Peril in Paperback
"We call it the Library Suite," my hostess said, beaming with pride as she led me into the spacious bedroom that would be all mine for the next six days.
"I can see why." As I looked around the room, I hoped my expression remained calm despite the volatile mix of shock, fascination and trepidation coursing through me as I took in the mad proliferation of books.
I love books, but this is crazy, I thought. That funny old cliché about the walls closing in on you? It wasn't so funny anymore. On the other hand, there were so many books, I wouldn't be able to see if the walls were getting closer or not.
"Isn't it marvelous?" Grace said, tugging to smooth out the pale sage duvet cover on the king-sized bed. "Ruth teases me about my book obsession, but I have a good time with it."
"I'm stunned," I muttered. It was the truth. The number of books she'd managed to cram into this spacious bedroom-sitting room was astounding.
I'm Brooklyn Wainwright, book restoration expert and lover of books, good food and wine, and lately, donuts. I had driven up to Lake Tahoe that morning with my two favorite neighbors, Suzie Stein and Vinnie Patel, to spend the week at the home of Suzie's wealthy, eccentric Aunt Grace Crawford. We were here to celebrate Grace's birthday. It was the Big 5-0, and Grace wanted to do it up in style.
Grace's good friend, Ruth Kinsley, had convinced Grace to celebrate her 50th birthday with an old-fashioned house party on the Lake. In her engraved invitation, Grace had promised her guests that this week-long party would be the most delightful, most fabulous shindig ever; the sort of party we'd all still be talking about for the next fifty years.
I was looking forward to the party atmosphere, but I also hoped I might get some quiet relaxation time. After all, I was about to spend seven long days in a gorgeous home with little else to do all day but sit around and enjoy the quiet beauty of its idyllic lakefront setting. Sounded good to me. I'd been working too hard lately and the long hours were starting to catch up with me. In fact, watching Grace refold the cashmere throw at the end of the bed made me want to lie down and take a nap.
"I looked over my list of guests," Grace said, fluffing one of the pillows. "And I couldn't think of anyone who would appreciate this room more than you."
"That's sweet, Grace," I said, hoping she could hear the sincerity in my voice as I parked my rolling suitcase near the foot of the bed. "You know how much I love books."
"You and me both," she said, laughing as she glanced around. "I guess that's pretty obvious."
I laughed with her. It would be rude not to, right? I continued my slow turn, gazing at the four walls that were covered in bookshelves crammed with books. There was the occasional window, thank goodness, and a few pieces of necessary bedroom furniture: an elegant dresser and mirror; a small but comfortable loveseat that faced two matching chairs at one end of the large room; and a sumptuous bed with an ornate, paneled headboard filled with—you guessed it—more books. Other than those items of furniture and the windows, it was bookshelves that occupied every inch of wall space. Even the dresser held a row of books lined up beneath the matching mirror.
"I had no idea you had so many," I said.
She lifted her shoulder in a shrug. "I can't seem to quit collecting."
Time to seek professional help, I thought, not unkindly, as I continued to survey the room. I knew Grace was a book lover. That was how we'd met. About a year ago, Grace had mentioned to her niece, Suzie, that she wanted some of her favorite books rebound, so Suzie had recommended me. Since then, Grace and I had done business several times. I'd visited her home once before and we'd had afternoon tea in her grand salon.
Grace Crawford was nothing like what I'd expected. I had imagined a genteel, gray-haired granny type who knitted quietly, surrounded by her twelve cats. For excitement, she played a mean game of canasta.
Instead, Grace was down to earth and fun. A ball of energy, she was petite, like Suzie, and wore her dark brown hair cut in a sassy bob. She favored bright, loose clothing, long dresses and flowing tops that billowed dramatically when she walked into a room. The first time I met her, I'd had the instant impression of a colorful, tropical bird in perpetual motion. I liked her.
Except for this massive home perched on twenty private acres overlooking Lake Tahoe—well, and the gazillions of valuable books and all the lovely, expensive furniture and furnishings and artwork inside the house—you would never know that Grace Crawford was a self-made billionaire. She had made her fortune in the computer gaming industry and was recognized among her family and friends and most of the world at large as the original geeky game girl. In personality and demeanor, she was the oddest blend of old-world elegance, laid-back sixties cool and nerdy earnestness. I liked all those aspects of her. And Grace's quirky sensibilities—such as, putting a suit of armor in the powder room, or serving bite-sized Twinkies next to the delicate cucumber sandwiches at afternoon tea—never failed to make me smile.
Plus, she'd given me a lot of business lately. I liked that about her, too, naturally.
Vinnie had often referred to Grace as a book hoarder, but I'd dealt with a true hoarder recently and couldn't agree with Vinnie's assessment. When I walked through the rooms of Grace's home, I didn't get the same closed-in, claustrophobic, unstable feeling that I'd felt inside the hoarder's house. Grace was an unconventional collector, for sure, but a "hoarder?" I didn't think so. But now seeing this room, this Library Suite in which I would be living for the next seven days, I was beginning to think twice.
Still, the room was beautifully furnished, large, and most of all, clean. There was no scent of mustiness either. A hint of mustiness could be charming in a hole-in-the-wall used bookstore on Green Street in San Francisco, but not in a bedroom in which I would be sleeping for a week.
So here I was in a clean, charming bedroom with lots of books and even a small couch where I could relax in quiet comfort. Why was I complaining? I wondered. And right then and there, I made a decision to be grateful and enjoy this room with all its books and nooks and crannies and quirkiness.
When Grace had called to invite me to her birthday party, she'd asked if I wouldn't mind doing some bookbinding work while I was here. I had immediately agreed and had packed my travel set of tools and repair supplies. I was always happier when I was busy with books. Grace not only wanted some repairs made, but she had also asked me to check out and oversee the library archivist she'd hired recently to catalog her extensive collection of books.
Glancing around the room now, I realized what a huge job it would be. Heck, it would take more than a week to catalog this one bedroom alone. The archivist and I had our work cut out for us.
Grace was watching me, so I flashed her a genuine smile as I gave the walls one more glance. "Thank you so much. I know I'll have a wonderful time here."
She seemed pleased as she nudged her glasses up her nose. "Now, the library is just down the hall, so you can come and go without disturbing anyone else in the house. Most of the other guests are on the second and third floor bedrooms, but I didn't think you'd mind being on the first floor."
I was determined to ease her mind. "I don't mind at all. This couldn't be better. You know me. Can't get enough books, right?"
She laughed, a sweet trilling sound completely incongruous with her geek-dynamo personality, but charming. "I'll let you get settled, then I'll tell you what I've told everyone else. I want you to feel free to explore the whole house. I know you've been here before, but you've never had the full tour. You've got to see some of the other rooms. There are many surprises."
"I can't wait. I've heard about some of them," I said. On the drive earlier, Vinnie had given me a hint of some of the more bizarre features of this gigantic funhouse.
"Oh, good." She rubbed her hands together gleefully. "If I were you, I would start with the conservatory. We have a marvelous collection of exotic flora and it's such a soothing, pretty space. But when you get tired of all that peace and quiet, the game room is not to be missed. It's so much fun."
"That's what Suzie said."
"Suzie loves the game room. And the music room is pretty special if you're into musical instruments. We have a three-hundred year old harpsichord that still sounds beautiful. And we can supply a complete wind and brass section for anyone who's in the mood to jam. And percussion of course. Every noisemaker you can think of." She laughed, then added, "Or you can just have a seat and watch things happen. There's a player piano, of course, but I've also rigged some puppets to play saxophone and guitar. It's totally awesome."
She had morphed into an excited young gamer. "It sounds like fun," I said. "I can't wait to do some exploring."
"It's an adventure for sure." She took a breath and appeared to remember she was a grown-up. Grabbing my arm, she strolled with me to the bedroom door. "We're all meeting for cocktails at five o'clock in the gold salon. That's up the grand stairway, turn left and go halfway down the hall. It's on the north side of the house, overlooking the lake. I drew a map for everyone and left one on your nightstand."
"Oh, thanks. I think I remember how to find the grand staircase, but after that I'm lost."
She chuckled. "Ruth dubbed it the 'grand stairway' when she first saw it and we've called it that ever since. It's just the main staircase off the front door."
"I remember. It is pretty grand, now that you mention it."
She smiled. "If you get lost, just look out any window. If you can see the Lake, you're looking north. We have two main hallways running the length of the house, one in the front of the house and one in the back. Two side halls, the East and the West. If you can remember that your room is off the back hall, closest to the lake, you'll always find your way."
"I think I've got it," I said, utterly confused.
She laughed again. "Oh, you'll get lost once or twice, but that just makes it all the more fun. Now don't be late for cocktails. I can't wait for all my favorite people to meet and mingle."
"I'll be there," I assured her as we waved goodbye to each other. I stood at the doorway and watched her walk down the wide, wood-paneled hall and turn a corner. Grace didn't know me very well yet, but suffice to say I wouldn't miss a cocktail party for the world. I decided I would scout out the gold salon on my tour this afternoon. That way, I wouldn't get lost and be late for cocktails. That would be rude.
Twenty minutes later, my suitcase was emptied and stowed in a corner of the walk-in closet. I had hung up my dressy clothes and folded everything else in the dresser drawers. All my toiletries were arranged along the counter in my private bathroom and I'd placed the books I'd brought with me on the table next to the loveseat under the pretty bay window. As it turned out, bringing a few books along wasn't quite as necessary as I'd thought when I packed them. But how was I to know Grace Crawford owned every book ever written?
"Are you all settled?"
I glanced up and saw Vinnie standing in the open doorway. Suzie stood behind her wearing a curious grin as her gaze swept my odd, book-filled room. "Wow."
"Tell me about it."
"Holy kabobs, Brooklyn," Vinnie whispered, her voice tight with alarm as her eyes goggled at the sight of all those books. Abruptly, she whipped around and wagged her finger at Suzie. "This is exactly what I was afraid of." Then she whirled back to me, wearing a look of regret. "I'm sorry. Why don't we try to find you another room?"
"I'm okay here," I insisted. "I like it."
She turned back to Suzie. "You must apologize to Brooklyn for your aunt's crazitude."
"I'm not sure that's a word, babe," Suzie said.
"It should be," Vinnie said darkly. "It describes Grace perfectly."
"I think this is cool," Suzie said, walking into my room and looking around. "Besides, Brooklyn's met Aunt Grace before and knows she's a book nut. And she's been to the house before, too. So what's the big deal?"
"I never saw this room before," I muttered, then chuckled. "If Derek were here, he'd laugh his ass off. Me, entrapped by books. Obviously, my book-obsessed karma has come back to bite me on the butt."
"Wow, two butt mentions in less than ten seconds." Suzie gazed at me. "You must miss him a lot."
"I do, but I didn't know there was a correlation between Derek and, you know, butt references."
"Derek has a very attractive backside," Vinnie said. The words were even more humorous when said in her lilting Indian accent.
Suzie wiggled her eyebrows. "Guess you can tell we take the subject of Derek's bum very seriously at our house."
"I appreciate that," I said, smiling. "I do, too. And I do miss him. But I'm happy to be here with you guys. And I know Derek would be happy to hear I was here with you guys for the week."
"He doesn't know you're here?" Vinnie asked.
I shrugged. "He left on assignment three weeks ago and I didn't have a chance to remind him."
"Can you call him?" Vinnie asked.
"I suppose I could if it were an emergency," I said. "But I'd rather not bother him otherwise."
"Don't worry, I'm sure he'd approve," Suzie said, and chuckled. "There's a lot less chance of you getting into trouble if you're with us."
"Not that we believe there will be any trouble," Vinnie said quickly, rapping her knuckles against the smooth wood top of the dresser. "But I'll knock wood just in case."
"Good thinking," I said, and tapped the wood frame of the bathroom door. I can use all the good luck rituals and charms I can get.
© Kate Carlisle
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