Murder Between the Pages
An excerpt from novella by Josh Lanyon
The first person I spotted when I stepped into Marlborough Bookstore that blustery May afternoon was Leonard Fuller.
Which, now that I think about it, was rather remarkable given that the room was packed and Josiah Shelton had already begun speaking.
“Is the book a roman à clef? I suppose you might call it that.” Shelton said in his mellifluous voice to the spellbound audience. He was a large man. Not handsome. His iron gray hair was as wild and unkempt as a roadside hedge in winter. His pale eyes protruded in such a way that he seemed perpetually outraged, even now when he was smiling and cheerful and in his element. His nose was too long, his mouth too wide, but the overall effect was of a powerful intellect, a force to be reckoned with.
I made my way through the crowd and found a place near the back of the room.
Shelton continued, asking rhetorically, “Is it satire? No. It is a sincere effort to capture themes and motifs that have absorbed, nay, consumed me for much of my adult life.”
“Poppycock,” muttered an elderly gentleman in the row seated before me.
His female relations tried to hush him.
“Don’t you shush me,” he hissed right back. “He’s in it for the money. Trading on other people’s misfortunes, that’s what he’s done.”
It made me angry to hear him, but no one else seemed to take any notice. Anyway, Shelton didn’t have to prove anything to these people, and certainly not to this old relic who probably thought the pinnacle of Concord’s literary heritage was when Ralph Waldo Emerson and his fellow Transcendentalists used to pop into the Marlborough to check on their book sales.
An unpleasant draft whispered against the back of my neck; the chilly spring breeze finding its way through the gaps in the one hundred-and-fifty-year-old mullioned windows facing the street. The crowded room smelled of wool and tobacco and ladies’ perfume, but mostly it smelled of a century’s-worth of old books.
“With two world wars behind us, who here hasn’t wondered what, if anything, lies beyond the gates of death?” Shelton asked. “Though I have the reputation of a skeptic, even a cynic, I began this project without bias.”
That wasn’t true, of course. No one was without bias. Even a great man like Shelton. In fact, it probably followed that a great man would have great biases.
Or perhaps not. But anyone who knew Shelton knew he was rather opinionated. In fact, we’d had quite an argument over practical occultism only a month ago. Shelton was a ferocious arguer and I always loved a good debate. However, I’d sensed a certain strain since, which was why I’d felt it important to come to his reading that afternoon.
I and everyone else in Concord, it seemed. We’re not Boston but we pride ourselves that we know a thing or two about books and scholarship.
I glanced at Leonard Fuller who was--very rudely--engaged in whispering conversation with Georgie Wolfe, the poetess. Women always gravitate to Fuller, which would be amusing if it wasn’t so ludicrous. His blond head bowed toward her still fairer one, and he was smirking, which is his usual expression with the fairer sex.
As though feeling my gaze, Fuller lifted his eyelashes and met my eyes. His own are a startling and azure blue. It’s a color one feels in the solar plexus -- like jumping out of a plane into cold, empty sky. Your heart seems to stop.
Fuller’s lip curled in greeting. I bared my incisors in reply.
He writes the Inspector Fez so-called mysteries under the moniker of L. F. Monarch. Inspector Fez is nothing but a pale imitation of my own Constantine Sphinx, celebrated gentleman sleuth and Egyptologist, which makes all the more laughable Fuller’s accusation that I stole the idea for The Sphinx from him.
Happily my publisher, Mr. James Cornell--coincidentally also Shelton’s publisher--was able to prove to the jury’s satisfaction what hogwash that was when I sued Fuller in open court for slander.
Fuller has never forgiven me--and I have never forgiven him. Which suits us both beautifully.
Of course we are bound to run into each other now and then, given the size of Concord’s literary community, but not so frequently as to make things awkward.
Fuller was once more listening with fake attentiveness to Georgia. I knew what they were discussing given Georgia’s indiscreet glances at a tall, veiled woman sitting in front of an open-backed bookshelf that towered all the way to the ceiling.
Though wedged in by people, the veiled woman maintained an air of splendid isolation.
Everyone--well, certainly those of us who had read the advance copies of Shelton’s book--knew that the character of Madam Galen was based on Lucinda Lafe, the society hostess and celebrity medium. It was either very brave or a deliberate ploy for publicity for La Lafe to show up here today.
Did that mean the Woolriches were also attending the reading?
I scanned the crowded seats and to my dismay spotted the stony, patrician features of Miranda Woolrich a few rows up. Beside her was Ingham, looking as faded and fragile as papyrus.
A great writer couldn’t be inhibited by other people’s feelings. He had to write the words the Muse whispered in his ear. Even so. I wished the Woolriches hadn’t attended today’s event. It was bound to be painful for them. Even more so once Fuller had finished speaking and the press began to ask their questions.
That was another thing. I hadn’t realized there would be reporters. Not including Bill Reed of the Courant, I counted at least two other newshawks. From Boston? New York? If the New York press had resumed interest in Shelton, he truly was restored to his rightful place in the New England literary pantheon.
I risked another glance at Fuller.
Georgia had wandered away to interrupt someone else’s enjoyment of Shelton’s talk, and Fuller was now standing to the left of a marble bust of Emerson. Fuller had the kind of cinematic good looks that appeal to some people, still there was an uncanny likeness to Emerson’s profile, particularly about the nose. Their twin aquiline appendages tilted upwards as though some noxious odor had assaulted their chiseled nostrils.
Fuller was no admirer of Shelton’s--he was too egotistical to admire anyone he didn’t recognize off a reflective surface--but he could never bear to miss an opportunity to suck up to James. The free food was probably another inducement. It was hard to imagine the Inspector Fez books were still selling well.
Perhaps when the reading was over we would meet upstairs in the lending library and exchange a few unpleasantries over the inevitable tea and cookies. I always looked forward to our skirmishes.
Meanwhile, Shelton was in fine form.
“It is easy to become a Theosophist. Any person of average intellectual capacities, and a leaning toward the metaphysical; of pure, unselfish life, who finds more joy in helping his neighbor than in receiving help himself; one who is ever ready to sacrifice his own pleasures for the sake of other people; and who loves Truth, Goodness, and Wisdom for their own sake, not for the benefit they may confer--is a Theosophist.”
God almighty he could--and did--talk.
“Mr. Shelton, do you consider yourself a Theosophist?” called someone from the audience.
The voice was male and mocking. I couldn’t make out the speaker, hidden as he was amidst the blooms of a garden’s-worth of ladies’ hats. I suspected the heckler was another reporter. We seemed to have a regular infestation of them that afternoon.
“I consider myself to be an artist,” Shelton said. “Art is its own philosophy. My only allegiance is to the written word.”
On the dais behind him, Donald Marlborough, owner of Marlborough Bookstore, James, and Viktor Merlin--who happens to be my own agent as well as Shelton’s--were beaming. They knew the book was going to do wonderfully well and make them all pots of money.
Which was excellent news given how unfairly Shelton’s last two books had been received by the reading public. Not the critics. The critics never failed to appreciate his genius. But a man couldn’t live on praise, however warm.
And speaking of warmth, it was getting stuffy. I loosened my scarf, partially unbuttoned my coat. I hated crowds, though I was glad for Shelton’s sake he was getting such a good audience.
I hoped when the time came he would not read the chapter where the first séance takes place. It was well written, naturally, but it would be impossible not to wonder what the Woolrichs felt hearing those things aloud. Yes, the book was fiction, but it was also the truth. Viktor had told me at lunch over a month ago that he believed this time for sure Shelton would surely be sued for libel.
Shelton never cared about such things. And even Viktor hadn’t seemed unduly worried. He thought the publicity would sell even more copies of the book.
“Maybe that sounds arrogant,” Shelton was saying. “But the true artist has to remove himself from the artificial restraints of a bourgeois morality.”
Fuller yawned widely.
A sigh ripple through the other latecomers standing in the back of the room with me. There were soft whispers, some shifting of weight. Shelton had been speaking for over forty minutes. I wouldn’t have minded a drink, myself. And not tea.
A shot rang out.
A gunshot in Marlborough Bookstore.
Shelton jerked back a step at the loud and unmistakable crack, sounding even louder and more unmistakable in the confines of the crowded room. The tang of gunpowder--no, that was cordite--cut the woolly fug that had settled over the audience.
A .32, I thought. That sounded like a .32. My wits were infuriatingly slow and sluggish. That’s what peacetime will do to you. The report of a pistol had at one time as familiar as the brassy morning bell on my alarm clock, and was now utterly, shockingly alien.
Alien and terrifying in this environment where there were so many civilians.
As I stared, still trying to assemble my thoughts, Shelton swayed, and crashed down on top of the table that had been set up for his signing. The stacks of books tumbled over, thudding, unautographed, to the floor.
Shelton landed face down atop them.
I’d like to say that I reacted with the sangfroid of Farid El Mahfouz when I heard the gunshot that killed Josiah Shelton. But on the level? I was as shocked, as stupefied as anybody else in the audience.
It didn’t help that the crowd seemed to rise as one from the sea of chairs, looking around bewilderedly for the source of the pistol report. You’d think people who had just been through a war would know better. Would hunker down. Make some effort to take cover. But nope. Men and women rose as one, gazing stupidly at each other, seeking explanation, searching for the source of all the commotion.
Except there wasn’t any commotion. Not at first. Nobody was waving a pistol around. Nobody tried to make a run for the front doors. Or even the back doors. The crowd standing at the back of the room looked as surprised and confused as everyone else.
Even Felix Day, who might be a lot of things, but is certainly wide awake, looked as blank as the first sheet in a new pack of typing paper.
Day. I’d seen him the minute he’d entered Marlborough’s. It would have been impossible to miss him, standing at the back of the room in his familiar black tweed coat, looking like an elegant scarecrow. His dark hair was too long and untidy. His scarf was stuffed in the pocket of his coat instead of wrapped around his scrawny neck. But there he stood, pale-faced and blazing-eyed as ever, nearly vibrating with intensity. No doubt imagining Shelton had stolen the idea for this latest book from him and planning his next lawsuit.
A woman in the last row of chairs, gave a little sigh and swooned away into the arms of the guy next to her.
That seemed to be the cue everyone had been waiting for. People started screaming and yelling and pointing. But the pointing was toward the platform where Shelton’s body was sprawled on a pile of books. Don Marlborough and James Cowan knelt beside him. His agent, Viktor Merlin, stood over them, literally wringing his hands.
The employees who had been upstairs preparing the refreshments, crowded down the stairway to see what was going on.
And still nobody made a play for the exits.
Don rose from Shelton’s side. He held his hands up and said, “Please! Please, everyone. Stay calm. Stay in your seats.”
Stay in your seats? With a sniper in the house? Nobody listened. It was doubtful they even heard him over the cries of “Where did it come from?” and “Where is he?”
Lucinda Lafe called, “It came from over here. Almost beside me, I think.”
Beside her? I wouldn’t have been surprised if it had been her, given the things Shelton had said about “Madam Galen” in that pseudo-novel of his.
Out of the corner of my eye I spied movement. The very thing I’d been waiting for.
Felix Day made for the front entrance of the shop, his face white and wild-eyed. His normal expression, in other words.
Well, why not Day? No surprise to me if he’d finally snapped and killed someone.
I pushed my way through the milling crowd determined to stop him from fleeing the scene of his crime. His latest crime--not counting the travesty of Mr. Sphinx Sends His Regrets.
“If you would all just take your seats again,” Don was pleading. “Ladies and gentlemen, please.”
Poor Don. Did he think we were all going to buy a book and sit down for tea and cakes after a murder had taken place? That’s the optimism of a bookseller for you.
I got through the maze of bookshelves in time to see Felix reach the front door at the same time as a large man in a gray overcoat. Preoccupied with Day, I had completely missed this other player in the unfolding drama, which was aggravating as hell.
“Sorry.” Day shoved shut the door. The bell atop gave a cheery jingle. “You can’t leave. We’ve got to wait for the police.”
He was slightly taller, but the man in the overcoat was built like a tank. He calmly sized Day up. “Who’re you?”
Day squared his shoulders. “I’m not here in any official capacity, that’s true. It doesn’t change the fact that a man has been murdered and no one can leave the scene of the crime.”
As usual, using three words for every necessary one--and still failing to answer the question.
“That’s not what I asked,” the large man said. His hair was brown. His eyes a light, indeterminate color. He fixed them on Day with a hard, level look. “I asked you your name.”
Day’s jaw grew stubborn. I wouldn’t doubt there was a mule somewhere in that family tree; I know there’s an ass. But as he glared at the man in the overcoat, his expression altered indefinably. “Felix Day,” he admitted.
“Well, Felix Day, I am the police. I’m Captain Harp of the Concord Police. I’m going to need your assistance. I tried to phone from Marlborough’s office, but there’s no one on the switchboard. I’ll need you to stand here and guard this door while I go for help.”
The bell jingled as Harp yanked open the door and went out, and to my astonishment, Felix let him leave without so much as a peep.
“What the hell?” I said as I reached him. “You let him go?”
Day seemed almost distracted as he replied, “He’s with the police.”
“Are you kidding me? That’s the oldest trick in the book!” I grabbed the door handle--and Felix grabbed my arm with bony but surprisingly strong fingers.
He was scowling--which is his usual expression with me--and I scowled back.
“Oh, no, you don’t,” he said.
“If you don’t want a punch in the nose, let go my arm,” I warned him.
“Just try it.” Felix’s black eyes were narrow and hostile. Again, perfectly normal for him. “Where were you when that shot went off?”
“Me?” I gaped at him. “That shot came from the back of the room. As you very well know.”
“I don’t know any such thing.”
“Where were you? That’s the question.”
His eyes blazed. “Had I been planning to shoot anyone today, it wouldn’t have been Josiah Shelton.”
“Oh, very nice!” I retorted. “Well, maybe you missed and shot Shelton by mistake.”
“I don’t miss.”
“That’s not what the critics say.”
Day’s face turned a nice healthy red.
“Gentlemen! Please!” Mr. Kent, the floor manager, bustled up to us. He’s a small, plump man with small plump hands and a small plump mouth. His hair is as fine and pale as corn silk. “Mr. Marlborough says no one may leave. Please take your seats again.”
“Did you see the guy who just left?” I demanded.
“Someone left?” Alarmed, Kent peered through the window at the swiftly retreating gray overcoat. He relaxed. “That’s Captain Harp.”
“He’s a cop? You’re sure?”
Kent’s frown faded as he studied my face. “Oh, Mr. Fuller. It’s you. I didn’t recognize you for a moment. Yes, yes. That gentleman is with the Concord Police Department. I know him well. An excellent customer. Mostly non-fiction, though he does collect first editions of the Romantic poets.”
“So he is a real cop.”
It wasn’t actually a question, but Mr. Kent said, “Oh, yes!” He smiled. It was a wobbly sort of smile. “For all the good it’s done. If only your own brilliant Inspector Fez had been on the scene when this terrible thing happened.”
I ignored him. “What about the back entrance, Mr. Kent? Is anyone watching to make sure no one slips out through the basement?”
Mr. Kent shook his head. “I don’t think so. I don’t believe most customers know that there is a back entrance.”
“Leave it to you to be familiar with the back entrance of any establishment,” Day observed.
I managed to ignore him that time too, though it wasn’t easy, and turned away to push my way back through the crowd to the main room.
“Len, what has happened?” Georgia cried, reaching out to me.
She’s a poet. They’re congenitally unable to accept the obvious. Always looking for another meaning. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar--and sometimes a gun is just a gun.
“Murder, my sweet,” I threw over my shoulder.
I paused by the staircase and tried to see what was happening on the platform. Only a couple of minutes had passed since that single shot had been fired. People crowded around the dais making it difficult to see. What wasn’t happening was resuscitation. That I’d known the minute Shelton landed on the floor. I’d seen too many guys die to mistake that broken flop. And even if I hadn’t, the look on Don’s face had said it all.
How had the thing been managed?
It didn’t seem possible anyone could have escaped out the front. The bell over the door would have alerted us all to any attempt to exit. No one had tried to run upstairs--and where would they go anyway?
That left the basement.
Or…the murderer was still in this room.
No. I was betting on the basement. I left Georgina talking to air, and ducked down the stairs to the basement, taking them fast.
At the foot of the staircase was a long poorly lit hallway lined with three wooden doors. Having been down here on numerous occasions, I knew that one room was Don’s office and one room was the toilet. Both were unlocked and both were empty. The third door led to the basement.
It was also unlocked and swung soundlessly open onto a large room lined with shelves stacked with bins. The bins were full of new books and labeled with the printed names of publishers.
An interior swinging door led onto yet another room.
I pushed through the swinging door and found myself in a long narrow room filled with packing boxes, paper, string. A single light burned from a bare bulb positioned over a large table.
At the end of the room a woman in a silver fur coat and veiled green hat was frantically tugging at the door handle.
Copyright 2000-18, Josh Lanyon.
All rights reserved.