It’s no mystery who killed Robert Ripple, owner of Precious Finds Bookstore in Pokesville, Pennsylvania. It was Agatha Christie—or rather, a large carton of valuable Christie hardcovers that the not-so-young Ripple was attempting to lift when his heart gave out. The real question is why the so-called Friends of England, who meet regularly in the back room of Ripple’s literary emporium, are so eager to keep the place open after its proprietor’s death. Certainly it must have something to do with the Friends’ past lives as the associates of a slain New York mobster. Whatever their plan is, they’ll need the help of Tanya Tripp, Ripple’s recently hired and completely unsuspecting assistant, if they want to pull it off. But despite her trustworthy appearance, Tanya may well be hatching a scheme of her own.
For over four decades, Peter Lovesey has occupied an honored place as one of crime fiction’s best and brightest. With Remaindered, he offers his readers a delectable tidbit about books and those who live—and die—for them.
The Bibliomysteries are a series of short tales about deadly books, by top mystery authors.
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By Peter Lovesey
MysteriousPress.comCopyright © 2014 Peter Lovesey
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Agatha Christie did it. The evidence was plain to see, but no one did see for more than a day. Robert Ripple's corpse was cold on the bookshop floor. It must have been there right through Monday, the day Precious Finds was always closed. Poor guy, he was discovered early Tuesday in the section he called his office, in a position no bookseller would choose for his last transaction, face down, feet down and butt up, jack-knifed over a carton of books. The side of the carton had burst and some of the books had slipped out and fanned across the carpet, every one a Christie.
Late Sunday Robert had taken delivery of the Christie novels. They came from a house on Park Avenue, one of the best streets in Poketown, Pennsylvania, and they had a curious history. They were brought over from England before World War II by an immigrant whose first job had been as a London publisher's rep. He'd kept the books as a souvenir of those tough times trying to interest bookshop owners in whodunits when the only novels most British people wanted to read were by Jeffrey Farnol and Ethel M. Dell. After his arrival in America, he'd switched to selling Model T Fords instead and made a sizeable fortune. The Christies had been forgotten about, stored in the attic of the fine old weatherboard house he'd bought after making his first million. And now his playboy grandson planned to demolish the building and replace it with a space-age dwelling of glass and concrete. He'd cleared the attic and wanted to dispose of the books. Robert had taken one look and offered five hundred dollars for the lot. The grandson had pocketed the check and gone away pleased with the deal.
Hardly believing his luck, Robert must have waited until the shop closed and then stooped to lift the carton onto his desk and check the contents more carefully.
Hardcover books are heavy. He had spent years humping books around, but he was sixty-eight, with a heart condition, and this was one box too many.
Against all the odds, Robert had stayed in business for twenty-six years, dealing in used books of all kinds. But Precious Finds had become more than a bookshop. It was a haven of civilized life in Poketown, a center for all manner of small town activities—readers' groups, a writers' circle, coffee mornings and musical evenings. Some of the locals came and went without even glancing at the bookshelves. A few bought books or donated them out of loyalty, but it was difficult to understand how Robert had kept going so long. It was said he did most of his business at the beginning through postal sales and later on the Internet.
Robert's sudden death created problems all round. Tanya Tripp, the bookshop assistant, who had been in the job only a few months, had the nasty shock of discovering the body, and found herself burdened with dealing with the emergency, first calling a doctor, then an undertaker and then attempting to contact Robert's family. Without success. Not a Ripple remained. He had never married. It became obvious that his loyal customers would have to arrange the funeral. Someone had to take charge, and this was Tanya. Fortunately she was a capable young woman, as sturdy in character as she was in figure. She didn't complain about the extra workload, even to herself.
Although all agreed that the effort of lifting the Agatha Christies had been the cause of death, an autopsy was inescapable.The medical examiner found severe bruising to the head and this was attributed to the fall. A coronary had killed Robert.
The complications came after. Tanya was unable to find a will. She searched the office where Robert had died, as well as his apartment upstairs, where she had never ventured before. Being the first to enter a dead man's rooms would have spooked the average person. Tanya was above average in confidence and determination. She wasn't spooked. She found Robert's passport, birth certificate and tax returns, but nothing resembling a will. She checked with his bank and they didn't have it.
Meanwhile one of the richest customers offered to pay for the funeral and the regulars clubbed together to arrange a wake at Precious Finds. The feeling was that Robert would have wished for a spirited send-off.
The back room had long been the venue for meetings. The books in there were not considered valuable. Every second-hand bookshop has to cope with items that are never likely to sell: thrillers that no longer thrill, sci-fi that has been overtaken by real science and romance too coy for modern tastes. The obvious solution is to refuse such books, but sometimes they come in a job lot with things of more potential such as nineteenth century magazines containing engravings that can be cut out, mounted and sold as prints. Robert's remedy had been to keep the dross in the back room. The heaviest volumes were at floor level, outdated encyclopedias, dictionaries and art books. Higher up were the condensed novels and book club editions of long-forgotten authors. Above them, privately published fiction and poetry. On the top, fat paperbacks turning brown and curling at the edges, whole sets of Michener, Hailey, and Clavell.
The saving grace of the back room was that the shelves in the center were mounted on wheels and could be rolled aside to create a useful space for meetings. A stack of chairs stood in one corner. Robert made no charge, pleased to have people coming right through the shop and possibly pausing to look at the desirable items shelved in the front rooms. So on Tuesdays the bookshop hosted the Poketown history society, Wednesdays the art club, Thursdays, the chess players. Something each afternoon and every night except Sundays and Mondays.
And now the back room was to be used for the wake.
The music appreciation group knew of an Irish fiddler who brought along four friends, and they set about restoring everyone's spirits after the funeral. The place was crowded out. The event spilled over into the other parts of the shop.
It was a bitter-sweet occasion. The music was lively and there was plenty of cheap wine, but there was still anxiety about what would happen after. For the time being the shop had stayed open under Tanya's management. There was no confidence that this could continue.
"It has to be sold," Tanya said in a break between jigs. "There's no heir."
"Who's going to buy a bookstore in these difficult times?" George Digby-Smith asked. He was one of the Friends of England, who met here on occasional Friday nights, allegedly to talk about cricket and cream teas and other English indulgences. Actually, George was more than just a friend of England. He'd been born there sixty years ago. "Someone will want to throw out all the books and turn the building into apartments."
"Over my dead body," Myrtle Rafferty, another of the Friends of England, piped up.
"We don't need another fatality, thank you," George said.
"We can't sit back and do nothing. We all depend on this place."
"Get real, people," one of the Wednesday morning coffee group said. "None of us could take the business on, even if we had the funds."
"Tanya knows about books," George said at once. "She'll be out of a job if the store closes. What do you say, Tanya?"
The young woman looked startled. It was only a few months since she had walked in one morning and asked if Robert would take her on as his assistant. In truth, he'd badly needed some help and she'd earned every cent he paid. Softly spoken, almost certainly under thirty, she had been a quiet presence in the shop, putting more order into the displays, but leaving Robert to deal with the customers.
"I couldn't possibly buy it."
"I'm not suggesting you do. But you could manage it. In fact, you'd do a far better job than old Robert ever did."
"That's unkind," Myrtle said.
George turned redder than usual. "Yes, it was."
"We are all in debt to Robert," Myrtle said.
"Rest his soul," George agreed, raising his glass. "To Robert, a bookman to the end, gone, but not forgotten. In the best sense of the word, remaindered."
"What's that meant to mean?"
"Passed on, but still out there somewhere."
"More like boxed and posted," the man from the coffee club murmured. "Or pulped."
Myrtle hadn't heard. She was thinking positively. "Tanya didn't altogether turn down George's suggestion. She'd want to continue, given the opportunity."
Tanya was silent.
"When someone dies without leaving a will, what happens?" George asked.
Ivor Ciplinsky, who knew a bit about law, and led the history society, said, "An administrator will have to be appointed and they'll make extensive efforts to trace a relative, however distant."
"I already tried," Tanya said. "There isn't anyone."
"Cousins, second cousins, second cousins once removed."
Myrtle asked Ivor, "And if no relative is found?"
"Then the property escheats to the state's coffers."
"Escheats. A legal term, meaning it reverts to the state by default."
"What a ghastly-sounding word," George said.
"Ghastly to think about," Myrtle said. "Our beloved bookshop grabbed by the bureaucrats."
"It goes back to feudal law," Ivor said.
"It should have stayed there," Myrtle said. "Escheating. Cheating comes into it, for sure. Cheating decent people out of their innocent pleasures. We can't allow that. Precious Finds is the focus of our community."
"If you're about to suggest we club together and buy it, don't," Ivor said. "Paying for a wake is one thing. You won't get a bunch of customers, however friendly, taking on a business as precarious as this. You can count me out straight away."
"So speaks the history society," Myrtle said with a sniff. "Caving in before the battle even begins. Well, the Friends of England are made of sterner stuff. The English stood firm at Agincourt, a famous battle six hundred years ago, in case you haven't covered it on Tuesday evenings, Ivor. Remember who faced off the Spanish Armada."
"Not to mention Wellington at Waterloo and Nelson at Trafalgar," George added.
"Michael Caine," Edward said. He was the third member of the Friends of England.
There were some puzzled frowns. Then George said, "Zulu—the movie. You're thinking of the battle of 'Rorke's Drift.'"
"The Battle of Britain," Myrtle finished on a high, triumphant note.
"Who are these people?" the coffee club man asked.
It was a good question. Myrtle, George and Edward had been meeting in the back room on occasional Friday nights for longer than anyone could recall. They must have approached Robert at some point and asked if they could have their meetings there. An Anglophile himself, at least as far as books were concerned, Robert wouldn't have turned them away. But nobody else had ever joined the three in their little club. This was because they didn't announce their meetings in advance. If you weren't told which Fridays they met, you couldn't be there, even if you adored England, drank warm beer and ate nothing but roast beef and Yorkshire pudding.
George was the only one of the three with a genuine English connection. You wouldn't have known it from his appearance. He'd come over as a youth in the late sixties, a hippie with flowers in his hair and weed in his backpack, living proof of that song about San Francisco. In middle age he'd given up the flowers, but not the weed. However, he still had the long hair, now silver and worn in a ponytail, and his faded T-shirts and torn jeans remained faintly psychedelic.
Edward, by contrast, dressed the part of the English gent, in blue blazer, white shirt and cravat and nicely ironed trousers. He had a David Niven pencil mustache and dark-tinted crinkly hair with a parting. Only when he spoke would you have guessed he'd been born and raised in the Bronx.
Myrtle, too, was New York born and bred. She colored her hair and it was currently orange and a mass of loose curls. She had a face and figure she was proud of. Back in the nineties, her good looks had reeled in her second husband, Butch Rafferty, a one-time gangster, who had treated her to diamond necklaces and dinners at the best New York restaurants. Tragically, Butch had been gunned down in 2003 by Gritty Bologna, a rival hood he had made the mistake of linking up with. The widowed Myrtle had quit gangland and moved out here to Pennsylvania. She wasn't destitute. She still lived in some style in a large colonial house at the better end of town. No one could fathom her affiliation to the old country except there was not much doubt that she slept (separately) with George and Edward. She had travelled to England a number of times with each of them. Either they were not jealous of each other or she controlled the relationship with amazing skill.
Little was known of what went on at the Friends of England meetings in the bookshop. Comfortable and cozy as the back room was, it was not furnished for middle-aged sex. Tanya, understandably curious, had questioned Robert closely about how the Friends passed their evenings. He'd said he assumed they spent their time looking at travel brochures and planning their next trip. The meetings did seem to be followed quite soon after by visits to England, always involving Myrtle, usually in combination with one or other of her fellow Friends.
The three were now in a huddle at the far end of the back room, where they always gathered for their meetings and where—appropriately—three out-of-date sets of the Encyclopedia Britannica took up the entire bottom shelf.
"If the shop is ... what was that word?" Edward said when the music once more calmed down enough for conversation.
"If that happens, they'll want a quick sale and we're in deep shit."
"But there's a precious window of opportunity before it gets to that stage," George said. "They have to make completely sure no one has a claim on the estate and that can't be done overnight. We need to get organized. Myrtle was talking about a trip to the Cotswolds before the end of the month. Sorry, my friends, but I think we must cancel."
"Shucks," Myrtle said. "I was counting the days to that trip. You figure we should stay here and do something?"
"We can't do nothing."
"Do what?" Edward said, and it was clear from his disenchanted tone that it had been his turn to partner Myrtle to England.
George glanced right and left and then lowered his voice. "I have an idea, a rather bold idea, but this is not the time or the place."
"Shall we call a meeting?" Myrtle said, eager to hear more. "How about this Friday? We don't need Robert's permission anymore."
"In courtesy, we ought to mention it to Tanya," George said.
"Tell her your idea?"
"Heavens, no. Just say we need a meeting, so she can book us in."
On Friday they had the back room to themselves. Tanya was in the office at the front end of the shop and there were no browsers. The footfall in Precious Finds had decreased markedly after Robert's death had been written up in the Poketown Observer.
Even Edward, still sore that his trip to the Cotswolds with Myrtle had been cancelled, had to agree that George's plan was smart.
"It's not just smart, it's genius," Myrtle said. "We can save the shop and carry on as before." She leaned back in her chair and caressed the spines of the Encyclopedia Britannica. "The Friends of England can go on indefinitely."
"For as long as the funds hold up, at any rate," George said. "We've been sensible up to now. Let's keep it like that."
George had to be respected. His wise, restraining advice had allowed the three of them to enjoy a comfortable retirement that might yet continue. If the truth were told, the Friends of England Society was a mutual benefit club. George and Edward had once been members of Butch Rafferty's gang and they were still living off the spoils of a security van heist.
"My dear old Butch would love this plan," Myrtle said with a faraway look. "I can hear him saying, 'Simple ain't always obvious.'"
"If Butch hadn't messed up, we wouldn't be here," Edward said, still moody. "We'd be back in New York City, living in style."
"Don't kid yourself," Myrtle said. "You'd have gambled away your share inside six months. New York, maybe—but by now you'd be sleeping rough in Central Park. I know you better than you know yourself, Edward."
"There are worse places than Central Park," he said. "I've had it up to here with Poketown, Pennsylvania. We should have got outta here years ago."
"Oh, come on."
"It's only because we live in Pennsylvania that my plan will work," George said.
Edward's lip curled. "It had better work."
"And I'm thinking we should bring Tanya in at an early stage," George said.
"No way," Edward said. "What is it with Tanya? You got something going with her?"
"How ridiculous. You're the one who can't keep his eyes off her."
Myrtle said, "Leave it, George. Act your age, both of you. I'm with Edward here. Keep it to ourselves."
Edward almost purred. "Something else Butch once said: 'The more snouts in the trough, the less you get.'"
"As you wish," George said. "We won't say anything to Tanya. She'll get a beautiful surprise."
"So how do we divide the work?" Myrtle said.
"Unless you think otherwise, I volunteer to do the paperwork," George said. "I'm comfortable with the English language."
"Keep it short and simple. Nothing fancy."
Excerpted from Remaindered by Peter Lovesey. Copyright © 2014 Peter Lovesey. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I enjoyed this story, but it was not up to Lovesey's high standards in my opinion. The plot has some humor (I don't want to include spoilers), but the surprises are not very surprising.
A very entertaining short story! It gives the reader a chance to judge the author's talent & skills without investing a lot of time & money. After reading this, I will buy one of his books! By ajw