“It’s definitely time I got out of the cottage,” Sabrina Victoria Dunsweeney said to herself as she walked down the sandy street. “I need to meet some of the locals. After all, what in the world am I going to tell my kids when I get back home to Cincinnati? ‘Children, I had a wonderful time on Comico Island while you worked on synonyms and antonyms. I stayed in my rental cottage the whole month and talked to the walls!’ Granted, the locals haven’t been very friendly, but they just haven’t gotten the chance to meet the new me yet.”
Across the street, loud voices were coming from the post office as Sabrina hurried up the steps of the dilapidated Tubbs General Store. On the wall beside the battered screen door of the store was a chalkboard reading: “Bill and Patty had 7 lb. Boy, named after Uncle Will.”
“Hello,” Sabrina said to the old grizzled man dressed in a frayed plaid shirt and overalls who was sitting on the front porch of the store. She also smiled at the skinny man holding a paper bag who was sitting on the stairs.
Accompanied by a scream of rage, a paperweight came flying though the screen door of the post office across the street.
“Hello.” The man in the rocking chair didn’t look at her. “Yep,” said the skinny man.
Sabrina sat down in a rocking chair. The walk from her cottage had worn her out.
“I’m Sabrina Dunsweeney,” she said after a moment. “You’re the one staying in Lora’s cottage and feeding her cats. Drive a red convertible, don’t you?” The old man nodded. He wore white boots stained yellow with age, and sporadic cinnamon-and-sugar hair dotted his cheeks and head, a poor testimony to his once fiery red hair. A twinkle of amused blue peered from under shaggy eyebrows and a large nose dominated the rest of his face.
Sabrina was taken aback. After a minute, she asked, “And you are?”
They sat in silence except for the crinkle of the paper bag as the skinny man took a drink from the bottle inside.
The screeching across the street had reached Cat Fight pro- portions.
“What’s going on?” It was apparent that neither Lima nor the other man was going to say anything about the commotion.
“What do you mean?” Lima asked, as if the noise from the post office wasn’t almost deafening.
“That,” Sabrina said, as a stapler followed the paperweight into the street.
Sabrina looked at the skinny man more closely. From a distance, in his baseball cap and T-shirt that looked as if it had never seen water, much less soap, she had thought he was a teenager. Now she saw by the lines bunching up around his eyes and mouth and the sterling glint to his otherwise brown, messy hair that he was close to fifty. There was something uncomplicated in his eyes that made her think he probably lived a simple life, one unencumbered by much thought or motivation.
“Oh, that.” Lima slowed his rocking. “It’s just Mary Garrison Tubbs and her niece, ain’t it, Bicycle Bob?”
Bicycle Bob closed his eyes and leaned his cheek against the splintery wood of the stair rail.
“It sounds as if they’re killing each other,” Sabrina said. “Nah. Mary just won’t let Roxanna alone.”
“Why?” Sabrina asked, when it was obvious Lima wasn’t going to explain. She ran her fingers though her rambunctious blond curls, still surprised to not find them bound in a tight bun.
“Weeell,” Lima said with satisfaction, and Sabrina realized with amusement that he had just been waiting for her to ask. He sat back more firmly in his chair, and prepared to spin his story. “You see, Mary has been running that post office by herself for almost thirty years, but the postal author-i-tees finally made her retire. Her niece Roxanna took the exam so she could be post-mistress and at first Mary was thrilled to pieces about Roxanna being postmistress—keeping it in the family, and all that. But now, Mary won’t let Roxanna have any peace. She just can’t help but go in there and tell Roxanna how things ought to be done, and well—you know the Tubbs, they can be hot-blooded.”
A few moments later an older woman in sensible shoes and a very red face came storming out of the post office. She stopped to pick up the paperweight and stapler and tossed them right back through the torn screen of the post office door. She marched toward the store porch.
“Good Lawd,” Lima muttered.
“Bob McCall, you should be ashamed of yourself, sitting here getting all tanked up for all and sundry to see. What would your brother say?” She addressed her comments to Bicycle Bob, who had slipped down so he was almost lying on the stairs.
Sabrina realized Bicycle Bob was plastered out of his skull. She should have known, she’d seen her mother like that enough times, but her mother was more of a genteel drunk, sipping her stingers in her fancy silk housecoat in the dusty parlor.
“His brother’s the police chief,” Lima said to Sabrina, out of the corner of his mouth. “Sergeant Jimmy McCall.”
“And you, Lima Odell Lowry, don’t you have anything better to do than sit here rocking the porch all day long?”
“You should be out helping your nephew campaign for president. How do you expect Brad to win if his own family won’t support him?”
“I helped ’em. I stuck up some of them posters the other day.”
“Your nephew is running for president?” Sabrina wondered just how much she had missed in the last week while she sat in her cottage.
“President of the Sanitary Concessionary,” Lima said. “It’s the most important position on Comico, ’cause he controls where people can build, if he lets ’em build at all, and he can close businesses down if their septic system ain’t sustainin’ them.”
“Goodness,” Sabrina said.
“Do I know you, young lady?” Mary Tubbs asked Sabrina, lifting a heavy gray eyebrow in disapproval.
But Sabrina had been a school teacher for many years and was well-versed in eyebrow lifting and looking down her, unfortunately for her purposes, pug nose. “My name,” she said, drawing herself up, “is Sabrina Victoria Dunsweeney. And you are?”
The woman gazed at her as if she couldn’t believe Sabrina didn’t know who she was. “I don’t think you’re related to Helen Dunsweeney.” She said it with the matter-of-factness of a person who knows all of her neighbors’ lineage intimately.
“No, I don’t believe I am.”
“Are you from New York or New Jersey?” “Please?”
“All of you are from New York or New Jersey,” Mary said, and then turned back to Lima, dismissing Sabrina. “Anyway, Lima, Elizabeth is holding a tea party to raise money for Bradford. You need to go and contribute.”
“I knew about the dang tea party. I’d sooner beat myself with a sack of wet catfish than make a pot of tea. Why in the world do I want to buy a teapot?”
“To raise money for your nephew! You know how hectic everything has been since Bradford’s office burnt down. I’ve got to go supervise the setting up of booths for the Regatta. If I’m not there, nothing gets done right.” She turned and marched down the street toward the docks.
“She is the bossiest old woman I have ever met,” Lima said. “I’m glad I never married her.”
“You were going to marry her?” Sabrina tried to hide her surprise.
“Everybody thought we were,” Lima said, “back when we were in high school. She was valedictorian of our class, and I was at the bottom, but we always got along. Of course, there were only five of us graduated that year, but never you mind that. But then the war started, and of course I signed up for the Navy. By the time I came back, she was already married to Justice Tubbs, the flat-footed shirk.”
“Well, I think you probably got off lucky,” Sabrina said under her breath.
“Yes, ma’am, Ah think you may be right.” Sabrina had the awful feeling that Lima was attempting a John Wayne drawl. He subsided back into his normal voice. “So I never got married at all.”
“Me either,” she agreed cheerfully. “You on vacation?”
Sabrina considered that. A vacation? That didn’t seem the right word to call it.
“I’ve taken a month off teaching to come here, yes,” she answered.
“In October? That seems a right strange time for a school teacher to take a vacation.”
Sabrina just smiled.
“Have you seen the ghost yet?” “The ghost?”
“The one of Walk-the-Plank Wrightly, the pirate who was killed almost three hundred years ago. His house used to be right where you’re staying, and people have been seeing him right and left lately.”
“No ghosts,” Sabrina said. “Though somebody with very large feet is walking on the beach every morning. Maybe it’s the ghost!” She was joking, but Lima just nodded.
“Maybe it is.”
There was a moment of silence, unbroken except for the crackle-crackle of Bicycle Bob’s paper bag.
“Is your nephew really running for president of the Sanitary Concessionary?”
“You not being from around here accounts for your not understanding.” Lima gave a little nod of his head as if she had just confirmed his opinion of her lackluster intelligence. “President of the Sanitary Concessionary is the biggest thing you can be on Comico Island. The last president of the Sanitary Concessionary just got elected to the Senate.”
“The Comico Senate?” “No. The State Senate.”
“I see.” Sabrina thought for a moment. “Who is running against your nephew?”
“Do you hear her, Bicycle? She’s asking who would be dumb enough to run against Bradford.” He snorted in disgust. “Everybody knows better than to run against a Tittletott. They’ve been running things around here for as long as I can remember. Own half the land on the island, they do. Doesn’t pay to get in their way. Thought things were going to change a while back when Dock Wrightly was president, but everyone knew that wasn’t going to last. But you got to get one of those quorum things, even if you are running unopposed. Say not enough people get out and vote, or they all write in ‘Mickey Mouse,’ and then Brad won’t get to be president, and probably he’d never get into the Senate either. So he’s got to campaign.”
“Hmmm,” Sabrina said.
“Bye, Bicycle,” Lima said, struggling to his feet and stomping his white boots sharply on the porch floor. He looked at Sabrina. “Are you coming?”
“I figure if I take you to the tea party everybody will get off my back about not staying the whole time,” Lima said without looking at her.
# # #
“What’s the name of this road?” Sabrina asked as they followed the dirt road toward the mirror shimmer of the harbor. “Street signs seem to be few and far between on this island.”
“We took them all down during World War Two. Didn’t want to make it easy for the Germans to get around. This is Post Office Road,” Lima said. “It runs from the harbor all the way to the ocean. The mail boat used to come every day or so, and the postmaster would be waiting on the dock for him, along with about every other person on the island.”
Post Office Road concluded at the ferry docks, which stood stolidly on the edge of the large, natural harbor nestled on the north end of Comico Island. Sabrina paused to enjoy the view, the pale blue sky and water melting into mutual anonymity in the distance, the sun raining down on fishing boats and sailboats. A couple of cars were waiting in front of the ferry dock, and Sabrina glanced at her watch. Eleven-thirty. The twelve o’clock ferry would be here soon.
Along the gentle curve of the harbor, restaurants in ram-shackle, paint-lacking buildings leaned over the water and large, island-style cottages with aggressive white trim had been converted into B & B’s and motels. One large monstrosity of a building, five stories tall and all brick, towered over every other structure on the harbor front, ruining what otherwise would be a perfect postcard picture of a charming, waterside town.
There was excitement in the air, and people were out along the harbor front, putting up banners and balloons and setting up booths. Mary Garrison Tubbs was very much in evidence as she called out orders through a bullhorn.
“Is this all for the campaign?” Sabrina asked in surprise. “Nah,” Lima said. “It’s for the Regatta. Every year a bunch of sailboats stop by here on their way up the coast.”
They turned left onto the sand-swept, paved road that circled the harbor, while all around them the people setting up the celebrations for the Regatta waved and called hello to Lima.
“How are you settling into Lora’s cottage?” Lima shot Sabrina a speculative glance.
“Lora? I was wondering about the lady who lived there. There are pictures of her and children all over the place. It’s very cozy.”
“She used to be a school teacher.”
“Like me,” Sabrina said, realizing why she had felt instantly at home in the little cottage.
“Lora was a good woman,” Lima said ruminatively. “How she loved to dance, before her stroke. That happened years ago, but she managed okay until she finally up and fell a couple of months ago and broke her head. She wouldn’t hear about going to stay with her daughter-in-law, Nettie. Wouldn’t have made a difference anyway, I ’spect. At least she died in her home, where she was happy.”
“Hmmm.” Sabrina wasn’t sure she liked the idea that someone had died in her rental cottage. How creepy. But at least the woman hadn’t been murdered or anything.
“Where are we going?” she asked, to change the subject. “Tittletott House.” Lima gestured at a large, insipid, blue house with white shutters and the inevitable white verandah. “Brad’s a Tittletott. Mrs. Elizabeth, Brad’s mother, runs it.”
“It’s a hotel?” Sabrina looked up at the large house. “One of those bread and breakfast places.”
“Bread and breakfast?”
“Yeah, they serve a lot of toast with breakfast,” Lima said knowledgeably. “Anyway, the Tittletotts have owned this island since the 1700’s, and they’ve never let any of us forget it. ’Specially Elizabeth Tittletott, that old biddy. When old CQTittletott died, we thought things might change but he passed everything on to Brad, and he’s a Tittletott through and through.”
“Lima!” An older gent in the ubiquitous white boots grabbed Lima by the arm. He immediately launched into a long-winded description of the length, width, and stamina of the fish he’d caught that day. Sabrina thought he had perhaps caught a whale by mistake.
“That ol’ fish was slicker’n eel snot, let me tell you—”
Sabrina turned and looked up at the big house. The yard was a lush carpet of green, impeccably landscaped, and the sweet smell of roses lured her around to the side of the house where an impressive variety of the species grew in abundance.
“How beautiful!” she said, and stooped to press her face against a glistening silvery-pink bloom. Voices from the open window above her caught her attention.
“What’s he doing back in town?” It was a man’s voice, whiny and frustrated.
“Keep your voice down,” a woman hissed in a cultured southern accent as thick as honey-butter. “Do you want the whole town to know? My God, why can’t you be more like your brother?”
Sabrina glanced up at the window, but she couldn’t see who was talking.
“What is he doing back in town?” the man repeated in a lower voice.
“How should I know? Bradford said he contacted him a couple of days ago and started talking about what happened. Bradford said he was almost threatening him.” The woman’s voice dropped.
“Why should my dear brother worry? He’s got nothing to fret about, does he?”
“But it’s almost election day! Who knows what he’ll say? Those Wrightlys will do anything to get at us, you know that!”
There was a long silence.
“Gary, are you listening to me? We don’t have much time, I need to get back to the party.”
“Yes, Mother.” His voice was weary.
“If he should approach you, don’t say anything. Don’t tell him anything that he can use against your brother, do you hear me?”
“Yes. I hear you.”
“He’s dangerous. He could ruin all of us!”