Word travels fast in Nantucket when two children and their dog discover a skeleton in the dunes of the cold Sconset beach. Could the dead woman be the latest victim of the serial killer who has been terrorizing mainland Massachusetts? The FBI seems to think so and sends their forensic psychiatrist to the scene. But Police Detective Merry Folger has her own suspicions, and starts looking into a cold case that has long baffled Nantucket police: the disappearance of a beautiful Harvard-educated psychiatrist seven years ago. When Merry starts inquiring into the tenuous leads in that long-cold case, she stumbles into a web of violent passions and buried crimes, a web that continues to ensnare victims. Two more women are murdered, giving fuel to the FBI’s quest for a serial killer. But Merry, well-aware of the tangled histories of some of the island’s longtime residents, is convinced the only way forward is digging deeper into the past.
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“I could help,” Nan Markham said. “I could.” Even to her own ears her voice was plaintive and young, the voice of a neglected baby. “I could carry the water for you. In my pail.”
Nan lifted a dull-red plastic sand bucket and waggled it tentatively toward her brother’s unfeeling back. But Cecil was absorbed in his digging, the castle’s trench a widening perfection of scarp and contrascarp, the turrets rising wetly against the blue-black of the surf. He had worked at the fortifications for days—each afternoon when school was over, and now for the bulk of Saturday. What the tide and the weather destroyed in the hours of darkness, Cecil patiently rebuilt, in a determined contest with time and the sands. The two children were always out-of-doors, despite the gloom of the deserted beach, the fitful showers of chill rain. Even immersion in this dispiriting spring was preferable to being at home.
Nan brushed back a strand of bright-red hair and hugged her sweatered arms closer to her body. The wind scoured her cheek with stinging grains.
“Mummie said to let me help.”
The last resort of the tagalong: the invocation of Mummie.
Disgusted with herself and her eight-year-old weakness—disgusted with her brother and his silence and his solitary building—she kicked at the nearest rampart. “Stupid. Stupid old castle. I hate your castle, Cecil!”
Her wanton destruction left him unmoved. That was Cecil’s way. He did not react like other boys—with a shove or a blow or the careful plotting of revenge. He did not offer curses. He merely looked at his little sister, incomprehension and tedium filling his face, and said, “Go away, Nan. There’s going to be a battle.”
And so Nan turned disconsolately from the rampart she had ruined and trudged off toward her secret place in the dunes to sit on a piece of driftwood and arrange a tea party. She used shells for teacups and her thoughts for friends. And Satchmo—her beloved Satchmo, his fur matted from repeated bouts with sand and salt water, his huge body shapeless from lying too long on the kitchen floor, his legs dangerously arthritic as he stepped each morning into the pounding surf—Satchmo settled down in the dune grass opposite her and waited eternally for his tea.
A gull cried from its perch a few feet away, and Nan turned to stare at it: malevolent dark eye, cruel mustard beak. It lifted one reptilian claw and flicked an orange peel her way.
What do the gulls do, she wondered, when flying is not enough?
The clouds were lowering on the rain-swept horizon, but before the iron grip of storm closed the sun’s eyes forever, a faint glimmer of light shafted across the turbulent sea. Lord Cecil of Trevarre raised a hand to his brow and gazed intently at the enemy fleet and its forest of billowing black sails. In salute to the vanishing sun, a fourteen-pound gun roared from the flagship’s bow, a challenge and a curse in its orange flare; and seconds later the ball whistled past Trevarre’s noble head.
“Get down, my lord!” his lieutenant cried, and gripped his ankle in desperation.
“We shall not prevail by skulking within doors,” Lord Cecil shot back, his expression both proud and bitter. “The castle can avail us nothing now. To the fore, lads, and show a brave face! Or die in the attempt!”
He sprang down from the breastworks, his feet finding soft purchase on the sand below, and raced to the water’s edge, his standard raised high. The first of the enemy’s landing boats were racing toward shore, filled to their gunwales with scores of men; in a matter of moments his own would be outnumbered. To die, then, and die nobly in defense of what he held most dear—this was his last, his only, destiny.
Gordon, his faithful retainer, appeared suddenly at his side holding the reins of his stallion, Satchmo; the mettlesome beast pawed the ground, his iron shoes ringing sparks (no, not sparks, since the beach was sandy, not rocky like the beaches in England). The mettlesome beast pawed deep furrows in the shore’s wet sand. Lord Cecil took hold of Satchmo’s mane and swung himself into the saddle, his eyes fixed upon the enemy boats. As with one voice, the black-clad invaders cried aloud and jumped into the shallows, their brutal faces intent upon one man and his destruction—Trevarre.
A wave furled and crashed, mightier than its fellows, racing ahead to storm the beach’s heights. But Lord Cecil and his small surviving band stood ready.
Water poured into the gap between Cecil’s sneakered feet, foamed and swirled across his shoelaces, licked at the cuffs of his faded jeans. He gave a ferocious yell and thrust out his strong right saber arm, his invisible horse rearing high; then he tore down to the edge of the surf. The wave retreated in routed terror. Victory was in his very grasp.
Cowards. They had turned tail and taken to their boats, beating desperately against the tide to their black-sailed ships, rather than face his heroic band. Lord Cecil of Trevarre raised his saber arm in scorn and triumph and cried aloud. As if in answer, Satchmo neighed.
He looked over to the dunes, exhilaration torn by annoyance. “What?”
Nan’s bright head, crowned with a wreath of the first daffodils, emerged from the fringe of beach plum that fronted the derelict foundations of Codfish Park. January storms had swept several houses out to sea, and the remaining few looked likely to follow. Nan had probably scavenged the flowers from some abandoned front steps, like a camp follower rifling a battlefield’s dead. As she scrambled up, the dog Satchmo groaned, a sound from deep in his blasted frame. He turned to stare at Cecil, something caught between his jaws, and then slowly, creakily, he trotted in Nan’s wake. She ran pell-mell down the beach.
She was offering Cecil what looked like a twig—strange, since twigs came from trees, and there were none so near the beach. He took it from her fingers, his brow furrowed.
“I found it,” she said, breathless. “In the sand, while I was digging. There are lots of others if you dig far enough.”
And as he listened and turned the twig in his hand, Cecil felt the beginning of an inner excitement—something that seemed to spread from Trevarre’s sea-drenched socks until it reached his noble heart.
For what Nan had found was a bone.
The rain that had threatened all morning commenced in earnest an hour after lunch, as Peter Mason and Rafe da Silva grunted and strained over Meredith Folger’s dining-room table. It was not that lunch had proved difficult to consume, or required a certain strenuous attention, but rather that the table itself was massive and dense, a veritable monolith in mahogany. And the table was sitting in the midst of Merry’s front yard, imperiled by the sudden rain, and obdurately resisting its removal to the bed of Rafe’s truck.
“Can I help?”
Merry was dancing around the two men as they strained with the weight, feeling useless and very much like a girl. “I can get up on the tailgate and help you lift it from there—”
“Get outta the way,” Rafe said between clenched teeth. His perpetually tanned skin was streaming with something other than rain, and the distinctive odor of laboring male emanated from his T-shirt. “Move.”
Merry scuttled backward to the doorway of her family home on Tattle Court and felt her grandfather’s arm encircle her shoulders. “Be glad you have help,” Ralph Waldo Folger told her. “Even if it’s as stubborn as the day is long. You aren’t going anywhere with that table alone.”
“It’s not their need for gratitude that galls me, Ralph,” she said, and crossed her arms against her damp green slicker. Her fingers were chill and reddening from the raw April day. “I could give them that. It’s the female adulation. The groveling, you know? Just to get a lousy table moved.”
“And a mattress, and a sofa, and a couple of easy chairs,” her grandfather replied cheerfully. “Guess I’ll check on that pea soup. You’ll be wanting it, I expect, before long. You hardly ate anything at lunch.”
Merry looked over her shoulder as he disappeared in the direction of the kitchen, feeling a sharp stab of doubt. Ralph was always worried about how much she ate—and though she would no longer be eating most of her meals in his kitchen, old habits died hard. She knew he would be knocking on the door of her apartment sometime this week, with a pan of lasagna, or a jar of soup, or some corn muffins he’d just whipped up. Another granddaughter might find his attention irritating—but, suddenly, all Merry could think about was that tonight Ralph would be eating without her.
She had dreamed of this day for months—all through the relentless snows of an unusually brutal winter and the rains of a late-blooming spring. Years of careful saving had finally reaped a reward: Merry had signed a year’s lease on a small apartment—a guest suite over a neighbor’s garage, really—that commenced this very weekend.
January had found her sitting rapt and silent in the glow of Peter Mason’s fireplace, browsing linens catalogs; February was dishes and glassware. Did she want teacups, or mugs? Why not both? And what sort of wineglasses? She considered balloon- and tulip-shaped, hefted them in her mind, all but felt the misty beading of a well-chilled chardonnay.
In March, Merry abandoned economy and purchased the Islander’s Special—a hundred-dollar round-trip ticket on the local commuter airline—for a weekend of mall hopping in Hyannis. There she bought cheap bookshelves and a small television, two lamps, an iron-and-glass floor vase that Peter declared was an escapee from a medieval dungeon, a patchwork quilt handmade in China, and assorted throw rugs of sisal and hemp. She bought a garlic press and hand towels. Three excellently forged pots with steel handles. And a tin of English tea leaves—loose, unfettered, wildly redolent—and a sieve-like ball for steeping them. She ordered everything shipped to Nantucket by the next ferry and boarded her return flight feeling spent and slightly intoxicated. She was moving to her own home at last.
Gone would be the clutter of Tattle Court—the piles of junk mail on the dining-room table; the collection of nineteenth-century blubber-cutting tools from some forgotten Folger’s whaling ship; the unfinished portrait of her brother Billy, awaiting her dead mother’s hand. And gone, she thought, as she caught a snatch now of Ralph Waldo’s singing over the whirr of the kitchen blender, would be all the comfort of wordless love.
Well, not quite gone. She was moving only three blocks away.
“Hey, Mer,” Rafe da Silva said.
She emerged from her musings to find the dining-room table safely embedded in the truck, a plastic tarp shielding it from the rain. Peter was slumped on the bumper, his dark hair turning black in the downpour. Rafe leaned by his side.
“We need the keys.”
“To the truck?”
“To your apartment,” Rafe answered patiently. “There’s no way that bed’s going in the back with the table taking all that room. Besides, your neighbor’s been bugging us to let her out of the driveway.”
Tattle Court was grandly but optimistically named: in fact, it was little more than a sandy track divided among three houses. Rafe’s truck had been blocking the exit to Fair Street for nearly two hours.
“Let’s go,” Merry said quickly, as she felt for the keys beneath her slicker and ducked out into the rain.