Tricia Miles and her sister, Angelica, are the co-presidents of the Stoneham Chamber of Commerce. Things are changing in the booktown, and some merchants would say not for the better. They grumble that too many non-book-related stores are moving into the village, taking up the most visible storefronts on Main Street, diluting the “Booktown” moniker. Of course, the members with other businesses, like the latest, The Bee’s Knees, are fine with other businesses moving in. No matter what side of the argument they're on, all the business owners agree on one thing: Tricia and Angelica are to blame.
Still, it's a pretty typical day in the life of a small-town Chamber of Commerce until one of the disgruntled bookstore owners is killed—Eli Meier from The Inner Light Bookstore, the most vocal of the Chamber complainers. He sold religious and other spiritual books, but also stocked books on wild conspiracy theories and sold incense, crystals, etc. Eli had never been a member of the Chamber until Angelica recently convinced him to join. He hit on her and she, having good taste, turned him down. He hounded (but not stalked) her, and some might think that was a motive for murder.
Stoneham's new police chief is an old friend of Tricia's, but that doesn't mean he's going to go easy on her sister. One might even say that he's going to throw the book at her.
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¥Tricia Miles glanced over the notes she'd jotted down the previous evening in anticipation of that morning's Stoneham Chamber of Commerce meeting. How things had changed for the Chamber in just six months.
The previous October, the organization had been on the brink of insolvency, housed in a drafty warehouse unsuitable as a place for its members to meet, and was hemorrhaging warm, dues-paying bodies by the day. And then came the election with an outcome no one had anticipated. The two candidates hadn't received enough votes to win, but two write-in noncontenders were tied. And that's how Tricia and her sister, Angelica, were now co-presidents of the Chamber.
It was true that membership hadn't bounced back quite as fast as the sisters had hoped, but thanks to the generosity of their colleagues, they had obtained office space, a free meeting place, and office supplies. They could manage for the rest of the year, when it was hoped dues would once again float the Chamber's financial boat.
Tricia and Angelica had worked together during Angelica's tenure as the organization's leader, and Tricia volunteered while her vintage mystery bookstore, Haven't Got a Clue, was closed due to a fire. At that time, and under Angelica's leadership, the Chamber had thrived. Tricia was to be her heiress apparent but lost the contest by a mere three votes when Russ Smith had thrown his hat into the ring. When the elected leader had died of a heart attack, it was deemed Russ was the victor. He spent the next ten months on a quest to destroy the organization and would have succeeded if he hadn't been arrested for murder with a charge of embezzlement of the Chamber's assets thrown in for good measure. When he eventually came to trial, he was destined to spend many years, if not the rest of his life, as a guest of the New Hampshire penal system.
The Brookview Inn, owned by Nigela Ricita (known to only a few as Angelica herself), had graciously allowed the Chamber to meet there for the rest of the year with no fee. Chamber members did have to cough up ten bucks each to cover the cost of their continental breakfasts, but those who had bothered to check would have found that the cost to guests was actually 20 percent more. Perhaps not a bargain, but the meetings so far had been pretty well attended. Clearly, the members saw the benefit of the Miles sisters' leadership.
Angelica gave Tricia a nudge. "Hadn't you better start the meeting? The members will be eager to get back to their shops to start the workday."
Tricia got up from her seat and walked to the front of the restaurant, tested the microphone, and gave one last glance at her notes before speaking. "Welcome, everyone," she began, and waited for the voices to die down and the members present to give her their full attention.
"Before we start, let me remind you there are still plenty of the Brookview's marvelous pastries left, hot coffee, and juices, so feel free to enjoy them." She paused. "First on today's agenda are the summer flowers for Main Street. Once again, Nigela Ricita Associates has graciously agreed to provide them, as well as plants for the urns in front of the Main Street merchants' stores."
A polite ripple of applause met that statement.
"Next, we have a guest who's looking to open a new business here in Stoneham." Tricia nodded toward the table closest to the podium. "Mr. Rick Lavoy."
A man of about forty, dressed in a dark gray sports jacket, light gray shirt, and Dockers, stood. "Thanks for the welcome," he said to a polite smattering of applause.
"Why don't you tell us about your ideas for your new enterprise," Tricia said.
Lavoy turned to face the room. "My partners and I own a craft brewery in Nashua and we're looking for a property here in Stoneham to open a tasting room."
"To build or rent?" came a male voice from the back of the room.
"To rent, at first. If we're successful, we might like to build here in the village or close to the highway."
"Tell us more," Tricia encouraged him.
"We'd be open during regular hours all summer long and cut our hours during the off-season, probably only open on weekends."
Eli Meier, a not-so-longtime member of the Chamber, stood, waving a hand for recognition. He owned the Inner Light bookstore, two doors down from Tricia's shop. When she first arrived in Stoneham, his store stocked books on religion and spirituality, but of late, it had begun to carry more varied subjects on a variety of conspiracy theories, from lizard-like aliens about to take over the world to dark politics and beyond. Eli had seemed to transform as well, from being a mild-mannered gentleman to a paranoid individual who'd read too many of his own stocked items.
Tricia heaved a sigh and nodded in his direction.
Eli turned to Rick. "You do know Stoneham is known as Booktown, not beer-guzzling town." A nervous spate of murmuring rumbled through the room.
"Stoneham is a tourist destination," Tricia said. "Books drive the interest, but a diversity of businesses will bring in more than just book lovers. The more we have to offer, the greater our tourism reach. It's a win-win situation."
"For cretins," Eli scoffed. "Do we want a lot of low-class beer swillers in our midst?"
Rick cleared his throat loudly. "Excuse me, but our clientele are connoisseurs and we've done the market research to confirm it. They're also high-order readers, that's why we decided to establish a tasting room here in Stoneham. It was a no-brainer because your demographic audience is ours as well."
"I find that hard to believe," Eli jeered. "Stoneham was meant to resemble that fabled town in Wales, Hay-on-Wye. A real book town. That's what we should be striving to attain."
Well, yeah, except that village was steeped in history with Tudor buildings and old-world charm. The village of Stoneham was old by American standards, but not nearly as old as towns in Europe. Most of the buildings in Stoneham had been built in the early days of the twentieth century, and were, in most cases, merely dated. Most, but not all, were in good repair. That said, Hay-on-Wye's current claim to fame had only come about during the 1960s. Stoneham's rebirth was less than a decade old, but its moniker of Booktown had made it a reading destination in a lot shorter time.
Tricia directed her attention to Lavoy. "Are you working with NR Realty to locate a suitable property?" she asked.
"Ms. Johnson is showing me a possibility in an hour or so."
"We wish you good luck," Tricia said, and then encouraged Rick to join the chapter.
Rick threw a sour glance in Eli's direction but nodded anyway.
"Next up-" Tricia began.
"I'd like to make a motion!" came a voice from the back of the room. Again, Eli stood, waving a hand for recognition.
"And that is?" Tricia asked, and sighed yet again. Eli had been making a pest of himself for months.
"That the Chamber stop encouraging non-book-related businesses from opening up on Main Street. Us bookstore owners are being squeezed out."
Tricia shot her sister an annoyed glance. This wasn't the first time Eli had harangued them on the subject.
Dan Reed stood. "I second that motion." Dan owned the Bookshelf Diner and had a long-standing grudge against Angelica for daring to open her retro cafŽ Booked for Lunch, which served one meal a day, just doors down from his full-service diner that was open from six o'clock in the morning until nine at night. It seemed to Tricia that he, too, lived to cause trouble at the Chamber meetings just to irritate the co-presidents.
"I third it," came a voice from the left side of the room. Though she'd been one of the original booksellers recruited to Booktown nearly eight years before, Betty Barnes from Barney's Book Barn, Stoneham's children's bookstore, was new to the Chamber. Did Betty even understand parliamentary procedures, where there was no thirding of a motion?
Tricia took a breath, determined to keep her cool. Ignoring Dan and Betty, Tricia addressed her comments toward Eli.
"Eli, you know the Chamber has no power to stop businesses from renting space on Main Street. In fact, it helps the entire village when all the storefronts are occupied. As of now, there are three empty establishments on the east side of Main Street, including the one next to your own shop, and only one on the other."
"Well, then, it should be up to you-as head of the Chamber-to recruit new used bookstores to the village. That's what Bob Kelly did!"
A rumble of agreement went around the room, but not everyone was in Eli's court.
Larry Harvick stood. "Are you saying I'm not welcome in Stoneham?" he challenged Eli. Harvick was a former county sheriff's deputy and had opened the Bee's Knees, a gift shop that featured products from his hives. They also carried other bee-related items, including books. They were new volumes, whereas most of the booksellers stocked mostly used books with some new stock. Eli also carried some newly published books, so what was he squawking about?
"Our village is known as Booktown, not bee town," Eli challenged.
"Yes, but we've always had other businesses," Tricia pointed out. "Like Leona Ferguson's shop that sells new and vintage dishware."
Leona leapt to her feet. "I was one of the first businesses to take a chance on Bob Kelly's little experiment here in Stoneham," she said indignantly. "He certainly welcomed me with open arms."
"That's only because you rented one of his empty buildings," Eli replied with a sneer in his voice.
"Well, I now own the building," Leona countered, "and I'm staying put." She turned on Dan Reed. "And why would you second the motion? You don't even sell books."
"Maybe not, but I have the word 'book' in my business name and my restaurant is decorated with old books that customers are free to buy if they wish. They're all priced for sale."
"And covered in years' worth of diner grease," Leona muttered loud enough for some to hear and giggle over.
"Now, now," Tricia chided. "As you know, the old warehouse where the Chamber was briefly located has been razed. There's room for several more storefronts-including bookstores."
"Yeah, and who bought the lots?" Eli demanded. "And what businesses are going to go in them?"
Again, Tricia sighed. "A limited liability company bought the property only hours after it went on the market. We don't know who owns it or what their plans are for the land."
"So, it's not Nigela Ricita Associates?" Mary Fairchild asked from the table closest to the podium. "Everybody figured that since she already owned half the village that it was her who was going to develop it."
She would have liked to, Tricia thought, but didn't share that information with Mary.
"Well, the least you can do is recruit more bookstores-just like Bob Kelly did!" Eli practically shouted at Tricia.
Oh, yeah, saintly Bob Kelly who'd started the Chamber and recruited the businesses for his own enrichment. He'd bought up most of Main Street for a song and advertised for booksellers, who'd relocated and paid him rent. At that moment, Bob was languishing in state prison with a very long sentence for murder. Tricia had to bite her tongue not to bring up that last little piece of history.
Angelica raised her hand and Tricia acknowledged her. "Eli, perhaps you'd like to form a committee to investigate the recruitment of more bookstores," she said sweetly. "Dan, maybe you'd like to be the first member to join Eli on such a recruitment effort."
Dan glowered at her.
"I second that motion!" Mary called.
"It wasn't presented as a motion," Eli growled at her. "And I don't have time to spend on a stupid committee."
"You didn't think it was stupid when you suggested it," Harvick commented sourly.
"Why don't we table this discussion for another time," Tricia said, hoping to regain control of the meeting.
"I second that motion!" Terry McDonald of All Heroes Comics called. He gave Tricia a smile and what could be described only as a cheeky thumbs-up.
"That wasn't a motion, either!" Eli complained.
"I move that we end the meeting," Leona called out.
"I second that," Mary agreed.
Tricia had no gavel-and should have rectified that problem long before then-and called, "So moved." She let out a breath. She'd barely touched on her list of things to bring up before the assemblage. She gave her sister a sour look, but Angelica merely shrugged. She'd have to face the group and preside over the next meeting. Good luck to her!
"Well, that went splendidly," Angelica said, and threw a look over her left shoulder to see the members get up from their seats, some heading for the pastry table to fill their pockets and purses with paper-napkin-covered mini Danish, croissants, and doughnuts. Well, better that than for them to be thrown away.
"So, honestly-how do you think the meeting went?" Tricia asked.
"Not nearly as contentious as I thought, which means we'd better have a lot of good news to share next time."
"And how do we accomplish that?"
"Miracles do happen," Angelica said, and rose from her seat. "It's time to thank the wait and kitchen staff. As always, they've gone above and beyond the call of duty to provide us with a lovely breakfast."
But as the sisters made their way toward the kitchen's swinging door, Eli stepped out in front of them, stopping them in their tracks. "You didn't have to cut me off," he complained to Tricia.
She stood her ground. "If you recall, it was Leona Ferguson and Mary Fairchild who moved to end the meeting."
"Probably from a signal from you."
Tricia wasn't going to argue with the man. "If you'll excuse us."
"Excuse? Never. And mark my words, we will be discussing the lack of new booksellers at the next meeting."
Tricia smiled sweetly. "I'll be sure to add it to the agenda."
Eli muttered an oath and pivoted, nearly running into the inn's manager, Hank Curtis.
"Whoa!" Hank called. "Everything okay here?"
Eli growled something unintelligible and shoved Hank aside, striding toward the exit. They watched him leave. "Was there a problem?" Hank asked.
Tricia shook her head. "Mr. Meier was a little upset by the abrupt end to the meeting."
"We were on our way to thank the staff for the lovely breakfast they provided," Angelica said, and batted her eyelashes. She seemed to think she had a chance at a relationship with Hank, but so far he'd resisted all her attempts at engagement.