Once Upon a Spine
Lately, I have resorted to stalking. Not a person, but a book.
For weeks now I'd been visiting the book almost daily. It was a little embarrassing to continually beg the bookstore owner to let me hold it, page through it, study it. I just wanted to touch it, stroke it, and once when he wasn't looking, sniff it. But he didn't seem to mind my fixation. He's as big a book nerd as I am.
The owner kept the book inside a clear, locked glass case displayed on the shop's front counter, so it was pretty obvious he didn't want people touching it. And who could blame him? The book was exquisitely bound in vibrant red morocco leather. Rich gilding swirled along the spine, spelling out the title, author's name, and year of publication in fancy gold script. More gilding outlined the thick raised cords that lent gravitas to the already weighty tome.
In the center of the front cover was a brightly gilded rabbit wearing a topcoat. The well-dressed creature glanced down at a watch he held at the end of a chain, and he appeared nervous, as though he might be running late for some important event.
The fact that a gilded illustration could convey real emotion was pretty awesome, above and beyond the binding work. The first time I saw it, I checked the inside cover for the bookbinder and was thrilled to find the name George Bayntun of London. Favored by the late Queen Mary, Bayntun's bindery in Bath, England, was world renowned and was still operating to this day. I'd visited once and had come away starstruck.
On the back cover of the book was another elaborately raised figure in gold, an odd-looking woman wearing a crown and carrying a scepter. The red queen. She appeared headstrong and irate, as though she might order someone's head lopped off at any moment.
The book was Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, of course. This copy was a fairly hard-to-find version in excellent condition, with dark green-and-red-marbled endpapers and virtually no foxing on its clean white pages. It contained dozens of classic illustrations by the famous artist John Tenniel. The binding was tight and even. And I wanted it.
My name is Brooklyn Wainwright, and I'm a bookbinder specializing in rare-book restoration. I love books of all kinds, and I love my job. It was exciting to know that I could give tired, torn, droopy, bug-bitten books a brand-new life that would allow them to continue to bring enjoyment for hundreds of years to come. It might have sounded boring to some, but in my career so far I had saved dozens of treasured childhood favorites from being thrown away, rescued any number of priceless, museum-quality books from being carted off to the used-book store, and even solved a murder or two—or ten—while I was at it. Just in case you thought bookbinding sounded like a yawn-fest, trust me, my life was rarely dull.
This particular copy of Alice didn't need restoring, though. It was pristine. I wanted it because I had a fascination—okay, call it an obsession—with the iconic Alice and her creator, Lewis Carroll.
I gazed longingly at the book on display near the front counter of Brothers Bookshop. The store was a book nerd's dream: a cozy, tome-filled haven for people like me who were content to while away an entire day browsing the shelves in hopes of discovering the perfect little gem of a book to sink into.
The shop carried both new and used books along with all sorts of charming gifts and cards and paper goods. There were comfy chairs in every corner of the store, and a small section along one side was devoted to antiquarian books.
A magazine section was located at the back of the shop. At the front, a wall of windows looked out onto the neighborhood, and from there I could see my vintage apartment building on the other side of the street.
Derek Stone and I had decided to walk over here to do a little book browsing on our way next door to shop for vegetables for dinner.
The bookshop was part of a group of small stores located in a charming three-story Victorian-era building across the street from us. The building, known as the Courtyard, formed a large square, with four shops on each side. Above each shop were two floors with one spacious apartment on each floor. In the interior of the square was a delightful little courtyard overflowing with flowers and trees and several groupings of chairs and small tables. It was the perfect place to enjoy a caffe latte and read a book.
"Hi, Eddie," I said to the bookshop owner as I inched closer to the display.
"Hey, Brooklyn," Eddie Cox said without glancing up from his perch at the front counter. He knew it was me. Probably had seen me hovering nearby for the last few minutes. "I suppose you want to get another look at the book."
"I do," I said. "How did you know?"
He chuckled. "Just a lucky guess. Might have something to do with the fact that you show up here every other day and beg to see it."
All too true. But at least so far I hadn't drooled on the glass case. "And here I thought I was being so subtle."
"Subtle. Right." Still chuckling, he opened the drawer beneath the cash register and pulled out a small set of keys. I had known Eddie Cox and his brother-in-law Terrence Payton for almost four years, ever since I'd moved in across the street from Brothers Bookshop. The two men owned the charming shop together, and yes, I was there almost every other day because, you know, books.
Eddie carefully handed me the Alice, and it was all I could do not to clutch it to my chest in excitement. Instead, I put it down on the counter and ran my finger across the smooth leather cover.
Eddie raised an eyebrow. "I don't do this for everyone, you know."
"I know you don't, and I really appreciate you doing it for me. I'll be careful."
"I know you will." He winked at me. "Otherwise, I wouldn't allow it anywhere near your greedy little hands."
With a quick laugh, I scanned the store and spied Derek at the end of the middle aisle, where the latest mysteries and thrillers were displayed. He appeared to be involved in one particular book, so I knew I had a few minutes to enjoy the Alice. I opened it slowly, turning as always to the title page, where the publication date was posted: 1866.
This copy was considered a first edition, but actually it wasn't. The original version of the book had been published the year before, in 1865, but those books had been taken off the market by Lewis Carroll when his illustrator, John Tenniel, stated that the quality of his drawings had been poorly reproduced.
That earlier, 1865 version was known as the "Suppressed Alice" or the "Sixty-five Alice." All of those books were returned to the publisher except for fifty author copies that Lewis Carroll had kept for himself.
Eventually, most of those author copies had ended up in others' hands. Very few remained on the market today, and any that did were considered beyond rare. One had been auctioned off recently for almost two million dollars.
I would probably never get my hands on such a rare treasure as that, but I was perfectly happy with the one I currently held in my hands. This book was as fine as any I'd ever seen.
I turned and saw Eddie's brother-in-law standing nearby. "Terrence. Hello."
"Is he going to sell you the book this time?" Terrence asked with a twinkle in his eye.
"I don't know." Glancing at Eddie, I bit back a smile. I knew he wouldn't sell it to me, since I'd tried to buy it a few hundred times before. But no harm in trying again. "What about it, Eddie? Will you sell me this book?"
"Never," Eddie insisted, as always. Then he added, "It was a gift from a very special friend."
"Wow." He'd never mentioned that before. I gazed at the book in my hand. "Must be a nice friend."
"I had a book just like that," Terrence grumbled. "But someone stole it."
"Are you kidding?" Did I look as confused as I felt? "You had a copy of this same book?"
Eddie barely suppressed an eye roll. "Terrence always claims that, but where's the proof?"
"I said it was stolen." Terrence's eyes narrowed in on Eddie, and I suddenly wondered if he suspected his own brother-in-law had taken the book from him.
Eddie shrugged. "That's why I keep mine locked inside this shatterproof case, right here in plain sight where everyone can see it, which means no one can steal it. I'm no fool."
"I'm not a fool, either." Terrence huffed, clearly insulted. He turned to me. "I'll have you know, my copy was locked inside the safe in my closet upstairs. Fat lot of good that did me," he added, muttering.
"You're just not as lucky as I am," Eddie said with a crooked grin as he flexed his biceps. "Or as manly."
I laughed, but Terrence was not amused. He continued to glower, shaking his head. "You're the fool. I'm as lucky as anyone else. Except when it comes to in-laws."
They were both ignoring me now. Over the last few years, I'd realized that the two men butted heads more often than not. Family was never easy, but still . . . If you didn't get along with your brother-in-law, why go into business with him?
The two men were in their forties and fairly nice looking in different ways. Eddie had a classic runner's physique, tall and slim, with silver hair and a rakish goatee, which suited him. Terrence was a few inches shorter and bulkier, but most of his girth was muscle. He looked as though he might've been a boxer in his youth.
The two men had married sisters who divorced them within weeks of each other and moved to Florida together. I got the feeling that Eddie and Terrence didn't miss their ex-wives too much. They were both book fanatics who spent all of their time in the bookshop. I'd never known them to take a day off.
Handing the book back to Eddie, I tried to veer our conversation around to the original subject. "Not that you both don't deserve the very finest things, but who in their right mind would give up such a beautiful book?"
Eddie wiggled his eyebrows and grinned slyly. "A generous person who recognizes greatness, I suppose."
It was Terrence's turn to roll his eyes. I started to grin, but something bumped into my ankle and I jolted. Glancing down, I saw Furbie, the bookshop cat, staring up at me with his teeth clenching a stuffed mouse. Stuffed with catnip was my guess, if Furbie's lazy gaze meant anything.
"Hello, Furbie," I murmured, and reached down to scratch the soft gray fur around his ears. "Aren't you a pretty kitty?"
In response to the flattery, he dropped the toy at my feet. I picked it up and tossed it a few yards down the nearest aisle, expecting the frisky cat to pounce after it. Instead, he gave me a censorious look, tossed his head imperiously, and sidled awkwardly after the mouse.
"I think Furbie's drunk," I said.
"It's Terrence's fault," Eddie claimed. "He's an enabler."
"You're just jealous," Terrence retorted, "because Furbie likes me best."
"Of course he does, because you feed him catnip and empower his bad behavior." Eddie turned to me. "I'm the disciplinarian."
"You're just a meanie," Terrence muttered, and they were off on another squabble-fest, this time over the cat. These two would tangle over anything!
After letting them go off for a few more seconds, I tried to steer them back to the topic of Terrence's missing book.
"When did you lose your copy of Alice?" I asked Terrence as Eddie unlocked the glass case and gingerly slipped his Alice back inside.
"I didn't lose it."
"Sorry. When was it stolen?"
Terrence thought for a moment. "I guess it's been about six months."
In the grand scheme of tragedies, I knew this would come in low on the list. But as a book person, I really felt bad for him. "I'm sorry, Terrence."
"Yes," he said pointedly, still glaring at Eddie. "So am I."
Eddie put the key to the case back in the drawer and turned to Terrence. "You should be more careful."
"Oh, shut up."
Eddie grinned at me, a silent acknowledgment that he had just won this little argument. Their bickering was usually more good-natured, but this time Terrence looked truly offended, which worried me a little. It seemed like they might have quarreled over the stolen book before.
Derek approached and placed a short stack of books on the front counter.
"What have you got there?" I asked.
"I found a few spy novels I thought my father might enjoy."
"Oh. That's nice." But my stomach gave a little twist at the mention of his father. Derek's parents were going to be visiting from England for the first time the following week, and I still wasn't ready to meet them.
Derek and I had been together three years, and the one time I'd traveled to England with him, his parents had been away on an anniversary cruise around the Mediterranean. Now that he and I were getting married, it seemed ridiculous that I'd never met them. But as Derek arranged for their whirlwind trip to San Francisco, I found myself growing more and more uneasy about our first encounter.
Would they like me? It sounded so neurotic to worry, but these were my future in-laws! Of course I was worried. But still, I was sure they were wonderful, and I knew we would all love one another. They had to be the nicest people in the world because Derek was simply a delightful man. But they were English. I had lived in London for a short while years ago, and I truly loved the people, but there was a reserve to some of them that I didn't always understand. I had been raised in a thoroughly American peace-and-love commune founded by fans of the Grateful Dead, and I still wore Birkenstocks to prove it. My family was boisterous and fun loving. I simply couldn't imagine what they would think of me. And Derek, while awesome, could be intimidating to others when he wanted to be. At times it was one of his best attributes. But it made me wonder if his parents might be intimidating as well.
Not that I was one bit intimidated by Derek. Not at all. Well, not anymore, anyway. When we first met, there might have been a few moments of intimidation. But at the time he'd had a gun pointed at my head and was accusing me of murder. Who wouldn't have been apprehensive? But the moment passed, and we grew to be great friends. And more.
Derek glanced at the Alice in Wonderland safely locked up in its glass case and turned to me with a look of shock. "What? He put it away? He's not going to sell it to you?"
I grinned. Derek knew very well that Eddie would never sell the book, but it was fun to tease the man. "He said no, but maybe I should double-check." Glancing at Eddie, I asked, "Are you going to sell me the book?"
He snorted. "No, for the hundredth time. But nice try."
"Well, then . . ." I stepped closer to the glass display case, gazed again at the dapper gold rabbit on the front cover, and then sighed. "Thanks again for letting me look at it."
"For you, Brooklyn, anytime."
Knowing how much I coveted the book, Derek gave my shoulder a sympathetic squeeze. "Sorry, love. But keep trying. Eddie might change his mind."
Eddie's burst of laughter was interrupted by the sound of high heels tapping against the hardwood floor. We all turned to see Bonnie Carson walk into the store. She owned the Courtyard building and enjoyed keeping a close watch on everyone's business.
"Hi, Bonnie," Terrence said, his voice soft with emotion.
"Well, looks like the gang's all here," Bonnie said, her gaze wandering from Terrence to Eddie to Derek. She was an attractive, flirtatious woman in her forties who wore clothes designed to show off her voluptuous figure. Her stiletto heels looked high enough to cause nosebleeds, and her distinctive floral perfume surrounded her wherever she went. Despite her obvious ways, I liked her. Bonnie knew a lot about books, and I'd heard that at one time she was the owner of the bookshop. But when her husband died a few years ago and she inherited the entire building, she'd decided to become a lady of leisure rather than a shopkeeper and sold the store to Eddie and Terrence.
These days she seemed to enjoy going from shop to shop, kibitzing with the owners and customers. Occasionally I would see her sitting outside in the courtyard, relaxing in the sun.
I had never realized that Terrence had a crush on her, but it was pitifully obvious now, just by the way he spoke her name and stared at her.
Unlike Terrence, Derek was not attracted to Bonnie at all. Apparently that made him even more attractive to her, and she did her best to draw his attention. Derek, who wasn't afraid of anything or anyone, often walked in the opposite direction when Bonnie came around.
"We've got to get going, love," Derek said now, looking a bit desperate. I felt his pain as I watched Bonnie continue to eye all three men.
"Okay, let's go."
"Have a nice evening, you two," Terrence said.
I glanced back at the brothers-in-law. "Thanks. We're making soup tonight."
Eddie's eyes widened. "You're cooking soup, Brooklyn?"
"I am," I said, beaming. "I've been practicing, and I'm getting a lot better."
He and Terrence exchanged a look of doubt, and they both gave Derek a sympathetic frown. It wasn't meant to be hurtful. My lack of cooking expertise was widely known. But I'd been experimenting with different techniques and utensils lately, and I really was getting better. Of course, a year ago I hadn't even known how to boil spaghetti, so the bar was pretty low to begin with.
We waved good-bye and walked out to the courtyard, where I glanced at Derek. "Do you still want me to make soup?"
"Absolutely. Your vegetable soup is delicious."
"Thank you." But I hesitated, glancing around at the options available to us. The Rabbit Hole was our local produce market and juice bar. It was a popular spot for athletes and other healthy types, which I was trying to be. Across the courtyard was Thai to Remember, our favorite Thai restaurant, and next door was a pretty good burger joint. And then there was Sweetie Pies, the pie shop. I was tempted to blow off our plans to make healthy veggie soup and pick up something fast and yummy. Maybe cheeseburgers or Thai food. With pie for dessert.
But I couldn't do it. Because the truth was, I was on a mission. Maybe it wasn't the most philanthropic mission I'd ever set out on, but I was determined to be in the best shape of my life for our upcoming—gulp—wedding. I wasn't out of shape, particularly. I'd been blessed with healthy genes, so it wasn't like I would have to go on a hunger strike to fit into my wedding dress. No, I just wanted to be . . . awesome. I wanted to have beautiful, perfectly toned arms like my friend Alex had. Of course, Alex was also a fifth-degree black belt in at least two, maybe three, different martial arts disciplines and taught some heavy-duty workout classes, so I was light-years behind her when it came to achieving true buffness. But I could improve things a little. And I had three whole months to do it. Piece of cake, right? I winced. No. No more cake. No pizza or ice cream. And a double order of Thai ginger chicken soaking in spicy peanut sauce was simply out of the question.
"What will it be, darling?" Derek prompted, somehow in tune with my thought process.
I took a deep breath. "Soup." Determined to keep to my goal, I steered us toward the Rabbit Hole. And once I was safely inside the happy walls of the healthy little shop, I began to breathe easier. First of all, the place was pristine. The vegetables in the produce section were fresh and beautiful and all stacked up in orderly rows. Even the green beans were laid out in neat lines, and that was no easy trick. The popular juice bar at the far end was painted bright yellow and pink. It was impossible not to smile when you walked into the Rabbit Hole. The stainless steel shelves that formed the aisles were modern and bright and held hundreds of canned goods and bottles of juice and vitamins and skin care products.
Just being in there made it easier to think about good health and clean living.
Unlike some health food stores I'd been in, the Rabbit Hole didn't smell like castor oil or rotting produce. There were no scary posters diagramming body parts or shelves filled with strange medicinal remedies that smelled like dead fish. If you'd ever met my mother, you would recognize me as someone who was all too familiar with places like that. I couldn't count the times she had dragged me and my siblings into those creepy shops in the past.
And besides all that good stuff, the Rabbit Hole was owned by a guy named Rabbit! Will Rabbit was the nicest fellow in the world, cute and funny and smart and kind, and so helpful it was a pleasure to shop there, even if the prices were slightly higher than in the supermarket six blocks away.
"Hello, Will," Derek said as we walked inside.
"Derek. Brooklyn. Hello," Rabbit said, smiling at us. He was tall and lanky, and he had a habit of wearing vintage vests of all kinds. He probably thought it made him look older than his thirty years, and more distinguished. It didn't. He remained a sweet, appealing guy with a slightly jittery manner that made me think his last name fit him well.
I waved. "Hi, Rabbit."
"If I can help you with anything, please let me know."
"We're picking up veggies for soup."
"You might want to add some of our frozen corn," he said, pointing to the wall where the frozen vegetables were located. "It's still on the cob and was flash frozen in the field. We just got a shipment from Mexico yesterday, and believe it or not, it's the sweetest I've ever tasted."
We took his advice and grabbed one package containing two ears of corn, along with a half head of cabbage, a bunch of carrots, onions, potatoes, green beans, and celery.
As we were bagging up our groceries, Bonnie walked into Rabbit's store. I watched Derek's jaw tighten, and I wondered if Bonnie might have been following us—well, Derek—from store to store. Not that my suspicions mattered. She had every right to go wherever she wanted to. And it made sense that she would visit Rabbit since he was, in fact, her nephew. She had given him the health food store ten years ago, when he'd turned twenty-one. Pretty swell birthday present, I thought.
"Hi, Auntie," Rabbit said. "You ready for a little afternoon delight?"
Derek and I turned and gaped at him. Rabbit grinned. "It's a drink. Raspberry green tea mixed with lemonade and a sprig of mint."
"Ah," Derek murmured.
I gulped. "Sounds . . . delightful."
And on that note, we took off with our veggies and headed for home.
Out on the sidewalk, waiting for the traffic to clear, I turned to Derek. "Did you hear any of my conversation with Terrence and Eddie?"
"You know I did," he said with a smirk.
I smiled. "I was hoping. What did you think?"
"I was particularly interested in Terrence's claim that his book was stolen."
"That bothered me, too."
Derek's lips twisted in thought. "Their exchange was more bitter than usual. It made me wonder if perhaps Terrence blames Eddie for his book going missing."
"That's what it sounded like to me," I said. And the fact that Derek had picked up on the same thing I had made me love him even more. Surely his parents would see how perfect we were for each other. Right? Not to change the subject or anything.
"Is Eddie's book terribly valuable?" Derek asked.
I nodded. "He could probably sell it for twenty-five thousand dollars."
One eyebrow quirked up. "I see."
We crossed the busy street, and Derek unlocked the front door to our building. As we waited for the elevator, he asked, "Is there a way to find out if a similar book was sold in the last year or two?"
"I was curious enough to look up the comps a few months ago, but I was only looking at books that were still for sale. I never thought to research books that might've been sold around the same time his was stolen."
The elevator arrived and we stepped inside. Derek said, "I wonder if Terrence ever reported the loss."
"I could find out."
"Twenty-five thousand dollars is a lot to lose."
"The price for that book has probably gone up by now," I said. "We recently celebrated the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. There were a number of book festivals hyping the book and a lot of articles being written about it, so I wouldn't be surprised to find out that the price has climbed to thirty thousand or possibly higher."
Derek whistled softly. "Thirty thousand dollars for a book. So if Terrence's copy truly was stolen, that was no minor theft."
Once we had greeted and played with our adorable cat Charlie for a few minutes, Derek went to work chopping vegetables while I sat at the dining room table with my computer. Charlie curled herself around my feet as I searched for any news of a finely bound Alice in Wonderland being sold around the same time Terrence told us his book had been stolen.
I tried to ignore the sight of Derek with his sleeves rolled up peeling carrots, but it wasn't easy. The man was just too attractive for his own good. And mine, too, obviously. But if you could see his arms, tanned and sinewy, working that peeler on those carrots . . . Well. I digressed.
I dragged my gaze back to the computer screen to see a list of similar Alice in Wonderland copies bought and sold in the last year. It mentioned that a copy of the 1865 Suppressed Alice was about to be auctioned off the following week. The auction house's book expert was quoted saying that they expected to sell the rare version for between two and three million dollars.
That was exciting news, of course, but it had nothing to do with the fate of Terrence's book. So I continued down the list, looking for any sales of the 1866 version in the past six months. I did find one for sale for seventy-four thousand dollars and another for fifty-one thousand dollars. Clearly, some of the finer copies of the book had become even more valuable than my original estimation. Those two had sold in the last two weeks. Terrence said he'd discovered his book missing about six months ago. Had the thief held on to the book for months before deciding to sell it?
There was no definitive way to determine whether either of the two recently sold books—or the other six that were listed for sale on the Web site—was actually Terrence's book. I would have to either contact the bookseller for the date they'd first acquired the book or simply give up. Did I want to devote more effort to this search? I didn't have a lot of time, but I was always intrigued by odd stories about rare books. But at the moment, I was even more intrigued by Derek peeling carrots in all his gorgeousness.
Choosing between the Internet and Derek was no contest. I shut down the computer, knowing I would return to do more searching the next day.
My vegetable soup was a major success. I would even go so far as to call it a cooking miracle, given my lack of almost any skill in the kitchen, but really, I was getting a lot better. This time the year before, it was all I could do to make a decent cup of coffee.
So I'm not sure how I did it, but everything in the soup came together just right. The veggies didn't turn gray, which meant that I hadn't overcooked them. The broth was clear and pretty and a perfect blend of flavors and seasonings. The crusty bread—just one piece for me—and a crisp sauvignon blanc rounded out the meal.
As we enjoyed the meal, I realized it had been several long weeks since a gun had gone off in our apartment and hit the ceiling above our heads. The vicious murderer who'd intended to kill a person I loved was wrestled to the floor and later arrested. I must've buried the memory because today was the first time I looked up and noticed that the bullet hole was gone. No trace remained. When had Derek arranged that? I wondered as I gazed at him sitting across the table from me, sipping his soup. I would ask him about it eventually, but for now I was amazed and happy to realize he'd done it without fanfare as a gift to me.
Derek and I spent two hours enjoying our dinner while wondering and theorizing about who might have stolen Terrence's copy of Alice in Wonderland. Eddie had implied that the book was a figment of Terrence's imagination, but Terrence had been adamant that it did exist. So if the book really had been missing for six months, where was it now?
The next morning, after Derek left for work, I had a long telephone conversation with my parents, who were planning to come into the city to meet Derek's parents later in the week. Along with my anxiety over meeting his folks, I was starting to flip out at the prospect of introducing my New Age free-spirited mom to Derek's proper English mum. Don't get me wrong—I love my mother, but it wouldn't surprise me to see Derek's mother gasp in shock at some of Mom's aerie-fairy statements. I could feel my blood pressure spiking as I imagined the poor woman being totally appalled by Mom's witchy Wiccan-Pagan-Astral-Travel personality. Their visit would turn into a complete disaster.
What if Mom started talking about her astral-traveling spirit guide, Ramlar X? What if she wanted to cast a spell in the middle of dinner? Or give Derek's mother a lecture on panchakarma and hand her a cup of sweat-inducing tea to eliminate her toxins? I let a quiet moan escape before gently mentioning my fears to my mother. She just chuckled, causing my stomach to churn painfully.
"Mom, I'm begging you. Please be normal."
"Sweetie," she said kindly, "I wouldn't be normal if you paid me a million dollars." There was silence for a moment; then she added, "You know, I'm not even sure I could pretend at this late date."
"Dad, help me out here."
They both laughed, and my father said, "Brooklyn, your mother is a unique, wonderful person and everyone loves her."
"I love her, too," I hastened to say. "You know I love you, Mom."
"Of course I do," she said. "And I know you're worried about meeting Derek's parents, but please don't be concerned. We'll all get along just fine."
"That's right, honey," Dad said. "Try not to freak out, okay?"
A minute later I hung up the phone feeling as if I'd fallen into the pit of doom. It wasn't my parents' fault. Dad was right: the imminent arrival of Derek's parents was freaking me out.
But why? My parents were pillars of society in our small town of Dharma up in the Sonoma wine country. Dad was on the board of directors of our commune's winery. He was also on the town council. Mom had raised six kids and was a vital part of the fabric of our town. That didn't mean they were straightlaced and dignified, of course. On the contrary, they were still two wild and crazy kids who had always loved a party as much as the next guy did.
They had met at the tie-dye T shirt booth during a Grateful Dead weekend at the Ventura Fairgrounds in 1972. It was love at first sight for both of them, and they were just as much in love today as they had been on that first day.
Somehow those thoughts didn't soothe me as much as they usually did. I was still clutching my hands together in worry and wondering how I would make it through the next week.
To change my vibe and calm myself down, I decided to run over to the Rabbit Hole and treat myself to a fruit smoothie.
Ordinarily, when I found myself all discombobulated like this—which was rare, really!—I would jog across the street to the coffee shop for a grande triple-shot caramel mochaccino deluxe and a small box of donuts. But I was on a mission now, so with a smoothie I figured I was being virtuous while still indulging a little.
I grabbed my purse and carefully locked up before leaving the apartment. Waiting for the elevator, I flinched when I heard some commotion behind me. I was still a little jumpy from the last time our apartment was broken into.
I sighed with relief as my neighbors Vinnie and Suzie headed toward me with their darling baby Lily. Vinnie was pushing the baby stroller while Suzie balanced a four-foot-tall wood carving of a woman's head, her hair appearing to stream wildly in the wind. The art piece was almost as wide as our hallway, which made it bigger than Suzie and Vinnie put together. The two of them were talented sculptors who specialized in burl wood.
"Wow, that's gorgeous," I said, staring at the statue. "You guys have done it again."
"Thank you, Brooklyn," Vinnie said, bowing her head slightly. "We are entering it in the Golden Gate Art Show."
"You're sure to win."
"If I don't fall over and break it," Suzie muttered.
"Poor Suzie," Vinnie said. "We need one stroller for Lily and a second one for the sculpture."
Suzie grunted. "There's a good idea."
I couldn't look away from the sculpture, and moved in closer to examine it. "Those individual strands of hair are almost as thin as real hair. And they look like they're floating in the air. How do you do that with a chain saw?"
Vinnie's laugh was musical. "We don't always use the chain saws, Brooklyn. For this work, I used a small serrated spatula, about the size of a surgeon's scalpel."
"And Suzie carved the eyes. Aren't they mesmerizing?"
I gazed into the eyes of the sculpted woman and shivered. "I feel like she's staring back at me."
"I know." Suzie grinned. "Like she's alive."
Our massive, ancient elevator arrived and we all piled inside. As the elevator traveled down, I stooped to be at eye level with Lily. I murmured some nonsense baby phrases to make her smile, then glanced up at my friends. "She gets more beautiful every day."
"Lily is captivated by you, Brooklyn," Vinnie said.
"And I'm captivated by her." I took the baby's tiny hand in mine. "She's getting so big."
"She is almost fifteen months old now and is talking a mile a minute."
"She'll be off to college any day now," I said.
Vinnie chuckled, but sobered as I stood up. "I am glad we ran into you today, Brooklyn. Have you heard anything about the latest attack of vandalism?"
"What?" I glanced at Suzie, whose lips tightened in a scowl. "No. What happened?"
Suzie rested the sculpture on the elevator railing. "I ran across the street earlier to get Lily some juice and had a minute to talk to Rabbit. He said the creeps hit the Courtyard again late last night. Apparently it's not the first time it's happened."
"I can't believe it. Derek and I were just there last night."
"There's graffiti covering the entire south side of the building."
We lived on the north side of the street. I scowled. "So we wouldn't even see them if we looked out the window. The parking lot butts up against that old warehouse that's being redeveloped. Nobody lives there yet."
"Right. So nobody saw anything."
"Cowards," Suzie muttered.
"And that is not the worst of it," Vinnie said, her Indian accent growing thicker as her anxiety seemed to rise. "Last night we stopped at Pietro's for pizza, and Pete told us he's been hearing more talk about developers taking over the neighborhood."
Pete, the owner of our favorite local pizza place, was a font of neighborhood information and gossip.
"Why haven't I heard anything about this?" I said. "We were just over at the bookshop last night. And we stopped in at the Rabbit Hole, too. Nobody said anything."
"They might be trying to keep it on the down low," Suzie said. "Don't want to start a mass exodus out of the area."
"According to Pete, it's inevitable," Vinnie said. "But I don't believe that. Something has got to be done to stop it. I don't want them to sell the Courtyard. You know a greedy developer would tear it down without a second thought and build cold, soulless condos."
"No way can we let that happen," I said. "I'm on my way over to the Rabbit Hole right now. I'll see if he knows anything more."
"Better yet, talk to Kitty," Vinnie suggested as the old elevator shuddered to a stop. "She knows everything."
Kitty owned the hat shop at the west side of the Courtyard.
"I'm not sure that's a good idea," I said, stepping out at the ground floor. "I'll be stuck talking to her for an hour, and then I'll end up buying a hat."
True to my word, I pestered Rabbit to tell me more about the vandalism, but he refused to add anything other than what he'd already told Vinnie and Suzie.
"Did you call the police?" I asked.
"Sure did," he assured me. "And Bonnie's arranged to have the city come by and paint that side of the building for free."
"They'll do that?"
He turned to the cart behind him, effortlessly lifted a crate filled with bottles of flavored tea, and walked down the aisle to stock the shelves. "Yeah, they've got a team that goes around cleaning up graffiti at no cost to the victims."
"That's really good to know." Especially since it was a known fact that once a building or wall had been tagged with some particular form of graffiti, other taggers would be drawn to do the same. I asked the disturbing question that was foremost in my mind. "Do you think we're starting to get gang activity in this neighborhood?"
"No." Rabbit frowned. "At least not according to the police. I'm in charge of neighborhood watch for our building. I talked to the cops just the other day and they didn't say anything about it."
"I hope they're right."
"Me, too. This neighborhood has been so nice for the past couple of years, I would hate to think it was changing. The shopkeepers around here are like family to me. I cover Kitty's shop every afternoon so she can take a lunch break, and Terrence does the same thing for Joey."
"That's really nice."
"Yeah. When I reorganized my store, Terrence and Joey and Eddie helped me after work every night for a week. And Colin at the pie shop is always bringing around leftovers."
"Now that's my kind of neighbor."
He laughed. "I know, right? And remember three months ago, when Pietro's had to shut down because of smoke damage? I remember Eddie was sick, but everyone else showed up on a Sunday to help Pete scrub down the place so he could reopen as soon as possible. Makes me sad that a vandal is messing with our vibe."
The subject of graffiti and gangs seemed like something I should've known about, given my strange interest in crimes of all sorts. But I'd never had to deal with either before. Murder, yes. Graffiti, no.
I followed Rabbit around the shop, sipping my blueberry smoothie. "Would Bonnie ever sell this building?"
"Never," he said firmly. "Aunt Bonnie loves this place. She'll live here till she dies."
It had to be nice for Rabbit to have an aunt who owned such a valuable piece of real estate. The Courtyard was a beautiful old building that had been part of the view from my workshop windows since I'd moved there five years ago. It added so much charm to the street with its Victorian roofline, wide bay windows, and beveled glass panels in each of the shop doors. Handsome forest green awnings shaded the shops' windows from the glare of the afternoon sun. The building had been painted recently and each morning I watched the shopkeepers sweeping the sidewalks outside their doors. In recent years, the Courtyard shops had become a cool destination spot and the individual shop owners showed a lot of pride in being part of it all.
I hated the thought of looking out my window one day and seeing yet another high-rise apartment building directly across the street. Not only because the view would be so mundane, but also because the Courtyard was so important to our neighborhood. There was Brothers Bookshop, of course, and the Rabbit Hole, plus all those restaurants. There was Kitty's hat shop and a lingerie boutique and Joey's shoe repair and the yoga studio, and more. I found myself crossing the street to look for something or other at least three or four times a week.
Every time I met a new neighbor, they would talk about the Courtyard shops. And besides being the heart and soul of the neighborhood, the building also provided homes for the shopkeepers. Most of them lived in the apartments above their stores. If the building were sold, besides losing their livelihoods, the shop owners would also lose their homes.
I stayed and pretended to shop for almost an hour, trying to wheedle as much information out of Rabbit as I could—being a good neighbor and all—but finally I had to go home. I paid for my bags full of healthy goodies, left the store, and crossed the street to my apartment. It was time to get to work and start my next project.
Charlie greeted me at the door.
"Hello, cutie," I murmured, picking her up to snuggle for a minute as I walked into the kitchen to freshen her water. Then she followed me into my workshop and jumped onto my desk chair to watch from a safe spot as I gathered my supplies and equipment. While moving from one end of the room to the other, I realized that hanging around with Rabbit had caused my worries over Derek's and my parents getting together to vanish. Now that I was back home, however, the doubts returned and I had to spend a few minutes focusing my energy in order to just let the uncertainties go. Derek was right. Mom and Dad were right. Everyone would get along famously, and someday I would look back on my parental qualms and have a good laugh.
Besides, I was ready to start a challenging new project, and I needed all my creative juices flowing in the right direction in order to concentrate on the job ahead.
I was really psyched about this one. I had been asked to create something new for the spring festival at Bay Area Book Arts, or BABA, as we called it.
I had decided to do another tribute to Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. There were many books that had woven themselves into and out of my life over the years, and Alice was one of those books. I had read it countless times when I was younger and had even begun collecting it, starting with a wonderful 1927 illustrated version I had picked up in Edinburgh a few years back. And last year I had created a really cool pop-up cutout scene from the book, featuring Alice on trial in the courtroom with the entire population of Wonderland flying up to attack her. "You're nothing but a pack of cards," she'd shouted, and indeed, the people in her dreams had turned into playing cards.
It had been a feat of sheer willpower on my part—and maybe a bit of skill—to arrange the cards so that they appeared to be floating in the air a foot off the page. To be honest, getting those cards to fly off that page was a technological and architectural victory I never thought I'd achieve, but it turned out pretty awesome, if I did say so myself.
In the story of Alice in Wonderland, the attack of the cards happens right before Alice wakes up from her dream. And it was a dream of mine and an honor to have my Pop-Up Alice chosen to be part of the permanent collection of the Covington Library's children's museum.
There was another reason for me to celebrate the Alice connection. Last year I had attended the BABA festival celebrating the 150th anniversary of the publication of Alice in Wonderland. That had led me to create the pop-up book. So now I would bring it full circle by creating handmade playing cards, á la the cards in Alice. I would be incorporating the arts of papermaking, letterpress, and calligraphy, as well as my bookbinding skills. It was a little bonus that all of these arts were offered as part of the curriculum at BABA, so that was a nice tie-in. I was excited to get started.
I had originally planned to design a clamshell box and fill it with the handmade cards, but I was thinking of making a matchbox-style box instead. The playing cards would be set into a main container that would slide in and out of a protective outer case. This outer case would be larger, with a narrow hollowed-out space on top that would hold a small accordion-style book that would extend out to fifty-two pages with a playing card on each page. It would be tricky, but my hope was that it would turn out to be whimsical and fun.
There were at least two ways of making paper: the hard professional way, which involved batting the pulp with a mallet and stirring it in a water bath for hours; and the easy professional way, where your essential tools were a blender and a wooden frame and the timing was more along the lines of a few minutes rather than a few hours.
I used the term professional for both techniques, because whatever route you chose to take, you would end up with a beautiful piece of handmade paper at the end of it. And since I was making a deck of playing cards and would have to repeat the process fifty-two times—or fifty-three if I included the joker—you could bet I was going to take the easy way this time.
I went through my workshop cupboards and drawers and pulled out all the supplies and equipment I would need. One old blender; a stack of white junk mail envelopes to use for my paper base; the bag of various twigs, leaves, flower petals, and grass blades I'd been collecting over the previous week; a pitcher for adding water to the blender; my homemade double-inset wood frame complete with Velcro straps, screens, and a bottom grid that I'd made myself for this project; a small tub halfway filled with water, in which the frame would be set; a cookie sheet; dried sprigs of parsley, rosemary, lavender, and dill; and a jar of silver glitter.
A few years ago, when I first got into papermaking, I'd built a wood frame to make standard-sized paper, eight and a half by eleven inches. But for this project I'd added a wooden template to the interior of the frame so that I would be able to make two smaller pieces of paper at the same time. The size of my paper cards would end up being about five and a half inches high by almost four and a quarter inches wide. That was bigger than your usual playing card, of course, but this was an art piece after all, so I decided it would be nice to see the cards and easier to enjoy them if they were slightly larger than life. I figured a little artistic license was allowed in this case.
I filled the tub halfway with water and lined all of my equipment along the counter. I took one of the envelopes and began tearing it up and tossing the pieces into the blender. I covered the bits of paper with water and pulverized the contents for about five seconds. Stopping the blender, I opened the top to add a few snippets of flowers and leaves and grass, tossed in a pinch of silver glitter, and then blended it for another few seconds until everything was nicely mixed up.
I placed my wood frame into the tub of water and poured the contents of the blender into the frame. I mixed the pulpy substance around with my fingers, then lifted the frame straight up from the tub and held it there while the water drained out.
Inside the double frame I could see two newly formed pieces of paper, still very soggy, but looking pretty with the little bits of twigs and grass and glitter. I unlatched the Velcro straps, pulled out the bottom screen, and set the newly created pieces of paper down on the cookie sheet. Then I went to work arranging my sprigs and pressed petals and seeds on each card to spell out my first playing card, the ace of spades. I spent another two minutes tweaking the design to make sure I could actually read the numbers and the suit. I did the same for the next card, the two of spades.
I placed a thin mesh screen on top of the two newly made cards and, using a soft, dry sponge, pressed down on the screen to draw up more moisture. Then I peeled the still-damp paper cards off the bottom screen and slipped them both between two blotter papers and pressed down with my fingers, once again squeezing out every last bit of water I could. When this was done, I laid them out on my worktable to dry.
And then I started the whole process over again with the next two playing cards.
It may have been repetitive, but it was fun. I was always happy when I was making paper. It satisfied something in me that straightforward bookbinding didn't—-probably the way it reminded me of those mud pies when I was a little kid. This wasn't quite as messy, but it was just as pleasing to me.
A few hours later, I was finished for the day and took a moment to admire the twenty cards I'd made. I loved the feathery edges of the cards, a distinctive feature of handmade paper. This was because the wooden frame, which was once called a deckle, invariably allowed a bit of the liquid pulp to slip under the frame, creating that slightly uneven edge, which was one of the prettiest aspects of handmade paper, in my opinion.
This was also where the term deckled edge had originated.
I left the cards spread out on my worktable and went to the sink to clean my tools and thoroughly wash my hands.
I changed from my old jeans and Birkenstocks to a nice pair of slacks and my favorite burgundy heels. Perfect timing, I thought, when Derek walked in a few minutes later.
"You look lovely," he said, earning a kiss from me. "All set to go?"
"I am." And silently gave thanks that Derek truly, really, actually thought my sedate slacks and comfy shoes were lovely.
We had an appointment that afternoon with my lawyer, Carl Brundidge. I wasn't looking forward to the meeting, even though I'd known Carl forever and liked him very much. He was the lawyer for my parents and many of their friends who lived in Dharma. He had an office in San Francisco, where he worked a few days a week, and he had been bugging me and Derek to write up a prenuptial agreement before we got married the following month.
His motivation for having me sign a prenuptial agreement originated almost three years ago, when my longtime mentor, Abraham Karastovsky, was murdered at the Covington Library. In the midst of all that pain and confusion, Carl had informed me that Abraham had left his entire estate to me. In his will, he had called me "the daughter of his heart."
Mine had nearly broken when I heard his words.
But the most astounding news was that Abraham's estate was worth six million dollars. It blew my mind. At the time I had wondered what in the world he'd been thinking, leaving all his money and books and properties and portfolios to me. But I knew the answer. He had loved me as much as I had loved him. As a teacher and a dear, dear friend.
There was so much more to the story, including the startling revelation that Abraham had had a daughter he had never met. She quickly became a friend and moved to Dharma, where my mother treated her like another daughter. I asked the lawyers to restructure things so that she could live in Abraham's house in Dharma and also draw from a trust fund we set up.
The meeting with Carl that afternoon went well, after I assured him that I was absolutely not going to sign some endless agreement filled with lawyer-speak gibberish. Carl must have anticipated my determination because, in the end, Derek and I signed a two-page agreement that stated, essentially, that what was mine was mine and what was his was his. And what we shared would always be ours together.
Carl was just doing that thing that lawyers do, protecting his client's best interests. I understood that and so did Derek. What Carl didn't understand was that Derek and I were never going to part ways. So that made it simple.
As we walked to the elevator after the meeting, I turned and gazed up at Derek. "All that talk of portfolios and investments is making me hungry."
"I anticipated as much," he said, his lips curving in a shrewd smile. "I've already made reservations at Alexander's for dinner."
I grabbed him in a tight hug. "You know me so well."
To tell the truth, the meeting had depressed me a little. It was the thought of all that money just sitting in a bank somewhere when I could be using it to help people. I said as much to Derek, who reached over and squeezed my hand. "Let's give it some thought. Together we can come up with a way to put some of it to good use."
At the restaurant, we ordered a nice bottle of wine to start. After a few sips, we placed our order. But just as I was about to mention my favorite twice-baked potato, I remembered my mission. I sighed and switched to a side of grilled asparagus. Derek promised to give up a few bites of his potato, so I figured I would survive the meal without too much of a problem.
We talked about his parents and some of the things we had planned for them.
"Afternoon tea at the Garden Court is a must," he said. "And we should find my father a good piece of pie."
"I've already made reservations for tea," I said between bites of steak. "But what's this about pie? Is that a requirement?"
"My father loves pie. All sorts of pie, but especially chocolate cream pie. It's a quirk of his."
I nodded. "We all have our quirks."
"Yes, we do." He grinned. "I thought we could search for the best places in town for pie and surprise him."
"I'll get right on it."
It was nice to relax and chat while dining in a dark, quiet restaurant. Derek told me stories about his parents and I grew happier with the idea of meeting them.
But on the way back to the car, I stumbled on a crack and started to fall forward. Derek grabbed me just as I was about to tumble face-first into the blacktop.
"Are you all right?" he asked, gripping my arm.
"I'm okay," I said, but I was breathing heavily. "Thanks for saving me from a face plant." I had to wait a moment before trying to walk again, then took one step and faltered. "I'm afraid my shoe is ruined."
"Let's get to the car and we'll inspect the damage."
With that, he lifted me into his arms and carried me the remaining fifty feet to his car. I'm relatively tall and not exactly waiflike, so I considered this a major feat. And sure—hooray for feminism! But come on, what woman wouldn't enjoy being swept off her feet by a gorgeous man who looked down at her with love shining in his eyes. My little heart was pitter-pattering like a drum line.
"You are truly my hero," I said, resting my head on his shoulder.
"And you are mine," he said, and kissed me before setting me down on the ground so I could climb into the car.
Was it any wonder I was marrying the guy?
Once we were in the car, Derek examined my shoe in the overhead car light. "It's only the heel that was damaged. See how it popped right off? The rest of the shoe is perfectly fine."
"I'm so bummed. I was going to wear those shoes when we take your parents to dinner on Saturday."
"Surely you have another pair, darling."
"Of course I do," I said with a laugh. "But these are my favorites." And the thought of breaking in a new pair in less than a week was discouraging. These shoes were the perfect heel height and they looked good and felt wonderful, especially to someone who spent most of her day wearing Birkenstocks.
I didn't want to mention it out loud, but I had already made a list of all the outfits I planned to wear for every activity we'd scheduled for the week with the parents. My burgundy heels were featured in at least three of them.
"It serves me right for trying to wear high heels when I walk around all day in sandals. But heck, I haven't seen Carl in a long time so I wanted to dress up for our meeting."
Derek reached over and squeezed my hand. "You'll take them to Joey the cobbler tomorrow. Perhaps he can have them ready before my parents arrive."
"I'm sure he can fix it in a few days." And if not, I thought as my stomach began to churn with anxiety, I would be going shoe shopping tomorrow.
The next morning, feeling some residual panic at the thought of having to shop for new shoes in a hurry, I jogged across the street to the Courtyard, where Joey the Cobbler had his shop. If he could fix my heels in time, I would be saved.
Joey had inherited the shop from his father, the original Joe the Cobbler, and he was standing at the front counter examining a pair of men's oxfords.
Joey was in his mid-thirties and genuinely hunky with dark hair, strapping arms, and a sexy smile. His shop was reasonably clean and tidy, which was sort of unusual in a shoe repair shop.
Joey also had a good heart and took pity on me, promising he'd have my heel fixed in two days.
"Thank you, Joey," I said, my relief obvious.
"No worries, Brooklyn," he said. "I'll have them ready for you by Friday afternoon."
"I really appreciate it."
"And I really appreciate your business," he said in a wolfish whisper that let me know he really appreciated my business.
I smiled and walked out of the shop, wondering if I had any other shoes that needed mending.
Early the following morning at breakfast, Derek reminded me of my pledge to find a good piece of pie.
"That's my main goal for the day," I said, taking a sip of coffee. "But you know, it might entail some taste testing."
"Poor baby." He sighed theatrically. "We do what we must."
I laughed and he joined in.
But slowly his eyes glazed over and he stared off at nothing in particular. "My mother bakes the best pies."
"My mother is a pretty good baker, too." A talent I had not inherited. Derek's mood was so odd, I blew out a breath and made an offer. "Derek, did you want me to bake a pie for your father?"
That brought him right back to earth. "Good lord, no."
I blinked. "You don't have to be so quick to answer."
He laughed. "I'm sorry, love. I only meant that I don't want you to go to the trouble. Look, you'll go across the street to the pie shop. They have perfectly decent pies, as I recall."
I thought for a moment. "I'm willing to taste a few of them, because I'm a giver. And if one of them is fantastic, I'll buy it. Otherwise, we can wait until your father arrives and go around town tasting together. We'll make an afternoon of it."
"That's an excellent idea. I'm glad you thought of it."
I smiled fondly. "What made you think of pie?"
"I'm feeling nostalgic, I suppose. What with the parents arriving and all." He reached across the table for my hand. "How are you feeling about the visit?"
I'm terrified, I thought, but couldn't say it. Instead I kept smiling and nodding. "I'm excited."
Derek chuckled. "No, you're not—you're worried. I'm not quite sure why you don't want to admit it, but, darling, you have no reason to be dreading this meeting."
So he could read my mind. I should've known; he'd done it before. "You're right, I'm not fine at all. 'Scared stiff' would be more accurate."
He stood and circled the table, knelt down, and rubbed my knee affectionately. "Why, love?"
I looked him in the eyes. "I want them to like me, of course. But what I'm really panicking about is the thought of introducing your parents to mine."
His eyes widened briefly and then he nodded slowly. "I wish I could convince you that everyone will get along, darling. My parents are lovely people, but . . . oh, why sugarcoat it? You should be terrified. You should run for your life. My parents are brain-sucking zombies. Don't laugh now. I'm serious."
But I was already laughing. Somehow the words "brain-sucking zombies" sounded even more absurd when uttered by someone as cultured and serious and English as Derek Stone.
"All right," I said finally, after another good laugh. "Thank you. I feel like an idiot, but I'll snap out of it any minute now."
"I'm here to help." He chuckled, but his smile faded. "Darling, honestly, you mustn't worry. My parents are going to love you. They're cheerful and easygoing and they can't wait to meet you. And as for your parents, I adore your family. My parents will, too."
"I'm sure you're right. I don't know where all this anxiety is coming from. In my more rational moments, I absolutely know we're all going to have a great time."
"Yes, we are." He stood and gathered our dishes and walked them into the kitchen. Coming back to the table, he squeezed my shoulder. "Are you sure you're all right?"
"I'm fine, and I really mean it this time."
"Okay, good. I've got to get going." He walked into his office, formerly my second bedroom, before our big remodeling job a few months earlier. He came out carrying his briefcase, and I stood and kissed him and gave him a warm hug.
"How do you feel about having a party at the office for my parents?" He paused for a quick moment. "Probably next Saturday would be the best evening."
"That's a great idea," I said. "I'm sure they would love to see your offices and meet all your people."
"I'll get Corinne working on it," he said. His assistant was brilliant at organizing such things.
"If she needs anything from me, just have her call."
"Thanks, love." And after another quick kiss for me and an affectionate scratching behind the ears for Charlie, he left for the day.
After cleaning up from breakfast, I went to pour myself another cup of coffee and found the pot was empty.
"Bummer," I muttered. Derek must've grabbed an extra cup earlier, before I was awake. I washed out the pot and then headed for my workshop to continue working on my deck of playing cards. But as soon as I walked into my workshop, I realized I wouldn't be able to function without another cup of coffee. I wasn't addicted, I told myself. I just wanted a little more.
I gazed out the window at the beautiful cold morning and decided to jog over to the Beanery to get a caffe latte.
Maybe I was just trying to avoid work, but I didn't think so. I loved my work. I just wanted a latte. I shrugged as I grabbed my warmest hoodie and slipped it on. If caffeine was an addiction, there were worse ones out there. Right?
It was barely six thirty in the morning, but happily, the Beanery opened early.
Crossing the street, I noticed that Sweetie Pies was open, too, for those who craved an early morning breakfast pie. And who didn't? I wondered, smiling. Maybe after I bought my latte, I would pop in to check out the pie selection for Derek's dad's visit.
I passed through the center archway and strolled into the inner courtyard. The tables and chairs were deserted this early on such a cold day. Following the winding path to the Beanery, I glanced through the window of the Rabbit Hole—and noticed a strange sight. Something was definitely out of place.
Rabbit didn't usually open this early, but I tried the door anyway—and walked in on complete chaos.
One of the massive stainless steel grocery shelves was toppled over and hundreds of cans and bottles were scattered across the floor. I heard moaning and almost tripped over Rabbit, who was sprawled on the floor.
"Rabbit!" I shouted and knelt down to find his pulse. It was weak, but he was still alive. The pressure of my fingers against his neck caused him to moan again. Thank God. Usually when I stumble upon people sprawled across the floor, they're dead.
I pulled my phone from my purse to call 911 and that was when I saw a pair of feet sticking out from under the heavy shelf. Someone was trapped beneath it!
"Hold on!" I yelled. Kicking several cans out of the way, I grabbed the edge of the shelving unit and tried to lift it. It wouldn't budge. It didn't look that heavy at first, but now I realized it had to weigh hundreds of pounds. It was double sided and weighted at the bottom. It couldn't have fallen over on its own, could it?
Had there been an earthquake? I hadn't felt anything—certainly not one strong enough to dislodge a huge grocery shelf in the last twenty minutes or so.
Maybe a rod or something in the shelf itself had broken off, causing it to collapse.
I was thinking all those thoughts as I gingerly crept to the other side to get another angle on the situation. There were cans of vegetable juice and jars of tomato sauce and veggies everywhere, so I had to walk gingerly, because one wrong step would send me flying. As I knelt down to see what I could see under the shelves, I caught the distinct scent of perfume.
I sniffed again. It was Bonnie's scent. Oh no! Was she the one trapped beneath this crushing weight?
But after shouting her name, I stared back at those feet again. They definitely belonged to a man, based on their size and shape and the black hairs showing around the ankles. I had to wonder why he wasn't wearing shoes on this cold spring morning, but that was a question I would save for later.
I shifted my body to get a better hold on the shelving and tried to lift it again, using every ounce of strength I could muster. After a moment, I had to quit. It was just too heavy. I exhaled from the exertion and flexed my fingers to shake away the soreness.
"I can't lift it," I said loudly, hoping the guy under there could hear my voice. "I'm going to get help."
I stood up, and that was when I saw the trail of blood wending its way out from the vicinity of the man's head.
Feeling sick to my stomach, I staggered over to the door and called the police.
© Kate Carlisle
Return to the Once Upon a Spine page