When the Briar Creek Public Library holds its first overdue book amnesty day—no fines for late returns—the volume of incoming materials is more than Lindsey and her staff can handle. But one tardy tome catches her attention—a copy of J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, twenty years past due.
When Lindsey looks up the borrower, she’s shocked to discover it was a murdered teacher named Candice Whitley, whose killer was never found. Candice checked out the novel on the day she died. Now Lindsey wonders if it could provide a clue to the decades-old cold case. No one noticed who brought the book back in, but could it be Candice’s killer? Lindsey is determined to catch the culprit one way or another, because justice for Candice Whitley is long overdue...
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***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
Copyright © 2016 Jenn McKinlay
“Let the wild rumpus start!” Beth Stanley cried as the cart of books she had stacked to bursting abruptly regurgitated its contents all over the Briar Creek Public Library’s main floor with a loud rushing noise followed by slaps and thumps as the books landed on the ground.
“Shhh!” Ms. Cole hissed. She was an old-school librarian—nicknamed the lemon because of her frequently puckered disposition—who was in charge of the circulation of materials for the library located on the Connecticut shore.
“Sorry, I tried to stop it but I couldn’t hold it in,” Beth said. She was wearing a crown and carrying a sparkling scepter, which was really a bejeweled cardboard tube from a roll of wrapping paper with a tissue-paper flower sticking out of the end.
Lindsey noted the tail pinned to the back of her yoga pants and the pointy ears poking out beneath her crown. With her short, dark hair styled in wild disarray, Beth bore a remarkable resemblance to Max, the character she was representing.
“Where the Wild Things Are for story time?” Lindsey guessed.
“Best story time book ever,” Beth said.
“Brilliant! I love Maurice Sendak,” Paula Turner said.
“No one asked you,” Ms. Cole said. Her glance was frosty as she took in her part-time clerk with undisguised suspicion.
Paula was the library’s newly hired clerk, and with her sleeve of colorful arm tattoos and long hair dyed a deep purple, she had been a challenge for the conservative Ms. Cole to supervise from day one.
“That’ll do, people,” Lindsey Norris said. She was the director of the small library and tried to maintain some semblance of order. “We have three more loaded book trucks coming in. We need to make room behind the desk.”
“There is no more room,” Ms. Cole said. Her tone was as dry as butterless toast, and if she were anyone else Lindsey might have thought she was teasing. Ms. Cole was not.
A monochromatic dresser, Ms. Cole was in all black today, as if she were in mourning. Lindsey figured she probably was, given that they were holding their first annual fine amnesty day, which went against everything in which Ms. Cole believed.
She was a punitive sort who enjoyed using fines and shushing to curb their patrons’ naughty behavior. Lindsey had been trying to get her to roll with the times for a couple of years now. It was a battle.
“Why don’t we get the crafternoon ladies to help?” Beth suggested. She was picking up the books that had fallen off of her cart. Lindsey and Paula helped her. Ms. Cole did not.
“In what way?” Lindsey asked. She stacked the books back on the cart.
“They can fine-sort the book trucks that are already checked in, which will make room for the new ones,” Beth said. “In fact, if we wheel the trucks to the meeting room, we can do that while we discuss our book of the week.”
“They are not cleared to work in the library,” Ms. Cole protested.
“Drastic times,” Lindsey said. She looked at Paula and Beth. “Let’s wheel the checked-in carts to the crafternoon room to make room for the incoming.”
“I really must protest,” Ms. Cole said.
“Of course you must,” Lindsey said. She met Ms. Cole’s upset gaze with her own and tried to channel her inner calm. “Answer me this: Do you have a better idea?”
“You mean aside from never having another fine amnesty day ever again?” the lemon asked. “No.”
“Then to the crafternoon room it is,” Lindsey said.
She, Beth and Paula each took a cart and pushed it to the back room where the crafternoon ladies met every Thursday afternoon to eat, discuss a book and work on a craft.
As they entered the room, they found Nancy Peyton and Violet La Rue already in place on the comfy couches placed in the center of the room. Violet had been in charge of the food today, so it was ham and cheese sliders, potato soup and a veggie platter.
Lindsey felt her stomach rumble. She tried to remember the last time she’d eaten. It must have been last night because when she’d arrived at the library this morning, the book drop had been full to bursting. She’d skipped breakfast to help unload it and hadn’t had a chance to think about eating since.
“What’s this?” Nancy asked as the parade of carts appeared.
Nancy was Lindsey’s landlord as well as one of her crafternoon buddies. A widow, Nancy had inherited her old captain’s house when her husband, Jake, went down with his ship many years ago. Nancy then turned it into a three-family house and rented out the top two floors. Lindsey lived on the third level while Nancy’s nephew Charlie Peyton was the filler in their house sandwich and resided on the second floor.
“How married are you to the idea of doing a craft today?” Lindsey asked.
“Not very. Why?” Violet asked.
She was dressed in her usual jewel-toned caftan, which made her dark complexion glow. A retired Broadway actress, Violet had an innate grace and flair that, despite her gray hair, which she wore scraped into a tight bun at the back of her head, made her seem eternally youthful. Truly, she could command a room like nobody’s business. Right now, her tone was cautious. Smart lady.
“I’m throwing myself on your mercy,” Lindsey said. She bowed with her arms out in obeisance just so they would know she was sincere. “We are so far behind on sorting the books that have been returned we may never catch up. Would you ladies be willing to help us get these trucks in order?”
Nancy and Violet exchanged a glance. The two ladies were long-time best friends and Lindsey knew they communicated without words. It was no surprise to her when they both faced her and answered at the same time.
“Yes, of course,” they said together.
“Is Ms. Cole going to come in here and yell at us for eating near the books?” Violet asked. “Because that would be a problem for me.”
“So long as we don’t eat over the books, I think we’ll be okay,” Lindsey said.
“Food, I need food!” Mary Murphy hustled into the room with Charlene La Rue right behind her.
“Girl, every time I see you, you are either eating or napping,” Nancy said. “Are you feeling all right?”
She moved to stand beside the food table and loaded a plate for Mary before the woman even had her jacket off.
“Oh, yeah, I’m fine,” Mary said. “Just storing up for winter, you know, like a squirrel.”
“It’s May,” Violet said. “You keep packing it in like this and you’ll be able to hibernate for two winters.”
“Heh heh.” Mary laughed uneasily and her gaze darted to Lindsey.
Lindsey smiled at her to let her know her secret was still safe. The truth was Mary was pregnant with her first child. Lindsey had figured it out, but the others were still clueless. Lindsey had promised Mary she wouldn’t say a word to anyone, including Mary’s brother Sully, who Lindsey had an on-and-off-again sort of relationship with, so Mary’s news and the fact that Lindsey knew about it and Sully didn’t made things a teensy bit complicated.
Charlene La Rue paused beside her mother, Violet, to kiss her cheek. Charlene had inherited her mother’s slender grace and beauty but instead of going into theater, Charlene was a television reporter in New Haven. With the career and the husband and kids her schedule was packed to bursting, but she kept her crafternoon Thursday commitment because it was one of the few times she got to spend with her mother and talk about something besides the children.
Thankfully, everyone was on board with fine-sorting the books while they discussed their book of the week, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter.
It took three trips to bring all of the extra carts into the crafternoon room, but once they were in, they all took a cart and began arranging the books for shelving.
“Question,” Charlene asked. “How far do I go following the Dewey number?”
“Meaning?” Beth asked.
“Can I just lump all the 398.2 books together or do I go all the way to the letter that follows?” Charlene asked.
Lindsey glanced at Beth and said, “I still believe in 398.2, how about you?”
Beth laughed. Mary and the others frowned.
“I don’t get it,” Nancy said.
“I do.” Charlene glanced up from her cart. “Judging by these books, 398.2 is the base number for fairy tales. Won’t Sully and Robbie be happy to know that she still believes in happy ever after.”
“Ah, yes, but who will be her Prince Charming?” Violet asked.
“Oh, no,” Lindsey said. “There is no charming anyone for me. Thank you very much.”
She shook her head back and forth to emphasize her point. She’d been keeping her personal life on the down low and had no intention of sharing any information until she knew where it was going. “We are not discussing my love life or lack thereof, not when we have Beth’s new relationship to dissect and discuss.”
“Way to throw me under the gossip train,” Beth said. Then she grinned. “But since you asked, Aidan is wonderful. He’s funny and smart, handsome and kind.” She sighed. “I’ve never been happier.”
The woman positively glowed and Lindsey was pretty sure her crown sparkled for real. The other ladies all sighed with her and Lindsey was relieved to have successfully distracted them.
“Has the ‘L’ word been used yet?” Mary asked through a mouthful of ham and cheese.
“Not yet,” Beth said. She fretted her lower lip between her teeth. “Should it have been? We’ve been dating for three months. Who says it first? Should I say it first? I don’t know if I’m ready for that.”
“It should just come naturally,” Nancy said.
“She’s right, but I’d wait and let him say it first,” Charlene said. “I knew I was in love with Martin after the first two months, but I let him take the lead on the ‘L’ word. Men can be pretty skittish about declarations of love.”
“Ian said it first,” Mary said. “Of course, I didn’t really have a chance since he said ‘I love you’ the very first moment he saw me. I think our meeting went something like me saying, ‘Hi, I’m Mary,’ to which he replied, ‘Yes, I’ll marry you. I’ve been madly in love with you since you walked through the door five seconds ago.’”
Lindsey laughed. She could see Ian doing just that. Mary was a lovely woman with thick curls of red-brown hair and sparkling blue eyes, and Ian was, well, not so much of a looker. But he had personality by the bucketful and he adored his wife, which Mary never took for granted.
“Speaking of the ‘L’ word and relationships, here’s my question about the book,” Nancy said. “What does a strong female like Hester see in a spineless sniveler like Dimwit?”
“Dimmesdale,” Violet said.
“Whatever,” Nancy said. “I hated him.”
“I think that was the point. Hawthorne portrays him as weak and Hester as strong even though she’s treated very badly for adultery while he hides behind his position and does nothing to protect her,” Charlene said. “What did you think of him, Mary?”
“Huh?” Mary asked through a mouthful of soup.
“What did you think about Dimmesdale?”
Mary looked chagrinned. “No idea. I didn’t finish the book. Frankly, when I got to Hawthorne’s eighth use of the word ignominy, I quit.”
Beth started to laugh and the others joined in.
“I’m serious. That word does not roll through my head,” Mary said. “Every time it cropped up, I had to stop and sound it out and it never felt right and then I was just irritated, so I quit.”
“Hawthorne loved that word,” Lindsey said. “I read a critique where it said he uses ignominy sixteen times in the book, ignominious seven times, and ignominiously once.”
“Ugh.” Mary looked pained as she spooned more soup into her mouth.
The rest of the crafternooners shared amused looks but no one chastised Mary for quitting on the book. They weren’t very strict about that part of being a crafternooner, or any part of being a crafternooner for that matter.
“Lindsey, can I talk to you for a second?”
Lindsey turned to see Paula standing in the doorway. She was holding a book in her hands and looked excited.
“Sure, what is it?” Lindsey asked as she crossed the room.
“This book,” Paula said. “It’s my sure thing. It has to be the winner for the category of most overdue item.”
To keep the staff entertained during the flood of incoming materials, Lindsey had offered up prizes for the staff member who found the most overdue item or the most abused material. The prize was a free pizza because Lindsey had discovered during the past couple of years as director that food was always a motivator for her staff.
“Really?” Lindsey took the book and glanced at the cover. It was The Catcher in the Rye and it looked to be in good shape. “How overdue is it?”
“Judging by the slip that was left inside the book was due on October twenty-third, nineteen ninety-six.” Paula pointed to a yellowed piece of paper. “Twenty years.”
“No way,” Lindsey said.
“Way,” Paula said. “So, I’m down for the free pizza from Marco’s Pizzeria, right?”
Lindsey pointed to the clock. “The contest goes until closing time today, but so far it looks like you’re in the lead.”
Paula pumped her fist.
“Did someone say pizza?” Mary asked. She had moved from the soup to the veggie platter but her eyes lit up at the word pizza.
“Not for you,” Lindsey said. “Go put your name and the book’s name on the leader board, Paula. I’d like to keep the book though.”
“Will do,” Paula said. She left the room with one more pump of her fist.
“Wow, twenty years overdue, what ILS were they using back then?” Beth asked.
“Dynix?” Lindsey guessed. She glanced at the book, which looked to have been well taken care of over the years. “Remember we learned about that integrated library system in grad school? Let’s see, if we calculate the fine at today’s going rate of twenty cents per day for twenty years, we’re looking at . . . help me out, somebody.”
“About seventy-three dollars per year, which would be fourteen hundred sixty dollars,” Mary said.
They all looked at her.
“What?” she asked. “I’m good with numbers.”
“Impressive,” Nancy said.
“As opposed to ignominious,” Violet joked.
“Good thing you’re having an amnesty,” Charlene said. “Can you imagine paying that fine?”
“We’d never charge more than the cost of the book, but you’re right it’s steep, although not as bad as Keith Richards’s library fines I’ll bet,” Lindsey said.
“Keith Richards the rock star?” Violet asked.
“The one and only,” Lindsey said. “Apparently, he was quite the library lover in his youth. In his autobiography, he said the library was the only place he would willingly obey the laws, like silence. And he admitted he was a bookworm who checked out books but never returned them. He has something like fifty years in fines racked up in Dartford, Kent.”
“Ha! Can you imagine Ms. Cole taking on Keith Richards?” Nancy asked. “I’d pay to see that.”
“Me, too,” Violet snorted.
“Who do you suppose had this book checked out for twenty years?” Charlene asked. “And why return it now?”
“I’ll bet the lemon knows,” Beth said. “She never forgets an overdue book.”
“She can’t have kept the records that far back, can she?” Lindsey asked.
Beth pointed her scepter at her. “Only one way to find out.”
Lindsey shrugged. Holding the book close, she went to find Ms. Cole.
“Ms. Cole, may I interrupt you for a moment?” Lindsey approached the circulation desk with caution.
With carts of books all around her, Ms. Cole looked like a military general addressing the troops. She glanced at Lindsey and picked up three books that looked as if they’d exploded. The covers were warped and the pages were yellowed and wrinkled, indicating severe water damage.
“I think these swam ashore,” Ms. Cole observed. She lowered her reading glasses and looked at Lindsey over the top. It was her I-told-you-so look.
“They are in less than ideal condition,” Lindsey conceded.
“Less than ideal? They’re a disaster. And look at this!” Ms. Cole held up a book for Lindsey to see. “This book smells like it smokes a pack a day.”
She waved it under Lindsey’s nose. The pungent smell of stale tobacco smoke curled Lindsey’s nose hair.
“Discard pile,” she said. “But on the upside, you’re in the lead for most damaged item.”
“Thrill me,” Ms. Cole said.
Lindsey wanted to wave her hand in front of her face to dispel the stink of the damaged book but she resisted, knowing it would only please Ms. Cole to prove her point that amnesty day was a bad idea because now damaged materials were being turned in without penalty and patrons would not be billed for replacements.
Lindsey happened to think it was worth it to clear people’s records and allow them to borrow again instead of holding them hostage for overdue materials and replacement costs. She and Ms. Cole were just going to have to agree to disagree, but the lemon wasn’t quite there yet.
“Look at it this way,” Lindsey said. “We are clearing up old records and gathering a list for replacements—”
“That will have to come out of our existing budget,” Ms. Cole argued.
Lindsey sighed. They’d been on this merry-go-round since Lindsey had announced her plan to have an amnesty day. As far as Ms. Cole was concerned there was no brass ring. Lindsey knew there was no way she was ever going to convince the lemon that the one-day return forgiveness with no questions asked was a good idea. Fine. Time to move on.
“We did get a return that might interest you,” Lindsey said. She held up the copy of J. D. Salinger’s book, which was in excellent condition. “Twenty years overdue judging by the due slip inside and still in excellent condition.”
Ms. Cole gave her a suspicious look. She dumped the smoke-saturated book into a plastic tub for discards and held out her hand for the copy of The Catcher in the Rye. She turned the book over to examine it and thumbed through the pages. Then she looked at the due-date slip. Her lips compressed into a thin line and she turned and strode away from the desk leaving Lindsey to follow or not. Lindsey followed.
Ms. Cole tucked the book under her arm and led the way through the stacks to the storage room in the back of the library. This was where the library kept its odds and ends, holiday decorations, old wooden trucks that weren’t broken but were heavy to push, extra step stools, vintage equipment like old library-card punchers that weren’t in demand anymore but were still functional. It was also where the library kept files of old records. Or more accurately, it was where Ms. Cole kept her files of old overdue notices.
The lemon always wore her key to the back rooms of the library on a red spiral rubber cord around her wrist. It was the only fashion accessory that she ever wore besides the beaded cord for her reading glasses and her wristwatch.
She used her key to open the door and flipped on the light switch. The lone overhead fluorescent light sputtered to life and did its best to beat back the gloom in the windowless room. It didn’t reach into the far corners and Lindsey had to suppress a shiver. She blamed Dean Koontz and his Odd Thomas series. Deep, dark shadows always gave her a jump scare thanks to him.
Ms. Cole strode through the room to the back, where the file cabinets lined the far wall. This was her domain, where she kept the old records sorted by due date. They went back a good thirty-five years, essentially, when Ms. Cole was given control of circulation. She opened the drawer that covered the mid–nineteen nineties and flipped through the half sheets of paper held together in bunches by paperclips.
She peered through her reading glasses while she searched, finally extracting a small stack of paper. She read through the stack until she found her match. She moved back under the light with the paper in hand. Lindsey watched her, wondering if she was ever planning to share.
Ms. Cole looked at the book and then at the papers. Her face drained of all color and she staggered to the side, clutching an old wooden cart to keep herself from falling over.
“Oh, goodness no,” she said. When she glanced at Lindsey her face was stricken with shock and grief. “It was hers.”
The book and the papers fell from her fingers and Ms. Cole listed to the side as if she didn’t have the strength to remain upright. Lindsey jumped forward to grab her before she keeled over on the spot.
“Ms. Cole, what is it?” Lindsey asked. “What did you find?”
The lemon shook her head as if she couldn’t put voice to the horror of what she’d just discovered. Lindsey put her arm around her and helped her sit on an old padded chair that had been surplused from the office when someone had spilled a cup of coffee on it, staining the upholstery beyond repair.
Lindsey knelt in front of Ms. Cole to study her face. She was deathly pale and beads of sweat dotted her upper lip. Despite the perspiration, she was shivering and looked like she might faint.
“Are you all right?” Lindsey asked. “Do you want me to call someone?”
“It’s the book,” Ms. Cole said. She pointed with shaky fingers to the book that was now facedown on the floor. “It was checked out to Candice Whitley.”
Lindsey glanced at the book. She knelt to pick it up along with the overdue notices that had fallen all around it like scattered leaves on a chilly autumn wind.
“Candice Whitley,” Lindsey said. “Why does that name sound familiar?”
Ms. Cole opened her mouth to speak but she couldn’t seem to catch her breath. She was gasping and panting. Lindsey thought she might be choking but that made no sense. Her generous bosom was heaving but she didn’t seem to be getting enough air.
“Ms. Cole, are you . . . Oh . . . You’re hyperventilating!” Lindsey cried. She dropped the book and the papers on a cart and glanced around the storage room as if there might be something to help the situation. “Here. Put your head between your knees and try to calm down. I’ll be right back.”
Lindsey helped the lemon to lean forward then she bolted out the door, running through the library to the staff break room where she knew there were some paper lunch sacks. She yanked open the cabinet and grabbed one, sending all the other contents of the cupboard onto the counter with a crash.
“Lindsey! What’s going on?” Milton Duffy, a library board member and one of Lindsey’s favorite patrons was standing in the doorway, wearing his usual track suit, looking shocked by her behavior.
“Ms. Cole is hyperventilating!” Lindsey cried. “Follow me!”
Milton was currently dating Ms. Cole. No one had quite figured out the attraction between the two opposites, but now was not the time to dwell.
Lindsey had known Ms. Cole for a while and she had never, never seen her come undone like this, not even when there’d been a dead body found in her precious library. The fact that she was hyperventilating made Lindsey feel like she might sympathy hyperventilate, almost like sympathy crying but with a lack of carbon dioxide and potential for passing out instead of tears.
Lindsey ran back to the storage room with Milton on her heels. The door was open just as she’d left it, with its flickering fluorescent overhead light giving the room a ghoulish glow. Ms. Cole was still in the chair, looking the worse for wear as she was panting and trembling.
“Eugenia!” Milton cried. He snatched the bag from Lindsey’s hand, snapped it open and held it over Ms. Cole’s nose and mouth. “Easy, my dear. Try to calm your breathing.”
Ms. Cole nodded and used one hand to grasp his. It was an unusually vulnerable gesture from the unflappable Ms. Cole and Lindsey felt as if she was intruding on the tender moment between the couple, so she turned her back to them to give them some privacy. She gathered the book and the papers from the cart, trying to keep busy sorting them while Ms. Cole regained her equilibrium.
Finally, Milton removed the bag and Ms. Cole slumped against the back of the chair. She was still pale but not deathly so and she didn’t seem quite as shaky as she had.
“There,” Milton said. “You’re getting your color back.”
“Thank you.” Ms. Cole took a slow breath as if to be sure she wasn’t going to start wheezing again.
“What happened? You two ladies didn’t get into a brawl over library policy, did you?” he asked.
Lindsey and Ms. Cole gave him reproving looks.
“We are not that uncivilized,” Ms. Cole said. “We do not scuffle like rabble.”
“No, of course not, but we all know the amnesty day has been a bone of contention between you two,” Milton said. “Emotions have been running high.”
“Be that as it may,” Ms. Cole said, “this is much more horrible than encouraging people to continue their bad behavior.”
Lindsey stopped herself from rolling her eyes. Barely.
“So what is it? What did you discover?” Lindsey asked. “I don’t understand why you were so upset to see that this book was checked out by—what was her name?—oh, yeah. Candice Whitley.”
Milton gasped. He glanced at Ms. Cole in shock and she nodded. Lindsey noted the matching looks of horror on their faces but for the life of her she couldn’t figure out what the significance was about Candice Whitley.
“You’re not going to start hyperventilating now, are you?” she asked Milton.
“No,” he said. “Just give me a second.”
He stood up straight in what Lindsey recognized as Mountain Pose. Milton was a long time yogi, who frequently practiced in the library. She and Ms. Cole waited while he meditated through his upset.
“All right,” he said. He relaxed into a casual stance and looked at Ms. Cole. “Are you sure it was checked out to her?”
“Yes, and it gets worse,” she said. She reached out and gripped his hand in hers. “I counted the days back three weeks from the due date and I am quite sure it was checked out to her on the day she was murdered.”