From the bottom of the stairway, Victoria Trumbull called up to her house guest, who’d dashed upstairs to her room after her shower, a towel wrapped around her, her hair still dripping.
“Don’t plug your hair dryer into the guest room outlet, Nancy, the wiring is—”
At that point there was a blue flash from the bedroom, a loud snap and the smell of singed wires.
Nancy popped out of her room, towel askew. “I’m so sorry, Mrs. Trumbull.”
“You don’t need hair dryers on Martha’s Vineyard,” said Victoria with some asperity. “There’s a good west wind. We don’t waste electricity.”
“I’m so sorry,” Nancy said again. “What can I do?”
“Get dressed so I can check the damage,” said Victoria, who, at ninety-two, was one-third the age of her ancient house and not quite twice the age of its electrical wiring. She looked at her watch. “It’s almost five. I’ll try to get the electrician before he leaves.”
LeRoy Watts was finishing up his paperwork in his shop on Circuit Avenue in Oak Bluffs when the phone rang. Maureen, his office manager, had left for the day.
“Watts Electrical Supply. How can I help you?”
Victoria explained what had happened.
“Sure, I know that outlet under the window,” said LeRoy, tapping his pen on the side of his coffee mug. “You and I talked about replacing that old wiring.”
“The outlet is partially melted, there’s a foot-long plume of smoke on the wall above it, and the fuse blew.”
“You’ve got circuit breakers, Mrs. Trumbull. Jerry Sparks replaced your fuse box last fall.”
“Circuit breaker, then,” said Victoria. “Would you please ask him to repair my guest’s damage? I fail to understand why people use hair dryers on the Vineyard.”
LeRoy paused. “I had to let Jerry Sparks go.”
“That’s a shame. He did excellent work.”
“Yeah. But he had personal problems. I’ll try to get to your place myself. Let’s see.” He shuffled through the papers on his desk and found the calendar that Maureen kept. “Best I can do is four days from now. Monday. That work for you?”
“Fine,” said Victoria.
Victoria disconnected and, still feeling exasperated with Nancy and her hair dryer, went into the bathroom to see what damage her guest had done in there. She was about to turn on the light to look when the phone rang. She hustled to answer before the machine picked up. It was her granddaughter, Elizabeth.
“Hi, Gram. I’m calling from work. I need to pick up some stuff at the boatyard, and wondered if you’d like to come along for the ride?”
“Yes, of course. That would be lovely.”
“I’ll be there in fifteen minutes.”
Victoria went back upstairs and told Nancy to move her belongings into the West Room, which was on a different electrical circuit. Nancy continued to apologize and assured Victoria she would never, never again use a hair dryer in her house.
Once Victoria had settled Nancy into the room across the hall, she went downstairs again to wait for her granddaughter. She slung her blue coat over her shoulders and stood at the top of the stone steps with her worn leather bag and the lilac-wood walking stick Elizabeth had carved for her. Victoria felt no need for the walking stick, but she didn’t want to hurt Elizabeth’s feelings by not using it.
It was a mild May day, with the scent of lilacs in the air. The top was down on Elizabeth’s convertible. Victoria got into the passenger seat, feeling quite sporty. On the way to Vineyard Haven, she lifted her great nose to breathe in the sweet smell of spring, different at each turn in the road. New-mown grass, lilacs, winter-wet leaves pushed aside by green shoots. They crossed the bridge over Mill Brook and she caught the scent of ferns and skunk cabbage.
“We bought new lines for the harbor launch at the boatyard’s marine store,” explained Elizabeth, who worked as dockmaster in the Oak Bluffs harbor. “They spliced eye loops in the lines so we can simply drop a line over a piling without having to tie it each time.”
“Splicing takes a bit of skill,” said Victoria, who understood boats. “Who does the work?”
“Emily Cameron. She runs the computer at the boatyard store and splices most of the lines.”
At the boatyard, they parked next to a black-hulled sailboat that was high up above them on a cradle. Inside the store, Elizabeth checked out the new lines while Victoria went around the partition that made a kind of office for Emily Cameron. Emily, a painfully shy young woman, could use a boost in her self-esteem.
“I wanted to tell you how impressed I am that you do the boat-yard’s splicing, Emily.”
Emily blushed at the compliment. “It’s nothing much.” She turned back to her computer. She was a thickset girl with glasses and dark hair tied back in a ponytail. Long bangs touched the top of her glasses frame.
“You’re working late, aren’t you?”
“It’s that time of year, Mrs. Trumbull.” Emily looked up. “We’re open until seven every night, getting ready for the season.”
She smiled, and when Emily smiled, she could be almost attractive, Victoria thought. “How’s your mother? We missed her at church Sunday.”
“Much better, thanks. She’s back at work. It was just a nasty cold.”
Victoria was sympathetic. “Spring colds can be miserable. How’s the job going?”
“Great. I love working here. Computers, boats.” Emily lifted her hands, palms up, as if to say that’s all anyone needed. She turned her chair away from the computer to face Victoria. “And, Mrs. Trumbull, I’ve got a boyfriend!” She blushed again.
“Wonderful. Who’s the lucky man?”
“Jerry Sparks. He works at Watts Electrical Supply.”
Victoria decided not to mention that she’d spoken to LeRoy Watts less than an hour before and he’d told her he’d fired Jerry Sparks. “Jerry did some work for me several months ago. He seems like a nice boy.”
“He’s wonderful, Mrs. Trumbull. We’re celebrating our anniversary tonight.”
“We’ve been seeing each other for three weeks.”
“Oh,” said Victoria.
At that point, Elizabeth came around the partition, her arms laden with lengths of nylon line. “Nice job with the eye splices, Emily.” She held up one of the loops in the soft line.
Emily pushed her glasses back into place. “I’ll print out the paperwork for the harbormaster.”
Paperwork in hand, Victoria and Elizabeth left the boatyard and drove to the harbor, where Elizabeth dropped off the lines, and they headed for home.
“You’re kind of quiet, Gram. What’s up?”
Victoria settled her coat under her before she answered. “Emily tells me she has a boyfriend.”
“That’s news all right. Who?”
“That loser? What does she see in him?”
“He’s quite a good electrician.”
“When he’s not high on something.”
“I called LeRoy Watts this afternoon for a small problem,” said Victoria.
“Electrical problem?” Elizabeth glanced at her grandmother with concern.
“Minor,” Victoria assured her. “LeRoy is coming by on Monday to fix it.”
“Our guest used a hair dryer in the upstairs outlet.”
“And tripped the circuit breaker,” Elizabeth finished. “We need to have that room rewired.”
“LeRoy’s taking care of it. He told me he’d fired Jerry Sparks. I didn’t know whether Emily knew or not. She seems very fond of him.”
Elizabeth made a wry face. “Poor Emily. I don’t think she’s ever had a steady boyfriend before.”
They’d reached the edge of the state forest and Victoria gazed at the silvery snags of dead pine trees, beautiful in an austere way. She mulled over the first lines of a poem she might write. A villanelle, with its interesting rhyme scheme, would lend itself to the starkness of the scene.
“Jerry Sparks is a leech,” said Elizabeth, breaking into Victoria’s thoughts. “Emily’s naïve and not terribly bright, and he’s taking advantage of her.”
After he’d made a note to stop by Victoria Trumbull’s on Monday to check that electrical outlet, LeRoy Watts prepared to leave for the day. It was a pleasant evening, a Thursday. Weekend coming up. Maybe he’d go fishing on Saturday. The stripers were running at South Beach.
The back door of the shop slammed.
Heavy, unsteady footsteps trudged into the showroom from the back entrance. LeRoy smiled. One of his sons pretending to be Godzilla or something. He looked up and his smile faded.
“So. It’s you, Sparks. What are you doing here? I told you I don’t want to see you again.”
Jerry Sparks’s voice was slurred, the pupils of his eyes were tiny black dots. He was wearing a grimy knitted headband of an indeterminate color and an equally grimy green hooded sweatshirt. “I want my job back, man.”
LeRoy retreated to the counter. “Sorry, Sparks. I warned you. No drugs.”
“C’mon, man,” Sparks whined. “I need money.” He edged farther into the showroom. “Taking my girl out tonight.”
The one-way traffic on Circuit Avenue moved slowly past the shop. The scent of lilacs wafted into the showroom through the open back window. LeRoy, who usually noticed such things, watched his visitor instead.
“I want my job back.”
LeRoy opened the top drawer of the file cabinet next to the cash register. “Look at you,” he said with disgust. “You stink. Pissed in your pants.”
“I’m broke. I’ll stay off the stuff.”
“Get out, before I call the cops.”
Sparks held out a hand. “A loan. Couple hundred? Pay you back Wednesday.”
“Get out.” LeRoy reached for the phone on the wall.
Sparks sobered. “Calling the cops?”
“Right,” said LeRoy.
“You do that. Guess what I’m telling them.” Sparks grinned suddenly.
“What are you talking about?”
“Go on, call. Bet they’d like to know what I know. Bet your wife would like to see what I’ve got.” Sparks bared his teeth.
LeRoy set the phone on the counter. “I said, what are you talking about?”
“Thought you had a secret?” Sparks jammed both hands into the pockets of his jeans and thrust out his pelvis. “Go ahead. Call the cops. I’ll tell them a thing or two.”
“You’re crazy. The cops going to believe some drugged-out loser I fired? Or me?” LeRoy pointed to his chest. “A guy who runs a business. Who, hey?”
Sparks fished a cell phone out of his sweatshirt pocket. “I’ll show them.” He opened up the phone and held it above his head. “Documentation.” He grinned. “Now, how about a loan?”
“What’ve you got there?” Leroy held out his hand.
“No you don’t.” Sparks put the cell phone back into his pocket. “Insurance, that’s what.” He patted the pocket. “Downloaded the pics onto my computer, too. Never can tell when you might need extra insurance.”
“Think so?” Sparks laughed. “You know what you know. And I know what you know. And the cops would like to know what I know that you know. Go ahead. Call.” Sparks slouched forward, closing the space between them. “And what do you think your wife will do when I show her, hunh?”
“Get away from me, asshole,” said LeRoy.
Sparks’s bleary expression changed. “What’d you call me?” He started toward LeRoy, hands raised in fists.
LeRoy reached into the drawer he’d opened.
Sparks brightened. He held out a hand, palm up. “Couple of hundred’ll do it.”
Instead of bills, LeRoy brought out a blocky metal weapon that looked like a ray gun.
Sparks lowered his hand and backed up. “A Taser? Where’d you get a Taser?”
LeRoy aimed the weapon at Sparks. “I’m counting to three. You better be out of here. One …”
Sparks held his arms up. “Don’t Taser me!”
“Couple hundred … ?”
“Three!” and LeRoy pulled the trigger.
Instantly, Sparks slumped to the floor and landed on his back, his face contorted in pain. His body jerked, his stomach arched. His mouth formed a noiseless shriek.
“Don’t you threaten me again, punk.” LeRoy pulled the trigger again, and again, and again. “Get up and get out of here. Now. You stink up my place. Out.” LeRoy came from behind the counter and kicked Sparks in the ribs. Sparks lay still, his face a ghastly mask.
“Faker!” shouted LeRoy, and kicked him again. “Get up, Sparks, and get out of here!”
Sparks didn’t move.
LeRoy bent down over him. “Oh, shit!” he said. “Goddamn! Oh, shit!”
Excerpted from Touch-Me-Not by Cynthia Riggs.
Copyright © 2010 by Cynthia Riggs.
Published in September 2010 by Minotaur Books.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.
Cynthia Riggs, a thirteenth-generation Islander, lives on Martha’s Vineyard in her family homestead, which she runs as a bed-and-breakfast catering to poets and writers. She has a degree in geology from Antioch College and an MFA in creative writing from Vermont College, and she holds a U.S. Coast Guard Masters License (100-ton).