The next Martha's Vineyard mystery featuring the Police Chief's unlikely but eminently helpful deputy, ninety-two-year-old Vineyard native Victoria Trumbull.
About the Author
Cynthia Riggs, a thirteenth-generation Islander, lives on Martha's Vineyard in her family homestead, which she runs as a bed-and-breakfast catering to poets and writers. She has a degree in geology from Antioch College and an MFA in creative writing from Vermont College, and she holds a U.S. Coast Guard Masters License (100-ton).
Read an Excerpt
By Riggs, Cynthia
St. Martin's MinotaurCopyright © 2006 Riggs, Cynthia
All right reserved.
The fog poured in from Vineyard Sound, driven by a northwest wind that whipped it up the steep clay cliffs, streamers of denseness interspersed with open patches.
Through gaps in the fog, ninety-two-year-old Victoria Trumbull could see the beam from the lighthouse as it swept round and round above them, alternating red and white, warning mariners of the treacherous rocks of Devil's Bridge that stretched out into the sound far below them. Victoria's geologist daughter Amelia claimed the rocks were a terminal moraine dropped by the glacier twenty thousand years ago. Wampanoag legend said the rocks were scattered by the giant Moshup when he emptied his pipe into the waters of the sound.
As the light swept above them in the gathering dusk, droplets of moisture in Victoria's white hair glistened red, then white. She leaned on the stick her granddaughter Elizabeth had cut from the lilac tree, and gazed down. She could hear the pounding surf two hundred feet below her, but she could see almost nothing. The bell buoy off Devil's Bridge clanged. Far away, a foghorn moaned.
"Hiram Pennybacker is the worst bore on this Island," said Elizabeth, who was standing behind her grandmother.
Victoria's wrinkles framed her smile. "He's got some fiercecompetition," she said.
"We simply wanted to drop off that broken chair for him to fix, but no. Talk, talk, talk." Elizabeth edged closer to the fence. Her arms were summer-tan against her white T-shirt. "You can't see much, can you." Every gesture her granddaughter made reminded Victoria of Jonathan, her dead husband. Elizabeth, who was in her early thirties, was tall and slim and stood straight, like her grandfather.
"Hiram's lonely," Victoria said softly.
Elizabeth shivered. "It's mysterious this time of evening, no one around, and the mist swirling. It feels more like October than August." She turned away from the fence. "Let's go home, Gram, and have a cup of tea."
"Wait a moment." Victoria stared down at the cliff. "I thought I saw something move."
Elizabeth stepped back to where her grandmother stood with her knobby fingers laced in the fence wires, her walking stick in hand.
"Where?" Elizabeth followed her grandmother's gaze. "I can't see a thing."
"Something moved. Look!" The fog had thinned briefly, and Victoria pointed to a wild rosebush that clung to the gullied orange clay below them.
"I still don't see anything. Only poison ivy." Elizabeth wrapped her arms around her body. "Let's go."
Victoria didn't reply. She willed the fog to part again so she could see whatever it was that had moved. The motion wasn't from the wind, it was more like an animal. A dog, perhaps, was trying to get back up the cliff.
Victoria caught a glimpse again of something, farther away than she had thought and much larger than a dog.
"There!" she said. "See? It looks like a person."
Elizabeth put both hands on the pipe rail at the top of the fence and peered down toward the rosebush. "You're right, Gram. Someone must have fallen."
"We need to get help right away," said Victoria.
"I'll climb down." Elizabeth started to lift herself over the fence.
Victoria shook her head. "Go back to Hiram's, quick. Call the fire department, and get Hiram to come back with a rope. I'll wait."
Elizabeth hurried away.
Victoria kept watch as darkness closed in, as the lighthouse beams overhead grew brighter and more diffuse. She caught only momentary glimpses of the form near the rosebush, no longer moving.
The ten or fifteen minutes it took Hiram to arrive seemed far longer. Victoria's eyes hurt from staring down the slope, trying to pierce through the murk. When he finally arrived, Hiram was carrying a backpack and a fat coil of rope around his right shoulder. He walked with his back bent slightly and his feet splayed out. He was a short, stocky man in his fifties, with a slight potbelly and gray hair worn in a crew cut.
"Thought you had to get right home," he mumbled around the pipe clenched between his teeth.
"I'm glad you're here," said Victoria.
"The fire truck's on the way. Nelson and his boy were at supper. His turn to drive this week."
Victoria was feeling the evening chill. "I haven't seen any movement since Elizabeth left to get you, Hiram."
"I'll climb down." He squatted next to her and secured an end of his rope to the fence post. "This ought to be long enough."
When Elizabeth returned, she was carrying a sweater. "This was in the car, Gram. Thought you might want it."
"Thank you." Victoria leaned her stick against the fence post and slipped her arms into the wool cardigan Elizabeth held for her.
Hiram undid the straps of his backpack and fumbled through it until he found a flashlight. He flicked on the light and aimed the beam down the cliff. "Can't see a thing down there. It's a pea-souper. Seen it coming for a couple of days. How far down is he, Victoria?"
"About a quarter of the way to the bottom, I would guess." She thought for a moment. "Where the cliff changes from a gentle slope and drops straight to the rocks. Right at the break is a rosebush."
"I know the place you mean," said Hiram. "Bad spot." He lifted himself over the fence rail, and, twisting a section of rope around his waist, started down toward the cliff face. Victoria watched him until he disappeared, hunched slightly, picking his way carefully on the slippery clay, stepping through the lush growth of poison ivy. She saw the circle of his flashlight beam fade away.
Elizabeth tilted her head to one side. "I hear the fire truck."
Victoria, too, heard the heavy thrum of the engine. From where she stood she could see the fog glow as the truck's rotating red lights mimicked the lighthouse above them. Figures trudged up the steps, and she recognized Nelson Minnowfish, his boy Sam, and a third person she didn't know. They were carrying ladders, more rope, and handheld searchlights that threw shadows of the chain-link fence against the bank of fog beyond.
"Evenin', Miz Trumbull," Nelson said. "Where's Hiram?"
Victoria pointed. "He's climbing down to where I saw the person."
"Shoulda waited for us to get here." Nelson aimed his searchlight. "Hiram!" he yelled down. "Can you hear?"
"Nelson?" Hiram's muffled voice came back up the cliff. "We got a problem. Send down the stretcher."
"Somebody down there?" Nelson shouted.
"Yep," Hiram shouted back.
"Man or woman?"
"Man," Hiram said.
"Can't tell." The words echoed against the cliff.
Everything was a blur to Victoria from then on. Radio, lights, the ambulance, EMTs, shadows of moving people. Ladders lowered down the cliff, ropes, shouts. The aluminum stretcher was handed up and over the fence and set on the ground. EMTs and firefighters crowded around.
Victoria stepped away. She did not want to see the form on the stretcher. The only voices were sharp orders. Except for the foghorn moaning off Paul's Point and the mournful clang of the bell buoy, the only other sounds were mechanical. She heard the throb of the fire engine, the click of the rotating lights on the ambulance, a shout of "All clear!" and the buzz of a defibrillator that might start a heart pumping again.
Finally, the EMTs, the firemen, the police, stood aside, and, one by one, moved away from the stretcher.
A technician Victoria had seen at the hospital passed her, peeling off a surgical glove, his head down.
"Is he dead?" Victoria asked.
The EMT looked up, disoriented.
"What?" He focused suddenly on Victoria.
"Is he dead?" Victoria asked again, louder.
He nodded, peeling off the second surgical glove. "He was gone, ma'am. Nothing we could do."
"Do you know who it is?"
He shook his head. "No, ma'am. They thought he was from West Tisbury. I'm not from up-Island, myself. Excuse me." He moved on down the steps to the ambulance.
Elizabeth eased next to her grandmother and put her arms around Victoria's sloping shoulders.
"It's lucky you found him, Grammy."
Victoria looked up at her granddaughter. "They said he's from West Tisbury. Someone we know? If only we hadn't lingered so long at Hiram's. The person was still alive when I first saw him, I'm sure he was."
"They said he'd lost too much blood, Gram. That he was too badly hurt. They said he must have crawled up from the rocks where he fell to where you saw him. They said it was a miracle he could move at all, after the fall. It's almost two hundred feet. There was nothing anyone could do. Nothing at all. That's what they said."
Together, Victoria and Elizabeth walked back to the car. Victoria held her lilac stick tightly, not because she needed it, but because it comforted her.
"It wouldn't have made any difference if we'd left Hiram's earlier," Elizabeth said into her grandmother's silence. "Even if we hadn't stayed to hear his talk about politics and casinos, we couldn't have saved the guy."
"I suppose we'll find out soon enough who he was." Victoria brushed sand off the car seat and sat on the edge, her feet on the ground. "Phew! I didn't realize how long I'd been standing." She faced out into the dark night. "That poor man."
Around them figures passed in front of the fire truck and the ambulance. Victoria heard subdued voices, but couldn't make out what they were saying. Objects strobed in and out of view, illuminated briefly by flashing lights that came from every direction.
Elizabeth turned the key, and the car started up with a rattle. "I wonder how the Island Enquirer will report this. The newspaper wants visitors to think Martha's Vineyard is an idyllic retreat, that accidents and deaths and casino plans don't exist."
Victoria lifted her long legs into the car and shut the door.
Elizabeth went on. "According to the paper, we don't have any crime. No arguments. No poor people. No racial tension. No political scummery . . ."
"I'm not sure scummery is a word," Victoria said, stowing the lilac-wood stick behind her.
Elizabeth backed out of the parking spot. When they'd arrived, theirs was the only car. Now the parking area was full of emergency vehicles and villagers who'd heard over the scanner about the man who'd fallen off the cliffs. Elizabeth's car headlights shone on a police officer who had materialized at the pedestrian crossing.
Victoria rolled down her window. "Have you seen Hiram Pennybacker?" she asked the officer.
"He left quite a while ago, Mrs. Trumbull," she answered. "Right after I got here."
On the main road heading toward West Tisbury and home, neither Victoria nor Elizabeth spoke for some time. The curvy road skirted fields and meadows held in with stone fences, hidden now in darkness. Their lights picked up a deer by the side of the road, its eyes bright, tensed to leap. Elizabeth slowed, and the deer turned and bounded back over a stone wall.
"I can't imagine how he could have fallen," Victoria said finally. "Everybody from the Island knows how to get to the bottom of the cliffs safely."
"Maybe he got dizzy or lost his balance," Elizabeth said. She switched on the high beam, and the fog turned into a dazzling white wall. She dimmed the lights again and the wall receded.
"But you don't go straight down the cliffs. Everybody knows that." Victoria opened the window a crack and the sound of the night came in. She lifted her great nose to smell the salt air, the last hay crop, sun-dried and baled in fields they couldn't see, wet wool as they passed sheep grazing on the hill that overlooked the Atlantic.
"The way to the foot of the cliffs is down that gully," Victoria continued. "It's steep, but you wouldn't kill yourself if you fell. You'd slide to the bottom."
"No one's supposed to climb on the cliffs."
"We climbed all over them when we were children," Victoria said. "We'd smear clay on our bodies and pretend we were Indians."
"Native Americans," said Elizabeth.
"We'd bring the clay home," Victoria went on, "and make ashtrays. You had to be clever not to mix up all the different colors into a muddy-looking creation. Everybody had ashtrays then."
As they left Aquinnah, the rugged hills eased into flatter land, the road straightened, and the fog thinned.
"Did Hiram know who the man was?" Victoria asked.
"I couldn't tell. He had a funny look on his face when he came back up the cliff with the stretcher bearers."
Victoria was quiet for a moment. "He was undoubtedly upset about the man being badly hurt."
"It was more than that," said Elizabeth. "He seemed upset about something else. I got the impression that he wasn't surprised at finding that man."
They dipped into the valley that marked the West Tisbury town line, passed the gas station and the old Grange Hall, Town Hall, and the church.
"You remember how Hiram was telling us about the tribe's plans for a casino, Gram?"
Victoria nodded. "Hiram is tedious with his talk about town politics and gambling casinos. I don't want to hear another word about either."
"We're going to hear a lot more before it's over," Elizabeth said. "If the tribe gets approval for a casino, it's going to change the Island forever."
"There's nothing wrong with change."
"Surely you don't approve of a gambling casino at Aquinnah, do you Gram?"
"The Gay Head Indians . . ." Victoria started to say.
Elizabeth winced. "Grammy, it's Aquinnah now, and they're not Indians, they're Native Americans."
"They have a right to use their land any way they see fit. The Gay Head Indians are a sovereign nation and can set their own rules."
"Not for a casino," said Elizabeth. "The town's got zoning regulations."
"If the tribe decides that's what they need, it's their business." Victoria emphasized her words.
Elizabeth slowed and turned in between the two granite fence posts that marked Victoria's driveway.
"I can just imagine you at the casino, Gram, playing the slots."
Victoria laughed. "Probably so."
Copyright © 2006 by Cynthia Riggs
Excerpted from Indian Pipes by Riggs, Cynthia Copyright © 2006 by Riggs, Cynthia. Excerpted by permission.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
In West Tisbury on Martha's Vineyard, ninety-two years old Deputy Sheriff Victoria Trumbull and her granddaughter Elizabeth are walking together when they see a person apparently fall from a nearby cliff. The nonagenarian soon learns the corpse is that of her reclusive neighbor Jube Burkhardt. The crime scene and what Victoria and Elizabeth observed even from a distance lend credence to Jube accidentally falling off a nearby ledge.------ Victoria learns that Jube, an engineer, attended a meeting called by the local Wampanoag tribal council to discuss soil testing in support of their proposed casino. Though she vowed to stay out of the casino controversy, she finds the link to Jube too tempting to ignore as the residents of West Tisbrury are divided over the gambling project. Motivated to uncover the identity of the killer, Victoria soon finds a second dead person and an arson set fire. As she gets closer to the truth, the culprit tries to silence the persistent cop.------ As with the five previous delightful Martha's Vineyard Mystery, INDIAN PIPES is a superb whodunit starring a feisty protagonist, who though geriatric has not lost much of her step (just ask her granddaughter). The story line is exciting as a reluctant Victoria investigates the death and more. The story is terrific and the heroine wonderful and as always, Cynthia Riggs provides an eccentric support cast, this time a motorcycle biking professor and his hogs that turns the tale into a colorful winner.------ Harriet Klausner