The Grim Reader

Chapter 1 continued

Read the beginning of the excerpt here

We found a parking space on Shakespeare Lane—more casually known as the Lane—a few blocks south of Arugula, my sister Savannah’s gourmet veggie restaurant, and headed north toward the town hall. The weather had cooled off and I zipped up my jacket to stay cozy.

Derek reached over and pulled my arm through his. “Come over here and we’ll keep each other warm.”

“What a good idea.”

“The Lane looks especially festive today,” he remarked.

“People blow out all the stops for the Harvest. It’s everyone’s favorite season.”

It was lovely to see the leaves changing colors on the trees that lined the Lane. Burnt oranges, dark reds, and golden browns mingled with the occasional stubborn green leaf that refused to accept the inevitable. A few yards ahead of us, one little girl dashed here and there, stooping down to collect the most beautiful leaves she could find to impress her mom and dad.

The shops and cafes had been festooned in their best fall colors. Wreaths, garlands, and tiny twinkle lights decorated doorways and the windows gleamed in the cool sunlight. It was nice to see so many people I recognized. Even the strangers we passed were friendly enough to nod a greeting.

And every single shop window displayed a poster for the upcoming book festival and the Little Women musical to be performed on the last evening.

When we reached the doorway of Warped, my sister China’s yarn and weaving shop, Derek and I stopped and waved. The shop looked toasty and cozy with beautiful wool hats and scarves and intricate wall weavings displayed on every surface. Baskets hanging from the ceiling held gorgeous shawls and blankets in every shade imaginable and the cubbyholes that lined the back wall were bursting with yarns in all the colors of autumn, from warm gold to sage green to dark brown.

All of my brothers and sisters had various shades of blonde hair like our parents, including Savannah, if she would only stop shaving her head every day. China wore her long shiny hair wrapped in a bun on top of her head and she managed to look sophisticated and artistic while I was pretty sure I would’ve looked like a slob.

It only took a few seconds for China to notice us and she came running out to give us big hugs. She wore a gorgeous variegated sweater that she’d obviously knitted herself over slim jeans and lace-up boots. “Come inside.”

I shook my head. “We’re on our way to pick up Mom so we can’t stay. But we’ll see you in the next day or so.”

“No problem,” she said, and reached for the door handle. “Love you guys.”

We waved and continued walking. “I’m so happy we’re here,” I said to Derek.

“I am, as well,” he said. “It’s lovely to recognize more faces each time I return.”

But as we started on the next block I began to feel a chill that had nothing to do with the autumn weather. I realized we were approaching Turturino’s Fish Market, a fabulous place where my parents and most of the town had shopped forever. My steps slowed and I almost stumbled as the flashback hit me. It was a day several years ago when our good friend Gabriel was shot in front of the fishmonger’s shop. I remember Joey Turturino poking his head out from behind the screen door to see what was going on, then running back inside to call the police.

Gabriel lay on the ground, his head puddled in so much blood, I’d almost fainted.

Thankfully, Gabriel had survived and thrived, so I tried not to focus on that old memory but on all the happier ones that had followed.

I glanced up and saw the look on Derek’s face. “You’re remembering too.”

“Yes. I recall that I finally caught up with you at the hospital.” He grimaced. “But that was after I’d seen all the blood on the sidewalk. Someone told me you had gone to the hospital and I thought you were the one who’d been injured. I’ve never driven so fast before or since.”

I squeezed his arm, tried for lightness. “It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship, remember? Between you and Gabriel, I mean.”

He laughed and we let go of that sad memory together.

“We’ll have to invite Gabriel over for dinner,” I said. “I’ve missed him.”

“I spoke to him yesterday. He’s already invited himself.”

“He would.” The thought of seeing Gabriel again cheered me right up. “He can bring the wine.”

We continued chatting about this and that as we walked the rest of the way to the town hall.

I checked my watch as we entered the building. It was three forty-five. Perfect timing, I thought. Dad had mentioned that the festival committee meeting usually wrapped up by four o’clock so Derek and I could sit in the back of the room and watch and listen to the conversation until Mom was ready to leave. I just hoped that, since we were planning to surprise Mom, she didn’t interrupt the meeting to make a fuss over us.

We walked across the empty main hall. We had used this space last year for an unusual installation of photographs of art and artifacts found in one of our wine caves. Recently the photographs had been moved to a smaller space inside the town hall to make room for panel discussions with some of the book festival’s biggest authors and their audience.

“I’m not sure which room the committee members are using,” I said, my voice echoing in the large space. We entered the hallway that led to several meeting rooms and that’s when we heard a loud argument.

“I believe we can figure this out,” Derek murmured.

“Yeah, no kidding.” But I frowned at the sound of a man’s vitriolic tone, followed by my mother’s quiet response. “That’s definitely my mom.”

Derek hustled us toward the door that was open a crack and we slipped inside. Mom didn’t even notice us as we sat down in two of the chairs that lined the back wall.

I took a quick glance at the conference table and recognized almost everyone sitting there. Mom held court at one end and Lawson Schmidt, her co-chair, sat beside her. Saffron Bergeron sat opposite Lawson, wearing a burnt orange poncho and a permanent frown. There was Clyde Good, owner of the Good Book bookshop on the Lane, and next to him was Sue Flanders, an old Deadhead friend of mom’s and an eternal hippie with her long, curly gray hair, granny glasses, tie-dyed sweatshirt, jeans, and chunky work boots.

Winston Laurie, the thinnest man I knew, was there, too. He was a Fellowship member and good friend of our family. Jan Yarnell, my old school pal and spelling bee rival, sat next to him. Jan worked in the Dharma Winery with my brother Austin. He was also a booklover and president of the Friends of the Dharma Library.

I didn’t recognize the cute younger man with the shaggy blond hair, but he was watching the argument with interest. He looked like the dictionary definition of preppy in khakis, a white button-down shirt, and a gray cardigan wrapped jauntily around his neck. There were five others at the table but I was distracted by the ongoing argument with Mom and a big guy who was standing right in front of her. His fist was raised and he was shouting at her.

“Who is that?” I stood and took one step forward, but Derek stopped me. “Wait.”

“You incompetent twit,” the big man bellowed. “This festival will be a complete failure and it’ll be all your fault.”

“What the hell?” I muttered, and shot a glance at Derek, who also stood. I read his body language easily: Ready to kill.

But Mom wasn’t cowed.

“That’s beyond ridiculous,” she said, standing her ground. “This is going to be the most successful event the county’s ever seen.”

“Not if I can’t be there.” He was almost as tall as Derek but much bulkier, with a thick chest and a heavy stomach. He reminded me of an angry bull who was used to throwing his weight around. He was standing so close to Mom that I knew she could feel his breath. It made my skin crawl. “Don’t you know how important I am? My company is on the verge of taking over this whole valley,” he crowed. “I’ve already bought up six wineries and I’m not done yet.”

“Well, you’re done here,” Mom said.

“The media will expect me to be there,” he continued. “Everyone knows my name. You’re a fool if you shut me out.”

I didn’t have a clue what this was all about, but I was seriously going to tackle that guy if he didn’t back off. Nobody raises a fist to my mother and lives to talk about it. Sure, I knew she could handle whatever came her way, but she didn’t have to handle it alone.

The man turned and glared at Lawson, the co-chairman of the committee. I’d known Lawson for years. “And you, Schmidt. You’re nothing but a thief and a liar.”

I blinked at his harsh words.

Lawson stood. He was almost as tall as the blowhard but thin enough that his trousers were hiked up almost to his chest. “Really, Mr. Banyan, you should go.”

Banyan? I’d never heard of him. He was dressed like a San Francisco banker with a dark suit, a white shirt, and a red power tie, but he still came across as a thug. Who was he?

The guy brushed off Lawson and turned back to my mother, wagging his finger in her face. “I know you’re the real troublemaker here and I’ll make sure you pay for this.”

“Time for you to leave, Mr. Banyan.”

“Oh, I will,” he said, his tone threatening. “But don’t try to cross me, lady. You’ve got a happy little family here. Be a real shame if something happened to one of them.”

Mom gasped. “You’re going to be sorry you said that.”

The guy sounded like a mob boss! Incensed and ready to pounce, I took a step forward. Derek grabbed the back of my sweater to stop me. “Your mother is handling this berk just fine.”

I turned on him. “Did you hear what that berk said?”

“Yes, love.”

I was breathing fire, but Derek’s sharp, steady gaze calmed me down. I also appreciated his use of the British slang word for twit or idiot. Banyan was both. So for Derek I compromised. I stayed right where I was and shouted at Banyan, “Get outta here, you jerk!”

Banyan whipped around and sneered at me, then glanced back at Mom. “Can’t fight your own battles, I guess.”

Mom ignored that comment. “If you threaten me or my family again, I’ll have you arrested.”

“Ooh,” he taunted. “I’m so afraid of the Mayberry police force.”

She fisted her hands on her hips. “Just leave, Mr. Banyan.”

“Oh, I’m going.” He turned at scanned the room, eying everyone there. “But you won’t stop me for long. I’ll win this one.”

Lawson bared his teeth, but didn’t make eye contact. Under his breath, he muttered, “Over my dead body.”

Banyan leaned in to Lawson and murmured softly, “Be careful what you wish for.” Then he turned and stormed out of the room.

© Kate Carlisle