Murder By The Book
It was that time of night, you know—no moon and a thin wind passing through with a full-on October chill. I was headin' over to my usual place this side of the railroad tracks, thinkin' of those first few shots of Jim Beam finding their way down my throat, when I get a call on my cell. It's Maddison Stone, making some noises about a body.
Now, Maddie and I been in each other's faces since before there was tales to tell. She knows this city's juice joints and bookstores like most women know the best shoe shops in town. When she says there's trouble, you don't stop to ask a lot of questions. “ShelfLife?” I say, more to confirm than anything—that place's got a rap sheet on crime that would curl your hair. “How soon can you be here?” is all she asks.
I'm in the neighbourhood anyway, walking across Memorial Park where the eternal flame lights up the statue of the mounted soldier. I don’t like the way he looks at me. My throat's still tasting those first imaginary drops that are fading away like dew in the desert. “Concentrate,” I tell myself. “There's a case waiting. The first one you've had in months.” ShelfLife Bookstore is on the corner of the park, across from the oldest Presbyterian Church in Calgary, built when they still went in for stain glass if you get what I mean. At about this time of night the windows are lit up by the street light like an invitation. I hurry past. They call me The Preacher on account of my previous work. But I hadn't entered one in years and wasn't about to now. ShelfLife is hard to miss. It has a black windmill in front with crows perched in rows. “One for sorrow, two for mirth.” I read, as a wind rustles their metal feathers and the windmill turns with a creaking groan. I half expect to hear “nevermore” or is that a raven? Never mind, I’m not the literary type. When I get there, Maddie has locked the door. I have to hammer on the window to be heard. That's when I see the owner disappearing down the alleyway.
“It's the author,” Maddie tells me when I get in, and see a woman sprawled on the floor next to a bouquet of flowers. That's all I can get out of her for a while. Never figured Maddie one for losing it with a crying jag, but this one seems for real. Maddison Stone, Editor: Mystery Ink, The Napoleon of Words. What she don’t know about the writing racket ain’t worth knowin’. “It's Cassy Welburn” she gets out, with a lot of deep breathing. “She was here to do a reading of her new book in progress. She stops, gets control.
“That's my girl,” I say. “Now why're you here alone with her?”
“We always get together for a drink before a reading. But the owner had forgot to buy the wine for the reception, so she ran out. When I looked around. I saw Cassy here on the floor. I tried to help her. Oh Jack! She's cold. So cold.” I put Maddie in a chair by the poetry section to calm her. Hand her a card.
“Call this number,” I say. An ambulance, or whatever they need. They'll come.” Meanwhile, I am outlining the body with tape. Checking for a pulse. Pulling a waded paper out of her clenched fist. This babe had a lot on her mind. And it wasn't just reading from her new novel.
“Look,” I say to Maddie as the driver of a white van arrives to carry the author away. “Pull yourself together. The night must go on.” I pull out the sheet of paper with well-known local storytellers listed—Maria Hope, Mary Hay and someone called G. Churchill. “What are they doing here?”
Maddie explains, a little too fast I think, that they were all invited to join the author, by sharing some of her chapters, in the ancient art of storytelling.
“Ancient, huh,” I say. “I thought she wrote mysteries set in Calgary’s East Village?” I'm not completely unread.
“The manuscript is missing,” she explains, but we don't get any farther. Maria comes in with more of the flowers. She's wearing a big hat, a black sequined suit that reflects the light, temporarily blinding me. She screams, then, composes herself. “Yes, we must get on with the show,” she smiles. “It's what Cassy would want.”
I don't like the way she stares me down.
It's not long before the whole gang of them arrive, not a one with notes. 'The ancient oral art,' I remember. They know these stories by heart. What else do they know?
I take charge of the room. Corral Maddie into soothing the audience coming in, finding seats for the night.
“There's nothing to worry about,” I announce, “but the door is being locked. The author reading for tonight is cancelled. This is a crime scene and nobody’s goin’ nowhere, so you might as well make yourself comfortable. ShelfLife has provided treats and wine. Your cooperation is necessary to identify the guilty before the night is up. A line up of storytellers will give their version of events. Other evidence may be found throughout the bookstore. For example, the author's manuscript, “I’d Laugh If I Weren’t Dead, is apparently missing. The author was found right here under the bouquet of flowers brought by Maria. Her name is first on the list found in her hand a few short moments ago:”
Maria steps up to the mic. “This whole thing started with a bet I made with Mary there. She’s always trying to outdo me. So I said the one that could make her husband laugh first would win. I knew I could get my Henry to wear this outfit that woulda got the first laugh. Lots of laughs. But this preacher guy comes in and stops the show, accuses Mary of murdering her husband. If it hadn’t been for that interfering detective well, I woulda won the bet. That’s the real story.”
Mary Hays interrupts, adjusting the mic to her considerable height. “I was the Mary that was invited,” she says, “For the record. I just want to say the story is mine and I should get the money for the book. That author just overheard me planning my husband’s funeral even though he wasn’t dead. She’s a real nosey one, that one, always misunderstanding what’s goin’ on. I tell her it’s a joke, you know, to win the bet. We’re havin’ a mock funeral to get the first laugh. “I’d laugh if I weren’t dead,” he said, just like the title of her book. But he’s alive as the day is long, ain’t he? Only that detective got found in the coffin. I didn’t ask him to interfere,”
I have a problem questioning these two as they cut in front of each other to tell tale after tale, of ever deepening and darkening twists.
But finally the last invited storyteller, G. Churchill steps forward, shakes us up by blowing his whistle announcing he is the real detective. “I'm with The Writer’s Union of Canada,” he claims, and tries to discredit me, dismiss my authority, even existence! This is where it gets real scary—the author herself, apparently recovered, rises from the back row and accuses me of trying to kill her. Unbelievable! She is the author who attempted to kill me off, her finest, brightest character! I only wanted to be heard. Doesn't everyone deserve that chance? Detective Churchill asks the crowd to choose the guilty. We are all heard, the evidence discussed. Maddie gets up to defend me. She always was the real thing.
“I told the author she was making a big mistake killing off The Preacher, she says.” But Cassy claims I’m taking over the story. She had to do it. Doesn’t she know she’d be nothing without me? Even the manuscript is recovered, the one where I am killed off. Against all odds, I am found guilty, along with the author.
But I plead with you now to spring for my bail. I can't spend another night in this joint. I’m stuck in the True Crime section under unsolved mysteries, ShelfLife Books. Come on down. You won't believe the stories they're telling in here.