OOOH! It’s time to find a new author for Mary Margaret Montmorency! EEP! For those who don’t know, I write about her and Elton every year in May (and soon for June!) Those stories are below:
and last year’s… For Her Thoughts
Also, if you’re just starting our craziness, here are the first installments of the interactive short story inspired by Chantel Reads All Day’s “Read Your Bookshelf Challenge” for 2022.
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 almost done with Lynette Eason’s, Christmas Homecoming Secrets. I didn’t expect to love it as much as I do so far).
Your Initials in the Title
Seated in the club meeting room at Olemann’s books, Andrew Grosser ran his hands down the sleek, straight, barely-padded arms of a mid-century modern chair and listened as Tom Olemann told the story of his stabbing. Again.
Anyone who looked at Tom and Wes would identify them as brothers. However, whereas Wes was completely nondescript, Tom had an arresting quality. His features were just a bit sharper, his bearing more imposing. These things created an attractive quality that his brother lacked.
But from where Andrew was seated, Sadie McGee from next door only had eyes for Wes. He watched as Tom shot a sidelong glance into the other room and formed an unsubstantiated opinion. He doesn’t like her noticing Wes… because he’s interested, too? Or because he doesn’t like that she has no interest in him?
“As I told you twice already,” Tom said as he returned his attention to the questions Andrew had been asking, “it couldn’t have been that kid. This guy was larger. In fact, I wondered if maybe it wasn’t that homeless guy you found dead. Maybe he was on something.”
And maybe I’m Jack the Ripper.
Okay, it wasn’t a fair assessment. He hadn’t killed anyone. Jack was probably a paranoid schizophrenic named Kaminski or something like that. And just because he knew it wasn’t likely, didn’t mean that it was an unreasonable thing to consider before dismissing it. The man had died not far from where Tom Olemann had been stabbed. If the old guy had been stabbed, too, things might have been easier. Now he still had no idea if the stabbing were connected to this case or not.
Wes entered the room with a few sheets of paper in hand. Although Andrew had told the man he might need the names of all the folks who hadn’t been accepted into one of this year’s book clubs, he really hadn’t expected to.
Now, he had no choice.
“Got those names you requested. I also uploaded the spreadsheet and put a short link in there for you so I didn’t have to print out reams of paper for you to go through. The forms have a lot of information on them. Name, email, genres read, days available, days not available, and a few long-answer questions about preferences that I use for narrowing down the right group.”
He pointed to a highlighted name. “Any that had responses that jumped out at me, I highlighted for you. I didn’t look for things,” Wes added when Andrew shot him a look. “But some jumped out. Like…” He took the pages back and flipped through them before pointing. “I think it was this one. He put, ‘I don’t care. Just give me a spot.’ It wasn’t what you expect from someone interested in a book club.”
Something made him glance over into the main store and that’s when Andrew realized two things. First, Sadie McGee had left and second… I never talked to her about the Olemanns, about the store… about anything but, “did you see anyone suspicious?” It’s time to look into more from her.
He stood at the little white gate and stared at the house. Small and old but immaculate, if you ignored the other houses squished up close in the old neighborhood and threw a thatched roof on top, the place could have been ripped from England somewhere. He’d seen photos… or had they been artwork? Whatever.
Flowers peeked out of freshly turned beds. Tiny white ones, a few blue ones, and some bushes with lots of green leaves and a few buds. Not even a single leaf or speck of dirt lay on the steps or by the front mat—the one that said, “Welcome” as if happy to see him or something. Even the overcast sky and threat of rain appeared oddly English in its authenticity.
A push of a button, and the familiar ding-dong reached his ears. He shuffled his feet. What would he do if she didn’t let him in? Everything depended on her trusting him, but…
The door opened, and Mary Margaret Old-lady-ency smiled at him. “Xander! I didn’t expect you!”
“I would have called, but I didn’t have your number.”
“I’ll have to rectify that. Come in.” She stepped aside and beamed at him as if his piercings didn’t give her the willies. Funny thing was, after a second glance her way, Xander got the feeling that they didn’t bother her at all.
The tiny entryway had room for coats to hang from hooks, umbrellas to stand in a stand, and rubber boots to be left for the next trek outside and nothing more. The bench you might expect there had been put just around the corner behind an angled wingback armchair. With a doily on the back. No joke. The thing had a doily on the back of the chair! What was with that?
Xander froze at that thought. Wait… doily was the right word… wasn’t it?
“Do you have trypophobia?”
“What?” He shook his head. “I don’t think so. Which one is that?”
The look she gave him should have warned her. It was as mischievous as if she’d said, “Gotcha!”
“A fear of things with clusters of holes. I had a friend at school—Weeton Abbey, you know. Belinda was terrified of doilies, and the headmistress was so fond of them in her private rooms—something her grandmother had made, I believe.”
“I just never saw one on the back of a chair like that.”
She urged him to sit and walked across the room toward what he assumed was the kitchen. “Would you like tea? Oh, no. Not you. I suspect a fizzy drink? Dr. Pepper?”
“That’d be great. Thanks.” Especially for not making me drink tea. That’s just weird.
When she returned with a glass of water for herself and his soda poured into a glass with ice, Mary Margaret Old-lady-ency smiled. “I use that doily as a sort of antimacassar.”
She explained about macassar oil and saving the upholstery. “It’s rather old-fashioned, of course. When Gerald and I moved to America, I was determined to fit in—to be a modern ex-pat. We had the avocado green in the kitchen and the rusts and browns in the lounge—all very stylish.” She flushed pink. “I hated it all.”
“Really.” Xander didn’t even attempt to hide the sarcasm.
“Gerald teased me to no end. So as things wore out—and thankfully we hadn’t been able to afford quality furniture—and as the eighties and nineties came with their Victorian-inspired decor—”
This time, Xander couldn’t help being a bit more overt. “Would that be the eighteen-nineties or…”
“The cheek of you!” But despite the severity in her tone, the old gal’s eyes twinkled and a grin that no old lady should ever have spread, showing her wrinkles to their best advantage. She almost looked like the witch in Snow White—but with more teeth, of course. “Most of what was sold then was utter rot—cheap, tawdry imitations of what were once lovely pieces.” She frowned. “Actually, no. That’s not true.”
“Now she lies…”
That earned him a full-on laugh, something Xander suspected Mary Margaret Prim-and-proper-ency never allowed herself to do. “I told Elton I liked you. I was right.” A look of confusion passed over her features, and she blinked. “What was I saying?”
“The lies about cheap imitations of ‘lovely pieces,’ wasn’t it?” All confusion cleared, which relieved Xander enough to make him wonder about it.
“Yes, well it occurred to me that the Victorians produced quite a lot of rubbish as well. Maybe people without taste chose which pieces they would and would not duplicate.”
He could fill in the rest for himself. She’d taken advantage of the few good things and begun redecorating her house to look like a “proper English” cottage. And it did. Books filled every place they could, doilies protected furniture from vases or busts. There was a particularly fine one of Sherlock Holmes. Did she like him?”
“Do you like our detective from Baker Street?”
His gaze swung from the black, cast-iron bust and over to her. “Holmes? I’ve only seen the show with Benedict Cumberbatch.”
“Credible twist on modernizing it,” Mary Margaret Too-many-namenceys said. “Better than the one Johnny Lee did, although I liked his character. Of all the adaptations and spin-offs, I think I preferred the Enola Holmes best.”
If his jaw hung open, then it could just hang. To think the old girl had watched something new—something he hadn’t bothered to. “I figured it would be stupid. Middle-grade stuff.”
“It was surprisingly good. I thought the suffragette angle would get old, it so often does, but the screenwriter managed to show that their actions were sometimes wrong and unjustified.”
“Such as…” He expected something about women not needing to vote if they were married or some such garbage.
“Such as two wrongs do not make a right. If women were oppressed, the answer wasn’t to kill, damage, or maim. It only justified the assertion that they were hysterical and unsound.” Her hand trembled a little as she reached for the tumbler of water. “I’m sorry,” she added after a sip. “I become passionate about things and lose all sense of decorum. Mrs. Sommercliffe would be most disappointed in me.”
He asked about Agatha Christie and after gathering her opinions on a few things pulled out his phone. “What about Margery Allingham or Ngaio Marsh?”
It appeared she’d read all of the “golden age” mystery authors as well as some earlier and later ones. By the time she’d foisted “biscuits—erm, I mean cookies” on him and told him which movie adaptations to watch and which to avoid, he didn’t know what to think of her.
“Do you have any idea,” he began as if the idea had just come to him. His delivery was so flawless that Xander thought he should try out for school plays. “What motive someone would have in doing something like these letters? Do you really think this guy will actually hurt anyone?”
The woman looked thoughtful as she took a sip of her water again. At that moment, her silvery-white hair lit up with a near halo as the sun moved out from behind a cloud to stream through the window. It was the kind of moment that movie directors must spend hours devising not to look staged.
A moment later, it was gone and the gloom of the day settled in again.
After a long look that seemed to pierce his skull and look right into his thoughts, Mary Margaret Old-lady-ency rose, retrieved a plain brown book from the little secretary near a side window, and came to sit on the flowery sofa. “Come see what I’ve been doing.”
If it had been a fairy tale, this was where she’d rip off a lace cap and say, “Better to eat you, my dear.” But it wasn’t one, and her teeth looked blunt enough for safety.
After hesitating a moment, her hands folded on top of the book and her eyes staring ahead into space, her shoulders slumped and she turned to smile at him. “It always works for Joan Hickson when she plays Miss Marple. She pauses, puts on her most prim manner, gazes into the distance, and everything becomes clear… or at least something does.”
“But you got… nothing?”
With a shrug her Mrs. Sommersomething wouldn’t have approved of, Old-lady-ency opened the book. It was a journal. She’d created a list of months and put book titles next to the ones they’d chosen. A turn of the page was a list of the meeting dates. On the other page of that spread was a list of members’ names. He gave her a look when he saw his name written out as Alexander, crossed out, followed by Xander.
“I didn’t tell you.”
“You didn’t have to, and I loved you for showing the grace to let me be wrong about it. That’s a fine quality that too many people never cultivate.”
The next entry was a recap of the first meeting followed by one of the next. She turned those pages slowly enough to let him scan through them before turning to a tab she’d created out of black circle stickers folded over the page. “This section I’m saving for my thoughts on the book and things others have said about it. I saw a video on the computer—Elton showed me.”
For just a moment, Xander would have sworn she blushed.
“The woman was from some Asian country. I could tell that by what she purchased and from where. But…” Again the blush. “Well, she used stickers and colorful tapes to make her pages pretty.” There Old-lady-ency wrinkled her nose, and Xander almost laughed. “Actually, her pages were a little overdone for my taste, but I liked the idea.”
“I’ve seen girls do stuff like that in their school planners. Fill so much with stickers that you can’t see where they have room to write.”
“Exactly my thought. Two full pages in a journal with about half an index card’s room to write. And look what Elton’s Bethany did for me.” She dug into a pocket at the back of the journal and pulled out stickers of the book covers they’d chosen so far. “I can’t use it on this first one—not as a sticker.”
That was obvious. But he took the one for A Circle of Quiet and laid it over the bottom corner of the writing. “If you took clear tape and taped it down, you could flip that up and be able to read still.”
“Oh!” She shot him a grateful smile. “I’ll do that. Right now.”
Should’ve kept my mouth shut.
But it only took a moment for the woman to go over to the secretary, pull out a length of tape, and return. “Will you hold it in place for me?”
In seconds, her thoughts had a book cover to go with them. She liked it so much, she rose, retrieved two more pieces of tape, and hurried back to do the same with February’s and March’s. A space had been left free for April’s. “I wasn’t going to put one on there if I had to rewrite everything to make it fit,” she explained.
After two pages for every book of the year, another tab opened. Everything shifted here. “I had planned to keep this journal for all book clubs until I filled it, but then things changed, didn’t they?”
The woman had dedicated four pages to each person. Under perfectly written names, random notes had been added.
Allison—sweet. Level-headed. Seems interested in Jonas but doesn’t flirt (what a blessing). Some kind of nurse. Something going on at work that could mean a threat. Could have put down the first envelope or the third, but not the others.
Jonas—an enigma. Intelligent but doesn’t show it much. Strong, protective instincts. Doesn’t show particular interest in Allison, but that means nothing. Walks to club. Could he be the one who stabbed Tom Olemann? Unlikely.
Carrie—delightful. A fresh breath of honesty. Not as arrogant as I expected from a homeschool mother. Excellent taste in market bags. Bake her some Eccles cakes for the children to try. Didn’t plan to stay in the club. Suspicious or honest?
On and on they went. When it came to his, Xander grinned.
Xander—dear boy. Hurting but won’t show it. A heavy weight on him. Could have stabbed Tom, but he didn’t. Still, the police have to investigate. Grosser trusts him.
His throat ached by the time he finished reading that one. “Thank you.”
“I wrote the truth.”
She flipped to another section and he stared at funny sketches of the meeting room. Each chair was easily recognizable, but Old-lady-ency was not much of an artist. “Pinned” to the back of each chair was an index card with the name of the person who sat there written on it. Those who had received letters had their card contents written on the chair seat.
The next page had “Anomalies” written across the top. The one that stood out most to him was something he’d considered.
—The cameras never catch anything. Doesn’t that imply an “inside job?” Wes? Tom? Maybe even sweet Sadie?
Near the back, a page with “Thoughts” as the heading was filled with scribbles and perfect penmanship. It took a bit for him to realize that the more serious she considered something, the messier her writing—as if scrawling it out to near illegibility meant it wouldn’t be so. There were lists of ways someone could figure out where someone lived. Lists of ways to poison someone at the meeting. That one even had a note that read: Xander pointed out allergens could be an issue. How would the person discover those, though?
Though he skimmed over most, a list of motives sent his brain into hyper-drive.
—a would-be writer trying to test out theories?
—someone unable to join wants revenge?
—Wes Olemann trying to stir up interest in his clubs (necessary if he really does turn away so many people?)
—competing bookstore trying to stay afloat?
—grudges between brothers? Wes and Tom? Is Tom successful? Jealous?
—the husband of one of the women trying to kill his wife to save in a divorce?
—the reverse? (Mary Margaret Montmorency, no more Forensic Files for you!)
There he chuckled. “Forensic Files, huh? My mom watched those until it all became a little too real for her.” A lump formed in his throat, but Xander shoved it down. “Mind if I ruin your page with another motive?”
She retrieved a pen and held it out to him. “I’d be honored.”
Oddly enough, Xander knew she meant that. After the last entry of, “—self-published author angry that Wes wouldn’t do a book signing for a terrible book?” he wrote, “—a warning to a punk kid and his mom not to give away family secrets.”
“Do you really think so?” The old gal squeezed his arm. “I wouldn’t like to think of you in danger.”
“I don’t, no… but Detective Grosser isn’t so sure.” He might as well tell her, too. “Look, we don’t spread it around, but my dad is part of the Los Angeles mafia—in deep. My mom has this deluded idea we’ve escaped him, but I know he knows where we are.”
Mary Margaret Old-lady-ency nodded and gave that arm another squeeze. “I’ll keep you in my prayers, Xander. And if you ever need a safe place to come, you come here. Bring your mother. No one will expect that.” She rose to put her pen and journal away, and when she returned she asked, “So, have you decided that I am our puppet master?” At his double-take, she smiled. “Or am I, too, merely a puppet?”
Baking wasn’t her forte. Bernice could make amazing savory dishes and salads, but everything she tried to bake turned out flatter than a crepe and always tasted of baking powder, which made no sense to her at all. Still, she hadn’t made a good impression so far, and while she didn’t care what most people thought, with everything going on, she couldn’t afford to alienate anyone.
Crumpets, Rockland’s premier confectionery and bakery, came to the rescue. Two dozen almond-lemon macarons, two dozen petit fours, and two dozen berry and cream cheese tartlets. If folks didn’t eat beforehand, the excess sugar would be on their heads and should not be taken as an attempt on anyone’s life.
And she told the group as much as she unpacked the boxes. “I just thought since it was my month, I should bring something nice—and something you’d know I hadn’t baked at home so you’d be safe to eat.”
A few people exchanged glances, and Bernice realized her mistake. “I guess I could have poisoned something and blamed the store for it, but…”
Several people rushed to assure her that they didn’t suspect her of anything of the sort. Fools.
Bernice had also come prepared to discuss Band of Brothers. Though she hadn’t wanted to, she read the book cover-to-cover, twice, and then read a dozen reviews and articles about the book. She could argue for, against, and remain neutral if required.
“I think we should all grab food and start discussing before we have to find out if Mary Margaret has chosen the right book. I hope someone figured it out because I’ve got no idea.”
All plans for an orderly discussion dissolved again. In seconds, Simon argued that it was a botched writing job. Someone else—was it Carrie or Arlette?—mentioned the accusations of plagiarism. Jonas insisted that the choppy writing style fit the situation and that he considered its use brilliant.
“If Hemingway can grunt out a few words at a time and expect us to consider him brilliant, why can’t this guy set a tone with how he words things?”
Apparently, Piper adored Hemingway and went off on Jonas. Allison looked near tears, and Xander sat in the corner laughing at them all. That ticked Bernice off.
“So what did you think, Xander?” she shouted over the melee. “Or did you bother to read it?”
“‘Chicken— ’” he shot a look at the old lady and choked back something. “‘—um…stuff is so-called—instead of horse, or bull, or elephant…stuff—because it is small-minded and ignoble and takes the trivial seriously.’”
Jonas howled. The others picked up his amusement, and even Simon smiled at that one. The old lady gave him a warm smile and mouthed, “Thank you,” although Bernice suspected she appreciated the gesture rather than minded the actual quote. Still, she would have expected the kid to delight in throwing a few colorful words into the conversation and get away with it because it was a quote.
In the end, the club remained split. Some considered the book a brilliant work that would become a classic someday. Others considered it badly-written propaganda that wasn’t worth the trouble of burning. And a few held out that while an important book, the writing, whether a stylistic choice or not, made reading it a chore.
Carrie dug through a tote bag that said, *Hermione has nothing on Homeschool Moms for bottomless bags. “I’ve made it required reading for my high schoolers—even for the kid that graduated two years ago. I told him I gave him that diploma and I could take it back.”
Piper and Julia pounced on that, but Bernice rolled her eyes. Can’t anyone take a joke anymore?
Detective Grosser entered, and that’s when she realized he hadn’t been there yet. The man sat in the corner as usual, listened as usual, and when conversation lagged, rose. “Is there any way we can end early tonight? I have a few things to do, but I wanted to see that everyone was all right, be here to answer questions, and also to see what book you all decide on—in case it becomes relevant.”
Taking her cue, Mary Margaret Montmorency folded her hands over her favorite skirt, closed her eyes, and recited:
Title: A numerical charmer.
One word: Incomplete love.
Another word: Not feminine.
Yet another word: An indefinite article.
One more word: Named
She opened her eyes and gazed at Detective Grosser. I would never have guessed it. I’ve never heard of the book, but Elton’s Bethany said she thinks it’s, A Man Called Ove. A—indefinite article. Not feminine—man. Named—called. Incomplete Love—Ove is love without an L. Incomplete.”
The detective nodded. “That’s what I got—with the help of one of the women at work.”
“Another detective?” she asked.
“Should be but no. She’s maintenance. Overheard me muttering it and came back an hour later with the cover on her phone. Just showed me the cover.”
Carrie smacked her forehead with her palm. Julia fiddled with her phone, and Jonas just stared. “I’ve read that book. I didn’t get it, and I’ve read that book.”
Mary Margaret Montmorency’s apologies dissolved in his assurance that he’d love to read it again. “I think I’ll listen on audio this time. I’ve heard it has a good narrator.”
The others murmured among themselves, and it all had a bit of a sinister undertone to it. Gathering her wits into some semblance of order, she sat up a bit straighter, or tried to, and said, “Does anyone see a reason that this should be another book?”
Every head shook.
“Have I missed something important then?”
Again, shaking heads.
At a loss to know what could be wrong, she turned to Xander. He crossed the room and sat cross-legged beside her. “No one wants to imagine that we got it wrong. We’re extra nervous this time is all.”
“Why—?” The answer came to her. “Because of me?” Laughter bubbled up before she could wrestle it into submission. “The person in the room who has already lived a rich, full life? Don’t be ridiculous.” She turned to Wes who stood in the doorway. “We’ll be reading A Man Called Ove, if you please.”
Be prepared for next week! We have another riddle.
And if you guys didn’t save Mary Margaret Montmorency, I’ll just… hmph. I’ll tell the killer to off me, too! Sniffles.