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“What could go wrong?” Aunt Gully said.
My sister, Lorel, shot me a look as we drove into Mystic Bay’s historic district. Aunt Gully sat in the backseat cooing to the pot next to her as plumes of black smoke sputtered from her van’s tailpipe.
What could go wrong? What hadn’t already gone wrong? This morning we’d discovered Aunt Gully’s van had a flat tire. After I’d put on the spare, she’d forgotten her lucky apron and we had to go back home for it. When we’d swung down to the dock behind her Lazy Mermaid lobster shack to pick up fresh lobsters, her supplier was late. We were seriously behind schedule.
Aunt Gully hadn’t even mentioned the mysterious letters we’d received this week. Threatening, anonymous letters.
I rubbed a smudge of grease from my chin and willed my heart rate to slow.
Though our most important task today was to feed a grand total of four lobster rolls to the judges in the Mystic Bay Food Festival Best Lobster Roll contest, Aunt Gully insisted that we provide free samples for all festival visitors. Aunt Gully was a Larkin, an old New England family that hadn’t exactly come over on the Mayflower—maybe one of the later ships—but she had the soul of an Italian mama who had to feed everyone. Everyone. That’s why I struggled to find a comfortable position in the shotgun seat of her jam-packed little gray van, trying to keep stacks of paper plates, napkins, rolls, and ceramic mermaids and nautical flags (because our samples booth has to look nice) off the soft boot covering my almost-healed broken ankle.
I caught sight of my bleary blue eyes in the visor mirror and snapped it up. An early riser I am not. As a dancer with New England Ballet Theater, I’m used to working matinee and evening performances. Since I’d broken my ankle in a tumble down some stairs, I’d returned home to heal and help get Aunt Gully’s new business running. Now I rose before dawn to do prep work at the Lazy Mermaid.
Why hadn’t Aunt Gully opened a nightclub instead?
Aunt Gully hummed as Lorel drove at exactly the speed limit into town where red-white-and-blue bunting draped storefronts and sea captains’ homes.
Every Memorial Day weekend, Mystic Bay hosted the food festival on the town green, one block from the harbor. Foodies jammed the narrow streets to sample the best New England cooking. That Aunt Gully, the new kid on the block, had been chosen to compete in the Best Lobster Roll competition was quite a coup.
Food prep took place in the kitchen of the Mystic Bay Congregational Church and in overflow tents on the green. At the church, Lorel eased the van past large television and news trucks. The largest had YUM NETWORK painted on the side, the letters formed by photos of happy people eating various delicious foods.
A food fest volunteer waved us into the lot behind the church. All the volunteers wore black T-shirts, making them easy to spot.
Lorel squeezed the van into the space between a Dumpster and an oversized food truck with KAHUNA’S blazed on the truck’s side panel in neon orange over a swirling Hawaiian print.
“Ernie Moss went to Hawaii when he was in the navy and never got over it,” Aunt Gully said. “Now where did I put my glasses?”
“Top of your head, Aunt Gully,” Lorel and I chorused.
A surprisingly cool breeze carried the scent of salt water, baking—ah, cinnamon rolls—and coffee. I looped a soft lamb’s wool scarf around my neck and carefully placed my walking boot on the pavement. A three-foot-tall lobster painted on the food truck loomed over me.
The lobster sported a black fedora and brandished a fork as if it were a tommy gun. HOME OF THE GODLOBSTER. NEW ENGLAND’S BEST LOBSTER ROLL.
“We’ll see about that,” I said.
The side door of the van rumbled open.
“It would be great to get a food truck,” Aunt Gully said as she unbuckled a large pot. The lobsters inside scraped their claws against its battered metal sides.
“One step at a time, Aunt Gully,” Lorel said.
Aunt Gully dreamed big, and I loved her for it. My older sister, the MBA, was the practical one. The careful one.
The pretty one. While Lorel’s auburn hair gleamed with gold highlights, mine was the deep red that came with freckles and sunburns.
Lorel slid her pricey sunglasses onto her golden, unfreckled nose. We wore matching pink Lazy Mermaid Lobster Shack T-shirts, with strategically placed red clamshells on the chest—Aunt Gully’s design. Lorel’s was tucked into her khaki skirt. Mine was somewhat less visible, tucked into my faded jeans and topped with my scarf. The back of our tees read NO FUSS FINE FOOD.
Aunt Gully’s Lazy Mermaid lobster rolls were New England traditional all the way. Fresh-as-could-be lobster, piled high in a buttery toasted roll topped with Aunt Gully’s secret-recipe lobster sauce. That’s it. It’s almost too simple, but the flavor is sublime.
A crew of food fest volunteers pushed a cart toward us. We unpacked the van and rolled toward the large white tent on the green. Aunt Gully hugged us and hurried to join the other contestants in the church kitchen. Lorel and I would supervise lobster roll and coleslaw samples for food festival visitors.
Lorel scanned the area. “I hope the lobster libbers aren’t here,” she whispered.
For the past week, letters signed “Lobster Liberation Group” had been pushed under the door at the Lazy Mermaid. Inside a plain white envelope was a short message typed on plain paper: “Save the lobsters! Close or else!” Aunt Gully had tossed the letters in the trash. “Silly practical jokes!”
I’d examined the envelope—I don’t watch CSI for nothing—but there were no postmarks, helpful fingerprint smudges, bloodstains, or distinctive handwriting. Plain paper. Plain envelope. No clues.
But why was it so hard to forget those stupid letters? Were they from someone we knew? Someone out there didn’t like us, or at the very least, got a kick sending threatening letters. Aunt Gully didn’t want to report the letters, but I was determined to find out who sent them.
Still, I tried to channel some of Aunt Gully’s calm. “Lorel, you worry too much.”
We went into high gear, unpacking dozens of rolls, made mini-sized for the lobster roll samples we’d hand out to hundreds of hungry foodies. We’d also brought Aunt Gully’s tangy secret-recipe coleslaw to go alongside.
“Allie, do you think we should be with Aunt Gully?” Lorel twisted her hands, a sure sign she was nervous.
“You know how she is.” I shouldered a bag of decorations for our free-samples booth. “She’s in her happy place with her lobsters.”
Aunt Gully loved lobsters. She said they made the ultimate sacrifice for our happiness and that we had to treat them with respect. Aunt Gully went a few steps beyond respect with her lobsters, but that was fine with me. In the rest of her life, she was a normal person. Well, fairly normal.
“Winning this competition would raise the profile of the Lazy Mermaid beyond anything else we could do,” Lorel said.
We hurried to the free-samples-booth area on the green. The green sat right at the top of Harbor Street, overlooking dozens of touristy shops that, I had to admit, oozed charm. Trees were in bright green leaf, the hard winter forgotten in the sparkling spring day.
Still, my stomach knotted as I worked and greeted passersby. Could one of these smiling people be the anonymous letter writer? Would Aunt Gully win? Aunt Gully’s lobster rolls were the very essence of New England traditional cooking, but what if the judges didn’t like them? I shook my head. Preshow jitters were normal. I coped with stage fright before every performance. Every dancer learns to use adrenaline to their advantage when the curtain rises.
My nerves settled as Lorel and I chatted with the group from the Happy Farmer Organic Farm in the next booth. Friends and neighbors stopped by to wish us luck.
A woman with long white-blond hair picked up a mermaid bobblehead and held it at arm’s length. “Ha! Your aunt is so cute.”
“Hello, Finella.” Inside I seethed. Finella Farraday owned She Sells Chic, a pricey resort wear and gift shop right across from the green. She was Aunt Gully’s archenemy. Well, that’s how I thought of her. Finella had wanted to open an outlet in the building that became the Lazy Mermaid lobster shack, but Aunt Gully’d prevailed despite some shady real estate maneuvers on Finella’s part.
“Those T-shirts.” She looked me up and down over her Chanel sunglasses. “Cute.” Her pursed lips said otherwise. She set the bobblehead down as if it were radioactive. “Here to help your aunt win the contest?”
“I’d do anything to help Aunt Gully.” As I said the words, I felt nothing could be more true.
It had been only nine months since Aunt Gully’s husband, Uncle Rocco, passed away and she’d thrown herself into opening the Lazy Mermaid. People smarter than I am probably saw that opening the restaurant was her coping mechanism, a place to pour all the energy she’d put into her loving marriage. Still, she’d made so many changes so fast. She’d left her longtime job as a cook at the elementary school to take a chance on this business.
“Ta.” Finella waved a red-tipped hand and left. Lorel and I shared a look.
“You can always count on Finella to spread good cheer,” I said.
Lorel laughed and her shoulders relaxed.
“Let’s see how Aunt Gully’s doing. We’ll just peek,” she said.
“Let’s just finish up with the mermaid stuff.”
We set out Aunt Gully’s “mermaidabilia,” a collection of ceramic mermaids, seashells, and fishnet tchotchkes that would give our booth Aunt Gully’s signature boatyard-meets-yard-sale look.
Then we hurried past the broad white pillars into the church, showing our badges to volunteers at the door.
“Since when is there all this security at the food festival?” I said.
“With all the celebrities they have to do it.” Lorel nodded at a rotund man wearing a lobster-print tie. “Look, there’s Keats Packer.”
“Mayor Packer’s hardly a celebrity.” He walked over to us, shaking hands and slapping backs as he went. Mayor Packer was always in election mode.
“Hey, if it isn’t the lazy mermaids.” Keats Packer chuckled, his blue eyes crinkling. He was a cheerful supporter of local businesses, especially restaurants. Though we’d been open only a couple of months, he’d become a regular at the Lazy Mermaid.
“Morning, Allie. You visiting from Boston, Lorelei?”
Lorel reddened. She hated her given name, preferring to go by the more professional-sounding Lorel. I grinned as she gritted her teeth in a smile. “Here to help, Mr. Packer.”
“I haven’t eaten since yesterday.” Packer patted his stomach. “Had to make room for all the goodies I’m going to try today. Let me tell you, I’m delighted two of the four finalists for best lobster roll are from right here in Mystic Bay and beat out dozens of other lobster shacks to do it.”
A guy in a navy blue blazer pushed past us. “Mayor, can we get a few words about the festival? By the monument on the green?”
“Happy to, Leo. Meet you in five. Say, have you met the Larkin sisters? Girls, this is Leo Rodriguez, my favorite reporter.” Packer beamed as we greeted Leo. “May the best lobster roll win.” He winked, then moved into the crowded hall.
I’d recognized Leo Rodriguez from the television that was always on in Aunt Gully’s kitchen. Leo was tall, dark, and handsome—and knew it. He flashed a grin. “Mermaids. Cute clams. Here for the competition?”
I stiffened at his condescending tone. Lorel put a hand on my shoulder.
“Absolutely! I’m Lorel. We’re with the Lazy Mermaid Lobster Shack.” She handed him a business card. “Please stop by. My aunt would love to meet you.”
“The new place on Pearl? Right at the piers?” Leo tucked the card in his pocket.
“Fresh lobster delivered all day long.” I jumped in with Aunt Gully’s sales pitch.
“Hey, would you two be willing to do an interview later?”
“With Aunt Gully, of course.” Lorel smiled.
“Of course.” Leo grinned.
I didn’t think they were talking about lobster rolls anymore.
Leo turned to me. “Wait a sec. You’re Allegra the dancer, right? Got injured, now works in the lobster shack?”
“That’s me, but you can call me Allie.” I waved at my walking boot. “Almost healed, but I have to be careful, do my PT.”
“I’d love to do a story on you, too,” Leo said.
The local papers had already written up my Tale of Woe. The headlines read “Spunky Ballerina Doesn’t Let Injury Stop Her” and “Pirouettes to Pier.”
I caught Lorel’s look. “Maybe.”
He handed his business card to Lorel. “See you later.”
“Later,” Lorel said.
Leo’s gaze lingered on Lorel a moment longer, then he jogged after the mayor.
“Lorel, how can you flirt with that guy? He’s so smarmy.”
“Allie, publicity’s all a game. Just play the game and stop being such a serious artiste all the time.”
“Serious?” I waved at my T-shirt. “I’m a woman wearing a clamshell bikini T-shirt. How is that serious?”
Lorel sighed. “I’m going to talk to Aunt Gully about these T-shirts.”
Copyright © 2018 by Shari Randall