Secret at Skull House
Secrets and Scrabble Book 2
by Josh Lanyon
Genre: M/M Cozy Mystery
Ellery Page is back–and poking his elegant nose into trouble again!
Unlike everyone else in Pirate’s Cove, Ellery Page, aspiring screenwriter, reigning Scrabble champion, and occasionally clueless owner of the village’s only mystery bookstore, is anything but thrilled when famed horror author Brandon Abbott announces he’s purchased legendary Skull House and plans to live there permanently.
Ellery and Brandon have history. Their relationship ended badly and the last thing Ellery wants is a chance to patch things up–especially when his relationship with Police Chief Jack Carson is just getting interesting. But then, maybe Brandon isn’t all that interested in getting back together either, because he seems a lot more interested in asking questions about the bloodstained past of his new home than discussing a possible future with Ellery. What is Brandon really up to?
Ellery will have to unscramble that particular puzzle post haste. Because after his former flame disappears following their loud and public argument, Ellery seems to be Police Chief Carson’s first–and only–suspect.
***This story contains no on-screen sex or violence
Murder is fun.
At least, a lot of otherwise nice, normal people seemed to think so.
Having recently gone through the ghastly experience of finding a body in his bookshop—oh, and of being suspected of murder—Ellery Page was less thrilled by the notion of violent death. He couldn’t deny it was good for business, though.
Something about the idea of murder in a mystery bookstore really captured people’s imagination. True, a third of the tourists wandering into the Crow’s Nest this beautiful sunny June morning were there specifically to see Where It Happened. But because they felt a little guilty for their ghoulishness, they almost always bought a couple of books before they left. So while business wasn’t booming, it had certainly picked up.
Which was a good thing because Ellery’s screenwriting career was going nowhere fast. He glanced down again at the latest rejection letter from his agent.
The worst part was, while the rejection stung—rejection always stings, even when you’re getting rejected by people you would reject—he just couldn’t get too worked up about it. Not on such a beautiful day.
And it was a beautiful day. Like a painting by one of those 19th century artists who went in for seaside postcards of gentlemen in straw hats and striped one-piece bathing suits and ladies with—well, frankly, Ellery was more interested in the gentlemen.
Anyway, really nice weather. The sky was a soft and languid blue, swirled with clouds as filmy as smoke. The sand sparkled, the water sparkled, the sunlight sparkled. Brightly colored boats bobbed in the harbor, flags snapping in the sea breeze.
The only thing that could have made it better was if it had been Saturday rather than Monday. The weekends meant more visitors to Buck Island, and more visitors meant more business, and Ellery was going to need more business—a lot more business—to keep the Crow’s Nest sailing along. Seeing that Ronny had no interest in pitching Night Chess to anyone.
The scenes are void of meaningful or compelling conflict.
What did that even mean? Well, okay, Ellery knew what it meant, but he didn’t like conflict. Not in his movies and not in real life.
Conflict arrives, is instantly resolved, and the narrative course continues unaffected.
Ellery muttered, “You say that like it’s a bad thing.”
The bells on the front door jingled merrily as Mrs. Nelson swept in.
Ellery’s heart sank.
Hermione Nelson was a heavyset woman in her late sixties with startlingly blue eyes, hair as red as a rusty battleship, and a small, pinched-looking mouth that gave the impression that the effort of keeping her thoughts to herself was starting to give her heartburn. Except, she never kept her thoughts to herself, so…
Mrs. Nelson was under the impression she was Ellery’s best customer, and she would’ve been if she didn’t return three quarters of everything she bought.
“Ellery, this book was a complete waste of my time. I can’t believe you recommended it.” Mrs. Nelson reached the wooden counter, fished around in her patchwork bag, and thrust a battered copy of The Better Sister by Alafair Burke at him.
“I’m sorry. It made pretty much everyone’s Best Of lists for 2019.”
Ellery took the hardcover, wincing inwardly at the sight of folded page corners.
“I don’t want to read about nasty people.”
“Well, we’re a mystery bookstore,” Ellery pointed out. “Safe to say, at least one character in every book is going to be kind of nasty.”
Mrs. Nelson was not amused. “I like my murders to happen to nice people. What about that new one from Joanne Fluke? I think I might like that.”
“I’m not sure we have any copies le—”
Mrs. Nelson beamed. “I’ll just go and check. We can do an even exchange. That will keep things simple for you.”
Uh, no, actually that would complicate everything, but Mrs. Nelson was already bustling away, making a beeline for the Cozy Mystery section.
Ellery swallowed his exasperation. He was still trying to build his customer base—and being suspected of murder had not helped matters along—so he felt he had to be extra accommodating to the customers he did have, even if some of them were using him more as a library than a bookstore.
He gazed out the large bay windows at the people strolling past, icecream cones in one hand, shopping bags in the other. A former fishing village—actually, a former pirate sanctuary, if you wanted to go way back —Pirate’s Cove was working hard to transform itself into a premium tourist destination. Things were pretty quiet in the fall, winter, and spring, but once summer arrived, the little windswept island offered biking, hiking, sailing, fishing, and lots of sunny beaches to explore.
The island also boasted two historic lighthouses: North Point and Half Moon Bay, as well as the partially buried ruins of a pirate fortress. Nearly half the island had been set aside for conservation, with the northwestern tip serving as a resting stop for birds migrating along the Atlantic flyway.
The potential for business was definitely there. The business itself… not so much. Not yet.
But the citizens of Pirate’s Cove were working to change that, and no one was working harder than Ellery.
The Crow’s Nest had been underwater when he’d inherited it from Great-great-great-aunt Eudora, and it was still leaking like a sieve, but the sight of all those ice-cream cones and shopping bags gave him hope.
Even better than ice cream and shopping bags was the sight of Police Chief Jack Carson heading toward the front door of the Crow’s Nest. Jack’s gaze met Ellery’s through the glass, and Ellery’s heart skipped a beat. He smiled. Jack smiled back.
Over the past weeks, he and Ellery had become friendly—which was not exactly the same thing as being friends, but they were moving in that direction. Ellery was happy. He liked Jack. He was also attracted to Jack— and he wasn’t alone in that; most of the fairer sex of Pirate’s Cove was attracted to the handsome, widowed chief of police. Jack was in his late thirties, a lean six-foot-nothing with sun-streaked brown hair and piercing green-blue eyes. He had a terrific smile, which he kept mostly in reserve.
It was because Ellery was attracted to Jack that he was grateful their friendship was developing slowly, maybe even cautiously.
The fact was, he did not have good luck with relationships. Not romantic relationships. So, thinking of Jack as strictly friends took the pressure off.
At least that’s what Ellery told himself.
The bell offered a silvery welcome as Jack stepped inside the Crow’s Nest.
“Why, howdy, Sheriff,” Ellery drawled in his best minor-characterin-a-made-for-TV-Western accent.
“Why, howdy, Mr. Page,” Jack drawled back, and maybe it was being from California, but he did that Home on the Range accent better than Ellery, who even had three minor second-cowpoke-from-the-left credits on his acting résumé.
Good intentions notwithstanding, something about Jack’s deep, pleasant voice always gave Ellery a little tingle at the base of his spine. It was distracting, to say the least.
“T’warn’t fixin’ to see you quite so soon.”
Jack grimaced and dropped the drawl. “I know. I have to take a rain check on lunch. Emergency town-council meeting.”
“Oh.” Ellery didn’t bother to hide his disappointment. He and Jack had lunch together about once a week. Jack had also twice come out to Captain’s Seat, the falling-down 18th Century mansion Ellery had inherited, to help with renovations. “That’s too bad. What’s the emergency?”
“The lack of any game plan to handle the media once they arrive for the trial.”
Ellery’s recent experience with the editor of the Scuttlebutt Weekly had left him with a sour taste in his mouth for members of the media.
“Yeah, anyway, I was wondering—” Jack broke off as Watson, the black spaniel-mix puppy Ellery had adopted, wandered out of his crate behind the counter to say hello. Jack squatted down. “Hey, you little rascal.”
Watson threw himself on his back, wriggling in delight—which was the typical reaction of most Pirate’s Cove citizens when Jack Carson appeared.
“Oh! Chief Carson. I thought I recognized your voice.” Mrs. Nelson came around the corner of tall bookshelves.
Jack rose. “Mrs. Nelson. How are you?”
Mrs. Nelson proceeded to tell him in detail.
Mrs. Smith—small and slender, with thinning sandy hair—appeared at the counter, a stack of used paperbacks from the bargain bin in hand, and beamed at Ellery. “Ring these up, dear.” She turned immediately to Jack. “Chief Carson, how is the Maples case coming along?” Mrs. Smith
was a devoted viewer of the Investigation Discovery channel and believed herself to be an expert in criminal investigations.
“We’re gathering evidence and building our case, Mrs. Smith,” Jack said politely.
“The circumstantial evidence alone ought to be enough to secure a conviction.”
“I prefer direct evidence.” Jack glanced at Ellery, and Ellery grimaced. There had been plenty of circumstantial evidence against him in the Maples case, but luckily Jack had dug deeper.
Mrs. Nelson, who had not finished detailing the delights of her gallbladder surgery, cut in. “Call me old-fashioned, but I don’t trust a doctor younger than my grandchildren.”
“Isn’t your youngest grandchild around eight years old?” Jack inquired.
Mrs. Nelson ignored that.
“I always suspected there was something up with that man,” said Mrs. Ferris, materializing out of the brand-new True Crime section, to join in the conversation. “His taste in sports coats was a clear indicator of a deranged psyche.”
“Juries like circumstantial evidence,” Mrs. Smith insisted.
Watson, wearying of so many conversations that had nothing to do with how adorable he was, waddled toward the front door. Ellery dashed around the counter to scoop him up as two young women opened the door, saw the crowd at the counter, and ducked back out.
He sighed, glanced back at the huddle in front of the cash register, and caught Jack’s gaze. Jack looked resigned, as well as…something else.
Ellery didn’t know him well enough to interpret his every expression, but he had the impression Jack had been about to ask him something.
Well, whatever it was, it would have to wait. Jack’s fan club was not going anywhere soon.
Ellery returned Watson to his crate, gave him a chew toy, and began to ring up Mrs. Smith’s books. He listened with half an ear to the conversation around him. He was surprised Jack had not already extricated himself and escaped, something he was very good at in such situations.
He looked up, feeling Jack’s gaze, and they smiled at each other again. It warmed Ellery. He really did like Jack. He liked his easy, straightforward manner. Nothing ever seemed to fluster Jack. He liked the way he was with Watson. He liked how Jack looked—broad shoulders and narrow hips, muscular arms and long legs—in his trim navy-blue uniform.
He liked the way Jack’s smile formed little crinkles around the corners of his eyes.
Jack started to speak, but Mr. Starling appeared at the counter with Lee Child’s latest. “Ellery, my boy, could you tell me the price of this book?”
Ellery was about to rattle off the price, which happened to be clearly labeled on a sticker on the back of the book, when Mr. Starling turned to Jack.
“Chief Carson, I didn’t see you there!”
Ellery resisted the urge to roll his eyes.
“Morning, Mr. Starling.” Jack glanced instinctively at the door, and Ellery bit back a grin. Everyone had their breaking point, and Mr. Starling was usually it.
“Nice day today, eh, Chief?”
Ellery handed the receipt with the stack of paperbacks to Mrs. Smith, who dumped everything in her canvas shopping bag. She turned to Mr. Starling. “How’s your wife, Stanley?”
Mr. Starling waved dismissively. “Doing fine, I suppose. Spends her days staring at the boob tube.”
Mrs. Nelson began, “I don’t believe televisions still have tubes—”
Mr. Starling ignored her. “Chief, I’ve meaning to talk to you about those young hooligans hanging out on the beach every evening. It wouldn’t surprise me if they were doing drugs and whatnot.”
“Sure,” Jack said, edging toward the door. “Why don’t you come down to the station later and have a chat with Officer Martin.”
“I’m not sure young Martin is old enough to know what’s what.”
Mrs. Smith was also angling toward the door with Jack and Mr. Starling. “Lovely visiting with you all, but I must pick up some scallops from Finn’s.”
Ellery opened his mouth, but Mrs. Nelson was there before him.
“You’ve forgotten to pay, Jane.”
Mrs. Smith looked startled and then laughed gaily. “Oh dear. I’m always doing that!”
Yes, she was, but Ellery chuckled too. Politely.
Jack said mildly, “Uh-oh, Mrs. Smith. Should I save space for your mug shot on the station bulletin board?”
Mrs. Smith turned red. Her laugh sounded a little hysterical that time. The others joined in. She hurriedly dug her pocketbook out and handed over a twenty-dollar bill. “Keep the change, dear.”
In fact, she was twenty-three cents short, but Ellery knew to choose his battles. “Thanks, Mrs. Smith.”
The shop door flew open, the bell clanging wildly, and Nora Sweeny rushed in, narrowly missing colliding with Jack and his entourage.
“Ellery, dearie! So sorry I’m late, but you won’t believe what’s happened!”
Nora was Ellery’s shop assistant. She was about seventy, small but mighty. In spirit, at least. Her hair was gray, her eyes were gray, but her personality was bright and cheerful as the gold and blue city flag she had helped design. Once upon a time, Nora had been president of the Pirate’s Cove Historical Society, and it was her life’s ambition to bring that now defunct organization back to life.
“What’s happened?” Ellery and everyone else in the Crow’s Nest chorused.
Nora skidded to a stop, looking nonplussed. “I didn’t realize—well, the news is bound to be all over the village by now. I still can’t believe it.
It’s a…a calamity.”
“What’s a calamity?” Jack, being in the calamity business, was frowning.
“Skull House has been sold!”
“Isn’t that good news?” Ellery was confused. “I thought the historical society was planning to buy it for their new home base.” It was pretty much all Nora had been talking about for the last two weeks, ever since the news broke that Skull House was going on the market.
“But that’s just it. It’s not us. The Historical Society hasn’t purchased the house. We were outbid. We didn’t even know we were bidding. Someone—an outsider—swooped in at the last moment and stole the house out from under us!” Nora reached the counter, resting her elbows on it and dropping her head in her hands.
Ellery bent over her. “Are you all right?”
Nora, still clutching her head, shook no.
Everyone else—with the exception of Jack—was talking at once: who, what, where, when, why…
The why was the real question, in Ellery’s opinion. Why anyone, let alone the Pirate’s Cove Historical Society, would want to buy Skull House, was a mystery to him. For one thing, it was out on Pequot Bluffs, miles from the village. For another, the house was a wreck. Not as much of a wreck as Captain’s Seat, maybe—or maybe it was, because no one had lived there for the last fifty years. That amount of dust was probably lethal.
“I’m sorry. But, you know, maybe it’s for the best,” Ellery said.
“Skull House would probably cost a fortune to get in shape, and it isn’t exactly conveniently located. There are other houses.”
“No, there really aren’t,” Mrs. Nelson informed him. “When was the last time you saw property for sale on the island?”
Well…never. Granted, he had only lived on Buck Island for four months.
“And no new construction,” Mr. Starling said. “Per the Buck Island Conservancy.”
“The Maples’ properties are going to come on the market eventually.”
“Eventually,” agreed Mrs. Nelson. “Which could be years from now.
You know how courts are.”
Nora moaned. “I know! I know all that.”
The bells on the door chimed softly as Jack eased it open. He raised a hand in farewell to Ellery, who nodded back regretfully. He couldn’t blame Jack for making his escape. He just wished Jack had taken the others with him.
“To think an outsider could just come in and buy one of our historical landmarks.” That was Mrs. Ferris.
“It’s not actually a landmark, is it?” Ellery asked. “Not technically.
No one bothered to reply.
Mrs. Smith asked, “Who is this mysterious outsider? Who has bought Skull House?”
Nora raised her head. Her eyes were dry, so that was good. In fact, she looked more mad than sad.
“He’s a writer. Very popular, if you like that kind of thing.”
“What kind of thing?” Ellery asked. If this mysterious someone was a mystery writer, this might not be a total disaster. It was very hard to get authors to appear for book signings when they had to travel by ferry to a small island in the middle of nowhere. Okay, Rhode Island. Still.
“Sex?” Mr. Starling asked hopefully.
Nora said in tones of loathing, “I’m speaking of Brandon Abbott.”
Ellery stared at her. “Brandon?” he repeated. “Brandon Abbott?” He heard and understood the words, but somehow they seemed to have shortcircuited his brain.
“Brandon Abbott. Yes.” Nora’s gaze grew curious at his obvious shock.
“I know him!” Mrs. Smith exclaimed. “He’s like Stephen King. He writes all that spooky stuff.”
“Horror,” Ellery said, which pretty much summed up his feelings regarding Brandon Abbott.
“Do you know Brandon Abbott?” Mrs. Nelson asked, surprised.
“I used to. He’s my ex.”
“I thought—” objected Nora.
“My other ex,” Ellery said.
Murder at Pirate’s Cove
Secrets and Scrabble Book 1
First in an adorable new cozy series!
Ellery Page, aspiring screenwriter, Scrabble champion and guy-with-worst-luck-in-the-world-when-it-comes-to-dating, is ready to make a change. So when he learns he’s inherited both a failing bookstore and a falling-down mansion in the quaint seaside village of Pirate’s Cove on Buck Island, Rhode Island, it’s full steam ahead!
Sure enough, the village is charming, its residents amusingly eccentric, and widowed police chief Jack Carson is decidedly yummy (though probably as straight as he is stern). However, the bookstore is failing, the mansion is falling down, and there’s that little drawback of finding rival bookseller–and head of the unwelcoming-committee–Trevor Maples dead during the annual Buccaneer Days celebration.
Still, it could be worse. And once Police Chief Carson learns Trevor was killed with the cutlass hanging over the door of Ellery’s bookstore, it is.
**This story contains NO on-screen sex or violence.
The damp night air was bracingly cold and, as always, suffused with the distinct ocean smell. Supposedly that seaside scent came from bacteria digesting dead phytoplankton. Ellery had picked that tidbit up that afternoon from a Tripp Ellis thriller.
The streets were quiet and strangely deserted as he walked back from the pub to the bookstore. His car—well, Great-great-great-aunt Eudora’s car, if someone wanted to get technical—was still in the parking lot. Captain’s Seat, Great-great-great-aunt Eudora’s decrepit mansion, was about a fifteen-minute drive from the village. Walking distance for someone who hadn’t been on his feet all day and didn’t mind a stroll down a pitch-black country road. None of which described Ellery.
His thoughts were preoccupied as he turned the corner onto the narrow brick street that held the little bookshop that had brought him to Pirate’s Cove in the first place.
The tall Victorian buildings cast deep shadows. Most of the storefronts were dark or illuminated only by the faint glow of emergency lights, so he was startled to see the bright yellow oblongs stretching from the tall windows of the Crow’s Nest across the gray pavement.
He was positive he had locked the place up after shutting all the lights off. A larger than usual electricity bill was the last thing he wanted.
He sped up, his footsteps echoing down the silent street as he hurried toward the Crow’s Nest. He grabbed the doorknob, guiltily recalling that the first words Chief Carson had ever spoken to him concerned replacing the sticky old lock with a new deadbolt. His dismay ratcheted up another notch as the door swung open on well-oiled hinges.
No way had he forgotten to lock up. He had lived in New York most of his life, for heaven’s sake. Locking doors was second nature to him. Sure, Pirate’s Cove was a small town, but all you had to do was flip through a couple of titles in the cozy-mystery section to know that evil lurked in the cutest, quaintest corners of the universe.
“Hello?” he called.
His uneasy gaze fell on the thing lying just a few feet inside the shop. A purple-plumed green tricorn hat. He looked past the hat, and his breath caught. His heart shuddered to a stop.
“No,” he whispered. “No way…”
At first glance there appeared to be a drunken pirate passed out on the floor of the Crow’s Nest. His disbelieving eyes took in the glossy boots, black velvet breeches, long, plum-colored coat and gold-trimmed vest, the scarlet lace jabot…
Because the lacy folds were soaked in blood. The same blood slowly spreading around the motionless—terrifyingly motionless—form sprawled on newly sanded hardwood floors.
He put a hand out to steady himself—except there was nothing to grab—so he stumbled forward, landing on his knees beside the body. He instinctively reached to check for… But there was no need. The eerie stillness of the man’s chest, the glassy stare, the gray and bloodless face… Trevor Maples was dead. Tiny, twin, horror-stricken reflections of himself in those sightless blue eyes.
He drew back, climbed clumsily to his feet, and staggered out the open door to the uncannily silent street.
“Help!” he cried. “Help! Murder!”
One by one, the street’s lamps turned on as residents in the apartments above the shops surrounding the Crow’s Nest woke to the cries of death and disaster. The windows of normally sleepy little Pirate’s Cove lit up like the stars winking overhead.
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About the Author
Josh Lanyon is the author of over sixty titles of classic Male/Male fiction featuring twisty mystery, kickass adventure and unapologetic man-on-man romance.
Her work has been translated into eleven languages. The FBI thriller Fair Game was the first Male/Male title to be published by Harlequin Mondadori, the largest romance publisher in Italy. Stranger on the Shore (Harper Collins Italia) was the first M/M title to be published in print. In 2016 Fatal Shadows placed #5 in Japan’s annual Boy Love novel list (the first and only title by a foreign author to place). The Adrien English Series was awarded All Time Favorite Male/Male Series in the 2nd Annual contest held by the 20,000+ Goodreads M/M Group. Josh is an Eppie Award winner, a four-time Lambda Literary Award finalist (twice for Gay Mystery), and the first ever recipient of the Goodreads M/M Hall of Fame award.
Josh is married and lives in Southern California.