Marge glanced up as she collected her meager tip from the table by the window. She didn’t attempt to hide her gaze as she followed the fancy green SUV with her brown eyes. It drove into the parking lot and slipped into one of the spots facing the street. She waited a moment to see who would emerge but had to pull herself away when she was called over to the register by a customer.
It was rare to see someone new in town and even more unusual to see a high-priced car pulling up to the diner. Pelago Bay was off the beaten path, so whoever was in the car hadn't arrived here by accident. As she was counting her customer’s change back, the door chime sounded; Marge looked up as she dropped the last quarter into his palm. “See you next week, Mr. Schick. You have a nice day!” He responded with a nod and a smile. He wasn’t much of a talker, but his visits to the diner were like clockwork every Wednesday morning.
The sophisticated woman seemed to stall with one foot in the diner. She removed her sunglasses and swept the restaurant with her eyes. Marge noticed a slight wrinkling around her nose as though she didn’t care for what she was seeing but wasn’t aware she was making a face.
The woman was stunning and clearly had money. Marge believed you could tell when people were wealthy because they carried themselves differently. She wore black cropped leggings and a simple but attractive ivory silk top which was styled to look like an oversized men’s button-down. Black sandals, complemented by deep red toenails, and a large leather bag completed her casual but elegant look. “Can I help you with something?” Marge asked.
She looked like she was considering turning around but smiled when Marge spoke to her. She tentatively approached the register and said, “well, I’m not sure. I don’t suppose you serve espresso here?” Lovely, Marge thought. “No, ma’am, we sure don’t, but we do have the best coffee in town if you’d like to try some?” “Thank you,” the woman responded as she fidgeted with her sunglasses. “I think I’d like that.” “Feel free to sit where you’d like; I’ll bring it over to you. Any sugar or cream?” “Uh, no, just black coffee, please.”
Marge brought the coffee over and, as she set it down, said, “we don’t get many visitors to Pelago Bay; are you staying in town?” The woman held Marge’s eyes for a beat too long and then responded that she was renting the McCallister place for a bit. Marge whistled in response.
The McCallister place was the most prominent house in Pelago Bay, and other than the small staff who took care of the grounds, it was rarely occupied. Old Man McCallister, as he is known in these parts, was the developer of Pelago Bay but hadn’t been to the home in years. Marge had heard he was on his last breath, but no one in town much cared what was happening to him.
“Well,” Marge said, “I hope you don’t get lonely over there in that big mansion. I’m Marge, by the way. Welcome to town.” “Thank you. I’m Stella. And don’t worry, space is exactly what I need right now.”
Marge put the coffee pot back in its place and casually strolled into the back to grab her cell phone from her purse. She went out to clean off a dirty table and quietly took a picture of Stella as she looked out the window. When she returned to the back area of the restaurant, she sent the photo to Betty with the caption, “Look what just blew into town and will be staying at Old Man McCallister’s place.”
Betty, or Bay Watch Betty, as she was known around town, was the de facto Mayor of Pelago Bay. She wasn’t called that because she was beautiful; she was anything but at the age of 83. No, she earned the title by being the town gossip. Bay Watch Betty didn’t miss a thing, and she was the first to be told about any new developments in town.
Betty was mostly harmless and frequently socialized with a group of lady friends who enjoyed cocktails and gossip in equal measure. Her husband died back in 2002, and it was widely believed she kept herself sharp by fervently monitoring the town and all its comings and goings. Betty was one of a kind if there ever was one. She was petite with perfectly styled white hair and was nothing if not proper. She wouldn’t be seen around town in anything but a skirt, matching blazer, and a hat. Always a hat.
Betty responded in short order that the ladies needed to meet ASAP to hear more. No one seemed surprised that Betty knew how to text. She prided herself on being “new age,” which she thought meant she was adept with technology. No one was interested in telling Betty what “new age” really meant. Marge said she’d send out the word, and whoever was available would assemble at Betty’s house at 7:30 sharp that night. “Meanwhile,” Marge responded, “I’ll see what more I can dig up.”
Marge brought a fresh pot of coffee out to Stella and attempted to strike up a conversation, but Stella was writing in a notebook and made it evident she wasn’t interested in chatting. While Marge was at the table, she casually looked out the window at the license plate on Stella’s car and noted she was from Connecticut. “Let me know if there’s anything else I can get you,” Marge said, “and feel free to sit as long as you’d like.”
Marge texted the rest of the ladies, and all four of them responded that they were eagerly looking forward to meeting at Betty’s later that evening. Marge put her phone away with a satisfying smile. It was nice to be the one to bring this juicy piece of gossip to the group. Well done, Margie, she thought, well done.
Stella Ames slowly made her way down the long tree-flanked driveway and, despite knowing it was coming, quietly gasped when her grandfather’s opulent house came into view. She hadn’t been there since she was a teenager. After her parents had been killed her first year of college, it was just too painful to come back. Now, it felt like the right place for her to be. She needed time away to figure out how she felt and what she would do next.
Stella parked her SUV and walked toward the mansion. The expansive front door opened before she got up the steps, and Grace greeted her. They hadn’t met but had spoken on the phone several times. Grace and her husband Leo were the caretakers of her Grandfather’s home. They lived in a cottage on the grounds and kept everything in great shape.
“Stella, I’m so glad to meet you finally,” Grace said as she tentatively hugged her. “It’s lovely to meet you too. Thanks for all you do around here.” “Yes, of course, we love being here. Let me show you inside and take you up to your room so you can get settled in.”
The house had a familiar feel; only the furniture had changed over the years. The views from the bayside windows were stunning, and Grace had a few windows open which made the air smell salty and refreshing. Stella was relieved to see that everything was prepared for her, right down to the plush towels and toiletries in the main bathroom. Even the simplest things were difficult for Stella right now, and this kindness was more than she expected.
Grace gave Stella a set of keys before returning to the cottage, and Stella made her way back to her car to retrieve her luggage. She changed clothes and let herself out back for a long walk on the beach. As she gazed out across the Atlantic Ocean, she felt the sea rejuvenating her. The briny air was refreshing, and she breathed deeply.
Marge and the other ladies arrived at Betty’s over on Front Street precisely at 7:30. The six of them had been meeting like this for more than a decade and considered their meetings a service to the town. They always drank whiskey sours that Betty made using her grandmother’s secret sour mix recipe. They were incredibly delicious. Marge had tried more than once to get Betty to give up the recipe after a few drinks, but she was a stubborn old girl who could drink all of them under the table any night of the week and twice on Sundays.
Once the six of them were settled with their drinks, Betty nodded to Marge to share the news. Marge took a sip of her drink, smiled in a way that communicated her importance, and reached for her phone. “Well, girls, this is a picture of the woman who showed up at the diner today in a Porsh of some sort.” “I believe it’s pronounced Por-sha,” said Stacy, who at 61 was the youngest member of the group. Stacy used to live in the city and liked to flaunt her big city knowledge whenever she could.
“My apologies,” Marge said with a note of irritation. “She drove up to the diner in a fancy SUV.” Stacy knew it was probably a Porsche Cayenne but decided against saying anything. “Anyway, her name is Stella – she wouldn’t give me her last name, and she paid with cash, so I had no way of finding out. She’s staying for the next few months at the McCallister mansion. The only other thing I could find out is that it appears she’s from Connecticut, which is a long way from Pelago Bay, Maine.” With that, Marge sat back in her chair and took a satisfying sip of her whiskey sour. She was relishing this moment but trying not to show it.
The cell phone picture was passed around, and as Diane handed it back to Marge, she politely raised her hand as though she were waiting for the teacher to give her permission to speak. “Diane,” said Betty as she nodded her head for the woman to continue. “Well, just yesterday Grace, the caretaker at the McCallister place, was in the grocery store and told my Stan, he was there picking up a few things, that the woman is the granddaughter of old man McCallister. Grace said she was getting things ready for her arrival today.”
Stacy commented that she didn’t know old man McCallister had a granddaughter. Marge rolled her eyes. She knew Stacy wasn’t aware of the town’s history because she’d only been there for the past 11 years. Betty politely said, “Oh, yes, she was in her early years of college when her parents were killed in a tragic car accident. I had heard she stopped coming out here after that.” “That’s so sad,” Diane remarked, “so why do we think she’s in town now?”
They all took this moment to sip their drinks and ponder the question. “Is she married?” asked Elizabeth. Marge jumped in with the information that there was no wedding ring, but you could see a distinct tan line where a ring once sat. Marge had learned to be observant of her customers over the years. Claire recalled there had been a write-up in the paper about the wedding of Max McCallister’s granddaughter. He had evidently paid for the highly regarded affair, and there were all sorts of important people in attendance. “I don’t remember when that was, but it must have been more than ten years ago,” said Claire.
Betty was nodding now and added, “that’s right, I do recall that. So, I wonder why her husband isn’t with her? A divorce, perhaps?” At that, Stacy pulled out her phone and did a Google search. Sure enough, several pictures of Stella McCallister Ames came up. “It looks like Collin Ames died recently, but I don’t see anything about the cause of death being reported,” said Stacy. “Ooooh,” she continued, “looks like our girl Stella may have had an affair recently, and there is a rumor that it was with her assistant, a woman!” She looked up at the group, proud of her discovery.
“Maybe she murdered him so she could be with the person she loved,” said Elizabeth with a note of intrigue in her voice. Calmly, Betty put her hand on Elizabeth’s leg and said, “now Lizzy, let’s not get carried away.” Lizzy was Betty’s oldest friend, and the ladies all knew one whiskey sour was one too many for Elizabeth. “It could be,” Lizzy responded, “remember when….” Betty squeezed her friend’s leg and gently shushed her. She didn’t want Lizzy to say something they’d both regret. Elizabeth sat back in her chair and took another sip of her drink. No one was sure what that was all about, but they chalked it up to Elizabeth being tipsy.
After quieting Lizzy and pondering all of the information, Betty said, “Okay ladies, here’s what we’re going to do. Diane, you see if Stan has any further information, and Marge, you see if you can find out anything from any of your customers. Perhaps we can uncover the purpose of Stella’s visit to the Bay.” They all agreed to report back to Betty’s the following Wednesday at the same time to share their findings.
Stella was content to roam the house and walk on the beach. The ache she felt was almost claustrophobic, and the space at her Grandfather’s home, both inside and out, was a welcome change from the city. She kept her phone off because she knew the calls were inevitable, and she wasn’t ready to deal with anything of that magnitude yet. She ran into Grace on the beach, who reported the town was all abuzz over her arrival. “I’d stick close to the house if you can, Stella, or you may find yourself being bombarded with questioning looks.” Stella had forgotten about the gossip that freely circulated through Pelago Bay. Her grandfather was a polarizing man, and the town seemed to make it a sport to talk about him and his family. “Will do, Grace. Thank you.”
The following Tuesday, a woman came bursting into Bay Diner looking haggard and distressed. When she took off her sunglasses, it was apparent she’d been crying. “What can I do for you?” Marge asked. “Can you point me in the direction of the McCallister place?” the woman said. Marge almost had to steady herself against the counter. “Yes, I suppose I can. Head down Main Street, that’s the street in front of the diner, and then take a right on Bay View Drive. The driveway to the McCallister place is the last one on the right; you can’t miss it.” “Thank you. I appreciate your help.” The woman bolted out the door and into her car. Marge noted the Connecticut license plates.
Margie didn’t know what to make of this new development, but a few ideas were stirring in her mind. Not able to wait until tomorrow, she called Betty after her shift to tell her about the encounter with the frazzled woman. Marge spoke quickly because she was so excited. She hadn’t intended to tell Betty about her notion that Stella was having an affair with the woman, but it all came tumbling out. “That’s a fascinating thought, Margie; let’s talk more tomorrow night,” Betty remarked. Tomorrow couldn’t come soon enough for Marge.
The ladies reconvened on Wednesday evening, and Marge excitedly shared her chance meeting with the frazzled woman and her idea that this woman and Stella were having an affair. The news was met with sustained silence by the group of ladies. If this were true, it was a scandal the likes of which the women hadn’t seen before. While avid gossipers, they weren’t used to such salacious stories. Their sleepy little town had held a few secrets over the years, but they were usually of a more common variety.
No one else had any luck finding out more about Stella or why she was staying at her grandfather’s place. Stacy, who was always looking for a way to be more accepted by the group, had gone so far as to go for a walk along the beach near the McCallister estate. She had hoped to see something unusual or exciting but was rewarded with wet feet and a sore back instead.
Oddly enough, after some brief speculation among the ladies about why in the world Stella would seek the company of a woman when she had a handsome husband, Betty seemed uninterested in investigating things much further. She quietly remarked that Stella’s life had been filled with profound loss, and perhaps the group should leave her be.
Betty’s comments brought the evening to an early end, and the ladies began saying their goodnights. As Marge drove home, she replayed the night’s banter and was perplexed by how quickly Betty snuffed out her theory and any ensuing conversation; it was uncanny. Betty was usually the queen of gossip, and this gossip was especially juicy.
Back at Betty’s house, only Lizzy remained. The two sat close to one another on the couch holding hands, enjoying a fresh whiskey sour. Having become accustomed to guarding their relationship, they spoke in hushed tones about the evening, though there was no one to overhear. While Betty usually relished the chatter and rumors, tonight’s gossip session hit a little too close to home for her taste. She gently squeezed Lizzy’s hand and said, “I love you, Lizzy.”
Pelago Bay indeed held its fair share of secrets but perhaps none as delicious as the one held by Lizzy and Betty.