"I'LL DO THE TALKING," INSPECTOR SEAN DELANEY SAID to his partner as they walked up the long, winding staircase that led to the front door of the Sparks residence. The house was a simple but elegant Frank Lloyd Wright design, set back from the road in a cluster of evergreens.
Delaney still couldn't believe that he'd been asked to swing back to the station and pick up McDonald, the cellphone obsessed millennial know-it-all, a guy who barely ever made it out into the field. Already, on their way out to Sherborn, he and Marsh had gotten into difficulty just trying to find the location of the victim's home. Needless to say, Delaney was not in a good mood.
"It wasn't my fault we got lost," Marsh pointed out.
"It definitely was," Delaney shot back. "You were in charge of the GPS."
"Actually, you can't control a GPS. It works by a process known as triangulation, which means it needs to receive signals from at least three different satellites to work correctly. Out here in the woods the signal is weak, so it's obviously prone to failure."
"Like I said, Marsh, I'll do the talking."
The entryway path was lined with ferns, rhododendron and other bits of shade greenery which seemed to complement each other perfectly. Beyond this, strewn about the expansive lawn, were less successful attempts at landscaping. Stone sculptures stood among stands of white birch, looking like giant, naked bodies.
"This place reminds me of Troll Hunter," Marsh said.
"What's that? One of those video games you play?"
"It's a movie, actually."
"Yeah. A real winner, I'm sure," Delaney scoffed.
"Ouch," Marsh cried out, suddenly pricking his finger on a climbing rose as he tried to ring the front doorbell.
"Careful," Delaney laughed. "We're not in Boston anymore."
Delaney had never been to Sherborn or nearby Dover before, despite having lived in Massachusetts his entire life. These were suburban enclaves where the wealthy raised their young, lured by some of the top-ranked high schools in the state. Many of the more expensive houses like this one sat on several acres of land, and were equipped with swimming pools, horse stables, and tennis courts. To Delaney, the Sparks residence looked like a summer camp.
Back at the front gate, he and Marsh had been met by a security guard named Al, who gave them a sympathetic grimace when they held out their badges and mentioned who they'd come to see.
"Christ, what's he done now?" the guy joked, pressing the button to release the electronic gate.
Sheldon Sparks himself answered the front door of his house, looking even more immense than Delaney remembered him from their first encounter, in the assistant DA's office.
"Welcome to Sherwood Acres," he boomed, a little too loudly.
"Thanks for letting us come over," Delaney said. "I know this must be a difficult time for you."
Sparks held up his hands and shook his head.
"I'll do anything I can to help," he said. "Come on in. This is Maya, my better half. She does all the heavy lifting around here."
A diminutive young woman dressed in yoga tights and a striped t-shirt descended the stairs, barefoot and blonde. Based on the bounce in her step and her neon-colored toenails, Delaney pegged her as a second or even third wife.
"Sorry, I need to stir the bouillabaisse," Maya said, as if Delaney and Marsh had just arrived for dinner. She gave them a polite smile, then slowly padded her way across the carpet.
All the men were silent for a moment, watching her leave the room.
"She's an excellent cook and landscaper," Sparks explained.
"It sounds like you're describing the help, dear!" Maya called out from the kitchen.
"Sorry," he shouted back. "She's got other skills, too," he said, lowering his voice and winking at the detectives.
"I heard that one, too!" Maya sang out. The tone of her voice was falsely sweet, bordering on a snarl.
"I was referring to your artwork," Sparks protested. He rolled his eyes at Delaney and Marsh, then nodded toward some large canvasses, splashed with bold colors. One of them faintly resembled an orchid, rendered in the style of Georgia O'Keeffe.
Marsh was still fussing with his injured finger.
"I'm afraid my colleague here was just bitten by one of your roses," Delaney said.
"Honey, you really should trim back those damn things," Sparks boomed. "I've told you many, many times…"
"Relax, baby. I'll get a band-aid for the poor man."
"Come in. Sit down," Sparks commanded. "Drinks?"
"No thanks," Delaney said.
"Of course. Straight to business. I'll take you right out to Finley's room."
"He lived in the stables," Sheldon said. "He liked it that way. More privacy."
They exited the back door, where more topiary and garden sculptures awaited. A stone mermaid sat pining on a rock in the middle of an empty fountain, drained for the winter. Beyond that was a long outbuilding with vertical clapboards.
"Mostly this is where I keep my vintage bike collection," Sparks explained, unlocking a reinforced metal door by punching in a code on a keypad. Then he ushered them into a long, narrow corridor of stalls, each of which held a beautiful motorcycle.
Marsh looked around excitedly, forgetting about his injured finger for the moment.
"Wow. Is that a Vincent Black Shadow?" he asked.
"Sure is," Sparks responded. "Want to buy it? I've got it on eBay for only half a million."
He gave a throaty chuckle, looking to see if either man would respond.
"Where is Finley's room?" Delaney asked, unimpressed.
"Right this way."
They passed through another door and into a small but elegant studio apartment. Afternoon sunlight poured in through a bank of high windows, illuminating a king-sized bed. A Hudson Bay blanket lay on top of it, drawn tight and smoothed to perfection. Nearby stood an antique desk and a small bookshelf. Overall, the place looked remarkably sparse and non-descript, except for a large exercise machine that sat right in the middle of the room, occupying much of the limited floor space.
Marsh bent down to examine the device, carefully moving the sliding seat back and forth.
"That's an ergometer," Sparks explained. "Here, let me show you how it works."
Before Marsh or Delaney could object, the big man plopped himself down on the rowing machine, grabbed the handle, and started pulling furiously. Both detectives exchanged a glance of surprise as Sparks pounded away, making the flywheel spin wildly. Finally, after twenty strokes, he stopped, his face as red as a cooked lobster.
"Christ, I used to be able to hit 1:30 splits," Sparks lamented, huffing and puffing as he caught his breath.
"I thought your son was a coxswain," Delaney said. "Isn't that the guy who just steers the boat?"
"He was, but he knew how to row."
Delaney nodded. "And did he always keep his place so neat?"
"Well, Maya may have tidied things up a bit."
"That's unfortunate," Delaney said. "Do you think she'd remember what she may have shifted around?"
"I'll go ask her," Sparks replied, hoisting himself off the machine. For an overweight ex-athlete, he still moved well.
"Thanks. We'll just stay here and look around a bit, if you don't mind."
"Knock yourself out. Just don't steal any of my bikes," he laughed. "I've shut off the alarm system."
Sparks trotted across the stables in his oversized khakis, kicking aside a tennis ball which lay in his path. It was always tell-tale, Delaney thought, to watch how someone moved around in their own domain. So far, at least, Sheldon Sparks presented himself as a bit of mystery.
At first glance, he came off as an uber-successful, albeit boorish, businessman. He had a good-looking young wife and a beautiful house in the suburbs, filled with many expensive things. Still, despite all of his bravado, his jerky movements and rapid-fire speech indicated someone who was ill at ease, or even unhappy. The dark circles under his eyes seemed to confirm this hypothesis, along with the fact that he didn't seem as pushy as he had been during their first encounter.
Then again, Delaney thought, he had just lost his son.
"See if you can find the laptop," he told Marsh. Then he circled the room, searching for other clues.
The walls of the apartment were mostly empty, aside from a few rowing photos. In one, Finley and some of his Harvard Crew teammates stood together in all their post-race glory, arms wrapped around each other's shoulders. Most of them looked exuberant, but not Finley. His smile looked forced, like a little kid who'd been told to look pleasant. And despite his diminutive size, his curly brown hair and facial features largely resembled his father's - especially the look of hunger around the eyes.
Inside a small closet, Delaney found a random array of clothes and shoes. Ditto for the refrigerator. Everything was in order. Too much so.
"No laptop," Marsh said.
"Look under the mattress, just for kicks."
Marsh slid his hand under the bed.
"Bingo!" he said.
"Not exactly," Marsh replied, holding up a stack of old magazines. He set them on the floor and spread them out like a deck of cards. Each had a half-naked woman on the cover.
"Playboys?" Delaney said. "I thought that magazine went out of circulation."
"It did," Marsh said. "But these are really old. They're probably worth at least a hundred dollars apiece to the right person."
Delaney shook his head. "I don't even want to know how or why you know that," he said.
"It's common knowledge on the internet," Marsh replied.
Delaney held up a hand, silencing his partner.
"Well then, let me ask you this, Einstein. Why would a college kid bother with some old Playboy magazines when he could have access to online pornography?"
"That's a fair point. Unless there's no internet connection out here."
"I doubt it. Every inch of this place is wired. Think of those motorcycles and the security system in place."
"I have been," Marsh admitted, yielding the argument.
"Old motorcycles and Playboy magazines," Delaney mused.
"Seems pretty normal to me," Marsh said.
"Sure. Maybe if you're a sixty-year old, but not a twenty-something."
Marsh shrugged. "What does that have to do with anything?"
"Everything is something," Delaney said.
He paced up and down the stables again, looking at the stalls and the bikes inside them. The converted stables reminded him of something, but he couldn't quite think of what it was. Suddenly, he heard the whirring of the ergometer start up again. He walked back to Finley's room to investigate and found his partner awkwardly trying to row.
"Marsh, what the hell are you doing?" he yelled.
"Sorry, I just wanted to try it out, boss."
"This is a murder investigation, not a joyride!"
Delaney shook his head and looked away in disgust, glancing up at a Harvard oar that hung on the wall over Finley's bed.
He stepped toward the bed, slid it away from the wall, and kneeled down to examine the floor. Two fresh piles of plaster dust lay directly below the screw holes above it.
While he was there, something else caught his eye. The Hudson Bay blanket was a perfect petri dish, with its coarse woolen fibers that held onto everything. Laying upon it was a long blonde hair, shimmering like gold in the afternoon sunlight.
He picked it up, dropped it into a plastic evidence bag, and handed it to Marsh.
"See this? This is what we are doing here - gathering clues."
"What did you find?" Marsh asked, mystified.
"Well, it looks like this oar has been hung up very recently, and someone with blonde hair has been sleeping in this bed."
"You mean Maya Sparks?"
"Don't jump to conclusions," Delaney cautioned.
As if on cue, the outer security door suddenly clicked open, and Sheldon Sparks entered with his wife. A blast of cold air flowed into the room. They were both dressed in shearling coats, and Maya had on a pair of Uggs.
"Well? Did you find anything?" Sparks asked, smiling. "Maya claims she hasn't been out here in weeks."
"Only these," Delaney said, holding out the stack of Playboys, as Marsh quietly slid the evidence bag into his pocket.
"Huh…" Sparks said, with a mildly puzzled look. "I'm not sure what those were doing there…"
"Relax, honey," Maya said. "A bunch of old girly magazines aren't a criminal offence. Or are they, officer?"
She arched her perfectly plucked eyebrows at Marsh, then smiled coyly as she laid her head on her husband's shoulder.
"No, I suppose not," Marsh blushed. He grew silent and glanced down at his shoes.
Sparks snorted, suppressing a laugh.
"Well, are we done here, officers?"
"Sure. That's it for now," Delaney replied. "We'll just walk around the outside of the house to get to our car."
"Suit yourself," Sparks said. He placed his arm around his wife's shoulders.
Delaney led the way back outside, with Marsh trailing along, taking one last glance at the motorcycles. As the metal door slammed shut behind them, it suddenly occurred to Delaney what the place reminded him of - a detention center.
"Sorry about that," Marsh mumbled.
"Which part? Jumping on the rowing machine or choking up in front of Maya Sparks?" Delaney laughed. He was suddenly in a better mood, having found a few clues.
"Well, something about her made me uncomfortable."
"What's the matter, buddy? Not used to dealing with a real live woman?"
"Not one like that," Marsh admitted.
"Maybe you need to get off that cellphone of yours, and get out more often," Delaney teased.
Still, Marsh was right. Something was off with Maya Sparks. Her coquettish behavior was too obvious, and clearly an act for someone's benefit - either for them or her husband.
"Neither one of them seemed too broken up about Finley's death," Delaney mused as they got back into the car, and briefly listened to the crackling of the police scanner.
"I noticed that, too," Marsh said, recovering himself.
"What else did you notice?" Delaney quizzed him.
Marsh thought for a second. "Well, the apartment had obviously been cleaned, aside from that strand of blonde hair and the plaster dust you found."
"So Goldilocks is probably lying. She has been out to the stables recently. But why would she leave those Playboy magazines around?"
"Unless it's not Finley who's been sleeping out there," Marsh speculated.
"That's what I've been wondering," Delaney said. "I'd bet money that Sheldon Sparks spends a lot of time in the doghouse."
"Or in the stables," Marsh said. "Maybe it's his mancave?"
"I'm thinking those Playboy magazines belonged to him," Delaney said. "Didn't you notice how he wasn't very surprised to see them?"
Marsh nodded. "So, do you think it's possible that Finley wasn't living at home at all?"
"Well, that would certainly explain why we didn't find a laptop or much that's personal."
"So where was he staying?"
"Excellent question," Delaney said, starting the engine.
"I think it's time we headed back to the Charles River and talked to some of Finley's ex-teammates. I'd like to know what he's been up to after graduating from Harvard, other than rowing on an ergometer."