Mud season takes on a whole new meaning in the coastal town of Busman's Harbor, Maine, when local business owners sling dirt at one another in a heated feud over a proposed pedestrian mall. Vandalism is one thing, but murder means Julia Snowden of the Snowden Family Clambake steps in to clean up the case . . .
When Julia spots police cars in front of Lupine Design, she races over. Her sister Livvie works there as a potter. Livvie is unharmed but surrounded by smashed up pottery. The police find the owner Zoey Butterfield digging clay by a nearby bay, but she has no idea who would target her store. Zoey is a vocal advocate for turning four blocks of Main Street into a pedestrian mall on summer weekends. Other shop owners, including her next-door neighbor, are vehemently opposed. Could a small-town fight provoke such destruction? When a murder follows the break-in, it's up to Julia to dig through the secrets and lies to uncover the truth . . .
Release date: June 28, 2022
Publisher: Kensington Books
Print pages: 288
* BingeBooks earns revenue from qualifying purchases as an Amazon Associate as well as from other retail partners.
The closer I got, the faster I ran. The door of one of the police cars hung open, as if the driver had leapt out in a rush. The double doors of the pottery shop were open, too. I couldn’t imagine what was going on inside. My heart hammered, not only from the run.
I stopped outside the big display window and looked into the store. Livvie stood talking to Jamie Dawes, one of Busman’s Harbor’s police officers and a childhood friend. I exhaled with relief. My sister was okay.
But all around her the shop was in chaos. Broken pottery littered the floor. Display shelves were tipped over. Cabinet doors hung open.
Livvie leaned in to say something to Jamie. A thick lock of her auburn hair fell across her profile, obscuring her face. She was almost his height, and Jamie was tall. He said something and Livvie nodded.
I hurried inside. “What happened?”
They turned, surprised to see me. “I found the place like this when I opened the store this morning.” Livvie was unnaturally pale, and her voice shook. Her trembling hand swept around the shop, where the glass display shelves were empty, knocked over, some leaning against others. The dark wood floor was littered with ceramic shards in Lupine Design’s signature ocean colors—blues, greens, grays, and white. I recognized the rounded body of a teapot, the lip of a serving platter, the handle of a pitcher. The original shape of most of the pieces had been obliterated.
On a side wall of the shop, a door I had never noticed before stood open. Beyond it, a blue-gray staircase led up to a landing, then turned and disappeared out of sight. “Zoey?” I gasped. Livvie’s boss, Zoey Butterfield, the owner and entrepreneur behind Lupine Design, lived in the apartment over the store.
“Not here,” Jamie reassured me. “We’ve checked.” As he said it, I heard the clomp of footsteps overhead, then the clearing of a throat from the basement below us. The other Busman’s Harbor cops were moving around the building.
“Where is she?” I asked.
“We were just getting to that.” Jamie took back control of the conversation. It was his interview. He was in charge.
“Yesterday she told me she was going early to collect local clay,” Livvie said. “She warned me I’d be opening the studio this morning because she probably wouldn’t be back in time.”
Jamie pulled his cell phone out, thumb at the ready.
“You won’t be able to reach her with that unless she’s already on the way home,” Livvie told him. “I know where she goes and there’s no service there.”
Jamie dialed the number Livvie gave him and left a message carefully worded not to cause panic. “Following up on some inquiries,” he said after introducing himself. “Please get back to me right away.”
“Can you think of anyone who might have done this?” Jamie’s voice was calm, businesslike but not abrupt. I imagined he used it with all the upset citizens he dealt with. But then he put his hand on Livvie’s shaking arm and squeezed, a gesture reserved for a good friend.
Livvie swallowed hard. “No. No one.”
Jamie slipped his phone back into his pocket. “The officers will be here for a while, taking photos and fingerprints. It would be helpful if you could figure out if anything is missing, beyond what’s broken.”
Livvie gave a curt nod to indicate she accepted the assignment. My body had relaxed the moment I’d seen her standing in the shop unharmed. She, in contrast, was still tensed like a jungle cat about to pounce. I moved next to her, fit myself beneath her shoulder and hugged her rib cage. I was the older sister, but she had been the bigger one since adolescence.
“I can’t imagine we’ll find any usable prints.” Jamie looked around at the mess. “This stuff probably gets touched by all of the staff when you’re shelving, and by lots of customers, too.”
“Over here.” Livvie led us to the other side of the shop where high counters ran along the wall, left over from the nineteenth-century apothecary that had originally occupied the building. Zoey had painted the once dark wood the same blue gray as the stairs to her apartment. The paint had been applied in wide strokes that allowed a bricky-pink undercoat to show through in places. Normally, the effect was warm and gorgeous against the white walls of the large, light-filled store. Today, the cabinet doors hung open, broken pieces of glass still in some of their panes.
Livvie pointed at the mess on the wide planks of the floor. Pieces of glass were mixed with the ceramic shards. “If you’re looking for fingerprints, the broken pottery around here will be your best bet. Our most expensive pieces were kept locked in these cabinets. I washed them myself and placed them in there at the end of the fall season. I doubt anyone has touched them since.”
“Thanks,” Jamie said. “I’m going to let the other officers know what you’ve told me and then I’m going out to look for Ms. Butterfield. The sooner she gets here, the better. I’d like to spare her being unprepared for the sight of patrol cars in front of her place when she returns. You said you know where she is?”
Livvie rattled off a set of directions that I immediately recognized led to the Old Culver property. Back when he was alive, with the Culver family’s permission, our dad had used the easy access to a protected inlet that their private road provided, to load firewood into the small boat we used to take it out to Morrow Island.
During Maine’s all too brief summer season, twice a day, the Snowden Family Clambake brought two hundred guests over to the island and provided them with an authentic Maine “dining experience.” I managed the business. Livvie’s husband, Sonny, ran the crew that cooked lobsters, clams, potatoes, onions, ears of corn, and eggs under saltwater-soaked tarps and over the fire the wood provided. Livvie was in charge of the kitchen where she and two other cooks put out the clam chowder we served for the first course and the blueberry grunt we offered for dessert. My mother did all the buying for and managed the gift shop.
Livvie’s directions to the Old Culver property included a lot of “turn at the green house” and “take the veer left, not the slight left or the turn left,” and “look for the break in the hedge,” type directions. I could tell by the furrow in Jamie’s brow he was having trouble keeping up. He was a native and a first responder, but there was no dwelling on the Culver property, no town or county road. He would never have been there, and he wouldn’t be able to get GPS directions where he was going.
“I know where it is,” I volunteered. “I’ll go with you.” We hadn’t used the Old Culver property for years. Now we trucked the wood directly to our boat at the town pier, but I was confident I could still find it.
Jamie hesitated, wanting to argue, but then gave in to relief. “Great. Give me a minute and we’ll go.”
We drove in the easy silence that comes from long friendship. Jamie steered us out of Busman’s Harbor, across the swing bridge onto Thistle Island, then over the second bridge to Westclaw Point. He didn’t need me to give him directions for this early part of the ride.
The sky was bright blue with high puffy clouds riding on a stiff breeze. In mid-April there were mere suggestions of buds on the trees. When I’d lived in New York City for eight years for business school and then work, I’d fallen in love with spring. The warm days, full of promise and renewal. The flowering trees and shrubs in Battery Park, where I went for my evening runs.
But when I’d moved back to Maine five years earlier, I’d had to move my favorite season allegiance back to the fall. Spring, such as it was, arrived in Maine almost a full month later than in New York. When it came it brought gray, cold, rainy days, broken occasionally by sunny ones like today. Reacquaintance had taught me that these rare nice days were a tease. Maine spring was like Lucy Van Pelt jerking the football from Charlie Brown. As soon as we began to believe warmer weather would come, Mother Nature would pull it away. You could almost hear the wind call, “Blockhead.”
April was mud season. The snow had melted, bathing the landscape in water. The trees and shrubs weren’t yet absorbing the moisture from the soil. April’s torrential rains, added to all that, created a boggy, miserable mess. In Maine, April was to be endured, not celebrated.
“I’m not looking forward to this conversation.” Jamie adjusted the visor to keep the sun out of his eyes. “How much do you think all that stuff was worth?”
“At retail, a lot.” Lupine Design, pronounced LU-pin, like the wildflowers that filled Maine meadows and lined the roads in June, specialized in gorgeous, sophisticated, expensive, handmade pieces. “At cost, I have no idea. I also have no idea how long it will take to remake the inventory they need to fill orders.” The retail shop was, for Lupine Design, a showcase but something of a sideline. Zoey made most of her money selling her wares through high-end gift shops and online orders. She was a prime example of the new kind of entrepreneur Maine had attracted in recent years. She lived and worked in Busman’s Harbor because she wanted to, not because her business depended on the location.
We fell silent again. I glanced at Jamie’s profile as he drove, focused on the road. He was one of those blonds with tannable skin, dark brows and dark lashes, a state of affairs Livvie pronounced, “desperately unfair.” His parents’ property backed up to my parents’ yard and we’d grown up together. He’d gotten tall, his face had lengthened, and his features sharpened, but a slight fullness in his cheeks still gave me glimpses of the boy I’d known.
Over the winter, Jamie and I had gone out to eat or to the movies a few times. I suspected these outings had been engineered by my mother and sister to distract me from my tragic, single state. Nothing had come of it. Probably we’d been friends too long to change our status. At least that was my assessment.
My family refused to give up hope. They, and by they in this case I meant Mom and Livvie, fervently hoped I would stay in Busman’s Harbor. They believed that without a romantic partner and meaningful winter work it would be hard to hold me. They weren’t wrong. Only the inertia born of a bad set of circumstances kept me from exploring my options more actively. Besides, there were worse things than being loved and wanted by your family.
I pointed out the turn at the green house to Jamie and set us on the right road at the intersection with the slight left, veer left, and hard left turns. Together he and I hunted for the break in the thick vegetation that could only charitably be described as a hedge. The opening would be almost impossible to spot once the buds on the branches turned into leaves. When we were through the hedge, the dirt road was familiar to me. The heavy patrol car, built for speed but not for traction, spun its wheels. They don’t call it mud season for nothing. Jamie cursed under his breath, but kept the big car moving.
The road came around a long, wide curve and ended at a sweep of marsh that opened to the West Bay, a protected spot surrounded by summer houses up on the rocky hillside. The faded browns of the winter marsh grass spread out toward the deep blue of the bay. Jamie parked behind a big, bright red SUV. We got out and walked to the edge of the marsh.
I spotted Zoey before he did. Or I assumed it was Zoey, a figure in a puffy navy-blue vest and tall army-green rubber boots. She was bent over, digging in the mud with a shovel. I waved and called out, but a stiff wind coming off the water blew my words away. I poked Jamie in the arm and pointed. We trudged in the figure’s direction.
Eventually she straightened up and watched us come toward her, a puzzled but not panicked expression on her face. I’d been introduced to her before, a few times, when I’d buzzed in and out of Lupine Design to pick up Livvie or deliver a message. Zoey was a pretty woman with a cascade of curly brown hair that she had tamed with a blue bandana. She was broad-shouldered, broad-hipped, and pleasantly curvy. With her large brown eyes and generous smile, I guessed she attracted her share of attention. I judged her to be in her midthirties, same as me.
“Can I help you, Officer?” she shouted when we got closer.
Jamie waited to speak until we reached her. “Ms. Butterfield?”
She swallowed and nodded that she was.
“I’m Officer Dawes with the Busman’s Harbor P.D. This is Julia Snowden. Her sister Livvie Ramsey works for you.”
“Hi. We’ve met,” I said.
Zoey nodded again, brows pinched together, clearly troubled by the interruption in her morning.
“I’m sorry to tell you there has been an incident of vandalism at your shop.” Jamie spoke quickly but clearly, ripping off the Band-Aid.
Zoey looked from one face to the other. “You mean like graffiti?” Her voice was high-pitched and quavery. Cops didn’t come out to the back of beyond to tell shopowners about graffiti.
“I’m afraid it’s more serious.” Jamie’s tone matched the gravity of the situation. “Most of the contents of the shop have been destroyed.”
Zoey’s mouth dropped open and she stutter-stepped backward. Whatever awful thing she’d been expecting Jamie to say, this wasn’t it. “Is everyone okay?”
“Livvie discovered the damage when she came to open this morning,” I said. “She’s shaken up, as you must be, but she’s fine. No one else was there.”
Zoey stood for a moment, absorbing. The wind blew her brown hair around the bandana into her face. She brushed it away with her hand.
“I’d like you to come back to town,” Jamie said, “to inspect the premises, file a report, let us know if anything is missing.”
Zoey nodded. “My car . . .”
Jamie understood her question. “You can come in your own vehicle. You’ve had quite a shock. If you prefer not to drive, Julia can drive you back in your car.”
Zoey hesitated, and then gave me a hint of a smile. “I’d like that. Thank you.”
“If that’s settled, I’ll go,” Jamie said. “I’d like to get back to the scene as quickly as possible.”
“The scene.” Zoey’s brow puckered, then comprehension dawned. “The crime scene.”
“One thing before I go,” Jamie said. “When I told you what happened, did any person jump to mind that you suspect might have done this?”
Zoey looked truly baffled. “No.”
“Have you had a recent beef with anyone, anyone at all?”
She smiled, a tentative smile, but a smile nonetheless. “It depends on what you mean by beef. It’s a small town. I’ve become accustomed to people having their differences.”
That was putting it politely.
“Let me say it this way,” Jamie pressed. “Has anyone threatened you recently, even in the most abstract way? Unhappy customer? Ex-boyfriend? Angry neighbor?”
Zoey started to shake her head, no, but then stopped abruptly. “I do have an angry neighbor,” she said. “Phinney Hardison. His shop shares the building with mine.”
That got Jamie’s attention. “Why is Mr. Hardison angry with you?”
Zoey opened her mouth to answer, then closed it, then opened it again, in a series of false starts. “Let’s just say, he’s a local and I’m From Away,” she finally answered.
An old story, and a generic answer. Barely an answer at all. I wondered what she was holding back.
Jamie looked like he wanted to follow up, but then thought better of it. “Thank you for the information. I’ll see you back at your store.” He turned and walked away.
“I’m not accusing Phinney,” Zoey shouted at Jamie’s back. “It’s just, you asked if I had an angry neighbor.”
Jamie looked over his shoulder. “I understand. We’ll have a longer conversation in town.”
The dirt road was too narrow to turn around. Zoey and I waited until Jamie’s patrol car backed around the big curve and was out of sight. Then we stowed Zoey’s shovel in the back of her SUV and hurried to the spot where she’d been digging when Jamie and I arrived.
Four big, clear plastic bags stood at the site, filled with—well, it looked like mud, only maybe a bit bluer. Zoey picked up one, squatting and putting her legs into it, just like they teach you.
I copied her, grabbed another and almost fell over. “Oof.”
Zoey moved quickly toward her car. “Careful. They’re twenty-five pounds, give or take.”
I tried to remember what Livvie’s son Jack had felt like when he was twenty-five pounds. Not nearly so heavy, I was sure. My work boots sank into the mud in the dirt road as I walked.
We rushed back for the other bags and loaded up the car. The back of the SUV was protected by a blue tarp. Zoey exchanged her boots for sneakers.
“Do you still want me to drive?” That was why Jamie had left me, but maybe she’d changed her mind.
“If that’s okay, I’d feel better.”
“Of course.” I went around to the driver’s side and climbed in.
The outside of Zoey’s big vehicle wasn’t clean, no car in Maine was during mud season. But under the spray of brown on its sides, red paint gleamed. Inside, the seats were comfy and the car was spotless. I could tell it was new, and luxurious. Livvie had told me Lupine Design was hugely successful, but financial success was a relative thing in a small town. I hadn’t expected this. I felt bad about my muddy boots.
Zoey climbed into the passenger seat, reached into the glove compartment, and put on a pair. . .
We hope you are enjoying the book so far. To continue reading...