I don’t know how many of you have ever worked retail. Show of hands?
Before we bought our bookstore, the closest I’d come was back in college, when I worked as a clinic aide. I washed a million towels, filled and cleaned hundreds of whirlpool tubs, changed miles of exam bed paper, and learned not to ask patients “So how are you today?” because they’d tell me. In great detail. Clinic work taught me a lot about people, but it didn’t prepare me for the actualities of retail. Things happen in retail that would never happen anywhere else, and let me tell you: the stories from nine years of bookselling would fill a book.
So naturally when it came time to write another romantic suspense (my book Latimer’s Law came out with Harlequin this past May–links and more at the bottom of this post), I turned to my richest source of material: our bookstore.
I skipped over the wild and wooly characters, like the young woman who, late one evening, pocketed one of our business cards and announced, “I’m going to tape a quarter to this and use it in the time-travel machine.” She said it in all seriousness. I passed on the week a squirrel lived in our drop-ceiling and drove the store cat utterly demented, while eating all the peanut butter I’d put in the humane trap and never tripping the trap’s door. Instead, I focused on things that might be suspenseful about the day-to-day of a bookstore.
My spouse, known as Boy Scout in these parts, has a number of pals in law enforcement here in the local area. When our store had some books we’d mailed to the local jail rejected and returned, we talked to our contacts and asked why. Turns out books are easily adulterated–pages saturated with illicit drugs, items slipped inside the books’ boards, the boards themselves sharpened into shivs (a knife made of cardboard. Think about it.). A little research led me to other ideas and the book, my current work-in-progress titled Wordless, was off and running.
What I didn’t expect was how, sometimes, fiction becomes reality.
Last Saturday, it was business as usual, with the added fillip of my writing partner, Lilith Saintcrow stopping by to sign store stock of her books. While Lili was there, the mailman came in with a box. But the mailman pointed out that the box had been sent from our old Main Street address, priority mail to some person in Oregon. It had been returned, and the post office dug up our four-year-old forwarding address.
The mailman said, “Is this your store? The package couldn’t be delivered in Oregon.”
I thought the return address was odd, but it’s not actually unprecedented. On occasion review copies of books sent by a publisher have come with from and to addresses both being our store address. Unusual, to be sure, but since something similar had happened before, I thought, sure, not a problem, I’ll take the box, someone’s probably just confused.
I was curious, anyway. A besetting sin and pretty much constant state of being for any writer. Curiosity is the engine that writes the books. What happens next? We’ve got to know.
Lili and I sat at the coffee table and I started working on the box, which was taped within an inch of its life. I cut it open.
Inside the box was another box, also taped. Every opening or crack, completely sealed by plastic masking tape.
This SHOULD have set off the warning bells, but I swear, I am like a terrier with a package. Besides, some booksellers are a bit over-the-top about packaging their books. Even though it wasn’t my handwriting on the label, and we don’t use that kind of shipping materials. I knew we hadn’t sent the box.
But like I said, terrier. So I got to work on the next box. Cut tape. Pulled. Finally opened the box.
Inside was a heavy mylar bag, with something round, the size of a 40 oz. coffee can inside it.
About this time, Lili said, “Maybe we should call the cops. This seems really strange.”
Now, I’m usually the conservative half in the odd couple made of Lili and me. But hell. Now I’m thinking this is a joke from someone, and I laughed and said, “I’ll bet inside this is another box, and another, and finally there won’t be anything at all. Just boxes.”
The mylar bag was taped, too. Me and my trusty scissors got it open.
Inside that was a silver can, like a paint bucket without a handle, taped once again like someone was trying to keep a demon inside. The top of the can had even been sealed down with some of that foam spray insulation, before the lid was put on.
Lili said, “Stop, Mel.”
I went and got the can opener, rather than trying to pry open the lid, and took off the bottom. Inside, double-bagged in ziplocs, was a not-insignificant amount of a stinky herbal substance, about the size and volume of a folded pair of knee-high tube socks.
At this point Lili said, firmly, “Now you have to call the cops.”
My hands were suddenly cold and shaky. Terrier or not, I’m a pretty straight arrow. Hell. I don’t even know HOW to call the cops! So I dialed 911 and explained to the operator that this was not an emergency, but that I did need the police to come and deal with a suspicious package.
The operator asked me what I meant, so I tried explaining the whole crazy scenario to her, finishing up with “…I think it’s pot in there. I mean, I don’t know what pot smells or looks like, not really, but this is definitely herbal.”
She said, “Does it smell spunky?”
At least, that’s what I heard her say. I said, “Spunky? What does spunky smell like?” and that’s when I think Lili started to lose it. Her eyes got bright and sparkly and she half turned away, covering her mouth. Laughing, the stinker. Naturally, I’m moderately terrified. I have a LARGE BAG OF POT in my store, in a box that makes it look like it was mailed from my old location, which, hey, ME AGAIN. And of course my fingerprints were all over everything.
The operator said, “No, skunky. Like the stinky animal.”
“Oh. SKUNKY. Yes, it does. A very pungent odor.” It occurs to me that 911 calls are recorded. It’s out there for posterity, y’all. I bet she turned to her cubemate and said, “You’ve GOT to hear THIS ONE.”
“We’ll send the police around.”
While I was talking with the operator, Lili went outside and called Boy Scout, who was not far away, doing whatever it is Freemasons do on a Saturday morning. Then she called her daughter, to let her know she’d be here for quite some while longer. Since Lili was my witness, and I kind of needed someone to remind me I was not the criminal here.
Boy Scout arrived not long after, and right behind him came his Mason friend Skip. (All names changed to protect the innocent Masons, haha.) Then behind Skip came Terry, and someone named Sam, and Skip’s son Bob.
I said to Boy Scout, “HOW MANY DAMNED MASONS DID YOU BRING?”
Boy Scout said, “They heard there was a problem at the bookstore. They came to help.”
They came to gawk, frankly. I’m sure Boy Scout hung up from talking with Lili and announced to the lodge room at large, “SOMEONE MAILED MEL A BOX OF WEED. GOTTA GO.” And along they all came, like the Keystone Cops, piling out of a clown car.
Somewhere in there, the nice officer arrived, and I went through the whole rigmarole again, explaining about the address label and how it was from our old location, but WE didn’t mail this box. Explaining that sometimes we got books mailed to that location by publishers who didn’t know we had moved, and the post office is nice enough to try to track us down even after 4 years, which they did in this case.
The cop stood there listening, his thumbs hooked in his Kevlar vest, rocking back on his heels. They must teach cops special body language for dealing with nervous booksellers. I explained I’d opened the box, and the box inside that, and the bag inside the box, and the can inside the bag, but that I hadn’t opened the CLEARLY HERBAL PACKAGE INSIDE THE CAN. And was it pot? I asked at last.
“Can’t you smell it?” the cop asked, like I was a doofus.
“Sure, but…I don’t know what pot smells like.” Seriously, I don’t. I’ve never even inhaled a cigarette, much less pot. Lili often laughs at how sheltered my life has been.
The cop just looked at me and stood there spraddle-legged. I could hear the unspoken, “Uh huh, riiiiiiiiight.”
A little discussion ensued, some back-and-forth between Lili and the cop. They were debating relative quantities of the herb in the box, and Lili said, “Oh yeah. Definitely more than an ounce.”
The cop narrowed his eyes and said, “I see I’ve found the expert here.”
You can’t faze Lili that easily, but I was a whole lot more nervous about this whole situation than she was. She announced, “I have KIDS, I need to KNOW these things.”
I interrupted before Lili could get us all arrested for sarcasming an officer, with “What happens next?”
The cop called back to base and got a case number, made a few notes on a pad. Asked for my identification. Wrote a few things down. Got my business card. Then he put the can inside the bag, and the bag inside the box, and the box inside the other box, and closed it up.
Then the Freemasons started in, seeing how the cheap entertainment was pretty much over with, since I wasn’t apparently going to be led away in cuffs. “So what do they have you guys carrying these days? Glock, Sig?”
“Pretty much whatever we like. I’ve got a Sig. I like Sigs.”
There was about five minutes of gun bullshit amongst Skip, who used to work corrections, Boy Scout, and the cop, with Sam and Terry sitting with their eyes out on sticks. I finally interrupted again and said, “OK, all this gun talk is fun, but NOW what happens?”
The cop said, “Well, now I take this box with me, and we turn this over to the postal inspector, because while they could legally ship pot in-state here in Washington, they can’t send it over state lines. This is a federal matter now.”
And he left.
Then Boy Scout looked at me, grinning like a pest, and I yelled, “YOU KNOW THE BOOK I’M WRITING NOW IS ABOUT MAIL FRAUD AND A BOOKSTORE, RIGHT? WHO’S PRANKING ME???”
Boy Scout said, “Why would someone do THAT? That’s a lot of money just to prank you.”
The rest of the Masons looked confused, so I explained the general plot of Wordless, that it had started as a suspense novel about mailing adulterated books with contraband to a jail. Which got us onto book talk, and one of the Masons has written a children’s book for rude adults called “Mommy Found a Crusty Sock” (I AM NOT KIDDING YOU GUYS IT WAS AWESOME and kind of icky) and wanted Lili to look at it and hook him up with her publisher…
I just…don’t even. I really don’t. If the person who mailed the package paid with a check or credit card, the cops will find him. But it seems unlikely. Cash would be the only way to go in this instance. But the guy whose address the package was originally mailed to? HIM they might find pretty soon. So there are threads for law enforcement to pull.
And that was my Saturday. Honest. I have witnesses. You can’t make this shit up and put it in fiction. No one would believe you. But real life? It’s as fantastic as taping a coin to a business card and using it for time travel.
In case you’re curious…
Available May 6, 2014 (Stand-alone title, romantic suspense)
Barnes & Noble.com