" I was wondering if you read the book," Margaret asked Kathleen as they made their way to Doris house,
" I had no time. I had to watch my grand babies while Ophelia and Jackson went on a booze cruise to Mexico," Kathleen explained.
Margaret shook her head, " Are those two ever going to stop? How many times have they dumped the babies on you so they could party like they are college students."
Kathleen waved her hand, " Oh, this is only the third time they have gone away and left me with the kids. I don't mind. Give me some time to spend with my grand kids.
They arrived at Doris' house. A two story, yellow house with a painted white porch. A large apple tree grew in the front yard. All of its apples had fallen off the branches.
Kathleen rang the doorbell. A woman who looked as elderly as Kathleen with her bushy white hair, and sagging skin opened the door. Doris had this grim look on her face. Kathleen had not expected everyone to be happy. After all, today was going to be their first book club meeting without Theo. Theo, the fourth and final member of their book club, had passed away a week ago. Her heart problem finally got her.
" Girls, I am glad you could make it," Doris said.
" We wouldn't want you to go through this alone," Margaret said as she placed a sympathetic hand on Doris' shoulders.
" We all miss Theo," Kathleen said, sounding downhearted.
Doris stepped aside. She took Margaret and Kathleen jackets, and placed them in a closet. Kathleen started sneezing.
" Sorry, I could not stand to clean. I forgot about your sensitive dust allergy," Doris said apologetically.
" No problem," Kathleen said reassuringly. She sneezed again. She grabbed a tissue from her purse, and blew her nose. Everyone went to the living room, where cups of tea sat in a circle around a present. The present was wrapped in a wrapping paper with clowns on it.
" Who's the gift for," Kathleen asked.
" I got it from Theo. She must have mailed it to me before she died," Doris explained.
" Oh Theo, she always thought about everyone." Margaret whimpered as she sat down with everyone.
" What do you think is in it?" Kathleen asked.
" I don't know. I haven't opened it. The note that came with it said not to open it until the next club meeting," Doris explained. She took out a message from her purse, and passed it around the room. Margaret showed Kathleen the note. It was a handwritten message, instructing Doris to wait until the club gathered. The message then said to think about the day that Doris' prized book was stolen.
" Prized book?" Margaret said she did not know what Theo meant.
" You know, the one that had disappeared. Her first edition copy of Nancy Drew: Secret of the Old Clock," Kathleen reminded her friend.
" You mean the one that was stolen," Margaret asked.
" Now you got it," Kathleen answered.
" It was the only thing that could have happened to the book," Doris chimed in. She thought back to that very day. It was a scorching, hot summer day. Also a very important day, since it was the first day the book club was going to meet. Theo had arrived, looking beautiful, they had all looked beautiful in their forties. Doris did not entertain guests that much, but she was so excited for the book club that she had cleaned every nook and cranny of her home. She had also been eager to show the girls her prized possession. So she took everyone up to her bedroom. Sitting on a bookshelf was a first edition copy of Nancy Drew: Secret of the Old Clock. The old book had been the very first book Doris had added to an array of mystery novels. All the girls had been interested in it. They had talked about how Doris acquired the book. The story was nothing special. Doris had found it at a used book store, and bought it. That was it.
To Doris' horror, she had been so caught up in cleaning the house, that she had never gotten around to cleaning her bedroom. Doris remembered blowing the dust off the cover jacket of the book. Kathleen had started sneezing wildly and that was when she confessed to having a dust allergy. After a few more sneezes from Kathleen everyone had gone downstairs to enjoy some tea. Since this was their first official meeting, all the girls did was get to know each other. Back then Theo had been newly engaged to a man named Dick. A tall, handsome guy who loved Theo as much as Theo loved him. Doris never admitted it, but she had always secretly been jealous of that love. She had a fiance before, but they always got cold feet and called off the wedding. As a result of so much rejection, Doris grew old and unmarried. She did not need no man, when she still had her friends.
It was after the meeting that Doris had discovered the book was missing. She called each of the girls, asking if any one of them had it. Nobody admitted anything. Doris thought that maybe at some point during the day she had misplaced the book. Years went by, and she still did not find the book.
" Hmm, I think we should accept the challenge," Kathleen declared.
" What challenge?" Margaret asked.
" The one in the note. Clearly Theo is challenging us to try and solve the mystery. Just like the detectives in one of our books. We should try it. It's The last gift to us."
" Our brains are not the one aging. Mine is still sharp as a tack. Maybe even sharper than that. We should take on the challenge," Doris agreed with Kathleen. Her wrinkled lips formed a grin, the first emotion besides sadness Doris had shown all day.
" Alright, let me think," Margaret squinted her eyebrows as she thought long and hard about what had gone on the day Doris' book went missing.
" Alright, If I remember correctly we all had sat down for tea. No one was conversing with each other. So Theo had started talking about how she was engaged to Dick and showing off her ring. Doris, who used to get easily jealous of any woman who was married, had walked off. I knew that she had gone to her bedroom, the room where the book was located. I remember because I heard her footsteps, and they had sounded like they were coming from Doris bedroom.
" I have always been jealous of Theo's relationship with Dick. I wish I was not always so jealous back then," Doris confessed.
" She understood," Kathleen told Doris.
Doris shook her head slowly, " Does not matter if she understood or not. I shouldn't have been petty. I should have been happy for Theo.
Margaret continued talking, " Anyhow, when Doris got back we all had asked her why she had seemed so on edge. Doris was reluctant, but we got her to open up to us. After a half hour of Doris spewing about her most recent failed engagement, I had gone to the kitchen to refill my tea cup. I took my sweet time getting back. I had been gone for ten, fifteen minutes tops I think.
Kathleen started to speak, " Just before Margaret had come back, I had left to find a bathroom. Doris was crying by then, so I did not ask where her bathroom was. I finally found the bathroom upstairs. I must have been close to dust, because I came back and was sneezing up a storm.
Margaret frowned, " I remember I got a booger on my cheek when you said bye to me."
Kathleen chuckled, " I remember how horrified you were."
" I think you even squealed," Doris said, still smiling.
" I deny that there was any squealing involved," Margaret said, her nose pointed toward the ceiling.
" I remember that Theo also had to use the bathroom. She had been gone for ten minutes."
All the ladies were stumped. At the end of the day, everyone had the opportunity to steal the book.
" Can anyone remember anything? Remember, anything small could be vital," Kathleen said.
" I thought I had heard another pair of footprints heading into the bedroom at some point. I did not pay much attention to it," Margarett said.
" Nope," was all Kathleen said.
" Honestly, I do not remember many exact details about that day," Doris said. All the girls sighed. There was nothing more tediously frustrating than a mystery with no solution. Although it was possible that maybe Doris had misplaced the book, and had forgotten where it was.
Everyone pondered the mystery for a good two hours, before finally Kathleen said " Oh hell, all three of us will be dead before this mystery is solved. Kathleen wants us to have whatever the present is. Let's just open it.
Doris and Margaret agreed. Kathleen tore open the wrapping paper. Then she opened up the cardboard box. Inside the box was a book called Death Autograph, by Marianne MacDonald.
" Look," Doris pointed at a yellow sticky note on the back of the book. She slowly peeled it off. She looked at the message on the sticky note. It read " Please read each chapter of this delightful mystery. You'll need to read it, one sneeze at a time to solve the mystery." It was followed by a picture of a winking face.
At first, Doris thought the note was nothing more than a little joke. Then something clicked in her old mind. Something that she had not spotted in years. Honestly, she was surprised she never thought about it before.
" Why were you sneezing so much on that day," Doris asked Kathleen.
" What?" Kathleen asked, looking at Doris quizzically.
" The day my book went missing, you were sneezing wildly."
" Yeah, because you blew dust in my direction," Kathleen pointed out.
" I am talking about when you came back from the bathroom."
" You where sneezing a lot than too," Margaret agreed with Doris.
" So I was sneezing too. Why are you asking about my sneezing?" Kathleen asked.
" You were sneezing like you had a feather tickling your nose. You only sneeze that much when you've been around dust," Doris said in a factual voice.
" There was probably dust in the bathroom."
Doris slowly shook her head, " I remember that I had worked my butt off cleaning every room in the house because I worried about what you girls would think about me. I cleaned every room in the house but one."
Everyone looked at Kathleen, as if they expected some explanation. Kathleen looked down at her own two feet. She sighed " I am sorry Doris. I know how much that book meant to you. Back then I barely knew you, and did not think too much. I got greedy, and just had to have that book to add to my own collection. I saw an opportunity while searching for the bathroom. I took the book, and hid it in my purse. I would have returned it, but I lost track of the book. I forgot about it until we discussed the theft today." Kathleen bowed her head, like she was ashamed of what she had done.
" Dear, we are all way too old to be holding grudges. I am not mad about the book. I stopped missing that thing two days after you took it?"
Kathleen smiled, " It took everyone years to know what happened. All except for Theo, I guess. She did call me once, and told me she knew that I took the book. She wanted to give me a chance to confess to you."
Margaret smiled, " You know, she was always the better detective of us all.