Inside the mystery package is an enormous black diamond necklace that once belonged to Julia’s great-grandmother and disappeared in the 1920s. Who could have sent it—and why? Julia’s search for clues takes her on a perilous journey through her mother’s troubled family history, from a squabble over the family fortune in “frozen water” to the recent unexplained death of Jacqueline’s long-lost cousin Hugh—who’d been missing and presumed drowned for more than forty years. To protect her mother’s inheritance, Julia must fend off a small army of feuding relatives, solve the mystery surrounding Hugh’s demise, and get back home before the next blizzard buries them all . . .
Praise for Musseled Out
“This cozy series continues to stand out with its exceptional plotting, intriguing storylines, and authentic detailing of the lobstering life.” —RT Book Reviews
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By Barbara Ross
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2017 Barbara Ross
All rights reserved.
Everyone who could leave town had left. The summer people were long gone, from the day-trippers to the seasonal home owners. Those retirees who could get out had gotten. My landlord, Gus, had run the restaurant downstairs from my studio apartment, offering breakfast and lunch, seven days a week for over fifty years. But in the last decade, he and his wife, Mrs. Gus, had closed down for the month of February and taken off to warmer places, visiting their adult children first in Arizona, then California.
My boyfriend, Chris, was gone too, helping some buddies move a sailboat from Saint John to Key West, so the winter restaurant Chris and I ran together, serving dinners in Gus's space, was closed as well. Chris had invited me along. It would've been our first trip together, but I could tell it was a guys' thing and declined. When I told him, his voice indicated disappointment, but as I'd expected, his green eyes glowed with relief. Let him and the guys have their fun. I was sorry not to get away, but not sorry to miss that particular trip.
Snow pelted the huge, multipaned front window of my apartment. It had been snowing forever, or at least it felt that way. We were in a weather pattern of heavy storms broken by a few days of sun and minor melting. Then, just as our spirits began to rise, the clouds arrived and the snow began again. The blanket of snow from the many storms, at least eighteen inches and counting, muffled sound and made the quiet little town of Busman's Harbor, Maine, even quieter.
My cell phone rang. My mom.
"Hullo, Julia. I'm home and feeling a little cabin-feverish. Would you like to come over for lunch?" Mom normally worked at Linens and Pantries, the big box store over in Topsham, but the winter storms had slowed commerce to a crawl. The busiest days required a staff of only two, so Mom had more time off than usual.
Lunch with Mom — why not? It was a five-minute walk over the harbor hill to the Victorian sea captain's home where I'd grown up. "Sure. What do you have to eat?"
I heard her rifling through pantry shelves. "Soup. Tuna." The thunk of the refrigerator door opening followed. "Eggs. Milk. Some lovely cheddar. There's plenty." She paused. "But you could do me one favor. Could you stop at the post office? It's been a couple of days and I'd love to get my mail."
"Mom, there's never anything interesting in the mail. It's all junk and catalogs." The trip to the post office would add a triangular, half-mile-long detour to my mother's house. I didn't relish trudging all that way in this weather.
What could I say? She was offering a hot lunch and companionship on a cold winter's day. And she was, after all, my mother.
After we hung up, I sat on my beat-up, old couch and pulled on my L. L. Bean snow boots. Like many Mainers, I had Bean boots for every type of weather. Le Roi, my Maine coon cat, spotted the boots and vocalized his displeasure. Maine coons are doglike in their desire for human company. I dragged a knuckle across his jowl. "Sorry, old man. Duty calls."
The hike to the post office was as treacherous as I expected. Most of the sidewalks weren't yet shoveled, so I walked in the road. The snow coming down hid bits of ice inside each flake, which burned when they hit my cheeks.
The town common was an unbroken field of snow, windswept into rows of rippling ridges resembling the white caps on the harbor. No one had even attempted to clear the little skating pond. The sledding hill was completely deserted, eerily silent. It was February school vacation week in Maine, yet even that hadn't brought the children outside into the wet, yucky snow. Perhaps they were gone too — off to visit grandparents in Florida, if they were lucky, or anywhere south of here.
The town common wasn't the business center of Busman's Harbor. That was Main Street, one block closer to the water, where, during the short summer season, tourists shopped in the little stores and boarded the tour boats at the pier. Most of the buildings around the common were homes, along with two white, steepled churches — the Congregationalists and the Baptists — and the library and post office. When I reached the PO, a thin light shone through the glass front door. Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night ...
The single public room of the post office was unusually empty. Along with Gus's restaurant, it was the place in town for news and gossip, catching up with old friends and making new, in the tourist season and the off-season. I stuck the key in my box and pulled out my mail. Nothing but junk, as I'd predicted. I stuffed the envelopes and catalogs into the Snowden Family Clambake tote bag I'd used as a purse since I returned to Busman's Harbor the previous spring. I went to the counter and called, "Barbara Jean? You here? I've come to fetch Mom's mail."
There was no response and I wondered where she could be. Then the back door opened and Barbara Jean McGonagle came in off the loading dock, boots wet, curly, brown hair covered with snow. "Sorry, Julia. I was helping Brett unload the truck. He got here late today because of the weather." She didn't ask what I wanted, but went straight to the back of Mom's box and emptied it. "This won't include today's. I haven't sorted it. Wait! I saw a package." She scurried toward a rolling mail cart that had high, dirty cloth sides. "I bet you're lonely with Chris away," she called.
I was saved from responding when she bent at the waist and dove so far over the cart I was afraid she'd topple into it. She emerged triumphant with a small package, which she handed across the counter to me.
The box was four-by-four inches square and about two inches deep, wrapped in brown paper and hand addressed to my mother in bold black letters. I looked for a return address. Nothing. Clearly, it wasn't from an online retailer. Had my mother been expecting it? Was that why she'd sent me on this otherwise foolish trip to the post office?
* * *
"No, I wasn't expecting anything. How intriguing." Mom deposited the little package on the kitchen counter. "I'll open it after we eat."
"You aren't going to open it right away? I went all the way to the post office in the snow."
She ignored my bid for sympathy. "It's probably nothing. You said so yourself. The mail is all junk." It was likely she was right. For many years, Mom had run the gift shop at our business, the Snowden Family Clambake, and vendors often tried to entice her with samples of their trinkets.
She'd already heated canned tomato soup and made up the grilled cheese sandwiches. My petite, pretty mother was many things. A cook was not one of them. Still, the meal she'd thrown together was better than I would have managed left to my own devices in my empty apartment. She had a particular twist on the sandwiches, which weren't so much grilled as broiled and included onion chopped and mixed with the grated cheddar. I bit into the gooey, tangy, crunchy goodness, and was warmed from the inside out — comfort food on a snowy day.
"Heard from Chris?" Mom asked.
"No, but it's only been a few days and I imagine cell coverage is pretty spotty where he is."
Mom nodded and shifted the subject. "I'm worried about your sister."
"Mom, all the worry about Livvie available in the universe is already being used by her husband." My younger sister and her husband Sonny were expecting a second child in two weeks, almost exactly a decade after the birth of their first, my feisty niece Page. Sonny was prepared, some would say obsessed. He had a plow fixed to the front of his big pickup truck and, ever since the string of snowstorms had started, he'd been hustling Livvie and Page out of the house for "practice runs," to the hospital. While weather was a factor, there was otherwise no indication that Livvie would have a problem with the birth. Despite the age spread between her children, she was only twenty-eight years old, two years younger than me, and in excellent health. She'd had some morning sickness in the beginning, but since then she'd had a model pregnancy.
"Livvie is fine," I assured my mother. "Can we open the package now, please?"
She sighed. "Very well."
I took our soup bowls to the sink and retrieved the brown-paper-wrapped bundle. When I picked it up, I ran my finger over the rough spot on the wrapping paper where the return address should have been. "You really don't know who it's from? A secret admirer?" I teased. "There's no return address."
My mother blushed. There hadn't been a man in her life since my father's death nearly six years before. "No, dear. I have no idea who it's from, but certainly no one like that."
"Open it." I jiggled in my chair with impatience. Her calm in the face of this mystery was driving me crazy.
Mom picked at the tape holding down one of the flaps and opened it.
"For goodness' sake, tear it," I said.
"Patience, Julia." She slid a box from the wrapping paper.
The box was generic, shiny and white, with no logo. Mom opened the lid to find a layer of cotton. She slid off the cotton and gasped.
The contents of the box glittered on a second bed of cotton — a necklace, judging from its length. The centerpiece was a huge black gem that looked like polished coal. It was surrounded by sparkling diamonds, and diamonds continued up the strand, at least two dozen total, though whether they were real or fake, I couldn't tell.
Mom pulled the necklace from the box and held it up. The diamonds sparkled, and light glinted through the huge black gem at the center. So much for my secret admirer theory. No one who knew Mom could think she would wear something so large and show-offy — or that she would have any place or occasion to wear it.
"Do you think it's real?" I asked, my heart beating faster at the mere idea. It couldn't be, could it? Mom's mouth hung open. She hadn't said a word. "Mom?"
"Yes, it's real," she answered. "The necklace is called the Black Widow. It belonged to my family."CHAPTER 2
"Oh, my gosh, have you seen it before?"
Mom shook her head. The color had drained from her normally pale face, and the slim hand that held the necklace shook slightly. "It's been missing for almost a hundred years."
I took the box and scrabbled through the cotton bedding, looking for a note. Underneath was a card, thick, off-white, and expensive. In black ink, in bold handwriting with squared-off letters, the note contained two words.
I passed it silently to my mother, who read aloud: "'For Windsholme.'"
Windsholme was the name of Mom's family's old mansion on the private island where we ran the Snowden Family Clambakes during the tourist season. While we'd continued to use the island, the enormous summer house had been closed up and empty for years. Last summer a big part of it had burned, including the grand central staircase. At the end of the season, we'd boarded it up to keep the winter elements out and put off deciding what to do about it for the future. I knew in my heart that despite my boyfriend, Chris's, optimism that it could be rebuilt, and despite my mother's heart's desire, the practical thing, the only thing, was to tear it down.
"Julia, you have to help me find the person who sent this." Mom's voice was even, but her bright blue eyes pleaded.
I took the necklace from her and held it in front of me. It was heavy. I imagined it would get tiring to wear. "Tell me what you know about it."
"Let's have some tea."
I couldn't tell if Mom craved tea or if she needed a moment to gather her thoughts, so I didn't badger her while we waited for the kettle to boil and she went through the ritual of pouring the cups. The tea made, Mom led the way to our infrequently used living room and settled on the couch. The gray skies outside the big windows let in little light, but she didn't turn on the lamps. I took the box, the wrapping paper, and the necklace and followed her, settling into the deep chair across from where she sat.
"I don't know much at all." Her statement didn't surprise me. Her mother, Ellen Fields, née Morrow, had died when Mom was five. Mom was raised by her quiet, distant philosophy professor father and a succession of housekeepers. Whatever family history his wife had passed on to my late grandfather, he hadn't passed any further.
"Tell me what you do know," I coaxed.
"This is the Black Widow, a necklace with a rare black diamond at its center, which belonged to my ancestors." My mother reached across the coffee table and took the necklace from me. "At least I think it is. It could be a copy, of course. The Black Widow may not have even looked like this. I've never seen a photo, only heard it described. It disappeared from Windsholme and Morrow Island sometime in the 1920s, I believe. A housemaid was suspected, because she had left the island the night it was last seen to visit her family on the mainland and didn't return to work the next day or ever again. But she was never charged and the Black Widow was never found. Honestly, that's all I know."
"Who told you this?"
"My cousin Hugh, though I believe there are many who know the story." She turned the necklace in her hand.
"Oh." The topic of my mother's cousin, Hugh, was not one I was anxious to explore. He, like the Black Widow, had disappeared off Morrow Island, though in his case it was in 1978, on the night of my mother's twenty-first birthday. Even after all these years, the mention of Hugh brought tears to Mom's eyes. I'd always assumed that he'd drunk too much at my mother's party and had fallen off the cliff face, though no body had ever been found. It was clear my mother felt somehow guilty about it, like having a twenty-first birthday party made her responsible.
I left the subject of poor cousin Hugh aside for a moment. "We'll keep everything, the box, the cotton, the wrapping," I said, "and see what we can figure out."
"Do you think your police friends can help us?" Mom asked.
"I don't know." Since I'd returned to Busman's Harbor the previous March, for reasons far beyond my control, I'd helped a team of state police detectives with more than one murder investigation. "Usually you contact the police when something is taken, not when something unexpectedly shows up. Let me work on it."
* * *
I climbed the main stairway to the second floor and entered the room at the front of Mom's house. Though I'd moved to the apartment over Gus's restaurant in the fall, this was the place where I ran the clambake business. The office had been my father's before it was mine and it still held his old metal filing cabinets and enormous mahogany desk. I went to the big front window and looked through the falling snow down the hill to the town pier and the Snowden Family Clambake ticket kiosk, standing at the ready, waiting for spring.
I fired up the desktop computer. It was old — I had a newer, sleeker laptop back at my apartment — but more than sufficient for my purposes. When the monitor sprang to life, I typed "Black Widow necklace" into a search engine.
There were no results, or at least nothing the least bit useful, just a lot of Halloween costume jewelry, as well as discussions about a necklace Scarlett Johansson's character had worn in the Marvel Avengers movies.
So I typed "black diamond" to see what I could learn. Black diamonds did occur in nature and were exceedingly rare and beautiful. There were some famous ones, though I didn't spot the central stone of the Black Widow among the images. There were also man-made black diamonds, still expensive, but a fraction of the value. And there were fakes, big black stones in costume jewelry, apparently favored by witches and Goths.
The Internet had gotten me nowhere. I went downstairs and put the box with the necklace in it, along with the wrapping paper, in my tote bag. Mom was in the kitchen when I brought my boots from the back hall to put them on. She said, "Are you going out? I'd hoped you'd stay for the afternoon."
"You want to know where the necklace came from," I reminded her. "I'll be back."
"It's getting worse." Mom inclined her head toward the kitchen window. The sky was a dark gray and the wind had come up, pushing the icy snow sideways against the glass.
"I won't be long."
Excerpted from Iced Under by Barbara Ross. Copyright © 2017 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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