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Disheartened and broke, and too proud to ask her friend Tulip for help, a frustrated Callie lashes out in anger, and wreaks havoc on the Mayor's office. The tantrum earns her a blistering tongue lashing from Tulip, and a highly memorable spanking from the exasperated Chief of Police.
Behind the scenes, Rob has been trying to get the eviction order lifted, and with Tulip's help, he finally succeeds. When his aging houseboat home sinks, he rents Callie's back room, and the romance is rekindled. With her romance going beautifully, and her shop reopening, Callie's chaotic life finally seems to be back on track - kept there, sometimes, with a cautionary paddling from Rob McCaffrey.
And then, just when things are looking up, Callie stumbles over a body on the beach.
As the mystery of the victim's identity unravels, and the evidence seems to point to Tulip, Callie begins to be troubled by disturbing memories from her childhood. Memories of dark tunnels, and cries in the night. Half-remembered legends of a ghostly figure, dancing on a moonlit beach. And stories about a stolen child, who disappeared, and never returned.
As I watched the old wooden ferry maneuver into its usual berth alongside the dock, I found myself waiting for the warm swell of nostalgia that people claim to experience when returning home after a long absence. Home is where the heart is, and as every prattling school child knows, be it ever so humble, there's no place like home. But as I looked up toward Harbor Street at the place where I had grown up, my first thought was, "Can you believe it? They still haven't fixed the damned potholes!"
Which brought to mind the oft-quoted line by Thomas Wolfe: "You can't go home again." Personally, I've always thought Wolfe missed the point; it's not that you can't go home again. The real question for many of us is why would we want to? I was still pondering all this contradictory and melancholy wisdom as the Francine III began to reverse her clanking engines. The ferry was considerably older than I was, and once upon a time, it had belonged to my father, Max, who had opened the first ferry business on the island a few years before I was born. Now, as the Francine's clattering propellers churned the oily water along the wharf into a pale green froth, sending two-dozen frantic gulls aloft in alarm, I stuck my fingers in my ears.
It was what I used to do as a kid when the cries of the gulls grew loud enough to drown out the noise of the ferry's aging engines. Seagulls are one of the most beautiful species God thought up, but He sure as hell shortchanged them in the brains department. Generations of sturdy, squat little ferryboats like this one had been chugging back and forth between the mainland and the cluster of small outlying islands for as long as anyone could remember, inevitably going through the same routine. Yet, every time they began to dock, the seagulls reacted in the same way they were behaving today� by taking to the air en masse, shedding feathers and gobs of bird poop, screaming in abject terror. I used to imagine that a seagull ancestor had been inadvertently squashed by a similar ferryboat, and that the heart-wrenching tale of their patriarch's demise had been passed down through generations of his elegant but dimwitted relations. Like me, the gulls didn't seem capable of learning from experience.
I smiled, remembering something Dad had said to me when I complained about the gulls' stupidity. "I don't know, kiddo," he'd reproved me gently. "Can you sleep on the wind, or spot a fish the length of your finger from fifty feet up, then catch it on the first dive?"
Okay, so maybe I'm not as smart as a seagull, after all. There's not a lot of comfort to be had in being marginally brighter than a seagull, but at that point, I was looking for almost anything that could pass as a silver lining in the big, black cloud that had been following me around for the last few months. In the space of three months, I had managed to completely screw up my life by throwing away a promising career and a fianc� who was supposed to be my Prince Charming but turned out to be a toad. After six years in the Big Apple, I was coming home unemployed, unattached, depressed and without prospects. I was nearly broke, thirty-one years old, a spinster by all local reckoning. And to cap it all off, I was starting to find an alarming number of gray hairs on my head every morning. So there wasn't a lot of nostalgia in this homecoming. I was slinking back to the island of my birth out of financial desperation, with my tail between my legs, or to continue the avian metaphor, with my battered head tucked beneath my broken wing. And after six years away from the nest, nothing seemed to have changed. Not even me.
I wasn't going to starve. Not for a while, anyway. I had close to six hundred bucks in the bank, and my first unemployment check would arrive soon. And I had an ace in the hole: I was about to become the new proprietor of that charming but notoriously unprofitable local establishment called Four Winds, Far Corners.
For those of you who have never visited Jewel Box Island (and that would probably include every living human being in the known world other than the island's 1123 year-round residents and a few of their kin who can't afford to vacation elsewhere), Four Winds is a book shoppe. (Yes, the "e" is mandatory.) There are book stores, you see, and then there are book shoppes. Four Winds is the latter and always has been. Much of its eye-appeal, truthfully, has always been its overall shabbiness. Decrepitude can usually pass for antiquity, if you don't look too closely.
But the shop is charming. Relentlessly charming. Leaded glass windows and mock-thatched-roof charming. Snow White would have looked right at home tending the cunning little flowerboxes that grace the low front windows that sit tucked beneath the eaves. You can call the shoppe either Four Winds or Far Corners, by the way. It answers to either one. On her less profitable days, Mom often referred to it simply as the "effing store." A store, she explained dryly, is a place where one stores books, as opposed to selling them. This was the business I had come home to operate and from which I needed to eke out some sort of living.
A few years ago, after Dad died, Mom couldn't handle the memories and the quiet, so she moved away to Boston, leaving the Four Winds, Far Corners closed and shuttered and waiting for me to bring it back to life, presumably. She remarried a couple of years after that. The first time, she had fallen in love with a poor but rugged man of the sea�a ferryboat captain, to be precise. This time, she'd chosen an orthodontist�who actually made a handsome living.
Mom had written me that she'd left her old red bicycle in its usual place at the ferry office, so I knocked at the back door, identified myself to the guy who answered and collected the bike from the storage room. It had been collecting dust�and rust�for years. The front tire was flat, and there was a lot more rust on the fenders than when I saw it last, but my transportation options were limited, at best. I asked the guy to hold most of my luggage until the next day and walked the two blocks into the village, pushing the bike and dragging my smaller suitcase along on its three wobbly wheels.
There's only one stop sign on Jewel Box Island, right on the corner of Harbor Street and Cove Road, which are the only two thoroughfares that anyone has ever bothered naming. It's not an official stop sign, but it's the closest thing to an intersection we've ever had. Ed Guthrie made it back in 1983 from a section of warped plywood left over from the new potting shed he was building in his back yard. Ed's wife, Thelma had been driving into the village in their old Dodge Dart when she collided with another car, and nobody could figure out whose fault it was or who got to sue whom. Four Winds, Far Corners is just up the hill from "The Stop Sign"�which is what everyone calls the corner of Harbor and Cove, as in "Pick me up at The Stop Sign at four o'clock," or "I saw Dora down by The Stop Sign this morning, in that same awful slouch hat she always wears."
The only thing that had changed between the wharf and Harbor Street was Roscoe's Pool Hall. The sign was still up, but Mom had written me that Roscoe had sold out and moved away three years ago. Roscoe had opened the place with three tables, which turned out to be two more than necessary. In a lot of smaller New England towns, pool halls and/or billiard parlors are still thought of as playgrounds for idle loafers and those inclined to wickedness.
But Roscoe's appeared to be open again under new ownership. A very tall, very attractive man I didn't recognize was painting the front of the building. He was wearing a pair of ripped jeans and an undershirt and didn't look familiar, which was odd, because the island has never attracted a lot of new residents�or businesses. The guy wasn't what you'd expect either, since he appeared at first glance to still have all his teeth and hair. I guessed his age at around thirty-five, possibly a couple of years more. He was at least six-four�something I can always gauge because I'm exactly five feet tall in my stocking feet. Everyone I meet is taller than I am. I couldn't be sure, but I think he gave me the once-over as I walked by. (Oh, another thing I noticed. His eyes were a deep, clear blue. Sort of a summer-sky blue. Not important, probably. I just thought I'd mention it.)
"You need some help, there?" he asked. "Directions to where you're going?" The offer was polite enough, but I wasn't about to ask for help, especially from some guy I might have gone to school with. I was slinking back to Jewel Box Island broke and defeated, and I sure as hell didn't want the news spread around the village before I could devise a few believable lies about what I'd been doing since I left. What I wanted at this moment was a shower, a nap and some time to regroup.
"No, thanks," I lied, trying to sound cheerful. "I'm just going to the top of the hill."
He glanced up the steep incline that led to the shop, and motioned toward the decrepit bike. "Have you ever heard the expression, get a horse?"
I gave the bike's rear fender an affectionate but cautious pat. "I know it doesn't look healthy," I conceded, flushing with embarrassment, "but it'll get me where I'm going. It's lived its whole life on this island and knows all the ruts. My mom used to tell me that this vehicle was a Wright Brothers original."
"Well, if you need anything," he said, "like emergency first aid or oxygen, I'll try to point you in the right direction. I'm new here, myself, but I think I've about got the lay of the land."
"I'm not new, actually," I explained. "I'm coming back to Egdon Heath, after..." I paused, knowing how lame and pretentious that sounded. As a lifelong bookworm / wallflower, I have this really dumb habit of assuming that everyone else in the world is as crazy about books as I am, which makes my nervous little jokes come out sounding pretentious. "That's� uh� from a book. The Return of the Native, I mean." I sighed, realizing it just went from bad to worse. "I'm planning to reopen the village bookstore," I finished.
He put down the paintbrush, wiped his hands on his shirt and extended his hand. "No apology necessary. I'm a Hardy fan, myself. I'm glad to hear that shop is opening again. What's a picturesque seaside village without a quaint bookstore? Welcome back, then, and the best of luck. I'm Robert McCaffrey, by the way�Rob."
I didn't give my name in return, which was probably rude, but I did smile politely and shrug my shoulders wearily, to suggest that this sort of idle chitchat was simply out of the question on my busy schedule.
But he kept talking. "Why did you leave the island, if you don't mind my asking?" "I wanted to make my mark on the world, achieve fame and glory, see my name in lights, and set the world on fire."
He grinned. "How's that going so far?"
"Take a wild guess."
"Well, you came back at the right time. If you listen to the mayor, the island is about to become the garden spot of the Maine coast�a vacation paradise."
I looked around at the empty street. "Yeah, I noticed the crowds of tourists milling around."
"Be patient. There's a developer in town as we speak, discussing plans for a resort hotel and a marina. Can't you smell the money in the air?"
I lifted my nose and sniffed a couple of times. "So that's what it is. I thought it was just the ferry emptying its tanks.
I should explain here why I was being so rude to a perfectly nice, unusually attractive man with a body that I was having trouble keeping my eyes off of. There was a day, pre-Bradley (the discarded fianc�) when getting the once-over from someone who looked as good as Rob McCaffrey would have made my day. Or my month.
However, I had recently embarked upon a new policy with regard to men. Total abstention for at least a year, that was my plan, during which time I would evaluate my past romantic failures in brutally honest and exhaustive detail and attempt to chart a wiser course for the future. Surely, I told myself, not every man in the western hemisphere could be a moronic, insensitive clod, or a domineering, humorless fussbudget�two of the categories from which I had already chosen. I was just beginning my self-imposed abstinence, so I was a little disconcerted by how quickly I had noticed McCaffrey's deeply-blue eyes, his tanned, muscular forearms and the thatch of dark chest hair that peeked out from beneath his shirt.
Okay, I'll admit it. I wasn't just disconcerted. I'd left disconcerted behind the moment he took my hand in his to shake it. His hands were large and brown and rugged, with long, slender fingers that looked like they were used to hard work. Maybe it was the heat, or low blood sugar, or sexual deprivation, but suddenly I began imagining those strong, sure fingers moving slowly up the inside of my thighs, forcing my legs apart, slipping inside my panties� okay, you get the idea.
I caught myself just in time�hopefully before he noticed that I had begun to pant. Putting carnal temptation behind me, I mumbled a quick, "Thank you," and resumed my trek up the hill to the shop. The thought of a cold shower was driving me now. I was navigating the creaking bike through the ruts and dragging the wobbling blue suitcase behind me when another of its casters fell off. The handle of the same suitcase had broken off three days after I brought it home. Bradley had warned me that it was a cheap knock-off and not to buy it. I bought it anyway because I liked the color. As always, Bradley had been right. That was Bradley's main problem�or, more accurately, it was my problem with Bradley. He was always right, and I was always wrong. (Which may have been true, but it's the sort of thing that can get irritating, especially in bed.) I wanted desperately to turn around and look back to see if Rob McCaffrey was still watching me.
* * * As impossible as it seemed, the shop had barely changed. The lead-mullioned windows were a little grimier, the blue shutters a bit more faded, and the weeds had taken over the tiny front yard to the point that the meandering brick walkway that led to the front door was barely passable. The oval wooden sign hanging on the door from a rusted chain read, "Sorry You Missed Us! Please Come Again!" as though the proprietress had simply locked up and gone home for the day, to return first thing in the morning.
The snug little building housing The Four Winds, Far Corners Book Shoppe was already seventy years old when I was born, yet here it stood, looking as it always had. Mom had once printed up hundreds of ads with a color sketch of the shop, claiming that there was a legend that said both the cottage and the island itself were enchanted��a place where time stood still. We plastered the stupid fliers on every tree and fence post near the ferry dock on the mainland. It rained that night and turned our fliers to mush. Yet another fruitless attempt to entice tourists over to buy books they could get for less almost anywhere else.
I dropped my bag, leaned the bike against the building and sat down on the crumbling brick wall to study the aging bungalow where I'd spent so many happy hours as a kid. It was a little more forlorn and windblown than it had been on my last visit six years earlier, and the left shutter on the front bay window was hanging from one hinge. Mom wasn't big on fixing things and always claimed that she was leaving it "natural" to discourage thieves from breaking in to look for money or drugs. Since she usually sold a book on the average of twice a week and had always operated on the basis of "pay me next time, if you like it," her explanation for the store's condition never made a lot of sense. In retrospect, though, she may have been right. There had never been a robbery at Four Winds, Far Corners�with the exception of a shy, inhibited lady named Fiona Wycliffe, who came in now and then and shoplifted another sex manual.
After rummaging about in my purse, I found the yellowing photo I'd carried around with me since I left the island. I was twenty-five then, standing with Mom in front of the shop. Dad had died that spring, and I was spending the summer with Mom after completing my master's, sweating through a year in a publishing internship and finishing my first year as a genuine, full-fledged assistant editor. A sub-sub assistant editor to an associate editor was more like it, but McDowell-Parsons was one of the most prestigious publishing houses in the city. It had seemed like a great beginning to a promising career.
I met Bradley that fall, just after I returned to New York. He was attractive, financially well fixed and forceful, and he promptly convinced me that I would do better working as his "prot�g�"�in the advertising field. More money, more excitement, faster promotions. I fell for it, of course, almost as quickly and carelessly as I had fallen for Bradley.
My first account was for a manufacturer of "adult toys." For the next four years I promoted everything I had always hated, from cigarettes to war toys. My advertising career eventually ended in fireworks when I declined a fabulous opportunity to hawk a line of glitzy makeup, sexy underwear, and Dolly Parton-type glamour wigs to parents who signed their toddlers up for beauty pageants. Bradley was outraged that I didn't see the business potential in tiny sex queens, and I was outraged that he did. I moved out that evening, stayed with a friend and began disentangling myself from Bradley. Two days later, I discovered that most of what I had earned over the Bradley years had gone into the lavish Manhattan apartment we shared, but Bradley owned.
I slipped the photo back into my purse. There was no point crying over spilled milk or even soured milk. Not when you're the one who spilled it.
When I walked around to the back and found the rear door unlatched, I wasn't too surprised. I couldn't remember a time when the shop was kept locked. We actually lived in a carriage house that belonged to Miss Tulip Prendergast, the woman who owned the island, and my mother's best friend and customer, but during my adolescence, Mom's "open door policy" at the shop had provided a convenient, reliably private place in which to take my first tentative puffs of low-octane pot and to conduct my earliest romantic liaisons�such as they were. After brushing years of spider webs out of the doorway, I poked around the small studio apartment at the rear of the shop, hoping to find it reasonably weather-tight and still livable. Fortunately, I'd still been poor longer than I'd been rich, so the improvised two-burner "kitchen" and the rudimentary bathroom weren't too great a shock. The two rooms and cooking alcove would have fit into Bradley's spare bedroom, with enough space left over for his workout equipment. But our elegant "pied-a-terre" didn't have a panoramic view of sun-dappled Jewel Box Bay or a pull-chain toilet with a nest of mice behind the tank.
By late afternoon I'd unpacked what I brought up the hill with me, but the apartment was still a mess. Mom had been living with Tulip since Dad passed away, so the apartment had been empty for all that time. The smell of must and mildew permeated every corner, and everything in the place would have to be laundered or aired out. A thorough sweep and a little dusting rendered it marginally livable, and that was good enough for me�for now. Fortunately, my housekeeping standards have always been on the minimal side.
I had called ahead, so the power was already on. The water spurted from the taps like brown sludge at first, but eventually cleared enough to wash with and to drink, once I exhausted the stock of room-temperature diet Pepsi I'd found in the defunct fridge. The refrigerator hummed but didn't get cold, so I unplugged it and decided it would do nicely as a safe place to store things in case the mice took it in their adorable little heads to help themselves to my groceries. I was already sharing my tiny bathroom with the mice, and when I snuggled into my musty bed that night, I discovered I had company there, as well�inside the box springs.
Okay, so the place was a wreck, but the important thing was that it was my wreck. All of it. Tomorrow I'd begin work on the shop�and the rest of my life.
The following morning, after a restless night spent remembering every delicious detail of Bradley's well-stocked pantry and fridge, I made my way up the hill to Guillemot Cottage�to announce my return to Tulip.
Tulip is a wonderful human being, but she's a little complicated to explain. To start with, she owns Jewel Box Island. That's right. All of it. Every square, scruffy inch. From the ancient hilltop mansion her father built more than a hundred years earlier, to the island's coves and beaches and rocky shoreline. If she could have found someone dumb enough to buy the island, Tulip Prendergast could have been as rich as Croesus, or even Oprah Winfrey.
At the age of eighty-nine, Tulip had never attended school, traveled more than forty miles from the island or set foot in a large city. She had lived alone in a decaying house with nine bedrooms for the fifty years since her father died. She was still a virgin�a fact she had accepted as her lot in life, but was fully prepared to change if the right gentleman appeared. She thrived on detective stories, and though she'd never met a real-life gangster, she'd absorbed so much dialogue from cheap detective thrillers that she often sounded like a character out of a Mickey Spillane novel. Most people who didn't know her well regarded her as just that�a "character." For many years I thought of that as an insult, but the older I got and the more "normal people" I met, the more complimentary it seemed.
I hadn't told Tulip I was coming, but she didn't seem especially surprised to see me and greeted me at the door with a sour expression. "So, you finally left that cold-blooded prick. I hope you cleaned the sonuvabitch's clock before you skipped town."
"I stole a lot of his towels," I said, hoping that a bit of post-relationship larceny might improve my image. "The expensive fingertip ones, with the monogram." (Bradley's last name is Harding. Mine is Harris. Hence, the towels.)
Tulip shook her head in disgust, apparently unimpressed by my paltry take. "You always were a damned imbecile where men are concerned�like that dickhead mortician you let walk all over you in high school. Well, now that you're here, you might just as well come on in. I'm glad you're home. You look like shit."
Since the old carriage house where I'd once lived was decaying with dry-rot, Tulip spent half the afternoon trying to persuade me to move into the cottage with her and the other half telling me what a halfwit I was for leaving the island and going off to take up with that worthless city-bred asshole in the first place. While listening to the familiar tirade, I managed to take a quick bath in a real tub, eat the two steaming bowls of clam chowder and the two-and-a-half grilled cheese sandwiches she forced on me, plus down a package of Oreos and a half-quart of milk. Finally, bearing canned goods, a lot of kitchen stuff and two sets of sheets that had been mine as a child, I tottered back down the hill to the shop, juggling the several cardboard boxes and a small toaster-oven. Inside the first box, tucked inside Tulip's old stainless steel percolator, I found five hundred bucks in twenties. I was touched but not surprised by her generosity. Tulip is a notorious skinflint, but she's always had a soft spot for me. I crawled into bed, where I could feel sorry for myself and stay warm at the same time. When it began to rain, I lay awake for a couple of hours listening to the storm, grateful for the comforting sounds of the mouse family scrabbling busily around somewhere in the box-springs�just beneath my pillow.
The next morning I woke up feeling confident and cheerful, eager to take on the task of cleaning the shop, dusting and restocking the shelves. I was dancing around the room with a broom, singing the happy little work song from "Snow White" when I saw an old enemy coming up the walk. Mayor George Dooley was paying me a visit, and he looked unusually grim. I set my broom aside, and went outside to greet him.
"I was hoping to stop you before you started moving back in," he said irritably, waving his hand at the mess I'd created in the front of the store. "You'll have to find somewhere else to live. This building has been condemned. Didn't you see the notice on the door?"
Okay, so I had noticed the notice, but I hadn't read the notice. Not every little detail of it, anyway. I had assumed it was a clerical error. Treating official-looking documents on my door or in my mailbox as clerical errors was a longtime habit. It never prevented disaster, but it sometimes bought me a little time.
"Condemned?" I cried. "Why? This building is as solid as a rock!" My little speech might have been more convincing if the shutter hadn't fallen off as we stood there. Dooley just shook his head.
"That's exactly what I'm talking about."
I looked around. "What?"
He picked up the shutter and leaned it up against the wall. "You know perfectly well, what. The Town Council assumed that Miss Prendergast would be willing to take you in."
"I don't need to be taken in," I growled. "This sounds to me like a conspiracy and some sort of greedy land grab."
"Don't be ridiculous," he snapped. "You couldn't pay me to take this dump. It should have come down years ago. It's always been an eyesore, and the only thing holding it up now is the cobwebs and rusted pipes. If you won't leave voluntarily, we're going to have to get the law involved."
He handed me a sheet of paper that looked ominously official.
"You'll note that this second order is signed by the new Chief of Police."
"We have police?" I asked, a bit taken aback.
"We will," he explained. "The funds for two additional uniformed personnel are included in the proposed five-year city improvement plan."
"So, this new guy you hired is sort of Chief of the Proposed police?"
Dooley glared at me. "Are you trying to be a wiseass?" he snapped. "You were a wiseass as a child. Always had your nose in damned book, just like you mother�when you weren't running around like a godless heathen, getting into trouble and poking your nose in where it didn't belong. My father used to say that what the two of you needed wasn't another trip to the library, but a good old-fashioned trip to the woodshed."
I considered the source and chose to ignore the remark. Besides, there was an element of truth in what old George had said. I wasn't the most well-behaved of children. "What does he do now, this sort of proposed chief?" I asked.
He pointed to the signature on the official looking paper and smiled. "That's one thing he does. He signs eviction notices. Thirty days, and if the roof comes down on your head before then, you have no one to blame but you and your own stubbornness."
As he stormed off down the hill, I went back inside and resumed sweeping. I was fairly sure that the eviction notice was no big deal, and that Dooley was merely being his usual, officious pain in the butt. Besides, it was anybody's guess when the issue would come before the trio of argumentative senior citizens islanders called the Town Council. Everything of a civic or quasi-legal nature on Jewel Box had always moved at a snail's pace or got dropped for lack of interest.
But I made a mental note to have a word or two with this new Chief of Police when I finally ran into him. About private property rights and the U.S. Constitution. That kind of thing.