Well, it’s been two weeks, and the club members have had time to work out the puzzle. Based on your guesses for PART ONE, I wrote PART TWO and offered you February’s clue because they really do want the whole month to read the book, not just ten days! Now… we’re on to… club meeting #3!
Just in case you’ve forgotten your characters, I’m listing them below again. Doesn’t hurt, right? This one scared me because we only got ONE suggestion as to the book they’d read. I did NOT want to kill a character so early in the story. So if Challice got it wrong, you have only yourself to blame for poor Xander’s death. If not, someone owes her boatloads of chocolate or coffee. Or both. I think she’d take both.
Before I get to the cast of characters, though, someone else shows up in this one that you might like to meet from my annual spring short story. Elton Sadler first appeared perched on Mary Margaret Montmorency’s overstuffed, floral couch a few years ago, and he keeps coming back every spring. We’re heading into June, soon, so… yeah. It’s a thing, folks! Anyway, if you want to read his stories, you’ll find them here! (And I’d love suggestions on another obscure holiday in May or June if you know one!)
The Elton Series
and last year’s… For Her Thoughts
Onto this week’s story! For the record, since February just began, I’ve started reading MY February read, The Love Note by Joanna Davidson Politano. I am already entranced by our main character and delighted with her “patient.” January’s, Snow on the Tulips (for the prompt “quiet”) was as wonderful as I’d remembered, and now I can tell you how it ends!
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
Note: Links may be affiliate links that provide me with a small commission at no extra expense to you.
Book Club Capers: February Part 1
Love in the title
“Who knew book clubs played games? I could have joined.”
If he hadn’t known that his mother would never waste her time sitting around discussing books—especially something as rambling as A Circle of Quiet, Xander might have squirmed. He’d described it to his lit teacher at school as “esoteric,” but she’d argued that he didn’t know what the word meant. Dictionary.com said esoteric referred to things meant for a limited audience. With all the self-discovery and finding her spiritual self or whatever it meant, well that sounded esoteric to him. Christianity might be a huge religion, but compared to world population and religions, it was pretty small, too.
Besides, these puzzles or riddles or whatever—they’d never work for his mom. She’d said it had to be The Dead Poets Society, but that was a movie. Except someone had written a book after the fact. No one would use that one for the club. It didn’t make sense. But Mom had been insistent. “Those lines are from the movie. ‘O, captain, my captain!’ I remember it. Robin Williams introduces himself as Mr. Keeling or something like that and then says they can call him that or ‘captain.’ And then at the end when everything goes down and he’s lost everything, the students all say it. Standing on desks.”
What kind of craziness was that, anyway? Standing on desks. If he hadn’t known they didn’t have the money for it, he’d have sworn she was drunk. Besides, apparently, the movie was such an obvious wrong choice the stupid riddler had even said “not the Robin” one. Or at least Xander thought that maybe that was what the puzzle meant when it said, “Don’t listen to the ‘Robin’ sing.’”
And the word love wasn’t in Dead Poets Society.
Unless people would love the movie because those poets were dead. Maybe?
He had half an hour to kill before book club started, but Xander had two thoughts. First, that getting there early would mean if there were more notes, then Wes should have seen them already. If not, he might be able to catch whoever put them out. And if that didn’t work, he’d know it was Wes. Basically, today would give something away.
Streetlights spotlighted cars parked along Milford Street and cast enough of a beam across the sidewalks to light the path of pedestrians enough to prevent accidents. Of course, lights from store windows didn’t hurt. Most stores along Milford stayed open until eight o’clock—a few hanging on until nine, like Olemann’s Books. For a bookstore in such an out-of-the-way area of the city, Olemann’s did a brisk business. Three customers browsed the store. Two waited at the counter.
A glance into the meeting room showed empty chairs.
Was it over? Had the jokester decided to quit with the threats? Not there yet? A glance around the store showed no one lingering in the shadows, no one in the corners of the meeting room. Even the snack table stood bare still. A few more books filled the shelves of book club picks. Not an envelope or Thursday night club member anywhere.
Xander pulled out his phone, checked the list Milton Coleridge had given him for reading suggestions, and went to the mystery section. Mystery might not have been his first choice, but Milton had said it was a great genre for developing logic and critical thinking skills. “Read And Then There Were None first. So many movies and TV shows are twists on the theme of that one… including that old movie, Clue. Try it.”
That’s all it had taken for him to decide he’d try it. He also needed to tell Wes that the guy had said he’d be driving past in May and could try to arrange to be a special guest. Is it creepy that I chat with some middle-aged dude about books?
Finding “Christie” on the Mystery shelf—easy enough. A long shelf full of titles followed, and there it was. Right between A Murder Is Announced and At Bertram’s Hotel. The book looked nondescript enough. Plain artwork in grays and whites. Well, brownish grays. And a yellow skull. And bright red script across the top that probably said “Agatha Christie.” It had most of the letters, but the gal wrote like a stereotypical doctor.
He kept skimming over the other titles—at least thirty of them. He liked the sound of a few, but he’d start with Milty’s recommendation. A smile formed in spite of himself. Milty. Milton had only once bristled at him. Xander had tried to push the guy’s buttons, and nothing. Not until the moment he’d said, “Milty, what—?”
Milton had shot his head up and leveled a “don’t mess with me” look on him before saying, “My name is Milton.”
The old lady with the British accent entered with a tall guy, all legs and arms like a teenager. Except he wasn’t a teenager. He kept close—almost like a bodyguard. The door jingled as a couple of customers left, and cold air whooshed in. Xander almost felt bad for the old gal.
Moving away from the counter, Wes greeted them both with smiles and something in his tone that sounded… strained. “Mary Margaret Montmorency! Are you warm enough? I haven’t had a chance to put out the coffee, tea, and snacks yet, but I can get you a cup started right away…”
The man with her spoke up. “Mmm insisted that she come, but I’ll be honest, Mr. Olemann. I’m not comfortable leaving her here.”
“You told me someone threatened to kill members. It’s probably some horrible prank, but I don’t want you anywhere near a horrible… um…”
Shifting an out-of-date purse that probably was back in style because of its age and… vintage. That was the word. Shifting it from the crook of one arm to the other, Mary gave Wes a brilliant smile. “He’s worried. Isn’t that lovely?”
Lovely? You’re crazy. But she continued, and Xander realized he’d moved closer when the faint scent of flowers—what kind, he didn’t know—mingled with the bookshop’s own perfume. Ink? Is that what bookstores smell like? Ink? Paper? Dust? Whatever it was, he didn’t like it. Coffee, though… he’d go get some and watch for their unwelcome mail guy to drop something off when he thought Xander wasn’t looking.
Mary calling out his name stopped him. “Oh, Xander! I want Elton to meet you.” Her soft and clipped tones had that inexplicable air of distinction he’d always heard English people have in those British TV shows his mom liked.
While Elton nodded and greeted him, informing him that “Mmm” had described all of the book club members and how he’d been surprised to learn of a high school student coming, Wes scuttled off to set up for the club. Xander just stared for a moment before saying, “Let’s be real here. You were surprised to hear her describe a kid with piercings actually knowing how to read much less interact with someone who uses words of more than one syllable.”
He turned to go, almost regretting the fact he’d probably offended the old girl, and stopped short when she gave a soft chuckle. “He pegged you as gormless, didn’t he?”
What is “gormless?”
What Elton said, Xander couldn’t hear. The guy excused himself to follow Wes and left them standing there. Xander turned back. “No offense. I just…”
The frail old lady wearing a dusty lavender coat that nearly swallowed her just brushed a gloved hand his way. “Don’t mind him at all. The dear boy is just worried and not thinking clearly. He makes video games. He’s used to different sorts.”
You think gamers are “different.” That’s almost cute. No, cute wasn’t the right word. What was it…? It came to him in the flash of her sweet smile. Quaint. She’s quaint. Now what does gormless mean?
He didn’t have time to look it up because Wes appeared in the doorway looking gray. Xander didn’t have to ask if a letter had appeared. What he did want to ask is if Wes or Elton were responsible. It had to be one of them, didn’t it? No one else had gone in there. They’d have to have gone past, and he would have seen it. A second look at Wes prompted doubts. The guy looked ready to puke.
He can’t be that good of an actor. Can he?
The front door jingled, and all hope of figuring out everything changed as three club members entered.
The meeting room boasted two new potted trees, electric candles settled about the room, a couple of floor lamps, and the overhead lighting left off. Why the changes, Allison couldn’t decide, but she’d chosen something different herself. Instead of changing into jeans and a sweater after work, she’d brought her favorite outfit—something to give her confidence in case the detective hadn’t figured out what creep was behind the notes and threats. She’d also decided not to sit in that same chintz chair.
Instead, Allison settled into a small, round armchair that she’d very much like to buy, recover, and put in one corner of her bedroom. The copper and cream upholstery had probably been crazy fashionable at some point—probably the seventies, she decided—but now… ick. Xander let his sleeve drop down over his hands and picked up an envelope on one of the chairs before moving to her side.
“I got here half an hour early. There was nothing here and no one went past until Wes and that guy with the old gal, Mary, came in. He looked sick when he saw it. Can’t be him, can it?”
There, Allison shrugged. She just didn’t know. It didn’t feel like something Wes would do, but how well did any of them know him, really? And who was the guy with Mary? Allison jumped up, shrugged out of her coat, and left it on the chair while she went to introduce herself. If you’re the one, mister, you just messed with the wrong, overworked nurse, bucko. She winced. Bucko? Really? When have you ever…?
“Allison!” Mary smiled at her as she approached.
Was it her imagination, or did the guy beside her add, “Margaret Montmorency”?
“I beg your pardon?”
He gave her a weak smile. “Her name is Mary Margaret Montmorency.”
An amused expression settled into the gentle creases of the woman’s powdered face, but she said nothing. Allison choked out, “Of course, Mrs. Montmorency. Pardon—”
“No, you don’t understand,” the man said. “Mmm is always called by her full name. Mary Margaret Montmorency.”
As she tried to formulate an apology that didn’t sound utterly ridiculous, Mary Margaret Montmorency nudged him. “It’s all right, Elton. I can be just Mary. It’ll take some getting used to, but I got used to your ‘Mmm,’ didn’t I?”
A presence she recognized appeared at her elbow. Without turning to look, Allison greeted Jonas. “Have you met Mary Margaret Montmorency’s,” she emphasized all three names just a bit, “… grandson?”
“As good as,” he said. “And sorry, I didn’t mean to be rude. I just don’t know how to hear her called anything else without getting…”
“I believe the word you’re looking for is ‘discombobulated,’” the elderly woman interjected.
Several others burst into the room, chattering and calling out for information on letters. Were there more? Whose names? And the previous discussion about the old lady’s mouthful of a name disappeared in the babble that overtook them all.
“Let’s just be seated and begin the meeting, folks.”
Every head turned to stare at Detective Grosser. Jonas found his voice first. “Are you joining us, detective?”
“Yes. I won’t take part in the discussion, but I will observe.”
Someone near her—was it Simon?—muttered something about that meaning they hadn’t figured out who their puppet master was. That’s what she’d taken to calling the guy. The puppet master.
With cups of coffee and tea and napkins holding cookies, cupcakes, muffins—a gluten-free carb-lover’s nightmare—members began shuffling toward chairs, and Mary Margaret Montmorency took Allison’s old chintz. Great. Now I’m thinking of her like that. The grandson settled into Jonas’ usual chair. Jonas pulled a wooden, folding chair from near the snack table and plopped it down next to her. Allison decided she would not allow herself to acknowledge that there was some comfort in him being there.
This is book club, not snail speed dating. She wrinkled her nose as that thought became clearer. Makes no sense. I don’t even know where it came from. This club isn’t good for my self-image.
The chatter quieted. Silenced. All heads turned toward her. Oh… right. I’m the January book leader. Should’ve thought of that. Her best attempt at a smile probably looked like she’d been stretched out by a dentist or something. “Um… So who finished the book?”
Nods, a couple of hands, two pens, and a few, “I did”s followed. Silence returned. Xander shot her a look before blurting out, “I didn’t get a lot of it. It rambled a lot. But I think it’s supposed to show the author’s personal spiritual journey. Christianity and stuff.”
She could see it in the kid’s eyes.
He’d already begun beating himself up for the “and stuff” as if he needed to sound more educated as part of the group. After a sip of her coffee, Allison said, “That’s exactly how I felt. ‘And stuff.’ I think I’d like it better if I had more time to read it. There just wasn’t enough in less than two weeks.”
From the sleek deacon’s chair, Julia nodded and spoke up. “I agree. This is a book that needs to be savored and pondered. It’s like poetry, you don’t just grab the book and plow through from word one to the last. You read one or even part of one and let your mind digest it. You don’t gorge.”
Simon insisted that if all the books were going to be religious, he’d quit coming and they’d all have to take their chances with the letter writer. Carrie passed Xander a book and assured him he’d enjoy it more than A Circle of Quiet. “But give Circle another chance later. Little bits here and there, like Julia said.”
Arletta didn’t get it. Bernice wanted to read the rest of the journals. When she got to Jonas, Allison had become curious. What did he think of it? The man rolled up his sleeves as if over warm and shrugged. “I wasn’t getting it at first. So, I bought the audiobook and listened to each entry over and over. Julia’s right. It’s not meant to be inhaled like a suspense novel. I’ll be reading more of the journals as well. And I’ll probably reread the hard copy this month, too. Just to see what I can learn from it.”
“I’m glad I read it,” he added when Simon began to make disapproving sounds, “but I can’t say I liked it. Yet.”
That’s when Mary Margaret Montmorency spoke up. “I think you are very wise, Jonas.” The woman looked just like the tiny woman from the old Miss Marple movies, sounded like her, too. “I haven’t much to spend my days on, so I read a bit here and there all day. I mused over the entries while doing the washing up or out in my garden—much like I do the Bible.” She winced. “That sounds a bit sacrilegious, now that I say it aloud…”
“I get what you mean, though.” Allison turned to Detective Grosser. “Did you read it?”
He nodded. “Every word. Several times. Didn’t like it at first, but it grows on you. No clues in the pages that I could find, though.”
You were looking for clues. I hadn’t thought of that.
A debate raged about the meaning behind it all, about ontology, and about the faith element. One man who had said little thus far, pulled his book from under his chair, opened it, and read aloud. “‘When I do something wrong, I tend to alibi, to make excuses, blame someone else. Until I can accept whatever it is that I have done, I am only widening the gap between my real and my ontological self, and I am thus excluding myself so that I begin to think that I am unforgivable. We need to be forgiven.’”
He closed the book, set it back under his chair, and shook his head. “I’d never seen the correlation between needing to acknowledge fault in order to be able to accept forgiveness. I finished the book, but I can’t tell you anything else in it. I’m still working on that nugget.”
As much as she wanted to remember his name, Allison couldn’t and didn’t want to have to ask. Arletta, however, didn’t have the same scruples. “What’s your name again?”
“Gavin… Underwood.” He gave her a weak smile and leaned back, his piece obviously said.
The guy who learned about us from coworkers at his office.
All eyes turned to Xander after their brief intermission, otherwise known as “snack break.” He swept the room with a glance and landed his gaze on the detective who kept silent. Unease rippled over him as he said, “What?”
“Well… you had the letter last time.” Arletta gave him a pointed look. “So you’re in charge this month now that we obviously got the right book. We’re all here. We’re all alive.”
He felt it, and from the looks of some of the others, they did too. A heavy blanket of doom—as overblown as that was—had lifted with those words. They were all there. They were all alive. Xander even suspected they would have been if they’d read the wrong book. Part of him was tempted to test it, and he would have but for one thing. This is kind of fun.
“Did anyone get the riddle?”
Feet shuffled, hands fidgeted, and suddenly, everyone needed a sip of something or a bite of something else. Xander sighed. “Look, puzzles and riddles and stuff—they’re not my thing. I don’t know how to do them. I read it to my mom, and she was sure it was The Dead Poets Society.”
Simon protested. “Can’t be. There’s no love in that title.”
In his peripheral vision, he caught Detective Grosser look at Wes and nod. Maybe it did break unwritten rules, but if they had to ask Wes, they had to ask. There wasn’t anything about not getting help, but there was about not reading the wrong book.
Then it came. The tiniest and sweetest, “Ahem” he’d ever heard. Xander shot a look at Mary Margaret Mont—oh, great. He’d started calling her that in his head already.
“To Sir, with Love,” she said. That’s all she said, too.
Julia nodded. Carrie did a palm smack on her forehead just like those old cartoons. “Duh! It’s so obvious, and I never got it. Not Robin. So not, Dead Poets Society, but another well-respected teacher.”
A few of the others grumbled, asking how they were supposed to have figured something like that out. Simon insisted it was a movie, so it didn’t count. Only Mary Margaret Oldladyency seemed to know why the verses fit. “He taught marginalized students in London. They were unprepared for life outside school, and he used unorthodox teaching methods to prepare them when no one else had. It fit all the criteria of the verse.”
“Have you read it already?” Xander didn’t know who had asked the question, but it had been his, too.
She shook her head. “I saw the movie, but I never read the book. Sidney Poitier was brilliant in it.”
Everyone else seemed to agree with the choice, and despite Wes and the detective both nodding, too, Xander broke out in a cold sweat. It’s getting real. If we’re wrong, and this guy really is crazy enough to…
Remembering Allison’s voting process, he asked for a show of hands for who agreed to go with that book. Every hand went up this time. “Okay. We need that one, Wes.” He pulled the book, And Then There Were None from inside his jacket. “I’ll pay for it and this one tonight—need the discount.”
Having said that, he slumped against the chair and willed himself not to be sick. So much for this being kind of fun.
The group devolved into speculation and chatter about the odds of their “conductor” really killing anyone, until Allison called out, “Xander. Didn’t you say that no one but Wes or Mary Margaret Montmorency’s grandson came through after you arrived?”
“Where’s that letter?”
The room stilled, and Corey, seated in a surprisingly comfortable plastic chair, swallowed hard. But there wasn’t a letter. I looked.
The weird kid with the black hair and lip ring stood up and crossed the circle to hand her an envelope. Corey’s hands shook as she reached for it. Seeing his hands covered in his jacket sleeve, she let it fall instead of taking it. “Should I touch it?” A glance back found her face to face—or rather face to waist—with the detective. Awkward.
The man offered her a napkin. “Use this.”
After picking up the envelope, Corey offered it to him. “Do you want to read it?” Say yes. Please!
“It has your name on it. You read.”
If she’d had thorny roses right then, she could have beaten him with the stems. And gotten yourself arrested for assault with a pokey weapon—on an officer!
Again, her hands shook as she tried to use the napkin to hold the envelope and open it at the same time. A plastic glove appeared at her elbow. Wes’ kind, soothing voice said, “It’ll be all right, Corey. We’re here to help you, and I’m sure the detective will have this all figured out after tonight.”
Relief washed over her in a sheen of perspiration. They must know something. If it’d be all right, they must know something. She just had to read the riddle and be done with it.
That knowledge didn’t still her hands or settle her nerves, however much she hoped it would. Jonas cleared his throat and asked if she’d like some water. Something about the offer helped. “Thank you, but no. Okay… Here goes.” Pulling the little index card from the envelope, she read each word carefully—to herself, not aloud.
Someone demanded she read it. Someone else called for that water Jonas had mentioned—probably Jonas himself. An arm stole around her shoulder, and the card disappeared from her hand, envelope too. It all happened as if disassociated from any person performing the action, something that unnerved Corey even further.
Tears pricked at her eyes, traitorous things. The last thing she needed was to fall apart in front of a roomful of people who she needed as customers. She hadn’t admitted it the previous week when the detective had asked why they all came to this book club, but her shop was struggling. Twelve customers could easily mushroom into a hundred if people spread the word. Just thinking of it again prompted the first drop to slide down her cheek.
The detective sounded close when he murmured, “Steady… we’ll catch him. It’ll be all right.”
Him. The man said “him.” Did it mean something or was it just a generic word to refer to anyone? Were detectives given inclusive training or…?
Someone across the room said something. Another person agreed. By the time Corey dragged herself out of her thoughts, several people had chimed in and begun discussing the possibilities of the book, and even that took her back into her own thoughts. Next club night there will be no message. None. No envelope. Nothing. We can just talk about the February book and decide on March without some jerk intruding on what could have been a nice time.
That did it. If she didn’t get out of there, she’d cry—ugly cry. Hard, loud, and messy. Corey rose, snatched up her purse and book, dug out her wallet, and thrust a twenty-dollar bill at Wes. “Order my book for me, will you? I’ll get the change when I pick it up. I’ve got to go.”
Just outside the door, Corey realized she wasn’t alone. Detective Grosser walked beside her, not saying a word. “Um… do you need something?”
“I thought I’d see you to your car or wherever you’re going. Just to be on the safe side. And…” He shot her a weak smile. “I do need to ask a few questions if you’re up to it.”
The cold air had braced her somewhat. Or perhaps it had just scared off the tears. That whimsical thought in the middle of something so awful settled her nerves further. “I suppose. I didn’t see anything, though. I promise. Even when I came in the room, there wasn’t an envelope. I was so relieved.”
“I’m sure you didn’t. But one of our officers came across something in your background that concerns us. I’d like to ask you about it.”
What it could be, she didn’t know. Corey also didn’t understand why, if she’d given them cause for concern, he was so gentle—so kind. Shouldn’t he be cold, impersonal, indifferent? “Sure. I guess.”
“Your time at Rockland University came to an abrupt end. Would you tell me about that?”
She stopped. Turned. Gaped at him. How had he learned about—? And why should it matter that—? It was so long ago and— Corey shook her head. “It was a prank—one I got kicked out of school for because the girl’s father was rich and sicced his lawyer on the board of governors.”
“You sent her several threatening letters.”
Fear gave rise to indignation. “I threatened things like exposing her for the cheat she was, putting food dye in her shampoo bottle… stuff like that. I threatened to lock a cat in her car because she’d done that to my friend—she locked a cat in Jenna’s room over Christmas break. The animal made a horrible mess and died. I was trying to get her to stop. The school wouldn’t do anything and—”
“And you made these notes appear as if out of nowhere.”
Her laughter nearly turned to sobs. “That’s because Felice Dean’s boyfriend planted them for us. He wanted out of the relationship, but you don’t say no to Felice. So, he helped. Maybe you should talk to him!”
“Then you should know why we wanted to teach that—” Corey stumbled over several expletives before finding the one she wanted. In that moment, she saw the detective’s expression, and sense overrode her indignation. She’d given him a potluck of reasons to think she’d be capable of writing these riddles and maybe even carrying out their threats.
I’m going to prison for something I didn’t do. Another jerk is going to ruin my life. Again. I hate life.
At her car, she punched the key fob before turning to Detective Grosser. “Am I under arrest for being an emotional teenager fifteen years ago?”
He shook his head. “No. I just had to ask. Keep the doors locked and be aware of your surroundings. If you see the same car following you or in your area, go to the nearest police station or into some public place and call us.” He pulled out a card and handed it to her. “Stay safe—not just tonight. Always.”
A chill ran through her, and she couldn’t blame it on the semi-arctic wind. “You don’t think this is a prank anymore, do you?”
The detective just turned and began walking toward the bookstore. Over his shoulder, he called back, “Stay safe, Miss Gray.”