To the town of North Harbor, Michigan, MISU quarterback Dawson Alexander is a local hero. To Samantha Washington, owner of the Market Street Mysteries Bookstore, Dawson is more than a tenant—he’s like an adopted son. But to the police, he is their prime suspect after his ex-girlfriend is found murdered. It’s more than enough real-life drama for Sam to tackle, but her role as a mystery writer also calls. Returning to the English countryside between the wars, she finds Lady Daphne Marsh in quite the quandary. Someone has tried to murder the scandalous American divorcée Wallis Simpson, for whom Edward VIII so recently abdicated his throne. It seems finding a suspect is no small challenge when most of England has a motive . . .
While Sam’s lawyer sister Jenna rushes in to build Dawson's defense, Sam and her lively grandmother, Nana Jo, huddle up to solve the mystery and blow the whistle on the real killer. With the tenacious members of the Sleuthing Senior Book Club eager to come off the sidelines, Sam and her team just might stop a killer from completing another deadly play . . .
Praise for V.M. Burns and The Plot Is Murder
“You’ll love this delightful debut mystery with its charming and wacky cast of characters and a mystery within a mystery just to keep things interesting.”
—Victoria Thompson, bestselling author of Murder in Morningside Heights
About the Author
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"Did you see the getup that little floozy had on?"
"Shhhh." I glanced around to make sure the "little floozy" was out of earshot. Tact wasn't Nana Jo's strong suit.
"Don't shush me. I've seen Sumo wrestlers wearing more fabric."
Nana Jo exaggerated, but not by much. Melody Hardwick was a supermodel thin, heavily made-up college senior who had attached herself figuratively and literally to my assistant, Dawson Alexander.
"Surely that boy knows she's nothing more than a little gold digger." Nana Jo had taken an instant dislike to Melody.
"You don't know she's a gold digger. You just don't like her." I locked the door to the bookstore. "Besides, it's not like Dawson has any money."
"He may not have a pot to pee in now, but the boy has PEP." Nana Jo wiped down the counters and bagged the trash.
"Potential earning power. That boy is the best quarterback MISU's had in at least a decade. They're undefeated and if things keep going like last week, they have a shot at a bowl game and maybe a championship."
My grandmother had always been a sports enthusiast, but ever since the Michigan Southwest University, or MISS YOU as the locals called it, quarterback started helping out in my bookstore, she became more of a fanatic.
"He was embarrassed. Did you see how she clung to him?"
"Dawson's a big boy. He can make his own decisions."
Based on the look she gave me, she wasn't convinced. Frankly, I wasn't convinced either. I was concerned about him too. School was a challenge for Dawson. At the end of his freshman year, he was placed on academic probation. Thanks to a lot of hard work and tutoring from me and Nana Jo throughout the summer, he'd raised his grades, avoided academic suspension, and turned his life around. He didn't have to work at the bookstore anymore. His football scholarship covered room and board. I never wanted to charge him for staying in the studio apartment I created in my garage, but student athletes had to pay the going rate for housing and get paid fair market wages for work.
"Girls like that ain't nothing but trouble. You mark my words. Just like Delilah, she'll come after him with a pair of scissors first chance she gets. That woman is nothing but trouble."
Nana Jo's words broke my reverie and brought back the worry I thought I'd eliminated. I tried to shake it off, but it lingered at the back of my mind.
We cleaned the store and then she hurried off for a date with her boyfriend, Freddie.
I took a quick tour around the store. I looked at the books neatly stacked on each shelf. It was still hard for me to believe I owned my own mystery bookstore. Market Street Mysteries had been a dream my late husband and I shared for years. After his death over a year ago, I was finally living our dream. I walked down each aisle and ran my hands across the solid wood bookshelves that still smelled woodsy and fresh and shined with the oil polish Andrew, my Amish craftsman, gave me. After six months, the store was doing well and I still got a thrill walking through and realizing it was mine. My four-legged companions on these strolls trailed along behind, toenails clicking on the wood floors, toy poodles, Snickers and Oreo, may not share my love of mysteries, but they definitely approved of the baked goods that made their way under tables and counters.
The back of the bookstore was enclosed to provide a yard for privacy and an area for the poodles to chase squirrels and bask in the sunlight. As fall hit the Michigan coastline, the weather had turned cool. The leaves were starting to darken from bright shades of yellowy green to deeper, rich hues of amber, burgundy, and russet. Lake Michigan was also undergoing a change from the deep blue calm of summer to the pale blue that blended into the horizon and was only discernible from the sky by the choppy white swells that danced across the surface and pounded the shore. Autumn was my favorite time of year, and I lingered outside and enjoyed the sunset until Snickers reminded me she hadn't been fed by scratching my leg and ruining my tights. I needed to remember to make an appointment with the groomers first thing tomorrow or give up wearing skirts.
When my husband, Leon, and I dreamed of the bookstore, we planned to make the upper level into a rental unit to offset the cost. After his death, I sold the home we'd lived in and turned the upper level into a two-bedroom loft for me and the poodles. Nana Jo moved in after a dead body was found in the back courtyard, but she still had her villa at a retirement village. I never dreamed how much I'd enjoy living in the space.
Next week would be one year since Leon's death. The pain was less crippling. The bookstore kept me busy during the day. But the nights were still difficult. I started writing to help occupy my time and my mind. Six months ago I'd finished the first draft of a British cozy mystery and spent the last few months editing. Nana Jo wanted me to send it out to an agent, but that would involve allowing someone besides me and my grandmother, who loved me, to read it. I wasn't ready for that type of humiliation and rejection yet. Besides, in the unlikely event that a publisher was interested in my book, they'd want to know what else I had. What if one book was all I had in me? The only way to find out would be to try again. So after dinner, I made a cup of tea and headed to my laptop.
Wickfield Lodge, English country home of Lord William Marsh–November 1938
Thompkins entered the back salon where the Marsh family was having tea and coughed. "I'm sorry, but the Duke of Kingfordshire is on the telephone."
Lady Daphne was in her favorite seat by the window. She started to rise but was stopped when Thompkins discreetly coughed again.
"His Grace the duke asked to speak to your ladyship." He turned toward Lady Elizabeth.
Lady Elizabeth Marsh glanced at her niece Daphne, noting the blush that left her cheeks flushed. She placed her teacup down and hurried out of the room. In the library, she picked up the telephone. "Hello, James dear, is there —"
"Thank goodness you're home. I'm sorry but I don't have time for pleasantries. Time is of the essence." Lord James FitzAndrew Browning, normally calm and composed, had a slight tremor in his voice, which reflected the urgency of his call even more than his words and lack of propriety. The duke took a deep breath and then rushed on. "This is going to sound strange, but I need you to trust me. You're going to get a call from the Duchess of Windsor asking for permission to move her hunting party to Wickfield Lodge this weekend. It's vital she be allowed to do so."
Whatever Lady Elizabeth expected, it hadn't been this. She stood frozen for a moment before recovering herself enough to respond. "Well of course, James. We ... we have no plans this weekend."
James released a huge sigh, and she could almost see him wiping his brow.
"James, you know we're happy to help any way we can, but you mentioned this was 'vital.' Vital to whom?" James hesitated a moment before responding. "Vital to England. The Crown. Maybe the entire world."
Saturdays were busy days at the bookstore, and I was thankful my nephews, Christopher and Zaq, were home from college for fall break and helping out. The twins were invaluable in getting the bookstore up and running over the summer. The boys were twenty and while they were identical, their personalities were so different it was very easy to tell them apart. Both were tall and slender. Christopher was business oriented and preppy, while Zaq was technology inclined and edgier. Neither was a mystery lover, but they each had their own gifts, and I was thankful they were willing to spend time helping out their aunt and earn extra pocket money.
Nana Jo was a mystery lover and was great at helping match customers with authors and mystery subgenres like hard-boiled detective stories, cozy mysteries, or police procedurals.
Today was a home football weekend for MISU and a bye week for the twins' school, Jesus and Mary University, or JAMU to the locals. When Dawson started working at the bookstore, I toyed with the idea of putting a television in the store so we could watch him play on Saturdays. However, a television in a bookstore seemed paradoxical. I compromised by foregoing the smooth jazz I normally piped in and tuned into the sports channel instead, at least for MISU and JAMU games. I expected complaints from people who liked to sit and read in peace and quiet. But so far the comments were all positive. I suspected the lack of protest was due to the customers' desire to support a hometown boy combined with their affection for Dawson's baked goods. They were willing to give up a little peace and quiet to support someone they knew.
Thankfully, Dawson and the MISU Tigers had today's game well in hand with a healthy lead of three touchdowns. Home team wins made for happy customers, and happy customers spent more money. As locals discovered Dawson lived and worked here, I'd noticed an increase in traffic. Many were football fans who wanted to congratulate him, talk sports, and get autographs for wide-eyed kids. The others were infatuated young girls who glanced shyly at him when he was working and then hid behind books, giggling whenever he looked at them. Regardless of the reason, the extra traffic was good for business.
MISU won handily and I had a very good day in sales. The twins had dates and hurried out immediately at closing.
"You should go to the casino with me and the girls," Nana Jo said.
"Thanks, but I think I'll stay home. I want to get some writing done." We reshelved books and cleaned the store.
"Great. You started working on the next book in the series? You know, I'm really proud of you. But you still need to start sending your book out to agents. I hear getting published is a long process. I read somewhere Agatha Christie was rejected for five years before she got her first book deal."
"I know. I —"
The alarm system I'd installed this summer startled me and I dropped the books I was shelving. The alarm buzzed whenever a door or window was opened, even if the system wasn't armed. Nana Jo stepped around to see who had entered and I picked up the books I'd dropped.
I placed the books on a nearby table and headed for the front of the store. I could have sworn I'd locked the door. Just as I came around the corner, I heard Nana Jo.
"Oh, I know. I just thought I'd wait for Dawson."
I struggled to recognize the voice. As I got to the main aisle, I saw Dawson's scantily clad girlfriend, Melody. Today's ensemble included more fabric than the one she wore yesterday, but not by much. A short black skintight miniskirt with a deep V-neck mesh cut top with fabric that barely covered her breasts and red, six-inch heels that Nana Jo's friend Irma called hooker heels.
"Lord have mercy. What're you wearing?" Nana Jo stared openmouthed.
The shocked expression wasn't lost on Melody, who laughed and twirled to insure Nana Jo got the full effect. "You like?"
"Is someone watching your pole?"
Melody flushed and cocked her head and took a step forward as though she were about to say something insulting.
Younger people often thought of the elderly as feeble and weak. However, my Nana Jo was close to six feet, two hundred pounds, held a green belt in aikido, and could shoot a bat off the top of a building at three hundred yards. Don't ask me how I know that. Despite the difference in their ages, in a fight, my money was on Nana Jo.
"Dawson isn't here and the store is closed." I stepped in between the two women. "If you're looking for Dawson, I suggest you try campus."
For a moment, Melody looked at me as though I were gum she'd scrapped from the bottom of her shoe.
"What's going on?"
I was so intent on preventing an altercation between Nana Jo and Melody I hadn't heard Dawson enter through the back door.
Apparently, Melody hadn't either. "Dawson. How long have you been there?" She smiled big.
"Long enough." The chill in his words made me turn to look at him. His eyes were hard and his face was set like granite. "What're you doing here, Melody? I told you we were finished yesterday."
Melody kept her smile in place as she sauntered around me. "I knew you couldn't really mean that. We both said things we didn't mean yesterday." She stood inches from Dawson and placed her hands on his chest and leaned close. "Let's go up to your room and talk things over."
Dawson didn't move for several seconds, but I could see the vein in the side of his forehead bulge with each breath. Finally, he grabbed Melody by the wrist.
She winced in pain. "Ouch. You're hurting me."
Dawson turned and walked out the way he came, dragging Melody by the wrist along with him.
"I guess he was smart enough to see through that little cheap hussy after all," Nana Jo said. "I think that's the last we'll see of her."
I hurried to secure the front door. Something in the way Melody looked and a flutter in my spine told me Nana Jo was wrong.
* * *
Normally, Sundays were spent with my mom. Church, lunch afterward, and girl time. This Sunday was no different. Today we were shopping in downtown South Harbor.
Unlike North Harbor, South Harbor had a bustling downtown with picturesque cobblestone streets and brick storefronts that sold everything from fudge and truffles to overpriced coffee. Mixed between quaint soda shops and antique stores were clothing stores with shoes that cost more than a month of my salary when I was a teacher.
"Honey, isn't this cashmere sweater lovely? It would look great on you." My mom held up a bubblegum-pink garment that looked as though it might fit one of my thighs.
"Mom, I couldn't fit my imagination in that sweater."
"They have larger sizes, dear. I really think you need to upgrade your wardrobe. Everything you own is black or brown. You look like you're still in mourning." She placed the fluffy concoction up to my neck.
I glanced at the tag and nearly choked. "Are you joking? That sweater costs more than my house payment."
"You really should put more effort into your appearance. You've really let yourself go since Leon died. I think you're hiding behind your mourning and it's time you started living again, and maybe dating."
I stared openmouthed. "Not all of us can live the life of a princess. I don't have the time or money to waste getting my nails and hair done and buying overpriced sweaters. I have a business to run."
The salesclerk, who had walked up with a bright smile on her face, turned and walked away.
My mom sighed and replaced the sweater. She walked to the back of the store. That sigh spoke louder than any words could have. Obviously I had disappointed her again. I stood there for a moment and then sorted through the rack of sweaters, looking for one that would fit over my head without making me look like an overstuffed sausage. I could afford the sweater. That wasn't the problem. Finances had always been tight when Leon and I were working. A cook and an English teacher didn't buy cashmere sweaters. But I'd sold the house and used the insurance money to buy the building. The bookstore was doing well, not Fortune magazine worthy, but thanks to low overhead, frugal spending, and hard work, it was making a profit. One cashmere sweater wouldn't break me, and it would make my mom happy. But, as a grown woman in her mid-thirties, I shouldn't have to buy a sweater I didn't want to make my mom happy. I wished Nana Jo had come with us today. She would have understood and helped intercede between me and my mom.
My mom was so very different from Nana Jo; it was hard for me to imagine my grandmother gave birth to her. They were polar opposites. Josephine Thomas was tall and hardy. My mom, Grace Hamilton, was five feet, less than one hundred pounds dripping wet, and delicate. My mom was like a dainty porcelain figurine you keep on the tallest shelf behind a glass door, locked away from harm for fear of breaking it. Nana Jo blamed my grandpa, who always called my mom his little princess, for planting the "princess seed" in her head. In her mid-sixties, my mother had never had a job outside of the home. She'd never paid a bill until after my dad died. She was the princess.
I dropped my mom off at her South Harbor condo and headed back over the bridge to North Harbor, where I belonged. I glanced at the pink shopping bag on the seat that contained a white cashmere sweater I would be too afraid of spilling anything on to ever wear and swung my car into the parking lot of a nearby liquor store. I glanced at my watch. Thankfully, it was after twelve, when alcohol could be purchased. I looked at the license plates of the cars parked in the lot, noting the majority were Indiana residents who had escaped across the state line into Michigan, where they could buy alcohol on Sunday. We were all escaping from something, but I didn't have the time or energy to figure out what at the moment. A bottle of wine would have to substitute for therapy for now.
Excerpted from "Read Herring Hunt"
Copyright © 2018 Valerie Burns.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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