The residents of Caroline, nicknamed the Peaceful Valley, has eagerly anticipated the arrival of hometown superstar Astrid Stone. She is on a national tour with fellow singer Ruth Phillips, who escaped from a fundamentalist polygamist compound, and is trying to raise money to help other young women and men to escape from cults and supremacy groups. The community hopes the concert will be the start of a new spring tradition.
Those hopes are dashed when Astrid disappears before the concert starts, and a burned body is found inside her obliterated car. Ruth is afraid for her own life when the murder looks like members of her former cult carried out the dark deed, and superstitious townsfolk fear Ruth’s former ties to fundamentalists may have sparked the resurrection of the Posse Comitatus, a dark chapter in Shawano County’s history that took root in a nearby village.
When two more people are found dead, it becomes clear to Zachary Gagewood that someone is trying to sow seeds of fear and hatred in Caroline. To find the killer, though, Zachary will need to figure out if the deed was carried out by one person or a sinister organization.
Gwendolen ripped open the box to reveal an array of books. She sighed with satisfaction. Zachary knew how she must have been feeling right then. She was about to open the doors of her very own bookstore, and there was nothing like opening boxes containing your first inventory.
Gwendolen had previously been Zachary’s employee with The Literary Barn, a modest bookstore he operated in Gresham, a village of about six hundred people in the heart of Wisconsin. Gwendolen had been very ambitious, eager to expand the bookstore’s presence, and came up with the idea last summer of setting up a book booth at the Shawano County Fair. The booth was such a success that she decided maybe it was time to open her own bookstore.READ MORE
With Zachary’s help, Gwendolen had been able to secure a couple of small business loans and decided to open her Tavern of Tomes in Caroline, an unincorporated community located near the southern border of Shawano County. Caroline, also known as Peaceful Valley, was only a couple of miles from a major U.S. highway and seemed ideal for a new bookstore. It was far enough away to not compete with Zachary’s shop but close enough that he could lend a hand in a pinch. Zachary was taking a few days off from his shop to help Gwendolen launch hers.
“So where do these go?” Zachary asked.
“The top box goes with the travel section, and the other one goes with the historical non-fiction.” Gwendolen shivered. “I’ll sure be glad when the folks from Johnson Heating and Cooling get here. I don’t relish the idea of having to give out hand warmers when I throw open the doors this weekend.”
“It happens to everyone. My first day with The Literary Barn, Gresham was besieged by mayflies, and the customers couldn’t stay inside for more than two minutes without waving their hands like a spasmodic swordsman. Needless to say, things got better. If a chill in the air is the worst thing you have to contend with, you’ll be just fine.”
“I hope so. My hormones seem so out of whack right now. I keep shifting from feelings of ‘Wow! I’m opening my own business’ to ‘What the freakin’ hell was I thinking? This venture’s going to go down in flames!’ I haven’t gotten much sleep since I signed the lease for this building a few days ago.”
Zachary smiled. “That’s perfectly normal. If you weren’t nervous about starting your own business, I’d consider you to be a complete and utter fool.”
“I’m just wondering if I picked the right time to open the bookstore, with this weekend also being the start of Peaceful Valley Dayz. We’re going to have horse lovers here, herds of riders wandering across the countryside. How many of them are going to be reading and riding?”
“As I recall, you had a similar concern when we set up that booth at the county fair—who was going to buy a book when you had animals and midway rides competing against you? Lo and behold, that was a success, and that was your idea. I have no doubt you can pull this off, and how often have I been proven wrong?”
“Tell him ‘Never,’ or we’ll be here until hell freezes over.” Kevin poked his head up behind the shelves of the romantic fiction section. “Take it from me, his ginormous brain has explored every contingency, especially the ones that we mere mortals could never come up with.”
Kevin was Zachary’s best friend and another colleague at The Literary Barn. The two guys had grown up together in New London, and Kevin helped Zachary get his bookstore off the ground six years ago. While there were days that the two wanted to throttle each other, they also had the other’s back whenever times got rough.
Zachary stuck his tongue out in reaction to Kevin’s remarks. “Tell me again why I brought you along on this trip.”
“Because your honey had to work, and you needed Alexander and Laura to manage your shop while you played good deed doer.” Kevin stuck a book in one of the shelves. “Also, you promised to buy me lunch.”
Zachary bit his lip. “Gwen, is there actually any place to eat around here? I’ve been in Caroline for the fall colors and their big parade in October, but not much else.”
“The folks over at the American Legion make some decent chow.” Gwendolen took out an antique pocket watch her grandmother had given her. “It’s almost noon now. They should be opening for guests. We can walk over. It’s less than a quarter-mile away.”
“Okay. I guess these books can wait until after lunch.” Zachary grabbed his jacket. “I don’t know about you two, but I’m definitely ready for spring. Snowstorms every other day for the last three months can really grate on my nerves.”
“It has been a wet winter. On the bright side, it hasn’t been subzero temperatures.” Gwendolen shivered before grabbing her coat. “Those I can live without.”
The front door opened, and a lady with blond hair wearing a black coat stepped inside, holding what looked like posters. She set one on the counter.
“This needs to go in your window,” the woman said to Zachary.
Zachary shrugged. “Um, actually, I don’t run this place, but I’m pretty sure you need to ask the owner if she’d like to put the poster up instead of telling her.”
The woman turned to Gwendolen. “If you don’t put this up in your window, you’ll be the only business that doesn’t, and that might not look good for a new business owner to act like she’s too good for the community.”
Gwendolen glanced over at Zachary, looking like she could use some guidance. Zachary shook his head and folded his arms. Gwendolen turned her attention back to the woman.
“Do you have a name, ma’am?”
The woman sneered. “Serena. Serena Stone.”
“Well, Serena. I’m sure once the sign goes up, people will know this is a bookstore, and as such, we read things before we decide if they go up, so you can show your attitude and make your threats all you want. I’ll decide if I’m going to put it up once I read it. Now you enjoy your day.”
Serena’s jaw dropped, as though no one had ever spoken to her that way before, and she left in a huff. Zachary’s jaw had also dropped, but that was because he was impressed with how far Gwendolen had come from the shy, little clerk who used to call him “sir” and “boss” all the time.
Zachary smiled. “That confirms it. You’re going to be just fine.”
Gwendolen giggled. “That did feel good. Now I know why you give obnoxious people the strong shoulder.”
“You have to do it sometimes to keep people from assuming you’re a doormat. You try to be kind, but there are some folks who only understand the words ‘Kiss my ass.’”
“You got your first bitch, and you aren’t even open yet,” Kevin chimed in. “It took Zach more than a week before he got some harpy who wanted to bite his head off, and he eviscerated her.”
“‘Eviscerated’ is such a harsh word. Accurate, but harsh.”
Kevin grabbed the poster. “What’s on this thing that caused that lady to go into Brunhilda mode? Is it some loyalty talisman or something?”
Gwendolen glanced at it. “Oh! It’s a poster announcing the big concert Caroline is having this weekend. Astrid Stone, that local gal who made it onto that musical competition TV series, American Songbird, is coming back to town to help usher in Peaceful Valley Dayz.” She glanced at the door. “That must have been Astrid’s mother or something. You know, if she’d asked me instead of barking at me like a junkyard dog, I’d have been only too happy to put the poster up.”
“Well, I say we go eat before any other rabid family members come in.”
“Amen to that,” Zachary agreed, knowing he wanted to get as much work done as possible today so he could go home and see his sweetheart, Newell. This was one week where their schedules hadn’t meshed at all, and this was the only night they would both be home.
Gwendolen took a whiff of the cool air as she stepped outside. “I’m glad this is finally happening, and the timing is awesome. Spring is a time of rebirth of much of nature, and having a new business come into existence at that time is a good omen.”
Kevin chuckled. “Zach, she sounds like you did, only you were talking about how summer was the best time to open a business.”
Zachary shrugged. “I was right, wasn’t I?”
“So, Gwendolen, have you figured out if you’re going to hire anyone to help you out, or are you planning to run the place on your own?”
“I’m just going to be open nine to five Tuesday through Friday and ten to seven on Saturday,” Gwendolen replied. “I might give it a month or two and see if business picks up to warrant hiring an assistant. Zach said he’d be cool with lending Laura out if things really picked up quickly, but I’d be responsible for paying her.”
Zachary added, “I’m also putting a link to Tavern of Tomes’ website on The Literary Barn’s main page. While there are two different owners for the bookstores, there is no reason that would preclude us from being partners.”
“Here we are.” Gwendolen pointed to a yellow metal building with a sign that said, “American Legion” over one of the doors. A steady stream of people walked through the door. It appeared to be quite the happening place.
The Legion served up lunch buffet style. Zachary noticed a sign that said the buffet lunch was only available on Tuesdays and Fridays, with sack lunches being offered on Wednesdays and Thursdays. Zachary noticed the distinct odor of baked chicken and mashed potatoes with garlic. He grabbed a tray and prepared to load up his plate.
“Good afternoon.” A young and chiseled member of the Legion stepped up with a tray of chicken to replace a nearly empty one. “I don’t believe I’ve seen you here before. Are you new to town?”
Zachary shook his head. “No. I’m just helping a friend get her business open.”
The man’s face brightened. “Oh? There’s a new business here? I didn’t know that. What kind of business is your friend opening?”
“A bookstore.” Gwendolen popped her head into view. “Hi, I’m Gwendolen Monroe. I’m moving into the old Norwahl building.”
“Really? I was wondering if that building was ever going to be occupied by anything. How are things going so far?”
“Pretty well. We open this Saturday, if you’d like to come see what we have.”
“I would love that. I enjoy reading books, but it’s not easy to get them locally. I know there’s a shop up around Gresham, but I don’t really get up that way much.”
“Well, I definitely look forward to serving your needs and the needs of others. We have thousands of books in stock, and if there’s something you want that’s not in stock, I can usually have it here in a few days.”
Zachary beamed. He’d taught his protégé well.
“So, tell me, Gwendolen, what made you decide to open a bookstore out her in Caroline?” the Legion member asked as Zachary and Kevin exited the buffet line. Zachary figured it was better to let Gwendolen do her own marketing without any interference from him. Besides, he was starving, as opening a new business took a lot out of a person.
Kevin sat down at a table and pointed to a flyer in the window advertising the concert. “Well, it looks like Mrs. Stone has been here already. Hopefully she doesn’t decide to pop back in for lunch.”
Zachary poured himself a glass of water from a pitcher on the table. “I doubt it. Her kind mainly feeds at night, and her prey would likely require blood.”
“Didn’t stop her from popping into Gwen’s shop like Bride of Dracula.”
“You know, you’ve got a point.”COLLAPSE