An Excerpt Of Michael Koryta’s New Novel

The bestselling Hoosier author’s How It Happened, inspired by the disappearance of Jill Behrman, hits stands this month.

May 2018Add a comment

Rob Barrett reached Little Spruce Island about an hour before sunset. The bay was tranquil, the water calm, and as he stepped off the boat and onto the dock, he could hear the sound of a hammer. It made him wince, because he knew the source.

Howard Pelletier was finishing his daughter’s studio.

Howard was a third-generation lobsterman, but after his wife, Patricia, was killed in a car wreck in a March snowstorm when their daughter was eleven years old, his days on the water became a secondary concern. So did everything except Jackie.

The stories Barrett had heard about the two of them were legion and lovely: how he’d anguished over learning to make ponytails and braids, how he’d walked her to school each day with her hand in his, how he’d fished during the fall and winter so he could have more time with her in the summer, even though it meant forsaking the safer money and weather for the season when gales howled and waves threw ice over the decks. He’d done carpentry in the summer and returned to the water when Jackie returned to school. Caring for her had been the sole focus of his days, and then she was a teenager, and suddenly she seemed to be caring for him as much as he was for her. When she was fifteen, she’d signed up for cooking classes in Camden, then made every meal so her overextended father could have one less task. He’d sent her to sixth grade with a clumsy French braid; three years later, she sent him back to the water with gourmet sandwiches whose ingredients he couldn’t pronounce. A father and daughter once defined by tragedy had become a testament to resilience. To say that the people of Port Hope cared about the Pelletiers was an understatement; they were beloved. And they were spoken of together, always, two halves that made a whole, Howard and Jackie, Jackie and Howard.

Some thought it was a fear of leaving her father alone that had kept Jackie from going to college. She was an aspiring artist, and though she had exceptional grades, she never submitted a college application. Howard’s family had an old cottage on Little Spruce, and his daughter fell in love with the island. Upon graduating from high school, she’d moved out to the cottage. She took the ferry back to the mainland each morning to work at a grocery store and, in the summer, spent weekends behind the bar at a seafood restaurant. Jackie worked sixty-hour weeks during the tourist season and told anyone who would listen what she was saving for: an elevated studio space that would be built beside the family’s old island cottage, something tall enough to give her a grand view back toward the harbor, where the sunrises lit the Maine coast.

Howard Pelletier began construction on the building five days after she disappeared.

When she comes home, he’d say, this will help. Whatever hell she’s been through, this place will ease it.

The longer his daughter stayed missing, the more elaborate the studio design became. He redid his original roofing to provide for additional skylights, added a lofted daybed (In case she wants to take a nap up here, you know, a little spot for when she needs a break). Everyone understood the progressive complexities.

He couldn’t stop.
 If he stopped, it meant she wasn’t coming home.
 Rob Barrett stood on the dock at the Little Spruce Island wharf for a long time, listening to that hammering, before he started up the hill.

Howard smiled when he saw Barrett approaching.
“Agent Barrett, how are you?” he said, stepping through the open door with his hand extended. He was just a shade over five feet tall, a foot shorter than Barrett, but thick with muscle, a fire-plug build, stronger at fifty than most men were at twenty.

“It’s just Rob.” This was as much a ritual as the smiles and handshakes.

“It’ll be Rob when you retire. Till then, you’re an agent, right?”

Before Barrett could respond, Howard waved a hand at the interior behind him, which smelled of clean wood and sawdust and was lit by spotlights clamped to the wall studs.

“You can see I made a little change,” he said, and Barrett saw that the staircase was gone. Howard had spent frigid winter evenings finishing the steps with coat after coat of stain, a beautiful, rich maple. Now they were missing.

“I got to thinking,” Howard said, “that she was always comparing the studio she wanted to a lighthouse or a tree house, you know? She wanted to be up high, feel like she was someplace magical. That was her word. Way I figure it, walking up a straight set of stairs, where’s the magic in that? But if it has that curve, that spiral, it’s like you’re heading someplace special. So you’re not just walking up, you’re … what’s the word I’m looking for? You’re … ” He made a sweeping gesture with his small, thick hand, lifting it from belt level to eye level in a slow arc.

“Ascending,” Barrett said, and Howard Pelletier’s eyes lit up.

“Ayuh,” he said in his old-time Yankee dialect. “Ascending. Ayuh, that’s just the word. Once I get it framed in, you’ll see what I mean. She’ll walk up there and it’ll feel like she’s ascending.”

Barrett said, “Howard, I’ve got some news.”

The first flicker of fear showed on Howard’s weathered face, but he blinked hard and pushed it back. He was good at this by now. While each week without answers had drained the hope from George and Amy Kelly, those weeks had given Howard Pelletier time to lay the foundation of his faith in Jackie’s unlikely return, to scour the Internet for reports of those who’d gone missing only to be reunited with their loved ones years later. He knew all those stories. He’d shared them with Barrett often.

So now, hearing the promise of news, he wiped his hands on his pants, nodded enthusiastically, and said, “Good, good! A real lead this time?”

Barrett had trouble finding his voice, and when he finally spoke, the words seemed to come from behind him and far away.

“A confession.”

Howard sat down slowly. Eased right down onto the floor and sat like a child, legs stretched out in front of him, head bowed. He gathered a small mound of sawdust and squeezed it tight in his fist. Then he said, “Tell me.”

So Barrett told it for the second time that day. He told Howard Pelletier as the man sat on the floor he’d laid in the building with the missing stairs, and Howard did not speak. He just rocked a little bit and kept opening and closing his small, muscular hands, crushing loose sawdust into tight packets that he would then toss idly at the door, like someone skipping rocks on a pond.

“Could be lying,” he whispered when Barrett had finished. “Story like that, from a girl like that? Kimmy Crepeaux wouldn’t know an honest word if it bit her on the ass.”

“Maybe she is lying,” Barrett said. “Hopefully she is. We’ll know tomorrow, when the divers search the pond. I need you to be ready for that, Howard.”

Howard had closed his eyes when Barrett said divers. He kept them closed when he said, “When do they go in?”

“First light. We’d have gone today, but we didn’t want the divers to run out of daylight. Once the search starts, people will talk, and the media will show up fast. We want the scene secured and plenty of time for the dive team.”

Howard shook his head, and then opened his eyes.
“A bullshit story,” he said. “Crepeaux, she stands to gain something here, yeah? She’s got other charges. You told me that. Did you offer her a deal on those?”

“It wasn’t my call to make. That’s the prosecutor’s decision.” “Oh, but she’s got a deal, don’t she? You tell me the truth now.” Barrett nodded.
“There you go,” Howard said.

“You won’t find ’em. She’s told a tale to help herself out of the rest of her mess. I’m sorry you gotta investigate lies like that.”

Barrett said, “I just wanted you to hear it from me first.”

“You won’t find ’em,” Howard said, and the tears came then. He wiped them away as if they’d been a mistake, but more came, and he gave up and wept, quietly but painfully, and Barrett sat down in the sawdust with him and waited. They sat there for a long time, and even when the tears stopped, neither of them spoke. Finally, Howard got his breathing steadied and whispered, “Has Mathias Burke been arrested?”

“Not yet. The prosecutor wants the”—Barrett caught himself before he said bodies—“the evidence first. He’s under surveillance, though. I expect he’ll be in jail by noon.”

Howard nodded. He was staring straight ahead, out the still-open door toward the rocky cliffs and pine trees and the setting sun, the panorama his daughter had so loved.

“You know I showed her that old graveyard,” he said. “I told you that, right?”

“Yes.”

“Took her up there in, it was, uh, it was her sixth-grade year. Showed her the way you could put paper over one of them old stones and rub it with charcoal and …” He mimicked the circular motion of the grave rubbings. “They came back to life. The names, I mean. She thought that was so special. Not the way most kids her age would have, like it was just a trick, but special because she knew that represented a life. Special that we could still learn their names and say them and so they wouldn’t be . . . forgotten.”

His thick chest moved in jerks as he fought for steady breath. “So, ayuh, I showed her the graveyard.” 
“She loved that place,” Barrett said, “because you showed it to her. Do not let yourself think of any—” 
“I know what I think,” Howard said. “You don’t need to tell me how to think.”
They sat there in the sawdust and Barrett tried to conceive of some words that would make Howard feel less alone. What might he say to a widowed man who’d raised his daughter and watched her blossom into a beautiful, intelligent young woman? Just what might those words be?

Did you know that there were sixteen thousand murders last year in this country? he could say. More than a quarter of a million people have been murdered in this country since the day your daughter was born, Howard. Don’t feel isolated. You’re not alone. Enough people have been murdered in Jackie’s lifetime to populate the city of Portland, Maine, five times over. You are anything but alone.

Howard wiped his mouth. Sawdust stuck to his face, which was still damp with tears. “I best get this work done while there’s still daylight,” he said. “You just … call me tomorrow. When you …”

He couldn’t finish, and Barrett didn’t make him try. He said, “I’ll call you.”

He knew it was time to go then, and so he stepped through the open door. The wind had picked up and the smell of the sea was heavy and there was only a narrow band of crimson light, thin and bright as an opened vein, left to fight the descending darkness. Behind him, the work lamps cast a harsh white glow inside Jackie Pelletier’s unfinished studio, where her father had ripped out the staircase to build something that would feel more magical.

Ascending. Ayuh, that’s just the word.

Barrett walked back down the hill. The local who’d brought him out, a retired lobsterman named Brooks who’d known the Pelletier family all his life, was waiting patiently in his boat. He had not asked why they were going to Little Spruce today. He never did. But he looked at Barrett closely when he stepped down into the boat, and before he started the engine, he opened a stowage locker and removed a bottle of Jack Daniel’s and held it out without a word.

He had never offered Barrett a drink before.

“Yeah,” Barrett said. “Thanks.” He opened the bottle and took a long drink and then tried to hand it back. The old lobsterman shook his head.

“You keep it,” he said, and then he started the motor. Barrett cast off the dock lines and sat down, his eyes on the cottage on the hill and the new building going up beside it.

“Ascending,” he said.
“What’s that?” Brooks asked.
“Nothing,” Barrett said. “Just talking to myself.” He took another drink and turned to face the wind.

 

The pond where the bodies of Jackie Pelletier and Ian Kelly allegedly lay was twenty-four acres of water fronted by only three seasonal homes. The rest of the shore was composed of marsh grass that led into the pines. At its center, the pond was approximately twenty feet deep. Between the dock and raft, it couldn’t have been much more than ten.

But, as Kimberly Crepeaux had said, it was dark water, and a lonely place.

As the sun came up, Barrett stood on the shore with Don Johansson and watched the dive team gear up. A few other cops from the state police were on hand, but the divers were from the Maine Warden Service. They’d pulled bodies out of ponds, rivers, and oceans. On more than a few occasions, they’d gone through ice to do it.

Today, though, the air was already warm at dawn, fragrant with the scent of pine needles and moss. Watching the sun chin up and over the tree line, Barrett found himself thinking of the way Kimberly Crepeaux had described Mathias Burke’s reaction to that unseasonably hot September day: As if the sun had come up hot that day looking only for him, like somebody picking a fight.

Barrett was exhausted, and he knew that Don had to be too. Neither of them had slept. After returning from Little Spruce Island, Barrett had gone directly to a meeting with the state and county police and the prosecutor and mapped out their plan for the search, the arrest of Mathias Burke, and the handling of media inquiries. It had been after three in the morning before they were done, and they’d stayed in the station, drinking coffee and talking about nothing, each distracted by his own thoughts about what had gone into this and where it would end.

At dawn, they went to the pond.

Now, after getting the thumbs-up from Clyde Cohen, the war- den who was in charge of the dive team, Barrett said, “Let’s bring them home.”

He watched the divers vanish, one at a time, beneath the water.

Descending.

When the divers came up, this investigation would be done. When they ascended, it would all be over.

He expected it to go quicker than it did. The divers stayed down, and the minutes ticked by, and the sun arced into Barrett’s eyes. He tried not to look at his watch. Don Johansson checked his plenty, but he didn’t say anything.

Barrett blinked at the sun, annoyed by its brightness reflecting off the water even with his sunglasses and a baseball cap shielding his eyes. The smell of the water and the pines reminded him of fishing Maine ponds like this with his grandfather. They’d go out on a little boat with a ten-horse Johnson outboard and work Rapalas and Red Devil spoons along the weed edges, hunting bass and pike. His grandfather would drink and talk, usually about the military or manhood or all the ways his own son—Barrett’s father—was an example of a culture gone soft. The professor, he would sneer. He always called Barrett’s father the professor. Fuckin’ philosophy, you kidding me? Let me tell you about some good men who died over fuckin’ philosophy, Robby.

Twelve years after his father’s funeral and ten after his grandfather’s—Ray had outlasted his son; Ray had outlasted almost everyone, running fast and hard on booze, cigarettes, and venom—the smells of this Maine pond took Barrett right back to those fishing trips. Smell was supposed to be the sense most closely linked to memory, but this wasn’t a day to recall the past. This day was supposed to be about moving forward—it would be painful and tragic, yes, but it would also move things forward. And quickly. The water wasn’t deep enough to hide bodies for long.

You won’t find ’em.

Barrett twisted his watch so the face was pointing inward and he couldn’t see the dial.

It was nearly noon when the warden in charge of the dive team told Barrett that there was nothing to be found within a hundred yards of the raft.

“You’re positive? I thought you said visibility was awful down there.”

“It is, but the water’s shallow. We’ve been crawling the bottom, basically. Every square foot. They’re not in this cove. I’m sure of it.”

“Maybe out deeper,” Barrett said, but already he was unsettled because Kimberly Crepeaux had been so clear on the location. “They weighted the bodies, but maybe not enough. They could have drifted pretty far out.”

“With no current?”

Barrett looked at the warden. “Go deeper,” he said. “They’re down there.”

The divers went deeper. By two, they were in the middle of the pond. Word of the search had leaked, and spectators began to arrive. Johansson brought in additional troopers to keep them back and secure the road. Then a TV helicopter passed overhead and filmed the divers’ repeated, and empty-handed, returns to the surface. It was very warm, and Barrett’s mouth was very dry.

“They’ll find them,” he said to no one in particular.
By four, they had worked all the way to the opposite shore and found nothing but beer bottles, fishing lures, and one rusted Louisiana license plate.

“‘Came up with the Gulf Stream—from southern waters,’” the diver said, tossing the plate onto the plastic sheet they’d spread for any items of potential evidentiary value. He grinned, but Barrett couldn’t match it.

“Not a Jaws fan, Agent Barrett?”

“Not today.” Barrett worked his tongue around his mouth and tugged his baseball cap lower. The sun’s glare was relentless. “No pipes, no pieces of metal?”

“Plenty of metal if you count beer tabs and Rapala hooks. But anything bigger than that?”

The diver shook his head. “It’s a clean bottom. Ponds like these, we usually find all sorts of shit. Refrigerators, car doors—hell, entire cars, for that matter. This is an unusually clean bottom.”

Barrett nodded and tried to look impassive. The diver adjusted his mask and mouthpiece and went back in again. The television chopper took another pass, its rotors shimmering shadows on the glassy, glaring surface of the pond.

“You said every part of her story checked out,” Johansson said to Barrett in a low tone. It came out more accusatory than questioning.

“It did. Every single stop. You know that. You reviewed the same route.”

“Every single stop before this one checks out. This one is pretty damned relevant too.”

“She was telling the truth,” Barrett said. “I’ve spent a lot of time talking to her, Don, and I am sure that she was telling the truth about this.”

“I’m aware of the time you’ve spent on Kimmy’s stories,” Johansson said, and again Barrett caught the loaded, accusatory tone. Johansson struggled to believe anything offered by Kimberly Crepeaux. I don’t want to hang my case on a jailhouse snitch, Johansson had said. And Barrett had told him that they wouldn’t have to because they’d have the bodies.

Find the bodies, close the case.

Barrett moved away from him and paced the shore, scanning the water and weeds, working south. Then he beckoned for Johansson.

“The warden’s wrong,” he said. “There’s a current to this pond.”

Johansson arched an eyebrow as he looked from Barrett out to the mirrored surface of the water, which was unblemished by so much as a ripple. “You think?”

“It’s stream-fed. Water comes in at the north end and goes out the south. Let’s take a look at the south end.”

They slogged through the boggy soil, boots sinking six inches deep, then coming free with a wet sucking sound, the mosquitoes and blackflies buzzing. Everything at ground level was a battle, assaults by mud and bugs, by muscle aches and sweat, and everything above was a beautiful tease, pine-scented air leading up to a cobalt sky. The idea that the two worlds were joined felt absurd.

At the south end of the pond was a berm, dug out and then backfilled with gravel. The pond had been built by a man with visions of developing the property for summer cottages. The soil wasn’t right for building, though; it stayed too wet for too long, and he’d created more of a marsh than a pond.

Don Johansson and one of the wardens measured the water depth on the other side of the berm, where the water worked toward the creek.

“Sixteen inches,” the warden said, slapping at a mosquito that was treating his neck like a buffet line. It left a bloody smear behind. “No chance a body drifted through here even if it hadn’t been weighted.”

“It was a wet winter,” Barrett said. “December rains, right? Then again after the snowmelt. Would’ve been high back then.

The warden looked at Barrett and then away.

“Agent Barrett? Even at record flood levels, you’re not going to have enough current in here to carry a body from that cove, across the pond, and through this.”

Barrett watched the water flow past the berm, sparkling under the sun, melodic as it passed over the rocks. Most people would have said it was a beautiful sound, and on most days Barrett would have agreed with them, but right now the soft rippling seemed like a mocking chuckle.

“Keep at it,” he said. “I’m going to see Kimberly.”

 

In an essay in our May issue, Michael Koryta describes how the Jill Behrman case informed this narrative—a story that has followed him all his life.

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