Tru Beckett succeeded in building a secret book room in her now bookless library, where book lovers from lovely Cypress, South Carolina, can rejoice in the printed word. Now she's working hard to maintain the little library downstairs while keeping her "real job" upstairs in the bookless technology center. The last thing she needs is a mysterious vandal who seems intent on breaking into her secret book-filled sanctuary and creating chaos. The nasty interloper doesn't steal anything, but brutalizes the books, damaging them and knocking them off shelves.
A patron of the secret book room tells Tru that there have been creepy goings-on at the library for years, especially in the basement where the secret book room is located. He's heard rumors of a poltergeist that haunts the library, determined to scare off readers. Tru is certain it's hogwash, but she's at a loss to think of who might be vandalizing the beautiful books she fought so hard to protect. And when a dead body shows up right behind the library, Tru is certain that it's not a ghost but a cold-blooded killer that she and her trusty tabby Dewey Decimal will need to uncover.
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As a rule, librarians hate secrets. Our entire lives revolve around providing free and open access to information. Good information. Correct information. We abhor lies. We rip the covers off cover-ups.
So what was I, Trudell Becket, dedicated assistant librarian, doing tending a secret as carefully as a gardener tends her most fragile flowers? Or as devotedly as a cat lover might care for a certain stray tabby who had taken up residence in her cottage?
It's for the books, I reminded myself as I hurried down Main Street with a heavy tote bag hanging from each shoulder. One bag was filled with the books I'd loaned out to neighbors here in the Town of Cypress. And the other? Well, never mind about that one. Like anything important, secrets take work.
The warm September sun formed dappled patterns on the sidewalk as it shone through the century-old cypress trees lining the street. I paused for a moment in front of the town's centerpiece-the public library.
This stately building was one of fourteen public libraries built at the turn of the twentieth century in South Carolina by Andrew Carnegie. Designed to resemble a classic Roman temple, its polished stone exterior and grand arching windows had served as my personal palace of dreams after my parents' divorce. The books it contained inside had saved my life.
I jogged up the full flight of grand steps, past a row of granite columns, and through the library's front entrance. The foyer, with impressive marble walls and terrazzo flooring, had a ceiling gilded with faded gold paint.
I rushed through the first floor without pausing to brew the first pot of coffee or chat with the rest of the staff signing in at the front desk.
This secret I'd been tending for the past month was the cause of my haste. Every morning I dreaded what I might find in the basement.
The library's back stairs led down into a raised basement. Down here no embellishments decorated the walls. My sensible shoes squeaked against the plain concrete floor as I passed a warren of storage rooms and a metal back door that opened into a small parking lot and alleyway.
I hurried on, turned a corner, and-
I wanted to stomp my foot, but such a violent motion would upset the little stowaway tucked in my second tote bag, the one hanging from my right shoulder. Dewey Decimal, a skinny tabby cat, stuck his paw out of the bag and swatted my elbow.
"It happened again," I told him.
This was the third time.
Dewey lifted his head. He gazed at me with his big green eyes in a thoughtful manner as if he understood.
After closing, someone had broken into the library. The past two times this had happened, none of the other librarians had noticed that an intruder had entered the building. The pricey computer equipment, 3D printers, and sewing machines upstairs were all untouched. Instead, the villain had crept down to the basement and to the heavy double doors that led into what used to be a WWII-era bomb shelter. They then picked the old lock and had wreaked their mischief here.
The old bomb shelter was no longer simply a forgotten relic from the past. Last month my book-loving friends and I had transformed the space into a bookroom. A secret bookroom. A vibrant bookroom. A place where the books lining the shelves could serve as a lifeline for others in the community who needed them as dearly as I once had.
As I walked through the old bomb shelter's partially opened doors I shuddered.
Like before, books had been tossed off their shelves. This time the mystery section had been attacked. The adventures of Miss Marple, Koko and Yum Yum, and Amelia Peabody lay scattered across the floor. Covers had been bent. Pages crumbled. Shelving units torn from the walls.
I closed my eyes and drew in a long, slow breath.
Who would do this?
How could someone do something so very evil?
I couldn't report the break-in. I couldn't ask the police to investigate. I couldn't even tell the head librarian what was happening. To report it would mean revealing the bookroom's existence.
My friends and I had created this space after the town manager had modernized the library upstairs. The renovations had included removing all the printed books in order to create a bookless library. A library without books? The very idea of it still made absolutely no sense.
But that is what had happened to our library. The shelves of hardbacks had been replaced by tablets, computers, e-readers, and a café. The town manager had ordered this done because he'd wanted to use the hyper-modern library as a way to impress the high-tech industries he planned to lure to our little town.
In a desperate act of rebellion, I'd saved hundreds of the books before they could be taken to the landfill. By creating this space, I'd broken the rules. I'd put my job at risk. And because I'd taken the books from the library, I may have even broken the law.
The legality of what I'd done wasn't something I had researched too closely. (I really didn't want to know.) Keeping this bookroom going was my passion, my reason for getting up in the morning.
Now, inexplicably, someone was stealing into our sanctuary and tossing around those same books I'd vowed to protect as if they were worthless. Why? If this break-in was anything like the past two, my friends and I would soon discover nothing had been taken.
With a sigh, I closed the vault doors.
I then carefully lowered the second tote bag to the floor and let Dewey out of the bag. The skinny tabby cat, crouched low, walked cautiously around the room. He sniffed one of the books lying open on the floor and arched his back. His black-and-brown-striped fur fluffed up. "Hiss," he said.
"I'm unhappy about the mess too." I started to gather the books, putting the ones that hadn't been damaged in one pile and the ones with bent and crumpled pages in another. The binding from Agatha Christie's second Miss Marple mystery novel, The Body in the Library, had been completely ripped apart.
"Monsters," I whispered as I cradled the broken hardback and tried not to cry. "What kind of beast would do such a thing?" I asked Dewey, who was tilting his head from one side to the other while staring curiously at the wall where shelves had been ripped down.
"It's the poltergeist," a gravelly voice answered.
Startled, I crouched down to Dewey's level and stared into his wise green eyes. Did the cat just talk to me? I shook my head. That was ridiculous, simply ridiculous. Cats didn't talk.
Besides, the voice had come from behind me. I stood up and turned around to find a man in his late seventies dressed in tweed pants, matching tweed vest, and brown bow tie standing in the doorway. His silver hair needed to be combed. His wire-rimmed glasses slid down his nose. He pushed them back up with a chubby, callused finger.
"Mr. Crawford," I said. "You startled me."
Hubert Crawford was one of our regular patrons. He was also president of the local museum board. He took his position as caretaker of history seriously. He dressed in vintage suits as if he lived in the early twentieth century, drove a 1950 Chevy that left a trail of thick smoke as it coughed its way down the streets, and refused to touch a computer.
Dewey sidled up to him and, purring loudly, rubbed against the man's leg. Hubert reached down and scratched my cat behind his ears. "Land's sake, has anyone ever told you that your cat's stripes form what looks like a skull on his head?"
Pretty much everyone who had ever met Dewey told me they saw the skull. Far too often for my liking, if truth be told.
I gave Hubert the same answer I gave everyone. "I suppose if I squinted I might be able to imagine seeing something like a skull in his markings. If I may ask, how did you get in here?" The library didn't open until ten.
I took a step back. Was Hubert Crawford the vandal hurting the books? Had he returned to the scene of the crime? Was I in danger?
Instead of doing anything remotely sinister, he nudged his glasses up the bridge of his nose again. "I walked in through the front doors," he said. He pointed to the institutional clock above the door. The clock's hands pointed to ten minutes after ten.
Oh no! I'd spent too much time down here. I should have been setting up in the main library. The other librarians, especially the sharp-eyed head librarian, Lida Farnsworth, must have noticed my absence by now.
"If you'll excuse me, I need to get upstairs," I said as I carefully set the ruined copy of The Body in the Library on a nearby table.
Hubert didn't budge from where he was standing, blocking the doors. "I was wondering how long it would take for it to make its presence known," he said as if he hadn't noticed how I was trying to squeeze past him. "I had suspected something like this would happen."
"You did?" That stopped me.
"I knew the thing wouldn't like that you turned this basement into a bookroom and made it a place where people hang out. It has never liked people, you know."
A thing? Not a person?
I shook my head. I had no idea what he was talking about.
"The thing. The thing. The poltergeist, girl." He huffed. "Haven't you done your research? The poltergeist is coming in here and flinging the books around."
"Poltergeist?" Was he serious?
He nodded, which only caused his glasses to slide down his nose again. "My maw-maw used to talk about it. She worked here as a girl, back in the early twenties. Nineteen-twenties, that is." He launched into a lengthy lecture about what the town was like back then, listing who was mayor at the time and what shops lined Main Street.
"Your maw-maw? You mean your grandmother?" I prompted, hoping to get him back to what she'd seen. "What did she say?"
"Oh yes. Maw-maw was my father's mother. Dreadful stories she used to tell us youngsters. They gave me nightmares something fierce. My mother thought those nightmares meant I was being attacked by a demon. She'd say all kinds of prayers over me and made me sleep with a window open and a Bible under my pillow, which-let me tell you-only scared me more. But back in those days it was a commonly held belief that demons came for youngsters like that. In fact-"
"What stories did your maw-maw tell you?" I asked, trying to get him back on track.
"Oh . . ." He nudged his glasses up his nose yet again. "Maw-maw used to recount strange happenings at the library. She would hear odd noises coming from the basement. The full-time librarians had warned her to never come down here. They told her it wasn't safe. They told her about the poltergeist who ruled over this area of the library, an angry force from beyond the veil. A demon perhaps, the same kind my mother feared was haunting my dreams. I never personally saw evidence that a poltergeist existed, not until you opened up this place." He rapped a knuckle against the metal door he was still blocking.
"With all due respect to your grandmother, this isn't the work of a ghost." I started to try to slide behind him again. "If you'll excuse me, I need to check in upstairs before someone comes down here searching for me."
"Of course. Of course. There was some sort of hubbub upstairs as I was coming in. Overheard someone complaining about a class the library is offering because it involved devil worship."
"I have no idea what that could be about. We aren't offering any classes like that." Mrs. Farnsworth would never stand for it.
He shrugged and finally stepped out of my way. But as he did, his brows furrowed. "We'll need to research the troubles happening down here some more. See if we can't figure out what caused the poltergeist in the first place. Perhaps that knowledge will help us figure out how to stop it from destroying this place."
"You do that," I said, humoring him. The damage that kept happening to the secret bookroom was the work of a very real vandal, not some made-up phantom.
But who could do such a hateful thing to books?
That was something I was determined to find out.
Goodness gracious, Tru! There you are," Flossie Finnegan-Baker exclaimed in a voice that was both whispery and frantic. If she hadn't called out to me, I probably would have collided with her. I'd been so wrapped up in thinking about why someone would be wreaking havoc in the basement as I hurried up the stairs and out into the first floor that I hadn't been paying attention to my surroundings. As it was, I had to do a little sideways dance to catch my balance and keep from landing on my friend's lap.
She abruptly halted her wheelchair's mad dash toward me. Her gaze darted toward the front desk. "Mrs. Farnsworth is complaining up a blue streak how you hadn't showed up for work. Hearing that nearly made my heart stop. I was worried something bad had happened."
"Something bad did happen," I cried a little too loudly.
Lida Farnsworth's sharp gaze snapped in my direction.
The head librarian was a stickler for keeping the library as silent as possible. "People need the opportunity to hear themselves think," she liked to remind us. "Heaven knows there's not many places where that can happen. They even have televisions at the bank blaring out the news. Can you imagine?"
"Something did happen," I repeated, this time in a whisper.
"Not again. Is it-?"
Before Flossie could finish her question, I held up my hand. "I had better go talk with Mrs. Farnsworth. If she thought I wasn't here, it must mean I forgot to sign in. Again."
"Tru, you really need to be more careful. If you keep making these mistakes, she'll start questioning why you're spending so much time in the basement," Flossie cautioned as we made our way toward the front desk. "And if she suspects something funny is going on in her library, you know she'll start poking around. And we can't have that."
"No, we cannot." Flossie was right. I needed to do a better job pretending nothing was wrong.
Even though Flossie was nearly eighty years old-and had graduated high school in the same class as the stern Mrs. Farnsworth-she appeared to be decades younger than the head librarian. Maybe her youthful appearance came from the humor that nearly always sparkled in her eyes. Or maybe it was from her loose, free-spirited hippie, tie-dyed clothes. Today she was dressed in various shades of red.