Barbara Ross returns to glorious Maine with a spooky but fun Julia Snowden mystery set during Halloween season.
Three teenage girls having a sleepover on Halloween night get spooked when high schoolers crash the house for a party. But no one expected to find a crasher like Mrs. Zelisko, the elderly third floor tenant, dead in the backyard—dressed in a sheet like a ghost. With her niece traumatized, Julia Snowden must uncover who among the uninvited guests was responsible for devising such a murderous trick . . .
Praise for Shucked Apart
“An intelligent, well-plotted page-turner with likeable characters and a doozy of an ending. Highly recommended.”
[Originally published in Halloween Party Murder]
Release date: August 22, 2023
Publisher: Kensington Books
Print pages: 112
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Another sniffle. “Yes.”
“Some older kids came. They brought some beers.” More sniffles.
“I’m on my way.”
I turned off the TV, shoved my feet into a pair of flats, grabbed my keys, and headed for the stairs. I hoofed it down the harbor hill toward my mom’s house, where my car was stored in her garage. I was nervous, curious, but not panicked. Page was a sensible kid, mature for her age. Surprised as I was by the call, I was confident she could handle herself until I got there.
As I went, I turned back to look at my place. My studio apartment was dark, as I intended, to discourage trick-or-treaters. Gus’s restaurant on the first floor of the building was closed up tight. For two off-seasons, I had run a dinner restaurant in Gus’s space with my boyfriend, Chris. But Chris and I were no longer, and neither was the restaurant. We’d talked about trying to carry on despite the change in our personal status and decided it would be too hard.
Mom’s porch light was on and welcoming, even though it was almost ten o’clock and no one would still be trick-or-treating except the hardiest of teenagers. She was babysitting for my three-year-old nephew, Jack. I didn’t stop to go inside but hurried around to the three-car garage at the back.
My sister, Livvie, and brother-in-law, Sonny, were in Portland, attending a Halloween party at a friend’s house and then staying overnight in a hotel. It was the first time they’d been away without the kids since—honestly, it may have been the first time they’d ever been away without the kids. Livvie had been pregnant with Page when she and Sonny got married, so their domestic life started with a bang, like two teenagers shot out of a cannon. I really, really hoped whatever was going on with Page wouldn’t require me to call them.
Page had declared herself too old for trick-or-treating. She and her best friend, Vanessa, were supposed to be having a sleepover at their new friend Talia’s house. It had all been arranged by my sister. I was merely backup to the backup.
Busman’s Harbor was quiet as the grave. As I drove down Main Street, the stores that were still open in the off-season had brightly lit windows displaying Halloween or harvest scenes, but no one was about. I drove cautiously nonetheless, wary of stragglers in costumes jumping out from between parked cars.
I saw the flashing blue lights of all three of Busman’s Harbor’s patrol cars as soon as I turned off Main onto Talia’s street. Adrenaline surged, tensing my body and causing my heart to thrum in my chest. Whatever was going on was way more serious than I’d assumed. Every light in Talia’s big Victorian house was on, which made it look like a demented jack-o’-lantern from the street. I screeched to the curb and jumped out, pelting toward the steps.
My friend Jamie Dawes, in his police uniform, opened the front door. “Whoa, Julia. The girls are fine.”
I two-stepped, catching my breath. “Then why are you here? And why did Page call me to pick her up?”
“C’mon in, and see for yourself.”
Jamie led me into a large front hallway, open to the third floor with a staircase winding along the walls. An enormous brass chandelier hung from the ceiling three stories above. The curtained French doors that presumably led to the front room were closed. I followed Jamie toward the back of the house.
The granite countertops and hardwood floor in the big kitchen were sticky with spilled, smelly beer. Potato-chip crumbs were dusted across the room, like feathers from a particularly vicious pillow fight. Most of the cabinet doors hung open. One had obviously served as Talia’s parents’ bar. It was empty except for a single, quarter-full bottle of gin tipped on its side.
“Did the other kids take off when you pulled up?” I asked.
“No. Something spooked them before we got here. We drove up the street to waves of teenagers, half of them in costume, running in the opposite direction. It was like the zombie apocalypse.”
I laughed and relaxed. Jamie wouldn’t be joking if Page was hurt.
Jamie flashed his familiar, comforting grin. He was a cop in this situation, but he was also an old friend. His mom and dad’s yard backed onto my parents’ property. Now he lived in the house alone. His parents had moved to Florida to be near his older sister. For three years, he’d been the newest member of Busman’s Harbor’s six-person police force, until a retirement had led to the hiring of a new “new guy” the previous spring.
“There wasn’t a soul to be seen as I drove over,” I told him. Through the back window I spotted flashlight beams bobbing in the backyard.
“Pete and the other guys are looking for stragglers,” Jamie reassured me. “The girls are in the living room.”
Page was the brave one who spoke up. “We were having a sleepover,” she said, and then stopped. I let the silence fall heavy between us and waited for the rest of the story. “We texted some girls in our class and invited them over,” she finally admitted.
“Did you have permission to invite anyone else?” I could guess the answer.
“No.” Page hung her head, her bright red curls falling across her freckled cheeks. A single tear fell from the end of her nose.
“It was just three girls,” Vanessa added loyally. She would defend Page in any situation. They’d been best friends since Vanessa had moved to town three years earlier. Physically, they couldn’t have been more different. Page was tall, taller than me already. She’d probably already attained her full height and had a swimmer’s powerful body. Vanessa had long, tawny brown hair and improbable green eyes. She’d always been the shortest kid in their class and was still awaiting her growth spurt. But woe to anyone who was tempted to intimidate her based on her size. She was also, probably, my ex-boyfriend Chris’s niece, but that mess was no longer my problem.
“Girls we know, our own age,” Vanessa added.
I nodded. I was more than two decades older than these girls, but I remembered how these things went.
“They must have told other kids, even though they swear they didn’t.” Page was a little feistier than she’d been at first. Looking for scapegoats. “And then kids started coming.”
“Boys,” Vanessa said. “Big boys, with beers. And girls, like from the high school.”
“Before we knew it, the house was full,” Page continued. “Kids were everywhere, even in Talia’s parents’ bedroom.” She made a gagging face. “The music was really, really loud, and they wouldn’t turn it down, even when we asked them. And there was a fight.”
“Not really a bad fight,” Vanessa clarified. “Two boys were shoving and shouting in the backyard.”
“Where are your parents?” I asked Talia. Livvie never would have agreed to a sleepover if she’d known no adults would be at home.
“At a party,” Talia said. It was the first time she’d spoken. She was brown-eyed and brown-haired. Her height split the difference between Page and Vanessa. She looked like she’d been a good-looking child who was now passing through a mild, adolescent rough patch on her way to being a good-looking adult.
“Then who’s in charge?” I asked.
“Mrs. Zelisko,” Talia volunteered. “She lives upstairs.”
“Oh.” I had a passing knowledge of Mrs. Zelisko, a short, round, older woman I’d seen around town.
“We tried to fi. . .
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