Authors: Steven Axelrod
A Henry Kennis Mystery
Poisoned Pen Press
Copyright Â© 2016 by Steven Axelrod
First E-book Edition 2016
ISBN: 9781464205569 ebook
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in, or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise) without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the publisher of this book.
The historical characters and events portrayed in this book are inventions of the author or used fictitiously.
Poisoned Pen Press
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For Annie, who knows all the reasons why.
The usual thanks to Nantucket Police Chief William Pittmanâas before, the mistakes and the poetry are my own. I also need to thank Ginger Andrews for her no-nonsense fact-checking, and a certain M/Y ship's engineer, who asks to remain anonymous. He taught me everything I know about sinking a luxury yacht, for the austere pleasure of living vicariously.
Before the harbormaster pulled the body from the saltmarsh creeks, before the drug overdose and the arson, before the murder that triggered the biggest scandal in the island's history, there was a teenage boy, all alone on an autumn night, trying to rescue the girl he loved.
It all began with a book: a biology textbook that belonged to Alana Trikilis. She had left it behind after class.
Jared Bromley had known her since first grade. They both worked on the student newspaper,
they had even acted in several school plays together, but she had never shown even a flicker of romantic interest in him. It made senseâhe was skinny and clumsy, generally unwashed with a bad complexion and a big nose. She was impossibly clean and graceful. A character very much like her was the catalyst for the action in every one of Jared's screenplays. She was the girl who dares the boys to steal the whale bone from the museum in
She was the hostage turned peacemaker for 'Sconset and town in the
The War Between Nantucket
. And she was the haughty girl who spurns a serial killer when he's alive and then drives his zombie back into the grave in
Jared also wrote about her on his blog, referring to her only as “The Girl,” but even after
became notorious, even after people found out that it was his website, Alana never glanced at it. She was one of the few girls in school who didn't spend time online. She never posted pictures on Instagram, she didn't Snapchat or instant message her friends. She had no Facebook account, no Twitter handle, no Google+ circle. Mean girls had tried to cyberbully her in ninth grade; she never noticed.
Jared was one of two
editors this year. He ran Alana's cartoons every week, and she accepted his compliments with the same weary smile she managed at the dump, when her mother offered a wrinkled shirt from the take-it-or-leave it pile. She'd accept it to avoid a fight, but she'd never wear it.
Her dad hauled trash for a living and she'd been to the top of garbage mountain with him more times than she cared to count. Jared had heard her describing the view in the dining hall a few days ago. He had been tempted to break into the conversationâhe had written a story for the paper about the man who got run over and killed in the C&D building the year before. But trash-related death hardly seemed the ideal subject matter, and she was surrounded by her friends. The sound of their talk and laughter, the smell of their skin, and the flash of their hair formed an estrogen bubble he couldn't penetrate. She was never alone. Girls traveled in packs, like feral dogs. He resigned himself to that. Anyway, she had a boyfriend, because girls like Alana always had a boyfriend.
But now Jared was staring at her biology textbook and formulating a plan.
It was an obvious plan, but that was the best thing about it. What could be more natural than one student returning another student's misplaced textbook? From there they could start chatting about biology class and how Mr. Felder trimmed his beard from his ears to his chin to create the illusion of a jawline, and why anyone could think that dissecting mice was a useful life skill.
He might get her laughing, and then he'd be on his way.
So that was how he came to be parked outside the Trikilises' house this evening, watching Alana climb into the cab of Mason Taylor's pickup truck.
Jared had been stalling, trying out different opening lines, bracing himself for the cognitive shutdown he always experienced looking into those pale blue eyes. He needed to know exactly what he was going to say beforehand, because there was no chance he'd be able to think of anything when he was actually standing in front of her.
He almost decided to leave the damn book on her doorstep, but now he slid down in his seat and watched Mason amble to the front door. What was the allure? Well, Mason was tall and his family had money. That stuff seemed to matter. Jared was short and poor. Apart from wearing lifts and winning the lottery (and he could use the lottery money to buy some really excellent lifts), there wasn't much he could do about either problem.
Mason walked back to the truck with Alana, and Jared sank lower, peering over the dashboard. He looked like a pathetic stalker. Was he actually turning into one? If they drove off and he followed them, it would be case closed.
Alana's parents weren't home. Did they know about this school night date? Probably not. He didn't like the possessive way Mason put his arm around Alana as they walked to the truck. She looked nervous. It was almost as if he was forcing her to come with him. Jared wasn't sure he could help her if she needed it, but he couldn't quite bring himself to drive off and abandon her, either. So he followed them.
If that made him a stalker, fine.
He kept a safe distance as they went around the rotary and started up Milestone Road. They passed the Monomoy and Polpis turnoffs. Jared kept a couple of cars between them, watching the truck's red taillights. They drove on, beyond the roads to Madequecham and the airport, where Jared lost one of his cover cars, then Tom Nevers Road, where the second one veered away.
Alone with Mason's truck as they headed downhill for the straight shot in into 'Sconset, Jared fell back and let the distance between them build up. There weren't many people living out at the east end of the island this time of year. Any car would look conspicuous.
Past the cranberry bogs, still-shallow ponds now rimmed with ice from the last hard freeze, past the new golf courseâJared's father had bid low and then “sharpened his pencil” even more to get the electrical contract for the rebuilt clubhouseâand finally up the gentle rise to 'Sconset's Main Street.
The huge leafless elm trees lined up like an honor guard on the wide sweep of lawn that flanked the avenue. Big houses loomed behind their hedges, dark and uninhabited. The owners rented the places out in June and July, then showed up for a couple of weeks in Augustâthat was it. The rest of the year 'Sconset was virtually a ghost town, with maybe twenty families scattered between Sankaty and the old dump. Jared's family had lived out here for a couple of years. He'd been glad to move back to town. The windy, wide open spaces gave him the creeps.
He slowed down as Mason's truck skirted the rotary and took the sharp left toward Sankaty. Where could they possibly be going? The population thinned out even more as you approached Polpis. But Mason hooked the right turn onto Baxter Road. This was high-end real estate, tinged with a crazy King Canute sense of entitlementâlavish homes teetering over the Atlantic on the crumbling cliffside, as if the ocean would never dare to approach their houses. Empty lots marked off with yellow police tape told a different story. The bluff was sliding into the sea, a slo-mo avalanche that had been grinding away since the Laurentine ice sheet headed north twenty-one thousand years ago. It wasn't going to stop anytime soon, no matter how much money people threw at it.
And they were throwing plenty. But they generally did it from a distance, in November anyway. Maybe Mason's dad had some caretaking gigs out here, and maybe Mason had borrowed the keys. That was possible. Jared shrugged. Mason better have the alarm codes, too, or it was going to be a bad night for everyone.
The truck disappeared around a curve and Jared pulled into someone's driveway. He'd do the rest of this on foot. There was no chance of losing them now: Baxter Road dead-ended at the lighthouse. He killed the engine. Should he take the book? Absurd questionâthat plan was part of a different night, lost the moment Mason Taylor drove off with Alana.
He climbed out into the damp chill wind and shivered, zipping up his jacket. It wasn't that coldâonly forty degrees or soâbut the damp air penetrated him. He recalled a ski trip to Vermont a few years before. It had gone down to zero one night, and the dry still air was more comfortable than this.
He jogged around the bend and saw the taillights angling into the driveway of the one lit house ahead.
He approached cautiously. He peered around the hedge, but the yard was empty. He could hear the ocean beating at the base of the cliff, and a halyard slapping a flagpole down the road somewhere. He caught his breathâhe was in terrible shapeâand then eased around the privet, through the arbor and along the side of the house. He could see people through the big living room window. He moved closer. They wouldn't be able to see him, the glass would be a mirror against the night outside, but he couldn't hear them through the storm windows and the thermapane sash.
He recognized some of the people insideâChick Crosby, who ran the local TV station, and Brad Thurman. Jared's dad worked for Thurman sometimes, on big jobs. Wiring one of these big new construction jobs could get the family through a whole winter and maybe even pay for a week in the sun during a February vacation.
There were a couple of faces Jared recognized, but he couldn't pin names to themâthe tall thin white-haired guy who was pouring drinks, the chubby red-faced Mr. Man type jabbing a finger at him. Jared had seen both of them around town, maybe on one of those summer nights when he worked as a waiter at the big fundraisers. He drew a blank on the other one-percenters. And there was some thug in Nantucket Reds and a Great Harbor Yacht club polo shirt. Who the hell was he?
It reminded Jared of the year before, when a girl he'd met at summer camp came to visit. People would come up to them at the Stop & Shop or the Fast Forward parking lot and Jared would chat with them, ignoring his guest. She thought it was rude. She thought he was ashamed of her. Why didn't he introduce her to anyone? The simple fact was he didn't know their names. What was he going to say? This is Mike something from Nantucket Sailing, and this is the older brother of that kid Tommy I did Strong Wings with five years ago, this is my guidance counselor from tenth grade, we just called him “boogers”?
It was hard to explain stuff like that.
There were faces he'd known all his life he'd never attached a name to, and famous names he couldn't pick out of a lineup. Like these people tonight. He wished he'd brought a camera, but how was he supposed to know he'd need one? He'd just have to remember.
A beautiful blond woman in a short black dress came in from the kitchen, carrying a pot of coffee and some mugs on a tray. They had logos on them. Jared squinted through the glass. He was steaming up the window. The design on the mugs looked like a C and an L linked together. It meant nothing to him.
Jared knew the woman, though. Everyone knew Ms. DeHart. She was the new school psychologist. The district had created the position for her after a rash of student suicides a couple of years ago. Smart hire: the crisis wound down, and the school settled into the old routines again after she arrived. The girls all loved her and the boys were all in love with her. She was way too good-looking to be working at a public school, that was for sure.
She was passing out the coffee while Alana stood in the corner talking toâwhat was her name? Jill something. A pale blonde, Alana said she looked like a mouse, but Alana thought everyone looked like some kind of animal. Jill Phelan, that was it. She was one of Ms. DeHart's girls, always in and out of the guidance office. Was she crying now? Jared couldn't quite tell. They were standing too far away.
Jill's new boyfriend, Sam Wallace, a hefty lug, who would turn obese when his metabolism could no longer keep up with the burgers and fries, hovered nearby in a Whalers hoodie sweatshirt. He had nothing to say but obviously wanted to look like he did. Alana touched Jill's shoulder. Jill twisted away.
Mason was talking to the Yacht Club shirt dude. Despite the Nantucket costume the guy looked like he should be working as a bouncer in some New Jersey nightclub.
Then the night tipped over.
Yacht Club grabbed Alana's arm and pushed Mason away. He staggered a few steps, recovered and pushed back. They were both shouting. Sam jumped Mason and wrestled him into a bear hug. The scene had a bizarre silent movie quality, framed by the window. Jared shivered in the chill wind, watching. This was really happeningâwhatever it was. He wanted to help, but there was nothing he could do. Call the cops on his cell phone? That would get everyone in trouble and, besides, he doubted he had any bars out here. Physically intervene? Even if he could get inside the house, everyone would see him so there'd be no element of surprise. He'd wind up getting his ass kicked for nothing. Well, not nothing exactly. Alana would know he tried to help.
No, that was stupid. He was no karate guy, no hero. He might even wind up making things worse. All he could do now was wait, watch, and study the faces.
Yacht Club, still with a vise grip on Alana's upper arm, ran two fingers down her cheek, caressed her neck and let his hand slip lower, inside her unbuttoned coat. She reared backward away from him, but she couldn't get loose.
This was crazy. Jared was about to break the window with a big decorative stone in the mulch at his feet, but he didn't have time. Mason stamped down hard on Sam's instep. The impact of the heavy-soled work boot made Sam leap backward, releasing his grip, and Mason launched at Yacht Club. The big man had to let Alana go to deal with the kid. Alana picked up an end table and swung it into Yacht Club's back, knocking him down. A lamp crashed to the floor. Jared stood gaping, amazed and awestruck. He would never have had the courage or the presence of mind to do something like that. Alana wound up and threw the table at Yacht Club's prone form. He managed to deflect it with his arms, but it did something to his wrist and his mouth gaped open in what must have been a howl of pain.
Alana sprinted for the door with Mason right behind her.
Jared took off around the side of the house, toward the front door. He stumbled around the corner in time to see Mason and Alana dashing to his truck. Alana helped Mason into the passenger side, slammed the door, ran around the cab and jumped in. But for some reason she couldn't start it.