Once Burned: A Jack McMorrow Mystery

Once Burned: A Jack McMorrow Mystery

by Gerry Boyle


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Life is briefly as it should be for Jack McMorrow: He and his wife Roxanne have retreated from the stress and danger of their day jobs to raise their daughter Sophie. But when development and arson threaten the nearby town of Sanctuary, and a crazy accident brings back mistakes from Roxanne’s past, Jack’s nose for crime leads him into a darker and deeply twisted tale. Something explosive is smoldering beneath the glossy facades and picturesque town square in Sanctuary, and the enemy is closer than he thinks. In Once Burned, the tenth installment of the internationally popular McMorrow series, Jack will take you along as he hunts a killer with a long memory and a very short fuse.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781939017604
Publisher: Islandport Press, Incorporated
Publication date: 05/12/2015
Pages: 368
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.50(d)

About the Author

Like many crime novelists, Gerry Boyle began his writing career in newspapers—the best training ground ever. After Colby College, he knocked around, including stints as a roofer, a postman, and a manuscript reader at a big New York publisher. His first reporting job was with a weekly in the paper mill town of Rumford, Maine. After a few months it was on to the (Waterville, Maine) Morning Sentinel, where editors learned early on that he worked best when left to his own devices. He wrote about stuff he saw in police stations, courtrooms, in the towns and cities of Maine. Deadline came out in 1993. With an assist from Robert B. Parker, he landed a top-flight literary agent and the books came steadily after that. McMorrow and Boyle grew up together, though at different rates.

Read an Excerpt

Once Burned

A Jack McMorrow Mystery

By Gerry Boyle

Islandport Press

Copyright © 2015 Gerry Boyle
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-939017-60-4


You know we're in the red," Roxanne said.

"Uh-huh," I said.

I kissed her bare shoulder. Then again.

"As in, we're spending more money than we're taking in."

I pulled the sheet down and kissed the top of her breast.

"Jack," Roxanne said, pulling the sheet back up.

"I never made love with an accountant before," I said.

"You just did. Now we need to talk about money."

"You know you're sexy when you get all financial."

"When I think about money, I don't feel sexy," she said. "I feel stressed."

"You weren't feeling stressed a little while ago."

"That was then. This is now."

"Can't we bask a little longer in the afterglow?" I said.

Roxanne reached for her wine. Sipped and put the glass down on the bedside table. Lay back and tucked the sheet under her chin.

"Last month we were thirteen hundred in the hole. That's coming out of savings. Which is just about gone."

She sighed.

"I've got checks coming in," I said. "Twelve hundred from the Globe for the Trenton murder and the high-school bullying piece. Eight-fifty from the Times for the Hillyard trial."

"That's all spent," Roxanne said. "The house insurance and my car."

"The car was a one-time thing. It's not like the transmission will go next month, too."

"It'll be something else."

"Clair and I ought to see the next payment from the Martins pretty soon."

"Last time you cut wood for them it took weeks."

"They're slow but reliable."

"Jack," Roxanne said. "Sophie starts school soon. I'm thinking it's time for me to go back to work."

"I could just write more."

"You say that, but you do the same amount of stories."

"The papers are shrinking," I said. "They can only take so much."

"What happened to the ninety-three-year-old lobsterman?" I frowned.

"I'll wait 'til he's a hundred. Better hook."

"Just because there's no crime in it —"

"No, I just have a better idea: This whack job down in Sanctuary has torched three old barns in three weeks. It was in the Press Herald. Just a brief. I'll head down there and check it out."

Roxanne looked skeptical.

"Sanctuary? The town in American Living? What was it? Top places to retire?"

"No, it was 'Hidden Treasures.' The magazine's big cover story. Subhead was something like, 'Twenty American towns where it really is a beautiful day in the neighborhood.' Ha. If you don't mind the arsonist."

"Whoops," Roxanne said.

"Really. Like the Man of the Year turning out to be a child molester. The perfect community turns out to have some sicko out in the woods with a gas can and a lighter. A lot of times there's a sexual thing connected to it. Some sort of twisted pyro/sexual perversion."

I smiled.

"Wouldn't you rather read about that than some crotchety old fisherman?" I said.

Roxanne looked over at me, her beautiful eyes narrowed. She shook her head.

"There's something wrong with you, Jack McMorrow," she said.

I leaned over and kissed her shoulder.

"I've never made love with a psychologist before."

It was six-thirty. Sophie had been up for an hour, rising with the sun.

I'd given her breakfast — waffles and fresh strawberries, a glass of juice that she drank with two hands. She slipped down from her chair, ran to the back door, and sat to put on her boots. Little riding boots that Clair and Mary had given her. They'd come with a brown-and-white dappled pony, just two weeks before.

"I have to go see Pokey," Sophie said, struggling to get the boot on. I walked over and bent down and gave it a yank.

"You sure Clair is up?"

"Clair's always up," she said.

"He must sleep sometimes," I said, pushing her foot into the other boot.

"No," Sophie said. "He doesn't have to sleep. He was in the Marines."

"Really," I said. "Marines don't have to sleep?"

"Not Clair, 'cause he was a 'mando. I want to be a 'mando when I grow up."

As if on cue, there was a tap at the sliding-glass door.

"Clair," Sophie said, scrambling to her feet. She ran to the door and tugged. Clair slid the door open and stepped in. He was wearing a tan barn jacket and jeans. His cap was orange-yellow with STIHL and a chain saw on the front.

"Is Pokey awake?" Sophie said.

"Waiting for you, pumpkin," Clair said.

"I bet he's hungry," she said.

"I bet you're right."

Sophie ran to the table, dragged a chair to the counter, climbed up, and took an apple from the bowl.

"Just hearing about my daughter's career plans," I said. "She wants to be a commando."

"Expanding role for women in the military," Clair said.

"Good to hear," I said.

Sophie trotted past us, boots clattering on the pine floor.

"Let's go," she said to Clair, and was out the door, across the deck, down to the lawn.

"Officer material," Clair said. "Could be," I said.

"Supposed to rain pretty heavy later this morning."

"Yeah. Right call to stay out of the woods."

"You always say that," Clair said. "Gonna do something constructive? Or just tippy-type one of your little stories?"

"I don't know. Maybe I'll iron some doilies first."

"Attaboy," he said.

Sophie was back at the door.

"Come on, Clair. Pokey's starving."

"I'm coming, biscuit," he said.

He turned to me and smiled.

"I'll bring her back."

"Happy trails," I said, and he was out the door, crossing the deck and the lawn in his long strides, Sophie trotting in front of him like a tumbling cub. I watched them until they disappeared down the trail through the trees, felt the bubbling over she gave me. I'd look at her, in mid-Sophie conversation, and lose track of what we were saying. Just look at her and grin. "Daddy," she'd say. "You're being silly."

So I was, yet again, and then I walked to the side door and outside to the drive. There were morning birds calling, and I stopped for a moment and listened: cardinal, hairy woodpecker, phoebe, chickadee, the usual crows. I kept going to the road, slipped the newspapers out of their boxes: Portland Press Herald, Bangor Daily News, and, this being Thursday, the Waldo County News.

On the way back up the drive, I paused again and listened. Red-eyed vireo. Tufted titmouse. Flicker. Chestnut-sided warbler. A distant raven. To the east the sky was darkening and the air was heavy.

I went inside and Roxanne was up, putting coffee in the machine. She was barefoot, wearing one of my flannel shirts. I patted her backside.

"I've never made love with a barista before," I said.

She ignored me, started the drip, took her laptop from the counter.

I went to the study and ran a finger down the bookshelf, past the homicide investigation and firearms manuals, and pulled out a textbook. Guide for Fire and Explosion Investigations. It was the 2001 edition, picked up years back for another arson story, but I figured fire starters couldn't have changed that much.

I flipped the book open, skimmed. The general arson categories: excitement, vandalism, revenge, crime concealment, profit, terrorism. Subcategories of retaliation under revenge: personal, societal, institutional, group. Under excitement: thrill seeking, attention seeking, recognition, sexual gratification or perversion. Spree arson versus serial arson. (A cooling-off period between fires marks serial arson, like a serial killer.)

I smiled. "Ready to rock and roll," I said, setting the book on the desk and going back to the kitchen.

We sat. I sipped my lukewarm tea and started on the papers. Roxanne flipped her laptop open and started reading. She began with the previous day's New York Times, which I'd picked up for her in Belfast. I had the Waldo County News police blotter.

"Break-ins over on the Hidden Valley Road," I said. "They're coming in during the day."

"Huh," she said. "Syria is a nightmare."

"Huh," I said.

Roxanne got up, fixed her coffee, came back and sat, legs crossed. Very pretty legs. We sipped. The papers rustled. She tapped at the keys. I moved on to the Bangor Daily News. A big drug bust in Woodland, some guy with a meth lab in a parked woodchip trailer. A stabbing in Bangor proper, a melee outside a bar. Victim was stable. Fight was over a woman.

I rustled the pages. Roxanne tapped the keys.

"This budget goes through, I may not have an agency to go back to," she said.

"Here we go," I said. "Another arson in Sanctuary."

"Oh, my God," Roxanne said. "Oh, my God."


Roxanne's face was gray, her mouth open. She closed it and swallowed. Her finger touched a single key.

"What's the matter?" I said.

"It's Ratchet," she said. "He's dead."

"Ratchet the kid?"

"Oh, my God," she said again.


"It's under investigation. They're interviewing Sandy."

A long pause as she read, her mouth hanging open.

"Who's Sandy?" I said again.

"Ratchet's foster mom," Roxanne said, peering at the screen. "Oh, I can't believe this."

"This is the kid with the junkie parents?"


"And the boyfriend who gave him the weird name."

"Alphonse," Roxanne said.

"So what happened?"

"Cause of death appears to be blunt force trauma. Oh, God."

"The foster mom? Would she do that? Aren't they trained?"

"She called 911. He wasn't breathing."

Roxanne was shaking her head.

"You knew this person, right?"

"Sandy? For years. She was fine. A little rough around the edges."

"Are they saying she did it?"

"It's under investigation."

Roxanne started to take deep breaths. Her faced turned from gray to a sickly white.

"Oh, Jack," she said. "I feel sick."

I got up, put my arm around her shoulder.

"It's okay."

"But I pulled him," Roxanne said.

"You didn't know."

"I helped place him."

"Nobody could have known that —"

"He was three, Jack," Roxanne said, tears spilling down her cheeks. "Just this skinny little boy. He'd hang onto my legs."

She reached for the keyboard, touched a key, pressed her clenched fist to her mouth.

"Oh, no."



"What about her?"

"She's out of jail."

"For the robbery? The credit union?"

"Oh, my God, I'm in here, Jack."


Roxanne fell back in the chair, swallowed hard. I turned the laptop and read:

Contacted Wednesday, the child's mother, Beth Leserve, 22, of Portland, said the State Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) was responsible for the child's death. In addition to Sandra St. John, the foster parent, Leserve faulted DHHS caseworker Roxanne Masterson for removing the boy from Leserve's home and placing him in State custody.

"They said I wasn't a fit mother," Leserve said. "And they give my son to a murderer?"

She said she was following an action plan, devised by Masterson. "I was trying," Leserve said. "Working real hard at it. Then one day they just freakin' pull the plug."

After her child was taken into State custody, she was so distraught that she had a relapse, she said, returning to her abuse of prescription medications, which led to heroin use. She ended up in prison for robbing a credit union in an attempt to get drug money. Leserve said she was released from prison three weeks ago, had gotten off drugs, and was trying to regain custody of her son when news came of his death.

"I know I'm not perfect," she said. "But the State killed my son. They killed him. They took my baby and gave him to this murderer. My baby's blood is on their [expletive] hands."

According to DHHS spokesperson Anthony Shea, Masterson had worked as a child protective caseworker for nine years. She resigned from her position with the agency last November for personal reasons. Masterson could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

"She was just totally strung out," Roxanne said, to me, to herself, to nobody. "She'd forget to feed him. Change his diaper. And the people in the house, my God, they were all addicts, substance abusers, junkies. I mean, he would have died if he'd stayed there. Malnutrition, getting stepped on, something. What choice did I have? We tried working with her for a year. More than a year. I mean, you remember."

"It's okay. She's just feeling guilty, taking it out on everyone else."

I put my hand over Roxanne's and squeezed.

"We did have a plan. An action plan. She'd promise she'd get clean, but she could never pull it together. Three or four days, right back to it, needle in her arm."

"I remember."

I looked at the story, scrolled down.

There was a photo of Beth, the mom. Dark hair, attractive in a tough, I-could-kick-your-ass sort of way. But what struck me was her eyes: hollow, tired, sunken in shadows. Eyes that spoke of years of drama, and tumult, and disappointment. And now this. She was clutching a teddy bear to her chest and staring mournfully into the camera. Next to that was a Facebook-looking photo of Sandy St. John, the foster mom. She was smiling brightly, with perky, pointed features, hair still in high-school bangs.

I tapped the keys.

And there was Roxanne, a newspaper file photo. It was winter, the collar of her black leather jacket turned up, angry eyes, mouth curled in a snarl.

"I look like a criminal," she said.

"From when you were outside court in Galway."

"We were coming out, after the Eddy trial. I was telling the photographers they couldn't take pictures of the kids. And that one jerk wouldn't stop."

"I remember."

She reached for the keyboard, looked at the screen.



"Beth says she's going to get a lawyer," Roxanne said. "How can she afford that? She doesn't have ten cents."

"They'll take thirty percent, if they think they can force a settlement."

"From us? But I didn't do anything wrong."

"Wrong's got nothing to do with it," I said. "Wrong is in the eyes of the jury."

"Jury?" Roxanne said, burying her face in her hands, shaking her head. "Oh, Jack."

The phone rang.

"Don't answer it," I said.

We sat and waited for the answering machine to click on. It did. A woman's voice — young, earnest, and sympathetic. "Hi. This is Caitlin Carpenter. I'm a reporter for the Portland Advertiser? I'm trying to reach Roxanne Masterson, formerly a child protective worker for DHHS? Roxanne, could you call me back on my cell? My number is —"

Roxanne picked up a pen. I reached over and took it away.

The phone rang most of the morning. Caitlin Carpenter called four times. A reporter for the Bangor Record, Sam something, rang up twice. Two TV reporters called, one breathless young guy saying he was preparing a report for the six o'clock news and on a tight deadline.

"Tell somebody who cares," I said.

The phone stopped ringing only when Roxanne was on it. She talked to her former supervisor, David, and a DHHS lawyer named Sylvia, Roxanne alternating between defending herself and beating herself up. I went out on the deck and stood under the overhang of the roof and watched the rain. It was falling steadily, noisy on the trees at the edge of the grass, the smell of summer welling up from the woods. Ordinarily I loved days like this, the hush that fell over the green-walled woods, everything softened by the gauze of rain. But not today. The woods seemed dismal and dark, like the sadness in the house had spilled out, the melancholy spreading.

And then Roxanne was off the phone. I slid the door open and went back in. She came toward me, phone in her hand, looking slightly relieved.

"Dave says I shouldn't worry; it'll sort itself out."

"That's good," I said. "I'm sure it will."

"He says Sandy thinks Ratchet tried to climb up on the kitchen counter while she was in the bathroom. She heard the noise and found him on the floor. He must've fallen and landed wrong."

"So it was a freak accident?"

"She was out of the room for three minutes."

"Climbed up to get a cookie or something?"

"Maybe," she said. "He didn't say."

"Huh," I said.

"Dave and the lawyer say they don't think Beth has much of a case. I mean, it's tragic, but it's not negligence. You can't tie a four-year-old down every time you leave the room."

"Or they get you for that," I said.

Roxanne walked over and stood beside me. We looked out at the rain, the grass, the green wall of the sad woods.

"I love you," I said.

"I know," she said.

"I'm sorry for your troubles."

"Yes. I'm sorry, too."

She took a long breath and exhaled and it came out a trembling sigh.

"He was so sweet. This sweet little boy, in spite of it all."


Excerpted from Once Burned by Gerry Boyle. Copyright © 2015 Gerry Boyle. Excerpted by permission of Islandport Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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