Against the Claw: New Excerpt
Against the Claw by Shari Randall is the finger-licking delicious second installment in the Lobster Shack Mystery series.
Welcome back to the seaside village of Mystic Bay, where someone’s been found sleeping with the fishes…
Ballerina Allie Larkin is still back home, healing up from a broken ankle and lending a hand at her aunt’s Lazy Mermaid Lobster Shack. But now that the famed restaurant is branching out into the world of catering, Allie’s help is needed more than ever―even on the lobster boat. The last thing she expects to find once she’s out on the bay, however, is the dead body of a beautiful young woman.
When days pass and not even the police can ID the corpse, Allie takes it upon herself to learn the truth about what happened. Her investigation leads her all the way from the local piers to the secluded estates of Mystic Bay’s posh elite. But how can she crack this case when everyone seems dead-set on keeping their secrets beneath the surface?
Tuesday, June 30
For all her MBA, fancy Boston job, and perfect French manicure, my sister Lorel was still at the mercy of her passion for the bad boy of Mystic Bay, Connecticut, Patrick Yardley.
In the frame of the Lazy Mermaid’s front window, Patrick and Lorel kissed, Patrick astride his Harley, totally ignoring the “get a room” looks from customers heading into my aunt Gully’s lobster shack.
“What’s a guy got to do to get some chowder around here?” a customer at the counter said.
“Sorry.” I served him a bowl. He added crackers and dropped his spoon in with a splash.
Lorel hurried in, the roar of Patrick’s Harley following her as he gunned out of the parking lot.
Aunt Gully shot me a warning glance and grabbed a plate from the kitchen pass-through.
“What?” Lorel smoothed her gold-blond hair.
“I didn’t say anything.” I wiped drips of chowder spattered by the sloppy customer. He threw me a look. “No need to rub a hole in the counter, honey.”
Lorel joined me behind the counter. “Patrick and I were talking about a new social media campaign for New Salt.”
“Since last night when he picked you up for dinner?” I muttered.
She brushed past me into the kitchen.
Two men in Harbor Patrol polo shirts bellied up to the counter and scanned the chalkboard menu on the wall behind me.
“What can I get you, gentlemen?” I said, trying to swallow my irritation with Lorel.
Bertha Betancourt, Mystic Bay’s Lobster Lady, shifted aside to let the two men get closer to the counter. Bertha’s family had been lobstering in Mystic Bay since the town was founded and her Learn to Lobster cruises were a popular tourist attraction. She leaned toward Aunt Gully.
“Gully, when I pulled up those lobster pots, I had a feeling, you know how you get a feeling?” Bertha’s round, sun-reddened face crinkled into a grin. “Well, I reached over and what do I see? Some joker’s stuffed a wolffish in one of my pots. Ugly monster nearly took my hand off!”
“God bless America!” Aunt Gully chuckled.
“That woke me up, let me tell you!” Bertha swigged her mug of coffee as if it were a tankard of rum. “Shoulda been there, Gully. Ugliest thing you ever did see.”
No. The ugliest thing ever was the thought of my sister rekindling her relationship with the guy who’d been breaking her heart since middle school.
The two men ordered lobster rolls with extra coleslaw. I clipped the order to a metal wheel and turned it into the kitchen.
Lorel frowned at me through the pass-through window. “Don’t look at me like that. I know what I’m doing.”
I started after Lorel, but Aunt Gully pulled me back. “I don’t like it either, Allie, but she’s a grown woman. And love is never a mistake.” She picked up two plates with overflowing lobster rolls. “Though sometimes it’s a learning experience.” She brought the plates to a couple seated by the front door.
I sighed. “Everyone loves the bad boys.”
Some people would say that Lorel was out of Patrick’s league. Others would say Patrick was out of hers. The problem was that they were in different leagues. Patrick’s bar/restaurant, New Salt, catered to Mystic Bay’s yacht-club set. Rumors, about drugs mostly, drifted around the club like tendrils of fog on the bay. Sure, Patrick looked like the cover of a romance novel come to life, but he’d had numerous brushes with the law. Was I the only woman in Mystic Bay who was immune to his charms?
The wall phone shrilled. I picked it up. “Lazy Mermaid Lobster Shack.”
“This is Zoe Parker, personal assistant to Stellene Lupo. I’d like to speak to Gina Fontana about catering.” The clipped voice made me feel like I was wasting her time.
“Gina Fontana?” For a second the name didn’t register. My aunt Gully was Gully to everyone from Mystic Bay. No one here called her by her given name, Gina.
Lorel came out of the kitchen’s swinging door, tying an apron behind her back.
I caught Lorel’s eye and enunciated clearly. “Sorry, we don’t do catering.”
“Who is it?” Lorel said.
I pressed the phone to my chest. “Somebody somebody, personal assistant to Stellene Lupo.” As soon as I said the name it registered. Stellene Lupo.
Lorel yanked the phone from my hands.
“The Stellene Lupo?” Aunt Gully hurried back to the counter. “She owns that big modeling agency in New York.”
Bertha turned. “And the Harmony Harbor estate!”
Lorel covered one ear and murmured on the phone, using her money voice, all modulated and clearly enunciated. “Catering? Of course.”
Of course? “What?”
Lorel waved me off and turned her back.
Catering? We’d never done catering. My aunt’s Lazy Mermaid Lobster Shack had just opened this past spring. Business wasn’t just good. It was overwhelming. There was a line waiting to get in as soon as we opened the doors at eleven. We’d talked about what my MBA sister called other “income streams” including catering, but we’d decided to just get through the busy summer tourist season first. Now she was talking about catering?
A group wearing neon-green NEW ENGLAND LOBSTER TRAIL T-shirts surged through the screen door into the shack. Aunt Gully turned to greet them. “Welcome, lobster lovers!”
“I’ll have Mrs. Fontana get back to you,” Lorel said. “She’s in a meeting right now.” Aunt Gully posed for a selfie with a stocky guy wearing a baseball hat decorated with red foam lobster claws.
“Thank you so much. Good-bye.” Lorel hung up and jotted notes on an order pad.
I put my hands on my hips. “I thought we didn’t do catering.”
Lorel’s green eyes sparkled. “We do now.”
Aunt Gully leaned over the counter. “You look like the cat that got the cream, Lorel.”
“Our ship has just come in, Aunt Gully,” Lorel said.
After the lunch rush, a couple of Aunt Gully’s friends came in to help. Lorel, Aunt Gully, Aunt Gully’s assistant manager, Hilda, and I gathered at our conference room: a wobbly picnic table on a patch of gravel behind the shed where we stored live lobsters.
Lorel sat at the very end of the table, as if she were leading a meeting at the big Boston social media company where she worked. She’d taken a week off to help with the Fourth of July rush, then she’d go back to managing accounts for Fortune 500 companies.
I adjusted the high-tech, waterproof wrap on my left ankle. All I wanted was to get my almost healed broken ankle completely healed so I could return to my soloist spot with New England Ballet Theater. In the meantime, I’d accepted a role with minimal dancing in a show at Mystic Bay’s Jacob’s Ladder Theater. I’d work with Aunt Gully until I got the all clear to dance again from our company doctor.
“Listen to this.” Lorel’s green eyes glittered. “Stellene Lupo’s throwing her annual Fourth of July party. She wants us to serve our lobster rolls, chowder, and coleslaw to her guests. One hundred people. From seven to nine P.M. We’ve been talking about additional income streams…”
Aunt Gully’s eyes took on a dreamy, faraway look.
Aunt Gully squeezed Lorel’s hand. “I have to admit, I’d love to see the inside of Harmony Harbor. Too bad you didn’t see Stellene when she was here a couple of months ago.”
“You never mentioned it!” Lorel exclaimed.
“I must have missed her, too,” I said.
“Well, Hilda follows the society news and she said it was her.”
Hilda Viera and her husband, Hector, were the shack’s only other full-time employees—Hector cooking lobsters and Hilda managing the shack with Aunt Gully. Hilda and Hector had both worked in the restaurant industry before retiring and sailing around the world. When their sailboat Happy Place docked in Mystic Bay, they’d decided to stay and take jobs at the Lazy Mermaid.
“She was with her teenage daughter, Tinsley,” Hilda said. Her big brown eyes radiated concern. “Tinsley has a reputation for being wild. In and out of rehab, poor thing.”
“That’s not important.” Lorel took Aunt Gully’s shoulders and turned her toward her van parked by the side of the shack. “This is important. With what Stellene will pay us, you could buy a new van.”
I straightened. If Aunt Gully’s van had been a cat, it would be on its seventh or eighth life. The rust-flecked Dodge had more than two hundred thousand miles on her, plus several scrapes from where I sideswiped our mailbox when I was learning to drive.
“One problem.” One of us had to be sensible. “How will we be in two places at the same time? How do we keep the shack open and do Stellene’s bash? The prep work alone for the party will take hours—”
Lorel cleared her throat. “We could just close the Mermaid early and do Stellene’s party.” She looked out over the river that flowed behind our shack, avoiding Aunt Gully’s eyes.
Aunt Gully, too, looked out over the Lazy Mermaid parking lot to the river. A sailboat with all the time in the world slid past our dock. Aunt Gully straightened her pink Lazy Mermaid apron. “Well, the money is—”
“Crazy good.” I sighed.
“Tempting,” Aunt Gully said. “But I have to open the Mermaid on the Fourth. We’re part of Mystic Bay. We’ll have so many summer people here, and people coming after the parade. I want to be part of that.”
“Stellene’s party’s at night.” Lorel leaned forward. “We could call in reinforcements. Hector and Hilda can manage.”
I was torn. On one hand, we said no catering! On the other hand, great money! Aunt Gully’s face was even pinker than usual, matching the pink barrette holding back her silver hair. She was excited, sure, but was I the only one who cared about the woman’s health? Aunt Gully’s not old but does qualify for the senior center where she takes a Zumba class one day a week. She already worked long days, seven days a week at the shack.
“Did you say yes already, Lorel?” I asked.
Lorel shook her head.
“Good. Because if Stellene’s willing to spend that much money, that means she really wants us.” It was an insane amount of extra work, steaming the lobsters, picking the meat, toasting the rolls, making Aunt Gully’s Lobster Love sauce, coleslaw, and chowder.
“Tell Stellene we can do it if her staff can do all the prep work.” I held Lorel’s eyes. “It’s the only way it’ll happen.”
“Yes, yes. I can show them how to do it right.” Aunt Gully tapped her lips with her forefinger, her thinking pose. Her cheeks pinked and her dangling lobster earrings caught the sunlight. She was getting into it.
What Stellene wants, Stellene gets. The words, unbidden, slid into my mind.
Lorel jotted notes. “I’m sure Stellene can afford plenty of kitchen staff at Harmony Harbor.”
“Hilda, would you and Hector handle things here?” Aunt Gully squeezed Hilda’s hand.
Hilda nodded. “Of course we can handle things here. Though I’d much rather be there.”
Aunt Gully hugged Hilda. “Me, too.”
“You’ll have to tell me every detail. And I mean every detail,” Hilda said.
“Do you really think it can work?” Aunt Gully’s brown eyes shone. We were all giddy with the thought of all the money Stellene would pay, giddy at the thought of getting behind the walls of Harmony Harbor, serving our lobster rolls to the rich and famous movie stars and models who would be there.
“If they give us the staff,” I repeated.
“Okay. I’ll call Stellene’s assistant.” Lorel jogged back into the shack. Aunt Gully and Hilda, chatting excitedly, followed.
I stretched my arms over my head and turned my face to the sun. My red hair is the type that comes with sunburns and freckles, but I love the feel of the sun on my skin. Maybe if business slowed, I’d get away for a quick swim before rehearsal.
The blare of a car horn yanked me back into the real world. Voices rose. I hurried to the front of the shack. As usual for the summer, tourist traffic on Mystic Bay’s narrow streets flowed like winter sap, slow and sticky. “Honk all you want, won’t do you any good,” I muttered.
Our parking lot was full. Customers streamed from the sidewalk to the door of the Mermaid. No time for a swim.
A lobster boat pulled up to our pier. The captain waved and I returned the greeting as I went to meet him.
Ten-year-old Bit Markey ran up behind me on the pier. He brushed his floppy black hair out of his eyes and together we hauled buckets of live lobsters into the storage shed.
Bit lived with his mom and dad in a prerenovation 1840 house across Pearl Street from the Mermaid. A sagging front porch and a marijuana flag in the parlor window made it stand out from the other, more carefully restored buildings on the street. Bit spent several hours a day working at the Mermaid, ferrying live lobsters from the pier to the lobster storage shed, sweeping, and what he called “policing the grounds.”
A car horn blared as a blue van marked with BEST OF NEW ENGLAND TOURS squeezed into the lot. Ever since the New England’s Best Lobster Roll competition in May, the Mermaid had been visited by several tour groups a day.
“Here we go,” I said.
Bit and I hurried into the kitchen. I slung a pink Lazy Mermaid apron over my head. Lorel emerged from Aunt Gully’s tiny office. She pursed her lips, scribbling on the order pad.
“Well?” I asked.
Lorel hugged Aunt Gully. “It’s a go! Stellene’s assistant says they’ll have her staff provide you with everything you need, Aunt Gully. Her daughter wants Lazy Mermaid lobster rolls and Stellene’ll do whatever it takes to get them.”
“Lorel, that’s just grand. Grand!” Aunt Gully twirled me around and then strode out of the kitchen into the dining room. Lorel and I exchanged looks.
“Oh, God, here it comes.” I peeked through the pass-through window.
Aunt Gully started singing her victory song, “Get Happy” from Summer Stock, a song made famous by Judy Garland.
Aunt Gully’s no Judy Garland.
Bit ran out the kitchen door, his hands over his ears.
As Aunt Gully squawked, conversation in the shack ceased. Customers caught each other’s eyes and tried not to laugh. Then Aunt Gully hit a high note.
A man in a Red Sox T-shirt, broad and tall as a football linebacker, set down his lobster roll. Next thing I knew, he was dancing with Aunt Gully and singing along. The diners crowded into our tiny shack all started applauding and talking at once. The tour group stood at the screen door, holding cell phones high.
Next to me, Lorel was quiet. She scribbled on the order pad, avoiding my eyes. I took the pen from her hands. “Okay, Lorel, spill. There’s a catch, isn’t there?”
Lorel tucked the pad in her pocket. “Nothing to worry about, Allie. Details, details. But Stellene asked for us, you and me, to help serve.”
“You and me? Why?”
Lorel waved it away. “Who cares? Come on, Allie, the people at Stellene’s party are the type to throw huge parties. Rich movers and shakers. This is a golden opportunity. Stellene chose us because her daughter loved the lobster rolls and Stellene likes Aunt Gully’s”—Lorel lowered her voice—“primitive, naïve aesthetic.”
“Primitive aesthetic?” I folded my arms.
“Primitive. And naïve,” Lorel said. “In the art world it means childlike.”
“I know what it means.” How could I argue? Most seaside restaurants have that typical old-fashioned nautical look: fishing nets, antique wooden lobster traps, ships’ wheels, little statues of lighthouses and pipe-smoking sea captains in yellow slickers and sou’westers.
Aunt Gully had that on steroids and sprinkled with glitter. Shelves that ran along the top of the wall of the shack were crowded with her mermaid collection, what she called her mermaidabilia. It was the kitschiest, tackiest, tchotchke-est mermaid stuff ever—mermaids on dolphins, mermaids with hula skirts. Cowboy mermaids, mermaids with maracas. Customers had started bringing Aunt Gully mermaid tokens from their homes. We even had a life-sized wooden mermaid figurehead standing outside the door of the shack.
Just when I was sure I was getting a migraine, someone dropped a coin in Aunt Gully’s jukebox and Tom Jones was singing. I pulled my eyes away from the mermaidabilia. There wasn’t an inch to spare in our tiny lobster shack, but now some teenage girls were dancing with Aunt Gully and the man in the Red Sox shirt. A little boy stood on a chair, marching in place, conducting the music with a plastic fork.
It was absolutely nuts. The lobster shack had only been open a few months. We’d never gotten through a Fourth of July holiday. Now we had to get through Fourth of July and cater a party for one hundred one-percenters at Harmony Harbor.
Still, excitement kindled in me. I couldn’t wait to get behind the walls of Harmony Harbor.
* * *
That evening at Aunt Gully’s cottage, which we affectionately called the Gull’s Nest, Lorel, Aunt Gully, and I relaxed on the patio, taking advantage of the cool evening air. A storm two days earlier had left behind calm clear weather and a reprieve from the humidity that was typical of summer in Mystic Bay.
The old-fashioned wall phone in the kitchen shrilled. Aunt Gully went inside to answer it.
Music thumped as a car rolled down the street. The scent of charcoal, lighter fluid, and grilled hamburgers and hotdogs was in the air. Summer people were moving in for the holiday weekend. Down on the beach at the end of the street, fireworks crackled in a trial run for the Fourth. The sulfurous smell drifted on the breeze.
Strings of fairy lights strung over the patio mimicked the fireflies over Aunt Gully’s garden. Lorel bent over her smartphone. Usually her texting was work related, but tonight I wondered if she was texting with Patrick.
I tried to swallow my words but I couldn’t help it. “Lorel, listen, I know your affairs are none of my business—”
Lorel didn’t look up. “That’s right, Allie, my affairs are none of your business.”
I drank the last of my lemonade. Sweet and bitter. Just like my relationship with Lorel.
“Allie. I’m not discussing it. If Aunt Gully can stop nagging me about Patrick, so can you.”
Lorel raised her head, her look hard even under Aunt Gully’s string of fairy lights. It’s the same hard look she’d give when I wanted to tag along in middle school. The lights highlighted her sculpted cheekbones, her strong jaw. She looked like the cool blond heroine of a Hitchcock movie.
I changed tack. “Well, I took your morning shift today. You owe me.”
Lorel scrolled on her phone. “I already told Aunt Gully I’ll take your morning shift tomorrow.”
“Oh. Thanks.” I stretched my legs on the chaise, inhaling the calming scent of Aunt Gully’s basil plants. I could already imagine those wonderful extra hours in bed.
“A little something to celebrate our catering venture!” Aunt Gully set a tray with shortcakes, strawberries, and whipped cream on the table.
“My favorite!” I sat up. “Thanks!”
Lorel waved it away.
“Who was on the phone, Aunt Gully?” I heaped my shortcake with fresh strawberries and whipped cream.
“I’ve lined up helpers for the night we’re working the Stellene Lupo affair.” Aunt Gully grinned. “Harmony Harbor, here we come.”
When I finished my shortcake, I set my plate on the tray with a sigh.
Lorel’s phone buzzed. “Gotta take this.”
She went inside, no doubt heading to the small downstairs guest bedroom. Growing up we’d shared one of the bedrooms upstairs under the eaves but now she slept in the little room on the first floor that had been Uncle Rocco’s study. Since our mother had died giving birth to me, Aunt Gully had been more than an aunt to us. When my dad was out lobstering, we lived with her and Uncle Rocco.
“Probably Patrick.” Aunt Gully pressed her lips together in a little red lipsticked downward bow.
I frowned. “Aunt Gully, I can’t help it. I know she’s a grown woman and all, but her dating Patrick again makes me furious.”
Aunt Gully shook out the tablecloth. “Everyone has to make their own mistakes, Allie.” Her eyes were worried. “Maybe she’ll meet someone new in Boston. Take her mind off Patrick.”
“Guys as hot as Patrick aren’t exactly a dime a dozen.” Though hotness alone didn’t explain Patrick’s allure, did it? Why did Lorel keep taking him back? He always hurt her. He always had another woman. It always ended in tears. My eyes met Aunt Gully’s and I realized it was simple. For all his faults, despite them, Lorel loved Patrick.
“Oh, I forgot.” Aunt Gully folded her tablecloth. “Bertha asked if one of you girls could help her on her boat tomorrow morning. Her sciatica’s flaring up and her doctor told her to get some help with her lobster traps. Lorel said you needed a break from work and that she was taking your morning shift. So you wouldn’t mind helping Bertha, would you?”
I let my spoon clatter onto the tray. Thanks a lot, Lorel.
Copyright © 2018 Shari Randall.