It was a raw April morning in Rye, New Hampshire, the kind of day when the wind whips straight onshore from the Atlantic, so that even a mile inland you can smell the pungent sea, and all the dead and living creatures within.
At exactly 7 AM, Officer Michael Cooney was turning into the driveway of the Worker house. The call came over the police radio:
“All units, 10–67, Report of Death, 1125 Washington Road. Worker house.”
Cooney chuckled — not making light of human suffering; his Irish mother back in South Boston would’ve given any of her boys a thick ear if she’d witnessed behavior like that. It was just the unlikely timing of the call; it mirrored the Worker clan’s equally improbable pattern of dying accidental deaths.
He parked the cruiser near the dumpster in back, entering through the big kitchen. The scene was frozen in the middle of breakfast preparation for 30 people. Robert Worker stood near the island, wearing a white commercial apron. Robert’s 12-year-old daughter Emily stood in the corner, weeping silently. Cooney had two simultaneous thoughts: he’d never seen a Worker cry; and this time the decedent was Charlotte — Emily’s grandmother and the matriarch of the extended Worker clan. That surprised him.
In the dining room adjacent to the kitchen, about a dozen other Workers were scattered across a few of the round tables. Cooney wondered, are they still expecting breakfast?
“Lock it down, Robert,” Cooney said.
“Already done,” Robert replied, and then nodded in the direction of the open cellar door.
Cooney walked over and looked down the stairs. Charlotte had tumbled to the cellar floor, pulling shelves with her in an attempt to break her fall. She lay at the bottom, cans and jars scattered, her neck at an angle that left no doubt that death was instantaneous.
“Who was here, Robert?” Cooney asked.
“I was here,” he replied. “And Emily.” Cooney looked at Emily and again found her sadness striking. Normally the Worker clan were such a happy bunch. Still, he knew that Emily was very close to her grandmother, after her own mother, Mary, had left the Worker house years before.
The Worker house was a former convent, a big white clapboard building that originally housed the nuns who taught at the adjacent Catholic school, long since closed and torn down. The building was large but not fancy; the nuns had been an austere order. Its 16 bedrooms and six shared baths made it perfect for housing the extended Worker clan, which currently numbered 30; they’d ranged a handful in either direction over the five decades they’d lived there.
The Workers were well known throughout the Seacoast Region for two defining characteristics. First, as their name would suggest, they were excellent workers, reliable and polite and productive. Second, they perished regularly in random accidents.
The first characteristic caused Workers to be in high demand for businesses throughout the 18 miles of New Hampshire Seacoast. They were beloved by their employers, not just for their outstanding work ethic, but because they were just happy people; they never complained or contributed to the workplace negativity that creates problems for managers. Further, Workers gravitated to the types of jobs that were hardest to fill — the dish washers and chambermaids and construction laborers the tourism-dependent region typically burned through.
The accidental deaths, well, they were the reason Cooney was involved, and why he had scheduled time with Robert Worker this morning. For the prior seven years it had been Cooney’s job to find sense in that deadly pattern.
The trend predated Cooney by several decades. A total of nine — now ten — Workers had died accidentally since the first Workers had appeared in Rye. The last three of those deaths had occurred on Cooney’s watch.
Upon examination, each Worker death had every appearance of being an unfortunate confluence of events. These were the types of accidents that happen every day, somewhere or other. If you heard about any one of them, you’d regard it as simply someone’s number coming up, and say a little thanks that it wasn’t you.
The causes of death were varied, and typically fairly gruesome. Workers had fallen off ladders or were electrocuted. One tumbled off a small sailboat in the ocean off Godfrey’s Ledge and drowned. Another was killed by a falling branch, and another, riding a bicycle, hit a tree. A car jack failed and fell on one Worker; the last one before Cooney arrived had tripped and become impaled on a spiked iron fence. Cooney’s first investigation was when David Worker died from an anaphylaxis when he mowed the grass over an underground wasp nest and was stung hundreds of times. Three years later, Adam Worker slipped and fell in a bathtub, suffering a broken skull. Now Charlotte on the stairs.
The problem was the frequency of these events, defying all logical probabilities. Cooney knew that with the next one — this one — the odds would officially be ridiculous… longer than hitting Powerball on an average week. Any rational person would look at this and have to say, “There’s something going on there.” Yet no evidence of any crime ever presented itself, and no motive either.
And the Workers, though happy, were definitely an odd bunch. They were always pleasant when someone engaged them, but their default state was silence. And work. This could come across as a bit antisocial, but as Cooney had gotten to know the family he saw that it wasn’t intentional; he didn’t think they were even aware of it.
Cooney had never seen them conducting an ordinary conversation, even among themselves. It was as if there were a separate, non-verbal channel through which they could communicate. In fact, Cooney was the only person who saw them all together. Nobody else ever visited the Worker house, again not because they were antisocial, but because it was unnecessary. The household was a self-contained system that needed nothing external.
What struck Cooney the most, seeing them all together, was their sameness. He came to understand that they were all animated by a specific Worker gene, which made them think with one mind. The household operated almost like a bee colony, with every individual fulfilling his or her role and contributing to the greater interests of the hive.
This sameness bred a remarkable consistency in all things. Workers all dressed plainly. None of them drank alcohol or smoked, or got so much as a parking ticket. There were no televisions or computers in the house, which was always dark by 9 PM. They didn’t go on vacations. When they were not at work, they found something to work on anyway.
They had maintained this same brand of Worker oddness over five full decades, through a strange but effective system that Cooney termed “regeneration.” When a Worker child reached the age to marry, he or she went away, within a few months returning with a mate who was exactly like the rest of the family, and who possessed the Worker gene.
Workers came from all across the US, but never outside the US. As far as Cooney could identify, there was no prior contact between the matching couples, and no prior connection with the place they found each other. It was as if they knew they could go anywhere on the map and find someone with the Worker gene, and they always did.
It had ever been thus, as Cooney discovered in his exhaustive research. He had studied every Worker death from the original case files, and every piece of information he could find on the Workers, including the people who joined the clan through the years and the families that produced them.
After seven years, Cooney had collected all the data there was to be had, and concluded that there was simply no answer in it. He believed now that an explanation for the deaths, if there even was one, would come from the family itself, not from the facts. For this reason he made it his goal to know the family, studying their attitudes and behaviors in an effort to decode the distinctively odd DNA of the Worker gene.
But despite his efforts, Cooney had simply been unable to suss out anything behind this unlikeliest of situations. This failure represented a large problem for Cooney, and one which decidedly worsened this morning with Charlotte’s death.
Of course, the lack of any official explanation for all the deaths only fueled gossip and speculation. Many Seacoast residents bought into the rumor that the Workers were a cult, the deaths some form of human sacrifice. Yet, Cooney had never seen any sign of particular religious or philosophical interests among the Workers. There was no charismatic leader, only a strict hierarchy based on age. Charlotte, whose husband had died of cancer a dozen years before, had been the leader of the clan, and Robert, her oldest son, would now ascend to that position.
Others whispered that the Workers were secretly rich, with bundles of cash hidden in the house. But Cooney had combed through their finances and determined no basis in fact. The salaries of the Workers were uniformly modest; their expenses were, too. They pooled their money and used it for food and transportation and upkeep of the big aging house.
The only unusual expense, he’d discovered, was when a new person joined the Worker clan. There was always a one-time payment made to his or her families, almost like a dowry. Its value, over the years, had been about $50,000 in current currency, and was paid for both men and women. There was never any contractual framework. When Cooney questioned him about it, Robert Worker characterized it as a simple gift to thank the families for producing an individual who wanted to join their clan. But there was little familial interaction afterward, as a Worker’s world was always centered on the Worker house in Rye.
Cooney’s conclusion, after all that studying and analysis? Nothing. They were simply an odd clan — in a happy, inoffensive but definitely weird way. If it weren’t for the dying part, nobody would think much more about them.
The hallmark of strict consistency even extended to the accidental deaths. They never died at work, and never suffered any non-fatal accidents. They only perished in each others’ company, yet no one else was ever hurt. They always died on the spot. And they were always men — or had been, until now. That’s why Charlotte’s death surprised Cooney.
In fact, that was only the second major inconsistency Cooney had identified with the family. The other was Mary, Robert’s wife and Emily’s mother, who had left the house and returned home to Missouri when Emily was six. This was just after Cooney arrived in Rye, and shortly before David’s encounter with the wasps. Mary was the only one who had ever joined the Worker clan and subsequently left alive. When she left, she left Emily behind.
And that made Emily different too — something that Cooney sensed early on. To be sure, she had the Worker gene. She was quiet and happy and polite, and worked just as hard as her cousins around the house and at school. Still, as much as she was like the others, there was just something different about her too. Something that wasn’t the Worker gene.
Cooney often thought about this as an area of potential investigative insight. He attributed Emily’s difference to her mother, who also displayed all the Worker traits, but ultimately decided not to be one of them. Even Emily’s crying was a departure from family traits; after the two previous deaths Cooney had experienced, there was certainly no joy among the Workers, but no crying either.
Considering all of these curious facts, Cooney suddenly felt that his answer was close. A strong feeling came over him — call it a good old fashioned hunch — he felt certain, in that moment, that Emily was the key to understanding why Workers died so much.
Before Cooney could stop himself he spoke.
“Emily,” he said. “Who killed your grandmother?”
Emily’s eyes got big with shock and the color drained from her face. Then she lowered her head and sobbed, audibly this time. Cooney knew instantly that he’d made a serious mistake.
He turned to Robert and saw a mixture of concern, and something that seemed like anger but wasn’t; Cooney, realizing that Workers were incapable of that anger, opened his mouth to apologize. “Robert…” he began.
At that moment, through the door walked Rye Police Chief Hasseltine, accompanied by Lieutenant Denworth from the New Hampshire State Police in Epping. Cooney knew what was coming next.
Chief Hasseltine approached Cooney and started to speak, but the state trooper cut him off. “You’re off the case, Cooney. We’ll take it from here. Please provide all your notes and research to the barracks within the next 24 hours.” Chief Hasseltine gave Cooney a grim look; they both knew he couldn’t protect Cooney’s investigation any longer.
“Lock it down, everyone,” Denworth said. “Crime Scene Unit and Medical Examiner are on the way.”
Of all the odds-defying dimensions of the Worker case, Cooney’s involvement was among the most unlikely. He’d grown up in South Boston, barely 60 miles south as the crow flies; still, in many ways Rye was a million miles away from Southie.
Cooney grew up in a traditional Irish cop family; his father and grandfather had been proud members of the Boston PD. Cooney’s four older brothers were police officers in various city and state forces. Like his brothers, everyone addressed Michael Cooney by his last name, and like them, he’d been expected from birth to become a cop.
The Cooney boys were especially suited to the role, having been raised into it, including the rougher aspects of the job. People said in Southie that the only difference between a cop and a crook is a badge. Cooneys were never involved in graft, but there’s a system and honor code in place in law enforcement; Cooney was well educated in that. His brothers, boisterous and athletic, were prone to the occasional underage drinking or fist fight requiring intervention from family and colleagues. This was actually good training for becoming a cop; it’s a tough and dangerous job, and you spend a lot of time around people in distress, and people who exist at the margins.
But you mostly have to be the right type of person, and Cooney always harbored doubts about whether he was suited for life as a cop. Slightly asthmatic as a child, Cooney was more bookish than his brothers. He’d always had the family’s sarcastic sense of humor but was a far better student and usually stayed out of trouble. He read a lot, and was a big fan of mysteries and cop shows. Because of these traits, everyone had presumed he’d become a top detective, fulfilling his destiny in that fashion.
The problem with that plan, Cooney understood, is that detective is not the first stop on a career path. First comes 10 years or more of patrol work, the dirty and dangerous activities, odd hours and traffic details. Cooney understood and respected the process, to be sure. He just wished there were a way to at least accelerate the process. And that’s how he ended up in Rye.
Like his brothers, Cooney earned a degree in Criminal Justice at UMass Boston, with the expectation that he’d go to work and earn a Masters degree from Suffolk University over time. He minored in Philosophy, just to be different without diverging too far from the program.
Upon graduation, Cooney had been accepted into the Massachusetts State Police, and his recruit class was scheduled for training that autumn at the State Police Academy in New Braintree. He’d spent the summer training and studying.
In July, he came across an internet posting for an entry level police job in Rye. What caught his eye was a mention of investigative opportunities. He’d submitted an application and the next day got a call from Police Chief Hasseltine.
When he interviewed, Cooney liked Chief Hasseltine right away. He was not what Cooney expected in a small town police chief — he appeared inconsistent with the stereotype. Chief Hasseltine clearly was competent and capable, not stuck in the hierarchical, union-centric model that Cooney had experienced growing up. The chief came across as a leader: he presented a clear vision for his force, a professional team solely focused on protecting and serving the community. To do that, he said, job number one was to find and hire the smartest, most talented people he could get — for the salary he was able to offer — and to support them in every way possible.
And then he told Cooney about the Worker family. He described the then-43 years of accidental deaths, and the utter lack of evidence or motive suggesting any nefarious explanation. He recounted the rumors and legends. Then he told Cooney about the State Police who were looking for any excuse to take over the investigation, stymied only by the fact that there was still officially no crime to investigate.
Finally, he offered Cooney the chance to own the Worker family investigation, provided he officially accepted a regular patrolman’s job and salary. Cooney’s first thought was, if he solved this case he could parlay that into a full detective’s job somewhere. He accepted on the spot.
Over the seven subsequent years, Cooney worked countless hours investigating the Worker family, most of them unpaid and on his own time. He commuted to Boston to complete his Masters at Suffolk, focusing on the techniques and tactics that could help with his investigation. His statistics class project was quantifying the probabilities involved in the Worker deaths, based on historic data and populations and distributions. That’s how he knew things were now in Powerball territory, in terms of unlikelihood.
On the job, Cooney mostly worked as a patrol cop, handling all the unpleasant situations he expected, especially in the summers when beach visitors tripled the population. As he grew to know and appreciate the Seacoast, still he never felt quite as connected as he’d felt growing up in Southie. He compared it to reading a novel, beginning in the middle: by the end you’ll probably know enough to make sense of the plot, but you’ll never know what you missed, and you’ll never know as much as the people who started at the beginning.
The Worker investigation was officially limited to periodic face-to-face interviews like the one he had scheduled with Robert this morning, then a monthly report-out to the Chief — usually joined also by Lieutenant Denworth, the State Trooper.
Cooney applied every investigative technique he had learned, and quite a few more that he developed on his own. He compiled a massive case file, researching the Worker family all the way back to the founding couple who’d moved to Rye from Ohio. He gathered records and documents from all over the country, often traveling on his own time and expense to dig deeply.
Dealing with the Workers themselves was never a problem. Even though there was no specific crime to investigate, they didn’t seem to object to the investigation. Robert handled most of the interactions, and Cooney had never found him deceptive in any way; Robert was the type of man who, when he said something, you could believe it was true. Most of Cooney’s other Worker interactions were with the witnesses. He’d actually had four witnesses for four separate deaths, the two he’d investigated himself and the two prior. One data pattern he’d uncovered is that the witnesses had never suffered accidental deaths of their own.
All of these conversations yielded little value. The witnesses never reported anything at all inconsistent with an unfortunate accidental death, and the other Workers — mostly Robert — could only say, “I wasn’t there, so I don’t know.”
The biggest challenge Cooney encountered was that Workers never spoke unless spoken to. That meant he could only obtain information by crafting questions — which quickly turned into a sort of inverse Socratic Dialogue, where Cooney was the one who was supposed to come out smarter. But it never turned out that way. He never found the right question, it seemed.
In that moment Cooney felt utterly defeated. He had failed to solve the Worker enigma, and now he would never have the opportunity to do so. It was disheartening, because he’d always believed he’d figure it out. He’d always felt that his effort, and his quest to understand that Worker family gene, would end in success — whatever that meant. And he felt that he had come very close.
Among his ruminating, Cooney was startled to realize that he actually cared for the Workers. In this moment he felt concern for them. It wasn’t going to be easy for them to endure the aggressive investigation from the State Police, although he knew they could deal with it. Yet he also knew that the State cops were never going to figure anything out, because they would focus on the facts, not the Workers and their odd gene, as Cooney had done.
These were the thoughts going through Cooney’s mind as he watched Lieutenant Denworth and Chief Hasseltine examining the accident scene, then heading carefully down to the basement.
Cooney asked himself: What was it? What was the question I failed to ask? It obviously wasn’t, “Who killed your grandmother?” He recalled the sudden, overwhelming urge that had made him blurt that out. Why was it so powerful? Why had he thought that Emily would answer differently?
And then he knew. He had asked almost the right question. Cooney turned again to Emily.
“Emily,” he said. “Who killed your cousin Adam?”
Emily looked down at the floor. “Nathan,” she said softly, naming the witness who had been present.
“And who killed David?”
“Philip,” she replied, naming the person who found him.
Cooney looked at Robert, whose concern was now apparent. Robert knew that Cooney finally understood what was going on in that strange family. Cooney quickly processed the new reality in his head.
They did it for sport. Some families go camping or keep gardens; for 50 years the Worker family had engaged in a monstrous game — a contest — to plot to murder each other and make it look accidental. Most amazingly, they all were willing participants in the game — and remained happy as the game progressed.
There were rules, he could see now, even though he doubted that the Workers had ever verbally discussed them. Death needed to be quick, and there could be no collateral injuries. If you succeeded in killing someone, you were no longer a valid target. And only men could be killed.
And that’s how Cooney knew that Charlotte’s fall that morning was exactly what it appeared to be: an accidental death. Charlotte’s number had come up. It was why his original question to Emily had been the wrong one: in this instance, no one killed anybody. The accidental death that ended Cooney’s investigation was the genuine one. He shivered, then chuckled again.
Cooney imagined the process of prosecuting Nathan and Philip, and potentially the other two living witnesses. He knew his legal case was weak. Emily was his only witness, and she hadn’t actually seen anything; she just knew about it. Perhaps he could go ask Mary the same question, but he had a feeling he’d get, “I wasn’t there, so I don’t know.” At the same time, Cooney was certain that the reason Mary had left was because she learned of the murderous family tradition.
And what if no one even believed him? That was a very real possibility. After all, Cooney had officially failed in his investigation. Instead of a ticket to a real detective job, he would likely be closing that door forever.
And either way, that could spell the effective end of the Worker clan. That saddened Cooney. The hive would surely disperse.
Cooney looked again at Robert, who was now holding Emily tight. He knew what he had to do.
“Robert,” Cooney said. “No more.”
Robert paused just a second to consider. “Deal, Cooney,” he replied.