Stone Barrington woke to the loudest explosive noise he had ever heard, and there was more to come. Lightning flashed, illuminating his bedroom at his house in Dark Harbor, Maine, then a hammering on the roof began. He switched on a bedside light. It came on for a moment, then went off for a few seconds, then he heard the generator kick in, and the lamp came on again.
Holly Barker came running into the room; he had not even noticed her absence. She dived into bed and clung to him. “Please tell me this is a thunderstorm and not a nuclear attack,” she whimpered.
"It’s the mother of all thunderstorms," Stone said, then switched on the TV to the Weather Channel. A man stood before a weather chart, and there was a large red splotch on it where Maine should have been.
"It’s a nor’easter," Stone said. "Last night they were saying this would come in the night, then pass offshore. I think it’s making itself at home."
"I am not flying in that little jet of yours today," Holly said.
"Nobody is. You can tell them at the office that you have a real good excuse for not showing up. You can refer them to the weather radar."
"What’s that terrible noise on the roof?" Holly asked.
"That’s called rain."
"That’s not like any rain I’ve ever heard on any roof," she said.
"The Weather Channel guy was predicting eight to twelve inches of rain in our neighborhood."
"Is your airplane going to be okay?"
"Fortunately, it’s waterproof. And yesterday, Seth drove stakes into the ground and tied it down, so it won’t blow away."
"You were expecting this?"
"No, but Seth was. He’s a Mainer. He put extra lines and fenders on the boats, too."
"Look out the window. It’s as though we are underwater."
"We are, in a way."
"Why haven’t we lost power?"
"We have, but our 25 kW generator kicked in, and that keeps the whole house running."
"For how long?"
"Until that five-hundred-gallon tank of diesel runs out, and that will take a long time."
"I don’t know."
They put on robes and went down for breakfast. Seth’s wife, Mary, was putting food on the table as if nothing unusual had happened. "Morning," she said cheerfully.
"Morning, Mary," Stone replied. "How many days of provisions do we have stocked?"
"Oh, don’t you worry about that, Mr. Stone. We won’t starve. Good thing we have that twenty pounds of moose in the freezer that Mr. Rawls gave us last year."
"Moose?" Holly said. "Last year?"
"Ed Rawls goes moose hunting every year," Stone said. "He has a hard time getting rid of the meat."
"What’s moose like?" Holly asked.
"I haven’t the slightest idea, and I thought I was never going to find out, but one never knows, do one? As Fats Waller used to say."
"Who’s Fats Waller?"
"Oh, you child! A large, brilliant pianist, songwriter, and singer of the 1920s and ’30s."
"I hope you don’t think I remember the 1920s and ’30s."
"You don’t remember World War II, either, but it happened. So did Fats Waller."
They devoured scrambled eggs and sausage and Wolferman’s English muffins, washed down with orange juice, and followed by black coffee, an espresso roast.
Seth lit the living room fire, though it wasn’t all that cold; it just seemed that way. Stone and Holly showered together, as usual, and got into some L.L. Bean clothes. As they came downstairs, the doorbell was ringing. Stone opened it to find a suit of bright yellow waterproof clothing, topped by a seaman’s hat, a thick moustache, and round glasses.
"Come in, Ed," Stone said to Rawls. "What the hell are you doing out in this?"
"Helping to divert a minor disaster," Rawls said. "The ferry got sideways and had to be realigned."
It was late in the Labor Day holiday weekend, and the "folks from away," as the Mainers call them, had abandoned the island yesterday, in a rush. This happened every Labor Day, not just when there was a nor’easter.
"I hadn’t heard."
"Nothing to worry about now. I had a look at the airfield. Your aircraft is still attached firmly to the ground."
"Always good news. Anybody hurt in the foofaraw?"
"No. And only one murder."
"Who got murdered?"
"No ID yet. He was found on the ferry deck. The state police won’t venture out until this storm has gone."
"Cause of death?"
"Two in the head," Ed said, as if there were one every week.
"That does not bode well," Stone said.
"Not for him, anyway."
"Have you got a description?”
"A medium-everything white gentleman, clad in yellow oilskins, like everybody else."
"Not somebody looking for you, I hope." Rawls was retired CIA, the last of his breed on the island, and there had been times when people had wanted him dead, but not recently.
"We’ll just have to see, won’t we? I hope it ain’t too early for me to want a drink."
Stone got him a bourbon on the rocks.
"You ain’t joining me?" Rawls asked reprovingly.
"Not for another eight hours, or so."
Holly came downstairs. “Hey, Ed.”
"I was eavesdropping on the stairs and heard your conversation."
“Then I got nothing else to report. You were flying back today, weren’t you?"
"Well, gee, Ed."
"Yeah, I know."
"I’ve got to check in now and deliver the news."
"It’s being delivered in D.C. right now," Rawls said, "so it won’t come as a surprise to them at the White House."
Holly was President of the United States and found she had some business in the Northeast for the past few days.
She went to the hidden office that Stone’s cousin, Dick Stone, had built for himself to stay in touch with CIA headquarters. Holly had had her own computer installation hooked up. She sent messages to all who needed to hear about the weather in Maine.2
At lunchtime, the weather was unchanged. Ed Rawls was pressed into staying for some lobster stew, and they all sat down at the dining table.
"I like to brag on the weather to those from away," Rawls said, "but they’re never going to believe this."
The doorbell rang, making them all jump. Stone, clutching his napkin, got up and went to answer it. A man in the usual yellow oilskins stood there, identifiable only by his campaign-style, flat-brimmed hat. "Good afternoon, Stone," said Sergeant Young of the Maine State Police.
"That’s an outright lie," Stone said. "Come in and get dry." He pointed at the pegs where the sergeant’s gear should be stowed. "We’ve got a big pot of lobster stew," he said. "Can I tempt you?"
"You can," the sergeant said, hanging up his oilskins and sitting down at the table.
"I think you know everybody."
The sergeant nodded at everyone.
"I’ve heard bad news from the ferry," Stone said. "Got an ID yet?"
The sergeant reached into his jacket pocket, produced a wallet, laid it on the table, and opened it. Everybody at the table recognized the CIA credentials. Everybody stopped eating.
"Name of John Collins," the sergeant said. "Anybody know him?"
Heads were shaken.
"Anybody heard of him?"
“Give me a minute.” Holly set down her spoon, picked up the wallet, and went to the concealed office and her computer. Inside, she dialed a number.
“I thought you would have drowned by now.”
“Near enough. Do you know one of your people named John Collins?”
“Perhaps,” Lance said.
“Is he supposed to be in Maine?”
Lance was quiet for a long moment. “How bad?”
“Two to the head. Happened on the ferry, which hasn’t run since last night.”
“Perhaps you’d better stay there for a while.”
“Where else am I going to go?”
“I know you’re due back in New York. Don’t go.”
“I can’t swim that far.”
“Has the state police become involved?”
“The island-based Sergeant Young is at Stone’s lunch table as we speak.”
“I don’t want them to have the body.”
“Nobody can move it in the present weather.”
“Ask the sergeant to move it to Stone’s garage at the first opportunity, then to call me on this line. You stay where you are and watch your ass.” Lance hung up.
Holly returned to the table. “That was Lance Cabot on the phone. You’re about to have another guest, Stone; one John Collins, says Lance. Sergeant,” she said, handing him a note. “Please call Lance at this number as soon as you’re able. He asks that you not remove the body from the island but store it in Stone’s garage.”
“So now I’m running a mortuary?” Stone asked.
“Looks like it. They won’t be able to get a chopper in here today."
“I’ll have to call my captain,” the sergeant said.
"If I know Lance, he’s doing that right now. Call him before you speak to your captain.” The sergeant’s cell phone rang. He walked away from the table and answered it, then returned.
"Stone, you have an ice machine, don’t you?"
"Two of them."
"Can I borrow some plastic garbage bags and all your ice?"
"Leave enough to fill a few whiskey glasses," Stone replied.
The sergeant nodded. "Somebody from our station told me that we’re going to get more rain here this weekend than we’ve had since the hurricane of ’47. That one was about nineteen inches, as I recall."
"Stone," Ed Rawls said, "if we get that much rain, your two boats down at the dock are going to end up on your back lawn."
"As long as they don’t end up in my living room," Stone said.
After lunch, everybody had a glass of whiskey, because there wasn’t anything else to do. Around nightfall, the sergeant’s colleagues deposited the remains of John Collins in the garage, next to Stone’s MG TF 1500, with bags of ice around him. Stone and Holly both had a good look at him.
"Know him?" Stone asked.
"No," she said, snapping the man’s photo with her iPhone. "But Lance might."3
Stone slept longer than usual, and so did Holly. He got up and looked out a window: it was still raining, but not as much, and occasionally, a bit of blue sky could be seen. He switched on the TV, muted it to let Holly sleep, and looked at the weather radar. "Oh, good," he said to himself.
Stone was at breakfast when Holly came down, dressed, but looking a bit bleary. "What’s happened?" she asked, sitting down. "Why is the rain gone?"
"Are you complaining?" Stone asked.
"No, just disoriented. I’ve grown accustomed to wind, rain, and thunder."
"God changed his mind. Live with it." He sipped his coffee. "We may be able to fly today."
"Lance said I can’t go back to New York," she said.
"Where does he want you to go?"
"He wants me to stay here, until he says I can return to Washington."
"I guess I can stand one more day here," Stone said, "but tomorrow we’re flying or you’re enjoying Maine on your own."
"There’s a reason he doesn’t want me to return yet."
"He didn’t say. But Lance never gives suggestions without a reason. Has anybody checked on John Collins?"
"Still dead, and Seth has refreshed his ice packs."
"The ice packs."
"You said Lance knows Collins?"
"He said he does, but he may not."
"Either I’m confused, or Lance is."
"What I heard on the phone yesterday was Lance being baffled. He told me he may know Collins, because he doesn’t want us to know he doesn’t know him."
"Now I’m baffled," Stone said.
"Lance cultivates an air of knowing everything."
"I’ve noticed that," Stone said.
“Sometimes, if he doesn’t, he pretends to. When we next hear from him he will have had time to find out what he doesn’t know. I sent him the photograph of the corpse. Maybe that will help him order his mind.”
They heard a distant ringing.
"That’s the phone in the little office." Holly got up and trotted in that direction. She had been spending a couple hours a day tending to White House business and dealing with various issues.
"Is it? Has the torrential rain gone away?"
"Sort of. Have you learned anything new about Mr. Collins?"
“I have. Mr. Collins doesn’t exist.”
“That’s fairly obvious. I mean, he hasn’t complained about the ice.”
“You misunderstand. There is no one by that name employed by the Agency in any capacity. I ran the photo you sent through our identity recognition software, which is the best in the world, and he apparently doesn’t exist anywhere.”
“Has that ever happened before?”
“Early on, when we were still getting the bugs out of the software, but not recently. There is no record, anywhere, of his fingerprints, either.”
“I didn’t send you his fingerprints.”
"The Maine State Police did."
"Shall we return the corpse to them? It’s technically in their custody, anyway."
"They’ll send a chopper down as soon as they can. In the meantime, keep him iced."
"You can come back to Washington tomorrow. I’ll tell the Cabinet to expect you."
“You may be interested to know that Islesboro has had twenty-one inches of rain during the last two days. It’s a record.”
“I’ll alert the media, such as they are.”
“They already know. I read it in the Bangor newspaper.”
“You’re a subscriber?”
"We subscribe, in one way or another, to every news source in the world."
"I had forgotten."
"For shame.” Lance hung up, and Holly went back to the table and reported the news to Stone.
At midday, a police chopper set down at the airfield and an ambulance met them there, the ferry service having been restored. They came to Stone’s house, removed the corpse, then flew it away.
Seth, without being told, disinfected and pressure-washed the garage floor, then left the outside door open to hurry the drying. Mr. Collins was no longer a houseguest.4
The following day, Stone freed his airplane from its bonds, and since he had only Holly and half the fuel aboard, he got it off the runway in an amazingly short distance and flew back to Teterboro, where he turned the aircraft over to the people in the Strategic Services hangar and Holly over to the Air Force One crew, for transfer to Washington, and he was met by his factotum, Fred, in the Bentley and driven home.
Stone was greeted by his secretary, Joan Robertson, as he walked into his office. "There’s little to warrant your attention," she said, "since I have proceeded on the basis that you would not return until the snow flies. You may go back to Maine now, if you wish."
"What a warm and cheerful welcome!" Stone said, scratching the ears of Bob, his Labrador retriever. “At least Bob is glad to see me.”
"Lance Cabot called a few minutes ago, to pass the news that knowledge of Mr. Collins’s existence has still not been claimed by any person or organization. No need to return the call."
"Just as well."
"I, however, have a theory about the identity of Mr. Collins."
"I don’t suppose I can avoid hearing it, so spit it out."
"I believe Lance knows full well the particulars of the corpse and its history, but he, for purposes of his own, will not admit to any of it."
"That’s a theory about Lance, not about Mr. Collins."
"Take it is you will," she said, and flounced out.
"Don’t flounce!" Stone shouted after her but didn’t get the favor of a response.
Copyright © 2022 by Stuart Woods. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.