Disgruntled graduates of Nantucket High School have settled upon the island… and some of them are hoping to settle a score or two. Nantucket’s chief of police, Henry Kennis, is not a native of the island. When serious threats crop up and multiple residents disappear, Kennis is forced to put his very best investigative foot forward. Can he crack this case before kidnapping turns into a more grisly crime?
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The Whale on the Beach
The Nuremberg trials were officially referred to as an international military tribunal. They gathered evidence of Nazi war crimes and put the criminals to justice. The cruelties of a middle-class American adolescence, inflicted during the four-year ordeal of high school, are much more common, far less terrible, and hold no historical significance. But some incidents rise above the level of routine hazing and do profound damage. They ruin lives. They create psychic wounds that never heal. And they require their own tribunal.
—From Todd Fraker’s deleted blog
For me, the fall wedding season on Nantucket, with its ostentatious celebration of the present and its sunny hopes for the future, began with a disturbing telephone call from my children’s school.
“Chief Kennis? This is Alan Bissell.”
I couldn’t imagine what news the superintendent had decided to bring me on this squalling September morning, but it couldn’t be good—Bissell sounded far too pleased with himself.
I set my take-out cup of Fast Forward coffee on my desk blotter, swiveled my chair to watch the milling gray sky and the rain lashing the big picture window. “Is there a problem?”
“I should certainly say so. A very serious problem. I need to see both you and your ex-wife in my office as soon as possible.”
“Okay—talk to Barnaby Toll. He can set up something for later in the week.”
“Not later in the week. Not later today. Now. Your ex-wife is on her way to the school as we speak, and this matter needs to be addressed by both parents…especially in a divorce situation, where a broken home is actively destabilizing the child’s mental state and behavior.”
“The child? Which child?”
“We can discuss the matter in detail when we meet.”
And then he hung up.
Bissell and my ex-wife, Miranda, were waiting for me when I got to the school. Alice Damaso, Bissell’s lovely and long-suffering secretary, gave me a small smile and a sympathetic lift of the eyebrows as I passed her desk.
Bissell looked up from a sheaf of papers as I stepped into the office. “Come in. Shut the door, and sit down.”
Miranda, in full real estate attire—black pantsuit with red ruffled blouse, matching red handbag and sandals—sat in one of a pair of armchairs angled toward the desk. She turned, glaring at me with a look I remembered all too well from my marriage. It said something terrible had happened, and it was all my fault.
I ignored her and took the other chair. “What’s going on?”
Bissell cleared his throat. “At the start of the new semester, our new creative writing instructor, Dylan Farrell, gave his students the assignment of writing a long story, between forty and eighty pages. This would be a first draft, composed quickly, with the students to spend the remainder of the unit revising their first drafts. I had no objection to this course of study, and it was duly implemented for Advanced Placement candidates. The manuscripts were turned in on Friday. This is what your son, Timothy, presented as an answer to the assignment.” He lifted the sheaf of papers on his desk and dropped them again as if they were contaminated. As if to verify my observation, he squirted some hand sanitizer onto his palm and rubbed his hands together.
“That stuff only kills the weak germs,” I couldn’t resist pointing out. “The hardy ones survive and multiply. It’s like a little course in evolutionary theory. The result is you’re creating a colony of supergerms. With the best intentions, of course.”
“Is that supposed to be some sort of veiled comment on Nantucket High School policy merit guidelines?”
I shrugged. “Just trying to be helpful.”
He pushed the plastic bottle away.
“Could you let the man talk, please, Henry?” Miranda said, her voice clipped and irritated. “I have a showing this morning.”
Bissell took a breath and squared his shoulders. “I have referred this matter to this institution’s BTAM—the Behavioral Threat and Management Team, which, as you know, is our multidisciplinary group that includes a trained psychiatric social worker; my assistant principal, Craig Rezendez; and, in extreme cases, a member of your own department.”
I sat forward. “What are you talking about? How does my son’s story constitute any kind of threat to anyone?”
A thin, smug smile. “Why don’t we let the material speak for itself, Chief Kennis? I think I’ve said enough.” He extracted several sheets from the pile on his blotter and sorted through them for a second or two. “Here’s how it begins. ‘Let there be no mistake. This is a confession. A confession before the fact, so to speak, but a confession nonetheless.’ A little later he writes, ‘I am a murderer. A murderer of seven men, by my hand seven men will die, seven men I haven’t laid eyes on for thirty-five years. My only consolation—and it is the reason for my actions, as well—is that these seven men deserve to die. But who am I to make such a judgment, you may ask. If you do, then it is you, whoever you may be, who are at fault. The entire history of the human race has been a story of one man, or a group of men, deciding that a different group of men should die, from the caves to Genghis Khan to Hitler, who exterminated six million Jews during the Second World War. But then came the Nuremberg trials. They tried war criminals there. And hung them.’”
Bissell set the papers down and pushed them aside, nudging the sanitizer bottle. “The title of the story is ‘Nuremberg II.’ The narrator proceeds to assemble these ‘war criminals’ of his youth, those who tormented him in high school. The means he uses are contrived and preposterous. The whole tone reeks of adolescent bombast, the desperate effort to seem worldly and sophisticated. The glimpses he offers into the adult lives of his malefactors are predictably puerile and naive. But none of that concerns us here. It is the events themselves that provoked this intervention. The narrator indeed puts his old schoolmates on trial. He finds them all guilty, and he hangs them. Then he hangs himself.”
“Oh, my God,” said Miranda.
“It’s just a story,” I said.
“It is the product of a troubled, even deeply disturbed, mind.”
“Or a creative one.”
“Your son has been bullied.”
“That was a long time ago.”
“These wounds heal slowly.”
“He’s healing his wounds. That’s a good thing. Writing well is the best revenge.”
Miranda sat up straight suddenly. “It’s that book! Beyond Brant Point Light! By your girlfriend.”
“The mistreated girl comes back to the island for revenge! Jesus Christ, Henry. Tim is sitting around reading that trash all day. And listening to your True Crime anecdotes every night at dinner. No wonder he’s writing these creepy stories. The sick atmosphere in that house! It’s perverse. I’ve said it a thousand times. I’ve begged you to change. You are warping his mind. You and that hack writer with her sick imagination and her murder porn.”
“They’re cozy mysteries, Miranda. No sex allowed. And the crimes happen off-stage.”
“You know what I mean.”
“No, I really don’t.”
“The question is, how do we proceed from here?” Bissell broke in, obviously irked and embarrassed by our family quarrel. “Mr. Rezendez suggested a two-week suspension.”
“For writing a story? What is this, North Korea?”
“No, for confessing in advance, as he clearly states on page one.”
That struck me speechless for a moment, but Miranda leapt into the fray, proving once again that whatever our disagreements, and however absurd and annoying she could be, as a mother she was a peerless defender of her young, roughly on par with the polar bear or the African elephant. Forget the mother tiger cliché. She made tigers look tame.
Her voice was soft and level when she spoke.
“If you take any action against our son because of a creative work of fiction he composed as an assignment for one of the classes at this high school, we will contact the school board, file an administrative complaint with the district, and sue you and Rezendez and the teacher involved for harassment, unconstitutional conduct, violation of First Amendment free speech protections, and failure to properly address negligent supervision of student activities. I will personally make sure that the story is the front-page lead on both Nantucket newspapers every week until you lose the five-million-dollar judgment and are fired and blackballed from your chosen profession for life. If you hurt my son, I will come for you, Mr. Bissell. I will hurt you every way I can think of and some ways that I haven’t thought of yet. And, rest assured, I’ll be thinking hard.”
“Is that a threat?”
“It’s a fact. It’s a hurricane warning. Board up your windows and evacuate if you start this storm.”
“Did you hear that, Kennis? She threatened me! I know the assault and battery laws in this state. Threats constitute assault!”
I stared him down. “I heard no threat. I heard one party to a lawsuit giving due notice of pending litigation to another. And speculating on the outcome.”
The silence sizzled and shrieked between us for a few seconds. Finally, Bissell pressed a knuckle to his mouth. “Fine. But this school has been on high alert for violence and dangerous behavior for more than a year. If your son acts out because proper school intervention was blocked by his parents, you will become pariahs on this island. You will be shunned and despised, and you will have no one to blame but yourselves. You will have to live with that horrific failure of judgment for the rest of your lives.”
“Fair enough,” I said, standing up. “Because that’s never going to happen.” I turned to Miranda. “Let’s go.”
Outside in the windy drizzle, she gave me a hug and a kiss on the cheek. “Thank you, Henry.”
“You were great in there.”
She pulled away a little to show me her smile. “We make a pretty good team. Now grab Tim and find out what the hell is going on with that crazy story.”
I gave her a small, ironic salute. “Yes, ma’am.”
“Okay. Let me know what he says.”
“I do actually have a showing.”
“Go. I’ll take it from here.”
She gave me another quick peck on the cheek and trotted back to her car.
I didn’t talk to Tim until after school that day. A whale had washed up on the beach over the weekend, and he wanted to see it. My daughter, Caroline, was conveniently disgusted by the prospect (“Let’s all go gape at a giant, smelly dead fish! I don’t think so.”), which meant the expedition would give me time alone with Tim to talk about his story and the ruckus it had caused.
“I didn’t write it,” he said to me as we circled the giant right whale.
I lifted a hand to say Not now, not here. There were a dozen other people gawking, along with a photographer from the Inquirer and Mirror. We paid our respects to the deceased cetacean and walked on, east toward Madequecham. Soon we were alone on the wide stretch of sand. A south swell was kicking up some good-sized waves, and we could see the riptide running west, like a river below the surging foam. A few surfers bobbed beyond the breakers, but no one seemed to be catching anything.
We were well out of earshot, far from anyone who might have been interested, when I reopened the discussion. “I don’t understand.”
“I found that story in the attic, in a box of junk.”
“What were you doing up there?”
“Just snooping. There was all sorts of weird stuff—pictures we could put on that ‘Nantucket Days of Yore’ Facebook page that Jane likes so much. And lots of other stuff—some gold coins. I couldn’t tell if they were real or not.”
“So—you read the story.”
“I thought it was cool. I’ve been bullied—I could relate. And then I got that assignment and I had no ideas, and I totally forgot about it, and then it was due—”
“So you took the story from the box.”
“I’m sorry, Dad. I shouldn’t have done it. It was dumb. But I, it’s—I never thought anyone would get so upset. I mean, it’s just a story.”
We walked along.
“Am I in trouble?”
“Well…first of all, I’m glad you didn’t write the thing. That’s the most important fact. I’m no fan of Alan Bissell, but he had a point today. That story is creepy. But you’re not.”
“I mean…just on the most obvious level—you made friends with your bully.”
“Sort of. Because of Hector.”
Carrie’s boyfriend, Hector Cruz, was the star running back for the Nantucket Whalers football team, and that gave him authority over a second-string right tackle far beyond that of any teacher, parent, or coach. Hector had negotiated the peace, but it had stuck. Tim and Jake Sauter might never be friends, and they had developed an easygoing camaraderie that impressed me. And Tim would certainly not be carrying bizarre grudges into a twisted adulthood like the character in ‘Nuremberg II.’
“I shouldn’t have ever turned it in, though.” Tim watched the sand. “It’s plagiarism.”
“I’m glad to hear you say that.”
“They’d, like, expel me or something if they ever found out.”
“But they won’t.”
“Kids make mistakes. If they were born grown-up, they wouldn’t need parents. I plagiarized something once. To impress a girl. But then the kid who really wrote it wound up dating the girl and gave her the poem for Valentine’s Day. I got busted, and everybody found out.”
“That must have sucked.”
“The weird thing is my dad figured it out before anything happened, when I showed it to him. He said, ‘Whoever wrote this is a better writer than you are now, Hank. But he won’t be forever. You’ll catch up. You’ll leave him in the dust. But not until you start really doing the work, and not doing it to get laid. Doing it for…it. For the work itself. Doing it to make your own small, particular noise.’ I always remembered that phrase. My own noise. I never took credit for anybody’s work again.”
“Yeah, but also you didn’t listen to him at first and did it anyway, right? And got caught and totally owned in front of your friend and that girl and everybody else in the whole school.”
I nodded. “There was that.”
“I won’t do it again either.”
We walked along. The tide was coming in, and we had to scamper up into the soft sand ahead of a sluice of cold water.
“That whale makes me sad,” Tim said finally.
“Why would he beach himself like that?”
“I don’t know.”
“I don’t get death.”
That startled me into a laugh. “Me neither.”
I looked out to the hazy horizon and it sparked a memory. “I was walking with my dad on the beach in Malibu—I must have been a little younger than you are now. We saw someone parachuting into the water about a mile out. It was a stuntman. They were shooting a film. He got tangled in the cords of his chute and drowned. We found out later on, watching the news that night. I felt like we should have helped somehow, but there was nothing we could have done. The ocean is so—I don’t know—merciless? An older girl I had a terrible crush on had almost drowned the week before, swimming in the storm surf. She was a strong swimmer and she got lucky. But it was terrifying. We stood on the beach for two hours, trying to catch sight of her. It was getting dark, and you could feel death right next to you.”
“Like with that poor whale.”
“Yeah. It seems so cruel, but it’s not even that. More like—indifferent.”
He nodded. He understood. “You can’t fight the ocean. But people do things to each other, and you can stop them. You can catch them, and you can make a difference.”
“Maybe that’s why you became a policeman.”
I nodded. “And not a surfer. Or a stuntman.”
We trudged up the beach to a set of wooden stairs, cut through some summer person’s backyard, and walked back to the car along the road.
We couldn’t see the ocean, but we could still hear the waves.
Feeling crowded by the generations and oddly lost in time, I sat down at our unsteady kitchen table when we got home and wrote a poem about fate and death and the generations—all the big stuff. It was a strange poem to write at the start of that dark season, when so much of the past would repeat itself in terrible ways and every miscalculation felt like destiny. Much later, my friend Pat Folger, the grizzled old-school Nantucket contractor, would sum it up with his usual down-east brevity:
“What goes around comes around, buddy. And this time it came for you.”
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