’s fiancée. Barrington made no secret of her disdain for the victim, convinced that she was trying to take advantage of her son and her family.
Taylor had been brought in to do a full background check on Emily, only to discover that both her name and her background were fabricated. Before he could learn more, she was murderedshot in the head outside her apartment.
Barrington had been overheard threatening to kill her son’s fiancé and an eyewitness claims to have seen her kill Emily. But that’s not the worst of it. Barrington’s own son has even worse accusations to make against her.
Caught in the dark tangle of a twisted family and haunted by his own past, Taylor finds that the truth is both elusive and dangerous.
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She was tall, slender, impeccably tanned; strawberry hair fell in waves to her shoulders. I knew she was older than fifty years, yet she could easily have passed for forty and probably did. Possibly she'd had work done, but if so it was very well done indeed. Even while dressed in an orange jumpsuit over a white cotton tee and without makeup, she looked like she could be advertising beauty products in a fashion magazine. I wondered how she managed it. Most people, you put them in jail for forty-eight hours, they look like hell. Probably her money had something to do with it. Eleanor Barrington had plenty.
I met her in an eight-by-eight interview room at the Ramsey County Adult Detention Center in St. Paul. She sat in a metal chair at a metal table, both anchored to the concrete floor, and absentmindedly pulled at her collar. David Helin sat across from her, a legal pad and pen arrayed in front of him, although he didn't do much note taking. I was leaning against the cinder-block wall, my arms folded across my chest, trying hard to quiet the questions that had been bouncing around in my head ever since I heard that Mrs. Barrington had been arrested.
"When do I get the hell out of here?" she asked. Her words were sharply spoken and produced a disconcerting echo as they bounced off the gray walls.
"Soon," Helin said. "Maybe tomorrow."
"Tomorrow? What's the holdup?"
"Bail was set at two million dollars —"
"Write a fucking check."
"It's easy to come up with two hundred thousand dollars in cash, the ten percent that the court demands up front. But we must also provide an audit of your assets to prove that you can cover the remaining amount, and that's taking time —"
"God damn it."
"I'm working with your accountants —"
"I'm going to start firing accountants and lawyers, too, if I don't get out of here and soon. The toilet in my cell doesn't even have a seat on it."
"You need to understand the State's position," Helin said. "You have a couple of houses scattered around the country and another in Martinique."
"They think I might run off somewhere? Why would I do that?"
"A woman was killed."
"I don't care. Why should I care? Some dead whore on the street."
"You knew the woman," I said.
Helin's mouth tightened at the sound of my words. I was there to be seen, not heard, yet he did not interrupt.
"You spoke to her many times," I added. "She had been dating your son for over six months."
"What's your point?" Mrs. Barrington asked.
"You seem somewhat callous about what happened to her."
"Bitter. I'm fucking bitter."
"Why?" Helin asked.
Mrs. Barrington sighed an exasperated sigh and rolled her large, hazel-colored eyes toward heaven.
"I told you. How many times do I have to tell you? The bitch meant nothing to me. She was just a trick my son was banging. I really don't give a fuck that she's dead; don't really give a fuck who killed her except that people are blaming me. It's very annoying."
"Witnesses claim they overheard you threatening to kill her," Helin said.
"Just talk," Mrs. Barrington answered. "Haven't you ever done that? Said I'm going to kill that bastard, going to kill that bitch? You get angry, you say things."
"You had reason to be angry."
"Damn right, I had reason. Didn't I, Taylor?"
She stared straight at me as she spoke, expecting me to nod my head in agreement, expecting me to say, "Yes, ma'am." I did neither.
"She was a fucking whore trying to rip off my son, trying to rip me off," Mrs. Barrington said.
This time Helin turned in his seat to look at me, seeking confirmation.
"All we know for sure is that her name wasn't Emily Denys and that she didn't grow up in Albert Lea, Minnesota, or attend the University of Iowa," I said. "In fact, there's nothing to prove that she even existed thirteen months ago."
"See," Mrs. Barrington said.
"That doesn't mean she was bitch or a whore or a thief."
"She was a liar."
Yes, I told myself, she was a liar.
"Our problem right now — do you know a woman named Alexandra Campbell?" Helin asked.
"No," Mrs. Barrington said. "Why should I?"
"The county attorney interviewed her this morning. She lives across the street from Emily Denys. She claims she saw you get out of your car, walk up behind Denys, shoot her in the back of the head as she was unlocking the front door to her duplex, walk back to your car, and drive away."
"That's bullshit. Why would she say such bullshit?"
"We'll ask her." Helin turned in his seat to look at me again. "Right?"
"Yes, sir," I told him.
"Wait," Mrs. Barrington said. "The killing took place two days ago. If she saw me — if she saw someone do it, why didn't she come forward then? Sounds to me like someone got to her."
"Are you suggesting that she was bought off?"
"If I know nothing else, I know what money can buy."
"A possibility we'll explore," Helin said. "In the meantime, there's the matter of the murder weapon. Denys was killed by a bullet fired from a nine-millimeter handgun. Mrs. Barrington, you purchased a nine-millimeter handgun seven years ago at Joe's Sporting Goods. A Ruger LC9 to be precise."
"After my husband died," she said. "I kept it in the house. In my bedroom."
"Where is it now?"
"What I told that smirking asshole of a policeman, I don't know."
"You said it was missing."
"I preferred to think of it as being mislaid."
"You were unable to produce the gun when the police asked for it."
"It wasn't where I thought it would be. I don't remember seeing it for years. I might have moved it and forgot where."
"Did your son and daughter search the house like we asked?" Helin said.
"I don't know."
"I'll call them —"
"You know what this is? This is that bitch of a county attorney trying to make a name for herself by going after the one-percenters. Prove she's a woman of the people. Yeah, and then come knocking on our doors looking for campaign contributions when she runs for higher office."
"Mrs. Barrington?" I asked.
"As you say, you're a wealthy woman."
"Not fucking wealthy enough that I can buy myself out of jail, it seems."
"What happens to your estate if you're" — I nearly said convicted; instead I said — "incapacitated."
"The estate is held in a family trust as per the instructions in my husband's will. As it stands now, I have complete control. If something happens to me — wait. What are you saying? That my children did this?" She stood abruptly, a mother bear protecting her cubs. "What the fuck are you telling me?"
Helin was just as quick to his feet. He grabbed my arm and hustled me out the door.
"I'm going to talk to Taylor for a moment," he said over his shoulder. "I'll be right back."
Once we were outside the interview room, the door closed, Helin turned on me.
"What the hell was that, Taylor?" he asked.
"Do you believe she's innocent?"
"Yes, I do, as a matter of fact. She's an incredible piece of work, but yes, I believe she's innocent."
"Then what happened to the gun?"
He thought about it for a few beats.
"The fact that it's missing is either very convenient or very inconvenient, depending on your point of view," I added.
"You're doing your job, thinking like a private investigator," Helin said. "Good for you. I'd ask you to find the damn gun, except — I'm not entirely sure I want to find the damn gun."
Because you think she's innocent, I told myself.
"Are you sure you want me to keep working the case?" I asked.
"You know the county attorney is going to call me as a witness for the prosecution. I'm going to have to testify that Mrs. Barrington hired me to check on the background of the girl her son was dating and that I reported that Emily Denys — we don't actually know who she was, but we know who she wasn't."
"That's not a problem, don't worry. The CA can only call you as a fact witness. She can only ask about what you just told me. Beyond that — you can testify to what happened before the body was found, but not say a word about what happened after. The work you do for me on behalf of Mrs. Barrington is protected. My privilege is your privilege."
"Yet the CA is making a big deal in the media about Mrs. Barrington hiring a private investigator to stalk the victim."
"That kind of talk will never reach the inside of a courtroom, trust me."
"Makes me took like a douche, though."
"I'm sorry about that. But Mrs. Barrington might be right. This reeks of a grandstand play on the county attorney's part. The fact the police have been unable to identify the girl — I don't know."
"Maybe the CA knows something we don't."
"It wouldn't be the first time. Find out what that is, will you? I'm not sure how much longer I can keep Mrs. Barrington in jail."
"You're the one delaying her bail?"
"You heard her in there. If the media gets hold of her, the woman will poison her own jury pool. The mouth on her — and she's so damn beautiful, too."
"It's always a pleasure working with you, David."
"Yeah, we're both wonderful people. Eventually, I'll get a chance to depose the State's eyewitness. For now, see what you can learn about her, what she knows. If you can shake her up in the process, I won't mind a bit."
"The best time will be tomorrow right after breakfast," I said.
Helin stared at me as if he had no idea what I was talking about.
"I read it in Psychology Today," I said. "People are more likely to be helpful in the morning right after they've had breakfast."
"We'll talk tomorrow. Oh, and if Mrs. Barrington should ask, tell her that I just tore you a new one."
* * *
The sound of my name as I was stepping out of the front door of the Ramsey County Adult Detention Center caused me to pivot. A woman dressed in a matching skirt and jacket was approaching fast, followed closely behind by a tall, thin African American sporting a mustache. I recognized them both — which is why I let the door close between us. I waited for them beneath the steel poles flying the American and Minnesota flags.
They came out of the building in a hurry. Ramsey County Attorney Marianne Haukass walked briskly toward me, her heels making a clicking sound on the concrete, which made me think that was why she wore them. She halted a few feet away and pressed her fists firmly against her hips.
"Didn't you hear me?" she asked.
Her hair trembled in the breeze like the flags above us. It was too dark to call her a blonde and too light for her be a labeled a brunette. I never liked the term "dirty blonde," yet in her case ...
"Yes, I heard you," I said. "Hi, Martin. Good to see you again."
Martin McGaney stood behind the CA. He gave me a little head nod in recognition.
"What are you doing here?" Haukass asked.
"No license holder shall divulge to anyone other than the employer, or as the employer may direct, except as required by law, any information acquired during —"
Haukass raised her hand like a cop was stopping traffic.
"Enough," she said. "I really don't want to hear it."
"I'll be on my way, then."
"You're making a mistake, Taylor, continuing with this case. If you were smart, you'd drop it."
"Is that a threat?"
"A friendly warning."
"You've been helpful to my office," Haukass said. "You're the one who broke that car theft ring, the one that used wreckers to cruise the streets, towing to chop shops vehicles that were parked illegally or that they found broken down on the freeway. I'd hate to see you get into trouble."
"What kind of trouble?"
"I heard that a complaint might be filed with the Department of Public Safety; that you might be forced to explain your involvement in the murder of Emily Denys to the Private Detective Services Board."
"Is that all? For a moment there, I thought it might be serious."
"I heard the complaint alleges that you engaged in fraud, deceit, and misrepresentation while in the business of private detective. You're one for quoting regulations. You know what that means."
"My license could be suspended if not revoked. That's serious, all right. Especially if I'm then asked to testify about that stolen-car ring you mentioned. If my testimony is discredited, won't that hurt your case?"
"You can see why I'm concerned, then."
"Marianne," I said.
I purposely used her first name. It's an old cop trick. It removes a suspect's dignity and makes him feel defensive, inferior, and often dependent, like a child seeking a parent's approval. It lets the suspect know who's in charge around here. I don't know why this is true, yet personal experience tells me that it is, especially among people who expect to be called mister and sir and ma'am.
"Marianne, despite the BS you've been ladling out to the media, Mrs. Barrington hired my firm to do a simple background check on Emily, asking for no greater depth than if she had applied for a position with one of her companies. That's not unusual. I bet we get a hundred calls a year from people asking us to investigate the boys and girls they meet in bars or on online. We charge five hundred to a thousand dollars a pop depending on how extensive the service. In my humble opinion, which I'd be happy to share with a jury, anyone who has something to protect, like, say, Mrs. Barrington, would be foolish not to do a background check on the individuals who ingratiate themselves into their lives. So, you see, I was acting well within the scope of my employment."
"Holland," the county attorney said, emphasizing my first name as strongly as I had hers. "Is that going to be your defense?"
"It has the virtue of being true."
"We're all adults here. We all know that truth often has little to do with it."
"I know this to be true — a murder case would normally be handled by the assistant county attorney who heads the criminal division of your office. Instead, the Ramsey County attorney, a woman without prior criminal trial experience, has chosen to prosecute the case herself. Probably because it's high profile with the promise of substantial media attention."
"If you say so."
"I do say so. Something else — you're new to the job, so when you behave like a heartless bitch playing politics with people's lives, you think a lowly private investigator like me should be surprised; he should be frightened. No one is surprised. No one is frightened. Ask your man here. McGaney's been around. He'll tell you you're just another in a long line of heartless bitches — both male and female — intent on using their position solely to build a tough-on-crime rep that'll carry them to political glory. Now, if you should genuinely care about people, that would surprise me. That would shock me to my core."
Haukass tried hard to hide her anger and almost succeeded. She started to speak, stopped, started again, her words dipped in honey.
"Don't say I didn't warn you," she said.
She turned and walked briskly back toward the detention center. McGaney followed, yet not before giving me a grin.
"You just can't help yourself, can you?" he said.
I opened the door, the one next to the sign that read FREDERICKS & TAYLOR PRIVATE INVESTIGATIONS, and stepped inside. Freddie was happily working the PC mounted on his desk. I remembered a time when he hated computers. Somewhere along the line he caught the virus, though, and now he was the best at running background checks and skip traces, hunting identity thieves, vetting jurors, uncovering hidden assets, and even conducting cyber investigations — all from the comfort of his stuffed swivel chair. He looked up when I entered the office.
"Taylor," he said.
"How'd it go?"
"We're still on the clock."
"You make that sound like it's a bad thing."
"I don't know, Freddie. More and more I'm thinking this is one we should walk away from."
"We could, but that would be establishing a whaddya call, dangerous precedent, quitting a lawyer midcase. Besides, I like Helin."
"He's been very good to us."
"Yes, he has."
"Way I look at it, we're workin' for him, not the client. The way I always look at it."
"So, we're on the same page?"
"You best take a look at this, then."
Freddie called up an article that appeared on the website of the St. Paul Pioneer Press. The headline read:
MURDER VICTIM WAS HIDING UNDER ASSUMED NAME
"Did they get that from the cops?" I asked.
"Doesn't say, but whenever a pretty white girl gets killed, reporters like to run a picture, interview the family and friends, get folks to say they never expected nothin' like this t' happen in their neighborhood. Maybe they figured it out for themselves."
"The CA might have told them off the record. I've come to admire her sneakiness."
"Don't know 'bout that. Paper does say how a PI gave up the alleged victim to the alleged killer."
"Did it print our names?"
"Swell. Does it mention anything about a license review?"
"Is there gonna be a license review?"
"The CA says so."
Freddie smiled a big toothy smile. "Never a dull moment, huh?" he said.
Excerpted from "Darkness, Sing Me A Song"
Copyright © 2017 David Housewright.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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