Barbara Adams had just hung up the phone when she heard something. A squeak. Not very loud, and if Mavis Fairbanks had picked up, Barbara wouldn’t have heard it at all. But Mavis didn’t answer, and Barbara had to leave a message. For the second time that day. She stood up, annoyed. Soft or not, a squeak was a squeak. And she was alone in the library. Or was supposed to be.
It was after ten, and everyone should have gone home an hour ago, including JJ. Had he forgotten to lock the doors? Unlikely. JJ, the maintenance supervisor, was usually the last to leave. He wasn’t young, but he wasn’t the type to forget something important. Now that she thought about it, she did recall him coming in. “Everything’s locked up tight, Ms. Adams,” he’d said. “Good night.”
Her office door was open, and she poked her head into the lobby. Everything was as still and hushed as… well… as a library. Maybe she’d imagined it. Or maybe it came from outside the building. Sometimes, when the library was closed and quiet, she picked up sounds from out on the street or from the houses south of the library. People didn’t realize how far noise carried. Especially in colder weather. And it was October.
She turned back to her office. The last file box JJ brought up from storage sat in the middle of the floor. She navigated around it, got her briefcase from the chair, and returned to her desk. She was very tired. As the Director of the Windbrook library, she was overworked and underappreciated. There was always something that needed attending to. Correcting the mistakes of slipshod employees, who with rare exceptions could hardly be called professionals. Dealing with the Board of Trustees, who knew nothing about running a library. Squeezing a few precious dollars out of stingy legislators. No one realized the huge amount of work she did.
Tonight, though, there was something else on her mind. She pulled a manila folder from her briefcase and withdrew three pages from it. When you compared what she’d recently discovered with what these old pages showed, the evidence was conclusive. She’d circled the important items in red. She put the pages back in the folder and started to return it to her briefcase, then decided to put it back into the box where it had been all these years. It was time to act on what she’d learned. That was the right thing to do, regardless of the consequences.
She sat in her leather executive chair and rocked forward. As she did, her pen fell to the floor. She bent down to retrieve and, as her chair moved backwards, one of the casters squeaked. Ah, that’s what that sound had been.
She opened the desk drawer and dropped in the pen. She stood, shrugged on her coat, and took her gloves and keys from her pocket.
That’s when she heard it again. Another squeak. Louder this time. Not her chair. It sounded as if it came from the lobby, near the door to the basement. She couldn’t see that door from her office, because it was behind a display labeled NEW NON-FICTION. She walked out to the checkout counter and laid down her briefcase, along with her gloves and keys. Then she headed for the basement door. After that incident with the Foxworth boy, it was supposed to be locked, although this was one of the few things JJ was careless about.
She shivered as she recalled that day three years ago, when little Taylor Foxworth’s nanny brought him to the library, left him in the children’s room for a moment, then couldn’t find him. He’d simply disappeared. The boy’s parents were called, as were the police. After a frantic search, he was found, curled up in the basement boiler room, sound asleep. It had put a scare into everyone, and since then Barbara had ordered the door to remain locked at all times.
Now, though, it was slightly ajar. She pulled it open and peered down the stairs. It was very dark. A street lamp used to cast a weak light through a window well, but the window had been bricked up when they remodeled the building. She wondered whether to turn on the light and check downstairs, or just close and lock the door and give JJ a stern talking to in the—
She heard something. No doubt this time. Before she could turn around, someone grabbed her from behind, squeezing her, forcing the air out of her lungs. She tried to scream but couldn’t. She struggled, but it was no use.
Something sharp pricked the side of her neck. A stinging sensation spread through her shoulders, then moved downward. She was getting so cold. And dizzy. The person wasn’t squeezing her any more; instead she felt a sudden powerful urge to lie down. Then, for some reason, she thought of her cats. It was past time for their supper.
She lost her balance and grabbed for the doorknob, but someone pushed her from behind. Again she tried to scream, but sound wouldn’t come. Another shove, and she was flying down the stairs. An eagle, spreading her wings, poised in perpetual flight.
It was nearly eight-thirty in the morning when JJ called 911. When the operator asked his name he said, “JJ Jackson. And no periods, ma’am. Those aren’t initials. JJ’s my given name.” He was so used to saying it that it just slipped out. But he stopped before telling her how his parents couldn’t decide between Jerome Joseph and Joseph Jerome. It didn’t seem fitting to go into it just then.
“Is there an emergency, sir?”
“Not exactly,” he said. “I’m the maintenance supervisor here at the Windbrook Library, and I come in early, and the director… Barbara Adams?…I seen her at the foot of the stairs that go down to the basement. I was on my way down to check the boiler, you know? ‘Cause it’s gonna be cold t’day for Octo—” He heard the woman talking back to him. “Pardon me, ma’am?”
“Do you need an ambulance, sir?”
“No, no need for that. I expect she’s been dead quite some time now.”
“Excuse me? Did you say… ” There was a pause, and then, “The police are on their way, Mr. Jackson. You just—”
“I know,” JJ said. “I seen it on TV. I won’t go anywhere.”
“Thank you, sir.”
JJ hung up and went to a computer and made a sign. It said:
DUE TO UNEXPECTED EMERGENCY
SORRY FOR YOUR INCONVENIENCE
He printed out two copies, taped them to the front doors of the library, and waited for the police to get there.
His boss was dead. He couldn’t say as most folks would miss her much.
“One mustn’t talk that way about the dead, Julia dear.” Mavis Fairbanks tapped the brakes just in time, and the Lincoln Town Car roared off the Edens Expressway onto the exit ramp at a speed that put her daughter Julia’s heart in her throat. “Besides,” Mavis added, “nobody murders a librarian.”
The sleek, heavy car swung back above six lanes of north- and south-bound traffic, then glided onto the straightaway and delivered them into Edens Plaza. “Honestly, mother,” Julia said, once she got her breath back. “I didn’t say anybody did murder Barbara. I said lots of people would have liked to. Motive and opportunity, you know. That’s what a good homicide dick looks for in a murder case.”
“Just listen to yourself, Julia. ‘Homicide dick.’ It sounds so… vulgar. Such a shame you spent your summer clerking for that criminal defense lawyer. Your uncle Morris could have used a bright girl like you, and a judge’s chambers is such a better envi—”
“Mom?” Julia pointed through the windshield. “The light?”
“I see it, dear.” Mavis hit the brakes. Julia strained against the seat belt. “Anyway, sweetheart, people just didn’t understand Barbara. She didn’t have many friends, but she and I were close. I mean… as close as we could be, considering…”
“Right,” Julia said. Barbara Adams was a working woman, not the sort of free-for-golf-and-lunch-any-day, well-off woman her mother generally socialized with.
“We’ve been Tuesday night bridge partners for… well… since you were a baby, anyway. Oh, she had her ways, I know. But she had a soft heart. A weak one, too. And it finally took her.”
“I know she talked a lot about a bad heart,” Julia said, “and made a big show of carrying those nitroglycerine tablets. But did you ever see her take one?”
“No, thank goodness. But—”
“She seemed healthy as a horse to me. Always talking about water aerobics, tennis, or biking. You even told me that if she could get the time off, she and her low-life boyfriend were thinking about climbing Mount Everest, for God’s sake.”
“That was just talk, dear. And why do you call Malcolm Templeton a ‘low-life?’ I don’t know that I’d really call him Barbara’s ‘boyfriend,’ either. Just a friend. A woman our age with no husband likes to have a man available to take her places. It doesn’t mean they’re… well… you know… having sex or anything. I mean, not necessarily.”
“He’s a married man, mother. At least he was when they started going together… until his wife found out. That makes him a low-life in my book. And as for ‘a man available to take her places?’ That’s what you used to say about William, too. And look where you’re at now.”
“Where William and I are ‘at,’ darling, is engaged to be married. I suppose it’s a difficult thing for a daughter to get her mind around, even a Wellesley cum laude like you. But please, try. As I know from experience, one never really gets over the death of a spouse. But I’m so lucky William finally feels ready to marry again… after all these years. I call him my ‘Sweet William.’ Do you know what a Sweet Will—”
“I know, mother. It’s a flower.” Julia wanted to open her mouth and poke her forefinger into it.
“Honestly, dear, I don’t know why you don’t like him.”
“Did I say I didn’t like him?” Julia asked.
“And did I say you did say you didn’t like him?” Her mother laughed at the conversational gambit they both enjoyed. “Oh, finally, the light.” She drove forward.
Julia breathed more easily as her mother turned into the mall parking lot, thinking any accident here would at least be at low speed. Her mother was an excellent driver, actually, with an accident-free insurance discount, but her fearless, NASCAR approach to the road never failed to raise Julia’s heart rate. Which reminded her… “Interesting, isn’t it?” she asked, “how the M.E. could establish that Barbara had a heart attack first?”
“The ‘M.E.?'” Mavis slid expertly into a too-narrow parking space.
“Medical Examiner. The one who does the autopsy. He says Barbara had a heart attack first, then fell down the stairs.” Julia opened the door as far as it would go without hitting the car beside her. She managed to squeeze out, and she and her mother headed for Borders.
“Julia, darling, could we talk about something more cheerful? Like… oh, I don’t know… how are classes going?”
“Really, mother, that’s what you call cheerful?”
* * *
They’d come to Borders to pick up William Bryant, who worked there, and drive to the wake. They were a little early, and decided to wait in the café.
Julia had only met William a few times, but Mavis had told her he didn’t need to work, not for the money. He had more money than Mavis and most of her friends. In fact, he’d surprised everyone when he took the job. It was because he loved books, he said, and he liked the discipline of having to go somewhere every day.
Julia had been surprised to hear the part about his loving books, because he didn’t strike her as the type. But Julia loved her mother, and her mother loved being in love, so Julia decided to be happy for her.
As they neared the Seattle’s Best counter, Julia said, “I think I’ll try something different today.”
“Fine, dear,” her mother said, obviously not really listening.
“Mocha, tall, decaf,” Julia told the barista. “Skim, no whipped cream.” She turned to her mother. “What about you? It’s on me.” But Mavis was facing the other way, scanning the huge store, searching for William. “Mother?”
“Yes, dear. Whatever you’re having.” She was waving her arm in the air now, trying to get the attention of William, who was about a football field away at the Information desk, deep into a computer search for a customer. “He deeply cares about books,” Mavis said.
Julia took both mochas and steered her mother to a small round table. “So, dear,” her mother said, “how are classes going?” She sipped from her cup and made a face.
“Fine, I guess.”
“I’ll never understand why you didn’t go to Harvard Law.” Her mother took another sip, and then said, “What is this, anyway?”
“It’s a decaf mocha, skim, no whipped cream, and I didn’t go to Harvard because I wanted to go to Northwestern, and live near Chicago, and maybe practice law in Chicago… if I practice anywhere.” She really didn’t like law school and changed the subject. “Did Barbara like William?”
“You know, after her husband committed suicide, Barbara’s … well… she had her doubts about men. Her advice was always, ‘Go slow.’ Poor Barbara. Did I tell you she called me the night she died?”
“No, you didn’t. What did she call about?”
“I was at the symphony and didn’t get her messages until I got home. Two of them. She seemed anxious to speak to me. Said she’d just found some ‘disturbing news.’ So like Barbara; always dramatic.” Mavis sighed. “They were her last words to me and I couldn’t bring myself to erase them from… Oh, good!” Mavis looked past Julia’s shoulder and broke into a huge smile. “Here he comes.”
Julia and Mavis stood to greet William. He was over six feet tall, tanned, and silver-haired. He wore a designer suit coat over a white shirt and tie. He was impressive-looking, though quite a bit overweight. He greeted Mavis with a kiss. Then he turned to Julia. “I’m so lucky,” he said. “Spending the whole evening with two beautiful women.”
Avoiding the vomit-inducing gesture for the second time in half an hour, Julia drew back her hand and checked her watch. “We’ve got a wake to go to,” she said.
* * *
They passed the Mystery section as they left the store. Julia loved mysteries. Maybe that’s why she’d enjoyed working for Aggie Sherwood that summer. Sherwood, a woman, was the top gun in the city when it came to defending murder cases. Not the simple bar fights where success was getting a good plea bargain, but the complicated cases. Sherwood was brilliant at finding every last piece of evidence. Nothing in a police report or a medical report got by her. She even used private detectives to ferret out the truth from the tangle of confusion and lies.
They went out the door and walked to the car. Julia got in the back this time, and William drove. She wasn’t looking forward to Barbara Adams’s wake. She was anxious to go home, and listen to those messages on her mother’s answering machine.