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“It is better to be a lion for a day than a sheep all your life.”
How on earth did I get myself into this situation? I thought miserably, zipping my jacket up to my chin and wondering why I’d ever put so much faith in Polarfleece.
On a dreary November evening like this one, I usually preferred snuggling up in front of a fireplace with my brand-new husband, Nick, and sipping hot chocolate, mulled cider, or some other beverage that was really good at adding warmth to the human body. It wouldn’t have hurt to have my pets around me, as well, since my two dogs and two cats happen to be pretty good at that aforementioned snuggling.
Instead, I found myself in the middle of Peconic Bay, huddling inside the cold, damp cabin of a boat that, at the moment, was being thrown around as if the turbulent waters were gearing up for a replay of The Perfect Storm.
Even though I didn’t remember having had a problem with seasickness before, the churning in my stomach told me that could be about to change.
Icy rain pelted the windowpanes, through which I could see that darkness had settled around the dense gray fog surrounding the vessel. I was beginning to understand why all those sailors on the HMS Bounty had decided to mutiny. Right now, nothing sounded better than dry land.
At least my traveling companions didn’t come close to the Captain Bligh category. In fact, for what it was worth, they looked almost as miserable as I felt.
Beside me, Betty Vandervoort Farnsworth sat hunched over, with her arms folded and her legs crossed. The oversize parka that nearly devoured her slender frame was the same shade as overripe limes, as if it had been designed to scare away bears. Even less fashionable was the multicolored wool cap she’d yanked so far down that it nearly concealed her sapphire-blue eyes. Her hat also covered most of her hair, although a few strands of her usually neat white pageboy stuck out at wild angles.
Her husband, Winston, looked as if he was on his way to a Halloween party dressed as the Gloucester fisherman. He wore a bright yellow slicker topped by one of those hats that looks as if it’s really good at redirecting rain toward the guy behind whoever’s wearing it. Being British, he was doing a much better job of keeping a stiff upper lip. The only thing that gave him away was the slightly green tinge of his skin.
Frederick looked a little green, too, although it was harder to tell, since he was covered with tan fur. It was also impossible to discern whether the wirehaired dachshund tucked beneath Winston’s coat was trembling because of seasickness or because he was simply terrified by the storm.
I might have been amused by the way Betty and Winston looked, if I wasn’t wrestling with a slew of conflicting emotions. After all, they were the ones who’d gotten me involved in this in the first place.
It had all started a few hours earlier as I lay on the bed in Betty’s guest room, working my way through a stack of veterinary journals. I’d lived in the former gardener’s cottage on her estate for years, but recent events had rendered it uninhabitable. Since June, Nick and I had been staying in Betty and Winston’s residence, a luxurious nineteenth-century mansion I’d nicknamed the Big House.
While Nick and I had every intention of looking for our own place, neither of us ever seemed to find the time. After spending a few years as a private investigator, Nick had decided to change careers. He was plowing through his second year of law school, which meant he spent every waking hour studying. There’s a saying about law school: The first year, they scare you; the second year, they work you; the third year, they bore you. And year two was turning out to be as demanding as it was reputed to be. As for me, I run my own veterinary practice out of a twenty-six-foot clinic-on-wheels. That means I routinely put in ten- to twelve-hour days driving all over Long Island, making house calls.
Besides, people who’ve been married for only five months can find much better ways to spend their free time than searching for apartments on Craigslist.
Just like hunting down real estate, keeping up with my reading was one of those to-do items that was hard to squeeze in. So I was taking advantage of a few free hours on a gray rainy Thursday afternoon, exactly one week before Thanksgiving, to curl up on our comfy canopy bed with the American Journal of Veterinary Research.
The fact that my dogs and cats had snuggled up with me made the atmosphere even cozier. Max, my adorable Westie, was pressed against one leg, his furry white head resting on my thigh. Every few minutes he let out a sigh, although I couldn’t tell if he was expressing joy or was simply annoyed over having his reverie interrupted by the sound of pages turning. Still, every time I reached over distractedly to fondle his ears, he fixed his big brown eyes on me and appreciatively thumped his stub of a tail—a sad reminder of his previous owners.
Catherine the Great, better known as Cat, was curled up against my other leg. My dignified gray pussycat suffers from arthritis, and I hoped she found the heat from my body soothing. The other feline love of my life, Tinkerbell, was lying on my chest. She’d first gotten into the habit of acting like a lobster bib back when Nick brought her home after finding her abandoned in a cardboard box, and she’d immediately taken over as top dog—er, cat. But now she was fully grown, big enough that I had to hold my journal high in the air to keep her orange fur from blocking the pages.
Lou, my Dalmatian, was stretched out at the end of the bed. He happened to be doing a terrific job of keeping my feet warm. Like Max, he bears a sad souvenir of his earlier life: He has only one eye. At the moment, he was dozing, making cute snorting noises that led me to suspect he was dreaming about chasing tennis balls.
The other two animals that were part of my family were downstairs in the kitchen. I could hear Prometheus, my blue-and-gold macaw, screeching, probably trying to bully Betty into bringing him an afternoon snack of an apple or some other treat. At least Leilani was quiet. Then again, most Jackson’s chameleons aren’t very noisy, even when someone takes them out of their tank. Usually they just stare, lazily blinking the eyes on the sides of their heads.
I couldn’t have been more content—or more relaxed. It helped that I was dressed in sweatpants and a white T-shirt with a picture of a Dalmatian and the words Got spots? My straight dark-blond hair, which usually hangs around my shoulders, was pulled back into a low ponytail.
As I perused an article about the relationship between canine hip dysplasia and body weight, I couldn’t resist glancing up every once in a while to admire not only my menagerie but also the room that Nick and I were sharing. The large bedroom looked like the finished product from one of those home- design shows on TV. The walls were painted a serene shade of powder blue. In addition to the fairy-tale bed, the room was outfitted with lustrous wooden antiques, a beautifully crafted marble fireplace, and two huge windows that overlooked the back of the estate.
In fact, I was gazing out those very windows from bed, wondering if venturing out into the gray drizzle with Max and Lou would be exhilarating or simply uncomfortable, when I heard a soft knock. Glancing up, I saw Betty and Winston standing in the doorway.
Ordinarily, I would have assumed they’d stopped by to invite me for a cup of tea or a game of backgammon. But the distressed expressions on their faces told me this was no social call.
“What’s wrong?” I asked. I picked up Tinkerbell and, cradling her in one arm, began to extract myself from Max, Cat, and Lou.
From the serious look Betty shot Winston, I knew my first impression was correct: It was bad news that had brought them to my room.
“Jessica, Winston and I wondered if you could possibly help us with something,” Betty said.
“Of course,” I assured her. “Just name it.”
She cast her husband another wary look before saying, “I think I’d better sit down.”
An alarm sounded inside my head. I pulled myself over to the edge of the bed, stroking the velvety fur on Tink’s head. Betty plunked down on the opposite side, wedging herself between Max and Lou, while Winston lowered his lanky frame into a cream-colored upholstered chair that was as elegant as it was comfortable. Cat was only too happy to stretch out smack in the middle of the mattress.
“Jessica, Winston and I received some terrible news a little while ago,” Betty said, her tone earnest. “The wife of one of Winston’s friends called to tell us the poor man died last night.”
“That’s terrible!” I exclaimed. “I’m so sorry. Is it someone you were close to?”
“Linus and I had been friends for years,” Winston said somberly. As always, he spoke with an English accent that reminded me of the classic television series Upstairs Downstairs—with him being decidedly upstairs. “He and I belonged to the same club in New York City for . . . goodness, it must have been several decades.”
Smiling sadly, he added, “I met Linus Merrywood for the very first time during a rather heated discussion of whether Ronald Reagan or Jimmy Carter was likely to win the upcoming presidential election.”
“Linus Merrywood,” I repeated, running my hand along Tinkerbell’s back. Even though I couldn’t place him, I had the nagging feeling there was something familiar about the name.
“The man was quite a mover and shaker in the business world,” Winston went on. “He was the president and CEO of Merrywood Industries, which for the past few years has been named as one of the Fortune 500. It was a family business, which his great-grandfather founded in the late 1800s. He started in steel—making parts used in building railroads, I believe. But over the years the company expanded into all kinds of metals, opening factories all over the world that manufactured everything from aluminum cans to hubcaps.
“Linus was the most successful businessman in his family’s history, which is how he came to earn his nickname: Linus the Lion. I’ve heard that he tripled his net worth over the course of his lifetime.” Thoughtfully, he added, “I’ve also heard that that’s a modest estimate.”
“Wow,” I said simply. I wondered if maybe I should start using Nick’s subscription to The Wall Street Journal for more than just lining the bottom of Prometheus’s birdcage.
“But even though he was phenomenally successful, he never lost his humanity,” Betty interjected. “Linus was almost as well known for his philanthropy as he was for his skill in business. He supported so many good causes. Education, primarily. Especially literacy. And not only with his checkbook but also with his time.”
“He sounds like a wonderful man,” I commented. “How did he die?”
“I’m afraid I don’t know the details yet,” Winston replied. “Charlotte was too upset to say very much.”
“This is all very sad,” I said, “but what does any of it have to do with me?”
Betty frowned. “Just a few days ago, Winston got an extremely troubling phone call from Linus.”
Winston took a deep breath before adding, “He said he thought someone was plotting to kill him.”
“What?” I cried, causing both Max and Lou to raise their heads. “But—but—did he say who? Or why?”
“All he would say,” Winston answered in a strained voice, “was that it was somebody close to him.”
“And do you have any reason to believe him?” I asked.
Winston shrugged helplessly. “To be perfectly honest, Jessica, at this point I don’t know what to think. Which is why Betty and I hoped you might be willing to help us.”
“How could I possibly be of help?” But even as I asked the question, I had a feeling I knew what the answer was going to be.
I had a history of solving mysteries—or, as some people saw it, butting my nose in where it didn’t belong. It turned out I had kind of a knack for it, too.
Then again, not everyone was happy with this tendency of mine. That included Norfolk County’s chief of homicide, a rather unsavory individual named Anthony Falcone. For some crazy reason, he believed that the police were the only ones who should be investigating murders.
That thought led to my next question.
“What do the police think happened?” I asked.
“At this point,” Winston said, “everyone seems to be assuming that Linus’s death was from natural causes. We haven’t told them about Linus’s unsettling phone call.” He frowned. “At least not yet. We didn’t want to upset his wife, Charlotte—and we certainly don’t want to see the family dragged into the headlines if it turns out there’s no reason for it. We’re still hoping that Linus was simply dramatizing some family squabble.”
“But Winston and I agree it’s something we have to pursue,” Betty added, “especially since the police might not even suspect foul play.”
“How old was Linus?” I asked.
“He was in his mid-seventies,” Winston replied.
“But still going strong,” Betty pointed out. “Linus was the picture of health, as far as anyone knew. Didn’t he once mention that his father and his grandfather both lived well into their nineties?” she asked Winston. Turning back to me, she added, “While Winston knew Linus for decades, I got to know Linus and Charlotte only over the past year. The four of us got together shortly after Winston and I became an item, then continued to meet for brunch or dinner whenever we could find the time. It was always a pleasure, since they were both such lovely people.”
Wanting to focus on what I was hearing, I plunked Tink down on the bed, next to Cat. The two felines eyed each other warily, then curled up a good four or five feet apart.
“What about the last time you saw him?” I asked. “Did he mention that anything out of the ordinary was going on?”
“Not that I recall,” Winston replied thoughtfully. “We haven’t seen much of Linus since spring. Wasn’t that the last time we all had dinner in Manhattan?”
Betty nodded. “You’re right, we haven’t seen the Merrywoods in a while. But I do remember him and Charlotte talking about the fact that they’d begun spending less time at their apartment in the city and more and more time at the estate they’d always thought of as their country house. It’s on an island they own in Peconic Bay.”
I gasped. “Not Solitude Island!”
Winston raised his eyebrows. “Yes, as a matter of fact.”
All of a sudden I knew why the name Linus Merrywood had sounded familiar. Solitude Island was a valuable piece of real estate that amazingly had been owned by the same family for hundreds of years. It was located between the two forks of Long Island—or, in more graphic terms, between the two tailfins of an island that to most people looks like a fish. Solitude Island’s original owner, back in the 1600s, was Epinetus Merrywood, one of the first colonists who came over to Long Island from England. Not only had he prospered wildly in the New World; for four centuries, his descendants had expanded the family fortune even further, maintaining their position as one of the wealthiest families on Long Island.
And from what I recalled, the Merrywoods were as well known for their obsession with privacy as they were for their affluence.
“But how could I even get close enough to the Merrywoods to find out what really happened to Linus?” I asked.
“Charlotte asked us to come to the house for a few days to help her get through this difficult time,” Betty said. “We thought you might be willing to join us.”
“It makes sense for you two to go, since Winston was friends with Linus and Charlotte for such a long time,” I mused. “But why would the Merrywoods—especially his widow—want a stranger like me around at a time like this?”
“Because I told her that you’re like a daughter to us,” Winston said matter-of-factly. “She said you’d be more than welcome to come along.”
Betty added, “Which means the only questions that remain to be answered are whether you’re willing to help—and whether you’ll be able to take off a few days from work so you can come with us to Solitude Island.”
My mind raced. The last thing I’d been expecting was a request to drop everything and accompany Betty and Winston to an isolated private island to poke around a possible murder. Still, I’d already told the two of them that I’d help however I could. And I had to admit that the idea of getting a peek at the Merrywoods’ estate was pretty enticing.
Besides, the week before Thanksgiving was always pretty quiet, work-wise. Most people were too busy with turkeys to make other appointments. As for the few routine checkups I already had scheduled over the next couple of days, I could easily ask my assistant, Sunny, to rearrange them. I was even free from my weekly television spot on local cable television, which usually aired live on Friday mornings. In order to give everyone a little breather right before the holiday weekend, the producer had decided to repeat one of my earlier shows.
Before I knew it, I heard myself saying, “Of course I’ll go to Solitude Island with you. I’ll do whatever I can to help.”
“Good,” Betty said with a nod. For the first time since she’d stepped into the room, I noticed just a hint of a twinkle in her blue eyes. “Especially since I already told Charlotte to expect you.”
For the next three hours, I felt as if I was running on fast-forward, as I threw clothes into a suitcase, called Sunny to go over the necessary schedule changes, and sent Nick what was possibly the longest text message in history. I explained that Betty and Winston’s friend Linus Merrywood had died and that they’d asked me to accompany them on a condolence call at his weekend retreat. I didn’t see any reason to burden Nick with the truth about my real mission, so I left out the part about investigating the poor man’s murder.
I also asked Nick to take on the jobs of house sitter for Betty and Winston’s place and caretaker for my pets, now his step-pets. As much as I would miss my animals, I wasn’t sure how welcome they’d be at the Merrywoods’ estate—especially my two dogs, who sometimes struck me as the canine version of Beavis and Butt-Head.
As for Frederick, Winston had decided his spunky dachshund was small enough and well behaved enough to come along with us. After we packed him into the car with our suitcases, we raced along Long Island’s North Fork in Winston’s cream-colored Rolls-Royce to the Merrywoods’ private dock where we drove onto a ferry-size boat the family also owned.
Even though going to Solitude Island had sounded like a good idea at first, I wasn’t as convinced now that I was sitting on a roller coaster of a boat, shivering amid the fog, rain, cold, and sadistic waves. But I forgot all about my yearnings for both the creature comforts and the creatures themselves the moment the cotton-candy-like fog thinned just enough to give me my first glimpse of the island and the enormous mansion in the middle of it.
As I pressed my face against the window, the first thing that struck me was that the Merrywood estate looked anything but, well, merry.
Looming a few hundred yards in front of me was a sprawling building centered on the island. Thanks to the lightning that periodically lit up the sky, I could see it was made of rough gray stone, its shape reminiscent of a medieval castle. A dozen irregular towers and turrets spiked into the air, their tops disappearing into the dense fog. While a few small windows dotted the seemingly impenetrable façade, I could see no signs of life inside the house, from this distance, at least.
As for the land surrounding the mansion, it looked equally uninviting. It was smothered in a dense blanket of tall trees that looked as if they’d been free to thrive on their own for decades or even centuries, their branches reaching out greedily to consume as much space as they desired. Because it was late November, the trees had already lost their leaves, exposing a chaotic tangle of bare, gnarled branches.
Most of the island appeared to be ringed by a white-sand beach, which was all that separated dry land from the deep, dark waters the storm had converted into such a formidable foe. The ragged white peaks of the waves kept lunging toward the island. It was almost as if they were seeking out some poor unsuspecting beachcomber they could drag into their midst.
Yet even though my new home away from home looked like a set from The Munsters, I had to admit that the scale of the place was pretty impressive. And it wasn’t only because the Merrywoods’ house was big enough to be converted into a couple dozen condos—or that it was surrounded by at least a hundred acres of gardens and grounds. What was truly mind-boggling was the fact that a single family could own a private island so close to New York City and leave it completely undeveloped, except for their not-so-humble abode.
Betty must have read my mind—as she so often does—since she chose that moment to comment, “It doesn’t exactly scream ‘welcome,’ does it?”
“It’s certainly big,” I replied diplomatically. “Have you ever been here before?”
Betty shook her head. “No. Neither has Winston, since he mainly saw Linus at the club. And whenever we got together with Linus and Charlotte, it was either at their apartment on Park Avenue or at a restaurant in Manhattan.”
“It’s hard to believe all this belongs to just one family,” I observed.
“And I don’t think the children come out here much anymore,” Winston said, patting Frederick soothingly. The more the boat slowed down, the more excited the dachshund became, as if he knew he’d soon be back on dry land and could hardly wait. “The whole family spent lots of time out here when they were growing up, especially on weekends and vacations. But they’re all adults now and they’ve got their own lives. They probably find it easier to see their parents in the city. I seem to recall that all but one of Charlotte and Linus’s children live in New York.”
“How many children do they have?” I asked.
“Three,” Betty replied. “Two sons and a daughter. They’re all in their thirties. Linus had just turned seventy-five, but Charlotte is about fifteen years younger. I believe she was right out of college when they got married.”
“How about Linus and Charlotte’s children?” I asked. “Are any of them married?” Now that I fell into the lawfully wedded category myself, I’d developed a new interest in other people’s marital status.
“Only one,” Betty said. “Their daughter, Melissa—Missy. Winston, you went to her wedding a few years ago, didn’t you?”
“That was certainly a memorable event,” he agreed. “Quite extravagant, even by our club members’ standards. Well over five hundred guests attended. Linus wanted to hold the reception at the club, but it just wasn’t big enough. Instead, it took place in a tremendous ballroom in one of New York’s finest hotels. The event had everything from bagpipers leading the guests from the church on Park Avenue to the hotel to a five-course dinner complete with lobster and pastries flown in from Paris.”
Whoa! I thought. As someone who had recently planned a wedding of her own—with a great deal of help from her mother-in-law, I should add—it was hard not to compare. And even Winston’s brief overview of the event went a long way in helping me understand the extent of the Merrywoods’ wealth.
“What about their two sons?” I asked.
“I seem to remember Linus mentioning something about his oldest boy having been divorced once or twice,” Winston replied after a bit of thought. “I also recall that Taggart’s inability to settle into family life was something Linus was quite upset about. As for the youngest of the Merrywoods’ three children, Brockton, I don’t believe he’s ever been married.”
He sighed, then added, “Linus was desperately hoping for grandchildren who could one day take his place presiding over the business. Sadly, he died before he had a chance to see that dream come true.”
“What about those three children of his?” I asked, surprised. “Why couldn’t one of them take over?”
“Linus felt that none of them lived up to their potential,” Winston explained. “His contention that not one of them ever accomplished what he’d hoped for was a constant source of unhappiness in his life.”
“Maybe he had unreasonably high expectations,” I suggested.
Winston cast me a wary glance. “You can make up your own mind once you get to know them. Loving your children is one thing. Passing on the responsibility of running a Fortune 500 company is something else entirely.
“In fact,” he continued, “that’s one of the reasons Linus brought someone else into the organization as his number two man. Harrison Foss—Harry. Linus expected that one day he’d take over the reins.”
By that point, the ferry was pulling up to a dock. Given the size of the mansion, I was surprised that the dock was little more than a stretch of uneven, rough-hewn boards. Jutting up at the far end was a small, dilapidated boathouse.
But as I stepped off the boat, I wasn’t think- ing about architecture. I’d had enough of the deep blue sea—and worrying that I was going to end up crammed in Davy Jones’s locker like a sweaty gym suit—but I braced myself for what lay ahead.
Now that I was close to the house that up until this point had merely loomed in the distance, I wasn’t exactly looking forward to entering. As far as I was concerned, the place looked downright scary.
I only hoped the family inside wouldn’t turn out to be just as frightening.