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Kenny Mumford’s wide, sightless eyes gazed up out of his shroud of wet, green rockweed, on the beach at Prince’s Cove. The rockweed covered much of the rest of his face, but we knew right away that it was Kenny. His left hand, flung out loosely behind him as if he were doing the backstroke, had the peculiar, purplish round scar in its palm that anyone in Eastport would recognize.
Kenny always told people he’d gotten the scar when a biker chick, high on methamphetamines, hammered his hand to the shiny metal rim of a barstool after a night of drinking. Others said the drinking part was right but that the nail came from a nail gun, one time when Kenny had had a job.
Now Kenny’s eyes were bleached to a pale, milky blue, the result of being soaked in cold salt water. A day earlier, Kenny’s boat had been towed in minus Kenny by the Coast Guard, so it was no real surprise finding him there on the beach.
The hole in his forehead, though; that was a surprise.
“Not,” Ellie White said thoughtfully, “from a nail gun.”
“Right,” I agreed, looking at Kenny again. “No nail.”
Out on the water, two harbor seals’ heads glided smoothly through the waves toward the fish pens of the local aquaculture operation, where a barge was unloading bags of salmon food. Gulls swirled in drifts over the fish pens, waiting for a chance to swoop down and steal floating morsels, screaming impatience.
Ellie crouched, pulling more rockweed from Kenny’s face.
“Poor Kenny,” she said. “I went to school with him. Up until eighth grade.”
Lying in its nest of rockweed, his head looked disembodied. “Is that when Kenny got sent away to reform school?”
It was right around noon, and seventy degrees, which for downeast Maine in late June is practically a tropical heat wave. Ellie was wearing a green-and-white sleeveless gingham sundress with an apple embroidered on the bodice, thin white sandals, and some kind of sparkly purple gauzy stuff to tie back her red hair.
“No. It was when he stopped going to school altogether. He turned sixteen that year, so they had to let him quit. Kenny,” she explained, “failed a few grades.”
Rising, Ellie took off her sandals and strode into the icy water, gathering her skirt up, while I tried to reconcile Ken’s stillness with the rowdy fellow he had been. He was a terror around town, always into some dumb trouble, often drunk and disorderly. Saturday nights you could pretty well figure he’d be blotto, head back, howling at the moon, while the rest of the week he spent trying to parlay his talent for mischief into something besides another stretch of jail time.
Mostly he failed, and it surprised me to realize how much I would miss him. In Eastport, Kenny was as much a fixture as the boats in the harbor, or the cannon on the library lawn.
I called my little black Labrador retriever, Monday, and snapped her onto her lead, not wanting her to nose around the body. By then Ellie was on her way back up the beach, too, and I could see that she had been crying.
I handed her a tissue, and she gave it the sort of long, honking blow that I had come to expect from her; fair-skinned and slender, with green eyes and freckles like a scattering of gold dust, Ellie looks as delicately lovely as an Arthur Rackham fairy princess, and is as tough as an old boot.
We made our way up the embankment through the indigo spikes of wild lupine, back to where I had left the car. There were a few small dwellings widely spaced along the Cove Road, each with a satellite dish and the plundered remains of last winter’s woodpile out in the side yard, but I thought it would be best just to drive down to Water Street, to police headquarters, and speak to Eastport’s Chief of Police Bob Arnold directly.
To tell him, I mean, that there had been a murder.
My name is Jacobia Tiptree, and back in Manhattan I was an expert on the care and feeding of vast sums of other people’s money, neat slices of which I lopped off in commissions. As a result, by age thirty I possessed more assets than your average small publicly-traded corporation, along with fewer illusions than your average city homicide detective, up to his ankles in blood and accustomed to hearing, pretty much on a daily basis, numerous lies.
Not that I had much contact with homicide detectives. As a class, my clients leaned more toward swift, bloodless acts of financial disembowelment. Meanwhile, I turned out to be good at transforming large fortunes into even larger ones, and talented also at the tasks of (1) getting married and (2) having a baby. Sadly, I was not so adept at (3) realizing that my neurosurgeon husband was a cold-blooded, methane-breathing, sludge-dwelling slime toad whose ability to tell the truth ranked right up there with my own ability to jump off a building and fly.
Finding a medical secretary in my bed did tend to clarify my thinking on the matter, however. And as if that were not enough, once the divorce battle was over my by-then young teenaged son, Sam, began failing in school, smoking marijuana—
—at least, I hoped it was only marijuana—
—and running with a crowd of sullen, secretive little streetwise hooligans.
Fortunately, this was also about the time I found Eastport. The move—from a pristine townhouse in Manhattan to a rambling, dilapidated 1823 Federal clapboard in a tiny fishing village in remotest downeast Maine—
—the house came complete with antique plumbing, ceramic-post electrical wiring so scary it could star in its own horror movie, and weatherproofing that consisted entirely of forty-eight heavy wooden storm windows, each of which had to be fastened up every autumn and hauled back down again in spring—
—was impetuous, impractical, and absurd for a woman of my experience and situation.
And I do believe that it saved my son’s life.