Category Archives: Vera Nyberg Crime Fighter

Horrible House

airedale

Mike Butler was catching some zzz’s beneath a clear night sky and three quarter moon. When he woke up he woke up quickly. The car came to a stop below him, the engine went dead, and a car door opened. It closed quietly, a trunk opened, and closed quietly. He peeked down through the slats of the second story deck. The trunk wasn’t a trunk. It was a hatch. The car wasn’t a car. It was a black Lexus SUV.

A man carrying a rolled up bundle, like a carpet, wrapped in plastic, over his shoulder, went into the house through the side door. He beeped his way in with his set of keys. Mike rolled quietly off his folding chair. He stood to the side of the sliding glass door. No lights had come on and he couldn’t hear the man in the house. Was he coming upstairs or staying downstairs?

Should he go or should he stay? He knew he could ignore the stairs, swing over the railing, and drop soundlessly down on the sand at the back of the house. He didn’t know where the windows there were, not exactly, even though he had helped cater some parties in the house last year. He decided to stay.

He didn’t have to wait long. When the man came out of the house he walked to the front of the Lexus, leaned back on it, facing the dark ocean, and lit a cigar. In the flare of the lighter his lips were pinkish, like pink goo. The ash from the cigar flaked off and floated like charred mercury onto his safari jacket.

Mike stayed in the shadow of the eaves where he could see the man but the man couldn’t see him. He could hear Cape Cod Bay at high tide on the other side of the beach. The man with the cigar in his mouth got into the SUV and drove away.

Mike went the way he had come, walking up Chequessett Neck Road to Great Island where he had parked. At home he rolled a smoke. He had been surprised as anyone would be surprised by anybody showing up at a seasonal mansion in early May, in the middle of the night, even though the weather was unusually fine.

Vera Nyberg was and wasn’t in a hurry. If she left in the next five minutes she might be on time for work. If she took Archie for a walk she would be late for sure. Halfway into spring, halfway to summer, her job wasn’t so much work as it was holding down the fort. It’s never too late to go and get that fresh air feeling, she thought, thinking about going for a walk.

Besides, unless it was summer, when everyone on the Outer Cape worked like dogs, she tried as much as possible to get to the office late and make up for it by leaving early. If she left early today she could make the five o’clock Strong Flow class at Quiet Mind in Wellfleet.

“Come on Archie,” she clapped, reaching for the Airedale’s leash. They left the house on Washington Avenue and walked up Commercial Street. When they got to Lopes Square they turned down MacMillan Pier to the end where the ferry came and went to Plymouth.

Archie was her constant companion, her watchdog, and one of her best friends. He liked running full speed ahead into streams ponds ocean. In the 1920s President Warren Harding had an Airedale. His name was Laddie Boy. President Harding always included the dog in his cabinet meetings at the White House. Laddie Boy had his own special hand-carved chair.

They’re all mongrels now, thought Vera.

“Come on, boy, let’s go home,” she said.

Archie liked Vera more than anyone. He felt like there were three faithful friends in this life, ready money, a good dog like himself, and a good master like Vera. He liked everything about her. She enjoyed reading books at night. He curled up at her feet, keeping her feet warm and his belly warm, too. “Outside of a dog a book is man’s best friend,” said Groucho Marx. “Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.”

Archie didn’t take it the wrong way. Besides, he didn’t know how to read. He wasn’t planning on learning, either, although Vera sometimes read stories out loud to him. Learning to read was the first step on the path to a career. He was not a working dog.

Dick Armstrong was a well-built man with thick lips and a crooked smile. At least Vera Nyberg thought so. She smiled back at him as he sat down carelessly. He wore a cotton safari jacket and aviator sunglasses. He had scrupulously white teeth, but she didn’t like the way he smiled, or the way he sat down. His face was scabrous and she found herself looking away, only glancing at him.

Vera shot an eye at his driver’s license. He did and didn’t look like himself, two-faced. She thought she might not like him. What if she had planted a bomb in the seat cushion by mistake?

“What can I help you with, Mr. Armstrong?” she asked.

“You work for me,” he said. “You watch our house.”

Vera smiled politely and imagined a small bomb in the seat cushion, again.

Vera Nyberg was an Ashtanga Yoga teacher, but yoga didn’t pay the bills in the off-season, or the on-season, either. She worked part-time for Focus Home Security, in Orleans, in a small office condo off Cove Road behind the Orleans Post Office. The office was on the first floor and faced south, lit by bright natural light on sunny days and gray natural light on cloudy days.

The drive was more than forty minutes from her rented room in Provincetown, but since she worked part-time, and since it was an off-season job most of the time, it wasn’t too long or too much. Route 6 was never overburdened in the off-season. Besides, most of her work was on-the-road work like property checks home watch resetting smart home features in Wellfleet, Truro, and P-Town itself, all of which were closer than the office.

She baby sat summer vacation mansions and held the hands of absentee landlords. Vandalism, storm damage, and frozen pipes were usually as nerve wracking as it got. Property surveillance was Focus Security’s bread and butter.

“I pay for your key-holding service, and since I was passing through, I want to stop at our house and walk through it, look everything over, before we come up next month,” said Dick Armstrong.

Who passes through the back end of a peninsula? Vera asked herself.

“Of course, we can arrange that,” she said. “When would you like to inspect the house?”

“Now.”

Twenty minutes later they got off Route 6 and drove through Wellfleet to the bay side of the town. The Lexus blotted out the sun as Vera followed behind Dick Armstrong down the curvy Chequessett Neck Road. Archie lolled in the back seat of Vera’s Honda CRV.

She had never been inside the Armstrong house, but had seen it often enough. She took Archie for walks on the long beach past what was called The Gut. After parking at Great Island, unless she cut through the woods and took a track on a backside dune, she walked past the house at the end of the road. She had even parked in their driveway several times, when she knew the house wasn’t occupied, when she was short on time for a quick short hike.

The Focus Security magnetic vehicle sign came in handy then.

The house was on the edge of the Cape Cod National Seashore and stuck out like a sore thumb. She knew it had a reputation. Eight years ago, when it was being built, it was sometimes called Horrible House.

An older, smaller house had been bought and torn down and the Armstrong’s had somehow convinced the town’s building inspector to give them a permit to build a house three times the size. It dominated the view across the Herring River. Wellfleet’s homeowner’s association and the National Park Service appealed the permit, but the house got built, anyway.

“Kill the Rich!” had been spray-painted below the garage door windows before the house was even finished. Focus Security parked a man in the driveway until the commotion died down. Since then the Armstrong’s spent three or four or five middle of the summer weeks on the Outer Cape. Sometimes their children, extended family, and friends took the house over for a weekend. After Labor Day it was shut up for the winter.

Everything about the house was Cape Cod-like, from the cedar shingle siding to the paired windows on both sides of the central front door to the fishy weather vane. Everything was right about it, perched on the sea, except for the King Kongness of it.

They parked in the driveway. Vera looked up at the second story deck. She liked the deck, round high facing the ocean.

“Unlock this door,” said Dick Armstrong, pointing to the side door. “I don’t want that in the house,” he said, pointing to Archie in the back seat.

Archie didn’t like the way the man said it, but he didn’t bark about it.

As soon as they were inside the house he jumped out of the car window Vera had left open for him. He barked at the Lexus. He sniffed at one of the rear tires, lifted his hind leg, and peed on it. Archie could hear and smell the ocean. In a minute he saw it and in the next minute he was at the shore, in the water.

Inside the house Vera sat at the kitchen table while Dick Armstrong strode through the rooms, strode upstairs, and strode back into the kitchen.

“Everything looks good,” he said. “Come down to the panic room. I want to check the alarm system and security cameras.”

“I thought they were called safe rooms.”

He gave her a sharp look. “Panic room.”

The basement floor was a mirror-like epoxy painted slab. There were a pool table, a billiards table, a snooker table, and a bar with eight or nine stools. The safe room was a concrete square in the corner. The door was a steel door. The hinges and strike plate were reinforced. A table with four chairs was to the right of the door. An open bathroom with a first aid kit on the wall was behind the table. On the left a two-door cabinet held dry goods, bottled water, and gas masks. In the far left corner were an office chair and table, an iMac, shortwave radio, and closed circuit monitors.

A woman was splayed on the floor, dress disordered eyes closed face blank, dark red blood drying in her blonde hair.

Vera looked up as Dick Armstrong took a step at her and grabbed her by the throat. His face looked like murder. She slashed at his mouth. His lips came off in her hand. He hit her with a short hard right to the temple and her legs went wobbly. She leaned into him. A black inky film filled her eyes. She lost consciousness as he let her go to the ground.

Archie was almost dry by the time he ran back to the car. He had a hard dense wiry coat.  Thick heavyset dark clouds were rolling in across the bay. When Dick Armstrong came through the side door Archie wondered, where’s Vera? The side door slammed and the man strode towards his car.

Archie didn’t like the smell of it. The man had a sour smell. He wanted to ask him where Vera was, but the man, opening his car door, kicked at him. Archie was an Oorang Airedale. His great-great-great-great grandfather had been a fierce competitor in water-rat matches. He jabbed headfirst at the man’s leg, slashing through the pant’s fabric, and biting into warm flesh. He could taste blood in his mouth.

It tasted good.

Dick Armstrong yawped and flung himself into the Lexus, lurching and grabbing at the door. Backing out of the driveway he swerved at the Airedale, but Archie was graceful fast lissome, and it was child’s play jumping to the side.

The better I get to know people, thought Archie. He wasn’t trying to be narrow-minded, but what he liked about people most of the time was their dogs. Dogs never bite me, only people. He jumped into the CRV. The rain fell like dread.

Vera Nyberg blinked her eyes open. She was lying prone on a medical exam table. The ceiling was white. She took ten twenty then a hundred slow steady breaths staring into the white. When she was done she tried to prop herself up on her elbows. She slowly deliberately wary lay back down on her back. Her head hurt like somebody had hit it with a hammer. Hedging her bets she closed her eyes and fell back into the inky blackness.

Officer Matheus Ribeiro was stocky and had short stocky black hair. Besides routine patrol work, he was the medical supply officer and detainee monitor. He sat across from Vera in an interview room in the Wellfleet Police Department checking and double-checking a sheaf of papers on a clipboard. Vera knew him, not so much as a policeman, but more as a friend of Rachel Amparo, her friend on the Provincetown Police Department.

He was from Brazil, Porto Velho, one of the state capitals in the upper Amazon River basin. He was a graduate of the Plymouth Police Academy and had been on the Wellfleet force for six years. He spoke Portuguese, Rachel spoke Portuguese, he was a great cook, and Rachel loved great food.

One night, over plates of bacalhau, Vera asked him what he liked about being a policeman.

“I get to drive as fast as I want,” he said.

Rachel, whose duties routinely involved foot patrols, scowled.

“What the hell, Vera,” he said. “What happened?”

“Where’s Archie?” she asked.

“He was asleep in the back of your car. We called Bruce. He and a friend of his picked up Archie and your car and took them home. Now tell me what happened.”

When she was done she laced her fingers, reached up and behind the chair, and stretched. Officer Ribeiro leaned back in his chair, tipping on the back legs. He straightened up.

“Mr. Armstrong was who called us about you,“ he said.

“What?”

“He called the department and said he was worried, said he had called from Boston and asked that somebody from Focus walk through his house, that he was coming up for the weekend, since the weather was so good. He said you volunteered and would call him back within the hour. When you didn’t call by the end of the day he called your office, no answer, and then called us.”

The policeman drank from a bottle of Poland Spring.

“He asked us to drive by, see if everything was OK. When we pulled up your car and Mrs. Armstrong’s car were in the driveway.”

“Mrs. Armstrong? There was no Mrs. Armstrong, only him, by himself. And the woman.”

“The woman was Mrs. Armstrong. She was in the safe room in the basement, with you, except she was dead.”

“That was the first and only time I ever saw her.”

“I was going to ask you about that. We’ve told Mr. Armstrong about her death and he’ll be here today.”

“If that’s him in the picture you showed me, that’s not exactly him. That’s not the man who slugged me.”

“There’s something at odds here.”

“What time is it?”

“Nine, nine in the morning.”

“When did Mrs. Armstrong die?”

“The medical examiner so far is saying ten, eleven o’clock, the same time you were there.”

“How did she die?”

“The same as you, blunt force, but you didn’t die.”

“Am I a suspect?”

“Yes and no.”

“I like the no part better. Can I go have breakfast?”

“How’s your head?”

“It could be better.”

“There’s no substitute for a hard head. Where are you going?”

“The Lighthouse, then home, I’ve got to shower, and change. I’ll be back.”

“How are you going to do that?”

“I was hoping you could drive me to the Lighthouse. I’ll call Sandra on the way. She can take me home. Archie and I will be back by five.”

“This isn’t exactly how murder investigations are supposed to go.”

“You’re right about that, about this being murder. He was the man who slugged me, with his wrong face or no wrong face. I think it’s all just sand in our faces, just some sleight of hand.”

“We’ve confirmed him to be in Boston with a friend yesterday.”

“What kind of a friend?”

The policeman hesitated. “A close friend.”

“It has to be something about the house, something personal. Why not solve your problem in Boston, or get someone else to solve your problem, make it disappear? I’ve got a friend, one of Sandra’s catering guys, who was once a jailhouse lawyer, before he went more-or-less straight. He’s an IT jack-of-all-trades, good at following the money. He’ll know how to find out.”

“I know Mike Butler, so let’s drop that within earshot of me,” said Officer Ribeiro.

“Man, that’s crazy, I was there the night before last, hanging out on that second story deck of theirs,” said Mike Butler.

Vera, Sandra, and Mike were having a late breakfast at the Lighthouse. They sat at the bar. Sandra lived in Eastham, but worked part-time at Herridge Books in Wellfleet. It was a small bookstore with no magazines and no café, just books. There were books in stacks on chairs tables and the floor. It smelled like a bookstore even with the windows open.

Sandra catered private parties on the side. Mike was one of the local men who worked with her. In the off-season, in the late afternoon or evening, he often roosted on decks and porches of unoccupied seasonal houses on seaside lots. “What they don’t know won’t hurt them,” he said. He never brought his iPhone. He never parked in the driveways. He always brought his own Eddie Bauer folding chair.

“Yeah, there was a guy, some kind of black car, a big one, like a Caddy, or a Lexus, maybe” he said. “He carried something into the house, didn’t stay long. As soon as he was gone I made myself gone, too.”

“Can you find out about that house, about them, who held the purse strings, and who was on the outs with who?”

“Sure, after breakfast, give me a few hours. Call me if I don’t call you. I might be taking a nap.”

Men are most sincere when they’re in love, when they’ve been empowered, and when they’re committing murder. Dick Armstrong must have fallen out of love with his wife, thought Vera. Murder wasn’t the next step, but it might be if his love had turned to hate. Murders are always a problem when they’re spur of the moment crimes, when they’re mistakes. But, Dick Armstrong had gotten too clever for his own good trying to send a message to the graveyard. When someone has thought and thought about something it isn’t hard working backwards and reading their thoughts.

Vera showered, fed Archie, and meditated for an hour. Most days she meditated for half an hour, except when she was busy. Then she meditated longer. She had been busy the past day-and-a half. Breathing exercises and meditation were about everything and nothing at the same time. They were acts of slowing down, getting centered, and finding some understanding and compassion for the living and the dead.

“It’s his money, real estate money, plenty of it and plenty of it shady, but all the personal property was in her name,” said Mike Butler as they sped down Route 6 to Wellfleet. ”She was after a divorce, she’s saying abuse, but she wanted more than alimony, she wanted the summer house.”

“The horrible house,” said Vera.

“It’s not so horrible, kind of big, but a great view of the bay.”

“Why did she want the house?”

“She wanted it because he wanted it. He planned the house just the way he wanted it, he bought off everybody and his brother, he went to court, fought off the do-gooders, the Feds, got it built even though they made him jump through hoops, got it done. Hell, he probably loved that house a lot more than he loved her. She probably knew that, too.”

Mike Butler had grown up in old Provincetown before it became new Provincetown, when property was cheap and rents low and hippies and gays were starting to show up. He didn’t downpress anyone one way or the other. His father had fished for cod on his own boat out of Provincetown Harbor. Mike still called Commercial Street Front Street and Bradford Street Back Street.

He didn’t care about bankers and stockbrokers buying up land, either. He had his family’s old small house in Provincetown. The front door still faced the ocean, unlike most of the town’s waterfront houses, which had been turned around so the front doors faced the street. He kept to himself, except when he was working, or watching a BoSox game at the Lighthouse, a Pabst Blue Ribbon at hand.

Mike lived with a box turtle he’d had since he was a kid. Inscribed on the underside of the shell of the turtle were the initials M. B. and the year 1979, where he had carved them with a pocketknife on his 18th birthday, six years after his father gave him the baby turtle for his birthday.

Archie liked riding in the CRV with the windows open, just in case anything came up that he needed to bark at. But, he had a bad habit of barking at anything that moved, a crossing guard, a passing bicyclist, a rafter of wild turkeys on the side of the road. Sometimes Vera told him to “Shut the hell up.” He didn’t know exactly what hell was, but he knew exactly what she meant when she said it. She wasn’t dry or shy nor someone who beat the sense out of words.

When they pulled into the Wellfleet Police Department parking lot and Archie barked at Dick Armstrong getting out of his white Lincoln Navigator, Vera said, “Good dog.” Two men in suits went into the station with him. “At least one of them is a lawyer,” said Mike. He rubbed the top of Archie’s head.

The police station was on Gross Hill Road off Route 6, tucked beneath Oakdale Cemetery where Cemetery Road began and ended. “I’ll stay here, maybe go for a walk in the graveyard,” said Mike. Vera and Archie went into the station. Vera sat on a plastic chair in the lobby and Archie flopped down on the floor. She had gotten a good look at Dick Armstrong and couldn’t swear he was Dick Armstrong.

A half-hour later, when Officer Matheus Ribeiro came out to the lobby and asked her if she could identify Dick Armstrong as the man who had attacked her in the safe room, she said, “No.”

“Too bad,” he said. “I don’t think we’re going to be able to charge him with anything.”

Ten minutes later Dick Armstrong and the two men accompanying him pushed into the lobby on their way out of the police station. One of the men gave her a look-see. Dick Armstrong stopped and eyeballed Archie.

Archie jumped up and started barking his head off. It was the sour-smelling man he had bitten outside the big house. He barked and barked, but could tell no one was making heads or tails of what he was trying to say. “Keep that damned dog away from me,” shouted Dick Armstrong.

Archie lunged at him, got his teeth into the right pants leg, and tugging violently tore the fabric off the leg at the knee. One of the men started to beat Archie with his briefcase. The police dispatcher, another policeman, and finally Officer Ribiero burst into the lobby, manhandling Dick Armstrong away from Archie, pulling Archie away from him, and pushing the lawyer with the angry briefcase away from the fracas.

“Look what that goddamned dog did to my pants,” yelled Dick Armstrong.

Everyone looked

“Look at his leg,” said Vera. “Look at the bite mark on his shin.”

Everyone looked.

The bite mark was black and blue in an ugly ring where the skin had been broken. Five inflamed red marks defined where canine teeth had drawn blood. Some kind of antiseptic cream was smeared over the wound. Two of the red marks were back to back.

“That’s Archie’s bite,” said Vera.

“What?” asked Officer Ribiero.

“One of his baby canines got retained, and since it wasn’t bothering him when his permanent teeth came in, I just let it go. He’s got two canine teeth on that one side, which is why his bite mark is the way it is. I’d know it anywhere, because that Dick Armstrong isn’t the first Dick Armstrong he’s bitten. If this man was in Boston yesterday, how did he get bitten by my dog on the same day?”

“Get the Medical Examiner on the phone,” Officer Ribiero said to the police dispatcher. “In the meantime, I think it’s best if we all go back inside and go over this from the beginning. And you,” he said, pointing to Vera, “bring that dog with you.”

Only the lawyer with the out of gas briefcase objected.

“They took photos, took some measurements, and took some samples from Archie and Armstrong,” said Vera.

Rachel Amparo and Vera were at Terra Luna in North Truro. They sat at the bar and shared plates of artichoke heart pate and grilled sardines. Rachel sipped on a Flower Power cocktail while Vera pulled from a bottle of Tank 7 Farmhouse Ale.

“If the DNA matches it’ll throw a new light on everything,” said Rachel. “That’s when the trouble will start. One lie leads to another until it’s all a house of cards.”

“I’m always telling Archie he’s not allowed to bite people,” said Vera, crunching on a sardine. “He agrees, I think, but he seems to think it’s OK to bite anyone who’s in the wrong place at the wrong time doing the wrong thing.”

“He’s a good dog,” said Rachel.

Archie was on his stomach lounging in the orangey sunset at the back of the small restaurant. Tony was working in the kitchen. He could see him through the screen door. Archie’s chin was flat on the warm grass, back legs tucked up under him. His front legs were extended before him. He could clearly smell pork chops being grilled.

Maybe Tony will bring me something to eat soon.

He was glad he had been able to help by biting the sour-smelling man. He didn’t often bite people. He preferred to bump them when he had to.

One night Vera had read a story to him called The Dog Who Bit People, about Muggs, an Airedale like him, but unlike him a dog who bit everyone in sight, although he didn’t bite his family as often as he bit strangers. “When he starts for them they scream and that excites him,” explained the mother of the house. The city police wanted him tied up, but he wouldn’t eat when he was tied up.

Archie thought Muggs lacked good sense.

When the screen door swung open Archie jumped up. Tony was bringing out a bowl of water and a plate of pieces of pork chop and the raw meat bone.

“The bone is for after your meal,” said Tony.

Later, chewing on the bone, he thought the sour-smelling man may have had the wrong mug shot, but he knew in his bones he had bitten the right leg on the right man at the right time.

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No Love Lost

Unknown

Vera Nyberg tugged on her floppy bonnet, scrunching it down to the tops of her ears. She had braided her hair into a high bun earlier in the day, and reaching into her back pocket found the silver-plated Alice Teapot hatpins she had brought with her, pushing them though the hat and bun.

The wind was blowing hard, gusting off the ocean, and the fine Race Point sand stung her bare calves below the black Capri’s she was wearing.

Looking ahead she broke into a trot to catch up with her friends. The bonnet stayed in place.

She had ridden her bike to the beach after finishing her late afternoon holiday class at Yoga East, past the Province Lands Visitor Center, and walked the surf to the near side of the lighthouse and Hatches Harbor. Race Point was the only beach on the east coast on which you could stand and see the sun set over the ocean in the west behind you. Twilight was close, but dusk was still more than an hour away, more than enough time to fly kites, if she could get hers off the ground.

“I haven’t flown a kite since I was a kid,“ said Vera as she came abreast of her friends.

“It’s just like riding a bike,” said Caleb. “Here, I’ll show you.”

Her three friends were year-round Provincetown residents who operated an inn and guesthouse on Washington Avenue between the main thoroughfare, Commercial Street, and Bradford Street. Caleb had been flying kites the past two summers on Race Point Beach.

Four kites were laying flat in the sand.

“Yours is the delta,” said Caleb, pointing to a purple, blue, and bright green kite with streamers off the back points. “The sled is mine, and the two diamonds, that’s Elliott’s, and the one with the Tasmanian Devil on it is Bruce’s.”

A Looney Tunes cartoon of the Tasmanian Devil was emblazoned on a yellow field bordered in black. The gaping mouth of the devil was red and lined with gleaming, white fangs.

Vera turned to look at her kite and asked, “How do I make it go up?”

“There’s nothing to it,” said Caleb “Delta’s are easy to launch, they fly no matter what, and almost always sit at a good steep angle. But, they’re unpredictable in gusty winds, so watch out.”

Caleb tossed a handful of sand up to see which way the wind was blowing and then turned his back to it. He held the kite in one hand and unwound several feet of string onto the sand. He gave the kite to Vera.

“Hold it over your head as high as you can with the tow line facing you,” said Caleb. “Let the kite go as soon as it fills with wind and starts to pull. Unwind the string as you go, but make sure to hold the spool and not the string itself.”

Vera released string from the spool and the kite darted higher and higher, its streamers snapping in the wind. In a few minutes all the kites were flying high and spread out above the sand dunes. When Vera’s kite slid downwards and she struggled to turn it parallel to the wind, Caleb came close enough to her to be heard.

“Kites fly highest against the wind, not with it.”

Vera pivoted towards the gloaming ocean and let out string, watching the wind take the kite. As she did she wondered who was flying the kite, her or the wind.

“There’s a saying that those who fly a kite live a long life,” said Elliott as they walked back to the parking lot in the falling darkness.

“Flying a kite lifts my spirits,” said Bruce.

“It’s a little bit yogic, too,” said Caleb. “As you look up following the kite near to far, your neck opens. It’s a counterbalance to looking down or at eye level all the time. You have to pay attention. It keeps you in the moment.”

“And it’s fun, like happiness on a string” said Vera.

They walked side-by-side along the surf. Gray seals played peek-a-boo just outside the line of breaking waves. Ahead of them several large gulls were dive-bombing something rolling in the surf.

“It looks like they’ve found dinner,” said Bruce.

“Herring gulls,” said Caleb.

“No, those are the black-backs,” said Elliott.

The surf was heavy and the water foaming. The gulls let the wind take them away as Vera and her friends drew nearer. They soared across the beach and hovered along the ridge of the sand dunes.

“What is that?” asked Caleb as they approached the bulk the gulls had been attacking. A gang of sanderlings skittered past them, their skinny legs a blur, racing after the receding waves.

“Oh, my God, it’s a person, a man,” exclaimed Bruce, who was in the lead, stopping short.

The others crowded around him, but then en masse ran into the crashing surf, grabbing what they could of the man, and dragged him out and onto the backwash-rippled sand. In the tumult they pulled him facedown as they had found him. Quickly rolling him over on his back they recoiled from his lacerated face, pockmarked with slashes. His scalp was mottled.

The gulls had pecked his eyes out.

Time stopped for a moment and at the end of it was embossed on the memory of the four friends looking down on the man in cargo shorts, his stomach bloated by the ocean and features ravaged by the birds.

Vera looked across the expanse of Race Point to the dunes and then across the open, endless water. She thought as far as death is concerned we all live in a world without walls that are always falling down.

Caleb broke the spell by asking if anyone had brought a cell phone, but no one had. Elliott volunteered that his was in the car and sprinted to the parking lot. As he grabbed his Samsung out of the glove compartment of his Ford Fiesta the idling engine of a Cadillac Esplanade parked on the far side of the lot purred.

Vera and Bruce sat down on the sand a short distance away from the surf, waiting, while Caleb stood guard over the dead man. The black-back gulls circled overhead, angry, cawing and squealing.

In the distance Vera heard the wailing of a siren.

The Cadillac Esplanade slid out of its parking spot and skirred towards the Provincetown Municipal Airport.

A hard rain fell the next day, Tuesday, the day after Labor Day and the unofficial end of summer on Cape Cod. It turned roads into rivers and all afternoon cars on Route 6 were compelled to pull off to the side, unable to see through the watery white-out. In the middle of town at Bradford Street beneath High Point Hill Road, at the bottom of Pilgrim Monument, sewers clogged and the street flooded. A Fire Department pumper was brought in, creating wakes as it slowly plowed to the middle of the road.

A minivan stalled halfway through the deep water. The driver clambered on top and sat beneath his multi-colored umbrella, watching the volunteer firemen, their hoses snaking away to MacMillan Pier, while a highway crew worked on the snarled drains. The rain turned to drizzle, but the sky stayed dark and threatening as the storm rumbled northeast towards Maine.

Wednesday morning dawned clear and bright, the sky a cerulean blue. Vera tidied up her room, showered, meditated on her mat for a half-hour, and then, not finding her friends anywhere, either in the guesthouse or the inn, found her way to the backyard enclosed by cypress hedges. She watched tree swallows and hermit thrushes darting in and out of the bird feeder.

Stretching her legs out, she slipped her feet into a pair of flip-flops and walked up Commercial Street to the Portuguese Bakery, where she ordered eggs on a papo seco and Darjeeling to go. She walked to a bench at the far end of MacMillan Pier and ate her sandwich while looking out over the flat water. A black-and-white Provincetown squad car made its way slowly up one side of the pier, turned, and began to make its way back. As it approached her bench it stopped and a policewoman poked her head out the window.

“Hi, Vera,” said Patrol Officer Rachel Amparo, and stepped out of the car, its flashers blinking. Vera and the policewoman had become acquainted over the course of the summer at the twice-weekly primary series Ashtanga classes Vera taught and Rachel Amparo struggled at.

“Hi, Rachel, nice day,” said Vera. “Especially after that storm we had.”

“You bet. Hey, I heard you discovered the drowned man on Race Point the other day. That must have been a shock.”

“It was, but we couldn’t help him. We pulled him out of the water, but it was too late. Have you found out who it was?”

“We did. He had a record and we were able to match his prints, lucky for us, because his face was a mess.”

“He was a criminal?”

“No. In fact, he was one of the Stoddard’s, maybe you’ve heard of them, the Boston fishing and shipping people.”

Vera had never heard of the Stoddard’s, or their company, and since she was a vegetarian didn’t give fish much thought.

“Some vegetarians eat fish, you know,” Bruce had told her when she moved to Provincetown.

“I’ll keep that in mind,” she said, wondering what he was talking about.

“Stoddard was arrested two years ago at an Earth Day demonstration on the Commons. It wasn’t much, the way I saw the report. He pushed a policeman into the Frog Pond, but they processed him, so his prints were in the FBI database.”

“What happened? How did he drown?”

“We don’t know, but there was water in his lungs, so we know that’s what happened. We don’t know how it happened. We’re thinking he fell off a boat, the way the tides work there, but no one has reported anything, and the Coast Guard hasn’t spotted anything adrift.”

The radio on the policewoman’s vest squawked and she stepped back and to the side, speaking into it.

“Vera, I’ve got to go, fender bender on the Shore Road,” said Officer Rachel Amparo, walking quickly back to her squad car. “See you in class tomorrow.”

“Bye, see you then,” said Vera, waving.

She finished her tea, tossed the sandwich wrapping and paper cup into a trash can outside a trap shed showing large-scale photographs of Cape Cod schooners, and walked to Commercial Street. But, instead of turning right, back to the guesthouse, she turned left and walked to the Provincetown Bookstore.

The bookshop was in a weathered white building with black-framed windows. A small sign beside the door said “Since 1932”. Inside, stacks of books, most of them best sellers, romances, and self-help tomes, but with an offering of poetry and mysteries, as well, overflowed thick tables and disorderly floor-to-ceiling bookcases.

On the far side of the counter was an autographed photograph of John Waters, who had worked at the bookstore before departing for Hollywood.

A trim middle-aged woman manned the small front counter. She glanced at the door with an expression of mild exasperation, pushing her reading glasses up her nose with two fingers. A just opened cardboard box of books squatted on the counter.

“Oh, Vera, I was just thinking of you,” she said, breaking into a smile.

“Hi, Hattie, something good, I hope.”

“The UPS man was only now here and gone. I think maybe that Charles Bukowski you asked for might be in this shipment.”

She pulled hardbound books out of the box one at a time, glancing at the covers. “Here we go, I was right.” She handed the book to Vera.

The cover was in black and lurid yellow. The title Women was scrawled in jittery capital letters on the black background, while in the yellow field above the title a woman in a tight dress and stiletto heels imaged from the waist down bent over to scratch one of her ankles.

“I don’t know what you see in him,” said Hattie.

“He was an alcoholic, a postal worker, and probably a misogynist, too,” she added. “That book,” she said, pointing at it with her chin, “is about every sexual penchant of every woman who ever dared to sleep with him after he got famous. Most of them were mad as hornets after the book was published.”

Ham on Rye might be the best American novel ever written,” said Vera. “ I know he could be simplistic and disgusting, and even narcissistic, but he was honest, maybe to a fault. He was always honest.”

“Vera, he was crazy honest, or honestly crazy,” said Hattie. “He never worried about what to say or how to say it, or how it could affect others, he just said it. That can’t be right. And you call yourself a yoga teacher.”

“He makes me laugh,” said Vera, abashed, but unwilling to abandon her recent enthusiasm for the writer. “It’s the truths he tells, it’s like you’re hearing them for the first time, and they can be very funny, even when they’re serious.

“Anyway, like Bukowski said, great writers are indecent people. They live unfairly, saving the best part for paper. You should know that, being a bookseller,” added Vera, and they both laughed.

“Oh, I heard you and the boys found that man on Race Point,” said Hattie, suddenly changing the subject. “What happened? Who was it?”

“I don’t know, he drowned. That’s how we found him, drowned, rolling in the surf. He was from Boston, one of the Stoddard family, but I don’t know who they are, although I heard he was an environmental activist.”

“Aidan Stoddard? I can’t believe it. He’s been on the Outer Cape most of the summer. He was living down in Wellfleet. He was here just a few days ago. He was always buying something, especially about the oceans and climate change, that kind of thing. He was friendly with Bruce, did you know? But, how could he drown? He was a champion collegiate swimmer. I heard he was good enough to try out for the Olympics, even though he didn’t make the team.”

“Oh,” said Vera Nyberg, the hair on the nape of her neck standing up.

World-class swimmers don’t sink to the bottom of the pool or wash up on Race Point in a pair of cargo shorts.

Walking back to her room, the book under her arm, Vera thought about Aidan Stoddard. How had he died? It didn’t seem to make sense.

“We are here to laugh at the odds and live our lives so well that death will tremble to take us,” was something she remembered Charles Bukowski had written. Had Aidan Stoddard laughed at the odds, or had death been forced on him somehow? She would have to talk to Bruce.

“That couldn’t have happened,” said Bruce that night when Vera told him, the two of them sitting in the backyard.

“He could swim for miles, I mean, the man was like a seal. Really, there is no way he could drown. Once he told me that they used to practice underwater breath holding until it felt like you were drowning. He said the sensation makes you remember everything you ever knew about swimming and he knew everything about it. He was really strong and in the water he was weightless and even stronger.”

“But if he didn’t drown,” asked Vera, “and the police say he did drown, what happened?”

“What I mean is, he couldn’t have drowned unless something, or somebody, drowned him,” said Bruce. “I wouldn’t be surprised if it was that Tyler boyfriend of hers. I wouldn’t put it past him. He looks like he would do anything for money.”

“Who are you talking about?”

“Aidan’s wife, Emily, and her boyfriend. I forget, you didn’t know him, I mean, Aidan, or any of that.”

Bruce was quiet for a moment. Vera watched the late season lightning bugs in the twilight. She thought of how when she was a girl she and her friends would catch them and holding one between their fingers pretend it was a diamond ring.

“Aidan was one of the Stoddard’s, the Boston fishing family that goes back more than one hundred and fifty years. You know how Cape Cod in the 17th century was named for the near-miraculous shoals of cod that were in the waters. Back then you could catch them as fast as you could bait and haul in line.”

A process of seagulls soared overhead toward the bay.

“A hundred years ago hooks gave way to draggers and the boats got bigger and bigger. Then the fishermen started using echo finders and satellite positioning and by the 1980s the fisheries around here collapsed. There were almost no more cod left. The government closed down 8000 square miles of ocean, but even though scallops and haddock have come back, the cod still haven’t. The Stoddard’s were one of the fleets that emptied the ocean. They were the biggest and most modern, and not only that, they were so powerful and connected they worked hand-in-glove with the New England Fishery Management Council, which meant that every decision the council made favored the fishermen, at least in the short term.”

“Didn’t the Stoddard business collapse when all the fish were gone?” asked Vera.

“No, by that time they had diversified, not just into banking and shipping, but they were still in the fish business, processing the catch of floating factory trawlers out on the Atlantic. They had finished off the fish here and were hoovering it up out of the rest of the ocean.”

“What about Aidan?”

“He was groomed to take over the family business, went to Harvard Business School, and married a Hampton’s girl, but then things started to change with him. He was taking lessons at the Boston Old Path Sangha, like me, which is where we met.”

“How was he changing?”

“We had lunch one day last year. Oh, yeah, he had become a vegetarian, like you.”

“It’s better all around, you know.”

“Right, anyway, he said civilization was a conspiracy to keep us comfortable. One natural disaster, he pointed out Hurricane Sandy, and you can see we’re at the mercy of nature, not the other way around.”

“Sometimes it’s a mistake to not be in awe,” said Vera. “Mother Nature’s teeth can be sharp.”

”When he showed up here this summer he told me his father had died and left him eight million dollars, he was divorcing his wife, and had enlisted with Greenpeace. I wasn’t surprised about his wife. Emily is a harpy. And she was having an affair behind his back, although he knew about it. What I wouldn’t be surprised about is if she had something to do with this.”

“Why?

“Because he was giving a lot of his money away to Greenpeace and to Coastal Studies here in P-town.”

“What are you going to do?” asked Vera.

“I think I’m going to talk to Ralph in the prosecutor’s office tomorrow and see what he can tell me.”

The next morning as Vera was rolling up her yoga mat in the backyard where she had been practicing Bruce barged through the gate with his car keys jangling.

“Vera, come to Sandwich with me.”

“Sure, but why?”

“They’re issuing a death certificate today,” said Bruce.

The Chief Medical Examiner’s office in Sandwich was a one-story building with a high, sloping gray roof, gray clapboard, and a brick entrance. Parked to the side of the front door was a Cadillac Esplanade.

Inside at the front counter Emily Stoddard and Tyler Bullock were talking to a tall bulky man with thick gooish lips. As they came up to them the man handed Emily Stoddard a manila envelope, shook her hand, and turning on his heel walked away down a disappearing hallway.

When Emily Stoddard saw Bruce she scowled, but then composed her face.

“Hello, Bruce, what a surprise to see you,” she said.

Bruce looked down at the manila envelope in her hand and back at her.

Emily Stoddard smiled pleasantly.

“They’ve ruled Aidan’s passing was an accidental death and issued a death certificate,” she said. “It’s all so very sad, but now we can go on with our lives.”

She smoothed the front of her skirt, glanced at Vera, and back at Bruce.

“Goodbye,” she said.

“Wait for me in the car, I’ll just be a minute,” said Tyler Bullock.

As Emily Stoddard walked out he asked Vera, “Haven’t I seen you somewhere, riding a bicycle, maybe?”

“Maybe,” said Vera.

“Bicycles are for little girls,” he said, and followed the Medical Examiner’s steps into the building.

“What was that all about?” asked Bruce.

“I don’t know,” said Vera.

As they walked along the front of the building to their car a sharp gust of wind blew Vera’s bonnet off her head. It somersaulted along the side of the building and came to rest in the thorns of a Rugosa bush at the far rear corner. Vera jogged to the bush and disentangled it.

She could smell the spicy clove fragrance of the white flowers.

As she straightened up she saw the Medical Examiner walking to his car and Tyler Bullock standing at the rear door.

What were they doing, she wondered?

As she made to go Tyler Bullock suddenly turned in her direction and glared, surprised and suspicious.

“What do you want?” he asked, loud, coming towards her.

“Just my hat,” she said, stepping back with it in her hand. Tyler Bullock was a large man.

“Go find your bike,” he said.

In the car Bruce asked, “Did you forget your hatpins?”

“Yes, I’ll have to make sure not to do that again.”

Later, circling through the Eastham-Orleans rotary, Vera asked, ”I wonder if the folks at Coastal Studies would tell us anything about the money Aidan was giving them?”

“They might,” said Bruce

“I’ll go see them tomorrow.”

The Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies was on Bradford Street across from the Pilgrim Monument. As Vera came through the front door Kathy Neves da Graca, the executive assistant, turned from the filing cabinets she was stuffing with file folders toward the sudden breath of air.

“Hi, Vera, long time no see.”

“Teaching the tourists to twist and turn,” said Vera.

“Which reminds me…”

“I know, I’ll see you in October. But, that’s not why I stopped in.”

“I didn’t think so. What is it?”

“Have you heard about Aidan Stoddard?”

“Oh, my God! We couldn’t believe it. He was such a great kid.”

Kathy da Graca was in her mid-50s with two children in their mid-30s. Everyone 30-and-under was still a kid to her.

“He worked with us all summer, was a big help, and had signed on to Greenpeace. He was leaving for New Zealand next week. He was so excited. They had found a place for him on the new Rainbow Warrior. It’s such a loss.

“On top of that he was going to contribute a large amount of money to us. Now nobody knows where that stands”

“That’s what I wanted to ask you about.”

“I don’t know much about the details. You should talk to Ran Olds. He’s our development officer. He’s out on the pier today, cleaning up our kiosk. He would know everything about it.”

As Vera walked onto MacMillan Pier Rachel Amparo waved from the front of Outermost Kites and joined her.

“You’re on foot patrol today?” asked Vera.

Rachel Amparo pointed to the Pier Parking Permit Required sign.

“The boss was cranky this morning and I rubbed him the wrong way. This is my reward,” she said.

“I’m going over to the Coastal Studies kiosk to talk to Ran Olds about Aidan Stoddard. Kathy told me he was handling the money Aidan had pledged to them. I just have a feeling there is something not right about what happened to him.”

“What do you mean?”

“He was a world-class swimmer, but he drowned. How did he get out there? No boat, does that mean he paddled out on the spur of the moment wearing cargo shorts? He was leaving his wife and giving some of his inheritance to Coastal Studies and some of it to Greenpeace, but he ends up dead. What happens now? Does his wife inherit everything? There’s just something fishy about it.”

“I’ll tell you something really fishy,” said Rachel Amparo. “The Plymouth County District Attorney got a copy of the death certificate from the Medical Examiner in Sandwich this morning.”

“What’s fishy about that?” asked Vera. “Did it say someone killed him?”

“No, it basically said accident, or death by misadventure”

“What’s fishy about that?”

”The Medical Examiner’s office in this state is a mess. They’re underfunded and understaffed. I mean, that office in Sandwich, they built it in 2009, but it was unused until it opened in 2012. They couldn’t afford the staffing. They have long, long delays in producing death certificates. We’re talking a year-or-more. Homicides get missed and court cases delayed. Time is not your friend when you’re investigating a case or prosecuting it. But, here we’ve got Aidan Stoddard, it’s not exactly cut and dried, and we get a death certificate inside of a week.”

Vera thought suspicion was often recouped by finding what we suspected. She was not herself a suspicious woman. But, what had Tyler Bullock and the Medical Examiner been doing behind the building in Sandwich, she wondered again?

The door of the Coastal Studies kiosk was open. A man stepped out with a banker’s box and set it on top of two others. He was trim with thick salt and pepper hair, wearing shorts and a t-shirt.

“Mr. Olds?”

“Yes.”

“Hi, I’m Vera Nyberg, and this is Rachel Amparo of the police department. I wonder if we could ask you a few questions about Aidan Stoddard?”

Rachel Amparo gave Vera a sharp look. She ignored it.

“Sure, how can I help you?”

“It’s about the money he had pledged to Coastal Studies. Can you tell us how much it was going to be, and are you still getting it, now that he’s died?”

“It was a substantial amount.”

“How much?” Vera persisted.

“There’s probably no harm in telling you, now that we’re not going to be getting it.”

“No?”

“No, we got a call from Mrs. Stoddard’s lawyer yesterday afternoon that the offer was being rescinded, and a letter would follow to that effect. It was very disappointing.”

“How much are you not getting?”

“Mr. Stoddard had pledged three million to us and the same amount to Greenpeace. I doubt they will be getting theirs, either. We’ve been looking for funding to study the gray seals, but it looks like it’s going to have to wait.”

“The seals?”

“Yes, the hue and cry about culling them. Fishermen blame the seals for eating all the cod. Some call them wolves that go into the water.”

Ran Olds gave them a thin smile.

“They say they attract sharks, too. They probably do, but the cod aren’t coming back because they were overfished, not because the seals are federally protected. But, many people on the Cape believe they’re overabundant. There is even a group calling itself the Seal Abatement Coalition. Aidan didn’t agree and had earmarked some of his pledge to study the issue.”

“That’s too bad,” sad Vera.

“Yes, it’s too bad.”

In the backyard later that night Vera grilled balsamic vinaigrette tofu for herself and beef patties for Bruce’s hamburgers. As they ate she looked at Bruce’s flowerbeds. The fragrance of the asters filled her with nostalgia. Vera’s mother had vigilantly tended flowers when she was a child. Her knees had always been green at the end of the day.

After eating they lingered over bottles of Harpoon IPA.

“Did you know burning aster leaves keeps snakes away?” Vera asked Bruce.

“No,” he said. “What brought that on?”

“Tyler Bullock,” she said.

“Oh, right.”

“There’s something about the Medical Examiner that rubs me the wrong way. He was talking to Tyler Bullock behind the building before we left. It just makes me think there’s something not right about the death certificate. If only there was something we could do.”

“I could talk to Ralph tomorrow and check if his office can ask for a second opinion on the autopsy.”

“Do you think he might do that?”

Bruce took a pull on his Harpoon.

“We’re friends, so it doesn’t hurt to ask.”

Vera slept well that night, her breath beery and her window open wide to the cool breeze off the bay. The next day she did laundry and borrowed Elliot’s Ford Fiesta to get groceries from the Stop & Shop before jumping on her bike to go teach her classes at Yoga East.

She was sitting on a bench outside the studio waiting for her early evening class to assemble when her iPhone rang.

It was Bruce.

“Vera, Ralph called down to Sandwich, but it’s not good news. Aidan’s wife had him picked up that same day and he’s already been cremated.”

“Holy moly!” Vera exclaimed.

“It’s like a dead end, water’s edge,” Bruce said.

Vera put on a brave face for her hot flow class, practicing along with the students to stay engaged, mixing in more sun salutations than she ordinarily would have.

“Great class everybody, namaste,” she said after corpse pose, the class dispersing to their cars, scooters, and bikes.

When the parking lot had emptied a Cadillac Esplanade pulled quietly up to the Garden Renovations Nursery on the far side of Yoga East. Tyler Bullock let the engine idle.

“Don’t be long,” Emily Stoddard had said when he dropped her off at Race Point Beach.

“Save some of that for me,” he said pointing to the bottle of Dom Perignon dangling from her hand.

“I’ll try, sweetheart. Just don’t be long.”

When Tyler Bullock saw Vera in his rearview mirror with her back to him locking the front door of the yoga studio he stepped out of the black SUV and briskly crossed the parking lot to the sidewalk Vera was descending to her bike.

“You’re quite the busybody,” he said as he stepped in front of her, blocking her way.

“Your name keeps coming up. I don’t like that.”

His arm shot out and his hand clamped on Vera’s throat. He squeezed when Vera tried to pull back and wagged the fingers of his free hand in her face.

“Don’t,” he said.

“I’ll tell you once and once only. Stay out of my business. Remember the champion swimmer who drowned. You don’t want to be the yoga lady who ended up twisted into a pretzel.”

He lifted her up slightly so that Vera had to stand on her tiptoes to keep breathing. He smiled at her, his teeth showing. Gasping for air, Vera suddenly remembered she was wearing her bonnet. She reached up with her right hand and in a fast underhanded swing drove an eleven-inch Alice Teapot hatpin as hard as she could into Tyler Bullock’s left thigh.

He reacted instantly, jumping back, shouting in pain, spittle spraying Vera’s face, and fell to his knees. When he looked down and saw the silver plated hatpin he grabbed and pulled it out of his leg.

“I’ll kill you,” he screamed, but when he tried to stand up he fell down.

But, it was no matter by then. Vera was at the near side of the yoga studio, on her bike, crossing Route 6 and not stopping until she swerved into the Cumberland Farms gas station on Shank Painter Road, punching 911 into her iPhone.

In the morning Rachel Amparo picked Vera up at the guesthouse.

“I could have walked,” Vera said.

“No, we’re not going to the station. Ralph said it was all right if you heard it for yourself. The fisherman is still out on the beach, although he said he would be leaving by two, three o’clock, didn’t think he wanted to do anymore casting.”

“Can we bring Bruce along? He and Aidan were friends.”

“I think so.”

A park ranger met them at the south access ramp of Race Point and they crossed onto the beach, following the vehicle tracks, surprising terns hiding in the ruts. On the backshore side of the beach were scattered a half dozen RV’s.

“They’re self-contained vehicles. We call them SCV’s,” the ranger explained. “They carry their own water and toilet holding tank. Folks camp on the off-road corridor and fish, some of them for two, three weeks. There are families that come here every summer.”

He made a line for a white RV with blue trim and a slide out awning. The tires looked almost flat. A jolly roger was flying from a plastic pole stuck in the sand. The skull on the flag sported a red bandana and black eye patch.

A stocky middle-aged man met them outside the shade of the awning in the mid-morning sunlight.

“Bob, this is Rachel Amparo, Provincetown police, and these are the interested parties, Vera and Bruce,” said the ranger.

“The wife is watching the news. Maybe we could talk down by the fire pit,” said Bob.

“You have TV out here?” asked Bruce.

“Sure, satellite,” said Bob.

The fire pit was round with a flat donut mound in the middle littered with charred firewood. Bleacher seating had been dug out of the sand in a circle around the donut.

“I was taking a walk,” said Bob once they were all seated.

“The wife was making dinner and I had an hour. She said to make myself scarce since she was making something special. I thought I’d work up an appetite.”

He grinned, but without mirth.

“I never did have that dinner.”

He got a flip-top pack of Marlboros out of his breast pocket and lit a cigarette. He threw the match on the dead fire.

“I didn’t see her at first. I was watching the seals as I walked, there were so many of them, close in to shore. You don’t see that many around here, not like down in Chatham. When I did see her I wasn’t sure of what I was seeing.”

“What was it?” asked Bruce.

“There were seven or eight seals, I think, on the beach. The lady was lying on the sand, her legs stretched out to the breakers. She had a bottle in her hand. They had her penned in. At first she wasn’t moving, none of them were. Not her or the seals. When she tried to get up is when all hell broke loose. One of them clamped his mouth on to her ankle and pulled her down. She was hitting him with her bottle, but then the others got her by both legs and started pulling her into the water.”

He took a drag on his Marlboro.

“It all happened so fast. I didn’t know they could move that fast. They use their flippers, and sort of wiggle. By the time I got close enough to maybe help her, they had her in the water and there wasn’t anything I could do.”

He stubbed his cigarette out in the sand and put the butt in his pants pocket.

“She was trying to keep her head above the water, but they had her by both legs and one of them was biting her face. She was screaming something awful and the seals were making a crazy high crying, like a dog howling. Then, just like that, it was all over, and it got real quiet. They pulled her down into the water and I didn’t see her or them again. When I looked up all the other seals who had been watching were gone, too.”

The man stood up and brushed sand off his pants.

“That’s what happened. At first I couldn’t believe it, but when I saw blood on the sand and the broken bottle I called the rangers,” he said.

Vera looked out at the horizon.

“I’ve got to go. We’re packing and leaving, going home. Oh, yeah, one other thing I forgot to tell you folks,” he said, looking at Rachel Amparo.

“There was a man who came down the beach, yelling, and lurching, like one of his legs hurt. I think he saw what happened, too. He fell down after the seals took her and started to slap the sand. He kept saying damn, damn, damn, but when I tried to get close to him he gave me an eye that made me stop. After that he got up and dragged himself back towards the parking lot. He wasn’t walking too good, but it didn’t seem like he wanted my help.”

“Thanks, Bob,” the park ranger said.

“Sure,” said Bob, nodding at the others before he turned and walked away.

“I’ve never heard anything like it,” said the park ranger.

At Fanizzi’s, a restaurant on the quiet side of Commercial Street, Vera, Bruce, and Rachel Amparo sat at the bar, staring through the windows that made up the back wall of the bar onto Provincetown Harbor. The policewoman worked on a plate of fish and chips, Bruce nursed a bottle of Magic Hat No. 9, and Vera played with the straw in her glass of ice water.

She wasn’t hungry or thirsty, just lonely.

The bar would begin to fill up soon, but she didn’t want to be there when it did.

“I don’t hate people. I just feel better when they’re not around,” Charles Bukowski had once said. Maybe Hattie was right about him, Vera thought. Or maybe she was all wrong.

“Are you thinking the same thing I am?” asked Bruce.

“Probably,” answered Vera.

“So, tell me.”

“The seals knew it was her.”

“That’s a relief. I’m glad I’m not the only one.”

Rachel Amparo, twisting towards them in her seat, a forkful of cod almost in her mouth, said, “That’s crazy talk. Seals are just, you know, seals.”

“Don’t let the cod hear you say that,” said Vera, and leaned sideways as Bruce spit up a noseful of beer, sputtering, and the policewoman clapped him hard on the back.

“Oh, Vera,” said Rachel Amparo, sliding a thick, clear plastic bag marked ‘Evidence’ in black capital letters across the polished bar to her.

“I found this last night. I thought you might want it back. You never know when you might need it again.”

Inside the plastic bag was an Alice Teapot hatpin.

Murder on the Mat

corpse-pose

“Release your bones,” said Vera Nyberg.

She was sitting cross-legged on a one-step-up carpeted platform at the front of the room, scanning the sparsely attended early Friday night class as they finished their poses and settled down on their mats.

”Release your bones into the earth and feel the support of the earth beneath them.“

John Cerberus rolled out of shoulder stand and following her instructions lay down in savasana, clamping his eyes shut and exhaling strongly. He made a mental note to tell her two things.

The first was not to teach any more classes wearing the leopard print Capri’s and black sports halter she was now wearing. She was only a temporary teacher living in the dormitory, but he expected her to know better about how to dress for class, even though it wasn’t a dress code as much as what was understood to be appropriate attire for teachers at the center.

The second was to wear contacts when she was teaching. The cat eye black frame glasses she was wearing made her look weird and old-fashioned.

He made another mental note.

He would have to re-read the poison pen letter slipped under his office door earlier in the month. There was something about the way it was written that reminded him of somebody, maybe like an e-mail he had gotten a year-or-two ago. It was probably nothing, he reasoned, just another malcontent from the Amazing Grace Yoga days.

They were the last mental notes made by the Asana Director of the Kritalvanda Center for Yoga and Health.

He relaxed uneasily into the last pose of the hatha yoga class. It had been a demanding ninety minutes at the end of a long, demanding day. Maybe savasana wouldn’t be so bad today, he thought. The large room with its scattered yoga practitioners lying prone on their mats was suffused with dusk, the lights dimmed almost off, and the late November sun setting on the other side of the row of yew hedges outside the floor to ceiling windows. He let his feet fall out to the sides and turned his arms outward, palms face up, trying to let go of his body.

He made an effort to quiet his breathing.

Around him the guests and day-pass visitors were lowering their bodies into corpse pose, what the Sanskrit word savasana was better known as, letting their eyes sink backwards and releasing their thoughts. Lying there they looked so peaceful, Vera saw, giving the room a last once-over.

“Release your jaw and soften your eyes and tongue,” she said, easing the class inward. “Sink into the surrender of no thoughts, no conceptions, no ideas, into the you as you are in yourself, into the world as it is in itself.”

She closed her eyes, letting stillness envelop the room, and started counting her breaths to one hundred, which would take about ten minutes. Afterwards she would guide everyone back to a seated position and bring the lights up again for the end of class.

Corpse pose was hard for John Cerberus, a state of being neither awake nor asleep. The practice of bending, stretching, and twisting the body suited him, as did sleep, but not the middle space between effort and sleep. He generally shunned the void of corpse pose unless he was compelled to practice it.

There was something, sensations, or memories, at the core of his body he knew better to avoid.

As he struggled to bring his thoughts to a standstill, he became aware of someone behind him, squatting down, and their hands on the side of his head, massaging his temples. He was mildly surprised. Vera Nyberg had not struck him as the kind of teacher who proffered head and shoulder savasana massages. She was schooled in Ashtanga Yoga, a more severe practice than most. The fingers of both hands, one on each side of his head, moved from his temples down to the base of his neck. The sides of the forearms picked up his head and hands cradled his neck. He opened his eyes slightly and peeked backwards.

It wasn’t Vera Nyberg, after all.

John Cerberus started to smile, but then a knee pushed his left shoulder hard into the ground, and before he could react, his head was jerked sharply to the right and his neck snapped.e was surprised

Vera Nyberg slowly opened her eyes as she took her one-hundredth breath. Every day a little bit dying, she thought, something she heard Pattabhi Jois say at a workshop in New York City the last time he visited there. Jois said that corpse pose was a hard posture to master, quieting the mind and body, imitating a corpse.

“Most difficult for student, not waking, not sleeping,” he said in his broken English. “If student does not get up from savasana, or lifting student up is like a stiff board, savasana is correct.”

After everyone rolled onto their sides, into a fetal position, then leaned up and were sitting cross-legged, she thanked them for coming to the class, reminded them about the center’s weekend activities, especially the back bending workshop she was leading Sunday morning, and smiling broadly said, “Happy weekend, everyone.

“Namaste.”

It was only after she had straightened up her area, tucking her iPod and water bottle away into her duffel, that she noticed the body still lying in corpse pose. Tossing the bag over her shoulder, she walked over, recognizing John Cerberus when she approached him. As she bent down to touch him on the shoulder she noticed there was a small bright yellow flower that looked like a bird’s foot on the center of his chest. His breath was neither rising nor falling, and when she looked him in the face, his head was oddly akimbo, his face ashy and his open unseeing eyes rolled up and back in their sockets.

She reached into her duffel bag, fumbling to find her iPhone.

Sam Fowler of the Wareham Police Department was lifting a pint of Backlash Beer Holiday Porter to his lips when his Samsung began chirping where he had laid it down next to the plate of cod and chips in front of him. He was sitting at the short end of the bar at the Gateway Tavern and Grill. He looked at his cell phone in disgust, checked the incoming number, and then took the call from the Medical Examiner’s Office.

After listening for a moment he said, “OK, ask the Falmouth guys to keep a lid on everything until I get there. I’m just finishing something up here that can’t wait and when I’m done I’ll be on my way. Give me the address.”

He flipped a spiral notebook open.

“All right, I’ve got it. It sounds like it will be about an hour-or-so drive. I should be there by nine-thirty.”

He pushed his Holiday Porter away, asked the bartender for a glass of water, and methodically began eating his dinner. He knew a little about yoga and nothing about the Kritalvanda Center. He would have to call the station and let them know what was going on. Maybe Ginny Walther would know something. She was working the night shift at the dispatch desk. He had heard talk that she was into yoga.

An hour later, halfway to the Kritalvanda Center south of Wood’s Hole on the coastline of Buzzard’s Bay, an extra-large to-go JoMamas at his elbow, Sam Fowler called Ginny Walther and filled her in. He asked her if she knew anything about the center.

“I’ve been there a dozen times, or more, mostly one-day trips,” she said. “You can take any of the classes and workshops they offer on that day, and the day includes breakfast, lunch, and dinner in their cafeteria, although I have to warn you it’s all vegetarian.”

Sam Fowler’s scowl was audible over the phone.

“I spent a week there last year, on my vacation, on a retreat. It’s a wonderful yoga center.” Then she said, “It couldn’t have been anyone there, they wouldn’t kill anyone.”

“Somebody was there,” he said.

What he found out from Ginny Walther was that the center had its beginnings as the Yoga Society of Cape Cod in the early 1960s, rehabilitating a derelict Shaker Trustee Building outside of Falmouth, its hippie residents living a communal life. As the ashram grew, which is what the residents called it, they outgrew the two-story saltbox building.

Twenty years later they bought a derelict Franciscan seminary on the peninsula northwest of Wood’s Hole and rehabilitated it to become the Kritalvanda Center.

“Since then they’ve really grown, because yoga has gotten popular,” Ginny Walther said. “The last time I checked with the Chamber of Commerce almost 30,000 people cross the bridge every year to go there. They built an annex sometime ago, then a Wellness Center just this summer, new locker rooms, they have their own beach, hiking trails and they even have a labyrinth.”

“Why would anyone want a labyrinth, you get lost in them, right?” he asked.

“No, it’s not what you think,” she said, “It’s for walking meditation and inspiration, for finding yourself. You should try it while you’re there.”

Steering with his knees he rummaged in the center console organizer of his SUV and pulled out ‘Winter Morning Walk’, a new recording by Maria Schneider. He liked her large jazz ensemble work, which he had heard her band play in a club in New York City, but this one was different. For most of the rest of the drive Sam Fowler listened to it, but the more he heard of it the less he liked it.

The music was not so much jazz than it was a kind of classical fusion, a poet’s poems being sung, measured and lyrical. Jazz was a kind of music he acquired a liking for from his ex-wife before things went south between them. He kept their collection of recordings when she moved out, thinking he had gotten the better of the bargain. He knew jazz was restless and wouldn’t stay put, but he liked his improvisation within firm boundaries.

Approaching the dark windy deserted streets of Wood’s Hole the Wareham detective let his GPS find Penzance Point Road and ten minutes later was pulling into the parking lot terraced below the main building of the Kritalvanda Center for Yoga and Health. The Medical Examiner was outside the entrance doors, leaning against the yellow brick building, a cigarette dangling from his thick fingers.

“They didn’t even want me to have a smoke out here, Sam, they put up a stink about it,” he said sourly.

“What happened in there?” asked Sam Fowler

“It was a 911 call, and then when the paramedics figured out what the problem was, they called Falmouth. They’ve got a couple of cars here, there’s me, and the paramedics are still here, too. They’re all parked around back, where the customers get checked in. That lot out front where you parked is where people leave their cars afterwards, for the day, or however long they’re here.”

Throwing his butt to the side, he said, “Follow me, I know the way.”

Outside a second floor room a uniformed officer was waiting who showed them inside where two paramedics were lounging beside a gurney.

“It looks like his neck was broken and his breathing went haywire,” one of them explained as they stood over the corpse. “He died of respiratory failure, probably within five minutes.”

Sam Fowler glanced at the Medical Examiner.

“His name was John Cerberus. He was in charge of the exercise program here. I put his death at right around six o’clock. The class had just ended, and as I understand it they all laid down, closed their eyes, and meditated for a few minutes. The teacher found him at about six-fifteen when she was closing the room. She’s the one who called. From the bruising on his neck I can say it was deliberate.”

“I thought it was hard to break someone’s neck,” Sam Fowler ventured.

“Despite what you see in the action movies, it’s almost impossible to break someone’s neck like this,” answered the Medical Examiner. “You have to be fast and apply a lot of torque to do it. You have to know exactly what you’re doing.”

“Wouldn’t someone have heard his neck breaking?”

“Like I said, it’s not the movies, where you hear a cracking sound.”

“So no one saw anything or heard anything?”

“I don’t know. That’s your job.”

When John Cerberus was gone, strapped down and wheeled away on the stainless steel gurney, Sam Fowler thought to himself that it was a hell of a mess when someone was killed in a roomful of people in broad daylight and no one saw or heard anything.

He walked out to the uniformed policeman in the hallway.

“Let’s get everybody who was in this room back here,” he said, “and I want to see whoever is in charge of this place. Get a list of everybody who’s registered here, and all the staff people, and let’s make sure they’re all still on the grounds. Find out if they have any closed circuit, especially of the road in and out, and the parking lot. I’ll set up for interviews in the cafeteria I saw downstairs. Tell someone to get the lights on and some coffee for me.”

Ten minutes later sitting at one end of a long table in the cafeteria, his notebook and a microcassette recorder in front of him, Sam Fowler listened unhappily as he was told his options were Kritalvanda’s signature-style Chai Tea or Moroccan Mint.

Vera Nyberg sat on the upper mattress of her bunk bed in the corner of the nearly deserted dormitory room, her knees pulled to her chest, leaning back against the wall, slowly twirling between her fingers the wilting Bird’s-foot Trefoil she had found on John Cerberus. Where had it come from, she wondered. She knew what it was and what it meant in the language of flowers. It meant revenge. Had she seen it recently? Although it had been a mild autumn, the temperatures not falling below forty, yet, it was late in the year for it to still be blooming.

“I know I’ve seen this somewhere,” she said as much to herself as to Elizabeth Archer in the bunk below her.

“What is it?” asked Elizabeth, swinging her legs off the lower bunk and taking a step on the ladder, pulling herself up by the railing of the upper bunk.

Elizabeth Archer was at Kritalvanda on a six-month internship from the Columbia Business School MBA program. Like Vera she was immersed in yoga, but unlike Vera, who described herself as “a yoga teacher, that’s all,” she was ambitious. After graduation she planned on opening and franchising high-end yoga studios. Her internship at Kritalvanda was another step towards her goal.

“I didn’t really like John Cerberus, but for someone to kill him, I just don’t know,” said Vera, her voice trailing away.

The principle of ahimsa, or non-violence, was a golden rule of yoga. A yogi would never have broken John Cerberus’s neck, she thought, even if he deserved to have his neck wrung. But, someone in her room had done just that. She knew it was someone who had been in her class because if anyone had come in through the door during corpse pose she would have heard them. Maybe not their footsteps, but the pneumatic door closer made noise.

It was creaky and needed oiling.

“I know what you mean,” said Elizabeth Archer, pulling her unruly blonde hair away from her face with both hands. “He flushed Amazing Grace Yoga down the toilet, but if that’s why somebody killed him, I guess he didn’t deserve to die because of that.”

Two years earlier, amid accusations of sexual impropriety with female students, and financial irregularities with the company’s pension fund, John Cerberus, a former New York City bond trader and the founder of Amazing Grace Yoga, had stepped aside as CEO of a business that licensed almost two thousand teachers who taught more than a half million people worldwide his form of trademarked postural yoga.

Since then his conglomerate had crumbled. Amazing Grace’s headquarters building in Austin, Texas, barely five years old, had been sold, its teachers moving on to other disciplines, and the brand name disgraced. But, John Cerberus had weathered the storm and resumed teaching as an independent Hatha Yoga instructor, and in the middle of the year had been hired by the Kritalvanda Center as its Asana Director, supervising the teachers and offerings of the posture classes.

“I think it was someone in my class,” said Vera. “I’m sure of it.”

“No, not someone in your class!” exclaimed Elizabeth.

Kritalvanda had been nearly deserted the Friday after Thanksgiving. The weekend was expected to be busier, especially since events like ‘The Healing Power of Drumming and Chanting’ and ‘Chakra Cleansing’ had been added to the calendar in hopes of attracting non-traditional holiday goers, or even traditionalists in need of relief from too much turkey.

When she asked Pattabhi Jois if being a vegetarian was a requirement for being a good yoga teacher, he said, “Meat eating makes you stiff. You will not be able to breathe right.”

Only nineteen people had taken Vera Nyberg’s class in a room that could easily fit seventy-five. Four of them were couples who had driven down on I-93 from Boston for the long weekend. Three were good-looking young men, long-time friends of hers who lived in Provincetown year-round. A few were volunteers who worked in Food Services for their room and board and lived in the dormitory, like her. The rest were day-pass men and women who had come separately, and the last was one of the masseuses in the Wellness Center, who had slipped in late, after the class had almost started.

“It’s freaky to think there was a killer practicing yoga and planning to murder somebody the whole time,” said Elizabeth Archer. “Who could have been that intense, and that quiet? You were all in the room, somebody would have heard them moving around, wouldn’t they have?”

Vera thought about what Lizzie was saying. She had a good memory, but in a yoga room her memory was sharp. For her the real art of memory was the art of attention. She paid attention to every person in her class, making sure she knew their names beforehand, any limitations they might have, and where they were in the room so she could check on them whenever she thought it necessary. She hadn’t heard any footsteps during corpse pose, of that she was sure. Vera would have opened her eyes to see why someone was leaving the class early.

Who was closest to John Cerberus during the class?

Her friends had been in the front, where she insisted they be so she could keep an eye on any monkey business. They had clowned around up to the moment class started, but were good afterwards. Everyone else had been loosely knit at the center of the room, John Cerberus on the edge flanked by one of the wives from Boston, and on his outside hip, partly screened from her, there had been someone else. For some reason she couldn’t place the person. Their mat had been in a shadow between two high hats and off-center from her field of vision.

Maybe if she drew a map of where all the mats were in the room, and who had been on them, she would be able to see who had been on the mat just outside of John Cerberus.

“Lizzie, do you have a legal pad?” asked Vera.

Sam Fowler, who had been joined by a young plainclothesman, used his hands to push himself away from the table, stretched his stiff as a board legs out, and looked up at the ceiling. His notebook was almost filled with his illegible handwriting.

“Who do we have left?” he asked Jeremy Kroon, the only man the Falmouth station had been able to find on a late Friday night to help him.

“Just the teacher,” Kroon answered, pushing black bangs off his forehead.

How did he get through the academy? He looks like one of the Beatles, thought Sam Fowler.

It was nearing one in the morning. Sam could feel the cold seeping in through the windows a table away. The weather forecast had been for a storm blowing in by Saturday night, although how stormy it might be was uncertain. What was certain was that winter was close, he knew, rubbing his knees. The bone structure of the landscape would soon be all there was.

“Go ask somebody to get her down here.”

He had interviewed everyone who had been in the class, so far, and the Director of Program Development, as well, who seemed to be in charge since both the Chief Executive Officer and Chief Operating officer were out of town visiting family for the holidays.

Denise O’Neill was frank about her dislike of John Cerberus, although she admitted his qualifications.

“He is, I mean, was, excuse me, one of the most knowledgeable and experienced yoga teachers in the world, which is what he was always telling everybody. Maybe he was, I don’t know.”

She looked sad and annoyed at the same time.

“He studied with Iyengar, and he was on their board of directors, too” she added. “It doesn’t get any better than that.”

Sam Fowler didn’t know who she was talking about and let it pass. He assumed Iyengar was yoga brass of some kind.

“Either it was because somebody owed him a favor, or it was the notoriety, that’s why he landed here. We were supposed to work together, but he seemed to think he was my boss, even though I’ve been here eight years,” she added.

She had been reading alone in her room before dinner when John Cerburus was murdered.

“What were you reading?” he asked her.

“I was reading ‘The Courage to Be You’,” she said.

When she drew a blank from the police detective, she explained, “It’s a woman’s guide to emotional strength and self-esteem.”

“I see,” said Sam Fowler.

When she was gone he said to Jeremy Kroon, “Well, we know she didn’t kill anybody.”

The police detective agreed, although he wasn’t exactly sure why.

Both couples from Boston said they knew John Cerberus from a new-age California music and yoga festival called Wanderlust they had been to three years ago, and that he had been the reason they had come to Kritalvanda for the weekend. John Cerberus had taught a workshop earlier in the day about Tantra, the second half of which had been scheduled for Saturday.

“Tantra was the philosophical base of his Amazing Grace Yoga, did you know?” said one of the women, an attractive brunette in her late-30s.

“Isn’t that about sex?” asked Sam Fowler.

“That’s what most people think, but it’s more than that,” she answered. “It’s about sexual practice with the intention of spiritual awakening, increasing power, and experiencing bliss through embodiment. It’s not a sensually indulgent practice.

“Everybody said John cheated on his girlfriends, and lied to them, but that’s not what it was ever about,” she continued, leaning forward. “Tantra is about using yoga poses, deep breathing, and stimulating acts, including intercourse, to hasten rapturous bliss.”

“Oh, I see,” he said, tilting his head to the side and pressing his lips together thoughtfully.

She had been the last of the four Boston natives to be interviewed, one at a time, all of them separately. After watching her sashay out of the cafeteria Jeremy Kroon turned to Sam Fowler and asked, “You don’t think they’re involved, either, do you?

“No, they didn’t kill anyone,” he said. “They’re Back Bay people. They wouldn’t know how to break a chicken’s neck even if their own lives depended on it.”

Vera Nyberg’s three friends from Provincetown were excited about the murder, but at the same time nonchalant about the death. They had been asked, sitting in the hallway outside the cafeteria, to come in one at a time, but when they burst in together, Sam Fowler decided there was no harm in talking to them all at once.

Only one person had killed John Cerberus. He doubted it was these three hens.

They didn’t so much answer his questions about what they seen or heard as talk about John Cerberus.

“What was all the partying about?” one of them said. “I must have missed that ninth limb of yoga. And what about stealing retirement money from your employees? Patanjali has to be rolling over in his grave.”

“He was always jet-setting to Burning Man and Wanderlust,” another explained.

“He was the P. T. Barnum of yoga, the center of the world, and that whole posse of his, the kirtan bands and wannabe gurus,” the third man chimed in.

“It was a different kind of yoga?” asked Sam Fowler.

No, it didn’t have anything to do with yoga, they said.

“The postures and classes were what you would expect, but that’s just a part of yoga, “ said the fittest of the three fit men. ”The rest of it, all the parts of it that really matter, he ignored or turned them into a gala all his own.”

But, they all impressed on him that no one deserved to be murdered, and confided that violence was beyond the pale in the world of yoga, of which there were many parts.

“What kind of yoga do you do?”

“We practice Bikram Yoga, where we always do 90 minutes of the same poses in a hot room that’s 105 or 110 degrees and humidity is steamed in.”

“If you get your hands on a suspect, let us know,” said the cleanest cut of the neat men. “We’ll sweat the truth out of him!”

An operetta is simply a small and gay opera, thought Sam Fowler, as the trio left the cafeteria.

None of the employees, the kitchen staff nor the masseuse, or the day-passers, had seen or heard or knew anything. None of them had been involved in Amazing Grace Yoga, personally or professionally. They deplored but forgave John Cerberus’s indiscretions, as much as they knew of them, and repeated that no one who practiced yoga would have considered killing him, much less actually committing the crime.

Waiting for Vera Nyberg and looking over his casebook, something nagged at Sam Fowler, something that was missing. It was something one of them hadn’t said, he thought.

When Elizabeth Archer answered the knock on the door of their dormitory room, spying the Falmouth patrolman on the threshold, Vera Nyberg was ready. She had been busy at the writing table mapping the mats and their owners in the yoga room that afternoon. She now knew who had been on John Cerberus’s outside hip, and she knew where she had seen the Birds-foot Trefoil earlier in the week, as well.

What she didn’t know was whether she was going to tell the policeman what she knew.

As Vera came into the cafeteria Sam Fowler looked her up and down. She was slim, he could tell, even though she was wearing baggy black cotton sweatpants and a zip-up hoodie. He put her in her early-30s. Her black hair was long, in a ponytail, her face angular, and her mouth wide. Her glasses were a vintage style, out of the 1950s. Her hands and feet were large. She was wearing flip-flops, her toenails painted a bright red.

He stood up, motioned her to the chair opposite him, and she sat down.

After getting her name and address in Lenox, as well as her cell phone number, Sam Fowler asked, “When was the last time you saw John Cerberus alive?”

“When he lay down in dead man’s pose,” she answered.

”Did you know him?”

“Yes, he was my boss, more-or-less, he and Denise. But, I’m one of the work exchange teachers, and I was only here for the month, so we didn’t come into contact much.”

“Do you know of any reason anyone would want to kill him?”

“Not anyone I know, no.”

She remembered what Pattabhi Jois said, “One year, two year, ten years. No use. Whole life. Whole life a practice.” John Cerberus wouldn’t be practicing anymore. His days and years had come to an end. No one can say for sure that he will be living tomorrow. All of John Cerberus’s living had been suddenly stopped. We take care of our lives and Krishna takes care of our deaths, she thought.

“Could someone have come into the room from outside and attacked him?”

“I don’t think so. I would have heard them.”

“Do you think someone in the room killed him?”

“I’m not sure, but I think it had to be someone in the room, yes.”

“Do you know who that might be?”

“No, not really.”

She seemed to be hedging her bets, he wondered, and made a note.

“Did you kill him?” he suddenly asked her.

“No, of course not!” exclaimed Vera Nyberg, taken aback by the question. “I don’t believe in causing harm. It’s in the Yoga Sutras.”

That was it, realized Sam Fowler, that’s what hadn’t been said by someone that everyone else had said in one way or another, which was that no one who practiced yoga would kill anyone. Who was it that hadn’t said it? He was sure he would have it either in his notes or on tape.

“The Yoga what?” Sam Fowler asked Vera Nyberg.

“The Yoga Sutras,” she said. “They were written a long time ago, about two thousand years, maybe at the same time as the Bible. But they’re short, just a couple of hundred sayings. It’s a guidebook, not a how-to book. It’s about choosing your best ethical path.”

“Like the Ten Commandments?” he asked.

“No, not exactly,” she answered. “The rule about non-violence isn’t a rule, exactly. It’s more about not causing unnecessary harm, which happens when you start to see the origins and effects of violence. My teacher used to say, “Yoga is not physical, very wrong. Yoga is an internal practice. The rest is just a circus.” He meant it was about awareness, about expanding your consciousness. An open heart is what yoga is about, and as your heart opens not harming begins to make all the sense in the world.”

“What if you were assaulted? Or if someone you loved was being assaulted? What would you do then?”

“I would do what my teacher always told us to do when we asked him questions in class.”

“What was that?”

“You do!”

“I see.”

Yoga takes care of its own, in its own way, thought Sam Fowler. In the meantime, somewhere in his interview notes someone had neglected to recite the mantra of non-violence. He wasn’t sure it meant anything, but it was the only anomaly of the night, so far. It wouldn’t hurt to find out who it was and interview them again.

“Thank you Miss Nyberg,” said Sam Fowler.

He had made a point to look and had not seen a wedding ring on her hand when he looked.

“I may or may not need to talk to you again tomorrow. We’ll let you know.”

The two police detectives watched her walk out.

“What made you think she might have had anything to do with it?” asked Jeremy Kroon.

“I didn’t.”

Sam Fowler knew better than anyone that nobody could read his scrawled cramped notes. He would have to review his casebook himself. In the meantime, he needed coffee.

“I need coffee,” he said to Jeremy Kroon. “Your job is to find some. I like JoMamas, but I’ll take Dunkin or anything hot you can find at this time of night. Then you can call it a day, find somewhere to sack out, and we’ll get back to it at eight.”

An hour later, coffee at hand, Sam Fowler settled into a comfortable lounge chair in the main lobby, a table lamp lit on the end table beside him, and cracked open his casebook. Twenty minutes later, nearing three o’clock in the morning, the coffee barely touched, he was asleep, the casebook askew in his lap.

The only sounds in the empty lobby the rest of the night were his breathing, the forced air from the furnace, and the winter wind testing the windows.

Vera Nyberg sat up on the edge of her bunk at six-thirty, almost a half-hour before sunrise. She had wondered about the murder of John Cerberus for a short time lying in bed after talking to the detective, but let it go. She quickly fell asleep, believing the answer would come to her in the morning.

She slipped nimbly down the ladder. Elizabeth Archer was snoring carelessly in the bottom bunk. Peeking through the window Vera saw the sky was white-gray. The wind was downstream, neither rain nor snow was falling, although it felt cold through the glass.

It seemed like the storm had so far skirted them.

In the hallway she made her way to the new Wellness Center. Few doors were kept locked at Kritalvanda and the Wellness Center’s entrance door was not one of them. Once inside she thumbed the rocker switch and turned the lights on. There were five massage rooms in a row down the left corridor. She pored over the first room, and a minute later the second room. It was in the fourth room that she found what she was looking for, an empty glass cylinder bud vase on a mission-style corner table at the far end of the masseuse table.

Retracing her steps she made her way back to the dormitory and shook Elizabeth Archer awake. “Lizzie, you know everybody here. Where does Lola Donning stay?”

Lizzie Archer pushed a mop of sandy hair away from her face and rubbed her eyes.

“The massage therapist?”

“Yes.”

“She’s in the west wing, in one of the semi-private rooms, on the second floor, although I think she’s been rooming by herself since she got here last month. I’m sure it’s room eight. But, you know, yesterday was her last day here. She gave two week’s notice.”

When Vera Nyberg got to Lola Donning’s room she found the door ajar and the room empty. The bed was unmade and the wardrobe closet, when she looked inside, was bare. The bathroom was shorn of toiletries.

Lola Donning was gone.

Leaning on the sink Vera Nyberg looked at herself in the mirror. Her gaze sank to the basin. Where had Lola Donning found Bird’s-foot Trefoil for her bud vase, the unusual flower Vera had noticed one afternoon while getting a massage late last month? It wasn’t a flower that grew in woodlands, like those that surrounded Kritalvanda on three sides. It was a forage plant, grown for pasture or hay. She might have found it on the front side of the grounds, facing Buzzard’s Bay, but most of the front side was either sloping grassland that was regularly mowed or the terraced parking lot.

Then, without hesitation, Vera Nyberg knew where Lola Donning must have found the flower. She hurried back to the dormitory to get her winter coat.

“Lizzie, the policeman is sleeping in the lobby. I‘m going out to the circle. This is what I want you to do, and then meet me out there as soon as you can with your car keys,” she said, shrugging into her coat. “Pack some clothes, too.”

Once outside she wrapped a wool muffler around her long neck. The sky was bulked up with thick clouds and the morning light was raw and milky. The whitecaps on Buzzard’s Bay were sluggish. At the bottom of the stairs she avoided the parking lot and cut through to the labyrinth on the knoll.

Kritalvanda’s garden labyrinth was not a maze with multiple dead ends and designed to confuse. The labyrinth had one entrance and a winding path to the middle. Vera Nyberg walked to the middle where she found Lola Donning standing in a thin jacket with her back to her.

People don’t notice whether it’s summer or winter when they’re unhappy, she thought, and waited for Lola to see her. She glanced at the bracelet watch on her left wrist. It was seven-thirty.

“I wasn’t sure if it was going to be you or the police,” Lola Donning finally said, turning to face Vera Nyberg. “When they didn’t say anything about the flower I thought maybe you had taken it.”

“Yes, I took it.”

“How did you know what it meant?”

“My mother was a landscape designer. She specialized in gardens.”

They stood quietly for a few minutes.

“My mother and I lived in New Mexico for a long time, where I grew up,” said Lola Donning. “They have labyrinths there, the Indians, you know. There’s one entrance, which is birth, and in the center is God. Sometimes it’s a family labyrinth, and in the middle of the circle is your original ancestor, and two continuous lines join the twelve joints, just like this one.”

She pointed to the center of the labyrinth.

“When most people hear of a labyrinth they think of a maze, but that’s not what they are. A maze is like a puzzle to be solved, lots of choices to be made, but with a labyrinth, there’s only one choice to be made, which is whether to enter it or not.”

The yoga teacher thought of what her teacher told her when she asked him for advice at the end of her training in Mysore. “Each morning wake up. Do as much yoga as you want. Maybe you eat, maybe you fast. Maybe you sleep indoors, maybe you sleep outdoors. The next morning, wake up, and do again. Practice yoga, and all is coming!”

Was it like the labyrinth Lola Donning was describing, the labyrinth that had brought the two of them together, where the only choice was whether to be in it or not? Or was it like a maze in which everyone was doomed to make choices and then be forever defined by the choices they made?

She thought Pattabhi Jois would probably say that there is only the life we live as an experience, not as a problem to be resolved like mice in a maze, whatever the final end might be.

“That’s where my mom met John Cerberus, when she was teaching yoga. It was in Loving, outside of Carlsbad. She was one of the first teachers he recruited, and she was with him until the end, two years ago. She died on New Year’s Day, almost a year ago, in the house I was born in.”

“I’m so sorry. What happened?” asked Vera Nyberg before she could stop herself, suddenly realizing as she asked that it must have had everything to do with John Cerberus.

“She killed herself.”

The two women stood in the bleak cold, the thin line of dawn on the horizon behind them a mute pinkish orange, the late November wind a cold draft at their ankles and necks.

“She died because of him. I’d been working here less than a couple of weeks, and I saw him in a hallway one day. I almost fell down. I couldn’t believe it. I never in my life thought I’d see him again. But there he was, smug in his yoga trappings, on top of the world again.

“I wrote him a letter, telling him I knew what he had done, and then gave two weeks notice that same day.”

Vera Nyberg stretched the muffler up her neck and over her mouth and ears as the wind rose, starting to gust.

“My mom said the yoga was special, the kind they pioneered. She was excited, right from the beginning. Their yoga was about aligning the body and the spirit. Everything was done on a personal level, what they called the heart level. That’s the way it was for years, him and my mom.

“But, then they started training teachers and writing manuals and organizing workshops. They invited him to the Yoga Journal conferences and he was a hit. He got big. They had to project his image on screens in the conference rooms, there were so many people wanting to be a part of it. You couldn’t even see him anymore.

“He put together a traveling show and started going to all the festivals, and then he flew to Europe, and Japan, and he got even bigger. My mom thought it was the two of them, but it wasn’t, not anymore, but she couldn’t see it for what it had become.

“Then he brought sex into it, what he called left-handed tantra. He formed a Wicca coven with some of his students, in secret, and some teachers, but my mom wasn’t a part of that, either. She wouldn’t have done it even if she had known. She wasn’t like that.

“When she found out he told her the coven was a battery for his yoga, the foundation of his charisma. He said he was using sex energy in a positive and sacred way, but she told him he was out of integrity, and everything ended between them. She still worked for the yoga, but she wasn’t doing well.

“After everything fell apart and it came out into the open, my mom was devastated. Every day it got worse and worse until it was all over. I wasn’t living at home, but we talked every day. I was worried about her, but she sounded all right, until one day she didn’t take any of my calls. I kept getting her voice mail, so I drove from Phoenix to Loving. It took me all night.”

Tears were in Lola Donning’s eyes, the silent language of grief. The wind was blowing the rain away, but just for the moment.

“I found her in bed in the morning. She looked just like she was asleep. She didn’t even leave a note for me, just for him, blaming him for everything.”

When men make choices only God is blameless.

“I don’t know what happened,” Lola said. “I planned it, I think, yesterday, my last day, but at the same time, I didn’t, it just happened. It was like somebody else was doing it, like I was watching myself and couldn’t stop, like a bad dream.”

“Since I’m going to be sticking my neck out, I think we should leave this place,” said Vera, “before it turns into a maze. I don’t think there’s anything else to be found here.”

In the lobby Sam Fowler woke up. Elizabeth Archer was standing to the side of him, her hand shaking his shoulder.

“What time is it?” he asked, wiping a crumb of dried saliva from a corner of his mouth.

“It’s seven fifty-five,” she said, stepping back

“I must have fallen asleep. I didn’t know I was so tired.” He straightened up in the chair. “Is there something I can do for you?”

“Yes, Vera and I are supposed to drive one of the employees, really, an ex-employee now, she gave notice two week’s ago, to Boston, to the train station. We were wondering if that was all right?”

“You’re the desk girl, at the reception desk?” he asked, trying to place her.

“Yes, but I don’t think of myself as the desk girl,” she said, her voice cool and reserved. “My name is Elizabeth Archer. I coordinate our arrivals and departures.“

Sam Fowler would have preferred to be standing, not sitting in an easy chair.

“I may want to talk to you and Vera again, but that can wait until you’re back, ” he said, still groggy, shrugging.

He watched her walk away towards the main doors, pulling on her coat. She went down the stairs, around the parking lot and to the labyrinth, where through the plate glass window Sam Fowler saw two women waiting. One of them was Vera Nyberg. They talked for a minute, leaning into the wind, and then walked to the far sidewalk that led to the rear of the main building. He looked down at his lap. His casebook wasn’t there, nor was it or his Sony micro-cassette recorder on the end table next to his chair.

After he gotten down on his hands and knees and searched the floor ten and fifteen feet in all directions, and finally stood up alone in the lobby, he realized with a grim finality they were gone.

“Goddamn it,” he said under his breath.

Flipping through Jeremy Kroon’s notebook as they sat in the cafeteria twenty minutes later, Sam Fowler found it was filled with cryptic doodles, loose-limbed cartoons of some of the people they had talked to, and several versions of the paper and pencil game called hangman.

“I saw you were taking notes, and you had that back-up recorder, so I didn’t bother,” the chagrined Jeremy Kroon explained.

“All right,” snorted Sam Fowler.

“I’m going up to Wareham, check in at the station, and I’ll be back early this evening. Get everyone’s forwarding addresses, phone numbers, and they’re free to go. So far we have nothing, but there’s something I’m missing. I can put my finger on it, but I don’t know where it is, exactly.”

Sam Fowler relied on evidence he gathered at crime scenes to come to conclusions and knew that reconstructing everything he had seen and heard from memory was not only improbable, but also suspect. It would be like shining a flashlight from side to side in the dark. Only successful liars have great memories, and he wasn’t a great liar.

His SUV was still in the front lot where he had left it the night before, but on his way to it he changed course and walked to the labyrinth. Ginny Walther had said that labyrinths were for finding things, not for losing your way in dead ends. In the late November morning light it was a drab place, the flagstones slick with an icy rain. He found the middle of the labyrinth easily and stood looking down on Buzzard’s Bay.

He debated whether it was a labyrinth or a maze, and whether there was anything there for him. After a moment he turned to retrace his steps, but taking his first step the toe of his black oxford slid on a frozen clump of gnarled green and yellow. As he slipped a hard gust of wind hit him in the chest and he went head over heels onto his back.

He thumped on the ground, knocking the wind out of him. His diaphragm spasmed and he gasped for air, grunting involuntarily. His lungs would not inflate. He tried to relax, and when his lungs finally started working again he clambered to his knees, breathing in through his nose and out through his mouth. He looked down at what he had slipped on. It was a crushed flower shaped like a bird’s foot.

Elizabeth Archer was at the wheel of her Nissan Rogue, Lola Donning in the passenger seat, and Vera Nyberg in the rear seat as they left the Kritalvanda Yoga Center on their way to Boston. None of them noticed Sam Fowler gulping air and struggling to get off his back in the eye of the labyrinth.

Driving through Falmouth Vera Nyberg suddenly said, “Let’s stop here. There’s a JoMamas on the corner.”

As they were returning to the car with coffee, tea, and hot breakfast sandwiches, Elizabeth Archer paused and said to Vera, “Oh, wait, there’s that something I should do.”

She walked to the front of the coffee shop, pulled a spiral notebook out of her coat pocket, and began tearing the pages out and dropping them into the outdoor trash receptacle. When she was done she walked around to the back of the shop, and pulling microcassette tapes out of a small satchel one at a time crushed them beneath the heel of her zip boots. She tossed the tapes, the cassette recorder, and the bag into the dumpster, and walked back to the car.

They drove north on Route 28A to the Bourne Bridge, and then east on Trowbridge Road to the Sagamore Bridge, but instead of crossing the bridge and continuing on to Boston, Vera told Elizabeth to turn right onto Route 6.

“But, that will take us back on to the Cape,” she said.

“I know,” said Vera. “Lizzie, have you ever read ‘On the Road’?”

“No, what’s that?”

“It’s a book from the 1950s by Jack Kerouac, Anyway, in the book it’s about Sal Paradise, and he starts hitchhiking to California on Route 6, but someone tells him “there’s no traffic passes through 6.” It’s raining and he wants to go fast and have experiences, so he goes a different way. But, you know, it’s an old road, the kind where people used to have adventures, and it’s the longest road in the country. When you get to Provincetown there’s a sign that says ‘End of US 6, Provincetown to Long Beach, Coast to Coast.’”

“All right, but where are you going with this?” asked Elizabeth Archer.

“I think we should go to Provincetown instead of Boston. That policeman is no fool. He thinks we went to Boston. Only we know Lola’s with us. She can stay with my friends. They have a guest room that’s empty all winter and they can find work for her. She can start over. She can even practice yoga there. My friends are crazy for Bikram Yoga, you know, the hot room kind. They’re always asking me to try it. They even say Bikram has a slogan that if you do his yoga every day for thirty days it will change your life.”

The afternoon sun peeked through the clouds as they sped east towards the end of the Cape. Once, when she asked Pattabhi Jois where inner peace came from, he told her, “Without yoga, what use? You practice many years, then shanti is coming, no problem.”

“Would you like to do that?” Vera Nyberg asked Lola Donning.

“Yes, I would,” said Lola, twisting in her seat towards Vera.

“I woke up every morning wanting to break his neck, thinking revenge would be sweet, but it’s not. I thought revenge was justice. I should have left it in the hands of karma to take care of him. I feel like a worse person than he was. The best revenge probably would have been to be as much unlike him as possible.”

At Orleans they drove into and out of the traffic circle, towards Eastham, Truro, and Provincetown at the fist end of the Outer Cape.

“I’ve heard Provincetown in the dead of winter is cold, but maybe the yoga there will warm up my heart,” she said, turning to stare out the side window. She wrapped her hands around the extra-large cup of JoMamas and took a long slow sip of the special blend holiday chai tea.

“We’ll all warm up in Provincetown,” said Vera Nyberg, as Lizzie Archer flicked on the headlights to light up the dark road ahead of them.