The busy summer tourist season is winding down in Busman's Harbor, Maine, but Julia Snowden senses trouble simmering for the Snowden Family Clambake Company. Shifty David Thwing--the "Mussel King" of upscale seafood restaurants--is sniffing around town for a new location. But serving iffy clams turns out to be the least of his troubles. . . When Thwing is found sleeping with the fishes beneath a local lobsterman's boat, the police quickly finger Julia's brother-in-law Sonny as the one who cooked up the crime. Sure, everyone knows Sonny despised the Mussel King. . .but Julia believes he's innocent. Proving it won't be easy, though. It seems there's a lot more than murder on the menu, and Julia needs to act fast. . . Includes Traditional Maine Clambake Recipes!
Release date: April 28, 2015
Publisher: Kensington Books
Print pages: 252
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I pressed ACCEPT. “Hold on a sec, Owen.” I heard his impatient sigh as I tied up my family’s Boston Whaler and then climbed onto the pier. “I’m here,” I said into the phone.
“Julia.” Owen’s voice exuded a hearty faux-bonhomie. “So nice to talk to you. You’ve . . . missed my last few calls.”
In his hesitation, I could almost hear him consider and eliminate words like “dodged” and “ignored,” then settle on the less accusatory “missed.” The truth was, I hadn’t missed his calls. I’d dodged them.
Owen continued. “As you know, last March, when the firm granted your request for a leave of absence to attend to family business, you said you’d be back in six months. Then you called after Labor Day to ask for more time, and we agreed. But it’s almost the middle of October. We can’t keep your position open much longer. It’s not fair to your peers. If you’re not coming back, I have to replace you.”
Last March, I’d sublet my apartment in Manhattan and taken a leave from my job to race back to Busman’s Harbor to save my family’s clambake business from bankruptcy. Despite some heavy challenges, we’d succeeded. The Snowden Family Clambake Company—along with our tour boat, my mother’s home in town, and Morrow Island, the private island where we held our clambakes—was safe, at least for the moment. I’d never intended to stay beyond this single season, but complications had ensued.
I was in love.
“I understand,” I told Owen. And I did. I also knew he could replace me in a heartbeat. Business school graduates lusted after jobs like the one I’d occupied for six years. “I’m close to making a decision,” I lied.
“You’re actively considering returning to the firm?” He sounded skeptical.
I didn’t blame him, but in the interest of preserving my options, I answered, “Absolutely.”
“Make your decision quickly. You have until the end of the week, Julia. By Friday, I need to know your return date or that you’re resigning. If you don’t call by then, you’ll be fired for cause—job abandonment. And I don’t need to tell you how much harder it will be to find another position in this field if you’re terminated.”
“I understand,” I reassured him.
We said our good-byes and I clicked off the phone, glancing at the time as I did. I was late.
“Let me get this.” The rental agent, a kindly middle-aged woman dressed in neat wool slacks and a mustard-colored cardigan, jiggled a key in the lock. The door swung open and the dark hallway flooded with light. “You’ll find it looks quite different now that it’s empty.”
The last time I’d been in the apartment above Gleason’s Hardware store, a friend of my sister’s had lived there with her mother and young son. Back then, there’d been too much furniture and far too many toys crowded into the apartment’s tiny rooms. The rental agent was right—it did look much bigger. I stepped inside.
The combination living room–kitchen area stretched from the front of the apartment to the back, big windows at each end making it bright and sunny. I passed through the main room and stepped into the bedroom, which was also bigger than I remembered. During my years in Manhattan, I’d known plenty of people who lived in less square footage than this. Heck, I had for most of my time there. The little apartment over Gleason’s Hardware might do quite nicely.
It couldn’t have been closer to my work. The window out the back looked down on the town pier and the Snowden Family Clambake’s ticket kiosk. Just beyond the kiosk, the Jacquie II, the boat we used to bring two hundred customers—twice a day, every day, in the high season—to our private island for a real Maine clambake, stood quiet and empty at her mooring.
Summer had become fall. The Snowden Family Clambake was only open weekends, and after next Monday, Columbus Day, we’d shut down for the year.
I turned from the window and walked across the bare wood floor to the front of the apartment, where the windows looked out over Main Street. They felt tight, an important consideration with winter coming, though the October day was sunny and unseasonably warm. Leaning my forehead against the smooth glass and craning my neck, I could see my mother’s house sitting at the top of the hill less than two blocks away. Maybe this wasn’t such a great location. I loved my mother and I loved my job, but did I want to live where I could see both from my windows?
“Of course, you’ll want a twelve-month lease,” the agent said. “I’m sure they’ll go for it. Especially because it’s you.”
“Twelve months?” I tried not to sound anxious.
“It’s for your own protection. So they don’t take money from you for nine months and then kick you out in the summer when they can get a much higher rent.”
“I hadn’t thought about a lease.” I hadn’t, in truth, thought about much of anything. During the clambake’s busy season, there’d been no time. With the clambake winding down, I finally had time to think. Maybe too much time.
But a twelve-month lease sounded like forever. Maybe by next summer my relationship with my boyfriend, Chris Durand, would be in a place where we’d move in together. Chris and I had had our ups and downs, dizzying highs and appalling lows, but we’d been on an extended up since the end of August.
But having a boyfriend, and even a place to live, wouldn’t solve the problem of having nothing to do. When I’d arrived in Busman’s Harbor late last winter, there’d been so much work to do to save our business—negotiating with the bank to restructure our giant loan, building a business plan and budget from the ground up, beefing up our marketing. But that wouldn’t keep me busy this winter. Or pay the rent.
So maybe I’d leave running the Snowden Family Clambake to my sister and her husband and return to my real life in Manhattan. I didn’t know what I’d be doing next summer, or next week, for that matter. Stressed out as I was about the decision, it was wonderful to have options. Options were something I hadn’t had for months.
“I’ll let you know,” I told the rental agent.
“Make a decision quickly,” she said, echoing the words of Owen Quimby. “It won’t stay empty long.”
The agent locked up and we clattered down the noisy wooden stairs and pushed through the glass-paneled front door onto Main Street. We said good-bye at the corner and I headed around the block, back to the town pier.
A line of senior citizens milled about, waiting to board a large, gray bus, which idled noisily in the road. The driver stowed walkers and small suitcases in the luggage compartment underneath. In the way of small towns, most, though not all, of the faces in the line were familiar. Two stood out. Fiona and Viola Snugg, called Fee and Vee, ran their bed-and-breakfast, the Snuggles Inn, in the gingerbread-covered Victorian house across the street from my mother’s. The sisters were family friends and honorary great aunts.
“Hello, dearie.” Fee spotted me as I spotted her.
“Hullo.” I gave each of them a peck on the cheek. “Where’re you off to?”
“Campobello Island, overnight. So lovely to get away,” Vee said. She had pink cheeks and masses of white hair piled on her head, and was dressed, as always, in a skirt, hose, and high heels. Her older sister, Fee, standing beside her, had on a practical pair of wool slacks and huge white sneakers. In her left hand, she clutched a walking stick, an ebony shaft with a silver head that had been their father’s. Arthritis bent her back so badly, Fee was now shorter than my paltry five-foot-two.
I looked around at the crowd. Most of the people waiting to board the bus, except the most ancient of the ancient, had toiled endlessly through the high season, as Fee and Vee had. They spent their summers laundering sheets, cooking divine English breakfasts, and cheerfully advising their guests about every activity our peninsula had to offer. I was glad they were finally getting to enjoy themselves, and on such a beautiful autumn day. Traveling just over the Canadian border to the summer residence of Franklin Roosevelt would be a special treat.
“It’ll be nice to be out of town,” Fee commented, her eyes darting around, studying faces. The other people in line were engrossed in their own conversations. “You know, to get away from the tension.”
“It’s a bad business,” Vee added.
“Indeed.” I didn’t want to say more. The lobstermen in town were feuding with the men from Coldport Island, our nearest lobstering neighbors, about the rights to set traps in nearby waters. It was a touchy subject that could generate aggressive arguments. I wasn’t comfortable discussing it in public. Coldport Islanders didn’t often come to town, particularly after the daily service that took tourists from Busman’s Harbor to their island shut down after Labor Day. The weekly ferry they relied on through the off-season landed farther up the mid-coast at Rockland, which was where most Coldporters took care of their grocery shopping, doctor’s appointments, and other mainland business. But a seniors tour to Campobello Island was exactly the sort of thing that might attract someone from the island, so I kept my mouth shut, and so did the Snugg sisters.
“Where’s the other musketeer?” I asked. Usually, the sisters went on these expeditions as a threesome with Mrs. Gus, the wife of my favorite elderly restaurateur, Gus Farnham.
The corners of Fee’s mouth drooped. “She’s too poorly to come. Such a shame.”
Like Fee, Mrs. Gus suffered with arthritis, though I’d never before seen either woman give into it. Mrs. Gus must have been feeling poorly, indeed.
Fee brightened. “We told her we’d bring her something.”
Vee smiled, too, and they were back in the spirit of the adventure.
“Let’s board!” the busman called.
I stood at the bottom of the bus’s steps and the driver stood at the top. Working together, we got everyone aboard. I waved good-bye until they were gone.
When the bus pulled out, I found myself standing across from the one thing that could bring me down on such a beautiful day. Next to the Snowden Family Clambake ticket booth on the town pier, the two-by-four skeleton of a second kiosk rose. The fancy carved sign next to it promised boat rides and gourmet meals offered by LE SHACK, DAVID THWING THE MUSSEL KING, PROPRIETOR. And there, polishing sea gull dung off the sign with a white handkerchief, was the Mussel King himself.
The Snowden Family Clambake had never had a direct competitor. Sure, there were plenty of tour boats in Busman’s Harbor, and plenty of places to get a tasty lobster dinner, but no one else combined them into a “dining experience,” as we called it. Just when we’d gotten the clambake back on its feet, David Thwing had come along. I tried to see the situation rationally. To well-wishers and employees, I was upbeat about Thwing’s planned venture. “Just proves someone else believes there’s demand,” I said, parroting words I’d used to soothe panicky entrepreneurs and nervous investors back in my venture capital days.
But my emotional self couldn’t see it that way. Why, oh why, oh why? I’d fumed. Why now? The Snowden Family Clambake Company was saved, but barely. What if this new competition tipped us back into the red? We’d worked so hard. If the business went sideways again, we’d be right back where we started—owing tons of money, unable to support the family. It was all too much to think about.
David Thwing looked up and saw me. “Ms. Snowden,” he called. “Ms. Snowden!”
I recognized him from his many appearances in The Fog Horn, Busman’s Harbor’s weekly newspaper, but I was surprised he recognized me. I ran the clambake company with my sister’s husband, Sonny, and I’d happily let him lead the charge against Thwing. Sonny, our attack dog, had testified against Thwing at the public hearings as he’d sought space for his ticket kiosk on the town pier, docking rights for his tour boat, and so on. Thwing had prevailed in those early rounds. His successes irritated me, though I tried to be realistic about them. They infuriated Sonny.
I looked around the pier. It was Monday morning in the almost off-season and Thwing was the only person in sight. I sucked it up and crossed the road.
“Julia Snowden, we meet at last.” Thwing extended a hand and gave me his best chamber-of-commerce smile. He was a rangy man in his mid-forties, his bald head surrounded by curly, light brown hair that stuck straight up at the edges like a clown’s. His olive-green suit was a dead giveaway he was from out of town. In Busman’s Harbor, the only men who wore suits were funeral directors, bankers, and lawyers, and then only at work.
“Nice to meet you,” I responded through gritted teeth.
“I take it you’re the saner member of the family. Your brother-in-law doesn’t seem to want me in town. I hope you’re not afraid of a little competition.” He smiled an oily smile. He had a strange way of moving, like a marionette, all jerky elbows and knees.
“The Snowden Family Clambake has run a successful business in this harbor since my late father started it thirty-two years ago,” I said, staring straight into his mud-brown eyes, “I’m sure we’ll be fine.”
I said it with more confidence than I felt. Thwing’s restaurants offered superb seafood. I knew because I’d eaten several excellent meals at the flagship restaurant in Portland. Le Shack served upscale, gourmet food, including its signature mussels. Thwing had some sort of hotshot chef working for him and they’d been a runaway success. In the last few years, he’d expanded to become a mini-chain with five restaurants in Maine coast harbors stretching from Ogunquit to Bar Harbor.
“We’ll see if your little family operation has what it takes to go head-to-head with professionals. I give you less than a season.” He moved closer, towering over me. I was smaller and younger, but working in venture capital, I’d gone toe-to-toe with enough of these guys not to let him intimidate me. I moved around him and stepped over the threshold into his unfinished ticket kiosk.
“Mind if I take a look?” I asked, a little belatedly, since I was already inside.
“Be careful! That’s a construction zone. Get away from there!” Thwing threw his weirdly articulated arms in the air, elbows bent at sharp angles. In his green suit, he reminded me of a lobster attempting to roust another from its den. He obviously wanted me out of his ticket booth. Which made me stubbornly determined to stay put. I planted myself in his doorway as I continued our conversation.
“How’s the hunt for a venue going?” I asked, all innocence. “Find anything yet?” Thwing had received permission from the town to dock a tour boat and build a ticket booth, but I’d heard he lacked the one thing the Snowden Family Clambake had—a place to serve his food. Thwing needed a beautiful island or an isolated piece of beach on Eastclaw or Westclaw Point, the spits of land that surrounded Busman’s vast outer harbor. He would find a site, I was sure of it. There was always someone looking to sell out. But once he’d done that, he’d have to get permission to build on it, even to have a dock where his passengers could disembark. He’d need a victualer’s license and a liquor license and Sonny would be there, fighting him every step of the way.
Maybe we’d catch a break. I hoped so. If we didn’t, if Thwing got all his permits and built his restaurant, my options might melt away. I’d feel duty bound to run the clambake next summer as we competed with him.
“As a matter of fact, I’m looking at some promising properties today.” He pulled his phone from his suit pocket and glanced at the display. “Will you look at the time? If I don’t get going, I’ll be late.”
Then he charged off in his weird, stalking pace in the direction of the back harbor.
My business in town concluded, I steered our Boston Whaler back into the navy-blue water of Busman’s inner harbor. Most of the pleasure boat moorings were empty. The sailboats and cabin cruisers had been hauled out and stored in one of the harbor boatyards, or loaded onto trailers for the long drive to warmer winter waters. Only a few stalwarts remained, hoping to grab one last day.
I tried to shake off my strange encounter with the unpleasant David Thwing. I’d put Sonny’s personal animosity toward him down to the natural human impulse to vilify someone who posed a threat. But now that I’d met Thwing in person, I wasn’t so sure. With his not-so-veiled insults and oily smile, there was a lot not to like about him.
As I reached the outer harbor, the chop increased and I held tightly to the wheel of the Whaler. There were six islands in the outer harbor, three of them inhabited. The largest was Chipmunk, home to a summer colony with a hundred homes. Ferry service had ended on the first of October, so only the hardiest of summer residents remained. Next week, the town of Busman’s Harbor would turn off the great conduits that took fresh drinking water and electricity to the island and it would be abandoned for the winter.
Though the day was unseasonably warm, it was cold on the water, and got colder still when I passed Dinkum’s Light and exited through the narrow mouth of the harbor into the North Atlantic. I shivered in the heavy flannel shirt I wore over a Snowden Family Clambake T-shirt, wishing I’d shrugged into a sweatshirt before I’d started the boat. Fortunately, the trip to Morrow Island, two miles down the coast, was a short one and I was soon tying up at our dock.
I’d been living in the little house by the dock on Morrow Island for five weeks. My sister Livvie, her husband Sonny, and their nine-year-old daughter, Page, had lived there all summer, but moved back to their home on the mainland after Labor Day so Page could more easily attend school and swim team practice. I’d happily moved from my mother’s house in town where I’d been living since March out to the island. Fall was my favorite time of year to be there.
Le Roi, the island’s Maine coon cat, ran down the dock to greet me. Like many of his breed, he often behaved like a dog—loving a good swim, playing fetch, and welcoming the human inhabitants home. Though he behaved like a dog, Le Roi thought like a cat, which is to say he believed he owned me and not the other way around. I bent down, g. . .
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