A Questionable Character (Booktown Series #17)

A Questionable Character (Booktown Series #17)

by Lorna Barrett
A Questionable Character (Booktown Series #17)

A Questionable Character (Booktown Series #17)

by Lorna Barrett



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The murder of a local contractor may be the final nail in the coffin for Tricia Miles in the latest entry to Lorna Barrett's New York Times bestselling Booktown series.

It's a busy summer in Booktown. Contractor Jim Stark is in great demand: he’s overseeing a number of projects, including Angelica Miles's newly constructed building on Main Street, finishing up the new brew pub, and gutting a stone mansion off Main Street that Angelica bought to be the world headquarters for Nigela Ricita Asssociates. It’ll house office space where her marketing staff and the rest of the NR Associates clerical personnel will work.

Tricia Miles and Angelica arrive at the mansion before their workday to see how the construction is going. They find the place unlocked and Stark’s right-hand man, Sanjay Arya, dead—bludgeoned to death. The loss of the contractor’s top man threatens all the projects in the works, which would effectively ruin the expensive marketing plan that the Chamber of Commerce has been working. Is Jim a suspect? (He’d be stupid to kill the person he depends on to keep the projects going.) But Stark also thinks his wife, who was very chummy with Sanjay, might have been cheating on him with the second-in-command, making him a likely suspect.

Once again Tricia finds herself in the middle of a murder investigation, but can she find the killer before he or she has the chance to bring the hammer down?

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780593549438
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 07/18/2023
Series: Booktown Series , #17
Sold by: Penguin Group
Format: eBook
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 7,225
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Lorna Barrett is the New York Times bestselling author of the Booktown Mysteries, including Poisoned Pages and A Just Clause.

Read an Excerpt


•The sun had been up for a little over an hour when Tricia Miles arrived on her sister's doorstep on that early Monday in June. It was to be a busy day, what with welcoming the Chamber of Commerce's summer intern, getting him settled, and attending to her vintage mystery bookstore, Haven't Got a Clue.

Tricia and her sister were co-presidents of the Stoneham, New Hampshire, Chamber-a job they'd held for nearly six months. It had been a rocky experience trying to revive the operation their predecessor had so diligently tried to destroy. Thanks to Angelica's previous tenure at the organization's helm, and Tricia's involvement as her woman Friday, they'd slowly been rebuilding the trust of their members. But welcoming the new intern was only one part of the day's plan.

Angelica Miles was a woman of many talents-and two personas. She was a successful businesswoman in her own right, owning the Cookery book and kitchen gadget store; Booked for Lunch, a small retro café dedicated to the midday meal; the village's day spa, Booked for Beauty; and a half share of the village's most expensive bed-and-breakfast, the Sheer Comfort Inn. But it was her alter ego, the secretive Nigela Ricita, who commanded the utmost respect, and sometimes animosity, for transforming the somewhat sleepy village of used bookstores known as Booktown to a wildly successful tourist attraction. NR Associates owned the Brookview Inn, the local pub (the Dog-Eared Page), the Happy Domestic home/gift shop, a food truck, a real estate office, the other half interest in the Sheer Comfort Inn, and the most recent addition to the NR portfolio, the Stoneham Weekly News.

When Tricia thought about her sister's business acumen, she sometimes suffered from an inferiority complex-but not for long. Angelica actually spent little hands-on time with her companies since she'd built a team of top-notch and experienced individuals. She acted as the CEO of her empires, letting her son, Antonio Barbero, take on the day-to-day supervision. His wife, Ginny Wilson-Barbero, was the company's marketing director and mother to Angelica's grandbabies, little Sofia and baby Will.

On that morning, Tricia had agreed to accompany her sister to NR Associates' new world headquarters, a historic granite-clad building located off the village's main drag. The former mansion had been owned by Asa Morrison, another of the village's founders, who'd made his money producing whiskey, and his stately house had been built some 150 years before. During its life, it had been a home, a hospital, a school, and most recently office space. It was to be upgraded in the latter configuration with a new roof, HVAC, and plumbing before Angelica would personally choose the furniture and décor.

The workmen usually got started around seven, and Tricia and Angelica had decided to set out to check on the progress of the renovations an hour before the construction crew arrived for the day.

Tricia texted her sister. I'm here.

Be right down.

Tricia would have been pleased to use the occasion to get in part of her morning three-mile constitutional but she knew her sister would insist on taking her car. The five-block walk was probably too far for her to ever walk, even though she'd given up her stilettos earlier that year.

Sure enough, when Angelica appeared she clutched her car keys in her right hand. She looked smart dressed in a peach cotton sleeveless blouse, black slacks, and sandals, sporting a black fanny pack that she'd never be caught wearing in a business setting, so she obviously didn't expect to be seen at that time of the day and especially at the construction site. Tricia's attire wasn't much different. She'd chosen a pink tee and jeans but would change into her usual sweater set and black slacks once the workday commenced. The weatherman had predicted an unseasonably warm day. It was already in the seventies. She'd be glad of the sweater once she cranked up the AC in her shop upon her return.

"Let's go," Angelica said brightly. "I need to make a list of things I want to be completed by the end of the week."

"Isn't that up to Jim Stark?" Tricia asked. Stark was the contractor Angelica had hired to complete the mansion's renovations. Tricia had worked with him, too, but these days the firm was booked solid months in advance. So much so that lately Stark's clients had been dealing with his right-hand man, Sanjay Arya, a personable man in his thirties with a ready smile and a reassuring presence.

"I hardly ever talk to Jim anymore," Angelica lamented as she started up the road toward the village's municipal parking lot, where the street's residents kept their vehicles. Angelica might not exercise as much as Tricia, but if she cared to, she could have excelled in competitive walking.

"When I do get to speak to the boss man, I always feel like him consulting his phone is more important than anything I have to say."

"He's a busy man."

Angelica glanced at her sister with disdain. "And I'm a busy woman."

She was indeed.

They arrived at the lot and headed for Angelica's car. Neither of them spoke until Angelica pulled the car onto Main Street and headed for the mansion.

"We should have done this yesterday," Tricia said, "especially if you don't want to run into the workmen."

"Are you kidding? Sunday is my busiest day of the week."

That was when Angelica hosted their weekly family dinner, although since baby Will had made his appearance two months before, they'd been gathering with the Barberos in their newly built home. Dragging the kiddies out took a lot of effort, but Angelica had adapted. She'd either have the meal catered or bring the ingredients for a delicious meal to the fabulous kitchen she'd designed for the family. In addition to Tricia and the Barberos, their "family" consisted of Tricia's friend and employee Mr. Everett and his wife, Grace. They'd been accepted as the children's honorary great-grandparents.

Angelica pulled up in front of the mansion, which at this point bore a rather ramshackle appearance. Landscaping was one of the last items on the list of things to be completed.

The sisters exited the car and stood before the building. Tricia studied Angelica's face. She could tell her sister was looking at the mansion with an eye to its future appearance.

"I love this place," Angelica muttered. "If only it was feasible to return it to its original use." She shook her head, looking wistful.

"You've got big bucks," Tricia commented.

"I do, but what would I do, one person living in so large a home? Besides, the older I get, the less I want or need."

Tricia was beginning to think that way herself. She looked at her watch: 6:10. If they wanted to be out before the workers showed up, they'd better start their inspection. She said so.

Angelica approached the lockbox hanging from the dull brass handle on the big oak door, punched in the code, and removed the key to the former palace, unlocking the door and letting them in. Antonio must have given her the combination to the electronic lock. Tricia hadn't visited the building since Angelica's initial walk-through almost a year before. Everything took so long. Permits, zoning, architectural plans. She'd been told that the future NR offices had actually been put on an accelerated schedule. Even so, the timeline for finishing the job was almost a month away.

Dust caked every surface. Where it had come from was anyone's guess. Random lumber and metal framing materials were piled in what had once been the home's grand foyer. It would be a shame if the beautiful marble floors were covered instead of being restored.

"I thought we should start on the second floor and work our way down," Angelica said, and headed for the grand staircase.

"They're not going to replace these magnificent stairs, are they?" Tricia asked, appalled at the idea.

"No. I was adamant about that," Angelica said as they made their way to the second floor. "But they'll be placing laminate on these floors," she said, indicating the scuffed wide-pine flooring beneath their feet.

"Why? It looks like it's in good shape."

"And I want to keep it that way."

Tricia studied her sister's expression. "What are you planning to do with this place in the future?" she asked with suspicion.

"Nothing. Nothing at all," Angelica said innocently.

Tricia didn't believe her. Perhaps Angelica did hope to restore the old building to its former glory after all-just not at this time.

They wandered through the upper rooms, admiring the cove moldings, the ceiling medallions, and other features before taking the back-or servants'-stairs to return to the main floor.

"What's your favorite part of the renovation?" Tricia asked.

"It'll be the communal kitchen. I had the most fun choosing the appliances and furniture."

"Is it located in the original kitchen?"

"Yes, but unfortunately, it'll be reworked on a smaller scale. Still, we're keeping some of the original features. Want to see the work in progress?"

"Why not?"

Angelica might not have visited the site much in person, but she seemed to have memorized the layout, for she led Tricia through corridors until they came to a door that was ajar. Angelica pushed through it.

The room was large and two of the walls had been stripped back to the brick. Like the foyer, boxes of building supplies littered its floor. Vintage subway tile covered two of the walls near where an old porcelain sink marred by rust stains sat and where an old range must have stood.

Tricia nodded toward a large dark door to the left. "Butler's pantry?" she guessed.

"Yes, and it's magnificent. We were going to use it as a supply cabinet, but that was before we decided to lease some of the space to other businesses." She sighed, once again wistful. "I can just imagine all the crystal, silver serving dishes, and cutlery that were once stored in it." She strode across the room, threw open the heavy door, and gasped. "Good grief!"

"What's wrong?" Tricia asked, coming up behind her sister. She came to an abrupt halt as her gaze raked across the cracked tile floor. Huddled in the corner was the body of a man with a head of dark hair matted with blood that had pooled around it.

Tricia groaned. "Why does this always happen to us?"

When Stoneham’s top cop, Chief of Police Ian McDonald, arrived at the crime scene, Tricia expected him to be angry; at least that had been her experience in the past with other law enforcement officers-including McDonald. But his demeanor on that morning was almost solicitous.

She hadn't seen the man since the week before, when he'd crashed the Barberos' housewarming party with some cockamamie story about petty crime on Main Street and wanting opinions of the Chamber's co-presidents. He'd looked so serious. Always gracious, Ginny had welcomed him to the party. Within minutes he had a craft beer in his hand and schmoozed with the other guests, leaving Tricia feeling thoroughly puzzled.

"I'm so sorry you're going through this," he said.

She would bet he'd deliberately omitted the word again.

"Do you know the victim's identity?" he asked.

Tricia glanced in Angelica's direction.

"Sanjay Arya. He's the project manager for the mansion's renovations."

McDonald frowned. "Pardon my confusion," he said, his Irish accent surfacing. "But just what are you ladies doing here? I thought this property was owned by NR Associates."

"It is," Angelica agreed. "I'm their partner in the Sheer Comfort Inn."

"That doesn't answer my question."

"Uh, I've consulted with them on several projects. For example," Angelica went on, "I recently decorated the NR Realty offices for them."

"And you're here under whose authority?" McDonald pressed.

"Antonio Barbero."

"Ah, yes," McDonald said. "And he can corroborate that?"

"In a heartbeat," Tricia volunteered, her tone lighter than the situation warranted.

McDonald nodded and looked toward the body and then back to the sisters, studying their features. He'd obviously noted Tricia's tone. "Excuse me, ladies, but it seems to me that you aren't all that traumatized by discovering a dead man."

Angelica rolled her eyes and scowled. "It happens so often around here that, sadly, we're kind of inured to it."

McDonald's gaze narrowed. "How well did you know the deceased?"

"Not at all," Tricia answered.

"I'd spoken with him a couple of times," Angelica said. "Antonio Barbero is the point man on the renovation. He's the one who gave me the combination to the lockbox. I'd be glad to give you his contact information."

McDonald removed a small notebook from his back pocket and took down the numbers. He looked at Angelica once again. "What do you know about Mr. Arya?"

Angelica's gaze wandered to the prone form still on the floor. The blood around his head had begun to oxidize. "He seemed a very personable man. Always sported a smile. Antonio dealt with him on a regular basis."

"And your relationship with Mr. Barbero is?" McDonald asked.

Angelica's eyes widened and she glanced askance at Tricia.

"Ms. Miles?" McDonald prompted.

"Friends," Angelica blurted. "Good friends."

Was he hoping to catch Angelica in a lie? Few people knew that Angelica and Nigela were the same person-and fewer still knew the true connection between Angelica and Antonio was closer than mere friendship.

A commotion sounded out in the hall beyond.

"Sir! I told you you can't just barge in there. This is a crime scene!" But the man in question barreled into the room anyway, pushing Tricia aside.

"Oh my God," he cried upon catching sight of the body. "Sanjay!"

It was at this point that McDonald's patience finally seemed to fray. "And you are?"

"Jim Stark. I own the construction company that's renovating this building." Stark's face was drawn, the color having drained from it. "I heard a body had been found on the site. I had no idea it was Sanjay." He raked a hand through his thick salt-and-pepper hair, his face white with agitation.

McDonald had his notebook at the ready once more. "How long had Mr. Arya worked for you?"

Stark looked dazed and it took long seconds for him to answer. "Uh . . . maybe five years."

"And what was your working relationship like?"

Stark blinked as though startled. "He was like a son to me. We'd grown close-especially these past couple of years." Suddenly, Stark seemed to notice the Miles sisters were also in attendance. "What are you doing here?" he asked. His voice had grown suddenly cold. "How did you get in here?"

"Antonio Barbero gave us the combination to the lockbox," Angelica said succinctly.

"You have no business being on this construction site without my permission."

"I beg to differ," Angelica said, nearly matching his tone.

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