The rather short first chapter of Body in the Pond, the second volume of the illuminating St. Max mystery series, set in the last outpost of Western civilization
We finished our breakfasts at Paul’s Pantry, a West Boxford diner, and went to our cars for separate drives to the school. I’d come from St. Max to meet Joan early. I lived in a faculty apartment on the second floor of a residence hall, while Joan lived in a small apartment in town. It made things difficult. I couldn’t have her spend the night in my rooms, and I couldn’t stay the night with her on most weeknights because of my responsibilities at the hall. Sometimes I snuck out at night and went to visit her. It felt like sneaking, since there was sex involved, but in fact I was within my rights to walk the grounds, to visit friends, to stay up all night if I wanted. But on those nights when I went to visit her—and sometimes we did nothing more exciting than watch HBO together, her dog beside us on the sofa—I always felt caught, guilty, if a student saw me walking out the door after dark. I tried to look as if I was going to correct essays in the faculty lounge. But they knew. Or I thought they knew. Sometimes it was difficult to tell the adolescents from the adult in my residence hall.
Joan had recently bought a pale yellow Mustang. I had recently bought a Mini-Cooper. Jammed inside of it, I felt like I was driving through the English countryside as I drove the narrow winding roads of Essex County. And so off we went, me following, and when we came to Pond Road we saw the flashing lights of two patrol cars ahead. Although the several officers I saw seemed to be milling about, I had a sense they’d pulled something from the water. They looked grim faced. The sky was clear spring blue, and a fresh breeze shook the branches of buds, but the day felt suddenly gray. The Mustang’s brake lights glared red in front of me. We each pulled over at a respectful distance from the patrol cars.
The road was narrow and the shoulder wet and spongy. It gave way to the water without much warning, and so we parked with our driver-side tires safely on the pavement. Joan slipped out of her car and waited for me beside her door. A patrolman approached, about to tell us to keep moving, but Joan stopped him short by asking in a brusque, businesslike voice, “Is Lieutenant Oxenbow here?”
This shifted the patrolman’s perspective of us, as hoped, and he glanced back once over his shoulder before asking, “You from the school?”
Oh God no, I murmured to myself.
“Yes,” Joan answered as if we were a formal delegation. “What’s happened?”
The officer looked over his shoulder again before answering, looking for I don’t know what. “He’s already been taken to the morgue.”
The patrolman looked slightly surprised, as if we, the formal delegation, should already have known. But he recovered quickly. “Don’t know his name. Lieutenant Oxenbow thought someone at the school might.”
“Is that where he’s gone?” Joan asked.
“You haven’t seen him?”
“No. We’re just on our way there.” She held forth her thin hand. “Joan Berlin.” I held forth mine and presented my name, too.
“We know the lieutenant,” said Joan. “What did . . .” and then she faltered. She couldn’t actually say “did he look like?” She couldn’t ask about who they’d found, now that she’d come to it, couldn’t face knowing. She raised a hand to her mouth and bit her knuckle, then turned her face away from the patrolman and the grim scene behind him. I lifted my chin toward Mallory.
“An old man,” he said, perceiving our deepest fear. Joan let out her breath and shuddered.
“You say the lieutenant has gone up to the school?” I asked.
He heard the new fear in my voice. I didn’t want to ask if it had been an old Episcopal priest with powdered sugar on a navy sweater. Smitty did like to wander at night after a snack. I turned Joan back toward our cars. We must hurry to the school now.
I said, “We’ll go to Malcolm’s.”
She nodded but said nothing, her hair hiding her face. I wished that we could ride together, but we couldn’t leave a car there on the narrow road, so I packed myself into my little space and followed Joan’s car a half-mile to the stone gate pillars and the winding narrow drive through the opening fields of St. Max, which gave way to the outer soccer fields, which gave way to the clean white buildings of the campus, pure and welcoming in the morning light. Students were wandering back to their residence halls from the dining hall, skirting the patrol car parked by the building’s wide double doors and wooden steps. Joan and I drove around the corner and parked at the side of the building. We slid from our cars without speaking and walked side-by-side, our shoulders touching, to the doors of the headmaster’s house. We rang the bell and waited nervously. Through the thinly curtained glass pane of the door we saw him approach and wave us in. We opened the door and walked hurriedly inside, following his form as it preceded us down a hallway and into his office.
Lieutenant Oxenbow stood by Malcolm’s desk in street clothes. I hadn’t seen him in months. The previous autumn, when Olivia Hunt, a benefactress of the school, fell down her back steps and died, he had conducted a routine investigation, which in my mind became a great mystery, leading me to make a fool of myself but also to excavate fascinating parts of the school’s underbelly. I walked directly to him and shook his hand, hoping I looked more sober and grown up than I had those months ago. Joan approached too. They’d gone to college together and known each other for years. For a moment it looked as though she was going to hug him in her fear and worry, but she restrained herself.
He saw the obvious anxiety and the knowledge in her face and said, “It’s no one from the school.”
Joan emitted an exhalation of relief.
“I’ve shown Mr. Cunningham a photo.”
Malcolm was looking out the window toward the pond, which was invisible from here, hidden behind a short stretch of forest that grew on the other side of a wide field. He turned and said to me, “Perhaps you should take a look.” I wondered if there was some knowledge in that suggestion, and he read my thoughts. “Just to see if you recognize the man from town.”
I looked at the lieutenant. “How gruesome is it?”
“It’s never pretty,” he answered. “You don’t have to look. I don’t recognize him, and neither do any of the patrol offices. He appears to have been drunk. He’s unshaven and poorly dressed. He looks like a homeless man, but what he was doing walking here at night is anyone’s guess. He wasn’t hit by a car. There’s no sign of violence. It looks like he fell into the pond and drowned.”
“Would it help if we looked?’
“We need to identify him.”
I nodded. The lieutenant slipped a thin digital camera from a coat pocket, turned it on, and scrolled through pictures until he found the one of an older, unshaven face, eyes closed, mouth ajar, pale. I shook my head. Joan looked away and shook hers too. We were relieved, of course, but the morning had a queasy feeling. I looked at Malcolm.
“We saw the patrol cars on our way back from breakfast,” I said.
He nodded and let out his breath. Then he squared his shoulders and looked at the grandfather clock, a gift of the class of 1957. Classes would begin in ten minutes. “Let’s get on with the day,” he said. “I’ll make an announcement at lunch. The students will be talking about it all morning, but we don’t have a chance to get them together before noon, and I don’t want to disrupt the schedule for this. I’ll send an email to all the teachers.”
Joan and I looked at each other. This is the way it’s done. You go about your business, keep to your routines. An unknown, probably homeless man unconnected to St. Max had fallen in the pond and died in the early morning. Malcolm would make an announcement at lunch and forestall rumors and fantasies. Smitty would offer prayers and thoughts at chapel after dinner. We had students to teach. Life, or the lives of all of us except for one unfortunate old man, would go on. So we thought.