Dead and Gondola
A Perfect Day for Murder
I swung open the heavy oak door and blinked at the figure taking shape in the blizzard.
“What a perfect day for murder!” The woman strode into the Book Chalet, glowing like a summer sunbeam and a vision from the past. Feathers trembled atop her flapper-style beret. Pretty pin curls framed her face. Snowflakes swarmed at her sides.
I gaped, not at the greeting—that was perfectly appropriate—but at its giver.
Morgan Marin. The Morgan Marin, Hollywood legend known even to book-dwellers like me. Movies were nice, but they hadn’t rendered me tongue-tied. Morgan had reportedly retired (once again) from acting. In its place, she’d turned her superstar dazzle to my beloved medium: books. Her online reading club, Shelf Indulgence, attracted tens of thousands of devoted bibliophiles, myself among them.
I’d been dying to meet her.
And here she stood, in the lobby of my family’s bookshop in little Last Word, Colorado.
Morgan stomped faux-fur boots so plush they should have been hibernating. “You must be Ellie.” She beamed at me. “The missing Christie, returned to the roost.”
I basked in her glow, then remembered my manners and the door, still gaping as wide as my mouth. I switched to a giddy grin and shoved the door shut against suicidal snowflakes. Cowbells dangling from the door latch clonked, buying me time to formulate a sparkling reply.
“Yes,” I said.
“That’s me!” I added. “It’s an honor to meet you, Ms. Marin.”
I cringed. I’d gone too gushy. According to my grandmother, Morgan Marin wished to be treated like any other small-town neighbor. Essentially, she was. Unlike many of the vacation-mansion set who jetted in for weekend getaways in our remote mountain valley, Morgan had settled in Last Word permanently.
Morgan brushed snow from a long emerald coat cut like a cloak. “Please, call me Morgan, and the honor is mine. Your darling grandmother told me all about you. Traveling the world from Torquay to Tokyo on literary jobs? A Christie giving tours of Agatha Christie’s hometown?”
I bit back my usual disclaimer. If Morgan had chatted with Gram, then she truly would know all about me. My resume, my favorite books, those wince-worthy cute grandkid tales grandmothers love to overshare. Morgan would also know that, sadly, we Last Word Christies had yet to uncover a genealogical link to our favorite mystery author. That didn’t stop us from loving Dame Agatha like family.
“You’ve returned to run the Chalet with your brilliant sister?” Morgan patted her miraculously immaculate curls and hat feathers. “The era of the Christie sisters, how grand!”
My cheeks flared.
“It’s my dream job,” I said. Trite but oh so true. I’d had some great gigs since leaving home straight after high school. Like managing a beachside bookshop on a South Pacific resort island and leading tours of Agatha Christie’s stomping grounds, Torquay. Most recently (and far less fun), I’d served as a private librarian for a persnickety antiquarian book collector in London.
It was there, feather duster aimed at a leatherbound Sherlock Holmes, that I’d gotten the call. Mom, informing me that she and Dad wanted to retire early and set off on their own book-inspired travels. They hoped to hand over the Book Chalet to a fifth generation of family caretakers: my older sister, Meg, and me.
“Only if you really, truly want,” Mom had stressed.
If I really, truly wanted?
After the world’s tumultuous years, I was more than ready to come home. I yearned to savor time with Gram and my niece, who’d somehow metamorphosized into a teenager in my absence. Most of all, I really, truly wanted to work with my big sis in my favorite bookshop in the world.
I’d been home for about three weeks now and was still pinching myself silly.
Morgan unbuttoned her voluminous coat. Layers of flapper silk glistened under lasso-length strings of dusky pearls.
“Amazing outfit,” I said. Here I’d been feeling pretty put-together in my nice jeans, cable-knit sweater, and on-time arrival via the best commute in town, down the steep stairs from the loft above the shop.
Morgan shimmied, silk and feathers jitterbugging. “Can you guess who I am?”
I could. I’d bet my freshly minted library card that Morgan was the star of the day’s book, The Sittaford Mystery by Agatha Christie. “Emily Trefusis.”
“Yes! Emily, amateur sleuth, at your service! Now, where is Ms. Ridge? Has she started yet? I brought props.”
Ms. Ridge, our indispensable shop assistant, organized Mountains of Mystery. I hadn’t been home for a meeting in years, but I knew Ms. Ridge operated with the precision of a punctilious typesetter. At exactly eight o’clock, she’d sent me to the lobby to watch for stragglers. In deference to the storm, she was allowing five extra minutes for arrival.
“She’s in the Reading Lounge,” I said. “She’ll be starting soon.”
She’d be counting down the seconds until launch.
Morgan frowned at the door, a furry boot tapping like an agitated yeti.
On cue, the door whipped open. A young woman stomped inside. Her shoulder dipped under a bag the size of carry-on luggage. She wore a scarf so elaborately knotted it could rig a schooner, along with a look of harassed ennui I recognized from her rare appearances on Shelf Indulgence.
“There you are, Renée-Claude, finally!” Morgan fussed at her assistant. “Hurry now. We can’t miss the murder.”
I checked that the door was unlocked for any members still trekking through the wintry wonderland. Then I trotted after Morgan and Renée-Claude, heedlessly thinking that I didn’t want to miss the murder either.
* * *
At the entrance to the Reading Lounge, I paused the way I might for a sublime work of art or stunning vista. Bookshops in general had that effect on me. The lounge was particularly special. It was a sanctuary, a refuge for readers.
A bookshelf arched around the opening, filled with covers the colors of a muted rainbow. Light beckoned from the far wall of windows. Pine logs crackled in a river-rock fireplace, its chimney flanked by bookshelves rising to meet soaring beams and trusses.
I stepped inside. Ten hardy readers sat in a wobbly oval of armchairs. Earlier, two members told me they’d snowshoed in. Now, that was book-club commitment. Morgan and Renée-Claude would have braved the slick hairpin road down. Most members, however, likely took the serene route, the gondola line that glided between our mountainside hamlet and the larger base village down below. The best commute around, after mine.
Ms. Ridge held up a book. She sat upright, her spine as straight as her blunt-cut salt-and-pepper bob.
“The Sittaford Mystery,” she said.
Good. I hadn’t missed anything. I tiptoed toward my seat between Gram and Meg but found it taken.
The fluffy occupier, Agatha C. (as in “Cat”) Christie, slit open a blue eye, assessed me, and slid the eyelid shut.
Pretending to sleep?
My new roommate was too adorable to begrudge, even if last night she’d purred into my eardrum and kneaded my scalp with the aim of overtaking my pillow. She’d succeeded, but I could get my cuddling revenge.
I scooped up the long-haired Siamese and sat, easing Agatha onto my lap.
The queen of the Book Chalet did all things on her own terms. Agatha rose, treated me to her signature ornery frown, and hopped over onto a dozing Gram. Gram startled, wrapped her hands around Agatha, and they both closed their eyes again.
I shared a grin with Meg. We’d been doing that a lot lately, delighted to be reunited.
Ms. Ridge held up another edition. “The story was first published in the United States under the title The Murder at Hazelmoor.”
This dust jacket featured a manor alone on a snowy moor. I glanced outside. Snowflakes pirouetted over the meadow and cloaked the distant mountains. With the crackling fire and snowy landscape, I could easily imagine us transported to Hazelmoor.
At Ms. Ridge’s prompt, the book clubbers debated title preferences. Sittaford or Hazelmoor?
Piper Tuttle, a local society reporter and gossip maven, had a firm opinion. “The murder title. Readers love murder. It makes them happy to be alive.”
I could see that. Kind of . . .