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“Town in a Lobster Stew”

Wilma Mae Wendell hurried about the kitchen in a tizzy.

While the water rose to a boil in its teakettle on the gas burner, she darted first to the cabinet, where she stood on the toes of her sturdy brown shoes to reach the higher shelves, then to the fridge and the sink before pausing beside a silver serving tray, which sat on the oak countertop. With practiced hands she arranged the rose-patterned teacups, matching saucers and bowls, polished silverware, cloth napkins, and cookie plates on the tray.

As she worked, she talked.

“I just can’t believe it’s gone,” she said with a quiver of disbelief in her voice. “It’s always been in exactly the same spot, year after year, right up there in the front bedroom on the second floor.” She tilted her head toward the ceiling to emphasize her point but kept her eyes on the tray.

“I put it in there myself, in a special place where no one else could find it. And it’s been right there, safe and sound, ever since James—well, Mr. Sedley, you know; I still tend to call him that after all these years, even though he’s always insisted I call him James—ever since he gave it to me for safekeeping. At least that’s what he told me at the time—safekeeping, he said—but I know he was mostly just tired of all the commotion that always seems to follow him and that silly recipe of his around.”

She lowered her voice just a bit, as if revealing a secret. “He didn’t mind the spotlight too much, I can tell you that. But the truth is it just tired him out after a while.” She reached toward a cupboard, took out a box of sugar cubes, and proceeded to fill a crystal container using sterling silver pincers. “I think one day he finally realized he’d simply had enough of the whole celebrity life and decided to return to his own kitchen for a little peace and quiet. It was for the best. He was always more comfortable cooking in front of a stove, you know, than he was standing up in front of a crowd.”

Wilma Mae shook her white-haired head and made a clucking sound with her tongue. “But he’s a lovely gentleman, he is, my Mr. Sedley. He always has been. I’ve known him for years, longer than I can remember—or longer than I care to admit, at least.” She smiled to herself, but it was a melancholy smile. “I was just a teenager when we met. He was a very handsome young man back then, in his early twenties, with his black hair and lovely gray eyes. The same color as mine! Ooh, all the girls thought he was so handsome. We used to talk about him all the time back in the serving station. Some of them . . . well, they couldn’t help themselves, now could they?”

She shrugged, as if that was explanation enough. “But he was already married, even then, to a rather plain woman who held on to him real tight. And well she should. She passed away a while ago—more than nine years now, I think. Yes, that’s about right—it was a few years after my own Milton left me. It’s just me and Mr. Sedley now, just the two of us. Anyway, I told him I’d keep it safe for him, and that’s exactly what I’ve done all these years, right up until now. But it’s not there anymore, is it? It’s got me so worried, I don’t know what to do. What will Mr. Sedley think?”

With questioning eyes, she looked over at her guest.

Candy Holliday sat at the kitchen table, perched at the edge of a white wooden chair, trying earnestly to follow the elderly woman’s rapidly ricocheting chain of thought. Candy sat politely, listening, greatly impressed with the fact that Wilma Mae had said all she had while barely taking a breath.

Candy had come prepared for an interview and had set out a pen and reporter’s notebook on the table before her. But she hadn’t written anything down yet. She’d only just arrived when Wilma Mae launched into her soliloquy.

Now, realizing Wilma Mae had stopped talking, Candy cleared her throat. Hesitantly, she began. “Well, I don’t know Mr. Sedley myself, but I’m sure he would understand . . . whatever it is he . . . is supposed to understand about . . . whatever it is you just said.” She frowned, uncertain if she’d made any sense at all.

Wilma Mae gave her an indulgent look. “Yes, Candy dear, perhaps he would, but he trusted me with it, don’t you see? And Lord knows what will happen if it gets out in public. Lord knows! It’s fairly valuable, you know. Both Mr. Sedley and I received generous offers for it. Very generous offers. But we turned them all down, of course.”

“Um . . . of course.” Candy thought about that for a moment, then finally shook her head. “Mrs. Wendell, I’m sorry, but I’m a little confused. I’m not sure what we’re talking about here. Can we back up a little? What, exactly, have you lost?”

Wilma Mae made a clucking sound with her tongue, as if she thought Candy should pay more attention. “Why, Mr. Sedley’s recipe, of course. And it’s not lost, dear. It’s missing. There’s a difference. That’s why I called you. I’m hoping you can help me.”

“Oh.” The word came out quickly. Candy blinked several times. “Oh, I thought I was here for an interview. That’s what we talked about, right? On the phone? An interview for next week’s issue of the paper? You’re an honorary judge for the Lobster Stew Cook-off on Saturday, right? But you . . . you want me to help you find a missing recipe?”

Candy tilted her head as she considered her words. Suddenly it all started to make sense. “Is this the famous lobster stew recipe you’re talking about? The one you used all those years to win the cook-off yourself?”

Wilma Mae seemed pleased Candy remembered. “Oh, aren’t you smart! The very one! It made the most delicious lobster stew you’ve ever tasted in your life. I won the cook-off six years in a row with that recipe.” Wilma Mae allowed herself a brief moment to feel just a bit smug. “And Mr. Sedley won seven consecutive times with that same recipe—which he created, I should add.”

“Wow. That must be some recipe. And now it’s missing?”

“That’s right, dear. It was taken right out from under my nose. But it shouldn’t be too difficult to find. You see, I think I know who stole it.”

Another surprise. “You mean someone stole the recipe from you?”

Wilma Mae nodded emphatically. “That’s the only explanation, dear. Someone stole my lobster stew recipe from its secret hiding place. And I need a detective like you to help me get it back.”

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