Introduction: Grace Darby first appeared in a few episodes of a suspense serial in New Jersey Life and Leisure. The story below actually has no relationship to the story line formerly published. I hope to develop that story line, The Poetry Stalker, into a novel, and perhaps, some day, there will be two mystery series, one for Grace and one for Andy Westin and Jack Donegal, aka the Action Men. This first segment of a short story is a bit different than Action Men with Silly Putty but still a bit on the light side.
The Lit Club Mystery
Grace did not know why she noticed the book. This was a library, and it was not unusual for libraries to have books. It was just that this book was so perfectly centered on the table, in a private study room with no students, as if it were waiting for someone who never came. She'd passed the room several times now, and its red cover caught her eye.
Perhaps, she needed some distraction, some procrastination, but she came closer to the glass door of the room and read the book's title, Masterpieces of Mystery Selected by Ellery Queen: The Supersleuths. This caught her attention, because she liked mysteries. She didn't come to the library to read mysteries however. She'd come to delve into the Brownings, Robert and Elizabeth Barrett, and prepare for her class of lit major sophomores. Procrastination won out, and she entered the room.
She picked up the book and soon regretted it. She would never be able to get it back to its exact former position. She had a feeling it was placed there by a careful person who would notice its misplacement. For some reason, she did not want to sit with her back to the door but sat on the opposite side of the table facing it.
The first story in the book was “The Adventure of the Abbey Grange” by Arthur Conan Doyle, a nice one. She then noticed there was a single underlined word on the page, “do,” underlined in pencil. Why? As a professor, she'd seen lots of books with all sorts of handwritten notes, but why outline that single word and no others? Did it make any sense for emphasis? She read the whole sentence it belonged in. “'Why do you not write them yourself?' I said with some bitterness.'” No, it did not make sense. If any word should be emphasized, it should be “yourself” or maybe “why.” She flipped a page, and there was a word underlined on this page also, on the right hand side. The word was “not.” She flipped another page and, again, more underlined words, this time two together, “pick up.” She flipped another page still and the underlined word was “articles.” Very odd. “Do not pick up articles.” The underlined words formed a perfectly grammatical sentence. Coincidental or not? And were these articles as in newspaper or magazine articles or articles in the Conan Doyle sense as in things?
“Oh Grace, you're a little idiot,” she said aloud, with no one to hear her but the book. “It's just paranoia. That's all there is to it. Paranoia, and procrastination and too much imagination and late nights watching thrillers in an empty apartment.”
Focus, Grace, focus. How do I love thee? Let me count the ways … let me count … let me count … let me … count … count
She was sitting in a velvet lined armchair at 221b Baker Street, listening to Watson recite Elizabeth Barrett Browning to Mary. How sweet Mrs. Hudson was bringing her a cup of tea, Earl Grey. Mrs. Hudson or was it Miss Lemon? No, this was all wrong. For Pete's sake, she'd jumped books. Miss Lemon, Poirot's secretary, didn't belong in the 19th century or in Arthur Conan Doyle.
Grace woke up seeing red … the red book, its embossed leather cover leaving scalloped impressions in her cheek. She sat up and fumbled in her purse for her cell phone to check the time. 8:30 a.m.? 8:30 a.m., not p.m.? I've slept here all night? They must not have noticed her in this room when they closed the library for the night. She breathed a sigh of relief, remembering her next class was not until 10:00. Even so, what a royal mess she was.
She saw a male figure in gold and royal blue pass the glass door, seeming to look her way. The careful person? She rubbed her eyes, scooped up her things and hurried out the door of the study room.
She charged out with her armload of books and ran into a hard obstacle, the figure in gold and royal blue who had paced back to where he had started. Poetry books fell like hail all around her.
“Hi Zach.” She recognized the student. He'd been in her freshman English requirement class last semester. He wasn't a literature fan, but he seemed like a nice boy. She reached out her hand. If he was the careful person, the sort with germophobic tendencies, she thought he'd shy away from this
He grasped her hand and gave it a squeeze and a shake. The right side of his mouth pulled up in a sort of crooked smile. “Ms. Darby, your hair. It looks different.”
She'd slept all night with her face smashed into a book. She was quite sure her hair looked different!
“You look like one of those girls in the vintage Coke ads.”
“A Gibson girl? I look like a Gibson girl?”
“Sure.” He shrugged. “If that's what it's called.”
She reached up a hand and felt at the back of her head. She'd been wearing a French roll which had come partially loose. “Is that a good thing?”
“It suits you, Ms. Darby.”
She made a mental note that if she fell asleep with her head on a desk, she'd have the perfect look for the turn of the century.
“Well, let me get those books for you.” He kneeled down and began to collect the books. Grace squatted down as well. Zach read off titles as he handed her a few volumes, “Sonnets of the Portuguese? Love Letters of Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning? Ms. Darby, if I ever need to impress a girl, I'll know who to talk to.”
“You can always join us at Lit Club on Thursday nights.”
“I see you've gone Greek,” she said, noting the Phi Sigma Delta pin on the collar of his rugby shirt. “I remember you said you were pledging when you were in my class.”
“Well, thank you for picking up my books, and speaking up picking up things, have you any plans to pick up … some … some articles?”
Zach stared at her like she'd grown a fifth appendage. “Articles? I usually read articles online.”
“Me too,” said Grace, clearing her throat. “I do most of my article reading online. Well, I just thought that if you were going to pick up some articles … that maybe you shouldn't.” She suddenly remembered that the sentence spelled out from the underlines had said not to pick up. Perhaps she gave the wrong advice. “Or maybe you should.” She cleared her throat again. “Let your conscience be your guide.”
He continued to look at her like she was an alien life form, and she felt fully deserving of that.
“I … I haven't had my coffee yet,” she said, glad to be able to grasp at this excuse.
He smiled his crooked smile again. “I understand the feeling, Ms. Darby.”
To Be Continued …
© 2016 Susan Joy Clark