By the Book: Mystery Short Story

Nov 13, 2021 | 2021 Articles, Mysteryrat's Maze, Terrific Tales

by Rhett Shepard

“Tell me,” said Sheriff Joe Williams, “why you think your copy of Moby Dick got stolen and why you thought a missing book was important enough for you to call me.” He pointed at a volume on the nearby coffee table. “Isn’t this it, right here?”

“No, it’s not!” snapped Cheryl Cummins. She hadn’t meant to speak rudely to the sheriff—she was just frustrated.

“Cheryl’s copy was a valuable first edition,” offered her friend and fellow librarian Mercy Meraldo.

“It was an extremely valuable author-signed first edition,” added Cheryl’s sister Debra.

“This,” pointed out Cheryl as she picked up the old leather-bound novel and opened it to the title page, “is not Herman Melville’s signature. I don’t know whose it is, but somebody else signed his name here. Furthermore”—she flipped to the copyright page, to show its publication date—“this is only a third edition.”

“A fish story if I ever heard one.” Williams chuckled. His laughter halted when he looked around the trio and saw that none of the women were amused. He cleared his throat. “So…when did you notice that the switch had been made, with this copy substituted for yours?”

“I realized it when I went to show it to Mercy after she arrived here tonight—it was a recent addition to my collection, and I was excited about it.”

“I was with Cheryl when she bought it, so I’d already seen it,” interjected Debra. “It was a shame Joanne couldn’t make it tonight. She would’ve loved to see it too.”

“And Joanne is…?”

“Joanne Simpson—she works in Debra’s bookstore,” Cheryl told the sheriff. “They sell new and used books. That’s why Debra was with me at the estate sale where I got my copy of Moby Dick—I was looking to add to my personal collection, and she was looking to add inventory to her store. The survivors clearly didn’t know—or appreciate—the value of all they had. We both made some amazing purchases.”

Williams turned and studied Debra. “You didn’t have a disagreement about which of you should be able to buy this book? ‘Extremely valuable author-signed first edition’ and all…,” he quoted back at her.

Debra flushed. “We flipped a coin for it,” she admitted, and then defensively added, “so I knew it was hers, fair and square!”notebook

“Was anyone else supposed to be here tonight?” asked Williams as he turned back to Cheryl.

“Only Joanne—we were supposed to have our usual foursome for bridge, but she came down with the flu today, from what Debra says, so we figured we’d have dinner and a visit anyway.”cards

“Were you at the library all day today?”

“Yes,” Cheryl and Mercy answered together.

“And you’re sure you left your own copy of Moby Dick out on the coffee table when you went to work this morning?”

“Absolutely—I was so happy with it that I looked at it again this morning before I walked out the door.”

“Pride goeth before a fall,” muttered Debra. The other two women and Williams looked askance at her. “What?” she exclaimed. “Don’t tell me you don’t think it was stupid of Cheryl to leave a book worth thousands where anybody looking into the window could see it!”

Still staring at Debra, Williams asked Cheryl, “Anybody else have a key to your door?”keys

“Mercy and Debra both do.” She turned toward the sheriff. “Mercy’s my best friend and Debra’s my sister.”

He nodded sadly. “I know—and I believe I know who stole your copy of Moby Dick.”

Cheryl watched him, perplexed, before understanding suddenly dawned.

“It wasn’t me!” Debra cried.

“He never said it was,” Cheryl replied.

“But…But then….” Debra knitted her brow. “You’re accusing…?” She nodded toward Mercy.

“No, not her.” Cheryl laid a gentle hand on her sister’s arm. “You never could bring yourself to even borrow something from me without asking, could you?”

“What are you talking about?”

“My poor baby sister, so often the undesired beneficiary of my hand-me-downs…. When they weren’t in a style or a color to your liking, you got them anyway, and when they were something you would’ve liked for yourself, they still came to me, nice and brand new, before they finally went to you. All you wanted was to get what you wanted, when you wanted it. Isn’t that right?”

“We’re not talking about a sweater, or a blouse, or a CD you didn’t want anymore, Cheryl. We’re talking about a very valuable book!”

“Yes,” countered Cheryl, “a very valuable book that you and I both wanted, and that you lost out on by a flip of a coin—by chance—sort of like the luck of the draw that made me the older sister and you the younger one.”

“You make it sound so unfair,” interjected Mercy. “But chance is chance—it’s a gamble or a coincidence, not something that can be planned.”

“Okay, so you can’t plan what birth order you’re born in,” Debra muttered, “but you sure as heck can be willing to discuss a difference of opinion rather than insist on flipping a coin and declaring it ‘case closed’!”

“Could we get on with this?” asked Williams. “Cause I’m on the clock, and I’d like to wrap this up as quickly as I can—not sit around nitpicking about sibling jealousies. I get enough of that with my own sister.”

Cheryl turned on him then. “If you think you know who stole my copy of Moby Dick, then you know it has everything to do with sibling jealousies!”

“Nah. I just figured it had to do with the ‘flu.’” Sheriff Williams sketched quotation marks in the air with his fingers. “I figured both of you sisters told your friends about the book because, after all, that’s part of why Cheryl’s friend Mercy and Debra’s friend Joanne were supposed to come here tonight—to see this book for themselves. Since Joanne works in Debra’s bookstore, she likely would’ve had an idea how valuable the book was too, and she could’ve guessed that Debra would have an extra key, or set of keys, to her sister’s home. Voilà!”

“Voilà?” the three women echoed.

“Voilà!” repeated Sheriff Williams. As if to cinch his case, he added, “Of course, she had to say she’d gotten sick with the flu. She felt too guilty to come here tonight and look you all in the eye. Plus,” he lifted a finger to make one more point, “she was the only one of this group you didn’t trust enough to have a house key.” He clapped his hands in a dismissive, cleaning motion. “Case closed,” he said, in an echo of Debra’s previous declaration.

“But how would Joanne know the secret hiding place where my sister keeps that extra set of keys?” Cheryl replied. Then she turned to her sister and asked, simply, “Debra?”

“I never could bring myself to take anything from you.”

“Joanne could, though, couldn’t she?” Cheryl touched her sister’s arm again. It was a touch of sorrow more than sympathy, she reflected. She’d never felt much sympathy for Debra’s poor-little-me attitude and petty jealousies—and didn’t think it was because, as the elder sister, she’d had everything given to her first; she would have always been happy to share, or even just give away one piece or another of her good fortune, if only Debra had asked, rather than brooded silently and resentfully. Things had never mattered to her as much as they had to her sister.

Debra’s shoulders slumped and she let out a sigh. “Okay, yes, I asked Joanne to help—to take my keys and substitute a third edition that I had her try and duplicate Herman Melville’s signature in.”

“Forge it, you mean.” Mercy’s disapproval hardened her voice. She turned to Cheryl. “I’m sorry, but I can’t stand to see a book handled with disrespect.”

“So,” Cheryl continued speaking to her sister, “you asked Joanne to do the dirty work for you.”

Debra nodded reluctantly; her face reflected her discomfort.


“Why what?” Debra asked. “Why did I have Joanne do the job for me? Or why was she willing to do it?”


“I told you. I could never take anything from you—I couldn’t bring myself to do that.”

“How noble.” Sheriff Williams crossed his arms over his chest. “You didn’t want to do the actual stealing or forgery, so you convinced an employee to do it for you. Nice.”

“I paid her a bonus! I made it worth her while.”

“Really?” The lawman lifted his eyebrows in disbelief. “You really thought that you could make crime pay?”

Cheryl moved back toward the coffee table, picked up the fraudulently signed third edition, and thumbed through it. She loved books. She’d loved books and reading for almost as long as she could remember. She could even recall the excitement she’d felt, back in kindergarten, the first time she’d realized that the letters d-o-g spelled dog and that the word represented the kind of animal that barked and wagged its tail. From that moment on, she’d loved words, stories, and books—all books. “You know what?” she said to her sister. “Keep the book.”

“What?” Mercy and Sheriff Williams exclaimed in unison.

“I said, ‘Keep the book,’” Cheryl repeated. “If it’s so important to you that you were willing to compel another person to commit a crime on your behalf, and you were willing to betray your only sister’s trust into the bargain, keep it.” She stood and walked to where Mercy was standing near the sheriff, and stared at Debra who was standing by herself, across the room. In the choice between people and books, there was no contest; she loved books, but, in the end, books were just things. People, and the relationships you had with them, were what was most important.

A lone tear slipped down one of Debra’s cheeks. “I’m sorry,” she said.

“You could fill an entire book with nothing but the words ‘I’m sorry,’” Cheryl whispered as she fought back tears of her own, “and it still wouldn’t make things between us right again.”

Check out other mystery articles, reviews, book giveaways & Halloween mystery short stories in our mystery section. And join our mystery Facebook group to keep up with everything mystery we post, and have a chance at some extra giveaways. Be sure to check out our new mystery podcast too with mystery short stories, and first chapters read by local actors. A new episode went up this week.

Rhett Shepard has published short fiction, novellas, short nonfiction, poetry, and even a few comic books; she also writes as Maggie Adams and Margaret Adams Birth. She’s a native North Carolinian who has lived in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, upstate New York, southern California, a rain forest on the Caribbean island of Trinidad, and now New York City. Her Facebook author page is at

1 Comment

  1. A marvelous mystery story
    Engaging and suspendful


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