Sophie “Phee” Kimball is not a cop. She’s a divorced, middle-aged mom who works as an account clerk for the police department in a small city in Minnesota. But her retired mother, Harriet Plunkett, is convinced Phee is the only one who can solve the mystery of a cursed book. According to Harriet, four members of her book club have already succumbed to the deadly curse. Harriet insists Phee catch the next plane to her retirement community in Sun City West, Arizona, to investigate.
Is her mother just bored and lonely? She does have a new pet—a long-haired chiweenie (half Chihuahua, half Dachshund)—for company and a host of pals (although that number is admittedly dwindling). Phee is certain that their book club selection isn’t cursed, but is somebody really knocking off the ladies? As Phee starts to uncover dark secrets hidden in plain sight under the blazing Arizona sun, she’ll need to read between the lines before it’s someone else’s final chapter....
“You’ll chuckle all the way through this delightful romp through Sun City West, as Phee and her mother unravel the mystery behind the sudden deaths of several book club members. It’s so cleverly written, you won’t guess the perpetrators until the very end.” —Mary Marks, award-winning author of the Quilting Mystery series
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Booked 4 Murder
By J.C. Eaton
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2017 J.C. Eaton
All rights reserved.
Office of Sophie Kimball, Mankato Police Department
"I'm telling you, Phee, they were all murdered. Murdered by reading that book."
I tried to keep my voice low, even though I felt like screaming. I had gotten the full story last night, but apparently that wasn't enough.
"That's insane, Mother. No one drops dead from reading a book. Look, can we talk about this later? I'm at work."
"Then you shouldn't have answered your cell phone."
She was right. It was a bad habit. One I had gotten used to when my daughter was in college and had all sorts of would-be emergencies. Now it was my mother in Arizona who seemed to have a never-ending supply of issues — the plumbing in her bathroom, a squeaky garage door, the arthritis in her right hand, a bridge player from her group who was cheating, and trouble keeping her succulents alive. Today it was some bizarre story about her book club. I glanced at the bottom of my computer screen for the time and decided to let her speak for another minute or so.
"Like I was saying, all of us in Booked 4 Murder are going to die from reading that book. There's a curse on it or something."
"Honestly, Mother, you can't be serious. We went through this last night. Minnie Bendelson was eighty-seven, overweight, diabetic, and had a heart condition! Not to mention the fact she was a chain-smoker. A chain-smoker! Edna Mae Langford fell, broke her hip, and died from complications of pneumonia. And she was in her eighties."
"What about Marilyn Scutt? She was only seventy."
"Her golf cart was hit by a car going in the wrong direction!"
"That wouldn't have happened if she wasn't engrossed in that book. That's what I'm telling you. She died from that darn book. And now I'm petrified. Of course, I've only read up until page twenty-four. I was in the middle of a paragraph when I got the call about Edna Mae. That's when I stopped reading the book."
"Good. Read something else."
"I'm serious, Phee. You need to fly out here and find out how that curse works."
"How on earth would I know? And once and for all, there is no curse."
"You can't say that for sure. You need to investigate. With your background, that shouldn't be too hard."
"My background? What background?"
"Well, you work for the police department, don't you?"
"In accounting and payroll! I have a civil service job. I'm not a detective."
As if to verify, I picked up the placard in front of my computer. It read, SOPHIE KIMBALL, ACCOUNTS RECEIVABLE.
"You come in contact with those investigators every day. Something must have rubbed off by now. You've had that job for years."
"Look, Mother, I promise I'll call the minute I get home from work, but I can't stay on the phone. Do me a favor. Stop reading those books for a few days. Turn on the TV, listen to the radio, or find something other than murder mysteries to read. Maybe a good cookbook."
"Who cooks in Sun City West? This is a retirement community. I'm going out with friends for dinner. Call me after seven your time."
"Fine. And stop thinking about a cursed book."
My finger slid to the red End button just as Nate Williams approached my desk. He had been a detective in this small Minnesota city for close to two decades and was counting the days till his retirement. At sixty-five, he still looked youthful, even with his graying hair. Maybe it was his height or the way he sauntered about as if he didn't have a care in the world.
"What's this about a cursed book? Some new case and they called your department by mistake?"
I tried to ignore his grin.
"No curse. Unless you consider wacky mothers a special variety. Come on, hand over your receipts for processing. I'll make a quick copy for you. The machine's right here."
"So, what's with the cursed book? Sounds more interesting than the stuff I've got on my docket."
"Well, if you must know, my mother is convinced that she and her book club are going to drop dead from reading some ridiculous novel. She started in with me last night and wouldn't quit. Now she's calling me at work."
Nate took the receipt copies and let out a slow breath. "And you don't believe her?"
"Of course not. It's just her overactive imagination. When my father was alive, he kept her in check, but he passed away when they moved out west years ago. Now it seems she and her friends have nothing better to do than speculate on all sorts of stuff — the government, health care, economics, immigration. ... You know, the usual things that retired people talk about."
"Hey, I haven't even turned in my retirement letter, so no, I'm not part of the geezer gossip group yet."
"Oh my gosh. I wasn't referring to you."
My face started to flush, and I quickly turned toward my desk to hide my reaction.
"Take it easy. I'm only kidding. So, what gives? What's this book club death threat all about?"
"Gee, Nate, you sound more and more like a detective each day. Quick, pull up a chair and I'll fill you in. I've got a break coming in a few minutes. Might as well put it to good use."
Working in this department for so many years, one of the perks was having my own office. Granted, it was tiny, just a desk, computer, and copier, but it was fairly private if you weren't bothered by the hallway traffic and constant interruptions. Nate had stopped by at a good time. Most of the workers were already making their way to the coffee machine for a fifteen-minute respite.
"Want me to run and get you a cup of coffee before we start?" he asked.
"Nah, I'm fine. You're the one who's going to need a cup of coffee or something stronger when you hear this lunacy."
"There are about fifteen or so members in my mother's book club, and every year they give the librarian at Sun City West a list of their choices for murder-mystery reading. To avoid arguments, the librarian selects a different book from the list for each month and makes it a point to acquire some copies for the library."
"Hmm ... he or she isn't in the club, I presume?"
"Correct. It's a she, but that's all I know."
"Okay, fine. So this book came as one of the suggestions from a book club member?"
"Uh-huh. It was part of the original list for the year."
Nate rubbed the bottom of his chin and leaned in. "What makes your mother so sure the book has anything to do with these deaths? From what I overheard, and believe me, I wasn't trying to snoop, it sounded like they were all unrelated."
"Three of the women died within days of each other and, according to my mother, each received a cryptic e-mail a few days before."
"What kind of e-mail? What did it say?"
"'Death lurks between the lines.'" I couldn't tell if Nate was trying to stifle a laugh or clear his throat.
"Astounding. Sounds like a take on those old nineteen eighties urban legends where someone gets a mysterious videotape, they watch it, and within days they die."
"You think someone is trying to scare a bunch of old ladies?"
"I don't know what to think. But you were right. Your mother should stick to reading a cookbook or something."
"She never went near one when I was growing up, and she's not going to start now. Frankly, the only thing that's going to stop my mother from dwelling on this is if I fly out there and make a fool of myself investigating."
"Listen, kiddo, you'd never make a fool of yourself, no matter what."
"I don't know the first thing about investigating. I'm no detective."
"The heck you're not! The way you track down and verify receipts, hold everyone accountable for monies spent, and triple-check every bit of documentation that comes across your desk? If that's not detective work, then what is?"
"You know what I mean. What does my mother expect me to do even if I fly out there? Take out a pencil and paper and start acting like Sherlock Holmes?"
"Nah, he'd use an iPad by now."
"You do think this is absurd, don't you?"
"Yes and no. Coincidental deaths maybe, but not that e-mail. Keep me posted, Phee. By the way, what's the name of that book?"
"It had a strange title. The Twelfth Arrondissement. Whatever that means."
"It's a neighborhood in Paris."
"How on earth do you know that?"
"You'd be surprised at all the irrelevant facts I know. But this one is firsthand. I lived in Paris for a year when I graduated from college. Couldn't figure out what to do with the rest of my life and thought I'd take a crack at studying art. Needless to say, that dream evaporated and here I am."
"Yes, here you are!" came an unmistakable voice that bellowed down the hallway. "I was looking all over for you, Williams."
"Be right there, Boss. Gotta run. Remember, Phee, if anything turns up, give a holler."
I clicked the Refresh button on my computer and waited for the screen to adjust. Of all the crazy things. Why would the book club be reading about some neighborhood in Paris? It didn't sound like their usual cozy mystery. Then again, there was nothing cozy about this.
As hard as I tried, I couldn't stop thinking about that bizarre book and my mother's irrational fears. They plagued me the entire afternoon. I mean, who in the twenty-first century, other than my mother, her book club friends, and my mother's sister, Aunt Ina, would believe in curses? The only saving grace was that my aunt wasn't in the book club. She lived in the East Valley, miles from Sun City West. Compared to her, my mother was the epitome of rational thinking.
Once when my cousin Kirk and I were ten or eleven, we were having lunch with our mothers at some restaurant after a horrid morning of clothes shopping for school. Kirk accidently spilled the salt shaker and my aunt went berserk.
"Quick! Kirk! Take a pinch of salt and throw it over your left shoulder."
"I'm not gonna do that. I don't want salt all over my neck. It'll itch."
"If you don't throw it over your shoulder, you'll be cursed with bad luck. Pinch that salt and throw it."
Kirk refused, forcing my aunt to lean over the table and throw the salt for him. Unfortunately, she knocked over two water glasses in the process, both of them landing in Kirk's lap. What followed next was one of those memorable family moments they tell you you'll be laughing at ten or twenty years later.
In a rush to stand up, Kirk toppled backward, knocked the chair over, and landed on the floor.
"See, I told you," my aunt said. "Next time you'll listen to me."
Was The Twelfth Arrondissement my mother's spilled salt shaker? I tried dismissing it from my mind till the moment the workday ended and I set foot in my house.CHAPTER 2
I barely had time to put my bag on the counter and kick off my shoes when my phone rang. The voice in my head screamed, LET THE ANSWERING MACHINE GET IT, but I didn't listen. I grew up in a household without an answering machine and you had to race to the phone or forever wonder what you missed. Old habits die hard.
"Phee, thank goodness you're home."
"We agreed I'd call you later this evening, Mom. I just got in."
"Thelmalee Kirkson is dead. Dead. This afternoon at the rec center pool. It was awful."
"Oh my gosh. Did she drown?"
"Drown, no. She doesn't even swim. I mean, didn't even swim. Just sunbathed and read."
"No, bee sting. Out of nowhere. She got stung and died from anaphylactic shock before the paramedics could get there."
"That's awful, Mom. I'm so sorry. She was in your bridge group, wasn't she?"
"No, that's Thelma Morrison. Thelmalee was in my book club. When the fire department finally removed her body from the lounge chair, do you know what they found?"
Before I could catch a breath, my mother continued. "They found that book. The Twelfth Arrondissement. Facedown on the small table near her chair. She only had a few pages left. So you see, it was that book. It's put a curse on us!"
"For the last time, Mother. There is no curse. No book curse. This was a horrible accident. A fluke."
"Four perfectly fine book-club members dead in such a short time is not a fluke or a coincidence. Sophie Vera Kimball, you need to fly out here and investigate. I don't want you to get a phone call from my friends, or worse yet, the Sun City West Sheriff's Posse telling you that your mother is number five."
"I think you're overreacting. Besides, I can't just up and fly to Arizona."
"Knowing you, Phee, you've got plenty of vacation and personal days. I'm right, aren't I? Besides, you can get away from that awful Minnesota weather and enjoy the sunshine out here."
"The weather's fine in Minnesota. It's September, for crying out loud. You'll see me in December. Liked we planned."
"December is too late. Call me tomorrow to let me know what flight you're on."
"Mother, I am not —"
Drat! She'd already hung up, and I wasn't about to call her back. I took off my blazer and slacks, and slipped into my favorite worn jeans and an old sweatshirt. Then I grabbed some leftover lasagna from the fridge and popped it into the microwave. No sooner did I press the Start button when the phone rang again.
Unbelievable. Is there no stopping her from driving me insane?
I debated whether or not to answer and decided to let the machine get it. Nate's voice was loud enough to drown out the sound of the microwave. I quickly picked up the receiver.
"Sorry, Nate. Couldn't get to the phone fast enough. What's up?"
"Thought I'd give you a head start, kiddo. I looked up that book, and I have to say, it's really obscure. I mean, on the Amazon ranking list, it's got a really high number, and that's not good. Plus, it's not even listed with Barnes & Noble. No one's heard of it. No one's reading it. Except for your mother's book club."
"Who's the publisher?"
"It's self-published and copyrighted with the author. Also an unknown. So unknown the name didn't come up on Google."
"You didn't have to go through all of that trouble on my account. Honestly, my mother is just being overly dramatic about this. Although ... she did call a few minutes ago to tell me another book club member died. She was stung by a bee and died of shock at the large recreation center pool."
"So that makes what? Four? Four deaths in less than a month with all of the people having a common relationship? If you ask me, maybe you should fly out there to investigate."
"Oh, come on. I don't have the slightest inkling of how to go about something like that."
"Want me to rent an old noir movie for you? It's really quite simple. You interview, or in your case, talk with the people in the book club, library patrons, and witnesses who were there when one of the women died. Start to put together bits of information that seem to lead up to something. You know, follow the clues. Like I told you earlier today, you already know how to conduct an investigation."
"Nate, you don't really believe there's a curse related to that book, do you?"
"Logically, no. Then again, was it a curse that killed those archeologists who uncovered King Tutankhamun's tomb, or was it a coincidence?"
"I think it was a virus. Dust spores. Maybe you should be the one to fly out there and commiserate with my mother."
"Thank you, no. But I'll do one better for you. Do you remember Rolo Barnes who used to work in the IT department for us?"
"Rolo Barnes? The guy who looked like a black Jerry Garcia?"
"That's the one."
"Of course I remember him. Made payroll a nightmare for me. He refused to have direct deposit and insisted that his paychecks be even-numbered only. Boy did that guy have his quirks. Why?"
"Because no one knows more about cyphers and codes than Rolo. And, he owes me big-time for a matter that I'd rather not discuss. Anyway, I downloaded the e-book version of The Twelfth Arrondissement and sent it to him. He'll check to see if there are any codes or messages embedded in the text."
"Boy, things in your office must really be boring if this is getting your attention."
"I wouldn't say boring, more like routine. And honestly, Phee, what detective wouldn't want to sink his or her teeth into a good old murderous curse."
"One who lives in this century and not the Middle Ages. Anyway, thanks for doing some of the legwork. If I do decide to hop a plane, you'll be the second one to know."
No sooner did I hang up the phone when the buzz of the microwave made me jump out of my skin. I half expected to turn around and see my mother standing there offering to pack my suitcase. Now I was the one getting unnerved. I was positive my mother was being totally irrational about this. Or was she? Nate certainly didn't dismiss it, and he'd dealt with all sorts of bizarre situations. Still, my mother lived in a senior community and well ... the likelihood of someone passing away wasn't unusual, even if the cluster of deaths was.
I hated thinking about getting old and at approaching forty-five, I still considered myself years away from middle age. I had no gray hair and still looked decent in a high-waisted two-piece swimsuit, although I shied away from thongs and skinny bikinis.
Excerpted from Booked 4 Murder by J.C. Eaton. Copyright © 2017 J.C. Eaton. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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