Shiver Hitch: New Excerpt

Shiver Hitch by Linda Greenlaw is the 3rd book in the Jane Bunker Mystery series (available June 6, 2017).

Jane Bunker thought she’d escaped the pollution, noise, and dead bodies of the big city when she left her job as a Miami homicide detective and moved back to the idyllic town of Green Haven, Maine. But through her work as a marine insurance investigator, it appears she’s left behind the bustle of the city, but not the murder.

When Jane is called to the remote Acadia Island to assess the damages from a house fire, she also finds a badly burned body in the charred rubble, and it turns out that the victim is the owner of the house, a wealthy woman who just happens to be one of the most hated women in town. As Jane investigates further, she becomes embroiled in a plot as thick as New England clam chowder, which involves convicted felons, a real estate scam, and the deep conflicts between the locals and the summer folks. On top of trying to find what might be a murderer on the loose, Jane is still living with her bonkers landlords, the Vickersons, who are delighted when Jane finds out that her brother Wally (who has Down’s syndrome) is going to move in with them, after losing his assisted living arrangement. It’s all Jane can do to keep all the moving pieces together, much less figure out who would want to burn someone alive―and why.

ONE

Except for the time I was digging my own grave at gunpoint on the edge of Biscayne National Park, I hadn’t much experience with a shovel. Now, my first winter in Maine was providing a cram course in the form of snow. Back in Miami, a sore back was the least of my concerns. And when I was able to crack the gun-toting drug lord’s head with the back of the shovel and run for the mangroves, the real terror began. That night spent hiding, half submerged, I was unable to decide which was worse: leeches or mosquitoes. Neither of those was a threat here in deep, dark February in sleepy, frozen Green Haven, Maine.

I had been warned, and was fully expecting and prepared for a “wicked” winter, or so I thought. The locals whose holy books are The Farmers’ Almanac and Uncle Henry’s, who had advised me that there would be a record amount of snowfall—as forecast in “FA”—and that I could get whatever I needed to cope with it in “UH,” must now be enjoying the fact that I had been skeptical. Of course it didn’t help that my parking space seemed to be at the vortex of a snow funnel. Every time the wind blew out of the northeast, which accompanied most large storms, my 1987 Plymouth Duster had been buried. To be honest, my car is actually a Plymouth Tourismo. Plymouth did not make a Duster in 1987. I just think a Duster is more my style—less extravagant, more practical. Today, just the tip of the antenna marked the car entombed in flakes so big I could almost see their individual differences. I laughed to myself. My present situation was a far cry from chief detective of Miami-Dade County. If anyone from my past could see me now—Jane Bunker, bundled up like a goddamned Eskimo—living in an apartment over a trinket-selling tourist trap in this remote outpost—making ends meet financially (just barely) with a combination of insurance consulting/investigation and a job as the assistant deputy sheriff of Knox County—shoveling snow!

My landlords, Alice and Henry Vickerson—Mr. and Mrs. V to me—had been gracious in offering me the use of their snow blower. But that offer had come with the stipulation that it not be fired up until eight a.m., the time at which “anyone with an ounce of civility” should wake. I suspected the ounce of civility was in direct correlation to the ounces of Scotch whiskey consumed the night before, but might also have been age related. The eight a.m. mandate, in conjunction with the price of gasoline to power the blower, had me, at six sharp, digging a path with a red plastic shovel from the door of The Lobster Trappe (the V’s gift shop over which I reside) to the antenna under which lived my wheels. Not that I am opposed to Scotch. I have been known to imbibe. But I am frugal; some would say “cheap.”

When a crease of golden light warmed the eastern horizon, I figured I had been shoveling for nearly an hour. Not that I was counting, but I was aware that we were gaining over a full minute of daylight every twenty-four hours. I yearned for the four a.m. sunrise that would come again with the spring solstice. I thrive in daylight. And, I’ve come to find out, I am not crazy about the cold. Mr. V had secured a big red lobster thermometer (“Lobster Thermadore,” as advertised in the shop) on the largest spruce tree on the lot. The black line whose height signified the temperature barely showed on the tail, displaying a frigid eight degrees this morning. Exercise within multiple layers of clothing resulted in full warmth by the time I had exposed the hood of the Duster, allowing me distractive thoughts while I found the car’s doors.

Maine had become home, again, sort of. Although I still struggled when asked about my past, I had at least confided in the Vickersons and my new friends enough to stop their incessant questions that were born out of curiosity and rumor. People make more of what is unsaid than what is said. Not one to wear my heart on my sleeve, I am weirded out by strangers who bear their souls over a cup of coffee in public, or share intimate and minute details of their daily existence over social media. The surge in popularity of reality TV has everyone thinking their lives are ready for prime time. Just eight months ago, I was the new kid in town. What preceded my arrival was the knowledge that I had been born on Acadia Island, was basically kidnapped by my own mother (along with my baby brother, Wally), and was transplanted to Miami, where I grew up in a predominantly Latino section of the city and worked as a police detective until this past June. Rumors of a highly decorated career in drug enforcement cut short by some undefined, yet insurmountable scandal may have been exaggerated. But I have never been one to kiss and tell.

Although I hadn’t yet visited Acadia Island since my move back to Maine, I could see it, as I stood to rest my back in the distance across the bay, looming mysteriously over smaller islands and ledges that dotted the way between it and Green Haven. Someday, I thought, I would initiate a family reunion. Someday, when I could stomach the possibility of having a door slammed in my face. Or worse yet, learning that the Bunkers were not the catalyst that sent my mother sneaking off in the middle of the night, settling at the farthest reach of the Eastern Seaboard, into the looney bin, and finally to suicide. The way my mother told it it qualified her for sainthood. To my five-year-old mind, she had been heroic. At forty-three, I wasn’t as convinced. What I “knew” was this: My mother had disappointed my father’s family when she gave birth to a girl, as boys were needed to perpetuate both the Bunker name and the heritage of lobster fishing. The Bunkers had fought long and hard to acquire and protect their private sliver of the ocean floor that provided their livelihood and identity, and needed to seed the future with young Bunker men willing and able to carry on the territorial war. I always wondered how my life would have been different if the Bunkers had considered women capable of fishing and fighting. No matter, because when dear Wally was born and it was clear that he was a Down syndrome baby, that was the final blow to our “family.” My mother, according to her, was treated like a pariah until she found the courage to escape. Nearly forty years later, here I was, a short boat ride to the truth, but unable to climb aboard; my fear of disillusionment crippling. Or perhaps it was confirmation I feared.

My move to Maine from Florida was indeed a knee-jerk reaction, and one that brought with it an inherent dichotomy that I straddled awkwardly. What remained constant in my life was my affinity for the law. This passion for fighting crime and solving cases ranging from petty theft to first-degree murder was what bolstered me through all lows. In the short time I had been in Maine, I had seen the crime rate change dramatically. Although the downeast coastal villages were quaint, sleepy havens where tourists enjoyed tranquillity and lobster rolls, there had been an explosion of drug use and overdoses among the young population of year-round residents. Meth labs were being discovered weekly, and synthetic opioids had become the new heroin. I had cut my law enforcement teeth in the era of the War on Drugs in Miami, the highest drug trafficking area in the Continental US. The older folks who live here are shocked by the seemingly rabid increase in drug-related topics in their local newscasts and print. But when you see young people harvesting a very abundant and lucrative resource like the Maine lobster, it was just a matter of time before the drug lords would tap into that cache. Timing may indeed be everything. Or is it location, location, location? Time and place. I was in the right place at the right time to make a difference, I thought.

When I was able to pry the driver’s-side door of the Duster open wide enough to squeeze in, I did. Three pumps on the gas pedal with a foot clad in the requisite, insulated L.L.Bean boot, a twist of the key in the ignition, and “Vroom,” off she went—purring contentedly. I hated wasting gas, but thought it might be okay to let the engine idle while I dug out the back tires and dished out a couple of wheel wells behind them and out to the main road. The price of gasoline in Down East Maine was all the motivation I needed to throw snow with a real hustle. Just as I was finishing the job, the phone inside the house rang, piercing the stillness of the icy air. I leaned the shovel against the rear bumper and started toward the house. One ring later, the phone stopped. Two rings and a hang-up was the code I had worked out with my boss at Marine Safety Consultants, Mr. Dubois, and was my signal to call him back pronto.

Cell phones are all but useless in this particular nook of coast, so my personal calls all come through a “party line” that I share with the Vickersons. The code was worked out in an attempt to gain a bit of privacy. At first, Mr. and Mrs. V had been discreet about listening in on my calls. But once the cat was out of the bag, rather than stop doing it, they became more blatantly nosy—even jumping into conversations to offer opinions. Most of my first-time callers end up saying “Who the hell is that?” before the end of the conversation. I then have to be polite and introduce whichever one of my octogenarian landlords happened to be near the phone when it rang. At the start it was disconcerting, then it really began to piss me off. Now, I laugh. And of course outsmart them.

Torn between allowing the Duster to remain running and thus climbing into a toasty warm car and shutting it off to feed my frugality, I opted for frugality. Besides saving gas, I needed to toughen up, I thought as I made my way back to the house. Carefully closing the door behind me so as not to wake my landlords, I brushed snow from the bottom of my pant legs, which were frozen stiff, and pulled my feet from my insulated “Beanies” with the lobster claw boot jack. Yup, The Lobster Trappe sold anything and everything lobster related. There were lobster trap birdhouses, lobster beanbags, lobster coloring books, lobster corkscrews … Well, you get the picture. The shop was now in its off-season, so the Vickersons were busy researching new items to add to their inventory, which led to many interesting conversations at their dinner table, where I had an open invitation to be any night at 7:30—five o’clock if I wanted cocktails. I tiptoed my wool socks across the shop and started up the stairs to my apartment. Halfway up, the door below that connected to the main house opened and I heard a very cheery, “Good morning, Janey!”

“Hi Mrs. V. I hope I didn’t wake you.”

“No dear, the phone did. Two rings and a hang-up. Must be your boss. Better call him back right away.” Oh no, I thought, they were on to me. I wondered how many conversations they had tapped into since I had schemed the code. The Vickersons were so good to me in every way that I had never been able to bring myself to scold them for eavesdropping. What the heck, I thought, at eighty-two and eighty-six, if they find pleasure injecting themselves into my fairly unexciting life, so be it. It’s not as if the happenings in Down East Maine and outer islands (my territory in both my insurance and deputy gigs) required security clearance. The last two assignments I had been given by Mr. Dubois were surveying minor damage to lobster boats in a late January blizzard. One boat’s mooring parted and it was blown into another boat before landing luckily on the only patch of sand beach in the county. And the only task I had been assigned as deputy sheriff since September was following up on leads that often led to busting meth labs, arresting addicts, and hopefully beginning to snuff out what had reached epidemic proportions. Often, the entire community knows about a case or incident before I do, I realized. The Vickersons just like to be in the loop. I assured Alice that I had come in to call my boss, and hoped I could discreetly give Mr. Dubois a heads-up that they were listening before they jumped in.

“Hello?”

“Hi, Mr. Dubois. Jane Bunker here, we are returning your call.”

“Alice?” Mr. Dubois asked.

“Present,” Mrs. V said promptly.

“Henry?”

“Standing by,” answered Mr. V dutifully. Oh God, I thought, now there wasn’t even any pretending. The only thing keeping me from being terminated from either of my jobs was the total lack of anyone else to do them. That, and the fact that I am good at what I do.

“Okay team, here’s the deal,” the boss started. “Jane, I need you to go out to Acadia Island to survey damage suffered in a house fire. It’s a summer home owned by a good customer for whom we insure several properties, three vehicles, a boat, and a business. The fire was just last night, and I want to move quickly to accommodate these people.”

“Since when do we survey house fires? I thought you handled only marine-related insurance?” I asked to stall, and hoped to conceal an oncoming loss of composure about a trip to Acadia.

“It’s called bundling, dear,” interjected Mr. V. “Everyone is having to gain bandwidth in any business to stay afloat. Insurance is very competitive. Alice and I have all of our insurances under one roof as well—it’s the only way we can afford it all.”

“Besides,” Mrs. V weighed in, “you really should go to Acadia and get that demon off your back.”

“I think you mean monkey, dear,” Mr. V corrected. “And maybe Jane needs to let sleeping dogs lie.”

“Either way,” Mr. Dubois interrupted what I had come to know as ping-pong proverbs before Alice could send one back over the net, “I assume the place is a total loss. Not much in the way of firefighting on these islands—all volunteer, and no real training or equipment. All I need from you is to go out and take lots of pictures to document what I already know,” said Mr. Dubois.

“Yes sir, I’ll get out there ASAP.” Yet again, I am reduced to a photographer, I thought.

“Great. When you get off at the dock, take a right on the main road, in about half a mile you’ll see a yellow Cape on the right. The Proctors are expecting someone from the Agency. They are caretakers for the Kohls, whose house you’ll be surveying. They will get you where you need to be and back to the dock,” the boss instructed. I breathed an audible sigh of relief when I registered “Proctor”—not any of the family names associated with my kin.

We all said our goodbyes and hung up, leaving me to contemplate the trip “home.” Within seconds the phone rang again. I grabbed it and was not at all surprised to be speaking with the Vickersons. They advised me of the ferry schedule to and from Acadia, adding that I had already missed the first boat out to the island. The winter ferry schedule to Acadia did not give a passenger many options—the “early boat” departed from South Haven (a ten-minute ride from home) at seven a.m., and the “late boat” was a three p.m. departure from South Haven. Following the forty-minute cruise out, the Vickersons informed me, the boat would remain at the dock on Acadia just long enough to unload people and freight, before returning to the mainland. I thanked my landlords for the info, and told them I would find an alternate ride out, snap a load of pictures, and return on the last and only remaining ferry this evening. “Better get a wiggle on,” advised Mrs. V. “Time is of the essence.”

“What’s the rush? Remember, haste makes waste,” instructed Mr. V.

“He who hesitates is lost,” admonished Mrs. V.

“Fools rush in where angels fear to tread!”

“The early bird gets the worm!”

“Good things come to those who wait.”

“Tide and time wait for no man. And damn few women! There, top that, Henry,” Alice challenged.

“I need to deice the Duster. I’ll let you know my plans, thanks!” I wasn’t quite sure what I was thanking them for, but slammed the phone down, bolted down the stairs, yanked on my boots, and hustled to my chilly and waiting Duster. For all I knew, the old folks were still volleying proverbs. Their game used to irritate me. Now I enjoyed it, I thought as I quietly quipped, “A stitch in time, saves nine.”

* * *

 

Copyright © 2017 Linda Greenlaw.

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Linda Greenlaw is the author of the bestsellers The Hungry OceanAll Fishermen are LiarsThe Lobster Chronicles, and Recipes from a Small Island, as well as the Jane Bunker mysteries, including Slipknot and Fisherman’s Bend. Before becoming a writer, she was the captain of a swordboat, the career that earned her a prominent role in Sebastian Junger’s The Perfect Storm and a portrayal in the subsequent film. She now lives on Isle au Haut, Maine, where she captains a lobster boat.

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