Minnie Hamilton and her rescue cat, Eddie, cruise around lovely Chilson, Michigan delivering happiness and good reads in their bookmobile. But the feisty librarian is worried that the bookmobile's future could be uncertain when a new library board chair arrives and doesn't seem too friendly to her pet project.
Still, she has to put her personal worries aside when she and Eddie are out on their regular route and one of their favorite customers doesn't turn up to collect her books. Minnie, at Eddie's prodding, checks on the woman and finds her lying dead in her snow-covered driveway. Now it's up to Minnie and her friendsfeline and otherwiseto find the perpetrator and give them their due.
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I stood at the kitchen window, staring out into the backyard as January's chill seeped through the glass and into my bones. The cold was making my skin prickle and my teeth chatter, yet I didn't move. If I stayed, maybe time would stand still. Maybe the morning wouldn't happen. Maybe if I went back to bed and pulled the covers over my head, it would all go away.
"Minnie?" my aunt Frances asked. "What, pray tell, do you see? It's pitch dark out there."
She was right. Even though I knew the backyard contained snow-covered maple and beech trees, the only thing I could see was my own self. Whoever had installed the double-hung windows had placed them at a height that forced any five-foot-tall human-in this case, me-to either stand on tiptoes or crouch slightly to see over the top of the lower window. This morning I was standing on my toes and seeing little more than the reflection of a pair of slightly bloodshot brown eyes and too-curly black hair.
I looked over at my cat. Eddie was sitting in the kitchen chair he'd claimed as his own and licking his right front paw.
Aunt Frances laughed. "Your fuzzy friend said to sit down and eat your oatmeal." She put two bowls on the round oak table and slid into the chair across from Eddie.
"More likely he's asking about his breakfast." I gave the top of my head one last glance-still a curly mess and likely to stay that way-and sat. "You didn't have to make me breakfast."
"Don't get used to it. However, I thought it only right to commemorate this day." She dipped her spoon into the bowl and held it up in a toast. "To the new director of the Chilson District Library, whatever his name is. May his reign bring joy to all, but especially to the library's assistant director, since she's sitting across the table from me."
"Graydon," I said. "His name is Graydon Cain."
"The poor man. What were his parents thinking? I wonder what his friends call him? Gray?" She raised one eyebrow. "Don?"
"Maybe it's a family name and they call him Junior."
Aunt Frances snorted. "Surely your nimble mind has a better suggestion than that. You're not getting sick, are you?"
"If only," I muttered, but not loud enough for her to hear. When Graydon had interviewed with the library board a few months back, I'd made the event memorable by walking backward into the then-president of the board, falling to the floor, and strewing the contents of my backpack all across the lobby.
Bad as that had been, it had been far worse to have Eddie hack up a hair ball on the Italian shoes of the woman the board chose as the library's director. An early-and heavy-October snowfall had sent Jennifer scuttling back south and the board had gone to Graydon, metaphorical hat in hand, and asked him to consider making northwest lower Michigan his new home.
"Well," my aunt said reasonably, "Graydon can't be any worse than that frightful woman."
I sighed. "You'd think so, but I wouldn't have thought anyone could be worse than Stephen." My former boss, who'd had the personality of a doorstop and a deep reluctance to agree to any change in anything whatsoever, hadn't inspired deep loyalty in his staff.
"It'll be fine," Aunt Frances said comfortably. Of course, she could be comfortable about the whole thing; she hadn't had a new boss in ages. Her fall-to-spring job was as a woodworking instructor at the local community college, and the college president was in fine fettle and likely to stay that way. In summer, she opened up the big house she'd inherited from her long-passed-away husband to eight hand-picked boarders. Or rather, that's what she'd done for years and years. This summer it was all going to be different.
Most of me was thrilled about the upcoming events, but part of me had a kinship with Stephen and his dislike of change. I'd loved the boardinghouse since, starting at age twelve, my busy parents had sent me north from June to August. Every group of boarders was unique and every summer had brought new adventures. I didn't want the evening tradition of cooking marshmallows in the living room's fieldstone fireplace to end. I didn't want the bookshelf full of board games and jigsaw puzzles to be moved. I didn't want the screened porch off the dining room to sprout new furniture, and I certainly didn't want anyone to decide the wide pine-paneled walls needed to be covered with drywall and papered over with some floral print.
"Don't," my aunt said.
I looked up. "Don't what?"
"Think whatever it is you're thinking." Before I could disagree, she added, "And don't bother denying that you're thinking things you shouldn't be thinking about. If it's about that Graydon, quit worrying. If it's about this summer, quit worrying. It'll all work out, one way or another, and worrying doesn't help one bit."
"I know, but-"
"Stop," she said firmly.
Since Aunt Frances was the sanest person I knew, and since she'd been right the other zillion times in my life when she told me to quit worrying, I said, "You're right. Again." I'd stop. Or at least try to.
"There's a reason you're my favorite niece," she said.
"I'm your only niece."
"Then isn't it wonderful that we found each other?" She grinned. And since my aunt's grins were hard to resist, I grinned back.
"Yes, Eddie," I said, patting the top of his head. "It's wonderful that I found you, too."
He glanced up at me, and I got the impression that he was mentally switching the pronouns in that sentence. Almost two years ago, on an unseasonably warm April morning, I'd skipped out on cleaning chores and instead wandered through the local cemetery, enjoying the view of the twenty-mile-long Janay Lake and the horizontal blue line of Lake Michigan just over the hills to the west. My quiet walk had been interrupted by a black-and-gray tabby cat who had materialized next to the gravesite of Alonzo Tillotson, born 1847, died 1926.
I'd assumed the cat had a home and tried to shoo him away, but he'd followed me back to town, much to the amusement of passersby. Since I'd known nothing about cats due to my father's allergies, I'd taken him to the local veterinarian, who said my new friend (a black-and-white tabby once he'd been cleaned up) was about two years old. The "Found Cat" notice I'd run in the newspaper had gone unanswered, and Eddie and I were now pals for life.
"It's going to be different, that's all," I said, letting my hand rest on Eddie's warm back.
"Different isn't necessarily bad." Aunt Frances scraped her spoon against the bottom of her bowl.
"I know. It's just . . ." I sighed.
"Going to be different." My aunt nodded. "I understand, my sweet. I really do. You're getting a new boss. Cousin Celeste is buying the boardinghouse. Otto and I are getting married in Bermuda, I'm moving across the street, and you're-" She stopped. "What are you doing? Have you made a decision about the houseboat?"
I shook my head. A few years ago I'd been lucky enough to have been offered the assistant director job at the Chilson District Library. The job paid what you might expect, and since housing in the summer resort town of Chilson was not what you'd call affordable, my living arrangements were, by necessity, creative.
October through April, I lived with my aunt in the rambling boardinghouse, but come May, I moved to a boat slip in Uncle Chip's Marina to spend the summer in the cutest little houseboat imaginable. But this May, someone else other than Aunt Frances was going to open the boardinghouse, and I wouldn't be moving back here in the fall, or ever again.
"I hear," my aunt said, "that Rafe is looking for wide walnut planks to do the entry floor."
"Hmm." A smile spread across my face. A few weeks earlier, I'd come to the shocking realization that Rafe Niswander-who I'd known since I was twelve years old, who infuriated me on a regular basis, who often displayed the sense of humor of a nine-year-old, and who took every opportunity to display stupidity in spite of his multiple college degrees and successful position as a middle school principal-was, in fact, the love of my life. Happily, this realization almost completely coincided with Rafe's confession that he'd been in love with me for years, and that he'd just been waiting for the right time to own up.
Which, as it turned out, was during a critical time. Rafe had spent years fixing up an old shingle-style house and his confession had occurred when he'd said he'd been renovating it for me all along, but that it was time for kitchen design decisions and he'd needed my input.
"I haven't decided," I told Aunt Frances.
"About the walnut?"
I ignored the question, which had to be rhetorical. She knew perfectly well that I had as much interest in the types of wood Rafe bought as I did in kitchen design, which was to say none.
"About selling the houseboat," I said. "If I sell it, I could pay off my last student loan, but once it's gone, it's gone, like oatmeal on a snowy January morning." I reached across the table for her empty bowl. "Thank you for making breakfast. I appreciate the celebration and hope the day deserves it."
Aunt Frances watched as I carried the dishes to the sink. "Celeste sent me an e-mail last night. Shall I read it to you?"
"Yes, please." The e-mails from Celeste Glendennie, the cousin in Nevada buying the boardinghouse, were terse, choppy, informative, and often very funny. My parents claimed I'd met her at a family reunion, but I couldn't summon up a single memory.
My aunt reached out for her cell phone, which was sitting on the kitchen counter. After a few screen taps, she said, "Quoting: Is boardinghouse one word or two? Inquiring minds want to know. Mine does, too." Aunt Frances put down the phone. "She's going to be here the last week of April to get started. Are you planning on being gone by then?"
"If I recall correctly, your houseboat doesn't have central heating. Did you ask Eddie how he feels about living in below-freezing temperatures?"
I glanced at my furry friend, who was now standing with his back feet on the seat of his chair and his front feet on the windowsill, staring at an outside that would be dark for another hour. "Rafe says the house will be done by mid-April."
Aunt Frances hooted with laughter. "And you believed him? Don't look like that, dear heart. I'm sure he thinks he's being realistic, but my money's on October."
"Can't be October," I said. "I ran into Chris the other day and Uncle Chip himself has decided it's time to update the marina. They're going to pull out all the piers and put in new ones right after Labor Day." Though Chris was part owner and manager of the marina, his great uncle was the marina's patriarch, and his wish was Chris's command.
My aunt put a hand on my shoulder. "Poor Minnie. What are you going to do with all this change being foisted upon you? How will you endure?"
"With luck and grace," I told her. "And if that can't happen, with fortitude and a smile. But even without any of that, I'll endure with-"
As per usual, he was right on cue. "With Eddie."
An hour later, the outgoing library board president, octogenarian Otis Rahn, looked at me over the top of his glasses. ÒNow, Minnie, I have every confidence in you, but I want you to promise that this year will be a rousing success.Ó
It wasn't easy for me to keep from doing a fidgety squirm, and I tried to forget how much I disliked making promises regarding things that were primarily out of my control and instead focused on how much I loved my job.
"Of course, Otis," I said, smiling and nodding at the two new faces.
Graydon, our new director. Trent, our new board president. Two names out of an East Coast prep school alumni directory and they had the looks to match. Both had thin faces and smooth hair cut to a professional length. Both wore slacks, jacket, and no tie-clothing completely appropriate for a formal Up North meeting in January. Both had greeted me with firm handshakes and friendly smiles.
There was no reason for me to dislike them. None whatsoever. But I would have preferred a hint of awe in their demeanor. Not at me, of course, but at our surroundings. For decades, the Chilson District Library had been stuffed into a concrete block structure that had the aesthetics of a bunker. With the magic of an easily passed millage vote, a historic-and empty-elementary school had been lovingly renovated into a building that was a point of pride for the entire community.
The architects had taken advantage of the building's Arts and Crafts style and had revitalized its miles of interior wood trim. They'd added large square tile flooring to the lobby and wide hallways. The reading room had a fireplace and window seats. Colored metallic tiles highlighted everything from drinking fountains to directional signs. What had been the school gymnasium now housed the bulk of the library's books, with custom-made oak tables and lamps that invited people to sit and stay. Every time I walked into the building, its beauty almost took my breath away.
Even now, the view from the second-floor boardroom of picturesque downtown Chilson and Janay Lake was gorgeous. Sure, everything was covered with a fresh layer of snow and the lake was frozen, but if you lived in northwest lower Michigan year-round, your mental health depended on finding beauty in winter.
"Looking forward to working with you," Trent Ross said politely.
"Likewise," Graydon said. The only person I'd ever heard use that word in conversation was a long-ago college professor who had tried to teach me statistics, and hearing it from my new boss did not summon happy memories. "And I'm looking forward to having more meetings," he said, nodding.
Otis gazed at him. "My boy, don't make the board regret hiring you."
Graydon laughed. "I was being a bit facetious. It's this room." He nodded at the wood-paneled walls, the long corporate-looking table, and the blotters placed in front of every chair. "It makes me feel that important things are being discussed. It makes me feel dignified."