In Leonard Collucci’s thirty years as a police detective, he had never solved a mystery. “That’s what detectives in pulp novels do,” he’d tell people curious about the job. “In real life, we walk into tragedies and pick up the pieces. A corpse, a gun, a kid next door with a drug habit. No need for Sherlock Holmes.” Even when cases went unsolved, Leonard usually knew what happened. He just couldn’t prove it. Sure, those cases pissed you off, but they didn’t keep you up nights putting the pieces together in different combinations.
So, Leonard wasn’t watching Tales to Tell Used Books because he missed stakeouts. He was here because the one genuine mystery he ever came up against was in that bookshop across the street. Steam floated off the mug of chai the barista had talked him into trying. It smelled how the park near his new apartment looked in autumn. He took a sip and watched people come and go through the bookshop’s red door.
Leonard wondered which one might be the next victim. Six disappearances, three officially reported, three more suspected. The oldest was Sue DiPippa, fifty-five, the youngest a twelve-year-old boy named Jimmy Brock. The one thing these victims had in common was they all spent a good bit of time at Tales to Tell right before they went missing.
The door of the shop jerked opened and a woman, fiftyish, her hair pulled back in a bun, stepped out. She stopped, still holding the door open. “It’s no way to run a business, that’s all.”
In the doorway stood the bookshop’s proprietor, Daniel Swafford. Leonard recognized the short man’s gray goatee and thick, black-framed spectacles. The woman listened to words Leonard couldn’t make out.
“Fine. If you don’t need to make money. I’ll find it online.” The woman didn’t stomp down the sidewalk, but it was a close thing.
Leonard abandoned his chai and crossed the street. “Excuse me, ma’am.”
The woman turned. Her anger morphed into uneasiness as she looked up at Leonard’s blunt features. “Yes?”
“I don’t mean to intrude, but I was wondering what happened back there?”
“Are you a police officer?”
No matter how hard he tried, Leonard could never look like anything but a cop. “Yes, ma’am, Detective Leonard Collucci, retired. I guess curiosity is the part of the job I can’t turn off. I’m sorry to bother you.”
“Sarah Lash,” she held out a hand that Leonard shook. “It was nothing. I wanted to buy a book and the owner wouldn’t sell it to me. I shouldn’t have gotten so angry.”
Leonard nodded, letting the silence draw her out.
“I just really liked it. The book, I mean. It was a diary written by a farm girl from the 1890s. All quilting bees and cakewalks. Not what I usually read, but something about it got to me, you know? There was a sign posted about the diaries not being for sale. I thought it was a haggling thing. Who owns a bookstore and doesn’t want to sell books?”
The diaries fit the pattern. He should tell her about the missing people. Middle-class women always believe what cops say, unless it’s about their kids being degenerate assholes. But Leonard couldn’t be sure she was in danger. Lots of people shopped at the bookstore and were fine. And maybe a new victim will give you a chance to catch Swafford in the act. You’re a real bastard, Collucci. “Bookstore owners can be a little nuts. I think most of them start out as hoarders.”
“The problem is, I don’t know if I can get the book anywhere else. It’s handwritten. And it’s not like the writer was famous for anything except getting the solo in her church Christmas program.”
“My advice would be stop back at the end of the month when all the bills are coming due.”
“Maybe I’ll do that. And who knows, it might be online after all. Isn’t everything?”
She was a good-looking woman, and Leonard briefly thought about asking if she wanted to talk a bit more over a coffee or chai. But the fine lines around her eye betrayed a lifetime spent laughing. The women in Leonard’s life stopped laughing. He’d spare her that. “Thanks for your time, Ms. Lash.”
Leonard decided to pay a visit on Mr. Swafford. A bell rang as he walked into the bookshop. Jazz guitar played softly, and the place smelled of vanilla and old paper. Daniel Swafford looked up from a stack of cookbooks on his desk. His shopkeeper’s smile faded as recognition set in.