Murder of a Bookstore Babe
A Scumble River Mystery
When school psychologist Skye Denison discovers a body crushed by a toppled bookcase in Scumble River's new bookstore, she has to read the clues before she becomes the killer's next work-in-progress...
When Skye Denison saw an ad in the local newspaper announcing Tales and Treats' grand opening that weekend, she was thrilled. For a voracious reader like Skye, the luxury of having shelves and shelves of new, used, and rare books for sale just five minutes from home was nirvana. And the promise of specialty coffees, gourmet teas, and yummy pastries just added to her elation.
What she didn't realize was that the store had already managed to ruffle the fur of several of Scumble River's most vocal citizens. She should have known there'd be some kind of fuss about any new business that set up shop in her prickly hometown.
Like cats, the inhabitants of the small tight-knit community weren't partial to change, and they often showed their displeasure in spiteful and destructive ways. While the old-timers probably wouldn't pee in the interlopers' shoes, they might very well produce some obscure law that made their kind of footwear taboo.
Skye got her first inkling of the unrest on Friday afternoon in the high school's break room. Normally she didn't frequent the lounge because the main form of entertainment there was gossip. The confidential nature of her job as the school psychologist meant she couldn't contribute, and this seriously ticked off many of the teachers. To forestall the problem, Skye usually ate at her desk.
Today, however, was different. Today, there was cake. And not just any kind of cake. It was Skye's favorite: chocolate with vanilla butter-cream icing. What a shame that it was Pru Cormorant's birthday cake, and that Pru was the person Skye liked least of all her colleagues.
Still, Skye refused to let that deter her. When her conscience insisted it was wrong to eat cake honoring someone she detested, and who detested her, she promised the annoying little voice a pink-frosting rose to shut up. Once she had quieted that troublemaker, Skye continued on her quest for the delectable confection.
Since the lounge was crowded during the two lunch periods, and she didn't want to get in the way of the staff—who had only twenty minutes to wolf down their food—Skye waited until they had finished and were back in class before making her move. Her plan was to zip in, grab a piece of cake, and savor it back in her office while she started on all the special-education paperwork connected with the beginning of the school year.
Slipping through the doorway, Skye scanned the room, then darted forward. There it was, in the exact middle of the three metal tables that ran end to end down the center of the room. Intent on the double-layered hunk of ecstasy, half of which was already gone, she pushed aside one of the orange molded-plastic chairs that lined both sides of the tables and reached for the knife lying on the crumb-filled serving platter.
Just as her fingers closed around the handle, an ominous voice, the last in the universe she wanted to hear, said, "Having a late lunch?"
Skye whirled around. Pru Cormorant sat on the sofa, her arms along the back and a derisive look on her face. How could Skye have missed seeing her there? She didn't exactly blend into the surroundings. Pru's stick-like limbs stuck out at awkward angles from her egg-shaped body, and her too-small head appeared in danger of tumbling off her neck if she made any sudden moves.
"It's not late for me." Reluctantly putting down the knife, Skye felt a guilty flush creeping up her neck. "I often see kids during the regular lunch hours." Not that she had today, but Pru didn't need to know that.
The English teacher trailed a finger along the top of the couch, which was covered in a prickly plaid fabric that Skye suspected could withstand a direct nuclear hit. "We don't see you in here very often."
"No." Skye pasted a fake smile on her face. "I guess not."
"Then you must have stopped by especially to wish me a happy birthday. How sweet of you." Pru gave a malicious little laugh. "I'm sure it wasn't just for the cake." She lasered a look at the two-carat diamond on Skye's left hand. "Particularly since you're almost certainly on a diet for your wedding."
Skye's engagement to Wally Boyd, the Scumble River police chief, had been the talk of the town since June, when she had accepted his proposal and begun wearing his ring. That her ex-boyfriend, Simon Reid, was doing everything in his power to change her mind about marrying the chief wasn't helping to quell the chatter.
Simon's plea last week had been delivered in the middle of the school parking lot by a white knight on horseback, which had really stirred up the rumor mill. Skye had always liked her ex's quirky sense of humor, but she was starting to rethink that opinion. Especially since he had promised that next time he would send a fire-breathing-dragon-gram.
"I couldn't let such a big day go by without wishing you the best," Skye managed to say with false sincerity before putting her hands on her hips and staring at Pru. "But why would I be on a diet?"
Skye was well aware that ever since she'd decided she wasn't willing to eat fewer than eight hundred calories a day in order to stay a size six, a lot of people thought she was too fat. But she didn't allow veiled insults to go unchallenged. If someone had something to say about her weight, let them come right out and say it.
"It's just that most brides-to-be want to look extra good for their wedding pictures," Pru said, then ruined it by adding, "And you have such a pretty face."
"For someone who needs to lose a few pounds?" Skye wasn't about to let the older woman off the hook that easily.
"Of course not." Pru's tone was completely insincere as she added, "I'm sorry if you took what I said the wrong way. I certainly never meant to offend you."
"Hmm." Skye held her tongue. "Anyway, since we haven't even set a date yet, I'm not worried about the photos."
In fact, unbeknownst to anyone beyond Skye's immediate family, the wedding was on indefinite hold. Knowing how much it meant to Skye to be married in the Catholic Church, Wally had agreed to apply for an annulment from his first wife, from whom he'd been divorced for several years. Father Burns said it might take twelve to fourteen months before the official paperwork was completed, which left them waiting on a process they had little control over.
Pru raised an overplucked brow, but before she could probe further, Skye said, "Anyway, happy birthday."
Pru nodded regally. "Thank you."
Skye felt like a bunny caught nibbling a gardener's prizewinning petunias, and she hadn't even had a bite of the darn cake. In her heart, she knew she should go ahead, cut a slice, and eat it, but she just couldn't. Not with Pru staring at her. It was one thing to stand up for herself when someone made a nasty remark, quite another to chow down in front of that same someone, who obviously disapproved of her.
While Skye tried to think of a graceful way to escape, her gaze flitted from the avocado-colored refrigerator set against the back wall to the big black trash can next to the counter, then on to the sink full of used coffee mugs. Finally, she said, "Well, I should probably get back to work."
"Don't hurry away on my account." Pru smiled meanly.
"Of course not." Skye resigned herself to forfeiting her treat and searched for a good departure line. She glanced at the old library cart holding a huge brown microwave oven, circa 1980. "But I do have reports to write, so I'll just heat up some water for a cup of tea and be on my way."
The microwave's stained exterior was gross, but using the appliance had several advantages. She could turn her back on Pru, thus avoiding further conversation, and when the timer dinged, it would clearly indicate that it was time to depart.
But Pru ruined Skye's scheme by saying, "Since it's my planning period, and you can always write reports at home, I'd like to talk to you about something."
"Oh." Skye cringed inwardly. Pru had an ongoing vendetta against the student newspaper that Skye and her friend Trixie Frayne cosponsored. Many of the kids who had been on the English teacher's debate team had switched to the Scoop's staff because Skye and Trixie treated them fairly. The front page got the top story, not the one written by the teenager who kissed up to them the most. Pru, on the other hand, was known for letting her pets have all the best debate topics, and the students had finally rebelled.
"What's up?" Skye asked.
"I'm concerned about that new bookstore in town." Pru ran her fingers through her greasy dun-colored hair, pulling out strands from the bun on top of her head. "I hear it will be selling romance and science fiction."
Skye bit her tongue to stop from blurting out "And your point is…?" Pru was the leader of the school's old guard. No need to antagonize her further. Instead Skye said, "Romance outsells all the other genres, and a lot of the most popular YA novels are sci-fi. If those books are readily available, it might encourage kids to read more."
"Those bodice rippers are nothing but pornography."
Pru's watery blue eyes scrunched into slits, and her pointy nose twitched, making her look like a near-sighted possum.
"That isn't true. They're full of love and hope and happy endings."
"Nonsense. They're obscene." Pru's lips drew together. "And I have it on good authority that those young adult books you're referring to are anti-Christian. They encourage the occult and demonic activity."
Skye clamped her mouth shut, chanting silently, Don't, don't, don't. It would be so easy to make a smart-alecky comeback, but she finally managed to swallow her retort and said, "I'm sure that's not true either."
"I'm surprised that you, a psychologist"—Pru's face had her tsk-tsk look on it—"aren't aware of the danger posed by those kinds of books."
" 'Danger?' " The word slipped out. Skye did not like where this conversation was going, and she shouldn't have allowed herself to be sucked in.
Pru's tongue snaked out as if she was about to sample a tasty morsel. "I heard that over in Clay Center some boy bit his mother in the neck and tried to suck her blood out after reading some of those vampire books."
"Really?" If that had actually happened, Skye was sure she would have heard about it. After all, she was the police department's psychological consultant, and her mother was a police dispatcher. "Who told you that?"
Pru puffed out her cheeks. "I don't remember." Her irritation with Skye for daring to question her was obvious. "What does it matter?"
"Rumors can be so harmful," Skye said evenly. "I just like to make sure my source is reliable before I believe what I hear."
"Well"—Pru sent a quelling look in Skye's direction—"I also heard that a girl in Brooklyn sacrificed her baby after reading some book that glorified witchcraft."
"Now, that's totally unbelievable." Skye shook her head. "Surely that would have made the paper, not to mention the TV news."
Pru leaned forward and whispered, "I hear it was hushed up."
"I'm sure I couldn't say." Pru got up from the sofa. "Everyone knows I never gossip."
Skye nearly choked on a suppressed "Ha!" but managed to keep her expression neutral.
"Anyway, I've started a petition," Pru went on, "and I expect you to sign it." She paused. "Unless, of course, you don't care about our kids."
Skye refused to be cornered. "This weekend, I'll talk to the owners and find out what kinds of books they'll be selling and to what age groups. I'll let you know Monday after school what I find out."
"Now"—Pru glanced pointedly at Skye—"unlike you, I have to get back to my classroom. The bell is about to ring, and the little darlings might burn down the building if they're left unattended."
Skye stared at the door after Pru Cormorant's departure, then turned and cut an extra-big slice of birthday cake. After what she'd just been through, she deserved it. Besides, if Pru planned to stir up trouble for the new bookstore, Skye would need all her strength to make sure the school's queen bee didn't sic her swarm of drones on the defenseless owners before they even had a chance to open for business.
Skye watched as her cousin Hugo Leofanti, owner of Better Than New Autos, stood in his showroom extolling the virtues of a 1999 Ford Escort to Xenia Craughwell. Xenia and her mother had moved to town a little more than two years ago, after the teenager had been kicked out of several suburban schools. Much to Skye's relief, despite a rocky start, which included kidnapping a cheerleader and involving the school newspaper in a lawsuit, Xenia had managed to graduate from Scumble River High last fall.
Although Xenia had written for the Scoop, and Skye supervised the student paper, they had not been close. Xenia had rebuffed Skye's attempts to build a relationship and had used her incredibly high IQ to keep all the adults in the school at arm's length. Even Trixie, the paper's beloved coadviser, hadn't been able to break through the girl's defenses.
Which was why Skye had been so surprised when Xenia showed up in her office that afternoon and asked for assistance in buying a car. Skye had hesitated, wondering what Xenia was up to, but the knowledge that Xenia's father was dead and her mom acted more like a girlfriend than a parent had compelled Skye to accompany the teen. Now that she was here, Skye wasn't exactly sure what her role was supposed to be. Xenia wasn't one to take advice or need help in making a decision.
Skye had been able to convince Hugo to show them around personally, rather than handing them over to a member of his sales staff, but already she was regretting that impulse. She had forgotten how ruthless and underhanded her cousin could be, and she was afraid he'd take advantage of Xenia's youth and inexperience.
Flashing deep dimples, Hugo said to Xenia as he led her and Skye out of the building, "Let's get you into a car."
The early-September sun beat down on the windshields of vehicles parked along Basin Street, Scumble River's main drag. Other than the empty road, there wasn't much else to see. Ye Olde Junque Emporium was the only other business open within a two-or three-block radius.
Hugo directed them to a space a few doors down containing a small rusty hatchback with yellow block letters spelling out ez terms on a side window. Skye frowned but kept silent. She'd decided to intervene only if Xenia requested her opinion, and that was about as likely as the government truly reducing taxes or really fixing the health care system.
Xenia walked around the Ford. "How many miles does this… this thing have on it?"
"This luxury automobile only has a hundred and ten thousand," Hugo answered smoothly, then added, "You mentioned that you're attending film school in Chicago and need transportation for the commute. This baby has a spacious interior and gets incredible mileage. And I can let you have her for only four thousand dollars. Let me tell you about the previous owner."
Skye studied Hugo as he talked. Her cousin had been fortunate when he took a dip in the gene pool. He had gotten a long, lean body from his mother's side of the family and a thick black mane and the Leofanti eyes from his father's. If it had been the other way around, he would have ended up short, with thinning dishwater blond hair. His dad, Skye's uncle Dante, looked a lot liked a penguin; Hugo would have probably resembled a bowling pin.
Skye had the Leofanti emerald eyes, too, but that was where the similarity ended. While Skye's shone with genuineness, Hugo's glittered with insincerity. Although he oozed charm, he was good at masking his true thoughts. This was an advantage in his chosen profession, but it did not make him trustworthy.
Xenia broke in on Hugo's sales spiel. "Seriously, dude, fuel economy may be important, but I'm carpooling with another girl from town, so it's not totally the deciding factor. There's also acceleration and quality of the ride." She angled her pierced brow contemptuously. "By the way, FYI, four thousand is double what this piece of crap is worth, and even at a quarter of the price it would probably come back and bite me."
Hugo's expression subtly changed, and Skye felt her lips twitch. Clearly, he had looked at Xenia, outfitted in her usual Goth-punk sex-kitten attire, and thought she was an airhead on whom he could pull a fast one. He was wising up quickly.
Skye could understand her cousin's misconception. Today Xenia had on a short ruffled skirt, leggings that ended midcalf, and a pair of Doc Martens. She had layered several ripped T-shirts, all of which exposed the gold ring in her navel. A multitude of bangle bracelets worn on top of fishnet gloves on both arms completed her fashion statement. White skin and the fuchsia stripe in her hair at the temple were the only contrasts to the unrelieved black of her clothing.
"What else do you have?" Xenia shaded her eyes and looked down the line of vehicles parked on either side of the dealership. "You gotta turn it up a notch from this." She thumped the Escort's trunk. "I want something sick."
Hugo glanced questioningly at Skye, who mouthed the word cool.
Hugo recovered quickly. "I know just the car for you. A Volkswagen Beetle. It's hip and gets great mileage." He guided Xenia and Skye by their elbows. "I was saving this for Dr. Zello's daughter—she's turning sixteen next month—but since you're a friend of my cousin, I'll let you have first crack at it."
"Awesome." Xenia rolled her eyes at Skye but allowed herself to be propelled across the road to a line of vehicles parked along the curb.
"What do you think?" Hugo stopped beside a tiny yellow car that looked like an upside-down coffee cup. The lettering on its windshield read, super deal. "She even has a cute little flower holder near the driver's seat."
"Dude, do I look like a flower kinda girl to you?" Xenia shook her head but inspected every inch of the finish, then repeated the process with the interior. Finally she asked, "What year is it?"
"Two thousand three." Hugo's smile displayed impossibly straight white teeth against his deeply tanned skin. "And she only has seventy-three thousand miles on her."
As he pointed out the car's features, Skye noticed they were in front of the new bookstore. The display window was still covered on the inside with brown paper, but the words Tales and Treats were painted in gold across the glass. Rumor had it that the owners had purchased the entire building and were living above the shop.
As Skye examined the second floor for signs of occupancy, the front door slammed open, and a petite woman dressed in faded jeans and a T-shirt with Never Judge a Book By Its Movie – J. W. Eagan printed on the front came running out. "Mr. Leofanti, a word please."
"Mrs. Erwin, as you can see, I'm busy right now." Hugo hid his scowl and said, "Perhaps we can talk when I have more time. Why don't you send your husband over later?"
"It's Ms. Vaughn or Risé, as I've told you before." In an aside to Skye and Xenia she explained, "I kept my maiden name when I got married, which seems to confuse Mr. Leofanti to no end." Turning her attention back to Hugo, she said, "And for the tenth time, you need to deal with me, not Orlando, on this matter."
"Well, Miz Vaughn." Hugo grabbed Xenia's elbow and tried to steer her away from the woman. "I'll speak to you later."
"Back off! You're bruising my aura." Xenia shook off Hugo's hand, crossed her arms, and refused to budge. "I'm not in a hurry. Go ahead and talk to Ms. Vaughn."
Xenia's expression suggested that Hugo was rapidly losing any credibility he'd had with her. If Skye had liked her cousin, she would have told him that the teen was a feminist and his condescending attitude toward the bookstore woman would not improve his chances of selling Xenia a car.
"No. Ms. Vaughn can wait." Hugo made another attempt to move Xenia away. "I know just what you want."
"Oh, yeah?" Xenia snorted. "Yet, despite the look on my face, you're still talking."
Hugo's ears turned red, and he snapped, "Young lady, you have an attitude problem."
"No, I don't." Xenia smiled, clearly pleased she'd provoked him into losing his cool. "You have a perception problem." She patted the laptop case that hung from her shoulder. "Now that we have that settled, I need to check the Internet about this car." She turned to Risé. "You got Wi-Fi?"
"Yes." The bookstore owner nodded to the door behind her. "Help yourself."
"Phenomenal." Xenia fluttered her fingers at Hugo, and said, "Later."
Skye was torn. Should she go with Xenia or stay here? Since Skye was technology challenged and would be of no help with the computer, she remained where she was.
"Yes?" Hugo heaved a put-upon sigh and turned back to Risé. "What now?"
"Our grand opening is tomorrow, and you still haven't moved your automobiles." Risé gestured to the half dozen vehicles parked in front of her store, all with various messages in yellow lettering on their windows. "I asked you a week ago to put them somewhere else."
When Hugo had bought Scumble River's old hardware store a couple of years ago and turned it into a used-car dealership, the buildings surrounding it had been vacant, which meant he'd been able to use all the parking spaces on the block to stow his inventory. The bookstore was the first business to move in since then.
"And I told you when you asked me the first time, these spots are public property." Hugo's smile was smug. "You don't own them."
"True." Risé reached into the pocket of her blue jeans and pulled out a folded piece of paper. "But I've been doing a little research."
"Good for you." Hugo leaned back on the hood of a blue Dodge Charger with one owner written across its windshield.
Skye's attention was riveted to the drama playing out in front of her.
Risé grabbed center stage by shoving the paper into Hugo's hand and saying, "According to the town statutes, no vehicle may remain parked in the same space for more than twelve consecutive hours."
"So?" Hugo's shoulders stayed relaxed under his gray pin-striped suit jacket. "Who's to say my cars haven't been moved around?"
Skye watched Risé's hands tighten into fists. Should she call the police now or wait for the woman to punch out Hugo's lights? One thing was for sure—this wasn't her fight, and she wasn't getting involved. Taking a step backward, Skye put a white Mercury Sable whose sign read low mileage between her and the possible combatants.
Risé noted Skye's movement and shook her head, causing her long brown ponytail to sway back and forth. "I'm not going to hit him," she said. "Except in his wallet."
"What do you mean by that?" Hugo sputtered.
Risé held up a finger. "The first parking offense is a fifty-dollar fine—per car." She held up another finger. "The second offense is a hundred dollars." A final finger joined the other two. "And the third is impoundment."
"Again, so?" Hugo sneered. "There's no way to prove how long my cars have been parked in the same space."
"Isn't there?" Risé smiled thinly. "Do you really want to take that risk?"
"There's no risk involved." Hugo shoved his hands in his pockets. "Do you know who my father is?"
"Santa Claus?" Risé shrugged. "The Easter Bunny?" Her lip curled. "What? There will be a lump of coal in my stocking or I'm not getting any chocolate eggs in my basket?"
"You're so funny." Hugo narrowed his cool green eyes. "My father's the mayor of Scumble River." He jerked his thumb at Skye. "And my cousin, here, is engaged to the chief of police."
Skye cringed and hurriedly said, "Not that I'd try to influence him in any legal matters." She'd been hoping she and the bookstore owner could be friends. Besides, she really didn't want to be aligned with Hugo.
"Of course not, cuz." Hugo glanced at his watch. "Anything else? I've got to move some metal." He made an impatient face. "Some of us need to make a living from our business."
"What do you mean by that?" Risé demanded.
"Let's just say"—Hugo smirked—"you're not the only one who's done a little investigating."
A faint line dug between the bookstore owner's brows but was instantly smoothed away. "Scum-sucking bastard," she declared, then turned on her heel and marched into her shop.
"What was that all about?" Skye demanded.
But before Hugo could respond, Xenia stepped out of the building and said, "Ready to deal, dude?"
While Hugo and Xenia worked out the details of her purchase of the Volkswagen, Skye sat in Hugo's office and thought about the encounter she had witnessed between her cousin and Risé Vaughn. So far Tales and Treats was two for two. Skye had had only two encounters concerning the shop, and both times the people concerned had a problem with the new business.
All in all, it was not looking like an auspicious beginning for the bookstore.
To keep up-to-date, input your email address, and we will contact you on publication
Please alert me via email when: