The day we found the Artistic Director of The Nantucket Theater Lab murdered in his basement, I was too busy to respond.
Haden Krakauer, my Assistant Chief, and I were in the middle of busting a cockfight on Essex Road—thirty-two thousand dollars in the kitty, eight birds in cages, two more in the dirt, thirty men, six extra cops, and three translators working five languages in the angry crowd.
Haden sighed as the ringleaders were cuffed and hauled away. “This isn’t my Nantucket.”
“Really?” I said. “Wasn’t that your old pal Nick Folger, calling the fight?”
“Don’t remind me.”
Back at the station, I could see it was going to take hours to untangle the mess, with advocates and family members and a team of veterinarians for the birds. Just sorting through the confusion of dialects—Belarus, Spanish, Portuguese, Russian, Jamaican patois and, this was a new one, Vietnamese—slowed the process to a crawl.
At one point Haden leaned across the interview table where we were dealing with the five Ecuadoran brothers who owned the cockfight property, and said, “Let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.”
I nodded at the Biblical reference. “But the point of the Tower of Babel was to stop this kind of shit. Humans all talking the same language was the whole problem, right? ‘They have all one language and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.’ God didn’t like that idea—people imagining stuff to do. Mostly bad stuff.”
“Yeah. So he made everybody speak different languages.”
“And yet…we still have cockfights on Essex Road.”
“At least He made the effort.”
“How about just, like, making people nicer? That would have worked. We could all speak Esperanto and help each other. But, no. He’d rather just sit around like Tolkien, making up those weird languages and writing in Elvish.”
I smiled. “God as a crackpot English academic. I like it.”
The Ecuadorans stared at us. Their lawyer continued texting. He knew his clients would be back on the street in an hour, once the bail was set.
We stood and stepped out into the main hall. I felt a tug at my shirt. It was Barnaby Toll, out of breath. He must have taken the stairs to the basement booking room, deserting his dispatch desk. He knew better, after four years on the job, so something big must have happened. His round pale face confirmed it. I could see the excitement in his eyes. Some authentic crime had brought out the animal in him, that fight-or-flight jolt straight from the adrenal gland. I could feel it, too—the clutch of danger, the thrill of the hunt—when he whispered, “Chief! Chief! Somebody killed Horst Refn!”
Haden was already on his cell phone. “Charlie Boyce is out there. Fraker and the Staties got the call. They beat us to the house and sealed it. The vic is D.R.T., head-first in his meat freezer. Charlie rallied the troops, talked to the neighbors. Looks like the T.O.D. was less than an hour ago.”
D.R.T.—dead right there. Haden had picked up the term from me, but I hadn’t heard anyone use it on a crime scene since I left the LAPD. A witness with a solid Time of Death report would be a huge help. My boys were already canvassing the neighborhood, just as I’d taught them to do. Maybe the NPD was turning into a real-life police department, after all.
I scanned the milling crowd of mostly Hispanic cockfight aficionados. They would all be processed by the end of the day, placed in holding, released or turned over to ICE if they had criminal records. Our work was done. I nodded to Haden. “Let’s go.”
On the way out the door I recognized a face and almost turned back. But there was nothing I could do for him at that moment, and my singling him out would only make trouble for him with the others, marking him as an informant or a rat. As far as I knew, he was neither. He ran a big landscaping company he’d built from scratch and wrote agitprop plays about the Nantucket class war. His name was Sebastian Cruz, father to Hector Cruz—my daughter’s new boyfriend. It was a small world on Nantucket.
And getting smaller all the time.
The last time I saw Sebastian, he was having a shouting match with Horst Refn on Main Street.
“Same Time, Next Year? Good Vibrations? What is this? Jupiter, Florida, dinner theater? At least those audiences get to eat!”
“We have a great season,” Refn sputtered.
“You have crap! Who Dun It? A ‘black box,’ no cables, bring-your-own costumes Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark? Why bother? Aida with a papier-mâché pyramid and six kids in Babar costumes left over from Halloween?”
“That’s not fair! We’re doing a great job with—”
“With what? I give you a serious piece of theater and you shit all over it.”
“Yeah! Because it was bad!”
“No, because you are bad! Because you are an ignorant, gutless, low-class punk! You’re useless. You’re a suit from Walmart. You’re a chicken nuggets Happy Meal!”
“I’m the Artistic Director of The Nantucket Theater Lab!”
“You’re a corporate stooge! Everyone hates you! You think the girls like it when you come on to them? You’re pushing fifty and you’re getting fat!”
“Say that again”
“Fat! You’re fat! Your fat piggy face makes them sick! You’re ripping the seams of that fancy jacket. Look in a mirror! You’re an overstuffed sausage.”
Refn shoved him. That was where I stepped in.
I blocked Refn, twisted around to flat-hand Sebastian’s chest. “That’s enough, boys.”
Refn glared at me. “Did you hear what he said?”
“I don’t care what either one of you said. Break it up right now or I’m locking both of you up for disturbing the peace.”
“That’s the most ridiculous thing I ever—”
“Show some dignity, Horst.”
Sebastian laughed. Refn lunged again and I had to grab his arms. I turned to Sebastian. “Go. Now.”
Sebastian looked past me at Refn. “You ever lay a hand on me again, I’ll fucking kill you, culero.”
He turned and walked off down Main Street. “What did he say? What did he just call me?”
“You don’t want to know.”
Literally, the term meant “ass salesman” but “asshole” was the most useful translation. The small crowd that had gathered started to disperse. The show was over. But Refn still struggled against me. “You’re just letting him walk away? He threatened my life! That’s assault in this state.”
“And you pushed him. That’s battery. And this is late June on Nantucket, going into the biggest holiday of the year. So we’re all going to live and let live.”
But someone obviously had a different plan in mind for Horst Refn.
As we pulled into the driveway of the Killdeer Drive house, I felt relieved. Sebastian’s arrest was one piece of good news—if the coroner’s report confirmed witness statements for the time of death, his presence at the cockfight would be an unbreakable alibi.
I killed the engine, just as the WACK disc jockey who called herself J. Feld was about to identify the song she’d been playing. The imagery of the “bargain-priced room on La Cienega” had made me briefly homesick for Los Angeles. The repeated line “You, or your memory” was probably the title. I’d look it up when I had time.
I stayed in the silent car for a moment or two, studying the house. It exuded a bristling sense of danger, cruel but sluggish, like the giant yellow-jacket nests you found so often under the eaves of Nantucket mansions. Police and crime scene techs moved in and out like insects, bound on inscrutable random business of their own.
Neighbors had gathered on the sidewalk, curious but keeping their distance. Local alternative newspaper editor David Trezize was interviewing one of them, scribbling intently in his spiral-bound notebook, glancing up occasionally through his thick glasses, looking like an intelligent otter, reaping the first quotes for his front page story. I looked around for someone from the Inquirer and Mirror, but David had beaten them to the story, once again.
Past the yellow crime scene tape, Lonnie Fraker had his troops fully mobilized, working crowd control at the perimeter, guarding the doors and loitering with squinting intensity inside. They reminded me of the paint crews Mike Henderson had pointed out a few weeks before, with one guy on a ladder scraping listlessly at a window casing, another one standing at the base of the ladder for no particular reason, a third guy dabbing at the fence as if he were touching up a self-portrait, with the rest of the crew pointing up at the second floor, studying each car as it drove by or staring at their smartphones. “How do those crews make any money?” he had asked me. “I actually work, and I can barely make ends meet.”
The answer was easier for Lonnie’s storm troopers. Malingering in the most threatening way possible was their basic job description. The real action was happening in the basement, where the Boston crime scene techs were working.
We climbed out of my cruiser and started up the driveway. Just inside the front door, a new hire I’d never seen before blocked the hall. “This is a restricted area, sir. I’m going to have to ask you to vacate the premises.”
I wasn’t wearing my uniform—I rarely did. Still, he should have known better. I had participated in an orientation day for the new State Police recruits less than a month ago. But I’d been wearing my uniform that day.
I shook my head at the stilted jargon. “Is that like ‘leaving the building’?”
Haden laughed, but the kid didn’t see the humor. That’s my cross to bear. The kid moved a step closer. “Don’t make me ask you again, sir.”
I decided to speak his language. I pointed out the open door to where my official Ford Explorer with full police markings and big antennas was parked at the curb. “I’m the operator of that vehicle. Get it?”
“Let him in, O’Donnell,” Lonnie called out from the kitchen. “He’s Chief of Police Henry Kennis.”
O’Donnell’s face pulled tight and his eyes opened comically wide. He reminded me of an L.A. burglar pinned by the floodlight from a police helicopter.
I patted his shoulder. “No problem, O’Donnell. Now you know.” I tipped my head toward Haden. “This is Assistant Chief Krakauer. He’s allowed to be here, too.”
“Yes, sir. Sorry, sir.”
We moved past him into the kitchen. I turned to Lonnie. “What have you got?”
Lonnie pulled his heavy-framed, Buddy Holly-style glasses from the front pocket of his uniform, extracted his wallet-sized spiral blue pad, and flipped a couple of pages. With his high-pitched nasal voice and a hunched posture that tried to minimize his awkward height, he could have been a geek at ComicCon, haggling over a mint condition Steve Ditko Spider-Man comic.
“Okay, so, the forensic team reconstructed the incident this way. Front door was open, the perp knew that, and they’re thinking it had to be someone who knew Refn. No sign of struggle. Two coffee mugs out on the kitchen counter—nice friendly chat. Eventually Refn and the perp go down to the basement.”
“Any idea why?”
“Well, clearly it’s pretext, not ‘reason,’ you know what I mean? This individual had a plan. Refn had lots of stuff stored down there—art books, vintage clothing, plaster maquettes, antique quilted pillows—he had put a lot of the merchandise up at the ReUse exchange website. Seems like he wanted to unload a lot of personal baggage fast. Maybe he was planning to make a move? Which is weird because the Theater Lab just renewed his contract for three years. Anyway, we’re taking his computer and we’ll track the e-mails, see if anyone was in touch about the stuff he had for sale. So, let’s see…they go downstairs, there’s a struggle, we have signs of blunt-force trauma. The perp knocks him out, then jams him into the meat freezer. There’s serious pre-mortem frostbite on the face.”
“Cause of death?”
“Looks like strangulation, as the perp held him in place. Nasty way to die.”
“Time of death?”
“We lucked out there, Chief. The next door neighbor was listening to the Red Sox game and heard sounds of struggle right after a Pablo Sandoval home run. And, hey, if you follow the Sox, you know any home run is a big deal this season. Am I right?”
“We could sure use Ortiz right now,” I offered. I didn’t really follow baseball but you couldn’t help absorbing the basics, here in Red Sox Nation.
Lonnie flipped over a page. “The body was found by Donald Harcourt, he’s on the NTL Board, some kind of industrial packaging big shot, WASP, big money, house in Shimmo.”
“What was he doing here?”
“He says he got a call from Joe Little. They were supposed to meet at the house. Some kind of big pow-wow with Refn. But Little was a no-show. Or he split before Harcourt arrived.”
“Joe Little…” I was trying to place the name.
“Joseph Frederick Little, Lotus Capital Management? Loaded, like all the rest of them. He’s on the NTL Board.”
I put it together. “Yeah…he had a big fight with Harcourt at some charity cocktail party a couple of weeks ago. One of them pushed the other into an antique hutch that turned out to be a replica from Pottery Barn. The owner was going to sue until the decorator confessed—a perfect Nantucket story.”
“I never read about it,” Lonnie said. “Were you there?”
“Right. I always get invited to these fundraisers because they know I’m an easy touch.”
“Okay, okay, so how did you find out about it?”
“Jackson Blum told me.”
“You’re all chummy now?”
“Actually, we are. He turned out to be a pretty decent guy.”
I had arrested Blum for murder last Christmas, on the night he found out he’d driven his gay son to suicide. It was a horrific one-two punch, but we dropped the murder charge and the son survived. Still, the night Blum spent in jail and the ecstatic family reunion the next morning had scrambled his brain chemistry like a course of electro-shock. Here, I thought only a lobotomy could redeem him! Seriously, though, Blum had become so humble and friendly, I suspected an ulterior motive, but the wolf really had transformed into the wolfhound. If only I could pull the same trick on people like Donald Harcourt and Joseph Little. As it stood right now I might have to console myself with arresting one of them for murder.
“Is Harcourt still here? I need to talk to him.”
Lonnie grinned. “He’s in the Great Room. Pissed as hell. This dead guy is ruining his whole day.”
“Let him wait. Did you talk to the neighbor?”
“We talked to all the neighbors. Or, I mean—we are talking to them. The canvass is ongoing. They all hate each other and they all hated Refn the most. Parties late at night. Police call-outs—you can dig up the records. Cigarette butts in the yard. Apparently, he smoked outside, and the wind blows those butts all over the place.”
I shook my head. “It’s hard to believe anybody still smokes.”
“Yeah,” Lonnie grinned. “It could seriously shorten his life. Though four out of five doctors agree it’s not quite as dangerous as being strangled and stuffed into a meat freezer.”
“That’s catchy. You should write ads for Big Tobacco.”
He shrugged. “There was more. Refn let his hedge grow too high and never trimmed it. The homeowners’ association was bitching about that as far back as last summer. And he built his fences wrong-side out. That had the abutters screaming. This guy definitely puts the ‘butt’ into abutter.”
“It’s a rule. I thought it was one of those unwritten rules, but it’s also a bylaw. You build a fence on the property line, the structural part of the fence, the cross pieces, have to face your property. The neighbor gets the good-looking side, the slats. Refn ignored the law, and the—you know, the custom, the neighborly agreement—and put up the fences so the neighbors have to look at the bad side. Best part is, it’s not even his house! The Theater Lab owns it and the Artistic Director just lives here. Like the President in the White House.”
I nodded at the casual way Refn had trampled the community’s mores. “He seems more like the President in the White House all the time.”
“Hey! Refn was good looking—and smart, supposedly. With actual hair. Anyway, the Theater Lab was pissed off at him, too— but they wouldn’t pony up the dough to take down the fences.”
“Is that all?”
“Are you kidding? Not even close.” Fraker flipped another page. “Let’s see…he parked his car blocking other people’s driveways and he had a car alarm that went off at all hours. People love that! Someone was flattening tires with a knife and everybody suspected Refn. No one filed a complaint; there was no proof—but it gives you the idea. Next big hurricane they’d have been looking for the wind machine in his basement. He’ll be off the hook for that now. And they have to admit he didn’t commit this murder. Unless he killed himself—to frame one of the neighbors!”
Lonnie laughed. I held up a hand. The gallows humor was necessary to vent the tension of the crime scene, but we were getting off track. “Down, boy. Where’s the one who heard the murder go down?”
“That would be Paula Monaghan. On the other side of the mega hedge. Seventy-two years old, founding member of the Garden Club and probably everything else around here. Deeded her pile on Baxter Road to the kids last year, and moved into this place.”
“I’m going to talk to her first.”
“Be my guest. She’s at home. I have Wylie and Steinkamp in there with her.”
“In case she makes a break for it?”
“Just following procedure, Chief.”
“Whatever. Keep this place buttoned up until I get back.”
Paula Monaghan was a perfect Nantucket type. I could have picked her out of a lineup: slim, regal, white-haired, sharp-eyed, dressed down in grass-stained khaki trousers, untucked blue Brooks Brothers shirt and well-worn espadrilles. This was old money personified. My girlfriend came from the same stock. She had educated me on the particulars of the Social Register set and their ostentatious hatred of display. Paula’s tarnished Tiffany silver service would be treated like Walmart flatware; her toilet paper would be one-ply, her reading glasses straight off the drugstore rack.
“Well, well, well,” she stood in her doorway, shaking my hand in an alarmingly solid grip. “Our poetry-writing police Chief. Quite a rarity! I suspect you’re the only specimen extant on the length of the Eastern Seaboard.”
“I hope not.”
“Optimism—that must be an essential shortcoming for a police officer.”
I smiled, “You may be right.”
“How agreeable you are! Please, I’m being terribly rude, come in. I was just having a cup of tea. Would you like one?”
She stepped back and I saw Wylie and Steinkamp, two crew-cut tubs of testosterone, lurking uncomfortably by the door into the living room, big guns on wide leather holsters bristling with mace and ammunition, perpetually longing for a declaration of martial law that never came. They made me nervous—I couldn’t image how Paula Monaghan felt.
“Okay, guys,” I told them. “I’ve got this one.”
“But Captain Fraker said—”
“This is my case and my witness.” I flicked a dismissive wrist toward the door. “Scat.”
I stared them down and saw Mrs. Monaghan fighting a smile as they shuffled out.
She closed the door behind them with a sigh of relief and I followed her into the kitchen. The big sunny room distinguished itself from the average Naushop setup by a few key details—the hanging rack of All-Clad pans (“A wedding gift”) and a block of Wusthof knives (“You need a good knife to cook properly.”). She maintained a small garden in her small tidy backyard—herbs and shallots, heirloom tomatoes.
“There’s no room for much of a flower garden here,” she said. “But I do have a weakness for hydrangeas. And some marigolds in the window box. Have you seen the window boxes in town this year? So overdone, so awful. The plants at that Graydon House look like they’re about to eat the hotel! That whistling sound you hear is generations of New England Quakers spinning in their modestly unmarked graves. But excuse me. You have much more serious matters to discuss.”
“No problem, Mrs. Monaghan. This kind of crime makes people talkative—like whistling through the graveyard.”
“My father made us hold our breath.”
We sat down at the kitchen table. She sipped her tea. “I’ll tell you exactly what I told those awful State Police people. I was weeding my garden, I actually do it myself, unlike some of the ladies in the Garden Club who have their gardens—I don’t know how else to say it—installed by very expensive landscapers, down to the last speck of mulch. Anyway, it was very quiet, the occasional car going by, birds jabbering as they do. I had my faithful old transistor radio on for the ballgame, of course, softly. I love my Red Sox, but I don’t like to annoy the neighbors. So, let me see…the first strange thing I heard was a dog whining—some miserable little creature forced to walk around on the leash, no doubt. Then a few minutes later a man walked up to Mr. Refn’s front door. Walk outside and check for yourself—you can see it through the hedge. Rather a short, stout man. He knocked, but the door was unlocked, and he went in. A little later I heard some sort of scuffle and shouting from the basement—the casement window in the foundation was open. I stood up, I wasn’t sure what to do. And that’s when I heard the gunshot!”
No one had mentioned any gunplay, and Fraker hadn’t mentioned blood spatter, shell casings, or ballistics. But I didn’t want to interrupt Mrs. Monaghan. I made a mental note and let it go for the moment. “Did you see anything else?”
She nodded. “I saw a woman.”
“She was running away down the street.”
“When was this exactly?”
“I—wait a moment. I…yes, when I stood up after the shot, I was holding my breath listening. I was standing as still as a rabbit in the rosa rugosa. I saw something out of the corner of my eye—someone running. It was a small person. My first thought was, ‘Oh my God, this is the killer.’ Why I didn’t think about the weapon she was carrying, I don’t know. I suppose I couldn’t imagine being gunned down in my own front yard. Anyway, I got to the street just as she disappeared around the curve in the street to Kittiwake Lane. I could tell it was a woman then.”
“Do you remember what she was wearing?”
“Blue jeans, and a long-sleeved t-shirt. It was light blue. And she had sneakers of some kind. Running shoes, I suppose you’d call them now.”
“How about her hair?”
“Shoulder-length, frizzy. Oh, and she was wearing a red hat with a visor. One of those baseball caps. I couldn’t see any insignia on it, she was too far away, and she was moving too fast.”
I felt a momentary chill, and it wasn’t just Mrs. Monaghan’s air conditioning. Her description sounded ominously like my girlfriend, Jane Stiles. The thought was absurd. I shook it off, changed the subject. “Did you notice anything else unusual on the street?”
“Well, yes, actually. There was a house painter working two houses down, painting the front clapboards. I had noticed him because it was unusual—one person, obviously a local, instead of a big…diverse…crew. We have tremendous diversity on Nantucket now, as I’m sure you know. Especially in the building trades.”
“And that was all—that he was working alone?”
“No, no, no—the strange thing was that he was gone. I mean…it must have been what? Two-thirty, two forty-five in the afternoon on a spectacular summer day. And suddenly he was nowhere to be found. It struck me as quite suspicious.”
“But the woman with the gun—”
“I didn’t see her carrying a gun. She might have thrown it down. I’d check all the bushes if I were you.”
“I’ll make a note of it.”
“She could have handed the gun to the house painter. They could have been in it together! There’s something shady about those people anyway. I mean, we pay them to loaf on our property, they’re poking around inside our houses when we’re not home. I heard one of them was arrested for stealing last year.”
She was talking about a friend of mine, and I had to set the record straight. Rumors spread on Nantucket faster than poison ivy. “That was Mike Henderson, and it turned out that Sheriff Bob Bulmer was stealing from the houses Mike had open in the winter, figuring Mike would take the blame when the owners arrived in the spring.”
Mrs. Monaghan stared at me. “That’s diabolical!”
“Well, it wasn’t very nice. But he made quite a few mistakes, fortunately, and we caught him quickly. So really, it didn’t—”
“Henderson! That’s his name!”
“The painter. I remember now. His name is right there on his truck.”
This was getting worse by the second. Next, it would turn out that my ex-wife was showing a house in the neighborhood, and Billy Delevane was building a deck next door. The hammer was a classic murder weapon, and a missed swing that connected with something hard could easily sound like a gunshot.
Enough. I felt a pang of nostalgia for the rough dirty world of Los Angeles. In my eight years on the LAPD I never turned up anyone I knew at a crime scene. A city is lonely and isolating and full of strangers—and that may be the best thing about it.
Clearly, I needed to interview Mike Henderson before Lonnie and his goons got a chance. But that would have to wait. I wasn’t finished with the crime scene yet. First, I needed to get a look at the body, brace Donald Harcourt, and talk to the neighbor on the other side of Refn’s house.
As I was brushing past Wylie and Steinkamp on the driveway, Mrs. Monaghan offered a parting shot. “It’s not surprising.”
I turned. “Excuse me?”
“The murder. It doesn’t surprise me, at least. Refn ran a non-profit.”
“Over the years, I’ve served on the boards of the Dreamland, the Nantucket Historical Association, and the Basket Museum, Chief Kennis. I know the nonprofit world quite well. Too well. The rage and hate and backstabbing and slander would turn your hair white. I think it may have done mine! Honestly, it’s like the last days of the Nixon White House in those boardrooms. Or the first days of this one. Anything’s possible.”
“They say the second time is easier.”
Wylie and Steinkamp exchanged a look of skeptical contempt. But there was steel in her voice.
“You’re saying that one of these people has killed before?” She met my gaze calmly. “Perhaps you should look into that.”
“If you have information pertaining to—”
“I have no such thing. What I do have is a boundless faith in human nature. Roughly ninety percent of all the people you’ll ever meet are unredeemably bad, young man, greedy and selfish and cruel. Most of them would commit the most heinous crime you could possibly imagine, if they knew for certain they could get away with it. I sometimes think the fabric of society is held together by nothing more than the daunting awareness that it is, in fact, quite difficult to get away with murder.”
I had no time for her preening nihilism. “Thanks for your thoughts, Mrs. Monaghan. If you remember anything else that might aid the investigation, please call the station.”
The forensic team was finishing up in Refn’s basement when I came downstairs. Our own forensic tech, Monica Terwilliger, fat but remarkably graceful and light on her feet, stood as I came down the plank stairs. She had cut her thick blond hair short and once again it struck me that she was forty pounds away from being a dangerously beautiful woman. But she seemed to like the distance.
Carl Borelli was leaning over the body. Short, balding, dumpy, nearing retirement age and counting the seconds, he worked for the State Police out of Barnstable. As he pushed off the edge of the freezer to straighten up, I could tell he wasn’t exactly thrilled to be on Nantucket. As I recalled, he hated flying, and they would have had to jam him onto one of those Cape Air Cessnas to get him here this fast.
Monica spoke first. “Hey, Chief, we’re looking at—”
“I’ll handle the briefing, Ms Terliger.”
“Not to me,” I said. “Try to learn people’s names, Carl. It helps foster the useful illusion that you give a shit. Go on, Monica, sorry.”
“I was just going to say…we have signs of a struggle, defensive wounds on the arms, blunt-force injuries to the ribs, lots of mess and chaos—” She waved her arm around the basement floor, which was scattered with old books and magazines, small broken plaster statues, crockery and coins, spilled from boxes when a big metal shelving unit tipped over. “Someone threw someone into that,” Monica said, “and the perpetrator had what I think was probably a bat, judging from the width of the bruising. No sign of struggle upstairs, though, which makes me think the assailant entered freely and came downstairs with no interference.”
“So, a friend.”
“Well, not an enemy at least. And not a stranger. Though Mr. Refn obviously…well, he didn’t know the person quite as well as he thought he did.”
Borelli spoke up, still sullen from my rebuke. “There’s strangulation ligature on the neck, if I may add an observation. Refn was held down in the freezer long enough to get a serious case of frostbite on his face. The freezing is all ante-mortem. He felt it while it was happening. We’re talking about torture. Someone really, really didn’t like this guy.”
I thought of Paula Monaghan’s comment. But this would be taking bureaucratic infighting to a whole new level.
I left them to finish, and went upstairs to find Donald Harcourt.
He was not in a great mood. “Am I under arrest?”
“No. Of course not.”
“Then why am I being detained here?”
He was a short, stocky man with an unruly mop of black hair that he obviously colored, despite the token gray streaks he had left at the temples. He wore Nantucket Reds—trousers that turned pink with repeated washings—and a blue blazer over an expensive-looking gray crewneck t-shirt. He looked like he was on his way to a cocktail party, not a meeting with his Artistic Director—but he obviously had further plans for the day. I knew the type. Call it profiling, Nantucket-style. The physical profile was an aristocratic one, if you ignored the spider web of burst blood vessels on his cheeks. The man obviously liked to drink, and my guess was he’d started early today—a shot of vodka in the morning coffee, perhaps. Or a couple of Bloodies with breakfast.
“I need you to tell me what happened this afternoon.”
“I’ve already told twenty different people! And they’re all waiting for me to slip up so they can pounce. ‘You told Deputy Dog that you parked in front of the house but we located your car halfway down the street,’ they say. It’s insulting. I had a senior moment about my car. Does that make me a murderer?”
“You found the body, Mr. Harcourt. They have to ask these questions. And so do I.”
A shudder of resignation. “Fine. Ask away.”
“Shall we sit down?” I knew the conversation would seem less confrontational if we were both settled in Refn’s plush-looking armchairs. And I was right: the tension broke as Harcourt got comfortable. He pushed his hands down his thighs, as if he was working out a cramp.
I began. “So what brought you here today?”
“Joey Little—Joseph Little, of Lotus Capital Management? I’m sure you’ve heard of it.”
“No, sorry. I manage my own capital. Which basically comes down to balancing my checkbook.”
He ignored me and pushed on. “Joey married a much younger woman several years ago, a model named Laura Gutterson. Charming girl. You must have seen pictures of them in the Foggy Sheet.”
This was our version of a society page, featured in N Magazine and the Mahon About Town website—over-exposed photographs of overdressed Nantucket gentry under the tent at various cocktail parties and fundraisers, mostly belying the cherished myth that the rich were thinner and better looking than the rest of us. Laura Gutterson-Little would stand out in those crowds. I made a mental note to check the back issues. But I’d need Gene Mahon’s help to make a solid ID. “Those photos are never captioned.”
“Of course not. People in the know, know already. Everyone else can just watch and wonder.”
“So, Little texted you this afternoon. Why?”
“There was an issue that had to be resolved.” I waited. “It was personal.”
“It’s going to come out eventually, Mr. Harcourt. Here or at the station, or during the trial.”
“Trial? What do you mean—trial? I did nothing! I was just trying to help.”
I sat forward a little. “Convince me of that.”
“Apparently there had been some sort of…dalliance. Refn was quite the ladies’ man. There were photographs. Refn was threatening to put them online, unless Joe paid him off. The man was making close to a hundred and fifty thousand dollars a year for doing next to nothing. Why did he need to blackmail people?”
“Lots of reasons. A gambling habit. A drug habit. I hear he does a lot of high-end shopping. That stuff adds up.”
“I suppose. It’s privileged information, by the way—about the salary.”
“Don’t you have to post all your financial information? You’re a nonprofit.”
He smiled at my naiveté. “We do as we like, Chief Kennis. We haven’t had an open annual meeting for three years. And no one makes a peep. They say money talks. On Nantucket it talks very loudly indeed.”
I almost said, yeah, and it never shuts up.
But Harcourt was moving on. “Refn said an amusing thing about those bylaws and regulations, a while ago. He was paraphrasing Oscar Wilde. ‘Rules are like hymens—made to be broken.’ I’m sure Refn has broken more than his share of both.”
“So you and Mister Little are close? He confides in you?”
“Well…I wouldn’t go that far. I certainly wouldn’t murder some random extortionist for him, if that’s what you mean! He’s an acquaintance. We’ve been texting each other since I convinced him to double down on his investments after the election. He was shorting the market, preparing his clients for the big crash! But I knew it would be a bonanza for business if the election went to the GOP. So Joe reversed himself and, needless to say, it worked out quite nicely. I became his mentor after that. I told him to sell before things got really crazy, and he did, at the top of the market as it turned out. Hence the text messages. He won’t make a move without me.”
“I’m confused. What were you fighting about?”
“At the charity affair a few weeks ago.”
“Oh, the Sanfords. Nothing is private anymore.”
“Especially a brawl in front of two dozen witnesses.”
He shrugged. “Point taken. It was an awkward moment.”
“What was going on?”
“I told him about my suspicions. I had seen Refn and Laura together at Faregrounds, of all places! They must have assumed that no one who mattered would see them.” Faregrounds was a mid-island working-class sports bar. Little had probably been right. But he hadn’t counted on Harcourt slumming.
“So you confronted him at the fundraiser?”
“I admit it was an inappropriate moment. But I had just been listening to Laura lecture a group of women twice her age about the sanctity of truth in marriage. ‘Lies between a husband and wife are black mold! They spread and they poison the air. They make your home toxic. Scrub the walls with the bleach of honesty, rinse them with the pure water of forgiveness, before it’s too late.’ She calls herself a ‘life coach’! Can you imagine? Preaching that sanctimonious crap while she’s cheating on her husband with…with that despicable creature in the basement.”
“So you decided then and there to tell Little what was really going on.”
“He looked so proud and adoring. Like a one-man cult.”
“And you couldn’t resist a little deprogramming.”
“Something like that. Pointless exercise. He called me a damn liar. I called him a damn fool. He threw a punch and I pushed him. End of story.”
“Until the blackmail letter arrived.”
“Exactly. We both agreed—the time had come for action. He texted me to meet Refn with him—here today, this afternoon. We were going to close Refn down for good, unless he backed off. We could get him fired, contract or no contract. We could tar and feather the little dandy. There have been other incidents—sexual harassment, public drunkenness, even suspected embezzlement. He was hanging from a thin thread and we were more than willing to snip it.”
“Why not do it before?”
“No one wanted the publicity. And Refn could be a charmer—like every other sociopath in the world. Great fund-raiser—he had a knack for tricking money out of tight-fisted matrons. Also, for the record, he happened to be quite a talented director. So I’m told. I don’t go to the plays, I just wanted a handsome figurehead on the cover of N Magazine, and Refn delivered on that score. No one wanted to tarnish the theater’s image.”
“So Little arranged this meeting. But he never showed up?”
“I’m not sure. I heard footsteps on the bulkhead stairs when I went down to the basement.”
“Back it up a little for me. You got here—what time was it?”
“A little after two-thirty. I was running late.”
“Can anyone verify your whereabouts?”
“I was sitting in traffic on Old South Road! Do I really need to verify that? Have you driven anywhere on this island lately?”
I dropped the subject. He had no alibi, but I wasn’t ready to accuse him of murder, and I wanted him on my side. “So… you knocked?”
“The door was open. I went inside but there was no one home. Then I heard noises from the basement, banging and choking, bad noises. I ran down there but whoever it was took off and there was just—Refn, in the freezer. I didn’t even check to see if he was dead. I mean—he looked dead, he wasn’t moving. But that was none of my business. I called 911.”
“You did the right thing.”
He shook his head. “Joe Little, my God.”
“So…Little killed Refn?
“There was no one else here.”
“You didn’t see him, though.”
“And the text got you here, all alone with the dead body when the police arrived.”
“Are you saying he tried to set me up?”
“But I called the police myself!”
“It often happens that way. The killer calls the police to report the crime. It makes sense. You expect a killer to flee the scene. Reporting it makes you look innocent. It’s what an innocent person would do.”
“But I am innocent! I could never kill anyone! I couldn’t even spank my own children. And my father had no trouble taking the paddle to me.”
I sat back, studying the bewildered plutocrat on the other side of the coffee table. I believed him. “So why would Little want to frame you for murder?”
“I have no idea. Besides, you said it yourself—it could have been anyone down in that basement. All we know for sure is that I didn’t see Joe when I got here. He could have—I don’t know. He could have forgotten the meeting.”
“I don’t think so. Not this meeting.”
“Okay, right, sure. But I don’t know—maybe he got stuck in traffic, too. Maybe he’s still stuck in traffic. Maybe his car broke down.”
“He would have texted you.”
“Unless his phone died. Or—or, he could have left it at home. Everyone does that. He could have had a heart attack! He could be in the hospital right now. Have you seen Joe Little? He’s a coronary waiting to happen. And besides…we have no quarrel with each other anymore. I was helping him with the Refn matter. Not to mention, I probably made him a million dollars this year.”
“I’ll be talking to him soon.” I stood up. “We’re done here, Mr. Harcourt. Sorry to inconvenience you. One of my detectives will be in touch if we have any more questions.”
“So that’s it?” He seemed disappointed. I’ve noticed that reaction many times—a sort of reluctance, often with witnesses and even exonerated suspects. The spotlight is shifting, the investigation is moving on, leaving them behind.
He stood and I shook his hand. “For now, anyway. Thanks for your help.”
I had one more stop to make before heading back to the station—the neighbor on the other side of Refn’s house, Betsy Gosnell.
A dentist’s widow from Scarsdale, she was planning to sell the Naushop place, and move full-time into her Coral Gables condo. She didn’t like what Nantucket was becoming. “And this is a perfect example,” she said as we stood in her doorway. She seemed reluctant to let me in. I could see the messy living room over her shoulder and she had already broken out the wine. She drank her Chardonnay out of a highball glass, with plenty of ice.
“This?” I prompted her. I assumed she meant the murder next door, but I’d followed some productive tangents over the years by setting my assumptions aside.
“People going crazy!”
“The population is out of control! There’s just too many people. You put ten rats in a cage meant for five? They start eating each other.”
“I mean, I expect crime from these…from the immigrant people. I don’t even blame them! Life is tough here. They work like sled dogs. They get treated like dirt. Of course they’re going to do something desperate. But this is different.”
“I’m sorry. Are you saying—?”
“I saw the killer. With my own eyes. A white woman! She was running like her life depended on it, running away from that house, the death house. No one runs around here, Chief Kennis, except little kids and joggers. This woman was no kid, and she wasn’t jogging! You know, I always say if you spend enough time making up scary stories about death and murder, it gets under your skin eventually, like…like fishing something out of a public toilet with a paper cut on your hand. That’s how the MRSA virus gets in. And once it’s there, antibiotics don’t work. And it’s contagious, Chief—that’s what you need to think about.”
“She’s your girlfriend—the mystery writer. The Madeline Clark mysteries! How many people has she killed in those books of hers? More than all the murders since we bought Nantucket from the Indians, put together! That has to affect a person.”
I took a step closer. “What are you saying?”
“Jane Stiles! I recognized her from the dust jacket picture. She’s the one that killed him.”