Little Black Book

Chapter 1 continued

Read the beginning of the excerpt here

“Cupcakes?” I wondered.

“Let’s hope so.”

He took my hand and we walked over to the door.

“Welcome home,” Alex declared, and strolled in carrying a large, sturdy, plastic cupcake carrier. She looked ridiculously elegant in simple black leggings, black-and-white sneakers, and a sage-green tunic. Setting the carrier on the kitchen island, she turned and grabbed me in a fierce hug. “So glad you guys are home.”

“We are too,” I said. “Thanks so much for taking care of Charlie and for holding our mail. And for cupcakes and for everything else you always do. We really appreciate it.”

“It’s no prob.” She glanced around. “Charlie was right behind me.”

“Charlie?” I called.

Hearing her name, our little beast dashed through the door and immediately begin winding herself around my ankles and mewing loudly.

“Aww. Hello, sweetie,” I said, and picked up the cat. Charlie gave my cheek a light headbutt. “So good to see you.”

Alex smiled. “I think she missed you.”

“I missed her, too.” I rubbed my cheek against her soft fur, enjoying the sound of her contented purring. After another minute of cuddling, I set Charlie on the floor and got down to business. “Now about these cupcakes.”

She laughed. “Twelve of them. Three different flavors.”

Derek joined us. Reaching down, he lifted the pretty white and orange cat into his arms, much to Charlie’s delight. “Alex, honestly. We should be the ones bringing you cupcakes. We owe you.”

“Don’t be silly.” She reached over to scratch Charlie’s neck. “I got to play with Charlie for ten whole days so that’s more than a fair trade. Besides, you know I’m compelled to bake. I can’t seem to help myself. So if I didn’t give some of them to you, I’d have to eat them all by myself.”

“So we’re doing you a favor?” I said.

She grinned. “Exactly.”

“Well, then, how can we refuse?” I glanced up at Derek. “Guess we should have a cupcake.”

“It’s about time.” For a sophisticated international man of mystery, he pretty much turned to putty when it came to cupcakes.

The three of us clustered around the cupcake carrier and Alex snapped off the lid.

“Wow,” I said.

“My thoughts exactly,” Derek said.

I recognized her red velvet cakes with their tall swirl of cream cheese frosting. The chocolate chip cupcakes were slathered in glistening white icing with tiny chocolate chips scattered on top. The third row looked like a yellow cake with white frosting of some kind. I desperately wanted them all, but didn’t say it out loud.

Pointing to each row of cupcakes, Alex said, “You’ve had the red velvet and the chocolate chip before, but this one is something I’ve been experimenting with. I think you’ll love it.”

“Of course we will,” Derek said, examining the new treat. “What is it? Some sort of yellow cake?”

“It’s a lemon meringue cupcake.”

“Oh,” I whispered in awe. “I’ve heard you talk about this.”

“I didn’t want anyone to try it until I’d perfected it.” She wiggled her eyebrows gleefully. “And now I have.”

“They’re so pretty.” The frosting was a towering swirl of shiny white with tiny sprigs of lemon and lime zest sprinkled on top.

“They taste even better than they look,” she assured us.

I glanced at Derek. “We could split one. For starters, I mean.”

“That works for me.”

We both took a bite and discovered a surprise. Inside the cake was a pocket of rich, lemony curd, sweet and slightly tart. The meringue icing was light and fluffy and melted in my mouth.

“This is heavenly,” I said, when I could speak again. “It’s like eating lemon meringue pie.”

“Only it’s cake. Moist and delicious.” Derek surreptitiously brushed a crumb off his sweater. “I believe your talents are wasted running that silly corporation of yours.”

Delighted, Alex laughed and tossed back her long, dark, silky hair. “Thanks.”

“It’s true,” I insisted. “Why sell your soul to high finance when you could be selling cupcakes out on the street?”

The three of us spent a few more minutes laughing and talking and gossiping. After she’d agreed to come over for dinner the next night, Alex headed back home.

Derek went to his office to return some phone calls and I went back to work on the Tom Sawyer. Even knowing that Derek was just down the hall, it was easy for me to become consumed by my work. Books—especially old, decrepit books—had always been a major part of my life and I looked at each one like a dedicated surgeon beheld a suffering patient. How can I make you whole again? How can I improve your life?

The interior pages of the Tom Sawyer were actually in pretty good shape, except for some tears and mild foxing in various sections of the book. I went ahead and separated the cover from the textblock in order to clean the gutters thoroughly and eventually resew the pages with a stronger new thread.

As usual, I got lost in my work and it wasn’t until several hours later that I emerged, ready to call it a day. I straightened my work space and laid a white cloth over the separated sections of the old book to protect them from any dust particles or gusts of wind that might come through the room.

I hadn’t realized that Derek had left the copy of Rebecca on my worktable, but now I saw it and a dozen questions popped into my head. Who had sent it to Derek and why? Why no return address? Was it from someone who simply wanted their book to be refurbished? What was this all about? Maybe they knew that Derek’s wife was a bookbinder but didn’t know my name.

But things were never that simple, were they? Then again, was I making too much of this little mystery? I had been involved in so many mysteries over the past few years that I might’ve been letting my imagination run away with me. Still, it would be smart to slip the Rebecca into our safe, just to be cautious.

Back in the 1920s when this six-story loft-apartment building was a corset factory, my closet had actually served as a dumbwaiter with its rope and pulley system moving supplies up and down between the factory floors. It had a metal floor panel that slid back to reveal a shallow space where I would hide my important papers and any rare books I was working on.

When Derek moved in, he decided that my rare book hiding place needed to be upgraded so we had added a seriously well-built, steel-lined fireproof safe to the closet. Then he had his guys paper the walls of the closet with a thick fire barrier wrap normally used to encase air ducts. Over the wrap he put two layers of fireproof drywall. Drywall mud was applied to the seams and when that was dry, the surface was sanded and painted with a fire-resistant paint. And voila! Our closet safe was effectively fireproofed.

Derek also installed a state-of-the-art security lock that was impossible to pick and set off an alarm if someone tried to open it.

That might’ve sounded like overkill, but our home had been turned into a crime scene more than a few times and it always seemed to revolve around a rare book. Needless to say, we no longer took chances.

No matter how valuable the Rebecca might turn out to be, it would be safe and secure for now.

I joined Derek in the kitchen where he had just poured two glasses of red wine.

“You read my mind,” I said, and pulled a box of crackers from the pantry. I found the round of cheese in the cooler drawer and remembered the little jar of fig and apple compote that my mother had given us, which would be perfect for spreading on the cheese and crackers. Then I filled a small bowl with olives and another with almonds and placed everything on a serving tray.

Derek handed me a glass and touched his to mine. “Cheers, darling. Welcome home.”

“It’s good to be home.” I studied the rich color of the estate-bottled Cabernet Sauvignon we had brought home. “We were smart to bring all these goodies back from Dharma.”

He wisely hid a grin. “Now we won’t have to settle for takeaway on our first official night back in town.”

It was a well-known fact that I didn’t cook. Although, to be fair, lately I had been experimenting with a few simple meals. And since neither of us had come down with food poisoning yet, I considered that a real accomplishment.

I started to take a sip when the doorbell rang. I checked the kitchen clock and saw that it was just after five o’clock. It was still light outside, but not for long. “That’s the downstairs doorbell.”

“Yes. Let’s see who it is.” Derek’s voice was calm. His posture was deceptively relaxed, but I knew he had gone on full alert. As he was the owner of a multinational security firm and a former MI6 operative, it was pretty close to his natural state.

I followed him over to the corner of the kitchen counter where our nifty television monitor and security system were set up. After surviving several disturbing break-ins in the past, our building security had been upgraded last year. The monitor screen would give us a good view of whoever was standing outside our building’s front door, six floors down from our apartment.

An attractive woman stood on the sidewalk. She had dark red hair and I guessed she was in her early thirties. She wore a navy-blue anorak over a thick cable-knit sweater with faded jeans and sturdy ankle boots, an outfit similar to that worn by thousands of San Francisco women in the chilly month of May. Her shoulders were hunched and she held her arms tightly across her chest as though she were freezing from the cold.

And she looked vaguely familiar.

“Yes, hello?” Derek spoke into the microphone.

The woman glanced around as if she might be trying to figure out where that voice was coming from.

“Hello, good afternoon?” Her own voice held a hint of a British accent—was that a brogue? She continued looking around, then noticed the camera up above the door. “Oh, right. Hello. My name is Claire Quinn. I apologize for interrupting your afternoon, but I wonder, if you wouldn’t mind, that is, can you tell me, please. Are you Derek Stone? And did you recently receive a package from Scotland?”

Derek and I turned and stared at each other. Then I glanced back at the woman on the monitor. I moved closer to the screen and took a good, long look. Gazing at Derek, I pressed my finger over my lips in the universal symbol to be quiet.

He leaned into the microphone and said clearly, “Just a moment, please, Ms. Quinn.” He pushed the mute button so the woman wouldn’t be able to hear our conversation.

“I know her,” I said in a hushed tone.

“I thought she looked familiar, as well.”

“She and I worked together on This Old Attic.”

“Ah, yes.” He nodded, connecting the dots.

The popular television show traveled around the country and invited local people to bring their treasured family heirlooms and antiques in to be appraised on camera. When the production company came to San Francisco a few years ago, I was hired to be their book expert for two weeks. I recognized the woman on the monitor as one of the other experts on the show.

“Claire,” I said to Derek. “We were friendly. Do you remember her?”

It was Derek’s turn to study the screen more carefully. “Wasn’t she the weapons expert?”

I beamed. “Good memory. Yes, she specialized in antique weaponry.”

“I watched her discuss various weapons,” he said. “She did a very good job of bringing them to life. But I never had the opportunity to meet her.”

“Things were a little hectic, I guess.”

He lifted an eyebrow. “To say the least.”

Being chased by a cold-blooded killer could hardly be called “hectic,” but Derek let that go.

“She was a big reader,” I explained. “So she and I bonded over books. She brought in some of her favorite old books and asked me if they might be worth anything.”

“Were they?”

“Oh yeah.” They were mostly gothic novels, I realized now. And wasn’t that interesting? “I remember an amazing copy of The Castle of Otranto that was published in 1765. She could’ve easily sold it for ten thousand dollars, but apparently it had sentimental value.” I waved my hands impatiently. “But that’s not important. The package she’s referring to is obviously the Rebecca.”

“Yes.” He frowned. “And apparently she has no idea that you live here.”

“That hit me, too.” I frowned. “She asked for you. Weird, don’t you think?”

“I do indeed. Have you any idea where she’s from?”

“I’m not sure. I always thought she was English, but since she mentioned Scotland, I’m going to bet she’s from somewhere near Inverness.”

Derek’s eyes narrowed. “Just like the package.”

I glanced at the monitor. “We shouldn’t leave her standing out there in the cold. Let’s buzz her in and find out what this mysterious book is all about.”

“I’d rather not buzz her in,” Derek said. “I’ll go down and bring her up.”

He knew his security stuff. Instead of allowing Claire to wander upstairs on her own, he would escort her from the lobby straight to our front door. “Much better idea.”

Derek gave me a nod and a quick hug. “And then we’ll figure out what in blazes is going on.”

He switched off the mute button and said into the microphone, “Sorry to keep you waiting, Ms. Quinn. Did you send the package?”

She pressed her lips together and her eyes narrowed. In frustration? Anger?

I studied the woman for a few long seconds. She wore her thick red hair pulled back in a ponytail and she was very pretty, with a rosy complexion and clear blue eyes. Her leather bag had extra straps that she’d fashioned into a backpack. And despite her warm clothing, she looked chilled to the bone.

I noticed that her shoulders were stiff and her arms were tightly crossed. She was more than just cold. She glanced around nervously and I wondered if she thought someone might be watching her. Or worse. Did she have a partner out of camera range who would attempt to jump Derek? Was this a setup? Would the two of them attack him and rush into our building lobby? Would they race upstairs and break into our apartment?

I confess I have an active imagination. It comes from being confronted one too many times by vicious killers.

And if I were thinking more clearly, I would’ve remembered that it was next to impossible for anyone to get the jump on Derek.

After a long moment Claire admitted, “No, I didn’t send it. I believe my aunt sent it. And now she’s missing.”

Derek and I exchanged a speculative glance and then nodded in unison. He said into the mic, “Please wait a moment. I’ll be right there to let you in.”

He jogged down the hall to his office. A minute later he returned wearing his black leather bomber jacket. He stopped at the console table by the front door to grab his keys and when he turned, I caught sight of him tucking a deadly looking gun into his inside jacket pocket.

“I’m going with you,” I said, pulling on the sweater I’d draped over a dining room chair. It was springtime in San Francisco and with the sun going down, it was growing colder. But that had nothing to do with the chills I felt sprinting across my shoulders.

He eyed me warily. “I’d prefer you to stay here.”

“No way.” I followed him as he hurried across the living room and through the alcove, into my office workshop, where he took a quick glance out the front window. This room had the only street view to the south.

“It looks safe enough out there,” he reasoned. “I’ll only be gone a few minutes.”

“I’m still going with you.”

He gave me a half smile. “Are you worried about me?”

“After everything we’ve been through? You’re darned right I’m worried.”

“And you think you can protect me?”

“I always do.”

With a quick, fierce laugh, he grabbed my hand. “Then let’s go.”

© Kate Carlisle