Death in the Family – Tessa Wegert

It was late September, the kind of morning that turns orange when you close your eyes, weather so sweet everyone on the sidewalk gulps fresh air like kids drinking soda. I got off the subway at Woodhaven Boulevard eager for my share, but as I made my way up the avenue it wasn’t the incandescent day I saw but weeds pushing up through the cracks in the sidewalk, ugly blotches where spilled coffee defaced the pavement. In spite of its flaws, Queens was drenched in autumn beauty. It all looked cheerless to me. My plan was to tolerate him. I figured it was the best I could do. Like my walk to 1 Lefrak City Plaza, though, the man I came to meet was confounding. With his sky-blue shirt and recent trim, his neck still ruddy from the clippers, he looked the part, yet the socks peeking out from the cuffs of his pants were patterned in spectacled kittens, and he smelled like he’d been cooking with sage though it was 10:00 a.m. on a Tuesday. When we made our introductions his tone oozed pity like I knew it would, but his folksy accent —Rhode Island or Mass was my guess—softened the blow. “So,” Dr. Carson Gates said as we took our seats. He folded his hands. “You’re here.

That’s good.” “Is it?” My own hands were clasped in an impenetrable ball. It was the only way I could keep them from twitching. “I bet there are a dozen places you’d rather be. The DMV. A dentist’s office, needle hovering above your gums.” He shivered, not just for effect. “But you came. So yeah, it’s a good start.” It’s a requirement, I thought, indignant, but I didn’t hate this guy with the clear eyes and wacky socks.

For what it was worth, the delicate fern on his desk appeared to be thriving. Go through the motions, I told myself. Give him what he wants and you can go home. At the same time, I felt like my head was filled with bees. Talking was easy, except when it wasn’t. “You don’t think I can help,” said Carson. “No, it’s okay—I get that a lot. I want you to know something, though.” He leaned in, studying me. “I won’t give up on you, Shana.

You can do this. Start at the beginning. Just take it slow.” The beginning. Where was that, exactly? Nowhere I wanted to take a stranger, even if he did smell nice. But maybe I could go back partway, just far enough to make him happy. Back to a limestone building on East Fifth Street, and a day that grabbed me by the throat and still hasn’t let go. — I was shoulder-deep in a fatal hit-and-run when my NCO supervisor called me into his office and told me to brace myself. Change of plans, he said. This has you written all over it, Shana.

I figured he was talking about my investigative method—upending people like stones in a garden to find what’s lurking underneath is kind of my thing—but that wasn’t it. They needed me, and me alone, in a way I could never have imagined. The guys from the Seventh Precinct were investigating a series of murders below Houston. Another body had turned up, this time in the East Village—my domain. They knew some things about their suspect already, and it was their latest intel that made the sergeant yank me from my desk and send me down to Pitt Street, where the case was laid out like a map on a table: in the span of four months, three murders, all women. Becca Wolkwitz. Lanie Miner, Jess Lowenthal. There was no evidence of abusive relationships, no history of drugs or run-ins with bad crowds to explain why they’d been plucked from the street and turned into statistics. The only common thread was all three women used the same dating app, and all had dated a man named Blake Bram. Bram’s profile picture, I explained to Carson Gates, showed a Caucasian male in his midthirties with dark hair and blue eyes.

Hair dye, colored contact lenses, and photo filters were a given; it’s witness-based composite sketches, not manipulated photos, that tend to get us our guy. Still, something about his picture tugged at my gut. His face evoked a memory, dog-eared and soft from use but long ago misplaced. I’d seen Bram before, but couldn’t say where. The guy’s bio claimed he liked airport novels and Bill Murray movies. More lies. Historical data from the app’s administrators told us he updated his profile often, no doubt trying various combinations to see what stuck. There was just one constant among the write-ups, a line of text present every time. Blake Bram was from a town called Swanton, Vermont. “Swanton.

Sounds pretty as a picture, right?” I said as Carson listened with parted lips. “Back in the sixties, the Queen of England gifted Swanton with a pair of Royal Swans, and swans still swim in the town’s Village Green Park. To the west, you’ll find Lake Champlain; to the north, Canada. The 2010 census put the population of Swanton at 6,427. I know this because Swanton is where I grew up.” There it was. It took an embarrassingly long time for me to go on. “When I heard the killer claimed to be from my hometown, I understood why the sergeant asked me to drop everything for this case. There was a two-week time span between the disappearances, and no reason to think Bram’s spree was done. We were roughly the same age, he and I, and six thousand people wasn’t a lot.

” Carson waited, cupping the back of his baby-smooth neck with both hands. “They were hoping I could ID the guy,” I went on. “Surely you know him, they said.” What I didn’t tell Carson, or anyone else, is that they were right. ONE Thirteen months later Murder,” I repeated, the word clumsy on my tongue. The last time I spoke it, I was in another world. Tim rocked his office chair, testing the bounce on springs sticky with dust, and raised his empty coffee mug. “Murder on an island,” he said. “If it didn’t make me a heartless creep, I’d call this your lucky day, Shane.” It was a nickname I hated, but I was still trying to reconcile Tim’s news with the water coursing down the window behind him, so I let it slide.

Shane! Tim said my first day on the job. Don’t tell me you’ve never seen Shane! Old western movie? Gunfighter with a mysterious past? Get it? I didn’t, hated westerns with their drama and dust, but Tim was convinced it was funny. That morning, no one was laughing. Tim took the transfer call from dispatch while I was putting a second pot on to brew, listening to the thunder rattle the panes and expecting nothing more from the Saturday than dry skin from the electric heat. As much as I wished the call was a joke, too—Tim needling “the new guy” or a prank by some bored townies—I knew it wasn’t, for three reasons. The first was Tim’s face. He had cartoonish eyebrows, so wide and straight they might have been drawn with a Sharpie. I’m not saying I’m perfect. Most people, when they look at me, see only my scar. But I wondered if in spite of Tim’s athletic build, perps saw him as a hapless clown with no sway.

As I watched him ask the routine questions on the phone and scribble notes on a lined yellow pad, Tim’s face got hard as stone. It was an entirely new look on him. At least, it was new to me. The second reason was the timing. I’d been told prank calls in the fall were unicorns, rare enough to be the stuff of legend. We were smack in the middle of October and the exodus was nearly complete. The majority of the seasonal residents, even the stragglers who tried to eke out a few more days of summer, had packed up their water trampolines and put their garish red-and-yellow cigarette boats in storage. The short-term tourists were back where they’d come from, too: Manhattan, Toronto, Montreal. This was the offseason in the Thousand Islands of upstate New York, nobody left but the locals. Just us.

Above all, though, I knew the call was legit because of the rain, sideways and lashing at that window by Tim’s desk. On the morning news the local weather guy—Bob? Ben?— said it was a nor’easter. The storm had started the previous day with lethal-looking green clouds that plunged the village of Alexandria Bay into premature darkness. It dumped freezing water on us all night and was expected to last forty-eight hours in all. Nobody wanted to be out in that weather, helping to dock a police boat. I couldn’t imagine anyone setting foot outside if they had a choice. No, this call was the real deal. It was my first murder case in over a year, since the one that convinced me to trade Manhattan for total obscurity. I glanced around me. We weren’t the only investigators working out of our station, but we were the only ones present today, and now, somehow, I had to get to an island.

“Grab your coat,” I said, watching Tim’s eyebrows inch upward. “We’re going for a ride.” — I used to think of boats differently, which is to say I rarely thought of them at all. A ferry to Ellis Island when my parents were in town and wanted to see the Statue of Liberty. A dinner cruise a few years back that ended with my date vomiting his shrimp cocktail into the East River. That was it for getting my sea legs. I hoped my inexperience wouldn’t be an issue today, but I knew it probably would. It was a three-minute drive from the station to Keewaydin State Park, a straight shot up Route 12. I relished the warmth of the cruiser, savored the feel of my dry clothes while I had the chance. “What do we know?” I asked, flexing my fingers on the wheel.

They were tucked into gloves I wished I’d thought to make toasty on the heaters before we left the station. “That we’d rather be back inside with that coffee?” I doled out half a smile. The coffee would’ve gurgled to the top of the pot by now. I could picture it steaming in the break room. By the time I saw it again, it would be cold, pungent sludge. “Besides that,” I said. “White male age twenty-six, gone missing from a summer house. He was up from the city. It was the estate’s caretaker who called it in, noticed the guy’s absence first thing this morning.” “Whoa,” I said, swiveling my head.

“Missing? I thought you said murder.” Those weren’t the same thing at all. Had Tim been playing me in the office? Joke’s on Shane? “Murder’s what the family wants to call it.” Tim shrugged, making it clear he didn’t put much stock in that claim. “There’s no body,” he admitted, way too late for my liking. “The man’s just gone.” A missing persons case that may or may not involve a murder. Suddenly my hands were too hot. I peeled off the gloves, jammed them in the center console. “Name?” “That’s where this gets interesting.

” “It’s interesting already.” Tim grinned. “The guy? He’s Jasper Sinclair.” I gave him a blank look. “The Sinclairs are a New York family. In the fashion industry, I think,” he said. “They’re kind of a big deal. And this morning Jasper’s girlfriend woke up to an empty bed and the sheets soaked with blood.” “But no body,” I said. “Huh, that’s .

different.” “Yeah.” “So they’re pointing the finger at her?” “Not clear on that,” Tim said. “I don’t see how a young woman could transport a grown man’s body through a house full of sleeping people without waking anyone up.” “Trapdoor in the floor?” He laughed. “Maybe so.” “That’s assuming the attacker worked alone.” “Attacker,” Tim repeated and winced. I knew what he was thinking. Murder on Tim’s turf was a personal affront.

“How many people in the house?” I asked. “Eight, including the girlfriend. The missing man made nine. They all slept through the night, so the caretaker says, despite the storm.” I squinted at him. “And it’s all family over there?” No crime was easy to stomach, whether the body was on-site or not, but family stuff? That was the worst. I’ve seen the terrible things fathers, mothers, brothers, cousins are capable of. Blood ties can be bloody. “Family, the caretaker, the girlfriend, and a couple significant others. Like I said, full house.

No sign of an intruder, apparently, but the caretaker seemed a little funny on that point.” “Funny how?” “Like maybe he was holding something back.” We took a left off the highway and sailed through a puddle the size of a lily pond. The dock and slips were just ahead. “I asked them if they’ve done a search,” Tim went on. “Figured there was a good chance the guy’s licking his wounds in the bathroom or a cupboard under the stairs. A big house like that, you never know.” “How do you know the house is big?” “They all are, Shane.” He tacked on an eye roll. “But this place is really something.

I used to dream about living there when my dad would take me fishing nearby as a kid. No sign of Jasper, though. Not yet.” “Other than his blood, that is.” I tapped my fingers on the wheel. “We’ll have to do a proper search. If it’s an island, there could be cliffs and stuff, right?” “Plenty of places where people could tumble into the river in the dark,” Tim agreed. “We’ll need forensics, too. For the blood.” It was worth pointing out.

This was A-Bay after all, and I couldn’t be sure what I’d get. There were six investigators in my unit, and the region had twenty troopers—plus Sheriff McIntyre and the deputies in Watertown overseeing all of Jefferson County. That was sufficient manpower for a hundred thousand law-abiding citizens. The issue was the island. I noticed Tim didn’t question my decision to bring him along. BCI Investigators, even senior ones like me, largely worked alone, but if ever this job warranted a partner, it was today. “’Course we will,” Tim said, sounding offended. “With island crimes, it’s closest car—or in this case, closest boat—but the others will be along. I’m sure they’ll all want a look. This kind of thing doesn’t happen much.

Nobody around here even locks their doors. This isn’t New York City.” I cut my eyes at him again, unsure of what I’d see—the trace of a smile, maybe, or a smidgen of quiet glee. Tim was downplaying the situation. A murder, even a missing persons case, on one of the islands was unheard of. McIntyre made that clear when she hired me. So I guess I thought Tim would be excited. I know plenty of cops in the city who’d get a big thrill from a case like this, in a place where they happen every day. If Tim was pumped, he didn’t show it. His expression was solemn, his lips a neutral line.

I turned the wheel, trading the easy swish of the highway for the hard crackle of gravel road, and there was the river. Damn, but the water was high. The summer had broken all kinds of records for flooding, the water level three feet higher than the norm. I’d read it hadn’t been like this since 1973. The damage was already bad, and now, with a nor’easter, it was going to get much worse. I pulled the car onto a patch of grass waterlogged with rain and peered dubiously at the sky through the windshield one last time. Tim’s eyes were on the boat. The folks at headquarters, Tim included, had been more excited about the police vessel’s arrival than about mine. We came at the same time: the new plaything courtesy of a special fund administered by the U.S.

Coast Guard, me courtesy of a fiancé and a need to get the hell out of the city. I guess I couldn’t blame them. Even I could appreciate the boat’s tantalizing, new-toy shine. When Tim saw the size of the waves on the river, the loving look on his face was replaced with a frown. “Okay, then,” he said brightly while baring his teeth. “Ready?” “Now or never,” I replied, and we stepped outside. Puffs of breath lingered ghostlike in front of us as we splashed toward the reedy edge of the St. Lawrence River, where the waves smacked the boat against the dock. The thing was small and exposed with a flimsy navy canopy—Tim called it a T-Top—that snapped in the wind. I pulled the hood of my rain jacket over my hair, kinky from the humidity.

Acres of naked fields lay to the south of us, endless water to the north. The isolation of the place was jarring. Upstate New York. I’d pictured it as nowheresville, a mishmash of farmers’ fields and dilapidated barns, and I wasn’t wrong. The towns are small, the people as down-to-earth as they come. It’s a patriotic part of the country, but every American flag looked as if it had been flying since the thirties, abandoned to the elements, bleached out and threadbare. Something about those flags seemed vulgar, like Lady Liberty’s been subjected to an upskirt. I keep that opinion to myself. Both Tim and my fiancé are locals, born and bred on the river, so I also don’t tell them it still comes as a shock when I wake up in the morning and find myself here. Instead of investigating homicides with the NYPD on the Lower East Side, I’m fighting crime for the New York State Park Police in a place where violent crime doesn’t exist.

Until, one day, it does. “Weekend on the river’s what the caretaker said,” Tim called from on board the boat. “They’re cutting it real close.” Manhattan’s chilly in October, but I’d been told it could get arctic in the Thousand Islands. Even a weak fall system’s likely to be nasty. Past the boat the bay was the color of thunder, and rain ricocheted off the water’s surface with such fury I could barely make out Comfort Island a quarter mile away. It was the closest island to that part of the mainland, one of the few I knew by name. Comfort Island looked the opposite of comforting in the stormy morning light. “Guess you wish you’d taken that trip to see your parents,” Tim said, exposing the boat’s controls and seat cushions, tucking covers into storage bins. Now that I was living closer to my home state, I’d been driving to Vermont on a regular basis.

If not for the storm, I’d be there now. “And miss all this?” I said as a gust of wind doused my face with cold rain. Tim dug into his pocket and came out with a key attached to a red float. “Flip you for it.” “Funny. The lines?” I knew what to do with those, at least. Tim started the engine as I waded across the dock, which was six inches underwater, and freed the boat from the cleats. I huddled inside the tiny console and stayed out of Tim’s way while he nudged us out of the slip. Only when we were off did I realize I’d left my gloves in the car. Rain hammered at the T-Top and stung my face as we lurched forward and sped across the water toward the island.

The very first thing my fiancé told me about the Thousand Islands was that the label’s a lie. There are actually 1,864 rocky patches of land along the stretch of St. Lawrence that divides Ontario from New York State. A century ago the area was as posh as the Hamptons, the go-to summer getaway for millionaire titans of industry and the upper crust of New York. Many of them still own property on the river. According to Carson, the proprietor of the Waldorf Astoria once commissioned a hundred-and-twenty-room mansion for his wife only to watch her die before it was done. If the legend’s true, the man never returned to it again. What strikes me isn’t that he lost his bride, but that he didn’t see that outcome coming. He named the place Heart Island. Some ironies are too tempting for the universe to resist.

It was rougher out than I expected, and I’d expected rough. Under the water, shoals lay in wait, their teeth big enough to tear through boats as if they were made of matchsticks. When we entered the channel I felt the current’s fierce pull. The channel was for freighters bringing Canadian wheat and iron ore from the Great Lakes over to Europe, but there were no tankers on the water today. No other boats at all. We were halfway there before Tim revealed our destination. Tern Island, on the U.S. side. This island wasn’t open to the public like Wellesley (American) or Wolfe (Canadian), but privately owned.

“You told them to stay put, right? Not to disturb the scene?” I shouted over the shriek of the wind. In my old job, the scene of the crime was never more than ten minutes away. The fact that our cruiser could scream out of the parking lot and bully its way through the streets like a tank was a source of pride to me, but getting to an island isn’t something you can rush. Thinking about all the things the people on it could get up to before we arrived filled me with dread. Tim laughed. “They’ve only got one boat in the water, and it’s a skiff—a little motorboat for getting back and forth from shore. It’d take three trips to transport everyone to the mainland, and they’d be crazy to do it now. Don’t you feel it? The swell of the water?” he said. “The currents are insane. Anyway, it’s just up here, past Deer Island.

” Deer Island. That was another one I’d heard about from Carson. It had once been a retreat for a Yale secret society called Skull and Bones; now its dense trees and derelict lodge made it look as sinister as a horror-movie set. A chill danced up my spine as we raced past it, but the landmass quickly disappeared, sucked back into the fog. I’d been bracing myself against the knocks and jolts of our boat in the choppy water, but wasn’t prepared when Tim shouted, “Shit! Hang on!” He jerked the wheel to dodge a near-invisible shoal, and I barely managed to avoid tumbling overboard as a wave breached the gunwale, dousing me with icy water. The skin on my thighs burned and my pulse pounded in my ears. Along with the storm, the sound was deafening. “Not a great place to take a life if you hope to keep your freedom.” I dug my fingernails into the back of Tim’s leather seat. “Why here? Why now, when it’s so hard to get away?” “You’re thinking suicide, then,” Tim said.

Like me, he was remembering the caretaker’s report. How the missing man’s family was tucked in bed all night. Now, I’m not prone to churning out conjecture like assemblyline muffins. I like my theories fully baked before I share them with a partner. But this guy’s disappearance, and the caretaker’s call, and the timing of it all was strange, and I wanted to know what was going on inside Tim’s head. “Stabs himself next to his girlfriend and stumbles over a cliff? It could happen,” I said. “There are easier ways to kill yourself on an island.” “And why risk alerting someone to your plan?” “Unless he wanted her to know,” said Tim. “Who’s to say what kind of relationship they had?” “Some people are messed up,” I agreed. “But the caretaker said murder.

” “And if they aren’t suggesting suicide, there’s a reason for that.” “Eight people.” I rubbed my nose, numb now from the cold. “This is going to take some time.” “We’ll have help,” Tim reminded me as the boat arced left. “We’ll need it. Made it. Whew.” I didn’t know what Tern Island would look like. I wouldn’t have been able to find it on a map.

When it finally emerged from the mist, it was like the peak of a mountain had busted through the water and rumbled skyward. “Would you look at this place?” Tim said as we tipped back our heads to take it all in. Though he’d seen it a million times before, he was as awestruck as I was. Tern was all jagged gray rock crowned by a massive Victorian house with a jumble of stories pockmarked by windows of various shapes and sizes. A turret thrust into the sky like a fist. The siding was forest green, as if the house was trying to blend in with the thick trees that surrounded it. As if it could. There was a matching boathouse at the river’s edge, and the entire island was bordered by a high stone wall that might as well have been painted with the words Keep Out. A staircase so steep it was nearly vertical extended from the boathouse all the way to the island’s summit. The house’s foundation was stonework, too.

A nor’easter was no match for this place. No storm was. Someone had invested a fortune in masonry work to make sure Tern Island could withstand anything. But from that house a man was missing, possibly dead. I wasn’t sure the island would withstand that. TWO There’s history here—real-life aristocracy. This is where America’s elite come to play. These words, Carson’s words, swam to the surface of my memory as Tim navigated the boat toward the island’s shore. My fiancé hoped the romance of the place and its extreme wealth would woo me. He wanted to make sure I was on board with the idea of moving here, so he kept trying to convince me, even as I rode next to him in the rental van that contained everything we owned.

“It’s peaceful,” Carson said, squeezing my knee and flashing a smile. When I twined my fingers with his he added, “You’ll love it, Shay. People come here to leave their worries behind. We can do the same. You’ll see.” If only it was that easy. We’d been here a handful of months, he and I, and already I was causing Carson more consternation than I had throughout the whole of our relationship. If he knew what I was about to do, I thought as I craned my neck to see the house atop Tern Island, he might wonder if coming upstate was such a good idea after all. A voice reached us through the wind in increments and I spotted a man in a heavy rain poncho standing at the end of the island’s dock. This dock was underwater, too—the whole thing plunged below the surface of the river, and the sight of him on its slick, algae-coated planks so far out in the river made me feel ill.

One big swell and he’s a goner, I thought, but the man seemed surprisingly steady. He opened his canvas-clad arms, and for an eyeblink he was Christ the Redeemer guiding us to port. “Looks like he wants us docked in the boathouse,” Tim said, wiping rain from his eyes with the back of his hand. “Should be plenty of room if there’s only the one other vessel.” I looked to the left in time to see the boathouse doors lift and expose a cavernous space. My parents’ whole house in Swanton would’ve fit inside, with room to spare. There was an empty slip next to the skiff Tim said they used to ferry guests to and from the island. The little vessel looked toylike, way too small for a boathouse of this size. On the building’s interior wall I spotted a wooden sign decorated with curly gold script. It was the kind of thing you’d affix to the back of a yacht or a sailboat, the equivalent of vanity plates for your car.

“Loophole,” I read. “Either these people have a sense of humor or they found an awesome tax attorney.” “I wonder where Loophole is now,” Tim said as he glided our boat inside. “The owners of this place come from old money. They’re what the guides on tour boats call a family of the Gilded Age. It’s weird all they’ve got is this puny skiff.” Just as we were about to get out of the rain, one last manic gust of wind blasted me from behind. It was as violent as a shove. “What else do you know about them?” I lowered my voice before asking. In the shelter of the structure it was quieter, and the man in the poncho waited nearby.

“Not much, but this island’s always been one of my favorites. The house was built in the late 1800s, I think. I’ve seen old photos of it in shambles, but it was bought and fixed up in the forties. Far as I know, it hasn’t changed hands since. Islands rarely go up for sale,” Tim added. “When they do, it’s a feeding frenzy. Can’t wait to see what the house is like inside.” I didn’t question Tim’s knowledge about an island he’d only ever seen from the water or the people he’d never met. Tim could tell you which Canadian newspaper mogul just embedded a man-made waterfall into his island’s cliff face, and which nineteenth-century tobacco tycoon’s family funded the expansion of the area’s most prestigious golf resort. Carson thought of himself as the authority on the region, but my colleague had him beat.

Part of that’s because of Tim’s job: a small-town investigator gets around. The few times I mentioned Tim’s expertise to Carson, Carson got testy and changed the subject. Nobody likes being told they don’t know the lay of their own backyard. Inside, the boathouse smelled of wet wood with an undercurrent of rotting fish. The thump of our fenders as Tim flipped them over the side of the boat, the slap of water against the interior walls . noises fell in a way that made me uneasy. The place was too empty, too quiet. Quickly, I disembarked. “Thank God you’re here, I was worried you wouldn’t make it. Philip Norton,” the man said as he tied up our vessel, yanking the lines tight with ease.

“I’m the one who called.” “You’re the caretaker?” I asked. “Caretaker, cook, housekeeping staff. I do it all.” “I’m Investigator Tim Wellington,” Tim said, his eyes lingering on Norton’s face. “And this is Senior Investigator Shana Merchant.” Even with his hood up, I could see Norton’s bald head and neck blended seamlessly. I suspected that underneath the poncho his body was similarly bare and square. Eyebrows and lashes so blond they were almost white disappeared against his skin. His cheeks were pudgy and his eyes too small, like raisins in an underbaked bun, but the effect was endearing.

“No remote,” Norton explained as he hit a button on the wall to close the boathouse door. Then he grimaced in my direction and said, “Please excuse the smell.” I came across men like this sometimes, older guys who couldn’t fathom how a woman could be a cop, or that I’d come to this work willingly and was better at it than most. I got the sense it was my femaleness that brought the color to Norton’s cheeks, but it could just as easily have been my scar. “Mink trouble,” the man said apologetically, and it took me a second to catch up. He meant the smell, but when I heard mink trouble all I could think of was a rich lady’s fur coat, a stain the cleaners couldn’t get out. “Ah,” Tim said. “Those buggers can make a real mess. As long as they’re leaving their leftovers down here and staying clear of the house, though.” “Isn’t that the truth. We had a trapper up here yesterday, just in case.” Tim said, “A trapper, huh?” A stranger on the island. So that’s what Norton was holding back when Tim asked him about intruders on the phone. “Local guy I found in town. Shifty fella, I didn’t like him,” Norton said. “He disturbed the nests—the ones made by the geese. Nothing in ’em now, of course, but the birds’ll be back in spring and they like the sunny side of the island. He should have known that.” “How long was he out here?” Tim asked. “Oh, hours. Morning to midafternoon.” “Did he have any luck? I’m surprised the flooding didn’t chase the mink out of here.” “Maybe it did,” replied Norton. “He looked and looked, but he couldn’t find them.” “Mr. Norton,” I said, getting antsy. “What can you tell us about last night?” From the corner of my eye I saw Tim flinch. We were still trying to get a read on each other’s methods. I had a feeling he’d prefer to ease into it, keep the small talk going, knowing a relaxed witness is likely to let something slip. But a man was missing, and there was a crime scene inside that might be getting more contaminated by the second. The trapper would stay on my radar, but we needed to move on, and questioning Norton right there on the dock was about simple math. Up in that house there were seven other people, all of whom would need to be interviewed. I saw my chance to get a head start, and I took it. “I still can’t believe it,” Norton said. “I’ve known Jasper since he was six years old. It just doesn’t make sense.” Murder rarely does. “This must be tough, then,” I said. “Try to think back. Anything out of the ordinary happen yesterday?” “Well, the family did their own thing until cocktail hour. Everyone was together for that, I know. After dinner they had some more drinks. A couple of ’em went to bed on the early side—Miss Beaudry was one of those. Jasper stayed up, I’m not sure how long. I turned in pretty early myself. It was a long day for me, prepping to welcome Miss Beaudry and the others, and I slept like the dead. Like a log,” he said quickly, mortified. “Next thing I know, it’s morning and she’s screaming her head off.” He scrubbed his temples as if trying to dislodge the memory from his mind. “And Miss Beaudry is . ” I pulled a notepad and pen from the pocket of my coat. “Abella Beaudry.” Norton spelled it out and watched my hand glide across the pad, making sure I got it right. “She’s Jasper’s girlfriend,” he said. “And you heard her screaming this morning?” “Shrieking at the top of her lungs. Camilla—Mrs. Sinclair—was right behind me when I got to their room. She saw everything. God, I wish she hadn’t.” Norton’s frown sank deep into his skin and stayed there as water trickled down his face. “What’s ‘everything’?” I said, leaning in. “What did she see?” “The bed. The . blood.” “Who else was in that room this morning?” “Nobody.” “Not even to take a peek?” “No. Just Miss Beaudry, Mrs. Sinclair, and me. I thought it would be better to keep everyone out so you could . well, do your thing.” “Thanks for that.” Three people leaving footprints, fingerprints, and DNA in the room wasn’t good, but it sure as hell was better than eight. I ran down my mental checklist. “Any blood on Abella? Body or hands?” “A little on her clothes, maybe. I’m not sure. By the time we got there, she was across the room, hiding in the corner like a mouse.” “What happened next?” “She—Mrs. Sinclair—sent me to call 911.” “You called as soon as you noticed Jasper missing,” I said. Paraphrasing drives some witnesses crazy, but it’s crucial for re-creating the scene. “That means you found him at, what, eight a.m.?” “No.” His mouth twisted and a dimple appeared in the center of his clean-shaven chin. “I didn’t call right away,” he said. “I told Mrs. Sinclair and Abella to stay inside while the rest of us went looking for Jasper. Everyone was hoping there was a simple explanation. We thought we’d find him. Injured, maybe, but . ” “But alive.” Misery is a master of disguise. I’ve seen beauty buckle under its weight, unsightly faces turn sublime. Norton’s grief manifested itself as an anguished, misshapen smile. “We looked everywhere,” he said. “All through the house, all over the island. Down here by the river. In the woods.” “Did you see any blood along the way? Any indication of where he might have gone, or . ” “Or where he was taken,” Tim said, staring hard at Norton. “No,” he replied. “Nothing at all.” “Did you search as a group?” I asked. “We split up.” “Ah.” I didn’t like that. Assuming they weren’t all in it together, which seemed unlikely, splitting up meant someone had the chance to cover their tracks or finish what they’d started during the night without being seen. Tim asked him to describe the search parties, and I recorded them in my notebook. Camilla Sinclair, Jade Byrd, and Abella Beaudry—the girlfriend—stayed together inside. Flynn and Barbara Sinclair, along with a man named Ned Yeboah, searched the house, while Philip Norton and Miles Byrd combed the island. I didn’t yet know who those names belonged to. They were strangers to me, strange. I made a point of memorizing the composition of those groups, though. There was a reason they broke out the way they did, and I’d have to find out what it was. By Norton’s account, the search lasted forty-five minutes. I thought about my drive into work that morning and how grateful I’d been for my nice, warm car as I listened to the caretaker describe circumnavigating the island in fifty-mile-per-hour winds. I wasn’t surprised they didn’t find anything. Much of Tern appeared to be forest, and it was late autumn. The leaves were down. This was no immaculate lawn we were talking about, but a contained wilderness with plenty of places to hide. I’d heard some of these islands had natural caves down by the water’s edge. If Jasper left the house during the night, whether under his own power or by force, I thought, he might still be out here. To do this right we’d need a proper search party, maybe even a dog. Norton’s efforts, while valiant, weren’t nearly enough. The storm battered the near-empty boathouse like a drum. “I have to tell you,” I said. “We find it strange you called this in as a murder.” Norton blinked. “How do you mean?” “It sounds like a missing person situation. No body, and all. So why phone it in as murder?” His mouth made a downward turn once again. “Well,” he said, “that wasn’t my idea.” “Whose idea was it, Mr. Norton?” Tim said. “You know, I’m not actually sure. Everybody was upset. There was a real panic going on, chaos, like, and when I went to the kitchen to make the call they were shouting it.” He swallowed, looking green. “Jasper’s been murdered, they said.” “I see. And you don’t agree?” “I guess there’s a chance he could have left Tern on his own.” As soon as he said it, Norton reached out and knocked on the boathouse’s wooden wall. “For luck,” he explained when I gave him a look. “God knows we could use some.” “But the boat’s still here,” I said. “How could Jasper leave? Unless . ” I glanced up at the mounted nameplate. “Loophole?” Norton said, “No, no, Mrs. Sinclair sold her a while back. There are no other boats on the island.” “Someone could have picked him up,” said Tim. “Last night, when everyone was asleep. The dock’s a long way from the house, I doubt anyone would’ve heard it. There are boats out on the water at all hours around here, people coming back from a late dinner, night fishing. Even if someone did hear, you get used to the sound of a motor. Learn to ignore it.” “I guess that’s true,” Norton said. “So maybe the question we need to be asking,” I said, “is whether Jasper had a good reason to leave without telling his family and friends.” “Like did he go to a hotel, or drive home,” Tim said. “He lives in New York, right?” “Yeah, but leave without telling anyone?” Norton repeated, testing the idea. “He came with Miss Beaudry, and she’s still here. I don’t know why he’d leave. Everyone’s here for the weekend, the whole family. That doesn’t happen often. You know how families are.” Another look passed between me and Tim. “It seems to me,” I said, “a person wouldn’t call a disappearance a murder unless they thought there was a chance the missing person was in danger of being hurt.” “Oh,” Norton said, flustered. “I guess you’d have to ask the family about that.” “We will. In the meantime, what can you tell us about Jasper?” I wasn’t interested in the man’s gender, age, or race. That was information we already had. What I wanted was to look under Jasper Sinclair’s bed and comb through the boxes at the back of his closet, where the secrets are kept. “You say you’ve known him his whole life. If you had to describe him—character, temperament, relationships—what would you say?” “Well,” said Norton, “I’d say he’s a good man. Everyone likes Jasper.” It always bothers me when a victim’s family and friends describe them as perfect in every way. What’s the implication there, that their beauty was too much for the killer to handle? They brought violent death on themselves? I hate that, hate everything about it. Perfection enrages some people, can raise their hackles something fierce, but isn’t motive for murder. “Where are they now?” I asked. “His family?” “Inside. Waiting for you.” “If you remember any more details, you’ll let us know?” Norton said he would. I expected him to make a move toward the house, but while his hooded head pivoted in that direction, he didn’t budge. To my horror, I realized he was tearing up. “I’m sorry,” he said. “It’s just . he’s a kid, really. Still so young.” “Don’t apologize. Shock affects people in different ways,” I said, thinking, I should know. “You and the family must be close.” “I’ve worked here a long time. The others don’t come out to Tern often, but Mrs. Sinclair stays all summer, every year. She’s a wonderful lady. She doesn’t deserve this. You’ll find him, won’t you?” “We’ll do our best.” “When you see her, please tell her that. She needs to hear it. Okay,” Norton said, breathing deep. “All right, then. Follow me.” We stepped out of the boathouse into the rain. Tim’s eyes swept the landscape, lingering on every brush pile and fallen tree, and we started up the long set of stairs. The climb to the house was brutal, and I was winded inside of three minutes. Those beautiful stone steps were even steeper than they’d looked from the water, and impossibly slick. All three of us wore rain boots with minimal tread. Tim’s a gym rat, and I stay in pretty good shape. But when we got to the top and crossed a wraparound porch to the house’s double entry doors, only Philip Norton wasn’t panting. “Cam— Mrs. Sinclair is still upstairs. The rest are through there.” “How’s she holding up?” I asked. “It’s a terrible thing, not knowing what happened to your son.” I kept my go-to line at the ready: No parent should have to outlive a child. I know how to make it sound unrehearsed, like I’m delivering it for the first time. “Oh no,” Norton said. “Camilla Sinclair is Jasper’s grandmother.” My gaze flicked to Tim—how did you miss that?—but he was stoic, taking it all in. “Jasper’s parents,” Norton said, “passed on.” “When was that?” I said. “Almost two years ago.” “Is she the owner of the house? Camilla Sinclair?” “Yes, ma’am. Has an apartment in the city, too. Please, this way.” Norton pushed open the door to reveal a wide entry with impeccable wood floors framed by a geometric border. The scent of the pine cleaner he’d used to make them shine like glass hung in the air. Somewhere on the main floor, a woman was crying. Her rhythmic sobs echoed down the hall. The moment I’m about to start investigating a homicide, even a nebulous one like Jasper Sinclair’s, is a moment like no other. I can’t explain how it makes me feel, and believe me, I’ve tried—for Carson especially. It’s somewhere between the sick feeling of waking up to find a day you’ve been dreading for months is here, and a slap you don’t see coming. It’s physical, visceral, gutting. For me, the moment doesn’t come when we get the call, but when I’m about to step into the crime scene and see the horror du jour. It’s my last chance to feel like an ordinary human being, sometimes for a long time, because I know the crime’s going to seep into my pores and cling to me like a nerve agent, slowly eating away at my body, mind, and resolve. It always does. And the thing is, I can’t shake it unless I get a solve. The cases that get away from me, that I nearly get killed trying to crack and fail to get a conviction on anyway? The biological effects of those don’t go away. They’re an eye twitch I can’t contain. Seeping blisters on my lungs that burn with every breath. By the time I told Carson about Bram, on that bright fall day in Queens, my cuticles itched inexplicably and every morning my pillow was soaked with cold sweat. I didn’t want to believe this would hinder my ability to do my job, but it sure as hell made me uneasy. Before I followed Norton over the threshold, I turned and took one last look at the river. From that height I should have been able to see for miles, but the storm erased the view. It felt like the island wasn’t one of thousands, but the only one, all alone on the wide, wild river. The family I was about to meet might as well have been the last people on earth. For the next twenty-four hours, they would become my everything.


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