July was my month off from a lot of stuff, including this. I may regret it, though, because now I need to write one a week to keep up. Pray for me, folks! And for this week’s clue because I’m… clueless.
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. In August, I’ve already read The Heart Between Us (which is funny because my June was The WORDS Between Us. Just noticed that.
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 (and husband Darrel)
- 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
Arlette’s YouTube channel lay dormant. The twice-weekly videos hadn’t appeared after Thursday’s meeting—three days missed so far. Two Fridays and a Tuesday. He’d subscribed with a dummy email account in order to get notifications the minute a new one went up. Nothing had as yet.
And as much as Andrew did not want to spend his Saturday working on the case, many if not most of the members would congregate at Olemann’s Books to listen to Xander’s traveling bookstore doctor talk about good books, bad books, and why people ought to read them.
Instead of his usual professional clothes, Andrew pulled on jeans (dark wash, of course), his windowpane plaid shirt (sleeves rolled up), and though he’d rather wear his old New Balance joggers, he dragged out a well-worn (but not ragged) pair of gray topsiders and decided they’d have to do.
He passed the half-read copy of Middlemarch on the way out the door and didn’t bother to stifle a groan.
All the great stuff he’d read about had disappointed—especially the author’s lapses into reflection on her writing. “She’s too concerned with giving everyone’s perspective. It makes her come off as wishy-washy,” he muttered as he jogged down the apartment stairs.
By the time he reached his car, Andrew had decided he was glad the club members usually didn’t ask for his input on their discussions. He’d learned a lot about what he liked and didn’t like in books just listening to them. People who haven’t discovered their own book preferences should sit in on a varied book club for a year. It is helpful.
Would he ever join a book club?
Andrew pulled out into traffic with a decided opinion on that one. “Never.” And not just because his only experience with one had him in constant trouble with a captain who couldn’t figure out why he hadn’t put a stop to the threats yet. He’d like the answer to that question himself, but every lead Andrew found seemed to dead end—even Arlette.
If the next meeting had another clue, he’d rule her out. She knew he’d have arrested her by now if he could tie anything to her. If she were guilty, she’d back away. It was her nature to cut losses and move along. Most of the others would do the opposite—keep it going to avoid suspicion, but her? Not so much.
Bernice looked guilty now. Wes hinted she’d been in the shop more lately, and she’d called him to say she’d noticed Sadie McGee hanging around a lot. She’d either gone detective or was looking for ways to hide notes for later retrieval.
That thought caught him off guard at the same time a truck cut him off completely. Slamming on his brakes, he pounded the steering wheel. He didn’t have time to deal with idiot drivers. Not his job and not on his day off.
The area around Milford teemed with cars and people. Andrew pulled into paid parking a couple of blocks over and took his ticket with mixed admiration and irritation. They’d torn down a gorgeous old Victorian “painted lady” to put up that parking lot. The neighborhood had protested, fought for historical protection, and even tried fundraisers to buy the land. It had all failed, but considering there were only a couple of empty spaces, it had been a good business decision. Rumor was the owner planned to make it a three-tiered structure in the coming year.
“Ugly things… but useful.”
A heatwave meant he was hot and sticky by the time he pulled open the door to Olemann’s books. He held it for a woman with auburn hair and oversized glasses. Cute… A glance down at her left hand revealed married, too. Not that he had time for relationships. Besides, if he did, there were a couple of interesting women in the book club he’d want to know better.
Just not Piper or Bernice. No, thank you.
Thursday nights weren’t busy shopping times at Olemann’s, but other times sure seemed to buzz with activity. Today, however… Twice Andrew had to turn sideways to move through the throng. Finding a place in the club room—not possible. He squeezed back in the corner, a bookcase digging into his side, and waited for the discussion to open.
A couple of minutes later, just as a small man in glasses with a black t-shirt and jeans stood at the front of the room, Jonas came and stood next to him. “Think our puppet master will come today?”
That was the problem. He didn’t know. While he listened to Milton talk about various book styles and ways of reading them, Andrew watched the room. A few nods answered as Milton asked if people considered “gaining knowledge” insufficient a reason to read. The way a significant number of those remaining squirmed told Andrew most considered it insufficient.
“Who in here exercises three or more times a week.”
Half the hands rose.
“And do you exercise your minds by reading something unrelated to your actual job as well?”
This time honesty seemed to reign. Almost all of them shook their heads.
“When I ask people why they exercise, I usually get answers that talk about keeping their bodies fit so they’ll be healthier now and when they get older. But what about your brains? They need exercise for health, longevity, and… memory. It’s not a cure-all, but studies show it improves memory and mental health and reduces stress. Let’s look at that last one.”
From cortisol levels to blood pressure, Milton Coleridge discussed the mental and emotional benefits of reading. “And you don’t have to have a physical book—although I’d argue they’re best. But if you struggle with dyslexia or eyestrain from being in front of a computer screen all day, you can work with that. Audiobooks can provide some of the same benefits as physically reading, although you do have to train yourself to focus. That’s not a bad thing. Historically, we’ve been oral storytellers. It’s hardwired into our DNA. Even Jesus used stories to teach His principles.”
Andrew expected the mention of Jesus to lose some of the crowd’s attention, but nope. Only one person in the room seemed uninterested in what Coleridge had to say. Bernice. Instead, she glowered at Wes from her spot near the book club shelves.
Questions came fast and furious, and it became obvious that half the attendees were there because of news features of the threat to the book club. One guy asked, “So if you’ve never enjoyed reading, how do you know where to start? Fiction? Non-fiction? Classics? Recent bestsellers?”
“This is where book clubs really shine. Wes Olemann has several going at all times—a couple of new ones starting in the fall I hear. Some are genre-based, some are nonfiction and topical, but others are eclectic. That sort would be where I’d begin—either nonfiction on a topic that you appreciate or something eclectic so you can get a feel for what’s out there.”
“And get yourself killed if you miss a meeting you mean.” The guy sounded more gleeful than concerned. Milton had played right into his hand.
The smaller man swept the room and pointed at Jonas. “Aren’t you in the Thursday night book club?”
“Have you enjoyed the selections made by this mysterious… what did you guys name him? The puppet master?”
A strangled cough close to the front caught Andrew’s attention. The woman with the glasses and auburn hair. She looked sick. Maybe it’s a good thing you didn’t join this one. You could have been the first victim—if our guy actually does decide to follow through. It might be wishful thinking, but the longer time went, the more certain Andrew was that their creep wouldn’t actually harm anyone.
“Not only do I enjoy the books being chosen, but I have enjoyed getting to know everyone in the group. These kinds of things always have dropouts. Except we’re seven months in and still going strong. There’s an advantage right there. And whoever is curating this list knows books.”
Knows books… curating list… no dropouts… If this turns out to be Wes after all, I’ll charge him with every single thing I can get to stick.
Ever since Milton’s meet, greet, and chat on Saturday, Olemann’s store had been bustling—much more than after the news stories broke about the notes and clues. Wes wasn’t sure what to think, but he wasn’t complaining either. Is it wrong to benefit from someone’s crime? Criminals can’t, but…
Sadie strolled in at two o’clock, sandwich boxes from Buffet on a Bun. “Hungry?”
“You’re a lifesaver—or a stomach saver, anyway.”
The weak smile told him he’d missed something. There were times he thought she might have a more… personal interest in him. Sense always took over at that point. Tom never neglected to remind him that he was not relationship material. “There’s nothing wrong with being bookish and introverted. It’s okay that you’re a loner.” A lifetime of “helpful encouragement” made it all quite clear.
Wes smiled back—an attempt to ensure she knew he truly appreciated her and not just the food. “Thank you.” There. That was something.
“You’ve been hopping all week. I’ve hardly seen you.”
Interesting… she sounded disappointed. Wes shoved down the flickerings of hope and nodded his agreement. This wasn’t the time for him to become ridiculous over a woman—especially a woman like Sadie McGee.
“I’ve gotten some of the residual. Sold the white Yamaha, three guitars, and a ton of music.”
“That’s great!” He meant it too.
“Six new students and eight rentals. Just since Saturday. I can’t decide if I owe it to your bookstore expert, his parrotlet, or the creep who has me terrified we’ll find you dead one morning.”
If her voice hadn’t broken, Wes could have attributed Sadie’s words to personal or friendly concerns, but a glance her way showed the woman’s genuine distress. Not sure what else to do, he patted her hand and then berated himself for the outdated and geriatric gesture. A line from The Fountainhead stumbled about in his mind. “…a great many men are poor fools who can’t see the best… but what about the men who see it and don’t want it?” It went something like that.
But I would want it… if it were possible.
Her hand folded around his and squeezed. “Promise me you’ll be careful. I don’t know what I’d do—” Sadie broke off, but she didn’t let his hand go.
They stood there, unmoving, unspeaking, gazes unwavering. It was like nothing he’d ever experienced, felt… even read. A moment so powerful couldn’t be real, and yet it was—so very real.
The ding of the shop bell broke the moment as the mail guy entered with the day’s stack of bills, junk mail, and requests from authors and publishers for appearances. He’d been getting a lot of the latter since that news story. Apparently, the old saying about bad publicity being good publicity was true.
Though Sadie opened her sandwich box and tucked in, she watched him. Around a mouthful of her favorite chicken salad, she asked, “Do you think your creep was here on Saturday?”
That was the question that had tormented Wes all week. The guy had been. He was sure of it. But he was equally sure he couldn’t point out the guy if he tried. When she nudged him, Wes just shrugged. “I think so but I couldn’t say who it was. I know who Grosser thinks it is, though.”
Wes shot Sadie an attempt at a smile. “He thinks it’s me. I saw it in the middle of Milton’s talk.”
“Then we need a new detective, because that guy’s an idiot if he thinks you’d ever hurt anyone… deliberately.”
That hesitation gave him pause and haunted him long after she’d given him a quick hug and dashed back to her store as the afternoon street traffic picked up. By the time Xander strolled in, a thick, paperback copy of Middlemarch tucked under one arm—with multicolored tabs sticking out all over it no less—Wes had worked himself into a jumble of hopes, fears, and resignation.
“Hey! So, I saw this video on YouTube—some gal trying to solve an Agatha Christie book by taking notes like a detective and everything. I can’t do the one she did, obviously, but I did one of those random generator things to pick one that I haven’t read. Do you have The Moving Finger?”
That was just what Wes needed to distract himself. “I’m sure I do. I try to keep her most popular titles in stock all the time. That’s definitely one.” He nodded at Xander’s book. “I see you’ve been paying close attention to that one—because you like it or because it’s confusing?”
The boy shrugged as he hurried over to the other Christies and plucked the one he wanted from the shelf. “It’s weird. I feel like I should like it. I do. I read somewhere that Eliot was a moralist, and I see that. But it’s sooo slow and there are sooo many characters and plots. My mind goes crazy trying to keep it straight.”
“I felt the same way. It’s not a favorite of mine.”
Xander flickered between shock and relief. “Really? I thought it was because my brain had been numbed by soundbites or something like that.”
“That’s possible of all of us, but in the late nineteenth century, Sedgwick made some of the same arguments.”
“Do we have to finish the book to keep from getting offed?”
That was a question Wes couldn’t answer. “Don’t know.”
“Do you think he’d know if I read the plot details on Wikipedia so I could follow it better?”
Every time he spent time with Xander, Wes found something new to like, and it seemed as though the boy lost some of his hard edge. Was it the reading? The time with adults who stimulated him? The distance from what had obviously been a stressful life?
Jonas and Allison entered before Wes could answer. He gave the kid a quick shake of the head and went to start the coffee pot. All his afternoon ruminations had really gotten him behind.
The night air was still muggy and miserable as Arlette breezed into the bookstore as if she hadn’t a care in the world. In truth, her stomach had twisted into such tight knots that she hadn’t eaten much in days and felt ready to puke. The detective had called her twice with odd questions that made no sense. Who cared how Wes reacted when he signed her up for the book club?
At the snack table, she pulled out homemade lemon cake pops as her peace offering. “At least they’ll feel cool.”
Allison pounced. “I haven’t eaten all day. Crazy morning and then an emergency at lunch and…” She started to rip off the plastic around the pop and froze. “Do you mind?”
“Eat up! There’s plenty for us all to have a couple at least so go for it.”
All goodwill feelings evaporated when Milton Coleridge appeared with his little dog carrier. Seeing a guy walk around with one of those things was weird enough, but a bird hopping around inside was just weirder. The guy pulled a piece of red pepper from a baggie in his pocket and tucked it into the opening before setting the thing down in the corner of the room.
One by one, the others filed in, grabbed water—a couple crazies poured hot coffee—and took their seats. Only when Arlette settled into hers did she see Julia sitting there, ramrod straight, hands gripping an envelope until it began to crumble. “I didn’t believe I’d get one. I just never let myself believe,” she whispered. And though it was a whisper, every person in the room heard it clearly.
Detective Grosser—when had he come in?—took the envelope from her and pocketed it. He murmured something into Julia’s ear—probably that they’d deal with it later—and stepped back and out of the group’s circle again. Milton pulled a folding chair closer and said, “So I understand you’re discussing Middlemarch?”
That broke the tension. “Yes. And can I just say that I learned a valuable lesson in never trying to sound literary again? Seriously, I never wanted to read this book, and now I’m stuck with something even worse than I’d imagined.” Arlette sat back and folded her arms over her chest. There. She’d said it.
Several people murmured agreement, but Gavin shrugged. “It’s a slow read, but the complexities in it are genius. I’m three-quarters through—” At a couple of gasps, he held up a hand. “I’ve been on vacation for a week and a half. Lots of reading time.”
The room relaxed again.
“And I’m starting to see where everything ties together and what Eliot was trying to accomplish with it.”
Mary Margaret Montmorency shook her head. “This is my third slog through it, and it’s as abysmal for me this go-round as it was the last two. I admire your spirit.”
There, the discussion devolved into arguments, accusations, and offenses. And for reasons Arlette couldn’t comprehend, it was the best discussion they’d had. The whole room burst out laughing just before Wes said, “Time for refreshments and a break, wouldn’t you say?”
The moment she’d seen her name on the envelope—on the wrong chair, no less—Julia had zoned out of the entire meeting. Reason said that the others had argued about the book, but she hadn’t heard why. In Julia’s opinion, Eliot used the novel to write a long, complicated sermon but didn’t know her own topic—not really. Morality in general, she supposed. It certainly wasn’t, in her opinion, the “greatest novel in the English language.”
As welcome and distracting as that thought was, the harsh reality of the letter in Detective Grosser’s pocket rushed back at her with the force of a windswept fire. If only it could consume the club and be done with it. If only she hadn’t joined this stupid club.
A tap on her shoulder nearly sent her through the roof. Grosser apologized and handed her the note. “I think you should call things back to order quickly and get this over with. I’m concerned about you.”
He should be. If she managed to make it out of the store without a breakdown, she’d be shocked. Julia moved to her place, still gripping the envelope, and tore it open without waiting for the others. The sound sent them scrambling to their places.
She frowned t it. “There’s no date again.”
“Milton figured that out,” Xander offered. “He said it was to point out the ‘wrong month.’ It wasn’t the middle and it wasn’t March. It was an extra hint.”
Well, that was both disappointing and obvious.
She choked twice and would have sworn if it had done any good. She’d faced down the toughest judges in the city. She could certainly read a stupid clue. “A body part in the title.”
That was all she could choke out. Eyes riveted to the card, she read and read again.
A body part in the title
One of five, or is it ten?
A digit swings right and back again.
Questions abound and fill the tome.
But why does the digit roam?
Julia passed the card to the next person. And then she passed out.
Well, don’t forget to give us your guess to the clue.
Is it me or is this impossible? I can’t figure it out to save my life–or Julia’s. Hopefully, you guys are a better guesser than I am!
Here are the rest of the episodes again in case you missed one.