The Body in the Basement

Katherine Hall Page

Minotaur Books

The Body in the Basement
Chapter I
There were days when Pix Miller was forced to agree with her husband, Sam's, observation that "Don't worry, Pix will do it" would be the epitaph carved on her tombstone in the family plot in Maine.
She was at the plot on Sanpere Island now, thinning the potentilla that grew on her father's grave. The sky was slightly overcast and the woods that surrounded the cemetery were dark and dense. She preferred to be there on sunny days, when the white birch trunks shimmered and the stately emerald evergreens looked as if they had been and would be there forever. The dead were not dead on those days, but came alive in memory as she walked past stones with familiar names to their own bit of earth, the ground covered with wildflowers until Freeman Hamilton came with his scythe.
Today as Pix looked down at her father's grave, she had no trouble remembering that first shock, the first grief, although he had been gone for a dozen years. She put down her clippersand stretched out on the green, very green, grass. "Pix will do it." Apt, extremely apt.
She sat up, feeling a bit foolish at the picture she presented--spread-eagled on her forebears. If there was anything Pix Miller was not, it was foolish, however much she tried. She plucked a piece of grass from the ground, slit it with her thumbnail, and put it to her lips. The ensuing high-pitched whistle was gratifying. She still knew how. She'd taught her children the trick, just as she'd taught them all the other things she'd learned on the island when she was young: how to sail, canoe, and swim; where to find the best clams, best blueberries, best shells; to leave nests undisturbed and to walk silently through the forest; to get every last morsel from a boiled lobster and to wake up in anticipation each morning.
That was how she had awakened this morning. It had taken about thirty seconds for her to realize she was not in her bed in Aleford, Massachusetts, but tucked under the eaves in her bed in Maine. Pix didn't waste any time getting to Sanpere for the summer, and this year was no exception. Yesterday at exactly twelve noon, she'd picked up seventeen-year-old Samantha at the high school, then swung by the middle school for twelve-year-old Danny and turned the Land Rover, packed to the gunnels, due north. She had already driven her oldest, nineteen-year-old Mark, to Logan Airport in time for the early shuttle to Washington, D.C., where he was spending the summer as an intern in their local congressman's office. Mark had protested the ungodliness of the hour all the way to Boston, but Pix was too busy running through her mental lists, making sure she hadn't forgotten anything, to pay him much mind.
At the airport, he had given her an affectionate bear hug and said, "It's okay, Mom. I know you can't help yourself. The old Siren call of Sanpere, and probably they'll be a few moments this summer when I'll wish I was there, too. When it's a hundred degrees in the shade in D.C."
Pix had had a sudden hope. This was the first summer thewhole family wouldn't all be together for at least part of the time. "It's not too late to change your mind, sweetie. We could swing by the house and get some of your more rugged clothes." Mark was dressing for success these days.
"Mom, I said, moments, 'a few moments.' Sure, life on Sanpere is gripping: 'Mrs. Walton will be entertaining her daughter and family from Bangor for the weekend' and 'Sonny Prescott has a new lobster boat, which he has named the Miss Steak.' Health-care reform and balancing the budget are going to seem pretty tame." Mark had rolled his eyes. "Time to let one of us fly."
"But you'll come up Labor Day weekend?" Pix was trying to hold on to the end of the string.
Mark said something that could have been a yes or a no, the string snapped, and he was gobbled up by the crowd of morning travelers just beyond the terminal's automatic doors.
 
Still absentmindedly picking at the grass, Pix realized this was going to be a summer of women, not an altogether-bad thing, of course, but different. On the way up last night, she'd dropped Danny off at his beloved Camp Chewonki near Brunswick for a virtually whole-summer stay, and Sam probably wouldn't be able to get away until the Fourth of July, and then only for a few days until his August vacation.
Samantha had picked up on her mother's mood the night before as they drove through the darkness, bent on getting to their cottage no matter what the hour. "We'll have fun--and think how easy the housework is going to be, and the cooking." Pix had brightened considerably at this prospect. She didn't mind the housework, but unlike her friend, next-door neighbor, and now employer, Faith Fairchild, food preparation as a pleasant activity was up there with lighted matches under the fingernails. If Pix had not been endowed with a superabundance of Puritan guilt, it would have been Hamburger Helper every night--instead of merely some nights.
Faith was the Faith of Have Faith, an extremely successfulManhattan catering company that Faith had recently reopened in Aleford. She'd moved to the village following her marriage to the Reverend Thomas Fairchild. Pix's responsibilities at the catering company didn't involve cooking. Keeping the books, counting forks, and other organizational feats were the areas where Pix excelled.
Over the years, Pix Miller had developed a reputation for getting things done. And having earned it once, she kept on earning it. She was the townwide coordinator for the Girl Scout cookie drive, although Samantha hadn't been in uniform for years. Then there was the United Way appeal, Town Meeting, the library board of trustees, and so forth. She'd ceased being a room mother now that her children were out of elementary school, but she still held her seat on the PTA Council. And she did all this along with chauffeuring these children to soccer, ballet, French horn lessons, ski team, swim team, as well as making their Halloween and school-play costumes. Some Alefordians called Pix a superwoman, but she didn't feel like one. She'd talked about it once with her friend Faith in a sudden burst of self-examination: "I'm not working, so I feel I can't say no, and everyone always calls me. I don't want to disappoint them--or my kids--but sometimes I wonder how the heck I got in so deep."
Faith had taken a dim view of the whole thing, especially the notion that Pix wasn't working. As a minister's wife, Faith lived in fear that she would end up in charge of the Christmas pageant or fund-raising for a new roof. Fortunately, Pix had taken this job. "You have to start saying no. You know the slogan, 'Just Say No'. All this is not so different from doing drugs, Pix. I think you've gotten to the point where your system needs it and you have to go cold turkey. Besides, now you are gainfully employed and you have a perfect excuse."
It was hard for Pix to face the fact that Faith might be right--that Mrs. Miller had a reputation to uphold and had grown dependent on the praise she got from all these unpaidjobs. But then again, often no one knew she did them--except Pix herself--so she supposed it was the same thing. That night, more confused than ever, she'd talked about it with Sam. He'd been slightly exasperated with Faith, not an unusual occurrence. "Pix, you like to help out. You're good at it. There's nothing wrong with any of that. Except, you take on too much and don't have enough time for us--or yourself. Pure and simple. Samantha's driving now and Danny's the only one who really needs you. You can start getting out of some of these other things--like the cookies." Sam was always annoyed at how much room the boxes took up in the garage. He had to park his precious sports car outside for the duration.
Pix had stopped listening after the phrase "Danny's the only one who really needs you." Where had all these years gone? It was like shrubs. You put them in and they looked so tiny and inadequate, then before you knew it they had outgrown the space and you had to get a backhoe to yank them out. Maybe Danny would go to college nearby. With all the colleges and universities in the Boston area, Mark had to pick one in Colorado and Samantha was considering Reed in Oregon.
 
Her mind drifted back to the present. A summer of women--three generations of women, to be precise. Pix's eighty-year-old mother, Mrs. Arnold Lyman Rowe, Ursula, was already in residence at The Pines, the immense "cottage" Ursula's father had built for his family by the shore in the late 1890s.
In those days, the rusticators' journey was not a five-hour drive from Boston, but one stretching out over two days, starting with the embarkation from the Eastern Steamship pier on Atlantic Avenue--complete with steamer trunks, portmanteaus, wicker lunch hampers, hatboxes, and all the other bulky accoutrements necessary for a back-to-nature summer. Ursula Rowe reflected ruefully on the soft-sidednylon luggage that sufficed for her now and told her daughter there would never be a better way to travel than those long-ago voyages.
Mother. Pix blew another shrill note on a blade of grass. Just as she was bewailing the departure of her fledglings, she was wondering how to clip Ursula's wings a bit, and once they were clipped, what would Pix do with her? Ursula resisted every effort to change her way of life and Pix was plagued with anxiety about all the things that could happen to her mother, still living alone both in Aleford and on Sanpere, rattling around The Pines with only Gert Prescott coming in a few times a week to do for her. Yet, where else would Mother go? Mother and daughter got along very well, but Pix was not sure how it would be if they were ever under the same roof. She had the strong feeling any roof Mother was under would soon become Mother's roof, and while Pix as a dutiful and loving child might be able to cope with this herself, Sam would not like it. At all. As it was, when everyone was on vacation on the island at once, away from work and school, ready for leisure activities specifically with Pix, she felt as if she were slowly being stretched to fit Procrustes's bed--pulled in opposite directions by her loved ones. She could navigate the road between her own cottage and The Pines blindfolded.
But something was going to have to be done about Mother. She even refused to wear one of the Medic Alert medallions supplied by Blue Hill Hospital. "There are so many people going in and out of my house every day that if anything ever happened to me on this island, you'd know before I did," she'd told Pix. There was some truth to this. Sanpere was a close-knit community; some might even call it too close-kit. But still Pix worried. Mother was so stubborn.
Just like Samantha. Pix had unfortunately assumed any adolescent turmoil on her daughter's part would be over at age seventeen. Recently, it seemed Samantha was making up for lost time, a late bloomer--not that she stayed out until daybreak or had pierced her nose. But "Oh, Mother" punctuatedtheir conversations with alarming frequency. Lately, Samantha hadn't seemed very interested in completing her collection of island mosses, last summer's all-consuming passion, and she was letting her hair grow, abandoning the style Pix favored for what she feared might be "big hair."
Pix looked around. It was a typical Maine day, which meant the sky was perfectly blue, the air clear, the sun pleasantly warm. If she was at the shore, the water would be a slightly darker blue, with an occasional whitecap. She took a deep breath. For Christmas one year, her brother had given her a can of Maine air, the kind they sold to tourists up at Bar Harbor. She'd laughed along with everyone else, then late that night she'd gotten out a can opener and opened it, closing her eyes and burying her nose inside before it could mix with the Massachusetts molecules. She didn't think it was her imagination. There was a hint of balsam and a crispness, then it was gone. She opened her eyes to look into an empty can that she quickly threw away before anyone could tease her.
Arnold Rowe, her brother, an orthopedic surgeon, was thirty-nine, six years younger than Pix, and there were just the two of them. He and his wife, Claire, lived in New Mexico. Arnie was attentive to Ursula--from a distance--and of course reaped all sorts of glory merely by showing up. He was the fair-haired son, and if Pix hadn't loved him so much, she might have resented all the attention he got, arriving in Sanpere on vacation or for fleeting holiday visits in Aleford when he would not be called on to drive Mother to doctor's appointments, Symphony on Fridays, tea with her friends, the flower show, the ...
Arnie and Claire would be arriving sometime in July. Mother had had his boat taken out of storage and all was in readiness for his return. Gert would leave Arnie's favorite, a strawberry-rhubarb pie, for the first night's dinner, and then they'd see very little of the two Rowes, what with sailing, golf, tennis, cocktails, and dinners at their innumerable friends' houses on the island and mainland. They wouldn't see them,but the house would still be in a whirlwind as they dashed from place to place. He'd leave with regret: "Where did the time go? We'll take that sail to Vinalhaven next year, I promise." Things would settle down, and Pix would find herself missing the clutter of Arnie's tennis things and golf clubs in the hall.
All this reminded Pix: she had taken Mother's supply of sheets down to Aleford for the winter to wash and repair. "You can't get percale like this anymore," Ursula asserted, and Pix agreed. The linens were like silk. She'd have to unearth them, or her brother and his wife would be sleeping on mattress ticking. She laughed at herself and felt better. Sure Arnie and Claire were a little self-centered, but they were also fun to be with and very generous to their nephews and niece. With no children of their own, they encouraged visits; Mark had once spent a whole vacation with them, exploring cliff dwellings and learning about the Anasazi.
Pix stood up and stretched. The first day with one foot still in Aleford was always a little difficult. It would take some time to get into her island rhythm--maybe another hour or two.
 
After returning home, she spent the rest of the afternoon unpacking. Samantha had left her a note saying she'd taken her bike over to Arlene Prescott's house but would be back by five o'clock, in plenty of time to go to Granny's. Ursula had invited them for dinner this first night. Arlene was Samantha's best friend on the island. They'd known each other all their lives and each year picked up where the last had ended. They had been faithful pen pals when younger. More recently, the correspondence had degenerated to a few postcards. Presumably, teenage life on Sanpere was just as time-consuming as it was in Aleford--even with the closest mall sixty miles away.
Pix unpacked her clothes. It didn't take long. She smiled to herself at what Faith would say about her choice of raiment.On Sanpere, Pix lived in jeans, shorts, and turtlenecks or polo shirts, depending on the weather. Tonight, though, she'd change into a skirt. Mother had worn pants all her life, but she didn't like to see them at dinner. Pix donned a white wraparound skirt and, with a nod to Faith, paired it with a bold black-and-white-striped Liz Claiborne shirt. She slipped on some red espadrilles, washed her face and hands, combed her hair, and was ready. When Samantha came home, she eyed her mother approvingly. "You look nice, except you forgot your lipstick."
"No I didn't," Pix replied. "I'm on vacation."
"Oh, Mother." Samantha went off to get ready, a process that took considerably longer than her mother's titivations.
She emerged in what Pix knew was the latest fashion, but it still looked like something she'd give to the thrift shop: a long flowered-print housedress with a crocheted vest on top. To complete the ensemble, Samantha was wearing a pair of heavy-soled black boots that managed to suggest the military and orthopedics at the same time. Sam's hair was at that in-between stage where everyone either comments, "Are you growing your hair?" or says, "You need a haircut." Pix chose the latter.
"Your hair is so cute when it's short, and think how easy it is for the summer." They'd had this conversation before.
Samantha explained patiently, "I want it to look good when I go back to school. Up here, it doesn't matter what I look like and please, Mom, for the last time, I don't want to look cute. That's not the idea."
"Well, attractive, then." Pix knew she should shut up, but old habits die hard.
Her daughter nobly chose to ignore the remark. "Why don't we go to Granny's? You know how much she hates it if we're late."
"We're never late!" Pix protested.
"There's always a first time." Samantha smiled sweetly. "Why don't I drive?"
Pix sat in the passenger's side, wondering when the reins had slipped from her grip.
 
Ursula Rowe greeted her daughter and granddaughter. "Don't you both look lovely."
"You're looking pretty spiffy yourself, Granny," Samantha said as she gave her a kiss.
Gathered in the hallway, the three generations bore a general resemblance to one another, most blurred oddly enough in Pix, not Samantha. They were all tall and had good posture. Ursula, in her ninth decade, carried herself as proudly as she had at Miss Porter's in her second. Ursula's high cheekbones were softened in her daughter's face, only to emerge sharply again in Samantha's. All three had the same thick hair. Pix and Samantha's was the dark chestnut color that Ursula's had been before it turned snowy white. Pix's was cropped close to her head. Her mother's was almost as short but curled slightly, whether by nature or art, she did not reveal. Samantha's eyes were a deeper brown than her mother's and grandmother's. Her father's genes had turned almond into chocolate.
"Shall we go in?" Ursula linked one arm through Samantha's, the other through Pix's. Pix felt a sudden rush of well-being. It was going to be a good summer. She'd tend her garden, put up a lot of preserves, spend time with her mother and her daughter, and maybe clean out the attic at The Pines, a herculean task that had been put off for twenty years of summers. And she'd make Arnie take her over to Vinalhaven.
Over the creamed haddock Gert had left, they talked about the summer. Ursula had been on the island since Memorial Day. Unencumbered by school-age children, she spent May to October on Sanpere. Pix was dying to ask her the latest gossip, but their custom of not discussing such things in front of the children, even when said children weren't children anymore, was too strong, so they stuck to safe topics.
"When do you start working, Samantha? Have some more beans, Pix dear. They're the last of last year's."
"Monday. The campers arrive tomorrow, but Mr. Atherton said he won't need me until then. I'll be there in the mornings to teach the younger children sailing, stay to help with lunch, then I'm through for the day. I promised the Fairchilds that I'd be able to take care of Ben and Amy when they come up in August, so that will be in the afternoons."
"Phew, that's quite a schedule."
"Yes." Samantha laughed. "But think how rich I'll be!"
"Are you going to have any time for fun?" Her grandmother looked concerned.
"It's all fun! Besides, Arlene is working at the camp, too--full-time, so I wouldn't be seeing her, anyway. And I don't work weekends."
"It's nice that Jim Atherton keeps the camp going. It must have been the early thirties when his parents started it. He certainly doesn't need the money." Ursula exchanged a sharp glance with Pix hinting good gossip to come.
"A labor of love," Pix remarked. "I can't imagine Jim without the camp, and Valerie seems to enjoy it, too, although it's not really her thing."
"What do you mean, Mom?" Samantha asked.
"Well, Valerie Atherton is some kind of interior decorator. I think she likes having the camp around to keep Jim busy while she goes antiquing."
"It's funny. We're so close to the camp if you go by water, but we don't really know them. I guess it's because none of us ever went there. I haven't even met Mrs. Atherton. My interview was with him."
"I think you'll like her," Ursula said. "She's not as flashy as she looks."
Samantha brightened, "This is going to be interesting."
"You know she has a son about your age from her first marriage."
"Yeah." Samantha made a face. "Arlene says he's a real dork."
"It couldn't have been easy for him, moving to the island, especially after losing his father the way he did," her grandmother commented, correctly translating Samantha's opinion. "Now, why don't you clear the table. We can have our dessert on the porch. Gert left your favorite--lemon meringue pie!"
"What a sweetheart! Please thank her for me." Sam jumped up from her chair and began to clear the old, large, round dining room table with alacrity.
"I'll make some coffee," Pix offered, wondering how she could drop a gentle hint to Gert Prescott that Pix's own personal favorite was black walnut. Gert probably figured Pix made her own pies, but she figured wrong.
After consuming two pieces of pie, Samantha went down to the shore to poke around and watch the sunset. Her mother and grandmother stayed on the porch in the fading light.
"More coffee, Mother?"
"No thank you. I want to sleep tonight."
Ursula was a notoriously sound sleeper, and Pix laughed.
"You could drink the whole pot and not worry."
"So you say. Nobody knows how much I toss and turn. Now, when is Samuel coming?"
"Not until the Fourth. Maybe the weekend before, if he can get away. He's preparing a big case and it goes to trial soon. It all depends how long the jury takes. We could get lucky." As Pix spoke, she realized how much she was going to miss her husband. It happened every summer. She didn't want to leave him, but she really wanted to go--and it was wonderful for the kids.
"Now, tell me what's been going on since you've been here," she said to her mother.
"Not much. You know how quiet things are in June. It'sheavenly. And the lupine was the most spectacular I've ever seen."
Ursula said this every year. Pix had come for a long weekend one June especially to see the fields of tall purple, blue, and pink spiked flowers. She had no doubt that every year would be better than the last, because no memory could equal the impact of that palette stretching out--in some parts of the island, as far as the eye could see.
"No scandals? Come on, Mother, you're slipping," Pix chided.
"Let me think. You heard that the manager of the IGA is keeping company with his ex-wife's sister? And the two sisters have, of course, stopped talking to each other and the ex-wife has to drive clear off island now every time she needs a quart of milk.
"And what else? Oh, I know. It will probably be in the paper this week, but Gert told me about it this morning. They had a real scare at the nursing home. When Karen Sanford went to open up the common room, she found glass all over the place, and she'd left it spick-and-span the night before. Obviously vandalism. So she called Earl to come investigate. Turns out the vandals were a Yoo-Hoo bottle that had exploded and knocked over a tray of dishes!"
"It will definitely make 'Police Brief," Pix said when she finished laughing. What a change from reading the news at home, she thought to herself. Sgt. Earl Dickinson was the one and only law-enforcement official on the island--and so far, the only one needed. It reminded her.
"Do you think Earl and Jill are going to get married?" Jill Merriwether was the proprietress of a gift shop in Sanpere Village.
"It's certainly about time, but they seem to be content the way they are and so long as they both feel the same, it's fine."
"I know what you mean. If one or the other starts getting itchy for the altar, then there could be a problem. Still, I don'tknow why they don't. It's nice being married." Pix had no regrets.
"Then, as you might imagine"--her mother continued to catch her up--"there's a lot of talk about the Athertons. I didn't want to say too much in front of Samantha, but their house is finally finished and everyone's calling it 'the Million-Dollar Mansion,' which is quite likely close to the truth. I don't think there's a person on Sanpere who doesn't know they have six bathrooms, three with bidets."
"The bidets may have taken some explaining."
"True, but the gold-plated faucets didn't."
"Where did Jim get all his money? The fees at the sailing camp have always been pretty steep, yet nothing that would produce an income like this."
"His mother's father invented scouring pads or some such thing and money made money. Keeps on making it, if the house and those boats of Jim's are any indication."
"So they really intend to live on the island year-round. I'm not so sure I'd want to be here all winter. It gets pretty quiet." Pix thought of her constant round of activity in Aleford and realized with a start that she'd miss it if she moved.
"Your father and I considered living in The Pines when he retired, but when it came down to it, there were too many things and people we didn't want to leave."
The two women paused in their conversation and looked out across the water at the sunset. They could see Samantha silhouetted against the horizon. The Pines had been built to take advantage of "the view." There was a large front porch and one extending off the second-floor bedrooms. It was an ark of a house, with rooms added to the rear as needed. By modern standards, it was dark. The windows were small and the interior pine paneling old-fashioned. The only remodeling that had been done since it was built was to the indoor plumbing and the addition of a gas stove and other modern appliances in the kitchen. The old woodstove was still used forheat and Gert kept it blackened, its chrome sparkling. Pix had seen a similar one for sale in an antiques shop for five hundred dollars. Her mother had been stunned.
The sun was a ball of fire, descending rapidly into the sea, leaving streaks of purple, pink, and orange as it fell that would have seemed garish in any other context. Flashy. It brought Pix back to the Athertons. It wasn't that Valerie dressed in gaudy colors or was dripping with rhinestones. Her jewels were real, especially the large diamond solitaire Jim had given her as an engagement ring. It was that she dressed. She wore outfits. Blouses matched shirts and pants. Sweaters matched both. Her shoes matched her scarves, as did the polish on her perfectly manicured nails. Pix's nails, clipped short, tended to suggest activities like weeding and clamming. Valerie's indicated pursuits like sunbathing and page turning.
"Let's see, the Athertons have been married for about three years, right? And they used to spend the winters in Virginia, where Valerie lived?"
"Yes, we all thought Jim was a confirmed bachelor. He met Valerie when he was sailing someplace in the Bahamas. It was just after her husband died so tragically."
Pix had heard the story. Valerie, Duncan, and Bernard Cowley were sailing when a sudden tropical storm hit, almost destroying the boat and sweeping Bernard overboard. Valerie had developed an understandable aversion to boats of any size or shape amounting to a phobia and refused to set foot on one. That her new husband ran a sailing camp was definitely ironic.
Pix looked over at her mother. She'd been widowed a long time. It was a prospect Pix kept firmly shoved way in the back of her mind. She sincerely hoped she and Sam would go at exactly the same moment.
"And what are you going to do with yourself while Samantha's busy making all this money?" Ursula asked.
"The usual--and maybe this year we'll tackle the attic.Then remember, I'm overseeing the Fairchilds' new cottage."
"I'd almost forgotten about that. Seth Marshall is building it, isn't he?"
"Yes, and tomorrow I want to go over and see how much he's done since Memorial Day."
Faith and Tom were building a modest house on a point of land not far from the Millers. The Fairchilds had hired Seth Marshall as the architect and contractor after seeing his work. It was a very simple plan, yet Faith had still wanted Pix to keep an eye on the progress. Pix had steadfastly refused to accept any money for the job, insisting that having the Fairchilds as neighbors on Sanpere as well as in Aleford was reward enough. Besides, Pix argued, she was the one who had lured them to Sanpere in the first place, with somewhat startling results. But Faith had pressed hard. She knew the amount of time Pix would devote to the project, so finally they'd compromised on an amount. Pix grudgingly agreed, especially when Faith threatened to bar her from the site if she wouldn't take the money.
It was the kind of thing Pix loved doing, and being paid for it seemed wrong. There was nothing more exciting than watching a new house go up. She loved all the smells--from the fresh concrete of the foundation to the fragrant fir of the framing. She'd miss out on the concrete. Seth would have poured the foundation long ago. They'd seen the gaping hole in May.
"It will be nice to have the Fairchilds on the island," her mother remarked. "I'm not surprised they decided to settle here. Sanpere has a way of getting into one's blood."
"Just think. This is your eightieth summer on the island. We should make a banner to carry in the Fourth of July parade."
Her mother sighed. "I've lived a very long time. Maybe even too long."
Pix was used to this sort of remark, but her heart never failed to tighten. "Don't be silly."
"Oh, I'm not silly. I'll tell you what the funny thing is, though. Eighty years old and I still feel twenty inside. It's all gone so fast."
Pix stood up and called Samantha to come in.
Too fast. Much too fast.
 
The next morning proved to be another typical Maine day and Pix proposed to Samantha that they pack sandwiches and walk out to the Point to check what progress had been made at the Fairchilds' cottage. Her daughter agreed wholeheartedly. She was curious about the house, too.
"Show me the plans before we go, and let's take the dogs."
Pix had assumed any walk they took would automatically include the golden retrievers that she regarded as canine offshoots of the Miller line: Dusty, Artie, and Henry.
"Of course we'll take the dogs." She leaned down to stroke Dusty. "Do you think you can keep up with us, old lady?" Dusty's muzzle was turning white and she no longer raced into the mud at low tide when one of the children threw a stick, her former favorite and extremely messy pastime.
It was close to ten o'clock by the time they set off, feeling vaguely wicked about skipping church.
"We'll start next week," Pix vowed. "Most people don't even know we're here yet."
"Granny does," Samantha reminded her.
"True, but look at this sky. Surely this is a day that the Lord hath made, and I'm sure both the Lord and His representative on earth would be glad we're enjoying it."
"Hey, Mom, I don't even like going to church here. It's so boring compared to Reverend Fairchild's service. You don't have to convince me."
Through a quirk of faith, and through Faith's quirks, the Fairchilds had managed to buy the entire forty-acre parcel of land known locally as the Point, a long finger of land stretching out toward the open sea. It had one of the only white, sandy beaches on Sanpere and was a popular spot for swimmingand picnicking. The Fairchilds had given most of the land to the Island Heritage Trust, saving a few acres for themselves at the very end. An old road had been improved and they had been able to get the power and the telephone companies to string lines out to the site--no mean accomplishment, Pix had informed them. Faith had been surprised. "How could we possibly be out there without power or a phone?" She was even more surprised when Pix had told her that the Millers hadn't had a phone at their cottage, by choice, until the kids had started to go to sleep-away camps off-island and Pix's nerves couldn't take it. "It was wonderful. A real vacation when no one can call you." Faith had privately thought this New England eccentricity in the extreme. No phone!
Today, Samantha and Pix were following the road straight down the spine of the Point. They'd take the shore way back, clambering over the rocks when the tide was lower. The road went through the woods, but there were openings that cut down to the sea. Judging from the number of sailboats out, local pews were pretty empty this Sunday morning. The sun sparkled on the surface of the water and the clouds in the sky were as white and billowy as the sails beneath them. Pix thought how much of their lives on Sanpere was governed by the sea. Their days were planned around the tides. When it was high, they swam. When it was low, they dug clams, gathered mussels, or simply combed the beaches for shells, peering into the jewel-like tidal pools at the starfish, sea anemones, tiny crabs, and trailing seaweed. The Millers' cottage was not on deep water, unlike The Pines. First-time visitors were always shocked at the broad expanse of pure mud revealed where a few hours before the ocean deep had beckoned. Pix had grown to prefer the change, charting the summer by the time of the tides.
She remembered suddenly what the tide had revealed to her friend Faith several summers earlier and shuddered. She stepped determinedly along and almost bumped into Samantha,who was crouched down on the shady path leading from the road to the construction site.
"What are you looking at?"
"Someone dropped a key," Samantha answered. "It looks like an old one. Isn't it pretty?" The cut work on the top of the key was done in intricate swirls.
"Hold on to it and I'll ask Seth next time I see him if anyone has lost it. I'd take it, but these pockets have holes in them, I'm ashamed to say."
"If that's all you've got to be ashamed about, Mom, you're in good shape." Samantha shoved the key in her jeans pocket. If no one claimed it, she'd wear it on a ribbon around her neck.
Pix was debating whether to follow up Samantha's comment with a veiled inquiry as to what Samantha might be ashamed of that would lead her to make a comment like this. She stepped into the sunlight; news that Samantha was running a lunch-money extortion ring at school would have been welcome compared with the news that greeted her eyes.
Seth Marshall hadn't done a thing since Memorial Day. No, she quickly took it back. An ancient cement mixer had been brought in and there were empty cans of soda and other potables on the ground, nestled next to Twinkies wrappers and squashed Mother Goose potato chip bags.
"Mom! Didn't you say they would be framing the house by now?"
Pix was speechless. She nodded dismally. The Fairchilds hoped to move in at the end of the summer. They'd be lucky if the roof was on before bad weather struck.
Her anger mounted, and she found her vocal chords worked after all. "Wait until I get hold of Seth! This is totally inexcusable!" Pix's voice, which at times like these assumed the strident tones of a sideshow barker by way of the Winsor School and Pembroke, rang out indignantly in the crisp Maine morning air. She strode to the edge of the hole wherethe basement was supposed to be, the dogs following at her heels. "I know he's not dead or injured. It would have been in The Island Crier." The Millers subscribed to the Sanpere weekly paper year-round. Next to Organic Gardening, it was Pix's favorite reading material. "He'd better have a pretty darn good excuse!"
"Look over here," Samantha called. She was behind a stand of birches the Fairchilds had specified be left. "Aren't these the things they use to stiffen the concrete? It must mean they're going to do it soon. They wouldn't leave them here to rust."
Pix went over to get a closer look.
"You're right. These are reinforcing rods, and here are some anchor bolts. But even if they pour tomorrow, we're still weeks behind schedule. And in any case, they couldn't pour any concrete without putting in the footing forms, and I don't see any sign of them."
Samantha tried to cheer her mother up. "Come on, let's go down to the shore and eat our sandwiches. It's not like it's your fault. Mrs. Fairchild will understand." Samantha correctly zeroed in on the thing Pix was dreading--telling Faith.
"I know, but I'm so mad at Seth, I could scream. Promises, promises. I should have known better and called him every day."
"Well, scream if you want to. It will make you feel better. Tiffany Morrison says her therapist told her to, and it's awesome."
"Why is Tiffany seeing a therapist?" Pix was suddenly sidetracked. The Morrisons owned a real estate agency in Aleford and had always seemed like the perfect apple-pie family. Maybe that was the trouble.
"Oh, you know, the eating thing. She won't eat anything, then she eats like crazy. I think she first started doing it to get her parents' attention. They're always so busy. Then it kind of got out of hand. She tells us about it in gym, and it's totallygross. But she's doing okay now. I guess the screams worked."
They both laughed, then Pix said, "Really, an eating disorder is no laughing matter."
"That's not what we're laughing at," Samantha pointed out sensibly. Sometimes she thought the term guilt trip had been coined for her mother.
Pix felt much better. She'd call Seth as soon as she got home. Then once she pinned him down to a firm date--and she would tell him she would be there watching--she'd phone the Fairchilds and might providentially get Tom.
She called to the dogs. Dusty and Henry came running from the woods, barking happy doggy greetings as if they had been crossing the country for months, desperately trying to find their people. But the third dog did not emerge from the greenery.
"Artie! Artie! Arthur Miller! Come now! Do you see him, Samantha?"
"No, but he can't be far. He never strays from the others."
Pix found him immediately. "Oh, naughty, naughty dog!"
Artie was down in the cellar hole, digging furiously. He glanced up at the sound of his mistress's voice, then went back to his work.
"What is he doing? He must have found an animal bone."
Pix jumped in, landing on the soft earth. She went over to the dog and grabbed his collar. "Stop it this instant!" As she pulled the dog away, she noticed that what he had unearthed was not a bone, but a piece of fabric.
"Samantha, look what Artie's found. I think it's part of an old quilt."
"I'll get something to dig with."
"It's probably in tatters. Remember the beautiful Dresden Plate quilt I saw in the back of Sonny Prescott's pickup? He was using it to pile logs on, to keep the truck clean!"
"Here's a stick. It was all I could find."
Pix took it from her and scraped away the dirt. So far, the quilt seemed to be in good shape.
"It looks like a nice one. I love the red-and-white quilts," Sam said excitedly.
"Me, too." Pix crouched down and tugged at the cloth. "It's Drunkard's Path. I've always meant to do one, but sewing all those curves seems much harder than straight lines."
"Artie, sit!" The dog had come to her side, about to resume his labors. The other two were looking over the edge of the excavation, puzzled expressions on their faces. At least this was how Pix interpreted them, and she prided herself on knowing her dogs' moods.
"Look at Dusty and Henry. They're all confused. People aren't supposed to dig like this." Dirt was flying out behind her as she dug deeper. "You pull while I dig."
Samantha gave a yank and a large chunk of earth flew up, revealing more of the quilt. And as it unfolded, something else was exposed.
That something else was a human hand.
THE BODY IN THE BASEMENT. Copyright © 1994 by Katherine Hall Page. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.