My mother vanished ten years ago.
So did a quarter of a million dollars in cash.
Thief. Bitch. Criminal.
Now, she's back.
Her bones clothed in scarlet silk.
When socialite Nina Rai disappeared without a trace, everyone wrote it off as another trophy wife tired of her wealthy husband. But now her bones have turned up in the shadowed green of the forest that surrounds her elite neighborhood, a haven of privilege and secrets that’s housed the same influential families for decades.
The rich live here, along with those whose job it is to make their lives easier. And somebody knows what happened to Nina one rainy night ten years ago. Her son Aarav heard a chilling scream that night, and he’s determined to uncover the ugly truth that lives beneath the moneyed elegance…but no one is ready for the murderous secrets about to crawl out of the dark.
Even the dead aren’t allowed to break the rules in this cul-de-sac.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
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About the Author
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My mother vanished without a trace ten years ago.
So did a quarter of a million dollars in cash from my father's safe.
The police came.
The neighbors whispered that she was a thief.
My father called her a bitch.
"She'll turn up, and when she does, I'll have her in handcuffs!"
That's what he said. That's what he screamed.
He was right.
It took ten years, but she has turned up.
The police found her car in the dense bush of the Waitkere Ranges Regional Park four hours ago. She was inside. Well, her bones were anyway. Those bones were clothed in the remnants of the red silk shirt she was wearing that night.
The night I heard her scream.
I'd just spent two hours staring at my unfinished manuscript when the police came to the door of my father's subtly upscale residence of glass and polished wood. Designer enough to make it clear he was no ordinary man, but understated enough to blend in to the dark green landscape that surrounded it.
I'd come "home" to live after my hospital discharge a month ago. Doctors' orders.
"You can't be on your own," Dr. Binchy had said, hazel eyes unblinking behind square black spectacle frames. "Not yet."
I didn't know why I hadn't just hired a nurse instead of returning to this unhappy place thick with ugly memories. Before adding, then deleting, a thousand pointless words on my next book, I'd started to look up nursing agencies. Then the police came. The middle-aged man in plain clothes, the twenty-something woman in full uniform, cap included.
Recognition flashed in her eyes when I opened the door.
The man, solid and stolid with a square jaw and watery blue eyes, flashed his ID. "We'd like to speak to Mr. Ishaan Rai."
"Sure." Turning on my crutches, I saw that my father was already coming down the hall, a well-dressed CEO on top of the world, his graying black hair perfectly styled and his shirt a crisp blue.
He wasn't a tall man, nor was he short. Average height, with average features. He should've looked ordinary, even bland, but my father has a presence, a dignity to him that I've always found a grand irony.
"What's this about?" he demanded, because that's what Ishaan Rai does. Demand. It's served him well except for when it comes to his son, who is his disappointment.
"Mr. Rai," the man began, raising his ID. "If we could speak in private."
"Oh, for God's sake, just spit it out. What complaint is it now? The plant is built to the highest specifications-it isn't breaching any environmental restrictions." He's so used to ordering people about that it doesn't seem to occur to him that a senior officer wouldn't knock on his door at eight in the morning for a complaint about emissions or discarded chemicals.
The male officer's expression stilled, and right then, I saw an intelligence I hadn't previously spotted. Solid and stolid could also mean dogged and relentless. "I'm Detective Senior Sergeant Oliver Regan and this is my colleague Constable Sefina Neri. We regret to inform you that the body of a deceased female was discovered early this morning in the Waitkere Ranges Regional Park. Her identity has yet to be officially verified, and normally, we wouldn't inform you at this stage-but, given the likely publicity and attendant conjecture, the decision was made to alert you. She had her driver's license and credit cards with her. All in the name of Nina Rai."
Time stopped, filled with the sound of a sharp, pained scream.
Even my father seemed stunned into silence, but that never lasts long with him. "Where's she been all this time?" he barked. "Living it up on my money I'm guessing."
Constable Neri's eyes were a deep, intense brown and she locked them unblinkingly on my father, but let her senior officer do the talking. Her job, I understood, was to watch and make note of any and all reactions.
The intensity of her, it reminded me of Paige.
"Indications are that the deceased has been in place for a significant period," Regan responded, the pale skin of his face pockmarked with old acne scars. "Full forensic examinations will take some time, of course, but we have reason to believe that she's been there since the night she was last seen alive-our people have discovered remnants of the clothing you described her wearing in your theft complaint."
Red silk, a top that had left her arms bare and slipped neatly into the high waist of her wide-legged and tailored black pants. Her heels had been black, too, her lips a pop of red that matched her top.
Around me hung silence.
Heavy. Cold. Cutting.
Like the silence my father had utilized as a weapon against my mother. She, in turn, hadn't been much for silence. My mother preferred smashing things, preferred screaming.
But not like that final scream.
"Could it be someone else?" I asked, because my father was just staring at them-and because I didn't want their words to be true. "Someone could've stolen her wallet and you could be wrong about the clothes. It's been a long time."
Regan's expression didn't soften as he said, "The body was discovered in a vehicle registered to Nina Parvati Rai."
My hand tightened on the edge of the door. I had no more straws left to clutch.
Deep, aching stabs of pain shot through my left leg at the same time, transmitted from the bones in my foot and ankle knitting themselves back together cell by cell.
"If you have something of Mrs. Rai's that might hold her DNA," Detective Regan said, "that'll speed up the process. But we realize that may be impossible after all this time-a familial DNA match will be our next option."
My mouth opened. "I might have something." I had no intention of elaborating further in front of my father-what normal son went into his mother's room and carefully picked up and bagged her favorite hairbrush? What normal son kept it all these years?
A son who'd heard a scream.
"In the interim, do either of you recognize this?" Regan removed a transparent plastic bag from his pocket, sealed with police tape.
Diamonds glinted within, big and showy.
"I bought her that ring," my father said, his voice gritty. "For our tenth wedding anniversary. Aarav was only seven then."
The same age as the little girl who was getting ready for school in another part of the house. Born three years after the last time I saw my mother alive.
"Happier times," my father added, his head dropping for a moment. "Happier times."
Taking the plastic bag, I touched the ring through it. "She lost a diamond two days before she disappeared." I pointed out the empty spot, so tiny among all the glitter, all those carats. "She was angry because the ring was from an exclusive designer boutique that had guaranteed her the setting wouldn't fail."
She'd yelled at the jewelers on the phone, threatening to destroy them among her set if they didn't fix this "right now." She'd been pacing in our manicured backyard, phone to her ear, while I sat on the house's back balcony trying to eat a sandwich. In the end, I'd rolled my eyes and taken my meal to my room.
I still remembered how she'd looked, the marigold yellow of her dress silhouetted against the native bush that rose dark green and ancient beyond the flimsy barrier of our fence. As if the forest was watching. Waiting.
Retrieving the ring, the cop said, "We can offer you a liaison officer. There's likely to be intense media interest in this, given your standing in the city."
Regan's eyes were on my father, but Constable Neri's gaze flicked my way. She knew who and what the media would latch on to, what would give them the best headlines, the most clickbait links.
Words came out of my mouth before I was aware of thinking them. "Was it an accident?"
"Of course it was, boy," my father snapped, as if I were still sixteen and not twenty-six. "You know your mother liked to drink." He looked at Regan again. "That's what you're saying, aren't you? That Nina drove off the road into the forest?"
Into the chasm of green where a car could remain lost for decades. It had rained that night. So much rain, a torrential storm. Enough to hide the tracks of a car going off the road?
"We can't say either way right now," Regan responded with no change in his expression as he tucked the evidence bag back inside his jacket. "We'll know more after we complete the forensic investigation."
"I'd like a liaison," I said before my father could wave away the offer. "I want to know when you find things, before it ends up in the papers." That was why they were here after all, before the official DNA identification. Someone high up had made the call that Ishaan Rai, CEO of an empire that employed thousands, and best friend to the mayor, should be warned about the sudden reappearance of his first wife.
A wife he'd divorced in her absence.
Regan nodded. "Of course. Constable Neri will be happy to be the liaison."
Neri spoke for the first time, her voice holding a low timbre that was likely put to good effect when soothing distraught relatives. "Here are my details." A card taken from a pants pocket, held out. "Call me anytime."
Taking the card, I slid it away. My father would eventually break out of his paralysis and ask for it, but I wouldn't volunteer it.
"We'll make sure to keep you updated," Regan said. "Please do remember that the investigation is in its very early stages. We're still working the scene."
"I'm coming with you." Hobbling over as fast as the orthopedic moon boot-aka a walking cast-strapped around my fractured bones would permit, I grabbed my outdoor jacket from the hallway closet while Regan was still objecting. "I won't cross the police tape or make a scene. I just want to know where my mother died." Where she'd effectively been buried for ten years.
Regan exchanged a look with Constable Neri before saying, "You can ride with us."
"No, I'll take my car." A rental sedan with an automatic transmission that I could drive with one functional leg. Having my own vehicle would also leave me free to go to other places, begin to dig other graves.
Considering the status of my injury, I grabbed the crutches I'd propped to one side of the doorway when I went to get my jacket; the surgeon who'd worked on me had given me the go-ahead to start putting my full weight on my foot, but she hadn't told me to go hiking.
"Cautious, Aarav," Dr. Tawera had said after looking at the latest X-rays. "We don't want to negate all your progress to date."
No, we fucking didn't.
My father spoke at last. "I'm coming, too."
My chest tightened, my solar plexus crushing in on itself, the reaction one I'd thought I'd long ago conditioned out of myself. "We'll follow you," I said to the cops, then stepped out after them.
My father trailed silently at my back, not remembering his coat even after he stepped out into the chill winter air, the sky a dull gray that flattened the world. I didn't remind him as I headed to the sedan. A lacklustre dark blue with nothing distinctive about it, it wasn't a car I'd have chosen at any other point in my life.
It was nothing like the gleaming black Porsche with a custom metallic paint job currently cooling its heels in the garage of my city apartment. Yeah, the Porsche was a piece of dick-waving assholery, but at least I knew it. I'd bought it when Blood Sacrifice turned into a blockbuster book that, in turn, became a blockbuster movie.
Murder and gore.
The world laps it up.
The discovery of my mother's body, even if her death proved to have been accidental, it'd be terrific publicity. My publishers would dance a quiet jig. And all it had cost was the death of a woman of only forty-one.
My hands tightened on the steering wheel as my father got into the passenger seat.
We didn't speak, my eyes on the unmarked police vehicle up ahead. Driven by Constable Neri, it led us out of the leafy gilded surrounds of the Cul-de-Sac and onto a long and winding road bordered by the dense forests of the Waitkere Ranges Regional Park, with only small hamlets of habitation along the way-and glimpses of breathtaking vistas where the foliage opened up.
Scenic Drive lived up to its name. But only if you weren't expecting pretty and safe.
All that rich green turned parts of the road claustrophobic. It was never searing hot here, not in the cool darkness of the shadows cast by the forest giants. This was a quiet place, a place that whispered that humanity was an intrusion that would be swiftly forgotten once we were gone.
An unexpected flash of white, a large sign at the entrance to a trail, warning that the area was under a rhui because of kauri dieback disease. No one was permitted to go on those trails, because the disease spread through the forest on the soles of human shoes, bringing a slow death to trees meant to grow far older than my mother would ever be.
I followed the police car knowing that if it stopped anywhere on this road, it'd be a spot I'd driven past hundreds of times.
Passing my mother's grave over and over again.
The unmarked car slowed as it turned a corner, and when I followed, I saw flashing lights, road cones, and an orange-vested officer waiting to direct traffic through what had become a single narrow lane.
One of the darkest sections of the road and of the forest.
The land dropped off precipitously to my right, but not into emptiness. Into bush dense and thick and impenetrable to the human eye. Ancient kauri trees, nkau palms, huge tree ferns, this landscape was theirs.
Constable Neri brought the police vehicle to a stop behind a van and I pulled in behind her. Everyone waited while I got the crutches from the backseat, no one speaking. Armpits snugged into the tops of the walking aids, I nodded, and the cops led us to a part of the road that had no safety barrier against the fall into the green. I couldn't remember if it ever had.
"The car was found at the foot of this incline," Regan told us. "Nose down."
That fit my father's theory of it sliding off the road and down the steep slope into the devouring forest. I wanted to dispute the idea of my mother driving off the road on a rainy night, such a neat and tidy end to everything, but she had drunk too much as long as I could remember, and she could be a reckless driver.