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Home repair can be murder.
Jacobia Tiptree and her teenage son are used to their Eastport, Maine, home attracting more than its share of houseguests. This year Jake is hoping the plaster dust will keep them away while she finally gets her gem of a fixer-upper into shape — from doorknobs and chandeliers to leaky pipes to ghostly phenomena.
But when the charming and mysterious Jonathan Raines appears on her doorstep — and then just as suddenly disappears — remodeling the house becomes the least of Jake’s problems. Could Jonathan’s disappearance have something to do with his quest for a cursed violin — the one that local legend says was hidden by a long-ago owner of Jake’s house before he too vanished without a trace?
Soon Jonathan’s grief-stricken girlfriend arrives downeast, and Jake needs to strip Eastport’s past of its idyllic veneer — before a killer paints her very dead indeed!
When I first moved to Maine, I missed my friends from the city so much that I would invite them to visit me. Shamelessly I lured them, promising steamed lobsters and blueberry pies, while they grumbled about the long drive and the probable absence of Starbucks mocha latte once they arrived.
Well, they were right about the Starbucks. Soon enough, though, they caught on: Eastport (population 2,000), located on Moose Island at the northeastern tip of the Maine coastline, is so remote it might as well be on Mars. And that, if you are a high-powered executive type — most of my friends had the kinds of jobs in which Maalox extra-strength is known only half jokingly as Vitamin M — can be a selling point.
Before I knew it, all my bedrooms were booked from the first of June right on through Labor Day weekend, and I began thinking of summer as a fine time to stock up the refrigerator, put fresh sheets on the beds, and leave town.
But this summer, I had decided, would be different. Anyone who angled for an invitation was told that the plumbing in my old house had exploded, and by the way, I was sure that it was only a coincidence, but also we all had hepatitis.
So on the morning when the whole awful business began, I was feeling pleased with myself. The guest rooms were empty and I had stripped down the faded old wallpaper. Armed with paint, brushes, rollers, and rags, I was about to begin giving the rooms a much-needed face-lift, the first they had received in decades.
Climbing the stepladder in the smallest room — I was also replastering a section of the dining room wall that summer and felt concerned about biting off more than I could chew — I began removing the screws that held up the cut-glass light fixture, a lovely old item that I did not want to get spattered with paint.
But when two of the screws had come out the fixture shifted, and with my arms extended it took both hands just to hold it up there. In this position I could not get the other pair of screws removed, or the first two back in. So it was a screw stalemate.
Just then my black Labrador retriever, Monday, wandered into the room looking bored until she spotted me up there on my perch. Instantly her tail began wagging and the back half of her body began slamming into the ladder. That was also when someone came up the back porch steps and knocked — shave-and-a-haircut! — on the back door.
Monday whirled to race downstairs and greet the visitor, in her haste delivering a final body blow to the ladder. I searched wildly with my feet, finding only thin air as the ladder toppled.
Falling, I recalled from the martial arts movies my teenage son, Sam, is so fond of that I should roll when I landed. So I did, and that, I imagine, is why I hit the wall so hard. But the stars I saw on impact were nothing compared to the sight of that lovely antique ceiling fixture beginning to fall.
Pushing off from the wall, I skidded on my back across the hardwood floor, arriving just in time for the heavy glass sphere to land hard in my solar plexus.
“Oof,” I said.
“Nicely done,” remarked somebody from the doorway.
“Who the hell are you?” I inquired irritably, sitting up.
He was tall, mid-thirties or so, wearing a white shirt open at the collar and faded denims. Shoving back a shock of straight blond hair that kept falling down over his forehead, he came in.
“Raines. Jonathan Raines? We spoke on the phone, you said I could come and stay here....” He stuck out his hand, peering at me through a pair of thick wire-rimmed eyeglasses.
Good heavens. I remembered his call. But I certainly didn’t remember telling him any such thing.
“Mr. Raines, if I did invite you, that was back in January. And since then I haven’t heard another word from you.”
He looked chagrined. “I know. I’m sorry, it was rude of me. But I’ve been out of the country and — Oh, dear, I hope you won’t send me away. Because in addition to being very late on my Ph.D. dissertation — I’ve come all the way from Boston to research it here — I’m embarrassingly short of funds.”
Jonathan Raines, I recalled very dimly, was related to three of those old friends of mine from the city, and he was a graduate student of music history.
Or something like that; he’d been fuzzy on the details and when he’d phoned I hadn’t given them much thought, anyway. At the time, June had seemed very far away; winter in downeast Maine makes summer seem like something that only happens to other, more fortunate people, probably on some other planet.
I hadn’t even made my no-summer-guests resolution until April. So I could have invited him, I supposed, then forgotten I had done it. Why else, after all, would he have called, if not to get me to do just that?
And now here he was.
“Please let me help you,” he said, bending to take the glass ceiling fixture. And...
Dropping it. The crash was hideous.
“Oh, gosh, I apologize. I’ll replace it, of course.” Vexedly he began gathering up big glass shards.
“Mr. Raines. I’m terribly sorry, but no matter what I said months ago, you can see I’m in no condition for having company.”
The house was an 1823 Federal clapboard with three full floors, an attic, a cellar, and a two-story ell, and much of it at the moment was almost as torn-apart as the guest room. In addition to my larger projects, I was repainting window sashes, tightening doorknobs that had taken to falling off and rolling all over the place, and planning to repair the tiny but wonderfully-convenient-when-it-worked downstairs hall bathroom, which we called (inaccurately, lately, which was why it needed repairing) the flush.
“And,” I went on, waving at the glass bits, “I’m afraid that item is not replaceable. It was an antique, probably from—”
He was examining one of the shards. “Wal-Mart,” he pronounced.
Squinting through the eyeglasses, he went on. “See? The sticker’s still on it. Probably someone else broke the original one and replaced it with this.”
Well, I’d never seen it up close before.
He looked up, smiling. “Not a bad copy. Funny, isn’t it? How an object can seem to be one thing and end up being another.”
Hilarious. At the moment, I wasn’t sure which was worse, believing the thing had been precious and irretrievably broken, or finding out that it wasn’t.
He straightened, and right then I began thinking there was something not quite kosher about him, as I spotted the gold chain he wore around his neck. For a professional student it was a very strong-looking, muscular neck, and from it a small white pendant hung dead center at the hollow of his throat.
A shark’s tooth. How unusual, I thought as he adjusted his glasses, scanned the room through them, spotted a final shard of glass, and dropped it onto the newspaper.
“Thank you,” I said. “You can put that mess in the dustbin. Come along and I’ll show you.”
If I could get him downstairs, I could get him out onto the porch, and from there to a motel or a bed-and-breakfast. Waiting for him to go ahead of me, I put my hand on the doorknob. It was loose, like all the rest of them; patience, I counseled myself.
“Meanwhile,” he asked casually, as if inquiring about the weather, “do you still think this place is haunted?”
Whereupon every door in the house but the one I was holding slammed shut with a window-rattling bang! TVs and radios began playing, the washer began filling and the dryer began spinning emptily, and Monday let out an eerie, piercing howl that reminded me unpleasantly of the Baskervilles.
Raines didn’t turn a hair. “Well,” he said cheerfully, on his way downstairs with the broken glass and newspapers, “I guess that answers my question.”
We had reached the front hall, where the chandelier’s crystal pendants were still shivering. From there I could see into the dining room, where one wall stood stripped of its gold-medallion wallpaper: my replastering project. At its center the remains of a fresh plaster patch gleamed whitely, cracked down the middle.
“Oh, for heaven’s sake,” I said, forgetting my fright in a burst of exasperation. “I’d take all the ghosts in the world if I could just get that plaster to set up right.”
Which wasn’t quite true, but I was very irritated. Raines returned from depositing the bits of broken glass in the dustbin.
“I’m not sure that’s a bargain you want to make, here,” he said thoughtfully. In one hand he gripped a brown duffel bag; in the other, a shaving kit. “May I take these upstairs?”
He looked hopeful, and utterly unfazed by the events he had just witnessed. The appliances all shut off abruptly.
“All right,” I gave in crossly, thinking about having to mix plaster again. But considering the kind of visitor I’d been having around here lately ... I narrowed my eyes at him.
“You are alive, aren’t you?”
“Indubitably,” he replied, grinning, “alive.”
“Try,” I advised him, “to keep it that way.”
Which was the first remark I wished, later on, that I hadn’t made. But not the last.
From the dining room where I began gathering up the ruined chunks of plaster, I heard Raines go upstairs, his step jaunty and the tune he was whistling somehow familiar. I should have put it all together right then, of course, but I was distracted by the wreckage. So it didn’t hit me for several more minutes just what that tune was.
That it had been composed right here in my own house, I mean, by a man named Jared Hayes who had lived here before me over a century and a half earlier.
Lived here, that is, until he’d vanished from the house.
Without a trace.
My name is Jacobia Tiptree, and once upon a time I was the kind of person who thought home repair meant keeping the building superintendent’s phone number on my speed-dialer. A sought-after, highly paid financial consultant and money expert, I lived in a townhouse on the Upper East Side of Manhattan with my husband, a noted brain surgeon, and my son, Sam, a noted baby.
Also at that time, I was the kind of person who survived on takeout. If it came in a cardboard carton and I didn’t have to cook or clean up after it, I would eat it. And since my husband back then thought food meant whatever they happened to be serving in the hospital cafeteria, and Sam in those days was subsisting on the stuff that came in jars labeled Gerber, this worked out fine.
But after what seemed like fifteen minutes and was actually fifteen years, I learned that while I was still happily eating Thai noodles my son had discovered Thai stick, a very potent form of marijuana. Also, my husband had begun competing for the title of Philanderer of the Western World.
And my job was if possible even more miserable than my home life. Because look: you get up in the morning, drink your coffee, and yell at your son or he yells at you or both, assuming you even know where he is. The rest of the day you spend helping rich people make more money while paying, if you can imagine it, even fewer taxes.
Then I would go home, and Victor’s messages would be there: on the answering machine, and in my e-mail, which he loaded with virus bombs. By then I’d divorced him, and he bitterly resented it, even though he was so promiscuous I felt lucky my e-mail was the only thing requiring disinfection. It got so I would stand at my apartment door with the key in my hand, staring at it, unsure whether I should even go in.
And then one day I didn’t. Instead I found Eastport, and came here in the same sudden, oh-to-hell-with-it way that I might have eloped with a traveling salesman or joined a circus.
Which is the short version of why nowadays I am:
(a) adept at the sort of recipe that starts out by directing you to peel and seed five quarts of Concord grapes, then stew the pulp in a kettle big enough to float a battleship, and
(b) the kind of person who won’t call for repair help unless orange flames are actually shooting from the electrical outlets.
It’s also why I’m never going to make that kind of money again, that I made in the city. But Sam is happy and no longer a dope fiend, and when I get up in the morning it’s not a toss-up: should I go to work, or just put a bullet through my forehead?
In other words, my personal bad old days are gone. But when Jonathan Raines arrived in Eastport that bright June morning, I was about to find out how easily the past — even someone else’s past, if it is bad enough — can come back to haunt you.
The facts about Jared Hayes were simple. It was sorting them out that was so complicated, and if I didn’t manage it soon...
But that idea was too unpleasant to finish, so I didn’t. And Hayes wasn’t my prime concern at the moment, anyway; Raines was.
He didn’t add up. So as soon as he walked out of the house I tried calling those New York cousins of his.
Or at any rate I knew the three of them were cousins to each other. So I supposed — on very little evidence, I’ll admit — that was also his relationship to them. But they couldn’t be reached, so next I called every music department at every college and university in the Boston area, discovering that no registrar at any of those places had ever heard of him.
“How did he know you think it’s haunted?” my friend Ellie White asked later that morning, shaking out a fresh sheet. The scent of lavender from the linen closet wafted sweetly into the guest room, triggering as always a burst of nostalgia for a time long gone.
Jared Hayes, born in 1803, had acquired my house in 1830 from its original owner, a wealthy shipbuilder and merchant. At that time, the wallpaper had been fresh and the floors level, the rooms bright and alive with housemaids hustling up and down the back stairs, which were located where the tiny bathroom just off the kitchen hallway was located now.
“I suppose his cousins must have told him,” I said, digging another blanket from the cedar chest. “All three of them were up here last summer, and I confided to them my ... feelings about it.”
Feelings that no one else had any reason to share; the odd things that went on in the house were always explainable. Only my sense that they were also purposeful was out of the ordinary, as if the house were sending a message particularly to me.
“The town of Eastport and its warmly wondrous citizens continue to enchant.”—Booknews from The Poisoned Pen
“Graves affectionately creates believable characters ... who lend depth and warm humor to the story.... The cozy details of small-town life and home repair make for an enjoyable read.”—Publishers Weekly