Cursing the wild raspberry brambles that snatched at his hands and the cold mist drifting in off the salt water a hundred yards distant, Eugene Dibble made his way clumsily through the overgrown brush and weeds behind the old McSorley place on Long Cove Road.
It was already midmorning, much later than he'd expected to be hanging around here. But he'd had to wait until the tenants went out.
Short-term tenants, only visiting for a few weeks according to what he'd heard. So wouldn't you think they'd have better things to do than sit around inside all day, delaying his plans? But finally their white van had backed from the driveway and pulled off down Long Cove Road.
About time, he grumbled inwardly. Stupid tourists going on another one of their stupid outings, he thought, plucking a thorn from the skin of his left hand as he pushed forward.
Cursing, he stumbled on an old broken-out section of picket fence hidden beneath the matted weeds. Damning his luck as he licked fresh blood from his wounded finger, he tried shaking the fence piece off his boot while eyeing the house again.
It was a small, cheaply built bungalow overlooking Long Cove, on Moose Island seven miles off the coast of downeast Maine. With faded red paint, sagging gray shutters each with the shape of an anchor cut into it, and a tumbledown attached utility shed at the rear, the house was one of dozens of such dwellings hurriedly put up by the Navy for its station here during World War II.
Yanking his boot from between a pair of rotting fence pickets, Eugene found himself remembering back when he was a kid, visiting the house for Cub Scout meetings. The fence had stood tall and proud then, painted white every year by Mr. McSorley, a retired Navy man himself.
Eugene wondered idly whether horse-faced old Mrs. McSorley ever figured out which Scout was pilfering her purse while he was supposed to be busy earning yet another of her half-assed merit badges.
Then the feeling of being jammed into the cramped house with a dozen other Cubs flooded back, the noise and little-boy smells. One week the meeting might be about butterfly collecting; this he had enjoyed because he liked sticking pins into the insects even though they were already dead, courtesy of a homemade gas chamber devised from a canning jar and a clump of alcohol-soaked cotton.
But the next week the troop's agenda might involve learning to make butter by shaking jars half filled with cream (and only recently emptied of butterflies, he'd suspected) until the boys' arms nearly fell off.
Eugene scowled as he recalled the yellow clots taking shape in the cream, which he'd tried to drink afterwards only to find it had turned to buttermilk. Stupid woman, he remembered thinking at the time; why wasn't there a merit badge for something useful like making beer?
The memory fled as another wave of his current mood, which was anxious resentment, washed over him again. The tenants were gone, off to experience the delights of this remote and undeniably scenic part of the Maine coast. And that --- the empty house just sitting there waiting for him --- was a good thing.
Still, nobody ever took him on an outing, did they? That was for sure. Instead he was out here risking life and limb in this decaying backyard jungle, the very sight of which would've given Mr. McSorley a heart attack even worse than the one that finally did carry him off.
And all for a paper bag that might or might not contain what Eugene had been promised that it would.
No, he corrected himself as another bramble snagged his pants leg. Not just promised: guaranteed. And if by some chance that guarantee didn't pan out in spades, Eugene thought as he kicked fiercely at the offending vegetation, it wouldn't be his neck that got broken. That was for sure, too.
His foot caught again, this time in a loop of bittersweet vine tough as rope, sending him flailing until he came down hard on his left ankle, twisting it painfully.
He bit back a yelp. No one could see him. The houses here at the west end of the island were too far apart and the intervening weeds and scrubby saplings too thick and tall, up over his head.
But it wouldn't do to have anyone hear him, would it? Some nosy idiot whose presence absolutely hadn't been planned on, who might hear him cussing and wonder what the dickens he might be up to, stumbling around out here in the brush and trash.
And remember it later maybe, too. No, Eugene definitely didn't want any of that. Wincing, he hobbled the last few yards to the edge of the thicket and peered again at the rear of the house.
No one in there. The whole plan depended on it. And on me, Eugene reminded himself with a fresh surge of annoyance as he scooted from the cover of brush to the broken back door.
Never mind that there's two in this plan, he thought darkly as he tried the old door. Two splitting the profit.
But only one taking any of the risk. Yeah, and what else is new? he thought irritably. If there might be a dirty end to the stick, just call Eugene. He's dumb enough to grab it.
Which had happened before, and was pretty much what he was doing this time, too, while his partner sat safely in the car up on the road, on the other side of the back lot.
So much for fairness. So much for sharing the work equally. But this time at least there was guaranteed to be a fine payoff.
One hard yank and the door to the falling-down little shed popped open. He glanced around furtively, then ducked inside and pulled it solidly closed behind him again.
And paused. No sound from within the house. He could hear his heart pounding but his breath came easier, though his ankle now felt like the fires of hell had been ignited inside his boot.
Reassured by the silence, he examined his surroundings. An old washing machine, some broken flower pots, cans of used motor oil . . . things had sure changed since the McSorleys lived here.
Man, and people said his place was a dump. Which it was, but at least he had an excuse. When you never got a break, just more struggles and disappointment, when the others got moonlight and roses and all you ever got was a kick in the face, then maybe you just didn't have the resources to keep everything all spiffed up and la-di-dah all the damned time.
He looked around some more, conscious that even with no one in the house he had better hurry. The bag should be right here somewhere. An ordinary brown paper bag, folded over and stapled at the top.
A bag with a couple of hundred illegal pills in it. Eugene felt his heart lift buoyantly just at the thought. Two hundred pills, twenty or even thirty bucks' profit on each: best case, and if his arithmetic was right, the score added up to a whopping six thousand dollars. Divided by two . . .
Which Eugene grudgingly admitted to himself was probably necessary, since someone had to sell the pills and he was not in a position to do it, especially not now with a bum ankle.
It was still a good payday for a relatively simple outlay of work, he told himself, even if he did have to split the cash. So all right, then, where the hell was the damned bag?
With a scowl of distaste --- for in his heart and despite the disorder of his own personal living situation, Eugene Dibble felt himself to be a fastidious man --- he began picking through the many items left here to decay by some long-ago occupant.
The shed's old double-hung windows, gone awry in their weather-beaten wooden frames, shivered in the wind as he searched, his hands stinging and blood-streaked from thorn scratches and his boots sliding on the mossy, uneven red bricks that formed the floor of the rickety structure.
Under old magazines: no. Behind a laundry hamper half buried in a pile of yellowed venetian blinds that clattered and fell as he touched them: nada. Under a heap of old ice-fishing gear . . .
The bag was supposed to be right out in plain sight, but of course that was too much to hope for. That would be way more luck than Eugene Dibble, at the relatively young age of forty-six a seasoned expert in the many varieties of ill fortune, had any right to expect.
Or so he griped to himself as he went on searching, now beginning to feel real worry along with the flares of anguish from his ankle each time his weight came down on his left foot.
Had something gone wrong? Even after all the assurances he'd been given, could the bag possibly not be here?
Then he froze, one hand on the top drawer of an ancient, veneer-peeling bureau with a broken mirror and the other on the lid of an old toolbox. A sound, somewhere in the house . . .
Guilt overlaid by a spine-tingling thrill of superstitious fear overcame him as he stood very still, listening for the sound to come again. Because the tenants were rumored to be . . .
Witches. That, anyway, was the story around town. A coven, Eugene had been told that it was called, and once he'd heard this rumor he'd done as much to spread it as anyone.
Not that he believed it. He'd never even seen them. But he figured the tale would help keep anyone else from burglarizing the place before he did, someone who might accidentally find the bag before he got to it.
Although finding it at all was turning out to be more of a chore than Eugene had expected. Just my luck . . .
When after a few more moments nothing else happened, though, he relaxed, even laughed a bit at himself. Some burglar he was; one funny noise and here he was getting all spleeny about it.
Spleeny; now there was a word he hadn't thought of in a long time. What his mother, a downeast Maine girl born and bred, used to say when she meant anxious, unreasonably nervous.
Still, he'd been in here too long. Irked at the amount of time the job was unexpectedly taking, he returned to his search.
Witches, that was a hot one, he thought as he poked beneath some old seat cushions. Four grown-ups and a kid from down south in Massachusetts, he'd heard; from the practical standpoint they couldn't have picked a worse time to occupy the old place.
Which wasn't surprising. It was how his luck always went. He unrolled a dusty rug; nothing in it. On the other hand, having the whole town all excited about a witches' group kept people from paying attention to any of Eugene's activities, didn't it?
Which did work out just fine. So like most things in his life, it was a trade-off. Damn, where was the bag?
Just then the sound came again, louder.
Footsteps. Soft but purposeful, coming steadily toward him.
Panicky, Eugene looked out through a shed window and spotted the crown of a dark blue baseball cap peeping through the weeds out back. Wondering what could be keeping Eugene, his partner in crime had apparently gotten out of the car, which they had both agreed that his partner would not
do, would not have any reason to do.
And furthermore would not have time to do, because this was going to be such a piece of cake.
Uh-huh, and look how well that worked out, Eugene thought, readying himself for a hasty exit.
So now his partner had come anyway. Gotten out of the car, pushed his way through the thorns and bittersweet, and hunkered down in the weeds at the back of the yard with his hands shading his eyes, probably, so he could try to see what was up.
Yeah, well, a complication was up, Eugene thought savagely, heading for the door. But when he grabbed at it the knob stuck and it was too late now. The footsteps were nearly in the shed.
And then they were in the shed. Feet clad in a pair of new, obviously pricey white sneakers appeared in the doorway.
Eugene stared at the expensive sneakers with a pang of his usual resentful envy, then let his gaze move upward to the things this utterly unexpected person held in each hand.
This person who was not supposed to be here, but was. In one hand: a paper bag, folded and stapled at the top. Eugene licked his lips as he caught sight of it.
There, only a few tantalizing inches away from him, was his six thousand dollars. Then very reluctantly he turned his attention to what his surprising visitor held in the other hand.
Oh, in the other hand.
Staring, Eugene thought about bad luck, reflecting that in spite of all his earlier mental whining he'd never really had any such thing, never in his whole life. But now . . .
In the other hand was a gun.
Aimed at him. Again he considered running. But the shed door was jammed, so to do it he'd have had to get closer to the gun.
Nope. Better try to talk his way out of this. Eugene opened his mouth but no sound came out. Or maybe he couldn't hear it through the sudden, impossibly loud explosion happening inside his head.
Abruptly he was looking up at the ceiling. Hell, he thought. Here a gun was aimed right at him and he couldn't even summon the breath to say anything about it. Those mossy bricks were cold and uncomfortable on his back, too, and the window had become drafty all of a sudden.
On the other hand, his ankle didn't hurt anymore.
Which was exactly the kind of dumb thought that hit you, Eugene Dibble realized with a stab of regret, when you were about to die. Plus a whole laundry list of irrelevant stuff like how amazingly much of the world there was, and how very little you had managed to experience of it in what had turned out to be your too-short life.
And how big the sky was, the sky outside if you'd only managed to make it there, and how high and bright the moon would be tonight if only you were still around to see it.
If only. Contrition pierced him suddenly. For the pocketbook pilfering. For all of it.
"This what you were looking for, Eugene?"
The paper bag, held up right over him, inches from his face. But it wasn't important.
Not anymore. A couple of the old windows reached all the way down to floor level. Eugene turned his head to somehow signal his partner in the weeds at the back of the yard.
Excerpted from NAIL BITER: A Home Repair Is Homicide Mystery © Copyright 2011 by Sarah Graves. Reprinted with permission by Bantam, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.