Louis Pyne squats on his haunches beside the corpse. The boathouse is cold as a meat locker. A massive hangover is dancing a tarantella six-eight time inside his skull, and the two guys standing behind Lou are making him nervous. At least they’re hungover as well. Hell, even the corpse would be begging for aspirin if he wasn’t so dead.
This wasn’t the deal he’d signed up for. Lou was promised a summer house, a quiet weekend, and lots of drinks with old friends. Good-looking women friends. Parts of the promise came true. There had been many drinks, and Jennifer and Janice still looked good.
J&J were roommates at Bryn Mawr twenty years ago, old money debutantes with a soft spot for losers. That’s where Lou came in.
One of them owns this fancy lake house, but Lou can’t remember which. Another Ivy League chick is up for the weekend; Lena, the quiet one. Dark hair, lean, the tom-boy sort. Probably played lacrosse at school. Jen and Jan were obviously trying to set Lou up.
The six of them had been laughing and drinking before dinner. Then this dead guy crashes the party, unannounced on a freezing evening in the Catskills. Gus Dobbs, hated by both couples based on the very boozy talk. So why the hell did they let him in if he’s such a cockroach? Everyone sits down to dinner like all the sins of the world are forgiven. Then comes dessert, more drinks, and the night fades into a blur.
Lou still can’t figure the Dobbs part of it. It didn’t add last night, and it doesn’t pencil now with Dobbs dead at his feet.
The two guys standing over the stiff are the husbands, Brian and Bob. New York money guys, all brains and no balls. Both of them staring down at dead Dobbs, both worthless and shivering.
Instead of a quiet weekend, Lou is freezing his ass off next to a dead asshole. Dobbs makes a tidy stiff, even counting the three bullet holes. He’s belly down on the concrete, dead eyes staring toward a pretty Chris Craft floating inside the boathouse. Lou leans in for a closer look.
Dobbs’ face is a death-mask of indignation, like he’s about to send back an over-cooked steak. He’s sporting two bullet holes in the back, just left of the spine, and one more in the base of the skull. Two to the heart, one to the head. Lou shakes his head and wishes he hadn’t.
He rolls the stiff on its side for a look underneath. No exit wounds he can see, not from the chest or the head. A little pool of blood from the mouth, no more than a nosebleed. Maybe .22 subsonic rounds, a silencer, or both. Whoever popped Dobbs knew what they were doing or watched too many movies and took really good notes.
— What the hell do we do with the body?
This from Bob or Brian standing behind him. Lou doesn’t bother to look up. It’s the wrong question. Normal people ask about the cops. Only guilty people ask about hiding bodies. Six people in the lake house counting himself, four with outstanding motives. Only one is an ex-con. That would be Lou.
They want to know how to disappear a body, so they ask the guy who’s been to prison. Stands to reason. Brian (or is it Bob?) figures he’s talking to an expert. Like you were ever a trigger man. Stupid schmucks.
Lou has seen the inside of a prison, that much is true. It was a case of bad luck, bad choices, and a bonded truckload of booze that got hijacked. Lou ended up the fall guy. The options were talk to the cops or face the music for talking to the cops. It was a no-brainer. Lou kept his mouth shut and did his time.
That was all a long time ago. Lou paid his debt to society and, more importantly, to the guys behind the truck heist. Long time or not, the cops would be fascinated to know that Lou was keeping company with a stiff. If he ran, they’d be happy to chase him. Given the choice between five posh New Yorkers or one ex-con, the detectives wouldn’t need their thinking caps.
What the hell happened last night? C’mon, Lou, use your head. This guy Dobbs crashes the party. Things get heated but the women don’t send him packing. Old times and all that horseshit. Dinner, then a lot of drinks. You’re all in the big living room, a fire crackling in the fireplace. That Lena chick is leaning up against you on the couch and she’s looking good. You were thinking this setup thing might not be a bad thing. And then… nothing. Shit.
Lou looks down at what’s left of Dobbs. This body won’t disappear on its own. There’s the lake and a handy boat, but that never works. Bodies bloat, float, then people that sunk them go to prison. Whatever you do, you gotta do it fast. The rest of your life depends on it.
He snaps his head around. Brian and Bob are still standing there like overgrown schoolboys. Lou answers their question with a question.
— Where are the women?
The two idiots look at each other, then back at Lou. Maybe it’s Bob who answers.
— They went to the day spa.
Lou blinks up at them.
— You know, massage, salt scrubs, pedicures.
— What the hell is a salt scrub? Wait. Never mind. How long until they’re back?
— A half-day treatment they said, maybe four hours or so.
Four hours. Lou’s addled brain runs the options. Decision time, Bucko, shit or get off the pot. Four hours to shuffle Dobbsie’s mortal remains to a better, safer place, or start running and run fast.
Lou points to one of the husbands.
— Bob, the lake looks abandoned. Anybody living in the other houses?
— I’m Brian.
— Brian, sorry. So, other neighbors?
— I don’t think so. It’s off-season now, too cold. No one around until ski season starts.
Lou’s mind races past the bumps of his hangover. Quiet lake, big trees, it might work. Yeah, and pigs might fly if they had wings. Shut up, that’s not helping.
— Okay, here’s the deal. The clock is ticking. We don’t have time for questions. That means you guys do what I say and do it fast. Agreed?
Heads nod. Lou groans to his feet.
— I saw a stack of old tires behind the garden shed. Lug them down to the burn pit.
Two faces staring at him.
— Chop-chop. Ticking clock. Tires, burn pit. Oh, and we need a hammer.
— We lug the tires. What do you do?
— Find his car keys. Two things have to disappear, the body and his car. If we burn his keys, we have a problem. Let’s move.
The two men tumble out of the boathouse like cartoon chipmunks. Lou shakes his head and bends over the corpse. He rifles Dobbs’ pockets until he finds the key fob. Then he searches the boathouse for gasoline.
* * *
The morning isn’t getting any warmer, yet Lou’s back is slick with sweat. A tower of tires is stacked in the burn pit with the corpse crumpled inside. The air is sharp with the tang of gasoline. Lou turns to his two idiot henchmen.
— You guys don’t want to see this part. Where’s the nearest train station?
— Ummm… two towns over. Why?
Lou polishes Dobbs’ key fob with his shirttail, then tosses the keys to the one he hopes is Bob.
— You do exactly what I say, no more, no less. Bob drives the caddy to the station. Wear gloves. Brian follows. Stay under the limit. Leave the car in the lot, keys in the ignition. Wipe down the key fob and anything else you touch. You drive back to town. Stop at the liquor store. You both go in, buy booze, pay with a credit card. Then get your asses back here. Got it?
Again with the nodding, like two bobble-heads.
Lou waits until the caddy clears the long front drive with Brian’s BMW hard behind. He picks up a gas can and steps to the makeshift pyre. More gas splashes over the corpse. He backs away, spilling a trail of fuel on the frozen ground.
He fishes a lighter from his pocket, leans down, hesitates, looks at the stack of dirty rubber. Sorry, Dobbs. This won’t hurt a bit. He flicks the lighter and a tongue of flame shoots across away.
There is a huge pulse of fire—Whoomph—like a dragon expelling its dying breath. A pillar of black smoke follows the fireball, chasing after the low winter clouds. Lou watches the smoke, weighing his odds. Maybe this works. Maybe. Or maybe the volunteer fire department shows up. Lou takes a few steps back, still staring at the smoke-stained sky.
You’re being a sucker. You know that, right? You’re burning a corpse to protect old friends who are rich enough to hire good lawyers. What the hell?
Yeah, what the hell. Okay, so I’m being played for a sucker, but who’s pulling the strings? What do I know about Dobbs? Janice had a thing with him before she married Brian or Bob. Then Dobbs started screwing Janice’s assistant on the side and blamed the whole thing on Janice. When he disappeared, some sensitive items went with him. I don’t know what items exactly, or how sensitive, but it might be enough motive for murder.
While he was with Janice, Dobbs met Jennifer. Unbeknownst to Jan, Dobbsie roped Jen into a Ponzi scheme, relieving her of fifty large in the process. Women hate getting ripped off. There’s murder motive number two.
But that’s old news, ten years at least. Why wait until now? Maybe you’re on the wrong track. What about the idiot husbands, Brian and Bob? A pissed off husband who knows how to use a gun. Just because they act like idiots, that don’t make it so.
Two big questions for you: Who in the fuck killed this guy and who’s the odd man out. You already know the answer to the second question. The odd man out is you.
* * *
By the time the husbands return in Brian’s BMW, the pyre has burned down to a fiery mound. Bony bits of Dobbs are visible in the flames but disappearing fast. The two husbands stare at the fire, looking green around the gills. One of them points to the firepit.
— Is that it, then? It just burns down to nothing?
Lou shakes his head.
— Not quite. How much time have we got left?
The other one consults a very expensive wristwatch.
— Maybe two hours left. A bit more for the drive back.
— Might be enough. We gotta raid the garden shed. We need a shovel, a rake, the hammer, and all the buckets we can find.
Brian and Bob give him the look. Neither of them is moving. The novelty of taking orders from the guy without a Rolex on his wrist is probably wearing off. Time to set them straight.
— The cops show up, the first thing they do is start sniffing around this little campfire. Nice fresh ashes, bits of bone and skull. You know what happens then, right?
Sullen nods from the two schmos, like they’re back in prep school and Lou’s the headmaster. He almost feels sorry for them.
— Look, I’m not trying to bust your balls here. We just gotta take care of the ashes and then its shower and laundry time. Fresh and clean for the girls when they get back.
— What do you want us to do?
— I’m right here with you, Brian.
— I’m Bob.
— Shit, sorry. Hangover, what can I say? I’m betting that Dobbs is not someone the cops care about. Hell, they probably prefer him dead. But we can’t make it easy for them.
— We’re going to clean up the fire pit.
— Exactly. Thank you, Brian. We rake the bones out of the ashes and smash them up with a hammer. Burnt bones turn to powder real quick. Then all of the ashes go into buckets. We carry the buckets to the boathouse, mix the ashes in the lake, and let them sink away. It isn’t perfect, but like I said, no one is going to be missing Dobbs all that much.
Look at these two sulky morons, will you? You don’t think they’ll roll you over in a heartbeat? Odd man out, remember?
Maybe, but leaving big hunks of skull in the firepit won’t help my position. So, unless you want to help smash bones, you can shut the fuck up.
In the end, the three of them get it done with time to spare. At first, Brian and Bob balk at the hammer work, so Lou puts them to raking and gathering while he does the pulverizing. After he sees how easy it is, Brian wants a turn on the hammer. Lou figures it makes sense. How often does a guy have the opportunity to beat bones to powder?
There are live coals in the buckets of ash. They hiss and pop when they hit the cold lake water. Some of the ashes sink and some float. Bob swirls the water with a canoe paddle and the lake swallows what’s left of Dobbs.
By the time they get done, Brian and Bob are almost giddy, like they’ve done something big. They stow the tools in the garden shed. Lou shoos them up to the house like a mother hen, then stops them at the door.
— The last step is cleaning ourselves. No shoes in the house. Strip to your shorts out here. Everything goes in the laundry. Everyone hits the showers. And hey, you guys did good.
They look at each other, shrug, and start stripping down. Lou does the same and soon the three of them are hopping around barefoot on the freezing walkway. The clothes are rolled up in bundles and the three men disappear inside the house.
* * *
Dinner is finished and the mood around the fireplace is brighter than it was around Dobbs’ cremation. Lou’s hangover has hit the road, thanks to a well-deserved nap, a fine steak, and the eighteen-year-old scotch he’s sipping. Having rich friends isn’t all bad.
Janice parks a well-sculpted thigh on the arm of Lou’s easy chair. Lou admires the view and keeps his free hand where it belongs.
Her smile is white and perfect.
— This is so much nicer than last night. I apologize for the unpleasantness with Gus.
— You know, him showing up out of the blue like that, things getting tense. I was so relieved this morning when I heard he had gone.
Lou takes a slow look at her thigh and then a long sip of his scotch.
— I was curious about that. How did Dobbs know about your little soiree?
Janice treats him to a short laugh and a cool hand on the back of his neck.
— You always were the curious monkey. Jennifer ran into Gus in the city. Imagine that, after all these years. Gus acted like he and Jen were still old friends. Just like him, the rat. Anyway, Jen told Brian, who told Bob, who of course told me. Everyone was curious about bad old Gus, so I invited him. I daresay, no one thought he would have the guts to show up.
— He must hold his liquor like a cossack to get out of here so early after that much booze.
— Perhaps he left last night, Darling. I don’t know. I was dead to the world.
Lou feels her fingers tickle the nape of his neck.
— Oh look, Lena’s wandered out onto the deck without a coat. Lou, be a gentleman and take her a wrap.
Those same cool fingers give Lou’s head a push as Janice slips from the arm of the chair.
* * *
The night has cleared cold and hard under a three-quarter moon. Lena is leaning against a railing with her back to him. Lou crosses a wide cedar deck to reach her. Her lean body is a silhouette against the silver of the moonlit lake. She does not turn when Lou steps up beside her.
— I brought you a coat.
— That was sweet of you.
The wind plays with her raven hair. She brushes it from her face but makes no move to take the coat.
— I like the cold. It makes me feel alive.
— Then you must be feeling very alive right now. It’s freezing out here.
Lena laughs and it’s not the polite rich girl Lou remembers. This laugh is loud and real, with a sharp edge.
— That prick Gus was all over me last night. I’m so fucking glad he’s gone.
Lou almost drops the coat. She turns her face to his and he sees her grinning.
— Don’t look so shocked, Lou. You’re sweet, and easy on the eyes. Time to see how smart you are.
You finally understand what a sucker you are? This Lena chick ain’t who you think she is. Light bulb coming on yet?
— It was you. You killed Dobbs.
Her grin gets wider and there is no fear in it.
— Got it in one. Jan and Jen needed Dobbs dealt with. I did this one gratis, a way to pay back old favors.
Lou runs a cold hand over his face.
— And the husbands?
— Don’t worry, they’re clueless, like most men. Like Dobbs when I led him down to the boathouse for a little fun.
She laughs again and threads her arms through his, pulling herself close to him. Her voice is almost a whisper.
— Thanks for cleaning up the mess. I knew you were sweet.
Lou can’t manage to pull away from her.
— So, what now?
Lena’s gleaming eyes are locked on his.
— Your call. Try thinking of this as the beginning of a very dangerous relationship.