Death on a Winter Stroll

Death on a Winter Stroll

by Francine Mathews
Death on a Winter Stroll

Death on a Winter Stroll

by Francine Mathews


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No-nonsense Nantucket detective Merry Folger grapples with the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic and two murders as the island is overtaken by Hollywood stars and DC suits.

Nantucket Police Chief Meredith Folger is acutely conscious of the stress COVID-19 has placed on the community she loves. Although the island has proved a refuge for many during the pandemic, the cost to Nantucket has been high. Merry hopes that the Christmas Stroll, one of Nantucket’s favorite traditions, in which Main Street is transformed into a winter wonderland, will lift the island’s spirits. But the arrival of a large-scale TV production, and the Secretary of State and her family, complicates matters significantly.
The TV shoot is plagued with problems from within, as a shady, power-hungry producer clashes with strong-willed actors. Across Nantucket, the Secretary’s troubled stepson keeps shaking off his security detail to visit a dilapidated house near conservation land, where an intriguing recluse guards secrets of her own. With all parties overly conscious of spending too much time in the public eye and secrets swirling around both camps, it is difficult to parse what behavior is suspicious or not—until the bodies turn up.
Now, it’s up to Merry and Detective Howie Seitz to find a connection between two seemingly unconnected murders and catch the killer. But when everyone has a motive, and half of the suspects are politicians and actors, how can Merry and Howie tell fact from fiction?
This latest installment in critically acclaimed author Francine Mathews’s Merry Folger series is an immersive escape to festive Nantucket, a poignant exploration of grief as a result of parental absence, and a delicious new mystery to keep you guessing.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781641295253
Publisher: Soho Press, Incorporated
Publication date: 10/17/2023
Series: A Merry Folger Nantucket Mystery , #7
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 86,330
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Francine Mathews was born in Binghamton, New York, the last of six girls. She attended Princeton and Stanford Universities, where she studied history, before going on to work as an intelligence analyst at the CIA. She wrote her first book in 1992 and left the Agency a year later. Since then, she has written thirty books, including six previous novels in the Merry Folger series (Death in the Off-Season, Death in Rough Water, Death in a Mood Indigo, Death in a Cold Hard Light, Death on Nantucket, and Death on Tuckernuck) as well as the nationally bestselling Being a Jane Austen mystery series, which she writes under the pen name Stephanie Barron. She lives and works in Denver, Colorado.

Read an Excerpt

PROLOGUE: The Plague Winter
It was sleeting and nearly dark when the woman reached the overgrown turnoff to the house. There was no one else on the Polpis road to glimpse her battered green van hesitate an instant before wheeling into the rutted drive. She was unidentifiable in any case: a shapeless figure in a gray parka, hood bunched around her ears, and a blue paper surgical mask over her mouth. Her van’s wipers struggled against the intermittent gusts of rain. A single grackle lifted from the scrub oak as she passed and winged indifferently toward the sea.
     It had been raining for days, as March came in like a lion and contagion spread throughout the world. The wrong season for crowds on Nantucket; in fact, she had counted on that—on slipping undetected beneath the invisible cordon that separated her from her past. The freight boat out of Hyannis was half full; people were scared of getting sick. Most were avoiding travel. Those who were forced to cross the Sound, she noticed, did not make eye contact. They hunched over their phones and hugged themselves against the heavy winter chop. The passenger cabins were too warm, laced with a sickening fug of diesel fuel, wet raincoats, and burnt coffee. She chose to spend the crossing outside on the bow deck, her hands shoved for warmth in her pockets and her gaze fixed on the low charcoal smudge of home coming up on the horizon.
     The raw air was laced with the fresh tang of the sea and despite being buffeted and chilled, she felt her soul begin to sing. Returning. At last.
The Westfalia she’d bought in Oregon and driven across the country, sleeping fitfully in the back at night, was the sixth vehicle off the MV Woods Hole’s freight deck. It had 155,763 miles on its odometer and a minifridge beneath its tidy window curtains.
     Now, she sat motionless for a moment behind the wheel, engine running, and studied the house she’d found at the end of the drive. It looked worse than she’d hoped, but not as terrible as she’d expected. A typical old New England place, with rooms and extensions added or subtracted over the years as  generations swelled or not. The front windows looked blank and sightless, covered with sheets of plywood. The gray shingles, black with damp, ought to have been replaced years ago. A rime of lichen etched them in phosphorescent green. She noted the sag in the roof near the chimney joist, the way the roof itself undulated across the unseen attic rafters. Wisps of plant life were growing there and she knew without question it leaked. The utilities had been shut off long ago.
     Her gaze drifted to the front door, which had once been painted deep rose and was now the color of a healed scar. The quarterboard above read Stella Maris. The name her great-grandfather had given his farmhouse, which his Quaker great-grandfather had built in the middle of the eighteenth century. It would be cold inside, and smell of mold, and she had not yet bought wood pellets for the ancient iron stove or dug the winter blankets out of the attic chest. She’d have to bring in water and flush the toilet manually. And what about baths? Until she shut off the engine, there was still the possibility of retreat, of actions considered but not taken.
     She debated thirteen seconds longer. Then she silenced the van and stepped out into the small noises of late winter and dusk. She drank deeply of the forgotten air. Salt spray, damp sod, marsh. He would have changed the locks, of course. But there could be no alarm system; that required electricity. She kept a tool box in the back of the van as insurance against catastrophe. A pandemic seemed to qualify. She rummaged among her things until she found a flathead screwdriver and a hammer. Then, with a briskness that surprised even herself, she walked around the side of the house and smashed the window of her own back door.
Chapter 1 | Twenty Months Later
The first weekend of December had been Meredith Folger’s favorite time of year for as long as she could remember. People often say that about holiday traditions, of course, but Merry was convinced that nowhere on earth was the winter solstice heralded with such enthusiastic conviction as during the three days of Nantucket’s Christmas Stroll.
     Anticipation started to rise all over the island in late November. The day after Thanksgiving, crowds gathered at the head of Main Street for the ceremonial lighting of the massive evergreen tree that shed its glow throughout the darkest hours of the year; the following weekend, Santa would arrive at the end of Straight Wharf by Coast Guard cutter. Waving from the back of an antique fire truck, he’d follow the Town Crier and a drum section of grade-school kids who’d been practicing with Ms. Benton the music teacher for weeks, parading up from the harbor and winding through town. Everybody standing on the curb—islanders, tourists, day-trippers—would fall in behind and follow the truck with guttural cheers. Eventually Santa would be enthroned next to the lighted town tree and take requests from a long line of children. This was what gave Christmas Stroll its name. It had been going on for half a century now, and although imitated by towns all over New England, Nantucket’s weekend remained unrivaled. People who loved the island arrived each year by land and sea, from all over the country and the world, to celebrate.
     Over time the holiday had morphed into three full days of permission to wander amiably around town with steaming cups of cheer and weird hats, bells jangling from the ankles of elf booties. Over ten thousand tourists crowded the sidewalks of downtown. The shops and restaurants were full. People laughed freely and called jokes to friends across the brick sidewalks and paused in the middle of the morning to sit on available benches. They bought things they didn’t need, simply because they wanted them, then gifted them to others without a thought.
     Costumed carolers sang on street corners. Tourists took selfies in front of window boxes and beneath mistletoe balls. A few of them found someone to kiss. They jostled each other good-naturedly, butting armfuls of colorful bags, as they trailed down the streets in their red and green Stroll scarves.
     In lucky years, it snowed.
     In less fortunate ones, it rained.
     This year, the forecast was for Windy and Gorgeous.
     Uniformed members of Merry’s police force would be up early and out on Main Street Saturday morning with sawhorses, barricading the heart of town against vehicular traffic. They’d stand in the crosswalks and near the sundial planter that sat right in the middle of the cobblestoned street. The Garden Association decorated the urn each year with fresh greens and red bows and tiny white lights. The police were there to maintain order and most of the Strollers were orderly, except for the occasional drunken jerk who vomited without warning on the uneven brick sidewalk. Merry had observed the rhythms of Stroll her entire life, she reflected, and usually it never got old.
     But this year, she was clenching her teeth and grinding her way through the holiday. This year, she was struggling to find the Joy of the Season. This year, she barely had time to care.
     This year, she wasn’t merely another happy reveler hiding mysterious boxes on the top shelf of the spare bedroom’s closet, the scent of vanilla and cloves in her hair. She wasn’t pausing to rub pine or spruce branches on her early morning walks, so that the resinous oil lingered on her fingertips, or losing track of time while she snapped pictures of festive window boxes. This year, she was the Nantucket Police Department’s chief of police. And Christmas Stroll, to be completely honest, was shaping up to be a royal pain in the ass.
     She’d been police chief the previous year as well—her first in that elevated position—but Stroll was canceled that December due to the pandemic. She and her husband, Peter, had spent the holidays cozily enough in their farmhouse on the moors, spelling their quarantine cabin fever with long tramps through the cranberry bog or chasing their dog, Ney, down the trails that riddled Nantucket’s conservation land. Because Merry was an essential worker, on the front line of the island’s pandemic and obliged to interact with a heterogenous public, Peter was one of the few people she exposed to her germ-laden self for nearly a year. She was fortunate that he didn’t mind the relative isolation; an introvert who preferred workouts and reading to loud gatherings, Peter had always lived something of a Socially Distanced life.
     But this December, two days out from the Stroll kickoff, Merry was already exhausted. Because the man who was now president of the United States—as he had done every year for four decades except during the pandemic—had once again descended on Nantucket to celebrate Thanksgiving. He had brought three generations of family with him, naturally. A familiar sight in his aviator shades and bomber jacket, a dog lead in one hand and a cup of joe in the other, he’d been known in the past to pose for selfies, show up at book signings with a stack of hardbacks, and do a bit of Christmas shopping among the island merchants. But until this year, he hadn’t been president—someone who a nutjob might actually want to kill. This year, weeks of planning and Readiness Exercises had preceded the family holiday. Airspace was restricted around Ackerman Field, private jets were hangered until further notice, C-17A Globemasters lumbered like awkward water buffalo down the simple island runways and disgorged armored vehicles and raincoat-clad advance teams. As protection against a car bomb careening across the tarmac straight for Air Force One, every available piece of heavy equipment on Nantucket—front loaders, dump trucks, mass excavators and graders—was lined up with their noses flush against the airport’s perimeter fence in an intimidating picket of steel. The Coast Guard forbade boating traffic off Abrams Point, where the president was due to spend the holiday, and a fleet of State Police motorcycles (for motorcade escort) was offloaded from the freight boat and parked in readiness at the old Water Street station.
     Thankfully, it was the State Police who coordinated with the Secret Service and White House staff, and the fire department that was responsible for airport safety. But as chief of police, Meredith was in the loop for every local planning meeting and Readiness Exercise required to game out possible crises. Her turf was the island community, forced to put up with road closures and traffic snarls due to the president’s security. It was her Public Information Officer who issued the press releases she signed, informing Nantucketers that the heart of town would be inaccessible from noon until six the day after Thanksgiving while the Secret Service posted snipers on various roofs, because the president and his family were attending the annual tree-lighting ceremony at the top of Main Street. It was Merry and her people who received emails and phone calls from pissed-off islanders outraged that their traditions had been hijacked, that motorcades bisected their shopping routes, and that the president disappeared before they’d captured his face on their cell phones. How was she to control the crowds trolling Abrams Point? What if demonstrators with bullhorns broke the president’s peace? Or mobs halted foot traffic in town when he stopped for ice cream? Never mind the fear of foreign assassins in scuba gear circling in the waves off the presidential house, with silenced air guns and scopes trained on that famous silver head. Merry already had too much to worry about.
      “Washington is why we can’t have nice things,” Peter reminded her three nights before Thanksgiving. Normally, he’d be spending the holiday with his sister, Georgiana, in Connecticut, but this year he’d elected to sit tight with Merry. Never mind that she was working the entire holiday. Peter was a better cook than she was; the cranberry sauce would certainly be excellent, and she’d have it on a turkey sandwich at midnight if she was forced to miss the actual bird. But for an instant, she gave way to wistfulness.
      “Why didn’t the Pres just go to Martha’s Vineyard this year?” she moaned. “It was good enough for the Clintons and Obamas.”
      “He’s not a Vineyard guy,” Peter said simply. Which was, of course, unanswerable. It was accepted fact that you were either a Vineyard person or a Nantucket one. The loyalties were fierce, utterly distinct, cultivated over generations, and immune to criticism. No one could be both.
     Which made it a little easier to put up with the security craziness, Merry reflected. It was kind of cool to know that the president cherished exactly the same place she did.
This cheerful thought carried her through Thanksgiving week. It buoyed her as Air Force One taxied heavily down the runway at Ackerman Field to waving fans that Sunday, bound once more for Washington, and allowed her to breathe a sigh of relief when the final C17 left with the last of the White House staffers. She spent Monday writing reports, debriefing her key counterparts on snafus and successes, and commending the uniformed patrol people who’d killed themselves to keep everyone happy. By dinnertime Merry was kicked back in her fleece bedroom slippers in front of a roaring fire, with a glass of Peter’s favorite red in her hands.
     She allowed herself to take Tuesday off—or rather, on call. She spent Wednesday on call, too. It was a midweek breather, her chance to snag some extra sleep before the Stroll crowds slapped her on the head Friday like a cold curler off Surfside. This was her chance to follow Ney on a morning walk through Peter’s cranberry bog, and finally have that leftover turkey sandwich, with mayo and a slather of stuffing.
     It was a good hiatus, and it turned out that she was wise to take it. She returned to the station, refreshed and humming “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” Ralph’s favorite old carol. Growing up, he’d told her it was written especially for her, the Little Merry in the Folger household. She couldn’t actually sing the words this year without her voice breaking.
     Only a few hours later, the first body was found.

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