Cranky Chamber of Commerce receptionist Betsy Dittmeyer is done reading people the riot act. After she's crushed by a fallen bookcase, the next item to be read is her last will and testament—which is packed with surprises. It soon comes to light that Betsy was hiding volumes of dark secrets behind that perpetual frown of hers—and one of them just might have been a motive for murder.
While Tricia tries to help Angelica—the newly elected Chamber of Commerce president and Betsy's boss—solve the mystery, she discovers a hidden chapter in her own family history that rocks her to her very core. Now, as Tricia and Angelica try to read between the lines, they need to watch their step . . . and make sure the killer doesn't catch them between the stacks.
Release date: July 1, 2014
Print pages: 320
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For once the winter weather seemed to be cooperating, meaning that unless any unforeseen complications arose, Tricia Miles, owner of the mystery bookstore Haven’t Got a Clue, would get a lot accomplished on that particular Saturday in February. No ice, no snow, and though the sun had not yet made an appearance in Booktown, otherwise known as Stoneham, New Hampshire, the skies were due to clear before lunchtime—hopefully bringing plenty of book-buying customers with it.
Meanwhile, Tricia and her sister, Angelica, who owned not only the Cookery bookstore, but a charming retro café, Booked for Lunch, and had a half share in a local bed-and-breakfast called the Sheer Comfort Inn, had a date to look over a private book collection. These kinds of sales were few and far between, and their window to make a bid on the collection was narrow—between ten and eleven o’clock.
Tricia glanced at her watch. It was 9:55 and Angelica wasn’t yet ready to leave.
“Ange, will you hurry,” she called, but Angelica was deep in conversation with her new receptionist. In actuality, Betsy Dittmeyerwasn’t Angelica’s personal secretary, but she was employed by the local Chamber of Commerce. Angelica had won the election for the presidency back in November and had officially taken office some five weeks before. Things hadn’t gone so well during that time. The former Chamber president, and Angelica’s former lover, had made the transition as difficult as possible. So had the Chamber’s receptionist.
“I don’t know how much longer I can tolerate this impossible situation,” Betsy cried, and sighed dramatically.
“I’m sorry,” Angelica apologized as she struggled into the sleeves of her leather jacket, “but you, more than anyone else, should understand the Chamber’s predicament. When Bob Kelly terminated our lease on the former Chamber building, we had to scramble. I’m giving up a large portion of my storeroom until other arrangements can be made.”
“It’s embarrassing and inconvenient to have to share restroom facilities with the general public,” Betsy huffed, setting her wastebasket filled with candy and other junk-food wrappers, as well as a load of dirty tissues, on the floor, and her key ring on the counter. She must have been on her way to tote the trash out back when she stopped to berate Angelica. Prim and proper, Betsy lived her life by Robert’s Rules of Order. At fifty-something, she was barrel shaped with brown hair streaked with gray. She took no guff from anyone, and she didn’t encourage frivolity of any sort. Tricia doubted the woman had ever smiled, let alone laughed. She watched as, with exaggerated care, Betsy yanked the sleeves of her maroon sweater over her wrists, then pulled it down over her rather large derriere.
Tricia glanced at her watch once more. Thanks to Betsy, they’d hardly have time to look at the books before they would have to make a decision on whether or not to buy them. Betsy had a penchant for being annoying. And according to Angelica, the woman spent an inordinate amount of time tying up the Cookery’s facilities, usually timing her bathroom breaks for when the store was full of paying customers in need of a restroom visit.
“I’ve got feelers out on several properties that might be available for rent, but Mr. Kelly hasn’t been helpful about setting up the appointments,” Angelica explained. And it was irritating that the property owners insisted that Angelica go through Bob. How long could they afford not to rent to the Chamber, and was Bob subsidizing them in the interim out of spite? He couldn’t do it forever, but meanwhile Angelica’s patience was near the snapping point, which was evident by the tightness in her voice.
And it wasn’t surprising that Angelica had a hard time holding on to her temper. Betsy constantly complained, despite the fact they’d been over the same ground at least a hundred times since Angelica had won the election, beating Bob by a handful of votes to become Chamber president on the first of the year. Meanwhile, the Chamber’s former digs up the street had remained empty and unrented. Spoilsport Bob had declined to even contemplate negotiating a new lease.
Luckily the door opened, interrupting what was sure to be another tense conversation. Unfortunately it was Frannie Mae Armstrong who entered the Cookery. Frannie had been the Chamber’s previous receptionist. Bob had fired her, but not only had Angelica hired her to manage the Cookery, she’d given her a fat raise and health-care benefits, too. Betsy resented that fact and made no bones about it.
“Good morning, all,” Frannie called cheerfully. “Isn’t it a lovely day?”
It was not. The sky was steel gray, but she knew the sound of her Texas twang set Betsy’s teeth on edge. She zeroed in on the Chamber’s only employee. “And how are you today, Betsy, dear?”
“Just fine,” Betsy grated. “I have work to do. I’d best get to it,” she said, pivoted, and flounced toward the back of the store to empty her wastebasket.
Angelica waited until Betsy was out of earshot before she spoke. “Really, Frannie, must you tease her so?”
Frannie feigned innocence as she shrugged out of her leather bomber jacket and set it on the sales counter. “Why I’m always as sweet to her as my mama’s homemade peach pie. I can’t help it if Betsy is such a disagreeable person.”
Angelica frowned. “No, I suppose you can’t.”
The door opened again and two women dressed for the arctic entered the store. Customers were so rare these days that both Angelica and Frannie practically leapt to attention. “Welcome to the Cookery,” Angelica said rather enthusiastically.
“Please don’t hesitate to ask if you need assistance,” Frannie called out.
The women nodded and stepped farther into the store to browse.
Angelica picked up the conversation where she’d left off. “I’ve got a hard decision in front of me. The Chamber can have a full-time receptionist who does little else but take potty breaks and complains, or we can have a part-time employee and rent office space. At this moment I’m leaning heavily toward that second alternative. All we need is a tiny storefront and there isn’t one available right now.”
“What about renting a bungalow at the Brookview Inn?” Tricia suggested.
Angelica shook her head. “The cost would be prohibitive.”
The bell over the door jingled again and Tricia looked up to see Charlie, the sixty-something mailman, come through the door. He was bundled in his regulation coat and hat, with a big leather pouch slung over his shoulder. “Mail call!” he said cheerfully. He handed the bills and junk mail to Angelica.
“Thanks.” She set them on the counter and turned her attention back to Tricia and Frannie.
“If Bob is keeping you from his clients, maybe you should just forget about him. Why not place an ad in the Stoneham Weekly News?”
Angelica sighed. “Yes, I suppose I could. I’ll call Russ today. Better yet, maybe I should just go over there.”
They heard a bang from the floor above and instinctively looked up. Had Betsy just slammed a file drawer shut?
Tricia looked at Frannie—the eyes and ears of Stoneham. “I’m surprised you don’t know of any places to rent in the area.”
Frannie crossed her arms over her bright green aloha shirt decorated with parrots, and frowned. “Believe me, I’d like to get rid of Betsy just as much as anyone else around here, but most of the available rentals I know about are in Milford—and I know you want the Chamber to stay here in the village,” she said, focusing on Angelica. “It’s just too bad Bob Kelly owns just about all the rental property in town.”
They heard another bang and instinctively looked up at the painted tin ceiling. Betsy really was riled.
“That has got to change,” Angelica said, ignoring the sounds above and frowning. “I wonder if I should go to the town hall and look up all the property in town—see who owns it, and ask if I can rent something, even just a room for a few months, until we can figure out where the Chamber’s new home will be.”
They heard a tremendous crash that seemed to shake the whole building.
“What on earth is Betsy up to?” Tricia asked. “Dumping bookshelves?”
Angelica sighed and shook her head just as the door opened, allowing four or five people to crowd into the store, which suddenly made it feel that much smaller. Where had they come from? And more important, were they going to visit Haven’t Got a Clue before they left the village?
“I should go hang up my coat,” Frannie said, excused herself, and threaded her way through the customers.
“Ange, we really need to leave. We’re already late to look at that book collection,” Tricia said.
“I’m sorry. With everything that’s going on around here, I almost forgot.” She pulled on her gloves and grabbed her purse from the sales counter.
Tricia shivered and crossed her arms over her coat. “Did you forget to turn the heat up this morning?”
“It’s on an automatic timer. It comes on half an hour before the store opens.”
Frannie approached. “That darn Betsy. She left the back door wide open when she took out the trash.”
“That’s not the first time she’s done that,” Angelica groused. “Looks like I’m going to have to have another little talk with her.”
“It’s okay. I shut and locked it, and reset the alarm,” Frannie said, taking her accustomed station behind the cash desk.
They heard more banging, but it didn’t seem to be directly overhead.
Angelica looked up at the ceiling. “What in the world is going on up there?”
“I don’t think it’s coming from the storeroom,” Tricia said.
“You don’t think Betsy was angry enough to go up and trash my apartment, do you?” Angelica asked.
“From what you’ve said, anything is possible when it comes to Betsy.”
“I’d better go up and see,” Angelica said, already heading for the back of the store and the door marked PRIVATE.
“Ange, we’re already late,” Tricia called.
“It’ll only take a minute,” Angelica called over her shoulder.
Tricia knew if she wasn’t around to speed things along that Angelica might get distracted once again, and hurried to follow.
The two of them rushed up the stairs. It had suddenly gotten very quiet. Was Betsy over her snit and goofing off with her feet up on the desk and a romance novel open on her lap? Betsy was the only person Tricia had ever met who could look industrious while doing absolutely nothing.
“Something’s not right,” Angelica said as they rounded the landing and saw that the door to the storeroom was ajar. From the floor above, they heard muffled barking from Angelica’s bichon frise, Sarge. Tricia felt Angelica’s index finger poke her shoulder. “Go on in,” she urged.
Tricia’s stomach knotted, but despite her misgivings she also knew if she wanted to assess those books for sale she’d have to move things along. She charged ahead and entered the storeroom-turned-office and cringed at the sight of the mess. How on earth had Betsy created so much chaos in so little time? Chairs were overturned, files were dumped on the floor, the computer tower had been knocked over, and the monitor screen had been smashed, with cracks radiating in a kind of starburst pattern. In the back of the storeroom was an overturned bookcase that had been filled with Angelica’s excess stock of vintage cookbooks.
And underneath it lay Betsy Dittmeyer . . . squashed flat.
Without conscious thought, Tricia whipped out her cell phone and punched in an all-too-familiar number—911—to report the accident.
When she ended the call, she looked straight at her sister. “You stay here, and I’ll go down and wait for the police.”
“Me?” Angelica practically squealed. “I don’t want to stay with her—she’s . . . she’s dead. And dead people creep me out. You stay here. You’re used to finding and dealing with dead people.”
“I am not,” Tricia protested, but by the time the words had left her mouth, Angelica had hightailed it out of the storeroom and down the stairs to her shop.
Tricia glanced back down at Betsy. She hadn’t been attractive in life, and death hadn’t made any improvements. Her eyes bulged, and her mouth was open, her chin bloodied, exactly what Tricia would have expected from someone who’d been crushed. It seemed incredible that Tricia had spoken to the woman only minutes before and now she was so thoroughly dead. She looked away, taking in the storeroom. How on God’s earth did Betsy make all that mess before she toppled the bookcase on herself?
The sound of a siren broke the quiet. Tricia turned away and took several deep breaths to quell her queasy stomach. Soon the sound of footsteps on the stairs caused her to look up, and her ex-lover, Chief Grant Baker of the Stoneham Police Department, appeared before her with Angelica right behind him. “The ambulance is on its way,” he said, nearly breathless.
“You can cancel it. Betsy’s dead,” Tricia said.
“How do you know?” he asked, hustling past her to get to the body.
“Dead people cease to bleed.”
The chief looked down at Betsy’s lifeless form, then up, his gaze darting around the room. “What happened here?”
“Betsy and I had a tiny tiff before she came up here to work,” Angelica sheepishly admitted. “We heard a lot of noise and figured she was throwing a tantrum up here. Then there was a terrible crash, and it got really quiet. Tricia and I ran up the stairs and . . . this is how we found her.”
Baker nodded grimly, and then began to pick his way through the room, presumably looking for clues.
Tricia shivered in a draft. “It sure is nippy up here. Is the heat up here on a timer, too?”
“It was toasty warm the last time I was in here—which was last night,” Angelica said.
“This doesn’t feel normal,” Tricia said, frowning, while Baker continued his circuit around the storeroom.
Angelica darted into the open stairwell and looked up. “Good grief! My apartment door is wide open. I never leave it unlocked. Oh, my! Sarge!” she cried, and bolted up the flight of stairs.
“Wait! Grant!” Tricia hollered, but instead of waiting for him, she ran up the stairs after Angelica.
Bursting through the doorway to the back of the apartment, Tricia saw no trace of Angelica and pounded down the hall toward the kitchen, where she found her sister cradling her tiny bichon frise.
“Mommy’s little boy,” Angelica crooned as she kissed the top of the fluffy dog’s head while he furiously tried to lick her in return.
“I take it he’s okay,” Tricia said with relief. Sarge had once been kicked like a football, causing internal injuries. She didn’t wait for an answer. “Why is it so cold in here?” She looked around the kitchen. None of the windows were open. She wandered from the kitchen to the living room and into the bedroom. Sure enough, the window that overlooked the alley was wide open. She went to shut it and saw that the fire escape ladder had been extended. If she touched the window, she might obliterate fingerprint evidence.
Chief Baker barreled into the room. “Don’t touch that!”
Tricia whirled. “I wasn’t going to.”
Baker practically knocked her over as he shoved her aside. He stuck his head out of the window, looking from right to left. “Damn. No one in sight. But there may be footprint evidence in the snow. I’d better call in the sheriff’s tactical squad to check things out.”
“A lot of people walk their dogs along the alley,” Tricia said, knowing Angelica was among them.
“Will you please close that window!” Angelica said sharply. “I’m not heating the great outdoors, you know.”
“This window will stay open until the lab team dusts it for fingerprints,” Baker ordered.
“That will make my bedroom uninhabitable. I’ve seen the way you guys throw that stuff around and it’s damn hard to clean up—and goodness knows none of your men ever clean up the messes they leave.”
“This apartment, and especially this bedroom, is off-limits, so why don’t you ladies go back downstairs.”
“And do what? Twiddle my thumbs while you and your men keep customers out of my store?” Angelica demanded.
“May I remind you that your secretary was just found dead on your premises—”
“She was the Chamber’s receptionist—not secretary,” Angelica interrupted.
“—and possibly due to foul play?” Baker continued. “You don’t seem very concerned.”
“Of course I’m concerned—and very upset. Whoever did that to Betsy also kicked in my apartment door, invaded my home, and could have hurt or killed my dog. And now your men are going to blitz my bedroom and keep me out of my own home for goodness knows how long.”
“It’ll only be for a few hours. Now, go over to Tricia’s store. I’ll be over there as soon as I can, and you’ll be back in your store and apartment by tonight,” Baker said with more consideration.
“Very well,” Angelica agreed, but not at all graciously. “Tricia!” she called.
“Go on ahead. I want to talk to the chief.”
Angelica frowned, pivoted, and left the room. Tricia turned back to Baker.
“What did you want to tell me?” he asked.
“Don’t even bother to consider me, Angelica, or even Frannie as suspects in what now looks like a possible murder.”
“Are you saying you all had motives to kill Mrs. Dittmeyer?” he asked wryly.
“Of course not. We were all in the Cookery when all the noise broke out. And there were customers there who can corroborate that, too.”
“Did you get their names? Because when I got here Frannie was the only one in the store. And as far as I’m concerned, everyone is a suspect until I can rule them out.”
“Thank you once again for your unwavering belief in me,” Tricia said with heavy sarcasm. “May I go?”
“No. I didn’t see the back entrance open.”
“Betsy had just emptied her wastebasket and left the back door open. Frannie shut and locked it.”
“Then you don’t know for sure that Frannie was telling the truth.”
“We could feel a draft, and I don’t doubt Frannie was telling the truth.”
“Did you see the open door?”
“No, I was standing at the front of the store with Angelica.”
“Did you see anyone else you recognized in the store at the time of the . . . upset?”
Tricia shook her head.
“That means Mrs. Dittmeyer could have let her killer into the shop.”
“I guess. As I said, there were a bunch of customers in the store at the time, and Charlie the mailman was there a few minutes before we heard the ruckus.”
“Did you see him leave?”
Tricia thought about it. “No. But that doesn’t mean anything. Angelica and Frannie and I were talking. We weren’t paying attention to anything else that was going on—until all the noise started upstairs.”
“And you thought the victim was making it?”
Tricia nodded. “As Angelica said, she and Betsy had been discussing the limitations of using the storeroom as the Chamber headquarters. Betsy made it plain she was not happy with the situation, and we figured she was throwing a tantrum.”
“Did she regularly do such things?” Baker demanded.
Tricia shrugged and heard others tromping around the apartment. “I don’t know. I didn’t hang out with the woman.”
“And why was that?” Baker asked.
“Because she wasn’t very nice. Or at least not very warm and welcoming.”
“What about the mailman?”
“Charlie? He’s a sweetheart. I suppose you can find him at the post office—after he’s finished his route, that is.”
“Chief?” Officer Henderson called.
Baker held up a hand to stall him. “We’ll talk later,” he told Tricia in dismissal.
She nodded, turned, and waited for the officer to move away from the doorway so she could escape. So much for getting anything accomplished during the rest of the morning—and there was no way she’d be able to visit the estate sale to look at the books on offer.
Tricia found the Cookery crowded with the entire Stoneham police force, who demanded she stay until Chief Baker verified that she was allowed to leave, which took another ten minutes—minutes in which she was not allowed to speak with Frannie, Angelica, or anyone else. When she was finally allowed to return to her store, Tricia pondered the fact that Stoneham seemed to have become the death capital of southern New Hampshire. And why, oh, why, did she always seem to be the one to keep stumbling over the newly deceased?
While she loathed being called the village jinx, Tricia was beginning to think the title might just be apropos.
With all the chaos going on at the Cookery, Tricia was happy to return to her own store and its relative peace. Relative because her assistant, Pixie Poe, was singing. As she studied the order forms before her, Tricia desperately tried to ignore her employee’s slightly off-key rendition of “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” As it was, Tricia had been afraid Angelica might wait out the police presence at her own store by hanging out at Haven’t Got a Clue, but instead she’d chosen to go across the street to Booked for Lunch, the tiny retro café she owned and operated.
Pixie dressed exclusively in vintage togs, so one never knew what era she was likely to represent on any given day. Today she seemed to be channeling the Andrews Sisters, looking like a rather long-in-the-tooth Patty, with shoulder-length blonde hair, pancake makeup, and ruby-colored lips and nails. The customers loved her, and sales had skyrocketed since she’d come to work at Haven’t Got a Clue. Tricia had rewarded her with several raises and was thinking of giving her another.
While Tricia’s other employee, Mr. Everett, dusted the back shelves, Pixie once again wandered over to the big display window to look outside, checking out what she could see of the mix of official cars and people, and the investigation into Betsy Dittmeyer’s death.
“They haven’t taken the body out yet,” she said with what sounded like disappointment.
“And when they do, there’ll be nothing to see,” Tricia chided her.
“I know. It’s just . . . well, with the screws blocking the sidewalk, we aren’t going to have any customers, so I’ve gotta do something to keep from getting bored.”
“Why don’t you go read a book,” Tricia encouraged.
“Really?” Pixie asked with delight. “Great. I’m working my way through Dashiell Hammett once again. Love that Maltese Falcon.” Tricia watched her go over to one of the shelves, pluck out a book, and then flop down into the readers’ nook.
Tricia sighed and went back to her paperwork. Pixie might not be working, but neither was she singing.
The little bell over the door rang cheerfully, causing both Tricia and Pixie to look up, but instead of a customer it was Ginny Wilson-Barbero who entered Haven’t Got a Clue. Unfortunately, her demeanor was anything but cheerful. Tricia didn’t bother with the usual pleasantries. “Is something wrong?”
“Not at all,” Ginny said, her voice high and squeaky.
“Hi, Ginny!” Pixie called without looking up from her book.
“Hi, Pixie. How are you?”
“Just Yankee Doodle dandy!” she said and, unfortunately, began to hum as she read. From the back of the store, Mr. Everett waved his lamb’s-wool duster in greeting and went back to work.
Ginny inched closer to the sales desk. “I saw the police cars. Well, who could miss them? Rumor has it that Betsy Dittmeyer was killed this morning over at the Cookery.”
“I’m afraid it’s true.”
“By a bookcase?” Ginny asked.
Tricia nodded grimly. “Fully loaded.”
“Messy,” Ginny said and winced.
“Yes,” Tricia agreed. She noted that Ginny’s eyes were bloodshot and her nose was red, although she didn’t sound like she had a cold. “Are you sure there’s nothing wrong?”
Ginny’s eyes filled with tears. “Have you got a couple of minutes to talk?”
Tricia looked over at Pixie, who had turned to look their way. “Sure, Mr. E and I can hold down the fort,” Pixie said. As usual, she’d been eavesdropping.
“Come on,” Tricia said and came out from behind the cash desk and wrapped an arm around Ginny’s shoulder. “We’ll go upstairs and have a nice cup of cocoa.”
Ginny sniffed and allowed herself to be guided through the shop. Miss Marple joined them, scampering up the stairs, while Tricia and Ginny followed until they reached the third floor and Tricia’s loft apartment. Tricia unlocked the door and let them in. “Let me take your coat.”
Ginny shrugged out of the sleeves of her coat, handing it to Tricia, who hung it on the coat tree by the door. She hurried over to the kitchen counter and filled the electric kettle with water, then got out mugs and packets of cocoa mix. “I hope you don’t mind instant. Of course, Angelica would make it from whole milk, and the finest Swiss ground chocolate.”
“She does tend to go overboard,” Ginny admitted, then dug for a tissue in the pocket of her skirt and blew her nose.
“I’m afraid I don’t have much to serve a guest. I don’t really keep cookies or desserts up here. But we’ve got some thumbprint cookies down in the store. I could dash down and—”
Ginny shook her head. “No, thanks. The last thing I need right now are more calories.”
“What’s wrong?” Tricia asked. “Have you and Antonio had a fight?”
“Oh, no. He’s the sweetest, nicest man in the world—well, apart from Mr. Everett. I love him to death. I’ve never had an unhappy minute with him.”
“But you don’t look very happy right now. Is it the job?” Tricia prompted, since Ginny didn’t seem to be in a hurry to explain.
Again Ginny shook her head. Her gaze fell and her lower lip trembled, and then she nodded. “I guess it is my job I’m worried about.” She nodded once more. “Yes, that’s exactly it. I’m afraid I’m going to lose the Happy Domestic.”
“Why? I thought it was doing well. That you were in the black and your boss, Nigela Ricita, was very happy with your work.”
“She is. Or so Antonio tells me.”
“Then what’s the problem?”
The kettle chose that moment to come to a boil, and Tricia turned her attention to the cocoa at hand, pouring the water into the cups and mixing the contents with spoons. She grabbed a couple of paper napkins from the holder, set them on the kitchen island, and placed the mugs on them.
Tricia waited, but Ginny didn’t seem able to meet her gaze.
“Ginny, please, tell me what’s wrong.”
Ginny looked up, her eyes filling with tears, her face screwing into an expression of total misery. “I’m . . . I’m pregnant.”
“Pregnant?” Tricia cried and leapt forward to embrace her friend. “That’s wonderful. Oh, I’m so happy for both of you.”
But Ginny didn’t move. She stood rock still.
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