Read in Order to Die
A wedding between Chief of Police Alec Lip and Mayor Charlene Butterwick has been announced and will soon be taking place in the cozy little hamlet of Hampton Cove. Unfortunately the groom seems less than overjoyed at the prospect of plighting his troth, and even the bride has second thoughts.
And then of course there is the murder of Vernon Langridge, member of a local writers’ group found dead in The Mighty Pen, a bookstore known for hosting frequent author signings and high-profile events. It doesn’t take long for Detective Chase Kingsley to make an arrest when a valuable first-edition book is discovered in the possession of an ex-convict. But when a series of poison-pen letters starts arriving that point to the other members of the writers’ group, revealing their dark secrets, it soon transpires that a lot of people had good reason to want Vernon dead.
Now it’s up to Max, that formidable feline sleuth, to figure out what’s going on. Will the blorange detective be able to save an innocent man from being convicted for a crime he didn’t commit? Will the society wedding of the decade go off without a hitch? And will Harriet write her autobiography and become the star she knows in her heart she truly is? Find out in Purrfect Bookshop, the cleverly plotted new installment in the popular Mysteries of Max series.
Odelia Kingsley had been looking forward to the day the new Chanel Birdsey book would finally be available. Blair Beacock only wrote one book a year about her plucky private detective, and since the bestselling author was also a resident of Hampton Cove, the honor of receiving one of the first copies hot off the press was usually reserved for her fellow Hampton Covians. Last year, Blair had selected their local library, where Odelia’s mom Marge worked, as the place for her first reading from the new book. But this year, the honor had been bestowed on The Mighty Pen, that pleasant local bookstore that prided itself on being the heart of the mystery readers’ universe, a haven of everything to do with crime fiction and detective stories.
Which is why Odelia now sat next to her mom in eager anticipation for Mrs. Beacock to put in an appearance. The small room at the back of the store was abuzz with excitement. Many of Blair’s fans practically vibrating with joy at this unique opportunity to meet the woman responsible for so many hours of reading pleasure over the years. The occasion was even more significant than usual due to the fact that it was exactly thirty years ago when Chanel Birdsey had first burst upon the scene, taking up her rightful place next to other fictional heroines like Kay Scarpetta, Kinsey Millhone, and Stephanie Plum. It was a milestone that made this year’s entry into the series extra special.
“I just wish she had given us advance copies,” said Odelia’s mom. “Having to wait this long is like agony, don’t you think?”
The year before, when Blair had picked the library as the venue for her reading, her publisher had been so kind as to offer advance copies to all those organizing the event. After Mom had finished reading the book, she had passed it on to Odelia, who had then passed it on to her grandmother, and so on and so forth until every family member and then some had read the book. This year they hadn’t been so lucky and had to wait along with the rest of Blair’s million-reader-strong global audience for a first glimpse of the book on the day it actually went on sale.
“It’s going to be another great one,” Odelia knew. “It’s bound to be, especially since it’s the thirtieth book in the series. It’s nothing short of a milestone, isn’t it?”
“Oh, of course,” said Mom, who popped a peppermint into her mouth and crunched down on it. She had a sort of ecstatic look in her eyes, as if she was on the verge of meeting a celebrity, which in a sense she was since Blair had long since transcended the kind of life mere mortals lived and had become one of the world’s most beloved authors. The fact that she was a Hampton Cove girl born and bred only augmented her stature in the eyes of her loyal local fans.
“Who’s that guy?” asked Odelia, referring to the little man with the bald pate and the funny-looking mustache rearranging things on the table where presumably Blair would soon take place.
“Vernon Langridge,” said Mom. “He owns The Mighty Pen. He’s an author in his own right, though as far as I know, he hasn’t published a book yet.”
Mom knew all about the local literary scene. Having been in charge of the library for many years now, she had met pretty much every writer or wannabe writer living in Hampton Cove and was a veritable who’s who of authordom. “And that guy sitting in the front row is Kenton Clarey,” she said, referring to a tall and distinguished-looking older man. “He’s a thriller writer. Pretty good, actually. Rumor has it that he’s been tapped by his publishers to write one the next Patterson books.”
Odelia’s eyes scanned the audience and settled on a tall man with gray hair swept back in a ponytail. She knew from last year’s reading that this was Blair’s husband, Teddy, who always accompanied his wife on her book tours. Next to him sat their son Dylan and daughter Carey, also fixtures at these events.
“So nice of Blair’s family to support her career,” she said.
“Oh, absolutely. Blair has never made a secret of the fact that she wouldn’t be where she is today if it wasn’t for her family.”
“I just wish they would finally turn the Chanel Birdsey books into a television series,” said Odelia. “Now there’s something I’d watch.”
But her mom didn’t respond. Her eyes were fixed on the door leading into the room, where Blair had now appeared. Even though the author was probably older than Mom herself, she looked absolutely smashing for her age. Her hair was a bright and vivid red, her pantsuit aquamarine blue and her face didn’t show a single wrinkle. She wore the same engaging smile that she always seemed to have and carried herself with grace and poise as she strode into the room, to the applause of the entire audience and not a few whoops and hollers, which she took in stride with a laugh.
Moments later, she had taken her place on the small makeshift stage, put on her reading glasses, and gave her audience what they had all come for: a few brief words of introduction to the new book, a word of thanks to her loyal readership, but also to her family for their enduring support. Then she launched into the first chapter of the new book.
All around, Odelia saw happy faces and big smiles as their favorite author read from the latest installment in their favorite series. And when Blair recounted how Chanel Birdsey stumbled upon a dead body in typically whimsical fashion within the first three pages, laughter filled the room.
“Looks like it’s another superhit!” Odelia whispered in her mother’s ear.
Mom nodded. “Can’t wait to get my hands on it and dig in!”
The reading didn’t last all that long, and then it was time for a Q&A, first with Vernon Langridge on stage asking Blair some of the more obligatory questions about her inspiration for the new book and a few snippets about the plot and what they could expect. And then it was time to turn it over to the audience. Just in time, remembering she wasn’t merely there as a fan but also as a reporter, Odelia got up and asked, “How would you explain Chanel’s enduring appeal, Mrs. Beacock? Even after thirty books still going as strong as ever?”
Blair smiled. “To be honest? I have absolutely no idea. When I wrote the first Birdsey novel, of course I hoped Chanel would find a readership, but I had never expected her to be this popular, and that I would still be writing her after thirty years. I guess Chanel must have touched a chord, and people really like her. I have to say I like her, and not only because she has changed my life.”
“Are you Chanel Birdsey, Mrs. Beacock?”
“Well, partly I am, of course. Though I don’t think I’d have the courage to go chasing the bad guys the way Chanel does.” She laughed. “If someone pointed a gun at me, I’d run for cover!” She turned serious. “I have to say I still work very hard at the books and don’t take their success for granted. I still get up at five o’clock every morning, plant my butt in my chair, and work all the hours that God gives me to bring you the best book I possibly can—seven days a week, twelve months a year. And then in the evenings Teddy mixes me a drink and we spend time relaxing in our Jacuzzi.” She spread her arms. “Hey, it’s a tough job, but somebody’s gotta do it!”
This got a big laugh since they all knew that success had bought the Beacocks a very nice beachfront property and all the perks that went with being a bestselling author. It was rumored that Blair had bought Dylan and Carey their own adjacent properties and that the Beacock clan now pretty much owned the entire street. Still, nobody begrudged Blair her success, exactly since she worked so hard to achieve it. Plus, according to Odelia’s mom, she was considered something of a patron saint of the local writers’ scene since she could always be relied upon to give her fellow scribes the benefit of her extensive knowledge or put in a good word for them with her agent or publisher. ‘A rising tide lifts all boats’ was one of her favorite quotes, something she liked to put into practice.
Once the Q&A was over, it was time to get those copies signed. A long line formed in front of Blair’s table, and before long, both Odelia and her mom had finally laid their hands on the latest shiny copy of ‘Get Ready!’ the thirtieth installment in the Chanel Birdsey series. It had that new book smell that Odelia loved so much, and when they reached Blair’s table, the author was so kind to tell the reporter that she and her family were all avid readers of the Gazette, and especially Odelia’s articles.
“You should try your hand at a book,” Blair said. “I think you’d be great at it.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” said Odelia modestly. “There’s a big difference between writing an article and a book, Mrs. Beacock.”
“Blair, please.” She scribbled, ‘To Odelia—the real-life Chanel Birdsey,’ which gave the reporter no end of pleasure. “Just think about it,” she said as she closed the book. “And if you want advice, you know where I live, Odelia. My door is always open to aspiring talent like you.”
“Thanks, Mrs. B… Blair,” Odelia murmured, suddenly feeling bashful.
Blair signed Mom’s book, ‘To the best librarian on the East Coast,’ and then it was time to move along, both women clutching their treasures to their chests and walking out in something of a daze after having briefly rubbed shoulders with greatness. Exiting the store, for a moment they were at a loss where to go next. But then Mom suggested they get a cup of coffee at a nearby coffee shop.
As they took a seat in a window booth, the conversation soon turned to a topic that was perhaps a little more mundane but no less important or close to their hearts: the upcoming wedding of Odelia’s uncle—Mom’s brother Alec—and Charlene Butterwick, mayor of Hampton Cove. For both the bride and groom it was their second marriage, and they wanted to keep things small: family and friends.
“I’m glad Alec is finally tying the knot,” said Mom as she sipped from her cappuccino. “He’s such a great guy, and Charlene is a real sweetheart.”
“They’re so lucky that they found each other,” Odelia agreed.
After Uncle Alec had lost his first wife a couple of years ago, the police chief had been in a real funk for a while. He had dated sporadically, most recently a woman who created commercials for a well-known brand of liquor, but with the peripatetic life Tracy Sting led, their romance had soon come to an end. So it was like a bolt from the blue when Alec and Charlene had somehow hit it off, much to the relief of the man’s family, who thought it couldn’t have happened to a better person.
Odelia, who had ordered herbal tea since she felt she drank too much coffee as it was, thought about the upcoming wedding and felt a little guilty for not having written her speech yet. Being a professional writer by trade, the family had naturally turned to her to give the speech at the wedding ceremony, representing Uncle Alec’s loved ones. She had started several times but felt it quite hard to hit the right notes. Then again, she still had time and hoped inspiration would strike at the eleventh hour. The last thing she wanted was to have to improvise, though, so very soon now she would have to sit down and hammer something out—something meaningful, heartfelt, and poignant.
Vernon Langridge was happy with the way the reading had gone. He had sold a fair few copies of Blair’s new book, but most importantly, the presence of the bestselling author in his store had put The Mighty Pen on the map as the place to be for the book-loving audience. In this day and age of online bookstores and the digital revolution, it wasn’t always a given that readers would purchase their favorite reading material from their local bookshop, so the fact that they had shown up en masse for this reading gave him hope that next time they were thinking about getting some new reading material, they would patronize his store first.
The last stragglers were chatting with Blair, who was giving them as much of her time and attention as she could, and in the most gracious way possible, showing what a true professional she really was. Vernon had been on hand to pass her the books and make sure they didn’t run out, and as the famous author put the final couple of signatures in the final books for the day, he approached her with a smile. “Pretty great stuff, Blair. Thanks so much.”
“Don’t mention it, Vernon, dear,” said Blair as she massaged her painful right wrist. “Though it has to be said that one of those automatic pens is starting to sound really good right now.”
“It’s not the same and you know it, honey,” said Blair’s husband Teddy, who had been keeping track of the number of books sold just as much as Vernon had. Blair’s son and daughter now also joined them. The Beacocks were a tight-knit family and functioned as a well-oiled unit running the Blair Beacock brand. Dylan was in charge of contacts with publishers and agents and went over everything from movie rights to merchandising and translations. Teddy took care of the logistics of the book tours the publisher organized around the time a new Chanel Birdsey came out, and also the financial aspects of the business, and Carey handled her mother’s social media, website, and general marketing. All in all, the family functioned like a small business, though small was perhaps not the right term for the multimillion-dollar empire they had built around Blair’s phenomenal talent.
“So I wanted to ask you,” said Vernon now as he took a seat at the table. “We’ve got our monthly writers’ group tonight, and I was wondering if you would like to join us. I’m sure we’d all be honored,” he added for good measure.
“And I’m honored you would think of me,” Blair said. “But I couldn’t possibly come, Vernon. After a reading, all I want is to relax and soak in a hot tub for a couple of hours.”
“And a massage,” Teddy added. “How about a nice massage?”
“It’s almost as if you read my mind,” said Blair as she directed a grateful look at her husband.
“Another time, maybe,” said Vernon. He had known it was a long shot but felt he had to ask anyway. To have a writer of Blair’s stature at their meeting would have been a major coup, and the other members had talked about nothing else since he had revealed the news that Blair had selected The Mighty Pen as the venue for her book launch this year.
Blair signed the remainder of the books to be sold in the store, and then the Beacocks said their goodbyes, with Blair giving Vernon a quick hug before impressing upon him to, “Keep up the good work.”
He watched as they walked out of the store and was about to close for the day when a motorcycle roared up and pulled to a stop in front of the store. Immediately, his general feeling of benevolence was replaced by a sudden rage—the same rage that always assailed him whenever Jerald Exton entered his life. As he watched, the good-for-nothing punk helped Vernon’s daughter off his bike. She took off her helmet and shook out her honey-colored hair. It was like a dagger to her dad’s heart when he watched the two exchange a brief hug before Jerald got back on his bike and roared off again.
Gwen stood staring after the kid for a moment before approaching the store. When she caught sight of her dad staring daggers at her from behind the shop window, she paused, then seemed to steel herself and crossed the few yards to the entrance of the apartment they shared, located above the bookshop.
With long strides, Vernon walked to the back of the store and yanked open the door that led to the corridor in the private area.
“Didn’t I tell you not to see that boy again?” he demanded heatedly.
Gwen, who had just put her foot on the first step, shrugged. “He came to pick me up. What was I going to tell him?”
“You should have told him no!” said Vernon as he joined his daughter. “Just like your mother and I have arranged.”
Gwen lifted her chin defiantly, and Vernon recognized the gesture. She was so much like her mother it was uncanny. “You can’t tell me what to do, Dad. If you haven’t noticed, I’m not a child anymore.”
“So, you are still a child! And as your parents, your mother and I are telling you to stop seeing that boy!”
“That boy has a name, Dad. And by the way, Jerald’s mom and dad have specifically told me how happy they are that Jerald has finally met a nice girl for a change. At least they’re not being all hysterical about our relationship.”
“Relationship!” he cried, and had to resist a sudden urge to grab his hair and pull. As it was, it wouldn’t done him a lot of good, since he didn’t have any hair anymore to speak of—and consequently to pull at. “You’re a child and he’s a man! I should go to the police and report him!”
She gave him a look of concern. “You wouldn’t do that, would you, Daddy? You wouldn’t want to stand in the way of true love?”
“This isn’t true love,” he said, stabbing an angry finger in her direction. “This is… this is… this is child molestation!”
She giggled. “God, you’re such a drama queen. Even Mom is starting to come around to our way of thinking. She can see how happy Jerald is making me.” She started mounting the stairs. “By the way, he wants to meet you and Mom. Jerald? With my eighteenth birthday coming up, he says it’s time that we make things official, and meeting my parents is part of that.”
At this point, steam was practically pouring from Vernon’s ears. “Well, I don’t want to meet him. And you can forget about things becoming serious between you and this… this… this hooligan! From now on, you’re grounded, young lady.”
Gwen giggled again. “Of course I am.” And with these words, she tripped up the stairs and into the living room upstairs.
Vernon stood glaring after his one and only daughter, slightly panting and wondering how he had failed as a father. And then he thought that maybe he should make good on his threat. After all, when a nineteen-year-old kid dates a seventeen-year-old girl, there were probably laws against that kind of thing, right? Shaking his head, he returned to the store, then walked into his office located at the back and took out his phone. Moments later, he was in communication with his ex-wife Diana.
“Now what?” Diana asked, sounding harried, as she often did when he called.
“Gwen just came home,” he announced. “On the back of Jerald’s motorbike. They’re in a relationship now, Diana. A relationship! And she says Jerald wants to meet us. Make things ‘official.’”
“Look, I really don’t have time for this,” said Diana, and Vernon could hear the clanging of pots and pans. Either she was washing the dishes or cooking. Since she and her new conquest had moved in together, she seemed to spend all of her time in the kitchen. Cesar had political aspirations, and felt that it was important that he entertained the kind of people who were potentially instrumental in furthering his ambitions. Hence the endless string of dinner parties he and Diana liked to throw.
“I told her she’s grounded. But I got the impression she’s not taking me seriously.”
“I think we’re just going to have to accept that she’s at a stage right now where she insists on dating this young man,” said Diana, quite infuriatingly relaxed about the whole business.
“But she’s a child!”
“She’s turning eighteen next month, Vernon. So not exactly a child, I would say.”
“I was thinking about reporting Jerald to the police,” he said. “After all, what he’s doing is probably illegal, right? He could go to jail for this.”
“Please don’t go to the police,” said Diana with a sigh. “It will only make matters worse. Best-case scenario, she will get bored with this kid in a couple of weeks, and he’ll be out of her life.”
“And the worst-case scenario?”
“We’ll be stuck with Jerald Exton as a son-in-law for the rest of our lives. In which case, it’s probably a bad idea to report him to the police. So just relax, Vernon. It’s not the end of the world.”
It sure felt like it. His little girl, a child still, being involved with this grown man! “You know he’s got a criminal record, don’t you?”
“He was picked up for dealing,” said Diana, continuing to be infuriatingly unconcerned and frankly flippant about the whole Jerald thing. “That doesn’t exactly make him a hardened criminal.”
“It makes him a drug dealer. Aren’t you concerned that our daughter is involved with a drug dealer?”
“He’s not a drug dealer, Vernon! And now I have to go. I’m organizing a garden party. My guests will arrive any minute, and the caterer just announced he’ll be half an hour late.”
“But what about Gwen?”
“Gwen is fine. Everything is fine. Just chill already, will you? Stop making such a fuss.”
And with these words, she simply hung up on him!
Vernon was actually glad that the monthly writers’ group meeting coincided with Blair’s book launch. The excitement that Blair’s customary energetic reading elicited would hopefully carry over into the meeting, since all of the writers’ group members had also been present at the big event. He’d exchanged a few brief words with Kenton at the reading but hadn’t had an opportunity to talk to the other two members of the group, Marina and Tarsha, though he had seen them taking their seats at the back of the room, as eager as the rest of them to enjoy ‘The Blair Show,’ as Tarsha liked to call it.
There was a certain measure of jealousy hidden behind these words, but then that was only to be expected, as Tarsha’s own books didn’t exactly garner the level of interest Blair’s did.
“I thought Blair was amazing, as usual,” Marina gushed. The young writer—the latest addition to their group—was a self-proclaimed fan of Blair and never stinted when heaping praise on their bestselling colleague. “She’s just so amazingly witty, you know. Not only a truly gifted writer, but also great at these public events.” She sighed deeply. “I just wish I had the gift of the gab. I only have to think about a reporter peppering me with questions, and already I start feeling flustered!”
“It’s important to hone that part of our craft as well,” Kenton professed. The thriller writer spoke in his usual slightly pompous style, but then they were used to that by now. Of the four of them, Kenton was easily the most successful at what he did, and he had the book sales to prove it. He was the only one with an actual book deal in place, and so far, six of his Marvin Amis thrillers had been published to great acclaim. Kenton now assumed the position he often took when about to pontificate on one of his favorite subjects. But this time he wouldn’t get the satisfaction of waxing philosophically on the requirements put upon the successful scribe, because Marina interrupted the man’s harangue.
“I think in this day and age, it’s probably more important to hone your Zoom skills,” Marina said. “Or your online marketing skills. At least that’s how I manage to sell my books to my audience—to the tune of thousands of them.”
A silence followed these words, then Tarsha practically squeaked, “Thousands? You mean…”
“Yes, I did!” Marina triumphantly exclaimed. “The Dark Princeling launch was a resounding success! The most I’ve ever sold of any single book!”
Cheers rang out, heartily and earnestly expressed by Tarsha, a little less exuberantly by Vernon, and tepidly by Kenton.
They were in the same back room of the bookstore where that afternoon Blair had held forth about her new book. Gwen was upstairs, hopefully doing her homework, and since night had fallen, all was quiet except for the excitement expressed by Marina about the recent windfall she had experienced.
Vernon had to say nobody deserved it more than Marina, who worked tirelessly at honing both her craft and her marketing skills to turn her books into a resounding success. As a writer of steamy romance, the young woman had recently moved away from trying to secure a book deal and had tried her hand at self-publishing instead, following in the footsteps of many other romance writers. And it had to be said that so far, the signs were very promising indeed. So much so she was actually thinking about ditching her day job as a teller at the bank and becoming a full-time writer.
It was certainly something Tarsha couldn’t hope to accomplish any time soon. Even though she was nearing retirement, the septuagenarian had yet to make a splash. Like Marina, she had opted to self-publish her cozy mystery books, but not successfully. If she sold a handful of copies it was a lot.
Her protagonist wasn’t into high-speed chases or thwarting global conspiracies like Kenton’s but was more the Miss Marple type of amateur sleuth, forever snooping around other people’s private lives and mining them for possible clues and secrets from their checkered pasts.
“I’m being faced with a different problem right now,” Tarsha admitted. She patted her tiny white curls and wrinkled up her face. “I’m supposed to be writing my next Katrina Ford book, but I’m having trouble thinking up a plot.”
“But I thought you had already started writing?” said Marina.
“Well, I had, but then I decided that the plot wasn’t good enough, so I’ve decided to scrap the whole thing and start over. Only now inspiration seems to be in short supply, for I have absolutely no idea what new mystery Katrina should tackle next.” She shrugged her bony shoulders. “As far as I can tell, everything has been done already, and the last thing I want is to repeat myself. So I’m stuck!”
“Writer’s block only exists in the mind,” Kenton professed severely.
“Well, be that as it may,” said Tarsha, “but I’m still dealing with it.”
“Maybe we could organize one of our brainstorming sessions,” Marina suggested. Even though both women wrote in vastly diverging genres, they had been known to brainstorm together and come up with some good ideas for their respective works in progress that way.
“Oh, could we?” said Tarsha gratefully. “I don’t know why, but every time we sit down together, my brain simply seems to open up like a flower, and the most amazing things start emerging.”
“Same here,” said Marina. “Every time I get stuck, I only have to talk to a colleague, and before I know it, the old noggin is buzzing again like a busy little bee, spewing ideas like nobody’s business.”
“A real writer writes alone,” Kenton said with an air of dismissiveness. He was a tall man with an almost-military bearing, which wasn’t surprising since he had been a colonel in the army at one time. Now he devoted his life to expounding on the wild and crazy adventures of his indomitable and daredevil hero Marvin Amis. The fact that Kenton was ex-military was part of his books’ appeal, as he promised a sense of verisimilitude to his fans, which he seemed to deliver to some extent. Though as far as his publisher was concerned—not nearly enough.
“So what’s going on with your contract?” Vernon asked, for there had been rumblings of trouble.
Kenton shrugged. Clearly, the subject wasn’t one he liked to elaborate on. After having established himself as the pre-eminent example of the successful working writer, it was quite the comedown to be having problems with his publisher like this. “My agent is still in talks with them. The latest seems to be that they feel that readers are tired of Marvin Amis and want a different character. Younger and more dynamic. So either I ditch Marvin and launch a new series, or I’ll have to try different avenues.”
“A different publisher, you mean?” asked Tarsha, who wasn’t unfamiliar with the fractious relationship that often existed between a writer and their publisher. At one time she had signed a book deal with a small publisher who had promptly gone belly up, locking up her rights for years.
“That’s what my agent is trying to determine now—if there is any interest with other publishers in taking over Marvin Amis. If not, I guess I’ll have to say goodbye to the man.”
“You could always try self-publishing,” Marina suggested. As an avid proponent of publishing her books herself, she couldn’t understand that there were still writers out there who insisted on chasing a contract with a publisher.
“I very much don’t want to go that route,” said Kenton, repeating a point he’d made on several of their meetings. “I need an advance, Marina. Without my advance, what am I going to live on while I write the actual book?”
“You could get the rights to your old titles back,” Marina suggested. “Publish those, generate sales, and live on that while you write the next book in your series.”
But Kenton shook his head. “I don’t know.”
“I’ve already told you that I can teach you all you need to know.”
At their last meeting, she had regaled them with the skills you had to develop in order to be a successful self-published author, and frankly speaking, it was daunting. It wasn’t enough to simply write the book and then hand it over to the publisher. You had to write the book, format the book, get a cover designed or design one yourself, then publish the book, and most importantly, work out a detailed and what sounded like a very elaborate marketing plan to sell the book! Just thinking about it made Vernon feel very tired indeed. And since Kenton had a few years on him, he could imagine the man wasn’t chomping at the bit to go down that particular road this late in his career.
“I’ll wait for the agent to get back to me,” said Kenton. “I’m sure my publisher will see reason and decide to give it another go. Things can turn on the drop of a hat in this business, and who knows, maybe something will happen to make Marvin hit the big time—just like Blair’s Birdsey has done.”
It certainly had been a minor miracle and a major accomplishment for Blair to have become so successful. The Birdsey books weren’t bad, but they weren’t all that great either, and frankly speaking, Vernon was hard-pressed to point out why they were so popular. But then, wasn’t that often the case? As a famous Hollywood screenwriter had once pointed out: nobody knows why one thing bombs and another thing becomes a hit. So maybe Kenton was right. Maybe things would turn around for him, and his books would suddenly start selling like hotcakes, like apparently Marina’s now did.
“So what about you, Vernon?” asked Tarsha, leaning forward and studying the bookseller with interest. “What news on the book front?”
“Not much news, I’m afraid,” said Vernon. Last month he had been able to deliver quite a coup himself, not unlike Marina now, when he had been able to announce, with a distinct sense of pride, that he was in the process of setting up his very first actual book deal at a genuine big-five publisher. “These things take a lot longer than I anticipated.”
“So no white smoke yet?” asked Kenton.
“Not yet,” he said with a smile. “They’re still squabbling over some minor details in the contract. Auxiliary rights and ancillary rights and foreign rights and all of that jazz. It all sounds very technical to me, but my agent assures me it’s crucial to get everything nailed down tight before I sign.”
“You’re effectively signing over your rights,” Marina pointed out. “In perpetuity, Vernon. So if I were you, I’d think twice before I sign that contract.”
They’d had this exact conversation many times before, with Marina arguing in favor of Vernon publishing his book himself, just like she had. But since Vernon’s dream had always been to become a big-name writer, just like Blair Beacock, he simply couldn’t see himself turning down a lucrative offer from a publisher. Not after all the work he had put into securing such a major deal.
“Let’s just see how it all plays out,” he said. He realized that as long as the contract wasn’t signed, everything was up in the air. But he was essentially a glass-half-full kind of person and hoped his agent would be able to pull off a hat-trick and push the deal through the way they both envisioned.
“Any other news we need to be aware of?” asked Tarsha, and so the conversation swiftly moved on to more general subjects, like the rising price of printing costs and paper and the shifts in reader taste, which was something Vernon was a privileged observer of since he was a bookseller himself.
Before long, he was regaling his audience with a remarkable change he had observed, away from the supernatural romance trend and back to the billionaire romance trend that had dominated the market in years past. Kenton wasn’t all that interested and seemed to revert to a brooding stance, presumably still thinking about his book deal. But Marina, especially, hung on his every word since she was a great proponent of ‘writing to market’ and liked to closely follow the trends as they came and went.
It certainly pleased him to no end that he could be instrumental in the success of at least one of his fellow writers.
The meeting ended at ten o’clock as usual, and after everyone had left, Vernon retreated into his office to work on his accounts for a while. As a small business owner, it was important that he didn’t get behind on getting all those numbers to add up. Otherwise, both his accountant and the tax man wouldn’t be happy! And he had just been poring over some bills that he couldn’t make head nor tail of when he heard a noise coming from the bookstore. Frowning, he wondered if it could possibly be Gwen, sneaking out to meet her no-good boyfriend again.
“Gwen? Is that you?” he called out. When no response came, he got up from behind his desk and figured he might have forgotten to lock up again after the writing group contingent left. Wandering into his store, it took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the darkness, but then he saw it: a shadow stood next to the display case where he kept some of his most prized possessions, including a first edition of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and a few books from less famous authors that were nevertheless worth a pretty penny.
He was about to retreat back into the safety of his office when the dark figure sprang forward and lunged at him. A shot rang out in the darkness, and Vernon clutched at his chest where a sudden pain had bloomed. His legs refused to function, and moments later, he was lying helpless on the floor.
The last thing he saw was that same dark figure hovering over him. Then a second shot, and Vernon Langridge knew no more.
It had been a long day, and I was fully ready to enjoy a long night and an even longer nap. Somehow, I had missed out on an outing that Odelia and her mother had engaged in when they decided to pay a visit to a bookshop, of all places, to listen to a writer talking about her latest book. Even though Odelia had suggested we tag along, we had procrastinated to such an extent that by the time the event had finally taken place, Dooley and I were on the other side of town, investigating an urgent clue—the disappearance of a perfectly fine piece of cheese from our fridge overnight. Okay, so I guess I should probably make a full confession now: I had eaten that piece of cheese. But since I know that Odelia doesn’t think cheese is all that great as a source of nourishment for her cats, I had refrained from admitting to this capital offense. As a consequence, Odelia had insisted we find out who had taken the cheese and where they had taken it, which is why Dooley and I had conveniently been in a situation where we could forgo having to listen to yet another author drone on and on about their perfectly boring book.
When one of your humans is a librarian, you can probably imagine that books and writers are quite prevalent and present in our daily lives, even though I still have to discover their purpose in the grand scheme of things. I mean, don’t get me wrong, it’s probably a good thing that writers exist, but in this day and age, what’s the point? Where is their usefulness? We have television now, after all, and TikTok and YouTube. So who is interested in books, except of course librarians like Marge or writers themselves, who are still hoping to sell those books? Little do they know that the reading audience is dwindling year by year, and pretty soon, nobody will be reading anymore. And that’s a good thing, too. Bad for one’s eyesight, I’d say. And also bad for one’s imagination if everything you put into your head has been conjured up by another person. Better to make up your own stories, am I right?
Our search for the missing piece of cheese led us to our local park, where we had spent a pleasant afternoon lounging in the shade of a tall tree and generally having a wonderful book-free time. When we figured the danger of being forced to attend the book thingy had passed, we returned home.
At the dinner table, Odelia regaled her husband with anecdotes from the reading and even read him snippets from the latest book of a woman answering to the unlikely name of Blair Beacock. It was all perfectly foul, I have to say. As we waited in vain for a piece of pork to fall from the table and land in front of us, or a slice of sausage, I finally decided to give up. Clearly, Odelia had forgotten all about the responsibility she shared with the rest of her family to take care of the well-being of her feline household—for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to perish, till death us do part. She was too entranced by her latest book-reading experience.
Dooley and I left the house through the pet flap and decided to head next door to see if we had better luck over there. Oftentimes, the whole family will share dinner together, and those are more often than not the best of times. Especially Uncle Alec doesn’t stint on sharing the culinary wealth located on his plate with the rest of us and slips us some tasty morsels under the table, even though his sister Marge often tells him he shouldn’t. The most stingy ones are actually Odelia, her mother, and grandmother. They have a firm policy in place that cats shouldn’t be beggars, and they hate it when we circle the table, rub against their legs, or generally make a spectacle of ourselves.
They seem to think that it shows them in an unfavorable light, as if they’re not feeding us well enough, and on more than one occasion they have told me to behave and to stop scrounging. But can I help it that our humans are such excellent cooks? And that the scent of their cooking is enough to cause our tummies to rumble with increased appetite for all the goodies they’re cooking up?
The best persons to approach are the menfolk: Uncle Alec, Chase, and Tex. They are the ones who take pity on us and then feed us from their hands, when the womenfolk aren’t watching, of course.
“So what happened to that cheese, Max?” asked Dooley as we traipsed across the backyard in the direction of Odelia’s neighbors, who just happen to be her mom and dad and grandmother.
“I ate that cheese, Dooley,” I pointed out. “I told you, remember?”
He frowned. “But… if you ate that cheese, then why did we have to go look for it in the park?”
“Because I can’t admit to Odelia that I was the one who stole her cheese. She’d only get mad, and the last thing you want is for your humans to get mad at you.” They might decide to put you on a diet, as Odelia has been known to do on more than one occasion, and always without reason.
Dooley laughed. “Odelia won’t get mad at you for eating that cheese, Max. Odelia loves you! She would never get mad at you for exercising your right as a resident feline to eat a piece of cheese.”
“It wasn’t just ‘a’ piece of cheese,” I said. “It was ‘the’ piece of cheese. The cheese that Odelia had earmarked for her own.” Not all that long ago, a new cheese shop had opened its doors in town. It boasted its own cheese dairy where it created delicious cheeses entirely from its own cows. I’d passed by the store on more than one occasion, and I had never seen a single cow present in the store, so I had a hunch this was simply hearsay. But it was true that the cheese they produced was delicious beyond compare. In fact, it wasn’t too much to say that it was probably the best cheese I had ever tasted—bar none. Unfortunately, it was also the most expensive cheese Odelia had ever bought—perhaps on account of the fact they had to provide those precious cows of theirs with room and board. So when Odelia arrived home a couple of days ago with the cheese she had bought, she had told her husband that this was her cheese and the precious piece was out of bounds for anyone. She had also told her grandmother, her mom, and her dad, and even had gone to the trouble of telling me! As if I would ever touch a piece of property that did not strictly belong to me.
And I would have kept my promise if she hadn’t made one big mistake: last night she had decided to cut herself a piece of her precious cheese, and in the process of doing so, had dropped a sliver to the floor. Unbeknownst to her, I had licked up that sliver, and it had tasted so moreish that I had been unable to think of anything else from that moment onward. I guess I had fallen victim to a state that doctors like to describe as the addictive state. So last night, when the house was quiet and all were fast asleep in their beds, instead of venturing out to join my friends at cat choir, I had managed to pry open the fridge, locate the cheese, and taken a nibble. One nibble led to a second, and when all was said and done, all that was left was the wrapping paper, which I had carefully replaced in the fridge.
That morning, when Odelia opened the fridge in search of her precious and outrageously expensive delicacy, she had kicked up quite a fuss when all she found was the paper, devoid of its contents. In turn, she had accused her husband, her grandmother, her mom, and dad of absconding with her beloved cheese, and when they all claimed not to have touched the stuff, she had finally turned to me and had beseeched me to put my best paw forward and find her cheese for her!
I was on the verge of pointing to my tummy, where the cheese had found a second home away from home, but seeing the look on her face, I decided against it. Like I told Dooley, it’s always best not to antagonize one’s human—a simple matter of common sense and instinct of survival.
“Please don’t tell Odelia,” I now beseeched my friend.
“Oh, of course,” said Dooley vaguely, as he didn’t meet my eyes for some reason.
“You’ve already told her, haven’t you!” I cried, much dismayed.
“Oh, no, of course not,” said Dooley. “But I have told Harriet, and she has told Brutus, and they probably have told about a dozen other cats, and so…” He swallowed uneasily.
I hung my head. It’s all well and good that your humans can understand you, but it’s not so good when you have a secret to hide. “They’ll probably tell Odelia,” I said resignedly.
“Unless you tell all of them not to tell her,” Dooley said hopefully. But even he seemed to realize how unfeasible this suggestion was. Tell a cat not to pass on a secret, and the first thing they’ll do is pass on the secret! That’s what cats are like, after all, and why they’re such great spies.
“She’s going to be so mad,” I said, as I placed my head on my paws. “So very mad.”
Dooley gave this some thought, then finally seemed to have hit upon the solution. “You’ll just have to get her another piece of cheese,” he said. “Bigger and better than the cheese you ate.” He then gave me a look of slight reproach. “By the way, why didn’t you share that cheese with me, Max? If it was as good as you say it was, why didn’t I get a piece? I’m your best friend, after all.”
I gave him a shamefaced look. “I wanted to, I really did, but I simply couldn’t stop myself from eating all of it, you know.”
“That good, huh?”
“That good,” I confirmed with a sigh.
My friend’s eyes suddenly went wide. “Max! Oh no!”
I looked up in alarm. “What’s wrong?”
“You’re a cheeseaholic!”
Copyright © 2023 by Nic Saint