Murder at the Book Group

BOOK: Murder at the Book Group
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To Eddie, dear brother

Lt. Col. Henry Edward Gabler III

1944–2010

CHAPTER
1

YEA, THOUGH I WALK
through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil . . .

I tuned out the Twenty-third Psalm and focused on my mission: ferreting out who poisoned the current wife of my first ex-husband, sending her on a premature stroll through the valley of the shadow of death.

Scanning the assembled crowd, I looked for signs of guilt, hoping to divine something, anything, that screamed “killer!”

No divination came, but I figured that such insights took more than the time allotted the standard memorial service.

If only someone would pinch me and tell me this was all a bad dream. Given Dorothy Gale's options I could tap my ruby slippers together three times, saying to myself, “There's no place like home, there's no place like home, there's no place like home . . .”

Alas, I had no ruby slippers. Maybe I could find a pair on eBay.

In the meantime, like I'd done countless times during the four days since Carlene Arness became known as the “dearly departed,” I replayed every moment of that evening that had started with a meeting of our nice little book group and ended in tragedy.

And that had convinced me that our nice little book group harbored someone who wasn't so nice . . . and that in this earthly valley there was evil aplenty to fear.

“THIS BOOK SUCKS.
There should be a law protecting the reading public from such trash!” And with that Carlene Arness hurled
Murder in the Keys
into her fireplace, the drama of the action diminished by the lack of a fire.

“What is it you didn't like about it, Carlene?” Helen Adams's mild tone contrasted with Carlene's strident one.

“Where do I begin? There was no mystery, no plot, and, get this, no ending! I finally got to the last page and expected the numerous loose threads to be tied up—but no, just blank paper. I couldn't believe it! It just
ends
. I guess the author got bored with her own writing—completely understandable—and
quit
.”

Carlene paused, but not for long before continuing with her thumbs-way-down review, bracelets jingling as she waved her arms around. “And it was riddled with editing errors, continuity problems, and—and just plain bad writing. I want to read books that are well written,” she pronounced, giving her expensively cut auburn hair a toss. “And another thing—I don't think the author ever set foot in Key West, but that didn't stop her from setting this piece of trash there.”

“Did it at least have good sex?” Kat Berenger, Carlene's stepsister, looked hopeful.

“It had
no
sex. The author effectively neutered the characters.”

Our group had its share of critical readers. Sarah Rubottom, a retired English teacher, often lambasted authors for poor writing. She'd issue her judgment with pursed lips and crossed arms, spelling curtains for that author.

But that night Sarah exchanged questioning looks with me. What was going on with Carlene? Her tirade was quite a departure for someone normally so soft-spoken and composed. Maybe her recent publishing success explained her more exacting standards with her fellow writers. Carlene's debut mystery,
Murder à la Isabel,
a contemporary mystery set in Richmond, Virginia, was quite good.

Or, more likely, her uncharacteristic angst stemmed from her separation from Evan Arness, her husband and, incidentally, my ex-husband. I didn't know if any of the group's members knew about the split. I only found out recently when I ran into Evan at Target and he'd said they were taking a “break.”

As an aspiring romance writer, I felt more than a little sensitive to book trashing. I wanted to tell Carlene to get a grip and give the author some respect—poorly written or not, she had made a creative effort. I held my tongue as I rescued the book from the fireplace, where it had landed in a pages-splayed position next to a brass vase brimming with dried flowers. Returning to my chair, I picked up my jacket, which had fallen on the floor, and draped it over my purse before glancing at the paperback. The six-toed cat, icon of the Florida Keys, graced the front cover. I turned it over and skimmed the back cover—it looked like another cute cozy filled with eccentric characters. The author's first name was Annette and her last name contained a long string of mostly consonants. I passed the book around.

Carlene carried on—and on. Aiming for a light tone, I said, “Did you ever hear of the fifty-page rule, Carlene? If you don't like a book after fifty pages, give it the heave-ho.”

Carlene ignored my advice. “And the author uses that old standby cyanide, putting it in the victim's tea. Isn't cyanide supposed to smell like bitter almonds? So wouldn't you think the idiot would get suspicious when her tea smelled like almonds?”

“Not everyone can detect the bitter almond smell. It's genetically determined,” Sarah explained. “You either have the gift, or you don't.” Several of us nodded and said, “That's right,” indicating this was common knowledge. Apparently not to Carlene, judging by her blank look. Sarah continued, “And I'm not sure it would smell like almonds in the tea . . . Seems I heard that it can be smelled on the breath of the person who ingests it, but not before.”

Carlene regarded Sarah thoughtfully. “Still, it must smell like
something
in the tea . . . something off.”

I looked around and wondered if there were any gifted noses in this group. Did size count? At any rate, if anyone knew of a bitter almond–smelling talent, she or he wasn't telling. “If you do have the gift you could offer your services at autopsies,” Art Woods, Helen Adams's son and our sole male member, quipped. He ran a hand through his mass of dark curls.

I gave Art what I imagined was a knitted-brow look, but without a mirror it was hard to tell. The mere thought of observing an autopsy gave me chills. But if faced with a cash-flow problem an autopsy gig might be a welcome option. I asked the group, “What do bitter almonds smell like anyway? Is it a smell you'd instantly recognize, like something similar to the nonbitter variety?” No one responded.

“Maybe the tea, no matter what flavor, would mask the smell of the cyanide,” Helen mused.

“And where do you even get cyanide? The killers in these mysteries always manage to have it on hand, ready to dump in some hapless victim's tea.” Carlene remained nettled by the author's lack of writing skill. “It can't be that easy to get. Wouldn't you have to sign for it, like you do for medications?”

Art laughed and said, “Carlene, you need to use cyanide in your next book. Show everyone the right way to do the evil deed.”

Carlene frowned at her nails, but her French manicure looked fine to me. “That's my plan, Art. I'm researching cyanide and similar poisons. In fact that's why I read this one, to see how the poisoning was handled.” She added the unnecessary “
Not
a good example.”

Sarah, fiddling with her long gray braid, asked, “Remember those Tylenol killings in Chicago—when was that—back in the eighties?” We digressed into a discussion about the unsolved case involving a number of Chicago-area victims who died after ingesting cyanide-spiked Tylenol capsules. We all started talking at once. “Wasn't there some Tylenol thing in Seattle as well?” “What about Jonestown—didn't nine hundred people—?” The sound of the doorbell put off segues into the Jonestown mass suicides as well as the Seattle killings, the details of which eluded me.

Kat jumped up to answer the door. Her long platinum hair curled in all directions, creating an Einstein effect. Her black leather vest displayed well-toned biceps, good advertising for her job as a personal trainer. Leopard tattoos decorated each bicep, and leopard-print cuffs topped stiletto-heeled chartreuse boots. The chartreuse also streaked across both eyelids.

“Hey, everyone, this is Linda Thomas,” Kat announced as she shepherded the newcomer into the living room. Annabel Mitchell, a longtime member, followed. “Linda came to Carlene's signing at Creatures 'n Crooks,” Kat explained. “Being a mystery fan, she jumped at the chance to visit our group. And, small world, she and Carlene know each other from their L.A. days.” Two weeks before, Creatures 'n Crooks Bookshoppe, a local independent bookstore specializing in mysteries, had hosted a signing for
Murder à la Isabel
.

I remembered Linda from the signing. Highlights like hers were hard to forget: a series of contrasting shades produced a tigerlike effect. Next to Kat with her leopard paraphernalia, I felt like I was viewing a surrealistic safari. Linda favored heavy makeup, eyes rimmed in thick black, shadow in a slightly paler black shade covering her lids. Aquiline nose. From the neck down, she was less dramatic; she wore a plain white turtleneck and tight jeans that she likely purchased in the plus-size department. I guessed her age to be anywhere between fifty and sixty, which meant she was around forty-five. Age estimation wasn't my strong suit.

Carlene smiled, welcoming Linda in a gracious but restrained manner, a greeting usually given to a stranger, not an old friend. But, I realized, no one said they were old friends, just that they knew each other. And, although I doubted it, their reunion at the signing may well have been warm and heartfelt. Carlene started to get up, saying, “We need more chairs . . .” At that moment Annabel carried two chairs in from the dining room and set them next to Kat.

Annabel was dressed for success in a black pantsuit, pale strawberry blond hair framing her face in soft waves with an artful tousled look, silver jewelry discreet. Annabel was the first of our group's three writers to publish her work, having written her first mystery during the midnineties. Her works fell into the hard-boiled genre, dark, gritty, and violent. Annabel lived in a duplex in the Fan, one of Richmond, Virginia's many historic areas. Before Carlene's marriage, she and Annabel had shared the common wall in the two-family house.

Kat introduced Linda to each member in turn. A few people expressed surprise at discovering that Carlene had lived in L.A. Others said they knew, but had forgotten. Carlene said that L.A. was, after all, years before.

Kat asked, looking first at Linda, then at Carlene, “How long since you two last saw each other?”

After a pause, Carlene said, “Well, I moved here in ninety-six.”

Linda looked amused as she said with an airy tone, “Sounds about right. It's 2005 now, so that makes 1996 . . .” She closed her eyes to do the calculation. “Ten, twelve years ago?” No one commented on her inexact math.

Carlene returned to her earlier appraisal of her nails. Her anxiety level had ratcheted up a few notches since Linda's arrival. Was Linda a possible agitator? Unless it was Annabel . . . although I couldn't imagine why.

Linda fielded questions about her reading habits—who are your favorite authors, do you like cozies, thrillers, courtroom dramas, and so on. “Oh!” She looked stricken with a sudden worry. “I hope I didn't forget my book for tonight.” She rummaged through her purse, pulling out a wallet, a makeup bag, a VHS cassette, a phone, and a tattered paperback with a title from Elaine Viets's Dead End Job series, set in Florida. “Aha!” She stuffed everything but the book back into the purse. “I knew it was in here somewhere.”

Sarah said, “Well, Linda, it's nice to have you with us. Before you arrived, we were having this fascinating discussion about cyanide, and—”

BOOK: Murder at the Book Group
3.38Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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