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Remove dark stains from wooden floors by dabbing the stained area only with half-strength bleach. Rinse and repeat until the stain is gone, then recolor the lightened spot, if necessary, with wood stain and an artist's brush. --Tiptree's Tips
HER NAME WAS JACOBIA TIPTREE--JAKE, TO HER FRIENDS--and on that bright day in July twelve years after the Manhattan meeting, she was scraping loose paint off the porch steps of her big old house in Eastport, Maine, when the guy on the bike went by again.
Or she'd thought the paint would be loose, anyway. But as her son Sam always said, hope springs infernal, and the reality was something else again. Meanwhile:
Pedaling slowly, looking right at her, the guy on the bike frowned as if he'd just sniffed a spoiled carton of milk. He was decent enough looking otherwise, clean-shaven and neatly dressed.
But this was his third trip past her home in the last half-hour. And each time he went by, he'd been staring at her in that same unpleasant, almost accusing way.
Still holding the scraper, she got up, trying to recall where she'd seen his sour expression before. That she had seen it she felt certain, but on somebody else's face.
A similar face. The guy turned the corner, not looking back. She stood there another moment, wondering. But then with a mental shrug she knelt by the steps once more and returned to work.
After all, it was nearly the Fourth of July, and the remote island town of Eastport--three hours from Bangor, light-years from anywhere else--was full of tourists. No doubt the bicyclist was one of them, and she really had seen him around, somewhere.
As for his riding by so often, maybe he liked the house. She had when, upon finding Eastport over a decade ago, she'd fallen instantly in love with the old place. Now from the porch steps she pictured it as she'd first seen it:
An 1823 white clapboard Federal with three stories plus an attic, it had three red-brick chimneys and forty-eight windows, each with a pair of green shutters. Among its other selling points were a huge yard, a fireplace in every room, and original hardwood floors.
Unfortunately, it had also been a wreck. Under nearly two hundred years' worth of charm lay nearly as many of neglect; she'd had to get the wiring redone and the chimneys rebuilt, and it had needed painting.
All of which she'd had done, for an amount slightly less than it would've cost to bulldoze the place and start over. Back then, she'd known no better; nowadays, mostly from necessity, she was a halfway decent home-repair enthusiast.
But it wasn't only about money. Scrape off enough old paint, patch enough plaster, sand the wood floors and rehabilitate half a hundred antique windows plus shutters, and you too could begin feeling that maybe--just maybe--you'd rehabilitated yourself.
Too bad the half she was any good at was so rarely the half that needed doing. This time, she'd decided to paint all the parts of the house that she could reach and farm out the high work. The plan had seemed reasonable as she was formulating it.
But for one thing, the porch was massive. So there was a lot of old paint to scrape off before the new could go on. Also, the peeling bits clung like barnacles. Wielding the tool, she went at them with fresh energy; they hung on for dear life.
"Grr," she muttered, but they couldn't hear her, and even if they could it would probably only make them more obstinate.
As she thought this, the guy on the bike appeared again, pedaling along. Dark hair, striped red-and-white polo shirt, blue jeans . . . in his middle twenties, maybe, she thought.
The bike was a balloon-tired Schwinn from the fleet of them that were available for rent downtown, with a wire basket up front, fake-leather saddlebags, and a bell.
Brring! She wouldn't have thought a bike bell could be rung threateningly, but he managed it.
"Hey," she began, taking a step toward the street.
Climbing sharply from the waterfront, Key Street featured big antique houses fronted by huge maples lining each side. It was the very picture of a traditional Maine coast town's prosperous old residential area. Scowling, the guy stood on the pedals and pumped, speeding away through it.
Once more she felt she knew him from somewhere. But there wasn't much she could do about it, so when he'd gone she returned to removing a ton of porch paint one stubborn chip at a time.
Soon a warm, salt breeze, sunshine like pale champagne, and the faint cries of seagulls over the bay had all but erased her memory of the bike guy . . . until, just when she'd really forgotten about him, he came back yet again, half an hour or so later.
Using a belt sander, she was at last making progress on the job. Under the power tool's howling attack, the paint came off in clouds of sawdust.
And that was more like it. She'd finished the first step, begun on the second, and shut the sander off to replace a clogged belt when someone behind her cleared his throat meaningfully. On its own, her hand moved to grab the sharp-edged paint scraper.
"You won't need that." His voice was New York-accented.
She stood, turned, and took a step toward him, forcing him to move back fast.
"You're on private property. And I want you to leave now."
The fellow smiled at her. Not a pleasant smile.
More like a baring of teeth. "Yeah, I guess you would."
Close up, he appeared clean and neat, with a careful shave and a recent haircut. "But hey, not everyone gets what they want in this world." The smile slid into a smirk.
Her heart thumped. "You've mistaken me for someone else." She took another step. "You'll have to go, or I'm going to call the police and let them take care of you."
At this he let out a laugh of genuine amusement. She was gripping the paint scraper very tightly, she realized.
" 'Call the police,' " he repeated. "That's a good one."
"Okay, that's it. I mean it, you need to go."
She searched her mind for an exit strategy, not wanting to turn her back on him. Besides, the screen door at the top of the steps was locked so the dogs wouldn't barge out through it.
Oh, the hell with it. Back in Manhattan, half the pedestrians on the sidewalk were pushier than this guy. Scraper in hand, she advanced on him.
His hands went up in a conciliatory gesture. "Okay, I get the idea. You don't want to hash over old times."
She followed him to the end of the sidewalk. He got on the bike, rode it in a tight circle, then braked hard, skidding.
"I guess if I were you, I wouldn't want the past coming back to bite me, either. Not if I'd done what you did."
Speechless, she could only stare.
"But it has," he continued. "What'd it say in that famous guy's play? Murder will out?"
She found her own voice. "You've got the wrong person. Now please take your nonsense and--"
His hands gripped the handlebars: smooth skin, pristine fingernails. "I know you, though. And what you did. Anyway, you've got until the fourth," he added. "When it's over, you will be, too. Over, that is."
As he spoke, a little cloud sailed across the sun and the sky darkened suddenly. The breeze stiffened, and all at once the gulls' cries sounded hostile.
"That play-writing guy had it right," said her unpleasant visitor. " 'Blood shows up again. Murder will out'."
He began pedaling slowly away. "And now," he called back as she stared after him, "right now, it's here and it's outing you."
She was still shaking when she got inside. Locking the back door, she hurried to the front to be sure the screen really was on the hook.
It was, and the bicycle guy was nowhere in sight. Her heart hammering, she checked the dogs and found them both asleep in the laundry room, the coolest place in the house.
Not that they'd have been any help. At thirteen, Monday the black Labrador was too ancient to be roused by much, and Prill the Doberman would be inclined to kiss a burglar to death.
Meanwhile, her husband, Wade Sorenson, and her grown son, Sam, were out fishing together; her father, Jacob Tiptree, and her stepmother, Bella Diamond, were away for the morning, too.
So for now she was on her own with this. Whatever this was; maybe nothing. But who was the guy . . . and what could he want?
Back in Manhattan, it might not've been so strange. Some of her clients there were so crooked that when their sons went to prison, they regarded it as the equivalent of graduate school.
But eventually she'd wised up, throttled down, and left the city behind, along with an ex-husband so faithless that the only thing she could depend on about him was that she couldn't depend on him.
By contrast, the old house in Eastport could be depended on for many things: faulty plumbing, a foundation that was fast rotting into the ground, and a bad fuse box, for instance.
When she moved in, the old plaster was falling down anywhere that the antique wallpaper wasn't holding it up. The floors were indeed lovely, but so uneven they resembled the heaving deck of a storm-tossed ship. The bath was a mildewed horror, the woodwork needed refinishing, and the roof leaked, so the gorgeous old tin ceilings were lacy with rust.
In other words, the place was exactly like her ex-husband, Victor, only fixable. So naturally she'd fallen for it.
Now she looked around at the big, bright kitchen with its high, bare windows, pine wainscoting, and scuffed floor. Even as old-fashioned and faintly shabby as it was, due to her stepmother Bella Diamond's efforts the room always glowed as if lit from within by the spirits of Betty Crocker and Holly Homemaker.
And the old things in it--the soapstone sink, the pass-through to the butler's pantry--just made it more familiar and comforting. But with the arrival of the bike-riding stranger, the past abruptly took on a threatening edge. And what had he meant about her having until the fourth? Had he actually been threatening her?
At the thought, her whole life here felt suddenly so fragile that it was all she could do not to rush to the cellar for one of the handguns she kept there, locked in a weapons box.
She knew how to shoot them, too. Half Wade's courtship of her--besides being Eastport's harbor pilot, he was a crack shot and old-weapons expert--had happened on the town's firing range.
But wanting a gun now was surely overreaction. The guy on the bike was no one to worry about, because real threats didn't advertise, did they? They crept up on you. They--
The back door opened behind her. But she'd locked it, she had definitely--
She was halfway to the cellar door, thinking, Key, lockbox, Smith & Wesson .342 Special, when the familiar voice stopped her.
"Hello? Anyone home?"
The breath went out of her in a whoosh as she recognized her best friend, Ellie White. "Ellie. I thought you were a--"
The dogs scrambled from the laundry room. Even Monday, her whitened face sweet with an old-dog smile, could always manage a welcome for Ellie.
Laughing, Ellie began dispensing dog biscuits, then froze when she caught Jake's look. "Everything okay?"
Ellie was tall, slender, and redheaded with pale green eyes and freckles like gold dust sprinkled across her nose. Today she wore a white smock, a bright patchwork skirt, and sandals.
Jake sighed. "You startled me, is all."
Ellie had house keys. "I knocked," she explained, "but . . ."
But Jake had been preoccupied. Now she busied herself making coffee, trying to cover the fact that her hands were trembling.
Ellie wasn't fooled. "Speak," she ordered as the dogs went back to the cool room.
"It's nothing. Really, I just . . ."
Since the day they'd met--Jake the newcomer in town, Ellie the native Eastporter--they'd been practically inseparable. Now, without asking, Ellie began making lunch.
Soon sliced bread, butter, and honey appeared on the table. The coffeemaker burbled comfortingly. Ellie didn't speak until she'd gotten Jake busy with eating and drinking.
When they'd both finished, Ellie fired up Jake's laptop computer. Her own was on the fritz, which was why she'd come over here in the first place, she'd already confided. "Mind if I use your email?"
Jake waved assent.
Moments later: "Who's Nemesis?" Ellie asked. "You've got an email from . . ."
Jake turned from the sink. Having a housekeeper who was also your live-in stepmother was a sure way to begin cultivating tidy habits.
"No idea. Open it, please." She rinsed the last cup, sprayed the sink, and wiped everything thoroughly. When Bella did this, it produced sparkling results.
But when Jake did, it didn't. Perhaps she hadn't practiced enough to make it perfect. "Um, Jake?" Ellie said.
On the screen, the e-mail from "Nemesis" contained three words: beware the fourth. Ellie turned. "Is this some kind of a joke?"
"I'm not sure." Jake yanked all the kitchen windows' shades down. "Ellie, have you seen a strange guy riding around town on a bike this morning?"
Silly question. In July, prime Maine tourist season, it seemed half the population of the world was riding a bike around Eastport. Still:
"Big ears, red-and-white-striped shirt?" Ellie asked.
"That's him." Jake described the visit, and his threatening rant. "And by 'the fourth,' he must mean the Fourth of July."
Which was two days from now. Jake went to the back parlor, where Wade stored records of his harbor-piloting trips in a big green logbook: the ship's name, her owners, the cargo, captain's name, and notes on unusual incidents.
A Post-it note was stuck to his computer screen as a reminder: military F-18s would be flying over Eastport on the holiday, and he wanted to be sure to see them, or hear them if they arrived after dark. Jake pulled the curtains closed, casting the bright room into gloom.
Back in the kitchen, they peered again at the laptop screen. "A Web-based email address," Ellie noted. "He could have signed up for that address just this morning." To harass Jake with, she meant. She shut the laptop. "But you know what? I think we should just forget about it."
"Really?" Jake eyed her doubtfully.
Ellie spread her hands. "Really. I mean, you don't know who he is. For all you know, he bothers everyone he sees. And even if he really is mad at you for some reason, or thinks he is, that still doesn't mean he'll do anything."
"I suppose." Had she really thought he seemed familiar? "And the email . . ."
From the Hardcover edition.