What begins as local town fodder for an episode of “Wedding Gone Wild” is turning into “Gangsters with Guns.” With the Casey family spiraling out of control, and billable McGrath hours being lost by the minute, Bel is definitely in too deep. With all these shenanigans, she barely has time to obsess over her new boyfriend and her own unsolved mystery from years ago! Time is running out on getting the next couple down the aisle before the so-called luck of the Irish takes a deadly turn… Bel of the Brawl will keep Maggie McConnon's fans, new and old, guessing.
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Bel of the Brawl
By Maggie McConnon
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2017 Maggie Barbieri
All rights reserved.
When we were kids, we used to say that if heaven did indeed exist on earth, it had taken the form of Eden Island.
Set in the middle of the Foster's Landing River, a little tributary that flowed into the mighty Hudson, it was lush and green with spongy ground cover that protected the ecosystem below its surface. My friends and I knew the island well, had walked every inch of its pristine landscape, taking great care to remove the dead cigarette butts and empty cans from overnight expeditions that the local police department turned a blind eye to, mostly because they themselves — homegrown all — had spent a night or two there looking up at the stars, a little buzzed, marveling at both the good luck and the horrible misfortune they had to be growing up in a river town like Foster's Landing with everything and nothing to offer.
It had rained a lot the year I graduated from high school, so much so that Eden Island was the only one in the little cluster of islands still aboveground that year, but even there the water was creeping over the island's banks, closing over the edges of the little land mass, making its way toward the trees that sat in the center like a copse of sentries protecting their territory.
That early summer morning years ago, not long after our high school graduation, followed a night fuzzily remembered at best, when I was still a teen who forgot to wear sunscreen (much to my mother's chagrin), was always covered in bug bites, and wore a bathing suit under my clothes most of the time. That morning I woke up and turned onto my side, surprised to find myself outside and exposed to the elements. I could hear a little rumble of thunder in the distance and feel a light rain falling between the hanging leaves, the ones so low I could almost touch them. The moss beneath my cheek was cold and damp and provided a soft cushion for my throbbing head. My sweatshirt — FOSTER'S LANDING HIGH SCHOOL SWIM TEAM — was soaked through. I sat up, feeling the back of my head for a wound that I was sure was there but found nothing; this pain was just a result of having slept outside and having had maybe a go or two at the keg that some older kid had brought. This time, my usual go-to, a plate of greasy diner eggs and sausage, wouldn't allay the queasiness that the briny smell of the small river brought to my nose, nor the shakiness in my legs.
I looked around, alone in familiar surroundings but with a feeling of dread spreading icy tendrils through my limbs. "Hello!" I called out, wondering about the whereabouts of the rest of the usual quartet that accompanied me everywhere — Amy, Kevin, Cargan. The island wasn't big, maybe six hundred feet across, an eighth of a mile long, and a quick check of the perimeter on all sides told me that I was alone.
In those days, I wore Keds that were always threadbare, having been white and clean for about a week before my pinkie toe started to peek out from first the right one, then the left. They were beside me, soggy and soiled. I searched the pockets of my cutoffs and found a damp dollar bill and the key to my house but nothing else. I looked out across the northern edge of the island and stuck a tentative toe into the water: high tide. The water barely came up to my knees when I waded in, and determined to get home before the real rain came, the thunder rolling and rumbling closer to the spot where I stood, I strode across the expanse toward the other shore.
From the trees behind me, I imagined a rebuke. "Where you going, Bel?" they seemed to ask as they swayed and rocked in the wind, getting increasingly violent as the thunder reverberated, this time a little closer. I waded in deeper, my sneakers skidding and slipping on the rocks below. "Where you going, Bel?" the trees seemed to ask again, their cadence not unlike Kevin's when he'd asked me the same question the night before, the one that was buried in the deep recesses of my brain. Where I was, why he had asked, and where I had been going were all questions I couldn't answer. A thought went through my clogged brain, the synapses firing slowly but, in this case, deliberately.
I have to say I'm sorry, I thought, for the first, but not last, time.
The water was cold, colder than it should have been for June. It was all that rain making it chilly, bracing. Up to my thighs now, the water rushed from Sperry's Pond to the north, where rapids had stranded more than one overly brave kayaker out for a relaxing paddle on a gorgeous summer day, the kind of summer days that normally I lived for. I waded closer to the shore, turning back once to make sure I really had been alone on the island. My addled mind was playing tricks on me, and a place I loved was quickly turning into somewhere sinister and foreboding, a place that I needed to escape.
Finally, because it was easier, I began to swim, short strokes while bent at the waist, the current getting stronger, the wind picking up. The shore, which always seemed so close when I was on the island with my friends, seemed far away now that I was alone. Unreachable. I pushed through the water, my legs — short but swimmer's legs nonetheless — doing the work, my arms splashing at the water but really not helping my progress across the expanse. I pulled off my sweatshirt, noticing a purple handprint around my right bicep and Kevin's words as he caught me as I stumbled out of my kayak yesterday — "That'll leave a mark!" — ringing in my ears.
Where was everyone? Most importantly, where was Amy? I had left my best friend on the shore the night before, telling her she would be sorry and that I would never speak to her again, but a night on the beach, alone and wet, had convinced me that I had overreacted, that it hadn't been as bad as I thought. Maybe she hadn't looked at me the way I thought she had after kissing Kevin — my boyfriend — right in front of me. But the truth was that she had. I held on to the hope that Amy never would have ended the night without finding me first. We were a team. A duo. We were never apart.
When I finally reached the shore, out of breath and soaked to the skin, a clap of thunder exploded directly overhead and the spot where I had lain just moments earlier was struck by a bolt of lightning so thick and sustained that I knew I would have been killed had I not awoken when I had. Something had roused me; I had no internal clock. Anyone who had seen the number of tardy markings on my report would know that I was never on time, ever. I looked back across at Eden Island, squeezing the water out of my sweatshirt and putting it back over my head.
Where am I going? I wondered.
I decided I didn't know.
I lay on the shore, looking at the murky sky overhead. It would be raining steadily soon but it didn't matter; I was already wet. Behind me, footsteps approached but I was too tired to be wary. The person crouched by my head and held out a hand.
"Ready to go home, Bel?" my brother asked, the sight of him bringing tears to my eyes.
"I had a horrible night, Cargan."
He had, too; he had been up all night. It was written on his face.
"I know," he said. "Let's go. Mom and Dad are worried sick. We've been looking for you for hours."
"I was right there," I said. "I was right where you left me."
He shook his head, his dark hair wet and flopping onto his forehead. "No. You weren't." He leaned over and hugged me, and the sound of a great sob — his or mine, I wasn't sure — disappeared in the latest clap of thunder. Over his shoulder, I spotted my other brothers — Arney, Derry, and Feeney — clamoring down the hill behind the Caseys' house toward the river, their voices loud and raucous, excited. I had been found.
In the distance, there were sirens and voices, coming together in a panic-filled cacophony. I looked at my brothers for the answer to the unspoken question, the worry on Cargan's face in particular still there in spite of the fact that I had been found.
Only Cargan spoke. "We found you."
There was something more, something ominous. It was written on his face.
One tear slid down his face. "But Amy Mitchell never came home."
It was a long time ago and I was a lot younger. Today, I sat at the edge of the water by Shamrock Manor, my parents' catering hall, and looked out, hoping that I would see her again. I knew I wouldn't; in my heart of hearts, I knew she was dead.
But still, all these years later, she was my sister from another mother, my confidante, my best friend. She was Amy Mitchell, the girl who never came home.CHAPTER 2
"Beets?" Gerard Mason, the groom-to-be, asked, sniffing the air as if just the mention of the root vegetable could produce an odor.
"No beets?" I asked, looking down at the handwritten menu that I had labored over for the past several days, a beet salad part of my entrée, adding a bit of color to an otherwise colorless meal — in my opinion anyway — of filet mignon and scalloped potatoes. It was a meal I could make in my sleep, even if for one hundred and fifty. Behind me, I could almost feel my mother's eyes boring into the back of my head, her words ringing in my ears: We left the old country so that we wouldn't have to eat beets, Belfast. No beets!
"I'm not a huge fan, but it's not a deal breaker," he said, smiling.
The bride looked at me expectantly. "And goat cheese? Will it have goat cheese?"
"It can," I said. "And candied walnuts, if you'd like."
The bride, Pegeen Casey, looked at her fiancé. "It sounds delicious, Gerry. I think we should do it."
I heard a door slam in another part of Shamrock Manor, whether by chance or on purpose, I wasn't sure. Mom really had a thing against beets. And outdoor weddings. And off-the-shoulder dresses on brides. Something about the way the cake was cut. And a host of other things that I couldn't remember but which came to me every once in a while, in a rush, making my head spin.
Gerry looked at his bride-to-be. "Whatever you want, baby."
Good answer, Gerry, I thought. "Do you have any other special requests?" I asked, scanning my list. We had covered the cocktail hour and the main meal and that left the bar and the cake. "Any special requests for the bar? A specialty cocktail?" I asked, holding my breath. Seamus, our longtime bartender, was pretty one-note, that note being he could pull a pint like no one's business but everything else was up for grabs. He didn't know the difference between Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc and thought Merlot was something you got from a tick bite.
Pegeen Casey shook her head. "It's a pretty standard crowd, Belfast. Your bartender can handle pouring pints and a few hundred glasses of Chardonnay, can't he?" she asked, smiling. I loved a bride with a sense of humor; it made everything easier. Pegeen was as far from a "bridezilla" as one could get and I appreciated that.
"He can handle those two things," I said. "And the cake? Will we be making that for you?"
"I've ordered a cake from La Belle Gateau in Monroeville," she said. "Are you familiar with them?"
"Yes," I said. "Many of our couples use them for their cakes."
"Please tell me that they're good," Pegeen said.
"The best," I lied. Their icing was too dense and their fondant flowers often required some emergency surgery after delivery. But Pegeen Casey didn't need to know that. Her wedding was in a week and I didn't want to add to her stress about the big day. I made some adjustments to the order sheet, signed it and handed her the original. "We're all set," I said. "If you think of anything in the meantime, please let me know and we'll do our best to make sure that everything is just the way you want it."
She smiled. "Thank you so much, Belfast. I was a little reluctant —"
Gerry interrupted her. "Yeah, who wants to have their wedding where a murder took place?"
She put her hand on her fiancé's arm. "You understand, don't you?" she asked. "It's nothing personal. Nothing against Shamrock Manor."
"I do," I said. "But that was a few months ago and it was really all just a tragic misunderstanding. I promise you that you'll be perfectly safe here and that your wedding day will go off without a hitch." I should have left well enough alone, but couldn't. "It's not like there is some crazed murderer running around Shamrock Manor."
Pegeen wrinkled her nose.
Shut up, Bel, I thought.
Gerry reached into his jacket pocket. "Well, if anything ever happens again, here's my card."
I looked at the card: "Gerard Mason, Private Investigator."
"I can't imagine that the Foster's Landing Police Department has the manpower to handle those types of investigations," he said.
I looked at him blankly, the idea that a private investigator had fallen into my lap, just when I needed one, muddling my thoughts. Maybe he could help fill in the blanks from all those years ago.
"A murder," he said. "Too much for the locals. Trust me on that one."
"Right. Yes," I said.
The local PD doesn't have the manpower or the investigative skills; he was right about that but the murder had been solved anyway.
"Love is all around at the Manor, huh?" Gerry asked, pointing out the window to the lawn where my brother Cargan was in an embrace with one of the banquet waitresses, a gorgeous girl named Pauline, an Irish girl just like her two coworkers. They exchanged a quick kiss, a peck on the lips really, but it was clear that there was something between them.
I laughed it off even though the sight of them came as a surprise. "Yes, the Manor has that effect on people."
"We're looking forward to the wedding so much," Pegeen said. "We've heard great things, murder notwithstanding," she said, trying to laugh it off even though it was no laughing matter.
"Well, thank you," I said. "But we won't be in need of a private investigator any time soon," I said, knocking on the molding surrounding the entrance to the dining room.
I led them into the foyer where a bust of Bobby Sands, Irish martyr and rebel for the cause, stood in the center. His poor, misshapen head not really resembling a head at all, he had become a "talking piece" as my father, the artist in question, described it. I hadn't met too many brides or grooms who wanted to talk about Bobby Sands or his distorted visage. "See you in a week," I said, holding the big front door open for them and watching them drive away.
Private investigator. That was a new one. Maybe I was lying just a bit when I said that I wouldn't be in need of a private investigator any time soon.
Maybe this was exactly the right time to be in need of one.
Too bad Gerard Mason ended up not being able to help me, his own wedding day being the last day he lived to see.CHAPTER 3
If you could judge the success of a wedding by how drunk the guests were, this one was our best ever at Shamrock Manor.
I went into the dining room and made my way toward the bar where Seamus, our longtime bartender, was doing his best to keep up with demand. "Seamus," I said. "Do you need help? I could pull Fernando from the kitchen and have him work back here for a bit." Fernando was my sous chef and multitalented.
The wedding, which I thought would be a rather staid affair even as Pegeen wagered that a lot of wine would be drunk, was looking more like a rager in a subterranean basement in hipster Brooklyn.
"I would love some help, Bel," Seamus said.
I started for the kitchen, stopping at the stage where my brothers played, pulling Cargan to the side. "Maybe it's time for some background music?" I said. "Take a break from the Latin beats?" I recognized the song that the band played as a Tito Puente song, more appropriate for a salsa dance than an Irish wedding.
"Good idea," Cargan said, and passed the word among the others, the members of the McGrath Brothers, Shamrock Manor's one and only house band. Before I hit the kitchen doors, a droopy-sounding Barbra Streisand tune was coming out in Feeney's tenor, disappointed murmurs coming from the emptying dance floor. I recognized it as a duet she had once done with the Bee Gees and wondered who was going to assume the falsetto role in this one. It didn't sound like there were any takers among the other song stylists in the band and Feeney made a go of it alone, singing his heart out about how he had nothing to be guilty of, that his love could climb any mountain.
On the dance floor, a man wearing a fedora indoors danced with the bride, while my mom stood in the corner of the room, her arms crossed, her face telegraphing what she thought of a guy wearing a hat in the dining room. The dancing couple was deep in conversation, and at one point Pegeen threw her head back and let out a raucous laugh, having fun at her own event, enjoying every minute.
Excerpted from Bel of the Brawl by Maggie McConnon. Copyright © 2017 Maggie Barbieri. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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