Stone Barrington and his friends Dino and Vivian Bacchetti had just finished a dinner of Caesar salad and Dover sole at Patroon, a favorite restaurant of theirs in the East Forties of New York.
"Oh, by the way," Stone said, "there's a Steele Group board meeting this weekend, and I wondered if you two would like to come?"
"Let me get this straight," Dino said. "You want us to come to a corporate board meeting?"
"Did I mention that it's in Key West?" Stone asked.
"Love to," Dino said.
"Same here," Viv echoed.
"Joan has found a rental house for me, and I'm told it's comfortable, and she's stocked it with food and drink. Why don't we all stay a few days?"
"I can get some time off," Viv said.
"I'll ask my boss," Dino said. Dino was the police commissioner of New York City.
"No, me. I asked, and I said, 'Sure, it's okay, stay as long as you like.'"
"You're a very generous boss," Stone said.
"Thank you. I try to cultivate good employee relations."
"I can back him up on that," Viv said. "When I was his employee, he cultivated relations with me."
"I hope he's not that generous with all his employees," Stone said.
"I hope so, too," Viv replied.
"You can both hope," Dino said. "When do we leap off?"
"Saturday morning. Pick me up at ten. We'll be in Key West by four. The board meeting isn't until Friday, but most of us will be playing in a golf tournament on Sunday and Monday."
"Arthur Steele is getting very generous with his directors, isn't he?"
"Oh, once in a while he'll spring for a jaunt. They're all staying at the Casa Marina, the old hotel built by Henry Flagler, the railroad guy who built the Breakers in Palm Beach and others in the early part of the last century."
"So why aren't we staying there?" Dino asked.
"You want to rub elbows with a lot of suits this weekend?"
"We'll stay with you," Dino said. "Should I go armed?"
"I'm not anticipating bandits in the Keys, but suit yourself." Dino always went armed.
They were wheels-up before noon on Saturday, and StoneÕs Citation 3 Plus made the flight easily in one leg, no refueling along the way.
At Key West International there was an envelope waiting for Stone at the FBO's front desk, containing house keys and a car key and instructions for operating the house, as well as some history of it. The car turned out to be a metallic white Mercedes S-Class convertible with twenty-eight miles on the odometer. They stowed their luggage in the trunk, and Stone put the top down.
"I hope you like freckles on a girl," Viv said. She was a redhead. "Dino will turn the color of mahogany in about an hour, and I try to keep up."
Stone followed the directions in the envelope; their landmark was a strip club called Bare Assets.
"Sounds like a nice neighborhood," Viv said.
"Can we have drinks there tonight?" Dino asked.
"If we do, it will be the only sex you'll get on this trip," Viv replied.
"They don't have sex there, just looking," Dino protested.
"I'm aware of that, and it's all you'll get. How many bedrooms are there, Stone?"
"Four, I'm told."
"Then you'll have two to choose from, Dino."
"Here's a thought," Dino said, "let's stay home and grill some steaks."
"Good idea," Viv replied.
The house was on a narrow lane between Truman Avenue and the island's cemetery. It had a bricked driveway and a garage and a carport, housing a golf cart, and Stone pulled into the garage. They got out and toured the house.
There was a book-lined study, next to an outdoor courtyard, followed by a dining room, a living room, and another, larger courtyard bordered by a koi pond, and beyond that there was a spa and a sunken swimming pool, all of it surrounded by jungle-like vegetation and flowers.
"Stone," Viv said, "this is spectacular!"
"We haven't seen the guest rooms and the kitchen," Stone said, consulting the note, "and there's a bar/video room. Oh, and that little house over there is the master suite, and we have an outdoor kitchen, bar, dining room, and living room, as well as the indoor ones." He pointed out everything. "From what it says here, I think you two will want the first guest room." They looked at it and approved. The kitchen was next. "Laundry room off the kitchen, in case Dino wants to rinse out his underthings." The next room contained a fully stocked bar and a very large flat-screen TV. They went back to the car, got their luggage, and settled in. "Drinks in half an hour," Stone said. "Outdoor bar."
Stone checked out the master suite and found a bedroom, dressing room, and a bath with a large tub. He found a TV remote control on the bedside table, but no set. He pressed the on button and a flat-screen TV rose from a cabinet and filled the wall at the foot of the bed. He could watch the Sunday political shows from there.
Everybody met in the outdoor living room, which was covered with an awning, in case of showers. There was no rain, and Stone tended bar, also making a couple of bottles of vodka gimlets and putting them in the freezer. In the process he found steaks and groceries in the outdoor kitchen fridge.
"I could live here," Viv said, settling into a sofa with a gimlet.
"If only it were in New York City," Dino responded, "on top of a tall building, maybe."
"Oh," Stone said, "there's a little house next to the back door that used to be free-standing, but a previous owner moved it over, bolted it to the main house, and made room for the driveway. A caretaker lives there. He keeps the place running and feeds the koi."
As if on cue a large, well-built man appeared and introduced himself as George. "Let me know if you need help with the electronics or anything else," he said, then he declined a drink, excused himself, and returned to his little house.
"There'll be a housekeeper, too, tomorrow morning." Stone looked at another sheet of paper. "The property was originally three small houses on three lots. Somebody bought them all and made them into the property you see now."
"Smart move," Dino said. "And you're playing golf tomorrow?"
"Arthur hustled me into playing in his tournament, and I haven't touched a club for more than a year."
"Then you'll lose," Dino pointed out.
"I think that's what Arthur has in mind," Stone replied.
"Oh," Viv said suddenly, putting a hand to a cheek.
"What?" Stone asked.
"I just had a premonition."
"A premonition of what?"
"I don't know, but something bad."
Dino waved an arm. "Bad? What bad could happen here?"
"As Fats Waller used to say, 'One never knows, do one?'"
Stone was up early and found a housekeeper cleaning up their dishes and the grill from the night before. She introduced herself as Anna, then went back to work.
When she was done with the kitchen, Stone scrambled himself some eggs, microwaved some bacon, and toasted a Wolferman's English muffin, the sourdough flavor he liked. Joan, his secretary, had briefed somebody well.
He left Dino and Viv to sleep as late as they liked, then he recorded the Sunday political shows on the DVR, got the golf invitation from his briefcase, and followed the directions to the golf club. Somebody took his clubs from the trunk and carried them to the practice tee, and Arthur Steele greeted him there, his nose already sunburned.
"You'll be in my foursome with Arthur Junior and Meg Harmon, both new board members," Arthur said.
"I'd better hit a few to find out if I still can," Stone said.
He teed up a ball and made a big swing with his driver, then watched it slice fifty yards into a swamp. "Nothing's changed," he muttered, and he hit a bucket of balls, working on his swing until it began to straighten out a little.
Arthur Jr. was a clone of his old man, and Meg Harmon was a thirty-five-ish blonde, slim and fit-looking. She, Stone knew, had started a Silicon Valley software company in her early twenties and had recently sold it to a syndicate, with the Steele Group as a partner, for $1.5 billion. She teed up, and her drive went straight for better than two hundred yards. Arthur Jr. was next, and he drove about the same distance, but hooked it into the rough, muttering under his breath. Big Arthur hit one straight for two hundred and fifty yards.
"You've been practicing, Arthur," Stone said. "That's cheating." He teed up and sliced into the rough, but he was long and he still had a shot to the green, if his lie was good.
They were walking back to their carts when Stone heard a single crack, and he immediately thought: rifle! A man in the next foursome, waiting to tee off, made a loud noise and was knocked down.
"Everybody on the ground!" Stone shouted as he ran to the man, who had a bleeding shoulder wound. Stone looked around him and from the way the man had fallen, thought the shot had come from a swampy area to his right. He heard a vehicle door slam and gravel spraying beyond the trees. "From over there," he said, getting to his feet.
A club employee came running up. "Call nine-one-one," Stone said, "and tell them a man's down with a gunshot wound. Ask for an ambulance and the police."
Arthur walked over, dusting himself off. "That's Al Harris," he said, nodding at the man on the ground. He knelt. "How are you feeling, Al?" He got a grunt for an answer. "Hang on, help is on the way."
Stone looked around him at everyone's position. From where people had been standing when he heard the shot, he calculated that the shooter could have been aiming at Meg or Arthur, and with a miss, Al Harris had caught the stray bullet. It could, Stone thought, also have been aimed at himself.
The ambulance arrived first, the hospital being nearby, and two detectives were next by a couple of minutes. Stone greeted them and introduced himself, then he told them his theory of where the shot had come from and where it had been aimed.
"Are you a police officer?" the older of the two men asked.
"Retired detective," Stone replied. "I worked homicide."
"I'm Harry Kaufelt," the man replied. "This is my partner, Moe Cramer. We work anything that comes up. Did you see the shooter or his vehicle?"
"No, but from the sound of the door slamming and the engine, I think it could have been a pickup truck."
Harry got on his radio and reported. "Look for a pickup with a rifle rack. Yeah, yeah, I know, lots of those around. He could be headed north on U.S. 1. Let the sheriff know."
The EMTs were loading Al Harris into their vehicle, and one of them came over to Harry. "He's in shock," the man said.
"Get him taken care of," Harry said. "We'll talk to him later." Then he spoke to Stone again. "And you figure either you or the lady or the gentleman there could have been the target?"
"He only needed a gust of breeze or a jiggle of something to miss one of us and hit Mr. Harris."
"Well, Mr. Barrington . . ."
"Well, Stone, we're going to follow your lead on this, because we don't have one ourselves. Moe, you go talk to the other two, and I'll grill Stone, here."
"What would you like to know?" Stone asked.
"You all look as though you're out-of-towners," Harry said. "Where you from?"
"Mr. Steele and I are New Yorkers. The lady is from the West Coast, south of San Francisco somewhere."
"And what brought you all down here?"
"All the people playing are directors of the Steele Group, an insurance company. Mr. Steele is the chairman and CEO. The fellow next to the cart is Arthur Steele Junior."
"You have any reason to think that somebody down here might hold a grudge against any of you?"
"I've visited Key West a few times, but I don't know a lot of people. I've done some business with an attorney named Jack Spottswood."
"Him, we know, and his family. You haven't screwed any of them on some business deal, have you, Stone?"
"No, and if I had, I don't think the Spottswoods would react this way. They're nice people to do business with. And, for what it's worth, I don't think this is local."
"Oh? You think a professional is involved?"
"Are you aware of any contract killers living on your turf?"
"Nope. Our killers are usually drunk or mad at an ex-wife or girlfriend."
"Then that leaves a pro, doesn't it?"
"You may have a point."
"And a pro is going to be a lot harder to catch," Stone said. "He'll have an escape route all planned. You've already covered U.S. 1-that leaves the airport, doesn't it?"
"First call I made, when we got here," Harry said.
"Look for a couple," Stone suggested.
"Because the shooter would want to blend in, and he knows you'll be looking for a man traveling alone."
"'Scuse me." Harry got on the radio. "Thanks, Stone, that's a nice insight. Not that I wouldn't have thought of it myself, a couple of hours after they flew out of here. Any other thoughts?"
"I'd check the car rental agencies at the airport, too. I doubt if he took a cab out here."
"I doubt if he rented a pickup truck, too," Harry said, "since nobody rents pickups. A van, maybe."
"He's not getting on a plane with a rifle," Stone said. "Maybe he left it in whatever he rented."
"I think he would think it would take us longer to find it in that swamp," Harry said.
"You have a good point, Harry."
Moe rejoined them. "I got exactly nothing from those folks," he said to Harry.
"Stone, how well do you know those two?"
"I've known Arthur for at least ten years. I met the lady about half an hour ago. I can tell you that she recently sold her software company for one and a half billion dollars."
"Well, that opens up a whole new field of suspects for us, doesn't it?" Harry said. "Ex-partners who feel cheated, ex-lovers or husbands, or anybody who might profit from her death. What town is she from?"
"You'll have to ask her," Stone said. "I don't know that territory."
They both shook Stone's hand and wandered off in the direction of Meg Harmon.