Introduced to a glamorous Manhattan socialite, Stone Barrington discovers his new companion has ties to a nefarious enemy who will stop at nothing to get what he wants, in the latest addition to the series following A Safe House.
Stuart Woods was the author of more than ninety novels, including the #1 New York Times bestselling Stone Barrington series. A native of Georgia and an avid sailor and pilot, he began his writing career in the advertising industry. Chiefs, his debut in 1981, won the Edgar Award. Woods passed away in 2022.
New York attorney Stone Barrington fights to protect a sizable estate from a predatory claimant determined to grab it from whomever stands in his way. When Stone's secretary, Joan Robertson, introduces him to her aunt, Annetta Charles, whose attorney at Stone's firm, Woodman & Weld, has just died, Stone thinks her request to revise her will is routine. And so it is, on paper. Annetta, who rose from a shady background to marry into her late husband's serious money, wants to continue paying $100,000 a month into the trust fund of her stepson, Edwin Charles Jr., but to cut him off without a cent at her death-because she wants to discourage him from killing her for the nest egg. Eddie, a Yale Law graduate who's never worked a day in his life, reacts to the news that his do-nothing lifestyle depends on his leaving his stepmother alone with predictable outrage and a series of pleasingly unpredictable countermeasures. He bursts into Stone's home office in Turtle Bay; accosts him at dinner with his former partner, NYPD Commissioner Dino Bacchetti; and tells everyone who'll listen that he's Stone's client. The lie becomes especially fraught when Annetta is shot to death and Eddie's arrested for her murder. Apart from Stone's forgettable flings with two women involved in very different ways with Eddie's threats, Woods keeps his eye on the ball throughout, and though the suspense never exactly intensifies-Woods doesn't do rising suspense-Stone's pesky antagonist is so well matched with both his hero and the requirements of his plot that fans' interest will never flag. As a bonus, Stone's self-effacing secretary is rewarded with a leading role and other emoluments. Stone's most memorable reflection: "He had been too long without a woman." Yeah, right. Copyright Kirkus 2022 Kirkus/BPI Communications. All rights reserved.
Stone Barrington sat at his desk in his office on the ground floor of his Turtle Bay townhouse, finishing a stack of work that his secretary, Joan Robertson, had created to keep him busy. He was a senior partner at Woodman & Weld, a prestigious firm housed nearby in the Seagram Building, on Park Avenue at Fifty-Third Street. But he preferred to work in his home office, because people didn't wander up and down the halls asking him to work on the accounts of various clients.
Joan rapped on his door and came into his office. "I have a new client for you," she said. "Don't groan and roll your eyes."
Stone stifled a groan and tried to keep his eyes straight ahead. "All right, what waif have you picked up on the street?"
"She's not a waif, she's an aunt. Mine. My mother's younger sister. Her name is Annetta Charles."
"Why isn't her name Robertson, like yours?"
"Because she had the wit to marry a very rich man named Edwin Charles."
Some switch in his frontal lobe came on. "Edwin Charles?"
"I'll wait while you try and catch up," Joan said.
"The Edwin Charles?"
"Welcome back to full consciousness."
Edwin Charles, Stone now remembered, had occupied an elevation at approximately the Rockefeller level of existence. He had died a few months earlier from mysterious ill health. "And how may I serve dear Mrs. Charles?"
"She's going to explain that to you," Joan said. "Shall I show her in?"
"Does she have an appointment?"
"Aunt Annetta does not make appointments. She just arrives, and people-smart people-see her immediately."
"Don't kowtow too much. She doesn't like it."
Stone stood up and put on his jacket. "Please don't keep Mrs. Charles waiting."
Joan disappeared and returned a moment later, escorting a handsome woman who appeared to be somewhere in her forties. She was perfectly dressed in the manner of New York's women of the Upper East Side, and even managed to show a bit of tasteful cleavage.
"Stone," Joan said, "this is my aunt Annetta, Mrs. Edwin Charles. Aunt Annetta," she said, "this is Mr. Stone Barrington, a senior partner of Woodman & Weld."
"How do you do?" she said to Stone.
"Very well, thank you. Will you please be seated?"
She did so, flashing a glimpse of thigh as she crossed her legs.
"How may I be of assistance to you?" Stone asked.
"I want to make a new will," she replied. As she did so, she reached into her commodious handbag, withdrew a thick document, and tossed it onto Stone's desk. It landed with a thump.
"May I ask, what firm currently represents you?" Stone asked, thumbing through it.
"A little collection of desks called Woodman & Weld," she said pleasantly. "I called my attorney, Ralph Mason, for a revision and was told that he was dead. I must say, I would have thought the firm would have notified me."
"Mr. Mason, I'm sorry to say, passed away the day before yesterday," Stone replied. "I assure you notification is on its way."
"Well, at least he had an excuse for not returning my call." She brushed away some imaginary lint from her skirt.
"I'll read this just as soon as possible," Stone said.
"It won't be as hard as you might imagine," she said. "I've no quarrel with the contents except for the one document relating to my stepson, Edwin Jr."
Stone grabbed a legal pad and unsheathed his pen. "What changes would you like to make?"
"First, excise page three: that's the page outlining my stepson's legacy."
Stone found page three, pulled it from the document, and set it aside. "Done."
"Now, I would like you to set up a trust for Eddie," she said. "It should pay him one hundred thousand dollars a month, for my lifetime."
"For your lifetime?"
"Why your lifetime, not his?"
"It's the only way I can think of to stop him from killing me."
Stone was brought up short.
"Let me explain," she said. "Since my husband's death, I have been receiving threatening notes. I am certain they are from Eddie. He is the black dog of the family."
"You mean 'black sheep'?"
"There is no sheep in Eddie," she said. "He's all dog, all the way through, and a mean one at that."
"I see," Stone replied, although he did not. "And what happens to his bequest after your death?"
"The bequest outlined in the present will is to be paid into the trust you are creating, and he may withdraw funds from it only with the permission of the trustee."
"And who would you like the trustee to be?"
Stone blinked. "Why, may I ask?"
"I happen to know-and this is not by way of your secretary-that you have a son who received a large bequest, that you are his trustee, and that you have done a remarkably good job in that role."
"Well, I'm grateful for the praise, whatever its origin. Perhaps you could tell me a little about Edwin Charles Jr.?"
She shrugged. "Eddie is, not to put too fine a point on it, a right little shite."
"That is rather a broad description," Stone replied. "Could you be more specific?"
"His father had become sick, and instead of caring for the man, all Eddie could see was the paycheck. All he did was badger his father for more money, right on his deathbed. Eddie is selfish, to the point of caring nothing about the feelings or needs of any other person; he is cruel, unfeeling, and, at once, both priggish and piggish. He is demanding, but ungiving, foul of both tongue and temper. Now I feel that twistedness turning in my direction."
"Why don't you cut him off entirely?" Stone asked.
"Eddie may seem simply a nuisance, but there is a dangerous side to him. Full disinheritance might set that off sooner than one would like. But I want it part of the document that he is never again to enter my home or any room of any other house where I might be present. Did I mention that I want you to explain all this to him?"
"I would imagine that, being a lawyer, the first thing that entered your mind was 'What's in it for me?'"
"Actually, that was the second or third thing that entered my mind."
"Let's cut to the chase," she said. "If I approve of the way you write this document, and the manner in which you impart the news to Eddie, I will withdraw all my legal representation by other firms and move everything to Woodman & Weld, to be supervised by you. And before you ask, my legal expenses last year exceeded a million and a half dollars. In some years, it has been substantially more."
Stone buzzed Joan, and she appeared in the doorway. "Yes, sir?"
"Please print out our standard client representation agreement for your aunt's signature. And I will make revisions to her will, which will be slight, and you can prepare it for her signature. Please gather three witnesses."
"I like the way you work, Stone, if I may call you that. And you must call me Annetta."
"Of course, Annetta," Stone replied.
A little more than an hour later, Annetta Charles signed her new will, which included the trust for Edwin Charles Jr., and it was duly witnessed by members of Stone's household staff.
Fortified by a good lunch, Annetta Charles said her goodbyes and was escorted to her waiting car by her niece.
Joan came back a moment later. "By the way," she said, "Aunt Annetta is sixty."
The following afternoon, Joan entered Stone's office and said, "Edwin Charles Jr. is here to see you, at Aunt Annetta's suggestion."
Stone sighed, steeling himself for the task. "Send him in."
Joan ushered in a young man-shy of thirty, Stone thought-who wore a finely tailored tweed suit, handmade shoes and shirt, and a gold watch chain affixed to his waistcoat.
Joan introduced them, and they shook hands.
"Call me Eddie," the young man said. "But nobody calls me Junior."
"Duly noted, Eddie. I'm Stone. Please take a chair. Would you like some refreshment?"
"Perhaps a large single malt whisky over ice," he replied.
"I think, given our business, coffee might be more appropriate. After that is concluded, we can think about opening the bar."
Eddie shrugged. "Now, why has my wicked stepmother insisted I see you?"
"Mrs. Charles has created a trust fund in your name. It is called the Edwin Charles Junior-or ECJ-Trust."
Eddie frowned. "Okay. Why?"
"Mrs. Charles sees you as being profligate, and she wishes to provide for you generously. But with limitations."
"'Limitations'?" Eddie asked. "What does that mean?"
"Please wait until I have outlined the terms of your trust before asking questions."
"The ECJ Trust will provide you with an income of one hundred thousand dollars per month, which is meant to cover all your living expenses-that is, food, clothing, shelter, transportation, entertainment, and whims."
Eddie's face fell. He took a breath to speak, but Stone held up a hand.
"Not yet. I have persuaded Mrs. Charles that should you become and remain gainfully employed, the trust will also pay you an amount equal to your monthly paycheck. Such payments will begin when you have submitted proper documents substantiating your hiring and your monthly income, and end if your employment should be terminated by either you or your employer."
"What am I supposed to do?" Eddie demanded.
"I'm told that you possess a law degree from Yale, is that correct?"
"Then I suggest that you take a bar exam cram course, then take the exam. If you pass, you will be employable as an attorney. If you fail, you will not starve, given your monthly income from the trust. Then you can study harder and take the exam again."
Eddie was crestfallen. "I've never worked a day in my life. I'm unaccustomed to it."
"After you've done it for a while, you may come to enjoy it," Stone said. "Many people do. If not, then you will simply have to live within your newfound means."
"I'll sue," Eddie said.
"On what grounds? Search your legal education for an answer."
"Entitlement is not grounds. You are entitled only to what your stepmother says you are, and she has spoken. Incidentally, you are to pack up your personal possessions and move out of her house within seventy-two hours. I suggest a room at the Yale Club temporarily and a storage unit for your excess possessions. And, if I may put this in a Dickensian manner, you are never again to darken her door-or any other door where she is present, on pain of ending the income stream from your trust. Do you have any questions?"
Eddie thought about it and shook his head.
"Good," Stone said, handing him an envelope. "Here is your first month's check, and another to cover your immediate rehousing."
"Who is the trustee?" Eddie asked.
"I am," Stone said, "and only I. Any requests will be heard by me and not your stepmother." He pressed a button, and Joan appeared with Eddie's coat. Eddie followed her out.
"Call me a taxi," Eddie demanded sullenly.
"Okay, you're a taxi." She pushed him out the front door and locked it behind him, then she returned to Stone's office. "How'd the Black Dog take it?" she asked.
"I think he was too stunned to protest much."
"It was generous of you to add an amount equal to his income."
"Your aunt rather liked that, too. I hope we've heard the last of Eddie."
"Don't count on it," Joan said.
Stone regarded his secretary. "You noticed that you were not a witness to the signing of your aunt's will?"
"Do you know why?"
"I presume it was because I am an heir."
"A good presumption. Now, your aunt Annetta seemed reluctant in the extreme to chat about her stepson."
"I'm not surprised. He has caused her a great deal of pain."
"Perhaps you will enlighten me on the nature of that pain. It would be helpful if I could know what to expect from him."
"Your worst fears realized," she replied.
"You will have noticed that, in her will, there are bequests for the rearing and education of three children."
"I did. I had supposed that Eddie was her only stepchild."
"He is. The three children are what might be called her step-grandchildren."
"I take it that Eddie is heterosexual."
"He is and, apparently, perpetually priapic."
"Ah. What else?"
"I don't think he's, clinically speaking, an alcoholic or a drug addict, but I believe that he has sampled, at least once, whatever is available in the world of consciousness-altering pharmaceuticals. His drug of choice seems to be some very expensive product of Scottish agriculture and distilling-sometimes to excess, hence the step-grandchildren."
"Would you describe him as heedless?"
"Of almost everything," Joan replied.
"What of his judgment?"
"Little, or none."
"Unknown to him."
"It sounds as if I'm going to soon hear from him with a request for further funds."
"Before the day is out is my best guess."
"I'm not going to refuse his calls, exactly, but he should never be put through to me immediately, nor should he ever be in possession of my cell phone number."
"Certainly not. Anything else, boss?"
"Yes, why did you recommend me to Aunt Annetta?"
"Because, in my judgment, the fees accruing to Woodman & Weld will far exceed whatever trouble Eddie turns out to be. I thought it preferable to make rain, rather than to stay high and dry."
"Joan, am I ever going to want to hide from my new charge?"
"Frequently, I fear," Joan replied.
The office line rang, and Stone indicated that Joan should use his desk phone to answer it. "Woodman & Weld, the Barrington Practice." She listened for a moment, then covered the phone. "Eddie wants me to send a check for $2,200 to the phone company for the installation of four telephone lines and a superfast Internet connection to his suite at the Yale Club."
"Tell him it's time to open a bank account."
Joan did so, then hung up before he could protest. "That was good," she said. "I think we've established a baseline for saying no to Eddie."
"Next time he tries something like that, tell him to try moving to a room rather than a suite at his club. If you receive any bills for anything from him, mark the envelopes 'not at this address' and forward them to him at the Yale Club. That includes any bills from the Yale Club."
"Any further instructions?"
"Yes, if you receive calls or mail or a request for bail money that mentions Eddie as being my client, deny it. Say that Woodman & Weld has his trust fund for a client, not Eddie Jr."
"Sounds as if you want to sever all ties."
"I would if I could, but we can reduce the number of ties to as near zero as possible."
The phone rang again.
"Dino," Joan said.
"Dinner, Clarke's, seven o'clock?"
"Done." They both hung up.
Stone arrived a little late at P.J. Clarke's and found Dino at the bar, chatting with Eddie Jr.
"Ah, Stone," Dino said, "I've just met your new client."
"And who might that be?" Stone asked.
"This guy," Dino said, pointing.
Stone turned to Eddie. "Who are you?"
Wddie's jaw dropped. "It's me, Eddie."
"Edwin Charles, Junior."
"I have no such client," Stone replied. "Dino, I think this guy is running a scam. Isn't that illegal in New York?"
"You want me to run him in?"
"I'll leave that judgment to you."
"Now wait a minute," Eddie said, tugging at Stone's sleeve.
Stone pointed at his sleeve. "I believe that action constitutes assault," he said to Dino.
"You want me to bust him?"
"I'd be content if he just dematerialized."
Dino took a small radio from an inside pocket. "Charlie?"
"There's a guy in here at the bar, harassing Mr. Barrington. I'd like for him to go away."
Eddie witnessed this exchange wide-eyed. Then, before he could speak, a uniformed patrolman entered the bar and walked over. "Is this the guy?" he asked, pointing to Stone.
"No, that's Barrington"
"Sorry, Mr. Barrington," the man said, with a little salute.
"This is the guy," Dino said, pointing at Eddie, who had started to walk backward. "Sorry for the intrusion," he said, then turned and fled.
"Thank you, Charlie," Dino said. "Please see that he doesn't make any U-turns."