Ryan Garrity, winner of two Silver Stars, lost an eye and his dream of an Army career on a battlefield in Korea while leading a selected band of cowards in an experimental unit into combat. The soldier who saved his life also carried three other seriously wounded comrades to safety, but strangely his nomination for a Medal of Honor was squelched. In delving into the reason why, Ryan discovers there is such a thing as artificial courage.
He was halfway through the final chapter of 'A Nurse Was Called' when Mrs.
Garmeis came through the door as she did every morning at exactly 10 o'clock; this time carrying a white box from Karp's Bakery, bound with blue and white string in her left hand. He tried not to be annoyed.
From the moment he awoke this morning, he had felt inexplicably antsy as though something was about to happen in his life that he had no way of anticipating or worse controlling. He couldn't believe that his need to finish 'A Nurse Was Called' could be the source of his unease. Now Mrs. Garmeis was fluttering into the store breaking his concentration just as he was about to find out who killed Nurse Madison's patient. The pressing goal of finishing the book had interrupted his daily routine of blazing through the newspapers, The Daily Mirror, the New York Times and the Herald Tribune.
She flipped the red sign with its big white letter hanging on the glass of the front door from CLOSED to OPEN, turned and said over her shoulder: "Where's your happy face?" She raised her arms high, turned her face upwards, and sang "Oh how we danced."
"The Anniversary Song," he called getting up to greet her with the smile she demanded every morning. Mrs. Garmeis was an irrepressible singer whose life was a musical starring Mollie Garmeis.
"Happy second anniversary, Ryan," she said as she twirled past the front counter and up the four steps to the Garden Room in the rear of the store. She returned a few minutes later with a tray carrying two pieces of apple kuchen and two cups of coffee.
"Thank you Mrs. Garmeis." The regulars and the mailman and the deliverymen called her Mollie, but to him she was Mrs. Garmeis and always would be. He ignored her many invitations to cross the line to address her as Mollie. This formality was instilled in his childhood when he came to Kips Bay Books at least once a week to visit his grandparents, always getting a lollypop from her, always saying: 'Thank you, Mrs. Garmeis.' His grandparents had sold the bookstore to him for the cost of inventory with only one proviso, that Mrs. Garmeis would be employed there for as long as she wanted the job.
She sat in the high-backed oak armchair, his grandfather's favorite and now hers, angled for easy views of the front counter and Lexington Avenue outside, sipping coffee, eating the kuchen, baked that morning at Karp's across Lexington Avenue from Kips Bay Books. "I ordered three dozen cupcakes for tonight." Normally a dozen was adequate, but tonight they had been expecting a larger turnout.
'Didn't she ever listen to the weather report?' he asked that place inside his head where we all ask questions like that. The WOR morning show had reported that heavy snow was on the way. He had heard it and he knew that she listened to WOR religiously as she and her husband, Irv, ate breakfast.
Mollie loved yellow cake cupcakes with chocolate fudge icing and chocolate cupcakes with vanilla buttercream icing. His grandparents, Brendan and Laura Garrity, had served tea, coffee and cupcakes since they initiated the monthly Mystery Night in 1938. Mrs. Garmeis was a traditionalist, who didn't like change so when Ryan announced that he was adding cheese and kielbasa on toothpicks with red and white wines to the menu, she told him he was making a mistake and called his grandmother to complain. His irritation over that lasted less than a day. She was too nice, too hard a worker, too much a part of his growing up to be resented for being Mollie Garmeis.
The bells over the front door tinkled. Mrs. Garmeis was out of her chair as though it were the sound of a starting gun. Her kuchen was half eaten, her coffee half drunk. She worked so enthusiastically at sales and customer service that casual shoppers assumed she owned the store. The customer was a tall man in a tweed overcoat, who had taken off his fedora to speak to her. She walked back to her chair, saying to Ryan. "One of yours."
"I called yesterday about the Teddy Roosevelt book." The man's eyes were drawn to, and quickly averted from, the scar that ran as a crescent-shaped ridge of flesh from the lower edge of Ryan's left eye to his jaw.
"Ah yes! Theodore Roosevelt's 'Through the Brazilian Wilderness.'" Ryan went around the counter, He held up the heavily-bound book. "I've been meaning to read this for months and now it's going to float out of my hands into your library."
The customer smiled, looking down at 'Through the Brazilian Wilderness' laid before him on the counter. Ryan's comment had added to the value of the book.
He rang up the sale.
Snow began falling at 3 o'clock around the time he resumed reading 'A Nurse Was Called.' The book worked right to the end giving Ryan the pleasure of knowing that he could recommend it to the mystery aficionados who would come tonight to the gathering in the Garden Room at the back of the store. His grandparents had installed four arm chairs and two couches for the regulars in the Garden Room whose French doors opened onto a small patio surrounded by flowering bushes in the tiny backyard. There was a core of eight, three married couples and two widows, who were there every month, thrilled to be meeting an author and ready to buy an autographed book. None ever seemed to have read the mystery of the month in advance. Along with the eight regulars another dozen or so drop-ins could be expected to show up, usually friends and relatives of the writer or passers by on Lexington Avenue who had seen the placard with the name of the book and picture of the author announcing the event in the front window of Kips Bay Books.