A dead man in a Maine diner serves up trouble for one young woman in this Agatha Award–nominated cozy mystery by the author of Musseled Out.
An autumn chill has settled over Busman’s Harbor, Maine, but Julia Snowden is warming up the town by offering lobster stew at the local diner. When her landlord discovers a dead body in the walk-in refrigerator, Julia must figure out who ordered up a side of murder.
Nothing’s colder than a corpse—especially one stashed inside a sub-zero fridge. The victim spent his last night on earth dining at the restaurant bar, so naturally Julia finds herself at the center of the ensuing investigation. Lost in the November fog, however, is who’d want to kill the unidentified stranger—and why. It might have something to do with a suspicious group of retirees and a decades-old tragedy to which they’re all connected. One thing’s for sure: Julia’s going to make solving this mystery her early bird special…
Includes Traditional Maine Clambake Recipes!
Praise for Fogged Inn
“A cleverly crafted, character-driven whodunit that engages readers both intellectually and emotionally.”—Crimespree Magazine
“An entirely surprising conclusion wraps up this smartly-plotted mystery whose heroine is intelligent and as appealing as the gorgeous Maine coast.”—Kings River Life Magazine
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By Barbara Ross
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2016 Barbara Ross
All rights reserved.
"Jule-YA! There's a dead guy in the walk-in."
My brain swam slowly out of a deep slumber. My boyfriend, Chris Durand, rolled over in my bed. "What was that?" "Dunno. Gus. Something about the walk-in." I knew, from unfortunately frequent experience, that my landlord, Gus Farnham, had opened the door that connected his restaurant downstairs to my studio apartment above and bellowed up the stairs.
"What is it now?" Chris mumbled. We'd been sharing the restaurant space for a little over a month. Gus served breakfast and lunch as he had for more than fifty years. Chris and I ran the restaurant for dinner. Gus was very particular about how he wanted things left, and as careful as Chris and I had been, we'd managed to annoy the old curmudgeon practically every day. Chris pulled the duvet around his shoulders. "Time is it?"
I grabbed my phone off the bedside table. "Five after five."
Chris groaned. We'd finally gotten to bed after one in the morning — four scant hours before. "Can you handle it?" he asked. "He called you."
"Jule-YA!" Gus bellowed again. "There's a stiff in the refrigerator."
I heard it that time. He definitely had my attention. I felt around for my red wool robe and slipped my feet into my lamb's-wool-lined moccasins. "Coming!"
Gus stood at the bottom of the stairs, hands on hips. He'd flipped on the overhead lights in the restaurant, providing a warm, homey glow in contrast to the dark that crept in through the windows.
I blinked the sleep from my eyes. "What did you say?"
"There's a dead guy in my walk-in refrigerator. You leave him there?"
I didn't answer. It was a ridiculous question. I marched to the big refrigerator and swung open the heavy stainless steel door.
There was a dead guy in there. He was seated on the floor, his back resting against the lower two shelves, face upturned. His eyes were wide open, as if in surprise. He looked as if he were alive, but I could tell he wasn't. I'd seen dead bodies before. Just to make sure, I took a big gulp of air to steady myself and felt the base of his throat for a pulse.
His skin was cold. Dead cold and refrigerator cold. I snatched my hand back, took another deep breath to tamp down the emotions swirling in my chest — repulsion, sadness, fear of an unknown future — and sprinted out of the walk-in Indiana Jones style, as if the floor were crumbling behind me.
"Think I didn't check him already?" Gus groused from behind me. "You know how he got here?"
Deep breaths. "Nope."
"So you never seen him before?"
"I didn't say that." I walked back to the bottom of the stairs and opened the door. "Chris! You need to get down here. Now!" Chris mumbled something I didn't understand, but I heard his feet hit the floor. "You call the cops?" I asked Gus.
"Nine-one-one. As soon as I spotted him." As if in response, I heard the sound of sirens approaching.
Gus, who had better ears than anyone his age had a right to, heard them too. "Don't need to make all that racket. He's dead."
Chris came down the stairs, light brown hair tousled from sleep, still buttoning his flannel shirt over his bare, well-muscled chest. We'd been together for five rocky months, yet the sight of him still made my heart beat faster.
"You were in bed?" Gus asked him. Gus and his wife, Mrs. Gus, had risen at 4 AM every morning for decades. She, so she could bake the delicious pies Gus served at the restaurant, and he, so he could open early to feed the lobstermen and fishermen of Busman's Harbor, Maine. As a result, Gus had trouble believing anyone was still sleeping at five o'clock. Chris and I had explained to him time and again that we were often up late closing the restaurant and then cleaning up to his exacting specifications, but he treated the information as if it were irrelevant. Last night, due to circumstances well beyond our control, we'd been up even later.
There was a loud banging on the restaurant's front door. "Guess I forgot to unlock it," Gus said, and went to answer.
"Take a look in the walk-in," I whispered to Chris.
He did, backing out in a hurry, eyebrows raised, green eyes wide. Gus came clattering down the stairs that led from the restaurant's street-side public entrance into its front room. My childhood friend Officer Jamie Dawes and his partner, Officer Pete Howland, were behind him. Two EMTs and half a dozen firemen brought up the rear.
"I told 'em they didn't need all these people." Gus crossed his arms, a portrait of Yankee disgust at excess of any kind. "The man is deceased."
Jamie and Officer Howland entered the walk-in. They were back out in less than a minute. "He's dead," Jamie told the EMTs and firefighters. "Double-check me for your logs and then you can go along." A young EMT strode into the walk-in and returned moments later shaking his head.
"Can I cook them breakfast?" Gus asked.
"No." Jamie didn't hesitate to answer. "You're closed down. At a minimum, having a dead guy in your refrigerator constitutes a health code violation. Everybody out," he said to the assembled crowd. Then he looked over at Gus, Chris, and me. "Not you three."
"Can I change?" I was suddenly aware of my robe and slippers.
"In a minute." Jamie and Howland stood in front of the three of us. "You know who this guy is?" Howland asked.
"Not his name," I said. "But he was in the restaurant last night, sitting at the bar. He was here when you came in." I looked at Jamie. He nodded. Even though it had been a crazy, stressful night for him, there had been only nine people in the restaurant in addition to Chris and me when Jamie had arrived. He would remember the stranger.
"Either of you got anything to add?" Howland looked from Chris to Gus.
Chris shook his head.
"I was home in bed last night," Gus protested.
"You can go get dressed," Jamie told me.
"Thanks. What happens now?"
"Unattended death. We call the medical examiner."
* * *
I arrived back downstairs dressed in the same basic clothes I'd worn almost every workday since I'd returned to Busman's Harbor the previous March — work boots, jeans, and a T-shirt. The number of layers varied with the season, though little else did. Since it was the first day of December, my ensemble featured a turtleneck underneath the T-shirt, a flannel shirt over the top, and thick socks between my bare feet and the work boots. I'd run a brush through my shoulder-length blond hair, the beginning and ending activity of my Maine daytime beauty routine.
Jamie and Chris were seated at the restaurant's counter, while Gus stood behind it. I smelled coffee and was grateful the police had at least allowed Gus to brew it. I took a seat on the stool next to Chris.
"Where's Officer Howland?" I asked.
Jamie answered. "Outside, waiting for the ME. We were just talking about" — he gestured toward Chris — "when you last saw the gentleman."
"Do you remember?" I asked Chris.
"No. Not really." Chris looked at me.
"I'm certain he wasn't here that second time I came in," Jamie said. "That was around a quarter to one."
"One in the morning?" Gus wasn't happy. "The police coming around twice? What kind of place you runnin' in my building?"
"Long story," I said.
"I'm all ears."
"Not now," Jamie cautioned. "First, which one of you was the last one in the walk-in?"
"I was." Chris sat, elbows crossed on the counter. "We were open late, as you know." He threw a warning glance at Gus, who looked ready, once again, to demand an explanation. "Julia did the dishes and then minded the bar while I cleaned up. I put the last of the food away a little before ten."
He looked at me for confirmation. I nodded, adding, "When everyone finally left, I put the lemons, orange slices, and cherries from the bar into the little fridge underneath it. I didn't go back in the walk-in."
Jamie leaned back on his stool. "Interesting you say, 'When everyone finally left,' since everyone apparently did not."
"Sorry, I meant ..." I floundered. What did I mean?
"And what time did you think the gentleman left?" Jamie looked at me.
I squinted to help myself remember. "A little after ten. Chris closed the kitchen and came to help me. The guy threw some cash on the bar and drifted out right after that."
"Drifted," I repeated. "Ambled. Sauntered. Strolled. Moved casually toward the door."
"Was he drunk?"
This time I looked at Chris for confirmation. We both had experience judging people's levels of inebriation, Chris from his work as a bouncer, me from managing the Snowden Family Clambakes in the summer. "I would say he was relaxed, maybe had a little buzz on," I said, while Chris nodded his agreement. "I wasn't worried about him, if that's what you're asking. I certainly didn't think he was going off to die in our refrigerator."
"Did he tell you his name?" Jamie asked it slowly, as if to emphasize the importance of the question.
"No," I answered. "And, as I said, he paid in cash."
"And to confirm, neither of you had ever seen him before last evening."
Chris and I shook our heads.
"He doesn't appear to have a wallet on him," Jamie said. "Or a phone. I don't want to move him until the ME gets here. Maybe they're in his back pants pocket."
"He told me he was staying at the Snuggles," I offered. The Snuggles Inn, a gingerbread-covered Victorian bed-and-breakfast, was across the street from my mother's house and was run by Fiona and Viola Snugg, dear family friends and honorary great-aunts.
"Thanks. That's helpful."
"ME's here," Officer Howland called from the front door. "She's parking."
Jamie stood up. "Bring her down."CHAPTER 2
Gus moved from behind the counter to clear the way for the tidy figure of Dr. Joellen Simpson to enter the walk-in. Dr. Simpson was a family practitioner with a good reputation in Busman's Harbor, and was also, apparently, our part-time medical examiner.
As soon as Howland and Jamie followed her into the walk-in, Gus stalked to a table on the far side of the dining room and motioned for Chris and me to join him.
"Now you're going to tell me what the heck is going on." He gave us the full Gus treatment — a squint that emphasized his great white eyebrows — to show he meant business. "How in heck did you leave a dead guy in my refrigerator?"
"I'm not sure," I said.
"We didn't." Chris was more emphatic.
Chris and I had been running our restaurant, which we cleverly called Gus's Too, for five weeks. The idea had been all Gus's. He'd proposed that he serve breakfast and lunch and that Chris and I share the space and serve dinner, or as Gus called it, "suppah."
The offer had seemed like a lifeline at the time, and I'd grabbed it like the flailing survivor I was. I'd returned to Busman's Harbor in the spring after fifteen years away for school and then work, the last eight in a venture capital job in Manhattan. My goal had been to rescue my family's clambake business from bankruptcy. With a lot of help from friends and family, and a few major calamities along the way, that mission had been accomplished. At least for this year.
But by the middle of October, the clambake was closed down for the season and I was at a crossroads. Return to my life and career in New York, or stay in Busman's Harbor with the man I loved?
Then Gus had offered the restaurant as well as the studio apartment above it. Chris, I had discovered, was a brilliant home chef. I had experience running my family's food business. The town, Gus felt strongly, needed a place to gather during the winter months. So win-win-win. Or so I'd thought.
The night before in the restaurant hadn't been typical, that was for sure. For one thing, we'd had only four reservations, but for the Monday night after Thanksgiving that seemed reasonable. Lots of people were still out of town and others were presumably home gorging on leftovers. Most of our business was walk-in trade anyway. I wasn't worried.
But then, as the sun went down, the fog rolled in. Fog in coastal Maine is like rain in Seattle. If we all stayed home because of it, we'd be home half the year. But this fog morphed into something more serious that our local weather people liked to call "frizzle." As the temperature hit thirty-two degrees, the fog froze, leaving everything it touched — roads, cars, windows — coated in a thin, slippery veil of ice.
At 7:00 PM, Chris and I had stood looking at each other across the empty dining room. Perhaps no one would come at all.
"I'm going to put more sand on the walkway." Chris wasn't skilled at doing nothing. He'd done his kitchen prep. The pea soup was made, the stuffed chicken breasts prepared. The sweet and smoky aroma of slow-cooked braised short ribs wafted across the restaurant. It was the perfect do-ahead entree for our short-staffed kitchen.
"You just got back inside from the last time you sanded," I had pointed out.
At that moment, we heard a car come to a stop. One car door slammed, followed by a second. Caroline and Henry Caswell descended the stairs into the restaurant.
"We're so happy to see you!" I'd meant every word of it. I took their heavy wool coats and hung them up on the hooks that lined the wall outside the restrooms.
"You look lovely," Caroline had said.
At night, I traded in my work boots and jeans for black slacks and a nice top. I pulled my hair back and put on a little makeup. The restaurant was supposed to be a casual gathering place but nice enough for a couple to have a "date night." We had spruced it up with candles and checkered cloths over the linoleum tabletops. After New Year's Eve, we'd be the only eat-in restaurant open in town, so we were trying to meet a lot of needs.
The Caswells lived just up the peninsula in Baywater, a "Community for Active Adults over Fifty-Five." On a previous visit to the restaurant, Caroline had told me they both had connections to Maine going back to their childhoods, but like so many Maine retirees, they'd gone elsewhere to make their money. They had been early and loyal supporters of Gus's Too, coming in at least once a week, the closest thing to regulars at our fledgling operation.
I had led them through the archway into the dining room. "Table or booth?" I asked, gesturing around the empty space. They selected a booth in one of the far corners.
The word that came to mind whenever I saw the Caswells was "pixieish." They were both small and lean with white hair and twinkling eyes — his blue, hers brown. Caroline even wore her hair in a pixie cut.
"How is it out?" I asked. "Tough traveling?"
"The fog!" Caroline had answered as they took their seats. "You could barely see five feet in front of the car."
"And the ice. Terrible," Henry affirmed. "But it's Maine, right?"
"We're just glad you could make it."
"We wouldn't have missed it," Henry said.
"We spent the holiday at our eldest daughter's house in Massachusetts. All three of our girls and their families were there. We are so lucky." Caroline had said it like she truly felt it. "But there's not a thing to eat in our house."
"Plus, we had the gift certificate that had to be used by today," Henry added.
I had handed them their menu books with the paper inserts that Chris and I changed daily.
"Oh, pea soup," Caroline said when she looked at her menu. "How appropriate. For the fog."
"We couldn't resist. It's hearty — full of pea flavor and ham. I tasted it this afternoon."
"Your beau is a great cook," Henry said.
I took their wine order. Merlot for him, chardonnay for her. I'd been selling the gift certificates only since the week before we'd opened, and none of them had an expiration date. But who was I to contradict a good customer, particularly one who had just driven in terrible weather? I'd kept mum on the whole gift-certificate-deadline topic.
* * *
I just finished telling this part of the story to Gus and Chris when a thunk and a bump echoed from inside the walk-in, and we all turned our heads to stare. "Now you know why I don't allow strangers in my restaurant," Gus said.
Excerpted from Fogged Inn by Barbara Ross. Copyright © 2016 Barbara Ross. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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