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Double Booked for Death

Ali Brandon - Author

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ISBN 9781101559000 | 336 pages | 06 Dec 2011 | Berkley | 18 - AND UP
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As the new owners of Pettistone's Fine Books, Darla Pettistone is determined to prove herself a worthy successor to her late great-aunt Dee...and equally determined to outwit Hamlet, the smarter-than-thou cat she inherited along with the shop. Darla's first store event is a real coup: the hottest bestselling author of the moment is holding a signing there. But when the author meets an untimely end during the event, it's ruled an accident-until Hamlet digs up a clue that seems to indicate otherwise...



Chapter 1

Afternoon sun spilled through the mottled glass of the double front doors leading into Pettistone’s Fine Books, the golden light stippling the dark figure sprawled upon the faded Oriental rug that served as a welcome mat. Those customers who’d entered the first-floor brownstone shop within the past half hour had taken the sight of the motionless form in stride—this was Brooklyn, after all—and casually stepped over it to head in the direction of the best-seller table. Finally, however, a cardigan-swathed octogenarian halted in the doorway. His expression was one of vexation as he stared down at the body blocking his path.

“Dead, is he?” the old man exclaimed, giving the “he” in question a querulous poke with his rubber-tipped wooden cane.

“No!”

The single panicked word was both an answer and a warning. Darla Pettistone leaped from her perch behind the cash register and rushed toward the door, determined to forestall mayhem. She was too late. A sleek black paw the size of a toddler’s hand, but far more dangerously equipped, had already slashed out and caught the lacquered walking stick in five needle-sharp claws.

“Let go, you beast!”

The old man gripped his cane with both arthritic hands as he attempted to wrestle it from a solid black feline the size of a cocker spaniel. The cat answered with a growl that sounded like something from a When Good Pets Go Bad television episode. Despite the fact that he had remained prone on the floor and was using but a single paw, the cat appeared to be winning this tug-of-war with the human.

By now, Darla had reached the doorway, her shoulder-length auburn hair swirling about her like a cape. She narrowed her brown eyes and shot the feline her most ferocious look. Unfortunately, given her round face and snub nose with its sprinkling of freckles—all of which combined to make her look a decade younger than her thirty-five years—the result was nothing worse than a peeved expression. Still, Darla’s East Texas twang rang with firm authority as she commanded, “Let it go, Hamlet, or I’ll break out the pistol.”

“Pistol!” a panicked little voice echoed in unexpected response. Rising to a shriek, it continued, “Mom, the lady’s gonna shoot the kitty!”

Darla located the source of the outcry. A pigtailed blond girl perhaps ten years old and wearing black-framed eyeglasses too large for her heart-shaped face came flying around the display of Boy Wizard books. Her expression far more fierce than the one Darla had managed, she made a beeline for the spot where Hamlet was still battling the elderly customer for his cane. Before Darla could explain that her weapon was nothing more lethal than a pocket-sized water gun she’d bought for cat disciplinary purposes, the girl flung herself atop the black beast like a soldier diving to cover a live grenade.

Oh no!

Too late to prevent the massacre that would surely result from this action, Darla could only steel herself for the screams of pain and flying droplets of blood that she knew were imminent. On her first day running the store, she’d been the unwitting victim of a lightning-fast swipe from Hamlet’s claws. The attack had occurred as she’d moved his downstairs food bowl from its usual spot, in front of the local author showcase, to the corner of the science-fiction section. Hamlet had not approved of the change. It had taken half a bottle of hydrogen peroxide and most of a roll of gauze to patch up the outcome of his displeasure.

Almost half a year later, the food bowl still remained alongside the first editions, and Darla still had the faint red scars from that particular disagreement.

Spurred by the memory, Darla swooped toward the child, intending to grab her up before any permanently disfiguring damage could be done. Visions of lawsuits, rather than sugarplums, did the dancing-in-her-head routine while she wondered if her insurance would cover what probably would be a seven-figure settlement. But before she could separate kid from cat, the girl lifted her face from where it was buried in Hamlet’s silky fur and declared in a grim tone, “If you want to shoot him, you’re going to have to shoot me first.”

Darla sagged in relief at the sight of the child’s blessedly unblemished flesh, even as she reminded herself that the girl was still within Hamlet’s reach. She might be unscratched now, but for how much longer? She needed to talk the child out of range, and fast.

“No real guns, I promise,” Darla assured her and raised both hands by way of demonstration. “I was just threatening to squirt the kitty with a little water so he’d give the nice man back his cane. So why don’t you come with me, and we’ll let the kitty finish his nap?”

Before the girl could reply, Darla heard a rasping sound emanating from beneath the child’s huddled form and realized in astonishment that the harsh rumble she heard was Hamlet, purring. She saw, too, that the cat had released the cane from his massive paw and appeared content to be used as a pillow by his would-be rescuer.

How long Hamlet would allow this familiarity, however, none of them was to find out. An exasperated voice drifted from the scrapbooking section, “Callie, quit bothering the lady and get back over here.”

“Okay, Mom.”

Callie sighed but obediently rose. With a final fond look at Hamlet, and an equally stern stare for Darla, she started back to the aisle where her mother waited.

Darla summoned a weak smile. “Don’t worry, honey,” she called after the girl, “the kitty will be fine.” Then, recalling the customer whose action had initiated this afternoon’s small drama, she turned and prepared to make an apology.

His walking stick once more firmly in his gnarled hands, the old man was squinting at the series of gouges that now marred the lacquer finish. “It’s ruined,” he decreed with a baleful look that encompassed both her and Hamlet. “Don’t think that I won’t report to the authorities that you have a wild animal on the loose in your store.”

“Wild animal?” Her impulse to apologize faded, but with an ease born long practice, she kept her proverbial redhead’s fiery temper firmly in check. “Hamlet is a cat. A domesticated feline,” she pointed out, sympathetic to the man’s plight but feeling the need to come to the cat’s defense. Wasn’t he, in a manner of speaking, one of her employees? “And he has resided in this store with the blessing of my late great-aunt for the past ten years, with never a single customer complaint.”

Or so she had been told by James, the store’s long-time manager when she’d questioned the wisdom of allowing Hamlet—and his claws—to mingle with the paying customers. Surprisingly, the fastidious James had encouraged her to let sleeping cats lie and continue the bookstore cat tradition that her Great-Aunt Dee had started.

The customers enjoy it, and it gives the place a certain ambiance, he’d assured her in his precise tones. But having come to know Hamlet during the brief five months that she had owned the store, Darla wouldn’t put it past the wily feline to have disposed of any victims who might have been inclined to make a protest.

Recalling herself to the matter at hand, she went on, “And you must admit that you provoked him. Beating on a sleeping cat with a cane . . . well, let’s just say that the local humane society will probably have something to say about that.”

“Don’t forget PETA,” Callie piped up from the rear of the store, apparently deciding to choose the pistol-packing Darla’s side over that of the stick-wielding old man.

Faced with the dual threats of an outraged preteen and a radical animal welfare agency, the elderly customer prudently dropped his previous bluster. With a cautious glance at the lounging feline, he conceded, “Perhaps I was a bit out of line, but you must admit your cat did damage my property. Still, I am willing to let bygones be bygones if you and, er, Hamlet will do the same. If you could point me toward the mystery section, I’ll pick up a bit of light reading for the weekend and be on my way.”

“Certainly.”

Darla gave a professional smile as she gestured him forward, suppressing the triumphant grin she’d have preferred. “Mysteries and thrillers are two aisles down next to romance. Why don’t I show you a couple of new arrivals that received wonderful reviews this week?”

Giving Hamlet wide berth, the old man started toward the section in question. Darla followed on the man’s heels, though she spared a warning look back at the cat in case he planned a rear attack.

But the consternation he’d already caused among the humans was apparently sufficient, for Hamlet merely rose with pantherlike grace and gave a luxurious stretch. Then, noticing Darla’s glance, he flopped to one side and thrust a rear leg high over his shoulder. He gave a quick lick to the base of his tail—a gesture that Darla had come to consider the feline equivalent of flipping the bird—before rising again and slipping away like a foul-tempered shadow beneath the display of children’s pop-up books.

The remainder of the day proceeded relatively smoothly. The old man made a guilt purchase of two hardcover mysteries plus one large-print paperback. Callie’s mother made her way to the register, too. A darker blond version of her daughter—they must have gotten the twofer special on the eyeglasses, Darla thought with a smile—she bought three scrapbook magazines and the latest best-seller romance for herself. She also purchased a paperback version of the latest Boy Wizard tome for Callie, who carried it off with the same reverence with which James handled the store’s inventory of rare volumes.

Save for the Hamlet incident, the afternoon’s biggest excitement came when she’d had to chase a pair of rambunctious toddlers away from the stairs leading to the shop’s second level after they momentarily escaped their frazzled father.

“Sorry, kiddos,” she told them with a sympathetic look at the dad, who was trying with minimal success to round them up again, “upstairs is for grown-ups only.” Not that the store’s second level was chock-full of dangers, but it wasn’t childproof, and the last thing Darla wanted was for a kid to get injured up there.

She directed the boys to the children’s section, wondering not for the first time if she should install one of those kid gates at the foot of the stairs to keep her junior patrons from wandering. “How about you play in the story circle while your father shops?”

The story circle had been one of Darla’s innovations. She’d rearranged a couple of shelves to create a cozy open spot in the midst of the children’s books. A round, sunflower yellow rug defined the area, while seven kid-sized chairs—each a color of the rainbow—formed the actual circle. In its center was an oversized, electric blue beanbag chair where any adult brave enough to breech the area could find a comfortable if not particularly graceful spot to lounge.

Now, the two boys in question made a beeline for the beanbag, shrieking and flinging themselves onto it like tiny stuntmen taking a fall. Darla grinned. Great-Aunt Dee would have hated the story circle.

Not that Darla disapproved of the store’s original décor. The floor plan itself reminded her of what they called a “shotgun shack” back home, though the elegant Federal-style building in which it was housed was anything but shacklike. Still, one could walk a straight line—or fire a shotgun—from the front door through the shop’s main room (originally the brownstone’s parlor), through a broad opening that led to the backroom (previously the dining room), and all the way to the back door, which in turn led to a tiny courtyard where she often took lunch. And all without hitting a wall.

Well, one could if not for the maze of oak bookshelves filling both rooms, which practically required a map to negotiate.

For Great-Aunt Dee’s decorating style had been a cross between a nineteenth-century library and grandma’s attic. Rather than having arranged the shelving so as to make optimum use of the available space, the old woman had arranged them in clusters interspersed with the occasional tufted stool or cushioned hardback chair. She also had left most of the rooms’ original ornately carved wooden built-ins intact, letting them serve as additional shelves as well as display space for old crockery and bric-a-brac. Sections of the parlor’s original mahogany wainscoting had been used to build a narrow, U-shaped counter near the front window where the register was located. The overall effect was intimate if a bit claustrophobic.

The upstairs level allowed a bit more breathing space. It, too, was divided into two rooms. The front section, overlooking the street, was a cozy lounge furnished with a couple of overstuffed love seats and four petite wing chairs. The space served as a combination employee break area and the occasional meeting place for writers’ groups and book clubs. Appropriately, the walls were decorated with framed pages from old texts and art books, interspersed with photos of various twentieth-century authors. In one corner, behind an ornate, Asian-inspired folding screen, was a small galley kitchen, just a countertop with a sink and microwave, flanked by a mini refrigerator.

The rear room served as the shop’s storeroom and was filled with packing materials and cartons of books awaiting shelving. It was not the most convenient of arrangements, but it was the most logical. On those days when Darla expected new shipments from her distributors, she continued a tradition started by her great-aunt and always brought in fresh pastries and coffee-in-a-box to bribe the drivers. Most were willing to haul one or two hand truck’s worth of books up to the second floor in return for bear claws and fresh coffee.

Failing that, there was an old-fashioned dumbwaiter that went between floors. It was sturdy enough to accommodate a case of hardcovers, or even say, a fifth-grader, as Darla had happily discovered during one of her rare childhood visits to her great-aunt. She’d forgotten about the dumbwaiter’s existence until her store manager had demonstrated how Darla’s octogenarian relative had used it to ferry books from storeroom to shelves. While the process was tedious—Darla could mosey downstairs twice as fast as the well-oiled if primitive electric motor could lower the miniature elevator—it beat risking her and her employees’ backs shuffling inventory up and down steps.

But any restocking would wait until the next day. A few more of the store’s regulars popped in for their weekly fix of popular fiction, and a number of first-time teenage customers filtered in and out. Each day this week after school let out, she’d had a steady stream of teen girls coming into the store asking about the upcoming signing—that Sunday night, Pettistone’s was set to host an event for the hugely popular YA author Valerie Baylor, whose first two Haunted High books had been at the top of every best-seller list for the past year.

Between sales, Darla managed to pack up a couple of signed first editions for one of their mail-order customers. As for Hamlet, he disappeared to wherever it was that he went when he wasn’t busy demanding a meal or serving as a tripping hazard.

When, at seven p.m. she flipped the hand-lettered sign in the door to read “Closed”—her late night was Wednesday, with the shop closed on Mondays—her quick mental tally suggested that this particular Friday had actually been a profitable one. Barring major disaster, however, Sunday night was primed to be the mother lode of all profitable sales days, outstripping even Black Friday and Christmas Eve.

“Hey, you wanna grab some food?”

The question came from Jacqueline Martelli, Darla’s tenant-slash-friend. She had stopped in just before closing time and was sprawled on the electric blue beanbag chair in the aforementioned story circle area flipping through a Nancy Drew reprint. Jake, as she was better known to the world at large, freely admitted to being within a stone’s throw of middle age and so technically didn’t belong among the chapter books. Still, used as Darla was to being mistaken for a twenty-something, she had been surprised upon first meeting her to learn that Jake was a few months shy of her fiftieth birthday.

Good genes, just like you, kid, the older woman had explained with a shrug, her strong, olive-toned features under a short mop of curly black hair displaying only a handful of the so-called character lines one expected to find on a woman her age. She spoke with what Darla had always assumed was a clichéd New Jersey accent but had been surprised to find was genuine . . . a linguistic mash-up that was the Sopranos’ “dems” and “dose” overlaid with Archie Bunker’s “goils” and “turlets.” For her part, Jake had been equally amazed that Darla’s twangy East Texas drawl bore such little resemblance to the honeyed Deep South accent most New Yorkers assumed dripped from every mouth south of the Mason-Dixon Line.

Jake had readily spilled the most pertinent details of her background the day Darla had moved into the brownstone. An ex-NYC cop, the older woman had been forced to retire on disability following a shoot-out two years earlier that left her with a permanent limp. Even so, at almost six feet tall with a bodybuilder’s physique, she remained an imposing presence, the effect enhanced by the straight-legged blue jeans, battered Doc Martens, and bulky sweaters—never in pastel shades—that she habitually wore.

Darla’s late aunt had leased the garden-level apartment below the store to Jake at a reduced rate, pleased with the idea of having what she thought of as her own personal bodyguard. In return, Jake served as unofficial security for the building, which included the bookstore on the first and second floors, and what had been Dee Pettistone’s living quarters—and now were Darla’s—on the third.

It was an arrangement that Darla had been glad to continue. For one thing, as an unattached woman new to the city, she appreciated the built-in company. For another, Jake’s blunt manner and sly sense of humor had done much to offset Darla’s occasional bouts of homesickness for her friends and family back in Texas these past few months. Thus, despite their apparent differences, the two women had become fast friends.

Now, Darla gave an eager nod in response to the other woman’s suggestion.

“Food would be great. Since I was alone here in the store all afternoon, I didn’t have time for more than one of those dinky energy bars for lunch. I am famished with a capital ‘F.’ “

“Where the hell were Lizzie and James?” Jake asked as she rose somewhat awkwardly from the beanbag chair and limped over to where Darla stood at the cash register.

The Lizzie in question was Lizzie Cavanaugh, an earnest middle-aged woman whom Great-Aunt Dee had hired the previous year to help part-time. Divorced and an empty nester—her only son had recently left home to attend college in Boston—Lizzie had elected to return to school to finish the English literature degree program. According to Lizzie, it was the same degree she had abandoned when she met her future ex-husband, an up-and-coming real estate magnate who turned out to have a wandering eye. Lizzie’s alimony settlement now allowed her to be a full-time student, working just a few hours a week for the employee discount to feed her book habit.

“Lizzie just started classes again, so she can only work a couple of days a week anymore,” Darla explained as she slid the drawer shut and zipped the cash bag closed. “And I gave James the afternoon off, since he has to stay late Sunday night to work the Valerie Baylor autographing. You should know how he is about working events like that.”

For Professor James T. James was, to put it mildly, terminally stuffy. A retired English professor (emphasis on nineteenth-century American literature) who also was an expert in rare volumes, he had worked at Pettistone’s Fine Books for more than a decade after finally deciding he’d had enough of the academic world. Upon their first meeting, he had made certain that Darla was aware of his scholastic pedigree: an undergraduate degree from a well-known Eastern college, and multiple postgraduate degrees earned at an even more prestigious Ivy League university. He’d also taken pains to make certain that she addressed him in the proper manner, given his repetitious first and last names.

“You may call me Professor James,” he had instructed. “Or, as you are my employer, you may address me by my Christian name, James. You may not, however, ever call me by my surname sans any honorific. And trust me,” he’d added with the practiced stern mien of college professors everywhere, “I will know the difference.”

“Fair enough,” she’d coolly replied, “just so long as you promise never to call me ‘Red.’ “

Darla’s retort had brought one of the few smiles she had yet seen from him, and if they hadn’t exactly bonded at that moment, the ice between them had definitely broken. Now, while Darla gave her head a rueful shake at that memory, Jake allowed herself a grin.

“Not exactly Mr. Gala Night, is he?” she agreed. “But I have to admit that until I talked to my niece in Portland the other night, I had no idea how big a score it was, snagging Valerie Baylor. I swear, the kid about peed her pants when I told her I was handling security for the author of the Haunted High series! Apparently, she’s even hotter with the teenage girls than the woman who writes those sparkly vampire books.”

As if Darla didn’t know. “I can’t take the credit for getting her,” she said as she finished powering down the register. “The publisher and Great-Aunt Dee set things up before she died last January. And apparently, Valerie still lives out in the Hamptons on her parents’ estate, so it’s not like they have to fly her in or anything.”

Jake held up a hand. “Wait. You mean, the woman was already filthy rich before her books made her filthy richer?”

“Pretty much,” Darla confirmed with a wry smile. “Not exactly the starving-writer-in-the-garret backstory for her.”

As Jake listened with obvious interest, she went on, “I don’t think any of her official bios even mention her family. All they talk about is how some assistant agent found her manuscript in a slush pile and somehow managed to get a huge bidding war going for an author who’d only ever published a few category romances years ago. It was the whole J. K.-Rowling-scribbling-her-books-in-the-coffee-shop scenario. Then some tabloid got wind that she was from money, and the cat was out of the bag after that. But in a way, I guess she did suffer a bit for her art. Apparently, the rest of the rich folk thought being a writer—especially of genre fiction—was considered a bit . . . common for someone of her background.”

“Meh, I could suffer that way,” Jake retorted with a snort.

Darla winced a little. Though the bookstore business was making merely a modest profit so far, thanks to her inheritance from Great-Aunt Dee, Darla’s actual net worth now was rather substantial . . . a far cry from knocking on bankruptcy’s door, as she had been only a few years earlier. Of course, most of said worth was tied up in the brownstone—house poor, her father always called it—meaning she still shopped at the discount stores.

Sidestepping that subject, she went on, “Anyhow, my only role is to play fawning bookstore owner and make sure the whole thing goes off without a hitch . . . with your help, of course.”

“No hitches, I promise. So, you think she looks that good in person?”

Jake gestured at the advertising poster propped on an easel and surrounded by a veritable turret of the latest Haunted High novel artistically stacked in display. The poster was a blowup of the book’s cover, a variation on the same stylized image of a translucent teenage girl against a night sky that appeared on all the books in the series. A big “Meet Author Valerie Baylor!” with the day and time was splashed in gothic lettering across the notice, along with a photo of Valerie herself.

Both Darla and Jake surveyed the photo with varying degrees of appreciation. The author’s portrait had been carefully staged to capture the same ghostly feel as the novels. It was a starkly lit three-quarters shot that featured a pale woman in her late thirties with cameo features and a broad forehead. Her wavy black hair fell well past her shoulders and partially obscured her face, while the rest of her was wrapped in a black velvet cape. The scarlet fountain pen she held in one white hand and the slash of crimson lipstick she wore provided the only splashes of color in the photo.

Feeling mousy by comparison in her mint green oxford shirt and khaki slacks, her only makeup a hasty swipe of mascara and bit of pink lip gloss, Darla shook her head.

“Guess we’ll find out tomorrow,” she answered, though the snarky part of her hoped that there’d been at least a little airbrushing involved in creating such a perfect photo.

Gathering her jacket, keys, and purse, she added, “How about you bodyguard me down to the bank night drop? After that, we can grab a bite. What sounds good?”

Jake had picked up one of the local free papers that Darla kept stacked near the register and was flipping through it. She paused at one ad and replied, “Looks like they’ve still got that special going at that Thai place you like. Why don’t we go there, and we can talk about all the last-minute arrangements for the autograph party?”

Darla finished the closing process: window shades down, bathroom checked a final time, all lights off. Finally, she set the alarm, then rushed Jake to the door while the system did its beeping countdown. They had barely stepped out into the cool night air and started down the half dozen balustraded concrete steps leading to the sidewalk, however, when Darla frowned and halted.

“What in the heck is that?”

At first glance, it appeared that the Valerie Baylor photo had come to life right there on Crawford Avenue. Across the street from the bookstore stood a young woman, perhaps twenty years old. Her dyed black hair rippled over her shoulders, while her bloodred smear of lipstick emphasized full lips and contrasted garishly with her deliberately pale features. Little more of her was discernable, since she wore a black cape that covered her from neck to pointed black boots. Instead of the scarlet pen that the author had brandished in her photo, however, this young woman clutched a hand-painted sign in one hand.

The wording was barely visible in the dying light: “Valerie Baylor Plagiarized My Story.”


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