Early October is "winding down" time in Busman's Harbor, Maine, but there's nothing relaxing about it for Julia Snowden. Between busloads of weekend leaf peepers at the Snowden Family Clambake and a gut renovation of the old mansion on Morrow Island, she's keeping it all together with a potentially volatile skeleton crew — until one of them turns up dead under the firewood.
When the Russian demo team clearing out the mansion discovers a room that's been sealed off for decades, Julia's baffled as to its purpose and what secrets it might have held. Tensions are already simmering with the crew, but when one of the workers is found murdered, things come to a boil. With the discovery of another body — and a mysterious diary with Cyrillic text in the hidden room — the pressure's on Julia to dig up a real killer fast. But she'll have to sort through a pile of suspects, including ex-spouses, a spurned lover, and a recently released prisoner, to fish out one clammed-up killer.
Release date: December 31, 2019
Publisher: Kensington Books
Print pages: 256
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“Has something new happened?”
“Look!” Sonny stepped back and pointed dramatically toward the roaring hardwood fire that heated the rocks we used to cook the food we served at our authentic Maine clambakes. The fall afternoon sun glinted off his short red hair, causing me to notice for the first time that it was thinning.
From the great lawn on Morrow Island where we stood, I followed his finger to the bit of shoreline where the fire burned. A familiar scene was playing out. Jason Caraway, a longtime member of Sonny’s fire pit crew, leaned on a rake and flirted madly with Emmy Bailey, one of our servers. At forty-five, Jason was more than a dozen years older than Emmy, but he was handsome and well muscled from hard physical labor, which he performed both here at the clambake and on his lobster boat. His abundant dark hair showed some gray and there were laugh lines around his blue eyes, which only made him more attractive. Most of all, he had that thing, that pheromone thing that only a few people have, which makes them attractive like shiny objects. You couldn’t not look at him.
Emmy smiled, laughed, and stood a little too close. She had tables to set up, lemonade and ice tea pitchers to fill, and caddies of condiments and cutlery to put out to get ready to serve the customers who had arrived on our tour boat fifteen minutes earlier. But she didn’t move. It was easy to see why men were attracted to Emmy. She had a cute round face surrounded by curly blond hair and she was curvy in all the right places. But more than that, there was something about her that was solid, in her body—the way it seemed to grow out of the ground, like a tree—and in her personality. She was a busy single mom who worked two jobs to keep her little family afloat in the trailer she had parked on her grandmother’s property. She’d been dealt a tough hand, which she’d compounded with some bad decisions of her own when she’d been younger, but she didn’t let it get to her.
Beside me Sonny said, “Here we go.”
As we watched, Pru Caraway, Jason’s ex-wife, strode down to the fire from our kitchen carrying a basket of scrubbed, skin-on potatoes wrapped in foil to be cooked with the lobsters, steamed clams, and other foods that made up the clambake meal. She stepped in between Jason and Emmy, even though there was barely two feet for her to squeeze into, and handed the basket to Jason.
He thanked her for the potatoes, put the basket down, and stepped closer to Emmy, forcing Pru out of the circle. Pru didn’t move and instead talked directly to Jason, clearly scolding him for something. I couldn’t hear her from where we stood, but I doubted that mattered. The point of her speech wasn’t to convey information. It was to get Jason’s attention and keep it off Emmy.
I’d seen variations on this dance since July, when Jason had started flirting with Emmy. Both he and Pru were valued longtime employees of the Snowden Family Clambake Company. The whole awkward dynamic hadn’t been so visible when the clambake was in full swing. But since Labor Day, we’d been open only for one seating each on Saturdays and Sundays and for special bookings like corporate picnics or bus tours during the week. The teachers who had worked with us all summer had returned to their school districts, the college students to their campuses. We were holding the clambake together with a skeleton crew, and that upped the tension created by having two formerly married people and the current person of interest for one of them working on the same small island.
“Now watch,” Sonny muttered. Terry Durand approached the little circle, carrying an armload of hardwood. It was a lame excuse to intrude. The fire didn’t need more wood. The clambake fire crew, Jason, Terry, and Sonny, would soon be removing the wood embers with their rakes, leaving only the hot stones behind. The food—two lobsters, soft-shell clams called steamers, a potato, an ear of corn, an onion, and an egg for each guest—would be covered with seaweed and saltwater-soaked cotton tarps and cooked by the hot rocks below it.
As Sonny and I watched, Jason looked Terry in the eye and said something dismissive, following his words with a sharp shake of his head. Terry dropped the wood and stood his ground, his chest pushed out. Emmy backed up a step, as if she was uncomfortable and wanted to move away. Jason put a hand on her forearm, urging her to stay. Pru stayed where she was, a raw red hand on her thin hip. The tension floated up from the group like a dust storm, visible and uncomfortable.
“Pru’s the aggressor,” I pointed out. “It’s her behavior that’s changed.” Pru had made her displeasure with Jason’s attention to Emmy known to everyone, though she’d never started something with the two of them directly before. Never scolded Jason publicly as she was clearly doing now.
“Terry’s what’s different,” Sonny countered. “Besides, we’re not firing Jason or Pru. They’ve worked for us forever. They worked for your dad, for Pete’s sake.”
As if to prove Sonny’s point, Terry moved in tighter, standing directly in front of Jason in the space Emmy had created when she’d backed up. He was too close, and clearly none of the four of them were happy.
Around them, all over beautiful Morrow Island, smiling guests played bocce and volleyball, hiked over the high hill to the little beach, or simply relaxed at the picnic tables with friends and family while they enjoyed a drink and anticipated the feast. It was a gorgeous Saturday, the first weekend in October. The sky was cloudless, the sun bright, the temperature nearly perfect. Earlier in the week, there’d been a vicious three-day storm, the remnant of a hurricane, which had kept the lobster boats in the harbor. Sonny and I had come out to the island afterward to clear away the downed branches and right the blown over furniture. All and all, the island had come through pretty well.
“You see what I mean?” Sonny pointed to Terry. “We do hot, dangerous work at the clambake fire. I can’t have all this going on. I need my guys focused. I need to be focused, not wondering if a fistfight is going to break out.”
I couldn’t deny what he said, so I tried buying time. “Two weeks, Sonny. Six clambakes. Today, tomorrow, and the cruise ship special on Monday, and then three days over Columbus Day weekend. Then we’ll be shut down for the season. This”—I gestured toward the group of four below us—“will get worked out over the winter. Emmy will either be with Jason or Terry or with neither of them. If she’s with Jason, Pru will have learned to live with it. If it’s not sorted out by the spring, I won’t ask Terry back.”
“I want him gone today.”
Sonny knew what he was asking of me. Terry was the older brother of my boyfriend, Chris Durand. They had been estranged for years. That had finally ended in early August when Chris visited him at the Maine State Prison in Warren. Terry had been there for ten years for a convenience store robbery during which a clerk had been shot.
Terry had been released in late August after serving his full term. He was jobless and homeless and had returned to Busman’s Harbor, where we all lived and where he’d grown up. He was living on Chris’s old wooden sailboat, the Dark Lady.
Chris had asked me to give Terry a job. The Snowden Family Clambake was always desperate for help in the fall. Terry had no food service experience and the third guy who worked in the summers with Sonny and Jason had returned to his teaching job in Maryland. The fire pit crew was the obvious place.
Since I’d stepped in to rescue the Snowden Family Clambake from almost certain bankruptcy two years earlier, I had largely kept the peace with Sonny by staying out of his area of expertise, the clambake fire. He did the hiring, he ran his crew. Hiring was rare in any case, since the same guys returned year after year. Sonny put a lot of stock in the group’s esprit de corps, and given the mess it would cause if the food wasn’t cooked properly, and how dangerous working around the fire was, I could see his point.
So I ran the business, and worked the front of the house. Sonny worked the fire pit, and my sister, Livvie, Sonny’s wife, along with Pru and one other longtime employee, put out the rest of the clambake meal—the chowder, melted butter, clam broth for cleaning the clams, and the blueberry grunt we served with vanilla ice cream for dessert—from our tiny kitchen. As we neared the end of the season the whole situation felt more and more claustrophobic. I was counting the days until we shuttered.
“Two weeks,” I said. “Six clambakes, counting today. That’s all I’m asking. You know Terry isn’t just an employee.”
Sonny puffed his barrel chest out. “Jason isn’t just an employee, either. Neither is Pru.”
“Neither is Emmy.” Emmy was the mother of Sonny’s daughter’s best friend, among other things.
It was true. None of them were just employees. “Please,” I finally said.
Sonny shrugged his broad shoulders and gave up. “Okay. But it’s a mistake. When this blows up, and it will, I’m going to say I told you so.”
“Fair warning,” I agreed, and we each returned to our predinner duties.
Twenty minutes after dessert was served, I rang the ship’s bell, mounted on a post at the entrance to the dock, giving guests a ten-minute warning to pack up their stuff and climb aboard our tour boat, the Jacquie II. Emmy Bailey put her son Luther in his stroller to wheel him to the boat. He yelled, “No!” something he was increasingly prone to, and held his body rigid, refusing to bend to fit in the seat.
“Luther, please,” Emmy murmured. “Mommy’s tired.” Luther relented.
Terry appeared out of nowhere. He picked up Luther’s diaper bag and whistled to Emmy’s eleven-year-old daughter Vanessa, who was nearby, running in circles with my niece Page. Much as I wanted the clambake season to end, I didn’t want the girls’ golden summer to. But they were back in school. The days were shorter, the nights chilly. One down and five more clambakes to go.
I was in charge of getting Page back to the mainland. As soon as the main course had been served, Sonny had taken Livvie back to town in our Boston Whaler. We were having a special dinner at Mom’s house that night and Livvie was cooking.
Pru and Jason had also caught a ride with them, as they often did when their duties at the clambake were done. Over the last two summers, Jason had occasionally arrived at the island in his gleaming new lobster boat. The Money Honey was top-of-the-line, a gorgeous boat with a powerful engine and all the gizmos a lobsterman could want. He hadn’t brought it today. He’d come and gone in the Whaler. Pru usually commuted that way, too, since her work in the kitchen required her to start before the Jacquie II arrived.
Vanessa and Page responded to Terry’s whistle and headed for the boat, running and giggling.
“Slow down, girls!” I called. “Watch out for the guests.” Page and Vanessa shuffled to a stop and joined the back of the line for boarding. Terry, the diaper bag slung over his shoulder, helped Emmy push Luther to the top of the path that led to the dock.
While the clambake guests slowly made their way aboard, I turned and sprinted in the other direction, up to the top of the island to the abandoned mansion built by my mother’s ancestors. Windsholme. Since the last Morrow had stayed there in 1929, the once-grand house had been given just enough maintenance to keep it standing. Two summers before, during my first season back home running the clambake, the mansion had burned. Not burned down, but its winding central staircase was destroyed as were parts of the roof. Now, after much debate, and a huge stroke of not-so-blind luck, my family was renovating it.
The original plan had called for the demo crew not to work on the few remaining days when the clambake was open. They had another job going on the mainland where they could work on those days. But losing three days to the storm had thrown everything out of whack. Mark Cochran, the general contractor, had called and begged. We all hoped to have the demo done by the time the weather turned, when work on the island would be too difficult to continue.
Mark opened the French doors that led from the dining room as I stepped onto the front porch.
“Julia.” He didn’t look particularly happy to see me. He folded his flannel-clad arms, hugging his clipboard to his chest.
“I wanted to make sure you’re doing demolition on the third floor only. You haven’t done anything on the second or first, right?”
He grimaced, impatient with my checking and rechecking. “We’ve removed the fire damage around the staircase as agreed and now we’re working on the third floor. Also as agreed. Don’t worry, Julia. The first and second floors are intact.”
I tried to get around him to step inside, but he planted his size-thirteen work boots firmly in my path. “Don’t you have a boat to catch?” He looked down toward the dock where the line of passengers waiting to board had dwindled to a handful.
“It’s just that, as I told you, my mother’s”—I searched for the word to describe the relationship—“elderly cousin is coming to the clambake tomorrow. She’s the only person alive who stayed in the house in its glory days. I would be crushed if she couldn’t see it before we ripped out walls and pantries, and—” I struggled, the words gone. After a long, circular journey, I had come around to the idea of updating the mansion for a business and family with twenty-first-century needs. Even though I’d never lived there, I’d roamed its empty rooms since I was a child. If I was having trouble with the destruction that had to come before the construction, I couldn’t imagine how Cousin Marguerite would react.
“So you’ve told me.” Mark shifted from foot to foot in his work boots. “The crew and I have to get back to town. It’s quitting time.”
I nodded my thanks and turned to go. Mark’s regular carpenters had done some preparatory work, but the demo crew had only been able to spend one day at the mansion. The previous week’s storm had come as something of a surprise. It had been expected to track much farther to the east and pass “safely out to sea” as the forecasters loved to say, forgetting about all the people in peril out there. By the time it turned, Mark had to rush out to the island with his regular employees to secure Windsholme and cart away the debris the demo crew had created in their single day of work so it wouldn’t fly around and cause more damage. He had job sites all up and down the Maine coast. We’d been lucky he got to us in time.
As I climbed off the porch I looked over at the two dumpsters parked by the house. One was partially filled with fire-damaged wood, the other with molding and plaster covered in pieces of wallpaper I recognized as coming from the servants’ rooms on the third floor. The demo crew was making great progress in the right places.
Captain George let out one long, loud blast of the Jacquie II’s horn and I raced down the path toward the boat. I reached it just in time.
Right after we pulled away from the dock, a wave of chatter ran through the boat. Page and I followed it to the stern where the guests stood smiling, pointing, and taking photos. A young harbor seal sat on a rock at the end of the island, in front of an empty osprey nest. The seal had big, round, intelligent eyes, like a . . .
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