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Authors: Ali Brandon

Words With Fiends

BOOK: Words With Fiends
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Praise for the Black Cat Bookshop Mysteries

A Novel Way to Die

“Our favorite sleuthing cat is back . . . This series really does have it all: bookstore, cats, likable, relatable characters, and a strong mystery.”

Cozy Mystery Book Review

“The story line keeps you guessing and there's even some romance thrown into the mix. The words flow from page to page with ease and make for a delightful way to spend an afternoon. This book is fun, fun, fun! Ali Brandon is a great voice in the cozy mystery world!”

Socrates' Book Reviews

“Fun to read . . . The mystery was very good and the cat really added some interest to the story.”

Fresh Fiction

“Cat fanciers will love the role Hamlet plays in the investigation and his strong personality; others will enjoy Darla's investigation as she learns more about her new environ.”

The Mystery Reader

Double Booked for Death

“A fun mystery that kept me guessing to the end!”

—Rebecca M. Hale,
New York Times
bestselling author of
How to Tail a Cat

“Clever . . . Bibliophiles, ailurophiles, and mystery fans will enjoy
Double Booked for Death

Richmond Times-Dispatch

“A charming, cozy read, especially if cats are your cup of tea. Make sure the new Black Cat Bookshop series is on your bookshelf.”

—Elaine Viets, national bestselling author of
the Dead End-Job Mysteries

“Hamlet is a winner, and so is his owner. The literary references in this endearing debut will make readers smile, and the ensemble characters hold promise for fun titles to come.”

Library Journal

“An engaging new series . . . Definitely the start of something great.”

—Sandra Balzo, award-winning author of
the Main Street Mysteries

“[An] outstanding debut to a very promising new series . . . If you enjoy a cozy mystery, a clever cat, a bookstore setting, and smart, realistic characters you are sure to enjoy
Double Booked for Death


“This first entry in the Black Cat Bookshop Mystery series is a harbinger of good books to follow.”

Mystery Scene

“Those who like clever animals but draw the line at talking cats will feel right at home.”

Publishers Weekly

“The first Black Cat Bookshop Mystery is an entertaining whodunit starring a brilliant feline (who does not speak in human tongues), a beleaguered new store owner and an ex-cop. The story line is fast-paced as Hamlet uncovers the clues that the two females working the case follow up on . . . Fans will enjoy.”

The Mystery Gazette

Berkley Prime Crime titles by Ali Brandon





Published by the Penguin Group

Penguin Group (USA) LLC

375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014

USA • Canada • UK • Ireland • Australia • New Zealand • India • South Africa • China

A Penguin Random House Company


A Berkley Prime Crime Book / published by arrangement with Tekno Books

Copyright © 2013 by Tekno Books.

Penguin supports copyright. Copyright fuels creativity, encourages diverse voices, promotes free speech, and creates a vibrant culture. Thank you for buying an authorized edition of this book and for complying with copyright laws by not reproducing, scanning, or distributing any part of it in any form without permission. You are supporting writers and allowing Penguin to continue to publish books for every reader.

Berkley Prime Crime Books are published by The Berkley Publishing Group.

PRIME CRIME and the PRIME CRIME logo are trademarks of Penguin Group (USA) LLC.

For information, address: The Berkley Publishing Group,

a division of Penguin Group (USA) LLC,

375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014.

eBook ISBN:978-1-101-62657-3


Berkley Prime Crime mass-market edition / November 2013

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.

To John Klingel and Jeffrey Philips,
two of my favorite writing buds.
Thanks for your support, guys.


































Thanks, as always, to the great folks at The Berkley Publishing Group and Tekno Books for all they do to make me look good. Hugs to my awesome writing friends who are unstinting in their support, including Patrick, Al, Steve, and Becky. And a special flick of the whiskers to those wonderful bloggers who kindly host me on occasion, especially Yvonne and Melissa and Dru Ann. They do all the hard work; Hamlet and I get all the glory. Finally, thanks to my hubby, Gerry, who doesn't complain too much when I'm squirreled away for hours in my office. Love ya!


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.”


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 for the snowy February weather.

“Thanks, Darla. Bye, Hamlet,” Mandy added with a wave at the oversized black cat lounging on the nearby bestseller table. “Maybe you'll be friendlier next time I stop in.”

Hamlet opened a single emerald eye at the mention of his name. He was the official cat of Pettistone's Fine Books and had held that role for almost a decade, ever since kittenhood. When Darla had unexpectedly inherited from her late Great-Aunt Dee this converted three-story Brooklyn brownstone—home to both the quirky independent bookstore and two modest apartments, one she lived in herself, and one she rented out—it had come complete with the elderly woman's ornery feline, who ruled the place with a flick of his long black whiskers.

Of the two bequests, Hamlet had definitely been the greater challenge.

Not content to snooze picturesquely in a basket for customers to ooh and aah over, Hamlet instead stalked the shop's maze-like collection of shelving like a scaled-down panther. He considered the shop his personal domain where only Dee—and, to a lesser degree, James—was allowed to be the boss of him. Darla had tried to take on her great-aunt's role, blithely assuming that he'd somehow sense the familial connection. Unfortunately, the only bloodline the stubborn feline recognized was the product of his unsheathed claws. As a result, she and Hamlet had gotten off on the wrong foot—or was it paw?—in the beginning; still, they'd since managed to forge a bond that might almost be termed friendship.

As the departing girl cooed in his direction, Hamlet momentarily raised his inky head from his oversized paws to give the customer a cool green look before subsiding back into regulation nap mode. Darla waited until she heard the string of small bells dangling from the shop door jingle in accompaniment to the girl's exit, then turned a concerned look on James. Her uneasiness, however, had nothing to do with her young customer's blasé approach to literature.

“James, I'm worried about Hamlet. I know it's been a few months since the, er, incident”—she stumbled only slightly over the euphemism for a frightening experience she and Hamlet had survived—“and we all thought he was back to his normal self, but something happened last weekend. I was cleaning out a closet in my apartment, and somehow Hamlet managed to get himself closed inside when I was finished. He couldn't have been in there for more than a couple of minutes, but he was yowling like he was scared to death!”

Darla winced a little at the memory. Actually, the cat had sounded like someone was pulling out clumps of his fur with pliers. She'd done the cat burrito thing with him as the experts recommended, bundling him tight in a towel, and holding him until he had settled down. But it had been an unnerving experience for them both.

“He calmed down pretty quickly,” she went on, “but maybe you've noticed that he hasn't been the same the past few days. He hasn't chased a single customer out of the store, or clawed open someone's shopping bag when they weren't looking. I wonder if I should take him back to the veterinarian for another exam.”

She deliberately lowered her voice at that last, since Hamlet seemed to understand most words related to bad things like the vet's office. And, to be fair, such visits were not that much more pleasant for Darla. They required her donning oven mitts against his razor-sharp claws, and employing sardines as a bribe in order to cajole the stubborn feline into his carrier . . . a process that usually took a good hour. Still, after all that had happened, she was willing to make the sacrifice any number of times to ensure Hamlet's well-being.

She could hardly do less, given that Hamlet had risked more than one of his feline lives in order to save hers.

James nodded his gray head.

“Perhaps you are right. When you brought him in for a follow-up appointment right before the holidays, you said Dr. Birmingham confirmed that, physically, Hamlet has recovered from all his injuries. Like any other crime victim, he simply needs peace and a bit of time to regain his previous sense of security. But this behavior you mention is a bit worrying. Perhaps you might check with her to see if she can recommend an animal psychologist to treat him.”

An animal psychologist? Kitty therapy?

Darla gave the man a sharp look, certain that the pragmatic ex-professor must be indulging his dry sense of humor. But his expression was serious, so she mulled it over. “That might not be a bad idea,” she conceded. “Maybe find a cat whisperer who makes house calls.”

“And you might consider something similar for yourself,” James added, his stern expression sharpening. “Yes, I know that you claim you are just fine after all that happened,” he cut her short when she opened her mouth to protest, “what with those self-defense lessons you have been taking, but I would beg to differ. Besides, studies have shown that—”

What those studies proved, Darla was spared learning, as more raised voices and the sound of milling footsteps on the stairs indicated that the book club meeting was breaking up. Darla was finally used to this new routine, given that the club previously was known as the Friday Afternoon Book Club. But with various other extracurricular activities beckoning, the group had voted at the beginning of the year to move their meetings to Thursdays. This had worked out well for Darla, too. She had things to do on Friday nights, and the members were known on occasion to prolong their discussion well after their official 6 p.m. end time.

Today, however, they'd ended on time. Most of the eleven members in attendance had already left behind the Thomas Hardy debate for more interesting current topics, such as the outcome of a popular reality television show. Chatting brightly, they either headed for the door or else remained behind to browse the shop.

Dropping his impromptu counselor role for that of store manager, James followed after the browsers while Hamlet prudently slipped off the table and headed for quieter regions. Darla held down the register. She noted that, unlike the others, the last two club members descending the stairs were apparently still stuck in the nineteenth century.

“Argue all you want; you can't change my mind. Tess was a blithering fool.”

The speaker was the same man who, a few minutes before, had wished that literary heroine a repeat of her unpleasant death.
Mark Poole,
Darla thought with a sigh as, with tattered paperback copy of the book in question tucked under one arm, the man clomped down the stairs. Every group had its own version of a Mark, she knew. Unfortunately, this one was more Mark-like than most. And today, he seemed particularly wound up.

“Once the little twit offed Alec,” he proclaimed, “she should have hightailed it to America instead of running back to her wimp of a husband, Angel. If she had, she might have lived. But, nooo, she had to be all noble, and all she got for it was—”

He broke off as he reached the bottom of the stairs; then, turning to the woman behind him, he mimed the universal jerking-upward-on-a-rope gesture to indicate hanging. And then, in case no one had gotten the message, he punctuated that bit of pantomime by letting his tongue loll from his mouth.

The woman who was the recipient of these amateur theatrics was Martha Washington, the book club's president and equally ardent participant in the group. A slender, mixed-race woman in her late thirties—
relation to the late president's wife,
she always assured people upon first meeting—she wore her multihued hair in dreads that dangled past her shoulders.

Today, the cacophony of red, blond, and black locks seemed to fairly bristle with indignation. Her tone, however, was as cool as Hamlet's gaze as she countered in precise British tones, “Mark, I'm telling you this in the nicest way possible . . . you are a bloody idiot.”

Darla suppressed a smile at the overheard exchange, reflecting how even the snarkiest comment sounded sophisticated when spoken in a clipped English accent. The woman's enunciation, however, was no affectation. Martha had previously explained to Darla that her father was a career military man from Georgia who had been stationed for a time in Great Britain, where he had met and married Martha's English mother. So while Martha's everyday accent was straight out of a Masterpiece Theatre special, she could occasionally turn on a Good-Ol'-Girl Deep South accent—a honeyed drawl far thicker than Darla's native East Texas twang—when the situation warranted.

But this particular lecture on English literature apparently required the BBC-esque approach. While Mark sputtered, Martha continued, “As a man, you have little understanding of the societal pressures levied upon women throughout the ages. A woman of Tess's class lived in a virtual prison . . . bound by the law, the Church, and society as a whole. Nobly accepting one's fate rather than flailing against it can sometimes seem the better choice, no matter the ultimate outcome.”

“Yeah, well, but—”

Martha held up a hand, cutting short whatever argument he had, and then pleasantly asked, “May I finish? Of course, Tess had been wronged most terribly from the very beginning of the story: first by her lover, Alec, and then by her husband, Angel. Remember that at the end, though, she also committed the ultimate crime—she murdered a man in cold blood. Her personal code of honor required that she accept responsibility for her actions and, ultimately, accept punishment. That's where the nobility comes in. Now, you were saying?”

BOOK: Words With Fiends
2.89Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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