Before the harbormaster pulled the body from the saltmarsh creeks, before the drug overdose and the arson, before the murder that triggered the biggest scandal in the island’s history, there was a teenage boy, all alone on an autumn night, trying to rescue the girl he loved.
It all began with a book: a biology textbook that belonged to Alana Trikilis. She had left it behind after class.
Jared Bromley had known her since first grade. They both worked on the student newspaper, Veritas, they had even acted in several school plays together, but she had never shown even a flicker of romantic interest in him. It made sense—he was skinny and clumsy, generally unwashed with a bad complexion and a big nose. She was impossibly clean and graceful. A character very much like her was the catalyst for the action in every one of Jared’s screenplays. She was the girl who dares the boys to steal the whale bone from the museum in Swiping Moby. She was the hostage turned peacemaker for ’Sconset and town in the The War Between Nantucket. And she was the haughty girl who spurns a serial killer when he’s alive and then drives his zombie back into the grave in Hoyt’s Homecoming.
Jared also wrote about her on his blog, referring to her only as “The Girl,” but even after sharkpool.com became notorious, even after people found out that it was his website, Alana never glanced at it. She was one of the few girls in school who didn’t spend time online. She never posted pictures on Instagram, she didn’t Snapchat or instant message her friends. She had no Facebook account, no Twitter handle, no Google+ circle. Mean girls had tried to cyberbully her in ninth grade; she never noticed.
Jared was one of two Veritas editors this year. He ran Alana’s cartoons every week, and she accepted his compliments with the same weary smile she managed at the dump, when her mother offered a wrinkled shirt from the take-it-or-leave it pile. She’d accept it to avoid a fight, but she’d never wear it.
Her dad hauled trash for a living and she’d been to the top of garbage mountain with him more times than she cared to count. Jared had heard her describing the view in the dining hall a few days ago. He had been tempted to break into the conversation—he had written a story for the paper about the man who got run over and killed in the C&D building the year before. But trash-related death hardly seemed the ideal subject matter, and she was surrounded by her friends. The sound of their talk and laughter, the smell of their skin, and the flash of their hair formed an estrogen bubble he couldn’t penetrate. She was never alone. Girls traveled in packs, like feral dogs. He resigned himself to that. Anyway, she had a boyfriend, because girls like Alana always had a boyfriend.
But now Jared was staring at her biology textbook and formulating a plan.
It was an obvious plan, but that was the best thing about it. What could be more natural than one student returning another student’s misplaced textbook? From there they could start chatting about biology class and how Mr. Felder trimmed his beard from his ears to his chin to create the illusion of a jawline, and why anyone could think that dissecting mice was a useful life skill.
He might get her laughing, and then he’d be on his way. So that was how he came to be parked outside the Trikilises’ house this evening, watching Alana climb into the cab of Mason Taylor’s pickup truck.
Jared had been stalling, trying out different opening lines, bracing himself for the cognitive shutdown he always experienced looking into those pale blue eyes. He needed to know exactly what he was going to say beforehand, because there was no chance he’d be able to think of anything when he was actually standing in front of her.
He almost decided to leave the damn book on her doorstep, but now he slid down in his seat and watched Mason amble to the front door. What was the allure? Well, Mason was tall and his family had money. That stuff seemed to matter. Jared was short and poor. Apart from wearing lifts and winning the lottery (and he could use the lottery money to buy some really excel- lent lifts), there wasn’t much he could do about either problem. Mason walked back to the truck with Alana, and Jared sank lower, peering over the dashboard. He looked like a pathetic stalker. Was he actually turning into one? If they drove off and he followed them, it would be case closed.
Alana’s parents weren’t home. Did they know about this school night date? Probably not. He didn’t like the possessive way Mason put his arm around Alana as they walked to the truck. She looked nervous. It was almost as if he was forcing her to come with him. Jared wasn’t sure he could help her if she needed it, but he couldn’t quite bring himself to drive off and abandon her, either. So he followed them.
If that made him a stalker, fine.
He kept a safe distance as they went around the rotary and started up Milestone Road. They passed the Monomoy and Polpis turnoffs. Jared kept a couple of cars between them, watching the truck’s red taillights. They drove on, beyond the roads to Madequecham and the airport, where Jared lost one of his cover cars, then Tom Nevers Road, where the second one veered away. Alone with Mason’s truck as they headed downhill for the straight shot in into ’Sconset, Jared fell back and let the distance between them build up. There weren’t many people living out at the east end of the island this time of year. Any car would look conspicuous.
Past the cranberry bogs, still-shallow ponds now rimmed with ice from the last hard freeze, past the new golf course—Jared’s father had bid low and then “sharpened his pencil” even more to get the electrical contract for the rebuilt clubhouse—and finally up the gentle rise to ’Sconset’s Main Street.
The huge leafless elm trees lined up like an honor guard on the wide sweep of lawn that flanked the avenue. Big houses loomed behind their hedges, dark and uninhabited. The owners rented the places out in June and July, then showed up for a couple of weeks in August—that was it. The rest of the year ’Sconset was virtually a ghost town, with maybe twenty families scattered between Sankaty and the old dump. Jared’s family had lived out here for a couple of years. He’d been glad to move back to town. The windy, wide open spaces gave him the creeps.
He slowed down as Mason’s truck skirted the rotary and took the sharp left toward Sankaty. Where could they possibly be going? The population thinned out even more as you approached Polpis. But Mason hooked the right turn onto Baxter Road. This was high-end real estate, tinged with a crazy King Canute sense of entitlement—lavish homes teetering over the Atlantic on the crumbling cliffside, as if the ocean would never dare to approach their houses. Empty lots marked off with yellow police tape told a different story. The bluff was sliding into the sea, a slo-mo avalanche that had been grinding away since the Laurentine ice sheet headed north twenty-one thousand years ago. It wasn’t going to stop anytime soon, no matter how much money people threw at it.
And they were throwing plenty. But they generally did it from a distance, in November anyway. Maybe Mason’s dad had some caretaking gigs out here, and maybe Mason had borrowed the keys. That was possible. Jared shrugged. Mason better have the alarm codes, too, or it was going to be a bad night for everyone. The truck disappeared around a curve and Jared pulled into someone’s driveway. He’d do the rest of this on foot. There was no chance of losing them now: Baxter Road dead-ended at the lighthouse. He killed the engine. Should he take the book? Absurd question—that plan was part of a different night, lost the moment Mason Taylor drove off with Alana.
He climbed out into the damp chill wind and shivered, zip- ping up his jacket. It wasn’t that cold—only forty degrees or so—but the damp air penetrated him. He recalled a ski trip to Vermont a few years before. It had gone down to zero one night, and the dry still air was more comfortable than this.
He jogged around the bend and saw the taillights angling into the driveway of the one lit house ahead.
He approached cautiously. He peered around the hedge, but the yard was empty. He could hear the ocean beating at the base of the cliff, and a halyard slapping a flagpole down the road somewhere. He caught his breath—he was in terrible shape—and then eased around the privet, through the arbor and along the side of the house. He could see people through the big living room window. He moved closer. They wouldn’t be able to see him, the glass would be a mirror against the night outside, but he couldn’t hear them through the storm windows and the thermapane sash.
He recognized some of the people inside—Chick Crosby, who ran the local TV station, and Brad Thurman. Jared’s dad worked for Thurman sometimes, on big jobs. Wiring one of these big new construction jobs could get the family through a whole winter and maybe even pay for a week in the sun during a February vacation.
There were a couple of faces Jared recognized, but he couldn’t pin names to them—the tall thin white-haired guy who was pouring drinks, the chubby red-faced Mr. Man type jabbing a finger at him. Jared had seen both of them around town, maybe on one of those summer nights when he worked as a waiter at the big fundraisers. He drew a blank on the other one-percenters. And there was some thug in Nantucket Reds and a Great Harbor Yacht club polo shirt. Who the hell was he?
It reminded Jared of the year before, when a girl he’d met at summer camp came to visit. People would come up to them at the Stop & Shop or the Fast Forward parking lot and Jared would chat with them, ignoring his guest. She thought it was rude. She thought he was ashamed of her. Why didn’t he introduce her to anyone? The simple fact was he didn’t know their names. What was he going to say? This is Mike something from Nantucket Sailing, and this is the older brother of that kid Tommy I did Strong Wings with five years ago, this is my guidance counselor from tenth grade, we just called him “boogers”?
It was hard to explain stuff like that.
There were faces he’d known all his life he’d never attached a name to, and famous names he couldn’t pick out of a lineup. Like these people tonight. He wished he’d brought a camera, but how was he supposed to know he’d need one? He’d just have to remember.
A beautiful blond woman in a short black dress came in from the kitchen, carrying a pot of coffee and some mugs on a tray. They had logos on them. Jared squinted through the glass. He was steaming up the window. The design on the mugs looked like a C and an L linked together. It meant nothing to him.
Jared knew the woman, though. Everyone knew Ms. DeHart. She was the new school psychologist. The district had created the position for her after a rash of student suicides a couple of years ago. Smart hire: the crisis wound down, and the school settled into the old routines again after she arrived. The girls all loved her and the boys were all in love with her. She was way too good-looking to be working at a public school, that was for sure. She was passing out the coffee while Alana stood in the corner talking to—what was her name? Jill something. A pale blonde, Alana said she looked like a mouse, but Alana thought everyone looked like some kind of animal. Jill Phelan, that was it. She was one of Ms. DeHart’s girls, always in and out of the guidance office. Was she crying now? Jared couldn’t quite tell.
They were standing too far away.
Jill’s new boyfriend, Sam Wallace, a hefty lug, who would turn obese when his metabolism could no longer keep up with the burgers and fries, hovered nearby in a Whalers hoodie sweatshirt. He had nothing to say but obviously wanted to look like he did. Alana touched Jill’s shoulder. Jill twisted away.
Mason was talking to the Yacht Club shirt dude. Despite the Nantucket costume the guy looked like he should be working as a bouncer in some New Jersey nightclub.
Then the night tipped over.
Yacht Club grabbed Alana’s arm and pushed Mason away. He staggered a few steps, recovered and pushed back. They were both shouting. Sam jumped Mason and wrestled him into a bear hug. The scene had a bizarre silent movie quality, framed by the window. Jared shivered in the chill wind, watching. This was really happening—whatever it was. He wanted to help, but there was nothing he could do. Call the cops on his cell phone? That would get everyone in trouble and, besides, he doubted he had any bars out here. Physically intervene? Even if he could get inside the house, everyone would see him so there’d be no element of surprise. He’d wind up getting his ass kicked for nothing. Well, not nothing exactly. Alana would know he tried to help. No, that was stupid. He was no karate guy, no hero. He might even wind up making things worse. All he could do now was wait, watch, and study the faces.
Yacht Club, still with a vise grip on Alana’s upper arm, ran two fingers down her cheek, caressed her neck and let his hand slip lower, inside her unbuttoned coat. She reared backward away from him, but she couldn’t get loose.
This was crazy. Jared was about to break the window with a big decorative stone in the mulch at his feet, but he didn’t have time. Mason stamped down hard on Sam’s instep. The impact of the heavy-soled work boot made Sam leap backward, releasing his grip, and Mason launched at Yacht Club. The big man had to let Alana go to deal with the kid. Alana picked up an end table and swung it into Yacht Club’s back, knocking him down. A lamp crashed to the floor. Jared stood gaping, amazed and awestruck. He would never have had the courage or the presence of mind to do something like that. Alana wound up and threw the table at Yacht Club’s prone form. He managed to deflect it with his arms, but it did something to his wrist and his mouth gaped open in what must have been a howl of pain. Alana sprinted for the door with Mason right behind her.
Jared took off around the side of the house, toward the front door. He stumbled around the corner in time to see Mason and Alana dashing to his truck. Alana helped Mason into the passenger side, slammed the door, ran around the cab and jumped in. But for some reason she couldn’t start it.
Jared felt a crazy vertigo. He felt himself moving while he was standing still. Sam Wallace, star running back for the Nantucket Whalers, sole bright spot of yet another losing season, burst out of the door, sprinting for the truck. Jared threw himself wildly at the monstrous running form. He managed to catch an ankle—a perfect “shoestring” tackle. Sam pitched forward face-first into the dirt as Jared heard Mason yelling at Alana, “Put in the clutch, put in the clutch!”
She flooded the engine. Sam was thrashing to his feet. Jared jumped up first and hurdled at him, face-planting him again. Jared banged his shin on the front bumper and reeled around to the driver’s side of the truck.
“My car’s on Baxter Road!” he panted. Alana stared at him “Jared?”
“Come on! You’ve gotta get out of here. Come on!”
He opened the door and pulled her out. But he couldn’t make her step away from the truck. It was like her feet were stuck in the mud.
“Mason!” She called out.
Mason was bailing from the passenger side. In a second he was face-to-face with Sam Wallace. Another figure was bound- ing out of the front door, pounding toward them: Yacht Club.
“Go,” he shouted to Alana. “But Jill—”
“You heard her! She’s not going anywhere. Get the fuck away from me!” This last was directed at Sam. They tussled beside the car as Yacht Club reached them.
But he grabbed Sam, not Mason. “Fuck are you doing? I told you to get the kid!”
“Somebody tackled me! How was I supposed to…?”
Mason used the momentary distraction to scramble back into the truck and over the seat to the driver’s side. He locked the doors.
“He’s okay,” Jared said. “Let’s go.” “But what if he can’t—?”
“This is for you! He’s stalling them for you! Now come on.” That cut the cable holding her to the scene behind them. They were almost out of time and she finally realized it. Jared took her hand and they dashed up the shell driveway, along the road to where he had parked his crummy white Ford Focus sta- tion wagon, possibly the most uncool car ever produced in the
continental United States.
They heard the engine note of Mason’s truck—he had gotten it started!
As they climbed into the Focus, the truck skidded out of the driveway in a fan of shells and accelerated toward Polpis. He was going to have to cut back to Sankaty Road on one of the little side streets. There was only one left before the street dead-ended at the lighthouse. Bayberry Lane, it was called. Mason knew the streets. The turnoff wouldn’t slow him down too much, and he had a good head start.
Jared started the Ford and headed in the opposite direction, back toward ’Sconset.
“This way they won’t know who to follow,” he said.
Alana just nodded. They said nothing until they turned onto Milestone Road. Jared realized he was speeding, pushing the little car up to seventy miles an hour. He lightened his foot on the gas, let his breathing and his heart rate slow to normal.
“What was going on in there?” he said finally.
“I don’t get it. What are you—how did you find us? Why were you even—?”
“Your book. On the floor. By your feet.”
It had fallen off the seat at some point. Alana leaned over to pick it up. She stared at it. “This is—wait a second. How did you…?”
“You left it in class. I was returning it. That’s all. But I saw you get into the truck with Mason.”
“And you followed us.” “I was worried.”
She sighed. “You were worried? Why would you—?”
“I don’t know. It was a school night, your parents weren’t home. I mean—their car wasn’t in the driveway. And it kind of—it looked like he was dragging you.”
“It was my idea.” “Okay.”
“I was worried about Jill. She broke up with Oscar Graham for no reason and started dating that creep and acting weird, like nodding off in class. And she snapped at me when I asked her about it and…I don’t know. There were lots of things. She hasn’t taken a shower in a week. She’s dressing like a slut and, seriously—Sam Wallace? He’s a total druggie. And I don’t mean weed or whatever. He sells oxy. And God knows what else. Mason said they were both going to be there tonight, so—”
“There? Where? What was going on?”
“The house belongs to this McAllister guy. I don’t know his first name. My dad picks up his trash.”
“So what was he doing with a bunch of high school kids? And what was Ms. DeHart doing there? What the hell is hap- pening? This makes no sense.” They drove in silence for a minute or so. “Alana?”
“This so totally sucks.” “Tell me.”
“There’s nothing I can do about it. I don’t even know what I was trying to accomplish out there. I can’t save anybody. What am I supposed to do—draw a stupid cartoon? That would get me kicked out of school for good. I should have stayed out of it. But Jill’s been so fucked up lately and Oscar was freaking out and…I just—Mason invited me out there and I thought…I don’t know. I have no idea what I was thinking. You can’t talk people out of doing drugs. Obviously.”
“So—they’re doing drugs?”
Alana laughed a hard nasty laugh and turned in her seat to face him. “No. They’re making dirty movies and paying girls to be in them, with drugs.”
“Don’t make me say it twice, Jared.” “Are you fucking kidding me?”
She turned away again to look out the window, pitch pines blurring past in the dark. A line of cars behind a slow-moving van swept past them and disappeared in a smear of red taillights. They were alone on the road again, no houses in sight. They could have been driving down any deserted country road, anywhere. Jared liked that idea. Anywhere but here.
“That old guy? And Chick Crosby? Brad Thurman?” Alana sighed.
“Okay, whatever, they’re all assholes. Fine. But what was Ms. DeHart doing there?”
Alana picked up a crumpled scrap of tinfoil and started pulling it open with her fingernails. Jared pushed on. “I really need to know what she was doing with those people.”
“Why? Are you in love with her?”
He almost blurted “No, I’m in love with you,” but some part of him, some heroic World Cup goalie, managed to block that ball before Team Crazy could score.
Instead he said, “Are you kidding? She’s like thirty years old.
She’s my guidance counselor. Jesus.”
“She’s giving great guidance out there. She should be fired.” “She seems okay to me.”
“Well, she’s not! What do you think she was doing out there? Want to guess?” Alana stared at him, letting silence build up under the word, letting the pressure push it out of her. “Recruiting.”
“You heard me.”
They drove along, listening to the wind against the car and the rasp of the engine. Finally Jared let out the breath he’d been holding. “I don’t believe this.”
“Well, believe it. She tried to recruit me, okay? Like I was some kind of drug addict. I don’t even take aspirin.”
They started around the rotary.
“I’ll take you home,” Jared said. Then, as they passed the Stop & Shop construction site, he asked, “What are we going to do?” “We can’t do anything. If we go to the police, they’ll just deny it. Jill’s the only person who’ll get in trouble. And maybe Sam Wallace.”
“Yeah. He deserves it, but…”
“She doesn’t. It would be our word against theirs. A guy like McAllister could really hurt us, too. I mean—my family. If he got all his friends to cancel my dad’s contracts…Miles Reis has been trying to get that route for years. We’d be fucked. I’m not supposed to know how close to the line my dad lives. It’s always paycheck to paycheck, and he doesn’t even charge some people! His dad didn’t, so…” She shook her head, as if there were gnats in the car. “Like this was the old Nantucket! If there ever was an old Nantucket.”
Jared was thinking. “Thurman could blacklist my dad. All those contractors stick together. The big ones.”
“But we have to do something.” “Yeah.”
“We could report it anonymously.”
“They know I was there. And Sam saw you. They could hurt Mason’s family, too. His dad’s a Selectman, and with Mason involved…”
Jared nodded. “It’s a small town.”
“That’s why I’m moving to the city. As soon as I get my diploma.”
He glanced over at her. “Which city?”
“Any city. Kabul. Detroit. I don’t care. Except, not Manhat- tan. No more islands. Ever. Not for me. I want dry land around me and lots of escape routes.”
Jared had to laugh. “I know what you mean.”
They drove past the high school and the softball field. He turned up Bartlett Road.
“So what can we do?” Alana said.
Jared squinted into a set of oncoming headlights—some asshole in a truck who refused to lower his brights. There were assholes everywhere and so many ways to be one.
“Chick Crosby must be shooting the movies. We could steal them from him.”
Alana closed her eyes. It seemed to take her a few seconds to summon the energy even to answer such an idiotic point. “You think he has cans of film sitting around? People don’t even use film anymore. They’re probably encrypted files on his computer. Anyway, I’ll bet you anything he locks his house, with all the equipment lying around. I mean, he’s a criminal, and criminals always lock their houses because they think everyone else is a criminal, too. He probably has alarms. In case you were thinking of stealing his computer and having some super-geek get past his firewalls and passcodes and whatever, which by the way we don’t even know anyone like that.”
“That’s just stupid.” “Okay!”
Jared pulled into her driveway. “So here’s what we have to do,” he said. “First we have to figure out who every one of those people were—the ones we didn’t recognize. They probably have their pictures in the Foggy Sheet. Gene Mahon probably knows their names. He might help. Or the newspaper. They take pictures at those fundraisers. Then we have to figure how they’re all connected to each other. And we have to talk to Jill. And Ms. DeHart.”
“Ms. DeHart would just close me down, and I already tried talking to Jill.”
“But now you’ve seen what’s going on. Everything’s different after tonight. If she goes to the police she could trash the whole operation, single-handedly.”
“And lose her drug connection.”
“That has to happen anyway. She’s seventeen years old. I mean, fuck. You can’t be a drug addict at seventeen years old! Or, that is—you can, obviously, but…”
“I know. She wants to get clean. But it’s not that easy, okay? My dad wants to quit smoking. He’s been trying for twenty years and he’s finally down to one pack a day. If you were ever addicted to anything you’d know what I mean.”
But he was addicted. He was hooked on the rush of feeling he got talking to this girl. It was a legitimate drug addiction, even if the drugs were manufactured inside his own body: adrenaline, testosterone, endorphins—a potent mix. He certainly didn’t want to give it up. That was why he had followed her tonight, that was how he had gotten into this mess in the first place.
Then a thought slid into his mind like a cold wind under a doorsill.
He turned off the motor, twisted around to face her. “Tell Jill you’ll go to the police if she won’t. Her best shot is to talk to them before you do.”
“But it’s a plan. And it just might work. She’d be fucked if you turned her in.”
“I’m supposed to be her friend.”
“You are her friend. This is what friends do. Like an intervention.”
“I guess.” They sat in silence for a while, then Alana nodded. “I’ll do it.”
Good decision—but it was already too late.