Read Knock on Wood Online

Authors: Linda O. Johnston

Tags: #mystery, #mystery novel, #mystery fiction, #soft-boiled, #cozy, #pets, #dog, #luck, #superstition, #fate, #destiny, #linda johnson, #linda johnston, #linda o. johnson, #lost under a ladder

Knock on Wood (4 page)

BOOK: Knock on Wood
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four

To my surprise, when
we reached the potentially contentious group all was calm.

Apparently that was because Director Lou had issued an invitation. “We're having a post-presentation party. A great one.” He turned to the wall beside him and once again knocked on wood. “We're all heading to the Clinking Glass Saloon for a little nightcap. Care to join us?”

I glanced toward Gemma. Sure enough, Frank was beside her.

“Maybe it's not—” I began, catching her eye.

“It's a wonderful idea,” she said firmly. She looked up toward Frank. “There's still a lot I don't know about Destiny, and having drinks with people with insight might help to remedy that—for me, and for my good friend Frank who's also come to check the place out.”

His face seemed to whiten as he merely nodded at the implied invitation—possibly because he'd been described as a good friend and nothing closer.

“Okay.” I turned to look at Justin. “I hope you'll join us too.”

“Sure.” He caught my eyes with his. Oh, yeah. Having a drink or two with him, even with the others around, was bound to be fun.

“I hope I'm also invited.” I pivoted toward the sound of the familiar voice to my right. Carolyn Innes, owner of the Buttons of Fortune shop and my closest new female friend in Destiny, stood there. I'd glimpsed her in the audience before when she'd said hi to Martha, then sat down with a few other shop owners, but I hadn't seen her when my talk was over.

“Absolutely,” I said, without bothering to check with the others around us, who included the mayor and Stuart Chanick. “I hope at least some of you will join Pluckie and me on the outside patio.”

Nearly everyone in this impromptu party agreed except for Frank. If he chose to go inside while this group remained with me, maybe that would be for the best.

I saw Millie wheeling Martha toward the exit door and told them about the upcoming festivity. “I'd be glad to take you there, Martha,” Millie said. “But I won't be able to stay.”

I'd learned before that although Millie looked like a teenager, she was a little older—emphasis on a little. She was twenty, so she still was too young to frequent bars. Her pretty face was youthful, her dark brown hair was in a soft, straight style, and I could have hugged her for wearing a red Lucky Dog T-shirt here.

“No, thanks,” Martha said. “I'm a little tired and just want to go home.” She seemed in some ways the opposite of Millie, with silver hair and lines crinkling her aging face. But she'd been the first person I'd met in Destiny, and I remained impressed with her keep-on-going attitude despite her health issues. “I'll take a rain check if you ever do it again after one of your talks, Rory.”

“Absolutely,” I said. I watched as Millie wheeled her out the door, then joined some of my fellow partiers as they, too, left the theater.

Although the Clinking Glass was several blocks down Destiny Boulevard, nothing was terribly far away in this compact city's downtown. The group seemed eager to get to our destination, so we quickly passed Millie and Martha. Luckily, we could see under the glow emanating from the modern streetlights designed to resemble lanterns from the Gold Rush Era so that most of us could avoid sidewalk cracks.

As usual, those sidewalks were filled with tourists, but we still managed to reach the Clinking Glass fairly quickly. The tavern was crowded but most people congregated in the dark bar area inside. The outdoor patio was relatively empty and that's where I headed with Pluckie. Everyone else joined us, even Frank. As I'd noticed when here before, the patio was a lot quieter than the rest of the place, too, which could encourage conversations.

I chose a seat near the railing at the patio's edge. The tables were small and round and made of wood. I imagined that Lou would be glad. It hadn't escaped my notice that our public affairs director loved to knock on wood for any reason at all.

He took a seat at a table next to mine. Stuart and Bevin joined him, and, somewhat to my surprise, so did Gemma.

Not that I was lonesome. Justin, who'd joined Pluckie and me for the walk here, sat down at our table too. So did Carolyn.

Detective Alice Numa had gone the other direction after we'd gotten the invitation to party from Mayor Bevin before leaving the Break-a-Leg Theater. I assumed that, since all in this group was now under control, she didn't feel she needed to hang out with us. I wouldn't mind getting to know her better, I supposed, but I hadn't liked her attitude before when she'd been interrogating everyone. Remaining distant acquaintances, too, was fine with me.

I knew there was a difficult case that she was mostly in charge of. She was investigating the death a few weeks ago of a tourist after an apparent fall from a trailway up in the nearby mountains where town visitors often ventured. It was likely to be deemed an accident from what I'd heard, although the friends who had accompanied Sherman Ambridge to Destiny understandably remained shaken and upset and apparently said they didn't know what had happened either. They hadn't been with him at the time.

The guy had been a frequent tourist here and apparently loved superstitions. He and his friends had even been considering opening a store here.

Locals were demanding a resolution—including an official explanation. Had it been simple bad luck? If so, why? Or could he have been pushed—and by whom?

Having a visitor die here with no definitive reason was likely to negatively affect Destiny's tourism. In fact, it might have already. Some motels and inns had reported cancellations of reservations. Death of a tourist? No explanation?

No way.

Sure, there was that other situation relating to Tarzal's murder. No one could talk about that without incurring bad luck. But that involved locals, not tourists, and it hadn't seemed to affect the number of visitors here.

The tourist's death remained discussable, and apparently a lot of people wanted it finally resolved. The whole Destiny Police Department was under pressure to find answers. And most especially the head detective on the case, Alice.

Maybe she was heading back to the station to work on it—but that was just speculation. It was late. Maybe she just didn't want to party.

The rest of us did, though, or so I believed.

Because there were only four chairs at each table, I wasn't surprised when Frank, after staring glumly at the table where Gemma now sat, took a seat near me.

At the table at the far side of Gemma's sat the three heirs to the Broken Mirror Bookstore. I was a little surprised that they sat together since the two factions seemed at odds over what to do with the store. But having them share space while drinking might indicate a willingness to find some way to compromise. I hoped. I didn't just want the Broken Mirror to survive because it was the Lucky Dog's next door neighbor. I had also grown fond of Destiny and thought it important to have a venue here that focused on selling those special books of Tarzal's about superstitions—and Destiny's role in teaching people about them.

Before ordering, those at my table discussed what we wanted. Both men selected drinks with hard liquor. Justin was off duty now and chose a scotch and soda, which seemed to be one of his favorite drinks. He'd ordered it before when I'd been with him. And I suspected that Frank wouldn't mind it at all if he got drunk on his Bacardi neat.

Carolyn and I wanted wine. We chose a cabernet of interesting vintage from the menu and decided to split a carafe.

“We'll need to be careful how we pass it to one another, though,” Carolyn said.

A server approached us. It appeared to be the same guy who'd waited on me here before, thin, in a white button-down shirt and a short white apron over his trousers. He took our orders, then left.

When he was gone, Carolyn started divulging wine-related superstitions. “We've both got to pass the carafe back and forth with our right hands,” she said. “That's good luck to each of us.”

“Just don't spill it,” Justin said. “That's bad luck.”

“Not always,” Carolyn contradicted. “If you spill it while toasting, it's good luck. And the Greeks apparently think spilling it at any time is good.” She turned her gaze from Justin to me. “One thing, though. If I want to get you drunk on just one glass of wine I'll need to shave a few slivers off your fingernails to drop in your glass.”

I grinned, holding out my hand so everyone could look at my neatly shaped and polished but short fingernails. “Good luck getting anything off,” I said.

We all laughed. Or at least three of us did. Frank managed a weak smile, at least.

“Maybe I should try getting some slivers from Pluckie,” Carolyn said, looking down toward the patio surface.

At her name, my little dog woke and sat up alertly, looking at me as if waiting for a command—or, more likely, a treat.

“Good girl,” I said, patting her head. I'd ordered a bowl of water for her from our server, and he soon brought it, even before the drinks for the rest of us. I also had some treats along but didn't intend to give them to Pluckie immediately.

When our drinks were finally served, those at my table clinked glasses, even Frank. I'd only taken a couple of sips when Gemma rose and came over to clink glasses too. How appropriate, I thought, for all of us, considering the name of this bar.

But Gemma had joined us with an additional motive. “Can I talk to you for a second, Rory?”

I rose and excused myself, handing Pluckie's leash over to Justin and bending to give my dog a treat so I could escape for what I was sure would exceed a second—or even sixty of them.

“What's up?” I asked Gemma.

She grinned. “Stuart has been checking out the Destiny Library and is going to give me a tour tomorrow. Lou also intends to be there. He knows the librarian in charge and wants to introduce me. Would you like to come too?”

“I'd love to if I can,” I said. “What time?”

“Lou said around
11
:
00
a.m. Is that okay with you?”

I pondered for a moment. Only Jeri would be at the shop assisting me tomorrow, and she'd be there in the morning before heading to her family's gift shop to work. But I trusted her to do fine on her own.

“Sure,” I said.

“Good. We can talk about it more tonight at the B&B, but I wanted to have a sense for who'd be there.” We were both still holding our wine glasses, which we clinked again, and I took a sip of the deliciously tart red cabernet as I resumed my seat.

Justin's look asked me what the discussion had been about, but it wasn't appropriate to explain in front of Frank. That was okay. I knew Justin would walk Gemma and me back to the B&B tonight, while Frank's accommodations at the Black Cat Inn would take him in a different direction when we reached Fate Street.

For now, I just smiled at Justin, trying to convey silent assurance that we'd talk later.

His return smile was darned sexy.

Maybe it was a good thing that Gemma would be with me on that walk and staying at the same facility.

Or maybe it wasn't such a good thing, I thought, as Justin returned Pluckie's leash to me, still watching my face—and prolonging his touch to my hand before he let go.

five

The Destiny Library was
gorgeous inside and out, I thought the next day as I entered it for the first time. I'd passed it before while visiting the Destiny civic center without going in, but now I could examine it from many angles.

It was behind the police station, on Golden Road. Its architecture, unsurprisingly, matched the rest of the town—California Gold Rush eclectic. It was built of stone, four stories high, with curves and vaulted windows and a look that shouted of its wonderful history.

Maybe. It was so well preserved inside, without looking remodeled like the theater did, that I wondered whether it had been built more recently than most of the local structures but styled to match them.

No matter. I was a pet store professional, not a librarian, but found the place amazing. Judging by Gemma's awed stare as she pivoted to look around, she did too.

The front door opened into a large, high-ceilinged room with filled bookshelves lining all the walls. Even if I was wrong and the place had been founded around the same time as the rest of the town, it didn't have old-fashioned card catalogs but rows of tables with computers on them that undoubtedly displayed files of what books the library carried.

Gemma had arrived about the same time I did. She hadn't eaten at the B&B but had been taken out to breakfast by Lou and Stuart. I was curious about how that had gone since they both seemed interested in her. I'd have to ask her later, and how they fit in with her campaign to meet new men. I'd also press her to tell me the final straw in her breakup with Frank, which she had hinted about.

Gemma wore a tailored silvery gray dress today that made her look like a librarian—not a big surprise since she was one, and she'd known she was about to visit a venue that could feel like home. And me? As nearly always these days, I wore jeans with a Lucky Dog T-shirt over them, green today.

I'd left Pluckie at the store in Jeri's capable care. I didn't know if dogs were welcome at the library and wanted to be sure I could hang around to join whatever discussion was apparently about to be held here.

It was early enough in the morning that there weren't a lot of patrons present, although a couple of librarians—a young woman and an older man—sat behind the checkout desk staring at their computer screens.

Were there any superstitions involving libraries? I didn't know, but I'd have bet the people who worked here did. Maybe Gemma did too. In any event, there were several table displays of books about superstitions, including
The Destiny of Superstitions
.

Gemma had stopped near the door, and I approached her. I didn't see either of her breakfast companions.

“Oh, Rory.” The smile that lit up her soft brown eyes was huge. “Guess what. They had something to discuss with me. Lou seemed to think they needed another librarian here.”

“You?”

She nodded.

I looked around, feeling excitement rise inside me. “Would you really consider working here, in Destiny?” I'd been making friends in town, but how great it would be if my closest pal was around too. We could get together often. We could talk about everything, just like we used to—even superstitions.

I'd learned quite a bit about superstitions and why people did and didn't believe in them, but my opinion about their validity seemed to vary with whatever happened to be going on around me. Mostly. But I still sought answers. Gemma could be a great help in seeking them with me.

And the fact that she seemed, out of the blue, to have morphed from a sweet and quiet librarian to a man-hunting vamp? I was sure I needed to know more about her breakup with Frank to understand that.

“I don't know how long I might stay here,” she said, “but the idea's intriguing.” She glanced toward the door. “Here they come. Look, Rory, I'd have jumped at the opportunity in a second yesterday, when I essentially ran away from Frank after he started acting so horribly. And, yes, I owe you a better explanation.” She must have read the inquisitiveness in my expression. “But since he caught up with me here,” she continued, “and isn't acting like as much of a jerk as I was afraid he was … well, I may just prefer going home. Oh, and visiting you here often.” She must have also read the disappointment on my face. We knew each other so well—usually.

“Hi, Gemma. You ready for your tour and more?” That was Lou Landorf. He wore a blue plaid jacket over his dark trousers, and a contrasting striped necktie. He didn't look any more formal than the mayor, who wasn't with him, but neither did he appear to be attempting to look like a leprechaun. He approached Gemma with his hands out and grasped both of hers in a gesture that seemed more intimate than a simple handshake, while giving her the toothy grin I'd seen previously.

Gemma just smiled back, then looked toward me. I was standing right beside her, and Lou hadn't even glanced my way before.

“Oh, hello, Rory,” he said. His grin was less pronounced as he aimed it at me, but he at least made an attempt to look friendly.

“Hi, Lou,” I said enthusiastically, more to see his reaction than anything else.

All he did was turn, as if he was aware that, coming up behind him toward where we stood near the catalog computers, were Stuart Chanick and all three bookstore heirs. We exchanged greetings, and I continued to act friendly despite being torn with curiosity. Where was the head librarian? One of those who sat behind the desk? Surely that would be the person to offer Gemma a job here.

“Let's go into another room,” Lou finally said. “After Stuart and I had breakfast with you, we all began talking.” He nodded toward the bookstore heirs. “And now there's even more to talk about. I called ahead and reserved a room for us.”

With a slight salute toward the male librarian who was now watching us, Lou led us past the row of computers and through an arched doorway at the far side of the long room. The room he took us into was small but also had bookshelves lining the walls. I observed that they were California history books with library call numbers primarily in the
979
s. Besides the books on superstitions, I assumed these would be the next most popular ones the library carried. They were mostly about Gold Rush days.

A rectangular table filled the center of the room, and Lou directed us all to sit around it. I took a seat beside Gemma, still wondering why, if she was to be offered a librarian's position, these people were the ones meeting with her. Maybe that meeting would come later.

“Now, then,” Lou said as he joined us at the table. “I think you've already met Nancy Tarzal and the Brownlings, haven't you?”

Gemma nodded.

All three seemed fairly dressed up, even the Brownlings, who'd given me the impression when I'd met them yesterday that chic clothing wasn't important to them. Today, Edie wore slacks and a black T-shirt, with a colorful scarf draped around her neck, and her husband Brandon wore a loose red vest over his blue shirt. Nancy again wore her stiletto shoes, but today her dress was white and hugged what curves her tall and slender body had.

“Stuart, you sit there.” Lou gestured toward a seat next to him. Stuart, dressed in a white shirt and nice navy slacks, complied.

“Now,” Lou said, “I'm hoping we're all going to have a very productive meeting.” He lifted his right hand with its fingers crossed. “And that everyone agrees on what I'm about to suggest.” This time, he knocked on the surface of the wooden table in front of him.

Judging by attire and the way all the others deferred to the public affairs director to run things, I knew this was a business meeting of some kind. But what kind?

Most likely it was the discussion they wanted to hold that Stuart had mentioned yesterday, about where the bookstore would be going and potentially how to get there.

Should I have brought Pluckie after all? My black and white dog might be what Gemma needed here for good luck.

She and I waited, as Lou looked first at the Brownlings, then at Nancy, and finally at Stuart. Then he said, “The five of us have met about this before: What is going to happen to the Broken Mirror Bookstore now that its original owners aren't with us? And I once again offer my condolences.”

“As do the rest of us,” I inserted, looking at Gemma, then Stuart, who both nodded.

All three of those who had recently lost family members looked around and thanked us. I could imagine how they must feel, since I had lost my Warren. But none of us could talk to them more specifically about their losses and their pain.

Lou took control again. “I believe that the agenda of all of you, including Stuart, is not only to keep the store going but also to make sure that books on superstitions, especially Kenneth Tarzal's, continue to be sold here in Destiny and elsewhere too. Did you know that the bookstore does a very good online business as well?” He glanced toward me, then Gemma. His eyes remained on her as he continued. “And it's really important that the right person runs it.”

This was the discussion I'd anticipated and more. I suddenly had a very good idea of where it might be heading. But was Gemma the right person to ask?

Hell, yes. My good friend knew books, backward and forward, inside and out. She was also learning about superstitions.

But did she know the retail business?

She, too, had apparently figured out what was coming. But why hadn't Lou mentioned the possibility before? Why was he blindsiding her?

“You all know, don't you, that I'm a librarian?” Gemma asked. “I thought that was what I was meeting about here—a possible job at the Destiny Library.”

“We want you to manage the bookstore, Gemma,” Edie said earnestly. “Lou called us this morning after his breakfast with you—although we'd discussed the possibility yesterday. He told us how well your breakfast meeting went. We know your background doesn't necessarily include selling books for money, but as a librarian you must have ‘sold' books to your patrons for what they were looking to learn, right?”

“Well, yes, but—”

“Maybe this isn't such a good idea after all,” Nancy said. “We should think about this a little more. Maybe we could find someone to buy out our interests. Or even if we had to shut the store down—”

“No one is going to shut down the Broken Mirror Bookstore,” roared Lou, standing up quickly. “None of you, or you'll all be sorry. Destiny will sue you, or we'll figure out something worse, like bad luck forever.” He glared at the three heirs. “Now, we talked about this even before the potentially perfect manager happened to come to town. Stuart is an editor now but he used to be a bookstore manager in New York, and he can hang around initially to help. And with Gemma, it's even better than we'd hoped. Rory, who runs the Lucky Dog Boutique, is her friend, right?” For the first time, he did more than acknowledge that I happened to be present.

I nodded. “Yes, I could help. But it has to be Gemma's decision. Assuming that I understand what's going on here.”

“Look, we miss our son,” Brandon said. “But we're trying to be realistic here. We want to hire a book expert to manage the Broken Mirror.” He looked at Gemma. “And we think we've met the right manager.”

“I agree.” Stuart's eyes met Gemma's, and I saw the mutual attraction there that, perhaps more than anything else, might convince Gemma to stay—especially with this man hanging around at first to help.

But was it a good idea?

“If she accepts the position, she'd be working there to help all three of you,” I said, butting in before Gemma could say anything and acting somewhat as her agent. “I gather that the relationship among you isn't very cordial. I wouldn't want my friend to step into a situation where not only did she have to learn a partially new profession but, to do so, she had to walk on thin ice to please her new bosses—and maybe even act as their mediator. If she's officially offered this position and accepts, there has to be a promise of professionalism among you, at least in your dealings with her.”

Gemma looked at me, her mouth pursed as she nodded. “What she said,” she told the group.

“I'll tell you what,” Stuart said. “While I'm around helping out, all meetings will need to include me. If things get dicey I'll help to find a solution—which may include allowing Gemma to bow out gracefully if things get difficult for her.”

“We recognize this is sudden,” Lou said, “but we only met Gemma yesterday and got this idea then. We also had to consider it further and run it by all of you.” He paused, then spoke again. “You're willing to offer her the job under those conditions, right?” He demanded this of apparently everyone in the room, since he looked from one to the other, even at me. He was seated again, but his expression was grim—even as he once again crossed his fingers.

Under other circumstances, that might have looked ludicrous, and I might have laughed.

But this was Destiny. And Gemma's destiny, at least for the near future, might depend on superstitions, as mine did.

At least the aura of bad luck hadn't seemed to affect the bookstore itself, nor its new owners, but just those who attempted to talk about the fate of the prior owners. And certainly those prior owners themselves. But at least that shouldn't be Gemma's worry.

“Let's have a meeting at the store this afternoon,” she said. “The three of you plus Stuart. Lou, I appreciate your efforts to convince me for the good of Destiny, and at this moment I'm thinking favorably about the opportunity—even though it's far from the position of librarian that I came here today about, assuming it was going to be offered to me. But if all goes well this afternoon, then I'll probably accept.”

Lou stood and clapped so loudly despite his still-crossed fingers that I saw the male librarian's head come through the door. “Hear, hear,” he said. “Thank you, Gemma. And thank you all. And, of course, my fingers will remain crossed until I hear that all has been worked out and Gemma will be running the store. Which she will. She has to.” He crossed his fingers on his left hand, even as he knocked on the wooden table with his right.

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