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Dangling by a Thread
By Lea Wait
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2016 Lea Wait
All rights reserved.
"Time has wings and swiftly flies
Youth and Beauty Fade away
Virtue is the only Prize
Whose Joys never will decay."
— Sampler stitched by Chloe Trask in Middlesex County, Massachusetts, about 1800. Originally dated with four digits, in later years someone (probably Chloe herself) removed the stitching on the final two numbers to conceal her age.
The August fog felt damp and soft on my face as I sat on a bench on Wharf Street, sipped my coffee, and watched anchored boats in Haven Harbor appear and disappear. The early morning fog hid the Three Sisters, the islands that protect our small Maine harbor from the ocean's strength.
In the distance I heard the motor of a lobster boat making early morning stops to check traps.
A figure in a small gray skiff, almost seeming part of the fog, was rowing smoothly toward shore, out of the mists. Whoever he was, he knew the waters. I watched as he tied his skiff to the town pier and pulled himself onto the dock. That's when I noticed he was limping.
I knew Haven Harbor's boats and their owners. I didn't remember ever seeing that skiff or its occupant.
I'd been back in Haven Harbor over three months now and was beginning to feel comfortable again in the house that had seen the joys and pains of my growing up. I'd agreed to stay six months: settle in, manage Mainely Needlepoint, the business Gram had started, and come to terms with the past.
The house seemed empty since Gram had married and moved out. I didn't blame the house. I'd been lonely before, in other times, other places.
I'd battle through it. I was already thinking six months in Haven Harbor wasn't long enough. I might stay longer.
Still, some mornings, like today, I was restless, and nothing but the sights and sounds of the sea would soothe me. Those ten years I'd spent in Arizona, far from the consistent tides I'd depended on to bring order to my life, had left a hole only closeness to the ocean could fill.
Too often in the past weeks, like today, I'd woken early to the motors of lobster boats leaving the docks and the screeching of the gulls following them.
I'd filled a travel mug with coffee and headed for the wharves, where I'd be close to the sea and smell the salt air and dried rockweed and mudflats. Where I could forget Mama and my past. Forget what brought me back to Haven Harbor.
The man on the dock was tall and thin, his skin almost the color of his straggly gray beard. He might have been forty, or sixty. His faded flannel shirt hung on him as though intended for someone heavier, someone stronger. His jeans were belted with rope.
He picked up two canvas bags from inside the skiff and walked up the ramp, limping, but not hesitating, toward where I was sitting. He didn't look at me or at Arvin Fraser, who'd finished hoisting his bait barrels on board the Little Lady and was preparing to leave for the day's work with Rob Trask, his sternman.
Whoever the strange man was, he was focused on whatever had brought him to Haven Harbor. He didn't look around, greet anyone, or seem to notice one of his worn sneakers was untied.
Curious, I watched him head south on Wharf Street until he was lost in the fog.
I walked down the ramp to where Arvin and Rob were about to cast off.
"Morning, Angie," said Rob. "You're out early again."
"Who was that man?" I asked. I pointed to his skiff, gray as the morning. "The man who rowed in."
Arvin grinned. "Guess you ain't never seen him before. He's a character, but he don't bother no one. Lives out on one of the islands beyond the Three Sisters."
"I didn't know anyone lived out there," I said. "Those islands are just outcroppings of ledges with a few trees on them. No houses that I remember. No water, no electricity. Just birds."
"Right," said Rob. "He don't seem to mind, though. Been out there a couple of years now."
"What's his name?" I asked.
Arvin and Rob looked at each other. Arvin shrugged. "Don't rightly know. Never asked. Folks in town call him The Solitary."CHAPTER 2
"Let spotlefs innocence and truth
My ev'ry action guide
And guard my inexperienc'd youth
My vanity and pride."
— From sampler stitched by Dorothy Lancaster (1781 – 1806) near Portland, Maine, in 1785. Dorothy used the old f form for one s in her verse, perhaps copying it from an old book. By the beginning of the nineteenth century most printers had dropped this letter form.
I shivered in the damp fog. The Solitary.
Solitary. Alone. That's the way I felt this morning. It wasn't a good feeling.
Who was he? How would it feel to live by yourself on an island? Islands beyond the Three Sisters were three or four miles offshore. Far enough out so waters could be dangerously rough, especially in winter. Too far out, in choppy deep waters, for a comfortable or safe row to the mainland.
I looked down Wharf Street after the strange man. Where was he heading on this early morning?
For no reason other than curiosity, I followed him.
My years working for a private investigator in Arizona automatically kicked in. I stayed far enough behind him so the fog enveloped both of us.
He walked easily, his slight limp almost unnoticeable. Too able for any crippling disease I could think of. Maybe he'd slipped getting into his skiff and badly bruised his leg, or cut his foot on barnacle-covered rocks.
I invented stories as I walked, following the uneven sound of his sneakers hitting the pavement, knowing I should turn around and mind my own business.
The Solitary didn't notice he had company. At the end of Wharf Street he turned inland, up the hill toward the west side of town.
I followed, staying close to the storefronts. The fog here, away from the harbor, wasn't as dense. If he turned around, he'd see me: a stranger who, like him, was wandering the streets of Haven Harbor just after dawn.
I could smell fresh bread baking at the Thibodeaus' patisserie two blocks away. I should end my foolishness, leave the mysterious man alone, buy a scone or croissant, and head for home.
But as he walked farther, my curiosity grew.
He turned right, past the hardware store. I paused, letting him get far enough away so he wouldn't see me. The sun was rapidly burning the fog off. A truck turned into the parking lot in back of the hardware store. Gulls cried over the harbor.
During most August days these streets were busy. This early in the morning they were eerily still. I stood, listening. A door slammed. A car engine started. A crow in the distance called and was answered by a crow closer by.
I walked to the corner.
The Solitary was sitting on the steps of the post office. I glanced at my phone to check the time. Pax Henry, the postmaster, wouldn't open for another hour.
The man stretched his legs, rubbing the one that bothered him and noticing his errant shoelace. He tied it, as the door of the post office opened. Pax stood in the doorway, his bushy red hair and beard shining in the sun. He gestured, and the man waiting outside followed him in.
I checked my phone again. No, the post office shouldn't open for another hour.
But this morning it had.
I'd spent too much time working for a private investigator. I had too many dark fantasies.
There were no secrets here. The mysterious man was in town to pick up his mail.
What was strange about that? What was strange was my stalking him.
I changed direction and headed for the patisserie. Henri and Nicole always unlocked their door as soon as their first baked goods of the day were out of the oven. It was time for breakfast.CHAPTER 3
"O resignation heavenly power
Our warmest thoughts engage
Thou art the safest guide of youth
The sole support of age.
Teach of the hand of love divine
In evils to discern
'Tis the first lesson which we need
The latest which we learn."
— Stitched by Eliza Tukey in Portland, Maine, 1817. Eliza was the sixth of nine children born to George and Betsey Snow Tukey. The sampler lists the genealogy of her family, and Eliza's birthdate as September 2, 1803. Two of her sisters, Sophia and Margaret Ann, died as infants.
The bell on the patisserie door sounded loud in the morning quiet, but the warm smells and footsteps coming from the kitchen said the Thibodeaus had already been at work for hours.
Nicole came to the counter, wiping her hands on her full apron. "Morning, Angie! Out early today."
"And couldn't resist the smells."
"Nothing smells better than bread baking," Nicole agreed. "It's almost as good an advertisement as how it tastes. What can I get for you?"
I'd planned to visit Dave Percy, one of the Mainely Needlepointers, this morning. "Who can resist your croissants? Four, please."
She selected the pastries and put them in a white bakery box. "They're still warm. Couldn't be fresher."
I handed her money. "You know everyone in town."
"If they eat bread or sweet things, I do," Nicole agreed, handing me the bakery box and my change.
"Do you know a tall, thin man with a gray beard? He might walk with a limp."
She hesitated. "A few of those around. Does the man you're asking about dress a bit oddly?"
"That'd be him," I agreed. "Arvin said he lived out on one of the islands."
"I've seen him walking past our windows in the early morning. Never in the light of day. I don't know what he does for money, but he doesn't spend any here, I can tell you." She shivered. "Strange fellow. Keeps to himself. I've heard folks say he's a little not right in the head, you know. Never bothered me, I'll say. But you never know."
I nodded. "True enough. I just wondered about him. Saw him at the wharf this morning."
"Chances are he'll keep his distance. That's his way."
"How's Henri's mom?"
"About the same. She's still getting used to living with us here instead of in her home in Quebec. Luckily we've found a lovely French-speaking home health aide to be with her when we're not home. But transitions are hard for her. Alzheimer's is hard on all of us."
"Transitions aren't easy," I agreed. Even if you don't have Alzheimer's.
It was still too early to stop at Dave's house, so I headed up the hill toward the white house that had been home to my family for generations. A little of the cheese Gram had brought back from her honeymoon was still in the refrigerator. Cheese and a croissant would make an excellent breakfast.
Gram had married Reverend McCully and moved to the rectory six weeks ago. She was only two blocks away, and I should have gotten used to living alone by now. After all, I'd lived alone, most of the time anyway, for ten years in Arizona. But there I'd lived in small apartments, cozy and temporary.
This house was large, permanent, and held indelible memories.
Sometimes I looked at the porch and saw myself jumping rope there, twenty years ago. "Step on a crack, break your mother's back." Gram had left the door to Mama's room closed for years, part of her hoping Mama might come home. I'd emptied Mama's closet and bureau in May. It was time to accept the past.
But in my heart that room at the top of the stairs would always be Mama's, and Gram's now-deserted room would be Gram's. I missed them both, more than I'd expected to, or would admit to anyone.
Gram had left most of her furniture and kitchen necessities for me; Reverend Tom's rectory was already furnished. Without what she'd left, the house would be empty. But along with her clothes she'd taken her favorite paintings and china and photographs.
Wallpaper had faded around the bright spots where pictures had hung, and now there were empty spaces on shelves in the living and dining rooms instead of the Victorian glass she'd inherited and the plaster of Paris handprint I'd given her when I was in kindergarten.
I was twenty-seven, old enough to take home ownership seriously. But my bedroom was still decorated with ocean-smoothed stones and sea glass I'd found on Pocket Cove beach in my teens. Shelves there mocked me, too. I'd never been a reader. The only books in my room were the Bible I'd been given when I was confirmed, worn paperbacks of Peyton Place and The Hobbit, and a few old Nancy Drews. To make my bedroom more welcoming, two weeks ago I'd moved a shelf of books on the history of needlepoint from the bookcases in the living room, which now doubled as the office of Mainely Needlepoint, to my room. I still had a lot to learn about embroidery.
I'd only brought home two souvenirs from my years in Arizona: my Glock, which I left in the sideboard in our front hall where I could get it quickly when I left the house, and a painting of a desert sunset. After Gram had taken her pictures, I'd hung the Arizona painting over the living-room fireplace.
I loved that painting. Maine sunsets were explosions of red and orange and purple, too, but they weren't as showy.
New England constraint, no doubt.
My painting didn't quite fit in Haven Harbor.
Of course I did. This was my family home.
I'd let my mind get lost in the morning fog again.
I poured another cup of coffee and settled myself at the computer. I had bills to send to gift shops closing after the tourist season, and I needed to check on the progress of the needlework projects I'd assigned to the five Mainely Needlepointers.
I was most worried about Dave Percy. He'd taken on a large project — two seat covers and a matching wall hanging — for a woman from Iowa who wanted to take the work home with her at the beginning of September.
Labor Day was only three weeks away.
An hour later I stood and stretched.
It was a beautiful day, as beautiful as I remembered August days had always been in Maine.
I picked up the box holding the (now two) croissants and headed for Dave's house.
Then I detoured to the post office.
"Morning, Angie." Pax Henry was tall and thin, and had been the Haven Harbor postmaster since before his red beard was tinged with white. "What can I do for you this morning?"
"One book of stamps, please," I said, taking money out of my pocket.
"I've got birds or flags today," said Pax, showing me. "You like birds, as I recall."
"I do," I agreed. I slid the book into my pocket. "Say, Pax, I was by here early this morning and saw a man waiting for you to open."
"Ayah," he answered. "That'd be Jesse Lockhart, I imagine."
"He the one who lives out on one of the islands?" I asked. The Solitary had a name.
"Does. King's Island. Don't have a post office out there, so he picks his mail up here."
"Get much mail?"
"Now, you know mail's private, Angie. Between the US government and the one getting it." He leaned forward. "Gets the usual junk mail and what look like government checks, regular. Guess they're disability, 'cause of his leg, you know. And letters from a Chicago bank, sometimes. That's about it." Pax shook his head. "Fellow don't talk much. Stops in every week or ten days or such to get his mail. I hold it for him. That's all I know."
"He ever send any mail?"
Pax shook his head slowly. "Not that I remember. 'Course, he could be like you, buying stamps and mailing from anywhere."
"Not from an island," I pointed out.
"True enough," agreed Pax. "I don't know what he might send out. I only take care of what's coming in."
"Thanks, Pax," I said, heading for the door. "I was just being nosy."
"You and all of Haven Harbor," Pax said. "You ain't the first to be asking."
"Morning, Angie. You're out and about today." Jed Fitch, a heavyset man who'd been a football star at Haven Harbor High years before, passed me on his way in to see Pax. "Say — I've been trying to reach Reverend Tom. If you see him or your grandmother, tell them Carole and I'll be happy to be greeters at the church next Sunday. Tom doesn't need to call me back. He can count on us."
"I'll tell her," I said. In a small town, people knew each other. Jed and his wife had grown up in town, married, had kids, and he was now a part-time Realtor and part-time handy man. Two of the windows in my house were cracked. Maybe Jed could fix them. I turned to ask him, but he'd disappeared inside the post office.
My windows weren't an emergency. Winter winds wouldn't hit for three months or so. I'd see Jed again before then.
I headed for Dave's house. Checking on the needlepoint Dave had committed to was partially an excuse to get out of the house, I admitted to myself, but I hadn't seen him recently, and talking to Pax hadn't filled my need for friendship. Dave was usually glad to see me.
Excerpted from Dangling by a Thread by Lea Wait. Copyright © 2016 Lea Wait. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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