Heather Stewart was addicted to books, more specifically, to mystery books. Oh, she threw in a few fantasies and some speculative fiction once in a while, but 90 percent of the hundreds of books she owned were mysteries. Her fingers tingled when she picked up a new one. Her mind raced with possibility and speculation as she read them. She crowed with delight if a writer was able to keep her guessing up to the end, though it was rare. Heather was that good.
Only ink and paper books would do. To her mind, there was something incongruous about reading a mystery electronically. Part of the fun was curling up in her big leather chair, lights dimmed (except the one illuminating the book), Oscar the cat napping on her lap and the slow, delicious turning of each page that drew her nearer to the solution.
Library books wouldn’t do, either. Heather liked to own books, to see them arranged alphabetically on the rich mahogany shelves of the bookcases she had built herself.
“You’re never going to read them again,” her friend Crystal said, “so why bother?”
Crystal owned half a dozen cookbooks and a set of home repair manuals. Crystal could never understand.
And, because Heather slogged away in a retail store 45 hours a week at minimum wage, only pre-owned books would do. It was all she could afford, for one thing, but there was the added mystery of the bookmarks.
Heather hated, hated, hated it when previous readers turned down the corner of a page to mark their spot in a book. It was a horrible thing to do to a book, she thought, and almost as bad as writing in one. The thought made her shudder. But the inventive bookmarks that people used made her smile. She looked forward to those almost as much as the books themselves.
At first, Heather didn’t pay much attention to them. Often, the items used to mark a page were mundane – a blank Post-It note, a corner torn from a newspaper, even a thread pulled from a sweater. Three years before, though, Heather’s interest was piqued during a shopping trip with Crystal to her favorite used book store, Paige Turner’s Book Shop. Who could not love a place so beautifully named after the proprietor? Crystal had only tagged along after Heather promised a side-trip to Moo-La-La, the retro ʼ50s ice cream shop next door to Paige Turner’s.
“Crap,” Crystal said when they walked into the bookstore, “we’ll never get out of here.”
Heather’s heart sank. She normally shopped for books alone and could kill a couple of hours easily. Crystal’s impatience was already getting on her nerves.
“Don’t worry,” she said, “I’ll only look in the mystery section. Look, there’s a huge cookbook section,” she added, pointing down a long, narrow aisle.
“Okay, okay, I get it,” Crystal grumbled as she headed down the aisle.
Heather sighed in relief. She was totally out of books, something that made her antsy and sad. She needed at least half an hour to find a good stack to take home.
Forty-five minutes later, with Crystal hovering at her side, Heather finally had half a dozen paperbacks and three hardcovers – including one first edition. Now she wished she’d never promised Moo-La-La; all she wanted to do was get home to read.
At the check-out, Crystal flipped listlessly through one of Heather’s books as they waited in line.
“Hell-o!” she suddenly cried. “What do we have here?” She pulled something from the book and started giggling.
“What? What is it?” Heather asked, trying to see. It looked like a photo, but Crystal held it flat against her chest.
“I’m not sure you should see it,” she teased. “It’s … hmmm, how should I put this … it’s icky.”
“Come on!” Heather made a grab for it, but Crystal was holding it out for John, the cashier, to see.
“What do you think,” she asked him, “do you think I should let her see it? Do you charge extra for this?”
John’s eyes went wide. “Wowzer,” he said, “was that in a book?” He started laughing and called a co-worker over to look at it. While the others cackled, Heather finally had had enough. She pulled it from their hands.
“Wow!” was all she could manage when she saw the image. She felt herself turning red.
“I think you’re blushing, Heather,” Crystal teased. “You’re such an old maid.”
Heather hated being called an old maid. Who didn’t? But she was only 30 and she’d had boyfriends. Okay, one, but still.
The picture was of an older, slightly overweight man lying on a leather couch. He was obviously posing. He was nude.
While the others passed around the photo and laughed lewdly, Heather could only think about the man’s eyes. His eyes didn’t match his lascivious pose. There was something dead in them, yet pleading. They gave her chills.
The picture made her wonder. Who put it in the book? The man? A woman he sent it to? Why did he look so sad? Who took the picture and why? Was it something the man did often? He looked to be in his 50s. At what point does someone in their 50s decide it’s a good idea to pose that way? If he put it in the book, is he now frantically trying to find it? Her mind reeled and her new obsession began.
Part of the fun now of getting a new batch of books was finding, saving and speculating about the bookmarks inside. To Heather’s mind, it would be cheating if she checked for bookmarks before buying the books. Cheating, too, if she didn’t discover the markers one by one as she read the books, though it was tempting to look through all of them beforehand.
She began keeping files with the objects and her notes inside.
File #1: Found January 15, 2010 in Mum’s the Word by Kate Collins. One packet of wildflower seeds found between pages 122 and 123. Store: Paige Turner’s.
Speculation: Probably left by a woman, a romantic, but lonely. The heroine, a lonely orphan who has a dark secret, resonates with her.
UPDATE: Or not. The flower seeds, upon further investigation, prove to have been handed out by the publisher with copies of the book during its debut promotion. Whoever had the book never got past page 122 and left the seeds inside.
File #100: Found August 9, 2011 in American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis. A photograph, torn in half, of a female child, age 4, perhaps. Found between pages 316 and 317. Adult female hand on child’s shoulder.
Speculation: Read by a man, recently divorced, who lost custody of the child, and probably for good reason. He’s angry and scary. Dreams of torture and murder. Hopefully, if he’s dreaming and reading about it, he’s not doing it.
File #239: Found June 16, 2013 in A Killing on Wall Street by Derrick Neidermann. American Airlines boarding pass for one Greg Compton, seat 1B, one-way from JFK to ANU (Antiqua) found on the last page, 254. Store: Goodwill
Speculation: Mr. Greg Compton is, or was, a Wall Street hotshot. He’s made his millions, probably unlawfully, and is now off to the Caribbean (first class!) to enjoy the fruits of other people’s labor. He won’t be back. Would bet there was a mistress in seat 1A. The book, left on the airplane – he likes to be unencumbered (a wife and kids left behind, perhaps?) – and another traveler picked it up.
Heather was having a fine time with her new hobby. She knew she was probably wrong 99 percent of the time, but it was fun nonetheless. Crystal was less than enthused.
“Seriously, Heather? You’re 30 years old! You should be going to parties and having fun, not sitting here obsessing over made-up people. Hate to say it, but it’s kind of creepy.”
“They’re not ‘made-up people,’” Heather argued. “They’re real people who read real books and have real lives.”
“Whatever. It’s still creepy. Why don’t you come out with John and me Saturday night. I’m sure he has a friend ...”
“John? Paige Turner’s John, the cashier? I thought he was engaged or something.”
“Didn’t work out and, well, he had my number … he’s really cute even if he is a bookworm.”
Heather didn’t like to think that her friend might have had something to do with the engagement not working out, but she had her suspicions.
“No, really, you two go out,” she told Crystal. “You know how I feel about blind dates. I have socks to wash, which I’m sure will be more fun.” Actually, Heather had a new stack of books waiting and was looking forward to a quiet evening at home, as usual.
She was halfway through the first book, though, when she found the photo. As usual, her pulse started racing. A new mystery to solve! She grabbed a new file folder and a legal pad.
File #253. Found July 10, 2013 in The Rules of Attraction by Bret Easton Ellis. A photograph of a white two-story house. It looks empty and in need of work; the junipers want trimming. On the front is written “... with love,” which I first thought indicated that the picture was perhaps given to someone “with love,” but it appears to be a continuation of what is written on the back:
The new place
- ready to be filled …
… with love (on the front)
Heather stopped writing. The words struck a chord in her. Made her feel lonely, a condition she avoided at all costs. She was struck by the flow of the handwriting, the dark, thick ink; the spiky lettering.
Speculation: Written in a bold hand, probably by a male. Pretty obvious that the house is newly-purchased. I get the sense that there is no ready-made, loving family planning to move in, that the man – I’ll call him Martin – only wishes there was. Found between pages 10 and 11. Store: Paige Turner’s.
It was the first time Heather had actually named one of her people. She wondered why she did.
A few weeks later she found an actual bookmark, one of the free ones that Paige Turner’s provided. She was going to toss it, but black ink was bleeding through from the back so she flipped it over.
File #255. Found August 4, 2013 in Nothing to Lose by Lee Child. A Paige Turner bookmark. Written on the back is “Where are you?” Found between pages 10 and 11. Store: Paige Turner’s.
The words “Where are you?” filled Heather with loneliness, but the handwriting itself sent chills down her spine. She recognized it. She looked through the plastic file box she kept near her reading chair and pulled out File #253, the picture of the white house. She compared the handwriting with that on the bookmark and there was no doubt: they were written by the same hand. Martin.
She reread the notations she’d made. Both items were found between pages 10 and 11. Both books from Paige Turner’s. Heather wasn’t sure what to think, but she got a sense – and she’d never admit it out loud – that she was meant to find these particular bookmarks. She shook her head. No, that was just silly. Maybe she did read too many mysteries like Crystal said. Still, she couldn’t help daydreaming about “Martin” – what he looked like, where he lived and worked, the color of his eyes …
Every time Heather visited Paige Turner’s, she scanned the people who sat reading at tables and in the low, comfortable chairs and sofas provided for the customers. Is that Martin in the red chair, wearing the suit? No, for some reason she didn’t see him as the suit-wearing type. Maybe the sandy-haired guy in the blue work shirt and chinos? That thought was immediately dispelled when two young children came running up to the man with books, excitedly calling “Daddy! Daddy!”
The next bookmark put Heather right over the edge.
File #259. Found September 22, 2013 in Light of the World by James Lee Burke. A photograph, obviously a “selfie”. There’s a stone fireplace in the background with a fire burning; bookcases flank it on either side. In the foreground, two slipper-clad feet (male), resting on a hassock, trim lower legs clad in blue jeans. Open on the knees, a book. Just to the left, the arm of another chair, slightly closer to the fire. On the back is written: “Picture yourself here” in heavy, dark ink. Martin’s writing. Found between pages 10 and 11.
Heather practically swooned. She scrutinized the picture carefully, trying to figure out which book was on the man’s knees. She couldn’t quite make out the words at the top of the two pages. She could see, however, that it was open to pages 10 and 11. Heather’s heart raced. She ran to her desk and rummaged around in the drawer for her magnifying glass. She knew it was in there somewhere.
“Aha!” she cried, finding it buried beneath last year’s tax forms. With shaking hands, she examined the photo again. Author’s name on the left hand page … J-e-f-f … Jeffrey … Jeffery Archer! Book title on the right hand page … O-n-l-y … Only Time Will Tell!
Heather’s heart sank. She’d already read the book. It was right there on the top shelf of the first bookcase. She wouldn’t be likely to buy another copy … then it hit her. She didn’t need to buy the book at all! He was leaving no doubt where the next clue would be. All she had to do was go to Paige Turner’s, find the book and see what was inside! She felt certain that whatever it was, it would lead her to Martin.
Crystal stared at her friend with her mouth open. They were sitting side-by-side on one of Paige Turner’s shabby couches, Heather’s files open on her lap. Heather hadn’t been able to contain herself, she had to tell Crystal.
“Sooooo,” Crystal said, “you actually believe that this person, this Martin so-called, is sending you, Heather Stewart, love notes in old books. Do I have that right?”
“Not love notes, exactly,” Heather hedged. “And maybe not to me, exactly. But to someone, you know? Someone he wants to meet. Look at the titles of the books: The Rules of Attraction … Nothing to Lose … Light of the World … Only Time Will Tell … he’s looking for someone to ...”
“Love? He’s looking for someone to love?” Crystal asked, seriously starting to doubt her friend’s sanity. “Or maybe he’s just some jerk playing a sick game,” she said. “Ever think of that?”
Heather looked stricken. “Well, no …” she said.
Crystal could see that she’d hurt Heather’s feelings. She softened. “So, this last ‘clue’ that’s supposed to be in Only Time Will Tell?” she asked. “What was that?”
Heather’s eyes lit up. “I haven’t looked yet!” she said. “I wanted you to be with me. I’m too excited.”
Crystal popped up off the sofa and strode toward the mystery section. “No time like the present,” she said.
Frozen in place, Heather watched her friend scan the shelves, running her fingers along the spines of the books. She closed her eyes and waited.
“It’s not there.” Crystal flopped back down onto the couch.
“What do you mean it’s not there?” Heather cried.
“There are plenty of Jeffrey Archer books,” Crystal said, “but no Only Time Will Tell. I checked all of the As and even the Bs and Cs.”
It wasn’t that she didn’t believe Crystal, exactly, but Heather needed to see for herself. While Crystal sat on the couch shaking her head, Heather scanned the shelves thoroughly. She even checked the As under General Fiction, Adventure, even Young Adult. It wasn’t there.
“Maybe you’re just too early,” Crystal said, joining her. “Maybe he hasn’t had time to bring it in.”
“Or it got sold already,” Heather said, hoping she was wrong.
“Oh, Heather,” Crystal said, patting her friend on the back. She felt bad for Heather, but what could she do? “Come on, I’ll buy you a hot fudge sundae at Moo-la-la. Chocolate fixes everything.”
Every day after work over the next few weeks, Heather haunted the stacks at Paige Turner’s. And every day she was disappointed. Afterward, she went back to her apartment and sat in her big chair with the cat on her lap, but she couldn’t even bear to pick up a book.
By Halloween, Heather had given up. She’d started reading again, but only historical fiction
. She agreed to meet Crystal and John at Paige Turner’s so they could go to a costume party after John’s shift. The best costume she could come up with was a pair of cats ears, some painted-on whiskers with black turtleneck and pants. Crystal, dressed as a sexy vampire, leaned saucily against the check-out counter while John, dressed as a pirate, counted out his cash drawer.
“There she is!” Crystal cried when Heather walked in. She eyeballed the half-hearted cat costume. “Don’t you look sweet,” she said. “We’re going to have a great time tonight!”
Heather smiled wanly, but her eyes wandered over the stacks. Crystal gave her a playful push.
“Oh, go on,” she said, “I know you’re dying to check. John’s not ready anyway.”
Without much hope, Heather headed to the mystery section. She scanned the As … Abbott, Adams, Albert, Archer, Archer … and there it was, Only Time Will Tell. Heather’s breath caught as she reached for the book. She held it for a moment, then slowly turned to page 10. Three small slips of paper fluttered to the floor. She stooped down to retrieve them as Crystal joined her.
“Success?” she said.
“I think so,” Heather said, looking with puzzlement at the receipts in her hand. There was no extra writing in thick, black ink on them.
Crystal peered at them. “Moo-La-La,” she said.
“The receipts, they’re from Moo-la-la; I’d know them anywhere.”
“But ...” Heather looked closer at the papers. They seemed identical. The tab was $5.75 for a small hot fudge sundae and coffee. Then she noticed the date stamps: Oct. 11, Oct. 18, Oct. 25 … all seven days apart. She did some calculating in her head as John joined them. It was now Oct. 31, a Thursday, so the Thursday before would have been the 24th, so the 11th, 18th and 25th were Fridays. The time stamp showed that the check had been rung up around 5:30 each night. Martin had a hot fudge sundae at Moo-la-la every Friday night! Heather’s eyes went wide. The next day was Friday.
“You two ready to party?” John asked. He looked down at the book and receipts in Heather’s hands. “You want to buy that book first? I’m clocked out, but Stella can ring you up. That just came in today.”
“What? What do you mean?” Heather asked.
“That book,” John said, nodding at the Archer. “Steve just brought it in today.”
“Steve?” Heather and Crystal said at the same time.
“Yeah, Steve Thomas. One of our best customers. I think he reads more than you do, Heather.”
Crystal and Heather just stared at each other, mouths wide.
“Martin is Steve,” Heather said. “Crystal, how come ...”
“I didn’t think of asking him!” Crystal interrupted.
“What’s going on?” John asked, totally perplexed.
“All that wondering, all that speculation,” Heather said, looking dazedly at John. “And all this time I could have asked you.”
“You’d make a lousy detective,” Crystal said, then shut her mouth when Heather glared at her.
“You mean about this Steve guy?” John asked. “Hell, if you’re wondering about him, ask him yourself.”
The two women looked at him, questions on their faces.
“Tonight, I mean. Ask him tonight. He’ll be at the party, he’s in the band. You guys ready to rock? It’s gettin’ late.”
Heather had gone stiff. She looked ready to bolt.
“Oh, no you don’t, sister,” Crystal said, corralling her in her arms. “It’s not like you have to say anything to him, but I bet you will. Come on, it’ll be a great story to tell your grand kids!”
Heather looked down at the receipts, then slipped them into her purse. She held onto the book a little longer, then eased it back onto the shelf.
“Oh, what the hell,” she said. “Nothing to Lose and Only Time Will Tell, right?”