The Good Byline by Jill Orr is a debut novel and the 1st in the new Riley Ellison Mystery series (available March 20, 2017).
Meet Riley Ellison, a smart, quirky, young library assistant who’s become known in her hometown of Tuttle Corner, Virginia, as Riley Bless-Her-Heart. Ever since her beloved granddaddy died and her longtime boyfriend broke up with her, Riley has been withdrawing from life. In an effort to rejoin the living, she signs up for an online dating service and tries to reconnect with her childhood best friend, Jordan James, a reporter at the Tuttle Times. But when she learns that Jordan committed suicide, Riley is shaken to the core.
Riley agrees to write Jordan's obituary as a way to learn more about why a young woman with so much to live for would suddenly opt out. Jordan’s co-worker, a paranoid reporter with a penchant for conspiracy theories, convinces Riley that Jordan’s death was no suicide. He leads her down a dangerous path toward organized crime, secret lovers, and suspicious taco trucks.
Riley’s serpentine hunt for the truth eventually intersects with her emerging love life, and she makes a discovery that puts everything Riley holds dear—her job, the people she loves, and even her life—in danger. Will writing this obituary be the death of her?
In the same way one decides to start a healthy eating plan every Monday morning, I began the week determined to change my life. I texted my mom for Mrs. James’s phone number, made an appointment to get my hair highlighted, and even gave in to my mother’s pleas to sign up for Click.com, a dating website she swore matched up at least five of her friends. Fine. Whatever. I figured if nothing else, when I casually mentioned it to Ryan the next time we talked, it would prove to him I was moving on. And if it drove him mad with jealousy, then that was just a bonus.
So when I arrived at work Monday morning, ready to begin my new life with my new attitude, I wasn’t entirely surprised to find something new at the library as well. Dr.Harbinger was already in his office with the door closed. Dr. H never closed his door and was never at work before I or Tabitha got there to let him in. To be honest, I didn’t even know he still had a key.
He hadn’t done any of the opening tasks, like turning on the lights or the copy machine, so I set about readying the library for business. This took me approximately three and a half minutes. The extra minute and a half was only because I stopped to clean up the sunflower-seed casings someone had left under one of the study cubicles near the new and notable section.
I was in the middle of cataloging—or rather re-cataloging— our biography section, which involved hours and hours of tedious work checking call numbers against MARC records, when Dr. H finally emerged from his office. He looked surprised to see me. “Hello, Miss Ellison!”
“Hi!” I gave him a cheery wave.
“Is it noon already?” He looked up at the clock overhead.
“Huhm.” He furrowed his brow for a long moment, then shook it off. “How was your weekend? You attended the festival, I trust?”
I nodded again. “Did you go?”
“Ah,” he said with the kind of smile that is meant to comfort someone else. “No, dear. Just isn’t the same without Louisa. It was always her favorite.”
“I know how much she loved it.”
“But I hope that you and your cohorts—the young and the restless of Tuttle Corner—stayed out late and made it a night to remember!”
“Yeah,” I said vaguely. Dr. H thought I was much more social than I actually was, often asking about what I did over the weekends, then launching into some story from his wild youth. But while I liked Dr. H very much, I didn’t talk to him about my personal life, such as it was. I assumed he’d heard the gossip about Ryan leaving me and would have definitely noticed that the pop-in visits from him had stopped abruptly several months ago, but it was fine by me to have it all go unsaid.
Dr. H, on the contrary, left very little unsaid. I knew all about his time in the war, and how he had served as the cook for the Sixty-eighth Infantry Division, and the time he met Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward in a café in Kansas City, and how he loved cinnamon rolls but how his late wife never let him eat them, and every time he tried
to, she’d snatch them away from him and screech, “I’m not going to end up married to a potbellied pig!”
Louisa passed away two years ago, and even though I know he missed her very much, he said the silver lining was that now he could have all the cinnamon rolls he wanted.
Dr. H could always find the silver lining, even in something as sad as losing your wife of forty-three years to cancer.
Work passed quickly, a steady stream of people filtering in and out of our little library. For a small town, Tuttle Corner had an especially fantastic and well-used library. It was housed in a stately plantation home circa 1821, with large white columns and a covered porch outfitted with rocking chairs and ceiling fans to cool our patrons who chose to read al fresco. It was actually a privately owned public library, bequeathed through a trust set up in 1916 by the town’s then-wealthiest resident, Morris Flynn. Disgusted by his family’s greed, Flynn left his considerable fortune to the library trust and specified in great detail how the money was to be used to “advance the residents of Tuttle County by providing a place to seek knowledge and truth only available through the study and love of books.” It drew people in not just from Tuttle Corner, which had a population of only twelve thousand, but from the surrounding county, which was a much larger geographic region comprised of several tiny rural municipalities. We were proud to have served more than fifty-four percent of the county’s population, according to a survey Tabitha sent out last year.
After the midday rush (three people returning DVDs, two on the internet-access computers, and two using our study rooms), things were quiet, so I checked my phone to see if my mom had texted me Jordan’s mom’s number yet. She had. Not wanting to lose momentum on my new life plan, I was about to call when I heard the distinctly disappointed sound of Dr. H’s voice.
“Ahem.” He stared at the phone in my hand, bushy eyebrows up, lips pursed. Dr. H did not approve of cell phones at work.
“Sorry,” I said, slipping my phone back into my pocket.
He shook his head. “I know it’s the wave of the future, but I can’t help but blame those things for the collapse of—”
“Um, Dr. H?” I cut him off. I was not up for one of his twenty-minute lectures on the dismal state of communication among Millennials. “Is everything all right?”
“Yes, of course, dear. Why do you ask?”
“No reason.” I lifted a book from the pile in front of me.“I was just surprised to see you here so early this morning.”
“Yes, that. Well, I was having trouble sleeping last night and finally decided to get up, get dressed, and come into work. You know what they say about the early bird and so forth.”
We regularly found Dr. H asleep among the large-print section on slow days, and as a professor of library science at Cardwell College, he had a reputation for falling asleep during his own classes—once in the middle of his own lecture on preservation in the digital age. So if he came into work because he couldn’t sleep, something must have been troubling him. And then there was the closed door. I’d been working here for almost a year full-time and summers before that, and Dr. H had never once closed his door.
“So,” he said, “if it’s all right with you, I think I’ll nip out a little early today.”
“Of course. I’ll lock up.”
With Dr. H gone for the day and less than ten minutes till closing, I decided it would be all right if I called Mrs. James. I hoped I could call Jordan next and maybe even set up a lunch for later this week.
“Hello?” It sounded like the Mrs. James I remembered but with a little age on her.
“Hi, Mrs. James. This is Riley Ellison.” I paused and waited for her reaction. I’d seen her from time to time after high school, and while she was always friendly, I never knew if she had hard feelings about how I’d treated Jordan.
At first there was no response. I started to panic that maybe she did have hard feelings. After all, I’d lied to her daughter and let her down in a major way. Granted it was years ago, but I knew the pain I’d caused had not only hurt Jordan but her parents as well.
At the end of our junior year, Jordan was nominated for a National Scholastic Press Association award, basically the Pulitzer Prize for student journalists. Jordan invited me
to go with her and her parents to the awards ceremony. I’d been touched and gladly agreed. But I found out later that Ryan had gotten us tickets for the Black Eyed Peas concert on the same night. It was the stupid and selfish decision of a lovesick seventeen-year-old, but I blew off Jordan’s ceremony, telling her I had the stomach flu. I couldn’t even enjoy the concert, but Ryan’s stupid friend Todd posted a picture of us at the show on Facebook that made it look like we were having a blast without a care in the world. I’ll never forget what Jordan wrote in the comments section. Yeah, u look super sick. I apologized over and over and she eventually forgave me on the surface, but our friendship had never been the same since. Hopefully, that was all about to change.
But Mrs. James’s pause made me worry. I wasn’t good with confrontation, so I debated whether I should babble out an explanation or just hang up, when I heard what sounded like a strangled sob on the other end of the phone.
“Riley?” Mrs. James asked, her voice quiet and gravelly. I suddenly got the feeling her tone had nothing to do with high school injustices.
“Mrs. James, is everything okay? I was just calling to get Jordan’s number. I know it’s been a while since—”
She sniffed loudly, then her voice became fuller. “You haven’t heard then?”
“She…Jordan…” She started to explain but couldn’t finish her sentence. I heard a series of rapid breaths and sniffs. I waited till they slowed and steeled myself against whatever it was that had stolen her words. In a scratchy voice that came out just above a whisper, she said, “She’s gone.”
“What?” I gasped, my own voice barely audible. Jordan was gone? As in dead? The tone of Mrs. James’s voice told me that must be it. But when? How? “What happened?”
“That’s the worst part,” she said, the words darting out in staccato. “They—the sheriff—told me she did it…herself. When she didn’t come in for work this morning, they checked her apartment and found her…an empty insulin bottle next to her…she was already” She broke off into heavy sobs, and I pressed the phone close to my ear, as if this would make it easier to absorb what she was saying.
It didn’t make any sense. The Jordan I knew would never have killed herself. Then again, the Jordan I knew played with Polly Pockets. The reality was that I hadn’t known the grown-up Jordan at all. My last recollection of her was from the Tuttle High graduation night lock-in. She’d been on the decorating committee. I remember her saying hello as Ryan and I walked in. I told her how much I liked the balloons. She’d told me it took three tanks of helium to fill them all up. And that was probably the longest conversation I’d had with her since the tenth grade.
“I’m so sorry,” I finally managed. “I had no idea….”
“Robert and I just don’t understand,” she said. “Everything seemed fine—better than fine, really. She had a good job at the Times, an adorable little place in West Bay, she just rescued another dog…and her diabetes was under control with the pump, so she’d never give herself an extra insulin shot…unless it was…because she wanted to…” It sounded almost like she was talking more to herself than to me, asking questions to which she would likely never know the answer—and probably didn’t want to. I felt terrible for having inserted myself into this intimate moment when I’d abandoned my friendship with Jordan years ago.
I had no right to grieve for her, and certainly not in front of her mother.
“Mrs. James, I am so incredibly sorry. I’ll let you go—”
“No, no, please,” she said. “I’m glad you called. I was actually thinking about you earlier today…about how you and Jordan used to…” She broke off again, but I knew what she was going to say. A memory, fresh and vivid, flooded my mind of a twelve-year-old Jordan and me sitting in my room huddled over my laptop giggling as we wrote what would be out first column together for the Tuttle Junior High newspaper. Back then I believed I was destined to become a famous obituarist like my granddad, and Jordan was going to be a Pulitzer Prize–winning investigative reporter. We came up with the idea to write an obituary section in the school paper filled with obituaries—not of people, but of things: annoying sayings, fashion trends that needed to die, even the occasional farewell to a particularly gross cafeteria offering. Our first piece, on the death of the phrase “That’s hot,” was a huge hit, and the Obit Girls were cemented into the history books at Tuttle Junior High. Subsequent runs featured goodbye tributes to velour tracksuits, Crocs ’n socks, Snuggies, and mystery-meat Taco Tuesdays.
Mrs. James took a breath to compose herself and said, “Do you think maybe you could help me write her obituary?”
“Oh, um,” I stammered awkwardly. I couldn’t possibly help with Jordan’s obit. For starters, I didn’t even know her anymore. And secondly, I wasn’t a professional writer. I’d
switched majors from journalism to English after Granddaddy died. I vowed never to write obituaries—or anything else for a newspaper again—after I’d written my infamous op-ed piece on Granddaddy’s death.
“Please, Riley?” Mrs. James pleaded. Her voice, so full of sadness and loss, crept inside my chest and tugged at me from within. “I just can’t do it myself. Just the thought of sitting down to write those words.”
“Wouldn’t you rather have someone at the Times do it?”
“No.” Her tone left no room for argument. “It has to be written by someone who knew the real her. I know you two weren’t close recently, but you knew her. Really knew her. If this is to be her last—” She stopped herself, gathering strength to speak the next words. “If this is how people will remember her, it has to tell the real story of who Jordan was. Especially since….”
She could not finish her sentence. Especially since the cause of death was suicide. Her mother couldn’t bear to let a stranger poke around in Jordan’s life and stumble across whatever it was that made living unbearable enough to leave the world in that way. I understood. I understood better than anyone. And of course, Mrs. James knew I would.
“Your grandfather—” she started to say.
“My granddad taught me many things,” I said quietly, “but his craft wasn’t one of them.” This was a lie. My grandpa taught me everything he knew about obituary writing.
“Please,” she said.
My mind flashed back to Mrs. James making Jordan and me pitchers of lemonade to sell on the corner, Mr. James raking up enormous leaf piles and letting us jump in, joking he was going to lock us in the house until we were thirty whenever the slightly older Dunn boys from next door asked if they could jump too. I remembered that Jordan was an only child, just like me. I allowed myself to imagine how my parents would feel if they lost me. I agreed to write the obituary a half-second later.
Copyright © 2017 Jill Orr.
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Jill Orr has written features and a parenting column for COMO Living Magazine (formerly Columbia Home) in her hometown of Columbia, Missouri, for more than ten years, and her humor essays are found on her blog, An Exercise in Narcissism. The Good Byline is her first book.