The Kids Are All Right

Lying, cheating, stealing, dealing… dying.

When guidance counselor Terry Wright dies in a freak accident, he leaves a flash drive for Hartford PI Zach Barnes. Barnes finds files showing that someone at Wright’s posh private school is lying, some students are cheating, someone may be stealing, and someone else is definitely dealing. Before he can figure out who’s doing what, Wright’s fiancée dies, too. Coincidence? Yeah, right.

Teachers, staff, and students all know Barnes has those files—and one of them has already killed twice. Barnes battles the clock, a blizzard, and human interference to unmask the killer before he becomes victim number three.

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“So, the guy told you something was hinky.” State Trooper Paul Bastinado sips from a once-white coffee mug with the inside the color of gravel. His eyes match the inside of that mug.

“No.” Zach Barnes puts the guy’s age at somewhere between forty and early retirement, small eyes wedged above plump cheeks and below a receding hairline. “But that’s why I’m here. What can you tell me about it?”

Bastinado puts down the mug. “We’ll have the ME check everything out, but it looks like an accident.” His hair is a buzz cut that seems to hide pattern baldness. It helps hide his age, too. “Damn’ table saw.”

“What happened,” Barnes asks, “cut off a hand?”

“Worse.” Bastinado runs his hand through the buzzcut. “Went right through his face and into his brain. Split his skull open like a melon. He never felt a thing, but there’s blood all over the room.”

Back when he was a cop, Barnes worked enough traffic accidents so he can visualize it.

“Who found him?”

“His fiancée. She was in shock when we got there. She puked on the floor, but who could blame her. It was pretty messy. Poor bastard had probably been dead at least twelve hours by then, maybe even longer.”

“Nothing looked weird?” Barnes suspects Bastinado’s main exercise is crossword puzzles. His rosy cheeks might be from the single-digit temperatures outside, but Barnes suspects they’re always red.

“Weird? Something comes loose, goes through his face. Nothing weird about it. Poor bastard’s dead.”

Barnes waits for the guy to keep going.

“Dishes and silverware were in the drainer. His cell phone was in his pocket. The last outgoing call was to the girl, late yesterday afternoon. The house looked OK, no signs of forced entry. Lights on in the living room and kitchen. That’s the way down to the basement, which is where the girl found him.”

“Any messages on the phone?” Barnes asks. “That he didn’t pick up?”

“Yeah, four of them between eight-fifteen and nine this morning, two from the school and two from the girl.”

“So why did the woman go there?” Barnes knows Terry Wright well enough to know he dated women, not girls. “Out of all the people who might have?”

Bastinado rolls his eyes to the ceiling.

“She was his fiancée, remember? She had a key. And she didn’t have any meetings or anything on tap so she could run over and see what was going on.” He studies his mug again. “She was sitting in the living room when I got there, on the couch. One of the EMTs was trying to give her a shot but she wouldn’t take anything. I got what I could out of her, and they took her to the hospital. The lab guys are probably still there.”

Bastinado’s computer monitor looks old enough to vote. The desk and chairs rest on a rug with a worn traffic pattern, and a dusty goose-neck lamp points at a cup full of old pencils and ballpoints.

“You took pictures, of course.” Barnes can’t shake the feeling that this is wrong, not just because a young man has died suddenly.

“Hell, yes. Dozens. The guy ate something, we don’t know if it was lunch or supper, went downstairs to his workshop, and the saw went crazy. We’ve taken prints all over the basement. Took the girl’s prints for comparison, but we won’t have the results for a few days. My guess is the prints are going to match him and the girl.”

“How about circuit breakers? Or the tools?”

“We’re checking them out, but everything looks normal. It’s just a really shitty accident.”

“Nothing stolen?” Barnes asks. “At least, not so you could tell?”

Bastinado shakes his head. “The guy’s wallet was on his bureau upstairs. Two credit cards and about sixty bucks still in it.”

Barnes shakes his head, too, but it means something different. “Look, I don’t want to tell you how to do your job, Bastinado, but I’d like you to check this out really carefully. Wright called me Thursday afternoon.”

“He knew you?” Bastinado asks. “Or did he just pick some PI’s name out of a hat? Your name starts with ‘B,’ you know.”

“We met about a year and a half ago. I was working on a case and I managed to keep the school’s name out of most of the papers. He appreciated that.” Barnes remembers Terry Wright. He liked the guy, but maybe someone else didn’t.

“OK. So he called you. What did he want?”

Barnes wants to get out of the uncomfortable room, but he needs to make this cop understand. “That’s the problem. He wouldn’t tell me anything over the phone, but we set up an appointment for this morning. I showed up at eleven and someone let it slip that he’d died. It’s such a sick coincidence that I have to wonder.”

Bastinado stares at the gray inside of his mug again. “But you know what they say, sometimes the easiest solution is the right one.”

“When it fits all the facts.”

“Right now, this does.”

Barnes is beginning to understand why Bastinado is assigned to a barracks far away from most civilization.

“Will you keep me in the loop?”

“It’ll be a few days before the tests are back. And the prints.”

“I know.” Barnes lays his card on the desk. “But I’d appreciate it.”

He waits for Bastinado to pick the card up.

“You mind if I talk with a few people at the school?”

Bastinado shrugs. “Knock yourself out.”

He drops Barnes’s card in a drawer.