Chapter 2: Morning 0
Overnight, spring arrived on Starfish Island. The thick sea ice thawed. The knee-deep snow evaporated. Budding grass, buzzing insects, and cheerful flowers muscled in. Trees which had been skeletal and barren the night before now shook out fresh green coats in the breeze. That’s how seasons change on Starfish Island. Abruptly.
The people in the village of Albatross Bay opened their windows and let in the fresh air. They swept their front steps and hung their rugs and heavy blankets in the sun and put up their winter things for another year. There would be no late snow or unseasonable cold snap. Not here.
Deeper on the island, other things were waking too, restless with the change of season.
Lexie leaned against the worn brass guardrail of the elderly ferry which carried her from mainland to island. Brisk sea wind burned her cheeks, and she tugged her knit wool cap snug over her ears, trying to contain the loose hair that whipped across her face.
She could go below deck again, out of the wind, to the saloon with its low ceiling and dark wood paneling and tiny round porthole windows filmed with salt spray. But she’d been on the boat for over two hours, and they must be getting close. It felt right that her first glimpse of Starfish Island and the village of Albatross Bay be in the open air and wind and sun.
Her new home.
Lexie patted the pocket of her coat, checking for the hundredth time the letter from the lawyer was still there.
“Open sea makes you feel your place in the world.” The man had a face like driftwood. A mossy white beard clung to his jaw. He was well into his sixties, maybe older, but hale, and wore a faded captain’s cap and a thick knit turtleneck pullover. A battered pipe stuck out of the side of his mouth.
This was the first the [Captain] had spoken to Lexie. When she boarded, she’d asked if this was the ferry to Albatross Bay. He’d grunted, taken her gold, and shut himself in the windowed cockpit for the duration. There hadn’t even been an announcement when the boat departed, just the grinding of the tired engine and they were underway.
Now he joined her at the railing and looked out over the water.
“I’ve never been out on the sea like this before.”
“And what brings you to such a remote place as Starfish Island for your first time?” The [Captain]’s tone wasn’t exactly unfriendly. But it wasn’t friendly either.
“I’m moving there.”
His hoary eyebrows arched. “Are you now.”
“My aunt left me a cabin.”
“You must be Martha’s kin. Rest her self.”
“You knew her?”
“Many a time she made this same crossing there and back. Island don’t always take to outsiders. But your aunt Martha was good people.”
Lexie’s grip tightened the rail with sudden nerves. She’d been so excited to leave Tanooki City, eager for a new life in an idyllic seaside village. She’d never stopped and thought what the village might think of her.
Her face must’ve shown her anxiety because the [Captain] added: “You won’t have any troubles fitting in, not if you’re anything like Martha.”
“Right.” That statement wasn’t as reassuring as the [Captain] intended.
“Island comes up before you know it.” Subject changed. They both scanned the water.
Lexie still didn’t see anything but shining blue. Then… a shadow.
“I see it!”
“Aye, that’s Starfish Island. And I best back to the cockpit. We’ll be enterin’ the harbor soon enough.”
He left Lexie alone at the rail, the sole passenger, watching the tiny speck of land on the horizon grow slowly larger as the boat drew near.
Sheer cliffs dropped into churning waves. Sea birds circled and screamed overhead. Sandy coves, the sort beloved to tourist brochures, nestled in hollows slapped flat by waves. A few ramshackle jetties clutched at the rocks, but the only place on the island for large boats to dock was the harbor of Albatross Bay.
Navigating between the lumpen skerries and precarious-looking sea stacks punctuating the entrance to the harbor like broken teeth, the ferry eased up the pier.
Lexie grabbed her duffel from the saloon and hurried to the gate. The bag held all her worldly possessions, everything left after she sold or gave away the rest. It turned out she owned little she loved enough to lug with her. Most of the stuff she’d accumulated was practical, and it wasn’t difficult to part with. A bit like the rest of her life. Unfortunately, it also wasn’t worth very much. Combined with her scant savings, she had a mere five hundred gold in her pocket.
The waterfront of Albatross Bay vouched for the village’s roots as a fishing harbor. A few shabby boathouses, paint worn away by sea and salt, teetered among warped and rickety docks. Lexie would’ve thought they were abandoned, but for a few boats tied to them.
The weathered dock where the ferry moored was the only one in good condition. The wood was aged, but the planks were straight and sound. Sun glinted on the water lapping the pitch darkened pylons.
And then the ferry was moored and the gangplank was down.
“Um, [Captain]…” Lexie realized she didn’t know the man’s name.
“Leroux. [Captain] Ismaël Leroux of the Vivien here. And [Harbor Master] of Albatross Bay. [Postmaster] too.” He nudged the mail sack which sat on deck.
“I don’t suppose you know where the office of a [Solicitor] named Nathan Barlow is?”
“And sure. He’s just up High Street a way. Dark blue building, sign above the door.”
“Thanks, [Captain] Leroux.”
“Seein’ as you’re an islander now, you can call me Ismaël.”
A cobbled road led up the slope from the harbor. Beside it, a narrow stair of irregular slate slabs and a crooked iron handrail was an easier route for pedestrians.
Albatross Bay wasn’t a large village. Only two streets. And as the one that ran along the waterfront was creatively named Water Street, Lexie continued through a short connecting alley to the other.
It was easy to find the law office. As the [Captain] said, the building was blue and an old fashioned sign hung over the door.
Lexie entered and found herself in a tidy wood-paneled waiting room. There was a desk for a secretary, but it was empty. A row of old fashioned wooden filing cabinets ran along one wall and, by the window, two comfortable looking armchairs clustered with a table between them.
Should she knock on the door of the inner office? Or just take a seat?
Before she could make up her mind, a man in shirtsleeves and a vest with slicked back hair opened the door from the inner office. He had an open file in his hand. “Camilla, have we received—”. He broke off when he saw Lexie.
“I’m sorry. I heard the door, I thought it was my [Secretary].” He closed the folder. “I don’t recall any appointments. I’m Nathan Barlow, how can I help you?”
“I don’t have an appointment. I’m Lexie—Alexis—Archer. I received a letter from your office, about a property—”
“You must be Martha’s niece.”
“Yes, I’m sorry, I tried to call, but I wasn’t able to reach anyone over the weekend. So I thought when I got here, I’d drop in and see if you had time, or I can make an appointment and come back later?”
“No, now’s fine.” The lawyer slid the file into an IN tray on the secretary’s desk.
“You’re here for the details about Martha’s property? You didn’t have to come all the way from…”
“Right. That’s quite a trip. We could’ve done this by mail or over the phone.”
“Transferring the property to you, and selling it.” The [Solicitor] continued talking as he took a small silver key from his vest pocket and opened one of the file cabinets. He flipped through the files, then removed a thick folder. “I’m afraid island property isn’t worth all that much these days. And the cabin itself it quite… basic. Martha talked about renovating the place. ‘Nathan, I really must put in a kitchen,’ she’d say. Or ‘I absolutely need another room.’ She never changed anything though. I think she liked the simplicity. Except for the outhouse. She did have me to file the plans for a bathroom addition, but never got around to having the work done.”
“That was a couple years ago. I think she was starting to feel her age. The planning was approved and the permission is still valid.”
“It will definitely move the needle for prospective buyers.”
“I don’t know if I want to sell.”
An outhouse hadn’t figured in Lexie’s idyllic village daydream. She couldn’t imagine Aunt Martha vacationing in a place without a bathroom. But she’d come all this way. She wasn’t going to be scared off by some outdoor pooping. And she had nothing to go back to in Tanooki City now. “I’d like to see it before I decide.”
“Well, it’s your cabin.” Barlow stood and retrieved a thick folder from one of the filing cabinets. “Or at least it will be when you finish signing these.”
He flipped though the folder, and found a packet of papers, which he set on the desk in front of Lexie. “It’s quite straightforward, just sign here, here, here, here.” He marked each spot with an X. “You’re welcome to have your own [Solicitor] look it over before you do, of course.”
“I don’t think that will be necessary.” Lexie flinched inwardly at the idea. Her five hundred gold felt feather light in her pocket. She definitely couldn’t afford paying someone to read some boilerplate. “I’ll just read through it.”
“Of course. If you’ll excuse me, I think I heard Camilla come in.”
Lexie skimmed the papers. Nothing jumped out as unusual, not that she was fluent in lawyer. She signed them.
After a circumspect interval, the [Solicitor] returned. He had an envelope and a large iron key in his hand. “Your aunt left this for you.” He handed her the envelope. Her name was written on the outside in Aunt Martha’s scrawl. “And the key is to the cabin. Do you know where it is?”
Before Lexie could answer, Barlow shook his head. “Of course you don’t. Go south from town down the Bay Road, and where that splits, just past the docks, you take the Coast Road toward Perception Point. The cabin’s not far, about a twenty minute walk from town. You’ll see it. Only place out there.”
“Is there anything else I need to do, or sign?” The whole thing seemed surprisingly easy to Lexie.
“Not right now.” Barlow flipped through the papers and then slid them back in the file. “Come back if you decide you want to sell.”
“Thanks.” Lexie dropped the key and envelope into her knapsack.
Barlow’s face drew in for a moment. “I considered your aunt a good friend.”
In the outer office, a young woman with Snow White skin and night black hair now occupied the desk. Her cheekbones were sharp enough to cut ice and purple shadows bloomed under her eyes. She wore a trim pink suit at odds with her otherwise goth appearance.
“You’re Martha Archer’s heir?”She studied Lexie with open curiosity.
“One of them, I guess.”
“We didn’t expect anyone to come all the way out here. Martha never had outsiders here.”
“I didn’t know anything about it until I got the letter.”
“Are you going to sell? Jimmy Weatherall would buy.”
“I was thinking I might live here.”
The [Secretary]’s lip curled in a sneer, exposing an unusually long, pointed canine. Lexie tried not to stare, and failed. Camilla caught her expression and pressed her lips tightly together, covering her teeth.
“If I lived in Tanooki City there’s no way I’d move to Albatross Bay.” Camilla made a sound that might have been a snort, and turned her attention to the stack of files occupying her inbox.
The sun was high above and the sea gleamed as Lexie followed the wide footpath that hugged the cliffs of the coastline. A few meters of low brush, stunted and twisted by the constant sea wind, separated the path and the cliff edge. She’d had no trouble finding the Coast Road, but what passed for a road on Starfish Island wasn’t what would be called a road on the mainland.
Lexie stayed on the trail. After about twenty minutes walking, she spied a shabby little building in an overgrown clearing. If it had once been brightly painted, the salt sea air had scoured it to a weather-beaten gray. A narrow path ran from the building, crossed the trail and ran toward the building, and ended at the cliff’s edge, where Lexie could see the top of an equally weather-beaten railing.
She made a note to investigate that later, and turned toward the building.
The path obviously hadn’t seen much traffic in recent times. The cabin was tiny, barely bigger than a large shed, and it had an air of neglect. The windows were boarded over, and last year’s grass stood in tall dead patches, even as new green growth pushed up.
The foundation was formed from blocks of large stone, and a porch and two windows faced toward the sea. Like the the rest of the town, this place expected to be approached from the water.
Lexie climbed the steps to the sagging porch and put the old fashioned key in the lock.