The River Killings

The River Killings

by Merry Jones
The River Killings

The River Killings

by Merry Jones


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The River Killings is the second fast-past, gripping tale of suspense in the Zoe Hayes mystery series. Zoe, a divorced art therapist with a six-year-old adopted daughter, returns with another page-turner set in Philadelphia, this time along historic Boathouse Row. On summer vacation from her job, Zoe takes sculling lessons with pal Susan Cummings. One evening, while daughter Molly and Susan's children wait in the boathouse, Zoe and Susan row off onto the Schuylkill to practice for an upcoming regatta. When Susan's oar catches on some flotsam (which turns out to be a woman's dress) the boat flips, and the two find themselves in deep water with not just one but an entire throng of dead bodies. Someone along Boathouse row is a murderer, but who? When Zoe and boyfriend Detective Nick Stiles argue, he heads out to the river for a "cool off" night time row. When he doesn't come back, Zoe and Molly go looking for him. There, in the darkness, Zoe discovers a sinister plot that she and Molly might not be able to escape.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781463711207
Publisher: CreateSpace Publishing
Publication date: 07/30/2011
Pages: 304
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.64(d)

About the Author

Merry Jones writes mysteries (Summer Session, The Nanny Murders, The River Killings, The Deadly Neighbors, The Borrowed and Blue Murders), humor (including I Love Him, But...) and non-fiction (including Birthmothers: Women who relinquished babies for adoption tell their stories). Her work has been translated into seven languages. She teaches writing part time at Temple University, lives with her family outside Philadelphia, belongs to Mystery Writers of America, The Authors Guild, and The Philadelphia Liars Club.

Read an Excerpt

The River Killings

By Jones, Merry

St. Martin's Minotaur

Copyright © 2006 Jones, Merry
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0312330413

Chapter One
The water gleamed silver and black like a stream of mercury winding through the night. The almost full moon and the traffic lights on Kelly Drive spilled some light our way, and Susan had clipped a red blinking flash onto the back of her spandex top. Even so, as we shoved off the boathouse dock, we were clearly alone on the inky river, only a thin layer of carbon fiber separating us from the chilly waters of the Schuylkill River.

For June, the night was unnaturally muggy. The weather had been abnormal lately, the air swelling, sticky and humid, with temperatures in the high eighties too early and for too many days. After sunset, the air had begun to cool, but it hung heavily, as if exhausted from the day.

Maybe I was projecting; I was drained, having spent a long, stifling day at the Institute, finishing paperwork and saying good-bye to patients, some of whom wouldn't be there anymore when I returned from a two-week break. My head was crowded with their incomplete art projects and unfinished therapy programs, and I wanted simply to collapse at home, sorting myself out, chilling under a ceiling fan.

By contrast, Susan had taken the day off, staying in her air-conditioned Center City home, supervising contractors who were putting in skylights and redoing the deck.She'd been desperate to get out of the house and singularly unmoved by my claims of fatigue.

"The water's completely calm," she'd promised. "The row will be easy and quiet. The river will be empty--no coaching launches to speed by and wake us. In fact, there won't be any other boats out at all."

She sounded pleased, as if being the only boat on the river in the dark was a plus. Frankly, I was uncomfortable rowing at night. The water was too black, too silent. Rowing on it seemed risky.

I'd tried to put up an argument. "Susan, we're still novices."

"Exactly. That's why we should go now, while it's quiet. It'll be easier water than during the day. Trust me."

I'd sighed, still resisting. "What am I supposed to do with Molly?" Molly was my six-year-old daughter. So far, she'd usually been at school when we rowed. Or, on weekends, she and Susan's daughters Rollerbladed or rode bikes along the river on Kelly Drive. But at night, what was Molly supposed to do? Nick was working late again, and with Angela off on her honeymoon, I had nobody to baby-sit.

But Susan had been undeterred. She'd offered to bring two of her daughters, Emily and Julie. "They'll all stay at the boathouse," she'd said. "They'll watch TV in the lounge for an hour."

"What about Tony?" Tony Boschetti was the boathouse manager, and we'd heard that he wasn't happy about members leaving their children alone there.

"Screw Tony. They'll stay in the lounge. They won't bother anybody."

She'd had me. Molly and Emily were best friends; Julie was older, almost eleven. They'd be fine. After all, we'd only be gone for an hour.

And so, despite my reservations, I'd agreed to go. We'd left the girls in the lounge with sodas and bags of popcorn, then gone down to the deserted dock, gotten into the Andelai and shoved off.

Susan was energized. In just a few months, she'd become an avid, if not particularly skilled, sculler, bringing to rowing the same relentless fervor that she applied to the rest of her life. Susan did nothing halfway; if she wanted to swim, she threw herself wholeheartedly, headfirst, into the pool. Somehow, she successfully managed her marriage, her three daughters, her active criminal defense law practice, her volunteer work at a homeless shelter, her second term as PTA president, her position with the Neighborhood Town Watch, and her never-ending process of redecorating her home and preparing not just healthful but delectable meals for family and friends. Sculling was merely the newest of Susan's many passions, and I knew from past experience that it was best not to interfere; for a time, she would be utterly consumed.

It was all Nick's fault. Nick was the man I'd been seeing, and he'd been rowing since high school. The first thing he did when he moved to Philadelphia the year before was to buy a new sculling shell and join a boathouse. And as soon as the winter ice had thawed, he'd begun rowing. Nick rowed when he was stressed or fatigued, when he needed to think or relax, when he needed to work off frustration or uncertainty. He rowed at all hours, often before dawn, and in all weather. When Susan had complained that her thighs were getting flabby, Nick suggested that she take up rowing. Before I knew it, Susan had signed us both up for a Learn-to-Row class. I'd never have taken the class on my own, but Susan had insisted. Rowing would be good for us--less fattening than going to lunch, less expensive than shopping. Besides, she'd argued, fortyish-year-old women like us needed to take action to resist rolling midriffs and the tolls of time.

In the end, though, I took the class not because of anything Susan said, but because I was curious. What was this sport that lured Nick out of bed before the sun was up? For years, I'd been intrigued by the long, sleek shells on the river, the elegant sway of the rowers, the synchrony of their oars. I'd wondered what it would feel like to be one of them, gliding on the water with silent strength and grace. But I'd been an innocent. I'd had no idea how all-consuming this new hobby could become. Or how it would change our lives.

By the time our six weeks of Learn-to-Row classes had ended, Susan had become addicted. She'd urged me to join Humberton Barge, one of the oldest rowing clubs on Boathouse Row, and she insisted that we practice daily, preparing to compete in the Schuylkill Navy Regatta, the first race of the summer.

Susan may have been the instigator, but, in my way, I'd become hooked, too. We'd even hired a coach, the controversial but esteemed Preston Everett, to work with us twice a week. A former Olympic champion, Coach Everett had the reputation of being both the most cantankerous and the most capable coach on the river. It had been Coach Everett who'd assigned us our boat, a double named Andelai. And it had been Coach Everett who'd assigned us our positions. As "bow," Susan was to steer the boat and give commands; as "stroke," I was, basically, to keep quiet and obey her.

This arrangement suited Susan perfectly. She enjoyed talking without interruption on any subject that breezed through her mind. As we rowed, she often commented on the natural environment, the lush foliage along the banks, the egrets and loons, the turtles, the ducklings. Depending on her mood, she would rave or rant about her husband, Tim, and any of her three children. She talked about the clients she was defending, the rabid ferocity of prosecutors, the shoulders of the contractors working on her house, the price of slipcovers for her sunroom sofa, a new chili recipe that was rich with chocolate, the outcome of her impending mammogram, how much weight she'd gained or lost, the burgeoning sizes of her teenage daughter's bras. She saw her role as bow as a license to speak uninterrupted for as long as she wanted about anything. Mostly, I tuned her out. But buried in her monologue were occasional directions about rowing the boat, so I had to tune in at least marginally.

We shoved off the dock, gliding gently away from the glowing lights of Boathouse Row. The water was smooth and sleepy, a dark mirror for the lights, and the boat slid along smoothly, undisturbed, leaving a rippling triangular trail. Rowing at night, I thought, might not be so bad after all. It was peaceful. Romantic, in a way. Maybe Nick would row with me some evening. I pictured it, the two of us alone on the river under the dreamy moon.

"Half-slide in two," Susan called. "And stop splashing."

Splashing? I wasn't splashing, or I hadn't thought I was. But I didn't say anything. Coach Everett had been very clear about in-boat behavior. The bow, and only the bow, was to speak. The bow was in command. Everybody else was to keep silent, backs straight and eyes focused forward. They were not even to turn their heads.

"Watch your oars," Susan ordered.

Watch them? What was wrong with them? And how could I watch them if I wasn't supposed to turn my head?

"Why?" I called as I rowed, aware that, by speaking, I was breaking a cardinal rule. "What's wrong?"

"You're still splashing."

I was? "With both oars?" I had to shout; the river was quiet but Susan was behind me, and I was faced away from her. And, along this stretch of the river, sounds of traffic on Kelly Drive and the nearby expressway muffled our voices.

"Sometimes," she shouted back. "And watch your slide."

My slide? The slide is the part of the stroke when the legs bend as the rower's seat moves up from bow to stern. But what about the slide was I supposed to "watch"? Was it too fast? Too slow? Too early or late? Why couldn't she be specific? Was she being deliberately obtuse? Never mind, I told myself. Let it go.

"And relax your shoulders."

Oh, boy. We hadn't rowed five hundred yards yet. Was Susan going to comment on my every move for six more miles?

"Watch the splashing," she shouted, "and give me pressure on port. More port. Give me more port."

I gave her port, thinking about what else I wanted to give her. After we passed under the Girard Avenue Bridge, though, Susan changed her approach. "We have to relax," she said.


"Our shoulders are tense."

She'd begun referring to us as a single being.

I took a deep breath, trying to focus, to inhale the warmth and calm of the night. The clear sky. The glassy water. Anything but the cloying commands of the bow.

"We need to sit up tall," she said.

I closed my eyes, centering myself. Coach Everett had told us to row with our eyes closed so we could sense the boat moving in the water. I closed mine to escape the squawking in the bow. No good. Susan kept it up. She began to narrate each stroke, start to finish, in an annoying singsong cadence.

"Hands away fast. Swing with our bodies. Now, slow slide. Roll our oars early. And catch."

Okay. I'd had enough. "Susan," I called, still rowing, "can we just row?"


"Please. Just steer the boat and call the drills. Can you not talk so much?"

"I'm the bow. I'm supposed to tell you what to do."

"But you're talking nonstop. I can't focus on rowing. All I can think about is you, talking."

"Excuse me?" She was appalled at my insubordination. Stunned. "I can't believe this. Let it run." That means stop rowing.

Our oars slapped the water as we floated to a stop. I twisted around to face her.

"What's your problem, Zoe?" Susan demanded. "You don't like me being bow? I didn't ask to be--Coach Everett made me bow."

"I have no problem with you being bow--"

"Obviously, you do. You can't stand not being in charge, even in a damned boat. This is about your control thing, isn't it?"

Oh dear, she was making it personal. She knew me too well, knew what my issues were. "Susan, no. It's not about me. I don't need to be in control--"

"Really? Not about control? Then what? Your trust thing? You don't trust me to be bow. Is that it? You don't think you can rely on me?"

I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. "Susan. This is not about trust or control. It's not about me. I really don't mind you being bow. I just mind you being the bow from hell."

Oops. That was harsh. I felt her recoil, wounded and defensive.

"How am I the bow from hell?"

"You criticize my every move--"

"No way--I do not--"

"Oh, please, Susan."

"I'm just doing my job. I'm responsible for how the boat moves."

"You want to move the boat? Focus on your own rowing instead of mine."

"My rowing? What's wrong with my rowing?"

The conversation wasn't going well, but I couldn't stop myself. "We're both beginners, Susan. Neither of us is perfect."

"I didn't say I was--"

"But you blame me for every little wobble."

"That's absurd. I do not."

Alone in the middle of the river, we scrapped like an old married couple. Susan was my best friend, and I knew the fight wasn't worth it, but I was tired and cranky. We kept it up, jabbing, bickering, getting nowhere and behaving badly.

"How about we both just shut up and row," I finally said. I sat in the ready position, waiting for a command.

"Fine," she answered. "You want to row? We'll row." Susan glowered at me. I knew because I could feel her glower burning my back. "Is it okay with you if I ask you to please sit ready?"

Uh-oh. Her tone was both sarcastic and ominous. I didn't know how, but she was going to make me pay for complaining.

Sure enough, she began calling drills, steadily increasing our power and stroke rate, trying to exhaust me and prove who was in charge. I didn't challenge her again, didn't make a peep. I was going to prove I could perform at least as well as she could. So, when she called, "Take it up," I cursed silently but took it up, pushing harder with my legs and swinging my body. Oddly, the harder I pushed, the more I enjoyed myself. My strokes became smoother as we gained momentum. The boat gurgled, leaving a bubbly, moonlit trail. Our oars clicked into place with each stroke, and we began to soar upriver, swinging together, pushing, feeling the burn of our muscles and the potential of our combined power.

Lungs searing, we sped under Columbia Bridge and reached the tip of the overgrown pile of rocks called Peters Island. Halfway up the island, I was about to die. Susan had proved her point. She'd won. I had to stop. I tried to say that I needed to stop, but I didn't have enough wind to talk. Susan yelled, "Take it up. Full power for forty."

I'd had no idea that Susan was that sadistic. But my pride or my temper kicked in, and I didn't give up. From some remote sector of my being, I pulled out more energy and rowed faster, pushed harder than I'd imagined possible, using my body weight as leverage against my oars. The boat took off. It skimmed the water, speeding ahead. We passed the woods of Peters Island in a whoosh.

"Keep it up," Susan huffed.

I kept the rate up, legs and thighs aching, blood surging, lungs bursting. Lost in rhythm and exertion, I rejoiced in the wind, the glide. I had the impression that we'd left the water, that we'd begun to fly.

Apparently, Susan was similarly absorbed; she didn't call a warning. Maybe she hadn't looked ahead. Or maybe, in the darkness, she simply hadn't seen anything that low to the surface. But, when we made impact, our boat lurched so violently that I flew off my seat. I stopped rowing midstroke, but my oars crashed into Susan's. The boat shuddered, and we dipped dangerously to port.

"Shit," Susan shrieked. "Hold still; don't move."

I squatted, trying to balance, not able to get back onto my seat. We were tipping at an impossible angle. Slowly, I turned my head to look over my shoulder. Susan's starboard oar stood erect in the water, definitely out of reach. She'd lost hold of it; its blade was entangled with mine, and both were caught in a mass of what looked like floating cloth. I couldn't see what we'd hit, couldn't turn far enough around.

"Zoe--stop. Don't move."

"I'm not moving."

"Don't turn around. Set the boat."

"I can't set the boat--my oar's stuck with yours."

"Oh, shit--hold still." Cursing, Susan flailed at her starboard oar, trying to grab it, inadvertently knocking my oar deeper into the water, rocking the boat, tipping us even farther.

"Susan--stop--we're flipping--"

Susan stopped. In fact, she held completely still. "Dear God," she breathed. "A floater."


"We hit a floater."

Slowly, careful not to shift my weight, I turned to look. At first, all I saw was bloated cloth, lumpy yards of it, adrift on the water. Then, near the surface beside our oars, I made out a dim opalescent oval bobbing with the movement of the river. I stared, focusing, and the pale oval took on definition. It had features. Eyes, a nose. Lips. Hair that disappeared into the dark water and reemerged, washing against its skin.

"Oh, damn." I don't know who kept repeating that, Susan or I. Or maybe both of us. For a timeless second we sat, not moving, tilted at an unmanageable angle, staring at the body, balanced precariously at a forty-five-degree angle, our oars tangled up with a dead woman's dress, our minds racing to figure out how to right the boat. Soon, though, we grasped the grim reality: It was too late. Any movement we made would disturb our delicate balance and flip the boat. In fact, even if we made no movement at all, we couldn't maintain our balance much longer. We'd tilted too far. There was nothing we could do. We could reach for our oars or not; either way, we were going over.

For endless seconds, our boat hung tenuously as if holding its breath. Then, gently, teasingly, it rolled over, spilling us into the chilly black water of the Schuylkill.

Copyright © 2006 by Merry Jones


Excerpted from The River Killings by Jones, Merry Copyright © 2006 by Jones, Merry. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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