A Skeptic’s Luck, first in a trilogy, Chapter One

A Skeptic’s Luck

Literary suspense

by A. D. Morel

 

Publication 30 April 2013 Anthesis Press. Ebook will be downloadable at this website.

Book Description: Literary suspense, action adventure and romance in the coast of Maine. 288 pages.

What if your heart’s desire is granted, yet you cannot take the gift? Five years after Lewis Rholf, Maine writer of experimental fiction, was lost during 9/11, widow Maxine has started to wear his clothes. She can find no peace at her special beach where arrowhead hunters are digging illegally and the land is for sale. Her strained friendship with Byron, wealthy admirer who does not share her faith, is unravelling. She must pursue her research in wild orchids despite family crises, kids and pets in trouble, money problems. She is not ready for a lesson in humility, or to contend with a trio of surly motor-cyclists who step on her orchids in the remote forest. When daughter Eva tells Maxine she saw Lewis at the airport, Maxine must face the question — could Lewis be alive?

 

—————————————— Excerpt —————————————

 

Chapter One

 

“Let’s turn back,” called Eva from the bow. “The wind is against the tide!” Her words were torn off by the wind, and there was a delay before Maxine realized what she had said.

“Don’t panic, that won’t help,” Maxine conveyed calm but her throat was tight. “Keep paddling just till we get through the Gut, then we’ll see what it’s like in the outer harbor.”

No need to let Eva know of her own trepidation at how high the chop was here. Cliff walls rose on each side at the narrow reversing tide. The inner harbor was churned up with an easterly wind, residue from a storm system out at sea. A wave sloshed over the starboard gunwale, and Maxine felt the cold water among her toes in the bottom of the canoe. Her hiking boots were already sodden.

A herring gull arrived overhead and saw no fish among their cargo. It teetered in the wind, then allowed itself to be swept on over the water.

Maxine plunged the paddle deep and pulled hard, trying not to scrape the side of Lewis’s battered aluminum canoe as she steered into the rushing blue-black current. The pull of the outgoing tide here in the channel was a force of nature. Someday someone would harness it with a turbine and power some lights at the shore. The wind was picking up, and this made the chop even worse. Maybe this was not such a good way to celebrate Memorial Day after all.

She looked out ahead, through the mouth of the Gut, and noticed a lobsterboat circling slowly, pulling a battered dinghy. No other boats were in sight. This one needed paint, like Danny’s, but it was unfamiliar and she dismissed it. She turned her focus back to the water off the starboard bow of the canoe. Somewhere here was an eddy that would make all this much easier. Lewis had shown it to her years ago. While she paddled she searched the surface of the water for the telltale ripple. Soon she located it, and the canoe boosted through the Gut as though on a roller-coaster. Eva gave an exhilarated whoop as they rode between the towering dark rocks. Now they could see their destination—Gannet Point—across the outer harbor.

The canoe slowed and its bow veered to starboard when a cold gust pushed the vessel sideways. Here the wind was from the north, with air too cool for late May. Then Maxine saw a cotton baseball cap land upside-down on the surface of the water, staining dark as it settled into the salt water, out of reach.

Eva almost dropped her paddle, and clapped one hand to her head. The canoe bucked and veered off course even more.

“Hey! That’s the cap that Daddy gave me,” she cried, and she whirled to see where it had gone. Her alarm rang across the water. Her hair loosened from a ponytail as she swung around farther, looking for the cap. The faded dark blue cap was filling with water and starting to sink. The canoe rocked with her sudden movements.

“Switch sides and paddle backwards,” called Maxine. She remembered the day Lewis had noticed Eva wearing his favorite cap. He had said, “It’s yours, Evie. Looks better on you than on me.” Now, almost five years since Lewis was lost, these faded articles of clothing were irreplaceable bits of personal history, beyond price.

With a few more vigorous back strokes against the tide, Maxine reached the cap with her paddle. She dipped the blade under the cap and scooped it up through six inches of water, tossing it into the canoe. Cold water arced up with the paddle and dashed into Eva’s face.

“Hey!” gasped Eva, wiping the water from her eyes. When she saw the ‘WA’ emblem on the cap as it lay in the bottom of the boat, she laughed. Writers Anonymous—Lewis had brought it back from a book expo conference years ago. Their boat rotated sideways to the relentless tide as they both paused from their paddling.

“Good work, Mom,” Eva yelled. “Bet you couldn’t do that a second time!”

“Bet I don’t want to have to try. Could you tie the lunch to the thwart, please? Just in case we go over, I still want to eat.”

Eva shook her head as though to say, “I give up” and looped the painter through the back of the dripping cap, then through the cooler handle. She tied a bowline knot around the thwart. Maxine pulled at her paddle in the stern and kept her eye on the shore. She gauged the distance they had lost during this interlude, and how far they had to go to reach the Point. When Eva resumed paddling, Maxine brought the nose of the canoe around so they were heading toward Gannet Point again. Eva twisted her head around and expressed her lack of enthusiasm with the set of her shoulders.

“We can’t go back through the Gut with the tide going out so fast. C’mon, let’s make it to the Point, and you’ll be glad we did,” called Maxine.

Then they each noticed a ragged wave, larger than the others, racing toward them with its crest foaming. “Hang on!” Eva called, and they leaned forward to keep their weight low.

Up and over this wave they went, the canoe tipping hard first to starboard, then to port where the gunwale met the surface of the sea briefly. The bow dipped into the next wave and seawater came rushing up around Maxine’s ankles. Eva screamed and clutched at the gunwale. Then the boat righted itself, and they descended into the trough.

Eva grabbed the two cut-off detergent bottles tied to the thwart and bailed strenuously with both hands. Out ahead, the lobsterboat turned her bow toward them and approached as though to effect a rescue. The roar of its engine grew louder.

“Keep at it!” called Maxine. Eva worked as fast as she could, grunting with the exertion. Soon she had most of the water out of the canoe, while Maxine struggled to keep the bow from falling off again.

They each paddled hard now, pulling through another gust of wind. Maxine had no need to remind Eva to switch sides. They were partners, a mother and daughter team. Stroke.

Stroke. The sun had disappeared behind an advance of gray cloud and would not be returning today. It was no more risky to proceed toward Gannet Point than it would be to try to retreat back into the harbor, or to land on the bouldery shore where the surf was piling in. Maxine would have preferred sun, no wind, a more manageable tide, but she had Eva all to herself for a little while and did not want to give this up.

Eva stopped paddling again. She set the paddle across the bow of the canoe and gripped the gunwales tightly, one in each hand. She turned her head slowly against the neck opening of her bulky life jacket and glared at Maxine across the thwarts.

“Mom, I don’t want to die young. Let’s go to the Worleys’ dock, walk home, and drive out to the Point instead,” she called. Maxine laughed.

“Look, we’re through the Gut, we’re halfway across the outer harbor, we’re almost there, Evie,” she yelled. “Don’t be a wuss. Just paddle, why don’t you!” She stroked without rest, trying to compensate for the drift to starboard now that Eva’s paddle was out of the water. The bow was about to go off again. The seas were erratic here. Some of the waves were two feet high and threatening to slop into the boat again.

Maxine noticed that the unfamiliar lobsterboat was standing by. No other boats were in sight on such a windy holiday, the townspeople had more sense, and the tourists were not on the scene yet. She could see the helmsman watching them intently, his face long, beard scraggly. At the stern, a man in a hooded sweatshirt, his cap pulled low over his face, was handling the dinghy painter to keep it from winding into the propeller. The ease with which these two men conducted themselves on the water reminded Maxine of her brother Daniel. Danny probably knew these guys, she thought.

“Let’s get to the beach below the headland,” Maxine called. “It will be much quieter in the cove there. It’s only a few hundred feet.” She paddled hard, with blisters forming on her fingers.

“I think next year we should hike out to the Point instead of this canoe adventure, Mom,” Eva hollered back to her as she scooped water and tossed it overboard. Her voice rattled with conviction.

“So much whining today! You like it out here as much as I do. You’re getting soft, working in that gallery. Look, we’re almost to the beach.” She was not sure Eva had heard her. Eva might have chosen not to respond. She was bailing steadily, after all. Maxine thought about how difficult it was lately to jolly Eva along. Something must be on her mind.

Stress about the wedding? After a while, Eva had reduced the amount of water in the canoe enough that she could resume paddling.

They worked on toward Gannet Point buffeted by the wind, shoulders aching. Maxine gave a “We’re okay” type of wave to the man driving the lobsterboat, who had continued to stand by. He nodded and wheeled around, heading back out to go around the Point. The name on the stern was Nellie P and Maxine checked her mental registry, but the boat and its name were not familiar. As the boat drew away, the man in the stern looked toward the canoe, but his face was still obscured, and he did not wave. Maxine did not recognize him, either. Some guardian angel or other, she supposed.

The blister on Maxine’s left hand opened, but she ignored this. They continued on for another twenty minutes. When they finally arrived in a small cove protected in the lee of the headland, the wind continued to gust across, but the canoe was more user-friendly in flatter seas. Eva pulled from the bow while Maxine dipped her paddle to steer straight into the beach.

“We shouldn’t have come out here so early in the season,” Eva said. “Besides that lobsterboat, we haven’t seen other boats today. If something went wrong we’d be hypothermic, maybe we’d die. I don’t know why I let you talk me into this every year, Mom.” Eva seemed truly disgruntled, but Maxine decided to shrug this off. So prickly! Whatever is troubling her, thought Maxine, I hope she’ll tell me what it is.

“You’ll be glad you came,” she said. “I brought two deviled eggs for each of us, with green olives. And brownies.”

“Brownies! You’re torturing me. I’m trying to lose eight more pounds so I can fit in the dress.”

“Don’t be ridiculous, Eva. You’ll fit in the dress. You’ll look like a picture from Modern Bride magazine. Besides, they’re low-fat brownies made with oil instead of butter.”

“Oh!”

“Yes, it’s that recipe Hannah gave me, and you didn’t think they’d come out, but they’re really good. Even Rod likes them.”

“Yeah, well, Rod hasn’t met a brownie he didn’t like.”

The bow of their boat ground onto the gravel at the shore. Wavelets curled in steadily, dumping small loads and retreating. In one gliding motion Eva slid her paddle behind her into the bottom of the canoe and stepped up and out onto the shore between waves. She pulled the bow with her right hand, drawing the boat farther ashore.

“Do you want to go around the Point and pick up trash?” asked Maxine as she climbed out and hauled the canoe even farther up the beach. Eva took her life jacket off and tossed it between two rocks above the high-tide line.

“I guess. Since we got this far. Since we always pick up trash here and that’s what we came for, anyway,” she said. Her lack of enthusiasm led Maxine to realize that Eva might not have time to go out to the cemetery to visit her grandfather’s stone later. Once again Maxine would sit alone on the grass and consider what Dad would have to say about some decision she might be trying to make. She could not seem to interest her children in going to the cemetery.

Maxine determined to enjoy this moment regardless of conditions. She pulled two rolled trash bags from the back pocket of her jeans and flipped them open into the wind. She handed one to Eva, but the bag blew away before Eva could grab it. They laughed together as it swooped and then fluttered into the little waves pulsing at the shore. Maxine dashed after it, exclaiming as the cold seawater seeped through her wet hiking boots and shocked her feet all over again.

Maxine threw her life jacket on top of the one Eva had tossed among the boulders, and they set out for the tip of the headland. They strode together along the beach, heads down. Maxine wanted to find the right moment to tell Eva about the snake in the kitchen, about how peculiar she had felt since early this morning. She was still feeling unsettled despite the physical exertion of getting the canoe across to the Point from the town landing.

She wanted to tell Eva that she could not shake the idea that her thoughts were being weighed by some unseen storyteller, as if she was merely a character in a book. She was apprehensive. Anything could happen, out of her control. How could she have been so reckless as to ask for a lesson in humility? And how could she arrive at the happy ending, with Lewis so irrevocably gone? She wanted to talk it over with a trusted ally—Eva—and process it.

But Maxine could see that Eva was not in the mood for oblique talk or imaginings. To warm her daughter up again, Maxine asked about plans for the wedding. The plans for decorating the country club were coming along under Gina’s tasteful oversight. Eva’s organization skills were in good form, with lists of lists, responsibilities delegated. Only Maxine seemed to have nothing to do, because Eva had tried not to burden her during field season. Eva listed the guests who had confirmed their plans to attend.

“Byron is coming,” said Eva. Her eyes held expectation, and Maxine sensed that Eva wanted a declaration.

“Oh, that’s nice,” said Maxine. It sounded unconvincing in her own ears. How ambiguous could a reply be? Maxine had been hoping he would decline the invitation, be out of town. His attendance at the wedding would make it harder for Maxine to avoid him. If she really was going to taper off her relationship with him, she did not want to hurt his feelings. But she sensed that their friendship was heading in an awkward direction. Much as she wanted to tell Eva of her misgivings, she had to sort out for herself what she wanted to do. No need to unsettle this highly strung version of Eva, who was volatile enough as it was.

To change the topic, Maxine asked about other guests who were planning to come. Hannah’s mother Winifred, whom Maxine had not yet met, was coming all the way from Florida. Jack’s entire police squad had been invited, with their spouses and girlfriends. Only a few of his buddies, who had to be on duty on the Bangor streets the day of the wedding, had sent their regrets.

Maxine realized that she was doing most of the talking, and wondered what Eva was holding back. Why wasn’t her daughter more ebullient about the wedding? Perhaps she was having second thoughts about Jack. Maxine found herself hoping this was so. It would be easy to cancel the whole event.

By the time they rounded the Point, they had picked up two plastic motor oil containers, a broken Styrofoam lobster buoy, shotgun shells, a ragged length of rope, and soda bottles. The wind pulled at the trash bags, and knocked the bags against their legs as they walked. Eva stopped and squinted, shielding her eyes from the wind.

“Who’s that?” she asked, pointing down the beach. The high bluff was outlined against the blowing gray clouds. At its base lay a famous shell heap—a pile of refuse from a Native American camp thousands of years ago. The heap had become even more exposed this past winter by erosion during the storms.

Eva had not worn her eyeglasses. Maxine felt for Lewis’s binoculars, which should have been hanging from her neck, but realized she had forgotten to bring them. I must have been disoriented by the pre-dawn encounter with the snake in the kitchen, she realized. She wiped her eyes and cupped them against the cold wind. She dropped her voice as she spoke.

“It’s those guys from the lobsterboat. It looks like they are digging for arrowheads. I doubt they have permission from Alvin. The Uptons hardly ever come to the beach, I think they have no idea what goes on out here.” Maxine could see the Nellie P anchored off the beach near the bluff with its patched dinghy pulled up on the gravelly beach. Maxine started toward the men to speak with them. She wanted to thank them for standing by while she and Eva had ventured through the chop by the Gut. And she was resolute about asking them to please not dig in the heap. But Eva resisted.

“Mom,” she said quietly, putting her hand on Maxine’s arm. “I know you love this place, and want to take care of it. But this time, don’t get into it. Let’s go back.” Her voice was not loud enough to attract the attention of the two men, who were intent on digging into the bank with a clam rake.

Maxine stopped, turned to look at Eva. Her daughter. So beautiful, standing on the windy beach with wild dark red hair, green eyes tearing, face raw and glowing, the trash bag billowing at her knees. Shoulders set in morose refusal. Soon this young woman would be married, off on her own. Had she learned to be so willful from Maxine? Or from Lewis? Eva was staring back into her eyes as though she was having the same thought—What am I to do with her?

Maxine considered her choice. There were times when it was best to hide under the desk, and times when it was best to stand on the desk and shout. Here were principles she cared about enough to speak up. And this place was too special to stand by while people dug at its shores, took away its ancient treasures. If she overrode Eva’s unease and went to meet these men, she might find that they were ignorant of the legal protection that coastal shell heaps now had. Or, she might have to endure some unpleasantness. But then maybe they would stop destroying an archaeological resource that the museum had not yet had time to document.

On the other hand, she could make Eva a little happier, let her win this one. Go back around the Point to the lee side, lean against a boulder, rest her eyes on the horizon with its parade of whitecaps, and try to get Eva to tell her what was going on. She knew she was not imagining Eva’s unexplained reserve.

As she pondered this, she heard the hollow thunk of the clam rake as the shorter man thrust it into the shell heap. Eva must have heard it, too, because she turned her back on the scene.

“Honey, why don’t you go pick out a place for us to eat lunch? By the big rock, if you like, or wherever. I’ll be back in just a short time,” said Maxine. Eva’s brows drew together.

“Mom, is it that big a deal? What harm can they do? It’s just dirt and shells.”

“Here, keep my bag from blowing away, won’t you? I’ll be just a few minutes,” replied Maxine.

Eva made a disgusted noise and took the half-full garbage bag from her mother. She settled herself on a large log that had washed ashore in a hurricane two years ago, and acted as though she was watching something out on the horizon. But there were no boats in sight except the Nellie P and its beached dinghy. A few herring gulls stood in the foam at the water line, facing the wind, each with one leery eye upon her.

Maxine walked over to the two men. Working fellows, lobstermen, clammers maybe. They were probably waiting for the tide to go out so they could dig for clams. They must have come from another town. Or perhaps they were exploring here on their day off, enjoying some Memorial Day leisure time.

“Hullo,” she ventured. The taller man looked up at her but the shorter one kept digging, his face obscured by sunglasses, the beak of his cap, and the stained sweatshirt hood. She could see that they had accumulated a few flakes and stones from among the ancient shells, and had placed these in a coffee can.

“Thanks for standing by while we got the canoe out here. We appreciate it,” she said. Then, “What have you been finding?” She kept her voice light and friendly, as though asking, “Caught anything yet?”

“Nothin’ much,” grunted the taller man. His response was noncommittal. He snuffled, wiped his nose with his sleeve, scratched his leg, and went back to sorting through the artifacts that the other man was uncovering with the tool. Maxine’s ears ached when rake tines stabbed into the layers of shell, layers left there by mysterious other people thousands of years before.

“This is a special place, you know,” started Maxine. “The Higgam Museum will be coming to collect scientific data here. It would be too bad to disturb the site before they have a chance to see what’s here. Besides, it’s against the law to dig a cultural feature like this.” She could not remember the title of the law, or the details, but she was pretty sure about this. She made a mental note to download it from the Maine state web pages next time she went online.

“Yeah, well, we’re almost done,” said the taller man. The man in the sweatshirt did not look up at her. The cap obscured his face except for a stubble of graying beard. Maybe he was the boss. Or maybe he was deaf, or slow.

“Okay, then. Please spread the word if you can. We’re trying to make sure people know to please not disturb the shell heaps. It’s not like there’s anything in them that would be worth money. It’s just historical stuff, and with the sea level rising, they are eroding away fast anyway.” Maxine offered this as more of a suggestion than instruction. She stood her ground, arms folded across her chest and feet planted in the sand, waiting for them to realize that she was not going to back down.

She sensed that the men were smirking to each other. They exchanged a cryptic remark in a thick Downeast accent, but the noise of the wind and surf made it impossible for Maxine to distinguish the words. She wondered if they were talking about her in some unflattering way.

The shorter one seemed to glance toward Eva in the distance behind Maxine, and then he mumbled again to his buddy. Finally they gathered up the rake and the coffee can, and started off toward their dilapidated dinghy. They did not say goodbye or look back at Maxine, but strolled past a few new-looking beer cans, and pushed the dinghy into one of the larger waves. After a while they were aboard the lobsterboat where they started the engine and headed southward around the rocky coast away from Mink Harbor. So, not locals, thought Maxine. They had probably come down the coast from Fox Island, probably thought no one would be on the beach in this weather.

She had memorized the taller man’s face, but the identity of the shorter fellow was lost to her. She picked up the beer cans they had left behind, and went to sit with Eva on the log. The gray sky had lowered still more. A sprinkle of rain had started.

“So you chased them off, Beach Patrol. Proud of ourselves, are we?” said Eva stiffly. Then, from curiosity, she relented. “Anyone we know?”

“Nope. Not Hayden and Billy. I don’t know who that was. Probably drove all the way from Fox Island. They’ll be back,” predicted Maxine. Maxine wanted to rebuild the good feeling between them, which seemed to have crumbled.

Everything was out of balance. My fault, she thought. I should have gone back to bed after I saw the snake in the kitchen this morning. But I will not let anything spoil this special day with Eva.

She threw an arm over Eva’s shoulder and gave her a lumpish one-armed hug.

“C’mon, Bride. Let’s get that buoy we left back there. Your Uncle Daniel might know who that belongs to. Or at least he can use it in one of his sculptures. Then we’ll go back to the other side of the Point to eat lunch. We can get out of the wind behind the big rock.”

“Yup,” said Eva. She looked at her watch, and sighed, as though she had things to do in another part of the state. Maxine felt a surge of sympathy. Eva had given up a chance to relax in her tidy apartment, or spend time with Jack. She had gotten up early and driven an hour to keep the tradition alive with her mother. Perhaps canoeing in the cold and picking up trash and harassing looters were not her top choices for holiday activities.

And, thought Maxine, it might be a long time before it’s just the two of us out here again. She lifted her eyes and took a deep breath. How she thrived in this place where earth met sea and sky in such a spectacular way! She hugged Eva again as they started along the high-tide line. This Memorial Day had begun strangely, but with deviled eggs in the offing, it might be resurrected.

Copyright 2013 A. D. Morel

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