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 (7 page)

BOOK: Knock on Wood
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I wondered once more: How many black cats were there in Destiny?

Did I keep seeing only one? And though it—they?—never got too near, were they crossing my path?

Unfortunately, or fortunately, I'd left Pluckie next door with Millie, assuming I'd return to my store fairly quickly.

Now I wasn't so sure.

“We can fix that kind of bad luck,” I told Gemma anyway. “Why don't you go check out the cash register or do something that looks official? I'll see what I can do about all your visitors.”

“Thanks.” Her tone was soft and grateful.

As to the first visitor I tried to approach, the cat must have had its own hidden access, since by the time I edged my way over toward where I'd seen it, it had disappeared.

By then, Gemma was behind the counter looking down at the computer that, unlike at the Lucky Dog, sat on the checkout counter all the time. I wondered if the screen was blank or if she'd gotten onto the Internet to see if there was some kind of superstitious ritual she could undertake to fix things around here.

In any event, she was avoiding the table with Tarzal's books. She nevertheless glanced that way now and then, and all three men—even Frank—aimed smiles at her.

Well, I wasn't the object of their unwanted attentions. And maybe some of those attentions were, in fact, appreciated by Gemma.

The only one I was sure wasn't welcome was Frank. But the public affairs director? The book editor?

All three were whispering to one another. Loudly.

Angrily at times, or so it sounded.

Each held a
Destiny of Superstitions
book in his hands. Their professions—a politico in his usual suit, a librarian dressed less formally but still sharp, and an editor in casual clothing—left each of their pairs of hands relatively smooth and sleek, not like those of a workman. Were there any superstitions relating to hands?

Maybe I was overreacting. Or maybe I just wanted an excuse to call Justin. But I did press his number into my phone—and only got one of his underling cops. I mentioned my name and her tone grew brighter.
Uh-oh
. I wasn't sure what it meant when cops started to know who you were, but I'd worry about that later.

Right now, I left Justin a quick message about a potentially looming altercation at the Broken Mirror. Then I hung up.

“So, fellows,” I said as I drew near. “I assume you've read
The Destiny of Superstitions
many times, Stuart.” I faced the editor, and he nodded.

“That's part of my job,” he responded. With his height and athletic build, I suspected he'd win in a physical altercation with either of the others, but also figured, with his literary background, that he wouldn't take them on that way—not intentionally. “A very welcome part. I'm really glad to be here to help make sure this book remains readily available in this town.”

“Fine, then.” Frank's hazel-eyed glare at Stuart from beneath his glasses shot flames. He appeared unlikely to win a fist fight, but I suspected he was the most likely to start one. “You stay here. Run this shop. Sell some books. But stop whatever it is you're trying to convince Gemma to do. She doesn't belong here.”

“Oh, but you're wrong about that,” Lou said as smoothly as if he was discussing the town's attractions with tourists. Of all of them, I'd bet he would fare the worst in a battle of fisticuffs. But, also of all of them, I suspected he'd be best at worming his way out of it with words. He lifted the book he'd been thumbing through and pointed toward it. “The Broken Mirror needs someone in charge who knows books, and knows them well. Not just a few titles.”

He shot a somewhat condescending look toward Stuart, suggesting that an editor only knew about those books he helped to get ready for publication. In this case, one of those books was definitely the most important anyway. I didn't particularly agree with the public affairs director but wanted to hear the rest of his spiel. And had he read any books lately besides
The Destiny of Superstitions
?

“As a librarian,” Lou continued, looking at Frank, “you, of all people, must understand how marvelous the breadth of a librarian's knowledge of literature is.”

“Then maybe I should stay here and run this place.” Frank's growl elicited a worried frown on Lou's face.

“I don't think—”

“No, you don't,” Frank cut in. “You don't think. Look, I'm not sure what's going on here, but I came to this ridiculous town to bring my girl back home. And the two of you are—”

“Oh, I don't think she's your girl,” Lou interrupted, his voice raised. “In fact, I think she's the perfect person to run the Broken Mirror.” He aimed a glorious smile in Gemma's direction, but she was still, wisely, working with the computer. Lou turned back toward Frank. “And I've definitely gotten the impression from Ms. Grayfield that she wants you to leave. Now.” His tone had suddenly turned ominous.

Frank took a step closer to the director, not easy to do around the jutting table. Stuart appeared ready to intervene, and I wasn't sure of the potential outcome.

“Hey, fellows,” I said, intervening myself. “I've already called the police chief. He's on his way.”

I wasn't sure of that, but I certainly hoped so.

A group of customers walked in, chatting amiably. I knew Gemma had been watching—and listening. And sensibly staying away. But now, as at least today's manager in charge, she had to go meet the people who wanted to buy books.

All three men seemed to converge on her.

“Stay away from me,” she all but hissed, then, shooting a panicked look toward me, turned her back on us and approached the customers.

“You know, guys,” I said, “Gemma has been my friend for a long time. I suspect that acting this way will make her hate all of you.”

“Oh, I don't think all of us,” Lou said in his smooth voice again, irritating the heck out of me.

Before I could comment further, though, I considered giving a sigh of relief. The cavalry had arrived.

But not the help I'd hoped for. Instead of Justin, Detective Alice Numa strode through the door.

“I got word of a potential altercation,” she said, walking toward us. “What's going on?”

Her eyes were on Lou Landorf, not me.

“So glad to see you, Detective,” he said, smiling and holding out his hands as if he wanted to grasp hers.

Something in her gaze momentarily looked warm and pleased, but then she turned toward Frank. “I don't know you, sir, but I understand you're making threats against Ms. Grayfield, who is helping out at this store. Is that true?”

She glanced toward Gemma, who had left the customers near the table containing
The Destiny of Superstitions
and joined us.

“I'm afraid so,” she said, then aimed a pleading glance toward Frank. “Please just go home. There's nothing for you here.”

“We'll just see about that.” He looked straight at Lou, pivoted to glare at Stuart, then at me and, at last, he strode from the shop.

I stared after him, then glanced toward Gemma. She looked beaten. The others must have thought so too. Stuart approached and took her hands sympathetically.

Lou intervened, putting an arm around her shoulders and giving a squeeze. “So sorry that man is making things difficult for you, my dear.”

Alice just watched, her expression unreadable. “Well, at least things look better around here now,” she said.

“Yes, thanks to you,” Gemma said. “It's lucky that you came here. And right now I need to go back and help those customers.” She didn't move right away, though.

“I'm a cop,” Alice said, glaring at her. “Superstitions around here or not, I'm just doing my job.”

That was when Justin walked in. “Everything all right here?” His head turned as he appeared to take in the entire shop.

“It is now, thanks to Detective Numa,” I said, wanting to give her credit.

She nodded toward me in acknowledgment of my so-true compliment.

“Yes, Detective, you have helped out here tremendously,” Lou said. He still stood right beside Gemma.

“Like I said, I'm just doing my job.” Alice's gaze moved from Gemma's face to Lou's, then took in the rest of us one-by-one.

Then she, too, left the store.

eight

I wasn't sure whether
there were any superstitions about life settling into a routine, but Gemma's and mine surprisingly seemed to do so over the next few days.

With Pluckie at my feet, I joined Gemma each night just before bedtime in her chintz-decorated and quaint room at the bed and breakfast to talk over the day. Our discussion after the meeting-slash-confrontation at the Broken Mirror was mostly about Gemma's combined excitement and trepidation. And, yes, we touched on her attitude about all three guys who were the men in her life for the moment.

She was worried about Frank and what he was up to since he hadn't left.

She was attracted to Stuart, both professionally and as a potential romantic interest.

And she was a bit bemused about Lou and his interest in her—and the fact she actually wanted to get to know him better too.

My opinion? Despite her denial, I suspected she'd previously been harboring a hope that Frank could be the one, so her emotions remained in disarray since she'd determined he wasn't. I had no idea if she'd develop an ongoing relationship with Stuart, or even Lou, but I was glad she had the distractions from Frank and his current nastiness.

Our discussions also focused on Justin and me at times. Yes, I really did think I was developing a relationship of sorts with the handsome, kind, and dedicated police chief, which meant I was finally reaching some degree of closure about losing Warren, even though I hadn't completely accepted whether his walking under a ladder had anything to do with it. Since I now lived in Destiny, I was perfectly willing to tell anyone who asked that of course the superstition had been involved. But inside? I remained skeptical, at least somewhat.

When we weren't on the subject of men, we discussed superstitions and Destiny and our shops and their relationship to the town. And how much we did—or mostly didn't—miss L.A.

After our discussions ended, Pluckie and I would go to our pretty much identical room and go to sleep. We'd all get up in the mornings and have a regular B&B breakfast with Stuart after I walked Pluckie. Then we would head to our shops.

Each day was, of course, somewhat different. The Lucky Dog Boutique nearly always seemed to be busy, which was a good thing. Tourists who'd been in town for a few days often mentioned my “Black Dogs and Black Cats” presentation, but even if they didn't, most of our customers came to Destiny with their dogs or their wistful tales of the pets who waited for them at home. They all bought a lot of superstition-related pet items, including the horseshoe-shaped dog treats we had just started carrying. I was also considering adding more to our inventory too.

When things slowed a bit and I had Millie or Jeri or both, and sometimes even Martha, to help out, I'd take Pluckie's leash and not only give her a quick walk outside to relieve herself but also visit the Broken Mirror Bookstore.

Gemma seemed to be getting used to it just fine. As with all shops in Destiny, the bookstore was filled with customers nearly all the time. And since the bookstore's primary book,
The Destiny of Superstitions
, seemed synonymous with the town, it was probably the busiest store around.

Gemma handled the busyness just fine. She slid from one customer to another, offering help and suggestions as well as, or even better than, I'd advised her to do. Plus, Stuart remained around and seemed to act as her assistant as much as Jeri and Millie acted as mine.

Non-customers also stopped in to visit at times, including when I was there. Some were other shopkeepers who wanted to introduce themselves or offer assistance, such as my buddy Carolyn Innes of the button store. Carolyn and I sometimes talked about adding a touch of each other's inventory to our stores but hadn't done so yet. As far as I knew, she hadn't suggested it to Gemma, but buttons and books might not go together as well as buttons and dog paraphernalia that included clothes.

Once, even Detective Alice Numa came in. She asked for a recommendation on a book about superstitions other than Tarzal's and bought the one Gemma suggested. Gemma seemed as surprised as I was, but of course the detective needed to know as much about superstitions as possible to do her job of solving crimes in this special town. I had to wonder, though, why she hadn't read that one before.

A couple of times when I was there, Frank Shoreston came in. Gemma told me that her sort-of ex visited at least a couple of times a day, and even, occasionally, bought a book. Mostly, he acted as if he was browsing or even sat on the floor reading while keeping a close watch on Gemma. It wasn't an overt threat, but neither did it make her feel good. Still, she told me not to call Justin or other cops as long as Frank continued to behave well and not cause disruptions other than simply being present.

Gemma also told me that city elders came in often to say hi to her patrons, make sure she felt comfortable there, and tell visitors how wonderful
The Destiny of Superstitions
was. Sometimes it was Mayor Bevin Dermot who came, and sometimes P.A. Director Lou Landorf, and sometimes both—but most often it was Lou who came in and encouraged her, by knocking on wood on her behalf and also complimenting her often on how she was handling the shop … and he was flirting a lot too.

The store's owners encouraged her as well. Nancy Tarzal seemed to have been chosen by the others as their designated representative, but the Brownlings also visited often. They were all super encouraging, Gemma said; it was as if they wanted her to succeed so they could comfortably leave town. But there were days when Nancy hung out watching Gemma nearly all the time. Asking questions. Making Gemma uncomfortable, even while encouraging her.

“I understand,” Gemma told me that busy Saturday afternoon as she took a quick break from waiting on a family of five looking at children's books on good luck and what it meant. “I stay calm and friendly and keep her aware that I'm learning more all the time, including about bookkeeping and inventory procedures, thanks to you and Stuart. She seems appreciative and even, sometimes, apologetic—like she can't wait to be able to stop.”

“Then you're settling in here enough to agree to stay?” I didn't show her, but my fingers were crossed, both literally and figuratively. Having my good friend here had been really great so far, and I was sure it would only get better.

“That's still a little premature,” she said, “but at this point I think the answer's yes.”

She had agreed to go with me that night to the Destiny Welcome, the first to be held since she'd arrived in town. After closing our stores at seven that night we dashed back to the B&B to change clothes and so I could leave Pluckie up in my room. As much as Destiny loved dogs, especially lucky ones, and they were invited to other appropriate presentations at the Break-a-Leg Theater, they weren't necessarily welcome at the Welcome program. And although I sometimes left Pluckie with Serina, our hostess wasn't available that night.

Martha had decided not to come this time, so I didn't have to be concerned about her getting there and back.

There wasn't much time to eat but Gemma and I grabbed sandwiches from the Wishbones-to-Go shop and ate them on our way as we walked. We entered the theater with the rest of the huge crowd. We found seats at the end of a row on the far side of the auditorium and settled in, waiting for the Welcome to begin.

I listened a bit to the background music, especially when the song “Lucky Ladybug” began to play. I'd not been familiar with it until I'd come to Destiny, but I enjoyed how many superstitions it mentioned.

As always when I visited this theater, or nearly any other place in town, I also watched to see who else was there. Most looked like tourists, chattering and pointing at the theater's updated decor and, delightfully, carrying bags containing some of the superstition-
related Destiny treasures they'd already bought. How did I know that? Well, some pulled things out of the bags to show them off to their friends. Others looked familiar to me—patrons of the Lucky Dog Boutique.

And, yes, I recognized some as having attended my talk here a few days ago.

It also wasn't surprising to me when some familiar people made their way through the door, including Carolyn Innes, who took a seat in the row ahead of us and turned so she could chat with us.

Much as I enjoyed Carolyn and her latest tales of dazzling her customers about button superstitions, I was even more interested when two men, who came in around the same time but separately, scanned the audience and let their gazes fall on us.

Rather, on Gemma.

One was Frank, and I held my breath and crossed my fingers that the few remaining seats around us would be filled faster than he could get here.

To my delight—and Gemma's even more, I was sure—Stuart, the other man who'd also come in, was faster than Frank and managed to maneuver to sit right beside Gemma.

They started talking, and although I continued my conversation with Carolyn, my eyes kept watch over the doorway.

I noticed Frank's scowl, but he didn't head in our direction. Instead, he walked down the steps and took a seat several rows in front of us.

I looked back at the door—and, sure enough, Justin soon entered, along with Alice Numa, a guy in a suit, and some other uniformed Destiny cops. Were they on duty tonight? It didn't matter. Just the sight of them should help to keep things under control here.

Of course things had always seemed relatively peaceful to me at Destiny Welcomes, except for the time when poor, now-deceased Tarzal had knocked over a bottle of milk, spilled it—definitely bad luck for him—and slipped on it.

The red plush curtains in front of us were rolled back to reveal the raised wooden stage, and the overhead lights facing it were turned on. “Welcome, welcome,” shouted a voice from that stage. It was a little hard to hear since the speaker, Lou Landorf, wasn't using a microphone. He must have noticed it, too, since he yelled, “Sorry folks. Forgot something. I'll be right back.” He knelt, knocked on the wooden stage, then walked off again.

“Isn't there a superstition about going somewhere but having to go back for something being bad luck?” Gemma had turned toward me, her soft brown eyes looking concerned. Like me, she was still dressed as she had been at her store that day—a nice button-down librarian pink shirt over beige slacks in her case, and a Lucky Dog T-shirt over jeans in mine.

“That's right,” said Stuart from over her shoulder. “But maybe he took care of it by knocking on wood—like always.” He, like Gemma, was dressed in business casual—and he'd have been a better candidate to answer her question in the first place. With his reading and editing, he was more of an expert on Destiny and its superstitions—although if the question had been pet-related I undoubtedly knew more.

I again looked toward the door and my eyes caught Justin's, but he looked away quickly as the cops who accompanied him pointed out some seats at the rear corner of the auditorium and they all started in that direction.

At least I should get an opportunity to say hello to him later.

Another minute went by, and then not only the p.a. director but Mayor Bevin Dermot, too, were back on the stage. Bevin now held the microphone and the house lights were turned down.

“Welcome, everyone,” he said into it—and it was so loud at first that I cringed and figured everyone else there did too. But he fumbled with the gadget in his hand and his next words sounded just loud enough. “This is the Destiny Welcome, and we're all—everyone in Destiny, whether with us tonight or not—we're all delighted that you're here in our very special town.”

“Hear, hear,” said his companion Lou, leaning over to talk into the microphone too.

“Now, for those of you who've never been to a Destiny Welcome before, let me tell you a little about it as well as that special town of ours.” Standing in the middle of the stage, his leprechaun personality demonstrated by his green suit and hat and air of mischievousness, Bevin began to talk about Destiny and the now-familiar description of its founding by the forty-niners who'd discovered a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow and decided to give homage to their luck by creating this town, dedicated to superstitions. They'd chosen this location thanks to seeing a second rainbow, but its end had been way up in the mountains overlooking this area. That place was the subject of many Destiny tours but it was too remote and craggy for this town to be located there.

No, Destiny's destiny had been developed here by its founders, in a nice, relatively flat area where tourists could easily visit.

Previously, the Welcome had been all but presided over by Kenneth Tarzal, the author of
The Destiny of Superstitions
, with assistance from his business partner Preston Kunningham, but now that they were gone it was mostly the mayor who led the meeting and any resulting discussion.

Other townsfolk had stepped in too. My buddy Carolyn Innes had taken charge once, and I'd also surprisingly enjoyed the local news angle described by Derek and Celia Vardox, the brother and sister who owned the town's newspaper, the
Destiny Star
.

They hadn't mentioned the fire they had at their offices, though, after their initial attempt to conduct interviews about what had happened in the investigation into Tarzal's murder and the evidence of the bad luck that would befall anyone who dared to violate the local command not to discuss it, let alone toss it into the media.

Tonight was the first time, other than at my own little talk, that I'd seen Lou on the stage, since he'd been traveling during all of the Welcomes I'd attended. In fact, I hadn't even known he existed till this week.

But now he clearly wanted to take charge. He remained in one spot while Bevin paced, watching him as if he were a cat preparing to pounce.

Or maybe that was just my impression since I enjoy animals. At least he didn't resemble a black cat. Lou wore a cream-colored suit that night, with a red shirt and busily decorated tie, although I was too far away to see what was depicted on it. His hair was light, and although it was thinning it had been combed up enough that if he resembled an actual cat at all, it would be a fuzzy golden one.

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