BY: LILY CHARLES
Based in Atlanta, Georgia the world of antiquarian and collectible bookselling is exposed as a hotbed of collectors and booksellers who will do almost anything to score that perfect collectible book. Emma and Molly find themselves in the middle of both a murder, and an occult cult, as they pursue their work and each other in a delightfully twisted, intriguing puzzle.
“A fun, lightweight read for mystery fans that will also keep occultists and bibliophiles happy.” — KIRKUS
“Murder at the Estate Sale is a delightful cozy mystery thanks to Molly and Emma’s reckless, brave aplomb.” — Karen Rigby
“Murder at the Estate Sale, a charming adventure for lovers of books and bibliomysteries, is the debut of two engaging and fresh characters, Molly O’Donnell and Emma Clarke, both book sellers. Set in Atlanta, the protagonists take us on an exciting, educational and romantic ride through the antiquarian book scene.”
—Trudy Nan Boyce, author of The Policeman’s Daughter, Old Bones, and Out of the Blues
“Lily Charles has written a charming debut mystery set in the world of antiquarian and collectible bookselling in the hub of the South in Atlanta, Georgia. Two women booksellers team up to solve the murder of a book thief, only to find themselves in the middle of a black magic cult. As in Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs Series, you’ll peek into the underbelly of the human desire for power and learn something new about bookselling along the way.” — Lynn Hesse, author of Another Kind of Hero and Well of Rage
Arthur Edward Waite, The Brotherhood of the Rosy Cross, 1924, red with gilt Rosy Cross on cover, spine with gilt lettering, sixteen full-page plates. History and discussion of Rosicrucianism, alchemy, symbolism, and myth.
Molly wasn’t a morning person, not by a long shot, but for a book sale, she could jump out- of bed before the dew dried. The announcement had read, “Estate sale of nonagenarian, tons of books including children’s, cookbooks, leather, and a signed first edition of Gone with the Wind.” Molly knew that antique dealers as well as book dealers would be lining up for Gone with the Wind. Not her, though: she’d be checking out the rest of the tonnage. And she’d had good luck in the Sherwood Forest area of Atlanta.
As soon as she turned onto Friar Tuck Way, she saw a line of vans pulled up along the street. Please let me be in the first twenty-five, she wished. The women who ran these estate sales only let twenty-five people in at a time. Since Scott’s Antique Market was this weekend, more dealers than usual were in town.
Hurrying down the driveway in front of the yellow brick ranch house, she saw a knot of dealers. The usual suspects, she thought, walking up behind Harry and Jay, two dealers she’d known for years. “Hi, guys.”
“Molly!” Jay exclaimed, bouncing from one foot to the other. He beamed, his reddish hair standing on end. Never still, he reminded Molly of a squirrel in the road.
Harry stooped to put an arm around Molly in a lazy embrace. She had to stretch up to hug his bulky shoulders. He wore a thin, faded black T-shirt, and his graying ponytail was pulled back with an elastic band with a turquoise and silver ornament. Harry and Jay owned a store together: Blind Tiger Books.
Jay was exclaiming over his latest sale. “I paid a hundred bucks for an Andy Warhol broadside, bidding at 4:00 a.m. on eBay, and sold it recently for twenty-five hundred.”
Molly counted the people in front of her. “Who’s ahead of me?”
“Me,” said a dealer standing by Jay. “And I’m after him.” He pointed to Harry.
Good, she thought. I’m eleventh in line, not too far behind Harry and Jay.
A short, dark-haired woman came down the walk, pulling a rolling cart behind her. Molly remembered seeing her at the St.Pete book fair. Then she groaned. Buck Hubbell, wearing a wide-shouldered, tan travel jacket and carrying several tote bags, trotted behind the woman, trying to overtake her so he’d be ahead in line.
As the woman came up behind her, Molly said, “Hi. I’m Molly. I think we met in St. Pete, but I don’t remember your name.” She put out her hand, and the woman shook it, her hand cold as a Creamsicle.
“Emma Clarke.” She dropped Molly’s hand and quickly stepped sideways closer to Molly, pulling her rolling cart in front of her and thus cutting off Buck, who had tried to push between them. He scowled and stood close behind Emma, clutching his empty tote bags.
“Hmmpf,” he said to no one in particular, sniffing. “I smell dog.”
Molly ignored him. He didn’t have much room to talk, considering that he reeked of garlic and onions as if his sweat glands were working overtime.
She turned her attention back to Emma. Female sellers were rare, so she was happy to meet her. “St. Pete your first book fair?”
“Yes. I’ve been collecting for years, and after looking around my house and deciding that they were taking over, I decided it was time to make room—for more books.”
Molly laughed. “I think a lot of us start out as collectors.”
Buck wandered to the house to look in the windows. Molly said in an undertone, “Watch out for that guy, he’s a known book thief.”
“A book thief?”
Molly nodded. “Buck Hubbell. I call him Bucky Burglar. He’s a pain at library sales. He’ll dig under tables when it’s not allowed, and I’ve seen him go behind bookstore counters. In fact, he’s been banned from some of Atlanta’s finest bookstores.”
“Why don’t they ban him from estate sales?”
“People that run estate sales don’t necessarily know about what goes on in the world of bookselling. It’s a totally different world.”
More people were arriving: retired couples who sold antiques as a hobby, book scouts who would sell their finds to bookstores, owners of antique stores, dealers who traveled to antique fairs, and curious neighbors of the ninety-year-old book collector.
Two elderly women arrived in a vintage Cadillac. Joyce, in an ivory pantsuit, helped Maisie out of the car and got her walker from the back. Maisie, gleaming white hair in a pixie cut and wearing a brocade pink jacket and long, pink crepe skirt, proceeded slowly towards the house. The dealers in line drew back to let the women pass.
“Need help?” asked a man in a tweed jacket who stood by the door. Michael was an engineer who frequented the sales.
“Naw, I’m fine,” drawled Maisie. “Seems like I been like this forever, but I keep on goin’.” But she accepted his elbow, let him take the walker, and leaned on him to go up the three steps. She disappeared into the house behind her walker.
“That’s Joyce and Maisie, who run these estate sales,” murmured Molly to Emma.
“I’m new to estate sales. How do they work?”
“Well, you have to stand in line in the order you arrived. Everyone here knows that and will tell you to move back if you try to get in ahead of them. When the door opens precisely at ten o’clock, they let in twenty-five people at a time and then shut the door.”
“Do they ever let anyone in early?”
“Never! Not even in snow and sleet. Once you get in, make a mad dash to where the books are. They may be all over the house, or in the library, the basement, or upstairs. If you see something you think you want, don’t hesitate. Grab first, examine later. That’s why it’s good to bring lots of tote bags.”
Emma nodded. “What kind of books are you interested in?”
“Occult, cookbooks, books about books, illustrated.”
“Occult? That’s astrology, witchcraft, stuff like that?” Emma raised an eyebrow.
“Right. Also spiritualism. I’ve got some Blavatsky, Annie Besant, and a beautiful illustrated volume on Rosicrucians by Arthur Waite. I even named one of my dogs Blavatsky.” Emma frowned. Molly wondered if it was because of Molly’s interest in occult or in reaction to the mention of a dog. “What do you sell?”
“Children’s, a few illustrated classics. So I overlap with you a bit.”
The door opened, and dealers started to file in, Molly and Emma among them. Maisie sat at a small table inside, counting them as they passed.
“Books?” Molly asked.
“Thirteen, to the left, and everywhere, fourteen, fifteen.”
Buck pushed past them both. Molly noticed that Emma stayed close behind her as she ran into the large library on the left. I hope she doesn’t stick to me like a burr, Molly thought. Making new friends was all very well, but once inside, it was everyone for herself. Other dealers were already pulling books off the ceiling-high shelves and stuffing them into their tote bags. Some had brought rolling carts, like Emma. Others created piles on the floor. Molly planted herself in front of a shelf and began filling her bags. Later she would check to see if they were first editions or signed.
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Emma kneeling at a low shelf and stuffing books into a large bag in her rolling cart, dark, gray-streaked hair screening her face. She’s cute, thought Molly. Then she scolded herself: she’s probably straight, with those shoes. Emma wore thin-soled ballet-type flats. Molly glanced down at her own all-terrain sandals with satisfaction. She saw a Mockingbird and drew in her breath. It was a first edition book club. Had a picture of the author on the back—photo by Truman Capote. She stuffed it into her bag. Quickly she scanned titles before anyone else invaded her section of the built-in shelves. She decided to look for cookbooks. Most of these older homes had a copy of Mrs. Dull’s Southern Cooking, a book she could always sell.
She stepped into the hallway, looking for more bookshelves, when she noticed a door, slightly ajar, with a sign reading: “Do Not Enter.” She felt a moment’s impulse to open it a little more and take a peek. But Jay trotted down the hall, his backpack bulging, so she turned away from the door. She started in the direction of the kitchen, intent on cookbooks, when she heard a muffled scream.
Molly jerked her head up as Emma Clarke burst through the door and collided with her. Molly gently disentangled herself from Emma, who seemed distraught. “What’s the matter? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
Emma shook her head. “No—not a ghost. The real thing—maybe someone’s dead—come look!”
The door led, as Molly had suspected, down to the basement. The steps were steep and not quite wide enough for the length of a foot. A bare bulb at the foot of the stairs gave a dim light. She followed Emma carefully, placing her sandals sideways and feeling with her hand on the rough framing and drywall, as there was no rail.
Molly reached the bottom of the stairs, took in a breath, and widened her eyes. She saw in front of her a floor to ceiling wall of shelves, full of books. “Wow,” she said under her breath.
“Look!” Emma urged, tugging at her sleeve.
Molly glanced down and gasped.
A man lay crumpled on the floor, a few feet away from the stairs, right in front of the shelves. On his back, he lay very still. His tan travel jacket was open, revealing many inside pockets, all filled with books. Books were spilling out of bags and more were scattered about. A dark pool was spreading out from under his head. Some of the books had been spattered.
“Oh, my god,” whispered Molly. “It’s Buck Hubbell!”
Emma nodded, pressing her hand over her mouth. She was breathing hard.
Molly’s first impulse was to rush to rescue the books from the dreadful, spreading puddle. With another part of her mind, she noticed that the basement was finished, with a concrete floor, that the shelves were metal and the books looked old, and that the air was not as damp as one might expect in a basement. Dehumidifier, she thought. This is a serious book-storage place.
“Do you think he’s, uh, still alive?” asked Emma, bringing her hand down from her mouth. “Should we check?”
Molly drew a deep breath and carefully stepped over the books, picking up some and putting them out of reach of the puddle. She pushed away other items scattered on the floor—a cellphone, a notepad, a pen—and squatted down next to the motionless man. She hesitated and lifted his outstretched hand. It was limp but still warm. She turned it over and placed the first two fingers of her left hand where his pulse should be. After a moment, she shook her head. “I don’t feel any pulse.” She thought, Oh, my god, all the times I had bad thoughts about him, and now he’s dead. She looked up. “What happened? I mean, how did you—” She couldn’t think of how to ask, what were you doing in the basement when the sign on the door clearly read “Do Not Enter”?
“I was in the hallway, and I heard what sounded like voices, people arguing. They seemed to be coming from behind the door. It was ajar, so I stopped to listen. At that moment, I heard a loud thud, and one of the voices went, ‘Uhhh!’ I pulled the door open and stepped down a few steps—the light was on—and I thought I heard footsteps. Then nothing. I called, ‘Is anything wrong?’ I looked around and saw—him—lying on the floor.”
Molly looked at her, eyes wide. “You just heard someone killing Buck.”
They stared at one another. Then, as though on cue, they both glanced around. Molly had a chilling thought: could the killer still be here?
No sound or movement. Pulling out their phones, they simultaneously dialed 911, but neither could get a signal. “That’s odd,” Emma said.
“We better tell Joyce and Maisie.” Molly started to get to her feet, but stopped. “Look. What’s that?” She pointed to a small, yellowed piece of paper that lay next to the man’s leg.
“Does it matter right now?” whispered Emma.
“I don’t know,” Molly said. “But—” She reached with care across the motionless figure on the floor, avoiding the puddle and the books, and carefully picked up the paper by one corner.
“We probably shouldn’t touch anything.”
Molly squinted, reading aloud slowly, “Whosoever readeth this boke without leave of the Circle, let him BEWARE. SF.’” She stood up, knees creaking. “Look, ‘BEWARE’ is in all caps, and the initials are written extra large.” She held out the fragile paper for Emma to see.
Emma peered at it. “Looks like Elizabethan or Jacobean script.” She touched the other woman’s shoulder. “Molly, please! Let’s go tell someone.”
Molly glanced around her, the paper in her fingers. Her heart wrenched at the sight of the blood-stained, splayed, crumpled volumes at her feet. She started to pick her way towards the stairs, but stopped when a disembodied, deep Southern drawl uttered, “No one is allowed down heah.”
They both jumped, and Emma gave a small shriek. “Help! Someone’s—hurt.”
Molly looked up toward the top of the stairs and saw Joyce in the doorway. “Joyce, call the police!” she yelled. As she spoke, she carefully slipped the paper into her tote bag and pushed it behind her.
“Wha-at?” said Joyce.
Emma said, “I think he’s dead.”
“What?” Joyce repeated. “Y’all come back up heah.” As they climbed the stairs, she stepped back just enough to let them through the door, then shut it firmly.
In the hallway, Molly tried her cell phone again. This time it worked. As she dialed 911, she heard Joyce say, “If people would just follow directions, things like this wouldn’t happen.”