Authors: Mak K. Han
I showed up at the library at 8:30 the next morning. Miss Tisdell was waiting for me at the front door.
“Hi, Miss Tisdell,” I said, as I got close to the main doors.
“Hi, Laura,” she replied. Miss Tisdell was a much older woman on a smallish frame. She walked with a slight hunch, but she was surprisingly mobile for a woman her age. I suspected that on any given day, she could move from one side of Strawberry Shores to the other. She always wore a lot of makeup, and her hair was a tangled white bun sitting atop her head like bird's nests stacked one atop the other. Her lips were small and perpetually puckered with little wrinkles around them. I waited a moment, expecting her to announce the reason for her early arrival, but she patiently waited for me to unlock the doors and then stepped inside.
I took my seat at the counter and started up the computers while Miss Tisdell disappeared into the stacks. Usually the first patrons didn't show up until about ten or so, and I usually savored my thirty minutes of alone time until Susan showed up at nine. Knowing Miss Tisdell was floating around the stacks gave the library a heavy feeling. I felt like she might be peering through the shelves at me.
At 8:45 she approached the counter empty-handed. “So how are you, Laura?” she asked.
“Good,” I replied. “How are you, Miss Tisdell?”
“I'm quite well. Just looking for a book.”
“Oh?” I moved the mouse so the computer would wake up. “If you tell me what you're looking for, maybe I can help you find it.”
Miss Tisdell shook her head. “That's not necessary. I'm not quite sure what I'm looking for, you see. I'll know it when I find it.” Her eyes wandered to the empty seat beside me. “Say, isn't there usually someone else with you?”
I furrowed my brow. “Susan?” It seemed strange to me that of all people, Miss Tisdell wouldn't know someone's name.
“She comes in at nine.”
“Ah. I see. How are you getting along with Susan?” she asked.
“Good. We're good friends.”
“Good. Well, back to it.”
Again she disappeared into the stacks, leaving me puzzled at the desk.
I heard the front doors squeal open at nine. Expecting it to be Susan, I glanced over and saw it was Alex. There was no mistaking her. Today she was wearing a black and red plaid skirt with black high-heeled boots, with fishnet stockings and a fishnet top. Her lipstick was dark red. She waved as she crossed the foyer.
“What are you doing here?” I asked as she neared.
“I have the day off,” she said. “I thought I'd come visit you.”
“Hm. I must be popular today.”
Alex cocked her head. “What do you mean?”
“Miss Tisdell is in here too.” I scanned the stacks. She was nowhere to be found. “Somewhere.”
Alex followed my gaze. “Ew. Gross. She's probably trying to get the scoop on Susan.”
“Susan? What about her?”
“You haven't heard?”
Before I could respond, the front door opened again. This time it was Susan, in a pair of blue jeans and a scarlet button-up. Her pace was hurried and as she approached the counter, she kept her eyes to the floor.
“Hi Susan,” I offered. I glanced at the clock on the computer. It read 9:10. “Is everything okay? You're usually here at nine on the dot.”
She ignored me and looked up at Alex. “Why are you always here? Don't you have anywhere else to be?”
Alex did a double take. “Excuse me? Seeing as my dad is a trustee here, I'll be here when I want to be here.”
“Right, pulling the 'my dad's a trustee’ card,” Susan muttered under her breath.
I could see Alex pulling back and about to unleash a storm on Susan. I put up my hand to stop her. “Susan? Is everything all right?”
She sat paralyzed for a minute, and then burst into tears. I waved Alex away. She retreated to the stacks.
“What's going on?” I rubbed her shoulder. “What's happening?”
“Everyone in this town is stupid,” she blurted out. “All they do is gossip. None of it's true.”
“Why?” I pressed. “Why is everyone stupid? What do they gossip about?”
Susan sniffled. “Me. And that filthy old Edward Brooks.”
“What are they saying?”
Susan pulled a tissue out of her purse and blew into it. “Okay,” she stammered. “You remember last night? I was looking for a ride home?”
“I asked Edward. He agreed. And that's what happened. I got in his car; he took me back to my house, and let me out. But everyone's saying he took me back to his house and we, you know...”
I nodded again. “I know what you're saying.”
“No, you don't!” She looked up at me, her puffy red eyes filled with fire. “Last year, Mr. and Mrs. Brooks got in a fight about the library. Mr. Brooks claimed he was seeing one of the girls that worked here. It wasn't true, of course. I think he was just trying to hurt Mrs. Brooks. But the rumor got out, and somehow I got pinned for it.”
I'd heard the rumors, but only bits and pieces. My heart went out to Susan. I felt bad for the joke I'd made about 'older gentlemen' a few days before.
“It's not true, Susan. People will figure out how stupid they sound and move on. They always do.” I leaned over to Susan and wrapped my arms around her. “This'll pass.”
“It never would have happened if it hadn't been for that jerk Edward,” she said, her voice muffled by my shoulder. “I wish I'd never asked him for a ride last night. No,” she said as she pulled away and looked at me in the eyes. “You know what? I wish he was dead. This town would be a lot better off without him.”
I shook my head. “You don't mean that, Susan.”
She wiped her face. “No, I do. D-E-A-D. I wish he was dead.”
Susan and I spent most of the day in silence. I handled most of the checkouts. Usually if Susan withdrew and started offloading the workload onto me, I antagonized her, but today she was upset so I let it slide.
By 3:00 people were starting to flow in for the Strawberry Days Planning meeting. Susan seemed to be cheering up so when Emily arrived, I asked if she minded watching the desk while I sat in on the meeting. Susan smiled and said it was okay.
“This is going to be so exciting!” Emily exclaimed as we made our way to the back corner, where the meeting would take place.
“What was last year's Strawberry Days like?”
Emily puckered her lips and angled them way to the side, her eyes looking up and to the right. Even I had to admit it was adorable when she was thinking with this expression. “Umm...we went down to the shore! That's right. Everyone in town set up tents along the shoreline. Some people sold crafts, and some people sold treats like cookies. I sold cupcakes. There were bonfires, too, and we stayed up until around midnight making s'mores. A lot of people stayed out later but I had to go home, because it was a Saturday night and I had to go to church in the morning.”
“So it's a big deal?”
Emily nodded emphatically. “Super big deal. This is the time of year when we celebrate the town's birthday!”
We took a position relatively out of sight, near the P through Z Fiction stacks. “What are you going to suggest the town does this year?” I whispered to her.
Emily shook her head. “Oh, I'm not here to make suggestions. I let the older people make the decisions. I just want to know what they decide on, so I know what to prepare for.”
“You mean, you want to know what kind of cupcakes to make?”
Emily giggled. “Yeah, I guess you're right.”
Mr. Shade took the front of the room. It was strange to see him out of his suit. Come to think of it, I don't think I'd ever seen him in a t-shirt and khaki pants. “All right everyone, settle down. Let's get down to business.”
Over the course of the next hour, it was decided: the Strawberry Days festival would be a carnival theme and it would happen the following Saturday in the library parking lot. People were welcome to bring treats. There would be grills—hot dogs, burgers, tofu dogs and vegetarian burgers. The fire department would have a truck on-hand just in case. Sheriff Caldwell would be there too, to keep the peace.
About fifty minutes in, Mr. Shade started to lose control of the conversation—the town had established the important things. Mr. Shade wasn't trying very hard to keep the conversation on track at this point and the conversation devolved to gossip.
I was starting to lose focus on the conversation when I heard a familiar voice behind us. “Hey ladies.”
“Hi, Harold,” Emily said.
I whipped around. “Hi, Harold.” I gave him a broad smile.
He put his finger to his lips. “Shh, I don't want to interrupt,” he whispered. “What are they talking about?”
“Oh, it's okay. You missed the stuff about the carnival. Now they're talking about…” I paused to listen for a moment. “It sounds like they're talking about Miss Tisdell's terrier barking at three in the morning.”
“Now how is that not important?” he asked with a grin.
“This year's Strawberry Days,” Emily said, “is going to be carnival-themed. They're going to have it right here in the library parking lot. I'm thinking of bringing cupcakes with hearts on them. What are you going to bring, Harold?”
“Well, I was going to bring cupcakes, but I guess you beat me to them.”
Harold chuckled. “It's okay. This is my first Strawberry Days in four years. I think I'll just be an observer this year.”
I jumped at the opportunity for conversation. “Four years? Why so long?”
“I've been at college,” Harold explained. “I'd thought of coming back during the summers, but come on, California in June and July? No way.”
California. That explained the bronze tan.
“I thought of going to Calif—” I started to say.
“He's not retiring?” someone exclaimed sharply behind me.
I looked over my shoulder. “Huh?” I glanced at Emily. “What's going on?”
Emily's face had gone solemn. “They're talking about the secret room. According to Mrs. Brooks, Mr. Brooks is pushing back his retirement.”
I turned all the way around. Chester Rutherford was standing, as was Jane Brooks.
“He's hiring a lawyer,” Jane was explaining. “He needs the extra money.”
“A lawyer?” Chester exclaimed. “What the devil does he need a lawyer for?”
“The secret room,” Jane mentioned. Just the mention of the secret room cast a gloomy pall over the previously cheery meeting. “He's intent on getting it blocked off. He's planning to take the city to court over it.”
“You've got to be kidding me.” Chester turned to the audience. “How much longer are we going to let Edward push us around? How much do we really need his money?”
His challenge was met with silence.
“This is ridiculous.”
“Why is Chester so upset? What does the secret room have to do with him?”
The question was aimed at Emily, but Harold answered. “Nothing, not directly. But my dad works at Allied Innovation and as I understand, Chester is waiting for Edward to retire so he can get his position.”
“Wow,” I murmured. “I'd be pretty mad, too.”
“That's the last thing we want,” Harold said with a smirk.
I looked at him. “What do you mean?”
“I hear you were pretty fired up about Edward calling you out the other day. I'd hate to be on the receiving end of that wrath.”
I crossed my arms and frowned. “I wasn't that mad.”
“Relax,” he said. Usually being told to 'relax' made me angrier, but hearing it from Harold actually made me relax. His voice was cool and smooth, like butter. “I'm just teasing you. Tell you what—I’ll get him back for you.”
“Oh? How so?”
“I'll kick his butt. Take him out to the woodshed. Come on, I have to defend your honor, don't I?”
I almost melted. Sure, he was being sarcastic, but the idea of Harold being my white knight was enough to have me weak in the knees. “Okay,” I said. “Go protect little old me.”
“You got it,” he said. He looked up at the meeting, which looked to be dispersing. “It looks like everything is good here. I'm going to head out. Talk to you later, ladies.”
“Bye, Harold!” Emily said with a wave of her hand.
“See you soon.” I turned back to the meeting. “Crap.”
“I should have asked him to go to the carnival with me.”
The library parking lot was a glittering wonderland.
White Christmas lights had been strung up along the edges of the parking lots and tiki torches dotted the pavement. Along the far west side of the lot there were four grills set up, which pumped out pillars of smoke that smelled like cooking meat, charcoal, and barbecue sauce. Along the east side were various awnings and from this side of the parking lot emanated the smell of fresh baked cookies, cakes, candy—and where I was standing—cupcakes.
“Thank you!” Emily said, handing Mr. Shade his change as I handed over a plate with two cupcakes on it. One was chocolate with white frosting and a red heart, the other was vanilla with strawberry frosting and a brown chocolate heart.
As Mr. Shade retreated into the crowd, Alex ran the tent from front to back, restocking the display tray with fresh cupcakes from the large plastic bin in the back. We'd spent the previous night baking them.
Emily turned to us. “We're doing great! At this rate we'll sell out by eight.”
I looked at my watch. It was seven. There were still a few dozen more, so maybe Emily was being a bit optimistic, but just the same we were selling a lot, and we were selling fast.
The crowd around our tent lulled and I stepped out from under the awning to survey the sky. The sun was setting, painting the sky a bright reddish-orange, and I could already see the moon and a few stars coming into view. The parking lot was alight with laughter and chatter.
I propped my hands on my hips and breathed in deeply. The smells of food. The ethereal light. The sounds of the Strawberry Shores townsfolk laughing and talking. The night was perfect.
And then we heard the scream.
At first we thought it came from the library. It was high pitched and ear-piercing. Looking around at the horrors on everyone’s faces, you just knew that everyone heard it. An uneasy hush fell across the crowd. Jane Brooks rounded the corner of the library—the side with the woods—which had been raked and cleared in the previous days. “Someone call 911!”
Harold pushed his way to the front of the crowd, phone in hand. He didn't need to call, however, because Dr. Tracy raised his hand. “I'm a doctor! What's wrong?”
The crowd parted for Dr. Tracy. “It's Edward!” Jane cried. “He's dead!”
The townsfolk fell into line behind Dr. Tracy. We all headed around to the backside of the library. I pushed my way to the front of the crowd with Emily and Alex The three of us stood at the entrance to the secret room watching as Dr. Tracy pushed his way through the caution tape.
Sure enough, there was Edward, lying in the secret room. An empty red Solo cup sat on the ground beside his hand. Nearby lay an empty bottle of rat poison.
“Stand back,” Dr. Tracy said, raising his hand to keep everyone at bay. He pressed his pointer and middle finger against Edward's jugular and did a few chest compressions. Then, he set his head against Edward's chest.
“Is he going to be okay?” Jane asked.
Dr. Tracy looked up at her. “I'm afraid he's dead,” he said solemnly.
Silence swept across the crowd. The only noise was that of Sheriff Caldwell's voice, which grew louder as he moved toward the front of the group. As he eased his way past me, I picked up the distinct odor of whiskey.
“Everyone back away!” Frank said, raising his hands. He glanced over his shoulder at Edward. “This is now a crime scene.”