Human beings have the remarkable ability to adapt to just about anything.
The ferry to Martha’s Vineyard was mostly empty up here on the rooftop level, the sky gray and the wind sharp, the smell of the open water different than that found on the beaches of Cape Cod.
Almost all of the other passengers were seated comfortably inside, many taking advantage of the snack bar or the free wireless. On my way up I’d passed both families too excited to sit still and business people more than happy to sit back and let someone else do the driving for a while.
Me, I stood at the rail, watching the wake stir up the gray-green seas, and tried to ignore the voice coming over the loudspeaker.
“Will the owner of a silver Audi with New Jersey plates please report to the freight deck to disengage your alarm?”
This was the fourth announcement in fifteen minutes. Maybe the car was a rental, and the driver hadn’t noticed the plates, didn’t know an Audi from a Chevy. Or maybe the driver was simply deaf. Could deaf people get a license to drive?
The announcements had been insistent enough that I’d almost gone down to the freight deck myself, and my car was parked back in the lot at Woods Hole.
The woman I meant to interview worked at a bed and breakfast within easy walking distance of the dock. Leaving my car on the mainland was cheaper than transporting it, and the fresh air would do me good.
A grunt as a heavy man joined me, favoring his right knee. “Can’t say I care for how those stairs gave as I climbed them.”
“Yeah.” Unlike the inside stairs, they bowed for some reason. Of course I’d acclimated and then forgotten the fact by the time I reached the top.
The stranger’s hand pressed his baseball cap onto his head to keep it from going overboard. “There’s the island already.”
“It looks closer than it is.”
“I remember when journey this would take hours. At least it seemed that way when I was younger.” He frowned. “Those kids down below, plugged into their electronics, they have no sense of adventure. We always enjoyed the trip over almost as much as being on the island. Watching for whales.”
“I haven’t seen so much as a gull today.”
He joined me at the rail. “The kids are missing this to blow up mutants or chat with their friends back home. ‘What are you doing?’ ‘Nothing. What are you doing?’ ‘Nothing.’” He shook his head. “And they’re not.”
He held out his hand. “Frank Harris, from Cherry Hill.”
“Dan Stone.” I shook his meaty fist. “You drive a silver Audi?”
“Finest piece of machinery I’ve ever owned.”
“I think your alarm might be going off.”
“That’s the rumor.” Frank pointed the visor of his cap towards our destination. “Are you visiting Martha’s Vineyard or returning?”
“Just going over for the day.”
“You must be a local then.”
“I live in Wicket—“
“I remember passing through Wicket.” Frank punched me on the shoulder. “We’d stop for clams and beach toys, my father itching to get back on the road, get to where he was going. This was before they tacked 25 onto the end of 495. Now people never have to leave the highway.”
The speaker came alive with another call for the owner of a silver Audi with New Jersey plates, the “please” noticeably less heartfelt. Frank appeared oblivious.
“Don’t you want to check that?”
Frank shrugged. “Somebody bumped against my car. What am I going to do, swab for DNA?”
“You could turn off the alarm.”
He grunted, looking out over the rail. “The noise will keep anybody else from wandering too close. I had the battery checked before I left Jersey, so it’ll last until we dock.”
I glanced at my watch. “There’s probably people trying to work down there.”
“That’s not my problem.”
“It is if they get so aggravated that they key your car.”
Frank clapped me on the back. “You make a good point, my friend. Hey, if I don’t see you, enjoy the island.”
“You too.” As Frank made his way down the stairs, I went back to examining our wake, searching for patterns in the white foam. Such a human trait, that. Searching for patterns, for answers, for reasons.
It kept me solvent, anyway.
Kimberly Owens disappeared without a trace three years ago. The night her boyfriend proposed to her, she waited until he was asleep and then packed her bags, taking off without leaving so much as a note behind.
My client was the boyfriend, Nathaniel Fisher, a marine biologist working at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute.
After two years, he still didn’t understand what went wrong and he needed closure. Or maybe his new fiancée needed the closure, since she was the one paying for my time.
They’d come to me last summer offering a set amount of money. I countersigned the agreement and said I wouldn’t need a quarter of their deposit, that I’d probably locate Miss Owens by the end of the week. Given the databases I subscribed to as a licensed investigator, I actually expected to find Kimberly the next day.
That was a little over fifty-two weeks ago.
Nathaniel and Hannah still hadn’t married, their lives on hold as they waited patiently for me to produce results. Of course by now, they’d probably given up any hope of that, simply going through the motions until the money ran dry.
I wondered how their love had weathered the never-ending investigation, the promises I’d made in good faith, the leads that led nowhere. I wondered if their relationship would survive my final — yet incomplete — report. Whether I would.
“Will the owner of a silver Audi….”
Had Frank changed his mind about checking, or was he still on his way down to the freight deck?
I tracked a pair of gulls across the leaden sky.
After that first meeting, I never saw Hannah again, and could only guess at her motivation, needing to know what fault Kimberly had found in the man she still thought perfect.
Nathaniel was the client I saw on a weekly and then a monthly basis as my updates became redundant. When I called him this morning, I wasn’t even sure he recognized my voice, but then he’d been at work, and probably busy.
All of Kimberly Owens’s ties were on the Cape. She’d been born and raised on the peninsula, acting as though off-Cape could hold no attraction. After graduating from Cape Cod Community College, she worked and lived in the various Mid Cape towns until she met Nathaniel. Three months later, she’d moved all the way to Standish, where the canal and the mainland beyond were clearly visible through Nathaniel’s floor-to-ceiling windows.
Starting the night Kimberly slipped out of his front door, she had not once touched any of the databases I monitor, not in the two years before I’d been hired, and not in the year since.
Such a thing should not have been possible.
Not if she was alive.
Nathaniel was a marine biologist. He knew all about ocean scavengers. Why then hire me?
The voice came over the loudspeaker again. “Vehicle owners should report to the freight deck as we prepare to dock at Oak Bluffs.”
I patted my back pocket to make sure the free tourist map hadn’t blown away, and fifteen minutes later I was climbing Ocean Ave towards the Seabreeze Inn.
After my initial investigation stalled, I’d asked Nathaniel for a list of Kimberly’s known email accounts, screen names, and online identities. Off the clock I still routinely ran searches, looking for likely hits.
Last week, one KimmyDimmy243 — once Kimberly’s login at an online bookseller — had posted a comment at a community dedicated to the discussion of inns.
During a discussion on negative experiences with staff, KimmyDimmy243 had defended Caitlan (Seabreeze Inn, Oaks Bluff, Martha’s Vineyard) who’d once gone above and beyond the call of maid duty, at least for her.
While Nathaniel had claimed on the phone this morning that Kimberly never indicated the slightest desire to visit the islands, a person could easily change that much in three years. Besides, how many people would purposely select KimmyDimmy243 as a public identifier?
For one thing, it was long.
The Seabreeze Inn boasted a wrap-around porch, sprinkled with groupings of chairs that looked out over the Atlantic, her breezes tickling the many wooden and metal wind chimes that hung from exposed beams.
I marched inside and dinged the bell that was centered on the counter.
A hand-lettered sign informed me that Oak Bluffs was formerly known as Cottage City, a fact that might come in handy if I ran into my friend from the ferry and needed to make conversation. Since Martha’s Vineyard was even smaller the Cape, there was a good chance I wouldn’t be able to avoid seeing Frank, not unless he stayed in his car.
A forty-something woman with black hair pinned up into a bun came through the doorway behind the counter. “Welcome to Seabreeze. I’m Elizabeth, the innkeeper.”
“Actually, I’m looking for one of your employees. Caitlan?”
The woman somehow smiled without her skin moving. “Caitlan only works here in the mornings. Right now you might find her at the Flying Horses.”
“Thanks so much.” I paused, gambled that inside that Elizabeth was a Liz. Or even a Beth. “Perhaps you might recognize this woman.”
Elizabeth examined Kimberly’s face before shaking her head. “I’m afraid not. Is she in some type of trouble?”
“I’m just helping a mutual friend locate her, since I’m here.” I accepted the picture back from Elizabeth’s outstretched hand. “Apparently, Kimberly recently stayed at the Seabreeze.”
“Not in the last ten years.” Her tone left no room for dispute.
“Are you sure?”
Apparently her skin wasn’t the only thing about her that was immobile. “We might be talking as long as three years ago.”
Elizabeth frowned, seemingly unhappy that I would doubt her. “I have an extraordinary memory for faces. I never forget them. If that woman ever stayed at the Seabreeze, she’d be up here.” Elizabeth tapped the side of her head.
“Maybe you were on vacation.”
“If I took vacations, that would be possible, but I don’t.” Elizabeth moved the bell a quarter-inch to the left. “I’m afraid your mutual friend misled you.”
“Wouldn’t be the first time.”
She crossed her arms. “So what does this Kimberly person have to do with my employee?”
“My friend said Kimberly mentioned Caitlan.”
“And this happened three years ago?”
“Yes.” I’d never felt comfortable lying to people, and sometimes that manifested in a reluctance to break away until I’d outweighed the falsehoods with truths. “Maybe there’s another Seabreeze on the island. Another Caitlan.”
“That is extremely unlikely.”
I shrugged. “So many things are.”
“Enjoy your visit.” With that, Elizabeth turned away.
Apparently, I was dismissed.
According to my free map, the Flying Horses Carousel was located at the foot of Circuit Avenue. Head back down Ocean, cross over to Kennebec, and then over to Circuit. That’s if I trusted a map intended for entertainment purposes only.
The stroll was pleasant enough anyway, with vacationers tossing Frisbees in Ocean Park for the amusement of those sitting on gingerbread porches, toasting another perfect day.
I walked between the two groups and tried not to get sucked into the illusion that time had no meaning here, that all was as it should be, and would be ever more. Until the week was up and everybody went back to their normal lives.
Kennebec — only one block away — belonged to the locals who fed the dream, and the vendors who delivered to the rear of the stores fronted on Circuit.
The Cape was probably no different but I’d grown inured.
As I passed the public restrooms, I saw a long-skirted woman with one hand poised over her open mouth before I noticed the homeless man. He was lying at her feet, nestled against the legs of a park bench.
She spoke without looking at me. “My husband has gone for the police.”
The man was gray. His clothes, his hair, his skin. The gray of dust and decay.
I heard the crackle of the officer’s radio before he came around the corner and cleared the area by asking us to move on. I passed another officer striding towards the scene as I exited out onto Circuit.
The day’s earlier clouds had parted to allow the sunshine through, and this commercial stretch was protected from the sharp winds I’d experienced on the ferry ride over, but I still felt a chill that I hadn’t before.
Sighting a coffee shop, I went in and ordered a large to go. Made small talk as I waited and paid. Glanced at posters about something or other.
A man was dead.
Out on the sidewalk again, I faltered. Caitlan could wait a little longer before she blew my case wide open.
I hadn’t seen evidence that the man’s death was anything more than unattended, but of course his passing would be investigated to determine whether someone was to blame.
The way he lay there, fetal, looking as though he’d died of exposure. Here? Today?
I sipped my coffee, hoping it wasn’t still too hot.
Oak Bluffs wasn’t Boston, or even Wicket. This was the Vineyard, a resort community for the refined. And yet, a weather-beaten homeless man had walked among them. Died.
Who was he? Where had he come from? What reversal of fortune had left him a gaunt figure, unshaven, and bound in rags?
Maybe Kimberly, too, had taken to the streets. Perhaps Nathaniel’s proposal had broken her somehow, and she never managed to pull herself back together. Was she crouched in a doorway? Hollowed by drugs? Buried as Jane Doe?
Three young girls in matching yellow smocks skipped by me, all singing the same song, if not in harmony. Following behind, their father carried two beach chairs, and their mother the sand toys. A family out enjoying a wonderful day together.
I tossed my coffee cup into a nearby trashcan and headed downhill, slowing only when I reached the end of the road.
Across the street, the open doors of the Flying Horses Carousel enlivened the atmosphere with carnival music, the flashing lights of arcade games, and the joyful sounds of children at play.
Unless Caitlan was one of the teenage boys monitoring the carousel, she was the employee sitting behind the cash register, which would make talking to the twenty-something easier. She couldn’t escape, but she’d feel protected.
I stood in line, waiting for a couple with one child to decide whether to buy six single tickets or a group of eight, and then asked whether she was Caitlan.
“Do I know you?”
“I’m looking for someone you once helped. She was a guest at the Seabreeze Inn.” I handed Caitlan the picture.
Caitlan froze, and then over-reached when she tried to feign nonchalance. “I never saw her before.”
“She said otherwise.”
“Why would she do that?” I wondered how many times a shift the employees had to hear the carousel music replayed, imagining the song would pale after the first hundred repetitions.
“Who are you?”
“My name’s Dan Stone. I’m a private investigator.”
As the carousel song ended, I could hear the arcade games through the open door on my left. “I’ve been hired to track down Kimberly. Your name came up during my investigation.”
I leaned against the counter. “So tell me about the woman you helped without ever meeting.”
Caitlan glared at me. I held her gaze. There was nowhere for her to go.
“Kim wasn’t really a guest.”
Shaking her head, Caitlan gave off a growl. “I would get in so much trouble if Elizabeth learned what I did.”
“I’m sorry.” The innkeeper struck me as someone who would follow up. “Elizabeth knows why I came to see you.”
Caitlan swore, and then winced, looking around at the nearest little kids. She then took a deep breath before continuing. “She’s going to fire me. I just know it.”
“What happened with Kim?”
Someone tapped me on the shoulder. “Excuse me. Are you in line?”
“No.” I moved aside to allow the group access to Caitlan, and turned to watch the operation. As the carousel spun, the people riding on the outside horses grabbed rings from a long wooden arm.
Some of the riders were quick enough to score two or three rings before their horses galloped past.
There was another arm for the inside riders, although I only caught glimpses of it during the brief periods when it wasn’t blocked by either row of horses.
The employee inside the carousel lifted a microphone. “The brass rings are in the chutes.”
The smell of popcorn told me the group from the counter was coming closer, and then they passed me for the picket-fence maze leading to the ride. I returned to my interview, suddenly hungry.
Caitlan had shifted, now sitting on her hands. “Why do you want to know about Kim?”
“My client wants to make she’s all right. Three years ago Kimberly — Kim — just up and disappeared without a word to anybody.”
“She’s an adult, and this is a free country. She didn’t break any laws, did she?”
That depended on whether she’d defaulted on any outstanding debts. “When was the last time you heard from Kim?”
“That’s none of your business.”
I shrugged. “Since I’m being paid to ask these questions, it literally is my business. Kim left people behind. They’re concerned about her.”
“If Kim wanted them to know where she was, they’d know.”
“Perhaps she’s not able to communicate with them.” I flashed back to the dead homeless man.
Caitlan was just about to respond when a man stepped in front of me. “I want four brass rings.”
“What color would you like?”
“Brass color.” He was a bit brassy himself, loud and flashy, demanding attention.
“No, the ribbons.” Caitlan pointed to the display over her shoulder where large brass rings hung from ribbons of various colors.
“What difference does it make? Just give me four red ribbons. No, one of them doesn’t like red.” He ran his fingers through his hair, twice. “Make it two red and two blue. Wait. I just know that someone’s going to scream when there’s no green. Make it one of each color.”
“We have six colors.”
“Just pick four. I’m in a rush.”
After he completed his transaction and stormed away, I stepped back up to the counter. “Maybe I could buy you a coffee or something after work.”
“Once I leave here, I punch in at Zapotec, and I’m closing tonight.”
I opened my arms as far as I could without bumping anybody. “Help me help Kim.”
“I don’t think she needs your help.”
“That would be great. Really, I’d be thrilled to learn that Kim is leading a vibrant and happy life here in Oak Bluffs. I’ll deliver my message, wish her well, and purchase my return ticket to Woods Hole.”
“What’s your message?”
“When was the last time you saw her?”
Caitlan mashed her lips together. We went for subtle lipstick shades here in New England. “What did you tell Elizabeth?”
I moved to allow people access to the arcade room. “That I was looking for you. Then I showed her the picture of Kim and said she’d stayed at Seabreeze.”
“I’ve always found that truth is the best policy.” And if Caitlan wanted to take that as a hint, I wouldn’t complain. “Elizabeth is going to fire me because of you. Seabreeze is my year-round job. You don’t realize what that means.”
Caitlan leaned forward, her face flushed. “With two words, Elizabeth could keep anybody else from hiring me. I’ll never survive.” Another flash of the homeless man.
“Asking questions is how I do my job.”
She mimicked me, “’How I do my job.’ That’s easy for you to say. You have one. You know how many hours I work here? How many hours I spend waiting on tables? I can’t survive the winter on that kind of money.”
A group of kids approached the counter, herded by two women kept busy counting heads. I stepped away to stare at a plaque.
The carousel was built by the Charles W. Dare Company in 1876 and brought here eight years later.
More fodder for Frank when and if I ran into him.
The group of kids now being herded into the maze, I went back to the counter.
“Listen, Caitlan, the sooner you answer my questions, the sooner I’m out of your hair.” I glanced up at the one-way mirror. “Your boss might be wondering what we’ve been talking about for so long.”
She stood. “And later, are you going to come over to the restaurant and harass me there?”
“When did you last see Kim?”
“She stayed one night. That’s it. One night. It must have been three years ago. Then she left. That’s it. That’s all I know.”
It would be easy to consider Caitlan’s statement a setback, but this was the first indication that my client hadn’t killed and buried Kimberly the night she supposedly disappeared. Which was a good thing.
Besides, of course that wasn’t all Caitlan knew.
“What did the two of you talk about?”
She rolled her eyes. “Kim was only here one night.”
“Kim must have said something.”
“Her parents. She was furious with them. Probably still is if she never got in touch.”
“What about Nathaniel, her boyfriend?”
“I don’t remember her mentioning a Nathaniel.”
The brass rings were in the chutes. What were the odds that I was going to be able to grab one today? “Did she talk about being engaged?”
“Not unless she was engaged to her parents.”
“What did she say about them?” Her parents hadn’t indicated any significant problems.
“You’ve got to be kidding. This was two winters ago.”
Six months after Kimberly disappeared. Had she not left the Cape until then? Where had she hidden? I’d interviewed her family, friends, and coworkers, most of them at least twice.
Three teenage girls stepped in to purchase as many eight-packs, giggling the entire transaction. Racy times ahead.
As soon as they joined the others waiting a turn, I stepped back into the fray. “Why would Elizabeth fire you?”
Caitlan threw her hands up into the air. “Kim came over that day, just because. She walked off the ferry, headed straight to Zapotec for a margarita. One became more than one and she missed the last ferry back.”
“You snuck her into the Seabreeze.”
“It was just for one night, and the place was half empty.” Caitlan leaned forward. “Elizabeth never knew. Elizabeth can never know.”
My stomach felt as though I’d gobbled a dozen large popcorns. “She’s going to ask you about Kimberly.”
“Kimberly didn’t have enough money for a room. I was living at home, and no way could she have stayed there. It was winter.”
“You did what you thought was right.” I paused a beat, letting Caitlan process my statement. “You work here, an inn, a restaurant. You’re conditioned to help people.”
“I couldn’t just let her freeze to death.”
I nodded. “And you figured out both how to sneak her in and keep her presence a secret. That must not have been easy.”
“I told Kim no lights, no running water.” Caitlan half smiled. “Anyway, I’m the maid. Resetting a room as if no one has ever been there is my job.”
“You took a big gamble.”
Caitlan continued to talk as she helped the next customer. “Kim had been at Zapotec for hours, and we chatted for a lot of them. It was slow that night. Kim, she was just one of those people you know you can trust.”
Until she disappears in the middle of the night. “Did you see her board the ferry?”
“I was busy straightening the room.” Caitlan shrugged.
“Thanks for all your help.” I double-tapped the counter. “And good luck.”
I spent the next three hours walking Oak Bluffs, showing Kimberly’s picture to anybody who wasn’t a tourist, but nobody remembered ever seeing the woman I’d been entrusted to find.
“Hey, my friend.”
“Frank.” I clapped his arm. “Get your car off the ferry all right?”
“I think mine was the last vehicle they let disembark.” He waved his ice cream cone, white with brown chunks. “Except for the garbage truck in front of me.”
Despite his sour face, I found it hard to believe someone would be transporting garbage onto the island. “Well, you’re here now.”
Frank nodded before taking a bite of his ice cream. “This place never changes. Exactly the same as when I was a kid.”
“Is that good?”
“You bet. I’ll walk with you a while. Keep you company. No man’s an island, they say, even on an island.” He stopped. “What’s with that?”
I turned to see the public bathrooms. The park bench was now covered with cut flowers. Above was pinned a handwritten message, unreadable at this distance. “Looks like a memorial.”
“I’ve heard taking a dump described as a religious experience, but I’ve never heard of anybody actually building a shrine.”
I faced Frank, keeping my tone neutral. “Even in paradise, people die.”
“You can bet they don’t advertise the fact.” Frank took another bite of his ice cream. “Enjoying your visit?”
“I am, actually.” I wasn’t any closer to finding Kimberly, but at least I knew she was alive.
Even more important, so was I.