Bobbie Sarchowsky was looking for a peaceful escape working at a bookstore near the mountains after quitting her corporate job. Her respite is quickly interrupted after her co-worker Laine is found dead at the foot of the store.
The doors at the bookstore remained open despite the dropping temperature that Tuesday morning. It didn’t bother me. Nothing really bothered me here, other than the dusty skeleton of an owner who occasionally slinks into appearance to share an outdated trope. I walk out from behind the counter and start shelving new releases. The movement would warm me up. Examining the cover of a title released today I admire the artwork, note the female author and head over to the New Fiction section. Internally, I recite the alphabet searching for the M’s and find the correct spot. This book would be facing out, my small act of gorilla activism. Books facing cover-out sell better than when just their spine is displayed. People’s natural instinct is to judge by covers. I favor facing out female authors when we have enough copies and I can shuffle the space needed to do so.
It has been three months since I started working at Pine Reads, and six months since I quit my job at SKZ. I feel at peace here, miles away from the jittery, tangled, tight Bobbie I was at the office. Here, I feel my legs getting stronger as I stand for eight hours a day. I spend my days reading inside flaps of books rather than demanding emails. The money I saved up while at SKZ will run out eventually, but for now I’m healing. A more clear and stronger me is emerging, free from constricting and unmanageable expectations, and I’m proud.
I hear the bell ring at the counter. I peer out from behind the shelf I was arranging and straighten my name-tag nestled next to my witches hat pin. I can see the back of a fit woman carrying a basket full of paperbacks waiting for me to scan and slip complimentary bookmarks into.
After I ring up each book and locate the woman’s membership discount I bag the six romance novels and thank her for coming in. As I watch her walk out in her swishy athleisure I feel someone behind me. Please don’t let it be Richard. I turn to see Laine.
“How has the day been so far?” she asks with a small smile as she sets up the cash register next to mine. I lazily observe as she adjusts her stack of dollar bills and logs into the computer. I was relieved it was her and not the owner. Laine was becoming one of my favorite Booksellers. She won me over the first time we shared an eye roll at the back of a less than charming customer. She’s wearing her signature black overalls today with her very broken-in Vans sneakers. I can see her vintage tape recorder and her flip phone peeking out of her back pocket, she must have been working on her taped book recommendations before this.
Laine was the only person under sixty I knew that didn’t have a smartphone. The fact that she was also under twenty five made this quirk a frequent topic of discussion amongst us Booksellers. It endeared me to her.
“It has been good so far. Steady,” I reported. “Hey! How was your date last weekend?”
Laine had grown up in this town. Last week she had excitedly shared some details of an upcoming date with a guy from her high school. He had just returned from a residency out in Connecticut.
“Honestly, Michael was different than I remembered. It was okay for the most part. We got drinks at Shelly’s Tavern. But by the end of the evening, I was uncomfortable and ready to get myself away from him.”
I was sorry to hear this. Before I had a chance to ask more about the disappointing date a customer approaches asking where to find Women in the Workplace: A Memoir. It was a title I had recently shelved, facing out.
The rest of my shift picked up after that. I assisted people navigating the four story bookstore and reorganized the Bestseller’s display. Not until I was grabbing my sweater from my locker and collecting the novel I purchased for myself did I remember that I never got to ask Laine more about what happened with Michael. It would have to wait until tomorrow, we both opened together on Wednesdays.
I peddle home on my bike, trying to work up a sweat. The crisp air in my lungs, the strain in my thighs, it all felt cleansing. I was excited to get home to Paczki, my chubby corgi mix I fell in love with at a shelter four years ago and to get home to my spinach and feta pie I made for dinner the night before. Pulling up in my apartment's shared driveway I hop off my bike and store it in the shed behind the house. I unlock the door and skip up the two flights of stairs to get to my cramped, but cozy, attic apartment. Paczki greets me at the door wagging her plump bum. We go for a sunset walk and come back to eat the spanakopita. I give just a spoonful to Paczki as a treat. After dinner, we cuddle in bed under the worn blanket my Ya Ya knitted for me, I open my new book and fall asleep shortly after.
The next morning my ride to work is chillier than ever before. I would have to unpack my winter gloves this evening. Rounding the last corner to the bookstore I could see a police car parked outside. That’s odd. As I walk into the store Dalton, our friendly and ambitious manager, pops in front of my path asking me to accompany him to his office. This was unusual too. As I follow his lanky gait to the back of the store I look around for Laine not seeing her around yet. She usually arrives before me.
“Please take a seat,” Dalton opens his palm to the cracking leather chair in front of his desk. He adjusts his patterned tie, unnecessarily formal for the job, and turns to the corner of the room where Richard is sulking. His eyes dart around the room before he suggests I shift to the stool tucked beneath a lamp so he can sit in the chair, “age before beauty,” he quips.
I bite my tongue and turn toward Dalton. He fusses with his unruly hair, his usual kindness seemed somewhere far away this morning.
“Roberta, there is no easy way to say this so I am just going to come out with it. Laine is dead. She was found shortly after the bookstore closed last night and it seems to be a complicated situation.” My face grows hot and my heart quickens. I was just with her yesterday, chatting and shelving books as usual. I didn’t bother correcting Dalton again that I go by Bobbie, not Roberta. I had to focus on the conversation in front of me.
“Dead? How could this happen?!” I needed answers, something to explain this. I searched Dalton’s face for information.
“Honestly, we’re not sure yet. You might have seen the police car outside. Officer Mural and Detective Martinez are here now, they may want to speak with you.”
“Did someone do this to Laine?” My armpits begin to sweat. I look over at Richard who is fiddling with his phone. He sighs and looks up, more at Dalton than me.
“No, she was a manic and confused young woman, selfish really. And now, I have to keep my bookstore closed for the day. Like I have time for this.” Richard stands up and leaves the room.
I stare at Dalton in shock, he dismissively waves Richard away and stands next to me. He awkwardly pats me on the shoulder. I don’t shrug it off. The small kindness is comforting.
I hear footsteps approaching and turn to see a petite woman in a police officer’s uniform and a younger, softer looking woman in a pantsuit. Officer Mural and Detective Martinez introduce themselves and ask Dalton to give us some privacy. I nod to let him know I would be okay.
Detective Martinez takes over Dalton’s desk as Officer Mural stands strongly over her shoulder. I glance at her, taking in her dark hair pulled back tight in a low bun and stiff looking uniform. Her waist is weighed down with various gadgets clipped and harnessed onto a utility belt. Her piercing eyes and crossed arms have me feeling guilty for reasons I don’t know.
Detective Martinez must sense my discomfort, she turns toward Officer Mural, “Erika, please chill.” Turning back to me the Detective lifts her cat-eyed glasses to the top of her head pushing her bouncy chestnut curls to the sides of her face.
“Okay, Bobbie. We know you were the last Bookseller to work yesterday evening with Laine. Can you tell us about her state of mind last night?” She folds her hands in front of her waiting for my response. I stare at the pinstripe sleeves of her blazer, noticing the beige silk lining. It matches her manicured hands, each nail filed in identical almond shapes.
I think back to yesterday, recalling Laine starting her shift, getting busy, then heading home to Paczki. Laine and I barely talked that I recalled. Michael. I look directly into the Detective’s eyes, sharing what Laine had with me about her date. How she was uncomfortable and it ended badly, how I wish I was able to talk to her more about that then.
After I finished sharing all the details I had from Laine and my conversations regarding Michael over the past couple of weeks Officer Mural steps forward.
“Miss Sarchowsky, this is not some murder investigation. You need to watch what you're insinuating.”
I look to Detective Martinez for help, pleading they look into this Micheal guy. The Detective sighs and sifts through her loose leaf notes splayed in front of her.
“Officer Mural is correct. This is not necessarily a murder investigation. We were merely asking you about Laine’s state of mind yesterday.” She doesn’t look up at me. I begin to doubt myself, I guess I really didn’t know Laine that well.
“What exactly happened to Laine?”
“You don’t really need to know that.” Officer Mural crosses her arms again.
The Detective pulls her gaze away from the desk to me. “What we know is that she fell from the roof of the bookstore after closing last night. It could have been a slip or intentional but it seems she was the only person on the roof at the time.”
A dark fog envelopes my mind. I was with her right before this. What if I had stayed a little longer and chatted with her? I look down at my lap as my eyes begin to water.
Detective Martinez slides a starch white card across the desk, “Please give me a call if you remember anything else. We appreciate your time.”
I pick up the card and blindly slip it into my back pocket. Walking out of the office without looking up, I shuffle through the bookstore in a blur. I pull out my phone and type Michael’s name into the search bar as I walk. Maybe I could find some convincing information on my own.
Ope! I smash right into Richard. He shoves me like I'm a stray mutt, I skip an apology and push past him. The faint smell of cigarettes lingers from the collision. The scent brings back a memory, something I can’t immediately place. I pause mid step to focus on it.
Laine was the only person at the bookstore who smoked, I remember she would joke that we should thank her for our fifteen minute breaks that originally were allotted for smokers. I turn around to confront Richard but he’s already gone. Before I can think too much and deter myself I race up the employee stairwell to the roof. I burst through the door and the autumn air whips at my cheeks.
I have never been up here before, but I needed to see where Laine last was. Unsteadiness wavers me, you could easily take one step over the ledge and...I push the thought aside, I didn’t want to imagine it. Looking about me there wasn’t much to see on the roof itself. Outwardly, you could see for several blocks, there wasn't many competing buildings of height. I could make out the bagel shop I visit on most Sundays and the streets that led back to my attic. The mountains circle to the north creating a postcard view. I should take Paczki for another hike soon before it gets too cold, I think.
“What are you doing up here?” Dalton interrupts my thinking. I hear him before I see him.
“Just wanted to get some fresh air,” I say, turning toward the direction of his voice.
“You shouldn’t be here. The store is closed. Just go home.”
Dalton’s tone is off, he’s uncharacteristically harsh. What had changed since he was just comforting me in the office? He looked unwell, disheveled, it seemed he was deteriorating as this horrible day wore on. Before I have a chance to ask him if he wants to talk I spot something behind him I needed to collect immediately. I decided to dodge Dalton rather than console him.
“I’ll leave soon. Do you mind if I take a breath and then head down?”
“No, it’s time to go.” His irritability was becoming palpable. Luckily, just then his walkie talkie rings. I can hear Richard grumbling through the tiny speaker. Dalton plucks it from his belt and curls away from me, spitting words back into the talkie. He heads to the door as he responds.
I wait until I hear the door close then race over to the south corner of the roof. There’s a pile of leaves and sticks clumped against the retired chimney. It looks like a stack of wilderness compost, scraps from the fall changes, save for Laine’s tape recorder nestled underneath.
I drop to my knees pulling the device out and brush away the foliage. I flip around and lean up against the three foot wall of brick that encompasses the roof. Checking the recorder, I find a tape spun halfway through. I hit rewind and then play as a magpie flaps above me.
Laine’s warm voice fills the air. My heart simultaneously swells and shutters at the sound of her. The recording was not her standard book review. There were other voices. Ones I recognized. I felt for the volume button and brought the recorder closer to my ear.
“Don’t you disrespect me!” The recording shouts.
“I was trying to protect other employees. I was having a private conversation with Dalton.” Laine’s voice stammers.
“Surely, Richard, we can work this out. Let’s calm down.” Hearing Dalton speak desperately makes my stomach turn.
“I don’t have time for this!” Richard bellows from the recorder.
Then I hear sounds that I will never be able to clear from my memory. The clash of Laine’s murder burns in my brain as I gulp for air that has escaped my lungs. The tape cuts short. My body quivers in fear and a flutter of unrewarding triumph. I have to get this to Detective Martinez.
“What are you still doing here?” Dalton’s presence cuts like ice. I fumble with words as I scurry to my feet and attempt to drop the recorder into my tote.
“You know, I am about to be a part owner of Pine Reads. You need to respect me and what I tell you to do.”
Part owner? I apologize, trying to appease him, and attempt to get to the exit. Dalton cuts in front of my path, the second time today I realized, and looks down at me. I do my best not to let him intimidate me. Behind the door there is justice for Laine.
“What was that you just put in your bag?” Dalton knew. I feared I wouldn’t survive if I remained on this roof much longer. I ignore his question and lunge for the heavy door. I make it past him prepared to sprint down the stairs.
I feel Dalton’s hands on my shoulders before my hand finds the railing. He shoves and I tumble. The pain sears with each step I roll down. Finally making it to the bottom, bruised and bleeding, I try to stand up. I sense Dalton hovering over me. The last thing I hear is Richard’s voice approaching as my vision starts to blend. I fall back to the foot of the stairs smacking my head on the final step and passing out.
Two days later I am taking Packzi on our usual Friday morning run. We snake around the neighborhood and weave into a clearing where I let her loose to sniff at anything curious. Afterwards, we head back to our attic.
I take stock of the past two day's events. Laine was murdered. Her assailants have been arrested, partly in thanks to me. After I passed out Detective Martinez appeared in the stairwell, Officer Mural was in fact keeping an eye out for me and alerted the Detective. They called an ambulance and an EMT confirmed I did not have a concussion and would be okay. I was then able to transfer the tape recorder to the Detective’s capable hands.
The recording revealed that Laine really was trying to protect us all. She had discovered documents indicating that Pine Reads had been failing city building codes for years. She tried to take action, especially after our co-worker just recently broke their leg taking the rickety employee stairwell, the same stairs I passed out on. Richard was uninterested in addressing the building's sores. He insisted it was part of the character, he internalized these wounds until they were a part of him, the bookstore an extension of his body. He took Laine’s actions as a direct attack and went into a delirious offensive and hurled towards her. Dalton tried to interfere but ended up witnessing a murder rather than preventing one. Laine must have managed to chuck the recorder in the leaf pile undetected as things started to escalate. Richard pulled Dalton into his dark orbit, offering him part ownership for him to clean the mess up.
Paczki and I make it home and she rushes to the door. I take a shower and make myself toast and coffee for breakfast. As I sip, I plan my day’s outfit. A pair of black tights and a smart charcoal dress, clothes remaining from my SKZ days.
The funeral home looks like others I’ve been to before. Inside was bland, an ancient floral loveseat positioned to the right of the room. The center was full of foldable chairs, sectioned in rows of six with a space between to walk toward the impressive display of flowers and Laine’s body. The left wall had curtain draped windows the sun peeked through. The difference of this funeral was the age of the deceased. I scan the room and spot Laine’s sister, a miniature version of her.
I shuffle to the back of the room, uncertain of my place here. I grab a cup of tea from the tiny tray of refreshments and circle back to the tired loveseat. I was planning to sit there for a moment, filling my mind’s eye with the small memories I have of Laine, but a woman now sat there.
The woman’s deep brown skin, although aged, was smoothed and taught. She projected regality, a little out of place with her plush fur coat and string of pearls. I could smell her Chanel perfume as I approached. She turned to me with a smile, ruby with lipstick that clung to her mouth, and patted the small opening beside her. Unsurely, I cupped my tea with both hands and shimmed in next to her.
“Are you Miss Roberta Sarchowsky?” I didn’t expect to know anyone here. Admittedly, I was going to finish my drink and leave out the back door after a bit.
“You can call me Bobbie,” I pause, waiting for the woman to introduce herself.
“You’re the one who sent my husband to jail. Richard will probably be there for the rest of his life once this is over.” Oh crap. Why was Richard’s wife here? I look for an escape route and try to leave.
“Sit down.” Mrs. Hornbrook demands. I look back at her trying to distract from my unsteady hands. I could feel a bit of tea spill onto my tights as it warms and then cools against my skin.
“I want you to know, Richard and I have been separated for some years. I never would have expected him to let his anger warp into such a horrible act but I must say, thank you. And I hope he does spend the rest of his life behind bars for this.” I let a sigh of relief escape me.
“Because of your bravery Pine Reads is now, in a sense, ownerless and without a manager.”
“I’m sorry Mrs. Hornbrook,” I say, immediately regretting apologizing to her. I didn’t care that the owner and manager were now out of a job, they committed a disgusting crime, throwing Laine’s life away for nothing.
“Ms. Johnson-Hornbrook,” She corrects me and continues through my apology, “This has created an exciting opportunity for us Bobbie.” She pats my thigh with her polished hand and bounces her impressively full eyebrows high. Microblading, I think. I snap back to the conversation, confused.
“I have loved that bookstore for decades. It was part of the reason I once fell in love with Richard. We opened it together. We never had children, the store was our child, full of happiness. Until it wasn’t. Richard turned into a deceitful and malicious man as he aged and I had to leave him, and the bookstore. ” I took a sip of my tea growing more comfortable in Ms. Johnson-Hornbrook’s presence. I was finding comfort in the gossiping of the conversation, a relief from the heaviness of the room we found ourselves in.
She continues, “Surprisingly, the store is still in my name. And this is why I wanted to speak with you. With Richard going away for the foreseeable future the ownership will fold solely into my possession. I want to return to my store, I’ve been dreaming of changes, changes that Richard was not on board with. I want more featured female authors, women of color, diverse voices that will restore the strength of Pine Reads.”
My brow now matches her bounce, enthusiasm bubbling inside me.
“I love your ideas Ms. Johnson-Hornbrook,” I pause, taking in the scene around us, “I think Laine would have liked them too.”
“Precisely. And finally, I’ve heard you have a background in business, is that correct?” I nod, my days at SKZ flash in my mind.
“Bobbie, would you be the new Pine Reads General Manager? Will you help me reform and reopen the store to be all we can dream it to be? Of course, we will have to start with renovations immediately. Laine brought much to light, but it will be a perfect set up to have a grand re-opening hosted by you and I,” Ms. Johnson-Hornbrook gleams at me. I believe her. My mind leaps ahead thinking what the two of us could create.
I shift in my dress and set down my mug. I hold my hand out and the two of us shake while looking brightly into each other's eyes imagining the future we could build. Laine would remain a part of the store, her spirit returning us to our new direction for Pine Reads. We would build a beacon of hope for this town, from darkness and hurt we would create something to be proud of. Her memory would not be forgotten, instead a catalyst for change.