If Books Could Kill, page 9
“Isn’t Martin here?” I asked.
She gave me a dour look. “Even if he was, I don’t want to sit with him.”
“Oh.” Well, thank goodness for that.
Peter tapped Helen on the shoulder. “Hey, girl.”
Helen squealed and jumped up. She leaned over the chair and hugged both men, who invited her to the cocktail party, too.
When she sat back down, she was flushed and happy, but she quickly turned serious and grabbed my hand. “I want to apologize for this morning. It was a fluke. Martin happened to come along and I was still feeling vulnerable from last night, so he consoled me. He can be okay when he wants to be.”
“I’m sorry I didn’t stay. I just-”
She held up her hand. “Please, I know he’s a pain. And he wouldn’t take the hint and leave, so I didn’t blame you one bit. Are we still on for lunch?”
“Of course.” I leaned in closer to her. “So Martin knew about you and Kyle?”
“Oh, God, no.” She clutched my arm for emphasis, then whispered, “No one knew about Kyle and me. Please don’t say anything to anyone.”
“You know I won’t. It’s just that you said he was consoling you.”
Her lips quivered and she blinked back tears. “Because he knew I found the body.”
“Ah,” I said, not believing for a minute that Martin had merely been consoling her. He was the ultimate manipulator and would probably do anything to get her back in his life. I wondered if maybe Helen was wrong, that maybe Martin had known about her affair with Kyle. It would make him the perfect suspect for Kyle’s murder. And there wasn’t anyone I’d rather see behind bars. Well, except for Minka, but that dream would probably remain unfulfilled forever.
The problem with Martin being a suspect was that I couldn’t see him taking the time and trouble to sneak into my hotel room and steal my stuff. Not that he wouldn’t enjoy seeing me squirm in front of the police, but Martin was the poster boy for indolence. He simply wasn’t the type to get his hands dirty. And climbing up that old fire escape to my room would’ve been a dirty job.
And for Martin to actually murder someone would mean that blood might spray all over him and those white linen pants he was forever wearing. And what was with those pants, anyway? What was he, the master of the croquet tournament? No guy wore white linen pants every day, did he? I mean, never mind the dirt. What about the wrinkles?
Okay, maybe I was being snotty. I knew this wasn’t about white linen pants, because to be honest, I owned a pair or two myself. It was just Martin. I didn’t like him, in case that wasn’t clear. He was mean and persnickety. Killing someone would mean getting dirty, and I didn’t think he had the guts to do it.
I glanced out at the crowded room. “So where is Martin?”
Helen looked around nervously. “He said he’d be here, but I hope he doesn’t come. I can’t deal with him. Not while everyone’s talking about Kyle.”
Derek’s shoulder was pressed against mine, so I knew he was eavesdropping and I was glad of it. He was the one person who might be able to get me off the suspect list, so I was happy to have him listen in on any conversation that would help the cause.
Winifred Paine walked to the podium to welcome everyone, then began to talk about Kyle. Winnie was the elderly, powerful president of the International Association of Antiquarian Booksellers. I’d known her forever and admired her a lot. She was like the cranky grandmother who sent you to your room, then secretly sneaked cookies up to you.
“He was one of our own,” Winnie said, then sniffled and blew her nose with a lacy hankie. “Simply a darling man. A bookseller of sterling reputation and such a gentleman. So full of life. I’m… oh, dear, I don’t know what I am. Devastated. Utterly… devastated.” She swept her arms up to include the throng. “As many of you are, as well.”
Winnie Paine was a classy, authoritative woman who ruled the organization with an iron fist. I’d never seen her so overwhelmed with emotion, and watching her fumble her words made my throat swell in sympathy. I must’ve made some pitiful mewling sound, because Derek held out his handkerchief for me to use. And that was enough to cause my own tears to fall.
It’s been said before: Nobody cries alone when I’m in the room. As I dabbed my eyes and blew my nose, Winnie cleared her throat and introduced Reverend Anderson, a local Anglican minister, to say a few words of comfort.
A very tall, scrawny, middle-aged man with thinning hair came to the podium, opened a small book and began to recite prayers. “Most merciful God, whose wisdom is beyond our understanding…”
I tuned out, as I tended to do when religious people started praying on my behalf. I admit I could get a little impatient with mumbo jumbo church talk. I’d been raised in a commune with lots of all-inclusive, laid-back, cosmically lyrical preaching. But it wasn’t just about that. The good Reverend Anderson didn’t know Kyle and it was obvious. His generic words weren’t personal, and I wanted to hear wonderful words spoken about Kyle by someone who knew him.
But then, maybe I was being unfair. Perhaps his words were soothing to others in the room.
I glanced around, noticing the dark mustard wallpaper and somewhat tacky burgundy candelabra sconces for the first time. I imagined Kyle would have been appalled to know that his memorial service was taking place here in this generic hall. He probably would’ve preferred to be memorialized at an elegant winery somewhere in the Dordogne Valley, overlooking the vineyards and meandering hillsides dotted with castles and châteaux and old-world villages.
“Amen,” said Reverend Anderson.
“Amen,” murmured the crowd.
I stared at the backs of all the people and suddenly realized the murderer might be in the room. He had to be here, gloating. He wouldn’t miss it. The smug bastard.
The thought made me shudder.
Derek must’ve noticed, because he took hold of my hand and tried to rub some warmth back into it.
Next, Royce stood up and went to the front of the room. His eulogy was banal, but at least he’d known Kyle and could say something from the heart. His speech was mercifully short, and everyone seemed grateful for that.
I watched Royce as he walked back to his seat. He was a few years older than Kyle, about the same height but a bit pudgy and soft around the middle. I wondered if he might’ve killed his more attractive, popular cousin. I’d met Royce once or twice when I was dating Kyle but didn’t really know him. Which meant he probably didn’t hate me enough to steal my hammer and use it as a murder weapon.
Damn, that hammer was a real sticking point.
Winnie returned to the podium, scanned the crowd of three hundred or so and asked, “Would anyone else like to speak?”
She waited a beat, and when no one stood up, she said, “Is Brooklyn Wainwright in the room?”
Derek was taken aback, too, and frowned at me.
“I didn’t do anything,” I whispered.
Everyone turned and strained to get a look at me. Was she going to point me out to the cops?
“ Brooklyn, dear,” Winnie said kindly, “I know you were one of Kyle’s special chums. Would you be willing to share some memories with us?”
I groaned inwardly. This felt too much like high school, with me in the role of bad student being culled from the herd for purposes of ridicule. I hated high school.
“Come on, dear,” Winnie coaxed.
Derek squeezed my hand. “You can do it, old chum.”
“Oh, shut up,” I whispered. Sucking in a deep breath and letting it out slowly, I stood and walked down the long aisle to the podium.
I coughed once to clear my throat. “Kyle was, well, more than a friend,” I said humbly. “He was-”
A door banged open at the back of the room, and some woman shrieked at the sudden noise. That caused a few people to jump to their feet to see what the commotion was all about.
My view was blocked, so I stood on tiptoe to get a look. No luck. The chattering crowd gr
I left the podium and moved toward the aisle and finally saw what was causing the disturbance.
Why was I not surprised?
We all watched in amazement as she half dragged a sobbing woman down the aisle with her. Minka’s face alternated between apprehension at the crowd’s disapproval and disgust with her sniveling companion. But I detected a gleam of triumph in her beady eyes.
I didn’t recognize the woman with her. She was taller than Minka but wispy, as though a soft breeze would knock her off her feet. She was blond and her face was pale and thin. Her gray raincoat was buttoned up tight and she wore a pink pashmina over her head and around her neck as though she’d been grabbed on her way to church. She looked fragile and frankly terrified, like a lamb being led to slaughter.
Minka, on the other hand, looked like a derelict Goth in frayed, tight black leather pants and matching way-too-tight vest over a purple mock-turtleneck sweater. And too much makeup, as usual. Wait. Were those pants pleather? Oh, dear God.
Minka marched right up to me and snarled, “Am-scray.”
I held my hand over the microphone and whispered, “Are you nuts? Get out of here. I’m not finished.”
Heck, I hadn’t even started.
She elbowed me out of the way and leaned into the microphone. “Everybody sit down and shut up. I have an announcement to make.”
“Wait a minute,” I said.
Minka snapped her fingers. “Serena. Stand over here.” She pointed to the other side of the podium.
Before the wispy woman could move, I grabbed Minka’s arm and pulled her away from the podium.
“You can wait until I’m through talking,” I said.
“Fuck off, Brookie.” She wrenched her arm away, then tried to push me again, but before she could do it, I caught her hand, twisted it and shoved it away from me.
“Ow! You bitch!” she shrieked. “That hurts.”
“Yeah?” I gave her hand another rough twist. “Well, don’t call me Brookie.”
She yanked her hand away and darted back to the microphone.
I got hold of her slimy pleather vest and hauled her farther away from the podium as three hundred people-some of them potential clients, damn it-attempted to watch every move and hear every word.
“Let go of me!” she wailed. “I have a right to talk!”
“After me,” I said through clenched teeth as I clutched her arm tightly. I hadn’t even wanted to talk before, but now I was determined not to let Minka push me off the stage. Kyle had been my friend, damn it. Minka didn’t have the right to talk about him.
“We take our turns,” I said. “It’s how civilized society operates.”
“Oh, screw you and your civil society.” She struggled to get away. “When I’m finished talking, nobody’ll care what you have to say.”
I still had a tight grip on her arm, so she swung her other arm around and smacked the side of my head.
“Damn it,” I said. “I’m sick of you hitting me.” I snatched hold of her oily ponytail and pulled until she was bent backward and bellowing like a farm animal. I continued to pull her down until we were both on our knees. She had both arms free to punch and slap me as I jerked and twisted her head every which way.
Without warning, two strong arms pulled me back; at the same time someone else pulled Minka away from me.
“No!” I protested. “Let me kill her, please.”
“Easy there, champ,” Derek said as he effortlessly hauled me out of harm’s way.
“Son of a bitch,” I grumbled. “I almost had her.”
“Yes, you did,” Derek uttered close to my ear as he scooted me farther away. “We’re all really proud of you.”
I noticed with some satisfaction that Detective Inspector Angus MacLeod was the one struggling to hold on to Minka. She wasn’t going meekly.
The wispy blonde, Serena, stood a few feet away, wide-eyed and trembling.
“Who the hell is she?” I wondered aloud.
“I’m afraid we’ll find out soon enough,” Derek said as he urged me back toward our seats. I stopped in the middle of the aisle and watched Minka grapple for the microphone despite the detective’s grip on her. I should’ve warned him about the pleather. That stuff made her slippery as a seal.
“Listen to me,” Minka yelled, causing feedback to scream back at her. She pointed at the pale blond woman she’d dragged in with her. “This is Serena McVee! She’s Kyle’s wife. Or I should say, his widow.”
“What?” I said, and turned to find Helen in the crowd.
“No.” Helen gasped, and jumped to her feet. “No, she’s-” She stopped, couldn’t seem to catch her breath and began to sway. I stood watching as her eyes rolled back in her head and she dropped like a stone.
“You know how I feel about women fainting,” Derek said as he paced the floor in front of the settee where Helen lay passed out.
Despite his ambivalence, minutes ago he’d swept Helen into his arms, yelled at Angus to call a doctor, and carried her out of the memorial service into the smaller sitting room down the hall. I’d shut the door and now the two of us stood by as she remained passed out on the couch.
“I seem to remember you had a slight problem with it,” I said.
That was putting it mildly. Derek and I had met when Abraham died. Derek had pointed a gun at me and accused me of killing Abraham and stealing a priceless book, and I’d fainted right in front of him. He’d been unmoved, apparently, and had slapped me a few too many times trying to revive me. I hadn’t appreciated it. It was the beginning of our beautiful friendship.
“Maybe I should find a washcloth for her forehead,” I said.
“She’ll come around when she’s ready.”
“Did she hit her head on anything?”
“No.” Derek turned his attention to me. “How are you doing?”
I flexed my fingers and massaged my knuckles. “Great. That’s been a long time coming. You should’ve let me pummel the wicked witch.”
He grabbed my hand and examined it. “I would have, but she fights dirty. I was afraid she’d mar your pretty face.”
With a sigh, I said, “I don’t suppose MacLeod heard what I said out there.”
He pursed his lips. “You mean the part where you begged me to let you kill Minka?”
I closed my eyes, nodded. “Yeah, that part.”
He chuckled. “I believe everyone in the room heard it.”
“If it’s any consolation, the bookies had you at four-to-one odds.”
“Did you have money on me?”
“Of course, and you held the crowd’s sympathies, as well.”
“That counts for something.”
“Bet your ass,” he said, then tugged me closer. “Now tell me where it hurts.”
“Everywhere,” I whispered.
He kissed my cheek and moved his lips to my ear. “Much better,” I said, sighing.
“Wild women fighting,” he murmured in disapproval. “Half the men were drooling over the prospect of watching a real live catfight. I thought I might have to battle some of them, as well.”
“My hero.” I wrapped my arms loosely around his neck as he ran his lips along my jaw.
“Hey, there y’all are!”
That voice. I knew that voice.
“Oh, Christ,” Derek muttered. “I don’t believe it.”
He pushed away in time for me to be swooped up in a hug so tight, I nearly swooned.
“Oh, sweet Mother of God.” I gasped.
“That’s right, baby girl,” my mother said. “Look out, Scotland, here come the Wainwrights!”
“Mom, what are you doing here?”
“Came to see you, of course!” She hugged me again and her pretty blond ponytail bobbed with excitement. “Are you surprised?”
“Surprised and happy,” I said, glancing from my petite, perky mom to my friend Robin and my tall, thin, handsome dad. “Really happy.”
“Good to see you, Jim,” Derek said to my dad.
I watched in bewilderment as Dad vigorously shook Derek’s hand several different ways, ending with a fist bump. Derek seemed amused as he played along. Me, not so much. Oh, I was glad to see Mom and Dad, but things were just about to get interesting with Derek and-
“We wanted to surprise you!” Mom said. “We were packing for Paris when I got a message from Romlar X saying the northern lights are rocking right now.”
“A message?” I said, confused. “Romlar’s using e-mail now?”
“Oh, sweetie.” She patted my cheek as if I were a really sharp five-year-old. “Rom’s all telepathic, all the time.”
“I knew that.” Or did I? Romlar X was Mom’s astral guide. I thought he lived in another solar system. Who the hell knew how they communicated back and forth?
“We talked it over with Robson and he agreed this would be the best place to go for our anniversary trip,” Dad said, pushing his glasses up. “Especially when he heard we’d be surprising you.”
Mom nodded. “Robson said you could use a nice surprise or two.”
“He has no idea,” I murmured.
“Yes, he does,” Dad said, eyeing me with concern.
Robson Benedict was the leader of the Fellowship for Spiritual Enlightenment and Higher Artistic Consciousness, the commune where my parents had raised me and my five siblings. Guru Bob, as we called him, was the highly evolved being my parents called teacher, avatar and friend.
Years ago, along with several hundred followers, my folks had followed Guru Bob to the hills of Sonoma County, where they’d bought up several thousand acres of lush fields before the wine country craze drove prices into the stratosphere. A few years ago, our business-savvy commune had incorporated, and now our formerly humble hillside home was a thriving, sophisticated wine-country destination. We’d named our small town Dharma.
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