Double Booked for Death

Vaguely, Darla was aware that the crowd noise had faded to a murmur, while the sound of her heart beating double time seemed suddenly louder than even the honking horns.
She was running toward the van now, while a frantic voice in her head cried,
Don’t let it be that, dear God, don’t let it be that.
Some of the teens had spilled over the barricades, and Darla had to shove her way through them.
Only then was she close enough to see what the light from the van’s one unbroken headlamp revealed upon the asphalt.
Her step faltered.
For a moment, she feared she might sag to the sidewalk.
She managed to keep her own balance by focusing her attention on Jake, who had her cell phone to his ear and was shouting something unintelligible into it.
She didn’t want to gaze at the motionless figure tangled in a long black cape that lay sprawled a few feet in front of the van, one limp arm pointing toward a rectangle of white cardboard, the protest sign, farther down the pavement.
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This is a work of fiction.
Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
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A Berkley Prime Crime Book / published by arrangement with Tekno Books
Berkley Prime Crime mass-market edition / December 2011
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For the legions
of dedicated booksellers
out there who do it for the love
and not the money .
this one is for you!
Thanks to all the great folks at Tekno Books and Berkley Prime Crime for their support.
It is appreciated.
Special thanks to my good friend Denise Little and her long-departed but never forgotten black cat, Hamlet.
They were the inspiration for my Darla and her Hamlet.
As always, thanks to my darling husband, Gerry, who prods me along.
And, finally, a fond flick of the whiskers to all my kitties I’ve loved over the years, starting with Topsey, and continuing with my current orange tabby boys, Butch and Sundance, both of whom kept a close eye on this story as I wrote it.
They will tell you that any errors in fact or cat etiquette are mine alone.
AFTERNOON SUN SPILLED THROUGH THE MOTTLED GLASS of the double front doors leading into Pettistone’s Fine Books, the golden light stippling the dark figure sprawled upon the faded Oriental rug that served as a welcome mat.
Those customers who’d entered the first-floor brownstone shop within the past half hour had taken the sight of the motionless form in stride—this
Brooklyn, after all—and casually stepped over it to head in the direction of the bestseller table.
Finally, however, a cardigan-swathed octogenarian halted in the doorway.
His expression was one of vexation as he stared down at the body blocking his path.
“Dead, is he?”
the old man exclaimed, giving the “he” in question a querulous poke with his rubber-tipped wooden cane.
The single panicked word was both an answer and a warning.
Darla Pettistone leaped from her perch behind the cash register and rushed toward the door, determined to forestall mayhem.
She was too late.
A sleek black paw the size of a toddler’s hand, but far more dangerously equipped, had already slashed out and caught the lacquered walking stick in five needle-sharp claws.
“Let go, you beast!”
The old man gripped his cane with both arthritic hands as he attempted to wrestle it from a solid black feline the size of a cocker spaniel.
The cat answered with a growl that sounded like something from a
When Good Pets Go Bad
television episode.
Despite the fact that he had remained prone on the floor and was using but a single paw, the cat appeared to be winning this tug-of-war with the human.
By now, Darla had reached the doorway, her shoulder-length auburn hair swirling about her like a cape.
She narrowed her brown eyes and shot the feline her most ferocious look.
Unfortunately, given her round face and snub nose with its sprinkling of freckles—all of which combined to make her look a decade younger than her thirty-five years—the result was nothing worse than a peeved expression.
Still, Darla’s East Texas twang rang with firm authority as she commanded, “Let it go, Hamlet, or I’ll break out the pistol.”
a panicked little voice echoed in unexpected response.
Rising to a shriek, it continued, “Mom, the lady’s gonna shoot the kitty!”
Darla located the source of the outcry.
A pigtailed blond girl perhaps ten years old and wearing black-framed eyeglasses too large for her heart-shaped face came flying around the display of Boy Wizard books.
Her expression far more fierce than the one Darla had managed, she made a beeline for the spot where Hamlet was still battling the elderly customer for his cane.
Before Darla could explain that her weapon was nothing more lethal than a pocket-sized water gun she’d bought for cat disciplinary purposes, the girl flung herself atop the black beast like a soldier diving to cover a live grenade.
Oh no!
Too late to prevent the massacre that would surely result from this action, Darla could only steel herself for the screams of pain and flying droplets of blood that she knew were imminent.
On her first day running the store, she’d been the unwitting victim of a lightning-fast swipe from Hamlet’s claws.
The attack had occurred as she’d moved his downstairs food bowl from its usual spot, in front of the local author showcase, to the corner of the science-fiction section.
Hamlet had not approved of the change.
It had taken half a bottle of hydrogen peroxide and most of a roll of gauze to patch up the outcome of his displeasure.
Almost half a year later, the food bowl still remained alongside the local author novels, and Darla still had the faint red scars from that particular disagreement.
Spurred by the memory, Darla swooped toward the child, intending to grab her up before any permanently disfiguring damage could be done.
Visions of lawsuits, rather than sugarplums, did the dancing-in-her-head routine while she wondered if her insurance would cover what probably would be a seven-figure settlement.
But before she could separate kid from cat, the girl lifted her face from where it was buried in Hamlet’s silky fur and declared in a grim tone, “If you want to shoot him, you’re going to have to shoot me first.”
Darla sagged in relief at the sight of the child’s blessedly unblemished flesh, even as she reminded herself that the girl was still within Hamlet’s reach.
She might be unscratched now, but for how much longer?
She needed to talk the child out of range, and fast.
“No real guns, I promise,” Darla assured her and raised both hands by way of demonstration.
“I was just threatening to squirt the kitty with a little water so he’d give the nice man back his cane.
So why don’t you come with me, and we’ll let the kitty finish his nap?”
Before the girl could reply, Darla heard a rasping sound emanating from beneath the child’s huddled form and realized in astonishment that the harsh rumble she heard was Hamlet, purring.
She saw, too, that the cat had released the cane from his massive paw and appeared content to be used as a pillow by his would-be rescuer.
How long Hamlet would allow this familiarity, however, none of them was to find out.
An exasperated voice drifted from the scrapbooking section, “Callie, quit bothering the lady and get back over here.”
“Okay, Mom.”
Callie sighed but obediently rose.
With a final fond look at Hamlet, and an equally stern stare for Darla, she started back to the aisle where her mother waited.
Darla summoned a weak smile.
“Don’t worry, honey,” she called after the girl, “the kitty will be fine.”
Then, recalling the customer whose action had initiated this afternoon’s small drama, she turned and prepared to make an apology.
His walking stick once more firmly in his gnarled hands, the old man was squinting at the series of gouges that now marred the lacquer finish.
“It’s ruined,” he decreed with a baleful look that encompassed both her and Hamlet.
“Don’t think that I won’t report to the authorities that you have a wild animal on the loose in your store.”
“Wild animal?”
Her impulse to apologize faded, but with an ease born of long practice, she kept her proverbial redhead’s fiery temper firmly in check.
“Hamlet is a
A domesticated feline,” she pointed out, sympathetic to the man’s plight but feeling the need to come to the cat’s defense.
Wasn’t he, in a manner of speaking, one of her employees?
“And he has resided in this store with the blessing of my late great-aunt for the past ten years, with never a single customer complaint.”
Or so she had been told by James, the store’s longtime manager when she’d questioned the wisdom of allowing Hamlet—and his claws—to mingle with the paying customers.
Surprisingly, the fastidious James had encouraged her to let sleeping cats lie and continue the bookstore cat tradition that her Great-Aunt Dee had started.
The customers enjoy it, and it gives the place a certain ambiance
, he’d assured her in his precise tones
But having come to know Hamlet during the brief five months that she had owned the store, Darla wouldn’t put it past the wily feline to have disposed of any victims who might have been inclined to make a protest.
Recalling herself to the matter at hand, she went on, “And you must admit that you provoked him.
Beating on a sleeping cat with a cane .
well, let’s just say that the local humane society will probably have something to say about that.”
“Don’t forget PETA,” Callie piped up from the rear of the store, apparently deciding to choose the pistol-packing Darla’s side over that of the stick-wielding old man.
Faced with the dual threats of an outraged preteen and a radical animal welfare agency, the elderly customer prudently dropped his previous bluster.
With a cautious glance at the lounging feline, he conceded, “Perhaps I was a bit out of line, but you must admit your cat did damage my property.
Still, I am willing to let bygones be bygones if you and, er, Hamlet will do the same.
If you could point me toward the mystery section, I’ll pick up a bit of light reading for the weekend and be on my way.”
Darla gave a professional smile as she gestured him forward, suppressing the triumphant grin she’d have preferred.
“Mysteries and thrillers are two aisles down next to romance.
Why don’t I show you a couple of new arrivals that received wonderful reviews this week?”
Giving Hamlet wide berth, the old man started toward the section in question.
Darla followed on the man’s heels, though she spared a warning look back at the cat in case he planned a rear attack.
But the consternation he’d already caused among the humans was apparently sufficient, for Hamlet merely rose with pantherlike grace and gave a luxurious stretch.
Then, noticing Darla’s glance, he flopped to one side and thrust a rear leg high over his shoulder.
He gave a quick lick to the base of his tail—a gesture that Darla had come to consider the feline equivalent of flipping the bird—before rising again and slipping away like a foul-tempered shadow beneath the display of children’s pop-up books.
The remainder of the day proceeded relatively smoothly.
The old man made a guilt purchase of two hardcover mysteries plus one large-print paperback.
Callie’s mother made her way to the register, too.
A darker blond version of her daughter—they must have gotten the twofer special on the eyeglasses, Darla thought with a smile—she bought three scrapbook magazines and the latest bestseller romance for herself.
She also purchased a paperback version of the latest Boy Wizard tome for Callie, who carried it off with the same reverence with which James handled the store’s inventory of rare volumes.
Save for the Hamlet incident, the afternoon’s biggest excitement came when she’d had to chase a pair of rambunctious toddlers away from the stairs leading to the shop’s second level after they momentarily escaped their frazzled father.
“Sorry, kiddos,” she told them with a sympathetic look at the dad, who was trying with minimal success to round them up again, “upstairs is for grown-ups only.”
Not that the store’s second level was chock-f of dangers, but it wasn’t childproof, and the last thing Darla wanted was for a kid to get injured up there.
She directed the boys to the children’s section, wondering not for the first time if she should install one of those kid gates at the foot of the stairs to keep her junior patrons from wandering.
“How about you play in the story circle while your father shops?”
The story circle had been one of Darla’s innovations.
She’d rearranged a couple of shelves to create a cozy open spot in the midst of the children’s books.
A round, sunflower yellow rug defined the area, while seven kid-sized chairs—each a color of the rainbow—formed the actual circle.
In its center was an oversized, electric blue beanbag chair where any adult brave enough to breech the area could find a comfortable if not particularly graceful spot to lounge.
Now, the two boys in question made a beeline for the beanbag, shrieking and flinging themselves onto it like tiny stuntmen taking a fall.
Darla grinned.
Great-Aunt Dee would have hated the story circle.
Not that Darla disapproved of the store’s original décor.
The floor plan itself reminded her of what they called a “shotgun shack” back home, though the elegant Federal-style building in which it was housed was anything but shacklike.
Still, one could walk a straight line—or fire a shotgun—from the front door through the shop’s main room (originally the brownstone’s parlor), through a broad opening that led to the back room (previously the dining room), and all the way to the back door, which in turn led to a tiny courtyard where she often took lunch.
And all without hitting a wall.
Well, one could if not for the maze of oak bookshelves filling both rooms, which practically required a map to negotiate.
For Great-Aunt Dee’s decorating style had been a cross between a nineteenth-century library and grandma’s attic.
Rather than having arranged the shelving so as to make optimum use of the available space, the old woman had arranged them in clusters interspersed with the occasional tufted stool or cushioned hardback chair.
She also had left most of the rooms’ original ornately carved wooden built-ins intact, letting them serve as additional shelves as well as display space for old crockery and bric-a-brac.
Sections of the parlor’s original mahogany wainscoting had been used to build a narrow, U-shaped counter near the front window where the register was located.
The overall effect was intimate if a bit claustrophobic.
The upstairs level allowed a bit more breathing space.
It, too, was divided into two rooms.
The front section, overlooking the street, was a cozy lounge furnished with a couple of overstuffed love seats and four petite wing chairs.
The space served as a combination employee break area and the occasional meeting place for writers’ groups and book clubs.
Appropriately, the walls were decorated with framed pages from old texts and art books, interspersed with photos of various twentieth-century authors.
In one corner, behind an ornate, Asian-inspired folding screen, was a small galley kitchen, just a countertop with a sink and microwave, flanked by a mini refrigerator.

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