Thirteen months ago, former NYPD detective Shana Merchant barely survived being abducted by a serial killer. Now hoping to leave grisly murder cases behind, she's taken a job in her fiancé's sleepy hometown in the Thousand Islands region of Upstate New York.
But as a nor'easter bears down on her new territory, Shana and fellow investigator Tim Wellington receive a call about a man missing on a private island. Shana and Tim travel to the isolated island owned by the wealthy Sinclair family to question the witnesses. They arrive to find blood on the scene and a house full of Sinclair family and friends on edge.
While Tim guesses they're dealing with a runaway case, Shana is convinced that they have a murder on their hands. As the gale intensifies outside, she starts conducting interviews and discovers the Sinclairs and their guests are crawling with dark and dangerous secrets.
Trapped on the island by the raging storm with only Tim whose reliability is thrown into question, the increasingly restless suspects, and her own trauma-fueled flashbacks for company, Shana will have to trust the one person her abduction destroyed her faith in—herself. But time is ticking down, because if Shana's right, a killer is in their midst and as the pressure mounts, so do the odds that they'll strike again.
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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 off-season 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 morning 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."
"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."
"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 watertoday. No other boats at all.