A big bestseller leads to small town trouble.
Bookshop owner Penelope Thornton-McClure didn't believe in ghosts, until she was haunted by the hard-boiled spirit of 1940s private investigator Jack Shepard. Now Jack is back on the job, and Pen is eternally grateful...
After an elegant new customer has a breakdown in her shop, Penelope suspects there is something bogus behind the biggest bestseller of the year. This popular potboiler is so hot that folks in her tiny Rhode Island town are dying to read it--literally. First one customer turns up dead, followed by another mysterious fatality connected to the book, which Pen discovers is more than just fiction. Now, with the help of her gumshoe ghost, Pen must solve the real-life cold case behind the bogus bestseller before the killer closes the book on her.
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Girl in the Store
Some people make no effort to resemble their pictures.
Quindicott, Rhode Island
September, present day
"Excuse me, miss. Do you have the new Girl book?"
The question came on a busy Saturday afternoon. My inquisitive customer tapped me on the shoulder while I was restocking Erle Stanley Gardner's Perry Masons (in order), The Case of the Velvet Claws through The Case of the Postponed Murder.
The woman was about thirty years my senior-early to mid-sixties. Fashionably slender, she wore designer jeans at least three sizes smaller than my curvy figure. Her lilac cashmere sweater was an elegant choice for the early-autumn chill, along with her matching beret, which she'd jauntily pinned to her sleek silver bob. A fine leather jacket was draped over one arm while the other balanced a stack of books from our shelves.
Judging from her posh clothing and late-September tan, I assumed she was a holdover from the summer people who had second homes in nearby Newport. I'd noticed her a few times, strolling through the streets of our little town, but I'd never seen her in Buy the Book, and I welcomed this chance to make her a regular customer.
After grabbing a basket, I helped her load it with her selections-while trying to decipher her enigmatic request.
"About the new Girl book, were you referring to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo? Are you looking for one of its sequels?"
"No, no! That's the Millennium series!" The woman shook her head so vigorously I was afraid her pastel beret might Frisbee off and bean another customer. "I'm talking about the other Girl series."
"I see. The one written by . . . ?"
An impatient exhale followed-as if to question whether I knew anything about the books I was selling. "I forget the author's name, but the first was Gone Girl and then came The Girl on the Train. I'm simply asking if the third book is out."
"That's not actually a series," I gently replied. "More of a literary trend, written by two different authors."
"You're telling me the Girl in the title is not the same girl?"
"Uh, no. Gone Girl did not divorce her husband, move from Missouri to London, acquire a drinking habit, and see something she shouldn't have while riding the British rail system."
By now, I was smiling good-naturedly. My chic customer was not.
A strand of auburn hair escaped my ponytail. Curling it around an ear, I tried to read the woman's eyes behind her heavily tinted glasses. I couldn't. But her long silence told me she was not amused.
Aw, tell her to go pound sand!
The impolitic voice in my head had a familiar gruff ring.
I ignored it, along with the sudden cold emanating from our shop's fieldstone wall. The chill penetrated the thin material of my pleated brown slacks and simple white blouse, sending shivers from the nape of my neck to the tips of my toes.
Pushing up my black-framed glasses, I pressed forward in the only way an eager bookseller (or Mafia don) knows how-I made the customer an offer she couldn't refuse.
"If you liked the Girl novels, I'm sure you'll enjoy this!"
With the speed of a Treasury press minting money, I handed her a copy of the hottest-selling book of the fall season, a spicy thriller called Shades of Leather.
The woman set down her basket and accepted the weighty hardcover (six hundred-plus pages). A lift of her tinted glasses revealed high cheekbones and azure blue eyes that appeared quite striking against her tanned skin and silver bangs.
"Jessica Swindell? I've never heard of this author. Has she written anything else?"
"It's her debut. The reviews are mixed, but the general public is raving. A major movie contract is in the works, and sales are through the roof. It's far outpacing the trade's last big book, Bang, Bang Baby."
Her hand fluttered dismissively. "I heard that novel was nothing but tripe."
As she spoke, she studied the front cover, an artfully done side-shot of a nude woman stretched catlike across a red leather couch. The muscular arms of two strong men gripped the sofa on either side, ready to haul the furniture and the woman out of the picture.
I tapped the tome. "The publisher came up with a clever idea on the packaging. They issued three dustcovers, identical except for the color of the upholstery. That's the red couch edition. We've already sold out of the black leather and blue suede covers."
Clearly curious, the woman flipped over the book-and gasped.
Frankly, I couldn't see why. The author's photo was as artfully done as the cover. Jessica Swindell appeared young and attractive, her face partially veiled by a curtain of wild black hair, her nudity concealed tastefully behind a bedsheet-sure, the silhouette created by the diamond-shaped window in the background gave the impression of nudity. But the portrait was far from salacious enough to elicit the woman's extreme response.
Swaying as if she were about to faint, my new customer stepped back and spilled the basket of books on the floor. Gripping Shades of Leather with two trembling hands, she stared harder at the author's photo.
"I don't understand," she rasped. "How can this be? HOW?"
She looked up at me so suddenly her tinted glasses dropped back over her eyes.
"This picture. It's ME! But I'm not the author! I've never even heard of Jessica Swindell!"
I blinked, too confused to cross the gulf of silence between us. At last, I gently inquired whether her vision might be the issue. "Now that your glasses are back on, why don't you take another look-"
"MY EYESIGHT IS FINE. I KNOW MY OWN PICTURE WHEN I SEE IT!"
A few nearby customers were staring now.
Obviously, this woman was not Jessica Swindell, which meant, of course, she wasn't right in the head. Maybe she needs her medications, I thought.
Or maybe she's had a few too many!
Pipe down, I warned the gruff voice. This lady is in some kind of distress. The reason doesn't matter. What matters is . . .
"Ma'am," I said carefully, "why don't you sit down? I'll bring you a drink of water, unless you prefer-"
Another bottle of giggle pills!
"-some nice hot tea."
While I suggested more (non-alcoholic) remedies for her delusion, I began to pry the offending book from her hands. Her response was instant. Jerking the novel to her chest, she glanced from side to side as if searching for answers. Finding none, she bolted, shoving aside customers as she raced down the aisle.
Before I could stop her, the old girl was gone.
Girl on the Run
Nobody steals books except kleptomaniacs and university students.
-Mark Helprin, Freddy and Fredericka
The store's anti-theft alarm brought my aunt, Sadie Thornton, out from behind the cash register, hands covering her ears. "What on earth just happened?"
A little larceny, I'd say . . .
The unspoken reply didn't come from me. The unapologetically masculine presence belonged to Jack Shepard, the spirit of a murdered private eye from the 1940s who'd been haunting me since the new renovations to our old bookstore disturbed his eternal rest.
Either that, or he was my own special kind of crazy.
Whatever he was, Jack had become a source of . . . well, many things: comfort and advice; aggravation and exasperation.
Was he really a ghost? Or some kind of alter ego, created by a girl weaned on her late father's collection of Black Mask boys? Whatever he was-to me, Jack felt as real as death and taxes. And ever since I began "dialoguing with him" (as an online therapist once suggested), I'd felt better able to cope with the stresses of life.
Bottom line: I couldn't get rid of Jack. But at this point in our relationship, I honestly didn't want to.
Hurrying to the alarm box, I told my aunt about the mystery lady who ran off with our twenty-nine-dollar hardcover-
"The magnetic tape inside is what triggered the alarm."
"She didn't pay for it?" Sadie cried in surprise. Not because of the theft itself. Petty pilfering was nothing new to a woman who'd spent decades in retail. The whole town could recite the story of the local college kid who'd tried to shove a Hammett first edition down his pants. Sadie had put a stop to that with one sharp Patricia Cornwell to the head.
What astonished my aunt was the blatant grab-and-dash by an elegant older woman. It surprised me, too. And I had no explanation except to say-
"She seemed disturbed." As I danced my fingers over the alarm's keypad, the deafening racket ceased.
"Why in heaven was she so upset?"
"I don't know. She insisted the author portrait on the back of Shades of Leather was really her photo. Then she spilled her basket of books and ran off."
"My goodness me. It certainly doesn't sound like your average store thief. I hope that poor woman is all right."
Sadie's forehead furrowed with concern, an expression I'd seen many times, including on that day a few years back when I'd arrived at her shop feeling as confused and upset as my mysterious fleeing customer.
Shortly after my husband died, I packed up my son, moved away from my wealthy in-laws in New York City and back to this little Rhode Island town where I'd been born and raised.
When I turned up on Sadie's doorstep-a weary young widow with a son unable to comprehend the suicide of his father-my stalwart aunt took our burdens on her diminutive seventy-something shoulders without breaking stride.
There was no judgment, no inquisition, and most importantly no implication of fault, which I couldn't say about my toxic in-laws, who wanted someone to blame for my husband's end.
From Sadie there was only love, support, and the practical matters of settling us into her place, helping us move beyond death and get on with the business of living.
My grateful response was to pour all of my husband's insurance money into rebuilding Sadie's failing business, from the restored plank floor to the new awning and paint job.
Sadie's father had opened this shop decades ago, and (unfortunately) the interior showed it. I replaced the dented metal shelves with polished wooden cases, added throw rugs, comfortable chairs, and standing lamps. I even bought the storefront next door to create our Community Events space. But the most important improvement was to the core of the business.
My years in New York publishing had paid off with connections in the book trade. For the first time, our little family store began to host author appearances and signings. We'd cosponsored festivals, fostered reading groups, and closely monitored and refreshed our stock, adorning our windows with big bestselling hardcovers as well as trade paperbacks from local authors. Finally, I introduced Sadie's expertise (in used, rare, and first edition publications) to the twenty-first century's World Wide Web of customers.
The result of all this was a new, improved, and profitable Buy the Book. A store that prided itself on knowing its business and its customers-
Okay, Jack, with the exception of today's embarrassing incident.
You can say that again!
"I've seen the woman around town," I told my aunt, "but I don't know her."
Sadie returned to the shop counter, glasses swaying on the chain around her neck. "Let's tuck her selections into a reserve nook, in case she comes back to shop again-"
Don't you mean shoplift?
Don't be snarky, I told the ghost while retying my ponytail-that's when the phone rang.
"Is it Spencer?" I asked hopefully.
My young son had won a scholarship to attend a special weeklong computer seminar for middle schoolers, and he wouldn't be back from Boston until the middle of next week. He hadn't been gone long, but I missed him terribly.
Sadie checked the caller ID and shook her head.
"It's Chief Ciders. He's probably calling to find out why the alarm went off."
"This citywide security system is starting to bug me. It's a big time-sink for the police and a dubious added cost for the small businesses. We've had three false alarms this month-one in the middle of the night!"
Sadie sighed. "I felt bad for Bookmark. The poor little cat didn't mean to trigger the motion detector. She just likes to roam the store at night."
"I wonder if the burglar alarm goes off every time someone samples a grape at Koh's market?"
Sadie handed me the phone. "Ask the chief. He's been pinching produce for years."
"Buy the Book. May I help you?"
I answered in a cheerful tone, even though I knew it would annoy Quindicott's top cop. Pretty much everything bothered Chief Ciders, who'd been talking retirement since before Sadie and I revitalized her once-failing business. Unfortunately, he never got around to actually retiring.
"That you, Penelope?" Ciders griped. "You gonna tell me why the heck my computer lit up and disturbed my busy Saturday?"
"A book set off the door alarm."
"Does that mean I have to arrest some church lady for slipping a Mickey Spillane into her girdle?"
"And that would be a problem because-?"
"Deputy Chief Eddie Franzetti is running security at the high school football game with Deputy McCoy. And my new deputy is out on the highway working traffic duty for Dr. Ridgeway's funeral. Which means I'm way too short of officers for a Saturday, the very day punk kids, who don't care about football, gather on the town commons to cause trouble. So what do you want me to do?"
"Not a thing, Chief. Let's call this a false alarm-you're free to police the teenage flash mob to your heart's content."
Ciders grunted a reply.
"Chief, you really ought to drop by the bookstore. I know you love Mike Hammer, but there are mystery authors besides Mickey Spillane-"
"Not to me," he said and hung up.
With a sigh, I returned to the aisle to finish gathering up the contents of our book thief's spilled basket-an array of newly published mysteries and thrillers.
Sadie seemed convinced the lady would return to apologize and pay us, not only for Shades of Leather but also for the basket of books she'd taken time to pick out.
I had my doubts-until I found the game changer among the scattered volumes. The mystery woman had left something else behind.
"She should at least come back for these," I said, waving a pair of expensive driving gloves.
As the fine leather flapped in the air, I detected a sweet, familiar scent. Could it be? Putting the gloves to my nose, I carefully inhaled-then smiled.