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Murder on the Half Shelf (Booktown Mysteries)by Lorna Barrett
The overloaded luggage trolley bumped along the sidewalk, following Tricia Miles like an overgrown puppy. Ninety percent of the bags belonged to her sister, Angelica, whom Tricia trailed after. Head held high, marching along like a majorette, Angelica led the way to the Sheer Comfort Inn. When she stopped dead, Tricia nearly ran into her. “Tricia, you must keep up,” she admonished.
Tricia steadied herself and the weight of the luggage nearly toppled the little metal trolley, taking her with it. “Tell me again why you’ve dragged me along on this little outing.”
“My dear Tricia, for a little sister-to-sister bonding. It’ll be just like camping,” Angelica gushed, looking up at the lovely Victorian home before them and waving an arm to take it all in. The movement made her stumble on her three-inch heels, jostling the enormous suitcase, the corner of which dug into the back of Tricia’s leg.
“Camping?” she nearly wailed. She’d brought only a small duffel with a nightshirt and a change of clothes, whereas Angelica had her big shocking pink Pierre Cardin suitcase, plus she had saddled Tricia with her overnight bag, a cosmetic bag, and a small cooler filled with snacks, while Angelica carried only her enormous purse.
A free overnight stay at Stoneham’s newest (and to be honest, only) bed-and-breakfast inn. This was to be the B-and-B’s trial run before the business opened to the public in a week’s time. Angelica had won the prize at the last Chamber of Commerce meeting. She could have brought Bob Kelly, which might have been a much better idea than dragging Tricia along, but Angelica and Bob, head of the Chamber, had been on the outs more than the ins these last few months. Tricia wouldn’t have been surprised to learn that Bob rigged the prize so that he and Angelica could spend a romantic evening in the cozy new inn. To say he’d been upset at Angelica’s choice of roommate was putting it mildly. He’d even tried to bribe Tricia with a year’s free Chamber membership to back out of the evening, but Tricia couldn’t be bought—at least, not for such small stakes. And it rather pleased her to see Bob grovel, although at that particular moment she wished she had given in.
“I don’t camp,” Tricia asserted. She waved a hand at the lovely three-story Victorian home before them. “And you can hardly call staying the night at a place named Sheer Comfort roughing it.”
“Well, I didn’t know if they had hair dryers. And I had to bring my laptop. And since Bob said they serve sherry in the evenings, I needed to be able to change my clothes if the situation warranted it. In fact”—she pulled on the front of her waitress uniform, which showed through the opened buttons on her camel’s-hair coat—“I can’t wait to get out of these clothes.”
“Why didn’t you change at home? And you didn’t have to bring four or five outfits. We’re only going to be here one night.”
“One never knows,” Angelica said.
They turned to look at the house in front of them. A freshly painted white picket gate contrasted nicely against the privet that circled the patch of grass in front of the stately Victorian. The gingerbread accents on the porch and gable gave the appearance of an overgrown doll house. White wicker chairs and a love seat were decked out in chintz pillows, while the matching wicker tables looked like the perfect places to set silver trays with a couple of glasses and sweating pitchers of lemonade on a hot afternoon.
Those hot days were several months away. The sun was already sinking, and brass lamps glowed on either side of the brightly painted red door as Angelica opened the gate, scurried into the yard, and held it for Tricia, who hauled the luggage up the walk. “Give me a hand to lift this, will you, Ange?”
Angelica pouted, waving a hand with freshly lacquered nails at her. “I just gave myself a manicure—I don’t want to ruin it.”
She bustled up the steps while Tricia struggled to haul the trolley behind her.
Angelica grasped the door’s brass knocker and tapped it as a winded Tricia tried to catch her breath. “Isn’t the door open?” she asked.
“I didn’t want to try it. After all, the inn isn’t officially open. I wouldn’t leave the door unlocked at dusk so just anyone could barge in.”
“We’re not just anyone. They’re expecting us,” Tricia pointed out.
“Hush!” Angelica warned as the thud of approaching footsteps sounded from within.
A moment later, the handle rattled and the door was thrown open. A middle-aged woman with shoulder-length blonde hair streaked with silver stood before them. She was thin, and dressed in a bulky lavender sweater, with polished black boots protruding under the sharp creases of her jeans. “Hello, I’m Pippa Comfort. You must be the Miles sisters.”
Angelica giggled. “That makes us sound like a singing act, and I don’t think Tricia can carry a tune.”
Tricia was about to protest that she could, too, but thought better of it and forced a smile. Sometimes Angelica brought out the worst in her.
“Won’t you come in,” Pippa said with a welcoming wave of her hand, and stepped back to let them enter. Angelica sailed ahead. “Let me help you with that,” Pippa said, and bent to give Tricia a hand to lift the luggage trolley up the final step and into the house.
As she straightened, Tricia caught a glimpse of a man standing down the hallway. He was dressed in a blue plaid flannel shirt, with a mop of graying brown hair, glasses, and a beard. But he made a hasty exit almost immediately.
“Oh, what a lovely place,” Angelica said, her head swiveling to take in the attractive foyer.
Tricia’s attention was drawn to the area as well. Polished white Carrara marble contrasted nicely with the darkened oak trim, which looked like it had never been painted. A bushy blooming Christmas cactus, which apparently didn’t know the season, sat on an oak plant stand just inside the door, a lovely splash of color against the buff-colored walls. There didn’t seem to be any kind of reception desk, and the three of them stood looking at each other for an awkward moment.
“It was so nice of you to offer the free accommodation,” Tricia said at last.
“I’m pleased we could get a few people in for our final shakedown before opening next week.”
“We’re very pleased we won the raffle,” Angelica gushed.
Pippa eyed Tricia. “Mr. Kelly had led me to believe he would be accompanying you this evening. I put you in the master suite.”
Angelica laughed and waved a hand in dismissal. “Oh, that Bob. He’s such a kidder.”
Pippa seemed a tad annoyed to find out Bob wasn’t going to be her guest. Had she been counting on him telling his out-of-the-area real estate clients to book rooms with the inn? She reached into her jeans pocket and pulled out a key. “The other guests are already here. We have some complimentary sherry out in the main parlor if you’d like to join us once you’re settled in your room.” She handed the key to Angelica.
“Thank you,” she said. “Who else is here tonight?”
“Mary Fairchild and her husband, Luke. Chauncey Porter, and Clayton Ellington.”
“Clayton Ellington!” Tricia repeated, surprised.
Pippa blinked. “Is there some reason he shouldn’t be here?”
“No, I’m just surprised the owner of the Full MoonNudist Camp and Resort would be here. I didn’t even know he attended Chamber meetings.”
“Maybe he’s checking out the competition—for the clothed, that is,” Angelica said with a smirk.
“Oh. I didn’t realize . . .” Pippa said, looking annoyed for the second time in less than two minutes.
“About the luggage,” Angelica said.
“Your suite is on the third floor. I’ll go find my husband, Jon, to give you a hand. If you’ll wait here.” She took off down the hall.
“Thank you,” Tricia said, grateful not to have to lug all Angelica’s junk up two flights of stairs. Pippa’s husband must have been the man she’d seen when they’d first arrived. Odd. There’d been something vaguely familiar about him. She shrugged it off.
“Nice place,” Angelica said, and craned her neck to see what was in the room to their right. “Do you think Mary, her husband, and Chauncey are in there?”
“Go look,” Tricia said, content to stand right where she was so that the top-heavy trolley didn’t topple.
Angelica tightened her grip on the large purse that hung from her shoulder and charged forward. She stopped at the open, wide doorway, looked around, frowned, and turned back to join Tricia. “So far there’s sherry glasses, but no one to drink out of them.”
Dragging the trolley, Tricia moved to stand beside her sister and took in the room. The sofa was Victorian with a rust brocade, with matching chairs. A marble-topped table held a magnificent floral arrangement in pretty pinks and purples, like those found in the lobby of a high-end hotel. Too bad the space was much too small to properly accommodate it.
“The guests are probably in their rooms or out to dinner. Speaking of dinner, I haven’t had any. And the inn only serves breakfast,” Tricia said.
“I thought of that. I’ve brought a few goodies for later, but we could still get a bite to eat at the Brookview Inn.”
“That’s all the way across town. The Bookshelf Diner is open until ten.”
Angelica frowned. “You know I don’t like to patronize my competition.”
“This is dinner, and your café only serves lunch,” Tricia reminded her.
“We can go there. I have some marvelous cassoulet in the fridge. It’ll only take a few minutes to reheat.”
“But then we’re going all the way back into the village anyway.”
“May I remind you my café is only three doors down from the Bookshelf Diner.”
“Okay, okay. But let’s just dump our stuff and go right back out again.”
Angelica looked down the hallway where Pippa had disappeared. “What’s taking that bellboy so long?”
“He’s not a bellboy, he’s one of the owners,” Tricia said, although she, too, was beginning to wonder where the man had disappeared.
Angelica frowned and cleared her throat. “Oh, let’s not wait.” She readjusted the purse on her shoulder and looked up the long staircase.
“Then you’re going to have to carry some of this. I can’t do it alone,” Tricia told her.
Angelica removed Tricia’s small duffel and her cosmetic case from the trolley, leaving Tricia to handle the biggest suitcase, and up the stairs she went.
Tricia was glad she was used to a two-flight hike several times a day, but at least there was a dumbwaiter at the back of her store, which meant she didn’t have to lug heavy objects and risk her back—and her life—with them on the stairs. The Sheer Comfort Inn had no such facilities.
By the time Tricia arrived at the top floor, she was ready for a sit-down. She barely had time to notice the back stairs—probably left over from the days when houses like this employed servants—before she entered the only room on the top floor. She hadn’t even had time to look around the suite before Angelica came out of the bathroom and closed the door behind her. “Oh Trish, there’s a heavenly Jacuzzi tub in there, and look, here’s a wet bar and glasses. We could bring a bottle of wine back and enjoy it here while I work tonight.”
“You’re going to work tonight?”
“I need to draft a list of changes for my web designer, and I do have a deadline looming for my next cookbook, you know.”
Maybe that was another reason why Angelica hadn’t wanted to bring Bob.
Tricia sighed. There wasn’t even a TV for amusement, but then, as long as she had a book in her purse, she could be content anywhere.
Her stomach growled. She wanted to trudge down the stairs, drive back into the village, eat dinner, and then come all the way back to the inn like she wanted a tooth pulled. “Let’s go. It was a long day. I’m looking forward to putting my feet up”—she saw a leather recliner by the window—“and take it easy.”
“Another bad day at Haven’t Got a Clue?” Angelica asked.
Tricia said nothing. She didn’t want to talk about it.
“Okay, let me change out of these clothes and we’ll go,” Angelica said. “There’s just one tiny problem.”
“Problem?” Tricia asked.
Angelica wagged a finger and beckoned Tricia to follow her into the bathroom.
Tricia followed, wondering what could be wrong with the necessary room. Angelica opened the door and a cheerful bark greeted the women. Sitting on the floor, looking as cute as a button, was Angelica’s bichon frise, Sarge.
“Oh no,” Tricia groaned. “Ange, the inn has a strict no-pets policy. Didn’t you read the brochure Bob gave you?”
“Well, of course I did. But I can’t leave Sarge all alone. He’s not a cat, you know. He isn’t litter box trained.” Sarge barked once more, as though agreeing with that statement. Angelica bent to pick up the dog, straightened, and shoved him into Tricia’s arms. “Now, you take Sarge out for a comfort walk while I get changed.”
Tricia shook her head and tried to offer the dog back, but Angelica bustled over to her suitcase, placed it on the luggage stand, and unzippered it. “I’ve got to get changed. You take Sarge out.”
“But they’ll see me.”
“Put him back in my purse. He’s used to staying in there. And he won’t make a peep.”
“He’s already barked.”
“He was just glad to see me again. Now go on. Take him down the back stairs.” She went back for her purse, took out a leash, and hooked it to Sarge’s collar. “There, now he can’t get away.”
“What if he needs . . . you know. A litter bag.”
“Oh, dear. I hadn’t thought of that.” Angelica went back into the bathroom, found a little plastic pouch in a basket full of toiletries, and handed it to Tricia. “Here, use this.”
“A shower cap? And then what am I supposed to do with Sarge’s little bundle of . . . joy?”
“Put him back in my purse and find a garbage pail. They’re sure to have at least one out back. Then come back up here and we’ll leave.”
“We are taking him with us, aren’t we?”
“I thought I’d leave him in the bathroom. He’ll be okay for an hour or so.”
Tricia shook her head. “Uh-uh. Either he comes with us, or we’re not leaving.”
“Oh, all right. But that just means we have to sneak him back in again.”
“You will sneak him back in. If anyone catches us, I’ll disavow all knowledge of his existence.”
Angelica sighed. “Have it your way. After your little walk, we’ll meet at my car. I’ll stop and tell Pippa we’ll be back after we get a bite to eat.”
“Don’t take too long. You don’t need to put on all new makeup if we’re just going to Booked for Lunch.”
“You are such a grouch,” Angelica complained, then grabbed a sweater and slacks from her suitcase and stomped off for the bathroom, closing the door behind her.
Sarge looked after her with hurt eyes and whimpered. “You’ll see your mama in just a few minutes,” Tricia promised. “Now, back into the purse you go, little man. And don’t you make a sound.”
As Angelica had said, Sarge was used to being carried in a purse. His former owner had carried him around in the same fashion, and he wasn’t the slightest bit upset to be hidden away. Maybe he looked at going into the purse as though it were some big doggy adventure. After all, he never knew where he’d end up once he was taken out again.
Tricia crept down the back stairs, looking around to make sure the coast was clear and hoping she wouldn’t run into anyone. But as she rounded the landing on the second floor, a voice called out to her. “Tricia, is that you?”
Mary Fairchild owned By Hook or By Book, the village’s craft store. Tricia was used to seeing her sitting behind a counter, dressed in one of her store’s aprons, with a knitting or crochet project before her. She so seldom saw Mary standing, let alone dressed in fashionable clothing, that for a moment she stopped in her tracks, stunned.
“I didn’t know you’d be here,” Mary said rather nervously. She seemed a little out of breath and her cheeks were pink. In her hands were two of the liqueur glasses that had sat on a tray in the living room not long before.
“Yes. Angelica won the night’s stay and asked me to come with her.”
Mary looked startled. “She didn’t come with Bob?”
Was that going to be everyone’s reaction?
“No. And everyone seems sad to see it’s me she invited,” she said, feeling a bit put out.
Mary laughed. “Don’t be silly. It’s just that . . . well, they say romance is rekindled at these little B-and-Bs. At least, that’s what I’m hoping. When you’ve been married for half your life like Luke and me, romance can be hard to come by.”
Romance was just as hard to come by when your so-called boyfriend was a cop, too, but Tricia didn’t voice that opinion.
“Isn’t this the most darling place? Have you done any exploring yet?” Mary asked, her eyes twinkling with mischief.
“I haven’t had time. We came in through the front door and went right up to the master suite.”
“I was just downstairs in the parlor, grabbing a couple of glasses of sherry.” Mary eyed Tricia’s coat and the large handbag hanging from her shoulder. “Looks like you’re on your way out again.”
Sarge moved around in the purse, reminding Tricia of her task. She forced yet another smile. “Yes, Angelica and I haven’t had dinner. We’re going out for a quick bite, and then we’ll be back to enjoy all the inn’s amenities.”
“Then if I don’t see you again this evening, I’ll catch up with you in the morning. I can’t wait to see what kind of breakfast they serve.”
Breakfast? If Tricia didn’t get out of there, she’d never even get her dinner. “Me, either,” she said. “I’ll see you later, Mary.” And with that she wiggled her fingers in a wave and headed down the stairs once more.
Once at the bottom, Tricia gave a furtive look around. Luckily, no one was in the large spacious kitchen. From the looks of the gleaming stainless steel commercial appliances, granite countertops, and refinished hardwood floor, it had been recently remodeled. She hoped Angelica wouldn’t come down the back stairs. She’d no doubt want to explore every inch of the room, which would delay their dinner even more.
Sarge gave an anguished yip- from inside the purse, reminding Tricia that the little guy needed to make a pit stop before they could head for Booked for Lunch.
Tricia crossed the kitchen on tiptoes and found the door to the backyard unlocked. With special care, she opened the door and exited the inn, quietly closing the door behind her. A lamp on the northeast corner of the house bathed the yard in a harsh white light. After three steps down, she stood on the walk laid out in concrete pavers. She looked around, saw no one, and opened the top of Angelica’s purse. Sarge’s head popped up like a jack-in-the-box, and he gave a anguished bark.
“Yes, I know you’ve got to go,” Tricia said, and removed the dog from the purse, setting him onto the grass. Tricia pressed the button to release the cord on the retractable leash. Sarge trotted over to the white picket fence, where he raised his left hind leg. Tricia sighed and looked away, grateful her cat, Miss Marple, could attend to her own lavatory needs.
Tricia glanced around the yard, noting how the branches in the tall bare trees danced in the slight wind, and waited impatiently as Sarge started his sniffathon of the Comfort’s backyard. The small patio promised many outdoor afternoons relaxing in the shade—perhaps with that sweating pitcher of lemonade she’d thought about earlier. The idea was certainly appealing. She’d spent most of her adult life living in an apartment. It would be nice to have a yard with trees and flowers . . . especially if someone else maintained it for her.
The lease on her mystery bookstore, Haven’t Got a Clue, was soon to run out, and if she didn’t find competent help soon to replace her former assistant, Ginny Wilson, she might as well close shop. Okay, that was an overreaction. Still, the past few months had seen a parade of men and women who just didn’t fit in at the store.
She thought again about her digs above Haven’t Got a Clue in the third-floor loft, where she’d lived for the past three years. She hadn’t given any thought to trading it in for a real home, and she’d left it too late to start looking for a house should she lose her lease. So many of the homes in Stoneham were behemoths like the Sheer Comfort Inn—much too big for one person and a small cat. And she wasn’t sure she could be happy in a tiny little cottage like where her former employee currently lived.
A noise off in the darkened part of the yard startled her out of her daydream. It was Sarge, growling.
She extended her arm to reel in a couple of feet of Sarge’s leash and tugged it, to signal the dog it was time to come back to her, but Sarge wouldn’t budge.
“Sarge,” she whispered.
The dog yipped and growled again.
She tugged harder on the leash and called again, but the dog only yipped louder. They’d be found out for sure if this continued.
Tricia walked across the yard to intercept the dog, who had his nose firmly planted between two of the pickets. “Sarge!”
The dog pulled his head back, looked up at Tricia, and barked—loudly!
She hit the button on the leash, reeling all but the last four feet in, and bent down and scooped him up. “Naughty dog! You must be quiet.”
She put Sarge back into Angelica’s purse, but before she turned back toward the house, she glanced over the fence and saw a mound of what looked like clothing on the other side. Taking out her keys, she pushed the little button on the fob and a little beam of light shot out. She dragged the beam over something purple—a bulky sweater—and it came to rest on a bloodied mass of tangled blonde-gray hair.
Pippa Comfort’s hair.
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