Hello there! We’re late but hey. Sprained ankles totally mess with your hands, right? Okay, I did jam my wrists, too. Just a bit.
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 this year (and a hint of the upcoming prompts), you can find my list on Chantel’s (from Chantel Reads All Day) Hey Reader Website. I’m about to start reading Heidi Chiavaroli’s The Orchard House.
Note: links may be affiliate links that provide me with a small commission at no extra cost to you.
The principal’s office at Dana Park High looked like every other principal’s office. Behind the desk sat a woman who would put the fear of God in any atheist. In a chair to the right sat a woman who looked more like Ciara DeJon’s slightly older sister rather than her mother, and on the left, a lawyer who barely contained his desire to be anywhere but there.
Detective Andrew Grosser preferred to stand.
When the office manager led Ciara into the room, she zeroed in on Andrew. “I’ve seen you somewhere.” At that point, she noticed her mother. “Mom? What are you doing here?” The lawyer got a glance at best and a, “Who’s he?”
“We’re here about your mission to derail Xander from his book club.”
It had been a risk—calculated but very much a risk. If the mother or the lawyer objected, things could get ugly. But considering the lawyer had no real intention of doing anything, he had a chance. A slim one but a chance.
“How’d you know?” The second the girl said it, she clammed up and pasted on a smug look. “I want a lawyer.”
Of all the things she could have said, that one was music to his ears. Finally, the case would be over.
“Ciara DeJon, if you threatened people’s lives, you won’t have a backside left for them to throw in jail when I’m done with you!”
That loosened the girl’s tongue. “I didn’t!” she snapped, clearly on autopilot. Then as if she really heard what her mother had said, the smug mask she’d worn fell away to reveal the real girl—young, sassy, and now totally freaked out. “What? I didn’t!” The girl turned to him. “Look, I just got a note in my locker. It had a fifty in it. The note said to follow Xander around and try to get him to notice me. I’d get a hundred bucks more if I could get him to skip some book club.”
Could it be easier? Grosser turned his attention to the principal. “Security footage?”
“I’ll have it ready by the time you leave,” the woman promised as she picked up her phone.
The questions began. Did she still have the note? No. The description sounded just like every other note, but having it would have been nice.
Did she have any idea of who it could have been? Anyone she’d talked to anywhere?
Again, Ciara insisted she was clueless. “I just found the note in my locker.”
“Was that unusual? Do you get many notes?” They used to slip notes between locker vents when he was in school, but that was before smartphones and texting. Almost. Some kids texted—kids whose parents paid for phones. His… not so much.
“Sometimes.” Ciara sent a sidelong glance first at the principal and then at her mother. “Parents inspect phones. And everyone uses them now, so if you want someone to be able to read something in class without the teacher ordering your phone on the whiteboard tray, you use paper.”
“Glad to know you still know how to use a pen,” Ms. DeJon muttered.
So if their puppet master actually left the note himself, it might not be as obvious as he’d hoped. A dozen more questions left him without any more answers. He’d just decided to let her go when Ciara asked a question.
“So is someone really trying to hurt Xander?”
The info was on the internet if the girl wanted to look, so Andrew gave her a short rundown of everything the news report had said. “I don’t know if the target is just Xander or if this guy wants just anyone.”
“So do I keep trying to get Xander to do it so the guy doesn’t know you figured me out, or do I stop so maybe he contacts me again?”
It wasn’t a bad question. As he tried to decide the best course of action, Ms. DeJon piped up. “I don’t want Ciara playing undercover cop. She’s just a kid.”
“Mom, I’m seventeen, not seven. I can take care of myself.”
“Like you did to get called into the principal’s office and grilled by the cops? Yeah. That worked out well for you. Miz Maturity herself.”
He expected a blow-up. Most kids he’d encountered definitely would have. Not this girl. Clearly, she had some serious respect for her mother and heard something in that comment that told her to stand down. I want to learn from this woman if I ever have kids.
That if seemed a lifetime away.
“Mom, can I hang out with Xander anyway? He’s cool… and kind of cute in a ‘I’m not really Goth, but idiots might think I am’ kind of way.”
The longest silence he’d ever endured in watching a parent/child confrontation ensued. After what seemed an hour or three, the woman stood, hooked her purse over her shoulder, and turned to the lawyer. “We’re done here. Thank you for your time.” That guy bolted while Ms. DeJon turned to her daughter and said, “Bring him home on Saturday. I’ll tell you then.” To Andrew she said, “Is this kid safe for her to hang out with?”
“As long as he arrives at all meetings as planned, we have no reason to believe he isn’t. So far, the guy is playing fair. Xander was late once and no one got hurt.” So that was stretching the truth. Someone got hurt, but he wasn’t in the club, so…
“Bring him home, Ciara. And get your butt back into Trig before you miss some crucial thing that means we’re up until midnight in tears while we figure out your homework.”
Cellphones may change life dramatically. Google might be here to stay. Kids might know more about cyber security than their Computer Science Degree wielding parents, but some things never change—like homework and tears.
Pulling into his “usual place,” Jonas parked his rig and snatched up his gray hoodie. If he hurried… A second glance at his phone reassured him. Definitely. If he hurried, he could get to Allison’s office before she left and walk her over to Milford Street. Unlike that first night in January, the evening air was cool but not biting as he strolled along the street, around two corners, and to the parking lot where her car sat beneath a lamp pole. Smart girl.
The sun wouldn’t set for a while yet, but by the time she returned… definitely needed good lighting. He’d walk her back anyway. Maybe ask her if she wanted to get coffee. See what she thought of everything going on away from the group. Should do that with a few of the others, too. Xander for instance.
Allison appeared, long sweater draped over one arm, a cloth bag in one hand, and her purse slung over her shoulder. She walked with the sort of quick, deliberate steps that all the safety classes said to use. Someone had taken being a woman in a big city and in the less desirable part of town seriously.
Good for her.
When she looked up and saw him, she faltered. Jonas gave a raised-hand wave and waited for her to recognize him. She took another step… a third. A smile appeared at the same time her entire body relaxed and she hurried forward. “Hi! You didn’t have to come all this way.”
“Just around a couple of corners, and well…” He probably shouldn’t say it, but he did. “After Wes, I hate thinking about you walking alone.”
Her headlights flashed as Allison punched the key fob button. The bag went into the back seat, but Allison kept the purse and her sweater as she locked up again and moved to where he stood leaning against that lamppost. “That’s sweet. Thanks. I thought we were going to get out of here early. All of our four o’clock-hour patients canceled. We’ve been done for over an hour! But the office manager kept us hopping restocking things and doing stuff that tends to get pushed back and probably on her.”
“That seems weird.”
“I thought so, but no one else seemed to.” She brushed against a streetlight pole and stopped to dust the dirt from her dark jeans. “Ugh. That’s what I get for insisting on not looking like a pediatric nurse at book club. Now I look like a preschool teacher instead!”
“Or like a woman who walked down a busy street.” He shot a glance at her leg and shrugged. “I don’t see anything there.”
“Oh, good. Maybe no one else will.” This time when Allison stopped short, she did it with eyes closed and exhaling slowly. “I don’t care what people that I don’t know think of me!” She peered at him from mere slits that couldn’t have shown much.
“Good. You shouldn’t. And if anyone thought less of you because of a little dust, then does their opinion really matter?”
It was something someone had told him once when he got home from a date watching an old 90s Harrison Ford movie about a chauffeur who became one because he wanted plenty of time to read. Well, that’s what he’d gotten from the movie.
His date had heard him and decided he wasn’t the guy for her because apparently, it had been about the rich guy falling for the chauffeur’s daughter.
Jonas had agonized over whether to finish his business degree and go work in an office all day or be brave and take to the road, listening to audiobooks while driving and reading on his breaks. His friend, after pointing out that his date hadn’t been wrong about the movie, had said, “Why should you care about what people think? If they think less of you because your hands get dirty and you sometimes smell like diesel, then do you really care what they think?”
“That’s right! Just for that, I’m going to buy you dinner at that little cafe down from the bookstore—if you want,” Allison tacked on in a hurry. “I’m starving and there’s no time before club. I always assumed they closed early, but I looked them up and they’re open until ten!”
“Wes mentioned that the other day when I came in. He said that with the book clubs staying until nearly nine, the place decided to start staying open later.” Jonas started to add that he’d be happy to buy her dinner and decided instead to just make sure he got the check.
Why make it awkward?
As they turned onto Milford Street, Jonas realized he hadn’t been paying attention to their surroundings. Had anyone followed them? Was that detective around? Not that the guy did any good. They were going on five months and nothing.
“Do you think Wes’ brother could be the puppet master?”
“Are you ready to discuss more Band of Brothers?”
The questions came tumbling over each other. Before Jonas could answer hers, Allison gave her opinion on Tom Olemann. “I’ve been feeling guilty about being suspicious. I mean, the guy was stabbed, but…” She glanced around them as if suddenly aware that they could be overheard. Cars rolled up and down the street, parking sometimes, pulling out others. It wasn’t chaotic, but people were about.
Allison dropped her voice, “That whole thing about how Tom wouldn’t let Detective Grosser make a call… it sounded to me like it was deliberate.”
He’d thought so, too.
If that really happened. “The only way it isn’t weird is if Tom has anxiety issues, is a control freak, or if Grosser lied.” He slowed as they neared the store, “And I feel like this is one of those books that we can’t get more out of with a second round of discussion. People either love or hate it.”
“I didn’t love or hate it,” she whispered, the words barely reaching his ears. “I respect it. Those men’s stories need to be told, but I hate war.”
Jonas reached for the long door handles that led into the bookstore and pulled it open. As Allison passed, he murmured, “I’d be more concerned if you loved it—war that is.”
Bernice stood by the snacks table, a stack of papers in hand. As each person approached, she thrust a paper at them. “I’ve prepared some discussion questions for us. Please be prepared to talk about one or two of these.”
A few people gave her less than happy looks, but Mary Margaret Montmorency pulled a young woman forward and introduced them. “Bethany, this is our leader for the month, Bernice.” To Bernice, she said, “Thank you! That was a lovely idea. My… Elton’s girlfriend, Bethany.” She dropped her voice to a stage whisper. “She’s here to ensure no one ‘bumps me off’ for getting the book wrong.”
“You got it right, Mmm…” the woman insisted. “But you know how Elton loves you.”
Wish someone loved me like that. Mom won’t let me come visit until they catch this guy. “Just in case.”
Once everyone had his or her snacks and discussion sheet, Bernice moved to her chair. Each person glanced at the next and over at Detective Grosser in the corner. Xander spoke up first. “Okay, who got the letter?”
All heads shook, and a few people even stood up to see if they’d sat on it. No one had an envelope. Why a chill ran down Bernice’s spine and sent shivers through her body, she wasn’t quite sure. Carrie made a comment about maybe Grosser having arrested someone, but the man shook his head. “Sorry… this guy is good. We can’t even trace that email yet.”
Despite her best effort, Bernice shivered again. Visibly this time—she was sure of it. However, if she didn’t get things going, they’d have another chaotic mess of a meeting. “Well, we might be off the hook for June. Maybe this creep gave up, or he might just not have been able to get here. Let’s take the questions. Who wants to tackle the first?”
Gavin raised a hand. “I’ll do it. I looked into why it was a volunteer force.”
And despite every effort, a new battle raged. Double volunteers, a way for the Army to cover their backsides when the paratroopers died left and right, a conspiracy to lose the war. You name it, folks said it. And Arlette brought up the next question in her answer, so that went off on yet another tangent.
Bernice, done with the whole thing, took over the fifth question, gave her well-researched and considered answer, and bowed out of the rest of the conversation. In fact, had she not been nervous about what leaving early might mean, she might have left then and there. These people deserve what they get for not taking this club seriously. When I—
Strangling that thought before it could jinx her, Bernice folded her paper, put it away, and seeing the copy of A Man Called Ove in her book club bag, she pulled it out and began reading. The others seemed to take that as a sign for a break. Though she pretended to read, a glance showed a couple of ladies making a beeline for the restrooms, the men looking uncomfortable—except for Simon, that is—and Wes offering a suggestion to Xander and Corey about some book. Maybe a mystery?
This time, Bernice actually read the first line of the page. “Ove is fifty-nine.” Had they not been trained on the page, anyone would have seen the exaggerated roll of her eyes. Scintillating opening line. The next wasn’t much better. In fact, the next few read just as much like a third-grader’s book report. Oh, joy.
However, despite the non-stellar opening, Bernice did turn the first page… and the next. Only a gasp from Arlette—it had to be Arlette—drew her from the Apple store and the search for an iPad. Bernice caught herself just in time. She’d been about to look up. Instead, she turned the page—a couple of paragraphs too early—and kept reading, able to follow the story, perhaps, but curious to know if she’d missed any quirky comments.
“Arrest her!” Arlette’s screech pierced through any attempt to read and prompted the instant decision that anyone not listening would respond at that point.
Bernice jerked her head up and glanced around, looking for the “her” referenced. They’re all looking at me. She closed her book and took a good look at everyone—or started to anyway.
The moment she saw Jonas standing there with a letter, her gut clenched.
“She had to have done it. She’s the only one who stayed in the circle—her and that stupid mushroom chair!”
I like this chair. I’d buy it if I could. That thought… irrelevant as every person in the room glared at her with the solidarity of soldiers—no. No. She’d had enough of war, thank you very much.
Detective Grosser came over to her. “Did you see who put that on Jonas’ chair?” That might have been the question the guy asked, what Bernice heard was, “Why did you do this?”
She shook her head. “I didn’t. I swear I didn’t get up from my seat and I was reading.”
Piper piped up—she would with a name like that. “She was watching us, though. I saw that. She is just pretending to read.”
Maybe it was juvenile. Okay, no maybe about it, but could anyone blame her? Bernice held up the book. “Stupid opening line, juvenile sentence structure, but something about this old guy has already gotten under my skin despite that.”
Someone cleared a throat. Detective Grosser looked over where the rest of the book club still stood huddled together and zeroed in on the guest. “Um… Bethany?”
“Yes. I—” The woman gave everyone an apologetic glance. “I didn’t see who put it there, but I did see that Bernice never got up. I was watching her—trying to figure out how to draw her out, but she seemed to want to be left alone. No way did she get up.
Whew. Someone in my court. Of course, it had to be someone not even in the club…
Then three things slammed into her thoughts all at once.
First, Mary Margaret Montmorency was the only person who brought someone with her… twice? Three times now?
Second, Mary Margaret Montmorency had made a comment about having had lived her life already. Was she dying and decided to have one last lark? I mean, they wouldn’t put someone that old in prison if she were dying… would they?
Third, Mary Margaret Montmorency brought someone who watched for an opening the whole time. Maybe…
Arguments broke out among the members. If lynch mobs killed book club saboteurs, Bernice would have been hung by one of the streetlamps outside the store by now. Mary Margaret Montmorency tried to quiet everyone, and her friend tried to quiet her. Wes looked helplessly at Detective Grosser who just looked exasperated.
Disgusted, Jonas stuck two fingers in his mouth and let out an ear-piercing whistle. Even his own ears rang. Everyone looked at him. “Can we just read this thing and go? It’s getting late and I’m hungry.”
“We’ve caught the puppet master, and you’re worried—”
There, Jonas broke through. “We have no proof of anything. If Bethany says she didn’t see Bernice move, then that’s good enough for me. I’d want the same courtesy if I’d been alone over here and someone knew I hadn’t moved.”
To his relief, Allison relaxed and came over to sit down in her usual chair. “Besides, it’s across the room—would be hard for her to move without being seen.”
Without waiting for anyone to suggest it or for permission, Jonas broke the wax seal. Maybe he had to remind himself to breathe as he pulled the card out, but at least his hands didn’t shake. The card was that same simple thing. A challenge. The riddle-like puzzle.
A book on the cover.
On this cover you’ll see drawn
A girl with hat and shoes too fine,
For someone whose money is all but gone.
She carries that which fits the rule.
It’s not a purse, as you might think
But something you once used at school.
Written as the world’s economy failed
Even across the so-called pond,
Though the words within might see the heroine jailed.
The title offers words, just three.
One will address, but where or whom?
Two will use opening letters that rhyme with King James’ you (or me).
Jonas read it under his breath again… and then again. He swallowed hard, looked up at a room full of wide-eyed bibliophiles, and said, “I think I’m dead.”
That’s it… what book has a book on the cover with all that stuff up there?
Save Jonas… or don’t. (Actually, do. Now I’m thinking Bernice is acting suspicious!) Don’t forget!