Norma is a modern-day nomad. Living out of her van and teardrop trailer, she revels in self-reliance, solitude, and reading in the glorious peace of nature. Jovial, wise, and scrupulously honest, she’s become an uplifting presence in the little town of Quindicott, Rhode Island, where bookseller Pen is thankful to have her part-time help. But it’s Norma’s other job, working as a housekeeper at the Finch Inn, that gets her into terrible trouble. Norma is accused of stealing jewels from a guest’s room: the legendary Valentino Teardrops, an antique necklace and earring set, inherited by a young socialite. Pen doesn’t believe Norma is guilty of the crime—though the evidence is distressingly strong. And when the spirited Norma vanishes before her arrest, Pen turns to another spirit…
Jack Shepard, PI, may have been gunned down decades ago, but his memory hasn’t been ghosted. Back in the 1940s, those same Valentino Teardrops starred in a bizarre case of betrayal and murder. From the look of things, history is about to repeat. Now Jack is back on the job, and Pen is eternally grateful.
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Happy to Be Haunted
The imagination feeds on phantoms.
-Cornell Woolrich, "Mind over Murder,"
Dime Detective magazine, 1943
Quindicott, Rhode Island
A penny for your thoughts.
"You don't have a penny, Jack. You haven't had a penny in decades."
I beg to differ, doll. You still carry around my Buffalo nickel, don't you?
So I got at least five cents in my Penny bank.
The ghost was right. Ever since I pocketed that ancient nickel of his, the one that spilled out of his dusty PI files, I'd made a mobile connection to a gumshoe spirit I couldn't control (or always comprehend) yet kept talking to anyway.
But then life was like that, wasn't it? Driven by phantoms we didn't always understand.
My name is Penelope Thornton-McClure. I'm a widow in my thirties who moved myself and my young son back to my hometown in recent years to help save my aunt Sadie's bookshop.
Using my late husband's life insurance money and my New York publishing connections, I revived the family's dying business, overhauling the stale inventory, restoring the crumbling façade, polishing up the wood-plank floor, and replacing the ancient, rickety decor with beautiful oak bookshelves, standing lamps, and overstuffed armchairs fit for a cozy New England library.
I put us online for global sales and expanded us into the neighboring storefront, adding an event space for author appearances, reading groups, and community gatherings. It was the noise of that expansion that appeared to have roused Jack Shepard from decades of supernatural slumber.
Why exactly the gallant gumshoe was gunned down on our premises, I don't know, but the question felt fitting, given our shop's specialty. We sell all kinds of books, you see, but we specialize in crime and mystery fiction. Not that everyone likes a mystery-literary or otherwise.
If a doorway opened to a darkened room, would you walk through it? Or swiftly pass it by? If a disembodied voice started giving you advice, would you listen? Or plug your ears and cover your eyes?
Cornell Woolrich once wrote "the imagination feeds on phantoms," but I never considered myself especially imaginative-or brave. What I am is incurably curious, intellectually itchy. That's why I couldn't stop talking to the ghost. Or asking questions about Norma. She was a curiosity. A puzzle of a person with so many pieces missing that I couldn't see her big picture.
True, few people in our lives are totally open books. Nearly everyone we know conceals personal secrets. But if someone you knew (and liked) was accused of a major crime, wouldn't you be shocked enough to ask a few questions?
In Norma's case, those questions began on a cool autumn afternoon. I'd been working all day in the shop and back office and felt the need for some fresh air and exercise, which is why I ventured out on foot, taking the back, wooded trail that led to the Finch Inn, a lovingly restored Queen Anne Victorian bed-and-breakfast run by my good friends Fiona and Barney Finch.
I usually enjoyed this walk, but today's trek felt ominous. The dry leaves around me rustled with a kind of death rattle. The shortened days and drop in temperature had choked off their green vibrance and bright fall colors for last-breath pigments of tired yellow and dried-blood brown. Tree branches swished menacingly with every salty gust from the nearby Atlantic, and the air felt raw. I could smell the rain coming. As gathering clouds began to smother the sunlight, even the birds went eerily silent.
Alone on this path, I pulled my jacket closer around me, trying not to shiver, when suddenly I wasn't alone anymore.
How many times do I have to tell you, baby? There are wolves in this big, bad world. What are you doing wandering through this forest all alone, like a Little Red-headed Riding Hood?
My ghost was back.
A Walk in the Woods
Keep close to Nature's heart . . . and break clear away, once in a while . . . spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.
"Hello, Jack. Nice to hear from you again. And this is hardly a forest. It's a scenic nature trail and quite popular with the town's joggers and bikers. I'm only out here alone because it's an overcast Monday. On the weekends this trail is nearly as busy as Cranberry Street. The after-church crowd takes it to their Sunday brunches at Chez Finch."
That a fact? So you're puttin' us on the path of the righteous?
"A road you know well, I'm sure."
Me? The ghost laughed, a sure, masculine chuckle. Don't get me confused with some dull-as-dust do-right rube. I strayed off the path of virtue long before you were even born.
"I don't buy it, Jack, now that I've gotten to know you. If you still had a body, there wouldn't be a bad bone in it. You're just too embarrassed to admit that down deep you're a knight of the streets-and a sweetheart-and you always were."
Don't try to perfume my past, baby. Night was when I operated. No K in front of it, unless it was a KO. And I been called a lotta things back when my ticker tocked, but nobody ever called me "sweetheart"-nobody who meant it, anyway.
"Saint or sinner, I'm glad you're here. I missed you . . ." And I had to admit, "Right now, I appreciate the company."
Because you're scared?
"Me? Don't be silly!"
Jack's warning about "wolves" was ridiculous. There were no such things in our safe little town. And I knew these woods well enough, though the gloom and chill were far from cheery, and the wind gusts were becoming sharper and stronger. As dead leaves began raining down, I did begin to worry a heavy branch might follow-then suddenly I was smacked in the nose!
As I jumped back-waving my arms like a madwoman at the ossified bird's nest that had struck me-dark purple clouds eclipsed the last sliver of afternoon sun and thunder rolled over the treetops.
Geez, Jack cracked. I can see why your panties are bunched.
"My panties are just fine! Not that my unmentionables are any of your business."
Okay then, if it's not these creepy trees that have you rattled, what is it? You got ants in your pants about something.
"Stop talking about my underthings."
The ghost did. Then he stopped talking altogether.
With resignation, I sighed and admitted the truth. "All right, Jack, you're not wrong. I mean, I am-for lack of a better word-antsy."
What's the headache?
"I hate doing things I don't want to do, and right now I have to ask someone to do me a huge favor."
Okey-doke. Who do you want sprawled on a cold marble slab and how do you want it done?
"Stop teasing. Nobody's getting whacked. I'm heading to the Finch Inn to offer a woman a job, that's all."
And she's doing you a "huge favor" by accepting? The world sure has flipped its wig. In my day, a job offer was followed by a tip of the fedora and a hearty thank-you.
"Under normal circumstances that would be true, but not in this case."
What makes this dame so special?
"She's not a dame. She's a nomad."
"Norma has no permanent address. She lives in a van and travels around the country for most of the year."
She's a hobo, then? A bum?
"We don't use those words anymore. Norma is a vagabond. They call it living the van life. It's a cultural trend. They've even got a hashtag for it."
Hash what? Oh, you mean they're hopheads? Hooked on hashish?
"No, not hashish! Hashtag. It's a social media category, a trend so popular, thousands use its label to brand their lifestyle. Norma lives the #vanlife."
I don't follow.
"I'll break it down for you. Norma moves around the country, taking different jobs during different seasons. For the last two years, she's spent her autumns in New England, doing housekeeping work at the Finch Inn. In exchange for her help from Labor Day to the New Year, Fiona pays Norma a weekly wage and provides a room for her, too."
So, you're trying to snatch her away from the competition?
"Not at all. Norma works part-time at a few places, including Buy the Book. Aunt Sadie hired her six weeks ago to work in the store on Sundays, so I could spend more time with my son-and help him with his big science fair project."
You mean the one that's got your little tyke fingerprinting everyone in sight and leaving ink stains in the sink?
"Yes. Spencer has decided to be a forensic investigator when he grows up. Of course, in a few months he'll likely change his mind, but I'll always encourage his interests, and one day he'll find his true calling. Anyway, that's not the point."
Then what is?
"The numbers. I added them up, and there is no disputing them."
I never played the numbers. That's penny ante stuff. I bet the house on the nags, though, hundreds of times.
"I'm not talking about gambling, Jack. The numbers that concern me are the unit sales in my ledger. You see, not long ago, Sadie and I debated whether to close Buy the Book on Sundays because business slowed considerably that day. But since Norma started working, sales have increased, week over week. This past Sunday we made double what we grossed on that same weekend a year ago, and it's all because of Norma."
She must be a natural pusher, then, a real huckster-
"No, Norma doesn't hard sell anyone."
Horse pellets. Trust me, Penny. Good hustlers are so slick at the fast hand, you never see that three-card monte swindle coming.
"Goodness, Jack, this is Quindicott, Rhode Island, not the New York Bowery! And Norma isn't a hustler."
Call me skeptical.
"You shouldn't be. You inhabit my shop, don't you? Haven't you noticed what's been going on there?"
Piles of paper, small-town small talk, and the dull daily comings and goings of mortals don't interest me, baby. You do. And you haven't needed me lately-till now. Which makes sense. I can see you're in trouble. You been taken in by a lady hobo running some kind of confidence game.
"You're way off the mark."
Really? Convince me, then. Tell me why I shouldn't scare your Norma into next week.
"Don't you dare. I like her. And the store needs her."
I'll be the judge of that.
"Look, the best way to explain Norma's selling ability is . . . well, she's got a special kind of empathy. She's brilliant at understanding customers. She reads them like a book page. Aunt Sadie calls her 'the Book Whisperer.'"
Whispering to books? Sounds like a looney tune.
"And what do you think the general public would call me for talking to you?"
Hmm. Point taken.
"I'll put it another way. Norma loves books and takes great joy in connecting every customer with just the right author or title. She seems able to sense which souls are especially sad or lonely or troubled. She'll go right up to them, even in a crowd, and draw them out. I've seen it with my own eyes. It's like . . . book medicine and she's the doctor."
I need more, doll. Gimme a concrete-as-brick example.
"All right. Then listen to what happened one Sunday after Norma came to work for us. I was about to drive Spencer to Newport to get him registered for the regional science fair. I went downstairs to grab my jacket from behind the counter when I heard a raucous uproar coming from the main floor."
A drunken brawl?
"In a family bookshop? No, Jack, the uproar came from a group of women laughing-"
Like cackling hens?
"Don't embellish. Just listen . . ."
Judging a Book
They who dream by day are cognizant of many things which escape those who dream only by night.
-Edgar Allan Poe, "Eleonora"
"What's going on?" I asked my aunt. Laughter continued to rise up, little noise balloons bursting from the rows of bookshelves.
"It's Norma." Sadie smiled as she rang up a customer and cocked her head toward the stacks. "She's holding court."
Folding my jacket over my arm, I approached the cackling aisle-Au to Do (Jane Austen through Arthur Conan Doyle)-and peeked around the corner.
Three smartly dressed women, one of whom I recognized as a well-heeled resident of Larchmont Avenue, Quindicott's poshest neighborhood, were in a lively conversation with our new part-time employee, Norma.
"Don't be coy, sisters. You know what I'm saying is true." Norma swept a hand through her cinnamon-brown pixie cut.
"Men are work. We all know that. They're messy and difficult. They're noisy. They snore, and they do the things we ask them to do in their own time or not at all."
"Mostly not at all," said Hazel Kraft, the bank president's wife. The other women tittered.
"You see what I mean, then," Norma went on. "I'm telling you this store is full of alternatives, because a book boyfriend is the better bet. He can sweep you off your feet, protect you like a Pinkerton, battle like a knight-errant, or be as deliciously daring as a pirate. He can take you on vacation, on an adventure, on an impossible quest. Why, a book boyfriend can even make sweet love to you."
The women laughed as Norma lowered her voice conspiratorially.
"Best of all, you don't have to cook for them, clean up after them, do their laundry, or even pay attention to them when you want alone time-which for me is the most important time of my day."
Hazel Kraft frowned. "Sometimes I miss them when I've closed the book for the last time."
"You can never really close the book, dear, because the warm feeling remains," Norma insisted. "That's because you've made a new friend-two of them really. The character you love, and the author, who likely has many more adventures for you to go on together."
As Norma described potential "book boyfriends" as diverse as Sherlock Holmes, Walt Longmire, Jack Reacher, Philip Marlowe, Jamie Fraser, and Hercule Poirot, the ladies began chatting among themselves about their own favorites.
As they talked and laughed, Norma stepped back long enough to notice a boy, maybe fourteen, lurking nearby. She moved away from the group, and it looked to me like she was about to engage the youth. I quietly moved down a parallel book aisle so I could overhear that conversation-and peek between shelves to spy on them.
"You look like you're lost," Norma said to the youth, who simply shrugged.