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Ike Schwartz, Sheriff of Picketsville, Virginia, and Ruth Dennis, the President of a local university and Ike’s fiancée cannot find peace and quiet be at home after a trying year of academic and local politics. So, they elect to seek asylum on Scone Island, a rocky island four miles off the coast of Maine. Its lack of electricity, reliable water supply, and phone service guarantee their seclusion and peace. The fact there has been a suspicious accident resulting in the death of the mysterious Harmon Staley should...
Ike Schwartz, Sheriff of Picketsville, Virginia, and Ruth Dennis, the President of a local university and Ike’s fiancée cannot find peace and quiet be at home after a trying year of academic and local politics. So, they elect to seek asylum on Scone Island, a rocky island four miles off the coast of Maine. Its lack of electricity, reliable water supply, and phone service guarantee their seclusion and peace. The fact there has been a suspicious accident resulting in the death of the mysterious Harmon Staley should not concern them at all. And it doesn’t until Ike’s past as a CIA agent rolls in on him like the area’s famous twelve foot tides. Two more murders involving former colleagues elsewhere in the country send Charlie Garland, Ike’s old friend from the Agency searching the files for a connection. Stonewalling by the CIA, conspiracies, real and imagined, end with Ike and Ruth facing an unknown but determined number of assassins alone on the island.
As if that were not enough, Ruth’s mother decides to drop in on them just as the excitement begins. A late arrival by the Director of the CIA and Charlie only make things worse for Ruth who opts for Plan B—Las Vegas—in the hopes that she and Ike can finally get lost in the crowd. And good luck with that.
"Barstow, you do not strike me as Colin Tennant, and Scone Island is certainly no Mustique," he'd said at the time.
Barstow had replied, "Pardon?"
"Not important—some Scottish Lord who bought an island like you're trying to do, and after he had his fun with celebrities and their entourages, he lost his shirt. Are you prepared to lose your shirt, Barstow? There is no electrical power here, no certain supply of water, and no phone service. How do you plan to turn this rock in the middle of nowhere into a resort?"
But the man only smiled. "I suppose the same way you intend to turn that tumbledown monstrosity of yours into a bed-and-breakfast." And then he shrugged as if the two of them shared a secret, as if they alone knew what others did not, as if they coconspired in a complex scheme, an adventure. Harmon guessed that Barstow had no clue as to what either of them might or might not know, and the smug "I know something you don't know" expression infuriated him almost as much as the constant pestering. Only reluctantly had he agreed to meet Barstow for what he hoped would be a final and successful attempt to get rid of the developer. He couldn't possibly know the secret.
"A compromise," Barstow had said. "A sweetener."
In the days Harmon would refer to as his "previous life," he might have wondered at Barstow, would have had his antennae up, so to speak. Certainly he would have been more cautious. After all, he had not lived this long by being careless. But since he'd reinvented himself for this new stage in his life and since this was a piece of the Maine coast at the end of never, what were the chances something could go wrong?
Against his better judgment, he'd agreed to meet the man one last time. He paced the length of the big house's porch, oblivious to the structure's peeling paint and badly weathered and missing shakes, nothing that a small infusion of money could not fix. Where this money might come from remained a mystery to those who saw this latest member of the island's population as a somewhat seedy and down-at-the-heels opportunist. They could not have guessed that Harmon had assets. That he only had to sit tight for a few more months until no one would notice, or care, or dare object to the slow hemorrhage of funds from one or more of those ubiquitous off-budget, off-shore accounts into his personal account.
No need to stir up the suits in accounting or the IRS, not yet. Especially the IRS. Slow and steady would do the job. Hell, as far as Harmon was concerned, they owed him for all he'd done for them over the years, ungrateful bastards! They owed him big time. Instead, they'd chosen to dump him. Well then, they'd pay for that, simple. No way would he'd give it back either. To hell with the big shots and all the pussies who worked down there. He'd paid his life insurance premiums, and as far as they were concerned he was officially dead. So, okay fine, now he'd be his own beneficiary. He looked at his watch. What had happened to Barstow anyway?
Night rolled in from the west like the twelve foot tides that characterized this part of the Maine coast, accompanied by a salty mist that hung in the air and made Harmon uneasy. He couldn't say why. He walked to the center of the porch ignoring the squeak of loose boards, pivoted on his heel and started back the way he'd come. Soon he'd need to light a lamp. He stretched and searched his pockets for a match. What was keeping that smarmy wheeler-dealer anyway? He heard a scraping sound behind him. How had Barstow arrived at Cliffside without walking up the path? Harmon turned and squinted into the darkness.
"So, it's you," he said. And after a pause, "How'd you find me?"
"It was only a matter of time. I have friends in high places."
"How high would that be? Never mind. So, what happens now?"
"We walk. We talk."
* * *
Mary Smithwick had celebrated her seventy-fifth birthday the previous month, shortly before she left Chevy Chase to take up her annual summer residence on Scone Island. Her early arrival in late May meant it was her year to open her house before the rest of the family, if any, arrived in the third week of June.
She and her family, when she still had one, had spent the three summer months, June, July, and August, on the island every year as far back as she could remember. No, that wasn't correct. There were those years in the mid-forties during the war when it was not possible to travel from Utica, where she'd grown up, to the island. Her memories were sketchy as she'd been very young at the time. The government restricted travel back then and the Coast Guard had taken up a position on the island. They'd replaced the old light house on the eastern point of the island with a watch tower to surveil for German U-boats and to track convoys heading across the Atlantic to England or Murmansk. Also, they had established a Coast Guard Station in Southport in the Bite ostensibly to serve as a rescue point should one of the ships, Liberty Ships they were called, be torpedoed and sink.
The coast artillery arrived shortly afterwards and built gun emplacements on the point next to the tower as well. She couldn't remember if they'd ever fired at a German submarine—or was it aircraft? She never found out which, but in any case, she liked to think they had. During the war years, most of the cottages had been commandeered by the government to house their personnel. The few families who'd managed to get to the island then had stories to tell. Oh, my, yes. Well, that was a long time ago and the world had changed so much. Now she enjoyed her retirement after thirty years of government service, alternately living out the winter months in the snug condominium she owned in Maryland and summering on the island. Old friends from the past made sure there was always something for her to do so her mind stayed active and excited even if her body had lost some of its spring.
She walked steadily along the gravel path the residents insisted on calling West Road, to Cliffside, the largest house on the island. Harmon Staley, who'd bought Cliffside from the Willards back in the fall had said, "Yes, indeed, you're more than welcome to pick wild strawberries over on the fence line." Cliffside, for as long as she could remember, had had tiny wild berries ripening under the leaves that collected at the fence every spring—weeks before the cultivated ones were ready elsewhere. It had become a Scone Island tradition—or once was. Not many of the new owners or the descendents of the old ones cared for that sort of thing. Nobody picked wild berries anymore, much less put them up. If she gathered enough, she wanted to put up one jar of jam for Mr. Staley, poor thing.
Mary had a generous spirit and excused Harmon Staley's misanthropy where others might not. It must be, she thought, the result of burdens acquired in a previous, and by some accounts, very troubled life. She could only guess at what those troubles might have been. The sketchiest details surfaced when he arrived. Most folks on the island maintained it was none of their business what other folks did, and so made allowances for Harmon. Nevertheless, some of the newer families thought he was plain rude and said so. On the other hand Mary might admit, if pressed, that she found him rather dashing, in a superannuated Errol Flynn sort of way. The late actor had been a school-girl crush of hers, one she shared with her sister and at least half her high school class—Errol Flynn and also Billy Prescott, the captain of the football team and very dishy himself, but that was a long time ago and besides, no one called people dishy anymore.
As a courtesy, she knocked on the door of the guest house. Harmon Staley had been required to move from the big house to this smaller version when the former's leaky roof finally overwhelmed any of the local tradesmen's ability to repair it. The building was falling into disrepair, and Mary did not see any hope for its revival in spite of Harmon's insistence that he would get it into shape and open it as a Bed and Breakfast by next summer. The notion seemed unrealistic to her, there being neither electricity nor water available, not to mention the lack of telephone service. But who knew? Perhaps he was right. Very ambitious, this Mr. Staley.
No answer at the guest house. He must be out and about the place. No problem, she'd catch up with him eventually. She made her way to the fence and began picking, carefully raking the leaves aside with a gloved hand and plucking the dime-sized berries from their racines. The weather had been unseasonably mild, so berries were plentiful. In an hour, her peck basket nearly full, she reached the end of the east portion of the fence. She would, she hoped, fill a second or third on the longer section to the west. The fence came to an end at the point where it intersected the cliff face. Cliffside took its name because it had been built atop the sixty-foot granite cliffs that dropped sharply down to the ocean. Years had eroded some of the face away and in the last decade at least one section of fence on the western end and ten yards of back lawn had dropped onto the rocks below. Everyone knew that sooner or later the island would be swallowed up in the fury of the Atlantic storms. But granite was not limestone, and that time would be measured in centuries, perhaps millennia.
Mary had had a fear of heights since that day at age twelve when she'd slipped off the porch roof of the house in Utica. She'd gone there to play Amelia Earhart with her sister and discovered that a bed sheet made a poor parachute. Like others who suffer from acrophobia, she could not resist the temptation to peer over the cliff and into the abyss. She called it her "little death wish." She knew she would not fall, but she also knew she would have an adrenaline rush that would cause her heart to leap into her throat. "One day," she'd said to her sister, "I will have a heart attack doing that and then I might as well have thrown myself off the precipice after all."
She grasped the fence post, shook it to be sure it remained firmly anchored in the ground, leaned over the edge, and took a quick peek. Usually one look would have been enough. But today something down on the rocks, a splash of color, caught her eye. She took a deep breath, steeled herself, and risked a second look. No doubt about it. That was Harmon Staley down there looking more like an untidy pile of laundry than a man.
He stepped to the kitchen as quietly as his size fifteen hiking boots allowed and started the first of what would be several pots of coffee that he'd brew over the next twelve to fifteen hours. He'd decided to let Ruth sleep as long as she wished or needed. When she woke up he would help her in and out of the tiny tub/shower and reposition the cervical collar that for the last several months had made her look more like a vicar in an Anthony Trollope novel than president of a moderately prestigious mid-Atlantic university. That, of course, assumed that Trollope's nineteenth century clerics would have countenanced a woman among their number. Ike felt certain they would not.
It had been an extremely difficult year for her, but one that had finally come to an end, as T. S. Eliot would say, not with a bang, but a whimper. Thank God for small mercies. All the conflicts and the potential scandal that had spewed forth like so much hot lava after the murder of her vice president in the fall had finally settled and cooled. Not, however, without what passed in academe for land grabbing and looting. Faculty, Ike thought, more accurately tenured faculty in the rarified air of universities, were behaviorally more like supermodels with PMS than the academic super stars they were alleged to be. He'd said that to Ruth and she'd smiled then smacked him with a manila folder for "acting like a sexist pig." He'd said he'd take that as a compliment given what she used to think of him when they first met.
"What was that?"
"You called me a Nazi."
"And you think sexist pig is an improvement?"
"You must be growing on me, Schwartz. You're right, I'm getting soft."
The faculty had eventually sheathed their verbal daggers, curbed their egos, and resumed the activities they were paid to do. The board of directors stopped posturing for the evening news, settled down, and approved the budget and the elevation of the current dean for academic affairs to the vacant vice president's slot. Its mutineers pacified, the ship, metaphorically speaking, was back on course. Ruth had had to endure all of this while recovering from the surgery attendant on an automobile wreck that put her into a three-week coma and gave her a fractured skull, a cracked cervical vertebra, a ruptured spleen, and a broken leg. She had done what needed doing and—mission accomplished, to quote another more famous president of different time and place—she now slept like a log in the next room. That is if logs could be thought to snore, an affliction she'd acquired as a side effect of the broken neck. The doc said he thought it would go away when she began sleeping on her side as she used to. Ike thought that was easy for him to say. He didn't have to share her bed. But success in small things had extracted its price. To Ike, she looked about as worn out and beaten as he had ever seen anyone, and that included some pretty beat up folks from another time and another life.
He settled in a camp chair and looked over the Shenandoah Valley nearly a thousand feet below him. His A-frame in the mountains, the retreat he'd established when he first returned to the valley running from the bad times, the BR times—Before Ruth times—now served as a place of refuge for both of them. He, from the burdens and annoyances that attached his job as sheriff of Picketsville, Virginia, and she from the similar but heavier ones borne by the presidency of Callend University. How much longer the cabin could serve as their weekend hiding place remained to be seen. Too many people insisted they needed twenty-four-seven access to one or the other of them. And privacy, especially for those who serve in the public sector, whether as educators or police, had been slowly eroded away by the nonsensical notions that emerged first from an obsessed media hungry for information and disinclined to dig it out the hard way. More recently they dealt with the semi-informed, semiliterate blogosphere that maintained the public's "right to know" trumped any individual's right to privacy.
He wondered if the late Marlon Brando might not have had it right. Maybe he should follow his example and buy an inaccessible island out in the middle of the ocean somewhere and disappear from view forever.
Excerpted from Scone Island by Frederick Ramsay Copyright © 2012 by Frederick Ramsay. 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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