Words With Fiends Online - Ali Brandon

ONE

“HEY, I’M NOT AFRAID TO SAY IT. THE IRRITATING BROAD deserved to die.”

The contentious words came from the second level of Pettistone’s Fine Books, drifting down the staircase to the main floor where owner Darla Pettistone was working the cash register. Despite being used to overhearing declarations like this, the venom in these particular words made her pause.

And then the strident nasal voice continued, “I just wish she’d suffered a bit more at the end, know what I mean? If I could kill her again, I’d do it in a heartbeat.”

“O.M.G!”

The text-speak gasp at this last pronouncement came, not from upstairs again, but from the twentysomething brunette whose selection of paperback romances Darla had been in the process of ringing up. The girl stared in alarm at the stairway, then whipped her gaze back to Darla and stage whispered, “Did you hear that? Some guy upstairs just confessed to murder! Shouldn’t you, like, call the cops or something?”

“Don’t worry”—Darla paused and looked at the girl’s credit card again—“Mandy. He didn’t kill anyone.”

“Yeah, but, but he said—”

“I promise, no murders,” Darla cut her short, giving the girl a reassuring smile. “It’s just the book club meeting. And that guy you’re hearing tends to get a bit melodramatic at times.”

Mandy gave her a sudden look of wide-eyed comprehension. “Oh,” she exclaimed, drawing out the single syllable while embarrassed color darkened her already ruddy features. “Someone was killed in a book.”

“Yes,” another voice broke in, “and I believe this week’s someone is Tess Durbeyfield, technically a legal execution by means of the hangman’s rope. Are you familiar with the work?”

The explanation and question both came from Professor James T. James, Darla’s store manager and retired college-level instructor of nineteenth-century literature. Setting down on the counter the pint-sized HEPA vacuum he’d been using to dust the store’s small collection of rare and first edition books, he fixed Mandy with an expectant look.

Apparently realizing a response was required of her, but coming up blank, Mandy shrugged and shook her head.

Darla heard her manager’s suppressed sigh—the familiar one that bemoaned the state of today’s youth when it came to literature in general, and the classics in particular. Not willing to concede defeat yet, however, he stroked his short gray beard, gave a tug at his vest, and deigned to clarify, “Tess of the d’Urbervilles.”

A head shake from Mandy.

“Thomas Hardy’s seminal look at sexual mores during the late Victorian era.”

Another head shake.

“Made into a tolerably viewable film in the late 1970s.”

“Sorry,” Mandy admitted in a chipper voice. Then, indicating the stack of slim books she was purchasing, she looked to Darla. “Hey, you should know that all I read are contemporaries. I’m not into historical romance.”

Darla suppressed a smile at the sudden mental image the girl’s words conjured . . . that of the classic novel’s tragic main characters posed half-naked on the cover in a traditional romance clinch. She promptly shook her head to dispel the image, the gesture sending her long auburn braid bouncing between her shoulder blades. She’d probably sell quite a few more copies with cover art like that, instead of the dour illustrations that usually graced the paperback classics she stocked. In fact, she’d recently heard rumors that a publishing company planned to put out X-rated versions of certain well-known novels. Assuming their venture was successful, high school English classes would never be the same!

She only hoped that James was unaware of the pending literary sacrilege. He was clearly in enough pain for the moment, a weary look having crossed his mahogany-hued features at the girl’s reply. Still, he hit all the right customer service notes as he replied, “I quite understand. Perhaps next time you are in, however, you might wish to try something a bit out of your usual comfort zone. Unlike much of the prose of that era, Tess of the d’Urbervilles is quite accessible to modern readers.”

“Yeah, but now I already know that this Tess girl dies,” she protested. “Talk about a major spoiler. No way do I want to read it now.”

“Ah, good point. Mea culpa.” When she gave James another confused look, he translated the Latin to a carefully enunciated, “My bad.”

“Hey, it’s all good.” Smiling again, Mandy loaded her purchases into one of the reusable Pettistone’s logo bags that Darla had started handing out to her repeat customers, and then struggled into her stylish red wool coat. The color was an unfortunate choice, given her overly rosy complexion, but its practical ankle length was a must