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The noon ferry was backing into its spot with great roars of engines and spurts of water, and the spring sun was drenching the air with exuberant light. Sabrina paused at the edge of the public beach to savor the view of the harbor, feeling the pleasant punch deep inside her stomach at the realization that she lived in this marvelous place.
As she approached the throng of people standing on the beach, an object flew high in the air and landed with a thump in the sand, accompanied by cheering and clapping.
"One hundred and five feet! Not bad, Jimmy!"
Sabrina made her way through the crowd to a spot where she could see the proceedings. A large rectangle had been staked off in the sand. At one end of the rectangle stood a man in a robe with a microphone, and at the other end lay a large dead fish. Every other available inch of sand was crowded with people and their beach chairs, coolers, and umbrellas. As Sabrina watched, Sergeant Jimmy McCall reached into a blue cooler and brought out a dead mullet. He hefted its weight in his palms and squinted down the beach. Several young boys who had crowded the end of the course nimbly moved out of the way.
Jimmy took the fish by the tail and swung it back and forth before letting it fly high into the air. It landed with a puff of sand, and several people ran out with a tape measure.
"One hundred and twenty-six feet! It's a record, Jimmy!"
"Jimmy always wins," a voice said in Sabrina's ear. "Course, if I was to throw one of them mullet, there's no telling how far it would go. Clear over to the mainland, I'd guess."
"Hello, Lima." Sabrina turned to greet her friend. Lima was older than he cared to admit, with the quirky temperament of a blue-eyed redhead, though his hair had long since faded to cinnamon and sugar. He wore ragged pants, a red flannel shirt, and white rubber boots up to his knees, and his face was creviced with sun and age, but lively with humor. He shook his head as he peered over Sabrina's shoulder at the next person who was stepping up to throw a fish.
"Poor Mickey couldn't throw himself away if he tried, but he just won't quit trying." Lima turned away from the young man hefting his fish and stared at Sabrina with sharp eyes honed by years and experience. "I heard you've been a busy little bee today."
"Hmmm." Sabrina never stopped marveling at the speed of the island gossip train.
"I heard about that tourist woman you helped save from the evil clutches of Vicki Carroway."
"Someone needs to shoot Vicki Carroway and put her out of our misery. Nasty piece of work, that one."
Sabrina nodded. Vicki Carroway was the newest, hottest property manager in town. While her success at bringing people to the island was phenomenal, her people skills left much to be desired.
A gasp of horrified titillation rose from the crowd, and Sabrina turned to see that Mickey had thrown his mullet high into the air. It was immediately apparent that it was not going where it was supposed to, and everyone stared in fascination as the fish sailed off course and landed in the front seat of a BMW convertible.
"Isn't that—" Sabrina got up on tiptoes to try to see over the crowd.
"That's the best I've ever seen Mickey throw." Lima nodded with satisfaction.
"Lima! That's Vicki Carroway's car! She'll never get the smell out."
"Ooops." Lima smiled. "Anyway, I don't know why she felt the need to drive her car the two blocks from her office down to here. People don't know how to walk anymore. Our roads are so crowded it took me twenty minutes to walk down to the general store this morning. I feel like I'm living in the big city."
Sabrina suppressed a smile, because Comico Island, surrounded by water and mainly designated as a wildlife preserve, was about as far from the big city as one could get. But it was true that the traffic was increasing as of late, and their small patch of paradise was beginning to feel crowded.
"What do you think about these break-ins?" Lima spoke over the cheering crowd as the next thrower chose his fish.
Sabrina frowned. "I'd only heard about the one over at the Seas the Day Cottage."
"Good lawd, don't call it that! You sound like a tourist."
It was the worst kind of reprimand, and Sabrina nodded in solemn recognition of her error. "What other break-ins?"
"Weeell" Lima rocked back on his heels and tugged his hat low over his eyes. "Somebody broke into Hill Mitchell's house Friday night. Didn't take anything, just moved some furniture around. 'Bout drove poor Hill over the edge, and he's already standing there on one foot with his eyes closed just waiting for a strong breeze. He didn't call the police about it, since nothing was stolen, but I bet the same person's responsible."
"A rather ineffectual burglar, don't you think? To go to all that trouble and not take anything."
Lima shrugged. "In case you hadn't noticed, some people got brains God gave a toilet plunger. My great-nephew Kealy, for example, I'm sorry to say, falls in that very category. Some misguided soul sent Kealy an envelope full of cash, addressed to him and everything, but with no return address. So what does Kealy want to do? Turn it over to the police! Why, I ask you? Is it a crime to send a body money by mail?"
"No, of course not. At least, I don't think so, though nowadays there's no telling what might be illegal. But why would someone send Kealy cash anonymously?"
Raised voices on the other side of the crowd were growing louder and they turned to see that Mickey McCall and the owner of the BMW, Vicki Carroway, had squared off. From this distance it was difficult to hear what they were saying, but the pugnacious chins and red faces were evidence enough that tempers were heated.
"I wonder what kind citizen showed that Vicki Carroway where to park her fancy con-vert-i-bell."
"Oh, Lima, you didn't!"
"Maybe I did, maybe I didn't."
With a cackling Lima in tow, Sabrina made her way over to the convertible, where things were getting ugly.
"I s-s-s-s-said I was s-s-s-orry," Micky McCall was saying, his young face shining with angry sweat.
"'S-s-s-sorry' isn't good enough, you dumb hick," Vicki Carroway said. "You need to pay to have my leather cleaned. Capeesh?"
"C-c-c-a-what?" Vicki was not a beautiful woman, though her hair, a long, shimmering wave of silver, projected a beautiful person aura. That was until you noticed her churlish eyes and parsimonious mouth. She was tall, and instead of hunching her shoulders so she blended in with the smaller women with whom she shared the world, she wore heels and stood with a chest proud stance, the better to intimidate those around her. Right now she stood staring implacably down at poor, sweating, stuttering Mickey McCall, like a cat with every intention of squashing a bug, though only after she had wrung every last ounce of enjoyment from him.
"Hello, Vicki, what's going on?"
Vicki swung around and fixed Sabrina with an irate glare. "None of your business. Get lost."
"Well, I thought you should know something, but if you don't want to hear it—"
"I don't." Vicki turned away.
"Well, it's your call," Sabrina said cheerfully.
"Wait a minute," Vicki said, turning back around. "You're Sabrina Dunsweeney. You're the one who helped that dumb tourist woman this morning, aren't you? Next time you decide to stick your nose in my business, don't forget you're staying in one of my apartments. I could have you evicted so quick you won't know what hit you."
"Vicki," Sabrina said, "you might want to step out of the way. You, too, Mickey."
"What?" Vicki turned around to see a tow truck backing slowly through the crowd. Bright spring sunlight cascaded from the sky and ignited her hair into a nimbus of silver and gold, and it crackled and burned as she began to shake her head. "Don't you dare tow my car!"
"That's what I was trying to tell you earlier. Not only did you park at the finish line for the mullet toss, but it's also a tow away zone."
Hill looked up from his magazine just in time to have a very dead, stinking mullet thrust into his hands. He flinched, though the rotund woman with impossibly red hair was too busy tapping her spotless white tennis shoe to notice.
"Mary, I don't—" He tried to give the fish back to Mary Garrison Tubbs, but she wasn't having any of it, the bossy old biddy. His skin crawled and he wished with all his heart he had never gotten out of bed today. It was something Hill often wished, but in fact this morning he was exhausted, as he'd spent the last two days disinfecting his house after the break-in. He was afraid his couch might never be the same after he hosed it down, and he'd had heart palpitations when he realized he hadn't replaced his toothbrush. Who knew what the burglar had done with it?
"Hill, we need a distraction!" Mary hissed, propelling him to the front of the crowd. "You're the mayor, do your job."
"Nobody told me throwing a dead fish was part of my job description!" But Hill did as he was told and paid his five bucks for the privilege of throwing a fish, though he wanted nothing more than to dive for the nearest sink to scrub his hands until they were red and sanitary. A good soak in bleach might even be in order.
"Folks, we have a surprise!" Pastor Josh said into the microphone. "I know you're not going to believe it, but Hill Mitchell has graciously agreed to toss a mullet to help raise money for our elementary school. I know you haven't forgotten, people, that every dime we raise today at the Mullet Toss Festival will go to buy our kids new dustless erasers, so get up here, I say, and do your part to help our schools, can I hear an amen! If Hill Mitchell can do it, any one of you can."
Mary's ruse seemed to be working as people, distracted by the sight of the fussy mayor holding a dead fish, turned away from the contretemps over the glossy BMW.
"I never thought I'd see the day," whispered someone, and another lady said, "You know, Hill won't even touch his own mailbox." Other islanders were yelling encouragement as Hill stood with his eyes closed, trying to pretend none of this was happening.
"Let's give Hill a little encouragement, friends and neighbors!" Pastor Josh said, as Hill continued to stand motionless. Pastor Josh started the crowd on a rousing rendition of Queen's "We Will Rock You," and while they were chanting about Buddy boy making a big noise and stomping their feet, the pastor took a surreptitious sip of a flask and then poured some in Hill's unresisting mouth.
When the chant wound down from lyric ignorance—there were only so many times you can sing "we will rock you" without feeling silly—Pastor Josh took the microphone again. "Okay, folks, Hill's going to throw now. And remember, if you're looking for a slightly dented, early model Buick, come on down to God's Grace Car Lot after we're done throwing fish. Okay, Hill, are you ready?"
Hill was thinking about his bed, longing for his thick plaid comforter and his soft, hypoallergenic pillow. If only he'd slept in today, he never would have seen the magazine article, heard about the new burglary, or be standing here with a germ-ridden mullet in his hands.
"Come on, Hill, make Comico proud!" somebody yelled.
"Hill's the man!"
Pastor Josh rubbed Hill's shoulders, loosening him up as he leaned his forehead against Hill's. "Keep focused, Hill, don't worry about the crowd. Remember, you're a winner!"
With one final pat on his backside, Pastor Josh pushed Hill to the starting line.
Hill took a deep breath, regretting it immediately as he inhaled rotting flesh—was it possible to drink bleach?—and threw the fish.
The cheers fell silent as the fish landed with a puff of sand. A tourist snickered, and a few islanders turned to glare, never mind that they had been hiding snickers of their own.
"Well, dang, Hill, my two-year-old can throw farther than that," someone said.
"Hill, my son, would you like to try again?" Pastor Josh asked.
"No, thank you. I think I'm going to throw up."
The crowd parted as Hill ran for the nearest restroom.
* * *
"Mary, that was pure meanness making Hill throw that fish," Lima Lowry said. "I have new respect for you."
"Hill is the most ineffectual man I ever did meet." Mary looked with satisfaction over the now peaceful crowd. Vicki Carroway had left without further incident and, at the moment, vacationers and islanders seemed to be getting along as they cheered a throw by Grandma Jill.
"If Hill's so ineffectual, why did you fight so hard to get him elected?" Lima scratched his grizzled cheek. "I swear, you must have something on him, to control him like you do. What, does he dress up in his grandma's underwear or something?"
"Lima, you're so full of it I'm surprised it's not coming out your ears." Mary caught sight of Harry Garrison and raised her voice. "Harry, I brought your mama some chowder this morning, but you better go over there this afternoon and check on her, or I'll want to know why!"
Lima clapped his hands over his ears. "Mary, you never should have given up your pompoms."
"As I recall, you liked my pompoms, now didn't you, Lima?"
"Ah, well, did you hear what Sabrina did this morning?" Lima's face was red, Mary noted with satisfaction.
She was loathe to admit that anything happened on the island of which she was unaware, so she was silent for a moment as she reviewed what she had heard today. The burglaries, the magazine article, the group staying over at Shell Lodge with their strange demands ...
Mary looked over to where Sabrina Dunsweeney stood, her lemon-colored curls blowing free in the breeze, saucy blue eyes snapping as she laughed merrily. The sound grated on Mary's nerves. As usual, the woman was dressed in one of her neon dresses, this one pink and full-skirted. Where did she think she was, Hollywood?
"Well, you might as well tell me what she did today. I have nothing better to do at the moment," Mary said, giving up. "Did she find a pearl in her oyster? Win a Pulitzer prize? Lucy Garrison said Sabrina isn't selling conch shells anymore, so what in the world is she going to do next? I heard Missy could use another cab driver, maybe I should—"
"What I was saying, before you wouldn't shut up and listen, is that this morning Sabrina ran into the tourist whose cottage got itself burglarized last night. The tourist didn't want to stay at that cottage anymore, and Vicki Carroway absolutely refused to move her anywhere else. So Sabrina fixed her up with Gale Teasley, who you know had to turn her place into a rental cottage when she couldn't pay the property taxes anymore. But Gale hasn't been able to find anyone to stay at the house and she was getting desperate. Sabrina hooked up the tourist and Gale, and the tourist was so happy she didn't even mind paying Gale for the rest of the week, even though she'd already paid for the other place. And Gale, now, she's plain ecstatic to have some money coming in. Wasn't that just peaches of Sabrina?"
"Just peaches." Sabrina Victoria Dunsweeney was a colossal pain in Mary's backside. Some people thought the woman was as adorable as a bag of kittens, but Mary knew her for what she was: a buttinsky of the highest order who tried too hard to make people like her. "What's she doing running around helping people when she should be out looking for a job? Why does she keep quitting them anyway?"
"She's just trying to find her place here on Comico Island. She only moved here six months ago, you know. After her mother dying like that, and that spot of women's trouble she had, Sabrina is just going through a—what do you call it?—an adjustment period."
Lima's loyalty to the newcomer was sandpaper on Mary's nerves. "Maybe she should go on back to Cincinnati, if she's having so much trouble adjusting here."
"Mary Tubbs, you don't need to stick your nose into every living soul's business. And by the way, what's with your hair? You look like you dipped your head in a bucket of red paint."
Mary put her hand to her hair while she considered belting Lima one in the head with her purse. "The hair stylist over on the mainland swore this was the color I picked. I told her if I planned to look like a clown I'd have asked her to put in some purple and yellow as well, but she plain refused to change it without me paying her again. And of course I wasn't going to do that." Mary was still so angry about the whole thing she could spit nails. But darned if she was going to pay any more money to that lying, pert-bosomed stylist.
"You should have called the corporate office and seen if they had one of them um-bus-men. I was watching CNN the other night, and they said all the big companies have them now. They're having so many complaints about stuff, they have these um-bus-men to kind of negotiate between the customers and the company."
"Lima, you very well may be the most ignorant man I ever met." Mary said the words without heat, however, because an idea was forming. It could be the answer to all their problems.
Excerpted from Island Blues by Wendy Howell Mills Copyright © 2007 by Wendy Howell Mills. Excerpted by permission of Poisoned Pen Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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