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.
Just a reminder… If they got it wrong, Corey’s toast. I really hope not. Just sayin’.
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 already read my March book, In an English Vintage Garden by Marion Morrison Ueckermann.
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
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Your Initials in the Title
With humidity at just the right levels, her cold cases filled with fresh blooms ready for the next day’s orders, and her apron hanging by the door, Corey stepped out of Quivering Bloomers and into the alley. A hand gripped her arm before she could turn away from locking the door behind her. She’d have screamed if a voice had said, “It’s all right, Ms. Gray. It’s just me.”
“Detective Grosser! You scared the… manure out of me.”
His chuckle sounded a bit sinister for her taste. Maybe it was the semi-dark alley. Perhaps it was that he’d arrived the Friday after book club to ask a million questions to take her statement about the fake officer. Or it just could be that there would be another note tonight, and the stress levels had mounted daily since she’d realized it.
“Can you call me Corey—just Corey? The whole miz thing makes me all nervous and I hate it.”
The guy didn’t skip a beat. He just nodded. “If you prefer.”
“Well, I do.” So the words came out a bit snappish. She felt snappish. If biting heads off would have ended the stress of this whole thing, she’d have done it, starting with him. A sidelong glance changed that decision. Maybe not him. He’d come to see her safely to the club.
If her outburst bothered him at all, he didn’t say a word. Puddles covered most of the alleyway, but the street and sidewalks were clear. Though the air was cold, it didn’t bite like winter air. Maybe spring really would arrive soon, despite what the divining rodent claimed. That thought chilled her, though. Was the whole Punxsutawney Phil thing good fun or flirting around with stuff God didn’t like?
Figure that out some other time.
“Watch it… that’s a puddle in a pothole.” Even as he warned her, Grosser pulled her away from the offending hole.
“Oh… yeah. Thanks.” After a couple of sidelong glances, Corey decided to get some input on what was going on. “So… did you see all the news about the stabbing and the book club and—”
“Yeah.” His curt response told her he wasn’t happy about it even before he added, “Mrs. Hoskins’ YouTube ‘tell all’ video wasn’t helpful to the investigation. My captain is livid.”
Though she couldn’t blame him for his frustration, Corey heard herself defending the woman. “You never said we couldn’t talk to the press or anything. Once it was on the news, she probably felt like she had a right to share her side, too.” A new thought occurred to her just as they reached the opposite sidewalk. “Um, did you know she had a BookTube channel? She never mentioned it in the meetings.”
Not until they reached the door of Olemann’s Books did Grosser answer. “Found it in her background search.”
“Did you notice she reads a lot of mystery?”
“We did.” His hand rested on the door handle, still not opening it.
Corey shivered. “What?”
“Just curious what we’d find on your bookshelves.”
Her laughter must have relaxed him because Detective Grosser opened the door just as she said, “Three cookbooks—never used and all gifts from an optimistic grandmother. A copy of A Circle of Quiet, a copy of To Sir, with Love, and a copy of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.”
“That’s it? That’s all the books you own?”
“Got a Bible on my nightstand,” she admitted. “Not read nearly as much as it should be, but I’m working through it. Hard going.”
Without missing a beat, he nodded at Wes as he led her into the club room. “Try listening to it while you read. That’s what I do with those Russian authors. It helps.”
He’s a big reader, then. Interesting. Corey froze partway into the room and made an abrupt about-face. Wes looked up as she approached the counter. “How’s your brother?”
Though she hadn’t noticed anything amiss in Wes’ demeanor, a pained expression dissolved at her question. Wes smiled at her, and though weak, the smile was genuine. “He’s doing well. They let him go home after a few days. He actually came in this afternoon to prove to me that he’s doing well.”
“You don’t agree?”
Wes shrugged and turned his attention to the door chime as he said, “He fell asleep in the wing-back in the club room for a bit, so…”
A glance over her shoulder showed Arlette and Carrie entering, with Simon on their heels. His welcome sounded hollow to her, though. Under his breath, he added, “I’ve watched like a hawk all day. Nothing showed up in the club room.” Wes shot a glance to where Grosser stood watching them. “Can you tell him for me?”
That she could do. But before she could reach his side, a FedEx driver came through the door, a blue, orange, and white envelope in hand. Without even looking at Wes as he took it, she knew. If Grosser’s expression meant anything, he did, too.
But what was that expression? Looked like relief to her, but that didn’t make sense.
Detective Andrew Grosser took the envelope with a gloved hand, although why he bothered, he didn’t know. Between the dozen or so people who had probably touched it before the courier handed it to Wes, and the fact that there had been no prints on anything else thus far, it seemed a wasted move. Protocol, however, didn’t care.
It’s probably not Tom Olemann, then. But if not, what was the guy really doing walking three blocks to a parked car when he could park behind the store? He was here today. Why send something FedEx if he could have left something behind?
An answer for every question appeared as fast as he posed them. Hiding the car to prove he hadn’t been in the area? Throwing everyohne off the scent by having it overnighted? Even something as simple as not realizing he’d feel well enough to go himself could explain the mailed letter.
A quick zip of the tab revealed the contents, and as suspected… a creamy envelope. Corey had moved closer to look. “Whose name?” The words came out in a quavering whisper.
Wounded at the fear he heard in her tone—fear he should have alleviated by catching the creep—Andrew stiffened. We’ve got to get this guy. A glance at Corey made him wince internally and add to himself, or woman.
Arlette walked up to him and folded her arms over her chest. “Did you get the impersonator?” While Andrew allowed himself a moment of amusement at her dramatic tone, the woman apparently took his silence for imbecility. “The one who claimed to be a cop that you sent?”
“We have questioned several people but have not, as of yet, arrested anyone.”
“Cop speak for we don’t know anything. Great.”
Those arms tightened over her chest—fear or anger?
“And why didn’t you send someone?”
“I would have when backup arrived, but I was a bit preoccupied trying to help an injured man and trying to find out about the guy who did it.” Despite his defense of his actions, Andrew didn’t like his answer any better than she did.
He’d wanted a moment—just a moment to call, but every time he’d reached for his phone, Tom Olemann had gripped his arm and said, “Did I tell you…?” The first chance he’d had to pull out that phone had been when it rang and Corey asked about the impostor.
Something about that thought niggled at him. It took several seconds of fighting to silence all the voices around him before he could pin it down. Tom Olemann may have been scared and hurting, but he also could have been trying to distract me. If so, why?
Xander interrupted his musings. “Hey, I thought of something after you left the other day.”
The kid had nearly soiled himself when he opened the door to find the detective standing in the battered hallway of his run-down apartment building. He’d also relaxed visibly when Andrew left before his mother came home.
Andrew tried to look interested as he said, “Oh?”
“Yeah… What if we’re looking at the wrong people? We’re looking at people we know are associated with the club, right?”
He nodded. Where was the kid going with this?
“What if this is some creep who didn’t get in? What if he’s unbalanced? Took not making the cut as a personal offense. So he cooks this up as a way to still be part of the group and to control what we get to read.”
Far-fetched. It was the only word for it, but on the other hand, every connection that had hinted at a possibility had fizzled. “I’ll look into that. There are questions that could kill the idea, but we’ll explore it.
“Not to be pushy…” Corey’s voice broke into the conversation in a way that sounded most definitely pushy. “… but um… name? Who got targeted this time?
Interesting way of putting that. Targeted. Andrew just gestured to the club room. “Let’s go sit down.” Once inside, he handed the envelope to Bernice. “Looks like you’re the lucky lady.” It had been intended to lighten the weight of receiving the envelope, but it flopped to his toes with the weight of a lead brick. “Sorry… didn’t come out like I meant.”
Hand shaking, Bernice took the envelope and stared at it. “D-d-do I open it now or after we start talking about Brooklyn?”
“Afterward,” Andrew said.
The others filled the circle of chairs, and Andrew took his now customary seat by the door. Wes Olemann sat beside him, turned slightly to be able to watch the front room.
A debate raged. At first, Corey had fought to keep people talking for just a couple of minutes at a time in a nice, civilized fashion—mostly because she wanted to understand why everyone had such polarized opinions of the book. The only thing everyone seemed to agree on is that Francie Nolan was a delightful child who managed to survive a childhood that should have warped her or trapped her into the same dysfunctional poverty.
No, she didn’t just survive it. She thrived in it. That’s the most amazing part. She thrived despite everything that should have pulled her down.
“Knowing your brother is the favorite has to build resentment, even if you don’t realize it yet.” Julia Chen’s words rose above everyone else’s and shut down the argument. Only when it ceased and she continued did Corey realize the woman hadn’t actually raised her voice. “The question isn’t whether she’ll ever resent him but when? After her own children are born and she senses a closer connection with one? When her mother dies and leaves the book of Shakespeare to the brother who never cared about books like she did?”
Jonas leaned forward, clasping his hands together as his forearms rested on his knees. His eyes seeming to penetrate poor Julia, almost boring into the woman’s soul. “Do you think you may be projecting a bit? We all react differently, depending on our own lives and circumstances.”
Carrie spoke up then. “I think he has a point. I mean, your mother or father may have preferred your sibling, and it’s natural to resent the sibling for it. It is. However, it doesn’t mean that all children will. So many factors play into it.”
The woman’s poised demeanor crumbled as she slumped in her chair and said in a ragged whisper, “I’m the favored child. I know what it’s like to be hated because you are preferred. My sister will do anything to make my life miserable. If she can embarrass me, ruin my plans—whatever. She’ll do it. Francie is a time bomb waiting for something to press the detonator.”
Simon scoffed. Carrie soothed. Xander watched everything with more attention that even Detective Grosser. Corey tried to figure out just what about Julia’s words had struck a cord. Her parents didn’t play favorites. So why?
Arlette said something about Katie’s pregnancy, and Mary Margaret Montmorency coughed. “Excuse me, but I think that’s beyond the halfway mark we agreed not to cross.”
A new debate began. Why would someone in such poverty, having night after night of nothing to eat, allow herself to get pregnant, or if so, continue the pregnancy. Piper insisted it was irresponsible and bordering on criminal. Gavin reminded her that as a Catholic, Katie had no choice. Simon said what he thought of that in words that earned him a quiet reprimand from Wes.
Xander just listened, his attention shifting from one person to the next as he worked out what everyone said, and only after Arlette said something about “Ben,” whoever that was, did he scowl and shake his head. Must be in the second half of the book again.
Gavin called for a cease fire. “We have a lot more to read before we can come to final conclusions, although it’s obvious some of you have already finished. For those of us who haven’t, we’re getting confusing spoilers and—”
“I don’t think we’ve come to any agreement on Julia’s point. What about resentment of favored children?” Arlette had folded her arms and leaned as far back from the rest of them without Corey even noticing.
So… feeling the sting, too?
The debate began again, and Corey didn’t even attempt to stop it. Grosser did, however. The entire room turned to him at the piercing whistle that came from his corner. “It’s well after nine o’clock. I say we table this—possibly indefinitely. As much as a consensus probably suits some of you, we will not all agree on this point, and trying to force us all into one mold isn’t helpful.”
She might have argued, but Gavin nodded and said just at the same time Jonas did, “Good idea.” Gavin added, “But we have another envelope to deal with before we can go.”
And maybe in the next two weeks I’ll learn if we got this right? If I’m alive next meeting, does that mean we got it right and I’m safe? Or does this guy have the whole month to kill me?
The creamy envelope looked just like a wedding invitation—that thick paper, the slight texture, the wax seal with the gold brushed across the raised portions… just like her best friend had ordered. Bernice frowned. Turning to Detective Grosser, she asked, “Have you looked into wedding calligraphers? This is so much like my friend’s wedding announcement. I don’t know why I didn’t notice it before.”
The way the detective scribbled down something in a little notebook, as if his phone didn’t have a nice notes app that couldn’t get soaked in coffee or drop from his pocket, felt comforting for reasons she didn’t understand. She pulled the card and read, first to herself and then aloud. “Um, it says…
Xander spoke up first. “What’s your last name?”
“Mine!” Bernice’s hands shook harder. “Why mine?”
“Well, because we can’t figure out what the initials are without them?” He turned and stared at Detective Grosser for a minute. “That’s why you didn’t ask about who else I told. You knew it was just my mom and Milton, didn’t you?” Before the detective could answer, he added, “Because what kid would admit to anyone else that he was spending his free time with a bunch of adults reading random books?”
“Knew you’d figure it out. And no, it’s not… ‘what kid’ but more that you wouldn’t. You like your privacy.”
The conversation might have continued, but Wes cleared his throat and broke in. “Bernice, I can tell them if you prefer.”
She had absolutely no intention of telling everyone her surname. “It starts with B.” In case someone would protest, she added, “Middle initial Q if you must know that.”
A fresh argument broke out. Did the “your initials in the title” mean all initials? Was Bernice married? What about a maiden name? Did only Bernice’s name count?
“It has to be,” Carrie insisted. “We all have different letters, so unless there’s a book called Supercalifragilisticexpialidociouzzz, then it would be impossible for us to discuss the book, it would be impossible for us to make that riddle fit multiple books, and Bernice wouldn’t have a chance. So far, the guy seems at least reasonably sporting…” She winced and shot Bernice an apologetic smile. “Sorry, but it’s true.”
“I’m glad it’s true,” Bernice managed to choke out. “Or, I should say I hope it’s true.”
Detective Grosser rose and suggested they all work on the riddle and come ready to discuss it in two weeks. “We need to let Wes close up. Please leave in pairs.” He shot a look at Xander. “Can you stay here until I get back? I’m walking Ms. Gray back to her car.”
Bernice shuddered. He thinks it’s her. She seemed so nice, but if he thinks it’s her…
Just as she stepped from the club room into the bookstore again, Bernice overheard Jonas say, “You don’t think we have to read that Buff Bods book from the erotica club choices, do you?”
Allison’s nervous giggle set Bernice’s teeth on edge, but she did point out that the book content wasn’t likely to fit. This book club thing was such a dumb idea, and if anyone figures out why I’m here…
Well… any idea who’s doing this? I’m starting to doubt my own ideas!
Please leave your guesses below. Remember, if you don’t guess the book for April correctly, Bernice doesn’t have a chance to live… or kill!
Fun fact: When I was figuring out who could be the killer, who should be the suspects, what would work… what wouldn’t… Well, let’s just say I was an idiot for a few minutes. I had this panicked thought that said, “The killer can’t be one of the club members. It would give it away if they got it wrong and he died.”
Then relief followed. It couldn’t happen. The killer would know the book. He couldn’t get it wrong. All would be well if I wanted to make a book club member be the dude (or dudette– it’s just easier to keep them all “hes” for consistency’s sake). A week later, I realized what my subconscious was trying to tell me.
YOU GUYS determine if the book is right or wrong. If the killer “got it wrong” because you did… then he’d have to die… and he’d no longer be the killer. I’d have to make the rest of the series fit everything up to that point.
Did you catch the “week later” bit? Yeah. Only time will tell (and me in December) if I let myself make a member be the guilty party or not.
Meanwhile, guess our book, and I’ll pray I never have to kill someone off. Win/win!
All the installments are listed below: