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.
Just a reminder… If you guys got it wrong, Bernice is a gonner. Dah, dah, Duuuunnnn.
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 and am excited to read my “initial” book in April. Right now I have it down as Christmas Homecoming Secrets by Lynette Eason, but I’m tempted to do the Cold Harbor box set one by Susan Sleeman. What do you guys think?
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
Xander and Detective Grosser sat across from each other at Bean Juice, a coffee shop, a couple of blocks over from the bookstore. Xander wanted to fidget, and that brought out what his mom called his “angsty antagonism.” Still, the cop had been cool about everything—treated him like a person instead of a punk kid like L.A. cops had. Then again, L.A. cops probably knew his connection with the Gambino family and had to deal with his uncles, cousins, and grandfather over the years.
The detective stared into his mug as if the answers to all his questions could be extracted from it if he just had the right superpowers. Then everything shifted. He leaned back in the boxy wooden chairs and eyed Xander with a lazy look that would have disarmed most kids. Most kids didn’t have an uncle who had cops on his payroll.
“So… how do you feel about talking about your family?”
Though he’d known the question would come, a chill ran through him anyway. Or maybe it was just the door opening and closing. The newcomer was dark-skinned with a funky hairstyle that should have looked unkempt but instead screamed sophistication. When she glanced his way, he nodded. Man, she was hot.
“Not yet.” The reply sounded a lot more confident than he felt. Xander shot another look at the girl, and his mouth went dry when she winked at him. “But I think I’ll need a refill before she’s done ordering.”
“Good idea.” When Xander looked at him, Grosser added, “Not jumping up right away. That said, there’s a guy headed toward the door. I’ll nod when you should get up so you can beat him to it.”
And he did. Only when he stood behind the girl did Xander realize that part of his motivation had to do with postponing the questions. A glance back showed Grosser watching him in the window. Bet he knows it, too.
“I’ll have a London Fog and a plain bagel with cream cheese. Thanks.”
He’d ordered them dozens of times, but hearing “plain bagel” followed by “with” always sounded like an oxymoron. As much as he’d like to order one now, give them something in common to talk about, Xander and his mother couldn’t afford for him to throw away the cost of a bag of bagels on just one so he could talk to a girl who probably wouldn’t give him the time of day.
Instead, he said, “Good choice.”
The girl turned, her expression already icy, but it warmed at the sight of him. “Yeah? Want one?”
“Couldn’t eat it all, and my mom’s a fanatic about not wasting food. Just need a refresher on my coffee.”
“Take half of mine. I’ll probably take one bite of it and toss it.” A slow smile formed—gorgeous, perfect white teeth.
Before he could demur, she turned to the barista waiting to take his order and said, “Can you put half that bagel in a separate bag for my friend? Thanks.”
Again his protest died when the girl behind the counter said, “Sure, and what do you want?”
They stood there, awkwardness becoming a steel wall between them until the girl said, “So what school do you go to?”
Of all the questions. She’d find out he lived in the slums, or close enough, and that would be the end of this conversation. “Dana Park.”
“Wait… no way.” With each word, her eyes grew a bit bigger and a smile formed. “Really?” Then the eyes narrowed. “Who’s the principal?”
She doesn’t believe me? And does that mean…? Xander shrugged. “I think it’s Tesla or something close to that. I just moved here a few months ago and haven’t had time to get reamed by her yet.”
That earned him a laugh just as her London Fog and bagel got called out. “Well, you knew she was a woman and you got her name close enough. Where’d you move from?”
He wanted to lie and give his cousin’s house in Dana Point, California, but with a cop who could probably hear them, he didn’t bother. “Los Angeles.”
“Wow… totally different here from there. You like it?”
“Safer—even where I live.” There. That gave her a chance to bail. Right there. And five… four…
She eyed him for a minute before saying, “A bunch of us are going to the game in a few. Want to come?”
“The one with Bloomington?” There… and another proof he knew what he was talking about. “Isn’t that like half over?”
That smile… why did God, if there was such a dude, give girls smiles like that? Guys had no chance. The girl grinned and then winked… again. “That’s kind of the idea. We want to celebrate, but who wants to watch guys run around chasing a ball for a couple of hours?”
A bit of an exaggeration, but he got it. Basketball wasn’t his thing, either. Doing that with this girl, though. That sounded much more bearable. “Wish I could. Have a thing in…” Xander pulled out his phone. “Twenty minutes. Can’t miss.”
“A thing?” That smile faded a little, but she didn’t move her gaze from him. “Can you… postpone this… thing?”
Might as well get it over with. She’d find out eventually and drop him before he ever got the guts to wave at her in the halls… if he ever even saw her there. She could be a senior for all he knew. “Yeah. It’s book club night. Can’t be late. Any other night…”
Her laughter rang out… man she was gorgeous. Even her laugh had something special about it. “You had me going. C’mon. Your coffee’s ready. Let’s go.”
But Xander, as much as he could cheerfully kick the jerk in the gut, wouldn’t give their book club creep the satisfaction of a “fair kill.” That’s how he’d see it, of course. Xander broke the rules. Xander pays. That was the problem, though. He wouldn’t be the one who paid. His mom would—first with her own grief, next when his dad used it to get back at her. Dad didn’t care that they were gone, but if anything happened to his son, blaming her… taking it out on her… that good old Dad couldn’t resist. It’s how things worked.
That’s when the girl’s eyes went wide again. “Wait, no… you’re serious? Book club?”
He shrugged. “I like it.” Turning away he called back, “See you around. And thanks for the bagel.” Maybe this time he wouldn’t eat Wes out of snacks when no one was looking.
“Hey… wait up.” The girl reached his side in two strides of long legs. “Gimme your phone.”
In seconds, she’d typed her name into his contacts and handed it back. At the door, she called back, “Text me.”
Grosser grinned at him as Xander slid back into his chair. “Nice… impressive.”
“Was sure she’d bolt after hearing I was going to book club instead of to the game with her.”
It took a moment before Xander caught on. “Oh, right…” A glance at his phone gave him the answer. “Ciara.” It sounded like a model’s name.
“I’d interrogate you about Ciara, but since I think I know as much as you do, how about we talk about your family for a couple of minutes before I ask you to go walk Corey to the store?”
Oh… she not a suspect anymore? Or is she one now and you’re trying to hide it? Or did you get in trouble for showing preferential treatment? What’s the deal?
“Yeah, sure.” He nodded. “Not telling you what I can’t. Won’t put Mom at risk. But go for it. And I’ll walk her over. Sure.” Xander couldn’t help but add, “She’ll be disappointed, though.”
At first, he thought he’d failed. But just as Grosser started to ask his first question, he rubbed the back of his neck, and that’s when Xander realized something. It had been red before the guy rubbed. Interesting.
“So, is there anything you could know that would make someone in your uncle’s organization send you a warning like this?”
The moment Grosser had started talking, Xander had taken a bite of bagel to ensure he had time to think of an answer to anything. This was a tough one. How to answer without details and in a way… got it!
“You’re asking the wrong question,” he said just before swallowing. “Whether I do or don’t isn’t relevant.” He waited. So did Grosser. When the detective didn’t catch on, or at least didn’t seem to, Xander added one more clarifying detail. “The question is that if I did, is this how Uncle Tommy would handle it?”
They walked to the bookstore together without speaking. Several times he’d nearly asked Xander if the same answer applied to Lisa Meers Gambino, but instinct told him to wait. The kid was already on guard and distracted both. That thought hung with him until Xander moved across the street to walk Corey over from Quivering Bloomers—what a ridiculous name. He pulled out his phone and called for a background check. “Need names and pictures of every kid named Ciara at Dana Park High School in the last ten years.”
“Got a lead on the book club caper?”
Oh, come on. Don’t call it something so stupid. And it’s a threat that is real to these people regardless of how serious it is or isn’t.
“Fine…” Apparently his silence hadn’t gone over well. “Consider it done. It’ll take me a few minutes. Spelling?”
“C-i-a-r-a.” Andrew hesitated before adding, “And any variants.”
The bookstore door opened and a woman emerged with a tween and three small children all squealing and jabbering. The effect reminded him of one person trying to walk four unruly dogs sans the leashes. One kid bumped into him just as the door opened again and Wes rushed out. “You forgot your books!”
“I’ll forget a kid someday. Whose idea was it to have these wild creatures?” The tone might have sounded disparaging, but the way all the kids squealed and the oldest tried to look unfazed—tried and failed—told him it was a loving joke they all understood.
The oldest took the bag from Wes. “I tried to tell you that you were leaving it, but you just pushed us out…” The complaint became an argument as the quintet shuffled down the sidewalk toward a minivan that would take an expert driver the maneuver from a tight parking job.
Both men stared after them for a moment before Wes shook his head and held the door open. “I always wanted a family. Then ones like that come in and I can’t decide if I’m sorry I didn’t or relieved.”
They’d only made it three steps inside before he saw it. Without a word, he pointed to the envelope on the counter and bolted from the store. How the woman had wrangled those kids into the car so quickly defied explanation. Well, it defied most people’s understanding, anyway. The explanation was clear. Motherhood. Moms had skills he envied.
Grosser tapped on the window, and the woman screeched. At that moment, the sound of locking car doors brought a smile to his lips. A woman with sense. That’s a good sign already. Badge in hand, he held it up and called out, “Just need to ask you and the kids a question.”
After peering at the badge for a moment, the woman cracked the window three inches. “Yes?”
He poked a business card through the window and got straight to the point. “Detective Andrew Grosser, ma’am. When you were at the counter in the store, did you see an envelope by the register?”
“An envelope? What kind of envelope?”
Holding up his hands, Andrew gave an approximate size and said, “It likely would have only had a single first name on it.”
The way the woman screwed up her features as if trying to see into the very recent past told him she either hadn’t or wanted him to take her answer seriously—whatever that would mean. “I didn’t… Hayley?” The oldest kid shook her head.
The littler kids offered helpful advice, but Hayley ended all with, “They’re too short to see up there. I didn’t see anything, but I wasn’t looking. Could be, I guess. Don’t think so.”
“And your name?” Andrew had his notepad out now… ready. The woman looked about to demur when he added, “I can write down your license plate and get name and address that way. Then if I have questions, instead of calling, I can show up at your house—”
“Sorry. I’m not trying to be difficult. You just hear of crazy stuff like people impersonating cops and stuff…”
“Excellent point, but I do need the information. If you’d prefer, you can call the station and give them the information… while I’m here.”
At that point, one of the kids started screaming about “pee-pee” and everything went downhill. He had a name and phone number within seconds, and the woman did an impressive job of wriggling out of the parking space in four reversals. It would have taken most people ten… at least. As she drove off, he finished writing down her license plate, certain he’d never look at it again, and returned to the store. And here we go again.
As the group hammered out pros and cons of a book Corey had only skimmed most of, she watched a few people. For two weeks she’d been creating a list of potential suspects, using Detective Grosser’s reactions as a jumping off place. He’d looked relieved when the UPS guy arrived. It meant more options of who could have done it, not fewer. So that made no sense.
Unless it’s him and he didn’t know if it would make it in time…
Xander picking her up at the store had been a surprise, and if she were truthful, a bit of a disappointment. She’d planned to give him a subtle interrogation to see if she could figure out what he knew. All she knew is that she didn’t do it. Couldn’t.
A glance around the room left a few others in her “not a chance” list. The lawyer wouldn’t risk it. Julia Chen wanted to be a judge. Corey could almost smell it. Mary Margaret Montmorency, too, couldn’t do it. The gal was more Miss Marple than the murderers. She’d spent all weekend watching a Joan Hickson marathon and knew the old gal inside and out. Not her.
If she had to guess, Jonas, Allison, and Carrie were out, too. As much as she wanted to rule out Xander, a customer had said something about how weird it would be if a kid decided to up the game on school shootings and play mind games with people. It wouldn’t have made sense of most teens she’d met, but Xander…
“Corey? What do you think about Aunt Sissy? Was she a good influence on the kids or a bad one?”
Ugh… Sissy. She’s the one who faked the pregnancy and claimed her baby was off at Coney Island? What idiot would fall for that? Not sure what to say about the question, she used that as a distraction. “I don’t know. I mean she could be a cautionary tale for the kids, but really, aside from the stupid story about her baby being on Coney Island in an incubator—I mean, that’s an amusement park. When her husband treats it like something good and celebrates with the ice cream—”
“No,” Julia interjected. “That was over the dead husband thing.” A few others agreed.
Someone else started to ask about the relationship of their faith with Sissy’s lies, when Carrie spoke up. “Not to be a jerk, but actually, Coney Island did have incubators—the first ones were created and used as a sideshow thing there to pay for it because hospitals didn’t believe they’d work. People paid to see the babies in those things.”
By the expressions on everyone’s faces, no one else had known that.
It also killed the discussion, much to Corey’s relief. “Well, I guess it’s up to Bernice now. What book are we reading next month?”
From the corner, Detective Grosser watched the book club with semi-detached interest. He still couldn’t figure out how the letter had gotten on the counter—nothing definitive on the camera feeds—or why. It wasn’t the week for it, and so far their tormentor stuck to a reasonable program.
When Corey turned all attention to Bernice, he cringed. The woman was a basket case about the whole thing. When he’d talked to her after the last meeting, she’d broken down twice, insisted she couldn’t remember where she heard about it, and stuck to her story that she’d found the information she needed online and called. Wes confirmed that with a paper he’d not yet shredded.
She won’t want to make this decision, but it’s not fair—
That thought was interrupted by Bernice saying, “Well, since it’s obvious that this guy knows my last name, which I consider to be a breach of privacy, Mr. Olemann,” she shot a dark look at the guy. “I figure it’s not crazy to assume he might know my middle name, but I doubt it. So, I decided it had to be BB. The clues were obvious, though. Shakespeare—the Bard. St. Crispins… Agin—court. Stupid misspelling that was. And the last bit about bond. It’s obviously the line from Henry V about the Band of Brothers. The book I found is by Stephen E. Ambrose.”
Arlette argued. “There were other ones by that title. How do you know it’s that one?”
“Because the others had other words. This is the only one that has only the exact quote from Henry V. Just ‘band of brothers.’ Not even ‘we band of brothers.’”
The forceful confidence she exuded didn’t fit the trembling mess of a woman from the previous week. No one but Arlette argued with her, however, and Wes took an order count before disappearing into the store. He rose and passed Bernice the new note.
A tiny glimmer of suspicion had formed as she’d insisted it had to be this Ambrose book—such a contrary to character reaction. But the way she paled and almost refused to take the envelope fit the person he’d seen earlier. Maybe two weeks had been enough to bolster her confidence. It made sense.
“But it’s not the week for it. Did I get it wrong? Am I going to die? Why? Wha—?”
“We don’t know, Bernice. Why don’t you just open it?”
“And why does it say Beware instead of my name? Didn’t—?” Another round of questions would have pummeled him if Grosser hadn’t put a stop to it.
“I think you should just open it.”
He’d already dusted it for fingerprints and found nothing except smudgy things that no one could identify. They might not have even been fingerprints. The envelope was almost identical but not quite. The wax, too, seemed a bit brighter than before. Had their terrorist run out of supplies? Decided to mix things up? So many options.
A squeak from Bernice tore him from his thoughts. She’d dropped the note, but the words stared up at him. You got it wrong.
Well… who’s our guy… or gal? Xander? Bernice?
I don’t know about you, but I’m clueless. You all chose Band of Brothers. We’ll see if you got it right. Bernice sure seems certain. Btw… has anyone read it? Looks interesting, but you know those war books. They can be… um… yeah. Kind of… colorful. So, I haven’t checked it out BUT… I did buy The Circle of Quiet and so far, it’s really good!
Well, until April 6… adios! Happy St. Paddy’s (not Patty’s!) Day! 😀
All the installments are listed below: