In this mystery in the New York Times bestselling series, librarian Charlie Harris and his cat Diesel have to battle a killer when a set of Civil War diaries inspires murder...
Lucinda Beckwith Long, the mayor of Athena, Mississippi, has donated a set of Civil War-era diaries to the archives of Athena College. She would like librarian Charlie Harris to preserve and substantiate them as a part of the Long family legacy—something that could benefit her son, Beck, as he prepares to campaign for the state senate.
Beck’s biggest rival would like to get a look at the diaries in an attempt to expose the Long family’s past sins. Meanwhile, a history professor is also determined to get her hands on the books in a last-ditch bid for tenure. But their interest suddenly turns deadly, leaving Charlie with a catalog of questions to answer. Together with his Maine Coon cat Diesel, Charlie must discover why the diaries were worth killing for before he too reaches his final chapter.
INCLUDES A BONUS SHORT STORY
Release date: January 27, 2015
Print pages: 304
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Arsenic and Old Books
I checked my watch, then glanced at the clock on my computer. They both told me that it was seven minutes after one p.m. I resisted the urge to get up and pace around the archive office. Instead I turned my chair and looked at the large feline dozing on the wide windowsill behind my desk.
Diesel, apparently sensing my gaze, yawned and stretched. He meowed and rolled onto his side, head twisted so that he was staring at me almost upside down. He warbled a couple of times, as if to ask, Why are you so restless, Charlie?
“The mayor said she’d be here at one, and she’s late. You know how that bugs me,” I told the cat. “I’m curious to find out about these family documents she wants to talk to me about. The Longs have already given so many collections of papers to the archive, I have to wonder what they’ve been holding on to.”
The cat calmly began washing his right front paw.
“You may not be curious, but I am,” I told him. “It’s not every day that I get consulted by such an august person as Lucinda Beckwith Long.”
I heard a cough, and it didn’t come from Diesel.
“I beg your pardon. Are you Mr. Harris?”
I swiveled my chair to face the office door, and I could feel the blush starting. The mayor stood in the doorway, her expression puzzled.
I rose from my desk and walked around to greet Mrs. Long. “Yes, I’m Charlie Harris, Your Honor. Please come in. I was . . . Well, I was chatting with my cat. It’s a habit I have, you see.”
Mrs. Long nodded as she extended her hand. “I quite understand. My husband and I have three poodles, and we talk to them all the time.”
“Won’t you be seated?” I indicated the chair in front of my desk. Mrs. Long, clutching a tote and a black leather handbag, moved forward. She set the latter on the floor beside her when she took her seat. Clad in a chic crimson suit with a white silk blouse and colorful scarf knotted loosely around her neck, she looked cool and crisp and ready to get down to business.
I had seen the mayor on several public occasions, but never this close. She was shorter than I expected, probably no more than five-three, when she wasn’t standing on the spike heels I had seen her wear. Though I knew her to be in her mid-sixties, she exuded an air of youthful energy, as if she could barely contain herself. Even now I could hear her toe tapping on the hardwood floor of my office. I figured a mayor’s life must be hectic, even that of the mayor of a small city like Athena, Mississippi.
Mrs. Long appeared to be assessing me as I waited for her to speak. Diesel hopped down from his perch and padded around my desk to approach the mayor. He sniffed at her bags and then attempted to stick his head in the opening of the tote. Mrs. Long touched his head lightly to discourage him. “No, no, kitty, what’s in there is too old for you to play with.”
The cat stared up at her and warbled as if to say, Are you sure?
Mrs. Long smiled. “He seems to understand what I said, like our dogs do.”
“He’s a smart cat,” I said. “He’s also extremely curious.” As I spoke Diesel batted a paw at the tote bag. “No, Diesel, stop that.”
The cat threw a baleful glance my way. He stood, made a circle around Mrs. Long’s chair, and then came back to his perch on the windowsill behind my desk.
“Apparently he understands a firm no when he hears one.” Mrs. Long laughed. “Our dogs aren’t always so compliant.”
“He isn’t, either,” I had to admit. “Depends on his mood.” I waited a moment for the mayor to speak again. When she didn’t, I decided it was time to steer the conversation toward the reason for her visit. “I believe you wanted to consult me about some family documents.”
Mrs. Long picked up the tote and settled it in her lap. She delved inside and pulled out a large manila envelope. She leaned forward and placed it on my desk. A faint mustiness, overlaid with a whiff of mothballs, wafted out of the open end.
“Inside that you will find a volume of a diary written by Rachel Afton Long. I forget at the moment how many times a great-grandmother she is, but she was born around 1820 and died in the mid-1890s, if I am remembering correctly.”
I stared at the envelope before me, my excitement growing over the thought of handling such an old document. “How many volumes of her diaries survive?” I pulled open a side drawer of my desk and extracted a pair of cotton gloves. If I was going to be handling a book that was more than a hundred years old, I had to be careful with it.
“Four,” Mrs. Long replied. “I have glanced at them but I find the writing hard to read. From what I could glean, however, I believe she started the diaries a few years before she married my husband’s ancestor. The last diary is dated around 1875.” She shrugged. “I’m not entirely certain. The handwriting is small and cramped, and I got a headache trying to decipher just one page of it.”
“I’ll have a look at it,” I said. I held up my hands to show that I was wearing gloves before I extracted the volume, sliding it carefully out of the envelope. I let it lie on the desk as I put the envelope aside and examined the diary’s outward appearance. The cover binding of brown leather was cracked in spots and rubbed thin in others, and the spine was in similar condition. My nose twitched at the strong musty odor. I hoped the diaries hadn’t suffered water damage.
“Where have they been stored?” I asked.
“My son, Beck, discovered them recently in a trunk in the attic while hunting for something else entirely. I’d never seen them before, and I don’t believe my husband was aware of their existence, either.”
Andrew Beckwith Long, known as Beck to most, was an aspiring politician. His father, also an Andrew, had served four terms in the state senate. Recently, however, he had announced he planned to retire when his current term expired. Everyone assumed that Beck would easily win his father’s seat but there appeared to be strong opposition, in the form of Jasper Singletary, a young firebrand who served on the city council. Singletary was openly ambitious, and he had been publicly less than complimentary about the Longs and their political legacy.
“Are you and Mr. Long planning to add these to the collection of Long papers and memorabilia that we already have?”
“Yes,” Mrs. Long said. “They need to be better preserved than they have been. We have no idea how long they’ve been up in that attic, and there could be damage. None of us looked through them much because we were afraid to cause further problems. That’s why I wanted to bring them to you.” She paused. “I’m sure you’re aware of the terrible times that Athena faced during the Civil War and the brief occupation by Union troops. If Rachel Long recorded any of that, her information might be useful to historians.”
I nodded. My knowledge of Athena during the Civil War was sketchy, but in elementary school we had heard tales of the depredations of the Union Army in the winter of 1863. Our teacher, Mrs. Bondurant, had seemed so old to us at the time, we figured she was speaking from personal experience. I discovered later, when I was older and possessed a better sense of a person’s age, that Mrs. Bondurant was only thirty-eight and her grandmother, a Confederate widow, was the source of her stories.
“I’m sure there will be graduate students in the history department eager to examine them,” I said. “The Southern-history students are always looking for local primary sources for their theses and dissertations.”
“Excellent,” Mrs. Long said. “My husband and son will be delighted to hear it. They’re both avid readers of history, particularly of Southern history.”
“Do you have a few minutes, while I make a quick examination of the volumes?” I asked. “I can give you a rough idea whether we will need to do any conservation work with them.”
Mrs. Long consulted her watch. “I have about ten minutes before I need to be back in my office.”
“Good.” I opened the cover of the volume on my desk with a gentle touch. The inch-thick binding was loose enough that the cover lay open on the desk without strain. I wrinkled my nose at the smell again, but I knew I would soon become accustomed to it. The more the volumes were allowed to air out, the more the odor would dissipate.
The first page of the diary had only a few words in a small, but elegant, hand. I recognized the slightly tilted lettering as copperplate, a style of handwriting popular in the nineteenth century. The words proclaimed this as the diary of Rachel Adeline Afton, aged sixteen, with the date July 4, 1854. The paper was yellowed but still in good condition. I suspected that it was the more expensive rag paper rather than the cheaper wood pulp. The latter would have turned brown and brittle years ago and begun to disintegrate.
I turned pages carefully and skimmed the contents as I went. There were no blemishes I could see, no water stains, mold, or mildew. Overall, the diary appeared to be in remarkably good condition, other than the state of the binding and the worn cover. “If the other volumes are in similar condition,” I said, “then everything should be fine. Conservation work will be minimal, though we will store them in archival folders. The paper is acid-free and won’t affect the contents.”
“That sounds fine.” Mrs. Long smiled briefly. “We are placing no restrictions on these diaries, Mr. Harris. We want scholars to be able to use the contents for their work.” She stood and passed the tote with the other volumes to me.
I took the bag and pulled out the three remaining manila envelopes, each with a diary inside. “That’s excellent news. As soon as I’ve had the time to check each one more thoroughly, I’ll let the history department know about them.”
“They are already aware of the gift,” Mrs. Long said. “One of my husband’s good friends—and mine as well—is Professor Howell Newkirk. He was dining with us last night, and I happened to mention it to him.”
“I see.” That was unexpected news. I was acquainted with Dr. Newkirk. He was elderly, irascible, and pushy. He was also the most eminent historian on the Athena faculty, and he knew it. He demanded, and was usually given, what he wanted. I was surprised he wasn’t already in my office asking to see the diaries.
Mrs. Long smiled. “I know Howell can be, well, rather insistent on things, but I suggested that he give you a few days with the diaries before he even thought about assigning a student to work on them. There might be others interested in them as well.”
“Thank you,” I said. “Then I will make sure they are ready sooner rather than later. I will add these to the list attached to your original deed of gift for the rest of the collection, if that’s okay with you.”
“Yes, that’s fine,” Mrs. Long said. She hesitated a moment before she continued. Her eyes focused like lasers on me. “You might be aware that my son, Beck, plans to run for office in the near future. And that he is facing a challenge. Rachel Afton Long was an extraordinary woman, and the more the voters know about the history of the Long family and its achievements and triumphs, the more they will want to see a member of the family in office.”
With that, she nodded, gathered up her purse, and departed.
I stared at the pile of diaries on my desk. Why would the mayor think that Rachel Long’s writings could affect the outcome of a twenty-first-century political race?
I continued to puzzle over the mayor’s odd remarks while I worked on the four volumes of Rachel Long’s diaries. Perhaps Rachel had performed some heroic act during the Civil War that the mayor thought should be better known. Even if that were the case, I wondered how it would help Beck Long politically. I eventually decided that the mind of a politician worked differently from mine and put aside the question for later.
All four volumes were in very good condition, their mustiness aside. The most obvious problem for each was its binding. On all of them the leather had dried and cracked, and for the moment the best thing I could do was construct an archival box for each. I set the boxes on a nearby shelf. Until I finished with them, they would remain in the office with me. Then I would place them in the room next door where the bulk of the archive’s documents resided.
I now had less than a quarter hour left before it was time to head home. Diesel abandoned his perch and prowled around the office, a sure sign that he knew the time. He was as ready to go home as I was. The intense concentration of my task had left me with neck strain and a headache, and I quickly discovered I had no aspirin or ibuprofen in the office.
I needed to do one more job before we could leave, however. I wanted to add the diaries to the inventory of the Long family collection and update the record in the library’s online catalog. Later on I would catalog the diaries separately, but for now a note on the master record would suffice.
That task completed, I shut down my computer. Diesel waited by the office door. A few minutes later we headed down the sidewalk toward home. By the time we reached the house we both had wilted from the September heat and humidity. I was ready for a cold drink, and Diesel made a beeline for the utility room the moment I opened the front door.
In the kitchen I shed my jacket and briefcase and went to the fridge for the water pitcher. Two glasses later I felt cooler and no longer parched. Diesel came chirping out of the utility room to sit at my feet. He stared up at me and meowed loudly. I knew that meow. Either his bowls needed refilling, or the cat box needed cleaning. He wouldn’t stop talking to me until I took care of the problem.
Once I had accomplished these duties to the cat’s satisfaction, I poured myself another glass of water and sat at the kitchen table to relax for a few minutes.
The house felt empty. My daughter, Laura, now a married woman, had moved out after her June wedding and into the house owned by her husband, Frank Salisbury. Their wedding was a beautiful occasion, full of laughter and occasional tears. Throughout the ceremony I could feel my late wife, Jackie, by my side. Both Laura and Frank taught in the theater department at Athena College, and their teaching schedules kept them fully occupied. I saw them occasionally on campus, and they came for dinner once a week. Frank was a good man, and I was happy for my daughter. I missed her presence in the house terribly, though, and I knew Diesel did as well. I think Laura was his second favorite human after me.
The ring of the kitchen phone broke the silence. I wasn’t eager to answer it because family and friends usually called my cell phone. I thought about letting it go to voice mail, but in case it was important, I decided to answer.
I identified myself to the caller.
“Mr. Harris, my name is Kelly Grimes, and I’m at Athena College working on a project on the Long family. I’m looking at the library’s online catalog right now, and I see that the archive has evidently acquired several volumes of a diary by Rachel Afton Long.” She paused for a breath. “I believe they could be crucial to my research, and I was wondering if I could look at them this evening.”
“The archive is closed for the day, Ms. Grimes.” I had learned early on to stick to the stated hours. Otherwise, students would want access to the archives outside scheduled times. “The diaries were only added to the collection this afternoon, and they aren’t ready for public use. I need time to examine them more thoroughly to be sure they are in good enough condition to allow any such use.”
“That’s really inconvenient. How long do you think it will be before I can look at them?”
I could tell by her tone that Ms. Grimes was not happy with my response to her request. I considered the matter carefully for a moment before I responded.
“The archive is generally open three days a week: Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday. I won’t be there to work on them again until day after tomorrow. I’ll need at least two days with them before I can make a final decision.”
“So you’re saying I have to wait a week, until next Monday, in fact, before I’ll know if I can even look at them?” She didn’t wait for an answer. “That really sucks. I’m on a tight deadline, and this is really screwing things up.”
Her petulant tone did not advance her cause. She hadn’t even known the diaries existed before today, and I couldn’t understand why she was so adamant about them. I was generally sympathetic to students’ needs, and I understood the pressure of academic deadlines. This woman’s manner annoyed me, however, and that made me less tractable as a result. Still, I wanted to be reasonable.
“My first responsibility is to the documents,” I said, trying to keep my tone even. “I have to make sure they are properly maintained, or they won’t be of use to anyone. Still, I understand that you are obviously eager to see them. Why don’t you call me at the archive office on Thursday, say midmorning, and I’ll see if I can show them to you then.”
“I guess that will have to do. Thank you, Mr. Harris. Till Thursday, then.”
The phone clicked in my ear as her peevish words echoed in my head. “So much for graciousness.”
Diesel warbled and tapped my thigh with a large paw. I scratched his head. He could always tell when I was annoyed by something—or someone.
“Nothing to worry about, boy,” I told him. He watched me for a moment before he started grooming his right front paw, evidently satisfied that I was okay.
I rooted around in the freezer to select a casserole for dinner. My housekeeper, Azalea Berry, kept the freezer stocked for the occasions when I—or another member of the household—didn’t feel up to the challenge of preparing dinner. I would be on my own tonight. My son, Sean, planned to dine with his law partner and girlfriend, Alexandra Pendergrast, and I doubted I would see him until breakfast tomorrow, if then. He spent more and more nights lately at Alexandra’s house, and I expected that I would soon hear news of their engagement.
I was happy for Sean, because Alexandra was a wonderful woman, and I knew she adored my son. I had become used to having my children in the house with me, however, and I would miss the daily contact. I still had my two boarders, at least. Justin Wardlaw was a junior at Athena College now and doing exceptionally well. I was as proud of him as if he were my own son, and I wasn’t looking forward to the day he graduated. He, too, would be out of the house, and I would miss him.
My other boarder, Stewart Delacorte, showed no signs of leaving anytime soon. He had become a part of the family. Not exactly a son—perhaps like the younger brother I never had. His new relationship with the taciturn Deputy Bates appeared to be a happy one, though I didn’t often see them together. Stewart had said nothing so far about their sharing a home, and I suspected that was because Bates was reluctant to be open about his sexuality. That was none of my business, of course, but I hoped the two of them would be happy with each other, even if they didn’t live in the same house.
Thinking of all these relationships reminded me I hadn’t spoken to Helen Louise Brady, my significant other. That term felt awkward, but so did the word girlfriend. I was over fifty, and the thought of having a girlfriend at my age seemed a bit juvenile. Still, I loved Helen Louise with all my heart, and she loved me. We hadn’t talked of marriage yet, but it was on the horizon. Sean and Laura both adored her, and somehow I knew my late wife, Jackie, would approve. She, Helen Louise, and I had grown up together here in Athena, and we had all been good friends from childhood.
I realized I was standing and staring blankly into the freezer, cold air flowing out around my head. I focused on the stacked casserole dishes on one side. I knew the oldest would be on top—Azalea had her system—so I simply pulled that one out and set it on the counter to defrost a bit.
Diesel reared on his hind legs and batted a paw at the casserole dish. When I told him not to do it, he glared at me for a moment before he stalked away, tail in the air. I didn’t know whether he could detect the presence of chicken in the frozen dish, but he was always interested in what I ate. I really never should have started letting him have tidbits of human food, but it was too late to stop now.
The ringing of the doorbell startled me. I checked my watch. Who would be calling at five thirty? I wasn’t expecting anyone.
I peered out the peephole, and when I saw who stood waiting I briefly contemplated ignoring the doorbell, which was ringing again. Manners prevailed, however, and I opened the door.
“Good evening, Marie,” I said. “This is an unexpected pleasure.” Like finding a rattlesnake on the doorstep, that is.
Marie Steverton was a professor in the history department at the college, and her specialty was women’s history. She used her feminist beliefs as a bludgeon, and she had won few adherents with her rude tactics. I believed firmly in equality for women, but I thought Marie did more harm than good on campus.
Marie rolled her eyes as she stepped past me—uninvited—into the front hall. Typical behavior for her, and not unexpected. I shut the door behind her.
“What can I do for you, Marie?” I asked.
“For starters, you can keep that hairy behemoth away from me.” Marie waved at Diesel, who had backed away the moment he recognized her. He didn’t like Marie—but then, few creatures, two- or four-legged, ever did, I suspected.
“Diesel won’t bother you, as I have told you before.” I crossed my arms over my chest and repeated my question as I regarded her.
Marie stared up at me. “I want access to the Rachel Long diaries. Exclusive access, and I won’t take no for an answer.”
Marie’s request was so outrageous I laughed before I could stop myself. I knew she hated being laughed at, but I couldn’t help it.
Her face reddened. “How dare you cackle at me like that. I will report you to the president of the college for your completely unprofessional and disgusting behavior.”
“Go ahead and do that. I won’t stop you.” I glared at her. “Your request is ridiculous. I can’t grant anyone exclusive access to materials in the college archives. You should know better than that.”
“You could if you really wanted to.” Marie scowled. “You’re just like all the rest of the good ole boys at the college. You can’t stand the thought of a woman achieving anything significant. With those diaries I could firmly establish my reputation.”
In a way I felt sorry for her, because I knew she was desperate to get tenure. Time was running out for her because she had been an assistant professor at Athena for six years, after similar appointments at three other colleges. A significant monograph would bolster her application, but she was her own worst enemy. From what I had heard she had the same combative attitude with her students, and her evaluations evidenced it. She had no understanding of the words tact and diplomacy. Her peer in the English department was the exact opposite, one of the most highly regarded women on campus and one of the most popular teachers. She had to turn away students every semester; otherwise her classes would be too large for the college’s guidelines on student-teacher ratios. Marie never had that problem. Her courses, other than the obligatory surveys, usually had the bare minimum.
“No, I could not, even if I wanted to. Only the Long family could grant access like that. You’ll have to talk to Mayor Long, but I doubt she would allow it.”
“We’ll see about that.” Marie sounded triumphant. “Mayor Long will do what I want, and I’ll have the pleasure of making you eat crow.” She pushed past me, jerked open the door, and left it open as she scurried down the sidewalk as fast as her stubby legs could carry her.
I closed the door and resisted the urge to utter a number of uncomplimentary—albeit well-deserved—words about my departed guest.
Diesel warbled and then commenced muttering. I had to grin. He had no such reservations about cursing Marie as only a cat could do.
“I agree with everything you’re saying,” I told the cat as the muttering ceased. “She is the rudest, most high-handed person I’ve had the misfortune to meet.”
I headed back to the kitchen to put the casserole in the oven to heat up. Diesel preceded me, no doubt hopeful that tidbits of chicken would be forthcoming.
“Not for a while yet, boy,” I told him as I adjusted the oven temperature. Diesel turned and walked out of the kitchen, muttering as he went.
I followed and climbed the stairs to my second-floor bedroom. Time to change out of work clothes into lounging-around duds—sweatpants, T-shirt, and bare feet. While I changed I recalled Marie Steverton’s odd remark about the mayor as she stomped her way down the sidewalk.
How could she be so certain Mayor Long would grant her request so quickly? What kind of influence could a non-tenured junior professor wield? The idea sounded nuts to me. Based on my own conversation with Mrs. Long earlier today, I doubted she and her family would want access to the diaries restricted to one person. That would be counterproductive, I thought. My take on the situation was that the Longs wanted everyone to know about the diaries for their own obscure reasons.
I padded back down the stairs. Diesel stayed on my bed. He hadn’t had a nap in nearly forty minutes, so he was overdue. I knew he would be downstairs right after I pulled the casserole out of the oven.
I couldn’t get Marie’s threat—weak as it seemed—out of my mind. What kind of connection could she have to the mayor? She had moved to Athena only six years ago. If there was any kind of dirt, though, I knew the person to ask—my old friend and coworker, Melba.
Melba Gilley and I, along with my late wife, Jackie, grew up in Athena together, and since my return home several years ago, Melba and I had reestablished our friendship. She was executive assistant to the college library director, and I saw her at least three days a week since we worked in the same building. Melba knew practically everyone in town, and if there was anything to connect Mrs. Long and Marie Steverton, she would know—or find out as quickly as possible.
I hit speed dial on my cell phone to call Melba at home. She answered after three rings.
She listened patiently as I explained the events of the afternoon and the encounter with Marie. “What kind of connection could there be between them?”
Melba laughed. “That’s easy, Charlie. They were at Sweet Briar together forty years ago. Marie may think she and Lucinda are good buddies because they went to college together, but Lucinda sure don’t tolerate fools—and Marie’s as big a fool as I’ve ever met. She always thinks she’s more important than anybody else in the room. That just goes to show how stupid she really is.”
Trust Melba to cut Marie down to size. I laughed. “Sounds like you know Lucinda Long pretty well.”
“I sure do,” Melba said. “I worked on her very first campaign as mayor, and I’ve supported her ever since. She’s done more for this town than all the good ole boys who were in office before her.”
I had to take Melba’s word for that last statement, since I hadn’t been here during the previous mayors’ tenures. I knew better than to argue with her, anyway.
“She’s not going to be paying any attention to that idiot,” Melba said. “So don’t even worry about it.”
“Thanks,” I said. “I hope the mayor
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