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Chapter & Hearse bm-4
 


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Chapter & Hearse bm-4


  Chapter & Hearse

  ( Booktown Mystery - 4 )

  Lorna Barrett

  Mystery bookstore owner Tricia Miles has been spending more time solving whodunits than reading them. Now a nearby gas explosion has injured Tricia's sister's boyfriend, Bob Kelly, the head of the Chamber of Commerce, and killed the owner of the town's history bookstore. Tricia's never been a fan of Bob, but when she reads that he's being tight-lipped about the "accident", it's time to take action.

  Lorna Barrett

  Chapter & Hearse

  Acknowledgments

  Writing a book can be a lonely process—but when you’ve got friends cheering you on, you never feel completely isolated. I owe many thanks to my critique partner, Sheila Connolly; my Guppy Sisters in Crime: Krista Davis, Janet Koch, and the always generous Sharon Wildwind, who is a virtual font of useful information. My friend Michelle Sampson, director of the Wadleigh Memorial Library in Milford, New Hampshire, is always available when I have a “local color” question. And, of course, my ever-faithful cheerleaders, Gwen Nelson and Liz Eng.

  Thanks also go to all the terrific people at Berkley Prime Crime who’ve worked so hard on my behalf, including my wonderful editor, Tom Colgan; his assistant, Niti Bagchi; and the publicist, Megan Swartz. Thanks also go to Teresa Fasolino for the amazing paintings she does for my covers. I sometimes think she’s reading my mind, because the covers are exactly how I picture the streets of Stoneham. Thanks, too, to my agent, Jacky Sach, for none of this would have been possible without her.

  I love to hear from my readers. I hope you’ll visit my website, www.LornaBarrett.com, for updates and to join my newsletter mailing list.

  One

  The poster on the Cookery’s display window had advertised the book signing for at least a month. Throngs of people were supposed to be in evidence. A temporary cook station had been assembled, and ramekins filled with diced vegetables, chopped chicken, and spices were lined up like props in a stage play.

  Tricia Miles forced a smile and tried not to glance at her watch. “Everything looks perfect,” she said with a cheerfulness in her voice she didn’t quite feel.

  The “guest” author, her sister Angelica, stood behind the cook station, head held high, although her eyes were watery and her mouth trembled ever so slightly. Next to her stood a larger-than-life-size photo cutout of . . . herself! The real Angelica was maybe five foot six in her stocking feet—the cutout was six feet tall, dressed in dark slacks and a white blouse covered by a buff-colored, full-front apron with her name emblazoned across the front: ANGELICA MILES, and beneath that: author of EASY-DOES-IT COOKING.

  Tricia tried to concentrate on the living Angelica, but her gaze kept wandering to the cutout. It wasn’t a good likeness, but somehow Angelica had missed that when she’d purchased the thing as an aid for promotion. Her rather demented expression was one of perpetual surprise—either that, or one of a victim of bad plastic surgery. With her fingers splayed, the cutout reminded Tricia of a bird spreading its bony wings. Yes, that was it—Angelica looked like she’d been goosed. Either that, or the photographer had coached her into an uncanny imitation of a constipated blue heron.

  The real Angelica spoke, her voice sounding wobbly. “Nobody’s going to come. Not one person.”

  “I’m here,” said a smiling Ginny Wilson, Tricia’s twenty-something assistant at her mystery bookstore, Haven’t Got a Clue.

  “And I,” said elderly Mr. Everett, Tricia’s other part-time employee.

  “Don’t forget me,” Frannie May Armstrong said in her Texas twang. Angelica owned the Cookery, Stoneham’s cookbook store, and Frannie managed it for her. Angelica also owned Booked for Lunch, a retro café across the street. Writing cookbooks was just another entry on her colorful résumé.

  Unfortunately, the village of Stoneham, known locally as “Booktown,” was more a tourist destination not far from the New Hampshire/Massachusetts state line. Not many of the locals supported the booksellers, who’d been recruited to save what had been a dying village. And shops filled with used, rare, and antiquarian books had done it, too, as evidenced by new prosperity and a much-needed influx of tax revenue.

  “Wasn’t a busload of gourmands supposed to arrive for the signing?” Mr. Everett whispered to Frannie.

  “I got a call about an hour ago,” she whispered in reply. “They canceled, but asked for a rain check. They may come up sometime in the fall.”

  Tricia refrained from commenting. Thanks to the Inter-net, Angelica had cultivated a relationship with the “Gamboling Gourmets,” who traveled New England throughout the summer, tasting the local cuisines. Tonight’s signing was to be their first outing of the year, and Angelica’s launch party. She’d spent days preparing a table full of desserts—all from her newly published book, Easy-Does-It Cooking, which had been officially available all of two days.

  Angelica’s cutout notwithstanding, Tricia had expected at least a few more warm bodies to attend the signing. Mr. Everett’s bride of eight months had come down with a cold, which explained her absence, but surely the employees at Angelica’s café—Jake Masters, the cook, and Darcy Gebhard, the waitress—might have made an effort to be there. And someone else was conspicuous by his absence.

  “Anybody know where Bob is?” Frannie asked.

  Bob Kelly, owner of Kelly Real Estate and the president of the local Chamber of Commerce, had been Angelica’s significant other for the past eighteen months—ever since she’d come to live in Stoneham.

  “I’m sure he’ll have a perfectly reasonable explanation for being late,” Tricia lied. She and Bob weren’t exactly best friends, but she tried to overlook his many shortcomings for her sister’s sake.

  “I saw his car parked down the street, near History Repeats Itself,” Ginny volunteered. “It’s been there awhile.”

  Angelica pouted. “He said he’d be here.”

  “There’s still time,” Tricia reassured her.

  Angelica nodded, resigned, and tucked a lock of her short, blonde hair behind her left ear. “Business hasn’t been good lately, and he’s been preoccupied. It probably just slipped his mind.”

  “I’m sure you’re right,” Tricia said, and hoped her nose hadn’t just grown an inch. For weeks, Angelica had done nothing but talk about the event.

  Frannie straightened the stack of unsigned books on the side table, and everyone tried not to make eye contact with Angelica as they waited in awkward silence for someone—anyone—else to arrive. Finally, Ginny suggested Angelica go ahead with her cooking demonstration.

  “What’s the point?” Angelica asked, defeat coloring her voice.

  “Well, it’s almost seven thirty, and none of us has had dinner. I can’t be the only one eager to try your Hacienda Tacos.”

  “Good old Tex-Mex—the best food on Earth,” Frannie piped up, then sighed. “Next to a luau, that is.” It was Frannie’s dream to retire to the fiftieth state.

  Angelica gave a careless shrug and turned on the electric skillet.

  Across the street, the newly installed gas lamps glowed. The Board of Selectmen had approved the installation of the old-fashioned streetlights in an effort to capitalize on the town’s history and its new lease on life. Tourists ate up that kind of stuff, and the Board of Selectmen was eager to do all it could to encourage their visits. Unfortunately, when the bookstores closed, the visitors disappeared, leaving no one to appreciate them.

  Within minutes, Angelica had prepared the filling, spooned it into corn tortillas, and passed them out to her small—and hungry—audience. The desserts were then sampled, and everyone sipped complimentary coffee, not making a dent in the contents of the five-gallon urn borrowed from Angelica’s café.

  As
Angelica served Mr. Everett another portion of coconut cake, Tricia gave Ginny a nudge. “Buy a book,” she whispered.

  Ginny’s eyes nearly popped. “They’re thirty-four dollars,” she hissed. “I can’t afford it.”

  “Use your charge card, and I’ll credit your account tomorrow morning. I want Ange to make at least a couple of sales tonight.”

  Ginny shrugged. “If you insist.” She set down her paper cup, grabbed a copy of the coffee-table-sized book filled with glossy photos, and marched up to the cash desk where Angelica stood wringing her hands. “I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m proud to be the first to get my signed copy of Easy-Does-It Cooking.”

  Mr. Everett’s nervous gaze shifted to Tricia. She mouthed the words Buy one—I’ll pay you back.

  “Uh, uh—let me be the second,” Mr. Everett said.

  Luckily, Angelica hadn’t noticed Tricia’s prompting. She pressed a clenched hand to her lips, fighting back tears. “You guys are just the best. Frannie, grab the camera, will you?” she said. Next, she played director, carefully positioning Ginny with her back to the camera, posed to her satisfaction. She shook Ginny’s hand. She raised a finger to make a point. She looked surprised—then serious, and, ultimately, very silly. At last, Angelica reached for her pen, wrote a few words on the flyleaf of Ginny’s copy, and signed her name with such a flourish that it was completely illegible. Frannie kept snapping pictures as Angelica handed the book to Ginny.

  Ginny frowned. “Live free or diet?” Was Angelica mocking the state motto?

  “Yes, don’t you think that’s clever?” Angelica said. “I’m going to sign that in all the books.”

  Though Ginny forced a smile, her voice was flat. “Go for it.”

  As Mr. Everett stepped up to have his book signed, Tricia moved to look out the large display window that faced Main Street. As Ginny had said, Bob’s car was parked near History Repeats Itself. Tricia’s anger smoldered. How inconsiderate of Bob to ignore Angelica’s very first signing. He had to know how much it meant to her.

  Tricia glanced back at her sister and Mr. Everett, still posing for Frannie. In a fit of pique, she decided it was time for action. She’d go find Bob and, if necessary, drag him back to the Cookery by this thinning hair. Besides, Angelica’s photographic self was beginning to creep her out.

  Tricia took a Zen moment to calm herself before she spoke. “I think I’ll run out and see if I can find Bob,” she told Angelica. “If his car is parked down the road, he can’t be very far away.”

  “I suppose,” Angelica said. “But please hurry back to help us pack up some of these desserts.” She shook her head, taking in the amount of leftover food. “I can’t serve all this at the café. Would you like to take some home, Ginny?”

  “Would I? Hand me the plastic wrap, will you?”

  “Be right back,” Tricia called and headed out the door.

  The village was practically deserted, and Bob’s car was the only vehicle parked on the west side of Main Street. Tricia crossed the street and started down the sidewalk. Upon consideration, she decided she wouldn’t berate Bob, at least not in front of Jim Roth, owner of History Repeats Itself. It wouldn’t do to go ballistic with him as an audience. Instead, her plan was to poke her head inside the door and cheerfully ask if Bob hadn’t forgotten another engagement—and probably do it through gritted teeth.

  The glowing gas lamps really did lend a quaint, old-fashioned charm to the already picturesque storefronts. Although an expensive indulgence, they added to the village’s ambience—especially outside of Haven’t Got a Clue. It went right along with the atmosphere she’d created, emulating 221B Baker Street in London.

  Tricia was within two doors of History Repeats Itself when she paused to look inside Booked for Lunch. Angelica had done a wonderful job decorating the café. Heck, she’d done a terrific job managing two businesses and starting a writing career. Not that Tricia had ever mentioned to Angelica how proud she was of Angelica’s accomplishments. As it was, her swelled head could barely fit through a standard doorway.

  As Tricia took a step forward, she heard a phoomph. The Earth shook as a shower of glass exploded onto the street, and a rush of hot air enveloped her, the shock of it knocking her to the ground.

  Then everything went black.

  Two

  The first thing that registered was the muffled sound of sirens. Lots of them. Tricia realized she was sitting on her backside on the cooling pavement, wondering what had just shaken her world into senselessness. In addition to the glass shards that littered the sidewalk around her, scraps of singed paper—the remains of hundreds of books?—floated to the ground in a blizzard-like fashion.

  A Stoneham Fire Rescue squad screeched to a halt some ten feet ahead of her. One of the firefighters jumped from the rig and raced to Tricia. “Are you hurt, ma’am?”

  “What?” Tricia asked. Couldn’t this guy speak louder?

  “Are you hurt?”

  Tricia shook her head, then wished she hadn’t, as the world seemed to tilt crazily around her.

  More firefighters spilled from the truck. The man helped Tricia to her feet and then pulled her farther down the sidewalk, away from what had once been History Repeats Itself.

  Two firefighters dragged the limp form of a man away from the shop. Tricia instantly recognized the tattered kelly green jacket covered in dust. Rivulets of blood cascaded down his face. “Bob!” she called, frantically trying to escape the hold the firefighter had on her arm. Her next thought was Angelica! and how upset she’d be. How could this happen—and just a day before Angelica was to leave on her self-financed book tour of New England?

  Another firefighter blocked Tricia’s way. “Ma’am, please stand back. There may still be gas leaking from somewhere in the vicinity.”

  Ma’am! Tricia would never get used to being called that.

  On the other side of the street, Tricia saw Angelica hurrying frantically down the sidewalk. “Tricia—are you all right?” she called, her expression filled with worry. She crossed the street, threw her arms around Tricia, and drew her into a tight hug.

  “Ange, Bob’s been hurt.”

  Angelica pulled back, sudden fear drawing lines on her face. “How bad?”

  “There was blood on his temple, and his jacket was pretty torn.”

  “Where is he?”

  “I don’t know. The firemen brought him out of the building. I think they took him over to that ambulance.” She pointed the way.

  Angelica clasped Tricia’s hand, dragging her forward, and the women hustled around the firefighters as they made their way to the back of the ambulance. Bob was inside. When Angelica reached for a handhold to enter, one of the EMTs barred her. “Ma’am, are you next of kin?”

  “Well, no, but Bob and I—”

  “Sorry,” the beefy woman apologized, “but I’m going to have to ask you to move away. This man deserves his privacy.”

  “He’s my boyfriend. He’s—”

  The paramedic raised an eyebrow.

  “I know that sounds stupid at our ages, but honestly, Bob really is my—”

  The paramedic stood taller, suddenly looking menacing. “I’m not going to ask you again, ma’am.”

  Tricia pulled her sister’s arm. “Come on, Ange. Let them take care of Bob. We’ll catch up with him at the hospital.” She turned back to the EMT. “Will you be taking him to Milford or Nashua?”

  “Probably Nashua.”

  “Can you at least tell me how he’s doing?” Angelica pleaded.

  “Privacy laws prevent me from—”

  “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” a scowling Angelica interrupted her.

  “But I don’t want to go to the hospital,” they heard Bob call out. If he had the lungs for that, he would, no doubt, soon be on the mend.

  They crossed the street once more, moving to stand before Haven’t Got a Clue. With light bars blazing, another Sheriff’s Department cruiser pulled up to the curb. By now most of Main Street was b
locked—not that there was much traffic along the village’s main thoroughfare once all the shops had closed for the day.

  Captain Grant Baker got out of the cruiser, noted Tricia standing in front of her store, and nodded to her before crossing the street to converse with the fire chief.

  Angelica nudged her sister. “Go on. Go see if Captain Baker shakes some information out of those paramedics and can tell you how Bob’s doing.”

  “He only just got here,” Tricia protested. “Besides, why would he go out of his way to give us any peace of mind?”

  “Bitter—bitter,” Angelica cautioned.

  “I’m not bitter.” Ha! Of course she was bitter. She and Grant Baker had just started dating—were having fun getting to know each other—when his ex-wife popped out of the woodwork with a serious disease. Not that they’d reconciled. But Mandy Baker needed a “friend” to help her through the worst of her illness. Captain Baker had promised to call Tricia once he felt Mandy was stabilized. That was more than six months ago. A long, lonely six months. Not that Russ Smith, owner of the Stoneham Weekly News and Tricia’s ex, hadn’t tried to worm his way back into her affections. So far, she had resisted his overtures. She remembered too many evenings spent in the company of Russ and his beloved police scanner—being alone was actually preferable. And besides, it had given her a chance to catch up on some of her reading.

  Angelica clutched her sister’s arm. “Trish, please—please go over and ask Captain Baker to get us some information on Bob.”

  “Okay.” Tricia took a breath to steel herself before she stepped off the sidewalk. That’s when she caught sight of Russ—his camera slung around his neck—hurrying down the sidewalk. She ignored him and headed toward the captain.

  Baker was in deep conversation with the fire chief. Tricia crept forward, relieved that no one had tried to make her move back to the opposite side of the street.

 
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