Bookstore owner Annie Darling is hosting a party to celebrate former Broward’s Rock resident Alex Griffith and his bestselling new novel, Don’t Go Home. But after the local paper announces that Griffith aims to reveal the real-life inspirations behind his characters, perhaps the author should take his own advice. Not everyone in town is ready to give him a glowing review.
As Annie attempts damage control, her friend Marian Kenyon gets in a heated argument with Griffith. It’s a fight Annie won’t soon forget—especially after the author turns up dead.
Despite an array of suspects to match Griffith’s cast of characters—and a promise to her husband, Max, to steer clear of sleuthing—Annie’s not about to let the police throw the book at her friend when the real killer remains at large...
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Death on Demand Mysteries
Bailey Ruth Ghost Mysteries
Rae Griffith welcomed the caress of the ocean breeze. Tiny fish formed a dark cloud near her bare feet. Despite the shimmering loveliness of the aquamarine water, she wasn’t enchanted. A few years ago to be here with Alex would have been glorious . . .
Alex was farther out. A gentle wave crested near his chest. He turned and was caught in a moment of perfection, chestnut hair golden in the sun, finely chiseled features, deep-set dark brown eyes, muscular and tanned. Extraordinary good looks, boyish charm, and riveting prose had made his novel a smash success.
Descriptive phrases drifted through her mind: smoldering emotion . . . a hint of danger . . . sex and lies . . . a literary Ryan Gosling . . . Her lips twisted in wry amusement. She easily churned out apt slogans. Alex had been her first big client, put her on the map of the best Atlanta publicists. She’d crafted plenty of releases for Alex. The one she liked best, the one that now defined him, came in the first flush of their relationship: The South Rises Again in the Pre-eminence of Alex Griffith, Golden Boy of a New Golden Age in Southern Literature.
Alex’s reckless F. Scott Fitzgerald aura dazzled readers and critics, dimmed those around him to shadowy figures. But the brightest comets burn out and even huge best sellers finally begin a slow slide down the sales charts. The clamor grew. When will there be a new Alex Griffith novel?
Alex gave her his old impudent, gonna-knock-’em-dead grin. “Come on, Rae. Look happy. We’ll go to the island. The Prodigal returns. All hell breaks loose. The morning shows will go nuts. Like you’ve always said, sex and lies sell.” He was sure of himself and his judgment. For an instant something flickered in his eyes. Not uncertainty. Never uncertainty with Alex. More a suggestion of steel-sharp determination.
She looked at him dispassionately, faced up to a hard reality. Alex was done, finished as a writer. Alex had sucked out the marrow of his life, spun heartbreak and danger and meanness and passion into a sprawling, tumultuous family novel. But he’d been there, done that. Now he was an empty husk. Now she knew the reality. Alex had to have real lives, real people to write about. It was only since they’d begun talking about going to the island that she’d realized his novel was reality in the guise of fiction.
Not like Neil. At this moment, Neil was at his computer, writing, writing, writing, likely unshaven, wearing a T-shirt and shorts, barefoot, maybe hungry, but with too many words to take time for food. She’d persuaded Alex to let Neil live in the sparsely furnished garage apartment behind their house. Behind their mansion. The quarters had once housed a chauffeur in the estate’s earlier days. Neil . . .
Alex was talking and much of it she’d heard before. “. . . got the makings of a blockbuster. People rocking along, no threats on their horizon, suddenly everything changes. Once they’re scared, everything will be new and fresh.” He looked triumphant. “I’ll get two books out of it.”
She said nothing. If he went to the island, there would be turmoil and confrontations, but there would not be the depths of anguish he’d portrayed in his book. He could fashion a novel and the book would sell because best-selling authors have a market, but sour feelings, even gut-wrenching fear, didn’t offer the breadth and scope of the lives played out in Don’t Go Home.
Alex believed he was on the cusp of another huge success, even though she’d told him a nonfiction tell-all wasn’t enough. These characters weren’t famous. They were ordinary people living ordinary lives. For a big success, he needed a new novel. The orders then would be huge, based on the first novel’s blockbuster sales.
Instead, in his usual Alex-centric way, he believed he could take what happened on his return and write both a tell-all and a sequel to Don’t Go Home.
If she approved, they would go to the island. The result would be disrupted lives, anger, fury. Did he understand the consequences? Quite possibly. True to himself, he didn’t care. He thought more fame and fortune awaited him. But she knew the limitations of tell-all books unless launched with a sensational twist or sordid revelations about the rich and famous. At Alex’s insistence, his agent was trying to get interest in Hollywood. Those calls would go unanswered. Tawdry details about private lives, even those that had inspired famous literary characters, didn’t sell in Hollywood. They might get the cable spotlight for a few weeks but that interest was always short, like a sparkler. When the flash ended, there was nothing left but charred wire. Hollywood wanted hot scandal about celebrities, preferably spiced with lust or death or mystery.
Alex reached down, tried to grasp a tiny fish, but the silver sliver swerved and skittered away. He laughed.
She saw him for what he was: handsome, rich, done for as a writer. Not like Neil with his boundless creativity and not a penny to his name. Money made such a huge difference in launching a book. Alex was counting on making old wounds bleed again for another best seller.
If Alex returned to the island, there would be those who would wish him ill.
She’d warned him. If they went to the island . . .
• • •
The lead story in the Sunday edition of the Broward’s Rock Gazette Lifestyle section:
by Ginger Harris
Has Martin felt remorse for pressuring Regina before her death? Will Buck keep Louanne’s secret? Will Mary Alice ever tell Charles the truth? As he swings a golf club, enjoying power and pleasure, does Kenny think of a wasted form lying on a bed? Does Frances remember choking in the water, flailing to the surface, swimming to safety with no thought for her companion?
Whether in graduate seminars or sophisticated book clubs, readers instantly recognize these characters from the million-plus best seller Don’t Go Home by Alexander Griffith.
In an exclusive to the Gazette, Griffith announced plans to reveal the real-life inspirations for characters who cast a spell on readers worldwide. Griffith is included in a short list of exalted Southern writers such as William Faulkner, Thomas Wolfe, Eudora Welty, Tennessee Williams, and Flannery O’Connor.
In an interview Saturday at the Seaside Inn, Griffith revealed for the first time that Don’t Go Home, which is set in Atlanta’s famed Buckhead, is actually based on his boyhood years on Broward’s Rock. Critics have marveled at the emotional depths reached in the novel and attributed much of its power to Georgia literary traditions. Griffith has been something of a mysterious literary figure, rarely granting interviews and never discussing his South Carolina roots. Several biographies mistakenly list Augusta as his hometown. He spent summers there with his Georgia grandparents and later attended Emory.
Griffith sounded boyish and eager when he said he was excited to come home. He and his wife, Rae, may spend the remainder of the summer on the island, working on a nonfiction manuscript tentatively entitled Behind the Page. “Readers have taken my characters into their hearts, their lives. I have received thousands of requests to share the background of my characters. People want to know if they are based on real people, real lives. For the first time, I intend to be brutally honest about the characters. I owe readers the truth about them.”
Griffith said he might reveal some aspects of the book before he finishes the manuscript. “Just enough to give readers a hint of what is coming. Maybe we’ll have a pre-publication party while we’re here.”
Griffith said his agent has spoken with several Hollywood producers about film possibilities. “I expect to hear from some film companies soon.” Griffith’s smooth tenor voice retains a soft Southern accent, although he has lived in the cosmopolitan Atlanta suburb of Buckhead since he became a literary sensation. Publication of his novel six years ago launched him as a wunderkind of Southern literature. “Drama in ordinary everyday lives matches anything possible in fiction. Reality television exists because of the power of truth. Everyone marvels at the success of Duck Dynasty. Not that I watch Duck Dynasty.” He laughed at that. “The people in my past aren’t that wholesome, but Hollywood will find plenty of excitement in the reality behind the characters. As everyone knows, all families are dysfunctional, which warps relationships with classmates and co-workers. Nothing is as powerful as hidden secrets in everyday lives.”
When asked if he was concerned about privacy issues, Griffith sounded untroubled. “Libel? Truth is a defense, isn’t it? If I honestly discuss my past, who can complain? It’s my past. As Burkett says in Don’t Go Home: ‘What is, is.’” The character Jason Burkett is chief of police in the fictional small town in the novel.
Above the headline was a studio photograph of a barefoot man in a black turtleneck and age-whitened jeans leaning against a weathered piling of a dock. He was tanned with reddish-brown hair and brown eyes, handsome with classic features. From beneath a tilted-back slouch hat, a lock of hair drooped—too perfectly?—on a broad forehead. His gaze was level, perhaps with a hint of amusement. There was the aura of a man accustomed to adulation. A second glance noted the supercilious confidence of a slight smile and the swagger of his posture.
Inset in the story was a photograph of a book cover, a starkly white tombstone with black letters—Don’t Go Home—and the name Alexander Griffith against a crimson background.
• • •
The Sunday-morning issue of the Gazette was widely read across the island.
• • •
The Lifestyle section fluttered to Joan Turner’s lap. She stared across the patio but she didn’t see the palmetto palms or the white blooms on the honeysuckle or the glitter of sunlight spangling the clear blue water of the pool. The article had torn away the scab of an old wound. Pain bubbled hot and hard just as it had when she’d first read Alex’s book. The section on Mary Alice and Charles made every breath a struggle.
A core of icy fear had lodged deep inside her ever since. What if Leland read the book? If he read it, he would know. She waited for knowing glances from friends. But so far no one had made the link to her and Leland. The book was set in Atlanta. In several instances the gender of characters had been changed, though not in the scenes with Mary Alice and Charles. None of the names suggested a link to the island. The facts of the incidents were transformed. The character Martin was obviously Lynn, her dead brother’s widow. The character Frances was her brother George. She knew. And she knew what Alex knew.
Alex was clever—a woman driver on a foggy night instead of a man, a Scout camp instead of a football game—but she knew who was meant and what. Names are changed to protect the innocent. Wasn’t that what was always said? But there were no innocents. There were only people whose innermost thoughts and feelings and fears and betrayals and mistakes had been sucked up by Alex and used to make him rich and famous. After he left the island, Alex led a charmed life, acclaimed, lionized, admired. Why did he want to come home and hurt them all?
“What’s wrong?” Leland’s kind and gentle voice was concerned.
She looked at her husband, thought how perfect they would appear to onlookers, a couple at ease in a sea-island setting, relaxing in wicker furniture with gaily striped cushions on a patio overlooking a glittering pool, she with a pixie haircut and a narrow, fine-boned face, her knit top and linen skirt beautifully tailored, he with a sensitive expression, relaxed in a polo shirt, worn jeans, sandals.
She wanted to rush to Leland and feel his arms around her, a tight hard embrace, but she must never reveal that Alex’s return meant anything to her. She managed a bright smile. Leland was innately intuitive with an antenna-like awareness of others clearly apparent in his scholarly face, in the quizzical tufts of his eyebrows, in the depth of his gaze. He would understand. He always understood, but the gossamer bonds of trust would be ripped apart. Love forgives, but love can be maimed like an unsuspecting animal struck without warning.
She brushed back a strand of hair. “I was thinking about the party next week. I haven’t decided on the menu yet.”
Leland leaned back and laughed. “You looked like you’d had a ransom note for Sugar.” His slender hand dropped and he smoothed the golden fur of the cocker resting at his feet. “Go give Mama a kiss, Sugar. Tell her a caterer is the answer to all her worries.”
Joan folded the newspaper section into a small, neat square. “Let’s go to Savannah.” She rose, resolution in every angle of her body. They would take the ferry and stroll on the waterfront, hand in hand, together.
Together . . .
She could not lose Leland.
• • •
Head up. Arms back and down. Head down. Dolphin kick. Head up . . . Lynn Griffith reached the end of the pool, made a smooth flip turn. Heyward had never been able to do the butterfly. As Lynn powered through the water, fragments of the Gazette feature slid through her mind. Irritating. But unimportant. Alex had never liked her. She kicked, felt as though she flew through the water, washing away all annoyances. Ugly innuendoes have no effect if you ignore them. Her only worry at the time had been the insurance company investigator, who’d been suspicious, hoping to prove Heyward committed suicide. But that was never a danger. No one who knew Heyward would ever believe that was possible. There were rumors that he had chosen to have an “accident” to save Lynn from bankruptcy, but they were spread by people who didn’t know him well. And by some who didn’t care for her. That didn’t bother her a bit. Finally the investigator had had to accept the police conclusion: an accident, a regrettable accident. She, of course, had been sad. Poor Heyward, but how fortunate that he had taken out the insurance, which saved her from penury, made possible all kinds of improvements to the house. She’d used some of the money to refurbish the brown-toned plantation brick home built in 1852. New curtains in the living room, crimson damask lined with ivory silk, patterned after the styles of the 1840s. The room was a gem with cypress paneling and an ebony desk. The money after Heyward’s death had saved everything. She still took a cottage in Carmel every August, was a patron of the High Museum, never missed a gala affair there, enjoyed the luxuries that made a good life possible. Her latest pleasure was a red 1952 MG TD in pristine condition, a steal at $26,000.
Alex could spout what he wished, but she was safe and secure.
Head up . . .
• • •
The sleek black speedboat came dangerously near tipping as Eddie Olson turned the wheel to catch one of his own waves, spanking over the water with spray peppering his face, plastering his taut T-shirt against his chest. Part of him exulted in the wildness of the ride. A cool sardonic inward voice taunted: Don’t make it easy for the bastard. No fear. He wasn’t going to conveniently crash and plummet to the depths. Maybe he could invite Alex for a ride. He gave a grunt of laughter. Alex was nobody’s fool. Alex would take damn good care to keep out of Eddie’s way.
He stared out at the wind-flecked waves, slowed a little. If it weren’t for his wife, he wouldn’t give a damn what Alex wrote. Thank God she wasn’t a reader. She knitted, gardened, made his home happy. He’d be glad when she got back from visiting her folks. But if Julie ever heard the accusation, she would come to him, blue eyes wide and grave. She would look at him and she would see the knowledge in his eyes and she would turn and walk away. Forever.
Eddie’s lips closed in a tight hard line. It was as if he were back on a football field and the play was beginning. Bring it on.
• • •
George Griffith leaned back against his desk chair in his study. He sagged back, feeling weak and sick. He had to do something . . . He turned toward his computer, stopped. He’d better not put anything in print. Once inside a computer, information lived on and on, always available if someone looked hard enough. His jaw tightened. The whole damn night was in Alex’s book. But no one had ever connected the passage to him.
George’s hands tightened into fists. Could he still go to jail? There wasn’t any proof. Was Alex’s claim enough to start the police checking? Someone might respond if there were stories in the paper asking anyone with information about that night to contact the police. But the night was misty and no one had ever come forward to say they’d seen George drive away with Lucy. At least in the book Alex had turned George into a woman. But that was a nasty dig, too.
Maybe Alex would listen to reason. He had to listen to reason. Would he? Alex had sent him an autographed copy of Don’t Go Home. George remembered the icy shock when he read the inscription. You thought no one knew. I saw you come in that night, your clothes wet. I listened to you. Dad said you’d have to keep your mouth shut, that no one would ever know. He also told you what a sorry good-for-nothing shit you were. Read all about it, chapter 14. He’d flipped to the page and read, the words uneven in his vision: Frances tried to speak distinctly. “I know the way. Let go of my arm. Don’t want to slow down. Down, down, down.” She heard the scream as if from far away. Everything seemed to happen in slow motion . . .
• • •
Marian Kenyon walked onto the pier, oblivious to the cloying heat, to the squeal of seagulls, to the rattle of her steps on the wood. She didn’t have a copy of the Gazette with her. She didn’t need to see the paper again. The publisher had sent her an e-mail, the subject line a series of stars, acclaim for her last piece in an exposé of a charlatan medical outfit that bilked people in a weight-loss program. The story ran in today’s edition, slotted on page 1 above the fold. She was proud of the series. Good stuff.
Sunday morning had started well. The satisfying recollection that she’d excelled, that her boss was pleased, that she’d poked a hole in a mean moneymaking scheme. Then, icing on her personal cake, a happy call from David. “Dad’s taking me to a Braves game this afternoon . . .” Her son’s young voice was excited. She’d hung up, smiling, happy because David was happy, eager for him to come back to the island, make their house home again with the slam of doors and the thump of running feet. What joy David had brought to her and to Craig as well. She never could have imagined the difference David would make for Craig, that where once there had not seemed to be anything but desolation in her life, the odd pieces had fitted together to create something special.
Sipping her third cup of coffee, she’d picked up the Lifestyle section. Normally she’d have read the paper from cover to cover after the pressrun. The Gazette was an afternoon paper except on Sundays. The Sunday edition came off the press about six on Saturday evening. She’d left the office about noon to take David to the airport in Savannah, on his way to Atlanta to spend a week with his dad. So she was, like most on the island, picking up the paper to read on Sunday morning. She didn’t have any reason to know about the Lifestyle contents. Ginger Harris, the white-haired, elegant Lifestyle editor, had given her a cheery wave yesterday morning. Marian had waved back, still deep in writing the finale to the series.
It had never occurred to Marian to think that anything Ginger wrote could impact her life.
Water slapped against the pilings. Marian felt hollow inside. She’d read the passages in Don’t Go Home when it was published, read them with cold, hard fury. One sentence from Ginger’s feature ran through her mind in a continuous bitter loop: Will Buck keep Louanne’s secret?
• • •
Annie Darling tried to pretend nothing was changed, that it was just another Monday morning. She stopped at the railing, even though the air was already heavy with heat, and admired the yachts in the marina, as she usually did when walking to Death on Demand. This was the height of the cruising season. A pearl gray yacht that flew a skull and crossbones was rumored to belong to a famous movie star, and the quartet of pretty girls on board—all blondes, of course, like TV newscasters—were “secretaries.” As one fishing boat captain said to another, “Wonder how my wife would feel about me and four pretty little secretaries?”
A V of pelicans began their swift descent toward the wave tops, looking for lunch. Tourists with peeling sunburns moved up the gangplank of the tour boat, another of island mogul Ben Parotti’s successful ventures. A catamaran slid through the harbor, steered by a shirtless, well-built thirtysomething in cutoff jeans. A gorgeous girl—blond—held to his side.
Annie wished she were aboard the catamaran or the yacht or even the tour boat. Anything to avoid seeing the dark storefront next to her bookstore. She forced herself to turn and walk up the steps to the wide wooden verandah fronting the marina shops. She kept her eyes sternly focused on the front window of her bookstore. She thought of how she answered the phone: “Death on Demand, finest mystery bookstore north of Delray Beach, Florida,” or sometimes, “Death on Demand, the best in thrills, chills, puzzles, and pastries.” She was almost smiling when she reached Death on Demand’s front window.
Keeping her gaze straight ahead, she checked over the window display. Summer was the time to grab a suitcase and go. Stacked beside a well-worn trunk plastered with travel stickers were five crime novels and five traditional mysteries. She’d picked old favorites, titles by Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Lawrence Block, John D. MacDonald, Eric Ambler, Agatha Christie, Mary Roberts Rinehart, Dorothy L. Sayers, Josephine Tey, Ngaio Marsh. A sun hat hung on a corner of a red-and-white-striped beach chair.
Front and center, of course, were some of the best of current wonderful mysteries. She admired the bright covers of the recently published books she had placed upright in a semicircle: Midnight Crossroad by Charlaine Harris, The Wrong Girl by Hank Phillippi Ryan, Suspect by Robert Crais, Blind Justice by Anne Perry, The Kill Room by Jeffery Deaver, The Buzzard Table by Margaret Maron, Missing You by Harlan Coben, and The Sound of Broken Glass by Deborah Crombie.
She never lost her sense of awe at the outpouring every year of amazing, original, provocative mysteries. As she liked to tell customers, “You’ll never run out of good books to read.” Certainly not as long as Death on Demand stayed open.
The temporary buoyancy from the bright display beyond the plate glass disappeared as her gaze moved to the right and the dark storefront.
The legend was still there:
We can help.
There was no light beyond the door. If she stepped inside, there would be hot musty air instead of a delicious scent of baking wafting from the little back kitchen where Barb created magical desserts—key lime pie or pecan sundrops—when Max had no secretarial duties for her. Barb’s computer monitor had a dark screen. Barb was off on a holiday to New England until Max decided the fate of his shop next door to hers. “No more snooping,” he’d groused. “Maybe I’ll change it to a lifestyle center. ‘Come and find out what you really want to do.’ That would be fun. I could steer people into new careers.”
Annie felt forlorn. Their last talk inside Confidential Commissions had not ended happily. She remembered them standing there, looking at each other across a gulf, Max with his handsome face obdurate, his arms folded. He had shaken his head one final time. “It took a few weeks for it to hit me. I guess I was so relieved at first. It’s like getting a kick in your gut and at first you don’t realize you’re hurt. Then I woke up in the middle of the night and I was still in this dream and you were disappearing. So, no more. I am not a detective and neither are you.”
Annie sighed as she unlocked the front door of Death on Demand. As she stepped inside, black fur flashed. Annie bent down and scooped up Agatha, who made the throaty noise that Annie always took as a carol of affection. She nuzzled sweet-smelling fur, hiked Agatha onto her shoulder. Everything was as it should be at Death on Demand. The molty stuffed raven, Edgar, looked down from a perch near the enclave for children’s mysteries, which contained every title in the Boxcar Children mysteries and the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys series.
Annie flicked on lights and eased Agatha to the floor. Shelves lined the walls and wooden bookcases ranged on either side of the broad center aisle. She still had an hour before the store opened. She’d come in early because the house seemed empty with Max gone. She might as well get some work done before the first customers arrived. A Monday morning in summer was sure to be busy. There were always some tourists who’d arrived on the weekend and frolicked too long in the sun. Wilted and red, smeared with zinc oxide, they came in search of books and a shady spot.
Her first task was fresh dry food for Agatha. Agatha settled at her blue pottery bowl and munched. Annie measured coffee beans and added the just-right amount of water. No weak coffee allowed on the premises. As the coffee brewed, Annie scanned the collection of coffee mugs in the glass shelving behind the coffee bar. Each mug featured the title of a famous mystery in red script. She glanced at The Fugitive Pigeon by Donald E. Westlake, Getaway by Leslie Charteris, and Gone, No Forwarding by Joe Gores, then picked up Getaway, thinking obscurely that was what Max had done.
As she filled the mug, a brisk knock sounded at the front of the store. She raised an eyebrow. Some people always believed they were special. The hours were listed on the door: MON.–SAT. 10 TO 9, SUN. 2 TO 6. It was still a good forty-five minutes before ten.
But a sale was a sale.
Annie put the mug on the counter, walked swiftly up the aisle. She unlocked the door.
A slender young woman in her midtwenties didn’t give Annie a chance to speak. “I’m hoping you can help me. I’m thrilled to find such a terrific bookstore.” She gestured toward the legend on the door. “I’m sorry to be early, but Alex insisted I come first thing.” She spoke as if this intelligence would be immediately understood by Annie.
Annie scrabbled through her mind. Alex? Was she supposed to know someone named Alex? She was certain she didn’t know her visitor. Emerald green eyes in an arresting face, features almost too sharp but softened by a mouth that appeared ready to quirk into a smile.
The smile came. “You don’t have any idea who I am. Or Alex. I’m sorry. There was a story in yesterday’s Gazette and I thought you might have seen it. I should have called first, but Alex is always impatient.”
“I didn’t see the Gazette.” With Max gone and Ingrid taking care of the store, she’d spent Sunday in Savannah—attended church at St. John’s, enjoyed lunch at Paula Deen’s, made a round of the antique stores, and devoured oysters on the waterfront. She spent the night at her favorite bed-and-breakfast, returned on the ferry this morning, driven straight to the marina. The Sunday Gazette awaited her on their front porch. Ingrid had dropped by morning and evening to feed and pet Dorothy L, the plump white cat who ruled Annie and Max’s house.
The visitor brushed back a tangle of soft dark hair that framed her narrow face like a cloud. “I’m Rae Griffith. Alex is my husband. He’s the author of—”
Annie clapped her hands together. “Don’t Go Home. We always stock his book. Is he here? On Broward’s Rock?” She knew—who didn’t?—that the world-acclaimed novelist had grown up on the island but so far as she was aware he’d not visited in recent years. If she ever thought about it, she assumed his family had moved away and he no longer had ties here. She would have heard if a celebrity of his stature spent time here.
Like the sun going behind a cloud, her visitor’s smile slipped away. There was an odd look on her face.
Annie wasn’t quite certain whether there was a flash of worry or concern or possibly dismay.
Alex Griffith’s wife took a quick breath, as if starting on a path with an unknown destination. “He’s here.”
Annie was excited. The island had its resident crime novelist, Emma Clyde, but there was no literary author of Alex Griffith’s stature. “Would he consider doing a signing?”
“Of course.” Again there was an odd note in her voice.
Annie ignored the lack of enthusiasm at the invitation. All right, he was a big deal and maybe a signing at a little store like hers would be more of a bother than a pleasure, but Rae Griffith wanted something and Annie intended to get a quid pro quo: Alex Griffith in person at Death on Demand. “Come in. I’ve just made coffee. Rich dark Colombian.” She beamed at her visitor, held the door wide.
Rae Griffith smiled in return. “Thank you.”
As they walked down the central aisle, Rae looked admiringly at the shelves filled with brightly jacketed books. “What a wonderful collection.” She pointed at a table with South Carolina authors. “I see you have lots of copies of Alex’s book.”
“He’s one of our top sellers.” Annie nodded toward the cluster of tables. “I’ll bring coffee.”
But Rae followed her to the coffee bar. She looked down at Agatha, now washing her face with a graceful paw. “What a beautiful cat. I admire cats. They never belong to anyone.” She described their cat, an orange tabby named Butch.
By the time they settled at a table in the coffee area, Annie felt thoroughly comfortable with Rae Griffith. “What brings you to the island?”
Rae Griffith’s face smoothed into blandness. “Alex grew up here. We’re back for a visit.”
Annie didn’t miss the change from relaxation to wariness. Interesting. Why the sudden reserve? “Does your husband have family here still?” With the continuing influx of new residents, Annie no longer counted on knowing most people in town. Annie had grown up in Amarillo, but she had often visited her uncle on the beautiful sea island off the coast of South Carolina. A couple of years out of college, she’d inherited his bookstore. Max Darling had soon followed and on a beautiful June day they’d married. They’d been here long enough to feel a part of the island, but they didn’t know all the family connections as did those born and bred on Broward’s Rock.
There was a slight hesitation, then Rae said without any hint of enthusiasm, “His sister, Joan Turner, and brother, George. And his late brother Heyward’s widow, Lynn.”
Faces flickered in Annie’s mind. She did know these Griffiths, though she’d never associated them with the novelist. Max’s mother, Laurel, had consulted Joan Turner when she redecorated her home. Annie had been fascinated at the interchange between crisp, no-nonsense Joan and Laurel, who was, to put it charitably, a free spirit rarely constrained by conventional ideas. The result—ethereal surroundings evocative of misty clouds and moonlight—surprised everyone except possibly Joan and Laurel. Joan’s clear-cut features were accented by ebony hair in a jagged cut that emphasized the depth of her violet eyes. Pudgy George Griffith, fleshy and faintly dissolute, always held Annie a little too close at the club dances. Bourbon laced his breath when he exhaled. Annie liked his wife, Susan, wondered why she’d married him. Lynn Griffith was always beautifully coiffed, perfect silver blond hair cupping a rounded face with wide-spaced blue eyes, a several-thousand-dollar complexion enhanced by every expensive emollient available, lips that curved in a social smile. It always faintly surprised her that Lynn was an accomplished long-distance swimmer, competed in Masters events. But why shouldn’t an athletic woman also enjoy perfection in her appearance?
Annie tried to remember always to be kind to Lynn because she’d heard the rumors: Heyward’s drowning death was awfully convenient after his investment firm collapsed . . . a huge life insurance payoff saved Lynn from bankruptcy. Annie had sat next to her at a couple of Friends of the Library luncheons. Whatever the conversation, Lynn soon swung like a magnet to the wonderful antique she’d just bought, a cameo, a cut-glass vase, a silver tea urn, a serving tray in old English Davenport china, a Sèvres figurine of a Napoleonic soldier . . .
“How nice. Are you staying with Joan?” The Turner home was one of the loveliest on the island, not pretentious but perfect, a three-story white frame with front and back verandahs and a magnificent pool framed by palmettos.
Rae’s tone was just a shade too bright. “Alex is a great believer in Benjamin Franklin’s edict: Guests, like fish, begin to smell after three days. Since we may be here all summer, we’re at the Seaside Inn. We’re hoping you’ll help us put together a really grand evening there.” She reached into an oversized catchall cloth bag, pulled out several sheets of paper. “Here’s what we have in mind . . .”
The storeroom door opened. Ingrid Webb poked her head inside. “I brought lunch.”
Annie swung around from her computer, frazzled and stressed. She pulled her mind away from orders and logistics and the challenge of setting up an extravagant book event in little more than forty-eight hours. As soon as Ingrid arrived that morning, she’d turned the store over to her, explaining in staccato bursts that she was under the gun—huge event, Alex Griffith, Wednesday night—and withdrawn to the storeroom to set everything in motion. “Lunch?” She blinked. “Oh hey, lunch. That’s wonderful.”
Ingrid stepped inside, used her free elbow to push the door shut behind her. “Making progress?”
“Three hundred books are promised. They’ll arrive on tomorrow’s ferry. I had to pull out all the stops to get them that quickly.”
Ingrid was calm. “Duane can pick them up and schlep them over to the inn.”
Annie looked at her thin, tireless, wonderful clerk, short brown hair frizzed by the summer humidity, brown eyes that observed carefully, a calm, comforting presence whether a hurricane was coming or a visiting author turned out to be truculent as a warthog. “I’ll fix Duane a basket of books.” Ingrid’s husband loved thrillers, especially those by Lee Child, Joseph Finder, Brad Meltzer, Michael Connelly, L. J. Sellers, and Michael Sears.
Ingrid plopped the sack from Parotti’s Bar and Grill on the worktable. “Fried oysters on an onion bun with Thousand Island dressing, plus coleslaw. Slice of key lime pie on the house. I told Ben you were lit up like a pinball machine calculating how many books you can sell if you manage to arrange a Force Five blowout by Wednesday night.”
Annie realized she was ravenous. She fumbled with the sack, pulled out her favorite meal from Parotti’s Bar and Grill, and, indistinctly, between mouthfuls, brought Ingrid up-to-date. “Gazebo rented, check. Hotel catering, coffee, cash bars, check. Seating for one hundred and fifty, check. Mic, sound equipment, speaker stand for gazebo, check. Two tables behind the rows of chairs, one for the author, one for book sales, check.” She ran over the list in her mind, nodded. “It should be really neat. There are lots of weddings in the gazebo so the inn’s used to setting up folding chairs. The event opens at seven, he’ll speak at eight. It will be pretty because they have strings of lights in the live oak trees on either side of the gazebo and around the pool. The weather will still be steamy but with the sun sliding behind the pines it won’t seem as hot.” She hoped. But islanders who stayed here in summer were acclimated to heavy hot air.
Ingrid hesitated, then asked abruptly, “What did you think about the piece in the Gazette?”
Annie wiped a smudge of Thousand Island from her chin. Ben’s sandwiches dripped. “I haven’t seen the Gazette. I’ve worked the phone and the computer nonstop since Rae Griffith left. Can you think of anything I’ve missed?”
Ingrid looked thoughtful. “A fire brigade might come in handy.”
Annie went on alert. “Fire brigade? Why?”
Ingrid was blunt. “To put out the blazes when he tosses Molotov cocktails at the natives.”
“Blazes?” Annie heard the hollow tone in her voice.
“Did his wife tell you what he had in mind?”
Annie looked at her clerk in apprehension. “I assume he’s going to talk about his book.”
“The book and the people whose lives he used to write a ‘sprawling family epic about sex and lies and treachery.’ I thought you knew what was coming or I would have said something earlier.”
• • •
Annie settled in a rocker on the screened-in porch. Tuesday night. It seemed an eon since Rae Griffith had walked into Death on Demand Monday morning. The hours had passed in a blur, calling, arranging, planning.
She loved dusk and listening to rustles and calls as the night brimmed with life and movement. Cicadas sang their song of summer. Crickets trilled. A distant owl whooed, always a lonely cry to Annie. Virile frogs trumpeted a hot time in the old pond tonight to listening lady frogs. As shadows thickened, the vivid blaze of summer softened to impressionistic hints of color, indistinct splotches of orange, violet, and red hibiscus, golden daffodils, crimson roses. Pink crape myrtle flowered near the gazebo. This time tomorrow night Alex Griffith would look out at an eager audience.
She took a deep breath of the usually soothing scents of pittosporum blossoms and honeysuckle. If Max were here, they would wander hand in hand to the gazebo and sit in the swing and she’d tell him about her frantic two days. She’d not realized how much she would miss him. They usually traveled together, but when an old friend invited him and three other college chums for a week of deep-sea fishing in the gulf, she’d been glad he decided to go.
For one thing, his absence put on hold the final demise of Confidential Commissions. For another, they were determinedly bright and cheerful but there was a shadow between them.
She gave a little push and the rocker creaked. Not that she believed there was a chance he would change his mind. He’d made himself absolutely, irrevocably clear. “No more delving into other people’s problems, Annie. Period. End of story. Since I’m not a politician, when I say ‘period,’ I mean ‘period.’”
As he pointed out, if she wanted to help people, she could volunteer at a hospice, make food for Mobile Meals, tutor at the elementary school.
Her face softened. She understood. He’d demanded her promise: Hands Off. No More Nancy Drew. Keep Crime on the Shelves. Because, as he put it, his face grim, “You scared the ever-living hell out of me. How do you think I felt when your cell didn’t answer? And didn’t answer? And then we knew you were there with a killer . . .”
She felt an uneven lurch deep inside. Max had been scared for her. So had she. She’d not been stupid. She’d been on her way to the police station, sure she knew the truth behind the murder of a reckless young second wife who’d disappeared after a Fourth of July dance. Instead Annie had answered her cell phone and turned another way. At road’s end, she’d faced death.
Her brush with death had occurred only a few weeks before. The very next week, Max woke up in the middle of the night and rolled over to take her in his arms and hold her in a bone-tight grip. After that, he had wasted no time deciding to close down Confidential Commissions, which had no real purpose other than, as he inelegantly phrased it, screwing around in other people’s lives. No more.
She’d protested. Confidential Commissions helped people; it made a difference to their lives in ways both great and small. There had been those caught up in fear and despair and Max had helped right their world. He’d said, “Yeah. But one of these days, you’ll poke that snub nose into the wrong mess. No more danger, Annie.” She’d pointed out that Confidential Commissions wasn’t always involved in messes, that Max did all sorts of interesting things that made people happy. He’d helped a woman find a long-lost sister, found the rightful owners of a small Remington sculpture discovered in an abandoned well, put together a history of the Class of ’46 at the local high school, proved the provenance of a baseball signed by Babe Ruth, uncovered the final hours of a corporal who died in the Battle of the Bulge. She’d told him, “You’ve made a lot of people happy.”
He hadn’t been swayed. “You were a short walk away from dying.”
What People are Saying About This
Praise for New York Times Bestselling Author Carolyn Hart
“Carolyn Hart’s work is both utterly reliable and utterly unpredictable.”—Charlaine Harris, #1 New York Times bestselling author
“One of the most popular practitioners of the traditional mystery.”—The Cleveland Plain Dealer
“Engaging…Understated local color and a charming cast of supporting characters will keep Annie’s fans glued to the page.”—Publishers Weekly
“A perfect balance between a puzzle mystery that keeps a reader happily turning pages, and well-drawn characters that are as full of surprises as the people in our own lives.”—Connecticut Post
“Hart, who has won numerous awards and accolades for her mysteries, has developed an interesting and amusing cast of characters and a surefire formula for the success of her mysteries.”—The Oklahoman