Desperate to prove that she doesn’t share her aunt’s mental illness and that Charlotte really has been murdered, Blair tangles with a former lover, a disturbingly handsome stranger and a wacky cast of Rose Arbor characters.
At first Blair tries to dismiss the skin-pricking sensation of being watched, but as small disturbances grow increasingly threatening, she must confront the enemies, real or imagined, that drove her aunt to madness and death in the Rhyme’s Library.
brobdingnagian \ brob-ding-NAG-ee-uhn\ adjective:
of extraordinary size; gigantic; enormous.
of extraordinary size; gigantic; enormous.
Blair brought her finger down on a random word, brobdingnagian. She wrote the word and definition on the chalkboard above the circulation desk and came up with her own sample sentence. Drake Isling is a brobdingnagian twit. Because she gave each of her library patrons a chocolate for every sample sentence they gave, she took one for herself, even though Brobdingnagian was technically tomorrow’s word. Today’s word was tenebrous: dark; gloomy. Tenebrous describes both the weather and my mood, she thought and then realized that she deserved a chocolate for her second sample sentence. My thighs will be brobdingnagian if I don’t stop eating these chocolates. Another sentence— another chocolate.
Outside, the wind whistled and moaned around the library, tossing branches and bending trees. A near human-like scream tore Blair’s attention away from the open dictionary, but after a moment of wind listening, she returned to her work, collecting words and definitions for the upcoming week. Opprobrious, vitriolic, and vituperative—she looked for derogatory words that could easily be made into Drake-descriptive sentences.
If the storm knocked out the electricity she would close the library early. Stop eating chocolates, she told herself, drive to the university and confront Drake in front of the students lingering after his American Lit class. She knew that there would be a handful of coeds hanging around Westchester Hall waiting to talk to him, hoping to walk with him to lunch. She knew that because she used to be one of them. Ten years ago when she was a freshman in college she waited after Professor Islington’s class with trumped-up questions.
Well, not anymore. She’d never wait for Drake again. After today, of course.
The lights flickered a warning. Wind storms and power outages were common in tiny Rose Arbor. Candle light, a roaring fire and a good book during a storm were enjoyable at home, but she wasn’t going home—or was she? Gathering up her things, she debated her plan. Confront Drake or wait out the storm in front of a fire with a Mary Stewart novel? Fight sluggish traffic, wind and rain for the hour drive to Bellingham or cuddle under a quilt and read? With wavering resolve, she locked the front doors.
The door rattled. Was it someone knocking, or just the wind? Over her shoulder, she watched the door knob rattle. It took a moment to unlock the heavy wooden doors. The storm’s cold wet wind flew in the library, and Blair peered into the driving rain. Gray skies cracked with lightning. She was about to go back inside when she saw a huddled figure at the side of the porch.
Dressed in a ratty brown coat and mud caked jeans, Will Harris crouched in the flower bed, his head bent low to the ground. He appeared to be kneeling in prayer. Will, a regular attendee at the library’s story hours, lived on a farm just outside of town with his brother and grandmother. His rapt attention to her stories, his quiet lisp, and unkempt hair, made Blair both love and pity Will. Not even school age, he typically walked to the library unattended. She knew it was hard to live with an aging caregiver and she guessed that Will’s older brother was his primary, albeit reluctant, care giver.
Blair ran to the edge of the porch and yelled over the storm’s noise to him. Rain pelted his matted hair and rolled down his shoulders. He knelt between a rhododendron bush and the side of the library with his face inches from the mud and his hand inserted into a drain pipe.
Blair came around the porch, pulled her sweater tight across her chest, and ignoring the mud and weather, she knelt beside Will. A tiny, whining meow echoed inside the storm drain. Blair lowered her face toward Will and he gazed at her, his big brown eyes welling with tears.
“Miss Rhyme,” Will stuttered her name between gulping back sobs, ““Bacon, Todd’s dog, killed all of Midge’s kittens but this one here and my grandma won’t let any of the cats in the house.”
Blair frowned at the rusted pipe. It could probably be cut by a sturdy pair of gardening shears, but she guessed that the easiest, quickest form of rescue would be to unclog the drain.
“Couldn’t you keep him? I can’t take him home. Bacon will get him, just like he got the rest,” Will said.
She wasn’t sure she wanted a kitten, but she did know she didn’t want to squat in the rain After giving a Will a quick pat on the shoulder, she went to the office to fetch a shopping bag and umbrella.
Will trailed after her, still talking. “Everyone knows how you live alone and have nobody but your crazy aunt. And now they say she ain’t talking no more and of course, there’s only whispering at the library. No real talking going on ‘round here-”
Of course people gossiped. They buzzed about anything and anyone and Aunt Charlotte was interesting. Parading through town in her nightie, throwing apples at passing cars, spray painting neighborhood dogs,
provided entertainment the town couldn’t get on the local cable stations. Charlotte
“Of course, cats can’t really talk,” Will said.
“And that’s a good thing,” Blair muttered, returning to the porch. Quickly, she explained her plan to Will. “I’m going to climb the trellis and muck out the storm drain.”
His wide eyes followed her outstretched finger to the roof, a window, and the trellis that ran up the wall.
“You need to catch the cat when the rain washes it out.”
Will scowled at the trellis and slowly shook his head.
“It’s like Incy Wincy Spider,” she told him. He still didn’t look convinced, but he did hold the bag. After giving his shoulders a quick reassuring squeeze, she ran up the stairs, threw open the second story window, climbed out onto the ledge and tentatively stuck the toe of her penny loafers onto the trellis.
Will watched and tightly held the bag. She waved at him. Grabbing the trellis with both hands, she gave it a tug to test its strength, and swung out into the storm. This is a brobdingnagian mistake, she thought, promising herself another chocolate.
Rain soaked her hair and trickled down her neck. Her straight skirt hampered her climb, and she pulled it up to increase her range of motion. Dormant rose vines plucked at her socks, snagged her sweater, and scratched her hands as she scaled the wall. When she reached the roof, she shot a jubilant smile at Will. But he wasn’t alone. Todd, Will’s brother, had the child by the arm and leered at her.
Suddenly conscience of the skirt bunched around her hips and the red panties she was quite sure that Todd and Will could see, Blair waved to the boys. Todd grinned back.
“Nice seeing you, library lady,” Todd yelled at her, his tongue ring making his words slur. He pulled Will away.
Blair watched the two figures, one dressed completely in black leather, the other splattered in mud, disappear into the woods that edged the grounds of the library. The bag that Will was supposed to use to trap the kitten lay in the dirt like a deflated balloon.
Blair stuck her hand into the muck that clogged the drain and threw it at the retreating boys. The dead leaves, mud and sticks felt slimy and cold, but she hurriedly cleared the drain. A whoosh of water washed the kitten out into the garden bed. It stood on shaking stick legs—its fur matted to knobby, protruding bones. It stared, frozen in place, as Blair climbed down.
Blair jumped and landed hard on the grass, her hands breaking her fall. She stood in time to see the kitten tear into the library through the wide open door.
At least it’s a smart cat, Blair thought as she went after it. She tried to brush the mud and leaves off her skirt, then slipped off her filthy shoes and soaking sweater and left them on the front porch.
Standing in the doorway, searching, she called, “Here kitty, kitty.” A tail, gray and rat-like stuck out from under a rack of books. Blair lunged toward the bookcase, and her stocking feet went out from under her.
Finding herself on the wooden floor, she turned to see the kitten watching her with one blue and one brown eye. Blair placed one hand in front for the cat to plainly see, and snaked her other hand behind the creature. The cat tried to dart away, but Blair grabbed it.
Rolling onto her back she held the squirming, skinny kitten in an outstretched hand in the air above her face. She considered the small, gray, rodent-like animal. “I’ll call you either Mouchard or Rat-Fink after my friend, Drake,” she told the cat. Blair stood up, slipped her silver bookmark into her novel, gathered her raincoat and umbrella, and headed toward the basement in search of a box. She cradled Mouchard in her arms and he held onto her sweater with tiny claws.
It had been less than a year since Blair had converted the turn of the century home that her grandparents had bequeathed to the town into a library. Her grandparents’ generosity had stopped at the bestowal of the house and property. Money for upkeep or improvements hadn’t been a part of the will so an outdated monster of a furnace that needed to be adjusted manually heated the house.
A blast of cold air hit Blair when she opened the basement door. Somewhere an unlatched window thumped. Odd, she thought. Who would open a window down here? She made her way through the dank and dimly lit basement, maneuvering through stacks of books, magazines, and old newspapers.
Damp and moldy, the basement was a breeding ground for mildew and fungus that aggravated her allergies. She didn’t want to know who or what else might breed in the basement. Rodents, insects, small mammals? She looked at the shivering kitten cradled in her arms. “Are you a mouser?” she asked. “Because this basement might be a rodent smorgasbord.”
She usually avoided the basement. As a child she had been terrified of the roaring furnace, and nervous about the dark, cobwebbed corners. As an adult she was overwhelmed by the flotsam of a family that she had never really known. Blair sniffed and then sneezed. The basement really needed cleaning, but for the moment she was grateful for the clutter because she soon found a fishing creel and an old towel. She dropped the towel in the creel, placed the kitten in the newly created cage and secured the lid with the leather strap. The kitten mewed pitifully at her.
“Sorry, but I can’t have you roaming free on the ride home,” she told it.
Clutching the basket she went to turn down the furnace. The natural gas furnace was almost her height, and many times her width. It coughed and burped as if it suffered from a digestion problem. Blair turned the heat down and then glanced around to find the open window.
The wind howled, and for a moment the lights flickered. She took a deep breath, and followed the thumping noise. It came from a room behind a rough-hewn wooden door. Someone had locked it. Why? She fumbled for a moment with the outdated latch and then wrenched it. It broke into pieces and the door swung open.
A window beat to its own erratic rhythm. Little more than an air vent, the window was scarcely six inches high and a foot wide. From the outside it sat just above the soil and hid behind a lilac bush, but from the inside of the basement it was high above Blair’s head. Standing on tiptoes, she secured the window at the same moment lightning flashed, a roll of thunder shook the house, and the electricity went out.
The meager light from the window filled the basement with a soupy darkness. Blair jumped and dropped everything except for the creel. Her spark of frustration matched a flash of lightning. Her books and raingear lay at her feet, but not the keys. Squatting, she patted the dusty, cold cement with one hand. The basement floor sloped toward a center drain. Although she couldn’t imagine the keys rolling, she moved along the floor in that direction.
A crash of thunder, followed by another moment of lightning showed a gleam of something white wedged between stacks of boxes. Feeling along the floor, Blair pushed against the clutter, hoping to find her keys, but instead found a white sock tucked into a familiar pair of ked sneakers, a dark straight pant leg, and a man’s white shirt.
Aunt Charlotte. She lay on her side; her head lolled at an awkward angle. Blair touched her, and then peered into blank eyes. “Charlotte?” Gently, Blair picked up her aunt’s limp, cold hand. Blair began to shake. Putting down the creel, she knelt and tried to lift Charlotte into her arms. Her aunt remained wilted and unresponsive. Blair knew she was dead.
A rustling in the bushes outside distracted Blair. A rat? No, a human face with a sharp nose, barely distinguishable through the mud splattered window. Rain slid off a black slicker, and the tears of rain on the window distorted the features.
Blair called for help and the person stood in a swirl of slicker and disappeared.