"OK, TELL ME SOME GOOD NEWS," Chief Joe Martinoli said, sitting at his desk like a disgruntled Buddha. Detectives Delaney, McDonald, and Favio were all gathered in front of him, waiting to deliver their various updates.
"I think we're making progress," Delaney offered.
"Good, because I just got off the phone with the ADA, who is getting some more heat from Sheldon Sparks. Where do we stand?"
"Right now we are looking at two ex-teammates of the victim who may have been with him on the night of the murder - Stillman and Higgins. Honestly, though, I'm not convinced they did it."
Martinoli lifted his eyebrows. "Really? That's all you've got?"
"There's also some funny business going on at the Sparks' residence," Marsh McDonald added.
"Funny business? What are we, in second grade here?"
"Romantic entanglements," Delaney translated. "It might be nothing, but we're exploring the jealous husband angle as well. Sheldon's wife may have been playing around, quite possibly with Finley."
"Her own stepson? That sounds like a stretch," Martinoli scoffed. "Besides, if a guy like Sheldon Sparks got wind of something like that, he'd throw his wife in the river, not his son!"
"You haven't met Maya Sparks," Marsh said, smiling awkwardly.
Martinoli just stared at him and frowned. "What about the rowing coach, Ed Masterson?" he asked, shifting his gaze back to Delaney. "I thought he was our prime suspect?"
"He's clean so far," Delaney said. "We've grilled him twice, and he hasn't flinched."
Martinoli shook his head then turned toward Favio, who was sitting back in his chair, looking at his laptop.
"What have you got for me, Anthony?" Martinoli said. "Get anything off of that waterlogged cellphone?"
"Well, there was a lot of corrosion, but I did manage to pull a few texts and emails," Favio said. He glanced over at Delaney and Marsh and smiled, clearly pleased with himself.
"Okay, like what?" the chief said, impatiently.
"Well, there was a lot of texting back and forth between Finley and someone called Maya that caught my eye."
"Maya?" Martinoli asked.
"As in Maya Sparks?" Delaney added, with a hint of victory in his voice.
"Could be. We'd have to cross-check her cellphone number."
"I can do that," McDonald volunteered.
"What sort of texts?" Martinoli pressed.
"Stuff like 'the big, bad wolf is away, so come and play.' It could be some sort of code talk," Favio conjectured.
"Or maybe they were just playing Monopoly," Martinoli replied, still unimpressed.
"Any texts, calls, or emails with either Brant Stillman or Kyle Higgins?" Delaney interrupted, deflecting the attention away from his colleague.
"Only one," Favio said. "Stillman and Finley were supposed to meet on the night of the murder, but I can't quite make sense of the location. It just says Newell."
"What is that? A bar?" Martinoli asked.
"It's a boathouse," Delaney told the chief.
"The Harvard men's boathouse," Marsh added.
"Well, shouldn't you be checking into that?" Martinoli asked.
"Marsh and I were just on our way over there, to try and locate a launch that Stillman and Higgins may have used that night."
"Well, what are you waiting for?" Martinoli said, holding up his empty hands and then waving them in a gesture of dismissal.
Eagerly, the trio got up to leave, picking up their cheap plastic chairs to put away.
"Stack them together in the corner," Martinoli instructed. "And just so you know, I want this case wrapped up before Christmas, with a big beautiful bow around the killer."
The chairs made a 'thunk' as the detectives set them down.
"Well, someone's in a great holiday mood," said Favio, when they'd gotten out of earshot.
"Sure, a regular Father Christmas," Delaney replied, loudly enough for Linda Matthews to hear him. She was sitting over at dispatch, with her desk decorated in tinsel garland. A small artificial tree was perched on top of it, along with a stack of peppermint candy canes.
Marsh and Favio made a beeline for the candy.
"Hold on a sec," Matthews said to them. "Did either of you guys drop anything in the 'Toys for Tots' donation box this year?" She pointed over at a cardboard bin which sat near the exit.
Favio and Marsh both shook their heads.
"That's pathetic," Delaney said. "No treats for you guys."
On his way out, he grabbed a candy cane and started unwrapping the plastic.
"I saw that," Linda Matthews said.
Delaney just smiled as he popped the peppermint stick into his mouth.
It was funny how when you start thinking of Christmas, it suddenly appeared everywhere. Delaney was ambivalent about the holiday and all of its commercial trappings, but his partner was unequivocally obsessed. As they pulled off the Mass Pike and headed toward the Charles River, Marsh took it upon himself to point out every residence that was decked out in garish decorations.
"Look, there's Santa and his reindeer on top of someone's roof," he said. "You don't see that too often anymore."
"There's a reason for that," Delaney explained. "It went out with Frank Sinatra."
"Frank who?" Marsh said. "Look, there's Rudolph, the Red Nosed reindeer, standing with all the other the animals at the manger!"
"Ok, Marsh, can we focus on the case now?" Delaney snapped.
They began to get glimpses of the river, as they drove along Nonantum Road. Patches of ice lined the shore, turning to silver where the sun touched it. As they passed by the public skating rink and the Daly Field, Delaney remembered the second drowning victim, who had been found nearby and never identified.
Suddenly, he felt himself getting depressed. The chief was right; this case was getting cold.
"So do you think that Stillman and Higgins did it?" Marsh asked, sensing his partner's gloom.
"Not really, but I think there's something they're not telling us," Delaney mumbled, immersed in thought. "I also think we need to circle back and speak with Maya Sparks again," he added. "If we can trust Ed Masterson, she's not quite the dumb blonde she makes herself out to be."
"Look, there's a giant Frosty the Snowman!" Marsh replied, pointing out the window at Martignetti Liquors.
The Harvard men's boathouse was considerably larger than the one they had visited a week earlier, red slate-shingled and two stories tall. From the parking lot, Delaney and Marsh took a moment to admire the exterior of the building and its gray-green roof, topped with multiple cupolas and ornate brass spires.
"Newell boathouse," Marsh announced, reading from his phone. "Built over a century ago in honor of an ex-Harvard oarsman and football player named Marshall Newell."
"And what was his claim to fame?" Delaney asked.
"Killed in a tragic accident a few years after he graduated."
"Christ, don't tell me he was found in the Charles River?"
"No. Run over by a train," Marsh said. "His college buddies raised the money to build the boathouse."
"Ok, thanks for the history lesson," Delaney said. "Now let's get to work."
The front door was open, so they entered the building and soon found themselves in a huge space with high ceilings, completely filled with boats. It was quiet and dark, and not much warmer than it was outside.
"Wow, these things are enormous," Marsh said, touching a tiny rudder on the back of a boat that ran about fifty feet long.
"Those must be eights,'" Delaney said. "I think they go for about eighty grand a piece."
"More than my annual salary," Marsh mumbled.
Nearby, on the periphery of the open room, various sets of twelve-foot oars were stored vertically up against the wall. Everything seemed to be in its proper place, put away and stored for the winter. Something about the smell inside the boathouse was familiar to Delaney, like a summer camp he'd attended a long time ago—river water, mixed with wood.
Somewhere, off to their right, came another faint smell, more chemical and less appealing, and the sound of a radio.
Delaney and Marsh moved in the direction of the music and found a sliding panel door that led into a workshop. An older man was inside, inspecting some Harvard oars he'd recently painted. The room was smaller and better heated than the boat bays, and it was strewn with broken rowing equipment and all of the tools required to fix it, including various saws and clamps. An outboard motor, half disassembled, was sitting upright on a moveable dolly.
Delaney flashed his badge at the boatman, who glanced up and nodded at the two detectives. He seemed unfazed by their appearance. After removing a piece of masking tape from one of the finished oars, the man reached over and turned down the volume of radio, which looked like it was the same vintage as the oldies coming out of it.
"You fellas following up on that break-in?" he asked, with a thick Maine accent.
Marsh looked over at Delaney. "What break-in?" he asked.
"About a month ago," the man said. "The one I called the Harvard police about."
"Really?" Delaney said. "And what did they find?"
"Not a whole heck of a lot, since nothing was missing," the man laughed.
Delaney returned an amiable nod. "We're actually here about Finley Sparks," he explained.
"Messy business," the boatman replied.
"How well did you know Finley?"
"Well enough, I suppose."
"What was your opinion of him as an undergraduate?" Delaney asked.
The boatman shrugged. "Typical coxswain—bossy."
"What about Brant Stillman and Kyle Higgins?"
"Typical stern pair," he laughed. "Even worse."
"I take it you don't like many people," Delaney said.
"I fix boats, not people," he explained. "I leave that to the coaches."
"Ok. Tell me more about the break-in. How did you notice it?" Delaney said.
"The back door was busted. Here, I'll show you."
The boatman, who introduced himself as Charlie Smith, led them back through the boat bays and then into some indoor rowing tanks—an eight-seated simulation boat set into concrete, complete with oars resting in shallow pools of water.
"Watch your step," Smith barked at them, nimbly making his way along the narrow edge of the tanks to the back of the room, where an emergency exit door was located. Over his shoulder, he explained how this was where the teams practiced during the winter.
"Impressive," Delaney said, admiring the tank. "You have to admit, Marsh. This is much better than any computer simulation device."
"I'll tell you in a second," Marsh replied.
Delaney looked back to see his partner sitting in one the rowing seats, trying figure out how to manipulate the oar.
"You got your blade turned around backwards," Smith said, chuckling.
"Sorry," Delaney apologized. "He's a bit of a rookie."
They turned their attention to the emergency door, where Delaney found multiple scratches on the outer frame.
"Looks like they used a crossbar," he said. "Do you have a security system in this place?"
"Not really," the boatman shrugged. "There's not much to steal."
"What about all of those expensive boats?" Delaney asked.
"It would be pretty hard to move them without getting noticed," the boatman explained.
"So why would someone break in and then not steal anything?" Delaney said.
"Could've been a homeless person, looking for a place to spend the night," Marsh replied, rejoining them after his hapless attempt at rowing.
"Where does this door lead?" Delaney asked, ignoring his partner. . "Out to the dock where the launches are kept," Smith replied. "I'm just getting ready to pull them out of the water for the winter." The boatman led them outside, through a locked gate, and onto a massive wooden dock. The view was extraordinary, with a wide stretch of the Charles, lined by giant sycamores on the far shore and the city skyline peaking up over the Lars Anderson Bridge. To Delaney it felt as if they were standing on a stage, surveying the city from an elevated view. Smith led them down to the lower dock, where several powerboats were tied up.
"Anyone ever steal these launches?" Delaney asked.
"Sometimes. Mostly in the summer, to take a joyride."
"We have reason to believe that Stillman and Higgins may have borrowed one of them a few weeks ago."
"You mean the weekend Finley Sparks was found dead?"
"Actually, this one in front of you hasn't worked since then, now that you mention it."
"What's wrong with it?" Marsh asked.
"Not sure," Smith said. "I haven't had the time to look it over yet, but the coaches have been complaining about it."
"Mind if I give it a try?"
The boatman shrugged. "The key is in it."
"Marsh..." Delaney said.
"Don't worry, I might not be able to row, but I do know a little about powerboats."
Before Delaney could object, Marsh hopped into the launch. He lifted up the gas tank, noticing that it was full, checked the shift control, then turned the key. The engine made a labored, whining sound.
"Plenty of juice in the battery," Marsh said. "Can we tilt the engine up?"
Smith jumped on board, flipped a lever, and yanked the head of the engine forward.
"Well, I'll be damned" he said, looking down toward the prop, which was entangled with a piece of red cloth.
Delaney immediately recognized the crimson fabric. Putting on his latex gloves, he reached down and carefully unwound it from the prop. It was the same shade of red as the Harvard rowing jacket that Finley’s body had been found in.
"Let's bag this," he said to Marsh. "And then call Linda and tell her to get a forensics team over here."