After two decades protecting innocent victims on the run, and a year after getting shot on the job, Jane McKinnon, née Whitefield, has settled into the quiet life of a suburban housewife in Amherst, New York. But that all changes when she sees all eight female leaders of the Tonawanda Seneca clan parked in her driveway in two black cars.
Jimmy, a childhood friend of Jane’s from the reservation, has been accused of murdering a local white man. But instead of turning himself in, he’s fled, and no one knows where he’s hiding. At the clan mothers’ request, Jane retraces a walking trip she and Jimmy took together when they were fourteen in hopes that he has gone the same way again. But it turns out the police are the least of Jimmy’s problems, and soon enough Jimmy and Jane are on the run together in this “first-rate suspense” novel from the Edgar Award–winning author (Booklist, starred review).
“Whitefield is an indelible figure—whip-smart, resourceful, brave and big-hearted.” —The Seattle Times
“Jane Whitefield is unique in the annals of detective fiction. She is a throwback to a tribal world, still loyal to the beliefs of the Seneca Indians and still adhering to the call of a lost era. Thomas Perry has once again resurrected a remarkable character who seems imbued with a strange immortality and an unusual morality, and he is to be congratulated.” —The Washington Times
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Nick Bauermeister sat in the stained, threadbare armchair in the front room. Chelsea's mother had dragged the chair out to the curb because it wasn't brand-new, but he had taken it home because it was much better than any other place he had to sit, and he couldn't do much better than free. He aimed the remote control at the television set, and saw that Chelsea had left it on the channel where they always showed girls buying wedding dresses.
For a girl who hardly ever wanted anything to do with a guy anymore, she sure was interested in stuff about weddings and honeymoons or some woman getting to pick one from a bunch of bachelors. He had to click the channel button several times to get to the basketball game. He adjusted the sound, but kept his thumb on the little Mute button.
Nick was mostly pretending to watch the game. What he was really watching was Chelsea. Usually he liked watching Chelsea because she was the perfect embodiment of what a girl was supposed to look like. Even now, as she walked around in the kitchen picking up plates from the table and taking them to the sink, he couldn't help thinking about how incredible she was. She seemed unaware of the way she looked — couldn't see the way her shorts neatly hugged her thin waist and, in the back, defined her ass nearly as well as if she were naked. Her blouse had worked another button open since they'd finished dinner and she'd begun scrubbing dishes. The femaleness of her body was a force of nature too strong for her clothes.
But tonight he wasn't watching her in a friendly way. He was just watching. Nick was pretty sure that Chelsea had been cheating on him. He had no idea who the guy was, because anybody would sleep with her if she wanted him to. That information might not be available until he caught her at it.
He had noticed that she had begun sitting far away from him in the evenings lately, rapidly texting back and forth with somebody. "Who's that?" he had asked. She would answer, "My mom." Her mother was a woman who would never have had the patience to sit around sending texts. She liked to talk, and when she called she always used the chance to tell everybody what she thought of everything they were doing or weren't doing. You couldn't do that with a text message. And sometimes Chelsea would just pull a name out of the air. The last two times he'd asked her she had said she was texting Carrie or Chloe. Both of them worked as waitresses in the evening, and probably would have been fired for standing around texting their friends.
The only times he'd actually seen her talking on the phone lately was when he walked in unexpectedly and she was lying on the couch talking on her cell phone, laughing and playing with her long, blond hair. As soon as she saw him her voice would go flat. "Got to go," and she'd stand up, put her phone in her pants pocket, and get moving. She'd do something to distract him, to force him to think about something besides her phone call. She'd offer him a beer, go to the kitchen to get it, and come back already talking about something that was wrong with the car or the sink. Two days ago he had gone into her computer and noticed that she had erased about a month of e- mails.
Everything had changed on the night when he had been in the fight with the big Indian in Akron. She had been quiet for a couple of days after that, and pretended to be busy all the time — busier than anyone could possibly be. Then, when she would come home, she would always be too tired. She didn't show any signs of caring how bad he had been hurt in the fight, in spite of the fact that he had been unconscious and woke up with a broken nose and four cracked ribs.
The fight might have been his own fault, like she'd said, but losing so badly hadn't been his fault. He'd been drunk, and the Indian wasn't drunk at all. How was that a fair fight? Ever since then, Chelsea had been cold and distant, so cold that he was sure she was getting ready to leave him. But in order to do that, she would need two things — a place to live, and a new guy. Women were like frogs, jumping from one lily pad to another. Before Chelsea jumped, she would have to be sure the next lily pad was going to be there. She was nearly ready. He could feel it.
He kept his face turned toward the television set, but his eyes moved with her. Wherever she stepped, he watched. At some point there would be that peculiar twinkly sound her phone made when she got a text message, and he would be up in a second like a big cat, snatch it out of her hand, and read it. If he heard instead the buzz it made for a ring, he'd take it and say, "Who's calling?" If the man hung up instead of answering, he'd find out his name from her. Once he'd caught her like that, she couldn't deny it. If he had to, he'd beat the name out of her.
She walked across the front room without even glancing in his direction. He muted the TV so he could hear her. He heard her go down the hall, and then heard a door close quietly.
He turned the television up again to cover his movements, and stood to follow her down the hall. He would fling open the door and grab the phone. All he had to do was keep the sound of his steps quieter than the television set. He began to walk very slowly. One step seemed quiet enough, so he began the next.
The metal-jacketed 180 grain bullet that was already spinning through the night air at 2,800 feet per second smashed through the glass of the front window, pounded into the back of his skull, and burst out the front, taking with it bits of bone, blood, brain, and thirty-four years of accumulated jealousy, disappointment, and anger. Nick was dead before his knees released their tension and his body toppled to the floor.
Chelsea ran out of the hallway yelling, "Nick! What the heck are you —" before she saw his body and the window pane behind him. She cut off her mother's phone call, dropped to her belly, and dialed 911.CHAPTER 2
Jane McKinnon jogged along the shoulder of the road toward home. Every morning after her husband, Carey, went off to the hospital to prep for surgery at six, she did tai chi and then went out to run. Sometimes she drove from the big old stone house in Amherst to the Niagara River near the house where she'd grown up, and then ran the three miles along the river to the South Grand Island Bridge and back. That was the run she had always made as a teenager — three miles each way with the wide blue-gray river beside her flowing steadily northward toward the Falls. Sometimes she would drive over the bridge to Grand Island and run along West River Road, looking across the west branch of the river at Navy Island and Canada. Sometimes she ran on one of the college campuses, or in Delaware Park in Buffalo.
Today she ran along the roads near the house she shared with her husband. The house had been here for a long time, the original structure a building made of fieldstones mortared over logs a foot and a half thick around 1760. Carey's ancestors had done some farming and some trading with her Seneca ancestors who made up most of the population at the time. For the past few generations the McKinnons had been doctors.
When she was a child there had still been thousands of acres of farmland along here, mostly lying fallow and waiting for the developers. Now the developers had been at work for many years, and she ran past deep green golf courses and huge, low houses set far back from the highway and surrounded by enough remnants of old forests to provide shaded yards in the summer and windbreaks against the storms that blew off the Great Lakes in the winter.
Jane seldom ran the same route two days in a row. She never permitted a pattern to develop or ran in a predictable place on a predictable day. Random changes were one of the habits she had nurtured since she was in college. Before she had been Jane McKinnon she had been Jane Whitefield. Now, like other suburban housewives, she bought groceries at supermarkets, but unlike them, she had a list of fourteen markets, and she shopped in them randomly, often at odd hours.
Life was usually quiet for Jane McKinnon, much of it taken up by various kinds of volunteer work — benefits and fund-raising for the hospital, teaching two classes a week in the Seneca language for junior high and high school children at the Tonawanda Reservation during the winter, and helping to elect political candidates in the fall. Jane avoided being chairwoman of any public events, never had her name on stationery, and never identified herself on phone calls for causes except as "Jane."
Jane still kept bug out kits in the McKinnon house in Amherst and in the house where she had grown up. Each one consisted of a packet with ten thousand dollars in cash and a collection of valid identification cards, credit cards, and licenses. The pictures on the cards were hers and Carey's, but the names were not. Over the years she had learned to grow identities, using a set of forged papers to obtain real ones, buying things with the credit cards and paying the bills so other companies would offer more credit. As soon as she had a few valid forms of identification for herself and Carey under new names, she had obtained passports in those names. Each kit also included a 9 mm pistol and two extra loaded magazines.
Jane had persuaded Carey to accept her precautions as a part of their lives. He was tall, strong, and athletic, and had no enemies of his own, so it had taken a few new experiences for him to understand that he needed to take the steps she asked of him. The most powerful had happened only a year ago. Jane had gone to Los Angeles and sneaked an innocent man serving a murder sentence out of a courthouse. Jane's runner had driven off as she'd planned, but she had been captured by his enemies, shot, beaten, and tortured for several days before she had escaped. Now Carey drove to work at the hospital on one of five different routes she had plotted for him, each with a cutoff where he could circle back and come out in the opposite direction if he was followed. But more important, she had taught him to look. He was aware of the people, the cars, the changes around him, and that was the one precaution that mattered most.
As Jane ran, she could still feel the effects of the damage the bullet had done to her right thigh a year ago, and she listened to the rhythm of her steps to be sure she was not favoring that side or developing a limp. She also kept her eyes moving all the time. She watched cars coming and going, studied each person she could see in a window, noted anything that looked different in any yard. Today almost everything was exactly as it had been last time she had passed. The few things that were different she memorized for the next time.
She was coming up the final stretch of road before the old stone house, building up speed because she was coming to the end, when she saw two unfamiliar cars parked in front of it.
Jane reduced her speed while she studied the cars. They were both relatively new full-size cars. The front one was a Lincoln, and the second something like it, perhaps a Cadillac. They were both plain even under scrutiny, without any of the aftermarket equipment like floodlights or antennas that plain-wrap police vehicles usually had.
She maintained her speed, ran on toward her house, and saw that both cars had people in them. There were two women in the front and two in the back of each car — eight in all. The ones she could see were elderly and a bit overweight. She didn't want to stare any harder. They were probably in the neighborhood for some charity meeting or other. One woman looked a bit like Ellen Dickerson.
All at once she realized who had come, and it made her knees feel weak. This was a visit from the eight clan mothers. They were important dignitaries in the Seneca culture. In the old times they had been simply the oldest, wisest, and most trusted women of each clan. When the Senecas in New York State had been divided into several reservations, Jane's band, the Tonawanda band, had overwhelmingly retained the old religion and codified the old form of government, including the clan mothers.
But the clan mothers were stronger and older than law. Since the day in prehistory when the Senecas had first appeared on the great hill at the foot of Canandaigua Lake, the women of each clan — Snipe, Hawk, Heron, Deer, Wolf, Beaver, Bear, and Turtle — owned a longhouse, and all of them together owned the village and the land where they raised the three sisters — corn, beans, and squash — and brought up the children. Because the women knew each child best, the clan mothers had always chosen the chiefs, and could remove them if they were disappointed.
And now, here they were, the eight clan mothers, not much different from the eight who had signed the letter to President John Tyler in 1841 to inform him that every Seneca chief had refused to sign the despicable and fraudulent 1838 Treaty of Buffalo Creek, and so the Senecas refused to be forced off the Tonawanda Reservation. The eight were also not so different from the women a thousand years before that, who had decided whether a captive should be adopted to take the place of a dead Seneca, or be killed to avenge him.
Even though she'd been running for miles, Jane felt her heart actually speeding up as she walked to the driver's side of the nearest car. She smiled. "Hello, Dorothy. Hi, Sarah. Hi, Mae. Hi, Emma. What are you all doing here in Amherst?"
Dorothy Stone said, "We came to see you, Jane. I hope you don't mind. We called ahead early this morning, but you were out already. We took a chance. Are you free, or should we come back tomorrow?"
"Come on in," said Jane. "Don't sit out here in a car."
The car doors all opened, and Jane hurried to the next car and said, "Hi, Natalie. Hi Daisy. Hi Susan. Hi Alma. Come on in. I'm so sorry I didn't know you were coming."
She trotted ahead to the front door, her mind already scrambling from place to place in her mental image of the house, picking things up, straightening others, or in desperation, hiding them. Another part of her mind was in the kitchen opening the refrigerator and searching for appropriate food and drink. It was a tradition that Seneca wives keep food ready for unexpected visitors. In the old times people from any of the Haudenosaunee nations might arrive unexpectedly after a journey along the great trail that ran from the Hudson River to the Niagara. If she had lived then she might have served soup made with corn, beans, squash, and a little deer or bear in it for flavor. Jane swung the front door open and rushed into the kitchen.
Jane pulled some berries from the freezer. She defrosted strawberries, raspberries, and blueberries in the microwave and found some angel's food cake to pour them over. She started a pot of coffee, made lemonade and put the pitcher and glasses on a tray, then piled everything on the biggest tray she had and carried it out so she could serve it as soon as the ladies had settled into seats near the big stone fireplace in the living room.
As Jane poured lemonade and brought in a tray of cookies, she surreptitiously looked around the living room. These eight formidable women looked like any gaggle of matronly ladies in spring dresses with flowered patterns, middle-aged and older, who might have come out for a game of bridge or a club meeting. But the clan mothers held great power. They were a governmental council that had been functioning the same way in the same region for many centuries longer than the British Parliament. In the old times they'd called for war by reminding the chiefs that there was a Seneca who had been killed but not yet avenged. When they didn't want war they would say that the women weren't inclined to make the moccasins for warriors to wear as they made their way to the distant countries of enemies.
As Jane occupied herself serving the cake and berries she felt the muscles in her shoulders relax a little. The women were all very cordial to Jane. "You have such a beautiful house." "I love the flowers you've got in that bed along the side. My grandmother had tulips like that when I was a little girl."
Jane accepted their compliments, and felt an almost childish sense of validation, but she could not ignore the unusual nature of this visit. This wasn't just Jane's own clan mother stopping by for a chat. This wasn't even a delegation made up of her moitie — Wolf, Bear, Beaver, and Turtle. It was the mothers of all eight clans assembled here together — something that couldn't be meaningless, any more than the arrival of all nine Supreme Court justices could.
She held Ellen Dickerson in the corner of her eye. She was a tall, straight woman about fifty-five or sixty years old, with deep brown skin and long, gray hair gathered into a loose ponytail that hung down her back. She sat on the edge of her chair with her back perfectly straight, and yet managed to look comfortable. Jane knew that it would be Ellen Dickerson who spoke first because she was clan mother of the Wolf clan, Jane's own clan.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "A String Of Beads"
Copyright © 2015 Thomas Perry.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
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