From the national bestselling author of Well Read, Then Dead comes the second mystery featuring Sassy Cabot and Bridgy Mayfield, who bring Fort Myers Beach, Florida, residents plenty of sinful treats and killer reads at their bookstore café, Read ’Em and Eat.
Happy to help her fellow bibliophiles, Sassy visits the local library with book donations for their annual fundraising sale. Unfortunately, the welcoming readers’ haven is in turmoil as an argument erupts between an ornery patron and new staff member, Tanya Lipscombe—also known as “Tanya Trouble.” She may lack people skills, but everyone is shocked when she’s later found murdered in her own hot tub.
The man last seen arguing with Tanya is soon arrested. But Alan Mersky, a veteran with PTSD, happens to be the brother of Sassy’s former boss—and he’s no murderer. Now it’s up to Sassy and Bridgy to clear Alan’s name and make sure the real killer gets booked.
Includes a recipe for Miss Marple scones!
About the Author
Short-listed twice for The Best American Mystery Stories, Terrie Farley Moran is delighted to introduce mystery fans to the Read ’Em and Eat café and bookstore, which debuted with Well Read, Then Dead. The only thing Terrie enjoys more than wrangling mystery plots into submission is playing games and reading stories with any or all of her grandchildren.
Read an Excerpt
Chapter One ||||||||||
Bridgy Mayfield’s aunt Ophelia tapped her extra-long, shocking pink fingernails impatiently on the countertop beside the cash register.
“Really, how long can it take to pack a few scones and fill a thermos with tea?”
I held my tongue, reminding myself there was no point in answering Ophie. She never paid the least attention to what anyone had to say unless they were spouting lavish words of praise directed at Ophie herself. Everything else flew right past her.
Bridgy came out of the kitchen. She placed the tea-filled thermos and a box of scones in front of her aunt. “I tied your pastry box with a fancy lace ribbon. When you open the box, each scone is resting in its own little doily. Do you want cocktail-sized napkins rather than lunch napkins? More festive, I always think.”
Ophie’s mood swung from frozen latte to southern syrup.
“Here you go gussying up the tea I’m sharing with a new client to make it look like I fussed to the moon and back. Why, honey chile, it’s no wonder you’re my favorite relative.” Ophie reached across the counter to pat Bridgy on the cheek and spotted a cardboard box half filled with assorted books. “What is that? A new shipment? Shouldn’t you get those books on a shelf? How can folks buy them if they don’t know you have them?”
She turned to me. “Sassy, you’re the book maven. What are you waiting for?”
I tried explaining that we were donating some used books from home and a few unsold books from the café bookshelves for the library fund-raising book sale, but Ophie was having none of it.
“Isn’t that like helping the enemy stock up on weapons? Honey chile, if everyone got their books at the library, who’d buy books from you?”
Remembering it wasn’t so long ago that Ophie suggested we expand the café and get rid of the bookshelves altogether, I needed to change the subject, and fast. I pointedly looked at the wall clock and asked, “What time are you meeting your new client?”
“Oh Lordy, I’ve only got about two minutes.” She picked up her thermos and package. “Y’all know the smartest thing I did when I opened the Treasure Trove was mix local art with eclectic consignments. The interior designer I’m meeting this morning has the exclusive to decorate the model homes and apartments for Lipscome Builders. And they are plenty big. Right now they’re building an apartment complex here on the island, and a private home development in Bonita Springs. I’ve got some great pieces, guaranteed to make the models look beachy yet elegant. Moving down here from Pinetta is the best thing I could have done. It’ll be raining money over at the Treasure Trove.”
As I watched her trot out the door on impossibly high, spiky yellow sandals, I thought back to when she’d barreled in the front door of the Read ’Em and Eat, eager to help as soon as she heard that Bridgy and I were in serious trouble because our chef, Miguel Guerra, broke his leg. Hard to run a café without a chef. By the time Miguel was back at work, Ophie had fallen in love with Fort Myers Beach, its friendly residents and peaceful vistas. She rented a vacant store in our plaza and was soon earning enough to allow her to buy a tiny cottage on Estero Bay.
Bridgy and I hustled for another hour serving breakfast, which included book-related items like Agatha Christie Soft-Boiled Eggs and Green Eggs and Ham. When we finally hit the brief lull between the breakfast and lunch crowd I grabbed the box of books and headed over to the library.
I carefully edged my ancient but beloved Heap-a-Jeep into a parking space tucked between a well-polished silver Lexus and a flamboyant blue Corvette sitting with its top down. An overflowing ashtray in the Corvette’s dash was wide open and as each gust of wind blew through the dwarf palms lining the parking lot, cigarette ash swirled around the seats and console, scattering gray and white specks on the smooth navy leather. The tiny whirlwinds caught my eye.
For a second, I toyed with the idea of leaning over the passenger side door of the Corvette to close the ashtray, but decided that could spell trouble if the owner came out of the library and thought I was fiddling, or worse, with the car.
The expansive glass façade of the Beachside Community Library always made me smile. The library was every bit as warm and welcoming as the Read ’Em and Eat. The staff worked tirelessly to meet the reading needs of the full-time residents of Fort Myers Beach and the ever-changing snowbird community—winter residents who came to the Gulf Coast of Florida from all parts north. A car door slammed, breaking my reverie. Involuntarily, I looked toward the noise. The man who’d shut the door of a faded black Mustang covered with rusted-out dents and dings looked surprisingly familiar.
“George. George Mersky?”
When he turned toward me, I realized that he was not my former boss at the final job I held before Bridgy and I left Brooklyn. For one thing, this man was more disheveled than the always-neat and tidy George. Still, the resemblance was startling. The man shook his head, muttered something to himself and stared at the ground as he limped his way into the library.
I pulled the box of books from the rear of the jeep and hoisted it until I had it balanced on my forearms. When I passed the ancient Mustang, I couldn’t help but peek. The entire car was jumbled with the fragments of a topsy-turvy life. Stuffed in the front passenger seat, I saw the jagged edge of a large tree limb. It crossed over the console, and its branches, most bare but some with dead leaves still clinging, straddled an assortment of bags and boxes piled on the car floor and spread across the backseat.
I shook my head. George would never tolerate such unsightly clutter. A few steps closer to the library door, I began maneuvering the box of books until I had it poised on my hip, leaving one hand free to reach for the handle. The box began to slip but I juggled it back to steady, and managed to open the door a few inches. From inside I heard a woman yelling something that began, “You can’t . . .” Her screech threw off my equilibrium and the box began to slide to the ground.
The voice got louder, the words less intelligible, and then stopped abruptly when something metal crashed, followed by dead silence. A wave of whispers by patrons and staff quickly crescendoed to a flap of confusion. My box landed on the ground with a thump, and several books spilled to the concrete. As I bent to pick up the books, the man who looked like George pushed through the door, knocking into my shoulder. He was muttering incoherently.
He tripped over one of my books, and I couldn’t help but say, “Oh, careful.”
The man stopped short and looked directly into my eyes. He nodded his thanks for the words of caution, then he picked up the book and handed it to me. I felt an instant connection arise and then disappear when he dropped his head and went back to whispering indistinctly.
I gathered my books and went inside the library. Sally Caldera was assuring patrons that all was well while trying to straighten a book cart that was lying on its side. An elderly man, dressed in a loud Hawaiian-print shirt, kept insisting that he could lift the cart if Sally would get out of the way. I set down my box and rushed to help her set the cart back on its wheels before the old gentleman pulled a muscle or had a heart attack.
“Looks like I’ve come at a bad time.” I pointed to the box I’d set down on the floor near the doorway. “I brought books for the book sale. Where do you want them?”
Sally pushed a mass of curly russet-colored hair off her forehead.
“Let’s put them behind the desk for now. Do you want a receipt? For taxes?”
Great idea, I thought. I followed Sally to the reception desk and couldn’t help but mention the man who looked like George.
“Alan. His name is Alan. He comes in all the time to use the computers. He doesn’t bother anyone and we pretend he has a library card. I never forced the issue because I doubt he has an address he could use for identification. Still, he is clearly living somewhere on the island because I see him around town every now and again.”
Sally nodded. “I think he is one of the veterans who’ve migrated south. They live outdoors, often in isolation, sometimes in small camps of three or four. They don’t bother anyone and we certainly owe them our support. So if a vet needs to use our computers to write to the Veterans Administration or email family or friends . . .”
“I had no idea.”
“Most people don’t. That’s one problem. The other is the people who don’t care. Like Tanya Trouble. She was filling in for Marcie in the computer section a few days ago and—”
Sally discreetly pointed to a buxom brunette dressed in mile-high wedge sandals and a too-tight red skirt. She was helping a student-type go through research material.
“New volunteer. Thinks she’s in charge of the whole place. Anyway, last week Alan came in and asked for computer time, but when he couldn’t produce a library card, Tanya went ballistic. He told her he needed to do some veterans business and she started yammering about no special privileges. She went on and on.”
Sally shook her head.
“Confrontational isn’t in Alan’s DNA. I was in the back while this was going on but one of the clerks told me Alan ran out the door before anyone could intervene.”
“Same as he did today?”
“He’s skittish around people and would rather avoid interaction. I did have a heart-to-heart with Tanya, and explained how we liked to extend courtesy to our military veterans. She yessed me, made all the appropriate noises, but it was obvious she thought I was making a big deal out of nothing.”
“If she’s not interested in helping people, why volunteer here?”
“Husband’s a high-powered guy who spends all his time making pots of money. He golfs with the head of the library board of trustees . . .”
“So she may be here more to please her husband than to help patrons.”
“Exactly. Oh, there she goes. She spends more time on cigarette breaks than being useful.”
Sally’s eyes slid toward the doorway. I turned and saw Tanya Trouble moving through the doorway, tottering on her wedges with far less grace than Aunt Ophie on spike sandals. She had a cell already at her ear and was carrying a small, shiny object I couldn’t identify.
“You rarely see people smoking anymore,” I said to Sally, who laughed.
“I’m not sure how much actual smoking Tanya does. Mostly she waves the hand holding her cigarette while she talks on her cell phone. We’ve requested that all smokers stand away from the entrance, and we reinforced that by putting the upright trash can with the ashtray top at the far corner of the building.”
I shrugged off the smoking area as something I’d never noticed, and that pleased Sally to no end.
“Out of sight, out of mind, even for the smokers. They come and go, never notice the ashtray so they don’t smoke outside the building. Who wants cigarette smoke overtaking the fresh scent of a breeze off the Gulf of Mexico?”
I laughed. “Tanya Trouble, for one.”
“I think she likes to show off that fancy lighter of hers. Claims her husband paid nearly a hundred thousand dollars for it as a gift for their first anniversary. She tells anyone who will listen that all those sparkly bits are hundreds of tiny diamonds and set in eighteen-karat white gold with platinum inlays. Carries it everywhere, even in nonsmoking spaces. Odd.”
All this talk of cigarettes reminded me.
“By any chance does she drive a blue Corvette?”
“She left the top down again, right? Last week ashes were swirling around and flew right into a woman’s eye when she stepped out of her car. I’m going to have to speak to her about the car, and about Alan. Here she comes. See you soon.”
I headed toward the door, and as I passed Tanya, I got a good look at the lighter in her hand. It seemed too flashy to be real gold and diamonds. I would have thought it came from the dollar store. No accounting for taste.
In the parking lot, once I brushed away some ash that had twirled from Tanya’s ashtray to my windshield, I dismissed her completely. I hurried back to the Read ’Em and Eat determined that as soon as the lunch rush was over, I’d call George Mersky to ask if he had a relative named Alan living in Florida.
Chapter Two ||||||||||
Within five minutes of walking through the door of the Read ’Em and Eat and tying on my apron, I forgot all about Alan, the library and Tanya Trouble. We were that busy.
Miguel had his Old Man and the Sea Chowder on the menu and from the way folks were ordering, I hoped he made enough.
Maggie Latimer, owner of our local yoga studio, Zencentric, came in with a woman who was as tall and lithe as Maggie but with dark auburn hair cut in an adorable pixie in contrast to Maggie’s blond ponytail. They sat at the Robert Frost table. Maggie was pointing out the various Frost memorabilia laminated to the tabletop, copies of poems, pictures of the author, an article or two, when I brought over their menus.
“See the fruit poems, the one about apple picking and the one about blueberries?” Maggie pointed to the menus still in my hand. “You’ll find Robert Frost Apple and Blueberry Tartlets on the menu and they are yummy.”
As I set the menus on the table Maggie introduced me to her sister, Karen.
“Karen is here for a month recovering from a too-long bout of pneumonia.”
I welcomed Karen and she responded with an earnest smile.
“Maggie tells me that besides scrumptious food, you also serve fascinating conversation at book club meetings. I look forward to attending one or two while I’m here.” She glanced at the bookshelves that lined two walls of the café. “I’ll probably want to browse a little after lunch.”
The sisters decided on Old Man and the Sea Chowder with Catcher in the Rye Toast and sweet tea. I set the order request on the pass-through shelf, and while I was pouring the sweet tea, I decided to get a copy of this month’s book club calendar for Karen. I was reaching for the flier when the door flung open and Jocelyn Kendall, her strawlike hair even more askew that usual, stepped in. She looked around, confusion mounting in her eyes.
“I didn’t think I was that late. Did I miss it completely?”
I made the mistake of taking a step toward her. I was close enough that she grabbed my shoulders and shook me.
“Why didn’t you send out an email? Why didn’t you call me? I have so much to say.”
When don’t you? I kept that thought to myself and asked, “Jocelyn, what are you talking about?”
“The Tea and Mystery Afternoons. The Circular Staircase? Mary Roberts Rinehart? For goodness’ sake, Sassy, you’re in charge of the book clubs; I shouldn’t have to tell you what I’m talking about. You should know.”
Then like an errant preschooler, she stamped her foot and fixed a bold, defiant stare at the book corner where the book clubs hold their meetings.
How convenient that I was holding a book club calendar in my hand. I thrust it at her and picked up the two tall glasses of sweet tea and walked to Maggie’s table.
Behind me I heard Jocelyn groan.
“Tomorrow. The meeting is tomorrow! I rearranged my entire day for nothing.”
I knew if I looked at her, I’d be subjected to a harangue of epic proportions. The fact that the error was hers was of no consequence.
As I set the tea on the table, Maggie whispered, “Don’t turn around. Uh-oh, she’s heading this way.”
Feeling trapped, doomed even, I grasped for the handiest lifesaver.
“Jocelyn, have you met Maggie’s sister, Karen?”
Jocelyn morphed instantly from offended book club member to helpful pastor’s wife and greeted Karen as if she was a brand-new parishioner being welcomed to the flock.
“Maggie, you must bring your charming sister to late service on Sunday.” She patted Karen’s hand. “It’s not that late, of course, ten fifteen. But the eight o’clock service seems so early. Still, some of the parishioners like it. Attend worship and get on with your day. I do envy the up-and-at-’em types. I’m a bit of a slug in the morning.”
She drew a breath, smiling ruefully, and I took the opportunity to switch the topic entirely.
“I was at the library earlier and I noticed a poster for a palm frond weaving class.”
“What do they weave? Grass skirts?” Maggie’s laugh had the vibrancy of jingle bells.
“The pictures on the poster were of flower shapes. We should think about going. Karen, how long are you staying on the island?”
“Oh, I’m here for a month or until Maggie tires of my company, whichever comes first.”
Both sisters laughed and it was a double jingle for sure.
Jocelyn sniffed. “I’ll have to check the date. Busy, busy you know, pastor’s wife. Lots to do.” She waggled a finger at Karen. “Remember late service—coffee after.”
She curved toward me and her “I’ll see you tomorrow” sounded like a not-so-veiled threat.
The three of us silently watched her flounce out the door and on to terrorizing her next victim, who was more often than not her long-suffering husband, Pastor John.
As soon as the door closed behind Jocelyn, Karen opened her mouth but Maggie cut her off with a nod.
“Yep. She’s always like that, a special combination of brusqueness and self-absorption, as irritating as sand in your sneaker.”
“What’s this about The Circular Staircase? It’s one of my all-time faves.”
Maggie pointed to me.
“Sassy is the book-meister for the book clubs that meet at the Read ’Em and Eat. Lots of different topics. At the Potluck Book Club we read foodie books; the Tea and Mystery Afternoons—Golden Age women mystery authors; Books Before Breakfast, well, I’m teaching a meditation class at that hour but that’s more of a mix of all types of books, wouldn’t you say, Sassy?”
“Yes, but all the clubs are open to suggestion. Sometimes I recommend a book, sometimes the members choose among themselves. It’s all very casual.”
“Sounds like fun.”
“Oh, it is,” Maggie assured her sister. “Come with me tomorrow afternoon. You already know the book. You can refresh with my copy.”
When Maggie paid the check, I gave a book club calendar to Karen, who thanked me and then commented on how unusual but fitting she found my name to be.
“Mary Sassafras Cabot, that’s my whole moniker, but my mother is a flower-power, earth-child type and called me Sassy from day one. It stuck.”
The sisters left, promising to come back tomorrow afternoon.
Two sunburned surfer types lingered over a second round of orange juice at the Ernest Hemingway table while a young mother at Dr. Seuss was watching her preschooler dawdle as he played with his grilled chicken strips and apple sauce. I asked Bridgy to keep an eye on them all while I went outside to make a phone call.
I sat on a bench in front of the café and whipped out my cell phone. This was one of those times I was super glad that I’d always been neurotic about keeping any and all phone numbers in my phone. If I met someone three years ago, and we exchanged phone numbers so that the first one to hear about the next major sale on Celebrity Pink clothes in Belk’s Department Store could call the other, believe me, that number is still in my phone.
So it was no surprise that even though I hadn’t spoken to George Mersky in a couple of years, his number was right there, waiting for me to push a button and connect.
He answered on the second ring and sounded harried as always.
“Hi, George, this is Sassy Cabot.”
“Sassy! What a pleasant surprise. How is life along the Gulf of Mexico?”
I could almost see his eyes move to the clock while his brain calculated how many minutes he could spare for social nice-nice before he cut me loose and went back to the stacks of papers filled with numbers that were his accountant heart’s true love.
“Everything here is fine. I was wondering . . . it’s none of my business . . . but do you happen to know someone named Alan? Someone who looks like you.”
The silence was palpable for more than a minute.
“You’ve seen my brother Alan? Oh my God. Is he okay? Is he hurt?”
I hesitated. How could I explain the agitation I’d witnessed?
“He seems fine physically, but . . .”
Again I was at a loss for words.
“Sassy, Alan served three tours in Iraq. He suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. Is he living on the streets? Does he need help?”
I was sure George was tugging on his ear as he always did when something upset him.
“No. No, he’s fine. Nothing like that. I saw him at the library—”
“Then he’s back to his old self, reading those adventure books he always loved?”
The hope in George’s voice was distressing. How could I explain? Clearly, Alan still had problems. I gave it my best shot and George understood instantly. I ended by saying that when I called Alan “George” and he turned around, I felt compelled to get in touch with George on the off chance they were related.
“I’m so glad you did. And you say the librarian knows him? Wonderful. Perhaps she could ask him to call me. When we don’t hear from Alan for long stretches of time, we try to find him but aren’t always successful. And, even if they know where he is, the Veterans Administration can’t give out that information—even to family.”
I could hear such frustration in his voice that I offered to look for Alan. I heard myself telling George that Fort Myers Beach is a small town and once I started looking, I was sure to find out where Alan was staying and what he was doing.
By the time we said good-bye I was already certain I’d bitten off more than I could chew.
I went inside and gave the surfer dudes their check. I smiled at the toddler who’d fallen asleep in his chair and poured the mom another cup of green tea to enjoy along with the quiet. I bussed some dishes into the kitchen. Bridgy was loading the dishwasher and listening to Miguel go on and on about the wonders of Bow, his gorgeous black Maine Coon.
“She is the most extraordinary cat. Yesterday I was sitting on the patio when I heard a splash. Bow was roaming around, wandering back and forth between the house and the edge of Estero Bay but I thought no. She wouldn’t jump in the water. Cats and water, ay, never. And a few minutes later, there she is on the patio, shaking her dripping-wet coat, with a fish in her mouth. She enjoyed it for her dinner.”
“You let her eat raw fish?” Never a sushi girl, I shuddered at the thought.
“Of course not, chica. I skinned and boned the fish and sautéed it in olive oil. First, though, I dried and combed my beautiful girl’s coat.”
Behind Miguel’s back Bridgy gave me an “okay” sign. We had been instrumental in getting Miguel and Bow to be roomies. The sleek, gorgeous but extremely uppity Bow once belonged to a frequent book club member, and when the woman died unexpectedly, Miguel adopted the cat. It turned out to be a true love match.
I thought I heard the toddler stirring so I stuck my head out the kitchen door. But he was still asleep and his mother was browsing the bookshelves. She gave me a wave and went right back to leafing through the fiction section.
“Don’t run away just yet,” Miguel commanded. “I have an idea for tomorrow’s book club.”
I turned my attention back to the kitchen.
Done with the dishwasher, Bridgy was pouring herself a glass of water. She held the pitcher, filled with lemon and lime slices, high in the air, as if asking if I wanted some, and I nodded.
Miguel motioned me over to the pastry work counter.
“Tomorrow the mystery ladies meet and I have a special treat for them.”
He eyed a plate covered with a yellow gingham dish towel.
I made sure to “oh” and “ah,” lavishly applauding his thoughtfulness. Finally, he waved two fingers, signaling permission to remove the towel.
Having gotten in trouble before, I knew to lift the towel carefully with both hands so as not to disturb the goodies underneath. And there they were—question mark cookies.
I clapped my hands.
“Goodness. Perfectly shaped question marks! And the icing!”
Miguel nodded. “I thought color would make the shape pop.”
Every cookie was iced in white, but each one was edged with orange, red or yellow gel, clearly defining the shape. The display was guaranteed to wow the book club members, or as I called them, the clubbies.
I was still praising Miguel when I heard a wail from the dining room. The toddler had woken up. I rushed in. His mother was bundling him and his toys back into his umbrella stroller.
She handed him a plastic action figure, one I didn’t recognize. He cooed and began to bang the toy on his knee.
“I was wondering. My mother lent me Winds of War by Herman Wouk and I loved it. I’m dying to know what happens to Pug and Rhoda and oh, just everybody. Could you order me a copy of War and Remembrance? I’ve got to know.”
I took her phone number and tucked it on the bulletin board so I could call her when the book came in. As I wrote War and Remembrance next to her name, I thought of the soldier I’d promised to find.
Chapter Three ||||||||||
The Tea and Mystery Afternoons Book Club discussed The Circular Staircase peacefully with Jocelyn on her best behavior, perhaps because she considered Maggie’s sister, Karen, to be a guest. But at the Books Before Breakfast meeting a few days later, she started a raging debate about the relevance of the novels written by D. E. Stevenson in general and her wildly popular Miss Buncle’s Book, in particular.
“Compared to Stevenson’s Mrs. Tim books, Miss Buncle lacks an element of adventure.” Jocelyn smacked her hand on the book in her lap to emphasize her point.
“Writing under the nom de plume ‘John Smith,’ Miss Buncle published a thinly disguised book about her neighbors. That doesn’t strike you as a daring exploit for a middle-aged spinster?” Ever since Blondie Quinlin had begun accompanying her neighbor Augusta Maddox to the early-morning book club, she’d delighted in tweaking Jocelyn’s nose at every possible opportunity.
“Well, I wouldn’t have the nerve.” Lisette Ortiz shook her curly dark hair.
Irene Lester, the newest member, leaned over and patted Lisette on the arm. “You’re far from middle-aged, honey, and I doubt you’ll ever be a spinster.”
Irene slid her reading glasses down from her forehead and opened her book. “You’ve only to look at the description of Silverstream in the first couple of pages. That bakery woman—ah, here she is—Mrs. Goldsmith, knows the morning breakfast habits of the entire village. Do you really think anything goes on in the village that everyone doesn’t know? And while living in that atmosphere Miss Buncle chose to write a book with characters based on the local residents. I call that brave. And the book was funny. I love humor now and again. Anyway, I have a hair appointment. Can we choose next month’s book?”
I sat back and let the clubbies wrestle among themselves until they narrowed down to two books. Most heads nodded when Lisette mentioned a fairly new Nora Roberts book, The Collector. Irene suggested that the eternally classic O Pioneers!, written by Willa Cather more than a century ago, still had a lot to offer.
Jocelyn snapped, “Willa Cather belongs at the Classic Book Club, not here.”
I jumped in for the rescue. “Over the past few months the Classic Club has become more of a Teen Club with Maggie Latimer’s daughter Holly and some of her friends. And Books Before Breakfast is the one club that has no theme. We read whatever strikes our fancy.”
I beamed what I hoped was a gigawatt smile.
I was saved from having Jocelyn jump on me by Bridgy, who called me over to the counter.
She was talking to an attractive mid-twentyish woman dressed in what could have passed for a uniform of some sort. Her white man-tailored shirt, complete with button-down collar, was tucked neatly into a black pencil skirt. And, rather than the open-toed sandals that were de rigueur all over the island, she wore black low-heeled pumps. I wondered what she was trying to sell, and I guessed Bridgy wanted my opinion on whether or not we should consider buying.
I was still a few feet away when Bridgy started introductions.
“Elaine Tibor, this is Sassy Cabot, co-owner of the Read ’Em and Eat. Sassy, Elaine is a graduate student at FSU and waits tables during the dinner shift at the country club. Schedule permitting, she’s looking for an occasional breakfast or lunch shift to supplement. You know how grad school goes.”
I remembered well.
Elaine took a quick step to cover the distance between us and reached out to give my hand a strong and confident shake. She had a self-assured, personable way about her, which made me think she’d relate well to the customers. When I said so, I loved her response.
“I heard along the beach that you serve the best breakfast on the island. Everyone talks about the Read ’Em and Eat as being relaxed and fun. I thought it would be a nice relief from the stuffiness of my dinner job.” Her smile was framed by two charming dimples.
Well, if she wanted a flavor the direct opposite of country club, she’d applied at the right place. Breakfast and lunch with a casual literary twist—our tables were named for authors with samples of the author’s work, photographs and articles laminated on the tabletops. Lots of menu items with authors’ names or book titles worked into the offerings. Two walls were covered with bookshelves filled with books of every description from chick lit to deep-sea fishing guides. The books and the book corner encouraged participation in the book clubs, which meet here regularly.
Impulsively, I decided we should give Elaine a trial. I exchanged a look with Bridgy, which she read instantly and correctly.
The voices coming from the book corner were getting louder and more insistent. I thanked Elaine for coming in and excused myself, leaving Bridgy to work out the details.
I stood behind my chair and listened to Augusta Maddox, never one for compromise, lay down the law. Tiny as she was, her booming baritone filled the room.
“We voted. Everyone wants to read O Pioneers! ’cept you.” She gave Jocelyn a stern face. “Don’t be such a horse’s patootie. Lisette’s willing to wait a month for the Nora Roberts book. Why can’t you?”
Jocelyn opened her mouth and shut it. She gave her watch a swift glance and began to gather her things.
Everyone wanted me to order enough copies of the Cather book for the club members, except Jocelyn, who mumbled something about the library as she headed to the door.
Lissette asked me to order a copy of The Collector.
“My sister in Kansas City read it and was so gushy in her recommendation. I really don’t want to wait. It doesn’t matter when the club decides to read The Collector as long as I get it soon.” And she waved good-bye.
Augusta and Blondie stopped at the counter, waiting for Bridgy’s attention, so rather than straighten out the book corner, I popped behind the counter.
“Not staying for breakfast this morning, ladies?” I asked with a cheery smile. I had a special affection for Augusta and was growing fonder every day of Blondie, who had stepped up and filled in gracefully when Augusta’s cousin and best friend died suddenly. It was nice to see two seventysomethings hanging out and having fun. I hoped that would be Bridgy and me in fifty years.
“Ecology meeting got pushed up. Usually later in the day but our space at the community center is being painted. Carrie Trotter arranged for us to have a meeting room at that big hotel down toward Lovers Key. Free, o’ course.” Augusta hitched her jeans. “Can’t expect us to volunteer our time to save the Earth and pay for the privilege.”
Blondie nodded in agreement.
“We’d like to bring a dozen of those Robert Frost Apple and Blueberry Tartlets to the meeting. Could you cut them in half? One or two diabetics in the crowd. Some of the others are always on diets. We don’t want to tempt them with too much sweet stuff.”
“How about I add two or three Miss Marple Scones. Less sugar.”
That seemed to please the ladies. When I came out of the kitchen with their box of pastries, Elaine Tibor was gone and Bridgy was taking an order from two women she’d seated at Barbara Cartland. A couple of fisherman came in, the salty smell of the Gulf of Mexico still clinging to their clothes. I sat them at Robert Louis Stevenson. The man with the beard and a half dozen colorful fishing flies stuck on the patch pockets of his well-worn gray vest looked at the tabletop and began reading the poem we had laminated there among other Stevenson quotes and pictures.
“You expect me to believe that the same guy who wrote Treasure Island and Dr.Jekyll and Mr. Hyde wrote this little kiddie poem?”
I laughed and quoted, “When I was down beside the sea . . . it’s called ‘At the Sea-Side.’ What better poem for a café at the beach?”
He shook his head. “Doesn’t sound like the same guy who made up Mr. Hyde.”
“That’s the beauty of fiction,” his tablemate interjected. “It’s all made up.”
He turned to me.
“How about some coffee while we check out the menu?”
I brought their coffee, then passed their orders to the kitchen.
Judge Harcroft, retired from traffic court not so very long ago, came in, picked up the Fort Myers Beach News from the counter and went directly to his usual table, Dashiell Hammett. He opened the broadsheet and ignored the world around him. I placed a cup of coffee on the table and turned away, knowing he’d signal imperiously when, having read the menu two or three times from top to bottom, he was ready to order his usual, Hammett Ham ’n Eggs.
So I was surprised when he stopped me.
“Er, Sassy, I was wondering . . .”
I stood, waiting for the rest of the sentence. After a while, it came.
“. . . about Augusta Maddox. How is she doing since, er, you know.”
A while back, during a really stressful time, the judge and Miss Augusta had a falling out. He’d been studiously avoiding her ever since.
I dropped into the seat opposite him and said softly. “Of course Miss Augusta won’t ever forget the tragedy, but the rest of what went on, well, wasn’t that all a big misunderstanding?”
He nodded. “I didn’t mean to cause difficulty. I was the nephews’ lawyer. I thought they were in the right. I was representing their interest.”
“You haven’t been to any book club meetings in a long time. Why not come back to one or two? We could use your level head.”
Knowing the judge could take only so much intimacy, I stood up and held my order pad and pencil at the ready.
I put the judge’s order on the pass-through and picked up the fishermen’s breakfast, when the door flipped open with the force of Category Three hurricane winds. I nearly dropped a plate of toast. I hurried to Robert Louis Stevenson and was pleased that I set the orders down correctly. Double order of bacon and eggs for the poetry skeptic and Green Eggs and Ham for his fishing buddy.
When I turned toward the door, I was grateful that I’d served the food before I looked. Aunt Ophie was leaning against the jamb with her hand, palm outward, resting against her forehead like a 1940s femme fatale. Still as a statue, she was waiting for attention. She’d block any and all doorway traffic until someone, or more to her liking, everyone, started to worry over her. I was debating whether to give in or ignore her, when Bridgy came out of the kitchen with a plate of oatmeal. She took one look at Ophie, thrust the plate at me with such force that I nearly didn’t catch it and whispered, “Cartland, the woman facing front.”
Then she turned, and in a voice that could surely be heard from the beach to the bay, she said, “Aunt Ophie, my darlin’, what on earth is wrong? Come over here and sit down. You look like death.”
Ophie began to preen like a beloved kitten, delighted that she now had everyone’s attention, until she heard Bridgy utter that final word. In that exact second, she started to wail.
Bridgy took her arm gently and led her to Emily Dickinson.
“Sit down, poor thing. What on earth has distressed you so?”
Every customer in the café was murmuring, voices filled with concern, but I’d seen Ophie carry on worse than this when she broke a fingernail, so I walked on back to the Barbara Cartland table to serve the oatmeal. Thank goodness I had set the plate on the table, or the oatmeal might have landed in the customer’s lap when Ophie began wailing again. This time there were words.
“It was murder, y’all. She’s dead. And it was murder pure and simple.”
Chapter Four ||||||||||
Nothing like shouts of “Murder!” to stir up a crowd. One of the ladies at Barbara Cartland let out a scream so bloodcurdling that you would think she was sitting in the first row of a 3-D movie and the ax murderer had jumped out from behind the bureau.
The two fishermen stood up, looked around, realized we were not under immediate attack and sat down again. Judge Harcroft continued to turn the pages of the Fort Myers Beach News. I guess he was almost as used to Aunt Ophie as I was.
Bridgy took a deep breath and by the time I reached her, she was whispering to Ophie. “Who is dead? Who was murdered?”
Ophie swung her eyes back and forth between Bridgy and me. It wasn’t like her to be the least bit hesitant, and yet, she was. Unless she was heightening the drama.
“I don’t know who. I only know that right here in Fort Myers Beach a woman was murdered. In. Cold. Blood.”
I was always less tolerant of Ophie than Bridgy was. I wanted to end the spectacle sooner rather than later. I asked Bridgy to fetch a pitcher of sweet tea. She headed for the counter and I sat down.
“Ophie, how do you know this?
I kept one ear on our customers but I kept my eyes firmly on Ophie.
Again, a slight hesitancy. Finally her shoulders sagged and she let out a sigh. “Never occurred to me that she’d tell a lie that bold in order to get out of a meeting.”
Bridgy set a glass of tea in front of Ophie and sat down. “Who, Ophie? Who told you there was a murder?”
“Remember that upscale designer? Y’all fixed us that nice box of Miss Marple Scones. Anyway, her assistant called early on to say something came up and did I have time to reschedule later in the day. Well, of course I agreed. Pays to accommodate a client of her stature.”
Ophie leaned to her right and peered over my shoulder, checking to be sure that all the diners were following her story. I heard the rustle of Judge Harcroft’s newspaper and Ophie gave a slight frown, followed by a shrug. She’d have to be satisfied with having the attention of nearly everyone in the room.
Excerpted from "Caught Read-Handed"
Copyright © 2015 Terrie Farley Moran.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Praise for Well Read, Then Dead
“A terrific new spin on the culinary cozy—with a great story, plenty of heart, and compelling characters.”—Laura Childs, New York Times bestselling author of The Ming Tea Murder
“BOOKLOVER ALERT: Well Read, Then Dead celebrates books, food, laughter, friendship, and, oh yes, dark dire doings. Clever, original and sure to please.”—Carolyn Hart, New York Times bestselling author of Don’t Go Home
“With perfect pacing, a cast of eccentrics, a wealth of Florida color and history and a testament to friendship, Moran opens her projected series with a winner, one in which the reader can feel the breeze through the palms.” —Richmond Times-Dispatch