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Authors: Judi Culbertson

A Novel Death

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A NOVEL DEATH

.

Judi Culbertson

(THOMAS & MERCER

The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.

Text copyright © 2011 by Judi Culbertson All rights reserved.

Printed in the United States of America.

No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without express written permission of the publisher.

Published by Thomas & Mercer P.O. Box 400818

ISBN-13: 9781477812242 ISBN-10: 1477812245

This title was previously published by Avalon Books; this version has been reproduced from the Avalon book archive files.

~o~

 
      To everyone who has ever been enthralled by the mystery of an old book and where it has been
Acknowledgments

Without writing a second book, I'd like to thank my tireless agent, Agnes Birmbaum, of Bleeker Street Associates, and my wonderful editor at Avalon Books, Lia Brown. Both of you had faith in this book from the beginning.

Thanks also to my New York City writers group who held my feet to the fire: Jean Ayer, Myriam Chapman, Teresa Giordano, Tom House, Eleanor Hyde, Elisabeth Jakab, Carol Pepper, Maureen Sladen, and Marcia Slatkin. But most of all to Adele Glimm, who went above and beyond with encouragement, multiple readings, and a place to spend the night.

As always to my family, whose love inspires me every day: Tom, Andy, Robin, Emily, and Andrew, as well as to the other Chaffees and Randalls. You know who you are.

 

The day my life began to unravel-like the sweaters my mother tried to knit for us to save money-started much too early. By the time the first call came, shortly before seven A.M., I was on my third cup of espresso. I was sitting in the kitchen of the Victorian farmhouse owned by the university, a hodgepodge of wide-planked floorboards, the original scarred-oak table, and Harvest Gold appliances. These were accented by an avocado-toned dishwasher that was dead when we first moved in.

I answered the call quickly. Book buyers from Australia and Japan didn't always get the time difference right. "Secondhand Prose."

"Secondhand, huh? I thought this was a bookstore!"

What do you think prose is, buddy? "This is a bookstore," I reassured him. A virtual bookshop, true, but the books were real boards and paper.

"Yeah, well... I've got stuff to sell."

"Great. What kind of stuff?"

"What kind? They aren't a kind. They're books! Old. Ver-ry old." He stretched out the last two words seductively. "One of them has this date in the front, 16-something?"

Be still, my heart. My breath caught, even as I reminded myself that books that old would be copyrighted in Roman numerals. "Where did you get it?"

"What-you think I stole it from some library? Nobody else asked me that!"

So he had been shopping his stuff around.

"They're from this old house I'm cleaning out. The guy doesn't care what I do with the stuff; he just wants everything out."

Sadly, that sounded true. People threw incredible things into dumpsters. Of course, these books were probably mildewed, their covers hanging by threads. Even a week stored in kitty litter wouldn't kill their smell. But I didn't hang up. Because any book in any abandoned cellar has the potential to be the find of a lifetime. Tamerlane, Poe's forty-page booklet of youthful poems, which recently sold at auction for $250,000, had been tossed in a bookshop sale bin because Poe had modestly designated himself only as "A Bostonian."

"When can I see the books?"

"I'll let ya know. I'm just checking who's interested. Then I'll take bids." And he hung up.

He hung up! He didn't even give me his name! I punched in >*69 to see if I could retrieve his information, but a scratchy recording let me know that "the number of your last incoming call is private."

Damn! I pressed the receiver to my chest, disbelieving. What did I say wrong? Should I have offered him money right away?

And then the phone rang again. "Yes, hello!"

He had realized his mistake. But there was only breathing.

"This is Secondhand Prose," I encouraged. Don't be shy.

"Delhi, it's Margaret. Something terrible happened" Her voice had the taut sound of someone using words that would not make her fall apart. "Lily passed away."

"What?" I understood "passed away," but the "Lily" upended its meaning. Forty-five-year-old women, women my age, didn't "pass away," like a calendar page being turned. An aneurysm? It had to be an aneurysm. A car accident. "What happened?"

"They aren't sure."

"The doctors?"

"The police." Her voice veered dangerously.

I needed more coffee, fast.

"Can you come by the shop?"

"Of course!" But why would she even open her bookstore today? "Do you need someone to-"

But Margaret had already hung up, before I had a chance to even tell her how sorry I was about her sister.

Clicking the handset off, I picked up the small china cup and took an automatic sip before I remembered that it had gotten cold. Yuck. I clinked it back down quickly. Why would the police be involved? Did they investigate all sudden deaths?

Maybe it would be on the local cable station. I switched the TV to Channel 12 and waited. At first there was a special about celebrating the Fourth of July on Sunday. Clips of last year's fireworks at Jones Beach were shown, as well as several local parades with fire engines, Hibernian bands, and historical societies dressed up like Long Islanders of two hundred years ago. I even recognized the tall ships that had visited Port Lewis, my home village, on their way to Huntington Harbor.

Come on, I willed the station, it's time for the news. And then, at eight A.M., the news began.

Lily Carlyle was actually the lead story, alternating feeds between a weary-looking news anchor and shots of the railroad tracks outside the Port Lewis Station. A photograph of Lily, perhaps supplied by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where she worked, kept flashing on. In it, Lily was wearing a leaf-green caftan that made her eyes dark as jade, a hammered-gold pendant, and an enigmatic smile. Her dark hair crinkled in charming curls around her face.

According to the tired blond reporter, Lily had lain down on the LIRR tracks in the wooded area one hundred yards west of the station and been decapitated by an engine whose engineer could not see her in time in the ten P.M. darkness.

I sat with my hand over my mouth. Why? Why would she do such a thing? The cliches kept coming. Lily had a wonderful life, everything to live for! I tried to blot out the image of her beautiful severed head rolling down from the track. That was even the train she sometimes came home from the city on!

I found I was clutching my upper arms and rocking slightly back and forth.

I'll say it now. Lily and I never liked each other. I rarely saw her except at the annual Christmas extravaganzas the sisters gave. Last December she accepted my box of Godiva chocolates at the door as if they were something I had picked up at 7-Eleven. It made me want to tell her how much they actually cost. But Lily took pride in never eating anything sweet; she was a tireless gym-goer who rewarded herself with exotic massages and Armani scarves. She would die before she ate a cheeseburger or a hot fudge sundae.

Bad choice of words. I made myself click off the TV, which had gone back to corn roasts and Fourth of July celebrations, and went upstairs to finish dressing. In deference to Margaret, I pulled off my coral T-shirt with a starfish that said LIFE IS GOOD! and replaced it with a black top that said nothing at all. As I pulled back my long hair and anchored it with a clip, I couldn't stop replaying Lily's last moments. What kind of despair allowed you to remain on the tracks with a train screeching down on you and not jerk yourself away at the last moment? Margaret had never hinted that her sister suffered from depression.

Was it possible she hadn't been conscious? What if she had climbed down from an earlier train and stumbled into the woods to be sick? Tried to get to her car and collapsed on the tracks instead, unable to move. What if she had had a stroke and couldn't move? I understood now why the police would be involved.

But nothing, no explanation of circumstances, would make it any less horrible for Margaret. I knew the horror of someone being alive and with you-and suddenly not.

To keep from revisiting my own past on this sunny summer day, I tried to think about what book from the 1600s my early-morning caller could even have. The Gutenberg Bible wasn't even printed until 1455, and even though atlases, histories, religious tomes, and natural history guides were in circulation two hundred years later, none were being printed in the wilderness that was still America. And yet it was the quest for the impossible books that kept me climbing shaky stairs into mold-choked attics and descending into basements that should have been condemned. I loved all books, rare or not. After a day of hunting, I would lug the boxes out to the barn behind the house and pore over their details. One of the best things about being an Internet bookseller was reuniting people all over the world with treasures they'd never hoped to find. It was what made me stand in line for hours at estate and garage sales just to get in.

In fact, I should be tracking down today's sales right now. But Margaret's shop opened at ten and I wanted to be there.

Against my better judgment, I decided to give my own village another chance. Port Lewis, like the local waters, is fished out. Because the ferry from Connecticut crosses Long Island Sound and docks here, bringing swarms of day-trippers needing entertainment, Port Lewis residents have responded by erecting permanent YARD SALE signs. If they have lobster traps or a chipped chamber pot, they'll add ANTIQUES! Any real treasures have long disappeared across the Sound.

For an hour I made my way up and down the steeply winding streets, visiting historic white Victorians with wide porches, and saltboxes whose wooden plaques gave the names and dates of the sea captains who built them. I pored through cartons of tattered suspense novels, cookbooks with translucent thumbprints, books that would be better off incinerated. I knew I was wasting my time, but I didn't stop. Part of me, the part I was not proud of, dreaded seeing Margaret. Would she weep hysterically when I hugged her and be inconsolable? Would I be able to say anything at all to her that would soothe her, that wouldn't be an empty cliche? I had never known sisters who did so many things together.

Margaret and I certainly weren't that close. We talked about what good friends we were, but she was ten years older than me. She was my mentor in bookselling: she instructed and I listened, anxious for her favorable opinion. It made me more deferential with Margaret than with my other friends. There was also something unknowable about her; we laughed at things together, but I could not tease her. Now that it was up to me to offer comfort, I was afraid I wouldn't know how.

When I could not stall any longer, I parked my van on High Street near The Old Frigate Bookshop and moved slowly past the stalebeer smell of The Whaler's Arms, the floral sweetness of Love in Blooms, and the Port Lewis Gallery, which had bad paintings but no odor at all. Then I pressed down on the bookstore latch.

At the sound of the bell, Margaret lifted her head from behind the oak counter; I was relieved to see her talking calmly on the phone. What had I expected? Moving closer, I heard her say, "I'm afraid that's all I know right now. But thanks so much for calling!"

Then I was around the counter and hugging her, though Margaret was hard to hug; her hands always grasped my upper arms as if to keep me from crushing her in my enthusiasm. So close to her face, I saw that her hazel eyes had bloodshot map lines and underlying bruising. Still, her cheeks and lips were pink and her thick chestnut hair was held back from her pretty face in a tortoiseshell barrette. Even on such a terrible day, she was dressed in her usual ladybookseller uniform, a white silk blouse and long black skirt. An oldfashioned pendant showing a woman's face under glass hung around her neck on a velvet ribbon.

"Margaret, I'm so, so sorry!" I burst out.

"I know. I know." It was as if she were consoling me. Then, releasing my shoulders, she whispered, "Let's go next door. I can't answer one more phone call."

She looked around the room until she found her graduate student assistant, shelving books in the nautical section. "Amil? Can you handle things if we go next door? Don't bother with the phone"

Every village needs a rare book shop like The Old Frigate. Its name was a nod to both the joys of reading and Port Lewis' whaling past. The Emily Dickinson quote-"There is no frigate like a book to take us lands away"-was painted in gold script across the windows. Emily herself was hanging in a small old-fashioned frame just inside the door.

Yet the store was more like a British library than a New England homestead, all brown leather couches and brass lamps. There was a marble fireplace with carved figures at the far end, and lots of corners to curl up in. You could almost smell the mingled odors of tobacco and leather polish, and I imagined the Inklings-J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, and the others-sucking on their pipes around the fire and making ecclesiastical jokes.

BOOK: A Novel Death
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