Gale has been handling cold cases for over a decade, burying herself in her work and caring for her elderly father, a former detective himself. But this case isn’t like the others. Maybe it’s Sydney Hansen—she finds her beauty captivating. Or maybe it’s the bullet she takes for Syd one night when their date turns into an impromptu stakeout.
Syd and Gayle just want to protect the innocent and bring a killer to justice, but as their feelings for each other grow the once cold case turns dangerously hot.
Release date: September 12, 2023
Publisher: Bold Strokes Books
Print pages: 304
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Cold Case Heat
Mary P. Burns
Sydney Hansen’s hands shook, making it impossible to control the eyeliner pencil. She put it down and braced her hands on the bathroom counter. The old, yellowing “Page Six” column she’d torn out of the New York Post that was on top of a stack of dated newspapers in the recycling room before Christmas stared up at her, a few splotches of water marking it. It was nothing short of a miracle that she’d even come across it. The empty Tide bottle could’ve waited until morning. Or the person who’d obviously been cleaning out their apartment might’ve put the papers out tomorrow afternoon instead. But there sat the sensational rag. The cover story blared something about federal agents beginning to crack open a decades-old multimillion dollar money laundering scandal tied to the current city administration that involved the mob, labor unions, Wall Street, and a high-end prostitution ring. But Syd only saw the little banner above the headline. She’d tossed the bottle into the plastics bin and picked up the paper, thumbing it open to the page. It had been years since there was anything about him in the press. And decades since she’d gotten that first threat she was so sure had come from him—she thought he’d finally decided he’d silenced her. Going to see him now could be a grave risk.
She reread the “Page Six” headline. “Hedge Fund Gazillionaire Dumped into Gold-Plated Home, Ne’er-Do-Well Son Battles Board for Company.” The New York Times would surely have covered this story; she must’ve missed it. I might’ve reached an age where I forget why I walked into a particular room, but I would’ve remembered seeing this. She looked up into the mirror. Her deeply felt fear wasn’t reflected in her eyes, but it was there. She knew it was still there. After Drew’s surprise visit yesterday, she’d finally had to face it. She’d never let him down before, keeping her promise to Wyatt to make sure his son was taken care of if anything happened to him.
Far from simply “making sure,” Syd became an integral part of Drew’s life after Wyatt’s death, spending many holidays in Nebraska where he lived with Wyatt’s parents. She’d carried on the tradition of the boy’s summer visits to the city, Fire Island, and the summer camp in the Adirondacks, too. That was why Wyatt had given her the beach house and legal guardianship of Drew for most of July and August every year until his eighteenth birthday. Those carefree summer weeks had been among the best times in her life. She and the boy would spend a few days in the city going to museums and Broadway shows. Then would come lazy days on the beach and nights on the deck under the stars before he went off to camp. New memories took root and blossomed where the sadness surrounding Wyatt’s death had been. Drew was so different from his father, yet he had so many of Wyatt’s mannerisms; it was like having a bit of Wyatt for a few weeks each year.
Grown and married, Drew now sent his daughter Isabella for those same magical summers. It was as though the clock turned back to days of idyll, this time with a child who was a cookie-cutter version of Wyatt, but who embraced life with a fierce passion. The little ball of blond energy had been a constant surprise to Syd, even as she morphed into a tween recently—she couldn’t imagine life without Izzy.
Syd hung her head for a moment. No, she had never let Drew down. Until now. He’d made that very clear as he sat in her living room yesterday afternoon with his grandfather’s notebook in his hands. He was so angry that he’d flown over thirteen hundred miles to confront her with it. Hadn’t told her he was coming, simply showed up in her lobby. He’d found the little notebook while cleaning out Joe’s house after losing him to Covid in November. The shock of discovering his father was murdered propelled him blindly onto the plane.
Dismantling Joe’s house had been a difficult task for Drew. Almost every night she’d spoken to him as he worked his way through his grandfather’s belongings amid the surroundings of the boyhood he’d spent in the shadow of his own father’s youth. It took an emotional toll on him, trying to decide what to do with certain family heirlooms. Those conversations had also included what to do with his own broken heart.
When he finally tackled the attic, he came across the notebook in a small box marked “PERSONAL.” And he couldn’t believe what he read when he opened it. He wanted to know why she and his grandfather had kept the
details of his father’s death from him, details that Joe obviously wanted him to know one day or he never would’ve written them down. Syd tried to pacify him. She had no idea that Joe kept this recollection of everything surrounding Wyatt’s death, and their many conversations about it afterward. Would she have told Joe what her fears were if she’d known he was recording them like that?
It had been hard to explain to Drew, now fifty, that it would’ve been too much for Joe to share any of this with him. And harder even to admit that his grandfather’s theories were built on her fears and prejudices, and some guesses and rumors that she couldn’t prove then. The look of anguish on Drew’s face had hurt. He left for the airport a mere hour later and Syd went right to her closet, to the banker’s box she kept there, the box that had moved everywhere with her since the fallout from Wyatt’s murder. For the first time in years, she combed through it—the photos, legal documents, police notes, financial documents and all those notes Ned Rossiter had made in the margins of them. Everything was there, and it added up, just as she’d always suspected.
Which was why twenty hours later, she stood in her bathroom, galvanized to do what she should have done years ago. She never should have let herself be bullied into silence when Wyatt was killed.
There would be no room for forty years of dread in this equation today, either.
Trusting her hands again, she finished her makeup and brushed her hair, twisting the up-curls around the brush to get the contours exactly right. She wanted to make certain he recognized her. As she worked, she went over everything in her head one more time—what she wanted to say to him, how she wanted to say it, and how she wanted to leave afterward. A deep-seated anger slowly took the place of the fear. It settled in her spine, reaching hot fingers in every direction. Father Moore would have warned her that she wasn’t exemplifying good Christian behavior, that it was better to live in the grace of forgiveness. Syd had lived her life by that tenet, but today, she felt neither forgiveness nor the grace that came with it, and she wondered who was forsaking whom. Father would probably say He was carrying her because she was too blind to see. If anything, her eyes were fully open for the first time in years.
An hour later, she was driving up the local road that paralleled the Long Island Sound in Sagaponack. The day was becoming unusually warm for March. Daffodils dotted the roadside, and fat premature leaf buds on many of the trees were challenging winter for dominance. Each rise in the road afforded her a view of the choppy waters, dazzling morning sunlight casting flashes of white and yellow across the ripples of blue. She put the window partway down so she could smell the
salt water and the scents the sun coaxed from the waking earth.
The GPS system announced that she was less than a mile from the exclusive long-term care facility that was nestled on the border of this gilt-edged hamlet. The stone wall on her right and the perfectly squared hedges rising above it had already announced it, though. She turned into the gates and eased into a parking space.
For a moment, she paused in the front seat to gather herself, astonished by the splendor that greeted her. Manicured lawns were golf-course precise. Among the dense oaks and the tall stark plane trees that would soon enough create great canopies of shade, dogwoods bloomed. Lilac bushes throughout the grounds were budding, and forsythias, their branches already heavy with yellow flowers, bowed to greet the purple tulips beginning to rise about them. In the distance, at various junctures along the stone wall, berms of fir trees protected the grounds from nor’easters, whether of snow or rain, the last of February’s snowdrops tucked in among them.
She stepped out of the car and took in the graceful three-story white Colonial Revival mansion with its spartanly contrasting black shutters. Single-story wings stretched in either direction, curving out of sight. A portico of columns protected a deep porch.
There was a flagstone sidewalk leading up to the front door. A cement ramp running beside it reminded Syd who lived here. Several green slat-backed rockers and some small tables sat about the porch. She eyed the front doors. Knowing she was closer to her quarry, her own inner fire flickered hotter than the sun that burned down brightly on this corner of Eden.
Syd smoothed the front of her navy blue suit jacket, straightened herself and squared her shoulders. It was a trick Wyatt had taught her, a quick way to project cool control before you walked into a room, even if you didn’t remotely feel it. She made her way to the front doors which automatically opened. Certain that masks were required, she donned the one in her pocket.
“Good morning!” A cheerful, perfectly coiffed bleach-blonde chirped at her from behind the front desk, her arms weighed down with a stack of Easter-egg-green file folders. “Welcome to White Willows. How may I help you?”
The woman was older—Syd guessed she was in her seventies, which surprised her. Did the facility’s owners want their residents to feel comfortable with a staff closer to their own age? Obviously they wanted residents to feel the staff was close to their financial median because the woman’s mauve tweed suit was as expensive as her hair and makeup. Syd noticed the nametag pinned to her lapel and then she met the woman’s direct gaze. “Good morning, Miriam. How are you this morning?” Behind Miriam was a wall of message cubbyholes, each box labeled with a resident’s name and condo number. Syd surreptitiously scanned them as she continued chatting amiably. “Spring’s coming a little early this year—it’s so nice out today! It’s a shame no one’s on the porch.” Having found what she was looking for, she smiled at Miriam. “I’m here to see the gentleman in one-oh-five.”
Miriam stopped sorting through the files in the crook of her left arm and blinked at Syd. Her eyes above her mask seemed troubled. “He’s had so few visitors since his son moved him in here. That was two years ago.”
“Oh.” Syd wasn’t sure how to react or where that left her.
“His son hasn’t even come since then.”
Syd searched the countertop for an answer. Her gaze swept over a tall glass jar of mints individually wrapped in a kaleidoscope of reds, blues, greens, and
golds, and settled on the studiously arranged potted plants on the right side of the counter, but only one thing came to mind. “I’m not sure he and his son were ever close.” She was relieved to see Miriam nodding, her brow creasing. “I only recently found out he was here, and someone else told me.” Syd paused, measuring her words. “I used to work with him.”
Miriam’s eyes darted over Syd approvingly. “Well, I’m sure he’ll welcome your visit. His aide left a few minutes ago. She won’t be back until she takes him to lunch in an hour or so.” Miriam put the folders down on a desk. “I’ll need to see some identification, dear.”
Syd took out her wallet and extracted her driver’s license. Miriam scanned it and returned it to Syd along with an adhesive nametag. She hated those sticky tags, but she made a show of beginning to peel it.
“He’s right down that hall,” Miriam pointed behind Syd. “Five doors down on the right. It’s an efficiency but he has the view of the Sound.”
Of course he does.
“His door’s unlocked, you can knock and yoo-hoo.”
She made her way across the cream-colored lobby that was carpeted in a rich Williamsburg blue. Her chest was thrumming with panic as she passed a rosewood Art Deco table with ebony inlay, the Brilliant-era cut-glass vase on it holding bright yellow winter jasmine and broad-leafed greens. Numbers based on the lobby décor alone clicked through her brain, a habit of years of accountant’s training which had taught her to measure and weigh the value of everything from stock offerings to new office furniture to human lives. She quickly shut it down, though, when she got to the brightly lit hallway. She slipped the nametag into her pocket and seeing no one else around, removed her mask. A moment later she rapped on the door of 105 and opened it.
The room was dark. Syd needed a moment to adjust, realizing all the curtains were closed. Then she saw him in the wing-back chair. Little about him seemed to have changed except that the curly puffs of dark hair had gone white. He still bore that peculiar tilt of the head. Those big square, black-framed glasses he’d long favored were present. The way they magnified his dark eyes had always made them seem like two giant TV cameras following her around whenever he’d been near her. She slowly walked around the room opening the curtains. The radio was on, his beloved opera music playing at a low volume. Syd reached for the knob and turned it off as he blinked up at her, fighting the sunlight that filled the room. It revealed that he was an old man. And frail, a fragile lanky doll tucked beneath the plaid wool blanket that bound his legs. Those long legs, that tall frame. Once upon a time he’d menaced her with his size. She shook a little at the memory as she looked into the eyes that had pinned her so coldly back then. Now they were confused, rheumy.
She sat on a beige button
chair and regarded him for a long moment. A bit of spittle oozed out the corner of his mouth. “You don’t know who I am, do you?”
His gaze was blank.
“Look at me. They say our eyes never change. Neither does our voice.”
He searched her face.
“My hair may be white now but forty years ago, it was blond.”
Light dawned in his eyes.
“And I worked at the Academy of the Divine Heart.” Syd wasn’t sure, but she thought the recognition might have turned to fear. “That’s right. Wyatt Reid’s junior accountant. Sydney Hansen.”
His hands moved beneath the blanket.
“I haven’t forgotten any of it. And neither have you.”
He opened and closed his mouth, a fish out of water, no sound coming out.
“You made my life a living hell after Wyatt’s death,” she said quietly.
The old man strained to hear her.
“You terrified me with your veiled threat, made me feel you’d always be watching me. That you might kill his son, Drew. Or me.”
He shook his head, his face draining of color, becoming an ashen mask.
“I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t eat, I thought I might go mad.” She’d balled her hands into fists and slowly opened them, putting them palms-down on her thighs. “I had no one to talk to but Marie and Nicholas, and Marie—finally left me because I couldn’t function. Nicholas committed suicide a year later. But you knew that, didn’t you?”
He slumped in his chair.
“Well, I didn’t go mad. I just—lived. Quietly. But now I’m angry. Because last November, Wyatt’s father died. Complications from Covid. You remember Joe, don’t you? He certainly remembered you all these years. The loss of a son and the people involved in that loss are not something you forget.”
The old man raised his eyes to her imploringly.
“I kept in touch with Joe.” She leaned forward. “I went to Nebraska to see Drew quite often. And he came to New York every summer like he did when Wyatt was alive. We’d spend time at the house on Fire Island. Wyatt gave it to me for just that purpose. But you knew all that, too, because it was in the will that you and Ben Ford tried unsuccessfully to change.”
He closed his eyes for a moment.
“I kept looking over my shoulder for you, but you never came. You were confident that you’d gotten away with it, weren’t you?”
The old man blinked, and his mouth opened again.
“You know what? You did. And your threat, it stayed with me. So did Joe’s advice not to go to the police. We didn’t dare challenge that you might hurt Drew. But guess what happened? Drew grew up. And he found out about you. That’s why I’m here. We never told him that Wyatt was murdered, but he came across a notebook Joe kept all through the police investigation. Such as it was.” Syd looked out at the Sound. “Joe never got over Wyatt’s death, you know.” Her voice softened. Joe had been more of a father to her than her own cold Nordic parent, and she missed him terribly.
One of the old man’s hands crept above the blanket, coming to rest on the arm of the chair, and gripped the carved wooden handle. Syd stared him down.
“Drew confronted me with that notebook. He was angry with me, rightfully so, beyond upset to find out his father was murdered. And that brought everything up again. The loss, the pain, all of it. How could I tell him someone
had threatened him through me so that I wouldn’t talk? That made me angry. At you. I should have been smart enough to know you didn’t have anything to back up your threat. You were never anything more than a paper tiger.” Syd stood and began pacing. “I was too young to see that though.” She wanted to sit still and keep him in her crosshairs, but her anger was getting the best of her. And she refused to let him see that. “There’s no one left in your life, is there? And you’re on Death’s doorstep.” She stopped in front of him. “Why you didn’t succumb to Covid I’ll never know. You should have, you bastard.”
For a second, he cringed, but then he looked up at her as if he knew he shouldn’t take his eyes off her.
“So I’m finally going to do what I think Wyatt was about to do all those years ago. What I should have done in the first place. Because I don’t want you threatening me or anyone else I love ever again. I’m going to the police with every last shred of evidence I have. There may be a statute of limitations on embezzlement, but there isn’t on murder. So I’m going to see to it that you’re ruined before you die, that all of this”—she gestured around the little apartment and out the big picture window to the sun-splashed Sound—“is gone, that you have nothing left when they lower you into the ground, not even your sterling reputation. And we both know how tarnished that should be.”
Syd wanted to feel bad for making a ninety-five-year-old man cry, but he’d been the root of so many of her tears forty years ago that this payback was just for her. She handed him a tissue so he could catch the snot running out of his nose.
“What happened to all those pretty, lost boys who used to flock to you? Where are they now?” Syd snorted. “I understand no one visits you here. You might as well be dead already. But I’ll bury you before you are.” Syd leaned down, her hands on either arm of the chair, her face inches from his. “And you can take that to the bank.”
His little mewling sounds stirred something deep within her, and for a moment it was herself she heard as she lay in Marie’s arms after finding Wyatt dead in his apartment that morning, blood everywhere, wondering who could possibly want to harm him so, trying to make sense of it all. And then the memory faded, taking Marie with it. It always ended that way, Marie gone from her life.
Syd picked up her purse and turned on her heel. She strode through the lobby, her mask back on, not acknowledging Miriam’s questions or breaking stride as the front doors opened at her approach. If she stopped, she’d cry, but she didn’t know if the tears would be for Wyatt, for her younger self, or for finally doing what that younger self couldn’t. When she drove through the gate, a lightness of being enveloped her. The Sound seemed bluer, the daffodils yellower, and the sky brighter as she sped down the road.
When she got home, she’d call Drew and tell him that the noose was slipping around the neck of his father’s murderer. Then she’d go to the police with her evidence, like she’d promised the old man a minute ago.
As for forgiveness and grace, she’d seek Father Moore’s counsel in the confessional.
Syd’s phone rang. The bright LED screen glowed in the dark of the bedroom. Unknown caller. Ordinarily she wouldn’t answer, but eleven thirty at night was a very odd time to call someone unless you really knew them. She reached for the phone.
“Sydney? It’s Lucas Rose.”
She was instantly awake. “Lucas.” The sound of his voice unnerved her.
“Yes. You remember me.”
“Oh—good—I was afraid you might’ve forgotten.”
“No.” Syd could never forget the lost boys. What she’d never understood was that Wyatt had ever counted them among his friends. They couldn’t be trusted. “How did you find me?” An uneasiness stole beneath the quilt and up her spine. She sat up.
“The registry book at White Willows. I’m up here now. I’m calling because I saw you visited today. And I thought you should know—he died late this afternoon, Syd.”
The shock was like a wasp’s sting.
“Are you still there?” Lucas’s voice was icy.
“Yes, I am…but how…”
“No. I mean—why are you there?” Miriam had said no one visited him.
“I’m his emergency contact. I’ve always been his emergency contact. I was on my way to have dinner with him when I got the call.”
Syd was stunned. She hadn’t known that about Lucas, that he was Ned’s emergency contact. That meant Lucas had been in touch with him all these years. Of that whole circle of young men, she’d liked him the least. Everything rolled off him because he had no conscience.
Lucas’s sigh was audible. “I’m sorry to disturb you and break it to you this way but, well, I thought you’d want to know since you came to see him.”
Syd ran her hand over the exposed sheet, now gone cold. “Yes. Thank you.”
“Why did you come to see him today? Can I ask?”
Syd hesitated. “I—found out he was there, and I wanted to make amends for some things I said to him that I shouldn’t have so long ago.”
“Well, thank you for calling, Lucas.” Syd hit “end call” and tossed the phone onto the quilt. The second hand ticked around the white face of her alarm clock several times before she threw back the covers. The chill in the dark apartment matched the emotional one gripping her as she wrapped herself in her oversized white terrycloth robe and walked down the hall. She went right to her liquor cabinet and reached for one of the bottles of single malt she kept in the back, a dark green bottle with a gold-banded yellow label. That was how they came from the Single Malt Society, simply numbered, no name. Her lifetime membership had been one of many gifts from Wyatt. The memory of his impish smile as he presented her
with her first personal bottle brought back the dull ache, buried as it was, of still missing him. “Happy birthday, kiddo. Welcome to adulthood.” She ran her fingers over the embossed “one-twenty-six” before opening the bottle.
Pouring a snifter was bittersweet. ...
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