I stepped outside into a beautiful, sunny afternoon. The trees were bare but the snow was gone, and the wind that had blown for the past three days and felt as though it had come from somewhere north of Labrador had finally died down. After a long, cold and very snowy winter it looked as though spring might be arriving early.
North Harbor is located on the midcoast of Maine. It stretches from the Atlantic coast in the south up to the Swift Hills in the north. The town was settled by Alexander Swift back in the late 1760s. "Where the hills touch the sea" is how North Harbor has been described for more than two hundred and fifty years. Full-time residents of the town total just over thirteen thousand souls, but that number more than triples between June and September with tourists and summer people.
We had no drive-throughs or fast food restaurants. Our more relaxed pace of life was what attracted so many tourists, that and the beautiful, historic buildings; quirky little shops; award-winning restaurants and gorgeous scenery.
Michelle pulled up at the curb in her new-to-her car, a dark gray Subaru a couple of years old that she'd bought at a police auction in Bangor. Michelle was a detective for the North Harbor police department. She'd watched the list of vehicles up for auction for months, looking for just the right vehicle for our winters. It had come with a set of knobby, off-road winter tires, reinforced front and back bumpers, and some kind of engine modifications that pretty much meant it would go like stink. I'd been itching to drive the car ever since Michelle had gotten it, but given that I had a bit of a reputation—undeserved as far as I was concerned—for having a lead foot, I was pretty certain she was never going to let me get behind the wheel, even for a sedate drive around my own neighborhood.
"Where's Elvis?" Michelle teased as I slid into the passenger side of the SUV.
Elvis went to work with me every day. He often tagged along if I was having dinner with Rose or my grandmother. When a group of us had gone to the drive-in in Farmington over the summer he'd settled himself in the middle of the front seat of my SUV and actually seemed to watch the movie. Aside from the fact that Elvis was a bit of a backseat driver, the cat was good company. I told people he was Robin to my Batman although I had the feeling that Elvis saw things the other way around.
"Number one, he already had plans," I said as I fastened my seat belt. "And number two, I got the last two tickets Gram had. And lest you think the idea of a cat having a ticket to the show is weird I should tell you that two years ago I did the house tour with my mom and there was a woman in line who had one of those fluffy little white dogs in her bag. And the dog had its own ticket."
Michelle grinned at me. "And did they let the dog in?" she asked. She was wearing jeans and a deep violet quilted jacket, her auburn hair pulled into a low ponytail.
I gave her the side-eye. "This is the North Harbor Spring House Tour we're talking about. It's been going on for seventy-three years."
She pulled away from the curb. "So yes."
"Like I said. The dog did have a ticket."
The first stop on the house tour was a newly renovated saltbox—the Walker house that Rose was interested in—just three streets east of my neighborhood. The outside was the traditional New England style with gray shingles, white trim and large multi-paned windows.
"This is the house Rose wants to know all about," I said to Michelle as we walked along the sidewalk to the front door.
"So why isn't she doing the tour?"
"Because those last two tickets I got from Gram turned out to be the last two tickets, period. And the only house she's interested in is this one." We lined up behind two couples.
"Why this one?" Michelle asked.
"Rose's grandmother was a Walker. There's some family connection to the place."
We ended up not spending very much time inside the Walker house. The interior was very modern—all black and white, cool and austere—a design choice at odds with the traditional exterior. There were no cat food bowls in the kitchen and no fat pillows on the all-white sofa.
"That's not my style at all," Michelle said once we were outside again. "I like things more casual and I need a home with color in it."
I nodded. "The place was too stark for me. And I like things that have stories associated with them, even if I don't know what those stories are. I like to think about who owned the table I'm sitting at and who first chose the dishes I'm eating off of."
Michelle unlocked the car. "That's because you're the kind of person who imagines the characters in a story continue with their lives even though you've gotten to the end of the book."
I smiled at her over the roof of the car. "That's because they do."
As we headed for the next stop on the tour Michelle talked about how difficult house hunting had turned out to be. "I've been outbid twice and I've discovered there aren't as many small houses for sale as I'd thought."
"Would you consider doing what I did?" I asked.
She shot me a quick sideways glance. "You mean buying a bigger place divided into apartments? Maybe. Could I have your dad and Liam and you to help me work on a house like that?"
"Sure," I said.
"I'm not kidding," I said.
"Your father actually offered his help when he was here last month." Michelle's own father had been dead since we were teenagers and her mother hadn't lived in North Harbor in years.
"You know Dad wouldn't offer if he didn't mean it. I think he's the reason I like old houses so much. And Liam would love to give his opinion on pretty much everything." My brother was a builder who lately had been doing a lot of work on older properties. I held up one finger. "And you have Rose and her merry band of seniors." I held out both hands. "We're your crew. And we always come with cookies."
The second stop on the tour was Gladstone House, a bed-and-breakfast run by Annie Hastings and her granddaughter, Emily. The house had been in their family for close to two hundred years. It was redbrick with red and cream trim, three stories high with tall, narrow windows and a widow's walk.
"You know," I said, "some people believe this house is haunted by the ghost of Emmeline Gladstone who was killed by her fiance, Captain Joseph Phillips."
"You don't believe in ghosts, do you?" Michelle asked as we walked around the front sitting room.
I shook my head. "I believe in drafty windows and squeaky floorboards, not restless spirits."
The interior of Gladstone House was much more in keeping with the exterior. The sitting room was furnished with several beautiful old pieces. I recognized that some of the furniture was antique and some of it was reproduction, but all of it seemed to be lovingly taken care of. The end wall of the room was floor-to-ceiling bookshelves.
There was a small table in front of one of the two windows that looked as though it was being used as a desk. The table wasn't an antique but the chair seemed to be.
"What is it with you and chairs?" Michelle asked as I leaned over for a closer look at the one in front of the window. It had beautiful turned spindles on the back.
"They're my favorite piece of furniture," I said, straightening up. "There are so many different styles and so many things you can do with a chair."
She nodded. "Of course. Because you can sit on a chair or you can sit on a chair."
I made a face at her. "Don't tell me you've never fallen asleep in a chair, or put your lunch on the seat of one or used a chair to reach something on a high shelf or piled clean laundry on one or—"
Michelle held up a hand. "I get the point," she said, laughing.
I spotted another chair across the room, a dark walnut parlor chair upholstered in a gold and cream leaf-and-feather design on a pale blue background. Gladstone House was already shaping up to be my favorite stop on the house tour.
In the dining room there were several vintage maps of the Maine coast in gold leaf frames. That was something we could do at the shop. We always had a bunch of picture frames and I had unearthed a pile of old maps in the contents of a storage locker I'd bought a year ago. They'd been sitting on a shelf ever since. A collection of old glass bottles that were being used as vases was arranged in the middle of the dining room table, which was covered with a starched white tablecloth.
We had even more glass bottles at Second Chance than we did empty picture frames. I was happy to have a couple of new ideas for what to do with both items.
Our customers were people who lived in town as well as tourists visiting the area or just passing through on their way to somewhere else. We had a lot of bus tours stop in. We were on the edge of the downtown, a fifteen-minute-or-so walk from the harbor and close to a highway off-ramp, which made it easy for tourists to find us. Small things like our teacup planters were always very popular with them. I was crossing my fingers that framed maps and repurposed bottles would also catch some people's interest.
Michelle was standing in front of the walnut buffet hutch on the end wall of the long dining room. I walked over to join her, happy to see one of Second Chance's teacup planters on a nearby window ledge.
"I like this," she said, gesturing at the large piece of furniture. The smoothness of the glass in the hutch doors suggested this piece was likely also a reproduction. Older glass tended to be wavy in places.
"We have a couple of houses to clean out later this month," I said. "I'll keep my eyes open for something like it." We had developed a bit of a sideline at the shop, cleaning out houses for people who had to or wanted to downsize, often seniors. I held up one hand. "And before you say you have nowhere to put a big piece of furniture like that in your apartment, if we find something you like it can stay at the shop until you find a house."
Michelle sighed. "At the rate I'm going that could be this time next year."
"Your house is out there somewhere," I said. "I promise."
"You make it sound like it's a dog and all I have to do is just whistle and it will show up."
I bumped her with my shoulder. "Try to think of it more like a cat. It will show up, but on its own schedule."
Only part of the second floor of the house was open to the public and not everyone was heading upstairs. "Do you want to go up?" Michelle asked, gesturing at the stairs.
I nodded. "I'd love to get a peek at how the bedrooms have been furnished."
We could only get a look at two of the upstairs rooms. There was a gorgeous maple spool bed in one room with a matching tall dresser. The other bedroom held a cannonball four-poster bed with a flat headboard painted a deep navy blue. It was topped with a yellow and white quilt.
"I'd love a quilt like that," Michelle said as we stepped back into the upper hallway.
"Talk to Jess," I said. Jess had been my college roommate. Now she was a seamstress and part owner of a clothing store right on the harbor front. "She's always buying old quilts. Some of them she repairs and others she . . ." I let the end of the sentence trail off.
The rest of the hall was cordoned off with a velvet rope and a pair of brass-plated stanchions. I glanced up at the stained-glass window, set high up in the wall at the end of the hall. Something in the far end bedroom on the left side caught my eye. I leaned a little to the left for a better look. My stomach flip-flopped.
"Sarah, what is it?" Michelle said.
I pointed toward the half-open doorway. "Is that a foot?"
I was fairly certain I knew the answer.
Michelle leaned over for a better look, then she glanced over her shoulder at me. "Stay here," she said lifting the velvet rope and ducking underneath it. I watched her scan the hallway and check the floor. She was in detective mode. As soon as she reached the bedroom door I slipped under the rope and followed her.
There was a body lying on the hardwood floor. A man, tall and thin, somewhere in his forties if I had to guess. He was partly on his stomach and partly on his right side. Michelle knelt to check his pulse. "I told you to wait," she said.
I bent down beside her. "We can do CPR," I said. "We need to roll him over."
She shook her head.
I didn't want her to say the words. The slackness of the man's mouth and the color of his skin already told me, but a small part of me still hoped.
Michelle said them anyway. "It's too late, Sarah. He's dead."
© Sofie Ryan