READ EXCERPT: 'A Vineyard Killing,' by Philip R. Craig

While Martha's Vineyard usually conjures up serene thoughts of the sea, the sun and summer fun, author Philip R. Craig's A Vineyard Killing reveals a very different aspect of the island.

J.W. Jackson, a retired Boston policeman and part-time private investigator, lives year-round on Martha's Vineyard with his wife and kids. Although the former policeman is happy to have left his crime fighting life behind in the big city, trouble seems to find him.

In A Vineyard Killing, J.W. finds himself with a new mystery on his hands just a few months before the tourists are due to arrive.

The mystery is set around the attempted murder of a devious real-estate tycoon who has been trying to force locals, including J.W. to sell their island homes for less than they are worth.

Last month's featured book club in Good Morning America's "Read This!" series, "The Balancing the Books Book Club" from Westwood, Mass., chose to pass on A Vineyard Killing to this month's featured book club, "Text and the City" book club from New York City.

Join the book club in reading A Vineyard Killing by Philip R. Craig. You can get started with chapter one:

Our children, Joshua and Diana, were over on the mainland for two days, being spoiled by Zee's mother and father, and Zee and I were having lunch in the E and E Deli with John and Mattie Skye. It was a sunny but chilly March day, with a cold wind blowing from the north.

Outside, the traffic at the dread five corners in Vineyard Haven was moving smoothly along. Such would not be the case when summer arrived and the street would be a slow-moving parking lot.

"Too bad the twins couldn't make it down with you," said Zee, wiping her lips.

"The girls have more interesting ways to spend their long weekend than being with their parents," said Mattie. "They're college women now."

I could remember when John and Mattie's daughters, Jen and Jill, were little girls, about the ages our children were now. I hadn't been able to tell them apart then, and I still couldn't. "They don't make a quesadilla as good as this one up in Weststock," I said.

"But Weststock has college men," explained Mattie. "Compared to that, even E and E food has insufficient appeal."

"You're brave to leave them alone up there for three days," said Zee.

I suspected that she was thinking of our Diana, who would be of interest to young men in another ten years or so. I shared her view, having begun worrying about just such boys shortly after Diana had been born.

"They're eighteen," said John, who made his living teaching medieval lit at Weststock College. "They're supposed to be grown-up enough to stay out of trouble."

I had never grown up that much, so said nothing about John's fantasy.

The front door opened and let in both some cold air and John Reilley, who looked carefully around the room, nodded slightly to me, and went to the counter to order.

I knew a folk song about a sailor named John Riley, but I didn't know much about this John Reilley. Two things I did know were that he always took a survey of a room before he entered it, and that he was a carpenter with the reputation of being good with his hands. It was an excellent reputation to have on an island that was awash with money being spent by people buying old houses, tearing them down, and then building massive new ones. John Reilley would never be out of work as long as he lived on Martha's Vineyard.

Almost immediately the door opened again and three other men came in, one limping slightly and carrying a silver-headed cane. After sweeping the room with their eyes, they followed John Reilley to the counter. Apparently today was a day when everybody was checking out delis before they came in. Strange.

"Well, well," said John Skye in a quiet voice. "I see that even evil real estate developers are allowed in this joint."

My face apparently revealed my ignorance, because John added, "The one in the middle is Donald Fox, the boss of Saberfox. The one on his right is his little brother Paul. I don't know the guy with the cane."

"Ah," said Zee, straightening and frowning as she looked at Donald Fox. "The Savannah Swordsman himself, eh?"

I now glanced that way, too, for Fox's name was a headliner in the local press. The Fox brothers were tall, handsome men wearing expensive winter coats, but Donald's face was as hard as his brother's was gentle.

"The very same," said John. "Did I tell you that one of his minions has contacted us and made the now famous offer to purchase our place?"

"No, you didn't," said Zee, glancing at Mattie's angry face, "but Jeff and I have also been honored by a similar visit. The rep was a Mr. Albert Kirkland, complete with coat and tie and one of those little laptop computers that people carry around instead of briefcases these days. Jeff told him to take a hike."

"I was much nicer than that," I said. "I just told him we weren't interested in selling any land."

"And he said that it might be wise to reconsider since a lot of Vineyard land titles are pretty fuzzy and that Saberfox was doing extensive research in the Registry of Deeds."

"He left before any shots were fired," I said.

"What's scary," said Zee, "is that Saberfox has more money and lawyers than God and can outspend almost anybody who has land he wants. Donald Fox has already ripped off half the people on the island and he's suing the other half."

"That's a slight exaggeration," I said. "He's mostly ripped off poor people, because the rich ones have as many lawyers as he does."

"Well, he's after Dodie Donawa's place for sure! He's done what he always does: he's offered her about a quarter of what the place is worth, and told her if she doesn't go along, he'll take her to court! She'll have to take his offer because she hasn't got the money to fight him. Disgusting! If Dave Donawa was still alive he'd probably shoot him!"

"Maybe somebody else will do it, dear."

"It wouldn't surprise me!"

"Down, Fang! I think we should change the subject before you get so mad you hurt yourself."

Zee glared at me, then at Fox, then back at me. She was not in a conciliatory mood. I turned to John. "What's your next project, now that you're finally done with Gawain?"

John Skye had been working for years on an ultimate authoritative translation of Gawain and the Green Knight and had at last finished it, whereupon he had immediately entered into a serious state of postpartum blues. This was a typical experience, he said, of writers who had just finished books. And there was only one way out of it: start a new one.

"Well, that Southern swashbuckler over there gives me one idea," he said. "Maybe I'll write a history of swordplay, from sharp sticks to modern fencing. Who better than me? After all, I dazzled them on the fencing strip when I was an undergraduate, and now that I'm almost a rich and famous literary scholar I'm the right man for the job."

"He's kidding about the rich and famous part, of course," said Mattie. "So far all he's gotten from Gawain is some good prepub commentary from other medievalists. He doesn't even have a publisher."

"But I'll get one," said John, waving a professorial hand. "Readers all over the world will be lined up to buy copies. I'll be on endless book tours. It's inevitable."

"I'm impressed by the way you can keep a straight face when you say that," said Zee. "I don't believe I know any rich and famous scholars."

"I'll be the first," said John. "Anyway, maybe I'll do the fencing book. Skeptics will claim that it won't make any money either, because there are only about two fencers left in the United States and neither of them can afford to buy a book. They'll say that it's a typical pointy-headed-intellectual project: a book no one will read, about a topic totally irrelevant to modern times. But what do they know?"

Fencing, it was true, was not a major sport in America. However, it did have its practitioners, including several who worked out twice a week in the high school gym as members of the Martha's Vineyard Fencing Club. I'd watched them a time or two myself, attracted, no doubt, by having seen a number of swashbuckling movies on late-night TV.

I'd even been persuaded to pick up a foil, but had rapidly realized that I had no more skill as a fencer than as a dancer, and that the cause for both failures was the same: feet that didn't move properly when called upon to do so. They worked well enough for other things, but not for dancing or fencing. The reason was elusive but the fact was certain.

John, on the other hand, had on his library wall a battered mask centered on a triangled crossing of foil, épée, and saber that testified to his collegiate skill as a three-weapon man. Now, at sixty or so, he did his fencing with his forefinger, thrusting and parrying gracefully in thin air as he outlined his project.

"The first good part, of course, will be the research. I'll find out stuff I never knew. I'll go back into history as far as I can and trace sword fighting up to modern times, when training for combat turned into a sport."

"I presume you'll have a chapter on Errol Flynn and Douglas Fairbanks Junior," I said, "and another one on Zorro. They're the only fencers most people have ever heard of."

"A splendid idea. I'll have a chapter devoted to the movies, complete with lots of pictures. Flynn wasn't much of a fencer, by his own admission, but Cornell Wilde was a potential Olympian.

"Most people probably never heard of the real fencing champions -- Nadi and Fonst and d'Oriola and the others -- but they'll know about them when I win the Nobel Prize and fencing becomes the world's most popular sport. And they'll know about the guys who were around when I was slinging steel: Levis and Axelrod and Richards and Juan Diego Valentine."

"Are you going to mention our friend Donald Fox?" asked Mattie sourly. "Wasn't he America's only Olympic-gold-medalist fencer before he became a real estate tycoon?"

The tycoon under discussion, perhaps hearing his name, glanced her way with sharp, pitiless eyes. He stared at our table, then turned away.

Beyond him John Reilley looked at him thoughtfully, then turned and walked out into the chilly street, carrying his order in a paper bag.

"Sure," said John Skye, "I'll mention Fox. I'll have to, because like him or not he was the most successful competitive fencer America has ever produced." He paused. "Some people who know fencing think he was the best saber man the world has produced in the last fifty years. Personally, though, I'd put my money on Juan Diego Valentine."

"Was he a world champion?" asked Zee.

"No," said John. "But I saw him in Spain when I was over there one summer. He was training for the Spanish Olympic team. He was the best I ever saw. Better than me, even, if you can imagine that."

"Inconceivable," said Mattie, rolling her eyes.

"What happened to him?" asked Zee.

John shrugged. "Who knows? I expected him to win the Olympic gold medal the next year, but he wasn't even on the Spanish team. Maybe he got hurt, or maybe he decided to enter a monastery. Things happen."

Across the room, Donald Fox and his companions took their paper bags of food and headed out the door.

John gestured. "Apparently Mr. Fox is so busy making money that he has to eat on the run just like ordinary human beings."

The rest of us turned to watch the men hunch their shoulders against the wind and walk across the street. They were about halfway across when I heard two little firecracker sounds off to the right and the man John had identified as Paul Fox staggered and fell. The man with the cane instantly muscled Donald Fox at a fast trot across the street to the shelter of a building on the corner.

I rose without thinking and headed for the door. "Call nine-one-one," I said to the boy behind the counter. "Tell them that a man's been shot."

"Wait!" cried Zee.

But I didn't wait. When I got to the street I glanced in the direction of the firecracker sounds, saw nothing, and ran out to the fallen man. I got my arms under him and dragged him back to shelter in front of the deli. He was white-faced and moaning between gritted teeth.

"Help is coming," I said. "Do you know where you're hit?"

He put a hand on the center of his chest. "Right here. It hurts. God damn!" He was gasping for breath.

I tore open his coat and saw two slugs half buried in a bulletproof vest.

"You're wearing armor."


"A fortunate choice of clothing. Lie still."

On the far side of the street the man with the cane had both arms around Donald Fox, holding him back.

"Stay right where you are till the cops get here," I called to them. "He's going to be okay." Then I looked at the deli door, where John Skye and Mattie were hanging on to Zee, and said, "You stay right there, too!" Mattie and John hung on harder.

I heard the first of the sirens. "You'll be fine," I said to Paul Fox, "but stay where you are until the medics get here."

His eyes were wide and full of fear.

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Copyright © 2003 by Philip R. Craig