Haven't Got A Clue bookshop owner Tricia Miles's relationship is on the rocks. After a not-so-fun vacation with her on-again-off-again lover, Marshall Cambridge, Tricia's hoping for smooth sailing back in Stoneham. Unfortunately Booktown greets her not with blue skies but with another body.
When Tricia's assistant manager, Pixie, finds homeless vet Susan Morris's body behind Haven't Got A Clue, Pixie's checkered past makes her the prime suspect. Tricia sets out to clear Pixie's name armed with only an anchor insignia earring found at the scene of the crime.
As Tricia digs deeper she discovers Susan was involved in a scandal right before retiring from the Navy—but since nobody in the village knows Susan, even Tricia's one lead is in danger of drying up. With family drama brewing in the background and all of Stoneham convinced her manager is a murderer, Tricia knows she has to get to the bottom of the case soon before Pixie's life is sunk.
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¥It had been a quiet ride back from Logan International Airport on that beautiful mid-September morning. Tricia Miles glanced across the seat to take in her chauffeur. She and Marshall Cambridge, her more-or-less significant other, had gotten off an Aer Lingus red-eye flight to Boston some four hours before, She hadn't slept a wink, and the drudgery of going through customs, collecting their luggage, and then retrieving Marshall's car from the long-term parking lot had left her feeling sluggish and drained. All she wanted to do was go home, pet her cat, and sleep.
She'd known the trip wasn't going to be a vacation. Of course, she enjoyed the Emerald Isle's countryside, meeting the people, and the food and drink, but she also had to depend on the other members of the tour-and most of them elderly-for company. It was a working vacation for Marshall, who'd teamed up with Milford Travel to lead the tour. As expected, he spent more time playing fixer for everything that could go wrong-from lost luggage to motion-sick passengers on the bus that transported the group from Dublin to Belfast and back again.
As she gazed at the scenery that zoomed past the passenger-side window, Tricia wondered if she was ready to analyze how she felt about the tour-and, truthfully, her relationship with Marshall. She'd been avoiding the latter for the past few months. He was a great conversationalist and a man of the world with many wonderful attributes. He was kind to animals, old people, and especially to her. But she wasn't sure she loved him. She hadn't mentioned the L-word, and in the months since they'd started dating, neither had he.
That was actually okay with her, but it seemed to be a topic many people in the village of Stoneham, New Hampshire, where they both lived and worked, wanted to talk about. People like Pixie Poe, the assistant manager at her vintage mystery bookstore, Haven't Got a Clue. People whom she ran into at the local eateries and the coffee shop, and even when out walking her sister's bichon frise, Sarge. Everybody seemed more interested in her relationship with Marshall than she was. Why didn't that raise a red flag?
Because she liked him. Because he wasn't demanding. Because . . . she was pretty sure that this relationship wasn't going to last much longer. Why? There seemed to be a definite lack of passion-on both their parts. That wasn't something she wanted to talk about with family, friends, acquaintances, or especially near strangers.
Marshall turned off Route 101 and steered toward Stoneham. For some reason, Tricia thought they'd arrive back in the village a lot earlier in the day, but the digital clock on the Mercedes dashboard said it was almost eleven. Her jet-lagged internal clock told her it was early evening, and her stomach growled to let her know it was ready for sustenance. Her fridge was empty, so she'd either have to hit her sister's retro cafŽ, Booked for Lunch, for her midday meal, or open a can of soup, which at that moment seemed like a lot of work. She'd pick the former, but earlier than she and Angelica usually met. She didn't think she could hold out until two o'clock. And after a week of wonderful food that wasn't always healthy, she decided what she really wanted was just a cup of chowder and half a ham-and-cheese sandwich.
"Want to stop for a bite?" Marshall asked, as though reading her mind.
"No, thanks. I'm okay."
He gave her a skeptical glance before turning his gaze back to the road. He'd obviously heard her stomach protest about its empty state.
Familiar landmarks flashed past, and Marshall slowed as they entered the village, making a left-hand turn into the municipal parking lot. He found a spot under a lamppost and pulled his key from the ignition. "Home again, home again."
Tricia offered him a wan smile. "It's almost like we never left."
They got out of the car, and Marshall opened the trunk and retrieved their luggage. They'd both traveled light-just one suitcase each-and Tricia extended the handle on hers and waited until he'd done likewise, then they set off toward their respective homes.
"I had a good time," Marshall said conversationally as they headed down the sun-drenched sidewalk.
"Yes. It was very pleasant," Tricia agreed.
They walked in silence for a few paces.
"We should do it again sometime-but without the crowd," Marshall suggested.
"That would be nice."
No passion. Not a speck of passion.
They passed the Have a Heart romance bookshop, but Tricia's gaze didn't stray toward the big display window, where, no doubt, its proprietress was standing at the cash desk. Tricia and Joyce Widman hadn't spoken to each other since June. That was okay. And she fought the temptation to look inside the Patisserie, Stoneham's only bakery, too. Not that its owner, Nikki Brimfield, would be in attendance. She'd found a manager and blown off the village of her birth, leaving her soon-to-be ex-husband and toddler son behind while hoping to win a big, televised baking competition in Los Angeles. Rumor had it that she'd also shacked up with TV chef Larry Andrews. Fine. They deserved each other.
They passed the Cookery, Tricia's sister's cookbook and gadget shop, but it was only the manager, June, behind the register. She waved, and Tricia gave her a smile in return. Then they paused in front of Haven't Got a Clue.
"This is it," Marshall said.
He leaned forward and gave her a light kiss on the lips. "Until later?" he asked hopefully.
"I'll give you a call," she promised.
He reached for her hand, squeezed it, and gave her a wistful smile. "Until then."
He gave her another brief kiss, which she was sure was witnessed by her staff, and she turned and opened the door. The little bell jingled merrily as she entered.
"Welcome home!" Pixie squealed with delight, rounded the cash desk, and threw her arms around Tricia. "Did you have a good time? Are you tired? Did you like the food? Did you take a lot of pictures?"
"Slow down," Tricia said, and laughed.
Pixie stood back. "I just made a fresh pot of coffee. Sit down, have some, and tell me all about your trip."
Tricia let out a pained laugh. "I've been sitting for the past two hours."
"Well, then stand and tell me all about it."
"I'd much rather hear about what's been going on here while I've been away," Tricia said, glancing around her store to see that all was well. Her gray long-haired cat, Miss Marple, had apparently been dozing on the big square coffee table in the reader's nook, but she sat at attention and gave a hearty "Brrrrpt!" in greeting.
Tricia hurried over to her cat, picked her up, and kissed the top of her head. "Boy, did I miss you." Miss Marple instantly began to purr, and Tricia rubbed her ears, which sent the purrs into overdrive.
"Mr. Everett brought her back this morning," Pixie said.
"Was she any trouble?"
"Not a bit. He took the cash to the bank, but he should be back soon to give you a full report." Pixie's smile faded, which Tricia was quick to notice.
"Hey, your interview with the cable news crew finally hit the airwaves."
"When was that?" Tricia asked.
"About a week after you went on your trip."
"Oh, then I've missed it."
"The cable company ran it every few hours for a couple of days. It must have been a slow news week," Pixie said.
It sure had been. Tricia had recorded the interview nearly a month before. The station had done a series of success stories based on businesses in southern New Hampshire. They'd been desperate to interview the reclusive Nigela Ricita, who'd brought prosperity back to the village, but had to settle on speaking with Antonio Barbero, her general manager. Next up, they contacted Tricia's sister, Angelica, and Tricia had come four or five more rungs down the ladder of success. They'd featured the store as well as Tricia's prized collection of vintage mysteries.
"For about three days, every time I logged in to get my email, the clip would be playing. I'll bet half the state has seen it."
"Everyone but me."
"Rats. I should've taken a video of it from my phone. But don't worry, I'm sure if you Google it, you'll find a link to the report."
"I'll give it a try. Did we see an uptick in business?"
"I'd say a ten percent blip on the weekends. Not bad for this time of year."
"Excellent. Did anything else happen while I was gone?"
"Um, not really," Pixie hedged.
"But?" Tricia coaxed.
"We did have one teeny problem," Pixie said, and squeezed her right thumb and forefinger together as though in reassurance.
"And that was?" Tricia asked, suddenly feeling very tired.
"Um, someone tried to break into the store."
"What? When?" Tricia demanded, setting her cat back down on the coffee table.
"Last weekend. But don't worry: the alarm went off and scared off whoever it was. The security company called me, but I let the cops come and waited until they had a look."
"Was anything damaged?"
"The back door, but I had it fixed and put in a new dead bolt, just in case." She reached into her slacks pocket and pulled out a single key. "You can add this to your ring. I already gave one to Mr. E and Angelica."
"How did she react about the attempted break-in?" And why hadn't she mentioned it to Tricia in a text or email or when they'd spoken hours earlier when Tricia had returned to the States?
"She thanked me over and over again for taking care of everything. Nothing was taken, and, as a safety measure, I switched the light in the alley from motion detection to having it shine all night once the store is closed."
"Thank you for that."
Pixie waved a hand in dismissal. "It was nothing. Just part of my job. Since just about everybody in town knew you were on vacation and the store was empty, Angelica and I both wondered if someone decided to try to rob the place knowing there was no one in the building."
"Maybe," Tricia agreed. Was she going to feel safe knowing someone had tried to breach her defenses while she'd been away? But then, she had a lock at the bottom of the stairs that led to her loft apartment, and another sturdy dead bolt on the door at the top of the stairs that led directly into her home.
Pixie turned toward the cash desk and retrieved a folded piece of paper. "I've got a copy of the police report. You can look it over when you get the chance."
"Thank you." Tricia opened the paper and saw the typed page of notes on thermal paper-the kind police cruisers use. She would scan a copy and try to make the print darker. She noted Officer Cynthia Pearson had been the one to arrive on the scene after the attempted break-in. She was still on probation after the debacle three months before and had obviously been transferred to the graveyard shift.
"Now, why don't we have that cup of coffee?" Pixie suggested. But before she could move toward the beverage station, the door opened and a couple of women entered the store. "Welcome to Haven't Got a Clue," Pixie said with what sounded like glee. "I'm Pixie. Let me know if you need any help or want suggestions on a new-to-you mystery series you might like to try."
Tricia refolded the report and pocketed it, then grabbed her suitcase, pulled it across the store, and stuffed it into the dumbwaiter, sending it up to the third floor. She stared at the contraption. It could be a possible security breach. The little elevator could probably accommodate a person-if they weren't claustrophobic. There was no lock on the doors to the device that opened to the second and third floors of the building. She'd have to remedy that-and soon. Should she call her contractor, Jim Stark, or was this something Marshall could handle? He seemed pretty handy, but would he be willing to do the job on such short notice-and especially when suffering from jet lag?
She'd have to think about it.
The customers made their choices, and Tricia returned to the front of the store to bag their purchases while Pixie rang up the sale. They bid the women good-bye, and Tricia noticed that the trash bin was full of packing material.
"I meant to empty that right after the mail came," Pixie said, and made a grab for it.
"I can do it."
"No, get that cup of coffee. You deserve it," Pixie encouraged.
Yes, Tricia did. So, while Pixie took the bin to the back of the building and unlocked to the door to the alley, Tricia pulled out one of the ceramic cups reserved for her and her staff and poured the coffee, doctoring it with just a little milk. Pixie had obviously stopped at either the Patisserie or the Coffee Bean and had bought some of Mr. Everett's favorite thumbprint cookies, and she placed a couple on a paper napkin, then took it and the cup to the reader's nook. But before she could sit down to enjoy her treat, the back door opened, and Pixie stood there for a long moment.
"Uh, Tricia. Could you come outside for a minute?"
Tricia heaved a sigh. Now what? She wrapped the cookies in the napkin and placed a magazine over the top so as not to tempt Miss Marple, who was sitting in Sphinx fashion, and headed for the back of the shop.
As she neared her friend and employee, she noted that Pixie's face had paled, which was something of a feat, considering how much makeup she habitually wore. "Is something wrong?"
"Um, maybe. I kind of want your opinion on something."
Tricia took the lead and exited the store. As soon as her foot hit the first step to the alley, her nose was assaulted with an overpowering odor. "What is that?" she asked.
Pixie didn't answer and instead said, "Um . . . I was about to toss the trash into the dumpster when I saw . . ."
Maybe it was the jet lag, but Tricia didn't immediately catch her drift. Had someone tossed a dead rat or a raccoon into the store's dumpster?
Tricia trundled down the stairs and looked into the grimy metal container. The smell was unpleasant, and she was about to turn away, when she noticed the shoe. But it wasn't just a scuffed-up penny loafer; it was a scuffed-up penny loafer that enveloped a sock-covered foot.