After a trying case, detective Merry Folger begrudgingly agrees to take a leave from work to meet her fussy future in-laws in Greenwich, but it isn’t long before she is summoned back to Nantucket. The body of a 21-year-old was discovered in the frigid waters of the Sound in the days leading up to the annual Christmas celebration, and the death isn’t sitting well with Merry’s father, the local police chief, who fears the track marks on the victim’s arms may be indicative of a growing drug problem on the island. Feeling a constant need to live up to her father’s expectations, Merry rushes home to her fiancé, Peter’s, annoyance, only to find that heroin isn’t the only destructive force in Nantucket.
Soon after Merry arrives, she feels stonewalled by her father. If he was so desperate for her help, why won’t he share the details of the case with her? What is he hiding? For the first time, Merry fears she cannot trust her lifelong role model—her own father—let alone figure out why a young athlete and Harvard scholar ended up dead in the frigid, storm-churned Sound.
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Would she have used the word lousy to describe the past eight months? Probably not. What came to mind were words like painful, and bruising, and unremittingly bleak. Her giddy relief at having survived last April’s terrors had turned swiftly to remorse—for the lives she had failed to save—and anger at her own gullibility. Had she been less easy to impress, a killer might never have clouded her mind. Had she relied more on objective study, and less on gut instinct—which had urged her to suspect an innocent party—two people at least might still be alive today. Self-loathing consumed Merry whenever the subject of the Osborne investigation arose; for most of the past week, it had been forced down her throat. First by the prosecution, who should have been her allies, and then at the hands of the defense—a gaggle of lawyers baldly calculating how Meredith’s testimony might be turned to their client’s advantage. She wanted nothing so much as to put the debacle behind her, but some nights, staring wakefully into the darkness, she knew she never would. It was now of a piece with her successes and failures, written like a growth ring into the trunk of her life.
“You need and deserve a vacation,” Peter said, comprehending much that had filled her silence.
Before she could reply, Merry’s cellphone buzzed.
“Glad I got you,” John Folger said.
“Dad.” Merry turned her back on Peter. “Is everything okay?”
“Yes. Well, not exactly. How are things in Greenwich?”
“Fine. Great.” She tried to suppress impatience. “Is . . . Ralph okay?” Ralph Waldo Folger, Merry’s grandfather, was in his mid-eighties and his right hip was threatening to give out.
“Ralph’s just fine.”
“Well. Then we’re all fine.” She worried at the diamond solitaire on the third finger of her left hand, its band too loose past the knuckle, and waited for her father to come to the point.
Peter sprawled on the bed behind her. She was aware of him listening. Trace odors of sweat and running shoe drifted toward her.
“We found a body floating in the harbor this morning.”
“Whoa.” Merry bent her blond head protectively over the receiver. “So . . . what is it? A drowning?”
“On the face of it.”
“I don’t know.”
They were both silent for the space of several heartbeats. “Why shouldn’t it be accidental, Dad?”
“Hell, it might be. But it just feels . . . weird. We’ve got an ID on the guy and he was working a scallop boat. Jay Santorski. All of twenty-one.”
“And it doesn’t make sense to you that a scalloper would simply fall into the water and not come out.”
“Does it make sense to you?” John Folger asked.
“Water’s pretty cold this time of year.”
“Thirty-eight degrees, this morning.”
“Hypothermia wouldn’t take long.”
“Few minutes, maybe. And he was wearing a ski jacket, shoes. All that would drag him down.” Her father’s voice seemed to gain confidence with every sentence exchanged, as though he had moved from hostile terrain into familiar territory.
He really wants to believe it, Merry thought, but in his heart he can’t. “Any idea when he went into the water?” she asked him.
“The cold makes it hard to tell, but Fairborn is saying he’s probably been dead around eight hours.” Dr. John Fairborn volunteered as medical examiner for the Nantucket force. “Coast Guard pulled the body out about eight a.m.”
Merry glanced at her watch. Nine-thirty. “So we’ll say midnight or thereabouts. You think he fell over the side of a boat or off the wharf?”
“Who’d take a boat out at midnight in December? Besides, there’s none floating around empty in the harbor. We did find a bike that may have been Santorski’s submerged in the shallows of the Easy Street Basin. I’ve got Seitz checking for a registration now.”
Merry could imagine it—the rusted frame of a beat-up old three-speed, hundreds like them on the island, skittering off the edge of the boat basin near the renovated fishing shanties of Old North Wharf. It was one of the more historic places to call home on Nantucket, almost prestigious. But at this time of year, a lot of the seasonal cottages would be deserted. It was unlikely, she thought, that anyone would have heard a cry for help.
“Did Santorski live at Old North, Dad?”
“Nope. He had a room in a group house out in Surfside.”
Where some unfortunate member of the force was probably parading the dripping bike even now, and informing the young man’s roommates that he was dead. “You might want to get a crew to dredge the basin for evidence,” Merry suggested. “Or maybe send the Pottses down.” Tim and Phil Potts, brothers and officers of the Nantucket police, pinch-hit as the force’s diving team whenever necessary.
“They’re a little busy right now.”
So am I, Dad. “Chief,” she temporized, “this really could have been an accident. You know how close the Rose and Crown is to Easy Street.”
“Yeah,” he said doubtfully.
“Santorski would hardly be the first twenty-one-year-old to go drinking on a Thursday night.” And even a scalloper—a drunk scalloper—might not crawl out of December water once he rode his bike in.
Peter squeezed her shoulder and mouthed, Taking a shower. She waved at him distractedly. “Any sign of violence on the body?” she asked her father.
“Not violence, exactly. Abrasions on the wrists and ankles that could have come from a rope—”
“Bound and gagged and sent in on a bicycle? Then where’s the rope now?”
“—or they might be nothing more than posthumous cuts from the jetty’s rocks. The corpse was first sighted rolling in the channel.”
“It should be easy enough to decide which.” Merry was thinking out loud. “Post-death trauma doesn’t bleed.”
“And pre-death abrasions would be washed clean of blood after eight hours in salt water,” her father retorted. “I’m no coroner, Meredith. I’ll wait to hear from the state crime lab whether the corpse got these cuts from the jetties or . . . something else.”
Again, Merry felt John Folger’s tension crackling across the cellphone waves like an electrical shock. She frowned in irritation; it was unlike him to offer only half his mind. “What’s really worrying you, Chief?”
For an instant, while he debated what to tell her, she could almost track his evasion in the way he drew breath. “The kid had needle holes in his left arm, Mer. Probably an intravenous drug user, Fairborn says.”
Merry closed her eyes and leaned against the kitchen door frame. “This guy was mainlining drugs, and you’re wondering whether he died by accident? Come on, Dad! This is a job for the state crime lab’s forensic pathologist. It’s not a case of murder.”
“Meredith—it’s probably heroin. I’d like you to come home. Look into things a little.”
There was a dubious silence.
“Heroin isn’t just any drug,” he persisted, as though she had suggested otherwise. “You know there’s an epidemic all over the country. If it’s being dealt here on Nantucket, if this drowning was an overdose, I want to know before it works its way down to the high school kids.”
“And the kindergartners. Right.” She paced the length of the bedroom bay window, turned, and paced back. Peter would not be happy if she ruined his plans for the coming week. He might even think she had arranged the summons just to escape his mother. “What do you expect me to do, Dad, before the autopsy report is in? As you said—we don’t know that this Santorski was shooting smack.”
“Oh, Meredith—” He sounded too weary for nine-thirty in the morning. “Find out who the kid hung out with. What he was doing the night he died. The usual scut work. You should learn fairly quickly whether this was an isolated incident, or just the tip of the iceberg.”
At which point, she would be expected to dry-dock the iceberg. “Are you asking as my dad, or my chief?”
“Both.” John paused, and then added grudgingly, “I’d feel better if you were here.”
Merry sighed. “It’s that important?”
“I wouldn’t tear you away from the Masons for anything less.”
“Okay. Okay. I’ll cut short my first vacation in years because some addict got himself drowned. But why can’t Matt Bailey handle this? It’s about his speed.”
“Bailey has disappeared.”
“What?” Merry stood straighter, fingers clenched around her cell. Her distinguished detective colleague was habitually late for work, but even Matt Bailey took Christmas Stroll somewhat seriously. “Maybe he’s still in bed.”
“We checked. Before I decided to bother you in the middle of your vacation, I sent Howie Seitz over to his house. Bailey didn’t come home last night. His son is frantic.”
For the first time in her long acquaintance with Matt Bailey—whom she resented, despised, and rarely acknowledged was even breathing—Merry felt a spark of sympathy. Bailey’s son, Ryan, was only twelve. Bailey would never have left the boy without a word. And even though Bailey’s disappearance surely had nothing to do with the death by drowning of a drug-addicted scalloper—
“I’m on my way, Dad,” she said, and hung up the phone.
“Merry—what are you doing?”
Peter loomed in the doorway of George’s guest room, and she could see immediately that he was angry. Which meant that he already had a fair idea of what she was doing. He resembled nothing so much as a hawk—long, thin nose, prominent cheekbones, a sharp brow jutting over cool gray eyes—but when he was angry, the raptor in him fairly screamed out loud. Facing him now, Merry felt like a rodent cowering beneath a shadowed wingspan.
“I’m packing.” She reached for a sweater, attempted to fold it, then tossed it in her suitcase. “That was my dad.”
“I know. Why are you packing?”
“There’s been a—a death. He wants me home right away.”
“A death? You mean a murder?”
“He’s not sure. It looks like a drowning, actually—”
“Oh, for Chrissake, Meredith!”
Peter never shouted. And Peter never called her Meredith. He glanced over his shoulder guiltily, aware of the speed with which argument travels, then eased her door closed behind him.
“The last time I checked,” he said in a more reasonable tone, “there was more than one detective on the Nantucket force. Tell him you’re on vacation and unavailable.”
“It’s not that simple,” Merry retorted.
“Matt Bailey has gone AWOL.”
“Matt Bailey has been AWOL most of his life.”
“Admittedly. But this time he abandoned his kid. Dad’s worried.”
“You are not leaving twelve hours into this trip. Our trip. I absolutely refuse.”
Merry leaned pleadingly across the expanse of down comforter.
“Don’t bully me, Peter. I’ve got to go back.”