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in the library, with a smile

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Josephine Scarlet peered into the library. Mrs. White was there, poking around the shelves intently. Jo noted a steely determination in the set of her jaw.

“Find what you’re looking for?” Josephine said, smiling a little as Mrs. White gave a start.

“I’m just tidying up,” Mrs. White replied.

“Of course.” Jo browsed the shelves, two stories of shelves full of books. The covers were a jumble of styles, paperback pulp mixed in with history tomes, biographies, popular science, and well-worn, leather-bound Bronte and Eliot, only occasionally dotted with globes and other knickknacks.

It was the library of someone who read their books instead of decorating with them.

Jo let her fingertips wander the spines of the books. She gently pulled out a book of poetry by Clifton, slid a finger between the pages to open up the words. “I guess Mr. Boddy loved literature.”

Mrs. White smiled fondly. “Actually, he let me choose the books. Told me to buy a few a week until the library was full. The antique globes and decorations are all his, though. He did love traveling the world.”

“He sounds like a nice man. I didn’t get much of a chance to know him. But I’m really sorry for your loss.”

“Thank you, dear,” Mrs. White said, her voice returning to its usual efficient crisp. “But what can I do for you? Are you looking for a particular book?”

Jo wasn’t about to be dismissed so easily. But she could play along for a bit. “Yes, actually. I was wondering where the … particularly interesting books are.” She gave Mrs. White a little wink.

“I find all books interesting.”

“I do, too. But surely there must be some books of a more adult nature. Since you’re clearly the librarian here.” She gave her most innocent smile.

Mrs. White looked wary. “That’s what you came here for?”

“There has to be something. Maybe a classic? Fanny Hill? De Sade? Anne Rice? Sappho?”

“Ancient poetry’s over there by the door, dear,” Mrs. White answered, amusement in her voice. She was suspicious – she was sharp, after all – but she didn’t seem … entirely uninterested.

“Lovely,” Jo said, and walked over, pleased that Mrs. White followed her. She pulled a volume out, a small book with a dark cover. “It’s in Greek.”

“Feel free to come back in a couple years once you’ve learned to read it, Miss Scarlet,” Mrs. White suggested, smirk on her face.

Jo laughed. She didn’t mind a little one-upmanship. “All right, well done, Mrs. White. Or may I call you Blanche?”

“If you must,” she answered, her eyes smiling.

“Call me Jo.”

“Very well. Would you care to tell me what you’re doing in the library, Jo?”

“Same as you. I’m looking for clues about who killed Mr. Boddy.”

Blanche stiffened. “I wasn’t-”

“I’m a crappy actress, but I’m not an idiot. We both know something isn’t right with the investigation. They’re obviously missing something. Let me help you,” Jo said. It was true – she could just sense that this horrible deed was about to go unpunished – she still remembered her mother’s shriek when she found the body – and the injustice of it all boiled Jo’s blood. And here Mrs. White was, the most thoughtful, interesting person in this manor, wanting to solve the same mystery. Jo couldn’t help it if a little desperation, a little need, crept into her voice.

“I’m sure your mother wouldn’t approve,” Mrs. White said.

“I’m 22 years old, so that’s neither here nor there.” She stepped a little closer. Blanche was an intimidating woman, at least 10 years older than Jo, and clearly smart as hell. But Jo was good at making her desires known.

“…I just don’t think that’s a good idea.” She turned around and walked out of the library.

Jo followed quickly as Blanche walked into the Billiard Room. She tried not to focus on the sharp swivel of Blanche’s hips as she moved (she was here for important work, after all).

Blanche moved around the Billiard Room, doing a poor job of pretending to be cleaning, but again, clearly looking for something.

“Are we really going to pretend that I don’t know what’s going on?” Jo said with exasperation.

“It’s for your own safety, young lady.”

Jo bristled at the condescension, even though it was clear as day Blanche was trying to get her angry enough to walk away. She gave Blanche a dirty smirk and said, “If you like that kind of roleplay, I’m totally into it, but we’re going to have to talk about safewords first.”

Blanche swallowed, clearly surprised. But not confused – which meant, at the very least, that under her proper façade was a lady who knew something about kink (avid readers made the best, kinkiest lovers in Jo’s opinion, so this wasn’t really a surprise).

“I really don’t think you should be involved with this, Jo,” Blanche said then, sincerely.

Jo sighed. She looked around, then nodded toward the billiards table. “Do you play?”

“I hardly think-”

“One game. Play me once, and then I’ll leave you alone.”

“Really.” Skepticism ran through Blanche’s voice.

Jo smiled. “We’ll bet. The winner chooses the loser’s penalty. If you win, the penalty can be that I have to leave you alone and stop investigating. Unless, of course, there’s a different punishment you had in mind.”

Blanche raised an eyebrow, not quite succeeding in pretending to ignore that last comment. “And if you win, I let you help? I’m willing to bet, but you should be aware that I’ve worked in this manor, spending time in this billiard room, for years.”

“I understand.”

Twenty minutes later, Blanche was folding her arms, glowering. “I should have known you were a hustler. You clearly have a criminal mentality.”

“Don’t be a sore loser,” Jo said cheerfully. “Now tell me what you’re looking for.” At Blanche’s pause, Jo added, “Come on, we agreed.”

Blanche sighed. “I don’t think he was killed with the wrench. I think it must have been something bigger, based on the…”

“What the body looked like,” Jo said, putting a comforting hand on her shoulder. “So we’ll look around – we’ll check every corner.

Blanche nodded, focus back already. “You take that corner, I’ll take this one.”

“It’s kind of sexy when you take charge.”

“Don’t be forward.”

“If you’re not forward, you’re either standing still or going backward.”

“Just get to work.”

They rifled around the assorted items gathered over years, checking shelves and draws and under furniture and behind paintings, carefully putting everything back so no one would be able to tell they had snooped.

Finally, Jo was feeling around the back of a bookshelf when she felt something strange.

A switch of some kind.

Jo played around with it for a couple of seconds, and then heard a long creak.

“What on earth,” Blanche said as they stared at the wall panel opening to a dark stairwell. “In all my years here, I’ve never seen that.”

“Maybe this is how the killer got to the other side of the manor,” Jo said.

Blanche nodded. “I’ll check it out. You stay here.”

“Not a chance.”

Blanche sighed, then grabbed a flashlight from a nearby drawer. They walked cautiously down the stairs and found themselves at the start of a narrow tunnel.

“Creepy,” Jo said.

“Let’s go quietly. We don’t know who else might know about this passageway.”

Jo nodded and followed closely as Blanche led the way. The space was tight, and they both had to crouch down a little, and in the darkness Blanche had grabbed Jo’s arm to make sure that Jo didn’t fall too far behind and get lost in the dark. Jo’s heartbeat raced a little, only partly from the sense of danger.

After a long curving walk, they found a stairwell going up. They walked up slowly, careful to not make the wooden steps creak too loudly.

Suddenly, when they were just a few steps from the end, they heard voices.

Jo turned to say something, but Blanche had clamped her hand onto Jo’s mouth, her eyes clearly warning that they had better be completely silent.

They listened, Blanche’s hand staying on Jo’s lips, and realized that it was Mr. Green talking on the phone. He was complaining that it was all for nothing, that the inheritance wasn’t headed his way after all. Their eyes widened, and they leaned closer to each other. Jo tried to hold her tighter then, but her foot slipped and made a loud clomp on the stair.

Silence, then, and for a second Jo was terrified that Mr. Green was going to open the passage door and try to kill them. But instead they heard a clamor of something dropping and footsteps running away. Blanche ran up the rest of the stairs, with Jo close behind, and pushed at the wall panel.

It opened out onto the Lounge. On the floor was a bag, spilled, with a large brass candleholder sticking out of it. The candleholder was stained with blood.

“That’s Mr. Green’s luggage,” Blanche confirmed.

“He must be trying to escape. He knows he’s caught,” Jo said, and they looked at each other. Without saying a word, they ran toward the garage.

They got there just as Mr. Green was loading something into the trunk. Jo ran just a little faster and tackled Mr. Green to the ground, but Mr. Green immediately sat up and pushed Jo, hard. Luckily, Blanche came up behind him, put Mr. Green in a chokehold, and in a few seconds he was on the ground unconscious.

“Are you all right?” Blanche said, rushing over to Jo and helping her up.

“Yeah, fine. That was… wow. You’re a total badass. I didn’t know you could do that.”

Blanche let out a sigh of relief. Then she smirked a little at Jo. “You have no idea the kinds of things that I can do.”

With all the adrenaline still rushing through her blood, it took Jo a long second to realize that Blanche, at long last, was finally flirting back. She grinned and leaned in for a slow, sweet kiss. “I plan to find out.”

“After we call the police,” Blanche pointed out.

“Of course. Justice comes first. But Blanche?”

“Yes?”

“You actually do have lots of dirty books somewhere in that library, don’t you.”

Blanche narrowed her eyes, but smiled. “Of course I do, dear. And maybe one day you’ll figure out where.”