Read Mad as Helen Online

Authors: Susan McBride

Mad as Helen

BOOK: Mad as Helen
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Dedication

To Lucia Macro, who makes my work a pleasure.

Hugs!

 

Prologue

T
HE
MINUTE
M
ATTIE
Oldbridge unlocked the front door and stepped inside the house, she sensed something was wrong. She set her overnight bag on the floor, looked around, wrinkled up her nose, and sniffed.

The scent of Pine-Sol from a recent cleaning lingered, as did another smell, one that Mattie couldn’t pinpoint. Or was it only her imagination acting up, like the arthritis in her elbow?

She’d been gone just one evening, after all, spending the night with her nephew’s family in St. Louis. Maybe she was getting dotty in her old age, so comfy in her own home that she didn’t enjoy being away even for a brief spell.

Still, she felt wary as she walked through the house, pausing in the living room to let her spectacled gaze roam. The Steuben pieces her Harvey—God rest his soul—had given to her that last Christmas; hadn’t she left them on the shelf?

And where were the sterling candlesticks they’d bought in Mexico? She could have sworn they’d been on the mantel when she’d left for the city yesterday at dusk.

She toyed with her wedding band as she headed into the kitchen.

Fingers trembling, she removed the ceramic top from a canister marked
SUGAR
.
She peered inside but saw only a lone rubber band and a bit of dust.

She swallowed, and her eyes widened behind her horned rims.

“Oh, no, oh, no,” she murmured as she hurried from one room to the next, discovering objects she’d come to treasure missing from each. Frantically she groped beneath the clothes that filled the upstairs hamper and pulled out her velvet-lined jewelry box. She opened it up.

Empty.

With a whimper, she put it aside.

That strange sensation she’d felt upon entering the house was more than her mind playing tricks. Someone
had
been here during the time she’d been gone. Someone had been in this very room, had stood right where she was now.

The idea of it chilled her from her dove-white head to her sensible shoes.

Without another thought, Mattie got the heck out. Her heart slapping hard against her ribs, she raced the few blocks to Sheriff Biddle’s office. Finding him gone, she hurried across the street to the diner where he ate every other afternoon, as all of River Bend knew.

The crowd of heads turned as she entered. A few friends called out greetings. But Mattie Oldbridge had eyes only for the sheriff. She didn’t notice as the room went quiet. She saw only Biddle as he looked up, his lips puckered to greet a soup spoon poised in midair.

“Good God,” Mattie croaked for everyone to hear, “I’ve been robbed!”

“Robbed?” the crowd echoed.

At which point Mattie nodded and burst into tears.

Biddle dropped his spoon with a clatter, the noise loud against the sudden hush, although the silence was brief enough. Voices rose in a garbled rush. Chairs squeaked and plates rattled as the diner came suddenly alive and Mattie was surrounded.

“Move aside, please, move aside.”

Parting the gawkers like Moses did the Red Sea, Biddle took Mattie’s arm, and she allowed herself to be led away from the pack, out of the diner, across the street, and to his office, where he settled her into the chair across his desk.

“You need some water, Mrs. Oldbridge?”

“No,” she tried to say, but the word that emerged seemed little more than a squeak.

“Would you like my handkerchief?”

That Mattie gratefully accepted, bumping up her glasses to dab at her eyes. She watched him through her tears as he perched on his desk, one leg dangling so that she could see a bit of pale skin above black sock.

“You want to tell me what happened?” he said.

Mattie nodded. “Someone was in my house while I was away.”

Biddle cocked his head. “Are you sure, ma’am?”

“Y-yes,” she stammered, and her eyes filled with tears again. She made a knot of the kerchief with unsteady fingers. “My best things are gone.”

Biddle came off his perch, hiked up his pants below an overlarge belly, and went around his desk to sit down. He pulled out a legal pad and then a pencil, wetting the tip of it with his tongue. “Go on.”

“My candlesticks from Mexico are missing.” Mattie sniffled. “So are my Steuben pieces and a sterling cigarette case.”

Biddle nodded as he wrote.

“He even took the cash I kept in the kitchen.” She sighed absently. “I’ve always put aside a few bills for emergencies ever since Harvey passed.”

“How much?” he asked.

“Oh, several hundred at least,” she guessed.

Biddle let out a low whistle.

“My jewelry’s gone, too, Sheriff,” she went on, and he glanced up from the paper. “I had it stuffed way down in the bathroom hamper. How did they know?”

Biddle shook his head as he wrote. “I thought I warned you ladies about hiding valuables in the hamper after the break-ins at Mavis White’s and Violet Farley’s.”

Mattie shifted in her chair, clutching the kerchief in her lap. “Well, I’d been putting it there for the past fifteen years, and no one’s stolen so much as a hatpin.”

“Any sign of forced entry?”

Mattie closed her eyes to better recall but eventually shook her head. “The door was locked,” she told him. “And I use the heavy-duty dead bolt you recommended when you spoke at my women’s club last year.”

Biddle’s chair squeaked as it released his weight. He stood and slapped on his hat. He had the door open before she’d gotten to her feet. “Let’s go, ma’am,” he told her. “I’d like to take a look for myself.”

By the time Mattie’s favorite soap opera came on, Biddle had walked the well-tended plot around the house half a dozen times. He’d dusted sills and knobs and the mantel for fingerprints—leaving Mattie with a mess to clean up—only to scratch his head when he was done.

“Who was it, Sheriff?” she asked before he got back into his squad car. “Who took my best things? Who got in through the locks?”

He paused on her porch, his square face grim. “I’d say it’s someone who knew what they were doing, ma’am.”

At which point Mattie let out a loud sob.

 

Chapter 1

H
ELEN
E
VANS
AWOKE
with a start.

Hell’s bells, she hadn’t actually dozed off, had she? The crossword from that morning’s
Alton Telegraph
lay in her lap, its squares almost entirely filled with the purple ink she always used precisely for that purpose.

Ah, she remembered now. She’d gotten stuck on a four-letter word for
seabirds.
She’d had the darned thing right there on the tip of her tongue—hang it all, it was in every other puzzle she did!—when she’d put her glasses aside to rub at her eyes, laid back for the briefest of moments, and fell sound asleep.

“Napping,” she clucked, “just like an old person.”

Which, in fact, she was, according to AARP and all those restaurants that gave her their senior citizens’ discounts without even checking her ID.

Well, as they said, getting old was better than the alternative.

Helen slipped her glasses back on and stared down with wrinkled brow at the crossword in her lap. “Erns,” she said aloud just as it came to her. “E-R-N-S,” she spelled and filled in the gap she’d been studying before she’d taken her catnap. All right, so her mind might’ve slowed a bit over the years, but it was still all there.

“If you rest, you rust,” as she’d heard someone say once, and Helen felt the same. She wasn’t about to let any part of her corrode like a metal lawn chair left out in the rain too often.

Her puzzles and bridge games, the quilts she was forever cross-stitching, each kept her too busy to ponder if her bones were turning brittle or if her brain cells were retiring one by one.

Quickly, she finished up the rest of the crossword, setting the folded newspaper aside with a satisfied sigh when she was done.

She removed her specs and glanced up. Through the screens that fenced in her porch, she saw Amber in the grass across the road, chasing a bird or a bug, looking exactly like what he was: an oversized yellow tom.

She smiled at the sight and thought of something her granddaughter, Nancy, had said to her the day before. “Good God, Grandma, but you spoil that cat of yours more than you did any one of us.”

Helen chuckled, deciding the girl was probably right. But then, she had plenty of time to dote on Amber, what with Joe gone and her living by herself.

Plenty of time.

Uh-oh.

She held her watch near enough to read its face without putting on her glasses. She grimaced at the placement of the hands. “Hurry up,” she prodded, “or you’ll be late.”

She hopped off the wicker sofa, grabbing up her purse and hurrying out the door without bothering to lock up. She’d very nearly forgotten what day it was and fairly flew the several blocks to the beauty shop.

Helen arrived at LaVyrle’s Cut ’n’ Curl for her appointment with but a minute to spare. LaVyrle Hunnecker, operator and proprietress, was big on punctuality. “Would you show up late for one of Bertha Beaner’s teas?” Helen had once heard LaVyrle chastise a tardy client, a dark brow lifted beneath her teased web of blond hair. “Or for a physical with Doc Melville?” She’d harrumphed, and the red-cheeked late arrival had sighed in agreement.

The ladies who patronized the place knew good and well how LaVyrle, a strong woman despite her slight stature, could make their half-hour appointment one of misery, dismissing the shampoo girl and using her own steady fingers to tug and pull and wring one’s head with a roughness that left the scalp tingling for a good forty-eight hours after. And Helen, no namby-pamby herself—she couldn’t afford to be at seventy-five and a grandmother of nine—didn’t savor the thought of one of LaVyrle’s vindictive washes today.

She gave a self-conscious pat to her wiry gray hair as she pushed the door open and walked inside. The smell of hairspray and flower-scented shampoo assailed her as she gave the ponytailed receptionist-cum-shampoo-girl a sheepish grin. She hurried past a row of occupied helmet hair dryers and slipped into a chair within eyeshot of the cubicle where LaVyrle worked her magic.

“Good afternoon, everyone,” she said and glanced at the mirrored reflection of LaVyrle, who was giving a final blast of hairspray to the neatly coiffed head of the sheriff’s wife, Sarah Biddle.

LaVyrle grunted and glanced at her wristwatch before muttering, “You know the routine, Mrs. E. Mary will wash up your hair in a sec. I’m done with Mrs. B here. Just have to ring her up at the desk.”

“Well, don’t hurry on account of me.”

LaVyrle brushed at the purple cape draped about Sarah Biddle’s shoulders, unsnapping it and removing it in one quick flick. Then she disappeared from her station with a
rat-a-tat-tat
of high heels; a moment after, Helen heard her giving instructions to Mary in a no-nonsense manner.

“You look lovely, Sarah,” Helen said as the sheriff’s wife craned her neck this way and that to admire her hair in the mirror.

“LaVyrle always does seem to know what suits a person best,” Sarah replied with a satisfied tone.

“I think she must have a sixth sense about her customers,” Helen remarked and set her purse beneath the drawer-lined countertop cluttered with brushes, combs, clips, and curlers, not to mention several bottles of mousse, spritz, and sprays.

A hand grabbed at her, fingers plucking at her warm-up jacket, and Helen straightened to meet Sarah’s buck-toothed face.

“We were just talking, LaVyrle and I, when you came in. . . .”

“Oh?” Helen dared to ask. “About what?”

“Mattie Oldbridge, of course,” Sarah said in a rush, “and how she got robbed the other day while she was in St. Louis with her nephew.”

Though Helen had indeed heard about the incident from Mattie herself, she feigned ignorance so as not to deprive Sarah of the fun of telling the story again.

“Frankie—I mean, the sheriff—he thinks it might’ve been some kids from Green Valley. You know how they like to get drunk and raise a little hell on the weekends. Or it could’ve been that awful Charlie Bryan. That kid’s always up to his ears in trouble.”

“You don’t say?”

Sarah sucked in her breath. “It’s the third burglary in the last couple of months, can you believe? Anyway, Frank thinks they’re pawning the stuff they steal, using the money to buy drugs.”

Helen sighed. “For goodness’ sake.”

Sarah scratched at her long chin. “Frank thinks they must’ve climbed through an open window at Mattie’s, because there was no sign of forced entry. In fact, he said the house was closed up as tight as a drum.” She paused, head cocked. “He figures the window lock must’ve accidentally jarred shut when they left.” She shrugged. “And they’re not taking big things, like TVs or computers, which is strange. It’s like they know exactly what they want, get their hands on it, and leave the same way they came.”

“Any leads?”

“Not a one,” Sarah admitted. “He didn’t find a single fingerprint at Mattie’s house, well, except for Mattie’s. It was the same with the others.” Her eyes returned to her mirrored self, and she fussed with the sweep of hair over her ears. “Who knows, maybe they were smart enough to wear gloves or wiped off what they touched. Anything’s possible these days.”

Helen sighed. “The times are certainly changing, aren’t they? It hardly seems so long ago that locks were out of the ordinary here instead of commonplace.”

“It’s all the drugs,” Sarah said, retrieving her bag from beneath LaVyrle’s countertop. “Frankie says crimes all over have skyrocketed because of people buying crock.”

Helen stifled a grin. “You mean crack?”

“Crock, crack.” The sheriff’s wife wiggled her fingers. “Whatever it’s called, it’s taking this country to hell in a hand basket.” She dug inside her purse and withdrew a pair of bills, leaving them lying atop LaVyrle’s station. With a snap, she shut her bag, and her chin jerked up. “Well, I’ve got some shopping to do.” With a final glance at the mirror and a pat to her hair, she flashed Helen a buck-toothed grin. “See you later.”

“Good-bye, dear.”

A head popped around the corner and a timid voice squeaked out, “Missus Evans? If you’re ready, I’ll shampoo you now.”

“Of course, Mary.”

“And don’t forget to give Mrs. E a nice long conditioning,” LaVyrle’s sturdy tone reminded as she grabbed the broom and swept out her cubby. “We can’t have her leaving here with her hair looking as dry as a straw.”

“Flattery will get you nowhere, LaVyrle,” Helen quipped over her shoulder as she followed the girl to the shampoo room.

As Mary worked the soap into Helen’s scalp with nimble fingers, Helen closed her eyes. She thought of Sarah Biddle’s remarks about Mattie Oldbridge being robbed, of there being several other such thefts in River Bend in recent months, ones the sheriff attributed to boys from the valley searching for things to pawn to get money for drugs; and she wondered what the world was coming to when a town of two hundred or so, snugly set between the river bluffs, miles away from the big city, wasn’t even safe enough.

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