It was a bright June afternoon in downeast Maine, and my friend Ellie White and I were on our way to visit a large angry man with a criminal history. His name was Jim Diamond and we just wanted to ask him a question.
But his answer--plus what he said after he answered--could put him behind bars again, and he would know that because I meant to tell him about it.
So I was nervous, a little.
As a rule I try to avoid angry persons with criminal pasts. For one thing I spend most of my time fixing up a big old house; thus my days are already fraught with potential injury. But Jim Diamond's ex-wife had been getting anonymous threats and I had an urgent personal reason for trying to have them stopped.
Job one was finding out for certain that Diamond was the culprit, as I suspected. Once he admitted it, I intended to assure him that if he didn't agree to cutting it out pronto, my next visit would be to his probation officer.
Hey, it might work, I told myself for the dozenth time. He could just lie about his guilt, but I didn't expect this. Small-time troublemakers generally don't, once they know somebody's got their number.
And even if he tried, I was confident that I could detect it. Back in the big city when I was a hotshot money manager I'd done business with fellows so corrupt, their code of conduct consisted almost entirely of the seven deadly sins.
As a result I was sure I could smell a rat if one presented itself--yet another reason I'd wanted to check out Jim Diamond in person: to get a good whiff.
But my second thoughts were mounting like the miles on the odometer as Ellie and I sped down Route 1 in the dandy little car I'd bought from a friend the previous autumn. It was an old Fiat 124 Sport Spyder with a black cloth top, apricot paint job, and five speeds forward, plus a professionally installed infant car seat.
The Fiat also had lots more engine than it required for its small size; that fifth speed could be very interesting. And now that we were on the road I hoped fervently that we wouldn't need every bit of power the little car possessed, to make our escape.
Ellie by contrast seemed entirely unworried, which for her was pretty much par for the course. Ellie would worry when pieces of sky actually began hitting the ground, and shattering there into tiny cloud-splotched pieces. Relaxing in the bucket seat beside me she let her head fall back onto the headrest, putting her face up into the sunshine dappled by summer leaves and by the ancient evergreens towering at either side of the road.
"Oh, that feels lovely," she murmured.
It did, too, and especially by comparison. Just a few weeks earlier we'd endured a three-day visitation of sleet, which to my mind is only a little less trying than a visitation of boils, but the weather was standard for what I thought must've been the most extended winter in Maine history.
"I hope Jim doesn't have a gun," I said, zipping through the S turns of the narrow two-lane road while mentally thumbing my nose at the massive recreational vehicles lumbering past us in the other direction. It was the first big week of Maine's tourist season.
Ellie turned, wrinkling her freckled nose at me in surprise. For a trip with the top down she had pinned her hair into a red-gold twist. Curly wisps escaped prettily all around her head.
"Jacobia, you know he won't," she told me. "We've been over that already. Besides, it's illegal for an ex-convict to have a gun," she finished blithely.
This I thought ignored an important fact about how Jim Diamond got to be a convict in the first place. But it was true, we'd researched the guy very carefully in the firearms department, not wanting to blunder unwittingly into any high-caliber developments. Between my husband Wade's friends and Ellie's husband George's, we'd been in touch with just about anyone who might have sold or given Jim Diamond a deadly weapon, and nobody had.
So unless he'd found one by the side of the road somewhere--I happened to know that he'd come out of jail owning little more than the clothes he was wearing when he was arrested--Jim would be unarmed.
And anyway, I wasn't about to turn back.
We sped over the Harmonyville Bridge, the wide mouth of the river below us tumbling and foaming with the force of the tide rushing into it. To our left the river opened into Passamaquoddy Bay, deep blue with a little red scallop dragger puttering out as we passed and gulls drawing white V shapes on the azure sky.
"Besides, we're not going to argue with him," Ellie added. "We're just going to blind him with science."
The science in this case being a simple equation: he talks to us = we don't talk to his probation officer. Assuming he owned up to being a bullying rascal, I mean, and promised to quit.
Still I couldn't seem to shake the notion that the whole thing might turn
GOTTA HAVE IT
A basic tool kit = a hammer, a pair of pliers, two screwdrivers (one slot-head and one Phillips head), a small crescent wrench, a tape measure, and a box of Band-Aid plastic strips in assorted sizes.
out to be far more complicated than that. After all, Diamond hadn't been very susceptible to the "do it = go to jail" equation in the first place, had he?
But I really needed those threats stopped, and the police had been no help in doing anything about them. So I pressed the gas pedal down a little harder as we entered the Moosehorn Wildlife Refuge.
Atop a tall wooden platform a hundred yards from the road, a bald eagle swiveled its enormous white head slowly, gazing down at us from a nest big enough to belong to a pterodactyl. The Fiat's engine growled as if it too were some species of predatory wildlife when I downshifted for the next set of curves.
"And," Ellie pronounced as if this settled everything, "it's a fine day for a ride."
Right. Probably this visit would turn out fine, as well. I only wished I didn't suddenly have such a bad feeling about it.
"Yes," I replied, keeping my voice light. No sense alarming anyone else. "Yes, it certainly is."
Then I just concentrated on the road, its blacktop heavily rutted and potholed from the steady traffic of massive logging trucks and eighteen-wheelers alternating with the tourists' RVs.
With us in the car that day was Ellie's daughter Leonora, who unlike the car seat she rode in had not been professionally installed, arriving instead in the amateur way about seven months earlier. We'd also brought my father, who had once been an angry man himself and said he could remember how, and my son Sam's ex-girlfriend Maggie to care for Leonora in an emergency.
Not that I really expected one, despite my misgivings. I wouldn't have brought any of them along, not even Ellie, if I had truly believed the scene with Jim Diamond would get ugly.
No, it would be unpleasant but perfectly manageable if all went as planned, and as far as I knew there was absolutely no reason why it shouldn't. Or at any rate that was what I went on telling myself for another ten miles.
The road widened as we reached the town of Whiting, passing the tiny general store with its pair of extra gas pumps: one for diesel, one for kerosene. Little houses, each with a garden plot neatly planted in peas and potatoes, dotted the pale green slopes around the white clapboard two-room school.
"Maggie, do we need to stop?" I asked over my shoulder. By which I meant did Leonora need changing, feeding, or to have any item of her complicated costume deleted or adjusted?
Strapped into her car seat, the baby currently wore a pink long-sleeved cotton romper, a floppy sun hat, a pair of crocheted booties made to look like white high-top sneakers, and a tent of mosquito netting to protect her from flying insects.
"No, she's fine," Maggie replied. "I put more sunscreen on her hands just a little while ago."
Wearing a green tailored shirt and tan cargo shorts, Maggie met my glance from her cramped perch on the Fiat's vestigial backseat. At nineteen, with masses of dark wavy hair pulled back in a braid, deep brown eyes full of soulful intelligence, and the high lip and cheek color that cannot be found in any cosmetics bottle, she was the kind of big, beautiful girl that is so unfashionable nowadays.
An ache of sympathy for her mingled with a pulse of renewed anger at my son. Sam had broken up with Maggie for perhaps the tenth time a few weeks earlier, and she still felt this latest rejection keenly.
Probably he wouldn't have approved of my spending so much time with her, either. But, I thought stubbornly, just because he broke up with her didn't mean I had to.
Don't worry, I mouthed at her--in the moment when I glanced at her, she had looked even more full of foreboding than I felt--then watched in the mirror as she squared her shoulders bravely under the burden of my son's latest display of fickleness.
Or anyway that's what I thought she was being brave about as we turned left toward Lubec, on the last leg of our journey. More houses dotted the hills rolling ponderously toward the sea; old-style clapboard cottages with still-intact barns and pastures were outnumbered by prefabs, modest ranch homes, and a few kit-built log dwellings.
Here and there between them, dark shells of long-abandoned structures hunkered like warnings of what happens when you don't keep your maintenance schedule current.
"Oh, look at that one!" I couldn't help exclaiming as we passed an ancient farmhouse, its outbuildings fallen to heaps of lumber.
A pang pierced me at the sight of a once-bright exterior, now a mess of empty windows, rotted clapboards, and snapped roofbeams all collapsed onto a hip-sprung front porch.
"Don't even dream about it," Ellie said warningly. In her view the only thing sillier than owning one broken-down old house was the possibility of buying another.
"But you could turn it into . . ."
A shimmering picture of what the old farmhouse would be if someone restored it rose up in my mind, sort of the way I've heard that images of water-containing oases may rise in the desert to lure travelers: lovely and false.
"The only thing that old place needs to be turned into is toothpicks," Ellie declared ruthlessly.
Besides, I already had one old house to care for and it didn't seem to me that I even was doing a very good job of that. At the moment for instance I was playing hooky from a pile of unpainted shutters. . . .
Soon, I promised them mentally, stepping on the gas again.
"I just hope Jim's home," Ellie said as we flew past the Quaker meetinghouse, a roadside stand advertising fresh clams and lobsters, and a shed with a cardboard sign tacked to a fence out front, offering free kittens.
"Right," I said, still not wanting to let on the extent of my growing doubts. For one thing at this point I couldn't think of a good excuse for bailing out.
And for another, probably there wasn't any. Besides, we were almost there; in a few moments the acres of field and forest showed signs of becoming outskirts and soon after that we reached the village of Lubec, perched at the mouth of Passamaquoddy Bay.
Entering town we passed through a neighborhood of well-kept houses, bed-and-breakfasts lodged in venerable old sea captains' mansions, and jewellike gardens brimming with early perennials. Downhill lay the water and the long curving International Bridge leading toward the Canadian island of Campobello.
A line of cars, RVs, and campers all bearing out-of-state license plates waited at the busy customs kiosks. Bypassing them we arrived in the downtown district, a single street lined with two-story frame buildings some of which dated back to the nineteenth century.
According to the building permits posted on them, many would soon be under repair; like the rest of the downeast Maine coast, Lubec had be- come a mecca for waterfront-hungry bargain hunters.
Glazing compound, linseed oil, putty knife, I thought as I gazed at them. Coveting their antique beauty, you could almost believe it wouldn't half kill you, trying to fix some of them up.
But that was an illusion for the new owners to labor under, not me, so with a stab of regret I returned to the task at hand: finding Jim Diamond. We had directions to the place he lived in, but no actual address.
"It should be right here somewhere." Ellie peered up at the windows above the storefronts.
"Try looking for a sign that says 'Rooms,' " my father said from the Fiat's backseat. It was barely big enough to contain two people, and with Maggie and the baby both in there beside him he'd been jammed. But with the car top down at least he could sit up straight, and as he said, he'd been in tight places before.
"I'd forgotten how pretty it is," Maggie murmured, though her tone suggested that she would prefer to be anywhere else.
It was pretty, too: salty and sun-washed, the light slanting in through a thin fog so it seemed the water glittered at us from behind a gauzy veil. In and around the refreshingly idiosyncratic downtown buildings, new paint, big planters of flowers, and colorful window displays brightened places where painters, jewelers, and other handicraft folks had taken advantage of the cheap rents to start interesting, precariously financed shops.
In short, Lubec was lovely and authentically coast-of-Maine atmospheric, if not always exactly bustling; it was one of the last pure, unspoiled places, I thought. A bell buoy clanged lonesomely from somewhere out beyond where the fog veil shrouded the far end of the bridge. "So here we are," I said uncertainly, pulling the Fiat to the curb.
A few tourists strolled the business district, which besides the art shops, the public library, and a pharmacy, included an ice-cream parlor with umbrella-topped tables out front. At the end of the street was the harbor with a pier and some floating docks.
"Come on, baby," Maggie said, climbing out of the car and unstrapping Leonora while my father sat looking around. "Let's go get an ice cream."
"Your son," Ellie said quietly to me when they had gone, "is an idiot."
"Yeah, tell me about it," I replied. But that wasn't my big problem right this minute.
I peered around some more. The tourists looked stunned, as if set without warning on another planet. Never mind about the authentic craft items on offer; where were all the T-shirt shops that multiplied like rabbits in other tourist towns, and the fast-food joints, trinket emporiums, poster shops, and other clever devices for separating them from their money that any other self-respecting vacation destination had?
Not here, where the nearest stoplight was forty miles north or a hundred south. Oh, there was plenty to do, see, and buy, but like the rest of the coastal communities in this remote area of Maine, the place wasn't constructed artificially for your retail-oriented viewing pleasure, merely to shake the cash out of your pockets. Lubec was real.
Meanwhile, the only thing I wanted to view was the front door of the creep I'd come all this way to question. That, or the road home.
Maggie came back to the car while we still sat in it. "There it is," she said, pointing. "Maybe," she added doubtfully, as if thinking better of her original certainty.
I followed her gesture. In one of the upper-story windows of a building I had thought was empty, a small yellowed sign was taped to the glass.
Sure enough: ROOMS, the discouraged-looking sign read. "Need some backup?" my father asked mildly.
He was a lean, clean old man with pale blue eyes, thinning gray hair pulled back into a ponytail fastened with a leather thong, and the placid expression of a person who has recently had several serious federal charges against him summarily dismissed. Until a few months earlier he'd been the kind of long-term fugitive whose capture makes the newspapers.
But not anymore. "I was going to leave the baby with you," Ellie began to him. "But as long as Maggie's with us . . ."
Having missed most of my childhood, my father adored taking care of Leonora. Aside from Maggie, he was one of the few sitters Ellie trusted for more than a few minutes.
"Never mind," I told him, getting out of the car and gazing up at my destination uneasily.
"I'd rather you stuck to watching from a distance. You're both pulling lookout duty on this little mission," I added.
Now that we were here, the chances of Jim Diamond's actually having a gun --- or a knife, club, or other murderous weapon of opportunity, and the impulse to use it --- loomed suddenly higher on my list of possible disasters.
"In fact, how about staying in the car?" In a sure sign of my ambivalence I hadn't even shut off the Fiat's ignition.
"You keep it running," I told Ellie, "and you come get me if I wave at you from up there," I added to my father.
Neither of them seemed unnerved by the sight of the window with the sign in it, partly open and so empty-looking . . .
So oddly vacant-appearing. But after following my gaze my father looked back at me with his pale blue eyes, and in them I saw my own thoughts as clearly as if I were reading them from a teleprompter.
The place didn't look right. And you couldn't fool him; guys who have been on the run thirty years don't fool very easily, and they don't underestimate the potential for imminent disaster, either.
He got out of the car by uncoiling his body and swinging one leg over the side, then the other, moving to stand in the shade of the ice-cream parlor's green-striped awning. From that vantage point the sunlight didn't glint in the glass across the street, spoiling his view.
"If you do get in, Jake, go right over to that front window," he said.
"That way I'll be able to see you."
He didn't say to be careful. He already knew I would do that. It was a habit I'd inherited from him, one that had served us both pretty well one way and another. I crossed the street.
The downstairs front door of the rooming house was sandwiched between a storefront that used to be a marine-supply place and one that was being remodeled as a bookstore: old smells of engine oil and bait tanks on one side, fresh varnish on the other.
The door was unlocked. I went in, passing two rusting metal mailboxes. No names were on the boxes, but a reek of something cooked way past well-done now mingled with that of the bait tanks and paint.
So somebody lived here. "Hello?" I called up the stairs.
No answer. But now I could hear music, Led Zeppelin repeating the age-old refrain about the stairway to heaven.
It wasn't the stairway rising up ahead of me, that was for sure. Cracked treads, bare risers wormholed with the marks of old nails and a general air of deep, bone-weary discouragement pervaded the place. Even the paint peeled off the scarred woodwork in thick curling strips, as if desperate to escape.
A bare bulb hung at the top of the stairs. I climbed toward it, hearing the risers squeak under my feet.
Finishing nails, hardwood shims, 3-IN-1 oil, I thought automatically. Fixing up and maintaining old houses had become my specialty in recent years; it was why ruined places like the ones we'd seen on the way here always caught my interest.
And in a roundabout way, why I was here now.
Pausing on the second-floor landing, I confronted a pair of doors. One had three padlocks, as if you couldn't have bashed it in with your shoulder, the frame looked so flimsy. Hinges, latch plate, wood screws, one-by-eights, I thought.
The other door stood ajar. The burned smell was coming from somewhere behind it; also the music.
The window in the second-floor landing was open as well; it was the only way to get any cross-ventilation in what was essentially a railroad flat. Or maybe somebody had left it open fifty years ago and no one ever bothered to close it.
"Hello?" I called again, wondering if anyone was home.
By now I almost hoped no one was. After all, the door was open. A conversation might be helpful but a quiet look around could probably tell me what I wanted to know, too.
If I found anything that looked like the first draft of a threat note, for instance, I could just skip the rest of the plan and start working on getting Jim Diamond sent back to jail.
I put my head inside the doorway. "Hello? Jim?"
A muffled sound came from within, startling me. The volume on the music cranked up suddenly.
"Bye-eye-ying a stay-er-way . . ."
Jim didn't want company, I guessed. Disappointed now that he'd turned out to be there at all, I pushed the door open wider.
"Look, I just want to ask a . . ."
Inside, a short plaster-peeling hallway led to a tiny kitchen, and in the other direction to a front room overlooking the street. The music came from there.
Nervously I followed the hall, making my way between bags of recyclable bottles and cans, a telephone --- no dial tone --- and a plastic hamper piled high with clothes.
Men's clothes: raggedy shirts, jeans, and underwear. Past them was the living room with a small TV on a milk crate, a worn brown recliner, and a massive boom box with a CD player in it.
"Heh-vunnnnn," Robert Plant finished, bless his repetitive little heart. I crossed toward the partly open window upon which the yellowing sign hung, secured by ancient transparent tape.
Before I got there something behind me moved stealthily; I yelped, staggering and nearly falling over the old recliner. But it was only a cat, knocking down an empty beer can while leaping from the top of the dusty boom box to the top of the dusty TV. As its paws brushed past the boom box control knobs, the volume went up another skull-cracking notch.
I reached out and switched the thing off, my heart still in my throat.
"Scat," I hissed at the animal now scampering behind an overturned wooden chair.
Prrr-utt, it replied insolently, and began washing its paw, oblivious to the mess of used paper plates, dirty coffee cups and plastic utensils, and more piles of old clothes.
All this place needed was an embroidered sampler on the wall: HOVEL SWEET HOVEL. Taking a shallow breath, I strode to the window and gave the high sign to my father, standing across the street. Because nobody was here. The window seemed ready to fall so I propped it with still another empty beer can, noticing as I did it how loose the sash was in its wooden frame.
Felt strips, weather-stripping nails . . .
Stop that, I instructed myself. Maybe he'd just gone out for a minute, leaving the door ajar so the cat could go in and out, too. He could come back at any time, but if he did my father and Ellie would see him.
Meanwhile, whatever was burning in the kitchen smelled like canned cat food simmering to a crisp. Atop that smell floated yet another strong aroma, warm and unpleasant.
I waved down again to my father and Ellie: All quiet. Maggie had rejoined them, carrying the baby in one arm and an ice cream in her other hand.
Vanilla, it looked like. Ellie took the baby so that Maggie could manage the dripping cone, as I turned back to the room. The new smell was familiar; unpleasantly so. Like . . .
Like the smell of blood. Something moved behind me again.
"Hey, cat. I said beat it."
A warm weight fell heavily onto my shoulder. I glanced at it and let out a shriek so loud they must've heard it on Campobello, nearly jumping reflexively in fright right out that window.
Because it was a hand. A big bloody hand, attached to a big hairy arm. A man's arm.
Scrambling away, I felt the hand fall off my shoulder. Then something heavy hit the floor. The hairy arm's owner, I figured, and when I turned I saw I was right.
He sprawled on his back, big and surly-looking even as he lay there unconscious. From the description his ex-wife had given us, I was pretty sure I was looking at Jim Diamond.
By then my father and Ellie had made it upstairs and were rushing down the hall toward me, Ellie bringing up the rear with the baby still in her arms.
"Stay there," my father told Ellie. She managed a glimpse, then hastily shielded the baby's eyes with her hand and backed away.
"Call nine-one-one," I yelled after her.
"Phone's out," she said. "I'll use the one in the ice-cream parlor."
Her footsteps hurried down the creaky stairs as I crouched over Diamond's body. From this angle I could see that he had been hit on the head, the deep dent in the back of his skull showing all the way around nearly to his ear.
"What do we do for him?" my father asked.
My ex-husband had been a brain surgeon and my dad knew I'd learned a few head-injury first-aid tips while I was married. Preventive ones, too, like never marry a brain surgeon. That way you will be vastly less likely to inflict head injuries.
But now was no time to nurse a grudge; instead, it was time to nurse this guy. Unfortunately my expertise extended only to the kinds of accidents active youngsters may suffer: the mildly bonked noggins, superficial scalp wounds, and so on.
Also it seemed that the window of opportunity for fix-it measures was closing fast, if it hadn't shut and locked itself already. I looked closer, hoping I was wrong.
But my first impression had been accurate. The man lying on the floor had half his skull caved in.
I glanced around. Near that overturned chair, a black iron skillet lay behind the milk crate that held up the TV. A few dark hairs clung suggestively to the bottom of the skillet, clueing me to what someone had used as a clobbering tool.
"I don't know what to do," I told my father helplessly. "I just know this is bad. He needs an ambulance fast."
Because in addition to being large, the injury had obviously happened quite some while ago. Head wounds bleed, and this one had been a gusher. A large dark pool behind the recliner was the marker for where he had originally fallen.
But the blood there was mostly coagulated, which meant he'd been lying semiconscious for hours, maybe even a whole day.
A siren howled distantly, coming closer. As if at the sound Jim Diamond took a deep, hitching breath. When the siren shut off he took another. The third one came as the EMTs rushed in, and then he didn't take any more.
We moved back to let the emergency people get at him. They did what they could to stabilize him, got him loaded and belted onto a backboard efficiently, and hauled him out of there.
So that part was over. But we still didn't know the answer to the question we'd come all the way here to ask, so when one of the Lubec cops came up to me I stared at Ellie over his shoulder.
She took the hint and handed Leonora to my father.
"You know the guy?" the cop wanted to know from me.
Swiftly, Ellie began moving around the hideous little flat, looking at all its contents without touching anything, giving it a good once-over without appearing particularly interested.
Watching her, I found myself suppressing an appreciative smile despite the situation. It wasn't the first crime scene we'd ever come upon; since I'd moved to Eastport, Maine, a few years earlier, Ellie and I had snooped into a number of local murders, and she was a champ at picking up small, meaningful details.
Or the absence of them. "No," I replied to the cop. "We just came here to give him a message."
With any luck, what we wanted would be out in plain sight. Notebook, I thought at Ellie, although she knew. A pen, or even a sample of his handwriting.
Because I wanted to be able to assure his ex-wife that the threats were over, even if it was for a reason that in spite of everything I thought she wouldn't welcome.
"His ex has a restraining order against him so they can't communicate directly," I added. "And his phone's out."
The cop looked unimpressed. "Yeah? So what was the message?"
I searched my mind for something plausible. "Their daughter wanted to see him about something but she hasn't been able to get hold of him, either."
My father's lip twitched. Yeah, I thought at him, I can feel my nose growing. But considering Diamond's condition I already thought his ex-wife could be in big trouble.
And I didn't want to make it worse. "I mean," I blundered on, "it was a nice day, we were planning to take a ride anyway, so . . ."
The cop seemed to find this tissue of lies believable enough. He nodded, accepting my string of whoppers as Ellie moved from the living room to the kitchen, where whatever it was still emitted that dreadful odor.
Something on the stove. "Lucky this was turned way down or there'd have been a fire," Ellie said. "Okay if I turn it off?"
"Yeah," the cop told her, snapping his notebook shut. He'd already gotten our names and so on from my dad. But then another thought hit him. "That your little car outside?" he asked me.
I allowed as how it was. Maggie still stood by it, looking up anxiously. Squad cars had boxed in both ends of the street, and apparently the cops weren't letting her into the building.
"That you here visiting in it yesterday?" the cop asked. "Reason I noticed, it's sitting in a no-parking zone," he added. "It was then, too."
At which I carefully did not burst out laughing; Lubec was a pleasant place, but even in tourist season it didn't exactly have a traffic problem.
No-parking zone, indeed. The truth didn't even occur to me. I assured the cop that he must've seen a different car belonging to another visitor to Lubec and promised to move mine.
"See anyone else when you got here?" he asked.
In the apartment, he meant, or on the stairs or loitering around outside. "No. I didn't even know he was here until he fell on me."
Ellie slipped out of the kitchen to look around in the bedroom. Better her than me; except for Ellie herself, I didn't know anyone whose bedroom was tidy on short notice. I had a hunch this one wouldn't be precisely springtime fresh, either.
"The door was open," I added, so the cop wouldn't think I'd broken in.
"What I don't understand," my father offered, frowning, "is how he managed to stand up at all, he was so . . ."
From the blood smears on my T-shirt he'd figured out that at some point recently, Jim Diamond had been upright. And now that the shock had begun fading I recalled again what the back of Diamond's head had looked like.
And let's just say it hadn't resembled anything with bones in it. Or thought processes, either. You didn't have to be a brain surgeon --- or the ex-wife of one --- to know that much.
"Trauma victims can do funny things," the cop replied cheerfully.
"Even the real train wrecks can surprise you."
Which was putting it mildly. For an instant the injured man had towered over me like something resurrected out of the nearest graveyard. All he'd needed was a sound track to make the apartment resemble a stage set from Night of the Living Dead.
"I don't know why some of 'em wake up like that at the end," the cop added, "but they do."
Remembering, I felt myself sway a little. My father looked sharply at me. You okay?
I nodded at him, spoke to the cop. "I'm not completely sure if this was even really the guy I was looking for. Jim Diamond?"
The cop grimaced. "Oh, yeah. It was him, all right. No real surprise, either, the kind of pals that guy had."
Which gave me a moment of hope. "You mean you think you know who might have done this to him?"
He paused. "Well, not really," he admitted. "Nobody in the gang he hung with has a history of crimes against persons."
Darn. It was what I'd heard about Jim Diamond also, and one reason why I'd decided after all to risk bearding him in his den.
Diamond wasn't a basher. But now he'd become the bashee. "State cops'll probably have more questions," the cop informed us.
That cheered me briefly, since it meant that at the moment he didn't have any more himself. I wanted out of this apartment with its smells of burnt food and old blood.
I wanted it bad. "We'll stay available," I promised him, and was about to find Ellie and give her another eyebrow-wiggle, this one meaning let's vamoose.
But just then the cop's radio sputtered and he stepped out of the apartment to hear it, as if maybe it was going to transmit a top-secret national security bulletin.
Ellie was exiting the bedroom when he returned, and he gave her a dark look. But she moved past him to take the baby from my father's arms, and I saw the cop deciding not to comment.
Instead he kept the "Okay, let's wrap it up" expression on his face; after all, Ellie appeared harmless enough.
Little did he know. "You can tell your friend she's not an ex anymore," he said as he put the radio back into its holster.
Bella Diamond, he meant; Jim's ex-wife. She wasn't a friend, exactly, just my housekeeper and the person whose worries we had come all this way to put an end to.
Well, they were ended now. . . I hoped.
I put my face to the window for some air. Down in the street a gaggle of onlookers had gathered, a few of the tourists taking pictures of the squad car and blood drops where the ambulance had been: What I Saw on My Maine Vacation.
"Guy died on the way to the ER," the cop explained. " 'S'what the radio call was. Guess that makes your friend a widow."
I hoped that was all it made Bella. And in any case I didn't want to be the one breaking the news to her. "She'll get official notification?"
He looked at me impatiently. "Sure she will. State cops'll tell her. One of the things I need to do, notify 'em right away."
His face said he had many other tasks to accomplish as well, and that standing around gabbing with me wasn't one of them.
"Knowing Jim, though," he finished, "she'll probably just go out and celebrate."
Or maybe not; like head-injury victims, ex-wives did funny things.
Glancing down at that bloody skillet, I only hoped this ex hadn't done something a little funnier than usual.
Outside, the sky had darkened in the half hour since I had entered the apartment, the fog thickening into a cold, optimism-dampening drizzle that matched my mood.
Not that Diamond wouldn't have been dead no matter who found him. But as I've mentioned, in the past couple of years dead guys had gotten into the habit of showing up on my doorstep, or me on theirs. And before I'd even gotten to Diamond's apartment I'd had the feeling he could be trouble.
So I was in an unhappy frame of mind when, after raising the canvas top, I aimed the Fiat back toward Eastport with Ellie, the baby, Maggie, and my father all jammed into the car with me.
"May I drive?" Maggie asked when we pulled to the gas pumps in
Whiting. She looked pale and miserable, as if she needed a task to distract her from what had happened. And she had borrowed the car many times so she knew how to handle it.
The thought even crossed my mind that she'd been out in it the day before. But of course there was no connection; Maggie didn't even know Jim Diamond, or Bella either.
Still . . . "Maggie, you weren't in Lubec yesterday, were you?"
"Me?" She looked startled. "No, why?"
"Never mind." I was really tempted to let her take the wheel. It would have been more comfortable for her than the backseat, and I felt tired. But at the moment I also needed to be in control.
"Sorry," I told her, hooking the gas nozzle back up to the pump. "You can drive another time, okay?"
It seemed even smaller inside with the top up. Still, there was no hope of putting it down again on this trip. Moments later the skies opened abruptly, hammering the taut black canvas with a good old-fashioned summer downpour.
Also it was leaky black canvas, another unhappy surprise.
A drop of cold water hit the back of my neck, then two more. Ellie found the roll of adhesive tape I kept in the glove box, because it's amazing what you can fix with enough adhesive tape.
But not black canvas convertible tops. She tore off a strip and pressed it to the wet spot over my head. Promptly it fell off and slid irretrievably down the back of my shirt.
"Never mind," I said glumly. "But don't lose the rest of the roll, please."
Another cold drop hit my neck. "Something tells me I might be needing it to hold myself together before this is all over."
I was hoping she'd contradict me. But Ellie only sighed and nodded agreement. "Me, too," she said. She sounded worried.
Because maybe the sky wasn't actually falling, but with the rain thundering down so hard that the drops were bouncing up off the pavement again, it was doing a pretty great imitation of it.
And to think, I ruminated as we sped through the cloudburst, that only a few days earlier I'd believed my worst problem --- other than my son Sam, his girlfriend Maggie, and Bella Diamond, who even without a murdered ex-husband had turned out to be the housekeeper from hell --- was a moose on the loose.
The whole thing began on another bright morning a couple of days before we found Jim Diamond clobbered in his apartment. On that day I'd been feeling lighthearted even though an unpleasant chore lurked gremlinlike on my to-do list.
Which of course was a part of the problem. If I'd suspected in advance even a little bit of what I was in for, I'd have taken preventive measures.
Rocket launchers, say, or a moat full of alligators. Twelve-foot spikes, their tips smeared with exotic poison, backed by a razor-wire fence so sharp it could trim your toenails all the way up to your. . .
Well, you get the idea. But instead birds were singing and the dew-spangled lilacs were doing their perfume thing, richly intoxicating. A salt breeze off the bay blew in through the open kitchen window, sweet as a kiss.
The whole situation was so invigorating, in fact, that I'd gotten a start on two projects I'd been avoiding for months: I'd taken the screen off that open window so I could repair it. And I was painting the shutters I'd bought secondhand to replace the ones demolished in a gale the previous February.
I'd been up in my third-floor workroom where I had finished priming two pairs of the shutters, decided to come downstairs for a break, and was getting ready to clean my paintbrush at the sink in my one-hundred-and eighty-one-year-old house in Eastport, Maine. Humming cheerfully in the big barnlike kitchen with its high tin ceiling, worn hardwood floor, and pine wainscoting, I had just turned on the faucet over the old soapstone basin when suddenly from that wide-open window behind me came a sound.
A loud sound, like . . .
Dropping the paintbrush in a splatter of paint, I whirled to confront a full-size moose head complete with a very respectable rack of moose antlers, attached to a full-size moose.
A live moose. The creature's huge yellow teeth chomped down onto the last of six red Martha Washington geraniums I had planted in the kitchen window box only a few hours earlier, and began chewing.
"Muh-muh-moose," I managed faintly. Nothing remained of the other five geraniums but short green stumps.
The moose rolled his eye at me, chewing pensively on a mouthful of Martha Washingtons. A single red blossom clung wetly to one of his enormous nostrils.
Bwha-a-t! he remarked again, spraying geranium cud all over my clean kitchen.
"Scram!" I quavered, glancing around for something large enough to discourage the creature.
Like maybe one of those rocket launchers. But none were in sight and when I looked back again, neither was the moose.
Hurrying to the window I skidded hard on moose cud, flailed wildly, and avoided a pratfall only by slamming into the refrigerator and wrapping my arms around it. This set the antique crystal lemonade pitcher I'd bought at a church sale and put up there for safekeeping teetering dangerously, as the cat perched next to it showed no interest whatsoever in saving it.
She just looked intensely bored, and when I'd rescued the pitcher and made it to the window to peer out, all I saw of the moose was his tail twitching casually as his big brown rear end vanished among the trees and bushes at the back of the yard.
Then he was gone, leaving my previously spotless kitchen heavily splattered with geranium cud. Oh, and by that paintbrush, too. In my confusion I'd apparently grabbed it again, waving it around rather wildly and indiscriminately.
As a result any surface not fire-hosed with moose cud was now heavily anointed with white latex paint. And the combination was not one your average home decorator would approve.
Even your average zookeeper couldn't find much to approve about this mess, I thought as I gazed forlornly at it. And at the moment I couldn't think of a good way of cleaning it up, either, except possibly with a blowtorch.
Mee-yow-row-wowl, the cat remarked. She was a cross-eyed Siamese named Cat Dancing who thought any troubles the humans got into were their own fault, and by the way, was it suppertime yet? Also she regarded herself as too refined to chase a mouse, much less a moose.
"Oh, hush up," I told the cat irritably, thinking about cat prints tracked inevitably through a combination of moose cud and latex paint. "And you'd better stay up there if you know what's good for you."
Urmph, Cat replied, which in cat lingo I happened to know meant "Oh, stick a sock in it."
Just then Ellie came in with the baby strapped to her back and my two dogs, Monday and Prill, straining at the ends of their leashes.
"Hi," Ellie greeted me, not even breathing hard. "What's new?"
She'd been out for her usual two-mile morning walk, which she took to maintain her already-lithe figure and believed was made even more healthfully effective by the addition of a twenty-pound baby and nearly two hundred pounds of rambunctious canine.
"Ellie, don't --- "
But it was too late. She'd dropped the leashes before she'd had a look at the kitchen. Instantly both dogs got the scent of the moose. They began bouncing off the walls like a couple of balls in a canine-themed pinball machine gone mad.
I slammed the hall door and the one to the ell of the house, then the one leading through the butler's pantry to the dining room, and finally the kitchen window.
"Jake," Ellie asked, peering around, "what on earth happened in here?"
Meanwhile Monday, the Labrador retriever, had snuffled up a snootful of moose-flavored geranium cud. She stood stock-still as an odd look came onto her doggy features. Then --- ker-schnoof! --- she sneezed it out again in a paint-infused aerosol that went absolutely everywhere instead of just nearly everywhere, the way it had been before.
"And what," Ellie added, her nose beginning to wrinkle, "is that smell?" Because morning moose breath, as it turns out, isn't exactly minty-fresh.
Prill, the red Doberman, didn't sniff at all, instead deciding instantly that whatever had been in here, she didn't like it. She hit the floor running, heading for the window where the scent was apparently strongest, struck a patch of paint, and slid forward on all fours, barking furiously and spreading paint in a long thick smear all the way to the washing machine.
Hitting it with a thud didn't discourage the big red dog one bit. Instead Prill scrambled back, took a running jump that carried her onto the top of the machine, and would have gone right on out through the window glass had I not remembered the magic words.
"Prill! Time to eat!"
The dog stopped short, realized where she was, and began to whimper. Jumping up was one thing, her sad look seemed to say.
Jumping down was something else again.
Yowrl, Cat Dancing commented from atop the refrigerator. In cat lingo, that meant ha ha ha.
Wuff ? Prill asked softly and a little embarrassedly, seeming all at once to feel very nearly as foolish as she looked, perched there atop a major household appliance.
"Oh, for heaven's sake, you big goof," I said impatiently. "Ellie, give me a hand, here, will you please? And you," I added to the dog now eyeing me imploringly, "don't you move a goddamned inch."
Then I remembered Leonora, who laughed happily from inside Ellie's baby carrier. A cheerful little soul, Lee gazed around my kitchen with the goggle-eyed glee that pretty much symbolized her whole personality except when she was hungry.
"I mean a gosh-darned inch," I amended. It had been twenty years since I'd had my own baby around the house.
"Don't worry, she already says worse." Ellie put her arms around Prill's hind legs. "George took her down to the fish pier the other day to meet some of his buddies. Some of the mackerel they were pulling in, he says, were as big as the baby. Anyway, she came home cussing a blue streak."
Knowing the daily habits of some of George's buddies, I was surprised little Lee hadn't come home demanding to drink beer and smoke cigars. Still . . .
"Ellie, are you sure that baby was cussing?" A small round spit bubble appeared, glistening on the infant's rosebud lips.
For her walk that day Ellie wore a pale blue sundress with yellow sun-flowers on it, a pink canvas sun hat whose floppy brim framed her delicately featured face, and a green cotton cardigan whose pockets were stuffed with all the baby items that didn't fit in the baby backpack.
"Well," Ellie admitted, "maybe not. At her age, I guess just about anything can sound like anything else."
On Ellie's feet were a pair of big brown Earth shoes that didn't make her legs look fat, mostly because nothing could make Ellie's legs look fat. With pale green eyes, red hair escaping in wisps from a purple hair ribbon, and freckles the color of gold dust sprinkled across her nose, my best friend was as fragile-appearing as a fairy princess out of a storybook, and as tough as shoe leather.
"At first George thought she was actually saying words," she went on. "And wasn't he some proud, though?"
Ellie's husband George Valentine was the man you called when you had a bird's nest in your chimney, raccoons in your attic, or foxes building a den behind your garden shed, from which shelter they were planning to feast all winter on neighborhood pets.
I wondered if I could get him to deal with a moose.
"But then he figured out what those babblings sounded like," Ellie went on, "and hit the roof."
"Maybe that's what made it leak," I replied.
George and my own husband, Wade Sorenson, were reshingling the roof of George and Ellie's house when they weren't both out working other jobs.
"Maybe." Ellie laughed as we maneuvered a frightened Prill to the edge of the washing machine. "Anyway, he won't let the guys cuss around Lee anymore, and he already wouldn't let them breathe on her in case they had colds."
All of which warmed my heart. After several childless years, Ellie and George had gotten used to being footloose and fancy-free, so I'd wondered how they would adjust to having a baby. But Leonora had instantly become their sun, moon, and stars; neither could bear to be away from her for long, and it was a contest as to which of them doted more upon her.
"Oof," I said as we lifted the unhappy dog, me at the front of the frightened animal and Ellie at the other end.
Glrp, said Prill, stiffening anxiously as we raised her up off the washing machine.
"There," Ellie exhaled, dusting her hands together as we finished setting the creature securely back down onto the floor.
Chagrined, Prill went to her water bowl and drank thirstily, as if to say this was all she'd meant to do in the first place, and how did she ever get up onto that awful contraption, anyway?
Murp, Cat pronounced disappointedly, and went back to sleep.
Whereupon I didn't have the heart to scold Prill; after all, I hadn't exactly distinguished myself with my own reaction to the moose, had I? Instead I put both dogs out in the ell where they couldn't create more mayhem.
"A moose?" Ellie repeated in astonishment as I explained what had happened. "You're sure it was a real, live moose?"
"Well, it wasn't a stuffed one. Believe me, after seeing it I can definitely tell the difference. And after smelling it."
Just then George himself arrived. He was a small, dark-haired man with a five o'clock shadow already shading his stubborn jaw and the creases in his knuckles permanently stained by the many varieties of hard, dirty work he did in Eastport year-round. Today he wore an old white T-shirt, faded jeans, and battered leather boots.
He bent to embrace Ellie and kiss the baby, then sniffed the air. "Phew, what's that?"
He didn't wait for an answer, instead heading to the cellar where Wade had stashed a carton of roofing nails; when George was on a mission you got in front of him at your peril. But his question made me even more aware of the green, richly weedy aroma in the room, mingled with something I can't fully describe without being indelicate. Suffice it to say the atmosphere in my kitchen was as rank as a cow barn that for some reason has been situated in the middle of a swamp.
"So yes," I told Ellie, "I'm sure that it was a moose."
Once George had retrieved the nails and departed, Ellie and I met again to confer at the kitchen table. We'd put Leonora down for a nap in the crib I kept ready for her in what had been the downstairs maid's room, back in the time when my house was lived in by people who actually had maids.
In those days, when water came from hand pumps and heat came from woodstoves that had to be tended in a filthy, never-ending round of back-breaking work, all the backs that got broken around here belonged to servants.
Nowadays, the back belonged to me. Or it had until recently; fear touched my heart as I remembered that I wasn't alone in the household-help department at the moment. Also, the prospect of the unpleasant chore looming over me had just gotten worse.
"A big," I emphasized, "moose." I leaned down to wipe at yet another stubborn paint splotch.
It didn't come off. The finish on the nineteenth-century kitchen floor was so thin --- and let's face it, in places so nonexistent --- that the paint had quickly sunk in. Somehow the smears had also reached the cabinets, the stove and countertops, and the ceiling that Monday had apparently managed to hit with her explosive sneeze.
In short, you couldn't have spread that paint around better if you'd shot it from a shotgun at about a hundred yards, which was how far I wanted to be from the situation, minimum.
Because given enough elbow grease and the same determination as that famous old Greek guy used to sanitize the Augean stable, I could've cleaned the kitchen up myself. Trouble was, I wouldn't be doing it myself because for the first time since I'd moved to Maine seven years earlier, I had household help.
Actual paid-by-the-hour help, I mean, not the kind Ellie always gave so cheerfully and willingly. And the help was due to arrive in . . .
Good heavens, only about thirty minutes. As if to emphasize this fact, the hall clock chimed the half hour. Ellie looked up, catching my thought. "Uh-oh."
"Yep. Bella's coming," I said hopelessly. "Soon. And when she gets a look at this place, she'll go absolutely bananas."
"Right," Ellie agreed, instantly reaching out to scrub at the front of a kitchen cabinet.
But a mixture of moose cud and latex is apparently the stuff they should use to glue ceramic tiles onto the walls in bathtub enclosures. In ten minutes it had dried to the durability of epoxy; now the only way it was coming off was with a hammer and chisel.
Assuming I didn't really go out and rent a blowtorch, a plan that was starting to look more tempting by the minute. Even the most determined domestic helper wouldn't be able to clean a house if it was actually on fire.
"So it's true," Ellie said, changing the subject. "There is really a moose running around town."
I just stared at her. "You mean you knew?"
Here I should explain that Eastport is located on an island, which funnily enough is actually called Moose Island, seven miles off the coast of Maine and so far downeast that it is almost in Canada. Two miles wide, seven miles long, three hours from Bangor and light-years from anywhere else, Eastport is reachable by car over a causeway, although at low tide you could probably just wade across the clam flats.
Which it seemed our moose must have done, wandering from the thousands of acres of wild, wooded mainland on the other side of the channel. Something about Eastport had attracted it, possibly, or maybe it just got lost.
And now at least according to Ellie it seemed other people had seen it, too.
"Deke Meekins from the marine store said he nearly walked right into it this morning, putting kayaks in the water for some tourists," she reported, glancing nervously at the back door.
This made me feel better, suggesting as it did that I wasn't the only one frightened of my soon-to-arrive housekeeper.
"I saw Deke while I was out on my walk," Ellie went on, "and he said the moose was standing on the beach at the foot of Clark Street, having a drink out of the freshwater spring by the ruins of the old sardine cannery."
She got out two cups as the coffeemaker finished spitting and chuffing. In my old house there is no such thing as a level surface, so no matter where you put it, that coffeemaker always sounds like the steam boiler on a locomotive.
"Deke said it was quite a sight," Ellie added, getting out the cream and sugar, "with the seagulls out there taking morning baths in the freshwater pools, and this moose among them."
My heart softened briefly as I pictured this. But then the reality of what I was facing washed over me again.
"Ellie, we've got to . . ." I gestured desperately. The task I'd been dreading was already bad enough without the moose mess. "We can't just sit here. She's going to . . ."
Ellie poured the fragrant coffee. "Yes, I suppose she is. Any minute, too," she added uncomfortingly.
"But what do you suggest? I guess we could lock the door," she continued, "and pretend we're not here, except that you decided to give her a key of her own in the first place."
Drat, so I had. Because what good is a housecleaner if you actually have to be in the house all the time that he or she is cleaning? Or so I'd believed back in the days before I'd gotten to know Bella Diamond.
"Go on, drink your coffee," Ellie told me. "Think of it this way: What's the worst she can do?"
"Egad." At her question I nearly choked on a swallow of the hot liquid. "She can break up my marriage, alienate my son, hurt my dad's feelings, and destroy my life. That's what she can --- "
"Wah!" In the maid's room, the baby woke up and emitted the short, piercing yell she used as a distress signal whenever she forgot all the colorful profanity her dad's friends had taught her.
Ellie went to check, came back carrying the infant. "I guess I shouldn't have bothered putting her down. I almost forgot we've got to go to a pediatrician's appointment. It's just a regular checkup, but . . . oh, Jake, I'm so sorry to leave you with all this!"
"Never mind." I went to the door with her. "No sense both of us dealing with Bella's wrath. I've got to talk to her, anyway."
It was the confrontation I'd been fretting over. "So this'll just give me a good excuse to..."
But then I stopped, hearing myself. "An excuse to talk with my own employee; how gutless is that? You'd think that she was a hurricane about to make landfall."
But Ellie wasn't fooled. She'd met Bella, too. "That's fine to say now, Jake, but you just wait. She may not be a hurricane, but she's definitely a force to be reckoned with. Don't underestimate her."
Not a good thought; too bad it was so chillingly accurate. Certainly it hadn't taken long for Bella to blow an ill wind through my house.
Outside, I followed Ellie down the porch steps, avoiding the rotten one that had been threatening me with a broken ankle for months. Two-byeights, I thought automatically; a hammer, nails, and a bucket of porch paint.
Then I paused, captured abruptly by an island summer day as fresh as a newly finished watercolor. Maple leaves gleamed in the lemony sunshine. Late tulips massed amidst the last of the yellow daffodils in the dooryards of graceful old wooden houses up and down Key Street. Fat purple lilac blooms basked in the soft June warmth, and in the shade by the porch the last of the hyacinths clustered shyly between lush green patches of moss.
A snarl of engines made me look up. Above, a pair of vintage biplanes from the aviator's club at Quoddy Airfield drew lazy 8s on the paintbox blue sky. The long white banners ribboning behind them read WELCOME TO EASTPORT!
Meanwhile my house loomed comfortingly behind me, an 1823 white clapboard Federal with three full floors, a two-story ell, forty-eight tall green double-hung windows, and three red brick chimneys. Despite missing shutters, decrepit porch steps, and the many other repair challenges the massive old dwelling continued regularly to present, my home was as fundamentally solid now as it had been for nearly two hundred years.
And that encouraged me. But Ellie's next comment didn't.
"Don't let Bella push you around," she warned as she and Leonora departed. "Or mark my words, the next couple of weeks will be hell on wheels."
Which they were anyway, but not for the reason either of us thought.
Back in the house, I turned away from the moose mess and instead decided to fix a fritzed light switch in the hall while I awaited Bella. That way, there was a chance that I might be electrocuted before she arrived.
Although not a very good chance, since I did shut down the circuit breaker in the cellar before I began. After that it was only a matter of removing the switch plate, pulling the old switch and removing the screws holding the wires to the contacts, attaching a new one, and shoving it back into the wall before replacing the switch plate to complete the procedure.
So while I worked I had plenty of opportunity to think about (a) how hugely reluctant I was to confront my errant housekeeper, and (b) why I had to.
The main reason being that the night before, my husband Wade
Sorenson had waited until after dinner and then --- astonishingly, for him --- laid down the law.
"Jake, she follows me around the house with a whisk broom, waiting for me to shed skin cells. Or hair follicles. Whatever."
Wade took a deep breath. "When I get home from work I never know what to expect. What I do know is that I practically have to strip down to my birthday suit before I come in, or she gives me the evil eye."
The evil eye wasn't what I gave him when he stripped down to his birthday suit. But he was serious, so I'd kept quiet.
And in the next moments I'd realized just how very serious he was.
"Wade . . ."
He'd put a hand up, stopping me. "She takes the beer bottle out of my hand, rinses it, and cleans the label off to put it in the recycling bin before I've even finished drinking out of it."
After a swallow of wine he continued. "She goes into my workshop and sweeps the wood shavings off the floor. I was," he emphasized, "saving those wood shavings."
Broad at the shoulder and narrow at the hip, Wade had blond brush-cut hair, blue eyes, and a square, solid jaw whose muscles flexed just the tiniest bit when he was angry.
The muscles were flexing. "I know, it was fun for you to have a housekeeper, Jake. And I enjoyed it, too. I thought it was wonderful. At first."
Sure, who wouldn't? After I won a full month of her services at the same church fair where I had bought the crystal lemonade pitcher, Bella had arrived and cleaned the house so thoroughly you could see what color the woodwork was, except in the places where she had scrubbed every bit of the paint off.
"I even liked it when she laundered all the curtains, washed the windows, and steam-cleaned every one of the rugs," he went on inexorably. "Though I believe I might have preferred that she not do it all in one day," he added.
Sorrowfully, I had to agree. Between bleach for the curtains and ammonia for the windows, not to mention chemicals that boiled in steaming jets from the nozzles of the rug-cleaning machine, we were all nearly gassed right out of the place.
"But Jake," Wade said, "this morning she walked into the bathroom without knocking, took my razor away from me, and dipped it in some evil-looking antiseptic solution. And when she did it I hadn't even gotten done shaving!"
"Oh, Wade," I moaned. "I'm very sorry. That is really too much to bear."
"Yes, it is," he agreed firmly, looking down at his hands. They were big, calloused hands, permanently stained and work --- battered. "I hate to say it, but it was the last straw." His tone brooked no.
Wade is Eastport's harbor pilot, which means he guides freighters in through the treacherous rocks, channels, tides, and currents with which our harbor is so plentifully furnished. When he isn't doing that, he restores old firearms in his workshop, upstairs in the ell of my old house. And in his spare time he does things like help reshingle George and Ellie's place.
"But that's not all she's been doing," Wade went on, looking regretful but determined.
Very determined. "She's been into Sam's room. She put his sneaker collection through the washer. And his baseball caps."
Horror pierced me. "Wade, you can't wash a baseball cap! It won't stand up to the . . ."
"Yeah." Wade looked grim. "The sneakers are bad enough. It takes a kid years to get a nice, grotty patina on a sneaker, not to mention the holes which I'm afraid she has mended neatly, and the laces which she replaced. But the caps . . ."
Sam owned a baseball cap from every major-league game he had attended throughout his life. And a ball game was his father's way of bonding with Sam --- to my ex-husband, the phrase personal relationship might as well've been written in Urdu --- so by now Sam had a substantial and possibly even a valuable collection.
And anyway, it was valuable to him. "The bills on those caps didn't take well to the hot water," Wade reported unhappily.
Oh, lord. "They can be restiffened. I can open 'em up, put in new linings," he'd gone on. "I think I can, anyway. Lucky the colors didn't run. But at the moment the whole bunch of them," he finished ruefully, "need baseball-cap Viagra."
Fortunately Sam hadn't noticed them yet. A sophomore at the University of Maine in nearby Machias, my son was home from college but had already begun a summer project at the local boat school, so his eye for details around his room wasn't as sharp as usual.
Also, he had a new girlfriend soaking up his spare time and concentration. I drank some wine, unsure whether I was unhappier about the caps or about the girlfriend. I knew how angry Sam was going to be about the precious headgear.
But Sam's new romance was becoming a worrisome problem, too.
Then I looked at Wade's face, so gently insistent. He was being awfully nice about this. And suddenly I was afraid I knew why.
"That's not all, either, is it?" I asked.
He shook his head. "I'm not even so sure I should tell you this part."
His general habit is to repeat the good things and shut up about the bad. "But the other morning," he continued, "I overheard her telling your father that if she'd known there was going to be a dirty old man around here, she might not have taken the job."
I gasped as Wade added, "I think he dropped a cigarette ash on the cellar floor. That's probably what got her going."
"You're kidding," I managed. "I mean you're not kidding, are you? Bella really said that?"
The only person allowed to smoke cigarettes in my house is my father, and then only in the cellar. But the point is, he was allowed to smoke down there, he is as much a part of our family as Sam or Wade or I am, and I didn't know what the heck she was doing in the cellar, anyway.
A hot little flame of fury sprang to life in my heart. "What did he say?"
Wade chuckled. "He called her a sourpuss. He said if he'd known she was going to be around here he certainly wouldn't be, and he asked if there wasn't a lemon around somewhere that needed a good sucking, preferably at someone else's house."
Which meant my dad had managed to give as good as he got. But I still didn't like the sound of it, suggesting as it did the very thing I tended chronically to worry about: that if he were provoked sufficiently, the old man might just take off.
And not only the old man. "Jake," Wade said.
Here it came. I braced myself. I could straighten things out with my father, who'd dealt with much worse and was a tougher old bird than any housekeeper could possibly be. But . . .
"Jake," Wade repeated quietly, "if Bella's going to stay for another couple of weeks and things with her don't change, I might just think of locking up the shop and taking a sabbatical down to the house on Liberty Street."
My heart plummeted. "That way," he went on, "you can still have what you want, and I can have . . ."
A moment's peace, he didn't have to finish. Wade had kept his own little house when we got married, on a bluff overlooking the bay. Every so often he went down there to smoke cigars, drink brandy, and play poker with his firearms-collecting buddies.
I didn't mind. For one thing I didn't particularly want a coffee can full of cigar stubs on the dining room table. But Wade had never fled to the Liberty Street house to escape something at this one.
Until now. "Maybe I should fire her," I said. "After all, the house is already so clean you could build microchips in it."
In the flickering gleam of the candles on the table, the vintage champagne brocade curtains shone spotlessly and the windows gleamed against the deepening evening. The tiled hearth glimmered before a stack of white birch logs, the mantelpiece sparkled as if newly painted, and even the goldmedallion wallpaper had been gone over with a damp cloth so its antique design stood out crisply against the background of faded cream.
"I did have a few other things for her to do. She said she liked gardening as much as indoor chores, and the yard needs a spring cleaning."
Which was putting it mildly. "But," I went on, "she can't be disrupting this household, your life, or Sam's belongings. And she certainly can't go on insulting my father."
The consequences of firing Bella wouldn't only be unhappy for me.
Probably everyone else in Eastport already knew about her peculiarities and wouldn't hire her. Still . . .
"She just isn't worth everyone being upset around here. And especially not you."
Wade would cheerfully have done the housework and gardening, his share and more. But at the moment the port was busy and so was the gun business, and when you're self-employed like Wade you've got to make hay while the sun shines.
Besides, once George Valentine's roof was completed, George would be coming here to help Wade scrape and paint this place.
Wade rubbed his chin. A patch on his left jawline was still stubbly from where Bella had taken his razor away from him.
"No," he said thoughtfully, "I don't think you have to go that far. I think you should talk to her. Lay out the situation, make sure she knows she's the employee around here, not you." A grin creased his face. "Although I realize it's not going to be as easy as it sounds, considering that it's Bella."
I felt my shoulders slump heavily at the prospect. So far my conversations with her had been like juggling chain saws, dancing in quicksand, or both.
Mostly both. "Don't worry," I said, not sounding convincing even to myself. "After I talk to Bella, I'll go leap a few tall buildings in a single bound. One each, I mean. A bound for each building."
Or a build for each bounding. Whichever; I'd been slugging the wine down pretty steadily since our conversation began.
Because mostly Wade's reaction to this kind of inconvenience was a shrug of indifference. He'd grown up here in Eastport in a knockabout family whose notion of riches was a couple of nickels rubbing together; he understood real hardship.
So to him, household annoyances were mere speed bumps on the highway of life. But once in a long while something was important enough for him to make a fuss over, and then he stood his ground.
Which was how I knew I would have to rein in my unruly housekeeper, fast. Wade hadn't exactly delivered an ultimatum; he never did. But he'd just made it very clear that if I didn't summon up a little spinal fortitude, consequences would follow.
Mostly the consequences would consist of me feeling that I'd disappointed him. That plus the notion that I hadn't stood up for my dad when the chips were down.
And along with anything at all having to do with failing my son Sam, these were the things that could sit me bolt upright out of a sound sleep at night, sweating and shaking.
"I could talk to her if you want me to," Wade offered kindly after a moment.
Wade once stepped into a fight on the street in front of Eastport's Mexican restaurant, La Sardina. The two brawlers were (a) bigger than Wade, (b) meaner than Wade, and (c) brandishing sharp knives. But not much later the three of them were sitting inside at the bar together, drinking Dos Equis and debating whether the Sox had a chance at the pennant.
He never told me exactly how he did it, and I never asked. I just knew that for a strong, silent Eastport guy, my husband had a way with words and in a crunch he was willing to use it.
But . . . "No, thanks," I said after a minute.
I looked around at the remains of the dinner he'd come home and cooked: fresh grilled salmon with mustard mayonnaise, wild rice with scallions and baby mushrooms, and a salad of romaine lettuce and plum tomatoes with Wade's special homemade dressing.
It was one of the few evenings off he'd had in weeks. "Bella's my responsibility," I said. "I'll take care of it."
"Your choice," he conceded, then began clearing the plates.
"Don't do that," I protested, jumping up, too. "You cooked. The least I can do is the dishes."
Leaning down, Wade touched his head to mine, pressing his forearms to my shoulders while holding a plate in each big hand.
"Tell you what," he said into my ear, his voice starting up a delightful little rumble somewhere in my chest.
"We'll do 'em together. Later we'll go out, look at the stars, take another bottle of wine along with us, and maybe fool around a little."
He kissed my earlobe tenderly. "That suit you?"
Oh, boy, did it ever.
Hello? Anyone home?"
Bella Diamond's distinctive voice, like a cross between a broken harmonica and a rusty hinge, startled me from my memory of the previous evening.
"Here," I called from the kitchen, a room that in my house had an air of comfortable dishevelment at the best of times.
This wasn't one of them. The housekeeper appeared in the doorway. "Good morning," she began, and then her jaw dropped.
On Bella it wasn't a pretty sight. "What's gone on in here?" she demanded, her tone turned high and breathy as if she'd just witnessed a bad highway accident.
Except for the lack of blood it was what that kitchen most resembled. "Bella," I faltered, "it's not really as bad as . . ."
But it was no use. "Oh," she moaned, stricken.
A short, stout woman with dyed red hair skinned back into a tight ponytail, she wore as usual a pair of old jeans and a faded sweatshirt over beat-up penny loafers. Protruding blue eyes, big teeth, and a grayish complexion completed the picture. As Sam said when he first met her, she was no oil painting, and although of course I'd forbidden him to repeat this I had to agree.
"Well!" she huffed, making a beeline for the broom closet.
"Bella," I said again, hopelessness rising in me. "Listen, this can all wait. Bella, I want you to sit down here and . . ."
A clatter of scrub brushes, mops, and buckets came from the closet, along with a wheezing sound that I was pretty sure was Bella, hyperventilating.
She emerged looking even more agitated than before. "Wait? But it can't wait. How can you . . . I've got to . . . oh! Where's that bottle of Lysol?"
She dove for the cabinet under the sink where I kept all the bottles of cleaning solutions, along with many of the household tools that belonged in the toolbox but never got there.
"Heat some water, Missus," she gasped. "It's an emergency. Get that big kettle, the one for the lobsters, and --- "
"Bella!" My fist slammed onto the kitchen table. This was ridiculous; in the old days I'd brazenly faced down Wall Street pirates of commerce so black-hearted, their private Lear jets all should've been emblazoned with skulls and crossbones.
"Bella," I repeated, "you stop it right now!"
She paused, blue eyes bulging. "But . . . but I can't!"
"Sit!" I commanded.
Abruptly, both dogs dropped their rumps to the floor as if by involuntary reflex. Startled, Bella sat too, every muscle in her body still visibly twitching to leap on the task at hand and wrestle it into germ-free submission.
"I'm sorry you had to walk in on this, Bella," I said. "I agree, it's a terrible mess. But you and I need to have a talk."
Her expression turned cautious. "You work for me," I went on, pressing my advantage while I still had even the most tenuous grasp on it. "You can't clean this kitchen unless I want you to. And right now I don't want you to. Understood?"
Bella blinked slowly. "Yes, ma'am," she answered.
"And stop calling me ma'am. It annoys the hell out of me. My name is Jacobia Tiptree, most people call me Jake, and that's what you'll call me from now on. We're going to have rules around here and that's the first one. Are you with me so far?"
She nodded, eyes wide, which on Bella was saying something. When she looked straight at you it was as if any minute those big blue peepers of hers might decide to pop right out on stalks.
But there was something oddly appealing about her, too; the un-camouflaged honesty of her rough appearance for one thing, and the way she held her head up so high in spite of it, for another.
I poured her a cup of coffee and set it in front of her; she recoiled as if it were poison. Someone had apparently instructed her at some time or another that household employees do not have refreshments with employers, and the warning had stuck.
"Oh, drink that," I snapped at her. "And have a sweet roll."
I put one on a plate before her. "This isn't the White House and you're not going to get arrested for breaking protocol."
Hesitantly, she nibbled the roll, then bit into it. With a pang I realized she was hungry.
"I'm having some fruit and I can't eat all of it," I told her. "So do me a favor, eat half an orange or it'll just go to waste."
I spoke sternly. Bella nodded obediently and began peeling the orange I got out, then dividing it into sections. Her hands were shaking, whether from hunger or nerves I couldn't tell.
But suddenly I realized I hadn't been doing her any favors, either, letting her walk all over me. Sam had said Bella was so hygienic he thought she must have Clorox running in her veins; as I watched her now, though, it struck me that something more was going on here besides extreme cleanliness.
Something like fear. I'd been so fixed on her hyperactivity, I'd missed it, but now I noticed the darting glances, her anxious breathing, and her hands, so sweaty that they left a puckery spot on her paper napkin.
Along with this new insight though, I got the strong feeling that if I asked her straight out what the trouble was, she might flee. So instead I returned to the subject of her employment.
"You and I never did talk precisely about your duties," I began gently. "And so I think it's possible we might've gotten off on the wrong foot."
"I'm sure I've tried to keep things clean." She bridled as if insulted. "If there's anything I've neglected I'm sure you only need to --- "
"No," I interrupted. "It's not that. You're not neglecting anything, Bella. It's the opposite. You're doing too much."
Confused, she frowned down at the crumbs of her sweet roll as if they might spell out an answer. "The girls at the agency told me to do my best, and I have."
Oh, dear. The whole idea of having household help had never come easily to me. In fact if the Gopher Baroque home employment agency hadn't contributed Bella's services as the grand prize at the church raffle, I'd never have hired anyone.
"I know you have," I assured her. "Of course you've done your best, and I appreciate it. But you're overcompensating."
She looked blank. Clearly the psychological approach wasn't going to work either. I tried another tack. "Bella, have you ever heard the phrase 'too much of a good thing'?"
"No," she said flatly. "You eating the rest of that orange?"
I pushed it across the table at her. "Here. And thank you, you've just come up with rule number two. A person can't work on an empty stomach, so the first thing you're going to do when you get here every morning is eat breakfast."
Black coffee, I figured from the way her hands trembled, was probably the only thing she'd swallowed recently.
"I'm the boss, Bella," I added firmly when she made as if to protest. "And from now on the morning meal is a condition of your continued employment."
She looked down again. The orange sections had vanished, but I was perilously close to patronizing her and that would've been a disaster, too.
"It's not what I want to talk to you about, however," I went on, putting a note of steel back into my voice.
It struck me now also that there was a reason why the home-help agency had sent Bella. As opposed, I mean, to someone else. And because at the moment she wasn't driving me crazy, I was able to think it out.
Gopher Baroque had wanted to donate something to the church raffle. Doing so was just good public relations. But unless you were biblically good, you didn't give your most valuable products or services away. You gave what you could afford.
Or even better, what you couldn't use. So the Gopher Baroque housekeeping agency had packaged up the services of somebody they couldn't employ any other way, and called it a prize.
Silently, Bella ate the sweet-roll crumbs off her plate one by one. I resisted the urge to make her a sandwich, and went on with my lecture.
"Rule three is that from now on," I told her, "you are not to work so hard. We have several weeks of your assignment still to go, you know, and that's plenty of time to do all the things you think should be done."
Or that I think should be, I added silently. "They needn't be done all at once, though, and I don't want them to be."
Bella nodded, head bowed.
"And just to make sure there isn't any confusion, as of today you are to do only the tasks I ask of you, in the order I ask you to do them. Is that clear, too?"
Another nod, less emphatic than the first.
"Mr. Sorenson's workshop is entirely off-limits," I added sternly.
"I uh-understand," Bella said. Her shoulders made convulsive little hitching movements. "Whatever you say, Missus --- um, I mean Jake. Because . . . because . . ."
Oh, good heavens, she was weeping. "Bella, please don't. I'm so sorry, I didn't mean to offend you or hurt your feelings . . ."
She looked up, her eyes streaming. "It's not that! I ain't offended. I knew this had to be coming soon. And anyway, if your boss can't yell at you, well then, I don't know who can."
No one, I thought firmly. But that was an argument for some other time.
"Now, Bella, I wasn't yelling at you, I was only --- "
A basic safety kit = work gloves,
safety glasses, a dust mask,
muff-style hearing protectors,
and sturdy shoes.
"Oh, yes, you were!" Another flood of sobs burst from her. I hurried for a tissue and she grabbed it, pressing it to her face. "And my god, who wouldn't be?" she demanded. "I deserve it!"
A long, honking blow; then: "It's got to be more'n a person can fairly stand, getting cleaned around as if the place was full of plague germs." She drew a shuddery breath. "I swear your husband must've wanted to smack me the other morning when I asked him to pick up his feet so I could sweep while he was reading the newspaper."
Indeed, he certainly must have. I gave a moment of thanks for the Zenlike calm with which Wade approached the world in general, and fussbudgets like Bella in particular.
"But Bella, if you know this . . ."
"And then there's the dogs," she went on. "I bathed 'em both while you were out one day, and now neither one of 'em 'll come near me, even for a biscuit."
Which solved one mystery, anyway. The day before, I'd taken my own bath, but when I went to let the water out of the tub I found the drain so clogged, I practically needed nitroglycerine to get it running again.
Dog hair, of course. The other mystery was how Bella had gotten Prill into the bathtub at all. But I decided to leave that question alone, too.
"Bella, if you understand how uncomfortable your efforts were making everyone, why did you continue?"
"I told you, I can't help it!" she wailed. Her huge eyes brimmed with despair. "And it's getting worse. The agency sent me to two families before you, and you are the only ones as managed to keep me on for more than a day."
Noticing her distress, the dogs began whining. Bella glanced down at them; Monday was relatively paint-free but still might have a fair amount of moose cud ready for sneezing, while Prill was more white than red.
At the sight Bella gasped, then caught herself. "You ain't told me to clean them dogs up, have you?" she inquired cannily.
"No, Bella, I haven't. And I'm so pleased you thought to ask before taking the job upon yourself."
I got up. "But now that you have asked, why don't we do it together, and while we work you can tell me how this compulsion for cleaning happened to develop."
"It didn't develop," she replied. "It came upon me. Month ago, all of a sudden, like. Here, doggy, now I ain't going to hurt you," she added, crouching near Monday.
The black Lab eyed Bella for signs of scrub brushes or dog shampoo. Noticing none, she romped up happily and favored Bella with a big wet doggy kiss.
"Argh!" Bella said, reeling back with distaste. But then she thought better of it.
"Well," she allowed to the animal, "I guess you probably got no worse bugs than I have, when you get right down to it."
Which I thought was progress. "So one day you were being as tidy as anyone else and the next day you couldn't stop cleaning?"
She nodded, examining Monday carefully for latent moose cud. "Yup. Got up at home, stripped the bed, boiled the sheets. Steam-cleaned the carpets. Next I peeled off the wallpaper, and sanded the walls smooth."
"My goodness." The paint on Prill had dried, but it hadn't cured so it came off with a brush. She stood patiently submitting to the process; for a breed with such a ferocious reputation, this particular Doberman pinscher was a milquetoast.
"So then," I guessed, "you eventually decided to earn some money with your compulsion?"
"Yup. Figured I might's well make use of it. Got hired on by the help agency. But it didn't turn out like I expected at all."
She peered into one of Monday's ears, found a white glob, and removed it. "See, you can sell cleanliness," she added ruefully, "but you can't sell craziness. And at this point I might as well call a spade a spade."
She patted Monday and released her. "Because craziness," she finished bluntly, "is what I've got."
Right. And among other things, that meant one lecture from me wasn't going to turn it off like a faucet. Even if she stayed I would still have to keep her away from Wade, away from Sam's belongings, and especially away from my father.
But a few more weeks of Bella's services, assuming I could prevent her turning back into the white tornado, would allow me to accomplish some other tasks that had been getting short shrift for quite a while around here.
The unpainted shutters, for instance, and the porch steps. That window screen, too. Also every doorknob in the house had come loose somehow over the winter; soon someone would go into a room and not be able to get out again except by bashing the door down.
Then there was the aforementioned yard work. I could've let it go, but in Eastport people tend to jump to colorful conclusions from bits of evidence like unmowed lawns and unweeded gardens.
Such as for instance that you've begun brewing amphetamines down in the cellar where the coal bin was, back in the days when your house had a coal bin. And being a woman with enough baggage to load a freight car ---
When I moved here to Eastport I'd brought a troublesome ex-husband, a son with a substance abuse history and a habit of romancing the local girls, and a bankroll that everyone assumed had been assembled by my being a drug dealer ---
I didn't need any more colorful conclusions. What I needed was a housekeeper who wasn't a crazy woman, at least for the rest of the day while I decided what to do about her.
So I kept probing. "Was there something particular that set you off?" I asked.
She glanced sideways at me. "Maybe," she replied guardedly. "I always was neat-like. More so when I'm upset."
Well, there was a start. "Did anything happen that day or maybe the day before, that you found especially distressing?"
But with this I'd gone too far. "You ain't going to let up, are you? You're going to keep poking and prying!"
Oh, what the hell. I put the steel back into my voice.
"Yes. Because I'll tell you something, Bella, you're on the edge, here. My only choices are to let you go or try to find out what's bothering you. Otherwise you'll never stop being such a . . . such a pestilence of cleanliness."
She nodded, but the look on her face said her mind was elsewhere. "That's right," she agreed in tones of unhappy preoccupation. "I'm a pestilence even to myself. At home, it's all I can do to dirty up a dish long enough to eat off it."
At her expression a new thought struck me. "You know, don't you? You know what the problem is. You just don't know what to do about it."
Whereupon she gave up, reaching into her purse. "Yes," she sighed. "It's this. And more like it."
With a show of reluctance she withdrew a piece of yellow lined notebook paper, thrusting it at me.
"I have," she confessed, "been getting death threats."
When I first came to Maine, I thought old houses were ones whose air conditioning systems hadn't been built right in along with the sauna, whirlpool bath, and indoor swimming pool. Then I discovered Eastport, where the houses were so old that even the plumbing and heating systems hadn't originally been built in, and in some cases weren't securely established now.
And to make a long story short, one day when I was feeling psychotically optimistic I bought one of these houses, moved into it with my teenage son, Sam, and woke up the next morning having traded a gold mine of a career on Wall Street for a life in which just getting a nail hammered in straight was a major triumph.
In those first days I used to confront a balky window sash with the same miserable sinking sensation that Job must've felt, facing his trials. The only tools I'd ever used were the software programs designed to predict which foreign nation's currency unit might trump which other one's on any given day, so I could earn a penny per unit by trading a gazillion of them.
Patching a leaky two-hundred-year-old roof was a very different story, especially in December in Maine. I couldn't do it via computer; in fact just getting to the leak at all involved going up onto the roof, which at the time was coated with a sheet of ice.
Which is how I learned the two-step Maine method of patching a roof leak in the winter: (1) put a bucket under it and (2) wait until spring.
The next thing I learned was that heating an old Maine house costs the equivalent of the national budget of Peru, this being where I ended up wishing I'd moved that first January while the windows shook with the force of the gale blowing in around them.
You couldn't set milk out on the kitchen table unless you wanted it iced, and after a couple of frightening experiences I started putting a little antifreeze in the toilet tanks. Sam and I began wearing socks to sleep in, and by February we had added hats, mufflers, and gloves; we flipped coins over who would get to have the dog on our bed --- at the time we only had one --- and a couple of mornings I had to thaw the ice out of my eyelashes before I could open my eyes.
Finally one day when I was trying to write another check to the fuel oil company, to run the furnace which was so inefficient I might as well have been burning bales of hundred-dollar bills, the ink froze in my pen. In response I threw the pen across the room, wrapped myself in all the clothing I owned that I was not already wearing, and staggered down to Wadsworth's Hardware Store on Water Street to ask about buying a woodstove for the kitchen.
I figured that if we had one, Sam and I could just move into the kitchen, which was where we were spending most of our time anyway because (a) the rest of the house was too cold, (b) if you ran the oven constantly you might just keep frost from forming on the surfaces of your clothes, and (c) we cooked a lot because it was taking so many calories to maintain our body heat.
So I did ask. Whereupon the canny fellows at the hardware store sized me up in a glance, realized immediately that if they sold me a woodstove I would burn the house down with it, and decided to take pity on me.
"Here," one of them told me gently, "is what you need."
It was an absolutely gigantic roll of plastic sheeting, as thick as canvas, grayish colored, and so ugly you had to narrow your eyes just to look straight at it, and at first I thought the fellow meant I was supposed to wrap myself in it.
By that point it was an idea I'd have gone along with, I was so cold. But I didn't think I could get Sam to cooperate; for one thing, he had to go to school. And the task of sealing the dog up for the winter was beyond my capacity.
So I waited, hoping for further enlightenment. On the store shelves were many other products for winter insulation, but I had no idea how to use any of them, either.
While I stood there, a snowplow went by outside the big plate glass window. I could only see the operator's head over the drift he had piled up. Customers came in, stomped the snow off their boots, uttered a few syllables in a Maine accent so broad I could barely understand it, and were sent via equally few syllables to the proper aisle of the store.
The snowplow went by again. This time I could only see the top of the operator's bright orange hat. But at last one of the hardware store fellows returned.
"Havin' a bit o' trouble decidin', are we?" he asked me with a smile. His name tag read "Tim" and he pronounced the end of his question the Maine way: ah we?
"Yes," I replied gratefully. I gestured at plastic sheeting that came in so many sizes besides the roll, the packets of items confusingly labeled furring strips although I didn't see any fur, and tubes full of what appeared to be electrical cord, but why would you want ninety miles of it, and why was it so thin?
"I don't know what any of this stuff is, or what to do with the plastic," I admitted.
"You cover your windows with it," he replied. "It stops drafts. Or anyway, it slows 'em down some."
"Oh," I said, my heart sinking as I took in the truth:
I would be cutting big pieces from the rolled material, a challenge in itself. Also the tops of my windows were eight feet off the floor, so mounting the pieces would have to be done while standing on stilts. But if I didn't find some way to do it they'd be thawing me out with a hair dryer soon.
Tim hadn't been ignoring me, just giving me some space; for a newcomer to Maine it was sometimes a bit difficult to tell the difference.
"Look," he said finally. "How about I come over after work and show you how to do one of these? It's kind of a pain but it's not impossible once you get the hang of it."
Back in Manhattan any stranger who showed up at your door with a roll of plastic wanted to wrap your dead body in it. Later he would put you in the same landfill where he'd stashed the victims he'd murdered before you.
But if anyone in Eastport wanted to kill me, all they had to do was not help me now. I began telling Tim where I lived.
"I know," he said as he rang up the plastic and the ninety-mile heat cord, which turned out to be for wrapping around water pipes. Mine, I gathered, had not yet frozen solid only because I was new here, and was experiencing a sort of beginner's luck.
It wasn't, Tim suggested darkly, the kind of luck I could expect to last for long.
"You're the lady who bought the big old white house on Key Street," he went on. "From New York. Got a boy? Dog, too. Seems I heard you were in some sort of money business, back in the city."
I must have stared. In response his eyes twinkled. "Not a lot going on around here in the winter," he observed. "So we tend to get all the good out of any amusement that arrives."
The amusement being me. Humbly I took my change, and later Tim delivered my purchases and plowed my driveway. I stood by the window watching his Jeep's headlights move to and fro, feeling for the first time as if I were not completely alone here.
When he came in he accepted coffee and ten dollars; I got the idea that by offering the money I'd passed a small test. The plow blade was attached to the Jeep to generate cash, and knowing this without having to be told drew a nod of approval from him.
"I brought along a few other things I thought you needed," he told me, spreading them out on the kitchen table: a clawhammer, a pair of pliers, two screwdrivers --- one Phillips head, one flat --- a small pipe wrench, and a roll of silicone tape.
"With these, you're set for any emergency you can handle. Anything more, you'll need an electrician or a plumber. Later," he added, eyeing me closely, "I have an idea that might change."
And while I filled the hall shelves with the new tools this kindhearted semistranger had collected for me, he finally revealed the most important thing about putting plastic on your windows.
Which is don't cut it first. This will be your impulse, to cut a piece of plastic that seems to be of a size you can handle instead of having to maneuver the whole heavy awkward roll while simultaneously keeping your balance on a stepladder.
But put the plastic up first, pressing it to the sticky surface of the doublesided tape you have already affixed to the window trim and letting the roll fall to the floor. Spread the sheeting out at the top of the window, then at the sides, and finally at the bottom, smoothing it as you go.
Only when the plastic is fastened all the way around should you cut it, using a straight edge butted against the window trim for a guide. And presto, one whole window is covered with draft-busting plastic so hideous that the decorating police will come to your house and arrest you if they ever get word of it.
"Thank you," I told Tim sincerely when he was done with his demonstration, still not understanding quite why he had come over at all. Though he'd taken the plow money, he'd refused to be paid for his window-covering instruction.
" 'S all right," he replied. His hat had big furry ear flaps, accessories I had so far resisted. But as he pulled them over his ears I realized my notion of fashion was going to take a beating over the winter, too.
"Stuff some thick insulating material into all the fireplace and stovepipe openings," he instructed me as he departed. "In this old house, half your heat is probably goin' up them flues."
There was a wedding ring on his finger or I might've thrown him to the floor and ravished him right then and there.
"Stop up all the electrical outlets you're not using, the keyholes, mail slot and so on. I can't sell you a woodstove until you get somebody in to inspect your chimneys," he concluded kindly.
Later I learned that he belonged to the volunteer fire department, so I suppose there was self-interest in the woodstove advice Tim offered. And it didn't hurt that he'd sold me a lot of hardware products, the first but far from the last I would buy; soon whenever he saw me coming he would slide the cash drawer open and closed a few times just to make sure it was working smoothly.
But fire prevention wasn't the main reason for his visit, or planned profit, either. And although I didn't get it then, eventually I began to comprehend why he'd helped me on that frigid winter night.
He'd done it because he could. Because what goes around comes around. And in Eastport it can come with the devastating accuracy of a heat-seeking missile.
We grease the wheels of human kindness when we can, here; otherwise they might seize up on us some time when we can least afford it.
All of which brings me back to the unhappy woman sitting at my kitchen table that bright June morning a couple of days before we found Jim Diamond on the brink of death.
I wasn't sure helping Bella would turn the avenging angel of household hygiene back into an ordinary cleaning woman.
Also she was in possession of something I've always found to be a serious pain: that is, a series of apparent death threats.
None of which made me want to keep her in my employ, and I still wasn't sure I would. But something told me clearly that if I abandoned her now without even trying to find out a little more about her problem, the heatseeking missile of "What goes around, comes around" might wind up targeting me.
Which in the end it turned out to anyway, and so did the frighteningly intelligent attentions of a bloody murderer.
Excerpted from TOOL & DIE: A Home Repair Is Homicide © Copyright 2005 by Sarah Graves. Reprinted with permission by Bantam, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.