Island readers anticipated Philip Craig’s annual mystery novels like their first summer swim. The author died this year, leaving one last novel finished. Here is an exclusive excerpt from that book, Vineyard Chill, printed with permission from Scribner.
It was a bright, snowless mid-January day, chilly but not cold, Just right for a drive on the Chappy beaches. We could enjoy the ride and bring back several big, industrial-strength trash bags full of seaweed for the garden. Two good reasons to go. So we went.
As we worked, Zee said, “Tell me about Clay Stockton.”
How could I describe Clay Stockton? “I imagine I’ve told you most of what I know,” I said. ““We met in boot camp and hit it off right away. I ended up in Nam. He didn’t. We bent a few rules together and he got me out of a couple of jams. He was the only guy I knew besides me who read for fun. He introduced me to Nietzsche.”
“And he has magic hands. He can build anything and fix almost anything. He’s built wooden boats and he can do finish carpentry. And did I tell you he’s a hypnotist?”
Zee finished stuffing one big bag. “You told me about the boats, but I don’t think I’ve heard about him being a hypnotist. Here.” She gave the bag to me. “You’re a manly man. Put this in the truck.”
“What would you do without me?” I asked, coming back from the truck and joining her in filling the next bag.
“I’d do it without you.” She gave me a sweet smile. “Is he a Svengali?”
“I don’t think he’s ever transformed a Trilby into an opera singer, and as far as I know he’s never hypnotized a fair maiden into doing anything she might not otherwise do.
Zee’s smile became a grin. “A lot of fair maidens would be glad to be hypnotized into doing things they might otherwise not do.”
“Sexist. No, Clay used to hypnotize guys in our barracks just for fun, but only if they wanted him to, and never in a way to make them look foolish. The most interesting thing I saw him do was get a guy’s permission, then hypnotize him and stick a needle through the guy’s hand without causing any pain or bleeding. I never have figured that one out.”
“Did he ever hypnotize you?”
“I volunteered but it didn’t work. I was too busy analyzing what was happening to take the suggestions he was giving. I’m a bad subject.”
“I can vouch for that. I’ve had a hard time teaching you anything.”
“He was interested in psychosomatic relationships, and hypnotism was a way for him to experiment. I think what he really wanted to do was learn to hypnotize himself.”
“Did he manage to do that?”
“Not while I was around.”
“What’s he look like?
“A good-looking guy. The last time I saw him was after Nam, when we were both in Boston. I was a cop, going to Northeastern part-time, and he was at BU, studying philosophy and building a Tahiti Ketch down in Quincy. We were both married by then.” I carried the second bag to the truck and brought back another one. “He’s about six feet tall, on the lean side of average weight, blue eyes, brown hair. I think he might be what you call a hunk, but I’m not sure because I’ve never understood just what qualifies as hunkiness.”
“Leave that decision up to me, hunk. Well, he sounds pretty good so far. What’s he do for a living?”
I thought about some of the things I’d read in his rare letters and said, “Maybe you could call him a pilot, because he’s done some flying jobs here and there, but he’s done other things, too, so I don’t think you could say he has a profession. He’s like me since I left the Boston PD. No steady job.”
“You keep busy.”
“So does Clay.”
“What can you tell me?”
“I trust him.
“Does he have children?”
A potential sore spot. “He’s mentioned more than one child by more than one woman. He’s been married two or three times, as near as I can figure.”
Zee and I had both been married before but had survived to try again, successful examples of the triumph of hope over experience.
“Why so many wives?” asked Zee, not being judgmental.
“You can ask him. I’d say it was because he’s not a nine-to-five kind of guy and he has a lot of friends who live on the edge. Most women want a little more security than he offers. He writes about plans to settle down, but then something happens.”
“Something that makes it better for him to move along.”
“Like what, Jefferson?”
“Well, once it was the woman’s first husband. She hadn’t gotten around to divorcing him before she married Clay. I think that was the same so-called marriage that involved some jewelry of dubious ownership. Clay thought it was his but the woman and her brother and some of the brother’s friends thought it was theirs, so Clay had to slide out of town at night and couldn’t go back. That sort of thing.”
“That sort of thing.”
“Another time, I remember, the wife got saved and wanted them to join a commune of fundamentalist Christians, but he didn’t care for it when they got there, so he left but she stayed.”
“And he remained unsaved, I presume.”
“As far as I know.”
“How long does he plan to stay with us?”
“I didn’t ask him.”
I was having a second glass of cider when I heard a car coming down our driveway. I looked out a window and watched as a yellow Mercedes convertible stopped in our yard. It had California plates. Two men wearing what looked like new winter coats got out, studied the house, then walked toward the door. They had West Coast tans but didn’t look like movie stars.
When I opened the door to their knock, the man in front smiled a friendly smile.
He put out his hand. “My name is Jack Blume. I’m a friend of Clay Stockton. I understand he may be staying here. I’d like to see him.”
He was a medium-sized man but his companion took up considerably more space. As I shook Blume’s hand, I glanced over his shoulder. The second man wasn’t wearing a smile or looking at me but was peering past me into the house with a gaze as cool as the March air.
“Come inside,” I said. “It’s pretty chilly out.”
“Thanks,” said Jack Blume, and the two men entered. I waved them toward the fire and shut the door.
“I noticed your plates as you drove up. You’re about as far from California as you can get,” I said. “What brings you to my place?”
“Like I told you,” said Blume, “I’m a friend of Clay Stockton, and I heard he was staying with you. We happen to be on Martha’s Vineyard, so we thought we’d drop by and say hello.”
I turned to the other man and put out my hand. “I’m J.W. Jackson.”
He didn’t seem to want to take his hands out of his coat pockets, but it’s hard to refuse to give you name when someone offers his, so he pulled out his right hand and shook mine. “Mickey Monroe.” I noted a lump in the pocket before his hand returned to it.
“Any relation to James or the Doctrine?” I asked.
Mickey looked perplexed.
“Mickey doesn’t read much history,” said Blume with a laugh.
My memory banks didn’t hold any references to Jack Blume or Mickey Monroe. If Clay had ever mentioned the names, I’d forgotten them.
“Sit down and warm yourselves,” I said. “I’m having some mulled cider and there’s more on the back of the store. I’ll get you a couple of cups.”
“What’s mulled cider?” asked Mickey.
“It’s a hot drink made of apple juice,” said Blume. “They drink it here in the wintertime to warm themselves up.”
I got two mugs of cider and handed them to my guests. Mickey sniffed his and took a sip. “Not bad. Be good with some whiskey in it. You got any whiskey?”
“Forget the whiskey, Mickey,” said Blume. “Just drink the cider.”
“I have whiskey,” I said. I got some and poured a slug into Mickey’s mug. The smell of bourbon filled the room.
“Better,” said Mickey after a gulp of his drink.
“Who told you that Clay Stockton was living here?” I asked Blume.
“I don’t think it’s a secret,” said Blume. “We used to work together out west. He wrote me that he was here.”
“That must have been a while back,” I said. “He hasn’t been here for several weeks.”
A frown floated across Blume’s face then disappeared.
“Where did he go?”
“Didn’t he write and tell you?”
Blume’s face hardened. “I’ve been traveling and I probably missed his message. Can you tell me where to find him?”
“Maybe the police can tell you,” I said. “The last I heard he was working with them on a case. Contact the state police. Their office is up in Oak Bluffs. Talk with Dom Agganis. He’s head of the unit down here on the island.
“Clay had his tools shipped here, to you,” said Mickey. “He must be staying around here some place and you must know where.” He drank his cider and stood up. The heavy mug looked like a weapon in his hand.
I tried not to appear nervous. It wasn’t easy. “I knew Clay almost thirty years ago,” I said to Blume. “He showed up a few weeks back. Out of the blue. Said he didn’t have a place to stay but wanted his tools and could he have them shipped to this address while he found himself a house. I said sure. He stayed here until his tools came. We talked about the old days, but he said he didn’t want me to know much about what he’d been doing and he didn’t want me to know where he was living because what I didn’t know wouldn’t hurt me.” I looked at Blume. “I thought that was kind of a funny thing to say. But that’s Clay. He always liked to kid.”
“What’s he doing working with the police?”
“A woman went missing last year. The police they finally have a lead. Clay’s been in the search party for her body.”
I shrugged. “I don’t know. Clay’s a friendly guy. Maybe he and Dom Agganis have hit it off.”
Amelia Samson was at the desk. “What can I do for you, J.W.?” she asked.
“A year ago a woman named Nadine Gibson disappeared from Oak Bluffs. There was some newspaper coverage of the case. I’d like to see the local papers from that period.
“Oh,” she said. “The radio says they’ve found her body. I remember the original stories. For a few days she was news, but then she wasn’t anymore. I guess the police decided there wasn’t any reason to pursue it farther at the time. Now they will.”
“It’s not like that Brazilian man who disappeared. His roommate cleaned out his bank account and went back to Brazil. The police are still interested in the roommate even though they’ve never found the body of the missing man.”
I nodded. It was a recent case, but since the United States had no extradition treaty with Brazil and since there was no body, the chances were that the crime, if there was one, would never be officially solved and the perp would live happily ever after.
“Anyway,” said Amelia, “We have old copies of the Gazette and the Times on microfilm. Do you know how to use our machines?”
“I think I can figure them out.”
I could and did. Sharing the front pages with reports of a March snowstorm were stories of the missing woman. They were brief since no crime had ever been proved and no body had ever turned up. Still, they contained information I’d forgotten, some part of which had been gained from local people who knew her. The Gazette reporter was wise enough to include her sources in her story.
Nadine Gibson was twenty-two years old, five seven, and about 120 pounds. She was considered pretty and personable, and was notable for her long, strawberry red hair. She had lived for a while in the Boston area, had attended Tufts University for a time, and had come to the island the summer before her disappearance along with several thousand other young people about her age, looking for work. She’d first found a job waitressing in a restaurant where the tips were good and then, after the summer ended and the restaurant closed, had found a winter job bartending and waitressing in the Fireside, where she was a favorite of the mostly male customers who were the regulars there. Her boss liked her and said she was a good, dependable worker.
She had a boyfriend by then, a Harvard student who aspired to be the next Howard Roark and who was taking a year off from his studies to work as an apprentice in a Vineyard Haven architect’s office. The two young people lived together in a year-round rental at the west end of the Camp Meeting Grounds, not far from Dukes County Avenue.
She and the boyfriend had a spat and broke up before she disappeared, and the boy had packed his bag and gone home to Newton to lick his wounds. When Nadine disappeared, he was naturally high on the list of suspects but had a perfect alibi: his sympathetic mother, who was glad to have him free of the grasp of the redheaded bartender, had flown with him to Scottsdale for two weeks so his heart could mend while he visited Taliesin West and other notable architectural sites of interest between rounds of golf with Mom.
A woman neighbor in the Camp Meeting Grounds who was friendly with Nadine had noticed that after the snowstorm there were no footprints leading from the girl’s house and, after a couple of days, had inquired at the Fireside and learned that she’d missed work for those days. Alarmed, the neighbor had contacted the police, and not much later Nadine had officially become a missing person.
She’d last been seen leaving the Fireside after closing hours. She’d been in good spirits and was presumably planning on walking home through the narrow, winding Victorian streets of the Camp Meeting Grounds to her own little gingerbread cottage at the far end.
It was her habit to do that, and no one gave it a thought.
And, at the time the stories were written, no one had seen her since.
The police had gotten her landlord to open the door of her house, wherein their most suspicious finding was what seemed to be most of her clothes and goods. No signs of foul play were seen.
The Oak Bluffs police had contacted the Newton police, who had gone to the boy’s house and learned from his father that the boy had gone out west several days before and wouldn’t be home for several more. The OBPD had then tracked down Nadine’s family, using her employment forms as a guide, and learned that they lived in Rhode Island but, because she had an independent streak and didn’t always keep them informed about her travels, couldn’t guess where she might be now.
The police had gone up and down Circuit Avenue and through the Camp Meeting Grounds asking if anyone knew anything, but no one admitted to seeing the woman that might or had useful information. The owner and employees of the Fireside similarly knew nothing. The girl with the strawberry hair had walked into the March night and had disappeared.