Free short story

Poison pen

by Jackie McLean

“Is it true?”

The question took me by surprise.  Not just the noise springing suddenly out of the silence but the tone of it, and coming from Mrs Sillars, too.

Now, let me tell you a thing or two about Mrs Sillars.  She would come into the library most days, and she had pretty much taken up residence there by that time.  She was always dressed immaculately in a faux-fur winter coat – even in summer – and matching hat complete with a shiny hat pin.  Her make-up would be applied perfectly, and she carried the subtle hint of an expensive perfume.  I’d have liked it for myself if it wasn’t quite as dated.

She might be in her eighties, but she’d read Fifty Shades of Grey four times that month alone.  Every time she came into the library, she would call me aside with a whisper in her throat and a blush at her cheeks and ask if we had a copy.  She forgot every time that she’d already had it out.  She would be getting the letter through soon about fines for the three copies she’d forgotten to return.  I hoped I wasn’t going to be on shift the day she came in with that.

She never said very much, although she was always very polite (really, I’m not judging her about the Fifty Shades thing), and like most people who came in, whenever she spoke, it was in a hushed and lowered tone.

So her shriek, urgent and demanding when it came, made me jump.

“Is it true?”

I stole a sly glance towards Christine, who stopped mid trolley-stack to look aghast.  I could tell she was trying hard to decide who to be more annoyed at – me or Mrs Sillars.  You see, we had a bet going, Christine and I.

Although Christine was easily half the age of Mrs Sillars, you wouldn’t really guess it by the way her hair was scraped back severely and screwed into a tight bun at the back, and her clothes that must have been purchased in farthings, and her mouth that was always pursed into some disapproval or another – usually at me.  

Christine didn’t want things to change.  She had been Littleton’s head librarian since Neolithic times.  I exaggerate, perhaps, but not by much.  My ears rang with her constant We don’t do things that way here, or her Gabrielle, this is Littleton, not London.  She knew it annoyed me when she called me Gabrielle instead of Gabby.

As per routine, we had stopped at precisely 10.15am for a coffee break.  Christine’s coffee, that was.  It’s what she always had.  Every day at 10.15am.  I sipped from a bottle of Diet Coke.  I hate coffee.

We both leaned slightly across the counter then and stared at Mrs Sillars.  I could tell that Christine saw it the same moment as I did – Mrs Sillars was beaming with excitement, not with displeasure.  Which meant I had won the bet.  

I could feel myself fry in the full frown pulled on me by Christine, and stepped defensively away from her, just a fraction, in reflex.  Her vice-like possession of the workings of this library had been tedious and at times (most of the time) downright rude, but never violent.  She’d never lost a bet to me, though, and I just wasn’t sure how she might react.  Because, for Littleton Library, this was going to change things a lot.

“Yes,” I told Mrs Sillars in my sweetest voice, “it is true.”  I could feel the air move when Christine flinched as I continued, “Parker Brady is coming here!”

Mrs Sillars actually made a little jump, and clapped her hands in glee.  She had confided in me, not long after I’d started working there, that Parker Brady was her favourite author, and ever since then, I’d been doing everything possible to make this event happen.

“That’s marvellous,” she squealed like a young girl.  “I’m off to tell the Guild!”  And off she went.

The Guild, my word!  I don’t mean to be sarcastic, but Christine was always complaining about how few people used the library these days.  That was what she thought, hiding away most of the time with her obsessive indexing or lurking around the archives.  It was me that ran around all day every day answering the phone – what time were we open till; did we have such-and-such a title in stock.  Me showing odds and bods how to use the computers – we had two now, much to Christine’s annoyance.  These brought in the youngsters who liked to spend time playing games in a warm room or browsing the web for their homework away from distractions.  It had gotten really busy before the Mocks this year.  I had learned loads of things just listening to their questions, never mind helping them to figure out how to find the answers.  One wee girl did her homework there most nights because of the drink at home.  And that wasn’t all.  The computers brought in folk that were looking to skill-up to get a job.  One bloke had left a box of chocolates and a card, addressed to me, on the book trolley the week before, saying if it wasn’t for the help he’d had here at the library, he wouldn’t have had the confidence to go for that interview.  You should have seen Christine’s face then. We would also get business folk coming in to ask if we had information to help them suss out the local market, family historians looking for records, readers asking for recommendations based on their last read – you name it, if it was anything to do with information and how to find it, I helped people with it.

So, you see, Christine and I had quite differing opinions about how popular the library was.  But there was no way she could deny the avalanche we were going to get through the door once the Guild got wind of Parker Brady’s impending visit.  There were hundreds of them.  Well, dozens.  I smiled at her as Mrs Sillars’ back vanished into the distance.  She narrowed her eyes at me in response.

The following week was taken up with re-arranging the layout so that we would have enough decent seating to accommodate the large audience we were expecting for Parker Brady’s visit.  It wasn’t every day a real-life crime writer visited Littleton Library.  Truth be told, we’d never had one at all.  

On Monday the place got a hoover and all the surfaces (yes, all of them) got a polish.  

On Tuesday we got posters printed – in colour! – and, while Christine had her 10.15am coffee, I ran into all of the local shops to have them displayed.  My step counter didn’t know what had hit it.  

On Wednesday Christine finally stopped pretending it wasn’t happening, and I could see her let slip little manifestations of excitement, or at least intrigue, as she began to join in and do small things here and there to make the place look more welcoming.  

On the Thursday she surprised me by bringing in a novelty table cloth that was decorated with bloody hand prints, along with a large plastic skull.  She took a phone call from Parker Brady’s agent and gushed about how much we were looking forward to the visit.  The local press were in taking photos and checking all the details.  Our phone was ringing off the hook all day long, and Christine and I debated whether we had enough chairs.

On Friday – the day before our big event – we borrowed some extra chairs from the primary school.  The headteacher asked if the Year 7s could come along, and I advised her that Parker Brady’s material was probably not suitable for children.  She looked disappointed.  It wasn’t until I unloaded the chairs at the library that I realised how small they were.

Finally, Saturday arrived, and Littleton – not just the library, but the whole village – was abuzz with anticipation.  Christine and I did a final check – the bloody-handed table cloth and plastic skull sat on a small round table that held a glass of water and a display of Ms Brady’s most recent books.  A comfortable chair sat on each side of it, one for the author and one for her agent.  Five rows of ten chairs each were arranged, fan-style, facing this, and the small chairs from the school were piled against the back wall in case we needed them.  We’d set up a table at the other side of the room, with plastic cups, jugs of water and half a dozen bottles of wine, along with crisps and the like.

The event was due to begin at twelve, and we were expecting Parker Brady to arrive at eleven.  That was still an hour off, but already the local press were there and several older ladies had arrived and were sitting in the front row, giggling excitedly.  We had to stop them from taking second glasses of wine within ten minutes of their arrival, but it didn’t dampen their spirits.

Just as the clock reached eleven, I spotted a taxi pulling up outside the library, the doors flew open, and in swooshed a petite woman in large flowing garments and with a voice that boomed across the entire building, “So lovely to be here!”

From there, it was all go.  The seats filled up as fast as the wine bottles emptied, and before we knew it, Parker’s agent was tapping a pen on the side of her glass and a hush fell over the audience as she introduced her author.  I scanned the rows, but didn’t see Mrs Sillars there.  I hoped, in the end, she hadn’t forgotten all about it.

The event went tremendously well, and even Christine looked pleased.  It made me think it could be worthwhile suggesting another event soon.  Strike while the iron was hot.

People were in no hurry to leave the library by the end of the visit.  They’d heard the agent’s lowdown on Parker Brady’s career to date, as well as a reading from her latest work, and they’d had a good old Q&A exchange.  They’d oohed and aahed at some of Parker’s more serious points about the murders in her books, and they’d laughed along with her writing anecdotes.  All in all it had been a resounding success, and now the library was full of people browsing the shelves, while others stood in line to get their copies of Parker’s books signed.  The place had never been so busy.

Christine was keeping an eye on the queue, so I took a wander around the library to see if anyone needed advice.  That was when it caught my eye.

There on the book trolley – which was generally Christine’s domain – sat a book that I didn’t recognise by its cover.  I moved closer to get a better look.  I was right – I hadn’t seen this one before.  It didn’t have a classification number, so it definitely didn’t belong to this library.  Without even being conscious of it, my hand reached out to touch the cover.  It looked luxurious, and felt like soft leather, or maybe moleskin.  In the caress of my fingers, the book floated from the trolley, and before I realised it, I was standing holding it and gazing at the beautiful artwork it was bound in.  There was no title on the front, just some kind of emblem, a violet coloured flower with delicate leaves on the ivory jacket.

I quickly glanced around me, but nobody was paying me any attention.  Furtively, I half hid the mysterious book inside my jacket, and tiptoed my way to the staff room behind the counter to go and have a better look.  

This book was mine, my slavering mind told me, gollumesque, as I grasped the cover and opened it up.  When I saw the title inside, my heart stopped for a moment.

Unexplained deaths in Littleton, it said.

What?

With a trembling hand, I opened up the first page.  There was a map.  I peered at it and realised it was, sure enough, a map of Littleton.  The lines representing its streets, roads and pathways were embossed and in colour, giving the map the appearance of a high value banknote.   I could see where the library was on it, and I could orientate my way around the streets I already knew.  With my finger, I traced the road that led from here to my home.

A loud thump at the door made me jump, and Christine stood there, with a face like thunder.

“Get out here and help,” she bellowed.  

I stuffed the mysterious book with its flowers into my bag, and scurried out to the main library, but my heart was thumping and my head was spinning.  

It was closing time before I had a chance to pick the book up again.  When I flicked through it, breathing in the piney scent of untouched pages, I was surprised to find there was no text in it at all.  Just the title page and the map.

Who would make such a thing?  And leave it in the library?

Unexplained deaths in Littleton, I muttered to myself as I walked along the path towards home.  I was walking at a snail’s pace, since I was staring at the map in the book.  I looked more closely.  I couldn’t be entirely sure, but there seemed to be a mark – an X – on one of the streets.  I ran my finger over it, and felt the subtle indent left by the pen that had marked it.  It was definitely an X, and somebody had put it there for a reason.  Unexplained deaths…

Could this be a cry for help, I wondered?  Leaving this message to be found in a place where it was bound to have been picked up?

I studied the map more closely now, checking the name of the street I was on and comparing it to the one with the X marked on it.  It was a dry, pleasant evening, just beginning to grow dark.  I judged from the map that it was around a twenty minute walk.  And let’s face it, Littleton is hardly the sprawling metropolis.  What was the worst that could happen?  

Before I knew it,I was walking towards the street with the X.

As I walked, I was surprised to come into an area of Littleton I hadn’t seen before.  The housing had petered out, and signs of life in the street I was walking along were growing increasingly sparse.  Before much longer, it had become a track rather than a street, and instead of houses, it was lined with trees and shrubbery, with glimpses through them onto open fields.  My step faltered, because this didn’t seem right.  I was going, alone, into an out-of-the-way place, and if someone was watching me or following me, well, I could be in trouble.  And the darkness was closing in rapidly.

A noise behind me made me jump.  It was a fox darting across the track into the bushes.  I was relieved, but the start had made my heart rate spike and my step had become less certain.

All the street lights were behind me now, there were none ahead.  Grasping hands seemed to reach out of the darkness as the trees threw unnatural shapes onto the ground.

Every movement made me jump.

I told myself to get a grip, and I brought the mysterious book out of my pocket to examine the map, hoping to find I’d come the wrong way and that I should be taking the route back towards the houses.  I switched on the torch on my phone to see it properly, and noted with dismay that I had no signal here.  Even more disheartening, the map confirmed I was going the right way.

But something inside compelled me to go on, even though I felt sure I was going to look back on this moment and ask why I hadn’t waited until the weekend when I could have gone during daylight.

I decided to give it a few more minutes, and made my way tentatively along the track, when to my relief I rounded a bend and there was a small cul-de-sac of houses.  Off to one side of them was a block of lock-ups.  A close examination of the map in comparison with my surrounds confirmed it was the lock-ups that were marked with the X.  Specifically the lock-up at the very end.

There were lights on in most of the houses, but being so dark out here, nobody was likely to see me.  I was feeling braver now, and I approached the lock-up at the end, wondering what on earth I might be looking for.

Then I saw it, and a stone dropped into my stomach.  

Etched onto the padlock on the lock-up was the same purple flower that was on the cover of the book.

I didn’t even stop to think about being spotted lurking around the lock-ups, I was that taken aback.  The next thing I knew, I’d got my hand on the padlock, and my heart was in my mouth as the door slowly creaked open.

The book was starting to feel heavy in my pocket by then, I was aware that I’d begun to sweat, and I couldn’t get Unexplained deaths in Littleton out of my head, running in a constant loop.  I did briefly consider calling the police, but really, what would I have said to them?  And a check confirmed I still had no signal anyway.

The door yawned further open, revealing the blackness within the lock-up.

I’m not sure how long I stood staring into the nothingness in front of me.  There was a constant battle going on inside my head.

“Don’t be stupid,” the sensible part seemed to be pleading.

“Go on, you know you have to,” said the other part.

Finally, I took a deep breath and then a step forward into the open lock-up.

Using the torch on my phone, I quickly established there was nothing particularly unusual inside it.  There were a couple of wooden shelves lining one side of the structure, and they seemed to contain an array of DIY essentials – hammers, drills, boxes of nails and assorted fixings, that sort of thing.  And there wasn’t even much of that – the lock-up was pretty empty.  There was nothing else in there.  Much to my relief, no body-sized freezer.

Still, I didn’t want to venture too far into the lock-up, and I kept close to the door.  As my adrenaline began to dip, and I found myself vaguely disappointed that this adventure had fizzled into nothing, I spotted it again.  The purple flower.  This time it was on the label stuck to a bottle sitting on one of the shelves.  It was close enough for me to pick up without going any further inside, and so I did.  You would, wouldn’t you?

It was one of those brown bottles you’d normally associate with medicine, but aside from the flower, there was no information on the label to say what was inside.

Determined that since I’d come this far and nothing terrible seemed to be happening, I unscrewed the bottle for a look inside.

When I shone the torch in, it looked like coffee.  I took a delicate sniff, and it smelled like coffee, too.

Somebody must be sitting round the back of this lock-up having a laugh, I decided, but good on them.  It was a clever prank, and I had fallen for it.

I tightened the lid back onto the bottle, and replaced it on the shelf, then with a chuckle that was part relief, part disappointment, and part admiration for the set-up, I began my journey home.

***

“And that’s your story, is it?”

“It’s the truth,” I insist.  I stare at the police officer sitting in front of me, then at my lawyer who seems to be trying to melt deeper into his seat next to me.  Even my lawyer doesn’t believe me, I realise with a shock.  I see them glance at one another.

The lawyer shrugs his shoulders and the police officer sighs then slides my statement across the desk for me to sign.  I do so, because it’s the truth.

Another police officer comes into the room, and they start all over again with the questions.  About how my fingerprints came to be on the bottle that contained the poison that killed Christine.  All I can tell them is what I’ve already said.  I can see how it might look, especially as the book went missing and I’ve no idea where it is now, so I don’t even have that as proof.

The next thing, I’m being charged with murder, I’m in front of a judge who refuses bail and am remanded in custody until my trial date, which is months away.

One day I’m surprised to be told I have a visitor, and my heart leaps – surely this is someone coming to tell me there’s been a huge mistake and I can go home.  But when I get to the visiting area, there is Mrs Sillars sitting waiting for me.

Puzzled, and a little ashamed to have her see me in this place, I sit down opposite her.

“So lovely to be here!” she says, with a wide grin spread across her face.

It strikes me as an odd thing to say, but then I think there’s something familiar about the way she’s said it.  I lean in and look at her more closely.  A flash in her eye scares me suddenly.

“I see you got my book,” she says with a clarity and a coherence that isn’t usual for the Mrs Sillars I’ve known these past few months.  But that nagging feeling that there’s something else, something I’m missing.

Then I see it.

“You’re Parker Brady!”

Her teeth gleam wolverine-white in the self-satisfied grin.

“I visited several libraries as ‘Mrs Sillars’ before I came across yours,” she tells me, careful to make sure her voice doesn’t carry.  “As soon as I saw it, I knew it was the one.  You were so eager to bring new life into the library, it was easy to plant the idea of the Parker Brady event in your head.”  My mouth gapes open in astonishment while she continues.  “And the dynamic between you and Christine, well, you have to understand how irresistible that is to a crime writer.”

I spin round in my chair, and call to the prison officer, “It was her!  She set me up!”  But I can tell it’s hopeless.  I catch the look of pity the prison officer throws to Parker Brady, who in turn shrinks back into the harmless persona of Mrs Sillars.  The officer even mutters a warning to me.  

I turn back to face her.

“You should have been paying attention,” she says.  “I certainly was.  I take my research very seriously.  Any self respecting crime writer does…”