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Authors: Ali Brandon

A Novel Way to Die

BOOK: A Novel Way to Die
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Praise for
Double Booked for Death

“A fun mystery that kept me guessing to the end!”

—Rebecca M. Hale,
New York Times
bestselling author of
How to Wash a Cat

“Clever . . . Bibliophiles, ailurophiles, and mystery fans will enjoy
Double Booked for Death

—Richmond Times-Dispatch

“A charming, cozy read, especially if cats are your cup of tea. Make sure the new
Black Cat Bookshop series is on your bookshelf.”

—Elaine Viets, national bestselling author of the Dead-End Job Mysteries

“An engaging new series . . . Definitely the start of something great.”

—Sandra Balzo, award-winning author of the Main Street Mysteries

“[An] outstanding debut to a very promising new series . . . The characters are interesting
and smart, the mystery is clever and provides clues the reader will notice but [doesn’t]
let the cat out of the bag prematurely . . . I had such fun reading about Darla and
her cohorts, and found Hamlet’s antics made me smile . . . If you enjoy a cozy mystery,
a clever cat, a bookstore setting and smart, realistic characters you are sure to
Double Booked for Death


“This first entry in the Black Cat Bookshop Mystery series is a harbinger of good
books to follow . . . In case you are wondering, Hamlet fulfills his role as sleuth
by knocking down books containing hints about the killer’s identity. [Brandon] does
a fine job with the plot and execution here—and even incorporates an element of romance,
as she introduces a potential love-interest in the form of a hunky cop . . . who will
undoubtedly be making an encore appearance in the next Black Cat Bookshop Mystery.”

—Mystery Scene

“Those who like clever animals but draw the line at talking cats will feel right at

—Publishers Weekly

“The first Black Cat Bookshop Mystery is an entertaining whodunit starring a brilliant
feline (who does not speak in human tongues), a beleaguered new store owner and an
ex cop. The story line is fast-paced as Hamlet uncovers the clues that the two females
working the case follow up on . . . Fans will enjoy.”

—The Mystery Gazette

Berkley Prime Crime titles by Ali Brandon




Published by the Penguin Group

Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, USA

Penguin Group (Canada), 90 Eglinton Avenue East, Suite 700, Toronto, Ontario M4P 2Y3,
Canada (a division of Pearson Penguin Canada Inc.) • Penguin Books Ltd., 80 Strand,
London WC2R 0RL, England • Penguin Group Ireland, 25 St. Stephen’s Green, Dublin 2,
Ireland (a division of Penguin Books Ltd.) • Penguin Group (Australia), 250 Camberwell
Road, Camberwell, Victoria 3124, Australia (a division of Pearson Australia Group
Pty. Ltd.) • Penguin Books India Pvt. Ltd., 11 Community Centre, Panchsheel Park,
New Delhi—110 017, India • Penguin Group (NZ), 67 Apollo Drive, Rosedale, Auckland
0632, New Zealand (a division of Pearson New Zealand Ltd.) • Penguin Books (South
Africa) (Pty.) Ltd., 24 Sturdee Avenue, Rosebank, Johannesburg 2196, South Africa

Penguin Books Ltd., Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the
product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance
to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is
entirely coincidental. The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume
any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.


A Berkley Prime Crime Book / published by arrangement with Tekno Books


Berkley Prime Crime mass-market edition / November 2012

Copyright © 2012 by Tekno Books.

Cover illustration by Ross Jones.

Cover design by Annette Fiore Defex.

All rights reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any printed or
electronic form without permission. Please do not participate in or encourage piracy
of copyrighted materials in violation of the author’s rights. Purchase only authorized

For information, address: The Berkley Publishing Group,

a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.,

375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014.

ISBN: 978-1-101-61204-0


Berkley Prime Crime Books are published by The Berkley Publishing Group,

a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.,

375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014.

PRIME CRIME and the PRIME CRIME logo are trademarks of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.


To my mom, Helen Smart,

and her cat, Chloe. Love you!


Thanks to my editor at Tekno Books, Larry Segriff, who kindly took me under his wing
and always has an encouraging word. And special thanks to my editor at Berkley Prime
Crime, Shannon Jamieson Vazquez, who makes me write the very best book that I can.
Love as always to my husband, Gerry, who has been unflagging in his encouragement.
And a big “paws up” to the many readers who have written to tell me how much they
enjoy Hamlet and Darla’s adventures. Hamlet says,



Darla Pettistone tossed her single auburn braid over her shoulder and scanned the
page again. “Not only do you have a brand-new degree in English literature, but you
spent all your holidays and summers working at one of the major book chains. You’ve
got retail, and you know the classics. But you do realize that this is a part-time
position that you’re interviewing for, right?”

“Part-time would be awesome,” the plump blonde declared and gave an eager smile. “I
live with my parents, so there’s no rent to worry about. And in addition to working
at the local women’s shelter, I do spend a lot of time involved in community organizing.
If there’s a protest in town, I’m there! So I really can’t fit a full-time job into
my schedule.”

“Well, I can certainly understand that,” Darla replied, managing not to roll her eyes.

When Darla was Madison’s age—a dozen years ago—she’d locked down a full-time job with
a major corporation a good six months before graduating with a business degree. She
had paid her own rent on a furnished duplex during most of her college time, managing
to also pay off a little compact car a year earlier than her loan schedule. The full
scholarship had helped her make ends meet.

And, like Madison, she had worked part-time at a bookstore . . . though Darla’s hours
had been after classes and weekends, leaving her scant time to save the red-tailed
chipmunks or protest for the universal right to tip jars. Later, she’d kept busy enough
at the marketing firm where she worked that her charity efforts had been limited to
the annual walks sponsored by her company.

Of course, that had been back home in Dallas. Maybe it was a generational quirk, or
maybe things in Brooklyn simply were different. She’d found many such disparities
in the eight months since she had inherited the restored brownstone, which housed
two apartments as well as her bookstore, Pettistone’s Fine Books.

“All right,” Darla went on, determined not to hold the girl’s off-hours activities
against her, “let’s see about your stock knowledge. Suppose I’m a customer looking
for that famous book about the girl in overalls, but I can’t remember the author or
title. What do you give me?”

“To Kill a Mockingbird?”

“Bingo! What if I want the controversial new novel that my book club is reading?”

Fifty Shades of Grey
,” she replied, her faintly disapproving tone indicating she did not consider it book
club material.

Darla nodded. “Very good. Now, the one with a tiger on the cover?”

The Jungle Book
. Oh, wait, no . . .
Life of Pi

“Last one. How about the book about the guy who fights all the time?”

The Art of War
, by Sun Tzu,” Madison answered with a triumphant smile.

Darla smiled back. “I have to say, I’m pretty impressed. You seem to be just what
we’re looking for.”

Then she sobered and added, “There’s just one thing more. We have a shop cat, and
he’d have to approve you first before I could consider hiring you. His name is Hamlet.”


Darla shook her head. If someone composed a soundtrack to her life at the shop, then
every mention of Hamlet would be accompanied by shrieking violins and an ominous
stinger. A stereotypical bookstore feline would curl picturesquely in a wicker basket
near the front door and greet customers with a purr. But Hamlet stalked the shelves
like a miniature Genghis Cat, black fur gleaming and green eyes as cold and sparkling
as emeralds. The store’s regulars all knew the drill—knew, as well, where they stood
in his feline rankings—while first-time shoppers quickly learned their places in the

Big spenders, once-a-week customers, and those who read classic literature got the
paw print of approval, meaning they were allowed to fawn over him and occasionally
scratch his chin. Genre fiction readers (unless they fell into the big-spend, once-weekly
category) were not allowed to touch him, though he would condescend to send a small
their way in appreciation for their business. Customers who shopped once a month
made up the next lower tier, meaning they were tolerated, and nothing more (though,
on days when he was in a particularly good feline mood, he might deign to give them
a whisker flick). Those who attempted to return their purchases got his patented Cat
Stare of Death and moved down a notch from whatever rank they’d previously held.

Unabashed browsers and magazine-only customers were treated to his kiss-off treatment:
a flop on the floor followed by one hind leg flung over his shoulder and a lick to
the base of his tail.

Madison, of course, knew nothing of this. No doubt she’d already conjured the cat-in-the-basket
image in her mind.

“Oooh, a kitty!” the girl squealed. “When I was little, I had a white Persian named
Mr. Cuddles. Mommy got allergies, so we had to give him away to my uncle and aunt,
but I’ve always loved cats.”

“Well, that’s important, but what’s more important is that Hamlet loves you back,”
Darla replied. Though, given Hamlet’s persnickety nature, “love” was something of
a stretch. “Tolerate” would be more appropriate.

Bad enough that she had to hire a new part-time employee. She never would have suspected
that the true challenge lay in finding someone who could get along with Hamlet, the
official black cat mascot of Pettistone’s Fine Books. Darla had been shocked earlier
that year to learn that she had inherited Hamlet along with the building and business
from her late Great-Aunt Dee. It wasn’t as if she’d been close to the old woman. They’d
actually interacted only a handful of times over the years; still, Great-Aunt Dee
was the original Darla Pettistone, for whom Darla had been named.

They had shared similarly round faces and snub noses, though the old woman’s red hair
had come courtesy of Miss Clairol, while Darla’s wavy auburn mane was strictly her
The octogenarian had also originally hailed from Texas, just like Darla. However,
about sixty years earlier, the then twenty-five-year-old had fled north, renaming
herself Dee to put distance between her new life and her country roots. Despite the
twangy Texas accent that she could never quite lose, Dee had apparently settled in
surprisingly well in Brooklyn. Perhaps it was due to her three native–New Yorker husbands—all
of whom had been wealthy and had thoughtfully predeceased her—that she’d sequentially
married over the years.

Hamlet had appeared on the scene long after, coming to the store as an abandoned kitten.
He’d been named for the tragic Shakespearean character . . . or, rather, for the copy
of the play that he’d pulled down off the bookshelf and made into his personal little
kitten bed.

Hamlet had split his time between apartment and bookstore for almost ten years now.
And since Dee had been Hamlet’s caretaker (Darla never thought of the cat as being
owned), this meant that Darla technically was as close to a blood relation to Hamlet
as a human could be. It also meant that they—feline and woman—were pretty much stuck
with each other. And given that Darla had never been much of a cat person, her learning
curve in this relationship had been steep. Still, she had grudgingly concluded she
could only hire an employee that Hamlet liked . . . or, at least, one that he wouldn’t
feel compelled to systematically terrorize out of a job. Unfortunately, he’d already
ix-nayed the first few candidates she had interviewed.

“Let’s get this over with,” Darla told the girl. “Go ahead and bring your things”—she’d
learned not to let a potential hiree leave behind anything they’d have to come back
for later—“and we’ll go down to the main store to find him. While we’re looking, I’ll
show you around the place a bit.”

She had been conducting the interview with Madison on the shop’s two-room second floor.
The front area, which overlooked the street, was designed as a lounge. In this space,
Darla hosted the occasional writers’ groups and book clubs, though the rest of the
time the area served as a reading room and employee break area. In one corner, a small
galley kitchen lurked behind an Asian-inspired screen, allowing for a bit of cooking
and washup.

The shop’s storeroom was housed in the rear room, where packing materials vied with
cartons of books awaiting shelving. Housing her storeroom on the second floor was
not the most convenient of arrangements, but Darla found that bribery (in the form
of coffee and pastries) usually worked well enough on the delivery drivers to get
them to haul one or two hand trucks’ worth of books upstairs. And if her baked goods
didn’t suffice, well, there was an old-fashioned dumbwaiter that went between floors.
Though slow, it was sturdy enough to accommodate a case of hardcovers—or, as she’d
discovered as a child, objects quite a bit larger!

As they made their way down the steps, Madison clutched her pink iPad case to her
ample chest and gave an exaggerated sigh. “I think your shop is wonderful! It’s nothing
like a chain store at all. It’s, well, quaint . . . just like your accent, Ms. Pettistone.
Where did you say you were from?”

“I’m from Dallas. A Texan born and bred.”

“Well, I think it’s adorable,” the girl confided, as if she were the elder of them.
“The accent, I mean. Boys just love girls who talk all cute like that.”

“Good to know,” Darla replied, trying to keep the sarcasm from her tone.

She wasn’t exactly in the market for a “boy.” A couple of years ago, she’d finally
gathered the gumption to divorce the inferior specimen she had married and was presently
enjoying her independence.

Turning the subject back to the shop, Darla said, “Our main room started life as the
brownstone’s parlor. See on that wall, how we still have the original mahogany-mantled
fireplace? Now, if you go through that broad arch there”—she pointed toward the rear
of the store—“you’ll see what was once the dining room. That’s where most of the classics
and reference books are stocked. We keep the fast movers and the gift items up here
so we can keep an eye out, if you know what I mean.”

The girl nodded wisely. Having worked in retail, she’d probably seen her share of

Darla continued her quick tour, Madison on her heels. Beyond the old dining room lay
the back door, which in turn led to a tiny courtyard where Darla and her staff often
took lunch when the weather permitted. She pointed out to Madison how all the doors
lined up. In fact, the floor plan reminded Darla of what they called a “shotgun shack”
back home in Texas, meaning one could walk a straight line—or fire a shotgun—from
front door to back without hitting anything in between.

Or, rather, one could’ve if the shop’s rooms had been empty.

Instead, a maze of oak bookshelves filled the place, the tangle practically requiring
a map to negotiate and technically defeating the single-shotgun-blast-traveling-from-door-to-door
concept. Great-Aunt Dee had eschewed the concept of optimum use of the available space,
choosing instead to make clever little alcoves of the shelves. The old woman also
had left most of the rooms’ original ornately carved wooden built-ins intact, so that
they served as additional shelves for both books and an eclectic collection of vintage

“That’s the nickel tour,” Darla ended with a smile. “Now, about Hamlet—”

“There he is.” Madison cut her short, smiling and pointing to the nearest bookshelf.
There, beneath a garland of orange jack-o’-lanterns that Darla had draped in anticipation
of Halloween, the cat was stretched at full length, snoozing. But Hamlet was not the
stereotypical scrawny Halloween scaredy-cat.

Cliché as the notion was, Darla had always thought of Hamlet as a scaled-down panther.
He was large for a domestic shorthair and solid black save for a tiny diamond of white
on his belly. His paws when fully splayed were the size of a small child’s hand, though
far more lethally equipped, since Great-Aunt Dee had not subscribed to the idea of
declawing indoor cats. And he was all muscle, as Darla was reminded of every time
she tried to dislodge him from somewhere that he didn’t belong.

Before Darla could warn her, the girl hurried over to the cat. She put out one French-manicured
hand in his direction, as if to pet him. “What a cute—”

“No!” Darla shrieked, seeing a glimmer of emerald as Hamlet opened one eye a slit.
Rushing to the shelf, she all but bodychecked the girl, and just in time. Barely was
Madison out of claws’ reach than Hamlet sprang to his feet and swiped.

Darla dodged the claws but managed to step on the girl’s foot in the process. Madison,
who had just caught her breath after being elbowed, gave a little cry of pain. Grabbing
at her crushed toes and hopping on one foot, she dropped her iPad, which gave a couple
of bounces of its own.

“Well, really,” she huffed once she’d regained her balance. Bending to retrieve the
fallen tablet, she added in a peeved tone, “If you didn’t want me to pet the darned
cat, you could have said—”

BOOK: A Novel Way to Die
12.38Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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