Chantel Reads All Day set up her 2022 Reading Challenge, and when she did, it sparked an idea for a year-long, interactive short story. So, welcome to Book Club Capers inspired by this reading challenge.
Twelve book club members embark on a year of riddles or puzzles, desperate to get it right. Read on to find out why AND to help them choose the right book. How the story goes depends on someone getting the riddle right, so pay attention. I really don’t want to kill off characters if I don’t have to…
Cast of Characters
Bill Olemann- Rich dead uncle
Wes Olemann- Bookstore owner
Tom Olemann- Wes’ brother
Sadie McGee- Music store owner
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
Book Club Capers (an interactive short story told in riddles)
Jonas parked two blocks from the store and counted himself fortunate to find a parking lot large enough to house his rig for a few hours without having to walk a mile or to call an Uber. Wind chill dropped the temperatures down close to twenty, but two blocks wouldn’t freeze anyone. A glance in the side mirror showed him looking decent enough. “Here goes nothing.” And with that, he opened the door and swung down to the lot.
Pedestrians still bustled from businesses to cars and back again even at almost seven o’clock on a winter’s night. That never ceased to amaze a guy from a small Midwest town. Back in Brownsfield, everything began winding down after six o’clock except near the restaurants. That thought made him glance around, but nope. No restaurants and still plenty of cars—even on the outskirts of Rockland.
Wind blasted him as Jonas turned the corner at Milford Street and trudged down to his destination. The old storefronts had been refurbished in the past ten years—new paint, planters around waste bins, benches under some of the store windows. During summer, stores had carts or barrels selling things like T-shirts, prints, or in the case of his destination, books.
The deep green paneled front façade screamed English village high street. Half the block had inset panels while the other half were brick buildings with wonderful designs around the windows. Olemann’s and the Harmony Music Store next door had been painted the same rich green. The music store even had the old gilt lettering on the big window, but Olemann’s had a hand-painted jobby hanging from two fine chains attached above.
A display of self-help books took up most of one window, and the other showed a mixture of classics and newly-released popular fiction. The familiar white cover showing a pair of black lips closing over a red apple made him shiver. Not that one. Please… don’t make us have to read that one.
Squaring his shoulders, Jonas pulled open the door and stepped into the wonderful world of ink, paper, and dreams. Wes Olemann glanced up and smiled at him. “It’s… Jonas, isn’t it?”
“Good to see you. Go right on in. I’ve put refreshments on the table. Help yourself.”
Wes Olemann had one of those voices that could tell people to murder puppies and they’d probably do it. Probably somewhere in his forties, the guy wasn’t scrawny or nerdy, nor was he balding and obese. He had a slight paunch—just enough to hold a teacup nicely, if he were the kind of man to drink tea. That thought made Jonas wonder if he did—drink tea, that is. Not tall, he wasn’t short enough to be interesting either. Hopelessly average in nearly every way but one.
The man knew his books. You could ask for a copy of Robinson Crusoe, and he could describe a dozen editions until he hit on one that made your heart sing. “It’s not a gift,” he’d argued when Jonas declared it so. “It’s a passion, certainly. I love to see all sorts of editions, and so I spend a lot of time researching what is available. That’s all.”
Two women stood to one side of a ring of chairs as Jonas entered the cozy book club nook that Wes kept hopping each day. Nightly meetings, some morning and afternoon ones, too. Readers were assigned based on interest and available times. Jonas could only do Thursday nights, especially since it was twice a month. According to Wes, the man got three applications for every spot available.
The women looked up as he approached. One giving him a wary look, the other offering a hesitant smile. Mrs. Wary had to be in her forties, married, and the mother of at least a small brood. She had that no-nonsense, don’t-mess-with-me look about her that probably included suspicious opinions of men in work boots, jeans, and flannel shirts. Her spiky brown hair was just chic enough to make him doubt his opinion. She thrust out a hand. “Hi. You here for book club?”
“Yes.” He took her hand, gave it a firm but gentle shake, and added, “Jonas—Jonas West.”
“Arlette Hoskins.” She pointed to the younger woman and said, “Just met Allison here.” Her forehead furrowed. “Was it Petty?”
“Yes.” Blonde hair swept over one shoulder as she leaned forward to offer her hand. “Nice to meet you, Jonas.”
He glanced at the ring of chairs and his forehead furrowed as he saw that one chair had an envelope on it. The name on the envelope… Allison Petty.
Wes appeared, fussing like his grandmother when the family came and didn’t sample her snacks. “Coffee anyone? Just help yourself. There’s hot water for tea, or you can grab a cold bottle of water from the mini-fridge.”
Three more people wandered in about the time that Allison took it upon herself to start pouring coffees. Jonas offered to help but was sent to mingle. “Maybe see if you can find out what’s up with that envelope?” she whispered. “I’m curious. Wes looked at it as if he didn’t know what was inside!”
“Arlette bring it?”
Allison shrugged. “Don’t know. You ask. She’s… intimidating.”
“Tell me about it.”
The low murmur of voices slowly grew into louder, more animated chatter as person after person filed in. At last, Wes called everyone to order and made his announcement. “I don’t do anything but facilitate a group that I think will enjoy each other’s company, so I’ll just be next door. Let me know what book I need to order for you and how many copies.” He gave the room a friendly smile. “I don’t expect anyone to order a book they already own, but I do ask that you try to make your book club purchases through me. Happy reading.”
And with that, he was gone.
Folks shuffled feet as they took chairs. They weren’t hardback old chairs or metal creaky ones. Wes had created a cozy but eclectic hodge-podge of old wingbacks, armchairs, tufted things—even a midcentury modern job that was just saggy enough to be original. Jonas took that one. Allison took the chintz thing next to it—the one with an envelope bearing her name.
She picked up the envelope and waved it. “So nice of whoever brought this…”
Every person there stared at every other person. No one claimed it. Arlette spoke up first. “It’s probably from Wes—instructions or something. Maybe he’s nominated you for host of the month so that we don’t waste too much time trying to get started.”
That made sense, and Jonas saw Allison sag a little, obviously relieved. “Of course. Let me just see…” With her coffee cup tucked to the right of the ridiculous chair, she broke an old-fashioned seal on the envelope and flipped up the flap. Allison pulled a folded paper from it and began reading.
Each second that passed brought another shift and then another to her demeanor. She sat a little straighter, her eyes bored into the paper, her hands held it just that much tighter. When her lips couldn’t become any thinner, she swallowed hard and passed him the letter without a word. Her hands trembled as she reached for the cup of coffee and wrapped them around it.
Jonas began reading, his throat tightening with each word. Arlette broke in. “Well, what is it? Is she this month’s leader?”
“Um…” He shot a look at Allison. “Mind if I read it aloud?”
“Please do.” The two syllables came wrenched from her and still barely rose above a whisper.
“Um… all right…” Jonas took a deep breath and began. “‘Dear Allison Petty and the Thursday night book clubbers. I have issued you all a challenge, and by being here tonight, you have accepted it. There is no going back.’”
“Melodramatic, much?” This from a boy who looked about twelve, but who probably ran his own tech startup or something.
“I wish,” Jonas said. Why he already believed the words his eyes had scanned and found as unnerving as Allison had, he didn’t know. But he did. “Um… ‘You will be given one clue each month. One clue and a riddle or puzzle. Choose the right book from the clue and the puzzle, and all will be well. Choose the wrong one, and the consequences will be severe. How severe? Get them all right, and you will all survive the book club this year. Get one or more wrong, and one or more of you won’t be here in December. Cease to come, and you will cease. Period. Happy reading.’”
It had to be Wes, but why? What kind of sick game–? Jonas jumped up and stormed from the room. He found Wes bagging an order of three books.
“Something wrong, Jonas?”
“I’ll wait.” No reason to terrify the kid waiting for his mother to sign a credit card slip.
The moment the customers turned away, Jonas shoved the letter into Wes’ line of vision. “What kind of sick game are you playing? I thought this was a legitimate book club.”
The way Wes’ face went gray as his eyes scanned the paper told him that perhaps the guy wasn’t responsible. “Where did you get this?”
“It was addressed to Allison Petty—resting on a chair for her.”
Without a word, Wes picked up the shop phone and punched a button on it. A bored voice came through, just loud enough for Jonas to hear. “Rockland Police—Milford Station. How may I direct your call?”
“This is Wes Olemann at Olemann Books. We’ve received a threatening letter and need direction—”
The bored voice came through loud enough to hear still. “Most pranks—”
“This letter threatens to kill one of my customers. I don’t consider it a prank. Please send someone immediately.”
As if telling the police what to do were an everyday occurrence, Wes disconnected the call, grabbed keys, and went to lock the front doors. “I’ll be right in.”
Jonas took the letter back to the book club room.
The moment Jonas left the room, panic erupted. The kid, Xander something or another, mocked the idea of someone actually killing people for not finding the right answer to a riddle. Barbara the postal lady—or was she the homeschool mom? Anyway, it was Barbara, Allison felt certain of that. Barbara agreed that it sounded ridiculous, but Carrie… no, Carrie was the homeschooler. The T-shirt said it all. “Robotics & Read-Alouds.” Who else would wear that particular combo?
A man in a suit, tie, and shoes that probably cost more than her overpriced monthly rent rose from his seat. “I don’t have time for theatrics. I’m leaving.”
A collective gasp followed. Arlette demanded he, “Sit your backside down and wait to see what Jonas finds out.”
Simon, it turned out his name was, did what she said. Simon sat.
Things had settled to speculation when Jonas and Wes appeared. Chaos erupted again, and maybe she was ridiculous, but… Oh, who was she kidding? She was totally ridiculous. Still, Allison felt a bit steadier when Jonas returned to his chair and sat down, propped his ankle on his opposite knee, and relaxed. It was all for show. She could see that. But still, it meant something. He was trying at least.
Carrie plopped down, too, followed by Barbara, the kid, and a couple of others. Arlette, already engaged in making demands, did not settle in for a nice chat. You’ve lost your ever-lovin’ mind. Allison winced. She’d been on a Southern women’s fiction kick lately. It showed. Genre shift—maybe a nice murder… no. No murder mysteries for a while. Sci-fi. Maybe a space opera or something. Maybe go classic… Never did read Lewis’ space trilogy… yeah… that.
“May I see the envelope, Allison?”
Allison looked up to see Wes Olemann smiling down at her. Well, smiling might be a bit of a stretch, but it seemed to be an attempt at a smile, anyway. “Um, sure…” She passed it over.
The man examined the envelope carefully and then pulled out an index card from inside. “May I read it?”
Though she nodded, Allison rose to read over his shoulder. She’d forgotten that part—the clue and the riddle. Printed on the card in a simple font was one word followed by a short paragraph.
Everyone stared at them as Wes read it aloud—quietly, but aloud, nonetheless. Someone said it. “That makes no sense.”
Wes read it again under his breath and again louder, firmer. He made pauses here and there, trying out different emphases. “Line by line…”
A knock on the front door stopped the low murmurs of people trying to figure out the riddle… or was it a puzzle? Allison didn’t even know. Wes handed her the card and disappeared. Jonas asked if he could take a picture, which set the entire group off. One by one, they passed it around, and only when a uniformed officer stepped into the room did Allison realize what they’d done.
Jonas heard her whimper and shot a look her way. “Fingerprints,” she said. “I forgot about fingerprints.”
A collective gasp followed. The policeman pulled gloves on. “Is that the letter?”
Without bothering to hide her wince, Allison passed over the card. “This came with it.” She pointed to Jonas. “He has the letter.”
Simon spoke up. “Will you tell them that no one is going to die if I go home?”
“I can’t say that’s true or false, sir.” The officer kept reading but added, “It won’t hurt you to stay put. You were planning to be here anyway, I presume?”
Without waiting for an answer, the officer punched a button on his phone and strode from the room. Two minutes later, he returned with another officer and began questioning people. Allison sat back down and closed her eyes. This is not happening. Someone says to “get out of the house now and then” and this happens. Never again. Recluses of the world unite! By ourselves. In our homes. Never speaking.
Carrie moved to sit next to her. “I wonder… look at this.” She pointed to the first line of the riddle on her phone. “It says line by line, right? What if it’s telling us that there’s something on each line of the riddle? So like it’s first of five and twenty six… so two ones? Eleven? The first word of the title is ‘Eleven’?”
“Why five and twenty-six?” Allison had already thought of the ones. They didn’t make sense. Maybe just one? But that didn’t make sense, either. Why five and twenty-six? Those numbers had to mean something.
“Twenty-six made me think of the alphabet, but I don’t get the five.” Jonas pointed. “I mean, the first of twenty-six, if it were the alphabet, would be A. But A isn’t the first of five.”
Others had inched closer. Simon pointed out that A could be an article—the definite one. And one is still the first number of five. Others protested. Arguments became heated as some insisted that A didn’t make sense and others insisting it had to. “We just need to figure out why,” Xander insisted. “This is cool.”
You would think so. Crazy kids.
The officers asked generic questions. Did they know any of the other members? How had they heard about the book club? Had they seen anyone else lurking in the room. Yes, the officer actually used the word lurking. Allison gave herself bonus points for not laughing. Only one question gave her pause.
“Is there anyone who might want to hurt you?”
The pause came half a second too late. She’d started to shake her head when she remembered the father who had threatened to make everyone in the office pay for not catching his daughter’s leukemia sooner—soon enough. “Um…”
“Anything could be helpful. Who was it?”
Was she even allowed to tell the police? Technically, Mr. Janson wasn’t a patient, but he was the legal guardian…
“Well, we have a patient’s father who has threatened us. You’ll have to ask Dr. Vandercook for specific information. I don’t know how far HIPPA extends in this case, and we had a violation with a new hire recently, so we’re all a little skittish about it. Sorry.”
“Best guess. Is this related?”
She shook her head. “I don’t think so. How would he know I was going to do a book club? I didn’t tell anyone.”
The officer promised they’d be checking into it anyway and went onto the next person.
When the detective entered, no one seemed to know. One moment they were all discussing how A could be the first of five when a throat cleared behind them. Allison looked up to see a man in shirt, tie, and slacks. Glasses gave him an air of distinction, but his entire bearing screamed “Authority.”
“Um… and you are?”
“Detective Andrew Grosser. And if twenty-six is alphabetic, why not the five?”
“But five what?” Allison shook her head. “I don’t get it.”
“Vowels. The first of five vowels would also be A. So the first word of the book title is A.”
The group seemed to have forgotten that scary word “detective.” Arguments erupted over whether five for vowels made sense. Xander said it was a cheap shot. Carrie pointed out that the writer wasn’t necessarily a clever person. “Just a creepy one.”
Another hour passed until they had decided to assume the first line told how to solve it and the second line was the word “A.” The detective took the card, envelope, and letter as well as store camera recordings and told them all to solve the riddle.
“I don’t think anyone is going to try to kill anyone. However, there’s no reason not to play along in case we’re wrong. Meet on the twentieth as planned and be prepared to choose a book. By then, we should have found this joker.” The man’s tone shifted. “And if it turns out to be one of you, know that this will be prosecuted. This is no joke. It’s a waste of police time. Goodnight.”
A subdued book club scrambled to gather coats and leave. Allison held back, hoping Wes Olemann would be willing to walk her back to the clinic parking lot, but Jonas caught her first. “You parked close?”
“A block over. I—”
“I’m two blocks. I’ll walk with you.”
If Jonas were responsible for the letter, going with him could be the biggest mistake of her life. Then again, the envelope had been there before he’d arrived. Allison shot him a grateful smile. “Thanks.”
The interactive short story continues on January 20…
But first, work the riddle and post your guess for the name of the book the letter writer wants them to read. If someone gets it right, everyone lives. If not… sigh. I don’t want to think about it. I like these guys already.
All the installments are listed below: