Well, a crazy week last week meant that this took a bit of time to get loaded, but here it is! I hope this month’s puzzle isn’t too ambiguous, but it’s what you get. HOWEVER… I need May’s gal around. You can’t let her get killed off. I’m counting on you! Save the leader. Save the book club.
Just a reminder… If you guys get it wrong, one of my favorite characters dies. Don’t let her die!!!
To find out what books I’m reading (and a hint of the upcoming prompts), you can find my list on Chantel’s (from Chantel Reads All Day) Hey Reader Website. I’m starting Christmas Homecoming Secrets by Lynette Eason tonight.
Cast of Characters
Bill Olemann- Rich dead uncle
Wes Olemann- Bookstore owner
Tom Olemann- Wes’ brother
Sadie McGee- Music store owner
Elton Sadler- Mary Margaret Montmorency’s sorta grandson
Detective Grosser- not to put too fine a point on it but…
Book club members:
- Allison Petty- pediatric nurse
- Jonas West- truck driver
- Mary Margaret Montmorency- old lady from England
- Arlette Hoskins- homemaker
- Gavin Underwood- businessman
- Corey Gray- florist
- Simon Lesourd- printer
- Bernice Boyles- postal worker
- Piper Etherbridge- retail clerk
- Julia Chen- lawyer
- Xander Meers- student
- Carrie Dermott- homeschool mom
April: Your Initials in the Title
The Marshfield neighborhood looked ripped from a Hollywood movie. A far cry from the charming Rockland neighborhoods near where Olemann’s Books stood, the generic, cookie-cutter houses left much to be desired in Andrew Grosser’s opinion. He passed house after house with a small front yard, a lone tree in each, and some variety in the rest. A flower bed near one side, a plastic play gym there, and one with about a dozen bicycles scattered across the yard.
Can’t be a birthday party on a Tuesday… best snacks in the neighborhood?
The minivan he’d accosted the previous week sat in a driveway, the side door wide open. Andrew peered inside as he passed, but no one rustled through the books, toys, and papers on the floor to find some misplaced item. When a kid not quite old enough for kindergarten opened the door, his throat constricted. Why didn’t parents take safety seriously? Even in these relatively crime-free neighborhoods, things happened.
From behind the door, he heard a whispered prompt. “Hello?”
The kid grinned at Andrew. “Hi. You came to take Hayley to jail, huh?”
The mom, Darley Beckers sighed. “That’s not ‘hello,’ Mikey.”
“But he did. Hayley said so.”
He almost hated to disappoint Mikey, but Andrew shook his head. “Just to talk.”
Darley welcomed him into the house. “You’ll be as firm but gentle as you can, won’t you? She’s been sobbing since last night. She really didn’t think—”
“Can I just hear it from her?”
The woman brushed her palms on the fronts of worn jeans—the kind that had turned pale with multiple washings and hard wear rather than factory bleaching. “Right.” She blinked at him before true understanding seemed to click a few things into place for her. “Oh, yes. I get it.”
“Oh, and your van door is open.”
An exasperated huff sent her dashing for keys to order that door to close before moving down a hallway. Toys littered a living room that obviously did have people living in it. He moved a couple of tangled superhero action figures and settled into one end of an enormous L-shaped couch. Something jabbed his leg, and he reached into the side cushion to find a single chopstick. Who knew how long that had been there. Maybe Wes Olemann had something on the misgivings of a family, but…
His thoughts were ripped from daydreams of what probably would never be and into the present. Hayley Beckers appeared in his line of sight—a far cry from the cocky kid from just a few days before. This girl had been taken down a notch or two and it showed.
“Hey, thanks for talking to me.”
“Like I had—”
From the doorway, Darley’s, “Hayley…” put a stop to that.
“Sorry.” Then, as if remembering something, Hayley jutted her chin out, looked him straight in the eye, and said, “I shouldn’t have made that note. It wasn’t nice and wasted police time. Please forgive me.”
Though obviously scripted, sincerity practically oozed from the girl’s apology. Andrew nodded. “Of course, you’re forgiven.” A near imperceptible reaction from the mother corner prompted him to add, “What you did was wrong—and dangerous. We have no idea how the real per—” A cleared voice stopped him.
Hayley pounced on that, though. “So you still haven’t caught him?” The girl frowned. “Actually, it’s probably a her, isn’t it? I mean, it’s like a poison pen letter, and poison is a woman’s weapon, isn’t it?”
An exasperated huff cut off Andrew’s reply. “That’s it. No more watching Miss Marple movies with Grandma.”
Before things devolved further, Andrew brought the conversation back to what the girl had done, how, and why. “Want to tell me how you heard about the book club?”
“Oh, Jenna Kalinski was talking about it. And then Mom and Dad were talking about something on the news, so I came out when the news came on and listened from the hallway.”
Without even looking toward the doorway, Andrew felt Darley’s eyes roll. “And what did the news say that piqued your interest?”
“I like that phrase.” The kid plopped down on the other end of the couch. “‘Peeked your interest.’ Is it called that because it makes you want to peek into stuff?”
At least he remembered to look to Darley for permission before explaining the spelling and definition. “I never thought about it sounding like taking a look at something, but that makes sense.”
The girl lit up with that kind of pleasure that comes when someone acknowledges your thoughts as being valid. “Well, the story piqued my interest because I got a wax seal kit for Christmas. You just light the candle thing and let the wax drip into a little cup. The stamp goes on it and that’s all.”
Did Darley clear her throat? She must have, because Hayley huffed and added, “I had to use like ten envelopes before I got it right. I pulled the thing up too soon and smushed it too much and spelled beware wrong.”
“How did you know the wax was red?”
The kid’s mom couldn’t see it, but Andrew could. That minor hesitation when a kid decides whether he’ll lie or not. Hayley obviously chose in the affirmative. “I didn’t. It’s just what I had.”
Again the cleared throat, much more pronounced this time. So much for the theory that Darley couldn’t see her daughter’s expression. A glance behind him showed no mirror, so Andrew came to the conclusion that mothers not only had eyes in the backs of their heads, they also could look into their kids’ heads for information they needed.
This time tears returned, although Andrew suspected they were tears of vexation over being caught rather than remorse—either that, or the consequences she’d be facing all too soon. “I looked on YouTube. It’s easy to find. Type in book club, murder, threats. Stuff like that. Then I found the video where the weird lady talked about it. She’s in the club.”
At her mother’s additional interjection of displeasure, this time Hayley rebelled. “Well she is weird. She talked about it like it was some cool thing—just for special people like her instead of a scary thing that could get her killed.”
Someone’s looked at more than just Arlette’s YouTube channel, but Andrew decided not to go there.
“Then I watched this video about this lady’s challenge. She has a whole website and everything. She even is giving away prizes for people who do the challenge.”
His toes tingled in ways romance readers would misunderstand. Those tingles always meant he’d caught a break. Andrew couldn’t explain it, but his tingling toes had never steered him wrong. “What about the challenge? Why did you remember it? Do you know?”
Hayley gave him a look that clearly said, “Duh!” and added aloud, “Because the prompts were the same. That’s what she called them. Prompts. But I thought that was for school plays.”
Andrew decided to leave that explanation for her mother. “It can be both. What do you mean they were the same?”
“The weird lady said that their books had to be quiet, have love in the title, growth… well, those were the first prompts the challenge lady had, too.”
After spending the weekend only eating food she prepared in her home from groceries bought in Fairbury just in case, and after cowering in the corner when the mail guy knocked to give her a package, and when all that left her still alive with no apparent attempts on her life, Bernice would have liked to be able to say that she refused to live in fear. After all, she’d wasted what might have been her last weekend of life!
Instead, she called in sick on Monday morning. Not only that, but she informed her supervisor that she wouldn’t be in until Thursday. If then. She still stayed holed up in her house except for a run to Ferndale for cat food.
Jonesy would need something to eat until someone found her body.
While there, she picked up two more litter boxes as well. With one in the bathroom, one in the spare room, and one at the end of the hallway, surely he would survive. Well, once she poured the whole bag of food poured into three 13×9 baking pans.
Bernice also wrote a will. She left everything to her mother to deal with. Her retirement account ought to make up for the inconvenience. Then she spent the rest of Monday, all of Tuesday, and part of Wednesday morning waiting to die.
She hadn’t prayed since the first grade when she’d begged God to bring her goldfish back to life, even renaming Jonah, “Lazarus” as a personal offering and sacrifice. The great porcelain swish had taken her faith in God with it. Aside from an involuntary, “Help me, God!” when a semi had tried to turn her boat of a Buick into a compact car a few years back, prayer hadn’t made an appearance on her lips, and she had been confident it never would again.
In her opinion, Wednesday morning’s, “Okay, God. Here’s the deal. You failed Jonah. Don’t fail Jonsey. Please just don’t let the guy blow up the house or fill it with gas or anything. That cat shouldn’t have to pay for some sicko’s issues,” was more of an order than a request. Didn’t prayers have to be deferential or something?
When the doorbell rang just before lunch, she jumped, sending Jonesy running for cover. This is it. Now I die. And all because I didn’t make the first move.
Sanity returned in a rush. “I do not deserve to die. That’s crazy. If I make it through the next three minutes, I’m going to go find someone to sell me a gun. And I’m going to fight.”
A squint through the peephole in her door relaxed her. Detective Grosser—such an unfortunate name. He could say it with a short O sound all he wanted, but the second she read it, her mind insisted it was gross-er.
She’d just slid back the deadbolt that probably wouldn’t keep a sparrow out if he really wanted in, when a new thought occurred to her. What if… Bernice’s hands trembled. What if he’s the one. After all, he didn’t say much about it not having my name on it… or about it being just a little different… Maybe he’s using it as an excuse…
“Ms. Boyles? I have good news.”
For me or you? How do I know you won’t kill me?
He’d get suspicious if she didn’t let him in, so Bernice pulled her pepper spray from the key rack and popped it into one pocket. In the other went her taser. She wouldn’t go down without a fight.
Before unlocking the knob, she scooped up Jonesy and carried him to her bedroom. The cat fought her, scratching her arm as she shoved him into the carrier she kept there. The crazy feline could get out, but at least it would take him a bit. Maybe the detective would be gone by then.
When she finally calmed herself enough to open the door, the stern look on Detective Grosser’s face unsettled her more than ever. What had happened? “Yes…”
“Are you all right?”
Of all the idiotic things, Bernice nearly said, “Shouldn’t I be?” After all, the “beware” and “you got it wrong” note kind of hinted she was a target. It had kind of kept her locked away since then. She had kind of risked her job to stay alive… Okay, that was an exaggeration. The union wouldn’t let them fire her unless she went over three days without a doctor’s note. But… the quality of job life until that union stepped in for her could be severely impacted.
“Sorry… of course, I’m not all right. I’ve spent the whole weekend trying not to put myself into the line of fire.” That thought reminded her that standing in an open doorway was a good way to get herself shot. “We shouldn’t be standing out here. Come in.”
The man gave her a smile she couldn’t identify. Comforting? Enigmatic? What did that really mean, anyway? Wary? She knew what that meant. It defined her existence.
As if daring the would-be shooter to do his worst, Detective Grosser sat on the sofa, his head a perfect bullseye for anyone wanting to shoot into the house. Bernice, on the other hand, had chosen a corner chair that had the advantage of not being able to be seen from outside and the disadvantage of not showing her a thing.
“I meant to come yesterday afternoon, but we had that body found a couple of streets over from the store and had to investigate—make sure it wasn’t connected.”
“The news said it was a homeless guy.”
“It was, but when the call came through, we didn’t have that information, and he was unknown to anyone, so we didn’t know about him being homeless until the director of The Mission called to tell us.”
That she didn’t believe and told him so. “You didn’t know a dirty, smelly guy with what, two shopping carts—”
The detective cut her off. “That is ridiculously stereotypical. Yes, it fits some homeless people perfectly. Others… not so much.”
Something he’d said sent her thoughts in another direction. “Why were you coming here, anyway?”
“The note you got? ‘Beware’ and ‘you got it wrong’?”
She nodded, her throat going too dry to speak.
“It was a fake—a prank. We have verified that the note was left by a child who saw the news and Arlette’s YouTube video.”
A war began in Bernice’s gut. Anger warred with self-loathing. She’d wasted a sick day, her weekend, and even part of her plans for after book club. Because of a kid.
The room spun. Detective Grosser told her to put her head between her knees and disappeared. A minute later, he returned with a glass of water. The first thing Bernice saw when her blurry, spinning vision cleared was one very confused detective.
“Why do you have all that cat food in those baking dishes?”
No one paid Bernice much attention, and usually, she’d be more than fine with that. But since it was her first week to talk about the book they’d chosen, she’d actually dressed up a little. Ankle boots with her nicer jeans. A bookish T-shirt that said, “The world was hers for the reading” in a typewriter font. She’d bought it because she thought it would be a good reminder, but when she’d discovered it was a quote from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, she’d discarded her lightweight, butterfly sleeve sweater and pulled her denim jacket over it all.
And five minutes into the pre-club chatting, no one had even noticed. They’ll regret it someday… at least I have that. They’ll regret ignoring me.
A hand on her shoulder made Bernice jump. She turned to find not Wes Olemann standing there, all encouragement and helpfulness, but that stupid detective. “We should probably get started.”
Bernice moved to the barrel chair she’d adopted as “hers” that first night and cleared her throat. No one looked her way. A glance around the room showed everyone but Wes present. When another cleared throat did nothing, she rose and went to get him. He could announce time to start. Why should she have to?
But Wes wasn’t in the other room, the bathroom was empty, and so was the office. Grosser appeared and asked if she felt all right. You’re ever-present tonight.
“Yes… I’m here. I’m fine. Um… where’s Wes?”
“Not sure. I’ll go find him. You get them started.”
He must have noticed her discomfort because he patted her arm and gestured for her to return. In the doorway, he called out, “It’s time to start. We all don’t want to be here until midnight, or at least I don’t. My mother brought a lasagna and put it in my fridge. I want to eat it before midnight if possible.”
“Wish my mom would bring me lasagna.” Jonas grinned at Allison. “Do you cook?”
She nodded. “Some. I actually make a good lasagna.”
It sounded like the kind of flirting Bernice had never managed, but all Jonas said was, “I am available if you’re looking to adopt. I’m potty trained, too. Always put the seat down.”
Carrie, the homeschool nut, raised a hand. “I’ll take him. He’ll be a good influence on my boys who are certain that toilet seats are guillotines for their privates.”
She even talks like a mom. The word is—
That thought got cut off by Julia saying, “Were we supposed to have read anything from Band of Brothers? I didn’t pick mine up this weekend, so I haven’t read any from it.”
Some nodded. Others shook their heads.
Gavin finally said something. The guy almost never spoke. “Was it the right book? There was that beware note…”
Before she could tell them that it was a prank, Xander piped up. “Look, I don’t want to say this, but I’m going to. Did anyone notice that the writing on that thing was shaky? It looked like maybe someone disguised writing this time. Why? It makes me wonder if he used his other hand to write it—someone like…” He winced and glanced at the doorway to the store. “Wes.”
“What would be the purpose?” Julia asked.
“Sell more books?” Xander colored. “Look, I don’t like it, but that writing was different. And it didn’t have Bernice’s name on it. It could have been meant for any of us who have already gone. I spent all weekend keeping the doors locked and staying away from windows. Then I went weird routes to school and everything.”
Allison blushed. “I didn’t go to work on Friday. Did the same thing on the weekend, but I have to work, so I went back. Everything was all quiet, so I got lazy.”
“I didn’t even think of that!” Corey flushed. I was working like crazy—even took out a few of the deliveries myself.”
Bernice had been so relieved to know she hadn’t been alone in her fear that she hadn’t spoken up. “I did the same thing, but on Wednesday, Detective Grosser came over to tell me it had been a prank by some kid. She saw Arlette’s YouTube video and got the idea from that.”
The entire room turned to glare at Arlette, and Bernice couldn’t help but feel a twinge of satisfaction. Learn to keep your mouth shut when other people’s lives are at stake… maybe.
“So… Band of Brothers. Who got their copy?”
About half the room raised their hands. The rest made murmurs about picking it up at club tonight. Simon growled his opinion. “I was eager to read it, but it’s a choppy mess. Seriously, who thought this was a good book choice?”
The sweet old British lady gave him a blinking look. “Do you really not like it? I was captivated. It’s terrible, of course, but those men made such a difference in the war.”
“I thought…” Carrie glanced around before adding, “we were going to finish talking about A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I did some research and found it was semi-autobiographical.”
She did some research. Of course, she did. Her kids are probably all diagramming the whole thing for their schoolwork this week.
If Bernice had any qualms about having to lead the group, well… They were moot. The group ran itself. Xander commented on how he wished he could get into college without a diploma, Carrie insisted he could, Piper finally made an anti-homeschooling comment that should have started a riot worthy of any Facebook political war, and it all went downhill from there.
The snack break, which Bernice had begun to think of as “intermission,” came faster than she’d expected. Wes appeared with large plastic-wrapped plates in each hand, and a woman followed with a small cake in her hands. When everyone came over to see the cake, Wes suggested they sing. Being last to the table, Bernice saw the “Happy Birthday, Piper” half a second before the group droned out, “Piiii-perrrr…”
Piper looked a bit red—hard to tell with her darker skin, but there seemed a bit of russet under the usual milky brown. “Thanks… I— well, thanks.”
There goes the fun.
Elton would not be pleased. Not one bit. Mary Margaret Montmorency stared at her seat from across the room and willed her hands not to tremble. Although the hands didn’t quite cooperate, she managed not to drop the contents of her cake plate onto the floor. Looking up, she saw Wes’ brother standing at the bookshelf, staring at the rows of books.
Now when did he join us?
The nice little girl—oh, dear. She couldn’t think of women over thirty—maybe even forty—as “little girls.” She definitely showed her age with that thought. Still, the woman from the music shop brought her a cup of tea.
“Would you like me to take it to your chair? Which one is yours?” A pixie like face on a much too-round body for such a tiny head peered at her. “I’m Sadie, by the way. Sadie McGee.” The smile wobbled and flattened. “What’s the matter?”
Mary Margaret Montmorency recalled her manners. “My… I’m sorry.” After introducing herself, she gazed pointedly at the chair. “I seem to be our May leader.”
There. Her voice hadn’t wobbled a bit. A growl behind her startled her enough that she nearly dropped the plate for sure this time. Glancing over her shoulder, she saw Jonas scowling at the chair. “He’s gone too far. First a kid and now…” His face reddened. “Well, in my family, we take care of our elders, we don’t threaten them with stupid games and riddles.”
Wes passed a plate to Julia and disappeared. Mary Margaret Montmorency found herself ushered to the chair, surrounded by concerned club members, and finally handed the envelope. She settled into her place, Sadie holding a teacup on one side, Allison holding her cake on the other, and looked around to find Detective Grosser.
“Am I to open it now?”
This time, she couldn’t keep her hands from trembling. As she pulled out the index card, a glance around the room showed everyone watching her, even a distressed Wes on one side of the room and his scowling brother on the other.
“Well, let’s see. It says: an author you’ve never read before.”
Without meaning to, Mary Margaret Montmorency read the riddle to herself, the words turning over and over, none of them making sense at all.
That’s when the realization came to her. “We can’t possibly solve this one.” Her lips trembled this time. “How could we possibly know what author this… this… person has or hasn’t read?”
NEWS FLASH! (4/14/22)
I’ve just been informed that Wes Olemann has received an EMAIL from the perp (I really hate that word, but it’s what he told me). This is what it said:
Subject: Book Club Correction
The clue provided to May’s book selection is incomplete. If your club members have any hope of choosing the correct title, they’ll reconsider with the following:
Title: more than a trio
One word: Incomplete love.
Another word: Not feminine.
Yet another word: An indefinite article.
One more word: Named
The Club Master
EEEP!!!! PLEASE save the club! What if they get it wrong because this creep is messing with their heads? I can’t sleep now! SAVE MARY MARGARET MONTMORENCY!