Murder is fun.
At least, a lot of otherwise nice, normal people seemed to think so.
Having recently gone through the ghastly experience of finding a body in
his bookshop—oh, and of being suspected of murder—Ellery Page was
less thrilled by the notion of violent death. He couldn’t deny it was good
for business, though.
Something about the idea of murder in a mystery bookstore really
captured people’s imagination. True, a third of the tourists wandering into
the Crow’s Nest this beautiful sunny June morning were there specifically
to see Where It Happened. But because they felt a little guilty for their
ghoulishness, they almost always bought a couple of books before they
left. So while business wasn’t booming, it had certainly picked up.
Which was a good thing because Ellery’s screenwriting career was
going nowhere fast. He glanced down again at the latest rejection letter
from his agent.
The worst part was, while the rejection stung—rejection always
stings, even when you’re getting rejected by people you would reject—he
just couldn’t get too worked up about it. Not on such a beautiful day.
And it was a beautiful day. Like a painting by one of those 19th
century artists who went in for seaside postcards of gentlemen in straw
hats and striped one-piece bathing suits and ladies with—well, frankly,
Ellery was more interested in the gentlemen.
Anyway, really nice weather. The sky was a soft and languid blue,
swirled with clouds as filmy as smoke. The sand sparkled, the water
sparkled, the sunlight sparkled. Brightly colored boats bobbed in the
harbor, flags snapping in the sea breeze.
The only thing that could have made it better was if it had been
Saturday rather than Monday. The weekends meant more visitors to Buck
Island, and more visitors meant more business, and Ellery was going to
need more business—a lot more business—to keep the Crow’s Nest sailing
along. Seeing that Ronny had no interest in pitching Night Chess to
The scenes are void of meaningful or compelling conflict.
What did that even mean? Well, okay, Ellery knew what it meant, but
he didn’t like conflict. Not in his movies and not in real life.
Conflict arrives, is instantly resolved, and the narrative course
Ellery muttered, “You say that like it’s a bad thing.”
The bells on the front door jingled merrily as Mrs. Nelson swept in.
Ellery’s heart sank.
Hermione Nelson was a heavyset woman in her late sixties with
startlingly blue eyes, hair as red as a rusty battleship, and a small,
pinched-looking mouth that gave the impression that the effort of keeping
her thoughts to herself was starting to give her heartburn. Except, she
never kept her thoughts to herself, so…
Mrs. Nelson was under the impression she was Ellery’s best customer,
and she would’ve been if she didn’t return three quarters of everything she
“Ellery, this book was a complete waste of my time. I can’t believe
you recommended it.” Mrs. Nelson reached the wooden counter, fished
around in her patchwork bag, and thrust a battered copy of The Better
Sister by Alafair Burke at him.
“I’m sorry. It made pretty much everyone’s Best Of lists for 2019.”
Ellery took the hardcover, wincing inwardly at the sight of folded page
“I don’t want to read about nasty people.”
“Well, we’re a mystery bookstore,” Ellery pointed out. “Safe to say, at
least one character in every book is going to be kind of nasty.”
Mrs. Nelson was not amused. “I like my murders to happen to nice
people. What about that new one from Joanne Fluke? I think I might like
“I’m not sure we have any copies le—”
Mrs. Nelson beamed. “I’ll just go and check. We can do an even
exchange. That will keep things simple for you.”
Uh, no, actually that would complicate everything, but Mrs. Nelson
was already bustling away, making a beeline for the Cozy Mystery section.
Ellery swallowed his exasperation. He was still trying to build his
customer base—and being suspected of murder had not helped matters
along—so he felt he had to be extra accommodating to the customers he
did have, even if some of them were using him more as a library than a
He gazed out the large bay windows at the people strolling past, icecream
cones in one hand, shopping bags in the other. A former fishing
village—actually, a former pirate sanctuary, if you wanted to go way back
—Pirate’s Cove was working hard to transform itself into a premium
tourist destination. Things were pretty quiet in the fall, winter, and spring,
but once summer arrived, the little windswept island offered biking,
hiking, sailing, fishing, and lots of sunny beaches to explore.
The island also boasted two historic lighthouses: North Point and Half
Moon Bay, as well as the partially buried ruins of a pirate fortress. Nearly
half the island had been set aside for conservation, with the northwestern
tip serving as a resting stop for birds migrating along the Atlantic flyway.
The potential for business was definitely there. The business itself…
not so much. Not yet.
But the citizens of Pirate’s Cove were working to change that, and no
one was working harder than Ellery.
The Crow’s Nest had been underwater when he’d inherited it from
Great-great-great-aunt Eudora, and it was still leaking like a sieve, but the
sight of all those ice-cream cones and shopping bags gave him hope.
Even better than ice cream and shopping bags was the sight of
Police Chief Jack Carson heading toward the front door of the Crow’s
Nest. Jack’s gaze met Ellery’s through the glass, and Ellery’s heart skipped
a beat. He smiled. Jack smiled back.
Over the past weeks, he and Ellery had become friendly—which was
not exactly the same thing as being friends, but they were moving in that
direction. Ellery was happy. He liked Jack. He was also attracted to Jack—
and he wasn’t alone in that; most of the fairer sex of Pirate’s Cove was
attracted to the handsome, widowed chief of police. Jack was in his late
thirties, a lean six-foot-nothing with sun-streaked brown hair and piercing
green-blue eyes. He had a terrific smile, which he kept mostly in reserve.
It was because Ellery was attracted to Jack that he was grateful their
friendship was developing slowly, maybe even cautiously.
The fact was, he did not have good luck with relationships. Not
romantic relationships. So, thinking of Jack as strictly friends took the
At least that’s what Ellery told himself.
The bell offered a silvery welcome as Jack stepped inside the
“Why, howdy, Sheriff,” Ellery drawled in his best minor-characterin-
“Why, howdy, Mr. Page,” Jack drawled back, and maybe it was being
from California, but he did that Home on the Range accent better than
Ellery, who even had three minor second-cowpoke-from-the-left credits on
his acting résumé.
Good intentions notwithstanding, something about Jack’s deep,
pleasant voice always gave Ellery a little tingle at the base of his spine. It
was distracting, to say the least.
“T’warn’t fixin’ to see you quite so soon.”
Jack grimaced and dropped the drawl. “I know. I have to take a rain
check on lunch. Emergency town-council meeting.”
“Oh.” Ellery didn’t bother to hide his disappointment. He and Jack
had lunch together about once a week. Jack had also twice come out to
Captain’s Seat, the falling-down 18th Century mansion Ellery had
inherited, to help with renovations. “That’s too bad. What’s the
“The lack of any game plan to handle the media once they arrive for
Ellery’s recent experience with the editor of the Scuttlebutt Weekly
had left him with a sour taste in his mouth for members of the media.
“Yeah, anyway, I was wondering—” Jack broke off as Watson, the
black spaniel-mix puppy Ellery had adopted, wandered out of his crate
behind the counter to say hello. Jack squatted down. “Hey, you little
Watson threw himself on his back, wriggling in delight—which was
the typical reaction of most Pirate’s Cove citizens when Jack Carson
“Oh! Chief Carson. I thought I recognized your voice.” Mrs. Nelson
came around the corner of tall bookshelves.
Jack rose. “Mrs. Nelson. How are you?”
Mrs. Nelson proceeded to tell him in detail.
Mrs. Smith—small and slender, with thinning sandy hair—appeared
at the counter, a stack of used paperbacks from the bargain bin in hand,
and beamed at Ellery. “Ring these up, dear.” She turned immediately to
Jack. “Chief Carson, how is the Maples case coming along?” Mrs. Smith
was a devoted viewer of the Investigation Discovery channel and believed
herself to be an expert in criminal investigations.
“We’re gathering evidence and building our case, Mrs. Smith,” Jack
“The circumstantial evidence alone ought to be enough to secure a
“I prefer direct evidence.” Jack glanced at Ellery, and Ellery
grimaced. There had been plenty of circumstantial evidence against him in
the Maples case, but luckily Jack had dug deeper.
Mrs. Nelson, who had not finished detailing the delights of her
gallbladder surgery, cut in. “Call me old-fashioned, but I don’t trust a
doctor younger than my grandchildren.”
“Isn’t your youngest grandchild around eight years old?” Jack
Mrs. Nelson ignored that.
“I always suspected there was something up with that man,” said
Mrs. Ferris, materializing out of the brand-new True Crime section, to join
in the conversation. “His taste in sports coats was a clear indicator of a
“Juries like circumstantial evidence,” Mrs. Smith insisted.
Watson, wearying of so many conversations that had nothing to do
with how adorable he was, waddled toward the front door. Ellery dashed
around the counter to scoop him up as two young women opened the door,
saw the crowd at the counter, and ducked back out.
He sighed, glanced back at the huddle in front of the cash register,
and caught Jack’s gaze. Jack looked resigned, as well as…something else.
Ellery didn’t know him well enough to interpret his every expression, but
he had the impression Jack had been about to ask him something.
Well, whatever it was, it would have to wait. Jack’s fan club was not
going anywhere soon.
Ellery returned Watson to his crate, gave him a chew toy, and began
to ring up Mrs. Smith’s books. He listened with half an ear to the
conversation around him. He was surprised Jack had not already extricated
himself and escaped, something he was very good at in such situations.
He looked up, feeling Jack’s gaze, and they smiled at each other
again. It warmed Ellery. He really did like Jack. He liked his easy,
straightforward manner. Nothing ever seemed to fluster Jack. He liked the
way he was with Watson. He liked how Jack looked—broad shoulders and
narrow hips, muscular arms and long legs—in his trim navy-blue uniform.
He liked the way Jack’s smile formed little crinkles around the corners of
Jack started to speak, but Mr. Starling appeared at the counter with
Lee Child’s latest. “Ellery, my boy, could you tell me the price of this
Ellery was about to rattle off the price, which happened to be clearly
labeled on a sticker on the back of the book, when Mr. Starling turned to
“Chief Carson, I didn’t see you there!”
Ellery resisted the urge to roll his eyes.
“Morning, Mr. Starling.” Jack glanced instinctively at the door, and
Ellery bit back a grin. Everyone had their breaking point, and Mr. Starling
was usually it.
“Nice day today, eh, Chief?”
Ellery handed the receipt with the stack of paperbacks to Mrs.
Smith, who dumped everything in her canvas shopping bag. She turned to
Mr. Starling. “How’s your wife, Stanley?”
Mr. Starling waved dismissively. “Doing fine, I suppose. Spends her
days staring at the boob tube.”
Mrs. Nelson began, “I don’t believe televisions still have tubes—”
Mr. Starling ignored her. “Chief, I’ve meaning to talk to you about
those young hooligans hanging out on the beach every evening. It wouldn’t
surprise me if they were doing drugs and whatnot.”
“Sure,” Jack said, edging toward the door. “Why don’t you come
down to the station later and have a chat with Officer Martin.”
“I’m not sure young Martin is old enough to know what’s what.”
Mrs. Smith was also angling toward the door with Jack and Mr.
Starling. “Lovely visiting with you all, but I must pick up some scallops
Ellery opened his mouth, but Mrs. Nelson was there before him.
“You’ve forgotten to pay, Jane.”
Mrs. Smith looked startled and then laughed gaily. “Oh dear. I’m
always doing that!”
Yes, she was, but Ellery chuckled too. Politely.
Jack said mildly, “Uh-oh, Mrs. Smith. Should I save space for your
mug shot on the station bulletin board?”
Mrs. Smith turned red. Her laugh sounded a little hysterical that
time. The others joined in. She hurriedly dug her pocketbook out and
handed over a twenty-dollar bill. “Keep the change, dear.”
In fact, she was twenty-three cents short, but Ellery knew to choose
his battles. “Thanks, Mrs. Smith.”
The shop door flew open, the bell clanging wildly, and Nora Sweeny
rushed in, narrowly missing colliding with Jack and his entourage.
“Ellery, dearie! So sorry I’m late, but you won’t believe what’s
Nora was Ellery’s shop assistant. She was about seventy, small but
mighty. In spirit, at least. Her hair was gray, her eyes were gray, but her
personality was bright and cheerful as the gold and blue city flag she had
helped design. Once upon a time, Nora had been president of the Pirate’s
Cove Historical Society, and it was her life’s ambition to bring that now
defunct organization back to life.
“What’s happened?” Ellery and everyone else in the Crow’s Nest
Nora skidded to a stop, looking nonplussed. “I didn’t realize—well,
the news is bound to be all over the village by now. I still can’t believe it.
It’s a…a calamity.”
“What’s a calamity?” Jack, being in the calamity business, was
“Skull House has been sold!”
“Isn’t that good news?” Ellery was confused. “I thought the
historical society was planning to buy it for their new home base.” It was
pretty much all Nora had been talking about for the last two weeks, ever
since the news broke that Skull House was going on the market.
“But that’s just it. It’s not us. The Historical Society hasn’t
purchased the house. We were outbid. We didn’t even know we were
bidding. Someone—an outsider—swooped in at the last moment and stole
the house out from under us!” Nora reached the counter, resting her
elbows on it and dropping her head in her hands.
Ellery bent over her. “Are you all right?”
Nora, still clutching her head, shook no.
Everyone else—with the exception of Jack—was talking at once:
who, what, where, when, why…
The why was the real question, in Ellery’s opinion. Why anyone, let
alone the Pirate’s Cove Historical Society, would want to buy Skull House,
was a mystery to him. For one thing, it was out on Pequot Bluffs, miles
from the village. For another, the house was a wreck. Not as much of a
wreck as Captain’s Seat, maybe—or maybe it was, because no one had
lived there for the last fifty years. That amount of dust was probably
“I’m sorry. But, you know, maybe it’s for the best,” Ellery said.
“Skull House would probably cost a fortune to get in shape, and it isn’t
exactly conveniently located. There are other houses.”
“No, there really aren’t,” Mrs. Nelson informed him. “When was the
last time you saw property for sale on the island?”
Well…never. Granted, he had only lived on Buck Island for four
“And no new construction,” Mr. Starling said. “Per the Buck Island
“The Maples’ properties are going to come on the market
“Eventually,” agreed Mrs. Nelson. “Which could be years from now.
You know how courts are.”
Nora moaned. “I know! I know all that.”
The bells on the door chimed softly as Jack eased it open. He raised
a hand in farewell to Ellery, who nodded back regretfully. He couldn’t
blame Jack for making his escape. He just wished Jack had taken the
others with him.
“To think an outsider could just come in and buy one of our
historical landmarks.” That was Mrs. Ferris.
“It’s not actually a landmark, is it?” Ellery asked. “Not technically.
No one bothered to reply.
Mrs. Smith asked, “Who is this mysterious outsider? Who has
bought Skull House?”
Nora raised her head. Her eyes were dry, so that was good. In fact,
she looked more mad than sad.
“He’s a writer. Very popular, if you like that kind of thing.”
“What kind of thing?” Ellery asked. If this mysterious someone was
a mystery writer, this might not be a total disaster. It was very hard to get
authors to appear for book signings when they had to travel by ferry to a
small island in the middle of nowhere. Okay, Rhode Island. Still.
“Sex?” Mr. Starling asked hopefully.
Nora said in tones of loathing, “I’m speaking of Brandon Abbott.”
Ellery stared at her. “Brandon?” he repeated. “Brandon Abbott?” He
heard and understood the words, but somehow they seemed to have shortcircuited
“Brandon Abbott. Yes.” Nora’s gaze grew curious at his obvious
“I know him!” Mrs. Smith exclaimed. “He’s like Stephen King. He
writes all that spooky stuff.”
“Horror,” Ellery said, which pretty much summed up his feelings
regarding Brandon Abbott.
“Do you know Brandon Abbott?” Mrs. Nelson asked, surprised.
“I used to. He’s my ex.”
“I thought—” objected Nora.
“My other ex,” Ellery said.