Middle Grade – Contemporary Detective/Portal Fantasy – 60,000 words
(suitable for ages 12+, PG, serious, fun, seriously funny, some mildly mature/suggestive scenes – sample subject to edits)
If Dr. Who & Sherlock had a teenage daughter, you’d end up with a parallel world-hopping detective story:
Marisol Lee wants to become a detective (not a thief) but when she impulsively steals a rare book from the mysterious man in black, her friend and mentor, the bookseller Mrs. Henley goes missing. Marisol feels responsible and decides to compete with the police detectives assigned to solving the case. Along the way, she travels into the magical world of books – gathering clues scattered throughout a variety of literary story-worlds.
fairies, I mean pixies.
The Girl Who Read
Marisol Lee wanted to be a detective, not a thief. Yet here she was, despite her better judgement, stealing for the first time in her life. She had never stolen anything and had never wanted to, no matter how badly she may have thought she needed something – so today seemed like a very bad time to start…
When Marisol first walked into the Bookweaver, she saw a strange man standing at the register near the back of the shop. He had just dropped a large stack of moldy brown books on top of the battered oak counter and leaned in toward the kindly old bookseller, Mrs. Henley, in what Marisol judged to be a very un-kindly manner.
He must have said something rude too, because the old woman wrinkled her nose at the man before gingerly lifting the cover of the nearest old book with a pinky finger. Apparently, a quick glance was all it took – Mrs. Henley narrowed her shrewd eyes and let the cover drop again with a soft dusty thud. Then she said something to the man that he clearly didn’t like, but Marisol couldn’t discern his mumbled reply which reverberated in the still air of the bookshop.
There was definitely something menacing about him, but Marisol knew that Mrs. H could take care of herself. Besides, situations like this one weren’t at all uncommon in the Bookweaver. Mrs. Henley had a reputation for buying ridiculously obscure books that nobody else cared about – which brought all sorts of characters through her door. So the situation wasn’t all that unusual, and the store currently swarmed with all manner of eclectic shoppers, sellers, and just-browsers.
Privately, Marisol felt that weirdness was a prerequisite for showing an interest in very old books – because it always seemed to be the weirdos that collected, sold, and sought them out.
The people currently gathered in the store did nothing to change her mind on this point. Take, for instance, the pale woman in a green dress and floppy bucket hat in the back corner. She could have been a 1920’s flapper, transported more than a century forward in time. Or, much more likely, she was an actress from one of the nearby theatres. Either way, the woman was up to something. She flipped through the pages of a bridal magazine with exaggerated care, indicating that she didn’t feel as relaxed on the inside as she tried to appear on the outside. And she kept stealing urgent glances toward the front of the store every now and again.
Whatever the woman’s motive, Marisol had a more pressing case to solve, and picked her way slowly toward the counter, keeping her eyes on the thick and ancient-looking books. But the gold lettering on their cracked spines was too faint to make out clearly. Not from where she was standing. Maybe if she could get closer?
The oddness of those books baited her curiosity and she wanted to ask Mrs. Henley about them once the man left. But he wasn’t leaving just yet, and the bookseller probably wouldn’t tell her much about them anyway. The old woman never spoke about her private business matters, even though Marisol wasn’t a girl that was afraid of asking questions. Well, there were often times when a detective had to be patient. And there were other ways to get answers.
Pretending to browse the conveniently located romance novels in the middle of the bookstore gave her a chance to scope out the scene as it played out. Yet, no matter how hard she strained her ears, she was unable to gain any clues from the muffled conversation. Even so, one thing was clear: it didn’t sound like either one of them was very happy with the direction the transaction was taking.
Still, there were things that a careful detective could observe – such as the strange man. He was old, but not quite as old as the bookseller. Reminiscent of an old-timey English gentleman, in a charcoal suit and black overcoat, with black hair that was long, wavy, and a touch too oily. Along with a well-groomed goatee and moustache that further darkened his face. It was a style of facial hair that might have been quite popular when steam-engines were still a thing. Or perhaps the man was some kind of aging hipster, or an artist, but she doubted it. There was no denying that he seemed out of place, even compared to the Book-weaver’s usual customers. No, this guy could have come straight out of Jack the Ripper’s London.
Marisol edged even closer, but by then the quiet conversation between the man and Mrs. Henley was over. He turned, slipping something into a coat pocket before crisply marching toward the exit.
On his way out he gave Marisol a passing glare, his black eyes shining through the gloomy darkness that seemed to cling to him. Then, he was out the door and, with a flourish of his long coat, disappeared past the window and into the busy street outside.
The bookseller’s expression seemed strained – frightened even – as Marisol approached the counter. But the old woman’s face lit up when she recognized the girl standing there in her hooded red wool coat and black boots.
Mrs. Henley, who looked a little bit like Santa’s wife, Ms. Claus, said, ‘Hello dear.’ And, ‘Aren’t you looking lovely today?’
Marisol allowed herself a small grin, already trying to forget about that man in black. After all, the anticipation of reading a long awaited book was what brought her here in the first place. It was her mission, in fact. Last Friday, in this very store, she had traded in a stack of old but well-cared-for novels, coming away with just enough money to buy a new release.
The bookseller tut-tutted to herself and began fussing over a pile of old paperbacks behind the counter.
Mrs. Henley was like that – a nice word, a nicer gesture, kind as you please. Marisol had grown tremendously fond of her over the years. The woman had become a literary-mentor, of sorts. A friend even. Someone to confide in when her friends or parents didn’t (or couldn’t) understand what she was going through. Never prying. Never judging. Well, never judging too harshly, and only prying just far enough to discover the root of the problem.
In fact, Mrs. Henley was always looking out for her. Even at that very moment. Whenever Marisol bought a “modern book”, Mrs. H would push a battered old copy of a classic over the counter, free of charge. And every time, Marisol would inevitably slip it into her backpack without complaint – because she loved both new and old stories. After all, it was Sherlock Holmes that inspired her to become the greatest detective in the world.
Rising up from behind the counter, Mrs. Henley slid a dog-eared copy of Classic Works of Poetry in Marisol’s direction. ‘I think you’ll like those my dear. You probably know some of them already, but they might come in handy someday.’
She wanted to ask Mrs. Henley what that meant, but her eyes were drawn to the stack of leather-bound books on the counter. The bookseller noticed, moving to scoop them up and whisk them away.
Marisol might as well be counted among the shop’s weirdos too, because she was also interested in the rare old books that Mrs. Henley couldn’t avoid purchasing from random creeps. But it was a curiosity that the bookseller didn’t approve of, for some reason, and that made Marisol want to read them all the more.
The woman gave her the sort of disapproving look that, on a typical day, brooked no argument, but today Marisol felt particularly bold. Nodding toward the old books, she said, ‘Are these for your private collection then? You told me once that you had some kind of a special library, upstairs? Right?’
Mrs. Henley cast a critical eye over her reading glasses, ‘Yes, but you wouldn’t find these very interesting… not until you’re a smidge older my dear.’
‘Sex is it?’ Marisol asked casually, but regretted her statement immediately. The topic didn’t embarrass her in the slightest – however, it never failed to embarrass other people.
There may have been a blush under Mrs. Henley’s usually ruddy cheeks, her mouth hanging open a fraction.
Marisol cut in quickly, ‘Because I’m not interested in that. I mean, I know that people do… uh… but I really don’t care about that kind of thing.’
Mrs. Henley’s power of speech finally returned to her. ‘I mean… well no… of all the things to say, young lady.’
‘Whatever is in those books, I can handle it. I read weird novels all the time. Lots of crazy stuff goes on in some of them,’ she said defiantly. Her parents had never restricted her from reading any kinds of books – even when they were gross.
Mrs. Henley’s eyes hardened a fraction. ‘Marisol, please. I’ll hear no more about it. When you’re older, I promise that you… but you’re simply too young for such things!’
As much as Marisol loved Mrs. Henley, in the end, the old woman was still an adult. And like almost all adults (including her own well-meaning parents) Mrs. H constantly underestimated her.
The bookseller switched to a more conciliatory tone as Marisol’s face tightened. ‘Now my dear. Are you sure that you want the fantasy this week? Not another detective novel? Some C.S. James perhaps?’
Marisol had come for new books, not to argue over ancient ones, so she appreciated the chance to change the subject. ‘You don’t happen to have the new J.K.R. Toltin, do you? It’s only… I’ve been dying to read it.’
In fact, she had been anxiously anticipating the latest installment in the series of books that featured Halflings attending a school for geo-politically ambitious wizards.
The bookseller said, ‘Oh, I see. Very well then. The new releases came in just this morning, but I haven’t had time to unpack them yet. Wait here a moment and I’ll go get one from the storage room… a softcover, yes?’
Mrs. Henley nodded, exiting through a sturdy door behind the counter and down some stairs.
The instant the bookseller was out of sight, Marisol leaned over and lifted the cover of the large brown book at the top of the pile. It smelled of dust and old glue, the pages thick, yellow and wavy – which implied time spent in damp conditions. Marisol had seen damage like that before and it pained her to see a good book ruined.
The printing on the title page was fancy and foreign-looking – maybe German or Latin, but she didn’t have time to examine the words more closely because she could already hear Mrs. Henley’s footsteps echoing with increasing insistence back up the stairs.
And that was when she saw it: a small, slender, red leather-bound book with a strange flower-like symbol embossed on the cover. It was wedged halfway between two of the old dusty tomes and Marisol knew it was special the moment she saw it.
Her next move wasn’t planned, precisely, but before she knew why, exactly, she was tugging the red book free and surreptitiously slipping it between the pages of Classic Works of Poetry.
Just then, Mrs. Henley emerged from the stockroom, and Marisol – usually cool as a cucumber – slammed her hand guiltily down on the cover of the book of poetry.
Mrs. Henley shook her head with a tsk, and said, ‘You had a peek, didn’t you?’
Marisol gulped, setting her expression into what she hoped would be seen as a flat neutral mask. It was a skill that she relied on often. ‘Yes… I’m really sorry… I might have lifted a cover, or something…’ Her body, meanwhile, was doing its best to betray her calm expression, her heart thumping and skin tingling as a warm flush crept up from her toes.
Mrs. Henley rang up the softcover with agonizing slowness as Marisol began to sweat. She suddenly felt overdressed in her black tights and turtleneck sweater-dress. Even worse, she already deeply regretted what she’d just done and found herself wondering if time could be reversed somehow. But it was too late. A smiling Mrs. Henley passed the new novel, along with a receipt, over the counter.
As calmly as she could, Marisol unslung her canvas backpack and stuffed everything into it without looking.
Mrs. Henley glanced at the stack of ancient books, then back at Marisol. ‘No harm done, dear… see you next week?’
Marisol nodded, mumbling her thanks while trying to think of plausible reasons for returning the next day. Or, what if she were to suddenly “accidentally” drop her backpack and toss the small red book behind the counter while Mrs. H was distracted? She could pretend that this whole thing had never happened, and the plan could even work… in a book, or a tv show, but not in real life.
She made her way out the store hastily, only dimly aware of the disheveled, dark-haired Asian man who nearly smashed into her in the doorway. Or was it the other way around?
Who cared just then? The whole world got to be rude all the time, and today it was her turn. She gave the man a glare of her own as she slipped into the cool air outside.
And, as if her day wasn’t bad enough already, she took note of a young, swarthy man across the street. Sitting on a motorcycle and looking. At her. Or maybe the bookstore? He was staring with an intensity that she found more than a little disturbing. But it wasn’t dark out yet, and the sidewalk was full of people, so she figured the guy was just your typical (and hopefully harmless) creeper-type.
Walking away, Marisol tried her best to forget about him, and after a few minutes was almost certain that he wasn’t following. But she still felt out of sorts. Sweat was gathering underneath her long, dark hair and chilling rapidly in the fall breeze. A discreet swipe of her cuff took care that, but her face still felt clammy and sticky.
She tried to shake off the tight coils of guilt slowly wrapping their way around her chest, shuddering as she passed a under a statue of the Virgin Mary outside an old church. It was an outsized reaction because Marisol wasn’t particularly religious. Her parents had been hippies (if you believed their stories) and had chosen to name her Marisol just because they liked how it sounded. But she knew through diligent research that the name had a Spanish origin, meaning Mary of the Solitude.
That fit, she thought, but not the Mary part – things were just easier without a lot of friends around her all the time. Some people needed to socialize constantly, but she preferred a balance. After all, one needed a certain amount of peace to read.
A short while later, almost unaware of how she’d arrived, Marisol found herself trundling toward the small apartment that she shared with her parents overtop a small grocer’s. She waved to Mr. G (who was tending to the vegetables out front) and opened the side door that led up to number 33½.
Her legs felt heavy climbing the narrow steps and her hands shook as she dug the keys out of her backpack. So much so that she ended up nicking the apartment door – which was well weathered, but sturdy. The veteran of many tenants, the door had become well accustomed to accidental abuse. Its entire surface bore a litany of small dents and spots where the paint had chipped off. Each divot revealed a long history of overlapping colours, like the rings on the stump of a tree. She imagined that the layers could tell the story of the previous owners – if only she knew how to interpret the subtle variations.
But that was just nonsense, wasn’t it?
Once inside, Marisol could tell the apartment was empty. And when she flipped on the lights, she found a note propped up on the scarred Formica kitchen table, along with a plate of pasta wrapped in cling-film.
‘Went for a walk in the park. Dinner on the table (obviously), back by ten. Love M+D. xoxo’ and ‘P.S. Don‘t stay up too late.’
Marisol felt a wave of relief, not wanting to see anyone just then. Least of all her parents.
She sat down and ate her pasta, cold and quickly, before washing up and retiring to her room – which was small and a bit cramped. Her mother had painted it light-green two years ago, in the happier times before Marisol had become a sneak-thief. Art-posters covered most of the far wall, framing a tiny window. And the sides of the room were lined with sturdy shelves that her father built for her, filled to overflowing with books and the odd few just-for-fun things that she permitted herself to have. Even more books were stuffed under the bed. More again in piles around the perimeter of the room. In the closet they vied for space in competition with her clothes. Only a small writing desk with a mirror hanging from the wall behind it was relatively free and clear (or very nearly so), because she did need space to do her homework.
Marisol threw her backpack onto the desk, flopping heavily onto the bed, drawing her legs up and wrapping her arms around her knees – every so often glancing at the backpack.
Nuts, what now?
There were a couple of messages waiting on her phone, but they could be safely ignored. No emails or calls from a furious Mrs. Henley. Just a few texts from her friends, who’d gone out tonight. But she had passed on their invitation. Friday night. Marisol had just wanted to get home and start reading her new fantasy novel.
Now she couldn’t bear the thought. The only thing that mattered anymore was the red book. And… now that she’d stolen it, of all the things she could have done, she might as well have a peek.
Pulling the backpack onto the bed, she removed the new novel first, setting it aside and feeling as though it had been tainted by her recent actions. Then came the book of poetry, which sent her heart racing because it was lumpy, from what was still inside it.
With a sigh, she slid the slim tome out from its hiding place, feeling as if it might burn her hands. But after all, it was just a book. One whose cover had been dyed a deep red and lightly embossed with a… flower? Or a thistle? She couldn’t decide which as she ran her thumb over the soft ridges.
It wasn’t modern a book, that was for sure. It could easily have been as old as the mouldy brown ones it had been wedged between. And it was so small – so who could possibly miss it? Except for the troubling man in black, or a very disappointed Mrs. H?
The man might have already discovered his error, and could come looking for it tomorrow. Tonight even. Before the bookstore closed? Should she hurry back?
Well, it was cold, and dark, and… she would head straight down to the Bookweaver in the morning. Her prized fantasy novel could be returned, unopened and unread. Marisol would make some lame excuse about needing the money. It was the best reason that she could come up with that didn’t require revealing the truth.
But, the morning was a long way off and nobody could blame her for having a quick read. There didn’t appear to be that many pages in the red book anyway.
She opened the cover carefully, but the old leather was surprisingly supple and the pages felt soft, almost like the paper that money used to be printed on.
The title page was handwritten, in thick black ink: The Red Book of Doors. And below that, in an intricately delicate print, read: – as recorded by Gerbert Fenollar.
The reverse side of the page was blank, and the next page had nothing but a large symbol – its edges ragged and wispy. As if painted with a brush. The symbol itself might have represented a bishop’s hat. An elongated pentagon with the longer pointy end facing the top of the page. From the peak, down, ran a line of the same thickness as the pentagon, extending slightly more than halfway before terminating in a small circle. And that was it.
The shape was depressingly ordinary, yet mysterious – and a fleeting inkling of what it might mean began to form at the back of her mind… but then it was gone.
The back of the next page had the exact same symbol drawn on it. As did the next. She flipped through, more and more quickly. Every page the same. And there weren’t that many of them – twelve in total. The back of the very last one was blank. She flipped through again.
Twelve pages and twenty-one identical symbols. Nothing else.
Now she was feeling foolish. The symbols, while tantalizingly familiar, meant nothing.
Perhaps Mrs. Henley could be convinced that Marisol had picked it up by accident? That she hadn’t noticed that it was inside the book of poetry. They could laugh off the whole thing. Maybe. No harm done, except for the grand-larceny.
Who would even steal a book like this? The Red Book of Doors had be some kind of crazy… she didn’t know what exactly, but it was crazy. And whoever Gerbert Fenollar was, he must have been off his rocker to create such a thing. Yet, the Red Book of Doors had to go back, so it went into her backpack along with the new release and a pang of regret.
After that, she got ready for sleep.
Her dreams that night were vivid, but dissipated like smoke upon waking, quickly fading from memory. She remembered running – through doors, windows, and even curtains, but didn’t know if she had been running away from something or towards it.
Whatever, she’d head back to the Bookweaver after breakfast and be done with the bad dreams and all the rest of it.
Padding quietly into the bathroom, she showered quickly and then got dressed in her room. Her closet was packed tightly, arranged by colour, everything in its proper order. Marisol preferred to wear variations on a single theme rather than worry too much about picking a particular outfit. Today she wore a light grey sweater-dress, with a low collar, and charcoal-grey tights. Plus her black boots and backpack.
Her parents were unusually quiet when she entered the kitchen, both of them eyeing her with troubled expressions. They hadn’t been this somber since shutting down her somewhat ill-conceived, total-failure of a detective agency…
Two summers ago, Marisol had gone into business. Sort of. Uncharacteristically, she’d done so without telling her parents. Mainly because it seemed like such a good idea that they couldn’t possibly object. There was no logical reason for them to have any sort of problem with it. After all, Marisol had thought of everything. There’d even been online ads: Marisol Lee – Detective Agency – with a picture of her hers-truly, deep in the shadows of the stairwell, her coat flaring, and only the glint of her sharp eyes visible.
It didn’t take long to find her first (and last) client either; an estranged husband aiming to get some saucy information on his soon-to-be ex-wife. However, when the forty-four year old man showed up at their apartment door, her father threw a fit. The frightened man (who really had no idea that she was eleven at the time) retreated with a flurry of confused apologies and pleas for restraint. Her father followed the man down the stairs anyway. Yelling and threatening to call the police, while her mother sobbed into her hands with her back up against the fridge. It was the first and only time in her life that she had been grounded.
As the moment of silence stretched on, Marisol snapped out of her thoughts, and asked, ‘What?’
Her mother’s expression scared her a bit. ‘Mrs. Henley…’
Marisol’s heart rate doubled.
Had the man come to the shop? Looking for the red book? Did he make a scene? Had Mrs. Henley called asking about it? Does she even my home number? Think fast…
‘I, uh…’ she said lamely, but nothing clever came to mind.
Her father’s next statement really got her attention: ‘Mrs. Henley’s gone missing.’
Marisol felt a dull dread spreading throughout her body.
‘Yes,’ continued her father with an edge to his voice. ‘It’s been all over the local news, her bookstore has been vandalized and, the police are there now, apparently.’
Marisol sat down heavily on a kitchen chair. ‘Mrs. Henley… missing?’
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