Elementary, She Read

Elementary, She Read

By Vicki Delany

Crooked Lane Books, 2017

Chapter 1

The Great Detective eyed me.

I eyed him back. “Don’t give me any of your cheek, you.” I gave him a swipe across his exceedingly prominent nose with the feather duster.

“Talking to him again, Gemma?” said a voice behind me. “You know what they say about conversing with inanimate objects.”

“He does give me the creeps, this one,” I said. “He always seems to be watching me. And not in an approving way.” The clay bust of Christopher Lee as Sherlock Holmes got another pass with the duster before I turned to greet the new arrival.

Jayne Wilson struggled to get through the shop door carrying a large box. With a grateful sigh, she dropped the box onto the table in the center of the room. “Scored! Big time.”

My sigh wasn’t so grateful. “Not more junk.”

“How many times do I have to tell you, Gemma, this is not junk. This is valuable memorabilia.”

I put down the feather duster and approached the table. Jayne carefully unfolded the cardboard flaps. Out of a mound of bubble wrap she extracted a teapot. She shoved aside a stack of books waiting to be shelved and put the pot down. Next came a matching cream pitcher and sugar bowl. She stepped back to admire the new purchases. “Isn’t it perfect?”

“Perfect.” I refrained from adding, “In its hideousness.”

The teapot and accessories were made of quality bone china and in excellent condition. Not so much as a crack or chip that I could see on a quick inspection. The decoration on the pot was of a hook-nosed man in a deerstalker hat peering through a magnifying glass, a pipe clenched firmly in his teeth. The accompanying cream pitcher and sugar bowl were adorned with smaller versions of the hat, pipe, and magnifying glass.

Jayne beamed. “Marg McKenzie found it when she was on vacation in Halifax, and got it for us. I paid her back, of course, because I’d asked her to be on the lookout for this sort of thing. It’s for the tea room, not for sale, so hands off, Gemma.”

“How much did it cost?” I ventured to ask.

“Price is no object.”

“Price is always an object,” I replied. “And an excessively large one.”

She didn’t bother to answer the question. Thus confirming my suspicions. “My customers adore using this sort of thing. If I can get a few more of them, I’m thinking of putting specialized cream teas on the menu. The Sherlock Special. Irene Adler’s Tea Party. That sort of thing.”

“Holmes never had a cream tea,” I said.

“A minor point. If he wasn’t so busy dashing around London or heading off to the ‘smiling and beautiful countryside’, he would have. I bet Watson’s wife made him a proper afternoon tea all the time. When he wasn’t helping Sherlock, that is.” She began repacking the items. “Haven’t you got dusting to do, or something?”

“I always have dusting to do. I never seem to stop dusting.”

“Cheerio!” she said, heading for the door connecting my shop to the tea room next door. I watched her go with a smile. The word that best describes my friend is petite. The second word would be pretty. She had shiny blond hair, bright blue eyes, a wide mouth containing perfect teeth, a pointed chin, and a heart-shaped face. She was short and fine-boned, and worked hard at keeping herself in good shape. She came up to my shoulder. I am not small, blond, or delicate, and I always felt like an awkward lump standing next to Jayne. I loved her dearly.

Jayne also likes to pretend she’s English. I am English, but after more than five years in Massachusetts, even I don’t say things like Cheerio! anymore. Not that I ever did.

I went back to my dusting. There’s always a lot of dusting in a shop like this one. I am the half-owner, manager, head shop clerk, and chief duster of the Sherlock Holmes Bookshop and Emporium in the Cape Cod town of West London, Massachusetts. As well as reprints of the original Sir Arthur Conan Doyle books, we carry new books representing anything and everything in the pastiche, or vaguely derived from the Holmes legend. From Laurie R. King’s Mary Russell (aka Mrs. Holmes) mystery series to the Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime to Holmes for the Holidays, and all the myriad short story collections inspired by the canon. At the moment, I have a first edition of The Sign of the Four for sale, but it’s not worth much because of its condition. I suspect that at one time a mouse attempted to use some of the pages for her nest. I bought it for a pittance, carefully wrapped it in plastic wrap and stuck on a tag showing a minimal price as well as one explaining its condition. Someday, someone will buy it. I can still be surprised at what a dedicated follower of Sherlock will consider a treasure. Once in a while my uncle Arthur will locate original books in reasonable condition, as well as copies of the Strand Magazine in which many of the stories first appeared, but we don’t deal in rare and valuable editions. That’s not our business.

Because not everyone (certainly not me!) wants to read about Holmes all the time, one wall of shelves is labeled  “gaslight”, and features novels or anthologies, mysteries mostly, set in the late Victorian or early Edwardian period. Another shelf is for non-fiction, including biographies of writers of the age, anyone and everyone Sir Arthur Conan Doyle might have bumped into in his travels, as well as the histories of the times in which Sir Arthur lived.

Books are my first (and I sometimes think, my only) love, and my intention when I came to America to take over Great Uncle Arthur’s business, was to continue to run this place as a bookstore featuring Conan Doyle, his contemporaries, and modern books influenced by them. But I quickly came to realize that these days, as everyone knows, Sherlock Holmes is far more than books, so we branched out into all forms of Sherlockania. I have tried to keep our stock dignified, but what I call “junk” and Jayne calls “memorabilia” began creeping onto the shelves as of Day One.

The shop now sells movie posters, DVDs of the movies, collectables such as the aforementioned bust of Christopher Lee, and even mugs, towels, and dishcloths. First thing this morning, only a few minutes before I started dusting, I unloaded–I mean sold–a life-sized, stand-up, cut-out of Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock along with a full-color, illustrated book on the making of the contemporary BBC series.

As well as the Bookshop and Emporium, Uncle Arthur and I are half-owners of the business next door. Jayne owns the other half and runs the place. We call it Mrs. Hudson’s Tea Room.

The bell over the door tinkled and I glanced toward it. Then I glanced again.

The man standing there was definitely worth a second look. He was tall and lean, with deep brown eyes, a strong jaw showing a hint of stubble, chiseled cheekbones, and a mass of brown hair curling around his ears in the damp sea air. He wore Italian loafers, khaki Dockers, and a blue-checked shirt with the top two buttons undone. His clothes were clean, but not new and the trousers could have done with the touch of an iron. He gave me a smile that practically lit up the room.

“Hi,” I croaked. “I mean, welcome. If I can help you with anything, let me know.”

“Thanks,” he said. “Nice cat.”

The creature to which he was referring was Moriarty, the shop cat. Moriarty had roused himself from his morning nap and was happily rubbing himself against the man’s legs.

“Uh,” I said.

The man gave Moriarty a pat on the head and then straightened up again. The cat meowed for more attention. “Quite the place you have here.”

“We’re all Sherlock, all the time.”

“You’re from England, right?”

I nodded.

“The heart of London, I detect.”

“You have a good ear.” Most Americans can’t distinguish an accent from one part of England from another. Never mind Scottish from Irish or Welsh from English.

“I’ve spent quite a lot of time in the UK,” he said. I smiled, but I didn’t reply that I could tell. I also have what he called a “good ear.” His accent told me he was from Boston, educated at a private school or a very good public one and his education had been completed in England. He wandered around the shop, followed closely by Moriarty. When the man stopped to examine the shelf containing games and puzzles, the cat jumped up. He almost smiled. I didn’t know Moriarty could do that. The man scratched behind the feline’s ear. Moriarty purred. He was small and thin, despite the prodigious quantities of kibble he consumed, and pure black except for his amber eyes, “Friendly little guy. What’s his name?”

“Moriarty.”

He laughed. That is, the man laughed, not the cat.

“Let me know if I can help you with anything.” I returned to my dusting. The man spent a couple of minutes idly looking at the Holmes and Watson chamber pot (which I suggest using as a planter), leafing through the movie posters, and examining the DVD collection. It was obvious by the way he barely looked at the objects he was pretending to be interested in that tasteless chamber pots and movie memorabilia were not the reason for his visit. His eyes wandered constantly to the bookshelves. The Holmes shelves, not the gaslight or non-fiction.

Eventually he oh-so-casually drifted over.

“Are you looking for anything in particular?” I asked.

“Nope. Just browsing.” He picked up the first edition The Sign of the Four. “Too bad this is damaged.”

“It’s a tragedy. But I get new stock in all the time. Occasionally, I have some second edition books in moderately good condition.”

“Is that so,” he said, moving on to the bound collections of the Strand Magazine.

“I can take your name if you like. Keep you posted if I hear of anything.”

He turned to face me. That smile again. “Good idea.”

“I do a mail order business, too.” I said. I wasn’t digging to find out where he lived. Really, I wasn’t. I didn’t know anything about him other than he was a native New Englander, had enjoyed a comfortable childhood, was educated at an Ivy League College, had spent several years in the UK, probably around Oxford (as either a post-graduate student or junior professor) and he was not here as a casual tourist. He was not wealthy, but not struggling either. And unlikely to be married.

“I’ve recently moved to West London,” he said.

“Welcome,” I said. It was a mild spring day, and earlier a strong breeze had been blowing in from the ocean. But the temperature in the shop was climbing rapidly.

“What came first?” he asked. “The store or the address.”

“They do to go together, don’t they? This was formerly a hardware store, but my great uncle bought it for the address. 222 Baker Street, West London, New England.”

He smiled. I felt myself smiling back. I momentarily forgot myself and extended my hand to stroke Moriarty.

In return the cat hissed and scratched my left arm. It hurt.

Uncle Arthur had found the starving, abandoned kitten in the alley behind the shop two years ago, and lured him in with a dish of cream and sweet words. Moriarty’s lived here ever since. He’s a great shop cat. Everyone loves him and he loves everyone in return.

Everyone except me. I try not to take it personally. Other animals seem to like me just fine. Maybe he misses Uncle Arthur and blames me for taking his place. Still, I keep trying to make nice.

“I’m Grant, by the way. Grant Thompson.” He held out his hand.

I took it in mine and we shook. “Gemma Doyle.”

“Doyle?”

“A distant relation, or so my family says.”

“There’s a story there,” he said with a grin. “And I’m going to hear it one day. But now, here’s my card.” He handed me a small square of stiff cream paper. “Is the place next door strictly a tea room? I haven’t had lunch yet, but I’m not much of a tea person.”

“Surely at Oxford you got accustomed to tea?” I said. Was I flirting? Why, I think I might have been.

“How did you know I went to Oxford?”

I waved my hand in the air. “You picked up a trace of an accent.”  That, plus an educated guess on my part: he might have gone to Cambridge.

“You’re very observant, Gemma Doyle.”

“Am I? I don’t think so.”

“I did my PhD at Oxford, yes. Never did care for tea, but I learned to love a good British pub.”

“Mrs. Hudson’s specializes in cream teas and afternoon teas,” I said. “But we do sandwiches and salads for lunch, and good-old American muffins and bagels in the morning. Coffee, lattes, and cappuccinos too.”

“I might give it a try then. Catch you later, Gemma.”

Moriarty jumped off the counter. Tail high, he followed Grant to the door that led to the tea room. He was, of course, forbidden from going where food was served, and so he sat by the door gazing in wistfully. He was small in size, but gigantic in personality.

I wiped a drop of blood off the cat-scratch on my arm. Then I flipped the card over. “Grant Thompson. Rare book collector.” No street address, just an email and phone number.

A hiss caught my attention. Jayne, dressed in a long white apron over black T-shirt and denim capris, stood in the doorway. She pointed behind her to the restaurant, opened her eyes and mouth wide, and waved her hand as though it were on fire. Trust Jayne to notice every handsome man that came into her tea room.

Business was brisk for most of the day. It was the beginning of the tourist season on Cape Cod and we’d placed ads in the visitors’ brochures. Many of the mugs and toys moved, mostly the cheap stuff that appealed to laughing groups of college kids or parents with small children. In season, I always keep a good stock of paperbacks for beach and pool reading and, as the forecast for tomorrow said it would rain, the DVDs sold well too.

I kept half an eye on the tea room, and although Grant Thompson didn’t appear again, I was pleased to see a steady stream of customers coming in for lunch and later to enjoy afternoon tea.

At twenty-two minutes to four every day I go to Mrs. Hudson’s for a much needed tea break. Today, as I was alone in the shop, I hung a “back in 15 minutes” sign on the front door. The phone underneath the sales counter began to ring, but I didn’t go back for it: voice mail would pick it up.

The tea room closes at four, and by this time it’s normally almost empty. Jayne had done a great job decorating the place. The walls were papered in soft shades of sage green and peach, with white wainscoting. A portrait of Queen Elizabeth II was prominently hung on the back wall, amongst paintings of castles and thatched-roof cottages nestled in verdant pastoral landscapes. The wall adjoining the Emporium consisted of open shelves displaying rows upon rows of bone china tea cups and teapots, and a multitude of jars of loose teas and locally-made jams and preserves filled the space next to the swinging half-door leading into the kitchen area.

I settled myself at my favorite table, a small one tucked into the window alcove. A bench seat was under the window, padded in soft fabric that matched the color of the walls, with two white-painted chairs opposite.  A tiny white vase, containing a sprig of greenery and a single fresh flower sat in the middle of the table. Fiona, dressed in the tea room’s waitress uniform of knee-length black dress, black stockings, and white apron with the Mrs. Hudson’s Tea Room logo of a steaming tea cup next to a pipe, brought my drink in the new Sherlock Holmes pot. As someone who owns the Sherlock Holmes Bookshop and Emporium, you’d think I’d be a Sherlock fanatic. I am not. I leave that to Jayne and Great Uncle Arthur. I might not admire the decoration on the pot, but it was a proper china tea service and so would suffice. I let the tea steep for a few minutes, and then poured it carefully. The rich full scent of Darjeeling rose up to caress my nose. I breathed it in and then added a splash of milk to the golden liquid. Perhaps the hardest part of my entire job has been to teach Americans to make a proper cup of tea. I take great pride in the fact that I have succeeded, here at least.

I was enjoying my first welcome sip, when Jayne dropped a plate in front of me and sat on the window bench. I selected a warm scone, sliced it open and spread butter, clotted cream, and strawberry jam. “Good day?”

“Excellent.” She took a cucumber sandwich for herself. At twenty to four every day, we have our afternoon tea (consisting of whatever’s left over) and discuss the day’s business.

“I see Fiona had another fight with her husband,” I said.

“She didn’t tell me that. How do you know?”

“Wedding ring’s off again.”

Jayne leaned out and peered into the room. Fiona was sweeping the floor. “So it is,” Jayne said. She turned back to me with a smile. “That big group’s coming tomorrow.”

What big group?” I asked.

“I told you about them. Twenty-four ladies on a bridge group holiday, plus their guide.”

I vaguely remembered something about it. I vaguely remembered promising something…

“You’re helping in the kitchen.”

Oh, right. That was it. “Why am I doing that?”

“Because they’re coming at four, our usual closing time, and Fiona had committed to picking up her sister’s kids at play group at four fifteen. I’m taking Jocelyn out of the kitchen and having her serve, with my help.”

“Can’t you prepare the food ahead of time?”

“Gemma! We discussed this. I will do all the prep I can, but I have a restaurant and tea room to run the rest of the day, remember?”

“Why don’t I wait tables? That way you’ll be able to stay in the kitchen.”

“Because you’ll drop one of the three-tiered glass trays, scattering my precious baking all over the floor, or you’ll spill tea down an elderly lady’s new silk shirt. The one she bought specifically for this holiday.”

“That only happened once.”

“Twice.”

“Once each.”

She rolled her eyes. Okay, so I’m not a very good waitress. I’m not much of a cook either, but I can slap a couple of pieces of bread together to make a sandwich. Provided, that is, Jayne tells me what to put in the middle.

I popped the last piece of scone into my mouth. Then I stuck my finger in the small pot of clotted cream, scooped out the remains, and sucked cream off my finger while Jayne rolled her eyes again. “Business meeting over?” I asked.

“Not yet. I’m about to run into a problem with one of my suppliers.”

“What sort of problem?”

“Ellie McNamara’s handing her farm over to her daughter, and I’m worried about that. I get most of my berries from them. I need to find a new supplier, and fast. You know I try to source everything as locally as possible.”

“Leave it to me. I heard something the other day about a new operation out near Sandwich.”

“Thanks. Before you go, you did ask Ruby to work tomorrow afternoon didn’t you?”

“I did.” I think.

Then we’re all set.” Jayne leaned back in her chair, signaling that we were now moving from business partners into friends’ mode. “Did you notice that dream of a guy who came in around noon?”

“No,” I said.

“Liar. What was he looking for?”

“Books. First edition, good condition. And very interested too, although he pretended not to be.”

“You don’t stock books like that.”

“No, but Uncle Arthur does sometimes come across something rare. I took his card and said I’d let him know if I found something.”

“You have contact info. Good work, Gemma.”

“It’s a business transaction.”

“That can change.”

Time to change the subject. “Do you have plans for tonight?”

“I’m going to hit the gym when I finish up here, and later Robbie and I are going to McGillivray’s Pub to hear some live music.”

I tried not to let my disapproval show. Fortunately, Jayne was finishing the last of her tea and not looking at me. Jayne was my best friend as well as my business partner, but she had the world’s worst taste in men. Every time she found a new boyfriend, I figured it couldn’t get any worse. And every time it did. Not that her boyfriends were violent or of the criminal element. Nothing like that. But they seemed to have problems finding – and keeping — regular employment. In a thriving tourist town in season, that was a difficult thing to accomplish. Robbie was an artist, as Jayne’s boyfriends usually were. The sensitive, creative sort. The sort, Jayne always patiently explained to me, who couldn’t be lumbered with the tedious monotony of a regular job as they had to be ready to leap into the act of creating art whenever the muse happened to strike. I might have mentioned once that Picasso was said to have remarked that inspiration comes when you are working. Jayne reminded me that Picasso hadn’t always been famous.

“What about you?” she said. “Want to come with us? We’re going to have dinner before the show.”

I got to my feet. “No thanks. I have a wild night planned in the company of Violet and a good book.” Violet was Uncle Arthur’s dog. “I better get back at it. See you tomorrow.”

“Be here at three o’clock. I need you in the kitchen, Gemma. Don’t forget.”

“As if I ever forget.”

“Did you call Ruby to remind her of the extra shift?”

“Why? Oh right.”

Jayne dug in the pocket of her apron. “Never mind. I’ll do it.”