In the ninth installment of the award-winning Maine Clambake Mystery series, Julia Snowden and the Snowden Family Clambake Company return for another case of mystery and murder in Maine—this time, Julia must uncover the murderer of an oyster farmer.
When oyster farmer Andie Greatorex is robbed of a bucket of oyster seed worth $35,000, she comes to Julia Snowden for help. Who wants to sink Andie's successful business? Is it a rival oyster farmer, an ex-employee, a neighbor who objects to the oyster cages floating on the beautiful Damariscotta River, a lobsterman who feels pushed out by the farm leases, or someone from Andie's personal life?
Then Andie turns up dead, floating by her dock in the SCUBA gear she wears when harvesting her oysters. Julia's head start puts her in a perfect position to help her friends in the Maine State police major crimes unit with the investigation. But can Julia make sure the right suspect gets sent up the river before she ends up in a watery grave?
Release date: February 23, 2021
Publisher: Kensington Books
Print pages: 304
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“You mean Andie from your poker nights?” I put my hand out to cover my confusion. For two years, I’d been laboring under the misapprehension that “Andy” was a man. “No, we haven’t. I’m Julia.”
She took my hand and shook. “Andie. Greatorex. So glad to finally meet.” Her handshake was firm and strong, which seemed right given her looks. She was tall, broad-shouldered, and obviously fit. Her sandy-blonde hair, pulled back in a high ponytail, framed a round face with wide set, hazel eyes. She appeared to be in her mid-thirties, like Chris and me. Also, like Chris and me, she wore jeans, work boots, a T-shirt and a plaid, flannel overshirt, as if we were planning on starting our own Grunge band. Andie’s T-shirt was maroon and had the words, GREAT RIVER OYSTERS on it in white block letters. My T-shirt was navy and said, SNOWDEN FAMILY CLAMBAKE. Chris “doesn’t wear advertising,” quote, unquote, so his T-shirt was blank.
In other words, we were dressed appropriately for a morning in coastal Maine in mid-May. Outside, pre-season tourists From Away wore jackets and windbreakers, but we natives were hardier.
I looked from Chris to Andie and back again, wondering why they were here. It could have been an informal visit, Chris running into Andie on the street and spontaneously deciding to bring her to meet me in the second-floor office in my mother’s house where I ran our clambake business. Somehow, I doubted it.
He took a step forward and spoke. “I invited Andie today because she has a problem and we wondered if you could help.”
I was intrigued. “Please sit.” They sat in the two wooden guest chairs on the other side of the big mahogany desk that had been my late father’s when he ran the business. The office was large and light. Three windows across the front of the house allowed me to look down the hill to the town pier, where our ticket kiosk stood and where our tour boat, the Jacquie II, was docked waiting for customers who would start coming Memorial Day Weekend. I hadn’t changed a thing about the room since my dad had died. It still had the metal file cabinets in the corner and the big prints of sailing ships on the walls.
“How can I help?” I asked.
Andie glanced at Chris for encouragement and then began. “I was robbed yesterday.”
“That’s terrible.” Busman’s Harbor was a place where people left keys in their vehicles and the doors to their homes unlocked. But we weren’t immune from the scourge of drug addiction that plagued the rest of the country and the petty theft that went with it.
“She was attacked and then robbed,” Chris clarified.
That was different, and far, far more unusual. “How awful. I am so sorry.” I looked into Andie’s lightly freckled face. She didn’t seem the worse for wear, no scratches or bruises. I felt badly for her, but I didn’t see what it had to do with me.
Andie cleared her throat. “Chris has talked at poker, many times, about how you’ve helped the police solve crimes. He’s proud of you.” She smiled at Chris who beamed at me. He wasn’t one to parade his feelings around, and I felt a warm glow creeping up my neck into my face. Where was this going? “And when this happened, I thought, well, I thought maybe you could help. So I called Chris, and here we are.”
Questions and more questions. “What was stolen?” I expected an answer like cash, credit cards, phone.
“Two buckets of oyster spat.”
“What the what?” Spat?
Andie smiled and her shoulders dropped into a more relaxed position. “Two big white pails of oyster seed—teeny-tiny baby oysters. I run the Great River Oyster Farm on the Damariscotta River. I bought the seed from the hatchery and was carrying the buckets from my truck to my dock when it happened.”
Oyster seed. That was a new one. “Did you report it to police?”
“In Damariscotta, right away.” Damariscotta was the largest town on the next peninsula north of ours (or east of ours, as Mainers would have it). The town was about forty minutes from Busman’s Harbor at times of the year when there wasn’t any tourist-related traffic.
I shifted in my chair, preparing to deliver a difficult message. “I know it seems like twenty-four hours is a long time when you’ve been assaulted and robbed. I can’t imagine how you must be feeling. But you need to give the police more time.”
She waved a hand. “I’m not concerned about the time. The oysters are dead unless the person who robbed me has the equipment and know-how to care for them. I’m concerned the police don’t understand the motive.”
“Don’t understand it how?” The motive for most robberies seemed pretty straightforward. You have something the other person wants. End of story.
Andie took a deep breath. “The police think it was a simple robbery.” She paused. “I think it was an act designed to cripple my business. Sabotage.”
A loaded word. My eyebrows jumped involuntarily. “Sabotage. How, who, and why?”
“That’s what I’d like you to help me figure out.”
“You think someone is out to get you, but you don’t know who or why?”
Andie nodded. “Right. The method was stealing the seed. It doesn’t make sense that someone would do it for the money. This was done specifically to hurt me. There’s no other explanation for it.”
I doodled on the leather-framed paper calendar that functioned as a blotter on my desk, buying time. It was flattering that Chris bragged about my detective skills at his weekly off-season poker game. I had aided the police with their inquiries before. But I still didn’t get what exactly Andie’s problem had to do with me, or why she had lost faith in her local police so quickly. “If there’s no explanation aside from sabotage, why do you think the police are convinced it was a simple robbery?”
“They’re distracted by the value of the seed. It’s a big number.”
“I paid $35,000 cash for those two buckets.”
Whoa. My better judgement screamed at me to shut my mouth, but my curiosity, always the devil on my shoulder, won out. “How do you think I can help?”
“You can investigate. Figure out who hates me that much. Because the seed are so valuable, the police think my robbery was about financial gain for the thief. I’m convinced the motive was to ruin me. Maybe the person who did this thinks it will put me out of business because if I buy more seed, I might not have the cash I need to hire summer staff and run the business. Or maybe they hope the damage will be in the long term. That I won’t replace the seed and my crop three years from now will be too small to sustain me.” She paused. “Neither is true, by the way. I have the cash to replace the seed. It’s not the money I’m worried about so much as the motive.”
Chris spoke up for the first time since our little meeting had begun. “I wasn’t sure exactly what you could do, Julia, but I figured you could poke around, like you do, and help Andie figure this out.”
“This is a different situation.” I pushed back, but didn’t say more.
“You’ve learned from what you’ve done.” Chris clearly was heavily invested in having me help his friend.
The three of us looked from one to the other. I sensed there was something more, something Andie wasn’t telling me, but whether her reluctance came because she didn’t want to talk in front of Chris or for some other reason, I couldn’t tell. Once I’d gotten over my surprise that she wasn’t a man, my first impression of her was good. She seemed smart and cool and she owned and ran a successful oyster farm.
“Tell you what,” I said. “I’ll come visit you tomorrow morning and we can talk some more. No commitment. If I don’t think I can help, I’ll be honest.”
“Thank you!” Andie gave me an address on the River Road which I wrote on the blotter. “As for the time, you name it. I’m a farmer, I get up with the sun.”
“I’m not a farmer.” I worked late into the evening most of the year, either running the Snowden Family Clambake dinner service during tourist season or, with Chris, a restaurant that catered to locals in the off-season. “I’ll see you at nine thirty tomorrow morning.”
Chris walked Andie out. They clumped down the staircase, both in their heavy boots. The old front door of my mother’s house creaked open, good-byes were spoken, and then I heard a single set of footsteps coming back up the stairs.
“You didn’t tell me Andie Greatorex is a woman.”
Clearly not the greeting Chris had been expecting. He rocked back on his heels. His brow crinkled upward with surprise, emphasizing the lines around his deep green eyes. The lines reflected a lot of laughter, a lot of pain, and a life lived outdoors. “Of course she’s a woman.”
“How would I know that? On the rare occasions when you do mention her it’s always ‘Andie this,’ ‘Andie that.’ I pictured a guy.” I sounded annoyed because I was.
“Everyone around here knows Andie,” he insisted.
That shut me up for a minute. I’d grown up in Busman’s Harbor, but I’d been away for boarding school, college, grad school, and work. It was the beginning of my third season back in town running my family’s clambake business. People forgot I didn’t know everything. “Why did you bring her here? How do you think I can help her?”
Chris looked surprised. “It’s what you do, isn’t it? Help people who’ve been involved in crimes.”
I’d never quite heard it put that way. “I have, in the past, helped the state police Major Crimes Unit with investigations, but my principle contribution was local knowledge. I don’t know anything about Damariscotta. I don’t know the cops there. It’s a whole other thing.”
Chris sat in one of the guest chairs, his long legs sprawled in front of him. “Julia, I wouldn’t ask, but Andie’s seriously upset. She’s a good friend, an old friend, and you like to investigate, at least you appear to. And it’s a good time for you to do it.”
By ‘it’s a good time,’ he meant it was a quiet time of year business-wise. We had shut down our restaurant, Gus’s Too, which we ran as a place for local people to have a meal or a drink during the off season when everything else was closed. And the Snowden Family Clambake hadn’t started up yet. But that didn’t mean I wasn’t busy. I looked at the employment applications fanned out on my desk. I had critical positions to fill at the clambake before we opened in ten short days. And I had suppliers to find, including a new primary supplier for our steamers, the soft-shell clams that gave the bake its name. But Chris was right, my schedule was more flexible now than it would be at any time until the fall.
“Are all the people in your poker game women?”
Chris laughed and I did, too. “Andie is the only one. You know Sam for heaven’s sake.” Sam Rockmaker was Chris’s boss at Crowley’s, Busman’s Harbor’s noisiest, most touristy bar, where he worked as a bouncer evenings, his third job during the tourist season.
I looked down at the mess on my desk and then up at Chris, who remained relaxed, casually sprawled in the chair. “Was there ever anything between you and Andie?”
Even though it made me sound like a jealous nutcase, it was a reasonable question. Chris of the long, rangy body, tousled hair, green eyes, and freaking chin dimple, was as my mother originally described him, “too handsome for his own good.” He’d been my middle school crush when he was a senior, a football captain, and all-around high school god. No one had been more astonished than me when we’d gotten together after I returned to town. The interim period had given Chris a decade and a half as a free-range bachelor. I never quite got used to being stopped all over town by women asking, “How’s Chris?” or telling me to “Say hi to Chris.” That sort of thing had settled down a good deal over the past year, but it was still there. Chris, to his credit, was incredibly patient and supportive about my little freak-outs about his past.
“Absolutely not. Andie and I have been friends for ages, but only friends.”
I nodded. “I like her. I think we could be friends, too.”
The next morning at 9:32 a.m. my navy-blue Subaru wagon bumped up the long, narrow private road to Great River Oysters. I’d seen the Great River sign out on the River Road hundreds of times as I’d driven from Busman’s Harbor to Damariscotta, but I’d never visited the business. At work, I had my hands full of clams and lobsters. I didn’t know a thing about oysters.
Andie’s company was housed in two connected wooden buildings, painted white. There was a retail outlet for the oysters and barn-like structure that looked like it was used for packing and shipping. A few picnic tables were scattered on a flat piece of lawn, presumably for people who purchased oysters and wanted to eat them on the spot.
A sign on the door to the store said CLOSED, but a red pickup truck and a beat-up Toyota stood in the dirt parking area. As I approached a kid came out. He looked young and I wondered momentarily why he wasn’t in school, but decided he could be a recent high school graduate or a college student already out for the summer.
“Are you Julia? Andie’s expecting you. She’s down on the dock.”
“Thanks.” He pointed me to a dirt road that descended steeply toward the river.
There was a strip of woods, about a hundred yards wide on my left as I walked. Through the bright spring leaves, I could see the start of a neighbor’s lawn on the other side of it. As I came around a curve at the bottom of the road, a large dock complex with a shed on it came into view.
“Julia!” Andie stood on the end of the dock taking off a wetsuit. “Thanks for coming.”
“Happy to. This is quite an operation.”
Andie finished removing the suit and hung it to dry. “Let me show you around.” She had a bright-red two-piece bathing suit on under the wetsuit. She stepped into a pair of khaki shorts and pulled on a blue cotton shirt as she spoke. The day was bright and sunny, but it was still May in Maine. That morning I’d put my jeans on as usual, but instead of my uniform of flannel-shirt-overT-shirt, I put on a nice pink top and a navy-blue cardigan. Instead of boots, I’d worn a pair of navy flats I usually reserved for when I was hosting at Gus’s Too. Andie looked a little underdressed to me, but she’d just come out of some very cold water.
As we walked down the dock, I was conscious of how Andie towered over me. I’m small but strong from my work at the clambake. Andie, in her looks and movement, radiated power. Whoever had attacked her had a heck of a lot of nerve.
She led me from the main dock to an attached floating platform, opened a white box suspended in the water, stuck in a hand, and pulled out a handful of sand. “These are baby oysters,” she said. “A week older than the ones that were stolen.”
I bent closer so I could see. “They look like . . .”
“Quinoa.” She laughed. “Everybody says that.”
“How many oysters is that?” I pointed to her hand.
“This? Maybe five thousand. At this stage, there are sixty thousand of them in each upweller.”
“And that’s an upweller?”
“These are upwellers.” She pointed to the white box, which truly was the size of a breadbox, and five others like it. “They’re nurseries for baby oysters,” she explained. “The upwellers hang from the dock and a pump system pushes water through to make sure the oysters get plenty of nutrients.” She returned the handful to the box. “Well-fed baby oysters grow like crazy. They double in size every day—and they make a lot of poop. Every other day we open each upweller, shift and sort the oysters and . . .
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