The Shroud Collector
“Crossman has created a delightfully unique detective in Winston Crisp, who uses his brains, not his brawn. With the help of a charming cast of supporting characters, both author and sleuth triumph with panache.” Tess Gerritsen, New York Times best-selling author.
“It is the author’s intimate portraits of life on a Maine island that pull this book together and give it character. Neither Nero Wolfe, nor Columbo, nor most of the rest of the thousands of storybook sleuths ever came close.” Brunswick Sun Journal
“David Crossman is a wizard. The Shroud Collector is a charmingly crafted, magically airy book, not to be mistaken for a lightweight.”
Kennebec Sunday Journal
“…A sheer wind-chased delight. This second in an excellent series (has) more levels than a warped floor, and a most satisfactory cast of genuine characters who get under your skin.” Courier Publications
“A colorful, lively story. Just right for curling up with by the fire on a cold, dark night.” Points East
“Puzzles that will confound until the final pages. This is a book that sees Maine through a poet’s eyes.” Sun Journal, Sunday
Winston Crisp, retired National Security Agent, is back in the thick of a murder investigation with more twists and turns than the coastline of Penobscot Island, its Maine setting. Although he barely survived his last adventures in A Show of Hands, Crisp’s deductive instincts are still intact, even when faced with such baffling evidence as a corpse with tears in its eyes, shriveled feet, bruised knees, and a missing shoe. With his remarkable code-breaking and sleuthing skills, octogenarian Crisp uncovers a multilayered plot with roots in two other unexplained deaths, including that of a WWI German spy.
by David A. Crossman
SEPTEMBER 3, 1935
ooooThe storm that had been threatening all day finally broke, as if someone had run a filet knife along the bulging underbelly of the thick black clouds.
ooooBandy Wiley stared out the window, the driven drops of rain on the glass creating the illusion of tears on her face. “Who was them kids? Do you know?”
ooooHer brother, slumped in the overused sofa, stared into the empty fireplace and grunted.
oooo“What?” said Bandy, turning from the window.
oooo“I didn’t say anything,” Willy snapped. “I don’t know. I never seen ‘em before. Summer kids.”
oooo“You think they saw anything?”
ooooWilly sucked loudly at his can of Carling Black Label. He didn’t reply.
oooo“You think they saw?” Bandy repeated, her voice rising with anxiety.
oooo“Shut up, will you,” Willy snapped sharply. “How’m I s’posed to think with you blabberin’? Just shut up.”
oooo“Me shut up!” Bandy wailed, her anxiety rising. “Me? Who was it dug the hole while you was pacin’ back and forth moanin’ like a baby? Me shut up? If it wasn’t for me, she’d still be bangin’ ’round in the back of your truck. You friggin’ fool . . . you ignorant. . .I s’pose that was your idea of a plan.”
ooooWilly’s lower lip quivered and tears puddled in his eyes. “I didn’t mean for it to happen, Ban. I was just playin’ around, you know. l,ike I do. You seen me a hundred times with girls. You know. Just playin’ around. Foolin’, is all.”
ooooBandy’s anger subsided. Her older brother wasn’t retarded, but he didn’t miss it by much. All her life she’d been getting him out of scrapes, but nothing like this. She’d done the first thing that came to mind. But was it the right thing? If only their father were alive.
ooooShe turned again to the window and stared at the streetlight on the corner. “See what you get when you fool around?”
ooooWilly was on the verge of sobbing. He buried his head in his hands and spoke through his fingers, his voice mucousy and wet.
“She was just teasin’, too, Bandy. She teased back, like they do.”
oooo” I doubt it,” Bandy replied. “She wasn’t like that.”
oooo“Then she said some awful things,” Willy replied upon consideration.
oooo“Well, you prob’ly had it comin’.”
oooo“I just give ‘er a little push,” Willy said in his defense. “I didn’t know she was so close to the edge of the deck.”
oooo“You just give her a little push,” said Bandy, turning to face him. She fastened him with her dark eyes, full of fear and rage. “You don’t know your strength. People are always tellin’ you to leave them alone. All you done your whole stupid life is push people around! You can’t do that, Willy. Everybody’s smaller than you. You can’t –”
ooooWilly had dug his fists into his cheeks and was peering at her over them, his knuckles stained with tears. Bandy fell to her knees in front of him. “You know that, don’t you, Willy? You know now, don’t you? You can’t ever let somethin’ like this happen again. Not ever.”
ooooUnable to restrain himself any longer Willy burst into a storm of pathetic sobs. “I won’t, Ban. I won’t. I swear.” He threw his arms around his sister’s neck. “Don’t say nothin’, Ban. Don’t tell nobody.”
oooo“Don’t you worry ’bout it,” Bandy replied, stroking the back of his head with her dirt-caked palm.
ooooBandy had no idea what the legal consequences of his crime might be, but given the hand that life had dealt her and her brother so far, it wasn’t hard to imagine him strapped in an electric chair.
ooooThat wasn’t going to happen. She’d see to it. She seized the lucky brimstone that hung on a string around her neck, raised it to her lips, and kissed it three times: once for Willy, once for her and once for the soul of Cailey Hall.
oooo“Come Thursday you’ll be back on your ship.” She laughed a hollow laugh in his ear. “When it comes to gettin’ away from somethin’, the Merchant Marines beats the French Foreign Legion all to pieces, don’t it?”
ooooWilly buried his head between her breasts and quaked silently in her arms, soaking her blouse with his tears. “I’ll take care of everything,” Bandy assured him softly. One way or the other, she’d been taking care of him ever since their father died when she was eleven and her brother was sixteen. Their mother had run away long before that. It didn’t matter that she’d gone only to the other side of the island; it might as well have been another planet for all they’d seen of her since. Bandy folded Willy into the shelter of herself. “Don’t you worry,” she crooned.
ooooFor a while they clung to each other, suspended above a gaping chasm that could be filled only with prayers. But Willy and Bandy hadn’t been raised to pray. So they twisted and cried, with nothing but echoes in reply.
ooooAt last, Bandy seized Willy firmly by the shoulders and pushed him to arm’s length. Then she lifted his chin until their eyes met.
oooo“Willy, you can’t come back to the island, you know. Don’t you ever, ever come back.”
oooo“But I won’t see you!” This realization tore a renewed torrent of tears from the young man. For a long time his sobs echoed from the walls of the weatherbeaten clapboard house by the cove. “What am l gonna do without you!”
ooooBandy had no tears. Embracing her brother with all her might, she questioned the darkness with her eyes, whispering to herself bcneath Willy’s sobs: “Who was them kids?” she clutched the brimstone and made a wish against them.
October 16, l9l0
ooooThe body in the waves moved to the rhythm of the ocean, erratic in the aftermath of the recent hurricane. It mesmerized the tall, hard-faced woman as she stood on the bluff overlooking the little cove, staring through thick glasses, her mouth opened in a scream that never came. Horror had stolen her breath away. Not that there was much body left, just leathery skin-draped bones dressed in the remnants of clothes long out of fashion. A tangle of long dirty-blond hair floated on the water, surging back and forth with the angry push and pull of the surf.
ooooThere were no eyes in the gaping skull, but the water that was pooled in the sockets reflected the sun, which now and then peeked through the scudding clouds, giving the illusion not of life but of restless death.
ooooThere was no one else on the moor – a nervous glance or two had told her that. For a moment she stood wringing her hands, scanning the horizon for any sign of a lobster boat. It was October; they were usually all in by this time of day. In the far distance she could make out the sails of a schooner receding south, fleeing winter in Penobscot Bay for the warm waters of the Caribbean.
ooooShe slipped once or twice on the seaweed in her haste down the ledges to the shore. Pulling up the legs of her dungarees as she went, she waded into the ocean, pulled the sodden remains from the surf, and draped them over her shoulder, fighting the impulse to be sick as the frigid water drained from the corpse and down her neck.
October 28, I970
oooo“Really, Annie, I insist. If you can talk Paul into coming here for the holidays, I won’t have to go to all the bother of closing up the house while I’m away. You’d be doing me a favor.” Kitty’s words oozed welcome, but her eyes, as she stared through the window at the harbor, were full of the coming winter. “What? Margaret? Of course. Bring her along.” That would mean opening the north bedroom; Cal wouldn’t like that. Nuisance. “How cozy. She must be such a comfort after . . . after all you’ve been through.”
ooooFor a while, early that fall, it had seemed that Anne was losing her battle with depression. According to her husband, she’d spent most of her time in bed, benumbed with pills. Lately, though, she’d shown signs of improvement. He thought she was up to the trip, but, because of the recent friction in their marriage, she wouldn’t take such a suggestion coming from him. She’d have to think it was Kitty’s idea.
oooo“You know I’m right, Annie,” Kitty prodded gently. A mild thunder shook her heart. If she could talk the distraught woman – her oldest and dearest friend – into accepting the offer, everything would be all right. Everything would be perfect. “It’ll do you a world of good to come back to the island. You know how peaceful it is. Just what the doctor ordered.”
ooooAnne was hesitating.
oooo“You won’t have to lift a finger if you don’t want to,” Kitty continued. “Cal will take care of everything.” A lot of good Cal was lately – nervous as a cat, jumping at shadows, and stalking the night like a distracted specter. Still, she was competent with her chores. If she could hold on through the holidays; Paul thought that would be long enough. “What do you say, my dear?”
ooooAnne’s initial resolve was crumbling audibly.
oooo“I won’t take no for an answer, you hear?” Kitty persisted. “As far as I’m concerned, it’s settled. If you need me for anything, I’ll either be at the house in Alexandria or the cottage on Aruba. We’ll keep in touch by phone.
oooo“You just come and make yourself at home for as long as you like – a month, at least. As long as you want. Pardon? Oh, I’m sure Paul will see the sense in your getting away for a while. I’ll talk to him if you like. Certainly can’t hurt, can it? Do you a world of good, dear. A world of good. Mind you, I’d warn Margaret she won’t find much companionship on the island in winter. Not much mental stimulation to be found after Labor Day, if you know what I mean. Only the local people.
oooo“What’s that, dear? Oh, yes. Of course. You’ll have no end of rest. It’s like another world out here. The occasional hiker and whatnot, but no one to bother you.” Kitty drew the final arrow from nher quiver and fit it to the string. “I think it would be good for Paul, too. Don’t you? A little time away together could be just what you need to sort things out.”
ooooKitty listened intently, but her eyes didn’t move from the harbor.
oooo“You leave him to me, dear. I’ll call him at work. No, no. Don’t trouble yourself. I’ve got the number of the State Department around here somewhere. They’ll track him down for me.
oooo“All you have to do is show up, and leave everything else to me. ”
December 27, l9l0
ooooAugustus Knight didn’t like Penobscot Island. In particular, he didn’t like the islanders. Those who loved him best would have said he enjoyed not only the perquisites and privileges of his position as Chancellor of the University, but the subtle obeisance offered him by his fellow academics, a deference that, he imagined at some unspoken level of his psyche, was tendered not so much in consideration of his position as in recognition of a manifest superiority that his character betrayed, a superiority that islanders were too dull to comprehend.
ooooFar too socially aware to give voice to such sentiments, he nevertheless entertained them – and heartily – as, with his hood pulled snugly over his face, he made his way solemnly up Main Street, past the little knot of gossiping natives outside rhe post office, on his way to the Bermann estate.
ooooOf course, they would talk about him when he was out of hearing. Let them. What else had they to talk about?
ooooWithin the insular world of academe Augustus had no difficulty maintaining the presumption that his was a larger world where issues of consequence were scrutinized and dissected by the intellectually agile whose resolutions would, in time, be distilled by the social machinery and spoon-fed to the masses for the benefit of humanity.
ooooOutside the bubble, however, among people who could repair outboard motors, knit nets, and gather the necessities of life from their surroundings, that conceit could only be sustained by a running interior monologue designed to demonstrate, to his own satisfaction at least, his intellectual superiority.
ooooSuch a display would of course, if given tongue, be wasted. Should he turn and skewer the populace – among them the ferry attendant who offered him a cigar as he stood heaving his breakfast over the railing, and the supercilious restaurant worker who had given him directions to the Bermann estate – with but a sampling of the intellectual pyrotechnics of which he was capable, they would stare him blankly, too thick to realize he had made asses of them.
ooooThe liberal conscience of his better self battled halfheartedly against the arguments that formed, of their own volition, to the cadence of his footsteps. What were these thoughts other than harmless amusements with which to exercise his brain? By the time he reached his destination, he had suppressed the niggling whispers of inferiority sufficiently that he was almost eager for the interview with Johnny Bermann; an equal.
ooooKnight’s part of the upcoming dialogue had been carefully framed on the drive from Orono to Rockland and between bouts of seasickness during the crossing. He stood for a moment by the cemetery at the head of the dirt drive descending to the Bermann estate and turned the delicate network of phrases over in his mind. He must be careful not to invite suspicion. His solicitousness after his old schoolmate ‘s health must seem genuine. Paramount. Only in passing would he make reference to the upcoming election and his aspirations. An aside. A caprice? No. A duty. Yes, a duty. Johnny would appreciate that. It would demonstrate how much he’d changed. He had become chancellor, after all.
ooooOf course, no direct reference could be made to cheating at school all those years ago. Remember how foolish we were in those days? he’d say, with a brief, lighthearted laugh in punctuation. Of course, things were different then, weren’t they? We were different. We’ve learned so much over the years. We’ve learned what’s important, haven’t we? We must put childish things aside. A Biblical quotation! Perfect. It inferred penance. ‘Well, I just wanted to know how you are. You’re writing a book, I understand?’ Don’t introduce the topic too soon, he reminded himself; say it in passing. A simple “by the way,” perhaps after the second cup of ginseng tea. That would be appropriate. Scholarly. Unless, of course, Johnny brought up the book first. ‘Oh? Really? That’s wonderful! What’s it about?’
ooooThat would work nicely.
ooooOnce Knight had the information he needed, he could respond accordingly. He’d worked that through as well. Lost in thought as he mechanically strode toward the house, he was almost surprised by the sound of his knuckles rapping on the door.
ooooThere was no reply.
ooooA frigid gust of wind blew up from the bay and slapped his cheeks. He tugged the drawstrings of his hood a little tighter. “Johnny? Are you home? It’s Augustus . . . Auggy Knight.”
ooooStill no reply. He rapped again. There was a shuffling sound on the other side of the door, then a slow, deliberate lifting of the latch as the door swung open, revealing a version of Johnny Bermann Knight didn’t recognize. Disease had sapped his vitality, and his eyes seemed to echo the crypt.
oooo“My God!” Augustus exclaimed involuntarily.
ooooThere would be no tea.
December 29, l910
oooo“Listen to that wind howl,” said Matty. She lifted the shade on the solitary window in Winston’s room and peeked out into the blindness of snow. “All I think about is them poor little animals out there, tryin’ to find somethin’ to eat.”
ooooWinston knew she’d feed them all if she could – bake them thick, steaming berry pies with juice oozing through little geometric slits in the crust and over the sides of aged, chipped graniteware pie pans. She’d bring them inside and make them drink hot tea and cranberry juice and eat scones dripping with butter. Then, when they were done, she’d tuck them into little beds, for which she’d stitchcd the quilts herself, and make them stay there until spring. That was Matty – a name that was, to Winston Crisp, synonymous with home and welcome. And optimism. Most of all optimism. Not long ago she was the only one on the island who thought he’d live ‘til tomorrow’s mail.
ooooHe didn’t reply to her observation about the weather, but she wasn’t surprised. He hadn’t replied to anything she’d said for months. “He’s doing so much better,” she told Esther Poole every day at the post office.
ooooToday she’d had something new to report. “He’s makin’ these little noises down in his throat that sound almost like words. Well,” she amended, reining in her enthusiasm, “little gruffles, anyway. Is that a word, ‘gruffles’? That’s what it sounds like to me.
oooo“Doctor Pagitt says he’s through the worst of it’ comin’ out’ve the coma like he done-praise the Lord'” She thought for a second’ “Well, he doesn’t say that – I do. I s’pect he thinks he did it all himself.”
She chuckled. “Anyway, I don’t imagine he’ll ever take up the bicycle again – not that he should’ve been on one in the first place at his age – but he should be up and around come spring … Summer anyway.”
ooooThings couldn’t have been better for Matty. Since his recovery from the coma she’d had an invalid all her own’ someone to tend to who couldn’t talk back. If Winston looked as though he needed his pillow fluffed, it got fluffed, with no argument’ If she felt a chill, Winston got an extra blanket or two. If she was a little warm-well, at Winston’s age, there was no such thing as too warm.
oooo“Come spring, I expect,” she’d repeated a little sadly’ Not that she’d mind having him up and around again, reading her the poems he’d written that every editor in the free world seemed to regard as a personal insult. She loved his poems. They rhymed, and she could understand what they were about. And they stirred up real feelings –a smile, a tear. What was wrong with that?
ooooBut once he was master of himself, she kncw he wouldn’t let her fuss over him anymore. He’d say. Now Matty. three pieccs of pie is all I can eat. He wouldn’t want hospital corners on his sheets, because he liked to kick his blankets out ar the end. She couldn’t understand how a civilized man could sleep that way, with his bare feet sticking out, and why he never froze to death. But he wasn’t going to court disaster on her watch. As long as he was immobile, she’d put socks on his feet and make sure they were tucked in nice and warm, just the way she liked hers.
ooooWhen she was in his room, she talked a blue streak as she puttered and straightened and dusted’ Ostensibly it was to keep him company, but beneath the level of admitting it to herself, she kept up the chatter to keep the ghosts at bay. Ever since the night last summer when that young woman had gone screaming down the strairs and out into the night like a banshee, the room had been full of her presence. Clean as Matty might be, even she couldn’t
expunge the residual horror from the blue-flowered wallpaper. The very doilies, witness to the surreal nightmare of the events that led to Crisp’s near death, reeked with a dark, unnameable madness.
ooooThe sound of Matty’s words also drowned out the persistent inner voice that whispered it had all been her faurt: She should have known; she should have reacted faster. Never mind that she’d saved his life. It should never have gotten so close – not under her roof. Not to her Winston.
ooooIt had been a very near thing. Near enough so no one in town mentioned crisp’s name aloud during the early, breathless stages of his convalescence for fear that such mention would remind the angel of death that he’d left a job unfinished. Even now, five months later – with the “Professor,” as Crisp was known to the townsfolk, well on his way to recovery – When conversation turned to the deaths of Mostly Sanborn and that poor redheaded girl whose body was found frozen in ice, voices automatically fell to just above a whisper.
ooooCrisp watched Matty appreciatively as she made her customary rounds of the room, dusting where there was no dust, straightening what wasn’t crooked, and in between patting her blue-gray hair that she imagined errant, or mindlessly pinching the pleats in her apron and pressing them into respectable ridges between her thumb and forefinger.
ooooHe had a surprise for her. He cleared his throat. She stopped and turned attentively, thinking he might need something. “Winston?” she said. “What do you want, dear? Do you want the paper and pencil?”
ooooHe cleared his throat again. “Matty,” he said. His voice was ragged and hoarse, but there was no doubt about it; he’d spoken her name. The effect was impressive and immediate; Matty’s fingers froze in midworry. Unprecendented.
oooo“Winston?” she breathed in disbelief, taking a tentative step toward him. “Did you say something?” She had to be sure it wasn’t just wishful thinking.
oooo“I believe I did,” said Crisp with a smile that practically cracked as it made its way across his mouth. There were pops and crackles in the words, but that was to be expected of a mechanism so long unused.
ooooThe look on Matty’s face was worth the price of admission. She sank sideways into an old white wicker chair that complained loudly of its sudden, unexpected burden. “Winston,” she repeated’ “Praise the Lord!”
oooo“Amen,” said Winston simply. “Merry Christmas – a little late I’m afraid.”
ooooUnwonted tears overflowed Matty’s eyes. She buried her face in her dust cloth, and for two or three minutes her body surrendered to the violence of her emotions.
oooo“So I told her, ‘You know what, Missy?’ I says’ ‘God give animals just enough brains to keep ‘em fresh'” Joel Philbrook laughed at his joke. So did the other old men gathered around the potbellied stove, as they had a hundred times before, ever since last summer when Joel had a dispute with the young hippie with the “Love Animals, Don’t Eat Them” button on her peasant blouse. Entertainment was hard to come by on the island in winter.
ooooOutside the hardware store, two industrious young boys were shoveling narrow paths in the deep new snow. It was light and powdery and shoveled easily, but the fierce southwest wind, swirling indecisively, whipped it back in their faces, no matter which way they heaved it, and stuffed it down the necks of their shirts.
oooo“How much you payin’ them boys to rearrange the snow?” said Harry Ames. He took a long, loud sip from a thick green glass Coke bottle and drummed his rope-worn fingers impatiently on the game board, making the checkers jump. “You gonna move, Bergie?”
oooo“It ain’t my move,” Bergie replied calmly through the overhang of his thick black mustache. He took an expressive pull on his old meerschaum pipe. “It’s yours. I been waitin’ five minutes.”
oooo“It ain’t either my move,” Harry contended. “I moved this little fella” – he rested a bony finger on one of the ancient wood pieces – “from here to here.” He repeated the move. “Instant replay, just like on Wide Worlda Sports.”
ooooBergie tossed a wicked wink at Drew, who was stoking the fire.
oooo“And I moved this one over here, mister man.”
ooooHarry saw at once that hedd been wrong, but he wasn’t about to admit it. “You didn’t neither,” he sputtered. “Did he, Drew?” This appeal directly to the owner of the worthy institution bypassed the lesser judges seated in the semicircle, most of whom had already begun to snicker.
oooo“I can hear the gears slippin’ all the way over here.” said Bergie, tapping his temple.
oooo“Well, I guess it’s a familiar sound,,’ Harry retorted. “Must keep you up most nights.”
ooooThe tide of laughter turned and briefly washed up on the shore at Bergie’s feet. Harry, a nervous bundle of eccentricities fueled by prodigious amounts of carbonated caffeine, was an easy target, but once in a while he gave as good as he got. He took another determined sip of Coke. He would have gained a point if only he’d left it alone. “Did he move, Drew?”
ooooDrew emptied the ash pan into a beaten old scuttle. A scattering of live coals poked their head through the ashes and made faces at the world. “Don’t ask me. You two been sittin, there so long I was about to put price tags on you.”
ooooJoel chortled. “I doubt you’d get much for ‘em. Drew.”
oooo“Sure I would. Sell ‘em as scarecrows.”
ooooEveryone but Harry laughed. “Cuss-ed fools,” he said. He leveled a malicious glare at Joel. “Why don’t you go back up to East Haven where you belong?”
ooooThe barb hit home. Of course, Joel had lived on Penobscot lsland for more than seventy years – since he was six weeks old – but there was no disputing the fact he’d been born on East Haven.
ooooSome things are beyond debate.
oooo“Wind’s fillin’ them paths up fast as them boys can shovel,” Pharty observed from his seat near the window. At nearly eighty, Pharty had earned a seat closer to the stove, but he preferred to sit near the door. From there, through the huge storefront window, he had an uninterrupted view of Main Street and enjoyed describing the comings and goings to the others. He did it well.
ooooInwardly Harry repented of his comment, but it would remain an unspoken sorrow. He moved his checker.
ooooA hand-painted ’31 Chevy pickup pulled into the parking lot across the street and stopped in the lee of the massive stone eagle that had been erected to commemorate the island’s glory days, when granite, not lobsters, was king. A heavily bundled figure squeezed out of the cab, fending off the wind-heavy door.
oooo“Here comes Stump, ” Pharty announced. “Better hide the silver. ”
ooooHe’d have said that no matter who was coming.
ooooDrew fluffed the faded green corduroy cushion in Stump’s worn wood chair near the fire, then took the stained porcelain cup from its hook on the chimney and filled it with hot, strong coffee.
oooo“He’ll be wantin’ that,” said Moochie. “Wind must go through him like an old fence. How old is he now, anyway?”
ooooDrew, who kept the town records, knew that Stump would be ninety-two next week, on January 4, but that was privileged information so he kept it to himself, as he did a lot of things.
oooo“Too old to be drivin’,” said Harry. “And that truck’s older’n mud.”
ooooDrew brushed off a short three-legged stool and tucked it under the chair, just the way Stump liked it. “I don’t guess he’s apt to do any more damage than these teenagers you see tearin’ ’round here most nights.”
“Don’t drive fast enough to bend grass,” said Joel.
ooooHarry ignored them. “In this weather, too. And two-thirds blind.”
oooo“Oh, don’t worry ’bout it,,’ said Pharty. “He could drive around the island blindfold anyhow. Here he is.” The door latch clicked.
ooooAs the door swung open, the wind gave Stump a final nudge over the threshold. “Well, look what the cat dragged in,” said Pharty. “What’re you doin’ out on a day like this?”
oooo“Thought I’d best come keep an eye on you youngsters. Make sure no one was sittin’ in my chair,” Stump replied as he took off his coat and hat and shook them over the stove.
oooo“Hand ‘em over,” said Drew. “I’ll hang ‘em up.”
ooooStump handed them over, settled slowly into his chair, and retrieved his coffee cup from the stovetop. “This fresh, Drew?”
oooo“Better than that,” said Pharty. “It’s free.”
ooooStump sipped loudly and sighed. “It’s mostly stopped snowin’ now,” he said. “Just blowin’ around.” He took inventory of the others in the store. “Not much point openin’ on a day like this,” he said. “All you’re gonna do is attract riffraff like this that sits around all day drinkin’ your coffee and cheatin, at checkers.” He took another sip of coffee, the level of which rose a drop or two as his eyebrows melted into the cup. “Looks like you been gettin’ around this mornin’, young Joel.”
oooo“Me?” said Joel, shifting onto the other cheek. He’d left his cushion in the truck. “What do you mean?”
oooo“You was up at Everette’s place this mornin’, wasn’t you?”
ooooJoel was caretaker for a number of the summer “cottages” tucked among the trees on the north coast of the island. Most of the houses, which were built in the last century by well-heeled bankers, industrialists, and tycoons from Boston as places to stow their familics during the timeless, idyllic Maine summers, were now owned by doctors, lawyers, and the nouveaux riche.
They were all of the same vintage, sprung from the same mold; huge edifices of twenty to thirty rooms, most with a boathouse, a guest house or two, and various attendant outbuildings, all dressed in perfectly-weathered cedar shingles with perfectly weathered white trim and with windows perfectly framed with dark green shutters.
ooooOver time the island had embraced the grander buildings with thick, fragrant tendrils of juniper and majestic stands of spruce and birch that nuzzled them on all sides. The secluded bowers shielded them from the cruel winds and kept time at bay. Most of the lesser buildings – abandoned for years, their uses forgotten – the earth had thoroughly invaded. Over the years, shoots of grass and snaking vines had patiently and relentlessly pried board from board, exposing crooked rows of hand-forged nails so the salt air could get at them. Against the earth’s bosom the boards had moldered and rotted and mingle d with the rich, dark soil. Home.
oooo“What would I be doin’ up to the Everette’s place?” said Joel. It crossed his mind that this might be one of those days that Stump wasn’t altogether present and accounted for.
oooo“That’s what I was wonderin’,” said Stump. “Said the same thing to Alby.” Alby was Stump’s grandson-in-law.
oooo“What’s he got to do with anything?” Joel wanted to know.
oooo“He was up to the house this mornin’. Said he was comin’ across the Thoroughfare from East Haven and seen a light in the window up there. Figured you was workin’ for a change.”
ooooJoel looked quizzically from Drew to Pharty as if to confirm that they heard what he heard. “There couldn’t be no light up there,” he said. “I ain’t been up there since October. Neither’s anybody else. ‘Sides, the power’s off.”
ooooDrew wasn’t so sure. “Saltonstahl’s place was broken into last year. Remember? Took all their booze.”
oooo“Serves ‘em right for leavin’ it up there all winter,” Harry judged.
oooo“You think somebody broke in?” Joel said worriedly. He was supposed to be checking the place at least once a month. That’s what he was paid for. But things were so busy all winter, what with one thing and another. And there’d been a lot of snow. That made it hard to get in and out.
oooo“I don’t know,” said Drew. “It happens.”
ooooStump tapped his cup on the stovetop, indicating his desire for a refill. Drew complied with a smile. “All I know,” said Stump, “is Alby said he seen a light when he come Thoroughfare this mornin’ and he figured it was you up there.”
ooooThe words hadn’t been absorbed by the fragrance of turpentine and wood smoke before Joel had his coat on and was out the door, slamming it behind him. The old ship’s clock, proudly bearing the Millberry’s Magnesia logo etched in frosted glass on the door of its cabinet, witlessly carved away a few more seconds of life in even slices for those who could afford it least.
“The Everette place,” said Harry, taking a final pull at his empty Coke bottle, refreshing a thirty-five year-old memory. The words dislodged a fragment from some craggy fissure in his mind. “They never did find out what happened to Cailey Hall, did they?”
oooo“Disappeared,” said Drew, settling himself into his se at beside the fire.
oooo“Disappeared,” said Harry. He snapped his fingers, but they didn’t make a sound.
ooooA stinging wind assaulted Joel’s face and ears as he stepped from the nice, warm cab of his Jeep, slammed the door and high-stepped through the first of a rank of drifts that stood bctween him and the Everette cottage. The snow had stopped, but the sky’ – low and darkening as day shut her eyes – threatened more.
ooooOnce through the drift, he stopped and looked up at the house. Rows of curtainless windows stared blankly back at him. No lights. That was a relief, though it was hard to fight the feeling he always had, that there was an entity in the house, a presence, watching him through those dark, empty rectangles. The feeling was especially pronounced at the moment. “Alby was just seein’ things,” he assured himself aloud. “Probably three sheets and a pillowcase to the wind. Must’ve been, crossin’the Thoroughfare in weather like that. ” ooooNevertheless, as long as he was here he might as well double-check the doors and first-floor windows.
ooooIt was then, lowering his eyes in appraisal of the next drift, that he noticed the footprints.
ooooOf varying depths in the undulating snow, the indentations had been rounded by the wind but were still sufficiently defined so that three sets were obvious: two headed toward the house, one coming away. He stared down into the nearest set. A sudden gust of wind sent a ghost of snow into his eyes, and he shivered involuntarily. A quick glance to the west told him that weather was on the way. “Somebody’s been here, all right,” he said. It helped to begin with the self-evident. “Not long ago,” he ventured. “Two come in,” he declared. “And one come out,” he surmised. “Somebody’s still here.” That summed up the evidence.
ooooIn the two minutes it took him to decide what to do next and make his way to the house, the wind picked up and began filling in the footprints. Soon there would be no evidence that anyone had been there, himself included.
ooooHe climbed the little porch at the north end of the house and tried the door. Locked. He felt through his pockets for his key, then realized he’d left it in the Jeep. He knocked sharply and waited.
ooooThere was no response. He knocked again, harder this time. “Come on, I know you’re in there,” he bellowed, to which there was an even more pronounced silence.
oooo“Probably dove out the window on the other side,” Joel speculated aloud. He certainly would have, had he been in the intruder’s place. He didn’t need to go inside. All he had to do was make sure there was no damage, find out how they’d gotten in, and close it up.
ooooHe pushed his way through the drifts eddied in the lee of the house, then stood on tiptoe, cupped his hands around his eyes, and pressed his face to each of the kitchen windows in turn. Everything was covered with dead flies, of course. Junie Phillips would sweep them up in spring when she came to open the house. Otherwise, the room was orderly and neat. He could see through to the windows overlooking the Thoroughfare. Thick draperies of snow obscured the mainland from view. Five minutes, he thought, ten at most before the storm hit. “Good six inches comin’,” he forecast.
ooooHe plowed on. Next was the big bow window of the dining room, which he couldn’t reach flat-footed. He’d need something to stand on, which wouldn’t be hard to find if the carpenters had been as careless as usual when they reglazed the windows last fall. They probably had left some loose staging, or a five-gallon caulking bucket tossed up against the house somewhere. A few kicks at the snow, however, revealed something even more substantial: the sawed-off stump of the weigela he’d pruned last spring, a good two feet high. Perfect.
ooooHe reached up and grabbed the window ledge with one hand while the other found a solid hold among the remaining branches of the bush. After kicking the snow from the stump, he rested his foot on the step so conveniently provided and pulled himself up high enough to get his eyes and nose over the ledge.
ooooDespite the reflection, it took no time to see that things weren’t as they should be. The large Nantucket blue-painted dining room table, which had been covered with a sheet, as had the rest of the furniture in the house, had been uncovered. The sheet was folded on the sideboard, and the flies had been swept up into a neat pile in the corner.
ooooA faint flicker drew his attention to something even more startling – a candle, burned to the stub, guttered in its own juices. As he watched, it died. Its soul rode a wisp of smoke to the ceiling and was gone. The table was set for two with an assortment of the imperfect odds and ends of china, silver, and crystal that were common in the summer homes. A bottle of wine stood unopened on an island of lace in the middle of the table.
ooooAttempting to cup his hand around his reft eye for a better look.
ooooJoel rested his elbow on the window ledge and redistributed his weight. As he did so, his foot slid off the slippery stub of branch and he tumbled into the snowbank in a heap, his head missing the stump by sixteenths of an inch.
ooooSlightly dazed, he sat there for a moment, trying to sort things out in his seventy-six-year-old brain. “Yessir,” he said. “somebody’s been here.”
ooooHe picked himself up and whisked the snow from his collar, then plodded through the drifts to the next set of windows, those of the sitting room. Here the ground dropped off, and there were no convenient branches or even so much as a paint can to stand on’ That meant he’d have to climb to the porch through the waist-high bank of snow at the foot of the broad steps. He swore. Already he was cold clear through, and he was going to be colder before it was all over. Still, someone had gotten in somehow, and it was his job to find out where, then nail it, or shut it, or lock it, or whatever he had to do to keep it from happening again. Then he’d have to make a report to Luther Kingsbury – and tell the Everettes. He wasn’t looking forward to that.
oooo“What in hell would anyone be doin’ up here lightin’ candles is what I want to know,” he asked aloud as he plowed up the steps. Whoever it was, he’d love to get his hands on them and give them a good shake. “‘Til their teeth rattled,” he said to emphasize his thoughts.
ooooThe same wind that had piled snow at the bottom of the steps had swept the porch clean. At the top step Joel stamped his feet. The leading edge of the squall was halfway across the Thoroughfare now, pushing a stinging wind before it. Not a quarter of a mile away the snow was falling so thick he couldn’t even see East Haven.
ooooThe nine miles back to town would seem like fifty on roads already slick and, despite perpetual plowing, choked with the residue of previous storms.
ooooAt least it was easy to see into the house from the porch. The windows were
wide and high, and there were lots of them’ There was nothing out of order in the sitting room, though the sight of all the chairs draped with sheets made him think of the time he’d stumbled into the morgue when he’d gone to visit his Aunt Lorraine over at the hospital in Rockport.
ooooOn the other side of the room, through the open doorway, he could see the dining room table. Other than the table, the candle, the sheet, and the flies, nothing was out of place. The windows and the porch door were all secure. At the front of the house, separated from the sitting room by a wide wood archway, was the living room. A cursory glance indicated that nothing was amiss, but he couldn’t see much because of the reflection. Stepping up to the big window that overlooked the bluff and the Thoroughfare, he again cupped his hands around his eyes and surveyed the room.
ooooOnly one thing was wrong: The sheet on the chair nearest the window bulged unnaturally high, as if it had been thrown over somebody who was sitting there. Joel laughed aloud at the notion. Half a second and he’d remember what it was they’d put there that made it look that way.
ooooThen he saw the shoe.
ooooOverheated by the excitement, an icicle overhead squeezed a single, frigid drop of water down his neck, and it carved along his spine like a knife.
oooo“Helluva shock the old man had,” said Jerry Oakes. He absentmindedly picked up a few herring, then tossed them back in the bait box and brushed a handful of salt over them. “He come in for supper last night lookin’ ’bout like this.” Jerry picked up one of the dead fish by the head and shook it.
ooooDickey Wentworth struck a safety match under his thumbnail and relit his corncob pipe for the fourth time in five minutes. The pungent smell of over-burned Holiday tobacco driftcd around the shed on thick blue clouds. “Good thing hc didn’t have a heart attack,” he said, somehow managing a thoughtless epithet every second or third word, as is peculiar to coastal dialect. “He had one about two years ago, didn’t he?”
oooo“Stroke,” said Jerry. He should know Joel Philbrook was his wife’s grandfather and had lived with them going on eight years, since Sissy, their youngest, was still in the cradle. “His heart’s pretty good. ”
oooo“Well,” said Dickey, “I don’t care how good a person’s heart is, seein’ somethin’ like that would give it a good kick.”
oooo“Somethin’ like what?” Harm Gregory, the new arrival entered stomping. Thick clouds of crusted snow abandoned their hold on his green wool pants and splattered on the floor. The counterweight on the door – an old blue glass toggle filled with sand and attached to a rope and pulley – tugged the door closed with a solid thud and rattle. Harm threw back his fur-lined hood and shook the snow from his unruly copper-colored bangs. “Ain’t it some nasty out. Colder’n a whore’s heart.”
oooo“Mornin’, Harm,” said Jerry. “You ain’t haulin’ today, are ya?”
ooooHarm tossed an incredulous glance at the lobster buyer as he unzipped his coat. “Not likely,” he said. “You’d sooner find me in church than out in that smoke.” For a moment the six eyes at their disposal stared out the dirty window at the harbor. Salome’s veils of fog drifted in and out among the few lobster boats that hadn’t been hauled out for the winter in a graceful, deadly dance set to a music beyond human hearing.
oooo“That’s what I figure,” said Dickey. “Nature’s way of sayin’ it’s a good day to stay inside and bend some spruce bows. I bet I lost fifty pots this year, he added, exaggerating, as lobstermen did everything but their income. “Time to start trawlin’ anyway. Them bugs stop crawlin’ come Christmas.”
oooo“Fourteen below up to my house,” said Harm.
oooo“Fourteen? Really?” said Jerry. “It was closer to zero down to my place.”
oooo“When I got up. Five or so.”
oooo“Sleepin’ in, was you?”
oooo“Well, I didn’t figure there’d be any rush goin’ on down here.”
oooo“It’s come down a few degrees since then,” said Harm.
ooooDickey counted nine heaping spoonfuls of Chock-Full O-Nuts into the percolator. “Zero’s all you have to say,” he proclaimed. “Below that, you’re just nit-pickin’. Don’t s’pose you want coffee, Harm?”
oooo“‘Course I do.”
ooooDickey added a few more spoonfuls.
oooo“What was you sayin’ ’bout heart attacks? ” said the new arrival as he warmed his hands over the oil-drum stove.
oooo“We was talkin’ ’bout what happened to Joel last night.”
oooo“Joel Philbrook?” asked Harm, looking at Jerry. “He have a heart attack?
oooo“I’m surprised you ain’t heard. Figured it’d be all over town by now.”
oooo“How could it be?” Harm objected. “It’s only eight o’clock. News don’t spread that fast ’til the beauty parlor opens.” He laughed.
oooo“No, he didn’t have a heart attack,” Dickey said before Jerry could respond.
oooo“He found a dead body up at Everette’s. Under a sheet.”
ooooHarm turned his gaze to Dickey in disbelief. “No.” He looked at Jerry for corroboration. “A dead body?”
ooooJerry nodded. “Yup.”
oooo“Johnny Bermann?” Harm propped an empty lobster crate on and, drew it closer to the fire, and sat on it. Steam rosc from his black rubber hip boots as the ice melted in puddles on the floor. “At Everette’s?” Jerry nodded. “You don’t say?”
ooooThe Bermann estate, just outside the village on the wind-battered eastern shore, whereJohnny had made his home since moving back to the island a year earlier, was about as far as you could get from Everette’s, at the affluent north end of the island. His family wasn’t native, but they had a history in town, even if a doubtful one. That made them more than just summer folk.
oooo“What was he doin’ up there this time’ve year?”
oooo“Havin’ a picnic with some woman, to hear Joel tell it,” said Jerry.
Jerry shrugged and explained about the footprints, the table setting, and the body.
“Any woman desperate enough to meet somebody in an unheated house in the dead of winter is a woman I wouldn’t want to meet out behind the fish house,’, Dickey observed.
oooo“It wasn’t unheated,” Jerry replied. “They had ‘em a fireplace up there. One’ve them Franklin stoves like they got up to the Legion Hall. They had that fired up.”
oooo“Hell,” said Dickey, “that won’t do no good. Them things draw all the heat right up the chimney. Pretty to look at, though if you open the doors.”
oooo“It was nothin’ but ashes anyway by the time Joel got there,” said Jerry.
ooooHarm was more interested in the body than the woman, real or imagined.
oooo“Under a sheet, you say?”
oooo“Some curious, ain’t it?” said Dickey, approving the bewilderment in Harm’s eyes.
oooo ”That ain’t all that’s curious,” said Jerry, with an inscrutable curl of the lip.
oooo“Well,” said Jerry, situating himself in his chair a little more leisurely than necessary, “Joel saw the shoes –”
oooo“You said that,” said Dickey impatiently.
oooo“Just wait a minute,” said Jerry, with a cautioning tilt of the head indicating that the information could be withheld indefinitely. “What I didn’t say is one of ‘em was on and the other was off.”
oooo“One of what?” said Harm, maintaining his stoicism with effort. “One of the shoes?”
oooo“And socks,” Jerry added.
oooo“He was barefoot?” said Dickey.
oooo“Not both, just one.”
oooo“One foot was bare?”
ooooJerry nodded sagaciously. “The other one had both a sock and shoe on, and it was all shriveled up.”
oooo“Shriveled up? You didn’t say nothin’ ’bout it bein’ shriveled up,” Dickey complained.
ooooHarm sensed that Jerry was holding something back. “What else?”
ooooJerry hesitated a moment, his black eyes sparkling with morbid fascination. “His eyes was open wide . . . and he was cryin’.”
oooo“Was cryin’?” said Harm. “You mean, he’d been cryin’ before he died?”
oooo“Nope. I mean when Joel took Luther Kingsbury and Doc Pagitt up there and uncovered the body, there was tears runnin’ down his face.”
oooo“Maybe he wasn’t really dead,” Dickey theorized.
oooo“Oh, he was dead, all right.”
ooooHarm had a hard time swallowing that. “Dead and cryin’?”
oooo“Dead and cryin’,” said Jerry matter-of-factly.
oooo“That’s enough, ain’t it,” said Jerry. “One shoe off and one shoe on. Dead and cryin’.”
oooo“What do you think, Doctor?” said Matty as she hovered over his shoulder. He was shining a light into Crisp’s eyes, which Matty couldn’t understand; his eyesight was fine. “What do you see?”
oooo“I see,” said Pagitt, clicking the little penlight off and slipping it in his pocket, “precisely two eyes.” He chuckled and winked at Crisp. “You’re one lucky man, Professor,” he said. “You’ve been coming back to life in bits and pieces all this time. Most people who’ve been through what you’ve been through, it’s the other way around.”
ooooCrisp smiled feebly. “Have you treated many people who’ve been through what I have, Warren?”
oooo“Can’t say I have,” Pagitt replied. “Not and lived to tell about it.” He turned to the proprietress. “You were right, Matty. When I didn’t think he’d have a snowball’s chance in – “
oooo“Haiti,” Pagitt amended on the fly. “Anyway, you never gave up.” He looked at Crisp again. “Much as I’d like to take credit for your recovery, Professor, I’ve got to say it’s more likely that this woman nagged the Almighty ’til He was forced to toss you back.”
oooo“Like the widow and the judge,” Matty agreed.
oooo“Who are they when they’re home?,’ asked Pagitt.
oooo“It’s in the New Testament,” Crisp explained. “A parable that Jesus told about a woman who went before a judge demanding justice and wouldn’t leave until she got it.”
oooo“What’d he do?”
oooo“As I recall, he gave in,” said Crisp, the corners of his eyes crinkling along lines unused to laughter.
ooooPagitt picked up his thick down jacket and put it on. “I’d’ve tossed her in the pokey.” He pulled on his hat. “Matty, don’t you go making him talk all at once. The larynx is a muscle. So is the tongue. They need time to get strong.”
oooo“Is that why he talks like he’s got a mouthful of marbles?” she asked in a confidential whisper.
oooo“That’s right.” Pagitt picked up his bag and opened the door. “You comfortable, professor?”
ooooCrisp turned his good ear toward the doctor. ‘Fine’, he meant to say. His mouth moved, but no words came out.
ooooMatty shot Pagitt a worried glance. “Doctor?”
oooo“It’s all right. His voice will come and go like that ’til those muscles get used to working.” He patted her on the shoulder reassuringly. “I’ll look in again this evening. If everything’s okay, I don’t think you’ll need to be calling me anymore, Matty. At least, not if good things happen. The way things are going, I expect he’ll be trying to get back on his feet before long. you see to it he holds the walker when he does. Okay? His legs have about as much strength as spaghetti.”
ooooMatty quivered enthusiastically at the sanction.
oooo“See you later, Professor.”
ooooCrisp turned his neck stiffly toward Pagitt. “Only socially, let’s hope.”
ooooPagitt laughed politely as Matty walked him down the stairs to the door.
oooo“Is there anything else?”
oooo“Is there anything wrong I should know – about Winston?”
oooo“Not that I can think of,” said the doctor thoughtfully. He’d known Matty long enough to know she often took a roundabout way to the point.
oooo“I mean,” Matty continued, tapping her temple, “is he all to home, do you think? I remember back when this all . . . that night you told Luther Kingsbury you was worried that if Winston lived, his mind wouldn’t be all there.”
oooo“Oh! No. I’d say there’s no problem. I was worried about a lack of oxygen resulting from his paralysis. Doesn’t seem to have happened. Whole thing’s a miracle as far as I’m concerned, I confess.”
ooooPagitt sat on the parson’s bench by the back door and began pulling on his boots. “‘Course, you should know better than anyone. He’s been writing notes to you for a while now, hasn’t he?”
oooo“That’s right,” said Matty.
oooo“Did he write anything to make you suspect he wasn’t the brightest marble in the bag?”
oooo“Well, no. But I just didn’t know what to expect. “Matty took Pagitt’s plaid wool scarf from the hat tree and wrapped it around his neck. It was the first time she’d really looked at him that morning; her attention had been on Crisp. “Why, Warren, you don’t look well. Are you all right?”
ooooPagitt smiled a long-suffering smile. “I was up pretty late last night.”
ooooMatty prided herself on not being a gossip, so if there was any currcncy in being the first to have a bit of news, it meant nothing to her. However, as a concerned citizen. . . “somebody call you out? Nothing serious, I hope.”
ooooPagitt knew he’d made a mistake mentioning a late night. “Oh, well, it all comes with the territory, I guess. Part of the job, ” he said noncommittally. He opened the door, admitting a gust of wind that came in and took a large bite of the summer-like warmth from Matty’s back hallway. She pulled the collar of her sweater together at her neck.
oooo“You’ve done a good job, Matty,” said Pagitt, wanting to get off the subject as quickly as possible. “You missed your calling.”
oooo“Oh, now,” said Matty with a self-deprecating giggle. “I don’t know about that.”
oooo“Just see he gets plenty of fluid and rest and, like I said, don’t try to make him talk too much. Or eat too much. Chicken broth will be fine. Okay?”
oooo“Of course,” Matty replied. “Don’t you worry.”
ooooPagitt, emerging from the warm cocoon of Matty’s home into the brittle midwinter morning, yawned.
oooo“So, what time did you get to bed?” Matty ventured. There was nothing to lose.
ooooPagitt looked at his watch. “Haven’t been yet,” he said. “Good-day, Matty. Take care.”
ooooMatty was still fretting an hour later. “He looked like death warmed over,” she said to Crisp. She’d made him a midmorning meal and brought it to his room on a tray.
oooo“Did he say what was wrong?” Crisp found an indefinable pleasure in the sound of his voice as it echoed in his ears.
oooo“Not for love or money,” said Matty, revealing a little more of her frustration than she’d intended. “Just that he’d been out all night on a call.”
oooo“All night?” Crisp thought aloud. “Perhaps a delivery? Anybody expecting that you know of ?” If she didn’t, no one did.
oooo“That’s what I thought at first,” Matty replied, compressing her right eyebrow, which, owing to the dynamics of her physiognomy, caused the other to arch. “But there’s nobody, as far as I know Hildy Bickford is due in two months or so, and Samantha Dyer had hers last week – six weeks early if you count back from the wedding.”
ooooThere was no judgment in the observation; it was simply a point of interest. “I saw Hildy down to lrma Louise’s yesterday noon. She looked healthy enough – women in that family have babies without stoppin’ to lie down – so I doubt anything’s gone wrong with her.”
ooooHow anyone would subject an unborn child to the fumes inhabiting Irma Louise’s House of Beauty and hope to deliver a healthy infant was beyond Crisp’s comprehension. He watched as Matty sliced a fresh peach into his steaming oatmeal. He wondered where she got fresh peaches in the dead of winter. “Well, I’m sure you’ll find out what’s going on when you go to the post office.”
ooooSecondhand news, thought Matty unintentionally. “Now, you tuck into this little bit and finish it up.” She fixed a napkin under his chin.
oooo“Honestly, Matty,” Crisp protested, “I just finished breakfast two hours ago.”
oooo“That was two hours ago.” She held up her hand to bar further argument.
oooo“Doctor’s orders. He said you were to have plenty of fluids.”
oooo“Fluids, Matty,” said Crisp, holding up his teacup. “This is a fluid.”
oooo“Oh, for pity sakes, Winston, you can’t have tea without a little something to go with it. Anyone knows that. Goes without sayin’. Now, you stop fussing. Do you need anything else before I go out?”
oooo“I’m fine,” Crisp yielded. “You run along.”
ooooMatty turned to leave.
oooo“Yes?” she called from halfway down the stairs.
oooo“If there’s anything from a publisher – ”
ooooThat was the first thing he’d written when he came out of the coma he’d slipped into that awful night. Made sense it would be at the top of the list now that he had his tongue back. “Not yet. Don’t worry, you’ll be the second to know.” She added under her breath as she continued down the stairs, “And if they’re just more rejection letters’ I’ll burn ‘em with the rest, which is better than they deserve.”
ooooCrisp waited until he heard the front door close. A moment later he heard Matty out on the porch, exchanging greetings with her new neighbor, Gerty Sanborn, who had moved into the garage apartment across the dooryard.
ooooCrisp set the tray on his bedside table, threw aside the covers, and looked at his legs, which stuck like a scarecrow’s from his pajamas. “Well, old fellas,” he said, “may I have this dance?”
ooooSlowly and carefully, ignoring the loud, persistent complaints of his joints, he maneuvered his legs over the side of the bed and bent his knees until his stockinged feet rested on the froor. He closed his eyes a moment, absorbing the delicious sensitivity – however painful – of his extremities, so long moribund.
ooooResting one hand on the bedside table and the other on the bed, he pushed and dragged himself to a more or less upright position. Cautiously, one handhold at a time, he let go, willing his reluctant muscles to unfold as he stretched himself to his full height for the first time in a very long time. He was eighty-one years old. In the last five months he had been locked in a freezer to die, lost two toes and one finger to frostbite, been poisoned, wrestled with madness, fallen in love with a dead woman named Amanda Murphy, and, as he lay paralyzed in bed, been attacked by a crazed, syringe-wielding killer.
ooooBut here he was, against all the odds – and his own expectations – alive.
ooooPlanting his feet solidly on the floor he stretched until his very sinews seemed to tremble and his bones creaked in their sockets. He could still reach the ceiling; though the effort exacted a price, it was worth the pain. He had resolved to accomplish two things this morning, even if it killed him; two things he’d been planning a long time. First, come hell or high water, he was going to reach the window and look outdoors. He had developed an obsessive need to see something new. His eyes were fatigued by the day-after-day sameness of his bedroom; he knew the name of every book in the bookcase and could recite their authors alphabetically. He’d counted the cracks in the ceiling plaster, the tufts of cotton on his bedspread, the holes in the lace trim on the lampshade, and the flowers on the curtains and wallpaper. It was time to fill his senses with the greater world.
ooooSecond, he would smoke his favorite pipe; it sat with the others in a wood rack on the little table in the corner where an ebony box held his favorite tobacco. Next to the box was a pack of matches.
ooooOdd how much his toes hurt, even though they weren’t there. Surprising how two such tiny, unheralded appendages had played a seemingly critical role in balancing him all these years. He was unsteady in their absence. It brought to mind the time when he was seven and had lost both his upper front teeth. That night, unthinking, he’d tried to bite into an apple, and absolutely nothing happened. Why one thing should make him think of the other, he had no idea. But it did.
ooooWhere do one’s parts go when they predecease the body? Does there exist on the outskirts of heaven some kind of receptacle for odd bits and pieces – arms, legs, fingers, toes, artists’ ears, and lover’s noses – that make a premature appearance in the hereafter, to be rejoined (seamlessly, one supposes) at the Resurrection?
ooooHe had time for such thoughts: The nine-foot trip to the window took nearly three minutes and incorporated various modes of transportation: a cane to help him to the walkcr, and the walker to get him to the window. Of course, with muscles the consistency of raw squid, there was no way he could make it back to the bed under his own steam, which had been his intention initially. There’d be nine kinds of hell to pay when Matty came back and found him sitting next to the window – which he had managed to open an inch or two, just enough to feel the breeze and smell the cold – and smoking to boot. But it was a price he was willing to pay. If she killed him, she killed him.
ooooHaving filled his pipe, he lit it and drew pungent smoke deep into his lungs, which responded with blissful convulsions. Hacking and coughing, he opened the window a little wider to spit when something caught his eye. A truck had pulled to a stop on the other side of the common, and four men – Joel philbrook, Charlie Williams, the undertaker, constable Luther Kingsbury, and Nate Gammidge, the County Coroner from Rockland – were moving something – a body, by all appearances – from the truck into Charlie’s funeral parlor. The tableau reeked of deja vu, roughly prodding Crisp’s shiver mechanism to life.
oooo“Amanda?” he whispered hoarsely.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: I hope you’ve read Winston’s first mystery, A Show of Hands and are sufficiently intrigued by these sample chapters of The Shroud Collector to order a copy.
If you enjoy The Shroud Collector be sure to download, Justice Once Removed, the final installment in the saga of Winston Crisp. Meanwhile, PLEASE write a review below, and be sure to Facebook, Twitter, or e-mail everyone you know, tell them how much you love Winston, and send them to http://www.davidcrossman.com!
Thank you. The rest of the Winston’s story awaits!
David A. Crossman