Borrowed Crime: A Bookmobile Cat Mystery (9 page)

BOOK: Borrowed Crime: A Bookmobile Cat Mystery
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“The sheriff’s department had already talked to both of them,” I said. “The guy who lives there was gone that weekend, and the conservation officer, the CO, is already following up on some leads.” It was an active investigation, the officer had said, so he couldn’t talk about it. Though he was nice enough, I hadn’t learned much.

“I’ll keep asking around,” I said, “but with the sheriff’s office and this CO working on it, I’m not sure I’ll be able to find out anything they don’t already know.” I looked at her hopefully. “Unless you have some ideas?”

My intelligent and thoughtful aunt frowned. I waited, anticipating words of wisdom or reassurance, or both. Preferably both. Both would be excellent.

“That Deputy Wolverson,” she said. “Is his first name Ash?”

I blinked at her. “Sounds right.” I knew it had something to do with fires, but couldn’t remember exactly what. “Do you know him?”

“Not him.” Aunt Frances ground more pepper onto her salad. “I know his mother. She lives in Petoskey.” She yawned again.

I looked at her fondly. She was too tired for niece reassurances, and, besides, I didn’t really need them. Wanted them, sure, but that was different.

After dinner, I encouraged her toward the living room couch and started a fire. I brought her a book, a blanket, and an Eddie, and asked whether there was anything else I could get her. “I could open the TV if you’d like.”

Throughout the summer, my aunt’s television was hidden away in a clever cabinet that looked so much like an extension of the fireplace mantel that the summer boarders didn’t even know it was there. “Summers aren’t for television,” Aunt Frances always told them. “Go outside and play.” Even in winter, we didn’t use the TV much except for watching movies and the weekly episode of
Trock’s Troubles,
the cooking show that was sometimes filmed in Chilson.

“Not tonight, thanks.” Aunt Frances smiled down at Eddie as he settled on her legs. “You sure you don’t want him?”

I did, but I was trying to learn how to share. Plus, the rain had stopped while we were eating dinner. I’d even seen a few stars while I was doing dishes, and I felt the need to get outside and see some open sky.

When I told Aunt Frances as much, she pulled the blanket up to her neck. “Have a nice time, dear. I’ll be here when you get back.”

I looked at Eddie. “How about you? Will you still be here?”

He closed his eyes at me and didn’t even bother to say “Mrr.”

Outside, the air had shot up at least ten degrees since my walk home. Hard to believe that two days ago we’d been swimming in snow, but these things happened in November. I stood on the porch steps for a moment, enjoying the warm air that must be at least fifty degrees. It wouldn’t stay this way, and I didn’t
really want it to, but there was no reason not to enjoy it while it lasted.

The front door of the house across the street opened and shut. I peered into the dark, but I couldn’t see if Otto Bingham had come outside or if he’d been out and gone in.

I came down the rest of the creaky wooden steps and headed across the street. It was just plain weird that neither Aunt Frances or I had ever talked to the guy. He’d lived there for weeks, and at this time of year he was our only neighbor for a block in either direction.

“Mr. Bingham?” I crossed the street, looking for nonexistent traffic both ways because I couldn’t make myself not check. “How are you tonight?”

The man, because there was indeed a man standing at the bottom of his porch steps, looked straight at me. But as I got closer, I could see that he wasn’t smiling the polite neighborly smile I’d expected. Instead he was giving me a look that was more deer in the headlights than anything else.

Which was weird, but now that I was standing in front of his picket fence, I was already committed to a conversation. “I’m Minnie Hamilton.” I considered holding out my hand, but eyed the distance and decided against it. There were unwritten rules about handshake distances, and I was pretty sure the gap between Mr. Bingham and me was outside the appropriate range.

Then again, since he hadn’t said anything, it was getting awkward even without the handshake. “Um, you are Mr. Bingham, aren’t you?”

He nodded in a vaguely friendly way. Well, it wasn’t unfriendly, anyway.

“Okay, good. Like I said, my name is Minnie. I live
at the boardinghouse in the winter, with my aunt, Frances Pixley.”

Mr. Bingham jumped visibly when I said my aunt’s name. I frowned. A mention of my aunt usually made people smile, if anything. What was with this guy? I studied him a little closer. Well dressed, handsome enough—if you didn’t mind a cleft chin—with salt-and-pepper hair, and, judging from the distance between porch railing and the top of his head, tallish. He had “retired successful professional” written all over him. So why was he jumpy?

Puzzled, I went on. “I work at the library here in town and”—I paused for my coup de grâce—“two or three times a week I drive the bookmobile.” I waited for his reaction. If this guy didn’t respond to the mention of a bookmobile, he was a lost cause.

He wasn’t. His lips started to curl up at the corners, curving into what ended up as a very attractive smile.

“Minnie?”

I turned. Aunt Frances stood on the porch, waving a cordless phone at me. “Phone call for you, dear!”

“Be right there,” I called, turning back to Mr. Bingham.

But his front door was already closing with a soft
click
.

I squinted at it, then shrugged and trotted across the street.

“Who is it?” I asked, taking the phone from my aunt’s hand.

She started doing what generous people might have called a hula, so I knew it was Kristen on the other end of the line. Not that anyone did the hula in Key West, but, then again, I’d never been to Key West, so what did I know?

“Do people do the hula down there?” I nodded a thanks to my aunt, who had opened the front door for me.

“Da dah dah daaaa,” Kristen sang.

“Seriously?”

She snorted. “No idea. Us locals don’t pay attention to that touristy stuff. We’re too busy enjoying the sunshine and warm air.”

“It was warm here today,” I protested.

“I can Google your weather reports, you know. Plus, that webcam the city has downtown showed all sorts of snow on Saturday. And now rain.”

That darn Internet. “I like snow.”

“Yeah, and I like beating my head with a hammer because it feels so good when I stop.”

With our standard opening greetings done, there was a pause. “So, what’s going on down there?” I asked. “Anything fun?”

“Not really,” she said, but instead of launching into her usual litany of snorkeling, sunset watching, bike riding, and hammock napping, she hesitated, then said, “Just wanted to make sure you’re okay. After Saturday and, all that.”

That was Kristen, crusty on the outside, tender on the inside, just like the sourdough bread she loved to make. I couldn’t imagine a better best friend. I started to tell her so, but stopped just in time. She’d be embarrassed, I’d feel bad for making her feel embarrassed, and why clutter up our conversation with that kind of thing?

“Yeah,” I said, slipping off my coat. “I’m okay.”

“More or less?” she asked.

Less, really, but I’d been doing well at faking it since Saturday night. “More?” I suggested.

“Bzzz!”
Kristen said. “Wrong answer. Try again.”

So I hung up my coat, headed to the bright lights of the kitchen, and told her everything.

It’s good to have friends, and it’s really good to have a best friend.

Chapter 6

T
he next day ended up busy with meetings, an evaluation of the staff’s holiday-decoration plans, and a workshop directed toward senior citizens on how to order gifts online. All of these tasks were made more complicated by my efforts to avoid Stephen while trying not to look as if I were avoiding Stephen.

I knew the longtime library employees had perfected the skill years before, and once or twice I was tempted to ask for tips when Stephen came down for his twice-a-day walkabouts, but I stopped myself just in time.

Bad enough that I was trying to stay out of Stephen’s way in the first place; the possibility that my friends would learn about my lapse in fortitude was one step past what I was willing to endure.

So I kept busy keeping my head down. The overcast Tuesday (during which I’d received another postcard from Kristen:
Key West, warm and sunny. Chilson, cold and cloudy. Silly you
.) eventually turned into a sunny Wednesday, and as the sky cleared, so did my head.

Research. What I needed to do was research, and lots of it.

I worked nose to the grindstone all morning and finished off the things that had to be done. After a quick lunch of leftovers (Aunt Frances–made lasagna from the night before), I settled into an afternoon stint at the reference desk, hoping for once that there wouldn’t be many questions to answer.

“Hey, Minnie. I got a question for you.”

I looked up, then up some more. Looming in front of the desk was Mitchell Koyne, one of the tallest men I’d ever met in my life. He was also one of the oddest men I’d ever met.

Though he was clearly intelligent, he’d never seen any need to get more than a high-school diploma, and I wasn’t absolutely sure he’d bothered to do that. And even though he was about my age, he seemed to have no desire to move out of his sister’s attic. And, judging from the amount of pizza boxes piled in the bed of his beater pickup truck, his diet was that of a teenager’s.

Plus, he was what my coworkers called a library fixture. Mitchell, in his baseball cap, jeans, and flannel shirts, spent more afternoon and evening hours in the library than most of the staff did. Never mornings, though. As far as I knew, he’d never once set foot inside the library in the a.m. hours. Josh’s current theory was that Mitchell spent his nights poaching deer; Holly and I believed he stayed up late playing video games.

But despite his lack of education or even a permanent job, Mitchell’s mind had been cast in an inquisitive mold, and hardly a day went by when he didn’t come in with a question for whoever was staffing the reference desk.

Hardly a day until a couple of months ago, rather, because that was when Stephen had come down with a new edict for me: Get rid of Mitchell. Or at least make
sure he didn’t spend so much time in the library, asking pointless questions of the library staff, who had much better things to do.

Though I’d tactfully pointed out that answering questions was one of our main functions as a public library, Stephen hadn’t cared. He wanted fewer Mitchell hours in the library, and that was what he was going to get—or it would be my fault, forever and ever.

For a while I’d hoped Stephen would forget the issue, but I should have known better. Instead of the edict fading away to nothing, my procrastination only fanned the flames of Stephen’s determination.

Happily, a little more procrastination on my part had solved the problem. Well, actually, Mitchell solved the problem himself. He’d hovered on the edges of two recent murder investigations and had managed to convince himself that he’d been a critical part of the solution. Ergo, his latest career move was to set himself up as a private detective.

At the end of the summer, he’d spent a lot of time handing out business cards fresh from his sister’s laser printer.
NORTHERN DETECTI
VE AGENCY. MYSTERIES
SOLVED BY MITCHELL K
OYNE
.

His pride had been so self-evident and he’d been working so hard telling people about his new business—it was a lightning-striking-twice rarity to see Mitchell work hard at anything—that I’d waited a couple of weeks to burst his bubble. I’d pulled him into my office, shut the door, and said, “Mitchell, did you know that the State of Michigan has licensing requirements for private investigators?”

I’d rarely felt so sorry for anyone as I did for Mitchell at that moment. If I hadn’t been sitting behind my
desk, I would have . . . well, probably not hugged him, but I definitely would have patted his shoulder. Librarians need to have boundaries, especially with people like Mitchell.

He’d pulled his business cards out of his shirt pocket and stared at them. “Licensing?” he asked dully. “Like a fee or something?”

Classic Mitchell. So very smart in so many ways, yet completely clueless in so many others.

I’d shown him the list of requirements.

“Huh,” he said. “I’ve got everything except this.”

He pointed to the necessity for a licensee to have a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice or the alternative of three years working either as a private detective in another state, three years as a police officer, or three years as an investigative employee of a licensed private-detective agency. I was sure he also didn’t have the required ten-thousand-dollar bond, but first things first.

“You think there’s a detective agency around here anywhere?” he asked. “With my experience, I bet I can get a job with them, easy. Get my three years, then I can go out on my own.”

“Um . . .”

He’d nodded to himself. “Yeah, that’ll work. Thanks, Min!”

For two weeks, Mitchell didn’t darken the door of the library. When he returned, he’d changed his business cards to
NORTHERN INQUIR
IES. PROBLEMS SOLVED
BY MITCHELL KOYNE
.

I’d breathed a sigh of relief. While there was no telling what kind of messes he might get himself into, at least he wouldn’t get into trouble with the licensing authorities. And Stephen had checked Mitchell off
Minnie’s to-do list, because whatever Mitchell was doing with his time these days, he wasn’t spending as many hours at the library.

However, things just weren’t the same without a daily dose of Mitchellness. Josh said it wasn’t the same—it was better—but Josh was a guy and therefore couldn’t be counted on to be truthful regarding matters about another guy.

So now I looked at Mitchell, trying to guess what was going on inside his head. But that was an exercise doomed to failure, so I gave up and smiled at him. “Hey. What’s up?”

Grinning, he scratched at his stubbly face and hefted a bulging plastic bag. “Look what I scored from the sale upstairs.”

“That’s a lot of books.”

“Yeah. I’d heard there were a bunch of donations last week, so I wanted to get in here before anyone else.”

Because clearly there was such a rush at the Friends of the Library book sales in November. “What did you get?” I asked.

He dumped the contents of the bag across the reference desk. “I got
The Anansi Boys
,
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
, and a whole bunch of books by Dean Koontz. What I really wanted was George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones books—you know, the ones on TV. They said a boxed set came in a week ago, but what’s-her-name got to it right away, that Allison who married a Korthase. You know.”

Not really. Mitchell was forever talking about people he knew that I didn’t, so I did as per usual and just nodded.

“And,” he said proudly, “I got four of Dan Brown’s
books. Say, do you know which one comes first?” He pulled out
The Da Vinci Code
,
The Lost Symbol
,
Angels & Demons
, and
Inferno.

As I sorted them into chronological order, Mitchell craned his neck around to see my computer screen. “What you working on, anyway? Hey, that looks like—”

My hand moved as fast as if Stephen had been approaching when I’d been checking my Facebook page. I minimized the Web site I’d been reading and said, “Never mind what I’m doing.”

Mitchell half winked at me and nodded slowly, then leaned forward. “I won’t tell,” he whispered. “I can see why you’d want a gun after what happened Saturday.”

“No,” I said. “That’s not—” But then I stopped, because there was no need for Mitchell to know what I was really doing.

“Yeah?” He adjusted his baseball hat to what looked like the exact same position it had been preadjustment. “Hey, I bet I know! You’re trying to figure out what kind of gun someone used to . . . well, you know.”

The idea that Mitchell was trying to be considerate of my feelings made my heart go a teensy bit mushy. “Sort of,” I said. What I was actually doing was looking up the specifications for the typical hunting rifle, trying to figure out how careless a hunter would have needed to be to hit Roger. I was quickly learning, however, that there was no such thing as a typical hunting rifle, so I might as well have spent my time trying to guess what Mitchell’s question of the day might be.

“Sure, I get it,” Mitchell said. I wasn’t sure how he could, since I hadn’t told him anything, but it wasn’t wise to get between Mitchell and his conclusions. You’d end up spending far too much time trying to correct
him, and he’d still walk away with the wrong idea. “Say, now that I’m a detective, or training to be one, I can help you, you know. Just say the word, okay?”

The idea of straight-on Mitchell assistance was more than a little frightening. “Thanks,” I said. “I was just doing some research on guns for someone, that’s all.”

“Oh.” Mitchell deflated. “You sure?”

“Absolutely.” He looked so disappointed that I took pity on him. “Say, you’re a hockey fan, right? Can you explain what icing is?”

He puffed right up again and launched into what was undoubtedly going to be not only an explanation that wouldn’t made sense to me but also one that I wouldn’t remember.

I was okay with that, though. A distracted Mitchell was better than a helpful Mitchell any day of the week.

*   *   *

On the other hand, when Holly was helpful, she was helpful with a capital
H
. If you asked Holly to do something, you never had to follow up to make sure it got done. Most times she’d probably finish the job before you remembered to ask her how it was going. This made her a tremendous employee, a dependable friend, and a mother to be reckoned with.

So when she approached me that afternoon in a stealthlike manner, I steeled myself to hear what I’d titled in my head as the Eddie Report. Maybe it would be good news, but I had to be ready to deal with the fallout if Stephen had heard anything about Eddie.

What that fallout might be, I wasn’t sure, other than my being fired. I supposed I could take an extended trip to Florida, and though I could shuttle between my brother’s house in Orlando and Kristen’s apartment in
Key West for a while, neither Eddie nor I would care for summers in Florida.

“Sorry, Minnie,” Holly said shaking her head, “but I can’t find him anywhere.”

I yanked myself back from the heat and humidity. “Can’t find who?” I was pretty sure my cat was, at this moment, making a big, Eddie-sized dent in my pillow.

“Stephen. Remember?” Her eyebrows went up. “On Facebook.”

Oh. Right. “Well, that’s good, isn’t it?”

“Maybe, but maybe not. I checked every variations of the name Stephen Rangel I could think of. Stevie, Steve—all that—but I didn’t find anything. But he could be using a different name, an avatar, you know?”

“If he’s using a different name, how are you going to find him?”

“Through his connections,” she said promptly. “Even if he’s calling himself the Northern Star, he’ll still have some of the same Facebook friends I do, some of the same links to the same public groups. Restaurants, nonprofits.” She snapped her fingers. “I should be checking the library’s own Facebook page. There’s no way he could keep from liking that one.”

I squinted at her. “So you think Stephen is on Facebook? In spite of what he’s said about it being a waste of time.”

Holly looked left and right, then leaned forward. “I figure Josh is probably right. There are advantages to Stephen for being on Facebook, and even more if he can be on there incognito. All I have to do is figure out what name he’s using.”

“But won’t his privacy controls keep you from seeing his posts?”

She grinned. “On his own page, sure, if he’s set them that way, but I bet he’s leaving comments on pages that don’t have the same settings.”

It sounded like a lot of work. “Thanks for going to all this trouble,” I said.

“Hang on,” she warned. “Like I said, I haven’t found him yet. And if he’s posting on snowbird pages, it might take me longer to find the comments, because a lot of them are in transit right now.”

I’d always thought the term for the seasonal folks a misnomer. Shouldn’t we really be calling them
sunbirds
? You don’t give something a name for the thing it doesn’t do; if we did, cats would be called swimmers and men would be called worriers.

I yanked my attention back from the flight of fancy it wanted to take. “Well, let me know if there’s anything you want me to do.”

Holly shook her head. “No, I can take care of this. If I see anything about Eddie—” She stiffened at the sound of a man’s footsteps crossing the tile in the lobby. We both turned to look, saw Jim Kittle, a regular library patron, and heaved small sighs of relief.

“Right,” Holly went on. “So, that’s where I am. I have a couple of leads already on connection names. I just wanted to give you an update.”

Leads? Update? She was starting to sound like the last visitor to the reference desk. I almost said so, but stopped myself just in time. Holly would not appreciate being compared to Mitchell.

“I appreciate all your work on this,” I said. “If I was any good at baking, I’d make you cookies.”

“Please don’t.” She grinned. “Anyway, it’s kind of fun. You can start calling me Trixie anytime now.”

I knew she was referring to Trixie Belden, the amateur sleuth who starred in many juvenile mysteries. “Not Nancy Drew?”

“Nah. I’m a small-town girl.” She laughed and headed off.

BOOK: Borrowed Crime: A Bookmobile Cat Mystery
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