Blythe Calvert, proprietress of Blythe Cove Manor Inn, the finest B&B on Martha’s Vineyard — or so her guests always said — greeted the Lances warmly as they came up the walk. Lars Lance struggled with a large cardboard box that he could barely get his arms around. Helen Lance, slightly ahead of him, pulled the handle on a wagon full of sandwich trays and assorted food. The two librarians took excellent care of the Blythe Cove Private Library for Martha’s Vineyard inhabitants and visitors, but this weekend they had another job to do.
Helen smiled as she drew near, but Blythe did not fail to notice the shadows under her eyes, or the slightly jumpy look in the woman’s blue eyes. “We can’t thank you enough for letting us have the run of Blythe Cove Manor for the weekend,” she said.
Blythe helped her maneuver the wagon along the path that led straight into the kitchen. “I can’t imagine two people I would rather have watching over Blythe Cove Manor while I’m away for a long weekend. I’m just glad the timing worked out so that you could have the place exclusively for your group. I hope this means a nice fat fee and a small bequest to the library itself. More books in the library is a good thing, I always say.”
“Absolutely.” A flash of guilt played over Helen’s face, and Blythe had the oddest impression that Helen was about to confess some terrible crime. It was hard to imagine what the timid, helpful woman could possibly have done that would merit such nervousness.
But then Lars was behind them, confident and cheery. “Good afternoon, Blythe. Helen, get into the kitchen with that food. We need to store it in the refrigerator as soon as possible. We don’t want it to spoil.”
Blythe followed them into the kitchen and showed them where to stow the food. She glanced curiously into the box that Lars carried, to see it full of padded envelopes, a different name neatly printed in large letters on each envelope. “I’ve set up the library conference room for you. Do you need me to show you how to use our multi-media?” She asked. “I can help you set up if you like.”
“No need,” Lars said, waving his hand as he put down his box on the kitchen prep table where Blythe usually made her scones and muffins. “I’m well used to doing the multi-media and running the conference room at the library.” He turned to Blythe, “We are grateful to you. May I help you with your bags? I think I saw Fred out there ready to take you to the ferry.”
Blythe had the oddest feeling that he was rushing her out. She dismissed the feeling. No doubt Lars knew how Fred grumbled when he had to wait too long for a passenger.
“Have a wonderful time,” she said, as she handed over the keys. “Take good care of Blythe Cove Manor for me.”
“You enjoy your vacation,” Lars said in reply. “We have everything in hand. You don’t need to worry about a thing.”
He helped her out with her bags and chatted with Fred as she settled into the seat and buckled her seatbelt. As they drove off, Blythe glanced back at Blythe Cove Manor and felt a small chill of foreboding pass down her spine. She shook it off. No doubt it was the rarity of her own vacation away from the place that was making her feel this way. The Lances had been taking care of Blythe Cove Library for fifteen years. They were more than capable of managing a weekend get together of librarians. Who, on earth, were more trustworthy than a group of librarians?
Justus Hargrave frowned severely at the young mother sitting across from him on the ferry to Martha’s Vineyard. She was not controlling her toddler well enough for his liking. The last thing he wanted on his freshly ironed shirt was peanut butter and jelly.
He considered moving to another table, but he had been here first. The mother was the one who should have been more considerate and sat far from anyone the toddler could paint with his snack. At last, when it was clear she would ignore his frown, he cleared his throat and said sharply, “Madam, would you please control your child.”
“He’s high spirited,” the mother said, without even noticing that her son was using his sandwich as a makeshift truck and smearing peanut butter and jelly all over the table. As if high spirits meant she did not have to make the little monster behave in close quarters.
Justus shook his head and pulled out his phone. He studied the email invitation that had sent him on his way to Blythe Cove Manor. Martha’s Vineyard was a bit too touristy for him, but Leya had enticed him with the hint of an endowment that was too large for him to ignore. He only wished she’d bothered to type it more carefully. There were odd text marks and missing words that made her invitation slightly unclear.
He settled back in his seat to endure the rest of the journey, jiggling the table just enough that the toddler’s sandwich, which had been abandoned at the edge of the table, landed on the filthy floor.
He ignored the mother’s glare and thought about what a successful weekend would mean for him. The sneering partners in the law firm would no longer be able to dismiss his suggestions to create a library that would be the envy of the other firms if he were to bring in a big endowment.
On the deck below Justus, Verity Bayspike stood looking into a bathroom mirror, making sure her hair and makeup were just right. She touched up her lipstick, a shade she had taken to calling competent cinnamon because it made her look trustworthy. She still carried a tube of playful pink in her purse, but the hopes of returning full-time to her job as a children’s librarian were becoming more and more distant.
Her hours had been cut so severely she simply couldn’t afford it. No one said so directly, but she knew it was “the incident with the parent” that had targeted her as the one to fall victim to the budget cuts. This last time, when she’d complained that she couldn’t pay her rent if she didn’t get more hours, or find a new job, she’d seen the naked hope in the Director’s eye when she said “new job.” That was so unfair. The parents loved her. All but a few. And they were the troublemakers, not she.
Perhaps this job was a change in fortune for her. If she impressed the estate manager and catalogued the estate’s library in an efficient and swift manner, perhaps she could turn this line of work into her new career. Cataloguing dusty old books did not require one to always be positive and cheerful, or to be a spotless role model, either.
Verity exited the bathroom, her gaze catching and holding on a man standing at one of the windows staring out in the direction from which they’d come. He turned to meet her eyes, as if he had felt the weight of her gaze. He had, she thought in a flash before she turned away, the look of a brooding noir hero in those 40s style detective novels.
Jessup Gable assessed Verity before she was finished turning away from him. She looked like the type of woman who’d be a challenge. He liked a challenge… But no. He had been hired to monitor an estate sale and determine whether there were any volumes of quality his library wanted to acquire — and, if so, to get them at the lowest rate possible.
The man who had hired him had not blatantly said to steal them if he could, but the implication had been there. He smiled and forgot about Verity before she was out of sight. No need for complications this weekend.
Not far from Gable, Amelia Craig perched stiffly in a seat, staring at the filthy windows as if the heat of her scorn could blaze them clean from the haze of dirt that obscured them. She wished the rest of humanity would adhere to at least minimal standards, but she had learned few would.
Amelia opened her purse and double-checked that she had her invitation. It was hand written on vellum and signed with an elegantly scrawled S. A lovely note saying how much help she had been in the author’s search for resource material had convinced her to accept the invitation to Martha’s Vineyard, even though she had no idea who S was. So few patrons had the grace to say a simple thank you for her help, never mind send a note and an opportunity to see a rare first edition of Pride and Prejudice. At least, that was what she thought it said. The postman had left the lid open on her mailbox and rain had obscured some of the words.
Major Fitzarthur stood on the top deck, watching Martha’s Vineyard come into view. He smiled at the thought of a long weekend away from the teen patrons who didn’t know how to appreciate a library. The invitation he’d received had promised a relaxing weekend among wealthy indulgent parents, talking about what books were most influential to the teen mind.
He’d been so flattered to be asked, he’d overlooked the crumpled and slightly illegible nature of the invitation because the important information was clear — a weekend away on Martha’s Vineyards, no teens in sight.
It was time his hard work earned him a little appreciation and notice. One little kerfuffle and suddenly none of the teachers could look him in the eye. Nonsense.
Dr. Brazoforza stood on the opposite side of the ferry, looking at where he had come from instead of where he was going. The chance to acquire rare medical books for the hospital auction was too good to pass up, but he considered Martha’s Vineyard a place for the pretentious. He was a practical man. Successful, respected, the kind of man his colleagues came to for advice and suggestions when it came to what volume to consult when they had an especially perplexing case. That reputation was probably why he’d been called on to receive the volumes personally.
Edward Ciro stood by the spot where the ferry would connect to the dock and release the passengers. He didn’t much like boats, even ferries. He wanted off as soon as they put the walkway in place and moved the yellow caution strap strung over the opening.
He did look forward to finding out if the manuscript he was hired to assess was a forgery. He was good at finding forgeries.
As he mused on how quickly he could accomplish his task and get off the island, a motor boat came roaring past the ferry. Ciro leaned forward to watch the young blonde woman at the helm. She obviously hadn’t a care in the world.
“Be careful there,” one of the passing crew warned him cheerfully. “You’re just one step from falling off if you’re not careful.”
Helen glanced over the library conference table nervously, consulting the diagram that had been provided for which padded envelope went where. “I think it is all set out correctly. Double check me before I take the picture, okay.”
Lars sighed. “Helen, you need to be more confident.” He took the diagram from her fingers and glanced at the table critically.
“Water pitcher at either end, check. Tumblers for water at each place, check. Notepads and pens at each place, check.”
He moved around the table, murmuring, “Hargrave, Bayspike, Gable, Craig, Fitzarthur, Brazoforza, Marsh, Ciro, Lars Lance, Helen Lance.”
He looked up at her and smiled briefly. “All correct.” Pointing to the side table in the corner, he said. “And I’ve set out the whisky and wine for those who are so inclined, as indicated. All that’s left is for everyone to arrive.”
They both glanced at the door, as if people would magically begin to come through it.
In the heavy silence, Helen stared at the padded envelopes. “I wonder what’s in them?”
Lars said confidently, “We’ll find out soon enough.”
There were seven of them gathered at the narrow mouth of the small tourist bus marked “Blythe Cove Manor.”
“Wait for me, called a breathless voice, and the woman from the motor boat bustled to the front of the line, as if it were her due, earning her sharp glances from some of the crew. Jessup Gable stood back with a polite smile and sized up his competition as they shuffled into the bus and seated themselves.
As he stepped onto the bus, he dealt himself a swift conclusion: not much competition. This job was likely to be much easier than he’d anticipated. Not that he would complain about an easy job in a beautiful spot.
He glanced at the prettiest woman on the bus, a blonde with wind-reddened cheeks. There was something wild about her that warned him off, so he opted not to sit next to her. Instead, he settled himself into the seat next to the woman he’d noticed on board the ferry. This job was shaping up to be much more interesting than he had hoped. He may as well have a little fun while he was at it. He grinned at the woman.
Verity gave the cheeky man who appraised her a cool stare. She knew his type. There were dads at the library who gave her the married version of that grin. She looked away, out the window of the bus, where she could see sunburned tourists wandering under the sun as if they wished to be baked to death.
Honestly, sometimes she thought men were worse than the toddlers who came to story time and proceeded to fidget and wander immediately after the storytelling began. She pushed away the memory of a man’s voice, cool, seductive, demanding. She’d done nothing wrong. Nothing at all. It wasn’t fair that the other librarians held the incident against her.
Justus Hargrave endured the jolting of the bus with his lips pressed together and his mind firmly on the endowment. He had no idea if his companions on the bus were also hoping to win the endowment. If so, they were no threat to him. He knew how to lay out an airtight case, researched beyond fault. The endowment would be his.
In the front seat, behind the driver, America Craig sat with her eyes trained rigidly forward. She had made a quick assessment of the motley crew who had boarded the bus after her, certain that she knew none of them. The author who had issued the invitation must be waiting at Blythe Cove Manor for her.
Behind Amelia, Major Fitzarthur closed his eyes and meditated silently. None of the people on the bus looked like they were parents of teens. Perhaps they were fellow speakers. Nevertheless, he wanted to make a good impression on his hosts, so he calmed his mind and envisioned greeting his hosts with such an air of confidence that he would be invited to book several more speaking engagements.
“I wish I had walked,” Edward Ciro murmured, as the bus driver narrowly avoided hitting a family of pedestrians who seemed oblivious to their near miss. To distract himself, he assessed the others on the bus with him. Were any of them the forger? The young woman looked too cheery and the older woman looked too proper. But looks could be deceiving, as he well knew.
“The bus is less danger, and faster.” Dr. Brazoforza leaned forward to whisper to the man in front of him, who had just expressed his regret that he had not walked to their destination. The man did not look like a physician, or indeed like someone who would be interested in rare medical volumes, but his curt nod made Brazoforza hesitate to ask him his business at Blythe Cove Manor. No doubt he would find out in due time, if it was any of his business.
Toni Marsh turned to laugh at the man who had spoken. “What is life without a little danger?” She collected the annoyed stares of the others on her bus with a smile. Competition was a bitch, and so was she.
The bus lurched to a stop and the driver threw open the door. “Welcome to Blythe Cove Manor,” he said.
“How could anyone ban “Looking for Alaska?” Helen Lance asked, a little shakily, as she stared at the remains of the book. She’d read it. It was sweet and heartfelt. Real characters, not buoyed by special powers or commercial glitz and glamour. And no magic to solve Herculean projects. Only real people with real flaws.
Amelia Craig nodded to her in understanding. “Some people are too superficial. They need superheroes instead of grit and gravy.”
Helen nodded in return, though she felt sick to her stomach. Banning a book was an ugly thing. It should not be done lightly. She clutched her own envelope to her chest. She knew what it contained. She’d only banned one book in her life. She flicked a glance at her husband, remember how she’d protested, but ultimately, she had requested the ban.
“Well, at least we are not on a deserted island.” Nervously, Lars looked away from his wife and walked to the window. He peered out and reassured himself of the familiar bustle of people at the distant shoreline.
“Someone’s idea of a joke. Not at all funny.” Edward Ciro moved to the TV, looking behind it for signs of who was operating it.
The TV issued a loud judgement from its speakers. “Banning books is no joke.”
One of the women jumped and looked behind her, as if the deep voice was attached to a person rather than emanating from the TV. “One little librarian gone. Who will be next?”
Ciro watched with analytical detachment as the others turned frozen stares to obsidian expanse of the screen. As one, they flinched when the screen lit up, and the voice continued, “It takes no courage to ban a book.” A pause while an animated chicken danced headless on the screen.
“But does that mean you are all cowards?” Another pause while a cartoon weasel came to dance with the headless chicken.
“If not, what are you? You have the weekend to find out the answer to that question.” The screen went dark again.
Major Fitzarthur stood and joined Ciro near the TV. “If you were my students, I’d accuse you of trying to pull off a ghastly prank. But none of you have been in school for quite a while, I guess. So let’s get to it. Who has done this and what do you need from us to end it now?”
There was no answer from anyone in the room.
“It must be him,” Dr. Brazoforza spoke from his seat. He had yet to even touch his envelope. His finger pointed right at Lars.
“It is not me.” Lars protested. He held out a sheaf of papers neatly clipped together on a brown clipboard. “Helen’s and my instructions are printed here. We received them in the mail only this morning.”
“What does it say for you to do now?” Verity Bayspike asked. She scrutinized the officious little librarian for signs that he was lying as he answered.
Lars checked his clipboard. “Open your envelopes and defend your judgments, if you please.” There was some white around his lips, but Verity had the sense that he told the truth.
The room erupted and Verity watched each of the others for signs of duplicity.
“Look here. I did not come here to be insulted,” Amelia Craig said in a huff.
“Nor did I,” replied Ciro. “But it seems someone wants us to feel the heat before we have a chance for what we were promised.”
Lars had a dew of sweat on his forehead. “Nor did I.” He held up two envelopes, one in each hand. “I came here to help keep my library going.” He ripped open one envelope.
It was not a book. It was a a thick sheaf of papers. One of the people looked at it and sniffed. “Quite a contract.”
Lars nodded, and Ciro noticed that he relaxed slightly as he stared at the contents of the envelope. “It’s the check that I find most attractive.” He put the contract down on the sideboard and tapped the plain green check.
“It’s the zeros that attract me,” said Dr. Brazoforza. He began to rip his envelope open, but then when he saw everyone watching him he stopped. He looked at Lars. “You go first.”
Lars looked at Helen. “Ladies first.”
Helen looked, Ciro thought, as though she would rather tear out her own hair by the roots. With trembling hands she opened her envelope and exposed Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.
“Are you kidding me?” Ciro snorted. “A kid’s book? What are you? Cruella Deville?”
Helen’s cheeks flamed. “This is a tawdry commercial book with wizards and witches and witchcraft. It is nothing like John Green’s sensitive portrayal of a young man yearning for love.”
Verity Bayspike bit her lip and watched the woman for clues. Her husband, Lars stood back, as if he was shocked to the core. “Helen. Harry Potter? Really?”
Helen looked defiantly at his accusing stare. “Please. Don’t pretend you respect that commercial tripe.” Verity thought there was an unspoken plea from the woman to her husband in those words.
Lars shook his head. “But to ban it? It is harmless enough. It underscores honesty and friendship.”
Helen slumped, defeated before she began her defense. “And magic.”
“You would cost us this,” he pointed to the contract. “To stand by your ban of that book?”
She looked unsure. “You would insist I rescind my ban?”
Lars shrugged. “Why not.” He smiled unkindly. “If you think Pastor Robert will forgive you.”
Verity understood then, with cold clarity. He had asked her to ban the book. Cad. She watched tensely, waiting to see what the wife would do.
Helen sucked in her breath, clearly feeling trapped between her husband and a hard place.
Verity asked Lars sharply, “What does she need to do to it if she does stand by her ban?”
Lars looked to Helen. Helen consulted her clipboard of instructions and grew very pale. “I am to wrap it in three rolls of duct tape, so that it can never be read again.”
Ciro stepped toward her. “So? Do you take your ban back? The book is harmless. Surely you don’t see the need to ban it.”
“But…”Helen trembled. “I can’t. Unless.. must we tell Pastor John?” She glanced up to her husband with a desperate plea that touched Verity Bayspike to her core.
“Wouldn’t God know?” her husband taunted.
Helen shivered. “He would never forgive me if I weakened on this.”
He handed her the roll of duct table. “Well, then, one more librarian bites the dust.”
The room was silence except for the sound of duct tape unwinding in a sticky neverending scratch of sound until both rolls of duct tape were wound around what had once been a book.
Everyone in the room looked a little bit sick, including Helen. As she dropped the duct tape bundle in the trash can she tried to straighten her spine on the way out the door.
She looked at Lars. “It’s up to you now.”
He pressed his lips together. “You have to leave.”
“Good luck.” Her voice was flat and it sounded very much as if she had no faith in her husband’s luck.
Lars didn’t seem to mind that his wife was upset when she left, Verity Bayspike noticed with scorn. He closed the door behind her and locked it.
“What are you doing?” Verity asked, feeling spooked.
He turned to look at the others, but before he could speak, the TV sprang to life, displaying the poem again, with the first and second verses struck off.
“Nine little Injuns swingin’ on a gate, one tumbled off and then there were eight. Will any of you have the courage to defend your ban?”
The TV monitor went silent and black once more.
After a moment, Lars swallowed and said quickly, “Orders. The door is to be opened only to those who we deem have not defended their banned choice well enough. And only after they have dealt with the book in the prescribed manner.”
He began to open his envelope, but Major Fitzarthur stood up and said, “I’ve had enough of this. I came to give a speech to some rich parents, not play games about whether or not my banned book deserved to be banned or not.” He ripped open his envelope and held up his book. “I’m not afraid to defend my ban. This book should be burned and every librarian should forbid it.”
“You banned Anne Frank” The Diary of a Girl?” Verity Bayspike shook her head. “It’s a true story. It tells us up front about the terrible things that were done to innocent people in the name of the Fatherland in Germany.”
Ciro watched Fitzarthur shrug. “There are better books about the Holocaust and its victims. This one should go the way of Aunt Erma’s jello salad and Uncle Ernie’s cheap cigars. Who cares what a shallow girl thought about living in an attic?”
“Only a man could say such a thing,” Emily said tartly. Quickly, before the Bayspike woman could think that Emily sided with her opinion that the book should not be banned, Emily added, “The book does deserve to be banned, but not because it is shallow.”
Everyone looked at her. Verity Bayspike’s expression showed a touch of surprise and … Emily was slightly pleased to identify an emotion that looked like betrayal. She continued, glad of the opportunity to speak honestly for once. “Some books should be left for parents to give to their children, or not. The fact that Anne was a real person gives her story more weight than Fitzarthur seems to believe. Thus, it is more dangerous for impressionable children and should be regulated by parents, not librarians.”
Fitzarthur stared at her for a moment, apparently shocked that she agreed with him. But then he took hope that his ban would stand against the weight of the room’s judgment. He nodded and went on, “You have no idea how often the kids in my high school used this book to justify their own supposed persecution. Everyone has to hide in the attic these days, to hear them tell it.”
Emily gave him a small nod of agreement. “Young people these days. It’s all about entitlement and selfishness.”
Fitzarthur laughed. “Exactly. I’d had enough. I banned it. I’d ban it again. That book deserves to be banned in all school libraries everywhere. I’m not going to urban the book just because some anonymous kook somewhere wants me to feel bad about it.” He eyed the check with a hungry look that Emily understood.
She asked, “So far, everyone has stood by their ban. We should have a way to vote on whether the ban is right or wrong.”
Ciro spoke up, “Yeah. Someone’s got to win that money. If we all stand by our bans, then…”
Lars, who had remained standing by the door during the discussion, moved to the table and took his seat beside his wife’s empty chair. He carefully placed his envelope on the table and picked up the clipboard with his instructions. He looked at Fitzarthur and read off two questions: “Do you regret it? Will you take it back?”
Fitzarthur laughed. “No regrets. I may even ban a few more books to make my job easier.”
Lars stared at his clipboard for a little longer, and then gave Emily a look. “What do you think? Should we vote on whether this was a reasonable ban or not? Just in case all Ten Little Librarians fail the test and none of us see the error of our ways?”
“Absolutely,” Ciro said. “I vote no. My grandfather died in the Holocaust, so if Anne’s story makes one young kid think about how to stand up and prevent something like that in the future, I want it to be mandatory reading in high school, not banned.”
“I vote yes.” Amelia Craig said, looking straight at Lars, her back ramrod straight. “The ban was justified.
The others sat silent for a moment until Lars called out their names and they cast their votes, one by one.
“Dr. Brazoforza?” Lars asked.
The medical librarian shook his head. “I vote no. Children relate best to stories about those like them. And, like Verity said, Anne’s story is a true story, written in her own hand. It may be a tough story, but no tougher on a kid than facing cancer or having to have surgery on a broken arm or leg.”
Lars tallied the vote on his clipboard — two ticks in the yes column, two in the no.
“No. It should be a crime to ban that book,” she answered passionately, shooting a condemning look at Amelia. “One of the economics professors showed us his tattoo one day. He’d been at Auschwitz when he was just a child. It was a miracle he survived.”
The legal librarian pursed his lips and was silent as he thought for a moment. Amelia suspected he might side with her, the way he glanced at her as he thought. But when he spoke, he said simply, “No. Censorship should only be done in the most grave of cases.”
The man did not hesitate. He gave a crisp, “Yes.” Amelia smiled at him, while the rest of the room gasped in dismay, to her delight. “Order must be maintained. If a book causes disruption, it should go.”
Fitzarthur looked at Lars. “I make the vote to be 4 against 3. What say you? Is it a toss up? Or do I lose?”
Lars didn’t answer right away. And then he said, “My grandfather died in World War II.”
“Guess I’m not going to get that check. What do I need to do to this piece of dreck. Please tell me I get to shoot it. I really want to shoot it.”
Her voice sharp with disappointment, Amelia said tartly, “In Christie’s book, the person in your spot in the criminal line up was bludgeoned to death.” It stung that the others had not sided with her. The sting subsided when her eyes slipped to the fat contract with the big check. Fitzarthur’s defeat meant she might be the one to win the money. She touched her envelope. Surely everyone would agree with her decision?
Fitzarthur shrugged and lumbered to his feet. “Bludgeon?” He looked at the sturdy hardcover copy of his banned book. “Can’t beat a book to death. It’s made to survive.”
Lars consulted the instructions on his clipboard. “No. But you can put it in the wood chipper.”
They all followed him outside to the yard, where a small wood chipper stood at the ready.
Fitzarthur barely hesitated before tossing the book into the chipper with a debonair curved throw. “Take that, teens.”
He glanced at the others, huddled together against his violence against a book. “I don’t know why you’re all looking at me like that. You’re next, you know. Christie knew her humanity well. We all fall, one at a time, until there’s not a one of us to get that fat check but the mice.”
When the remaining people had filed back into the room, and Lars had locked the door behind them, no one sat.
Verity Bayspike noticed that everyone in the room looked around as if they were afraid they’d be knifed in the back if they weren’t vigilant.
“This is ridiculous,” Verity said, feeling spooked, but with hope still burning that she might survive the day and be awarded the check.
“I agree,” said Ciro. He went to the bookshelf and plucked out a copy of And Then There Were None. Verity watched him warily as he paged through the book and then glanced at Lars. “I can’t say who most of the characters are, but clearly you will be next, as your role as caretaker means that you are a stand in for the butler.”
Verity noticed that Lars’ expression grew wary. She suspected he had never read Christie’s book himself. But before he could confess — or more likely cover up — that truth, the TV sprang to life, displaying the poem again, with the first three verses struck off.
“Eight little librarians swingin’ on a gate…”
The TV monitor went silent and black before the verse could be completed. Verity gaped at Lars, who held the remote in his hand, still gripping it as tightly as he might grip a weapon of some sort.
“Let me see.” He reached for the book, but Ciro did not release it. Instead, he read the relevant passage aloud.
No one said anything after Ciro had finished reading Christie’s stark accounting of the butler’s demise. At last, Verity could be silent no longer, “Poisoned, like his wife. How fitting.” She glared at Lars, who had been such a bully to his wife. “What book did you ban?”
Almost reluctantly, Lars opened his envelope to reveal his book, a pristine looking hardcover that seemed never to have been read.
“Pretty ballsy to ban a Nobel Peace Prize winner, dude,” Jessup Gable said, with a low whistle.
Lars had grown tense, but at that comment he gave a shrug that shook off the tension and left him relaxed and secure. Even his fingers on the remote had loosened enough to let blood back into previously whitened fingertips. “I am Malala gives women the idea that they should be willing to challenge and shame their elders for the sake of a principle. That’s not a good prescription for any right-minded society.”
Amelia Craig sat up straighter. “I understand the sentiment, but Malala was only speaking up for education, not for overthrowing her government or shaming her religion.”
Verity had not thought she could have a lower opinion of Lars, but she had been wrong. “Surely you do not believe you were right to ban that book? It inspires us all to be a little more courageous in our work. To be proud that we are librarians who defend the written word and the freedom of speech that can recognize hate for what it is, and for the damage it can do.”
Lars said, “We don’t have that problem in our country, and we shouldn’t be putting foolish thoughts in young girls’ minds. Next thing you know, they’ll be protesting for the Equal Rights Amendment again.”
Verity had no idea what the Equal Rights Amendment even was, but it sounded good to her, as long as Lars was against it. “I have conducted book groups with this book — groups of young women and young men — and I can’t tell you how valuable it has been to discuss real person put into the situation of advocating for herself against grown men willing to shoot her in the head because she advocated for education.”
The TV sprang to life again suddenly, startling even Lars, who stared at the remote in his hand as if it had betrayed him. Jessup jumped up and pulled the plug, killing the sound before the poem could be finished. He held up the plug and then swung the unplugged cord like a lasso. “Anyone for a change of rules? We don’t have to follow Christie’s script. We’re not fictional characters, we’re flesh and blood librarians.”
Verity nodded. “It is time to end this odious discussion. Let’s all reveal our books and take a simple vote on which one — or ones — should have been banned.”
Lars may have been about to protest, but in no time, the books were taken from their envelopes and lay revealed on the table.
Hargrave spoke up, startling Verity. She had begun to think he had nothing to say. “Let’s vote on the books in the order Christie would have wanted for us.” He looked at Ciro. “Do you know what order?”
“I do,” Amelia Craig answered. “I’ve always been a Christie fan, although this book is not one of my favorites. “As Mr. Ciro read, Lars would be next, as the obvious butler character. The other characters are not as clear to me, although I suspect we can figure it out. We are all, after all, librarians.”
She picked up her empty envelope and took a pen from her shirt pocket. “Let’s see, we have the playboy character, so that would fit Toni, the housekeeper, which was obviously Helen, the military man…I would guess Major Fitzarthur fit that character, although I think that was a bit sloppy if you ask me.”
“They’re all gone,” Ciro pointed out before Verity could. She was glad she had been slower than he had, given the look Amelia shot him.
With obvious disdain, Amelia continued, “Then, of course, next up is Lars, as Mister Ciro read out to us.”
Everyone looked at him, and even Amelia Craig paused in her recitation, one hand on her temple as if she were thinking. Verity wondered if she really were thinking, or just making Lars squirm.
To everyone’s surprise, Ciro spoke up, pointing to a page in the book. “And I think we’d all agree that you’d be the upright old woman character, right?”
Amelia’s lips tightened, and suddenly Verity had to stifle the urge to release a nervous laugh. Had she seen the connection? Or was it just now occurring to her?
Amelia nodded, but then turned to Justus Hargrave. “That leaves us with a bit of a sticky issue. As a legal librarian, I am certain you are to be the representative for the judge.”
“Seems clear to me,” Hargrave agreed.
Ciro paged through the book until he found the scene of the judge’s death. “Shot through the temple. What’s so sticky about that?”
Amelia Brent looked at the faces which were trained on her and felt a bit of pleasure at the thought she might know something they didn’t. For a moment she considered not telling them. She didn’t like Hargrave’s challenging attitude.
But then she glanced at Verity and realized sourly that if she did withhold the information, Verity’s book would be the last to be tallied for the vote. She didn’t want that.
Before she could explain Christie’s twist, Ciro had found it. “Ahah! The judge only seems to die. He doesn’t really die until the very last.”
Amelia nodded regally, as if rewarding a student for finally coming up with a correct answer.
Jessup Gable interrupted. “I remember there was a military character. That must be my doppelgänger. When did he get offed?”
Verity said softly, “He was killed by my character, the governess, I’m afraid, so that would make him either number 9, or number 8, depending on where we decide to put Hargrave — in the order of his fake death, or at his true death at the very last.”
Ciro looked at her and said flippantly, “I wonder what Christie would say?”
“I wonder what our host would say,” Amelia said to take back control. After all, if our weekend is a mirror to Christie’s guests, than Hargrave is the one who set this all in motion.
He held up his hands. “Not me.” He could see that no one believed him. He shrugged. “Fine. Put me in my fake death order. Once this is all over, you’ll see. My money’s on dear old Lars for having engineered this unnecessary shamefest.”
“Now that that’s settled,” Verity said quickly, “We should vote on Lars. I don’t believe he was right to ban his book.”
The others all quickly agreed, including Amelia Craig, who had sown a little sympathy.
Verity gave him a false smile. “Since the butler was poisoned just like his wife, I guess that means you’ll need to wrap your book in duct tape, too, before you go.
Lars looked at her coolly, with blatant dislike. Verity shivered, wondering how his wife had been able to stand being married him. “I’m not going anywhere. I have the key.”
“Don’t be ridiculous!” Ciro moved toward him, as if he might wrestle Lars for the key, but Lars backed away from him, holding the remote out as if it could turn Ciro off as it had the ominous TV voice.
“You can’t lock us all in here!” Jesus Gable protested, lifting his hands.
“I told you it was him!”
Lars said sourly, “Don’t be foolish. It wasn’t me. But that doesn’t mean I don’t want the check.” He held up his book. “You’ve rejected the legitimacy of my ban, but so far all the bans have been deemed illegitimate. I’ll stay to the bitter end. If everyone is rejected, then I’ll still have a chance at the check.”
“That isn’t fair,” said Amelia sternly.
“None of this is fair,” Lars shot back.
The room was silent for a moment as they all contemplated the truth of that statement.
“Nevertheless,” Amelia at last continued, “If you are allowed to stay in the competition for the check, then those who have been rejected already should be put back into contention.”
“The hell with this circus.” Justus Hargrave’s gruff shout made Amelia jump. “We’ve all been duped into this weekend. I say we should break down the door and go our separate ways.”
“What about the check?” Jessup Gable asked.
Hargrave paused to consider the question for a moment and then shrugged. “We should tear it up into a million tiny pieces.”
Verity Bayspike was shocked when Ciro stood up abruptly and grabbed Lars. Neither one said anything as the two men wordlessly struggled for possession of the key. Verity had never been so close to a scuffle of adults, which struck her as much more dangerous than the scuffles her young patrons sometimes got into.
All of a sudden, the key shot out of Lars’ hand and scooted across the floor.
The two combatants simultaneously tried to grab the key and blocked each other’s attempts to retrieve the key. The wide polished pine planks beneath their feet shuddered as the men jockeyed slowly across the floor toward the key.
Verity held her breath as the men passed close to her. She contemplated reaching down to get the key herself, as it was within reach. But the men’s violence made her second guess that instinct. She let out a gasp as she saw that the odious Lars was going to win the awkward race to the key. Before she could think, her foot shot out and kicked the key out of Lars’ reach.
Unfortunately, she kicked a little too hard, and the key shot under the library door.
The men immediately stopped struggling and stood upright, straightening their clothing and staring at the heretofore unnoticed gap beneath the door.
“Now you’ve done it, Miss Bayspike,” Amelia said. “We’re well and truly locked in.”
Ciro moved to the door and knelt before it. He bent to lay his head on the floor and peered into the gap between the door and the floor. “I can see it.”
He shoved his fingers into the gap. “I can’t reach it.”
He stood up and glanced at Verity. “You try. You have smaller hands.”
Reluctantly, Verity moved to the door and crouched down. She reached her fingers underneath, surprised at how smoothly polished the bottom of the door felt. She’d expected splintery roughness from the part of the door that no guest ever saw. She wiggled her fingers, straining to see if she could reach the key. No luck.
“Here, try this,” Everyone turned to look at Amelia as she reached into her purse and retrieved a small yellow ruler. She handed it to Ciro, who brought it to Verity.
Verity would have said something about an old woman and her purse, but the accusing glances aimed at her silenced her witty quip.
For five minutes, Verity silently fished for the key, but it lay just out of reach. “We need something longer,” she said, giving up.
Ciro grabbed the ruler from her and tried for a few minutes more. At last, he too gave up and handed the ruler back to Amelia.
“How about my belt?” Jessup asked.
They dutifully tried the belt, but it only pushed the key further away.
At last, Lars said, “Helen is no doubt watching to see how we fare. I will put a sign in the window asking her to come let us out.”
He took one of the empty manila envelopes and a marker and wrote in large bold letters, “Helen, we are trapped. Come open the library door.”
He put the makeshift sign in the window.
“Wait, maybe we can climb out of the window.” Ciro shoved him aside.
Lars watched patiently as the man tried to open the window, but it opened no more than six inches. Not enough for any of them to squeeze through. There was no one about to call to for help, either.
“We could break it,” Ciro said half-heartedly.
Lars shook his head. “Better to wait for Helen. It isn’t our property. Whoever breaks it should be willing to pay for the repairs.”
Amelia sat down at the table. “Who is it we said was next to reveal their book? We may as well get the voting over with while we wait.”
Verity looked at her sharply. “Whoever we said, I believe you are next.”
“I’ll go first.” Ciro said. “I’ve had it with these games.”
“No. Let’s go in the order we decided. We owe it to Christie.”
Verity couldn’t help chuckling when Amelia Craig revealed her copy of Fifty Shades of Gray. No one supported her ban, when Ciro took a quick vote and then pointed to Hargrave.
“I’m going to sue whoever did this to us.” Hargrave glared at Lars.
“It wasn’t me,” Lars assured him.
“Don’t bother to lie, I’m going to find out the truth.” Hargrave ripped open his envelope and revealed his copy of Putin’s Russia with what Verity thought was a little too much bravado.
She said, “I remember that book. Wasn’t the author Anna Politkovskaja assassinated by Putin himself?”
Hargrave shook his head. “Allegations never proved. She was an irresponsible reporter who attempted to destabilize her own government. That kind of behavior should not be allowed.”
Ciro said, “Anyone else want to ban that book?”
No one replied in the affirmative.
Ciro took his turn, revealing his copy of —- Amelia Brent gasped loudly — The Bible.
Jessup Gable shook his head. “You people have no imagination.” He opened his envelope to reveal Abbie Hoffman’s Steal This Book. “This is the attitude we need to ban. Not the bible. Or some harmless, sexy fun.”
No one spoke up to agree with him. Instead, they all turned to look at Verity and she felt her hands grow clammy as she revealed her banned book, The Giving Tree.
Gable nodded. “I get it. But if I could only ban one book, Steal This Book would be it.”
They stared at each other, unsure what to do next.
At last, Lars took the packet that contained the check and said, “Well? Should we draw straws?”
“Isn’t that against the rules?”
“Who made the rules?” Ciro looked around the room. “That’s what I want to know. Forget the check. It’ll probably bounce, anyway. I want the fruitcake who thought this waste of a weekend was a good idea.”
The room grew silent as they all looked at each other suspiciously.
Into the silence came the sound of footsteps outside the library door.
Jessup Gable pounded on the door. “Help. We are locked in here. Can you go find someone to let out out.”
There was silence from the other side of the door.
He pounded on the door again.” Hello? Who is out there?” He stopped to listen, controlling his rapid breathing. This whole situation had begun to make him jump at shadows. Ridiculous.
Still, the silence continued.
Just when he was about to pound on the door again, there was a tiny clear sound. A key being inserted into a lock. He held his breath as the key was turned, and the lock clicked open.
He thrust open the door. Helen stood before him, holding a tray of tea and scones.
He was speechless as she pushed past him and set the tray on the sideboard as if every eye in the room was not trained on her accusingly. “So, do we have a winner yet? The weekend is almost over.”
Lars said, in a strangled voice, “Helen, what…?”
She turned on him her smile growing cold. “Do we have a winner? Is there a ban that all defend?”
Verity shook her head. “No, Helen, of course not. There is no ban that we all agree on, how could there be. Banning a book comes from a place of fear and we all fear different things.” She got up from the table and went to take a raspberry scone from the tray. “Ginger lemon tea. Wonderful.”
Helen smiled at Verity, “My favorite tea, as well. I am glad at least one of you now understands that a librarian’s sacred duty is to resist banning books out of fear, not join in with our own bans.”
Lars took his wife’s arm roughly. “Helen, you could be arrested for this. Or fired.”
“Nonsense. Everyone came of their own free will.”
“But you lied to them.”
She shrugged. “They stayed of their own free will, didn’t they?”
“Until you locked the room,” Jessup Gable said.
She looked surprised at that. “I? I did not lock the room. I found the key on the floor in front of the door.”
“Your husband and partner in crime locked the door,” Jessup said.
“I knew nothing of this,” Lars protested, made nervous by the accusing stares focused upon him.
“Of course he knew nothing. He just wanted the check, like all of you.” Helen’s voice was full of scorn for her husband. Verity suspected that was a marriage that would soon be ended.
Ciro snarled, “Do you mean you’ve wasted all our time to play a prank on your obviously clueless husband?”
Helen shook her husband’s hand from her arm. “I didn’t want to ban that book. I gave in to Lars’ pressure to do so and I regretted it ever since. I knew I had gone against everything I had believed in. So I decided to atone for my mistake in the only way I know how. To bring together all of you and show you the error of your ways, so that you would rescind your bans, and never ban a book again, no matter what.”
“Well, you’ve sadly failed on that account. Christie would roll over in her grave at the way you’ve abused her masterpiece to your own foolish ends.” Lars stood away from his wife, looking at her as if he’d never seen her before.
“No one would rescind their ban? Not even after seeing how foolish others look for the bans they chose?” Helen seemed surprised.
“I will,” Verity vowed, wiping a bit of raspberry jam from the corner of her mouth. “These scones are delicious,” she said, with a wave to Jessup. “You should try one.”
“What about the money?” Lars asked. “Where did it come from?”
Helen looked at him. “You know my little hobby that you never took an interest in? Where I wrote mystery stories and self-published them?”
“Self-publishing is an abomination,” Lars growled. “All of those books should be banned forever.”
Helen smiled, a light in her suddenly less mousy brown eyes. “That’s where the money came from.”
At the refocus on the check, Ciro suddenly said, “So who wins? Verity because she decided to take back her ban? That’s convenient.”
Helen looked at him. “That wouldn’t be fair. If I haven’t changed your mind, I haven’t changed your mind.”
“So. Winner?” Jessup Gable prompted her again.
Helen picked up the check and studied it. “I can’t decide.” She looked at the unplugged TV and the sign in the window. “This didn’t go the way I pictured it would go.”
“No?” Lars asked scornfully. “Not like one of your pat little mysteries that apparently make your twit-witted fans happy?”
Helen’s face looked almost ferocious as she snapped, “Don’t criticize what you haven’t even read.” But her face took on a soft sadness. “It isn’t as if I didn’t ask you to read them.”
After a moment, she shook the sadness away and faced the room. “I thought you would all change your minds on that very first day, when I made you physically treat the book as you hoped your ban would do.”
“Maybe we’re not all as weak willed as you. We banned books we believed needed to be banned.” Ciro said.
“How many agreed with your ban?” Helen asked him.
His eyes slid away from her and he did not answer.
“So. No one wins the check,” Lars said, reaching out to grab it. Helen held it out of his reach. He frowned. “Community property, Helen. We could fix up the computer section of the library with that.”
Helen said, “So, do you all agree that Verity should win the check. She has agreed to rescind her ban and no one else has done so.”
“I rescind mine,” Jessup Gable said, with a wry grin. “Money always wins that argument.”
“Christie would be disappointed in you,” Ciro said. “She always made sure the true criminals revealed themselves before they knew the twist. Otherwise you can’t trust their motivations. Neither Verity or Gable rescinded their ban before they knew you were behind this fiasco of a weekend.”
“Christie would have a twist right now,” Lars taunted. “She was a real mystery writer.
Helen’s cheeks grew rosy as her husband’s jab hit home. “A twist? You are right, Lars. We must have a twist.”
As they all watched, she ripped the check into ten equal strips.
“What are you doing,” Verity asked when Helen grabbed a pen and began to write on the strips.
“I’m writing everyone’s name down. We’ll draw for the winner.”
“Why ten? You’re including the losers who already left?” Ciro asked.
Helen smiled. “That’s the twist. We’re all losers who ban books. So the winner will be totally random.”
“You’re including yourself?”
“Why not? I was a loser. I banned a book.” Her voice held a touch of bitterness, Verity thought. Then Helen looked up. “It was a mistake. I learned from it. I offered you all a chance to learn from it. I have done what I intended.” She put all the strips of check into one of the empty envelopes. The ones with Lars’ name on it. She shook the envelope. “Who is going to draw the winning name?”
Verity thought about protesting that it wasn’t fair. She has declared she would rescind her ban. But she looked at the faces in the room, and understood what Helen had already accepted. These librarians didn’t understand that they were letting fear lead them. “I will draw,” she said, knowing that she did not need to win the money to have recommitted her life as a librarian to no longer banning books. She had already conquered her fear.
Helen must have seen the strength in her answer, because she gave Verity the bracing look that passed between two perfectly aligned minds as she handed the envelope forward.
Verity reached in and chose a slip at random. She pulled it out and held it up. “I think this is Christie’s twist,” she said. The slip read HELEN.
Storytellers Unlimited (Kelly, Lorraine, and Shirley) hope you liked this serial installment of a mystery. Please feel free to contact us if you have editing suggestions or other comments. We love to hear from our readers.