Whisper Island, Ireland
My career in the San Francisco PD ended the day I had to arrest my husband. Okay, so maybe I shouldn’t have punched him…twice. And kicked him in the groin. But seriously, what would you do if you’d discovered your husband was sleeping with his paralegal, and adding to your humiliation with a boozy post-screw drive down a busy freeway? He knew how I felt about fidelity, and he knew my thoughts on drunk driving. It was both our misfortune that I’d happened to be the cop who’d pulled him over.
Thanks to my temper, four weeks after my marriage and my career had imploded, I found myself five thousand miles away from home, clinging to the side of a rocking boat and hurling the last of my dignity into the waves below.
“I hate boats,” I muttered, pressing a napkin to my mouth. “And I hate storms.”
A flash of lightning zigzagged across the sky as if to illuminate my point. Despite my nausea, I drew in a breath at the magnificence of the jagged coastline looming in the distance. The sheer cliffs towered over the rough sea, just as hauntingly beautiful as I remembered from childhood summers. I hadn’t been to Whisper Island in over ten years, but I recalled every tree, cave, and hill of the island where my father had been born.
The ferry rocked into the harbor at midnight, an hour behind schedule. Shivering in the icy wind, I limped down the pedestrian gangplank, dragging my two rolling suitcases behind me. The suitcases contained the remains of my life. I’d sold all but two of my evening gowns to a friend’s used dress store and had listed most of my shoe collection on eBay. I’d have sold my jewelry, but it apparently belonged to Joe’s mother, courtesy of some fancy legal wheeling and dealing he’d done to ensure I couldn’t claim more than a pittance if we ever split up. My nostrils flared. Never trust a lawyer, especially one you marry.
On the pier, I paused and scanned my surroundings. Several fishing boats bobbed in the water, straining at their moorings. No tourist yachts were in sight, but I’d never been to the island in winter. Apart from the bitter January wind, the pier was just as I remembered it: an old-fashioned wooden affair with a ferry terminal at one end and the red-and-white facade of the yacht club built into the side of the cliff. After the foot passengers had disembarked, the cars would exit the ferry and be transported up the cliff by means of a car elevator. I shuddered at the prospect of being enclosed in such a tight space and felt grateful I was on foot. I inhaled the sea air, relishing the salty taste on my tongue. It was good to be back.
“Maggie? Is that you, love?” A woman’s voice boomed into my ear, making my heart leap in my chest. In the next instant, a small woman roughly the shape of a soccer ball tackled me in a bear hug.
“Aunt Noreen? Have you been waiting all this time? We’re more than an hour late.”
She waved her hand in a dismissive gesture. “The ferry is always late this time of year. I asked old Tom up in the ferry office to give me a call when he spotted the boat. My house is only a fifteen-minute drive away.” My aunt looked me up and down before squeezing me in another bear hug. “It’s lovely to see you, Maggie. It’s been too long.”
Four years to be precise. My aunt had grown older and plumper since the last time I’d seen her, which had been at my wedding. She wrested my suitcases from my grasp, and I found myself hauled down the pier in her determined wake. She marched me past the ticket office and toward an ancient elevator, already packed with ferry passengers. Those who’d arrived in vehicles watched dubiously as they were loaded, one by one, into a special cage and hoisted up the cliff.
“I prefer the harbor in Smuggler’s Cove,” my aunt said, following the direction of my gaze, “but Carraig is the one closest to the mainland, and it’s the only one the ferry stops at during the winter months.”
“I guess there aren’t enough passengers to warrant making the trip all the way to the other side of the island.”
“Exactly. As of May, it’s a whole different story.” My aunt gestured for me to step into the rickety elevator. “Let’s get you home. It’s freezing out here tonight.”
I dug my frozen hands into my jacket’s pockets. “I, uh, think I’ll take the stairs.”
My aunt frowned at me. “Are you sure? It’s a long way up.”
“I could do with the exercise. Can you take my luggage?”
“Sure. See you at the top.” Noreen dragged my suitcases into the elevator, oblivious to the wince of pain from the elderly man she rolled over. She gave me a cheery wave before the doors slid shut and the elevator began its shuddering ascent.
I took a deep breath and contemplated the steps that led from the pier to the top of the cliff. It had to be several floors high, but a rickety metal staircase was preferable to an enclosed space. Or so I told myself until I reached the hundredth step, panting for breath. Man, I was out of shape. After a month spent at the bottom of a bag of Doritos, what could I expect? Groaning, I hauled myself up the steps and breathed a sigh of relief when I reached the top. Tomorrow, I’d go running. I might even go wild and eat a salad.
Noreen and my suitcases were waiting for me in the parking lot near the elevator exit, standing beside a dilapidated Ford Fiesta that bore traces of its original green paint among the rust.
“Well now,” my aunt said, giving me a critical once-over. “Would you look at the state of you? Sure, you’re nothing but skin and bones.”
The skin-and-bones part was far from the truth. I didn’t need to stand on the scales to know I was the most out of shape I’d been my whole adult life. During my post-crisis slump, I’d comfort eaten my way up a dress size.
Noreen beamed up at me, and I braced myself for another rib-crushing hug. She didn’t disappoint. When my aunt released me from her viselike clutches, she opened the trunk of the car and hurled my suitcase in among an array of fishing rods, hockey sticks, and golf clubs. Despite my aunt’s girth, she was a formidable sportswoman and a terror on the hockey pitch. “Let’s get you home and fed, love.”
“Thanks,” I said as I slid into the passenger seat, gingerly removing a golf ball from under my backside, “but I have no appetite. I spent most of the trip over from the mainland being sick over the side of the boat.”
Noreen gave a derisive snort. “Nonsense. You’ve been through a traumatic time. You need feeding.”
“Trust me, I’ve been doing plenty of feeding,” I said with a wry smile. “Tomorrow, I promise I’ll finish all twenty-three meals you put in front of me. Right now, all I want is sleep.”
“All right,” she grunted, clearly unhappy at my reluctance to chow down on an enormous meal served at midnight. “Now, how do you feel about cats?”
The question came out of left field. “I…have no particular opinion about them.” In truth, I was ambivalent about animals. My only childhood pet had been a goldfish, and my contact with pets since had been fending off rabid dogs while arresting their owners.
“Excellent,” Noreen said as though I’d just informed her she’d won the lottery. “I have eight.”
“Eight…cats?” My eyebrows shot up in alarm. I hadn’t visited my aunt’s house on Whisper Island since I was a teenager, but I recalled her cottage as being on the snug side of small. “Where do they all sleep?”
“Oh, you know.” She waved a hand vaguely as her car shot out of the parking lot at breakneck speed and turned onto a winding cliffside road. “Wherever they feel like it. I’m putting you in Roly and Poly’s room. Don’t worry, love,” she added, seeing my expression of horror. “Just shoo them off the bed if they’re bothering you.”
Visions of a cat-infested house danced before my eyes. I peered out the window and saw how close we were to the edge of the cliff. Swallowing hard, I hunched back in my seat and let my aunt prattle on about islanders I’d never met. Had I made a massive mistake in accepting her offer of a home and a job? After all, what did I know about cafés? What did I know about living in Ireland?
“All you’ll need to do while I’m in the hospital,” Noreen had said on the phone two weeks after I’d lost my job and filed for divorce, “is serve a few cups of coffee. The change of scene will do you good. Fresh air and exercise are what you need. There’s no point in moping. You’re better off without that buffoon, and if those eejits in the San Francisco Police Department don’t realize they’re losing a gem, you’re better off without them, too.”
At the time, I’d been veering between drunken and tearful rants to my long-suffering best friend, Selena, and reliving the joy of shoving a handcuffed and bloody Joe into the ambulance after the crash. Had there been any true justice, Joe would have lost his attorney’s license along with his driver’s license, but money and connections rule, and Joe had an abundance of both. Instead, I’d found myself suspended, and I’d chosen to resign rather than allow my superiors to sentence me to a career as a pen pusher.
The irony of snubbing an admin job in favor of a lowly position as a waitress on a remote Irish island wasn’t lost on me, but at least I was living life on my terms. As Noreen had said, the fresh air and distance from my life in San Francisco would do me good. It was only for a couple of months. Long enough for me to get my head together and give me a chance to decide what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.
I regretted my complacency the moment we screeched to a halt outside my aunt’s ramshackle cottage. I got out of the car, clutching my neck as a whiplash victim would, and gaped in mounting horror at the sight before me. Inside a fenced enclosure, a large animal roamed. “Is that an alpaca?” I asked in a voice barely above a whisper.
“Yes, that’s Horace.” Noreen beamed. “Didn’t I tell you about my side job? I run a petting zoo.”
From Dial P For Poison by Zara Keane, Copyright 2017