IT FELT GOOD TO BE BACK out on the river again, and back in his own boat. After only a week away from the Charles, Ed Masterson felt like his stroke had already gotten rusty, and it took him a full hour to get back into a groove. He watched the puddles of his oars fan out in pairs behind him, creating a pleasing circular pattern that contrasted nicely with the straight unbroken line of his boat's wake.
Rowing on the Charles River on Thanksgiving Day was something of a tradition for Masterson, and he looked forward to it with the same enthusiasm that the L Street Brownies relished their New Year's dip in Dorchester Bay. The water had grown denser in the cold, making the oars feel heavier as he made his way back to the dock. Soon ice would form, but usually not until January, and then he would resort to his cross-country skis.
Despite appearances, sculling well was no small matter, and it required years of refinement to master. There were subtleties upon subtleties, most of which had to do with the successful marriage of fine motor skills and raw muscle power. As he rowed along, approaching the Cambridge Boat Club, Masterson focused on the moment of connection between his blades and the moving water below them, commonly known as "the catch."
A perfect catch was always an elusive quest. You had to lift your hands quickly to set the blades, then wait for a split second until you felt the water grab them. Then you drove the oars smoothly and cleanly through each stroke, using your legs, back, and arms in perfect complement. He'd spent hours teaching this nuance to his Harvard oarsmen, because it was so critical to rowing well. But that was all in the past now, along with so many other things, trailing off behind him.
The surface of the river was littered with autumn leaves, and as he carved his way forward, some of the clusters got trapped underneath his hull, creating drag. Periodically, he needed to stop and take a few backstrokes to dislodge them, and he did so now, as he approached the dock. That's when he noticed the two detectives, standing on the dock with their arms folded, waiting for him to land. Those jackass cops, he thought, remembering the interview he'd been subjected to and the indignity of having his boat impounded. So they wanted to talk to him again, did they? Well, they could wait a little longer, until he'd finished his workout. When they waved at him, he waved back. Then he held up two fingers and proceeded to row through the Eliot Bridge.
He already suspected what they were going to ask him about, because Brant Stillman had sent him a warning text that morning, adding the plea, Don't tell them about the oars and the graffiti. Why Stillman and Higgins had felt the need to sneak into the Newell boathouse during the Head of the Charles a month ago and borrow a Harvard launch was beyond him—all for the sake of putting their mark on the underside of the Eliot Bridge. But people did odd things during reunion gatherings, often reverting back to undergraduate behavior.
He glanced at the graffiti now as he rowed underneath it, the bold red letters said "H3V, National Champions." Why couldn't they have just bragged about themselves on Facebook, rather than marking up the historic landmark? On hot days in the middle of the summer, Masterson liked to stop and float under the stone arch to get respite from the sun and to watch the light reflecting on the dome of the arch. The underside of the bridge reminded him of a cathedral, cool and quiet and pleasantly dark.
Checking his oars in the water, he turned and crossed over to the other side, adjusting his point before sculling back through Eliot. Bridges were like gateways to different sections of the river, and each one had its own unique character. Masterson knew all the sections of the Charles by heart¬, all the depths and shallows and currents and windbreaks. He didn't need to turn around very much or use a mirror to see where he was going.
But now he had to deal with the detectives and that required another kind of skill.
He made a perfect landing on the CBC dock, gliding in fast and then leaning away at the last second so that his single pivoted into place. His dockside oar hit the legs of the younger detective, who was standing too close to the edge.
"Ouch!" Marsh MacDonald said, hopping backward and nearly losing his balance.
"Sorry," Masterson half apologized. "I guess they don't call them hatchet blades for nothing."
"Those things really are dangerous," Marsh said, rubbing his shins and remembering the rowing video game he'd just played.
Masterson frowned. "What do you guys want? I hope you're not here to impound my boat again."
"Actually, we just wanted to talk to you about your ex," Delaney said.
"Maya? What about her?" Masterson asked, stepping out of his boat. Steam rose from his back as his sweat cooled.
"You never told us that she ran off with Sheldon Sparks."
Masterson unfastened his oars from the oarlocks, then set them down on the dock.
"Yeah. So what?"
He reached down and lifted his wooden single from the water, hoisting it over his head in one smooth motion. Both detectives stepped back to let him pass.
"So, that certainly gives you a motive to be angry with him."
"Sure. Maybe with the old man, but not Finley."
Masterson started walking up the dock, carrying the long shell balanced on his head. Delaney and Marsh followed behind him, fascinated with how he managed the huge boat. Several steps later, he rolled his boat into slings, then found a rag and started wiping down the hull. The dark mahogany glistened in the sun.
"If you don't mind me asking, why did your fiancée leave you in the first place?" Delaney persisted.
Masterson chuckled. "Who said she left me?"
"So, it was the other way around?" Marsh asked.
Masterson shrugged. "It was complicated."
"Well, let's just say that Maya wanted to spice things up a little, and I wasn't on board with all of her suggestions."
"Have you heard of polyamory?"
"You mean multiple relationships at the same time?"
"The more the merrier, as they say. She was a free spirit, which I only discovered after we were together for a while."
"So how did Sheldon Sparks fit into all of this?"
"Quite nicely, I imagine. He'd already been married twice, and after the party he invited us to, I made the mistake of telling Maya his inappropriate remark about her."
"And she actually found it, and him, intriguing. Or maybe it was just his money."
"What happened next?" Marsh said.
"Fill in the blanks, detective. She became the next Mrs. Sparks."
"But if she was such a free spirit, why bother getting married?" Delaney asked.
Masterson shrugged. "I suppose she wanted to have her cake and eat it too. Who knows? All I know is that I was out of the picture. I'm now totally devoted to Alice."
"Is that your new girlfriend?" Marsh prodded.
"No, that's my boat," Masterson chuckled, pointing at the bow where the boat's name was written.
After he finished wiping it down, he rolled the shell back over his head and walked into the boathouse, barely clearing the top of the low entryway. Delaney and Marsh followed him inside the boat bay, where it smelled of varnish, old wood, and paint.
"How did you and Maya first meet?" Delaney asked.
"At Harvard. She was a teaching assistant for a class in abnormal psychology."
"What were you doing in the class?" Marsh said.
Masterson smiled at the insinuation. "I was taking it for credit toward my master's degree in education."
"Oh," Marsh said, realizing his mistake. "Was it interesting?"
"Actually, it was. I learned that we all fall on the spectrum between healthy and unhealthy behavior, depending on our circumstances in life."
"And where do you fall?" Delaney asked.
"Well, according to Maya, I'm obsessive compulsive but only toward rowing."
"Sounds like you didn't pay her enough attention."
"That's probably true. Coaching demands a lot of your time, and if you're not in the sport, it doesn't make sense. Then again, when I started to hang out with Maya, I discovered that many of her colleagues engaged in some pretty odd behavior themselves. I mean, a few of them believed in UFOs, and some experimented freely with psychedelic drugs."
"What about Fentanyl?" Delaney asked.
"A high-powered opiate."
Masterson shrugged. "I get high on endorphins and Bud Light. Like I said, Maya was a little beyond me in certain areas. Maybe that's why we split up."
"Do you think she is still swapping beds?" Delaney said.
"Not with me," Masterson laughed. "Like I told you, I'm not interested in that sort of thing."
"Well, would it surprise you to learn that we found what looked like a strand of her hair on Finley's pillow, over at the Sparks' residence?"
"That could mean a lot of things," Masterson said, scratching his chin. "If you're asking me whether I think she was sleeping with Finley, I don't know. I guess it's possible, but that would be messed up—not to mention pretty stupid."
"Well, if Sheldon ever found out she had eyes for his son, he would've gone ballistic."
"Do you think he's capable of violence?" Delaney asked.
"I doubt it, but who knows?"
"And how would he have dealt with Finley?"
"Not well either. He's totally possessive. Like I said, he would have been quite angry."
"Enough to kill someone?" Delaney said.
"I doubt it, but how do I know? He'd probably blame the woman and shame the son. Or simply disinherit him."
As the trio stood talking on the CBC dock, the sun rose higher and warmed things up a little. A few other scullers started to arrive, and Mitch Jones, the director of the Head of the Charles Regatta, came wandering out of the boathouse, dressed in an oversized wool sweater, a pair of khakis, and penny loafers.
"Hello, detective," he said, smiling at Delaney as if they were old friends. "Any news on those missing oars?"
"Nothing yet," Delaney said, suddenly remembering the text he'd sent Linda Matthews earlier that day, inquiring about the Marine Division findings. A few days ago, he'd put in a request for them to take a launch and look under the Eliot Bridge for any recent graffiti and along the shore for any discarded oars.
"Sorry, I hope I'm not interrupting anything," Jones apologized.
"It's okay, we're almost done here," Delaney said.
"What about Brant Stillman and Kyle Higgins, can you tell us anything about them?" Marsh said.
"Is that a trick question?" Masterson said. "I mean, they were Finley's teammates and the stern pair of the boat he coxed-"
"Excellent oarsmen," Jones chimed in. "They generally row a pair together," he added.
"So Stillman and Higgins currently row out of Cambridge boat club?" Delaney asked, growing more curious.
Mitch Jones nodded. "Members in good standing."
"Do you think they could have been responsible for the oar heist?"
Jones laughed. "Whatever for? They have enough money to buy oars."
Delaney shrugged. "Maybe as a prank?"
"I seriously doubt it," Jones said, grimacing at Masterson as if the suggestion was absurd.
As if on cue, Delaney's phone pinged. It was a response from Linda Matthews in the form of a photo she'd received from the Marine Division, detailing the underside of the Eliot Bridge.
"Can either of you tell me what 'H3V' means?" Delaney asked, holding up the photo on his phone.
Masterson and Jones glanced at it and then at each other.
"It's an abbreviation of the Harvard third varsity," Jones replied. Masterson nodded in agreement.
"And do either one of you know who might have painted it on the bridge?"
"Maybe, but I don't see how some old graffiti is relevant to your case," Masterson said.
"You can let us decide on that," Delaney replied. "And it's not old, it's freshly painted."
After a moment of uncomfortable silence, Masterson spoke.
"Okay, if you must know, I'm pretty sure Stillman and Higgins are responsible, but I still don't see how that's relevant."
"It's relevant because it may place them on the river the night of Finley's murder," Marsh explained.
"We have an eyewitness who saw a couple of guys in a launch right over there," Delaney said, pointing toward the Eliot Bridge.
Masterson shrugged. "I think it was probably just a dare that they did after the reunion row."
Delaney looked pointedly at Mitch Jones, then back at Masterson.
"Was Finley with them?"
"How would I know? I wasn't there," Masterson said.
"Then how do you know about it?"
"They asked me how to access a Harvard coaching launch. Look, they're great guys. I'm sure they weren't involved in any serious wrongdoing."
"You mean, like defacing a bridge? Or murder?" Marsh said.
Masterson was silent as Delaney got on his phone and started calling the police dispatch number.
"What are your plans for the rest of Thanksgiving weekend?" he asked, as the phone was ringing.
"Well, don't leave town. We're going to bring in Brant Stillman and Kyle Higgins for more questioning, and if we find out they had a hand in Finley Sparks' death, you may be an accessory."
"That seems a bit heavy-handed," Mitch Jones objected.
Delaney gave Jones another pointed stare, then motioned to Marsh that it was time to leave. As the two detectives walked away, Masterson and Jones glanced at each other and then out at the river, as if their fate lay buried in its depths.