Harriet's "Reviewing" Circle Mysteries, #1
Harriet Klausner typed her name -- the perfect ending to her latest three-paragraph plot summary on Amazon. She clicked the "Preview Your Review" button, wondering for the 29,000th time why the button was there. Why on earth would anyone look at a review before submitting it? She clicked the "post your review" button, got the confirmation screen, clasped her hands together with glee. Time to "speed read" some more books.
"Eric," she said, raising her voice just a bit. "Can you bring me some books?"
"Not now, Mother. I'm busy listing the last bunch for sale on half.com," Eric said from the kitchen.
"Stanley," she said. "Go get me some more books."
No answer. Harriet glanced at the clock. It was 3AM. Stanley was probably asleep. He'd been up late practicing the latest play he was putting on with the neighborhood children. Harriet sighed. Now that school was out, Stanley and the kids would be practicing nearly every night. She'd have to retrieve her own boxes of books for the foreseeable future. With difficulty, she raised herself out of her favorite armchair and hobbled into the spare bedroom that served as a staging area for her "reviewing" activities.
Harriet reached through the door, figuring she'd just pick the first box her hands encountered and abscond with her prize back to the living room. Her hands met with nothing but air. Startled, she groped for the light switch, flipped it, blinked a few times. Her heart began to palpitate. She saw the guest bed, she saw the dresser, she saw the nightstand next to the bed. But where were all the boxes of books?
She picked her way through the cluttered living room, around stacks of advice books on pregnancy and marriage, around a pile of engaging epic fantasies, to get to the kitchen. Eric looked up from the computer, removed his earbuds.
"I gave you ONE job," Harriet said.
"Yeah, Mother. I know. I'm doing it."
"Argh! That's not what I meant! Where are all the books?"
"What books, Mother?"
"The new ones. The ones that publishers send me for free."
"Haven't been any lately."
"What?" Harriet sagged back against the wall.
"What I said. No deliveries lately."
"But I need to ‘REVIEW.’ That's what I do!"
"Well, I can't help you at 3AM, Mother."
"Ungrateful little --" But Eric had put his earbuds back in.
Harriet went back to the spare bedroom. Surely there were some books hiding in here somewhere. She walked over to the dresser, opened one of the drawers. Nothing. Opened the second drawer. Again, nothing. Panicked, she pulled the third drawer all the way out, turned it upside down, cast it aside on the floor when she found it, too, to be empty. She did the same with the fourth and fifth drawers. When it became apparent that the dresser wasn't hiding any advance review copies, Harriet turned around to stare at the bed.
Ten minutes later, her husband Stanley found her rolling on the floor next to the bed, tangled up in the comforter, clutching a small, dust-covered box of books from Harlequin tightly in her arms.
"It's 3:30 in the morning, Harriet," he said. "Come to bed."
"Books! I found books," Harriet said.
"I see that, dear."
"Must. 'Review.' Books."
"Well, at least let me help you up. You can't ‘review’ while you're lying on the floor."
Harriet cocked her head the way a dog might, upon hearing its name.
Stanley bent over, reached out a hand, touched the dusty package. Harriet shrieked, pulled it closer.
Stanley rolled his eyes. "Look, Harriet. I'm just going to take the box of books and put it on the nightstand. I'll help you up, and then you can have it back. You'll be able to see it the whole time."
"All right," Harriet said. Reluctantly, she let Stanley take the box. True to his word, he set it on the nightstand and reached out a hand to help her up. When she was finally upright once again, Stanley groaned and rested one hand against the wall, put the other on the small of his back.
Harriet grabbed the box, looked at Stanley, furrowed her brow. "Are you all right?"
"It's -- nothing," Stanley said. "Enjoy your books. I'm going back to bed."
Prize clutched in her arms, Harriet waddled back to the living room, Stanley all but forgotten. She plopped back into her favorite armchair, used a jagged fingernail to slit the tape on the box. Her nail clippers had been lost years ago, but really, who had time to clip her nails AND be Amazon's Number One Hall of Fame Reviewer?
Ah, the scent of unread books. Harriet couldn't get enough of it. She inhaled deeply, removed the first one from the box. Holding the book in her left hand, she flipped the pages with her right thumb, displaying a smooth skill that would've made a Vegas blackjack dealer jealous. She watched the page numbers in the upper right corner magically increase. And -- done! Harriet looked at the clock. Nine seconds -- a personal best. Time to "write" a "review."
With the Harlequin paperback in one hand, Harriet stepped over a pile of fast-paced police procedurals, skirted around a mountain of cozy mysteries featuring plucky amateur sleuths, and side-stepped a tumbling stack of paranormal romances to arrive at her computer chair. She double-clicked the DragonDictate icon on her desktop, flipped the book over, and began to speak. Three paragraphs, one RELISH, a couple of still fans, two "years old" errors, and one SUB-GENRE later, she declared herself done. She chose the blue "e" from her Start Menu and up popped Amazon.com.
Harriet typed the book's title into Amazon's search box. She didn't get any hits. She tried again. Still nothing. She balled up her fists and frowned.
She heard something in the kitchen. Eric must've taken a break from his half.com listing duties.
"Eric," she said, "come here. Now."
"Yes, Mother." He sounded impudent. She'd have to talk to him about that at some point. But who had time, with all these books to "review?"
Eric materialized at Harriet's side. "What is it, Mother?"
"Help me find this book on Amazon. I typed the title but it won't show up."
Eric glanced at the book cover, then squinted to get a better look at the screen. "Well, no wonder. You spelled it wrong. That word? It's supposed to be 'rescue,' not 'recuse.'"
"Don't get smart with me."
"You asked for my help." Eric looked at Harriet for a moment, then shrugged. "Never mind. I'll just find the page for you."
Eric's search was successful. "I'm going to bed now," he said.
"But I'll have more books to list on half.com in a few minutes."
"I'll get to them tomorrow. Unlike some people in this house, I need sleep."
Loath as she was to admit it, Harriet needed sleep, too. Halfway through composing the "review" for the second of four books from the Harlequin box, she slumped forward over her keyboard.
Stanley and Eric found her there the next morning.
"Should we wake her?" Stanley asked, his voice barely audible.
"No," Eric said. "I'll walk the dogs and you feed the cats. Maybe she'll stay knocked out for a little while."
"I can suggest later that we watch a movie," Stanley said.
"Good idea. But she'll probably try to 'read' and 'review' while the movie is playing."
"Not if it stars Harry Reems."
"Do you have any idea how disgusting it is to think about your own mother watching that stuff?" Eric asked.
"Listen, do you want to keep her busy for awhile or don't you? I haven't seen any packages coming lately and neither have you. Now that I'm retired, I don't have the funds to buy all the books she wants."
"Doesn't the Vine e-mail come out today?" Eric asked.
Stanley's eyes lit up. "It does. Late Harvest, too. I want you to get online and choose every single book that's available."
Eric nodded. "Will do." He cast a sideways glance at Harriet. She murmured something unintelligible but didn't move.
Eric returned from walking the dogs to find Harriet up and about. Was she -- actually MOVING books out of the way? He could see the sofa for the first time in twelve years. He just stood there staring, mouth open.
"Hello, Eric," Harriet said.
"Hello, Mother. Um, what's -- what's going on?"
"Oh. I've invited a few friends over."
"You've WHAT?" The Klausner household hadn't entertained guests since October of 1999. He put his hand out, intending to catch the wall and steady himself. Unfortunately for Eric, what he actually made contact with was a stack of hardcover zombie novels. The stack gave way, and Eric fell with it.
Harriet didn't seem to notice either Eric's fall or the giant cloud of dust it raised. "I've invited a few friends over. We're going to solve a MYSTERY."
Eric stood up, dusted himself off. "You're going to solve a mystery."
"That's what I said."
"What mystery is that?"
"The mystery of the missing packages."
"Eric, are you dense? There are no more packages in the spare bedroom. I intend to find out why."
"Eric, where are you going?"
"I -- I promised I'd help Dad build sets for the play." He hadn't, but he wanted to get the heck out of the house before these "guests" arrived. Any excuse would do.
A few more minutes and Harriet declared her cleaning complete. It would be 7 PM when her guests arrived. Would they be expecting dinner? Well, that wouldn't be a problem. Harriet went to the hall closet and pulled out the TV trays. She put three in front of the sofa, one near the computer chair, and one in front of her favorite armchair. She caught a glimpse of her reflection in the hallway mirror.
"Better change clothes," she said to herself. "I know! I'll put on my black velour sweatsuit. With the pink t-shirt."
Dressed, with her hair pulled back, Harriet felt like a different person. Like the heroine of an engaging, entertaining chick lit mystery. No, make that an engaging, entertaining, CULINARY chick lit mystery. Harriet went out to the garage, knocked a stack of cookbooks out of the way, and rummaged through the deep freezer until she found five matching frozen dinners. Success.
Her guests had better appreciate her efforts. Cleaning, getting dressed, and a full 20 minutes of cooking, because try as she might, only one frozen dinner would fit in the microwave at a time.
Something was bothering her, though -- no packages had been delivered again today. Well, she and her "reviewing circle" would get to the bottom of it.
Harriet had just placed the last microwaved dinner on a TV tray when the doorbell rang. Beaming, she answered the door.
"Rebecca W., good to see you," she said.
"I'm not Rebecca W., I'm Dominique B."
"Whatever. Names aren't important. Come in. Who's that still sitting in your car out there?"
"There's no one sitting in my car. I -- I walked."
Harriet shrugged. There was a woman sitting in the car. The rest of the street was empty except for the large brown delivery truck parked out front.
Not fifteen seconds after the door closed, the doorbell rang again.
"Wait right here, Rebecca W.," Harriet said.
"I told you, I'm not Rebecca --"
Harriet opened the door again. The woman who had been in the car had gotten out and had come to the door. "Hello, Harriet," she said.
Harriet was puzzled. She looked at the newcomer, back at the previous arrival, then back at the newcomer again.
"I'm Rebecca W.," the newcomer said.
Harriet furrowed her brow. "You two look alike," she said.
"Pure coincidence," Rebecca W. said.
"Yeah. We've never met before," Dominique B. said.
"If you say so." Harriet shook her head as if to clear her thoughts. "Well, welcome to my home. I've prepared us a fabulous dinner of Salisbury steak, mashed potatoes and gravy, and carrots with peas."
The doorbell rang again. "The living room's that way." Harriet used her thumb to point back over her shoulder. Rebecca W. and Dominique B. disappeared from view. Harriet opened the door again. "You are?"
"Ellen, don't you remember? By the way, there's a pair of legs sticking out from behind your bushes."
Ellen carried a massive tote bag. Harriet could see the handle of a large pair of scissors poking up out of the bag. "Ellen. Right. Well, the living room is that way. And keep those scissors away from my books."
Ellen squeezed past Harriet -- hard to do, when both sides of the front hallway were lined with double stacks of books. The doorbell rang one final time.
"And you must be Diana," Harriet said when she answered the door.
"So kind of you to answer my e-mail."
"I'm glad to help out." She sniffed the air. "It smells a little strange out here. Did an animal die behind your bushes? Oh, by the way, I LOVE your reviews of cozy mysteries."
Harriet blushed and smiled. "Why, thank you."
"If you ever have any that you don't have time to get to, I'd be glad to --"
"I am a 'speed reader.' I always have time."
Diana and Harriet were silent for a moment, stared each other down. "Well, let's get to the business at hand, shall we?"
Diana nodded. She and Harriet joined the others in the living room.
Rebecca W. had, unfortunately, sat down in Harriet's favorite armchair. This would never do. Harriet approached the chair, put her hands on her hips. When Rebecca W. didn't immediately move, Harriet cleared her throat. Rebecca W. looked up. "Oh, this must be your favorite chair. I'm sorry. I'll just move to the sofa."
Harriet nodded. Dominique B. scooted to the very edge of the sofa; Rebecca W. plopped down in the center, leaving plenty of distance between herself and Dominique B.
Ellen poked at the microwave dinner with a fork.
Harriet, now ensconced in her armchair, clapped her hands. "Eat up!"
"Um, I hope you didn't go to any trouble just for us," Dominique B. said.
"It was nothing."
"You're so creative, Harriet. This looks just like a Swanson Hungry Man dinner from 1975," Rebecca W. said.
"Well, just between us, it IS a Swanson Hungry Man dinner from the 1970s. Can't be sure of the year, though," Harriet said.
Diana, who'd been chewing on a bite of Salisbury steak, began to choke. Rebecca W. slapped her on the back a few times. A brown chunk flew from her mouth and landed in the middle of the floor. A cat darted out from behind a stack of tender Amish family dramas to sniff at the morsel, then attempted to bury the nearly four-decade-old beef by furiously brushing the carpet with its front paws. This was followed by the entrance of a small dog, which sniffed the regurgitated meat, lifted its leg, and let loose a stream of urine.
"Aren't you going to clean that up?" Dominique B. asked.
"Eh, it didn't get on any of the books," Harriet said. She took another mouthful of mashed potatoes. "This could use some seasoning. Anybody else care for some RELISH?" She looked from face to face, got a couple of polite head shakes. She stood. "Well, I want some relish. I'll be right back." Harriet disappeared into the next room.
"What on earth are we doing here?" Rebecca W. asked.
"I don't know, Rebecca W.," Dominique B. said.
"Why are you two pretending not to know each other?" Diana asked. "We all know you're mother and daughter."
"We're not pretending not to know each other," Rebecca W. said. "We've always been open about our relationship."
"In fact, we wrote a book together. We've even reviewed each other's books on Amazon," Dominique B. said.
"You know that's against the rules, right?" Diana said.
"Oh, don't worry about it. Midwest Book Review is a much worse offender," Ellen said. It was difficult to see her sitting over at the computer chair. A peculiar sound came from her direction -- like a pair of scissors cutting paper.
Harriet returned, lugging the biggest jar of pickle relish any of her guests had ever seen. "Stanley bought it for me at Costco. Two gallons. I hope it's enough." The jar was half-full. Harriet sat back down in her armchair, unscrewed the lid of the jar, and poured relish straight from the jar all over her TV dinner. She put the lid back on, set the jar down, and dug into her meal with renewed vigor. Dominique B. gagged just watching Harriet.
"So, Harriet, why did you bring us here?" Diana asked.
Harriet dropped her fork. "What is that sound?"
"What sound?" Ellen asked.
Harriet stood so abruptly that her relish-laden Hungry Man dinner slid off her TV tray and onto the floor. She turned towards Ellen and pointed. "THAT sound."
"Oh, that?" Ellen asked. "I'm making altered books."
"You're doing WHAT?"
"Making altered books." Ellen held up a hardcover novel out of which she'd created a clever scene by clipping out sections of pages to form three-dimensional figures.
Harriet clasped her chest, fell back into her chair. "I'm having cardiac arrest."
"It's just a book," Ellen said. "You get tons of free ones. What's the big deal?"
"Get out," Harriet said. "All of you, just get out."
Dominique B. shrugged. "All right."
One by one, Harriet's guests followed a path between stacks of puzzle books, college guides, and health reference manuals to escape the living room. Harriet reserved a particularly nasty stare for Ellen.
Harriet heard the door open, happened to turn her head to the right, saw flashing red and blue lights. What was this? She struggled out of her armchair once again and walked to the door, tripping over a pile of action-packed, futuristic science fiction and medieval Scottish romances and having to steady herself against a precarious stack of middle school books.
Eric and Stanley stood on the doorstep, talking to a police officer. Two paramedics guided a stretcher with a body bag on it down the sidewalk. "What's going on?" she asked.
"Evening, ma'am," the officer said. "It appears the UPS man had a heart attack and died during an attempt to deliver packages to you. Can you tell me if you saw or experienced anything unusual in the past couple of days?"
"I didn't get my books."
Harriet pointed to her chest. "I am Amazon's Number One Hall of Fame Reviewer. I 'review' books. Only, I didn't get enough of them this week."
"Didn't get enough of them?" the officer asked. "Do you mean the publishers send you advance copies?"
"You know you're supposed to disclose that, right? Per FTC guidelines and Amazon rules."
"Disclosure is for chumps," Harriet said. She craned her neck to look out the door and behind the bushes.
"Aha!" she said. "Books!" She was surprisingly nimble as she sprang behind the bushes. When she stood up, she was holding three boxes. "Not even damp. Eric, you'll have some listing to do in the morning."
"Don't you even care that the UPS man died in front of your house and you didn't notice for days?" the police officer asked.
But Harriet didn't care. Harriet had her ARCs. And that was all that mattered.
Note: names have NOT been changed to protect the innocent.
Rebecca W. and Dominique B.
Diana (and again and again)
Stanley's plays with elementary school children