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Authors: Joan Hess

Strangled Prose

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Contents

Title Page

Copyright Notice

Dedication

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Also by Joan Hess

Other titles from St. Martin's Minotaur Mysteries

Copyright

 

For my parents, with love and respect

ONE

There is no place for a body in the little office at the back of my bookstore—not even mine. With a concerted effort and a great deal of grunting and shoving, I had managed to squeeze in a small wooden desk, two chairs, and a dented filing cabinet with two drawers. That left very little floor space, but it did give me a place to pretend to do the necessary managerial duties. I love books; I hate bookkeeping—except in a whimsical sense.

The Book Depot is in a renovated train depot; hence, the uninspired but accurate name. The red brick building was the focal point of the town until the late 1940s, when the last passenger train rumbled into the sunset. After that it was used by the railway agents who dealt with occasional freight trains. Those, too, finally found another route, and the building was abandoned.

A white-haired elf named Grimaldi bought the building when the final train withered on the track. He spent what money he had for remodeling, then ordered the inventory, put up his sign, and promptly fell dead with a stroke. Mrs. Grimaldi sold me the store on her way to Florida.

Now it is mine, and like a marriage, the relationship is not dependable. But I love the musty corners, the flaking plaster, and the memories of a happier time. I have always known that I ought to own a bookstore, if only to have access to a satisfactory source of books. The cramped office goes with the job; it must have provided some comfort to the shivering agent, since the boiler rarely did. The boiler is still with me, but I have contemplated a divorce.

I was sitting in said office, surrounded by ledgers and stacks of invoices as I tried to arrive at a quarterly tax estimate that would fall somewhere between despair and credibility. When the bell above the front door tinkled, I abandoned the grim figures and went to the front of the store.

Mildred Twiller hesitated in the doorway, twisting a bit of Irish lace in her hand. “Claire, I need to speak to you—if you're not too busy?” Her voice tinkled like the bell above her head, delicate yet impossible to ignore.

I studied her nervously. Mildred reminds me of a snowman made of marshmallows, superficially soft but with a core of ice. She is short and sweet, with small, round eyes and a ladylike mouth carefully outlined in red. Two patches of pink had been brushed onto her alabaster cheeks. She was wearing a fluttery linen dress that murmured money to those who listened to such things, a large-brimmed hat, and her signature, a collection of bright silk scarves. She looked as if she were a silver-haired gypsy with a hefty income.

“Wonderful,” I said, despising my weakness for the woman. She and I are from different worlds, but I like her. I brushed a layer of dust off my faded jeans and said, “Come on back to the office and we'll have coffee while we talk.”

“I really don't want to interrupt you,” she said in a self-deprecatory voice. “You must be terribly busy. I simply wanted to let you know that my newest book will be out in a few weeks.” She resisted an urge to pirouette, but I could see the inner struggle.

“No, I can use a break, Mildred. The coffee is already made. Come on back and sit down for a minute.”

We went to the office. Mildred looked at the chair uneasily, no doubt wondering if there was a tactful way to dust it with her handkerchief. I poured the coffee, handed her a mug, and perched on the corner of the desk. Like Macbeth, I sensed trouble.

“I was hoping you might have a little reception when the book arrives,” Mildred chirped. Her eyes bored into me in silent command. “I'll supply the refreshments, naturally, and the invitations. I simply don't think it quite nice for me to have a party honoring me. People might think I was being a teensy boastful.”

I pretended to consider it for a minute, then shook my head in a show of regret, which I felt not one little bit. “I'd love to host the reception, Mildred, but I really don't have enough room for a horde of people. Why don't you have the reception on campus? That way, no one will have to be left out, and—”

“I've always felt it vital to help my friends,” Mildred cut in, as if I hadn't been so rude as to contradict her plan. “It's clear to Douglas and me that your little store isn't doing very well these days. We feel responsible for you, dear, and I am willing to limit my guest list to allow for the available space in order to help you.”

“How will your reception help me?” I said in a reasonable voice. Not that Mildred had ever been swayed by reason. In her unassuming way, the woman could withstand a hurricane or an earthquake. I told myself that I had better start thinking about rearranging the book racks in the front of the store.

“Everyone will attend the reception. A bookstore must have customers, and this will give people a chance to see how charming the Book Depot is. It will help quite a bit.”

“I don't handle romance fiction,” I said, in what I knew was a futile attempt to avert the inevitable. Custer waving at the Indians. Ahab reading a blubber recipe. “Your fans won't find much to interest them here. Now, the bookstore at the mall carries a lot of romance books, and they might be willing to—”

“Nonsense. My fans read other genres. Besides, Douglas will wish to invite many of the Farber faculty members. My book is entitled
Professor of Passion,
which will appeal to them. It takes place in a college setting.”

“I'm sure it's quite wonderful, Mildred, but I don't think—”

“A Sunday afternoon would be preferable,” she said. She dug through her leather purse and pulled out an appointment book. After glancing through it, she beamed at me. “Yes, November tenth would seem the most likely choice for the autograph party. From two to four, with champagne and a few things to eat.”

“November tenth,” I repeated numbly, “with champagne and autographs. What shall I do, Mildred?”

“Not a teensy thing. I'll have the caterer drop by in the next week or two to study the possibilities. All you'll need to do is decide where you want the various tables to be placed. I will need a certain amount of space to display and autograph my book.”

“Are you sure it'll be out on schedule? I'd hate to plan—”

“My editor has assured me that the book will be available as scheduled, Claire.” Mildred stood up and adjusted her hat to a rakish angle. “Just think of it as an opening night on Broadway.”

Leaving me to ponder the image, Mildred Twiller swept out of the office. Seconds later, the bell tinkled and I was alone again. I leaned back in the chair to study the cracks in the ceiling. Where had I lost control of the situation with Mildred?

The problem is that the woman has the continuity of a schizophrenic. On one hand, Mildred is a rotund little grandmother who exudes the aroma of talcum powder and violets. But when she slips into the role of Azalea Twilight, a successful romance writer whose descriptive scenes leave even the most ardent pornographiles speechless with admiration, the woman grows taller. Her eyes begin to snap, her voice to crackle, and her vocabulary to pop with self-assurance. She's as irresistible as one of her virginal heroines.

After a few scowls at the ceiling, I dove back into the ledger to see if the figures had improved in my absence. My fairy godmother had failed to work on them, and they still looked a shade gaunt. Although my income rarely delights my accountant, my daughter, Caron, and I manage to manage. I am incredibly happy with the store, moderately happy with my drafty old apartment, and somewhat happy with Caron—when she's behaving like a human being rather than a pubescent tragedy. Fourteen is a difficult age. Caron has turned it into a well-staged melodrama.

At this point, I almost allowed myself to hunt up the latest adolescent psychology book to see if Caron's symptoms might be terminal. But indulging in a book is my worst fault, since I have been known not to surface for hours. With a martyred sigh, I returned to the accounts.

The bell tinkled again. I crammed the ledger in a drawer, ran a hand through my hair, and went to the front of the store, wondering if Mildred's caterer had arrived to rip out my shelves and put in a champagne fountain.

Britton Blake was studying the display of the current bestsellers. His bearded chin bobbled wisely and his hands were entwined behind his back. His arms formed a perfect vee, as in
valiant, versifier,
or
vasectomy.
All virtues, according to one's perspective.

He swung around to smile at me, confident that the leather patches were affixed firmly to the elbows of his tweed jacket and that his pipe would not tumble out of his pocket to disgrace him. It was one of my secret dreams.

“Claire, darling.” He came at me, lips puckered hopefully.

I retreated down the aisle. “Hello, Britton. Browsing or buying?”

“If only your heart were for sale…” he began, in his most pedantic tone. “Dear Claire, ‘she will show us her shoulder, her bosom, her face; but what the heart's like, we must guess.' Earl of Lytton, 1831–1891.”

“Don't get your hopes up about the ‘bosom' bit,” I retorted, still edging backward. “My accountant assures me that the IRS will slap a lien on said bosom if I don't send in a quarterly estimate. So, feel free to browse, and leave the money on the counter if you find anything to buy—for a change.”

Now the maligned schoolboy, Britton put his hand on his heart. “I came by with the most honorable of intentions. The student film society is showing a delightful little Bergman film Sunday evening, and I thought we might have a bite of supper afterward.”

“In the corner bistro? Farberville rolls up the sidewalk at ten o'clock, earlier when the Farber students have been exposed to something as risqué as a foreign film. Farberville can deal with X-rated movies, but films—ha!”

“Your logic is unassailable, as always. Since there is no bistro for a late supper, we can retire to my lodgings for a nibble or two.” His leer was laden with suggestion.

Britton is certainly not the worst available man in town. He's divorced, but he doesn't have a flock of surly children who teethed on Cinderella's stepmother, nor does he bother with the nubile sorority girls. Although he spews a lot of nonsense, he's at least gentlemanly in his forthright and lecherous quest. Once in a while, my animal instincts have overcome my reluctance, and we've indulged in a bit of amorous frivolity.

To my regret, Britton takes the whole thing much more seriously than I do. I have the store, my daughter, and a reasonable future as a single woman. I tried men once. It was not an untenable arrangement, but when Carlton terminated the relationship in a car wreck, I vowed not to find a replacement. Prose filled the gap admirably. Britton refuses to believe me.

“Well?” He was pursuing me down the aisle, graphically as well as metaphorically. No doubt he was hearing an organ drone the familiar processional march.

“A Bergman film might serve to erase the scars,” I admitted. I allowed him to tickle my cheek with his well-clipped beard, then distracted him with the story of Azalea Twilight's newest literary accomplishment.

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