Wreck the Halls
A Home Repair is Homicide Mystery
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About the author
Sarah Graves lives with her husband in Eastport, Maine, where her mystery novels featuring Jacobia Tiptree are set. She is currently working on her sixth novel.
From the Hardcover edition.
“The town (Eastport) and its warmly wondrous citizens continue to enchant!”
— Booknews from The Poisoned Pen
When ex—Wall Streeter Jacobia “Jake” Tiptree bought a charming 1823 fixer-upper in tiny Eastport, Maine, she figured she’d also bought herself a tranquil, stress-free life. But Jake soon learned that appearances can be deceiving, and that even small towns have their share of dark secrets — including murder.
Wreck The Halls
People hardly ever lock their doors in Eastport. So when Jake and her best pal, Ellie, arrive at Faye Anne Carmody’s kitchen door, they knock and walk right in. But though Christmas is just two weeks away, what they find is far from festive: a dazed Faye Anne covered with blood, and her no-good husband — the town butcher, Merle — nowhere in sight. Nowhere, that is, until Jake discovers his body — tidily wrapped in his own butcher paper....
It doesn’t take long for news of the murder to race through the small town, and just about everyone has a theory about the grisly crime that has robbed Eastport of its least-liked citizen. But while police chief Bob Arnold considers it an open-and-shut case, Jake and Ellie aren’t convinced of Faye Anne’s guilt.
Jake has enough going on in her life without trying to investigate a murder. After all, she’s just married her longtime love, Wade, and the pair plan to spend the winter rehabilitating the paint-encrusted windows in Jake’s old house.
But Jake has to admit that there are a lot of details that don’t add up: for example, Faye Anne’s complaint that she was being stalked, and blood-splattered evidence at the crime scene that just doesn’t make sense. Then there is the diary that Faye Anne’s secret, sometime boyfriend claims is hidden somewhere in her house. Could Faye Anne’s own journal be the key to unlocking an even more fiendish murder plot, or is her double-crossing lover trying to frame her?
When yet another Eastport citizen turns up dead, Jake realizes the murderer’s trail began long before the night Merle Carmody died. But what keeps eluding her and Ellie is the motive behind the mystery. The truth is so close, they can almost taste it — but can they stop the shrewd killer before he chisels another victim’s name onto a tombstone?
From the Hardcover edition.
Blood was everywhere, so much of it that at first Ellie and I didn’t realize what it was or understand what we’d walked into.
Before us lay Faye Anne Carmody’s familiar Eastport kitchen, the woodstove at one end faced by a bentwood rocker and a small cushioned footstool, the table at the center with four painted wooden chairs pulled squarely up to it, and at the other end the sink with a few clean glasses upended on the drainboard. Tucked into one corner was a white, ornately framed metal daybed with a heap of quilts on it, a common item of furniture in an old Maine island home.
A door led to the butcher shop that Faye Anne’s husband, Merle Carmody, owned and operated in the ell of the house. The door was secured with a slide bolt near the doorknob and with two big hook and eyes screwed into the door frame.
“Jake,” Ellie said, nearly whispering it.
“I know.” So much blood ... “Go next door, Ellie, will you? And call Bob Arnold and tell him — ”
Bob was the police chief in Eastport, Maine, and the man to call when you happened unexpectedly on a thing like this.
Whatever this was. “Faye Anne? Merle?”
No reply. The blood had begun to dry, darkening in sludgy droplets like paint. The smell of it hung in the air along with something else I did not yet want to identify.
It was just past nine on a Monday morning in early December. Ellie and I had knocked and walked in; in Eastport — three hours from Bangor and light-years from anywhere else — you locked your house up only if you went to Florida for the winter.
But now ... “Tell Bob something bad has happened and we need him right away,” I said, but by then she had gone; when something bad does happen, Ellie is generally on her way to take care of it long before I’ve even absorbed it.
So I was alone. “Faye Anne?” I said again, not expecting anyone to answer. A sad, drowning sensation of comprehension was beginning to replace the shock I’d felt when we first entered; Faye Anne was dead and her husband, Merle, must have killed her. Everyone always said he would and now it had happened.
Said it, I mean, the way people do say such things: shaking their heads. Sympathizing with Faye Anne. Wishing she would leave Merle, even making offers designed to save her pride while ending the chronic parade of black eyes, split lips, bruised arms, and other injuries that Faye Anne blamed, utterly unconvincingly, on her own clumsiness.
I myself had pressed the card of the local women’s shelter, printed with the 800 number and their slogan, “Domestic Violence Is Everyone’s Business,” into her unwilling hand. But none of us had ever really expected to walk into a kitchen painted in her blood. No one ever does, I guess.
Faye Anne, I thought — damn it, I should have just gotten her out of there when I had the chance — Faye Anne was probably the only one who had really expected it.
Ellie’s voice came from the hall. “He’s coming. I called Bob from Kenty Dalrymple’s.”
Kenty lived next door to Merle and Faye Anne, and I had not much doubt that Kenty was on the phone right now, telling all and sundry of the excitement going on over at the Carmody house. If a pin dropped in Eastport, Kenty heard it.
And reported on it. But pretty soon the whole state of Maine would know what had gone on here; Kenty, whose own life offered little in the way of excitement, might as well have the ghoulish thrill.
Ellie came up behind me. “He says stay right here, don’t do anything or touch anything,” she said, and I heard the irony in her voice, mingled with grief over Faye Anne.
“You mean we’re not supposed to barge in, put our handprints into all that ... that...”
“Or make footprints,” Ellie agreed. Bob sometimes tended to state the obvious. “Poor Faye Anne. We should have done more.”
The smell was of meat cooking, mingled with the sour reek of scorched fabric. The last of the previous evening’s fire still sulked in the woodstove and the room was warm. I opened the stove door; there was an old pot holder tied to the iron handle so it wouldn’t have held fingerprints, anyway.
Not that I thought anyone would be checking for any. Inside: rags, partially burned. There was enough fabric left to see what they were stained with. Sickened, I turned away. Winter sunshine slanted mercilessly between the white eyelet lace panels Faye Anne had hung at the kitchen windows.
Or they’d been white when she hung them there. A few small clay pots of herbs stood on the windowsill; cuttings, I supposed, out of Faye Anne’s herb collection, from her homemade greenhouse. The first time I’d seen it, I’d made fun of the slammed-together two-by-fours, bent nails, and flappingly overlapping plastic sheets that formed the slanting side. Not to her face, of course, but still...
Later I learned better; inside that slapdash structure Faye Anne had grown a paradise of exotic plant varieties, heirloom flowers, and antique pharmaceutical herbs. A shy, softly passive woman with moist brown eyes; pale, often bruised skin; and a breathy little voice that rarely rose above a tentative murmur, she’d been a self-taught expert in a kind of horticulture most people don’t even know exists: the indoor growing of useful, not merely ornamental, botanical specimens.
What would happen to Faye Anne’s collection of greenery now? With the thought and as a distant siren came from outside I realized how perilously close to weeping I was, and gritted my teeth.
“Jacobia,” Ellie began steadyingly.
For our visit to Faye Anne’s that morning Ellie had put on a bright purple turtleneck and an orange cardigan sweater she had knitted herself. And because Ellie’s knitting is long on creative charm but short on the precise measurements needed to make hems end where they ought to, she was wearing it as a tunic. With it she had on magenta ribbed leggings, thick wool socks, and hiking boots tied with green-and-purple plaid laces; a yellow ribbon of some sparkly, gauzy stuff held back her red hair.
All of which should have made her look like an explosion at the thrift store’s used-clothing bin, but Ellie is so tall and slender that she could wear the bin itself and look ready for a stroll down a fashion runway. Now her pale green eyes assessed me gravely through her new glasses, their lenses magnifying the tiny flecks of amber in her eye color.
“How are they?” I asked irrelevantly.
The glasses, I meant. Anything to stop looking at what was all over the walls and floor. To stop conjuring with such hideous precision, complete with sound effects, of where it had come from and how.
Ellie touched the frames, heavy tortoiseshell that set off her hair. Below them, the freckles across her nose were like a sprinkling of gold dust. “All right, I guess. I’m still getting used to them.”
Ellie was so farsighted that she could spot the nostril in a sparrow’s beak at two hundred yards, but without her glasses anything much nearer was just a blob to her. “What I want to know is, how are...”
You, she would have finished; Ellie had been my friend since nearly the moment I’d arrived in Eastport, four years earlier. But just then we heard it, through the howl of Bob Arnold’s approaching squad-car siren: the sound, like a muffled half-sob, of a person waking in pain.
The heap of quilts on the daybed shifted and sat up.
It was Faye Anne Carmody. Frowning and blinking in the bright, warm sunlight of her own blood-splattered kitchen, she peered fretfully at us. Her eyes seemed to focus partway; an uncertain smile twitched her slackened mouth.
“Oh,” she breathed, swaying a little.
Then the quilt fell, exposing the apron she wore, a bibbed canvas butcher’s apron, and her hands encased in yellow rubber gloves. The front of the apron was entirely painted in red, the gloves’ palms and fingertips clotted with rusty material.
She’d been burning the rags, I thought, in the woodstove. But before she could finish she’d collapsed onto the daybed. A gust of frigid air came in from the hall, the front door fell shut with a rifle-shot bang, and footsteps approached the kitchen.
“Didn’t occur to you,” Bob Arnold said admonishingly, “he might still be here? Lurkin’ around in a drunken fug, one o’ them big sharp cleavers o’ his, still in his hand?”
Merle Carmody, he meant, because if anything had happened to Faye Anne then Merle had done it. Bob knew it as well as anyone and better than most; Faye Anne wasn’t the only local woman whose husband thought a smack in the head was the ultimate — or indeed the only — useful method of domestic communication.
Bob’s face was pink with cold, his reddened hands rubbing together. He wore an open denim jacket over a plaid flannel shirt and blue jeans, the earflaps of his fleece-lined cap snapped over the top of his head; no native Eastporter ever buttoned a jacket or pulled a pair of earflaps down until the red on the thermometer sank convincingly below the zero mark and stayed there.
From where he stood behind us he couldn’t see Faye Anne, and neither of us had yet really begun believing that we were seeing her, so we said nothing. And Faye Anne still seemed stunned.
So there was a moment of silence. Then:
“Holy moley,” Bob said. The place looked like an abattoir. “That son of a bitch really went to town on her, didn’t he?”
“Um, I don’t think so,” I said. Over in the corner, Faye Anne was still having trouble focusing. But she was getting there.
“Bob?” Ellie looked at me and I could see she was beginning to suspect the same thing I was: that our old buddy Merle wasn’t lurking around here with a cleaver in his hand, in a drunken fug.
Or in any kind of fug whatsoever. Noticing again the door with its slide bolt and hooks and eyes fastened, imagining the butcher shop beyond with its cutting block, slicing machine, and rack of sharp knives arrayed by the cooler and the walk-in freezer, I had a sudden, very clear and detailed notion of exactly where that wife-beating bastard Merle Carmody was at that moment.
And may heaven forgive me but what I wanted to do was stand there and cheer. But then it hit me, what that meant to Faye Anne.
If I was right. If...
“Well,” Bob began, “I’d better secure this scene. State boys’ll want in on this one, you can be sure, God forbid I don’t set it up right. Poor girl has got to be here somewhere, too, I imagine, might as well get an ambulance, tell them they’re going to have an awful job.”
He sighed heavily. “And I can get on the horn, tell Timmy to grab Merle up from wherever he’s prob’ly still lying drunk.”
Tim Rutherford was Bob Arnold’s second-in-command in the Eastport Police Department. Bob eyed the open stove door without comment, then said: “Neither one of you went in any further than right here? Or did more’n that?” He waved at the stove.
“No, Bob,” Ellie said patiently. We both knew better than to try interrupting him when he was confronting a situation. It got him irritated, and he was already plenty irritated.
“You know,” he went on, “there are people, I hate to say it, but there are people who if this happened to ‘em, you wouldn’t mind so much.”
Over in the corner Faye Anne was peering around, a frown creasing her forehead. A bit of brown blood above her eyebrow flaked away; she blinked, tried brushing at it, then noticed with a look of intense puzzlement that she was wearing the gloves.
She hadn’t yet looked down at the apron and suddenly I didn’t want her to. I didn’t want to ask her what had happened, comfort her, or find out for sure that she was — as she appeared to be — whole and unharmed.
Instead I wanted these dazed, muzzy moments of confusion to go on, for Faye Anne Carmody at any rate if not for the rest of us. Because it was clear that whatever had occurred here — fueled by the contents of a trio of empty wine bottles on the floor by the foot of that daybed, perhaps — she didn’t remember it.
Yet. But she was going to. And when she did...
Quietly, I backed away from Ellie and Bob. Not thinking too clearly myself, maybe. Not reckoning the cost of my actions any more than Faye Anne had been, the night before.
No, I just wanted to know.
Winter in Eastport came early that year. Starlings massed in the treetops in August and frost clamped down on the gardens overnight in mid-September. Lawn mowers were stored away, the children’s Hallowe’en costumes peeped from beneath heavy scarves and jackets, and we ate our Thanksgiving dinners to the wheep-and-jingle of the snowplows massively to-ing and fro-ing outside, pushing up white mountains and spraying fountains of brown sand so we would not be killed in collisions, going home.
Now I let myself out of the Carmody house into the picture-postcard brilliance of a Maine island winter. It had snowed three days earlier and the air felt crystalline, smelling of iced saltwater, fresh-cut pine, and the sweet smoke of parlor stoves cozily burning all over town.
In the side yard my boots creaked in the frozen white stuff, plowed and shoveled from streets and sidewalks but lying pristine everywhere else. It blanketed the roofs of two-hundred-year-old clapboard houses and surrounded brick chimneys, drew thick white lines on slats of green shutters and atop picket fences, capped red fire hydrants and clung like white moss to the north sides of the fir trees.
I let it all dazzle me, feeling cleansed by the whiteness and cold. A few blocks downhill — past Town Hall, the old grammar school, and the soaring white clock spire of the Congregational Church — the blue, unbelievably cold water of Passamaquoddy Bay showed glitteringly between the red-brick commercial buildings on Water Street.
An evergreen wreath with a fat red bow hung on the Carmodys’ front door; two weeks till Christmas. I stood looking at it, taking deep breaths and thinking about how murder divides everything into before and after. Then I followed the shoveled path along the side of the house out to the shop Merle ran in the ell and found the key under the doormat.
From the Hardcover edition.
In the press
“Graves’s characters are very human creations, warts and all, with Jake in particular making fine company.”
— Publishers Weekly
Praise for the Home Repair Is Homicide Mysteries of Sarah Graves:
Dead Cat Bounce
“No cozy this, it’s amusing, cynical, yet warm, populated with nice and nasty characters and some dirty secrets.... All the ingredients fit the dish of delicious crime chowder.... I am already drooling for [Jake’s] return.”
— Booknews from The Poisoned Pen
“In her polished debut, Graves blends charming, evocative digressions about life in Eastport with an intricate plot, well-drawn characters and a wry sense of humor.”
— Publishers Weekly
“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
“[Triple Witch] is a smartly written story, with lots of interesting detail about the area and restoration projects. But it never gets in the way of the mystery, which turns out to be both complex and simple, an admirable combination.”
— Contra Costa Times
“Graves skillfully ... draws out the suspense. Good entertainment.”
— Publishers Weekly
“Ms. Graves has created a bright and personable new detective who has been welcomed into the Eastport community with warmth and affection.”
— The Dallas Morning News
From the Hardcover edition.