From the top of the jetty to the rocks below was roughly twelve feet, give or take. Not enough to break much more than a few limbs, the man standing at the far edge thought wryly. Hardly worth the jump.
Not for the first time, he wished he’d had the jetty built higher.
“Hey! Buddy! You there on the jetty!” a voice called from the beach. “That’s private property.”
The would-be jumper turned to see a man in an Irish knit sweater and jeans picking his way carefully across the rocks, headed straight for him. As he drew closer, the newcomer said, “Most people aren’t aware that the jetty is privately owned. I don’t know that the owner wants the liability of having people walking around out here.”
“I try to keep an eye on the place since the owner doesn’t seem to. We’re just across the street. Never met the guy who owns it. None of us has. Wouldn’t know him if I tripped over him. Realtor says he’s a real nice guy, though.” He jerked a thumb over his shoulder in the direction of the house. “Imagine building a place like that and never moving in?”
He turned to look back at the house. “Then again, I guess it’s understandable. Guy who owns it lost his wife, his only child, too. Disappeared just like that.” He snapped his fingers. “Went off to a party or something and never came back.”
It was a baby shower. Her cousin’s baby shower.
“Yeah, I guess it’s something else inside,” he continued. “But when you consider who built it . . .” He stopped to watch his brown Lab chasing seagulls along the waterline, then resumed his chatter.
“You probably read about it. Robert Magellan, the gazillionaire? That’s his place. Built it for his wife, just before she went missing. Sad as hell, you know? I couldn’t imagine that, the wife and kid just, poof. Gone.”
Robert stared blankly as the man continued to babble.
He shook his head. “There was some talk early on that maybe he had a hand in it, but no one around here ever bought in to it. You don’t do something like that”—he pointed to the house—“as a surprise for someone you’re planning to get rid of. The money it must have cost aside, I heard he picked out everything himself, didn’t even use a decorator. That says something to me about the man, like it must have been real important to him that everything be just right for her, you know?”
“Yes, I know.”
“You must have heard about the guy. Hell, you’d have to have been on another planet not to have. The news coverage last year was nonstop for weeks after it happened. We couldn’t even park in front of our own house with all the news vans and gawkers. Some days we couldn’t even get into our own driveway.”
“That must have been a difficult time for all of you.”
“It was. It sure was. You have no idea what it was like. Of course, now all the neighbors are wondering what he’s going to do with it. We keep watching for a sale sign to go up. Every once in a while, I run into the Realtor—Janice Wilson, if you’re looking to buy a place down here.” He paused. “You looking to buy a place in Carlson’s Beach?”
“I haven’t decided what I’m going to do.”
“Check in with Janice, Beach Realty, right down there on Bay Avenue. Tell her Ben Miller sent you.”
“Maybe I’ll do that.”
The man whistled for his Lab, but the dog was more interested in the gulls. “Looks like I’m going to have to go after him. Nine years old and he’s still nothing but an overgrown pup. Guess I’d better catch up with him.” He laughed good-naturedly and took a leash from his back pocket, then looked back at Robert. “So you won’t be hanging around here, right? The police do patrol once in a while, try to keep people off the property. Since it is, like I said, private . . .”
“I’ll be moving on.”
“Okay, well, be careful up there,” Ben Miller called over his shoulder as he made his way down the rocks to the sand below. “It’s a long way down.”
Not long enough.
Robert Magellan watched the man and his frolicking dog until they disappeared over the dune. He took off his dark glasses, rubbed a hand over his face, and tried to decide if he was pleased to know his neighbors believed he’d had nothing to do with Beth and Ian’s disappearance, or pissed at the reminder that the investigation had once focused on him.
“Don’t take it personally,” Joe Drabyak—chief of police of Conroy, Pennsylvania, their hometown—had told him. “The spouse is always a suspect. Because usually, when a person goes missing, someone close to that person is the one who made them disappear.”
“You’re wasting time,” Robert had replied angrily. “While you’re sitting here trying to build a case against me, someone else has my wife. My son—”
“Let’s get one thing straight, Mr. Magellan.” Drabyak’s voice had gone ice cold. “I’m not trying to ‘build a case’ against anyone. I’m only trying to get to the truth. Right now, my only priority is to find your wife and your son and I couldn’t care less whose toes I step on to do it. Even yours. So I’ll be asking you questions and you’ll be answering them. Believe me, everyone is doing everything they can to locate your family. Every cop between here and Gibson Springs is looking for them, okay? Don’t think for a second that you’re the only person we’re talking to. They’re all looking out there, looking for your wife and your baby boy, but you are here, in my town, and that makes you mine, got it? Trust me, I’m not going to be the only one questioning you. The boys out in the western part of the state want to talk to you, the state wants to talk to you, and the FBI is waiting in the wings. The longer you and I play this game, the longer it will be before we get out of here, so let’s get on with this, shall we?”
Robert may not have liked it, but he couldn’t deny that the police had pulled out every stop to find Beth and the baby. Even he had to admit that the fact that they’d failed was no reflection on the effort. He’d personally witnessed Drabyak’s growing frustration that neither his force, the state police, the FBI, nor any of the private investigators Robert had hired had been able to pin down any real clues to his missing family.
How was it possible that a woman, a baby, and a Jeep Cherokee could disappear into thin air?
He glanced once more at the dark water swirling around the rocks below and pulled up the collar of his jacket. A brisk breeze blew in off the ocean, and clouds were starting to gather overhead. As the sky darkened, Robert walked back along the jetty toward the house. The man-made wall of rock extended along the entire line of his property on one side, gradually diminishing in height until it reached the road out front. He checked to make sure the outbuildings—the guesthouse, the garage, and the playhouse—were all securely locked before going up the back steps and into the main house.
He made his way through the silent rooms, trying not to think about the countless hours he’d spent designing this home. So many times, Robert had tried to imagine Beth’s reaction when he brought her here for the first time. He knew she would have loved the fact that he’d bought the weathered shingles from a house that had been demolished in Maine, and that he’d had a guesthouse specially designed where Beth’s sister, Pam, and her husband, Rick, and their children could stay. There was a walled yard where the kids could play safely, and a playhouse that Robert had sketched out for the architect, his own childhood fantasies come to life in clapboard and brick. The master bedroom in the magnificent main house had a balcony with an expansive view of the ocean where he and Beth could watch the sun rise over the water every morning.
He’d just about given up on the dream of sharing that view with her.
His plan today included a stop at the Realtor’s office to tell her he was putting the place on the market, but after having spent the better part of the afternoon here, he realized he wasn’t up to having that conversation today. Tomorrow he’d have Susanna, his assistant, call Janice Wilson and tell her he’d like her to handle the sale of 1217 Heron Place.
Robert walked through the empty rooms, his footsteps echoing on the hardwood floors, and reset the alarm before leaving by the front door just as the first fat drops of rain began to fall. Once outside, he turned the key in the lock and slipped it into his pocket for what he knew would be the last time.
The decision to sell had not been made easily. In Robert’s heart, it felt like a betrayal, because it meant he’d given up on ever seeing Beth and Ian again. But coming here was nothing short of torture for him. It was just one more reminder of that day when his entire world tilted and everything that mattered to him vanished.
“Fuck it,” he said aloud. “Just . . . fuck it.”
He turned his back on the house, got into his car, and drove home through the rain, the wipers slapping against the glass.
Hours later he found himself seated in his car, the engine turned off, in front of the wide iron gates outside his house. He had no recollection of having driven the five hours from the beach house near Stone Harbor, New Jersey, to his home in Conroy, Pennsylvania, and started to tune back in now only because he had to key in the code to open the gates. That morning, he’d taken the first of the cars that he’d come to when he walked outside. It was the only vehicle that didn’t have the remote for the gates built in.
See how easy it is for something like that to happen? he told himself as he tapped the numbers on the keypad. You take the wrong vehicle and it’s a minor inconvenience. Beth borrowed a car and we lost her forever.
Don’t say forever, a voice inside his head pleaded. Maybe it’s not forever . . .
He drove around to the back of his house and parked near the brick walk that led to the kitchen.
“Good. You beat the worst of the storm home.” Trula Comfort, Robert’s housekeeper and his late grandmother’s best friend, greeted him as he came in through the back door. “You look like you need something warm. I have fresh coffee made, just put the pot on for Father Kevin. He’s in the den. Been waiting for you for an hour or so. If you’d told me he was coming, I’d have planned one of his favorites for dinner.”
“I didn’t know he was coming,” Robert told her as he accepted the mug she held out to him. He stole a glance at it. bloom where you are planted was apparently the message of the day. “And what about having one of my favorites?”
“You’re here every day. Father Kevin hasn’t been here in two weeks.”
“So what you’re saying is I have to leave to get special treatment.”
“Well, dessert should make you both happy. I picked up some strawberries—the first of the season—from that nice young Amish couple who bought the Turners’ farm. You probably don’t remember the Turners—the family owned that land for, good Lord, must be a hundred years or so.” She fixed her gaze on him to let him know she was not oblivious to the fact that he was inching toward the door. “But now that you bring it up, a nice vacation away would do you good. Be a vacation for me, too, a few weeks without you around. And you could use a little color in your face. Here it is, almost summer, and you’re as pale now as you were in February.” Trula was winding up, Robert could feel it. If he didn’t move quickly, she’d be at full blast and he’d be stuck in here for way longer than he’d like.
“And I’ll probably be just as pale next month.”
“You make a joke, but you could use the vitamin D you get from the sun.”
“I thought those vitamins you make me take every day had lots of D in them.”
“There’s no pill that’s as good as getting it right from the source.” She pushed open the kitchen door and pointed down the hall in the general direction of the den. “Go, make sure Father Kevin doesn’t try to sneak out before dinner.”
“Yes, sir.” Robert followed the pointed finger.
“Funny man,” Trula muttered as he passed.
Robert opened the half-closed door to his den and stepped inside the large well-lit room.
“Trula wants you to stay for dinner,” he said by way of greeting.
“She already invited me,” Father Kevin Burch replied without looking up from the book he was engrossed in. “She tempted me with fresh sea bass. How could I say no?”
“I thought priests weren’t supposed to give in to temptation.” Robert took a chair near the windows opposite his cousin. It occurred to him that when either of them had something on his mind that he wanted to discuss, somehow they both always ended up here, in the den, in these chairs, facing each other.
“We’re also supposed to honor our elders.” Kevin smiled. “You know many people more elderly than Trula?”
“Good point.”From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Mercy Street by Mariah Stewart. Copyright © 2008 by Mariah Stewart. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.