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Peril in Paperback: A Bibliophile Mystery

“We call it the Library Suite,” my hostess said, beaming with pride as she led me into the spacious bedroom that would be all mine for the next six days.

“I can see why.” As I looked around the room, I hoped my expression remained calm despite the volatile mix of shock, fascination, and trepidation coursing through me as I took in the mad proliferation of books.

I love books, but this is crazy, I thought. That funny old cliché about the walls closing in on you? It wasn’t so funny anymore. On the other hand, there were so many books, I wouldn’t be able to see if the walls were getting closer or not.

“Isn’t it marvelous?” Grace said, tugging to smooth out the pale sage duvet cover on the king-sized bed. “Ruth teases me about my book obsession, but I have a good time with it.”

“I’m stunned,” I muttered. It was the truth. The number of books she’d managed to cram into this spacious bedroom/sitting room was astounding.

I’m Brooklyn Wainwright, book-restoration expert and lover of books, good food, and wine, and lately, doughnuts. I had driven up to Lake Tahoe that morning with my two favorite neighbors, Suzie Stein and Vinnie Patel, to spend the week at the home of Suzie’s wealthy, eccentric aunt Grace Crawford. We were here to celebrate Grace’s birthday. It was the Big 5-0, and Grace wanted to do it up in style.

Grace’s good friend, Ruth Kinsley, had convinced Grace to celebrate her fiftieth birthday with an old-fashioned house party on the lake. In her engraved invitation, Grace had promised her guests that this weeklong party would be the most delightful, most fabulous shindig ever, the sort of party we’d all still be talking about for the next fifty years.

I was looking forward to the party atmosphere, but I also hoped I might get some quiet relaxation time. After all, I was about to spend seven long days in a gorgeous home with little else to do all day but sit around and enjoy the beauty of its idyllic lakefront setting. Sounded good to me. I’d been working too hard lately and the long hours were starting to catch up with me. In fact, watching Grace refold the cashmere throw at the end of the bed made me want to lie down and take a nap.

“I looked over my list of guests,” Grace said, fluffing one of the pillows. “And I couldn’t think of anyone who would appreciate this room more than you.”

“That’s sweet, Grace,” I said, hoping she could hear the sincerity in my voice as I parked my rolling suitcase near the foot of the bed. “You know how much I love books.”

“You and me both,” she said, laughing as she glanced around. “I guess that’s pretty obvious.”

I laughed with her. It would be rude not to, right? I continued my slow turn, gazing at the four walls that were covered in bookshelves crammed with books. There was the occasional window, thank goodness, and a few pieces of necessary bedroom furniture: an elegant dresser and mirror; a small but comfortable love seat that faced two matching chairs at one end of the large room; and a sumptuous bed with an ornate, paneled headboard filled with—you guessed it—more books. Other than those items of furniture and the windows, it was bookshelves that occupied every inch of wall space. Even the dresser held a row of books lined up beneath the matching mirror.

“I had no idea you had so many,” I said.

She lifted her shoulder in a shrug. “I can’t seem to quit collecting.”

Time to seek professional help, I thought, not unkindly, as I continued to survey the room. I knew Grace was a book lover. That was how we’d met. About a year ago, Grace had mentioned to her niece, Suzie, that she wanted some of her favorite books rebound, so Suzie had recommended me. Since then, Grace and I had done business several times. I’d visited her home once before and we’d had afternoon tea in her grand salon.

Grace Crawford was nothing like what I’d expected. I had imagined a genteel, gray-haired granny type who knitted quietly, surrounded by her twelve cats. For excitement, she might play a mean game of canasta.

Instead, Grace was down-to-earth and fun. A ball of energy, she was petite, like Suzie, and wore her dark brown hair cut in a sassy bob. She favored bright, loose clothing, long dresses and flowing tops that billowed dramatically when she walked into a room. The first time I met her, I’d had the instant impression of a colorful, tropical bird in perpetual motion. I liked her.

Except for this massive home perched on twenty private acres overlooking Lake Tahoe—well, and the gazillions of valuable books and all the lovely, expensive furniture and furnishings and artwork inside the house—you would never know that Grace Crawford was a self-made billionaire. She had amassed a fortune in the computer-gaming industry and was recognized among her family and friends and most of the world at large as the original geeky game girl. In personality and demeanor, she was the oddest blend of Old World elegance, laid-back sixties cool, and nerdy earnestness. I liked all those aspects of her. And Grace’s quirky sensibilities—such as putting a suit of armor in the powder room, or serving bite-sized Twinkies next to the delicate cucumber sandwiches at afternoon tea—never failed to make me smile.

Plus, she’d given me a lot of business lately. I liked that about her, too, naturally.

Vinnie had often referred to Grace as a book hoarder, but I’d dealt with a true hoarder recently and couldn’t agree with Vinnie’s assessment. When I walked through the rooms of Grace’s home, I didn’t get the same closed-in, claustrophobic, unstable feeling that I’d felt inside the hoarder’s house. Grace was an unconventional collector, for sure, but a hoarder? I didn’t think so. But now, seeing this room, this Library Suite in which I would be living for the next seven days, I was beginning to think twice.

Still, the room was beautifully furnished, large, and, most of all, clean. There was no scent of mustiness, either. A hint of mustiness could be charming in a hole-in-the-wall used bookstore on Green Street in San Francisco, but not in a bedroom in which I would be sleeping for a week.

So here I was in a clean, charming bedroom with lots of books and even a small couch where I could relax in quiet comfort. Why am I complaining? I wondered. And right then and there I made a decision to be grateful and enjoy this room with all its books and nooks and crannies and quirkiness.

When Grace had called to invite me to her birthday party, she’d asked if I wouldn’t mind doing some bookbinding work while I was here. I had immediately agreed and had packed my travel set of tools and repair supplies. I was always happier when I was busy with books. Grace not only wanted some repairs made, but she had also asked me to check out and oversee the library archivist she’d hired recently to catalog her extensive collection of books.

Glancing around the room now, I realized what a huge job it would be. Heck, it would take more than a week to catalog this one bedroom alone. The archivist and I had our work cut out for us.

Grace was watching me, so I flashed her a genuine smile as I gave the walls one more glance. “Thank you so much. I know I’ll have a wonderful time here.”

She seemed pleased as she nudged her glasses up her nose. “Now, the library is just down the hall, so you can come and go without disturbing anyone else in the house. Most of the other guests are in the second- and third-floor bedrooms, but I didn’t think you’d mind being on the first floor.”

I was determined to ease her mind. “I don’t mind at all. This couldn’t be better. You know me. Can’t get enough books, right?”

She laughed, a sweet trilling sound completely incongruous with her geek-dynamo personality, but charming. “I’ll let you get settled. And I’ll tell you what I’ve told everyone else. I want you to feel free to explore the whole house. I know you’ve been here before, but you’ve never had the full tour. You’ve got to see some of the other rooms. There are many surprises.”

“I can’t wait. I’ve heard about some of them,” I said. On the drive earlier, Vinnie had given me a hint of some of the more bizarre features of this gigantic fun house.

“Oh, good.” She rubbed her hands together gleefully. “If I were you, I would start with the conservatory. We have a marvelous collection of exotic flora and it’s such a soothing, pretty space. But when you get tired of all that peace and quiet, the game room is not to be missed. It’s so much fun.”

“That’s what Suzie said.”

“Suzie loves the game room. And the Music Room is pretty special if you’re into musical instruments. We have a three-hundred-year-old harpsichord that still sounds beautiful. And we can supply a complete wind and brass section for anyone who’s in the mood to jam. And percussion, of course. Every noisemaker you can think of.” She laughed, then added, “Or you can just have a seat and watch things happen. There’s a player piano, but I’ve also rigged some puppets to play saxophone and guitar. It’s a total blast.”

She had morphed into an excited young gamer. “It sounds awesome,” I said. “I can’t wait to do some exploring.”

“It’s an adventure, for sure.” She took a breath and appeared to remember she was a grown-up. Grabbing my arm, she strolled with me to the bedroom door. “We’re all meeting for cocktails at five o’clock in the Gold Salon. That’s up the grand stairway. Turn left and go halfway down the hall. It’s on the north side of the house, overlooking the lake. I drew a map for everyone and left one on your nightstand.”

“Oh, thanks. I think I remember how to find the grand staircase, but after that I’m lost.”

She chuckled. “Ruth dubbed it the grand stairway when she first saw it and we’ve called it that ever since. It’s just the main staircase off the front door.”

“I remember. It is pretty grand, now that you mention it.”

She smiled. “If you get lost, just look out any window. If you can see the lake, you’re looking north. We have two main hallways running the length of the house: one in the front of the house and one in the back. Two side halls, the east and the west. If you can remember that your room is off the back hall, closest to the lake, you’ll always find your way.”

“I think I’ve got it,” I said, utterly confused.

She laughed again. “Oh, you’ll get lost once or twice, but that just makes it all the more fun. Now, don’t be late for cocktails. I can’t wait for all my favorite people to meet and mingle.”

“I’ll be there,” I assured her as we waved good-bye to each other. I stood at the doorway and watched her walk down the wide, wood-paneled hall and turn a corner. Grace didn’t know me very well yet, but suffice to say I wouldn’t miss a cocktail party for the world. I decided I would scout out the Gold Salon on my tour this afternoon. That way I wouldn’t get lost and be late for cocktails. That would be rude.

Twenty minutes later my suitcase was emptied and stowed in a corner of the walk-in closet. I had hung up my dressy clothes and folded everything else in the dresser drawers. All my toiletries were arranged along the counter in my private bathroom, and I’d placed the books I’d brought with me on the table next to the love seat under the pretty bay window. As it turned out, bringing a few books along wasn’t quite as necessary as I’d thought when I packed them. But how was I to know Grace Crawford owned every book ever written?

“Are you all settled?”

I glanced up and saw Vinnie standing in the open doorway. Suzie stood behind her, wearing a curious grin as her gaze swept my room. “Wow.”

“Tell me about it.”

“Holy kebabs, Brooklyn,” Vinnie whispered, her voice tight with alarm as her eyes goggled at the sight of all those books. Abruptly, she whipped around and wagged her finger at Suzie. “This is exactly what I was afraid of.” Then she whirled back to me, wearing a look of regret. “I’m sorry. Why don’t we try to find you another room?”

“I’m okay here,” I insisted. “I like it.”

She turned back to Suzie. “You must apologize to Brooklyn for your aunt’s crazitude.”

“I’m not sure that’s a word, babe,” Suzie said.

“It should be,” Vinnie said darkly. “It describes Grace perfectly.”

“I think this is cool,” Suzie said, walking into my room and looking around. “Besides, Brooklyn’s met Aunt Grace before and knows she’s a book nut. And she’s been to the house before, too. So what’s the big deal?”

“I never saw this room before,” I muttered. “If Derek were here, he’d laugh his ass off. Me, entrapped by books. Obviously, my book-obsessed karma has come back to bite me on the butt.”

“Wow, two butt mentions in less than ten seconds.” Suzie gazed at me. “You must miss him a lot.”

“I do, but I didn’t know there was a correlation between Derek and, you know, butt references.”

“Derek has a very attractive backside,” Vinnie said. The words were even more humorous when said in her lilting Indian accent.

Suzie waggled her eyebrows. “Guess you can tell we take the subject of Derek’s bum very seriously at our house.”

“I appreciate that,” I said, smiling. “I do, too. And I do miss him. But I’m happy to be here with you guys. And I know Derek would be happy to hear I was here with you guys for the week.”

“He doesn’t know you’re here?” Vinnie asked.

I shrugged. “He left on assignment three weeks ago and I didn’t have a chance to remind him.”

“Can you call him?” Vinnie asked.

“I suppose I could if it were an emergency,” I said. “But I’d rather not bother him otherwise.”

“Don’t worry. I’m sure he’d approve,” Suzie said, and chuckled. “There’s a lot less chance of you getting into trouble if you’re with us.”

“Not that we believe there will be any trouble,” Vinnie said quickly, rapping her knuckles against the smooth wood top of the dresser. “But I’ll knock wood just in case.”

“Good thinking,” I said, and tapped the wood frame of the bathroom door. I can use all the good-luck rituals and charms I can get.

It had been only a few months since trouble had last found me. I’d been at the mercy of someone who wanted to kill me, and that wasn’t the first time it had happened. I’d tried to make light of it, but the jokes were losing steam. The fact was, I had an alarming tendency to find dead people, followed by an ineffable need to see that justice prevailed on their behalf. Invariably, I would end up in a face-to-face confrontation with the dead person’s killer.

It had gotten so bad that I’d finally sought spiritual guidance from Guru Bob, otherwise known as Avatar Robson Benedict, the leader of my parents’ commune and an all-around remarkable guy.

Guru Bob had suggested that the universe might have cast me in the role of nemesis for the dead. Seriously.

I still wasn’t sure what I thought about that.

But it had been eight long weeks since I’d had any run-ins with dead people or the killers who made them that way, so I was hoping all that was behind me.

Vinnie stared up in horror. “For the love of Shiva, there are books on the ceiling.” She glared at Suzie. “This is beyond peculiar. How can we be sure that Brooklyn won’t be smothered in her sleep? You must do something, Suzie.”

“I’m fine,” I said with a casual air. “It’s just a bunch of books up there.”

But Vinnie was starting to freak me out. Grace had indeed managed to hang bookshelves from the ceiling. They were unique and beautiful, really. The shelving fanned out from the central chandelier like the petals of a flower. Although you couldn’t really call it shelving; these were more like attractively paneled, triangular-shaped boxes that held books. Looking up, you could see that there were books, but you couldn’t read the titles unless you lowered the shelf. Or the petal. Whatever it was.

The petals were made from different shades of wood and they spanned to the corners of the room in a pretty swirling pattern. Almost like a spiderweb, I realized. It was all operated by remote control. While unpacking, I had discovered the small remote-control module and had pushed the power button, thinking I was turning on the television. Instead, the shelving began to move up and down.

It shocked me, and in my moment of panic I started pushing buttons at random. The shelves moved up and down in no discernible pattern, no rhyme or reason, only movement. I couldn’t get them to stop and was getting a little freaked out. I fancied myself going insane, dashing outside, throwing myself into the lake, and drowning.

Not that I was overly dramatic or anything.

After a minute, I figured out the right buttons to push and it all made perfect sense. I took a minute to check that there was nothing but books in the shelves, then resolved to examine them later for cataloging purposes.

I knew Grace was a computer wizard and an engineering genius, but I was still mystified. I’d never seen anything like it. Why had she chosen to build this odd creation? Was it a whim of the moment? Maybe she’d thrown it together on a spare Saturday, just for giggles.

On the positive side, the ceiling was at least twelve feet high, so I wasn’t likely to suffer claustrophobia from the thought of all those moving petals enclosing me in their web. And now I was mixing metaphors again. Never a good sign.

I tried to ignore the shivers that skittered across my shoulders at the thought of being trapped.

“Okay, that’s pretty freaking weird,” Suzie admitted, staring up at the odd sight. “But you have to admire Grace’s ingenuity.”

“Ingenuity.” Vinnie rolled her eyes at her partner. “Your aunt is crazier than a bagful of monkeys, but your unconditional love for her is admirable, I suppose.”

Suzie shoved her hands into her cargo pants’ pockets. “My unconditional love for you knows no bounds, sugar.”

“Ohh.” Vinnie slapped her hand over her mouth, overcome with emotion. She flung her arms around Suzie and squeezed. “I love you, too, Suzie. Even if your aunt is a wack-a-doodle.”

Suzie winked at me over Vinnie’s shoulder and I smiled at the clever way she’d wrapped up that conversation. But their easy affection made me think of Derek again and I was surprised at the depth of my own longing. I missed him more than I ever thought I would and wished he were here with me. But that was impossible. He was on a monthlong security assignment in Europe, where he was posing as the fiancé of some megabucks socialite who’d been receiving death threats.

I would just have to suck it up for the next few weeks. I was perfectly fine without him. I really was. And I trusted Derek completely so that wasn’t an issue, even though I hadn’t been able to stop myself from Googling the woman at the center of his assignment. Just as I’d feared, Thomasina Marchand was young and gorgeous and artistically gifted. She dressed impeccably. And did I mention her beauty? And her immense wealth? Not that Derek could ever be swayed by material things, but, nevertheless, I’d been suffering little pangs of jealousy ever since he’d flown off to pretend he was in love with her.

But that was completely normal, right? Anyone would have those little pangs, right? Of course they would. It didn’t mean anything. Derek’s and my connection was beautifully solid. We had a happy, loving, exciting, and totally trusting relationship. He simply had an assignment to carry out, protecting Thomasina from threats of death until she reached the age of twenty-five, as specified in her father’s trust. That would happen in the next few weeks. I knew Derek would perform his job to perfection, and then he would come home to me. That was all there was to it. I wasn’t worried. Nope, not me. No way.

But the fact that he hadn’t called me in three weeks was starting to bug me. Not in a clinging-girlfriend kind of way, you understand. No, I was beginning to worry that something might be wrong. Could Derek be hurt? In danger?

“Come on, let’s check out more of this crazy place,” Suzie said, slipping her arm around Vinnie’s waist.

“Yeah, okay,” I said. “But look. Do you guys mind if I make a quick phone call first?”

“Of course not, Brooklyn,” Vinnie said, her smile serene again. “Why don’t we meet you in the conservatory in fifteen minutes? Will that give you enough time?”

“More than enough. Thanks.”

They reminded me where the conservatory was, then walked out, closing the door behind them. I went to find my cell phone and sat down to make the call to Derek. I listened to the ringing of his phone and felt more connected to him already. I wasn’t sure if that made me a lovesick idiot or just a lonely girlfriend. Either way, it was kind of pathetic, but I didn’t care.

“Hello?” a woman answered, whispering breathlessly into the phone. Derek’s phone. “Who is this, please?”

I had to bite my tongue to keep from saying, “Who the hell is this?” Who was this woman and why was she answering my boyfriend’s phone? Was this Thomasina? I decided on the spot to make it sound like a business call.

“I must speak to Mr. Stone immediately. This is his office calling.” I sounded officious and demanding, which was exactly how I felt.

“Ooh, his office. No, I’m sorry, but Derek cannot come to the phone.” Her voice was tinged with a vague but plainly Western European accent. French? Belgian? Sexy. She giggled softly. “He’s . . . ooh . . . he’s . . . ah . . . occupied. Much too . . . busy . . . to speak.” Her rapid sighs made it sound as if she were in the throes of rapture. Seriously? Is she kidding? What the hell is going on?

Oh, God. Did I really want to know?

“Adieu,” she added in that same sultry tone, then disconnected the call, leaving me to blink and stare at my phone in stunned disbelief.

Peril in Paperback: A Bibliophile Mystery
by by Kate Carlisle

  • Mass Market Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Signet
  • ISBN-10: 0451237625
  • ISBN-13: 9780451237620