The Cracked Spine by Paige Shelton is the first in the Scottish Bookshop mystery series featuring Delaney Nichols, who takes a job at the quaint Scottish bookshop, The Cracked Spine—but after a priceless artifact goes missing and her boss's sister gets murdered, it's clear that this new job is more than just books and manuscripts (Available Marche 29, 2016).
Wanted: A bold adventurer who wants to travel the world from a comfortable and safe spot behind a desk that has seen the likes of kings and queens, paupers and princes. A humble book and rare manuscript shop seeks a keenly intelligent investigator to assist us in our search for things thought lost, and in our quest to return lost items to their rightful owners.
Never an adventurer, no one was more surprised than Delaney Nichols when she packed her bags and moved halfway across the world to Edinburgh, Scotland to start a job at The Cracked Spine, a bookshop located in the heart of the city. Her new boss, Edwin MacAlister, has given her the opportunity of a lifetime, albeit a cryptic one, and Delaney can’t wait to take her spot behind the desk.
The Cracked Spine is filled with everything a book lover could want, each item as eclectic as the people who work there; the spirited and lovable Rosie, who always has tiny dog Hector in tow; Hamlet, a nineteen-year-old thespian with a colored past and bright future; and Edwin, who is just as enigmatic and mysterious as Delaney expected. An extra bonus is Tom the bartender from across the street, with his cobalt eyes, and a gentle brogue―and it doesn’t hurt that he looks awfully good in a kilt.
But before she can settle into her new life, a precious artifact goes missing, and Edwin’s sister is brutally murdered. Never did Delaney think that searching for things lost could mean a killer, but if she’s to keep her job, and protect her new friends, she’ll need to learn the truth behind this Scottish tragedy.
“Oh, um,” I said, mostly involuntarily as I lost my balance. I reached up for a bar to grab, but there wasn’t one there. It was on the side panel instead, next to the door that opened in what seemed like the wrong direction. I settled myself on the seat and tried to put my feet in better spots so as to save my body from being propelled out of the cab. There were no seat belts in the backseat to hold me in place. My safety would depend upon luck and my personal sense of balance.
“Sorry ’boot that. Hold tight, there’s ’nother sharp curve ahead. We’el be there shortly. Directly in Grassmarket, correct?” the cabbie said. It took me a second to translate the words. His accent was thick and I wasn’t used to it yet. So far with the few Scottish people I’d spoken to—people at the airport and the cabdriver and a man on the plane whose voice and physical build had reminded me of Shrek—I found the syllable dance delightful, though some accents were more difficult to understand than others. I’d only been in Scotland for approximately one hour and forty-seven minutes though. Not quite enough time to judge if I would be able to communicate without asking everyone to slow down and repeat.
I’d been clutching the piece of paper since the plane’s wheels touched down at the Edinburgh airport. I glanced at it again and repeated the addresses of both the bookshop and the Grassmarket Hotel, my home until I could find one of my own.
“And the shop’s called The Cracked Spine?”
“I’ve ne’r heard o’ it, though I live a good distance away, a long stroll on a sunny day, or a quick coach ride. You wilna see many of those; sunny days, ye ken. Oh, know—not ken. I apologize. ‘Ken’ is know.”
“Thank you.” I smiled into the rearview mirror.
“Of course, I’m nae much of a reader myself. The missus is. She’ll read a book a day, a book an evening when she’s working hard on the guesthouses. We hae two of them, guesthouses that is. She also spends a few hours a week at the neighborhood primary school, helping there with some of the wee-uns’ reading skills. Aye, she loves her books. I tried tae buy her one of those flat computer contraptions tae read them on but she told me that she wasnae interested, that if she’d been meant tae read from those sorts of things, she’d at least have figured out how tae have an e-mail by now.” He laughed.
I’d understood him much better that time. I couldn’t be sure if it was because he was working to make me understand better, or if I was already getting the hang of it. I’d originally thought I’d be encountering bits and pieces of Gaelic with the English, but my research told me it would be more about something called “Scots” and that Scots was neither Gaelic nor English. Nae way, nae hou.
According to the card tucked into the small plastic folder around his neck, my cabdriver’s name was Elias. In the picture on the card, he didn’t wear a newsie cap, but today he wore one that was black and faded and matched the thin black sweater he also wore. He had very little hair, just gray puffs over his ears. I could see the puffs in both the picture and in person as they currently tufted out from under the sides of the cap. His face seemed swollen and his nose was too big, but neither unpleasantly so. I’d seen his blue eyes every now and then when he looked at me in the rearview mirror. They were clear, bright, and happy. I’d liked him immediately. I’d trusted those eyes enough to jump into his funny-looking cab that was more rounded and squat than the other cabs in the queue. I think I’d been searching for someone who seemed trustworthy, maybe someone who seemed a little familiar. The plane trip across half my own country and an enormous swath of ocean had given me time to become both excited and nervous. A big well of nervousness had built up, actually. Perhaps it had become bigger than that ocean. The cabbie had reminded me of my great-uncle Maury from Topeka, and he was a welcome sight.
I knew I should be tired, probably exhausted considering the distance and the time change, but along with the nervousness I was running on anxious anticipation. I hoped I wouldn’t crash too hard when the most likely unavoidable crash came.
The cab was similar to a PT Cruiser, but stretched a little both sideways and upward, and slightly more snub-nosed than the sedan or vanlike cabs I’d seen. Both the black vehicle’s front and back bumpers were dented. Magnetic signs had been crookedly stuck to the two front doors—the signs said: “McKenna Cab.” There was no reason for me to feel confident about the McKenna Cab company except for the driver’s friendly Great-Uncle-Maury-like eyes.
I was trying hard to be brave, be bold, not let anyone see that I was out of Kansas for the first time in my twenty-nine years of life. I was a grown-up and could handle anything. There are cities in Kansas. I’d lived in Wichita, for goodness’ sake. There’s traffic too. Perhaps there were no cities like Edinburgh and no traffic like what I was currently being swerved and jolted through—on the wrong side of the road, which was too confusing to contemplate at the moment—but I still wasn’t going to let the differences make me reticent or timid; at least that was the plan.
The next jerky turn to the left gave me a perfect view of the castle on the hill. Of course, I’d done plenty of research about my new home, and Edinburgh Castle was at the top of my list of places to visit.
“There it is,” I said to myself as I peered up and out of the windshield. Its backdrop was currently made up of light gray clouds, which I thought added the proper touch of menace to the otherwise majestic sight.
“Aye, that’s oor castle. It’s quite the place. Probably oor busiest spot for the tourists. Are ye planning on visiting it this trip?”
“Yes, but I’m not here on vacation. I’m here for a job. I have a work visa and everything.”
“And ye say ye’re from America?”
“Yes. I grew up on a farm outside of Kingman, Kansas, but I’ve been working in Wichita.”
“Aye? Where’s Kansas?”
“Oh. Smack-dab in the middle of the country. In fact, the contiguous geographic center of the country is close to Lebanon, Kansas.”
“Well, it’s verra exciting that ye’re here. The missus and I will have you o’er for dinner. Ye’ll be working at the bookshop?”
“Living close by? Surely not at the hotel?”
“I’ll be searching for an apartment. Uh, a flat.” Edwin had booked a room for me at the hotel, but I hoped to find a more permanent home soon. I wasn’t supposed to report to work until tomorrow, but I couldn’t wait that long. Edwin had said that the hotel and the bookshop were near each other. I decided I’d drop off my bags and go directly to the shop and wait until the weekend to tackle the task of finding a flat.
Elias scrunched up his nose and rubbed his finger under it. “Ye’ll need some help, lass. When ye’re ready I’ll take ye around and show ye the good places tae live, and the places tae stay away from, if ye’d like.”
“That would be great. Thank you,” I said. I was sure it would take lots of people’s help and advice to find the right place.
“It will be my pleasure.” Elias glanced briefly in the mirror. “So, we’re stopping at the hotel first?”
“Ah, such a fine American accent. The missus will be tickled tae meet ye. Ye ken, she used tae have the fiery red hair, just like yerself. Now, she’s gray and beautiful, but her red hair was at one time as bright as yers.”
“I look forward to meeting her too. I thought maybe I’d blend in a little more here in Scotland. There weren’t many of us redheads in the area of Kansas I grew up in. Of course, in Wichita I wasn’t quite so obvious, but my dad used to say he could always find the farm by looking for the flame of my hair along the horizon.”
Elias smiled in the rearview mirror. “Och, lass, that’s just one of those American things. There are nae more redheads here in Scotland than in, say, yer New York City. We dinnae make claim tae them all.”
My nonsensical hopes of being mistaken for a redheaded Scottish princess of days gone by were suddenly dashed. I was surprised that even with all my research I’d missed that all redheads didn’t somehow make claim to the Scottish landscape.
I’d been afflicted with the brightest tones: the fieriest red hair, the palest skin dotted with orange freckles, and light green eyes. I’d long ago become used to people’s reactions when they first saw me back home in the small town close to my family’s farm. There was usually a double take, sometimes a small gasp, and then a big forced smile to cover their shock at all my … glow. However in Wichita and Scotland, it seemed, no one had so much as given me a second glance.
I smiled to myself at my animated Hollywood ideas and then sat back and glanced out the side window up at the castle on the hill again. It had looked huge in the pictures I’d seen, but it was even more impressive in person, its brownish stone walls shaping a fortress on a high authoritative ledge, a “volcanic crag” that had been there for centuries. I imagined decked-out royalty riding regally outfitted horses up to the top, though from my current vantage point I couldn’t tell the route they’d take. The castle looked impenetrable, perched at a spot that seemed impossible to reach. I thought back to the ad I’d answered. It had mentioned a desk that had seen the likes of kings, queens, paupers, and princes. I wondered if that was literal or just figurative. I couldn’t wait to explore every single inch of Edinburgh, maybe the entirety of Scotland if I could swing it, but the castle was definitely at the top of my list.
There were many things I’d have to get used to though. There was so much traffic. It all moved quickly and it seemed that the drivers didn’t require space in between their vehicles and the other ones. And there was that other-side-of-the-road problem. More than once, I’d felt a panicked swell in my chest as I thought Elias was headed for sure disaster, when all he was doing was turning into the proper lane—on the left side of the road. I wondered how long it would take to rewire my brain for that one.
The cars weren’t the only things that were close together. The buildings were also side by side with little or no space in between them. Some had small alleyways in between, but mostly the passing landscape was one tall, interesting, beautiful old building after another. It was difficult to digest many specifics, but the architecture ranged from medieval to ultramodern. As I angled myself against some more g-forces from the cab’s quick swerve, I briefly glimpsed a neon sign attached to an older building, noting to myself that the neon modern and the old stone walls somehow didn’t seem out of place. Nothing seemed out of place. There was a lot to take in, but it all seemed to be right where it belonged.
Edinburgh certainly wasn’t Wichita: four words that simplified the sense of curious displacement I felt, but still a pretty accurate description. Though the displacement was somewhat uncomfortable, it wasn’t unexpected.
“We’re at Grassmarket,” Elias said as he cranked the steering wheel quickly to the left and pulled to the side of a narrow road, the left side. More g-forces, but I could handle them.
It was a square. Well, more a rectangle shape, but done with the idea of a town square, with small businesses on the bottom level of the older buildings around the perimeter, and a paved central gathering area surrounded by cobblestoned roads. The center made an ideal spot for benches and the farmers’ market tents that were currently taking up much of the long space.
“Just up two doors on oor left is yer bookshop, and down along the row, at that far corner, is yer hotel. On the other side of the hotel, there’s a hill that will take ye up tae the Royal Mile. That road will take ye tae the castle. It’s called Castle Wynd, technically, and it’s a steep walk tae get there, but not a long one.”
The Cracked Spine sat in the middle of a short side of the rectangle. It was the second of three shops that were distinctly old but very cute. The shop’s front windows couldn’t possibly allow any light inside, though. Books were stacked against the window, high enough to leave only a few inches of clear space at the top, and messy enough to make me want to march inside and straighten the rows and stacks, to save the ones with the unquestionably broken bindings. I would take on the job eventually, but I didn’t think anyone would appreciate me marching in with that singular task in mind. One step at a time.
There was a furniture store on one side of the bookshop and a French bakery on the other side. The bakery and furniture store looked small, and so did the main part of The Cracked Spine, though I wondered if the bookshop also spilled over to the space next door to it, in between it and the pastry shop. There was a storefront there without a name and with blacked-out windows. I wasn’t sure why I was inclined to think it was part of the bookshop, but it’s what I sensed. The bakery window was topped with a sign that simply said, “Patisserie,” and through its window that’s what I saw: colorful pastries and shelves full of fruits, cakes, and cream-filled danishes. My sweet tooth made my mouth water. I’d probably visit the bakery even before the castle.
There were two old chairs sitting up on a ledge behind the furniture shop’s window, and a sign above it that said: “Fraser’s Gently Used Furniture and Reupholstering Services.” The storefronts weren’t wide, so the sign’s words required two lines.
Atop the bookshop’s front window was a red aluminum overhang with yellow letters that said, “The Cracked Spine,” on one line and “Book Purveyors” underneath. I liked the phrasing of book purveyor.
The road was narrow and so was the sidewalk. We were close enough that if anyone happened to walk out of the bookshop and glance over, they’d see me, the nervous redhead from Kansas, in the back of the cab. I swallowed and told my rapidly beating heart to slow down.
And then I glanced at the long part of the street on the other side, and a warm sense of destiny washed over me, calming my nerves to something tolerable. A window that wasn’t even quite as wide as the others was trimmed in green-painted, ornately carved wood. Written in black letters surrounded by more green, the sign on the window read: “Delaney’s Wee Pub, the Smallest Pub in Scotland.”
My name was Delaney, and no matter the fact that I wasn’t sure I’d ever visit the adorable pub, just seeing my name there made me think I’d made the right choice in answering the ad, that I’d found another good omen.
With a quick scan around the market, I noticed more pubs, a restaurant or two, small groceries, and a couple of shops with names followed by “Take Away.”
“Does take away mean you get food and take it out of there?” I asked Elias.
“Aye. That one up on the other corner, the place called Castle Rock, has some of my favorite fish and chips, tho’ it’s hard tae find bad fish and chips in Edinburra.”
“Good to know. And what about buildings on top of the businesses? Are they flats?” Stretching high above the businesses, the building’s tops were their oldest parts, made up of timeworn stone, skinny paned windows, and uneven rooftops that were peppered with spires and points and television antennae.
“Aye, most of them it looks like. Expensive, I’m sure.”
I nodded. It would be wonderful to live this close to work, but though I was going to be paid well I didn’t know the economy well enough yet to know what “expensive” meant.
I looked up toward the top of the high volcanic crag.
“I get to work next to the castle.”
“Aye, lass,” Elias said with a smile in the rearview mirror.
“And my hotel is just up there?” I nodded to our right.
“Aye, I can get ye right there.” Elias put the stick shift into first.
“Actually, I have a favor, Elias. Would you mind dropping my bags off there for me? I don’t think I can wait one more minute. I don’t even want to take the time to check in. I want to see the bookshop.” I opened my purse and found a twenty-pound and a ten-pound note. The meter said nineteen pounds, but the extra would be for the luggage drop.
“I’d be happy tae,” Elias said. He took the money, wrinkled his nose at it, and gave me back the ten-pound note.
“Thank you,” I said.
“Listen, ye ring me up, wee lass,” Elias said. He scribbled a phone number onto his business card. “Ye shouldnae use my work number. Ring the number I wrote there. That’s my mobile. I’ll get yer bags delivered, but I’ll also come get ye and tak ye wherever ye need tae go. I ken the missus would love tae have ye o’er for supper this evening. I can pick ye up whenever ye call.”
I took the card and looked at the scribbled number. I didn’t quite know how to respond. Fortunately, he jumped in.
“If ye call me for supper, I’ll bring the missus with me so ye can see that I’m not a fleysome sort of bloke.”
I smiled. “Thank you. I don’t know what I’ll be doing today or tonight.…”
“Aye. Just call me if ye need a ride. Supper can be whenever.” He paused. “I dinnae want tae alarm ye, we’re a wonderful city, but dinnae ye roam aboot at night alone. Go with someone or be sure ye call a cab, even if ’tisna mine. Be canny now.”
“Thank you, Elias.”
“Aye, ye’re welcome.” He tipped his cap.
It took much more courage than I thought it would to open the cab door and step out onto the narrow sidewalk. As Elias pulled away from the curb and drove up a short hill away from me, he honked the horn once and waved out his window. Immediately, I missed those eyes.
Then, I laughed at myself.
“Come on, Del, you can do this,” I said as I rearranged my purse strap on my shoulder and made my way toward my bold new adventure.
Copyright © 2016 Paige Shelton.
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Paige Shelton had a nomadic childhood as her father's job as a football coach took the family to seven different towns before she was even twelve years old. After college at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, she moved to Salt Lake City where she thought she'd only stay a couple years, but she fell in love with the mountains and a great guy who became her husband. After many decades in Utah, she and her family recently moved to Arizona.