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At 75-years-old, Ethel Fiona Crestwater is used to being underestimated. She looks like someone’s grandma, though she’s never married or had children; petite and a bit frail, she’s not a threat to anyone. Or is she…? Ethel runs a boarding house for government agents, and when someone murders one of her boarders, she springs into action-much to the surprise of her distant cousin Jesse, who has recently come to stay with her while he attends university. As he watches her photograph the crime scene, conceal evidence, and speed-dial the Secret Service Director, Jesse realizes that there’s much more to Ethel than appearances suggest.
But when Jesse is assaulted and the gym bag full of cash Ethel had hidden is stolen from the basement, the pair decides it’s time to launch their own unofficial investigation. With no one to trust but each other, these double-first-cousins-twice-removed form an unlikely bond, and learn that the only thing truly worth risking your life for is family.
Copyright © 2022 by Mark de Castrique
Cover and internal design © 2022 by Sourcebooks
Cover design and illustration by Andrew Davis
Sourcebooks, Poisoned Pen Press, and the colophon are registered trademarks of Sourcebooks.
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The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious or are used fictitiously. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental and not intended by the author.
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Published by Poisoned Pen Press, an imprint of Sourcebooks
P.O. Box 4410, Naperville, Illinois 60567-4410
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Names: De Castrique, Mark, author.
Title: Secret lives / Mark de Castrique.
Description: Naperville, Illinois : Poisoned Pen Press, 
Identifiers: LCCN 2022006642 (print) | LCCN 2022006643 (ebook) | (trade paperback) | (epub)
Subjects: LCGFT: Detective and mystery fiction.
Classification: LCC PS3604.E124 S42 2022 (print) | LCC PS3604.E124
(ebook) | DDC 813/.6--dc23/eng/20220225
LC record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2022006642
LC ebook record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2022006643
About the Author
For new granddaughter Lucy
Welcome. A world of books awaits you…
"There is something addictive about a secret."
—J. Edgar Hoover
Jonathan Finch saw the dark sedan parked where he'd been told it would be—on the top level of the parking deck near Whole Foods in the Clarendon neighborhood of Arlington, Virginia. At four in the morning, the county across the Potomac River from Washington, DC, came as close to shutdown as anytime, except for the occasional snowstorm. Finch's Ford Escape SUV and the sedan were the only vehicles in sight, and with headlights off and windows tinted, they appeared as shadowy shapes illuminated by a half-moon and the ambient light from the streetlamps below.
Finch would have preferred a more crowded, public rendezvous site, but he also understood anonymity figured predominantly in any transaction. Security meant precautions, and those precautions varied from person to person, or p2p, as expressed in this world. Peer-to-peer.
As had been prearranged, Finch opened the laptop on the passenger seat, connected it to the hot spot of his cell phone, and logged in. He used the special password-protected software program to call up the private key to his anonymous account. The next steps were simple. He typed a message to the nameless address that was the destination of the transfer:
I'M READY. BRING FIRST HALF MIDWAY.
The driver's door of the sedan opened, but the interior lights stayed off. Finch cursed that his counterpart displayed more caution than he'd anticipated. It was too late for him to disable his own courtesy lights. Instead, he reached inside his nylon windbreaker and unsnapped the flap of his shoulder holster. The Beretta would slide free in a matter of seconds.
Holding a gym bag with both hands, a figure in a hoodie rounded the back of the sedan. The stranger appeared to be no more than five-foot-six in height, and the slender build suggested a lithe, muscular body. The movements were catlike, sure-footed, and agile.
The hooded figure dropped the gym bag on the concrete. The smacking sound told Finch the bag was full. Without giving him a second look, the carrier turned around and returned to the car. Finch eased out of the driver's seat, facing away as the SUV's dome light came on. He strode toward the bag, keeping his eyes focused on the back of the dark figure until it disappeared into the sedan. He knelt, still watching the car and listening for any footsteps. He grabbed the bag's straps with his left hand, stood, and slowly walked backward until he sensed his Escape was within reach. He lifted the bag to cover his face as he sat back in the driver's seat and closed the door.
Finch picked up a small flashlight lying beside his laptop and flicked it on. The narrow beam glinted off the shiny zipper. He opened it, spread the sides of the bag apart, and sucked in a deep breath as he looked at the rolls of hundred-dollar bills inside. He slid the rubber band from one roll and counted twenty-five Benjamin Franklins. He made a quick calculation that the bag was large enough to hold one hundred rolls. Two hundred fifty thousand dollars.
He re-zipped the bag and tossed it into the back seat. Then he picked up the laptop. He'd already entered the appropriate amount of cryptocurrency, clicked the transfer icon, and watched as his account balance reduced accordingly. Then he set the laptop on the passenger seat and turned back to the sedan. The faceless person was already walking toward him, carrying a second bag. Everything had worked perfectly for stage one.
Stage two carried the greater risk. The other driver, or an accomplice, had proposed Finch go first in this second exchange—transfer his remaining funds and then receive an identical gym bag holding more U.S. dollars. But Finch wouldn't agree. There was no reclamation if the recipient simply sped away, stiffing Finch out of the final two hundred fifty thousand. His coins would be irretrievably lost, whereas the gym bag of cash physically existed and could be physically recaptured if Finch tried to make a break for it. And he wasn't entirely confident they couldn't track him down.
The second bag smacked against the concrete, and the figure retreated faster this time. Finch stayed as cautious as before, this time sweeping his eyes in a wider arc across the deck as he approached the final payment. This time he kept his right hand on the butt of the holstered Beretta as he carried the bag to the car.
Again, he pulled out a roll of currency at random. Twenty-five one-hundred-dollar bills with enough other rolls to increase the total cash value of the haul to a half million. He tossed the zipped bag into the back seat with the first, and then turned his attention to the laptop. With a few keystrokes, he set up the second transfer, moved the cursor to the icon, and paused. If he'd been heading up a sting operation, he would have called in his backup. He now had a record of the transfer and the cash as evidence. On his signal, all exits to the parking garage would have been sealed, and a computer forensics team would have descended upon the car, primed to confiscate all electronic equipment before it could be wiped clean.
If he were heading up a sting operation.
He started the engine. Then he clicked the icon to initiate the second transfer, deleted his private key, and slammed the transmission into reverse. The vehicle rocketed backward so fast, the tires laid rubber. The laptop tumbled onto the floorboard, shutting the screen against the keys. But Finch wasn't taking the time to watch the balance of his account decline. He was hell-bent on getting the half-million dollars to safety. The tires continued to screech in protest as he raced down the ramps to the exit.
The crossing bar was down. If he'd been set up by the mysterious other party, the exit lane could be the ambush point. He'd checked that there were no surveillance cameras on the entrance or exit. So, without stopping, he crashed through the bar, sending it splintering onto the pavement. What was a dent or busted headlight in exchange for the untraceable windfall that rode with him?
He breathed easier as he disappeared into the backstreets of one of Arlington's residential neighborhoods. He slowed enough to turn off his phone and eliminate the hot spot used by his computer. Though the odds were slim his signal was being tracked, why take a chance? The next step would be to ditch the gym bags and then begin banking the cash in amounts less than ten thousand dollars. Multiple accounts until he could consolidate them into a trust fund. The plan would take time, something of which he had precious little.
Three blocks from the parking garage, two men sat in a black SUV. In DC and the surrounding area, the vehicles were as common as politicians. The two men inside watched a computer monitor wedged on the console. A red blip moved through a grid of streets.
"He's slowing down already," the driver said.
A voice crackled from the speaker of a cell phone. "I've lost his signal."
"Copy that," the driver said. "We've got the GPS tracer."
"Do you need me to head him off?"
"No. We'll retrieve. Good job. Check your wallet in the morning."
"You know I will. I'll wipe down the car and leave it where we agreed. Good hunting."
"Let's move," the second man said. "We don't want him to get out of range."
"I think he's going to nest close by," the driver said. "But better to intercept before he stashes the money somewhere. Let's go introduce ourselves to our new best friend, whoever he might be." He eased the SUV away from the curb and headed for the blinking red light.
Jonathan Finch found a parking place on North Highland Street in front of the house. Fortunately, his landlady and her other boarders should be asleep, but if anyone happened to see him, he would say he'd just driven in from Richmond. That was true. They were used to the odd hours of his work. He could explain the bags as heavier clothing now that autumn was right around the corner.
Carrying one of the gym bags, he walked to the rear door, where a back stairway took him closest to his room. He used his key to unlock the bolt and tiptoed up the steps. Still, the old, dry floorboards creaked beneath his feet. He opened the door to his small room. There was a dresser, an armoire, a desk, and a single bed with a nightstand. He knelt and pushed the gym bag as far under the bed as he could.
He returned to the car and opened the rear door. He reached across for the bag that had fallen behind the driver's seat.
"Back out slowly." The hoarse whisper was more growl than voice.
"Do as I say. Leave the bag, and we'll go get the other one together."
"It's a boardinghouse," Finch said without turning around. "People are stirring."
"Then we'll just have to hope you're quiet. Now get out."
As Finch slowly withdrew from the car, the rear door opposite opened and a second man grabbed the bag. He looked up at Finch. The blood drained from his face. "Jesus."
Finch lunged backward, spinning rapidly and throwing his left elbow at the height where the voice had sounded. The blow caught the man in the throat. Finch kept spinning, yanking the Beretta free and aiming through the open doors. The second man had dropped the bag and replaced it with a Glock.
The two gunshots exploded as one.
Jesse Cooper stopped in mid-sentence. The bang sounded like a bomb had detonated beneath his window. Gas explosion, he thought.
The young woman on his computer screen jumped. "What was that?"
Without answering, Jesse ran to his window and parted the curtains. At four thirty in the morning, houses were dark, with only streetlights casting an illuminating glow. Jesse saw an SUV parked at the curb, saw a man sprawled by the rear passenger door, and, more ominously, saw two men running away, one carrying a square object under his right arm, the other clutching a gym bag in his right hand while his left arm dangled by his side.
"Something's happened, Tracy. I've got to go." He hurried from the room, leaving the woman on the screen frantically calling his name. Clad only in a T-shirt and boxer shorts, he bounded down the stairs two at a time. As he reached the bottom, an elderly woman cinching a powder-blue robe stepped into the hall.
"Ethel, stay inside." Jesse was out the front door before she could reply.
He ran barefoot across the yard to the vehicle. An engine roared to life half a block away. For a few seconds, he heard the squeal of tires and saw a dark SUV accelerate down the street, its headlights off.
The pool of light from a streetlamp just reached the figure lying faceup on the sidewalk. Jesse recognized one of his fellow roomers. Jonathan Finch, a Secret Service agent. Blood stained his chest and flowed onto the pavement. A pistol lay at his feet.
Jesse knelt beside him and heard rapid, raspy breathing. "Jonathan, hang with me. I'll call for an ambulance."
But he had no phone and hesitated to leave the man. He turned and saw Ethel hurrying across the yard. He opened his mouth to yell for her to go back inside and phone for help, but she spoke first.
"I've called for an ambulance and police. Put pressure on his wound."
Jesse placed his palms on the spot that seemed to be the center of the injury. Blood flowed between his fingers. The man's short breaths struggled to become words. Jesse bent closer till his ear nearly touched the man's lips.
"Tell Ethel… Tell Ethel…the secret…" The last syllable was no more than a faint puff of air.
"Move." Ethel Fiona Crestwater barked the order as she slipped out of her terrycloth robe and wadded it into a ball. Wearing only a gray flannel nightgown, she nudged Jesse aside and pressed the makeshift bandage against the wounded man's chest with one hand, while feeling his neck for a pulse in the carotid artery.
Ten seconds later she whispered, "May your soul fly with angels." Then she pulled her blood-soaked robe from the dead man's chest and unraveled it until she reached her cell phone jammed in a pocket.
Lights began coming on in neighboring houses. A distant siren wailed.
"Jesse, we don't have much time." Ethel used a dry corner of her robe to wipe the blood off her phone. "I want you to observe everything you can." She activated the phone's light and video app and then ran it up and down Jonathan Finch's body.
Jesse stared wide-eyed, having trouble pulling his gaze from the elderly woman to the target of her recording.
"Come on. I want an extra set of eyes. I don't depend upon technology." She bent down and studied the pistol for a few seconds. "A Beretta. Interesting." She looked through the open rear passenger door of the SUV. The one opposite was also open. She hurried around the front of the vehicle, pausing to film damage to the grille.
Jesse followed. In the crease of the dent, he noticed white paint streaked onto the SUV's green. The driver's door stood ajar, and he looked over Ethel's shoulder to see a cable dangling from a twelve-volt socket. "Looks like a power adapter for an electronic device."
"No," Jesse said. "From the type of connector, I'd say a computer. I know he has a laptop."
Ethel turned her phone camera on the open door behind the driver's. A spiderweb of cracks radiated from a hole in the window.
Jesse bent down and peered through the hole. "Someone shot him through the window. This lines up with where Jonathan must have been standing."
Ethel focused her phone on the pavement and then ran it up the inside of the rear door. "No. Although the safety glass didn't shatter, the shards made by the bullet's impact fell outside the door, not inside." She moved her phone closer to the window. "And there are blood traces on the door's interior panel. Jonathan fired the shot and must have hit his killer's arm or shoulder. The bullet went through but created a DNA signature."
The wails grew louder.
"I saw two men running away," Jesse said. "One of them had a dangling arm."
"Brief me later. I want to check one more thing." She scooted around the rear of the Ford Escape, around the supine body, and, grasping a fistful of her nightgown to avoid leaving prints, she opened the front passenger door and popped the glove box. A black pistol and an extra magazine lay on top of the vehicle's registration and insurance papers. "There we go," she whispered. "There's the Sig."
Jesse stared open-mouthed at the petite grandmotherly woman. Brief me later? Beretta? Sig?
She snapped the glove box closed and shut the door.
The sirens sounded only a few blocks away.
Ethel stopped recording, grabbed Jesse's arm, and pulled him up on the sidewalk. She looked around. "The neighbors, police, and EMTs will soon turn this into a zoo until the crime scene is secured. Did Jonathan say anything before he died?"
"He whispered, 'Tell Ethel the secret.' At least I think that's what he said."
"The secret? You're sure that's what you heard?"
"Yes, although it trailed off."
"Okay, Jesse, here's what we're going to do." She stepped closer to him. "You'll give a statement to the police. So will I. They should question us separately. At this time don't tell them what Jonathan said."
"Lie to them?"
"No. If they ask, say he whispered something and you're not sure what, but he didn't say what happened or who shot him. I'll tell them I came right behind you and heard nothing. Now I'm going to leave you."
"Yes, tell the police I was overcome by what happened and went inside." She started scrolling through phone contacts.
"What are you going to do?"
"Call Cory Bradshaw."
"Head of the Secret Service."
"You know their number?"
Ethel began walking away. "Yes, but at this early hour it will be Cory's personal cell phone. So, talk to the officers and buy me a little time. I should really search Jonathan's room."
The blue glow of flashing lights pulsed across the scene as racing vehicles braked to a stop. Jesse watched Ethel retreat into the shadows, her phone already at her ear. He didn't know which stunned him more, the murder of Jonathan Finch or the actions of his seventy-five-year-old landlady.
"Yes?" The single syllable stretched out from a sleep-clogged throat.
"Cory, get your butt out of bed. There's a problem." Ethel closed the front door and ascended the stairs, gripping the railing with her free hand to steady herself.
"Who is this?"
"Ethel. And you've got a dead agent in front of my house."
"Ethel." The voice was suddenly sharp and alert.
"Yes. The Arlington police are arriving. Jonathan Finch, who has a room here, has been shot next to his car. If he was on some special assignment, then you don't want the locals trampling through it."
"No," Cory Bradshaw agreed. "Not until we determine what's going on. Who else is with you?"
"I'm housing an FBI agent and another of your men. Both of them are out of town. And I have an AU student. He found the body. He's my double-first-cousin-twice-removed. I can handle him."
"I don't know what that relationship means, but do you know what he'll tell the police?"
"I've coached him. You can get his full story later." Ethel paused at the top of the stairs to catch her breath, feeling a little dizzy from the sudden exertion. Then she moved down the hall toward the back bedroom. "I'm going to search Finch's things while the police are still outside. If I find anything that we need to evaluate first, will you have my back with the Arlington police?"
"Yes. And I'll contact the police chief and tell him this is federal jurisdiction."
"And federal forensics," Ethel urged. "Get a mobile crime lab here ASAP. I think they'll find blood from the shooter on the inside panel of the door with the damaged window." She stopped at the closed door to Finch's room. "I'll be in touch."
"Thanks, Ethel. You're still on your game."
"More than a game, Cory. Jonathan Finch was a nice man. And if you don't catch who killed him, I will."
She disconnected, leaving the director of the Secret Service with no doubt that Ethel Fiona Crestwater meant what she said.
Ethel noticed that the sirens had ceased. The police and EMTs must have been in place. They would first assess the situation, establish a perimeter, reroute traffic, and then talk to Jesse. There was a good chance the process wouldn't involve her until a homicide detective arrived. The uniformed officers would have their hands full just securing the scene.
Again, she clutched the fabric of her nightgown and turned the doorknob with the tips of her covered fingernails to preserve prints. The room's overhead light was on. Finch had been in Richmond with his family and wouldn't have left the bulb burning all weekend. Either someone else had been in the room or Finch had come up and then returned to his car. He had a key but would have used the back door and stairway so as not to disturb her or Jesse.
Ethel first looked for anything out of place. The single bed was made so tightly a drill sergeant could have bounced a quarter off the taut blanket. On the nightstand lay a book titled The Case for Cryptocurrency with a torn piece of an envelope marking a spot about two-thirds of the way through the pages.
The small writing desk was empty. Ethel knew that Finch usually set his laptop there. The computer wasn't in the room, and the cable Jesse identified as a power adapter suggested that Finch had had it in his car. Maybe it had slid under the seat.
She checked the armoire and the dresser. Clothes were neatly hung or folded in drawers. Ethel was puzzled that it looked like Finch had simply come in and turned on the light before returning to his car. She carefully dropped to her knees beside the bed. Looking under the springs, she saw a gym bag pushed against the wall. The course of its path was clearly indicated by the trail it left through the fine layer of dust. Ethel made a mental note to admonish the housekeeper for her lack of thoroughness.
Ethel slid under the bed until she could reach the bag. She knew she must look a ridiculous sight, a seventy-five-year-old woman whose wrinkled feet scrambled for traction to pull her out again. When she'd managed to extricate herself, she sat on the floor beside the bag. A single zipper ran along the top. She opened it with one fluid motion and then used both hands to widen the opening. Rolls and rolls of hundred-dollar bills. A convention of Benjamin Franklins.
"Ethel, the police would like a word." Jesse's voice came from the front of the house.
Ethel used the bed to help her to her feet. She couldn't leave the money in the room. It must involve some case Finch was working on. The bag was heavy, but she managed to lug it down the back stairs where her own first-floor bedroom was out of sight of the foyer.
"In the bathroom," she shouted as she closed the door behind her. She pushed the bag under her bed and went into the adjoining bathroom. She flushed the toilet, and ran water in the basin. She wiped her face with a damp washcloth, brushed the tangles from her shoulder-length gray hair, and prepared to take on the role of a bewildered little old lady.
Jesse had watched Ethel disappear into the shadows of the front porch and then heard the click as the door closed. He looked down at the body, at the blood-soaked robe, and for the first time he felt the chill of the night air penetrate his pale skin. There he stood in only a T-shirt and boxers, suddenly lit up by the beams of multiple police flashlights.
He held his arms out from his side like he'd seen in the movies. At least his skimpy clothing left little chance for a hidden weapon. He counted three patrol cars and one ambulance. The medical team grabbed packs and ran to Finch. Six patrolmen spread out to secure the area, with two of them keeping their lights on Jesse as they approached. They stopped a few feet away, careful not to stand too close together. One was African American, the other Hispanic. They both looked like they couldn't have been more than a few years older than Jesse, and he was only twenty-two.
"Sir, let's step away a few yards and give the medics space to work." The Black man's voice was deep and his words more than a request.
Jesse retreated as the men advanced. "He's dead. His name's Jonathan Finch. I saw two men run away."
The officers looked at each other. A speedy debrief might mean a speedy arrest.
- On Sale
- Oct 11, 2022
- Page Count
- 288 pages
- Hachette Book Group