Maggie McConnon rings in Christmas in Bel, Book, and Scandal—the third adventure for everybody’s favorite Irish-American culinary artist turned amateur sleuth, Bel McGrath (available December 5, 2017).
Bel McGrath tries her best to keep herself on the straight and narrow, but she just has a taste for trouble. This time danger arrives in the form of a newspaper left behind by visitors to Shamrock Manor―and a photograph that jolts Bel out of the present and back into a dark chapter from her past.
The person in the photo is Bel’s best friend, Amy Mitchell, long gone from Foster’s Landing, at a commune in upstate New York shortly after her disappearance. The picture, and Bel’s burning desire to find out what happened to Amy―and whether she may still be alive―is the catalyst for a story in which old secrets are revealed, little by little … and certain characters are shown to not be as genuine as Bel once thought.
I was wet, cold, and tired, but despite the fact that she was ready to kill me with her bare hands for staying out all night, my mother addressed all three of my immediate needs before saying anything else.
A towel to dry my hair.
Clean clothes in the form of a pair of jeans, a T-shirt, and a pair of socks. An Irish sweater, the most uncomfortable item of clothing ever made—a hair shirt, really—but welcomed, and probably deserved, at that moment.
A bologna sandwich. It would be the last time I would eat bologna, for many reasons, the most significant being that the smell would forever after remind me of Amy. And how she had disappeared the night before and would always be gone.
Mom was worrying a rosary in one hand, the other securely placed in one of my father’s meaty ones. She turned and looked at me, asking me a question she had already asked and would continue to ask, along with everyone else even vaguely connected to Foster’s Landing. “Where is she?”
I didn’t know. I didn’t think I would never know.
My brother Cargan, the closest to me in age and the one who had found me beside the Foster’s Landing River, was across the room, looking out the window, his violin strapped to his back; he had a lesson later that morning and wouldn’t miss it for anything, even if Amy Mitchell was missing and never to be seen again. No, he was gearing up for a big competition in Ireland and nothing stopped him from his lessons or his practicing. Although the mood was somber in the police station, I wouldn’t have been surprised if he had whipped the instrument out right then and there and started playing a tune, a sad one, the type I had grown up listening to.
My other brothers were out and about in town now. They, too, had come running when Cargan first discovered me but were less concerned about me now that they had joined the hunt for Amy. It was another night for Bel, one said. She was going to be in a lot of trouble, said another. They were both right: It had been another typical night and now I was in a lot of trouble, the last to have seen Amy alive with nothing to tell that might lead to her whereabouts. They were a self-protective bunch, caring little as to why I would be hauled into the police station, happy that, for once, they were not the ones in trouble. Feeney, especially. He was always in trouble. Derry and Arney, not as much, but both had a way of finding their way into situations that were beyond their control. Feeney was a much more calculated and deliberate hooligan.
Next to Mom, Dad let out a barely audible sob, the kind that told me that he was, first and foremost, a father and one who felt the pain of a missing child. He looked over at me, almost as if he wanted to confirm that I was still there, and reached out the hand that didn’t hold Mom’s, patting me awkwardly on the thigh.
“Ah, Belfast,” he said. “Ah, girl.”
“It’s okay, Dad,” I said. “They’ll find her. They’ll bring her back.” I thought about those words a lot over the years, wondering where that confidence came from. Youth, I eventually decided. When you’re young and nothing bad has ever happened, you think everything will always be better, every wrong will be righted. It’s only with age that you realized that that wouldn’t always be the case and that disappointments would stack up, like the layers of my famous mille-feuille cake, the one with seemingly a thousand layers of goodness that cracked upon the first dip of the fork. But even then, in my heart, I had a feeling it wasn’t going to turn out the way we all wanted, something I couldn’t give voice to at that moment.
Lieutenant D’Amato came out of the conference room at the Foster’s Landing police station and looked at me, frowning. Behind me the door opened, and his expression suddenly lightened, the sight of his only child, his daughter, coming through the doors with a cup of coffee in one hand and a bag of something delicious in the other, the greasy stain at the bottom indicating that it was probably a Danish from the local bagel store. It smelled better than my bologna sandwich, which I wrapped up in the wax paper that Mom had put it in and which I stuffed under my thigh.
Mary Ann handed her father the food and then turned to me, tears in her eyes. “Oh, Bel,” she said, and ran toward me, enveloping me in a hug. She smelled good, not like river water and stale beer like I did, but more like the soft grass that I felt beneath my feet when I ran from my house down the steep hill toward the river. Beside me, my mother’s silent reproach hung over me like a fetid cloud.
Why can’t you be more like Mary Ann D’Amato?
I had heard it more than once in my seventeen years and hoped eventually it would die a natural death as I got older and more accomplished, setting off to take the culinary world by storm, another thing that left a distinct distaste in my mother’s mouth. I was supposed to be a nurse. A teacher. A wife, mother. Not a chef.
It was your idea to open a catering hall, I wanted to say. Your idea to have me in the kitchen every moment I wasn’t studying or swimming on the varsity team. Your idea to ask me how the potatoes tasted, if the carrots needed another minute. Your idea to let my brothers learn the traditional Irish tunes and put me in an invisible, yet highly important, role—that of sous chef to you and a myriad of other cooks who had come through the doors of Shamrock Manor, only to discover that yes, our family was crazy, and no, they didn’t really care all that much about haute cuisine.
Mary Ann was going to nursing school; of course she was. She was the daughter that my parents never had and she would make everyone in this town proud.
Years later, in what could only be from the “you can’t make this stuff up” files, Mary Ann would marry Kevin Hanson—my Kevin Hanson—and I would cook the food for their wedding. We would all be friends and we would laugh together and eat together and have a generally good time in one another’s company. Before, I felt the lesser, but in the future, the now, I would be the equal, the one who had gone away and come back, realizing that my heart was in this little village, at least for a time. But back then, Amy was still missing and everyone thought I held the key to her whereabouts.
“Where is she?” Mary Ann whispered into my curly hair.
“I don’t know,” I said. And I didn’t. Amy Mitchell was my best friend, my confidante, my sister from another mother, and she hadn’t said a word about where she would go after a night on Eden Island. My last words to her, an angry sentence (You’ll be sorry.…), burned in my gray matter. I don’t know where she is, I wanted to scream. It had been just fun and games until I had seen her kissing my boyfriend, Kevin Hanson. We had been celebrating our waning days at FLHS, and it was the best night we had ever had up until that point.
I don’t know why she wouldn’t tell me where she was going, but maybe I did.
Maybe of everyone here in the police station, she wanted me to be the last to know.
I broke the embrace with Mary Ann and sat down again; I would never smell a certain floral-scented shampoo again without thinking of that morning. I would never feel the grass beneath my feet without thinking of the smell and where it brought me in my mind. Mary Ann’s face, tear streaked and pale, made me feel bad about my own: dry as a bone, not a tear in sight, stunned, resigned. Amy was gone, and deep down I knew that she was never coming back. How I knew it so well in the early morning hours I had no idea. Why I had told Dad things would be fine was a mystery. But I knew it as well as I knew my own name that it was over and wondered how everyone else was still clueless to that fact.
I looked up at a cop who clearly didn’t know who I was but whose face told me he knew why I was there.
“That’s me,” I said, and walked into the room where I would tell them everything and nothing.
Copyright © 2017 Maggie McConnon.
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Maggie McConnon grew up in New York immersed in Irish culture and tradition. A former Irish stepdancer, she was surrounded by a family of Irish musicians who still play at family gatherings. She credits her Irish grandparents with providing the stories of their homeland and their extended families as the basis for the stories she tells in her Belfast McGrath novels, beginning with Wedding Bel Blues.