Overseer Nicolas Wells had been coming to Mount Desert Island for ten summers to help build cottages for the rich and powerful. Despite his secrets, he had grown comfortable in the peaceful little island town, getting to know its inhabitants and even to consider some of them friends. The eleventh year, however, he arrived to startling news: the island's peace had been shattered by a murder. At the request of the sheriff, Shawn Parnell, Nicolas agreed to hire Philip Hall, the local blacksmith and the probable next victim, in the hope that the secure construction site would be safer than his house in the village. He never expected the decision to lead to danger. Or to love.
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Bar Harbor, Maine, 1884
That was all they had seen for days, a solid bank of unrelenting white, broken neither by sunlight nor moonlight as they inched their way north toward Bar Harbor. A ship had come in from the north, so they knew the harbor had thawed from the winter, but project overseer Nicolas Wells had begun to wonder if he should have waited another few weeks before heading up to resume construction on the summer cottages his employer, the architect William Randolph Emerson, had designed for the moguls of American industry. They were all there: Pulitzer, Rockefeller, Dorr, Morgan, Vanderbilt and all the rest, building elaborate cottages with forty to fifty rooms, heedless of the cost of transporting the granite, marble and gold by schooner up the coast to Mount Desert Island. Money was no object to these men, only being in the right quarters.
Pacing toward the bow of the four-masted schooner, Nicolas frowned as he heard a sailor’s cry, warning the captain of rocks ahead. At their slow pace, they could avoid them easily, but the thought that their continued safety depended on the sharp eyes of a boy hanging off the front spar made him increasingly nervous.
A foghorn sounded in the distance, the noise eerie in the blanketing whiteness. Even at night, it was white, a ghostly soup that reflected the light but gave no visibility. He would be incredibly glad to get back ashore and begin work. Anything to relieve the tedium of this trip.
“You shouldn’t be on deck in this weather, Mr. Wells,” the first mate, Mr. Worth, said softly so as not to interfere with the calls fore and aft.
“I can’t breathe belowdecks,” Nicolas admitted. “Even in good weather, it’s hard, but knowing it’s like this… I’d rather be up here.”
Mr. Worth nodded his understanding. He spent as little time in his quarters as possible for the very same reason. “Very well. Just stay out of the way of the crew in case they need to move quickly.”
Nicolas agreed, settling on one of the hatches leading to the cargo hold. As near as it was to the front mast, whose sails were down to slow the speed of the ship in the fog, he would be out of the way of the boom, the block and tackle, and the crew.
They had left Boston two weeks earlier and should have arrived already, but the fog had drawn out the trip. He hoped they were getting close, because he was far beyond restless now, ready to arrive and get started, just to be off this damnable ship. Sailing had never been his favorite way to travel, but with the current conditions added to the equation, he liked it even less. The entire amalgam led to a nebulous sense of dread that had never before accompanied his trip to Bar Harbor. He shivered in the cold wind that sprayed the condensation from the mast and lines across his face. Mr. Worth was right. He would probably be more comfortable below, certainly he would be warmer, but he could not face the dank gloom.
The sound of metal scraping on rock sent chills up Nicolas’s spine. Even he knew that was not a good sound. The cursing of the crew as they surged up on deck provided a confirmation he neither wanted nor needed. Shouted orders traveled back and forth along the ship as sailors loosened the sheet to let the sail luff, ending their forward propulsion. Others pulled on lines at the two center masts in response to an order to raise the centerboards halfway. Near the bow, still others pushed the schooner back off the rocks with long poles. Nicolas watched their focused industry helplessly, wanting to contribute in some way, but knowing that he would only interfere if he tried. He cursed silently, wondering what had possessed him to take the first ship, rather than waiting another week or two, wondering, too, if he would make it to Bar Harbor or if this was to be his end. Please, God, no, he prayed. He could face many things, but the thought of a watery grave froze the blood in his veins.
“There!” a sailor shouted. “Harbor light on the starboard bow!”
Nicolas peered into the fog in the indicated direction, trying to make out what the man had seen, but either the sailor had sharper eyes or Nicolas did not know what to look for, because all he saw was the unrelenting wall of white.
With the bow pointing in the right direction, the sails were trimmed again and the centerboards lowered partially. They continued their halting progress forward, every eye on deck searching for the lighthouse beam to guide them away from the rocks and into the harbor.
“Rocks fine on the starboard bow!” one sailor shouted.
“Rocks fine on the larboard bow!” another added.
Nicolas tensed, sure they were going to shipwreck. His hands gripped the mast as if that could somehow steady him or the ship.
“On the starboard beam!”
“On the larboard beam!”
It seemed, impossibly, that they were passing between the rocks without hitting them.
“On the starboard quarter!”
“On the larboard quarter!”
Nicolas let out a sigh of relief, sagging against the mast. When his legs stopped trembling, he pushed back to standing and walked unsteadily toward the hold.
“Good news!” Mr. Worth said when Nicolas walked by him. “We’re inside the harbor. We will dock in an hour or so and you’ll be safely ashore a few minutes after that.”
“That is good news,” Nicolas agreed, feeling some of his fear ease.
Sheriff Shawn Parnell loved two things in life: his job and his island. It was his job to make sure no one threatened his island, and right now, someone was. He did not know who or exactly why, but he did know how: murder. And he also knew, much as he would have hated to admit it, that it would not be an isolated case. He only hoped he was fast enough to outsmart the murderer and keep the likely next target alive. To that end, he stood on the pier, despite the cold and the fog, awaiting the arrival of the schooner which had been sighted entering the harbor, hoping that Mr. Wells would follow his usual pattern and arrive aboard the first ship from Boston. If not, Shawn had no idea what he was going to do to protect the island’s young blacksmith. They could not afford to lose him now that old Mr. Gibson, the former blacksmith, had retired and left the island for warmer climes. Shawn did not want to lose any of his residents, but the community could not survive without someone to do the metal work during the winter. Fortunately, Wells made a habit of hiring locally on his construction site before sending for more laborers from the south. Shawn’s young friend had resented the idea at first, but the sheriff had insisted. Now it remained only to gain the overseer’s cooperation.
Through the fog, Shawn could hear the shouts and curses of the sailors as they tried to dock. He gripped the rail of the wooden structure tightly. Docking was a delicate enough procedure in the light of day. With the fog obscuring objects only a few feet away, it was downright precarious. After several fraught minutes, he heard the shout signaling a line being thrown and another that it had been caught. Moving forward, he offered his brawn to help the men on the shore pull the heavy vessel into its berth. The harbor men knew the sheriff well enough to accept his help, heaving hard on the thick lines until the ship finally drifted into view. A few minutes more to secure the ship and arrange the gangplank, and the passengers were able to descend. This early in the season, they were few in number and Shawn was relieved to see Wells’ blond head among them.
He hailed the overseer as soon as he set foot on the dock.
Nicolas looked up, surprised to hear his name called. He recognized the local sheriff, but that only surprised him more. The two men knew each other to speak on the street, but they had never socialized during previous summers. Nicolas wondered what Parnell wanted with him.
“Sheriff,” he acknowledged, touching the brim of his hat respectfully.
“Welcome back,” Shawn said with a hearty clap on the other man’s back. “Let’s get out of this damned fog. I’ll buy you dinner and a drink.”
Nicolas tensed as he always did in unfamiliar situations, especially in situations like this where his body’s unconscious reactions could give away his most closely guarded secret. In Boston, where he was mostly anonymous and relatively unimportant, it did not matter so much, but Nicolas had come to the island enough times to know better than to reveal it here. Still, he could think of no good reason to refuse, and his belly craved a hot meal after the days of hardtack at sea.
“Since you asked so nicely,” he agreed, “though I will have to do something with my trunks.”
“I’ll have them seen to,” Shawn assured the other man. “You’ll be staying in the caretaker’s cabin by Cleftstone Manor again, I assume.”
Nicolas nodded, more than a little discomfited to realize the sheriff seemed so focused on his actions. In his experience, people only paid that much attention to relative strangers when they wanted something. He did not know if Parnell’s wants were personal or professional, and that made him nervous. Had he given himself away somehow? Had something in his behavior, as circumspect as he had always tried to be, made the sheriff deduce Nicolas’s preference for his own gender? And if so, what did that mean for his future here on the island?
Taking a deep breath, the builder reminded himself that he was jumping to conclusions, that Parnell had given no indication, in word or action, that he had guessed Nicolas’s secret, or that it mattered if he had. He would continue to act circumspectly, as he always had, and wait to see what transpired.
Shawn thought he sensed a certain tension in Wells that he had never noticed before, but he dismissed it as a normal reaction to an officer of the law. Even honest citizens were not always comfortable with him, as if afraid he was looking for fault. “Let’s go. I’ll have someone take your trunks out to your cabin.”
“Let me just get my satchel,” Nicolas requested.
Shawn waited patiently while the overseer went to his trunks and removed a battered leather pouch. He could not tell what was inside, but he could tell the contents were important to the other man by the way Wells held the bag.
Feeling self-conscious, Nicolas turned back, his satchel tucked under his arm. He trusted the sheriff, as much as he trusted anyone on the island, but he would not risk his secret in the hands of whomever Parnell found to transport his belongings. Some of the drawings in his sketchbook could be explained as artistic studies, but others were far too… intimate to be anything other than the sketches of a lover of men, and if that became public knowledge, he could say good-bye to his career. No crew would agree to work for him if they knew, and with no crew, he would have no job.
The two men left the wharf for a local tavern that also served meals. Parnell took a table away from the handful of other patrons, adding to Nicolas’s sense that the sheriff wanted something. They sat in silence, though, until after their food and ale were served.
“We had a murder last week,” Shawn began casually when he was sure they would not be disturbed. “I’m sure you’ll hear about it as you start to assemble a crew. A young man who moved here a few years ago from New York.”
“Really?” Nicolas asked disinterestedly. “Someone I know?”
“I don’t think so,” the sheriff replied. “James Reed. He was a clerk at the bank. Thin, blond, green eyes. He wore glasses when he worked, but never outside the bank.”
Nicolas remembered the young man in question. He had been attractive in a pretty sort of way, an almost girlish beauty that held a certain appeal, though the overseer generally preferred a more masculine appearance. “Why was he killed?”
“He made a poor choice of lovers,” Shawn replied diplomatically.
“A married woman?” Nicolas suggested. “Or did he despoil someone’s daughter?”
“It’s not quite that simple,” Shawn stalled. “You strike me as an open-minded man.”
“I try to be,” Nicolas agreed, not sure where this was leading.
“Reed’s lover, well, ex-lover, was a young man, and without revealing details you don’t need to know, it was obvious he was killed because he was a sodomite.”
Nicolas flinched at the word, though he could detect no condemnation in the sheriff’s voice. “And what does that have to do with me?” he asked coldly.
“The relationship between the two men came to light a few days before the murder when Reed and his former lover split rather publicly, and I’m afraid the other man is also at risk. I know he isn’t the murderer. He was here in the tavern when the murder took place and was clearly shocked at the news. My only concern is keeping the boy alive.”
“Boy?” Nicolas asked, concerned now as well.
Shawn shook his head. “No, not really. He’s well past being of age, but I remember him in short pants.”
“You still haven’t said how this concerns me.”
“The man is the island’s blacksmith. I know you’ll need one on your site, and I’m hoping you’ll agree to hire him. He doesn’t need the job, but your site is closed to outsiders. He’d be safer there than anywhere else on the island, except maybe in my jail, but I’m not really equipped to hold prisoners for more than a day or two, and he’s done nothing to warrant being locked up. Will you help me, Mr. Wells?”
Nicolas knew as soon as the sheriff asked that he would say yes, for only his own discretion had kept him from facing the same hate that now threatened the blacksmith, but he did not want to appear too lackadaisical about what should have been a shocking situation. “He does quality work?”
“The best,” Shawn assured the overseer. “His master, old Mr. Gibson, said he hadn’t seen such talent but a few times in his life. In a larger city, he could probably make a living as a sculptor, such is his artistry. Here, there’s not enough demand and so he makes barrel staves and horseshoes. And hopefully, the metalwork for your cottages.”
“Very well,” Nicolas agreed, “but I expect him to be discreet and pull his weight on the job site. It won’t just be forge work. We all have chores at the camp as well.”
“He understands he’ll have the same responsibility as anyone else on your team.”
“I’ll start hiring the local crew over the next few days. He can come whenever he wants, but it’ll be rough living until we have a cook and get a camp established for the off-island workers,” Nicolas warned. He knew there was an extra cot in his cabin, but he did not offer it. One man might share lodgings with another without censure, but not if one was a known sodomite and the other was supposedly not. He could not open himself to speculation that way. “I don’t even know if the tents we used last summer survived the winter. He wouldn’t be able to return home like the other locals if the point of being there is to protect him.”
“It’s not a perfect plan,” Shawn agreed, “but it’s the only one I have. And there may be a bit of a camp already established. We’ve had a couple of ships come in from closer than Boston with some of your crew from previous summers.”
“Then I would do well to get out to the site and make sure all is as it should be. Thank you for dinner, Sheriff. I’ll look for you and the blacksmith tomorrow.”
“You’re welcome,” Shawn replied, “but I’ll be bringing Philip out tonight. I don’t want him in his house alone even one more night.”
The shadows protect me as the sheriff leaves the tavern in the direction of the sodomite’s house. He has never shown any sign of the moral abomination it is my task to end, but I will have to watch him closely. I will eradicate this pestilence from the island before it spreads farther, corrupting other god-fearing youths. Reed was the first, for his faithlessness as well as his sodomy. I have yet to decide who will be next: the blacksmith or the dead man’s other lover. It will depend on their actions and on what opportunities arise. Either way, I will prevail and rid my home of this godlessness. I dare not linger to see what has brought the sheriff to Hall’s house, even under the cover of darkness, but I will know the truth before long.