When a popular high school cheerleader dies of a suspected heroin overdose, it becomes clear that the opioid epidemic has spread even to the idyllic town of Paradise. It will be up to Police Chief Jesse Stone to unravel the supply chain and unmask the criminals behind it, and the investigation has a clear epicenter: Paradise High School. Home of the town's best and brightest future leaders and its most vulnerable down-and-out teens, it's a rich and bottomless market for dealers out of Boston looking to expand into the suburbs.
But when it comes to drugs, the very people Jesse is trying to protect are often those with the most to lose. As he digs deeper into the case, he finds himself battling self-interested administrators, reluctant teachers, distrustful schoolkids, and overprotective parents . . . and at the end of the line are the true bad guys, the ones with a lucrative business they'd kill to protect.
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The world had changed. Paradise had changed. Most significantly for Jesse Stone, his life had been turned upside down. He was a man wise enough to know that life comes with only one guarantee-that it would someday end. As a Robbery Homicide detective for the LAPD and as the longtime chief of the Paradise PD he had seen ample proof of that solitary guarantee written in blood, in wrecked bodies, and in grief. It wasn't that long ago that his fiancée's murder had given Jesse all the proof he would ever need. He remembered an old Hebrew proverb about how people's planning for their futures was God's favorite joke. Still, at an age when most men were steeped in haunting regrets of what could have been and what they might have done, Jesse had been given the most unexpected gift a loner like him could receive. Cole Slayton, Jesse's son, had arrived in town just as Paradise was shedding its old skin and transforming itself into the place Jesse was currently seeing through the night-darkened windows of his latest Ford Explorer.
This end-of-shift drive through the streets had long been a ritual of his. A way to make sure things were intact and that the citizenry could rest well. Still, Jesse didn't fool easily, and he was especially keen not to fool himself. He understood that Paradise was a different place than the village he'd come to all those years ago as a man looking for a fresh start. In those days, Boston, less than twenty miles south, seemed a million miles away, a world apart. Nowadays, Paradise, though not yet quite a suburb of Boston, felt much closer than ever before. As the big city's influence crept north, it brought a new vibe to town that not all the natives of Paradise appreciated. Jesse had mixed feelings about the shift. Although he had long ago settled into the seaside rhythms of the town, Jesse enjoyed the new urban vitality, the pace and diversity Boston's encroachment brought with it. But as Vinnie Morris had once warned him, as Boston would come toward Paradise, so, too, would come its sins. Vinnie had phrased it less artfully.
Jesse had already seen some evidence of that. Nothing dramatic. No crime wave, per se. Yet there was an increase in urban gang activity in Paradise and the surrounding towns. Graffiti and vandalism had been on the rise, as had auto theft. Drug arrests had also ticked up and the local cops now carried naloxone with them. None of the crime particularly scared Jesse. He didn't overreact, as the mayor and town selectmen had, nor had he turned a blind eye. He had prepared his cops as best he could. He had joined with the chiefs of the nearby towns and the state police to work out strategies to deal with the changes in the criminal landscape.
At the moment, though, it was Paradise's recent past and hatred, humanity's most ancient foible, that occupied Jesse's thoughts. He was driving by the empty lot where the old meetinghouse once stood. Several months ago, a white supremacist group had come to town with mad dreams of sparking a national race war. They hadn't achieved their twisted goals but had left a trail of destruction in their wake. One of the casualties was the old meetinghouse, a building that had once been used as a safe haven for runaway slaves along the route of the Underground Railroad. It had been blown to bits by a powerful bomb blast. Jesse shook his head because more than the old building had been lost. Paradise had been shaken to its core. Families had been terrorized, several people were dead, and he'd been forced to fire Alisha, his best young cop. There was a big debate going on about whether to faithfully reconstruct the old place, create some sort of memorial, or let the past go altogether and sell the lot for new construction. Those were decisions above Jesse's paygrade, and he was glad of it. What concerned Jesse was the notion that the destruction might be an omen of things to come, that the world's ills, not only Boston's, were headed for Paradise's doorstep. He turned the corner, leaving the ghost of the old meetinghouse in his rearview mirror.
These ritual drives through Paradise had once been a prelude to a different and more personal ritual-drinking. Even now, remembering the steps of the ritual, he got a jolt. Throwing off his blue PPD hat and jacket as he entered his house, tossing the mail down on the counter, approaching the bar, twisting the cap off the smooth, rectangular bottle of Johnny Walker Black Label, pouring the beautiful amber fluid over ice, the gentle snap and crackle as the room-temperature scotch hit the ice, the clinking of the ice as he swirled the glass, sniffing the perfectly blended grace notes from the charred oak barrel in which it had aged, lifting the glass to toast Ozzie Smith, and then, finally, the first magic sip. He could almost feel it, the warmth at the back of his throat, spreading down to his belly, through his body, and reaching his fingertips. But Jesse hadn't had a drink in many months because his new nightly ritual involved sharing a room with fellow alcoholics who gave one another the strength they needed to stay sober.
At first he had driven to meetings down in Boston at an old Episcopal church. That's where he'd met Bill, his sponsor. But making that trek several times a week had become unwieldly and impractical. Besides, Jesse's drinking hadn't ever been much of a secret to begin with. The only people in Paradise who didn't know about Jesse's struggles with the bottle were transplants from Boston and children under ten years of age. So he'd recently begun attending AA meetings in and around Paradise. He was headed to a meeting in Salem when the phone rang. The Explorer's display showed the call was from the Paradise Police Department. He pressed the button on the steering wheel.
It was Molly working the desk. "There's trouble, Jesse."
"There's always trouble. What kind?"
"The worst kind."
"Patricia Mackey just found her daughter . . . unresponsive. She's dead, Jesse."
"Jeez, no." Jesse pulled over. "Where? How?"
"In her bedroom. And, Jesse . . ."
"Suit's there now. He found drug paraphernalia."
"On my way."
Jesse had been a cop for too long to think anything connected with drugs was an anomaly. And suddenly Vinnie Morris's warning rang loud as cathedral chimes in Jesse's ears.
A thousand things went through Jesse's mind as he pulled up to the Mackey place, and not a single damn one of them was any good. He didn't need to be a parent to know that a mother and father should never have to put a kid in the ground before them. Not ever, not for any reason. Drugs, disease, a careless accident, what did that matter? And now that Jesse was a father, Heather Mackey's death cut even deeper than it had during all the previous cases he had worked involving the death of a child. He hadn't been there to watch Cole grow up, hadn't known the boy existed until a few months ago, but that was beside the point. The bond he felt couldn't have been stronger had he been in the delivery room to hear Cole cry or to watch him open his eyes for the first time.
Suit Simpson greeted Jesse at the curb.
"Hey, Jesse. Molly told me you were on your way."
"I see the ME's men are here." Jesse pointed at the van. "ME inside?"
Suit nodded. "Peter, too. He's working the scene."
"Did you use the naloxone?"
Suit shook his head. "Too late. She was already gone. Such a waste. She was a pretty girl."
"Death doesn't care about pretty or ugly. Only we do."
"Is Selectman Mackey home yet?" Jesse asked.
Suit shook his head. "He's down in Boston, lobbying for highway funds. Mrs. Mackey was having trouble getting him on the phone until a few minutes ago."
"Talk to me, Suit."
"The kid's in her bed-" Something caught in Suit's throat. He might've been an ex-football star and a man to have on your side in a fight, but he was a gentle soul. That used to concern Jesse. Not anymore. He had taken a bullet in a gun battle with Mr. Peepers, and when the shit hit the fan at the old meetinghouse, Suit had walked back into the building to lead the people inside to safety. He'd done it knowing there was a good chance he would die in the process.
"It's okay, Suit." Jesse patted him on the shoulder. "I'll see for myself."
The Mackey house was at the foot of the Bluffs. It was a new-to-look-old Cape Cod-style home with a detached two-car garage and vinyl siding meant to look like overlapping cedar shingles. There was a bluestone path leading up to two granite steps and a welcoming red door. The red door didn't feel very welcoming just then. Jesse let himself in, Suit trailing behind. The second he entered, he heard Patti Mackey's robotic, disembodied voice. Jesse stopped to listen.
Sue, yes, it's about Heather . . . No, she's not in some kind of trouble. She's dead . . . You heard me right . . . I'm numb, Sue. I shouldn't be, but I'm numb. Is something wrong with me?
In Jesse's experience, Patti's denial and distance weren't unusual. She was in a kind of self-protective shock, but it would wear off, and when it did . . . He had seen that dam break too many times for his liking. Once was too many. And there was no getting used to it. It was difficult to witness, so much so that he had always been glad not to be a parent. Now that layer of insulation had been stripped away. He followed Patti's voice into the kitchen. Jesse had known the family for a long time and thought he should talk to Patti before going to see to Heather. It was a sad fact of his job that Heather was beyond his help.
Patti was a gray-eyed beauty with fair, freckled skin and long auburn hair. She could have passed as Heather's much older sister. She was placing the phone back in its cradle when Jesse reached the kitchen. She turned to him-eyes empty, face blank. The moment she saw him the walls came down and she crumbled into Jesse's arms. The tears came in a rush, soaking Jesse's uniform shirt. Her body clenched and every part of her shook. But it was the sobbing that haunted him. The shrieks coming out of her were feral, primeval. He knew it was moot to try and say something soothing, so he stroked her hair and waited for the first wave to subside. When it did, Jesse sat her down at the kitchen table and held her hand.
"What happened, Patti?"
But it was too soon. She couldn't even form words.
"Officer Simpson," Jesse called for Suit.
When Suit stepped into the kitchen, Jesse told him to sit with Patti and to get her anything she needed. As he left the kitchen he leaned over and whispered in Suit's ear, "Just keep her out of the bedroom."
The ME was to the side of the bed, jotting notes down on a pad. Peter Perkins stopped what he was doing and held up a plastic evidence bag containing a syringe.
"Found it at the side of the bed."
Jesse nodded, distracted. He was focused on the dead girl on the bed, dressed in a too-big Red Sox T-shirt. If not for the two other men present and the odors in the air that came with sudden death, Jesse might have been able to fool himself that the girl was simply in a deep sleep. He supposed she was, really, in the deepest of sleeps.
The ME stopped his scribbling and turned to Jesse.
"She's been dead about two hours. No obvious signs of foul play. We'll have to wait for the tox screen," he said, "but it's a heroin OD. I'd make book on it."
Jesse asked, "Was she a heavy user."
"I don't think so. No track marks. Only one fresh puncture wound that I can see." The ME took the girl's left arm, turned it up, and pointed to the inner fold of her forearm. "See it?" He didn't wait for Jesse to answer. "I'll know more when I get her on the table. I'm done with her, if you want to have a look. I'll send my crew in to bag her." He looked back at the girl. "A shame."
A shame. Sometimes all it took were a few syllables to sum things up. But those two simple syllables were also woefully inadequate, because while they summed things up, they would also leave a thousand questions in their wake. The questions for Jesse and his department would be the easy ones: When did the girl start using? Who was her supplier? Could they catch him or her? Could they make a case against him or her? The questions for Heather's parents would be the harder ones: How could we not have known? What didn't we see? How had we failed her? And some of those questions, maybe all of them, would go forever unanswered. Jesse liked the Mackeys and hoped the questions wouldn't tear Patti and Steve apart, but Jesse had seen the scenario play out a hundred times before. The parents would need someone to blame and, short on answers or with answers they didn't like, they tended to blame each other.
If there was anything that experience had taught Jesse about drug cases, it was that they didn't happen in a vacuum. Where there was one case there would be others. It wasn't a matter of if, but a matter of how many, how severe, and when. The tough thing was that to limit the damage, Jesse was going to have to ask some of those hard questions of the Mackeys, and he was going to have to do it sooner rather than later. Sooner being now.
He found Patti Mackey in the kitchen, Suit standing silent guard over her. Jesse was glad for Suit being on hand. One of Suit Simpson's remarkable qualities was that in spite of his size, he was almost always a comforting presence. People just felt at ease around him. The same could not be said of Jesse. He supposed he was a little softer around the edges these days, now that he was a father and he was no longer drinking, but there was something about his self-containment that didn't allow people to feel the kind of comfort around him that they felt around Molly or Suit. He was okay with that. Those qualities helped make him good at his job. Still, there were times, especially times like these, when he wished he had the knack.