To start at the beginning (a very good place to start, or so says Maria von Trapp), here are the first installments of the interactive short story inspired by Chantel Reads All Day’s “Read Your Bookshelf Challenge” for 2022.
WHEW! What a relief this month was. Lots of guesses. As long as you guys got it right, no one gets hurt. Whew!
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
The alley that ran behind the stores on Milford Street couldn’t have been creepier in the foggy evening. Too bad we’re not reading Sherlock Holmes. This feels like descriptions of London.
Xander crept along the cinder block wall, moving around each dumpster as swiftly as possible in case he invaded some homeless guy’s den. Not cool just walking into someone’s space as if you owned it. He’d learned that from a homeless vet under an overpass on the 105 in Los Angeles. “Just because it ain’t mine, doesn’t make it yours. Show some respect.”
The occasional lights in the alley created even stranger shadows than usual, but they worked to his advantage as well. He’d be late tonight, but maybe…
A hand grabbed his shoulder. Instinct sent his foot kicking back while he stumbled forward. The hand didn’t let go. “Relax, Xander.”
“Who—?” Before the guy could speak, Xander recognized the voice—and the shape. “Detective Grosser?”
“Seems like we had similar ideas.”
The guy was cool enough. He could have decided Xander was guilty by association with crime families, but he hadn’t. He didn’t even treat Xander’s ideas like they had to be dumb just because a kid came up with them. “Yeah… figured I wouldn’t see anything, but I decided to try.”
“My captain was impressed by your suggestion of the sealing wax being so there would be no DNA.”
“That was secondary.” Yeah, he sounded ticked off, but he didn’t care. “The point was that the guy might not have realized a hair or eyelash, or something got sealed into the wax. Any idiot knows not to leave around bodily fluids these days.”
Grosser nudged Xander toward the back door of Olemann’s Books. “Yes, but people are also creatures of habit. They do things by rote without thinking sometimes. It would have been a long shot, but with twelve potential envelopes…”
Okay, so he had a point there. But mentioning envelopes prompted another thought. He’d been reading that Agatha Christie book and figured he could learn a thing or two from it. Now he saw everything as suspicious, including the envelopes (which, to be fair, were suspicious). “Any idea why the guy doesn’t just mail the stupid things?”
The way Detective Grosser didn’t answer told more than if he had. Xander’s guess was that the guy liked seeing them squirm, which hinted at one prime, creepy idea. Xander voiced it since he knew the cop never would. “You think it’s one of us, and he likes watching it all.”
“Ever consider law enforcement?”
It wasn’t actual confirmation, but Xander took it as the closest he’d get to it. “No… that’d be a death warrant in my family. They know I’d never be on the take, so…”
“Undercover work… think about it. You’ve got a head for it.”
“Or for crime.” He might as well put the idea out there so Grosser didn’t have to. “Let’s face it. If I’m the guy, then I’m good at this. I’ve made it through three meetings already. That’s longer than anyone thought, isn’t it?”
Only after Grosser opened the back door did the guy say, “It is. We were cocky. Cocky can get people killed.”
He’d never been back past the restroom. There weren’t big spaces back there, but a small office looked freakishly tidy with a sleek monitor on an old-fashioned roll-top desk and a row of journals on a shelf beside it. Ledgers? Surely the guy used Quicken or something.
On the other side, a room with stacks of boxes around the periphery and a long table with shipping supplies—cardboard book wraps, bubble mailers, labels, even stickers with the store’s logo on them. Milton would like this. He said one of the biggest mistakes indie bookstores make is not providing an online catalog for people opposed to buying from big box stores or mega-retailers… and for when those places are out of stock.
Half a dozen people stood around the snack table, munching on… whatever it was, it had peanut butter in it. Xander froze. “Who here is allergic to peanuts?”
Grosser stopped short beside him. “What?”
“I smell peanut butter.”
Carrie waved a napkin. “I did. They’re my fav—” She stopped short. “Wait… Wes said no one was allergic. Are you? Get out!”
“I’m not…” Now that he could inhale again, Xander fought to explain. “It just seemed like an obvious way to off one of us.” He could feel the heat rising up his neck. “Sorry.”
Under his breath, Detective Grosser said, “Good catch, though. Don’t apologize for trying to keep us alive.”
Us. He’d said “Us,” as if he were in danger like the rest of them. Wonder if undercover work can be like witness protection—new identity and stuff. Then again, he’d started to think he wanted to run a bookstore. Start one and help kids like him find escapes that didn’t land you in jail and mess with your head—or at least not illegally mess with your head.
Gavin walked in—at least, Xander thought that was the guy’s name—and strode over to Detective Grosser. “May I speak with you outside?”
Before the detective could answer, Xander excused himself to the restroom. He promptly walked past it, past the doors to the office and packing room, and right back outside to hide behind the music store’s truck. Please bring the guy out here… please…
A door opened, and Xander held his breath. Olemann’s or Harmony’s? Voices—two. Masculine. Yesss!
Though the voices were muffled some, Xander was able to make out most of what Gavin said. “—understand why—person risks—when—just mail them. Isn’t that odd?” The last few words were clearer… louder. Were they coming his way? He hadn’t heard footsteps.
“That’s something we’re looking into. Have you given thought to who might have known you were going to a book club?”
Gavin gave a few names with a caveat that he didn’t know if he’d said anything specific or not. Meanwhile, Xander wondered why Grosser had never asked him that question. Had he been ruled out or put on top of the suspect list?
The door shut again, but Xander waited a couple of minutes before stepping out from behind the truck. Grosser stood in the glow of diffused light, almost a silhouette like a guy on the cover of some vintage book. “Hear that?”
“Most of it.”
“What do you think?”
That was it. He had to be a suspect. No cop was going to ask any civilian, much less a kid, what he thought. “I think it’s weird that you didn’t ask me who I’d told about book club.”
“I’m pretty sure you’ve told us everyone.”
Xander’s jaw ached as he clenched it. You think you’re so smart? You think you’ve… what?
“You mentioned your mother on the February book and the man, Milton with the bookstore rescue service. Who else have you told?” Grosser’s smile half showed in the fuzzy light. “You mentioned The Circle of Light to a teacher, but did you mention book club?”
“You can’t just assume!”
The guy was infuriating! Who did he think he was? Why were Xander’s insights so interesting and yet his actual life so unimportant? “You think it’s me, so you think you don’t have to ask. After all, we can’t afford a good lawyer. I’d have to call my dad for that, and my mom would freak. You know that. So I can be guilty and no one will do a thing about it. Is that why?”
“It’s not you. I’d put good money on that. And if you think about it, you’ll know why I didn’t ask—wouldn’t have probably. Not unless it became necessary. Why?”
There was only one difference between him and the others. His age. “So because I’m a kid, you think I couldn’t kill someone?”
“Never said that.”
At times like this, Xander wished he had the funds to smoke or vape—anything that would tick off some authority figure without it being something that would mess up his life. He wanted to make a statement, but he didn’t want to pay for it—financially or practically. Instead, he stalked off.
Grosser called back. “Why would a cop not ask a kid who he told about going to a book club at Olemann’s?” And that’s all he said.
At the end of the alley, Xander hesitated. He could just go home. Forget them all. Maybe it would make the police have to work harder to catch the guy. As a kid from L.A. with ties to crime families, he knew a thing or two about evading people out to get him. Not enough to hide out indefinitely or from organized crime, but… yeah. He could.
It would scare the old lady, though. She’s all right. Mary Margaret Brit-nocity or whatever her name is. What if the guy just killed someone else if Xander was too hard to get? Even if he could pull it off, what? The homeschool mom dies because of him? It isn’t real, though. It can’t be. They’re just acting like they’re taking it seriously to cover their tracks and keep us from going to the media or whatever.
He’d have to go back. He did. But Xander didn’t like that word “have.” Ignoring his conscience, he turned left and started for home.
He’d gone too far—gambled too much. Andrew Grosser stood examining the books on the shelves of the club room, noting that To Sir, With Love sat next to The Circle of Quiet on the Thursday night club’s shelf. But while he read titles like Buff Bods on some erotica group’s shelf and Less Than Animals on the historical fiction shelf, an obvious tale from a Japanese POW camp, he watched the door, his heart sinking with every ticking second.
Xander couldn’t go home. Couldn’t go anywhere, for that matter. Until they had proof otherwise, and that proof became more elusive with each of those ticks, he would operate on the assumption that whoever had sent those letters meant every word.
The kid had natural instincts. Most kids did, he’d noticed. One thing that had come from the modern age was double-edged—the early eradication of innocence and the subsequent understanding of how evil works. And Jesus told us to become like little children. Not today’s kids.
Then again, He’d used that word “little.” Most little kids weren’t that jaded. Yet. Most. Two ugly words in this scenario.
Corey Gray came over with a paper cup of coffee with a sleeve around it and offered it to him. “We’re getting worried about Xander. He went to the restroom and disappeared.”
“I know. I was giving him five more minutes before I go after him.”
“He’s not guilty.” After their discussion following the last meeting, he’d seen Corey as a bit weak. Scared. The woman standing in front of him—one with a tiny bit of green foliage in her wispy hair—looked anything but weak. On a mission, she wouldn’t back down. He could see that.
“You are probably right. While we can’t officially rule anyone out, I haven’t found anything that indicates he could have done this.” As much as he didn’t want to think it, Grosser forced himself to add, Yet.
“Then go get him! If he didn’t do it, and if this is serious, then he’s not safe. Five minutes could be too late.”
The others had turned their attention his way, and Grosser only just managed not to react. Instead, he urged Corey to sit. “You’ll need to start in a minute.”
“It’s Xander’s week, detective. His. I’m next one, although I have to agree to the book we choose, I suppose.” Tears welled in gray eyes that seemed darker than he remembered. “It was so easy. I don’t trust it. If we get this wrong…”
Xander burst into the room. “Where’s Wes?”
The entire book club turned as one, but their responses though unified in not knowing, came out in a jumble of replies that sounded louder than necessary. Grosser had to weave through nearly every member before reaching Xander. “What’s wrong?”
“His brother—the jerk? He got knifed a couple of corners down. I called 9-1-1, but he wants Wes.”
Grosser made it to the door before a thought struck him. He jogged back and pulled Xander aside. “Try to keep the club members here and calm. And I want you to listen to me.” As he’d suspected, the kid was five seconds from mortifying himself with teas. “This isn’t on you. The rules said nothing about any specific time. You were here, you left, you returned. You are here. This isn’t on you.”
He wanted to stay—to make sure Xander really did hear him, but a stabbing? He had to go.
Of course, Simon wanted to go. Bernice’s face slowly gradated from pink to red to an alarming puce before she screamed, “Just sit your butt down!”
Every person there moved to a chair—the one nearest, regardless of where personal possessions had been left—and plopped down. Bernice ended up in the flowered chair Allison had started in. “Sorry… but I’m about to lose it. I can’t take any more. Just sit down and talk about the stupid book, would you?”
Telling people already sitting to sit made no sense. Telling a book club to talk about the book they were reading, however, did. No one spoke. Everyone stared at him. Finally, Mary Margaret Oldladyency said, “How did you like the book, Alexander?”
Something about the sincerity of her question, the way she didn’t patronize him even as she tried to settle him, and that it really did help his own rising panic kept Xander from informing her that he was just plain Xander. “It was cool. Kind of. I like the teacher, anyway. We need more teachers like that.”
A couple of “mmm… hmmm…s” followed. Allison leaned forward and said, “Maybe we should all say what we liked most or learned from it—just one thing. I doubt many of us feel like dissecting a book right now.”
The mumbled agreements turned vocal with a few yeses, a couple of “good ideas.” Xander nodded and said, “Just to make it official, what I liked most was that a guy who was being treated like dirt saw what the kids needed and made it happen without caring that it’s not how things are ‘supposed to be’ done.”
Piper piped up next.
“I never knew they had racial issues in England, too. I thought it was just here, but here’s this guy who, like, fought in the war and everything and he can’t find a job anywhere. Then, when he does, the kids are, like, awful—not like, all proper or anything.” She shrugged before adding, “I guess I just didn’t know it was a thing over there, too.”
“It’s everywhere,” Jonas said. “And every society of every ethnicity and color shows it at some point.”
“It’s sickening. My great uncle was lynched in Indiana back in the sixties. Why? Because he picked up a white woman whose car had broken down and drove her into the little town where she lived. I just thought it was a US thing. Now I know.”
Several people had faulty ideas of how England was in the sixties. Mary Margaret Brittocity turned out to be helpful there. “It’s much like the United States, I suppose. You have proper little villages all over the countryside where people are more staid and proper, yes. But you’ll find less… progressive thinking among them, even today, I imagine. Whereas Mr. Braithwaite was in London—East End. It was a rough place back then—still recovering from the brutality of war bombings. It was what you’d call an inner city here, I suppose.”
From surprise at the lack of education the kids had received to the question of interracial marriage at that time, what had meant to be a quick “discuss and go” session dragged out far longer than Xander would have expected. Then he realized why. We all want news.
Eventually, an officer came in, introduced himself, and said he’d been left to observe.
“Just go on as if I’m not here. I’ll just take notes.”
A heavy silence fell over the room… smothered the room. Xander finally spoke up. “Is Wes’ brother all right?”
“Paramedics seem to think he will be. Mr. Olemann went to the hospital, of course.”
“With Detective Grosser?”
The cop just nodded.
That’s when Corey began to cry. Simon demanded they leave. Carrie-the-homeschool-mom reminded them that they had to choose a book. “We can leave our orders on a sticky note for Mr. Olemann.”
Corey cried harder. “I’m—sorry.” That’s all she managed to choke out before fleeing to the restroom.
A few eyes turned to him, but Xander held up his hands. That sick feeling that seemed to take over at the end of every meeting had returned. “Not my night. No way.”
Jonas inched forward until he’d perched on the edge of his hard, molded plastic chair. “What title did everyone get?”
Carrie pulled a book out of the ever-present tote bag. This bag said. “Read it and steep” on a silhouette of a teacup sitting on a book. From inside the book, she pulled a few folded pieces of paper. “So, I found the article mentioned. It’s totally A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. There’s just no other book that fits everything.
It’s a good book, too.”
Mary Margaret Oldladyency had begun to droop, but her smile returned. “It has always been a favorite, but it’s been years since I indulged.” She beamed at Carrie. “And if you could tell me where I could find a lovely bag like yours…”
Inside a minute, Carrie had helped herself to one of Wes’ bags and handed over the tote to M.M.M. “I have dozens of totes. They’re an illness with me—like some women have mugs or nail polish or shoes. I buy totes. My husband will love you for taking it. Trust me.”
Xander thought there’d be at least a bit of resistance, but the old gal just said, “Thank you. How lovely. I appreciate it,” and popped her purse inside. To Xander, as if it was his job, she said, “I don’t own A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and I think I’d like to.”
His job or not, ordering had been left to him, so Xander got up, stole a sticky note pad from by the register, and wrote the book title on top. He added a vertical line and passed the pad to Jonas. By the time it made it around the room, two complete sets of tally had been written. He added “copies” and took it back to the register.
Corey emerged looking… well, awful. “I’m scared,” she whispered. “What if Mr. Olemann having to leave means we’re in trouble?”
“He’s not part of the club, though…” Xander’s gut clenched. After all, not a member or not, his presence was obviously implied.
“Is Detective Grosser back?”
Xander shook his head.
The woman looked ready to puke. She gripped a shelf and nearly took out every book on it. “He walked me to my car last time…”
“I’ll walk you this time.” Xander could have puked. Whatever had made him offer that? Crazy!
“Really? Can we go?”
“Did you want a copy of the book? We all decided on A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.”
If a person could look both relieved and apprehensive at the same time, Corey had managed it. “Are you sure? That’s what I got, but…”
“No good at those things, but this one was kind of easy.”
“That’s why I didn’t trust it!” Corey wiped at her eyes again, and it only made the mascara and redness worse. “Too easy!”
Xander had thought of that, but with no one dissenting and no other ideas, he’d let it go. “Maybe the guy was busy and didn’t have time to make up something more complicated.”
“I’ll tell the cop we’re leaving.”
That stopped her. “What about that cop? What do we know about him? Did he show his badge? Did Grosser call and tell us? How do we know? And what do we do about the shop? We don’t have keys.”
The woman who had fallen apart disappeared, and in her place, Miss Efficiency came out. She marched into the club room, found her purse, and pulled out her phone. Ripping off its case, she extracted a business card and began typing in numbers as she left the room again. Xander followed her to the store’s front door.
Corey listened, her eyes growing wider, and nodded as she said. “Okay, we’ll do that. Just leave it, though? What if—okay. Okay. Sure. I’ll tell them…” A few seconds of silence broken only by murmurs from the other room. “Yeah. Thanks.”
She stared at her phone before turning to Xander. “He says get everyone out of here somehow. He didn’t send a cop.”