McBride, Susan: To Helen Back, A River Road Mystery
Author’s Name: Susan McBride
Book Title: To Helen Back
Publication Date May 27, 2014
Genre & Age Group: Adult Mystery & Detective
Organized: Literati Author Services, Inc.
When Milton Grone turns up dead in tiny River Bend, Illinois, nearly all the would-be suspects have the perfect alibi: attending Thursday night’s town meeting. And as Milton was hardly beloved, plenty of folks had a reason to do him in…
Grone’s next-door neighbor was furious about a fence that encroached on her property among other wicked deeds. A pair of zealous tree-huggers wanted Grone’s hide for selling a parcel of pristine land to a water park. Grone’s current and ex-wife both wanted a cut of the profits, which Grone seemed unwilling to share. Even the town preacher knew Grone’s soul was beyond saving.
Though most of River Bend would rather reward the killer than hang him, Sheriff Biddle’s not about to let this one go . . . and neither is Helen Evans. With a penchant for puzzles and an ear for innuendo, Helen quickly pins down the culprit before Biddle puts the wrong suspect in jail.
Milton Grone woke up that Thursday morning much as he did every other.
As soon as the sun had bumped its way above the horizon, tinting blue the morning sky, he rolled out of bed, careful so as not to disturb his wife, Shotsie, who preferred not to rise at quite so early an hour.
She’d tugged the sheets from him sometime in the night and they twisted around her plump limbs. Corkscrews of blond framed a moon-shaped face and kewpie doll mouth from which rumbled a parade of snores.
Milt smiled smugly as he looked her over. She was his second wife and, at forty-three, younger than him by two decades. His first marriage had crumbled ten years before. He scowled at the thought of Delilah and their ungrateful pair of teenage kids.
He hadn’t the slightest idea how the first bride he’d wed all those years before could have turned into such a shrew. She’d called him a tightwad and a cheater, cursing him loudly enough for all two hundred inhabitants of nosy River Bend, Illinois, to hear. He thought he’d gotten rid of her for good, but she wouldn’t let go, coming after him for what she claimed was unpaid child support. Damned woman thought she could scare him with threats of lawyers and lawsuits.
Milt scratched his jaw, figuring she had another think coming if she thought he’d give in as easy as that.
With a snort, he pushed away from the sagging mattress and shuffled into the bathroom to shave and dress. He emerged five minutes after, clad in overalls and an undershirt faded to drab.
Leaving Shotsie in bed, he slipped through the cock-eyed screen door and stepped out onto the porch.
He could already hear the noises of the town waking up: the bark of dogs from someone’s backyard, the crunch of tires on the graveled road as that long-haired paperboy whipped through his route, and a whistling from next door that sounded far too cheerful for so early in the morning.
Milt nodded to himself and spit into the dirt, knowing instantly from whose lips the perky tune emanated. He moved toward the fence on his tiptoes and there, just beyond, he spotted the guilty bird.
Her back to him, she bent over a tangle of raspberry bushes, her slip peeking out beneath the hem of her duster. A straw hat ringed with yellow ribbon covered her head and tipped this way and that as she sprinkled water from a can upon the bushes. A shovel lay nearby, its spade damp with fresh earth. She’d been out since the crack of dawn, no doubt, planting and whistling like a senile whippoorwill.
“Would you stop that god awful racket?” he growled at her, unable to keep silent a minute longer. He leaned his arms over the split-rail fence he’d built barely a week ago. “People’re sleeping, old woman. It’s just seven o’clock in the morning, in case your watch’s broke.”
The water ceased to pour.
The stooped body in the flower-print housedress righted itself. The head topped with straw turned around. “Are you speaking to me, Milton Grone?” she asked, the faint British clip still evident, even though its bite had worn down. What could be seen of her features hardly beamed at him with friendship; instead, the vaguely spotted skin settled into hard lines. The thin lips pressed together.
If looks could kill, Milton thought with an inward chuckle, the old broad would have done him in right there on the spot. “You got your girdle on too tight today, grandma?” he asked her. “You sure aren’t acting very neighborly.”
“And you are?” Felicity Timmons’s already high-pitched voice soared. She stood with her feet apart, shaking the spouted can at him. “I would scarcely call your actions cordial,” she said, water splashing as she spoke. “You leave your mower running at all hours, and with you not anywhere about! You park that bloody truck of yours on the edge of the lot across the road so that no one can pass without nicking my prized Queen Elizabeth roses! And then there’s the matter of that fence—”
“This fence?” Milton lifted up his arms and glanced down.
“Yes, of course that fence!” Felicity’s face reddened further. Her whole body shook. “You build it on my property!”
“Hell if I did!”
“Six inches, to be exact! I’ve had Art Beaner from the board over here myself to check with his own eyes, and the town plat confirms that you, sir, have unlawfully trespassed on my land! Indeed, I plan to bring up the very topic at tonight’s meeting in town hall—”
“Listen here, you old windbag,” he interrupted, shaking a finger at her. “Either drag me into court or stop flapping your gums at me day in and day out.”
“Well, I never!”
He looked her over from top to toe, his mouth drawing up in the corners. “No, I’ll wager you never have.”
With a final fierce stare directed his way, Felicity did an abrupt about-face. The watering can slapping against her thigh, she hurried away, dashing up the stone steps to her porch.
With a slap, the screen door shut behind her, though Milton caught her peeking out at him from beyond the gray mesh before her head jerked away.
“Same to you, grandma!” he shouted. Then he spit again, this time directly into her red-berried bushes, and unfurled himself from the fence.
Not a soul in this town knew how to mind his own business he decided as he stooped to pick up the paper from his weed-choked front walk. Those busybodies were worse than cockroaches. He tucked the log of newsprint under his arm, headed back to the paint-peeled house and went inside.
His path through the hallway was blocked by a pair of sofa pillows, left over from a fight with Shotsie the previous night. He kicked them aside.
Flipping on the kitchen light, he found yesterday’s coffee and put the pot on the burner to warm. Then he sat down at the table and spread the paper flat. A check of the morning’s headlines caused him to abruptly—and loudly—laugh.
“Hey, what’s so funny?” Shotsie asked, tugging the sash closed as she padded into the room in her bathrobe. She ran a hand through her mop of yellow curls and yawned, coming to stand behind him. “I could hear you cacklin’ from across the house.”
“Damned birdwatchers,” he said, and stabbed a finger at the page. “Just look at that, Shots. Look what those crazy animal huggers are doin’ now.”
NATURE CLUB CALLS LOCAL WHO SOLD LAND TO DEVELOPERS A ‘MURDERER,’ screamed the bold-faced headline. Below it, the smaller subhead declared, River Bend’s Milton Grone Target of Naturalists.
“Listen to this,” Milton said, bobbing his head as he went on, “‘The pending sale of bluff-side acreage near River Bend has area conservationists up in arms. Not only will countless trees along the Mississippi River be razed to make way for a water park, but wildlife habitat in this unprotected stretch will be threatened as well.’”
He paused, grumbling, “Get a load of this,” before he skipped down several paragraphs and continued to read aloud. “‘According to Save the Animal members Ida Bell and Dorothy Feeny, “Mr. Grone is no better than a mass murderer. The destruction of woods that provide breeding grounds for eagles and hawks, not to mention more than a dozen other species, is nothing less than genocide. If Milton Grone allows this deal to go through, like the fauna that will die because of his greed, so should he be killed”’ …”
“My, oh my,” Shotsie breathed in his ear.
“Can’t those two silly biddies find something better to do than cause me trouble?”
“You think I’m a dictionary or something?” He glared at her. “Go look it up!”
Shotsie pouted but said nothing. Instead, she turned to the stove and poured a cup of coffee. She set the mug on the table before him with such force it slopped over the sides, staining the front page of the paper brown.
He cursed her for being a klutz but she merely flashed him an innocent smile. Milton tried to ignore her.
She pulled a chair up beside him. “They also called you greedy. Now that word I do know.”
“So?” He raised an eyebrow.
“So,” she prodded, “that must mean you’re getting a bundle for that land, huh? You never did tell me how much they settled on giving you anyway.”
“That’s right,” he said, “I didn’t.”
Shotsie sat still a moment, her wide brown eyes fixed on his, though her silence did not last long. “Tell me!” she suddenly shrilled at him, her features stained a blotchy pink. “Tell me, I said!” She slapped a fist on the table, shaking it so that Milton’s cup of coffee tipped and sent a flood of hot liquid into his lap.
With a yelp, Milt jumped out of his seat, pulling the thighs of his overalls outward. “Goddammit, Shots, you clumsy bitch!”
But Shotsie didn’t back down. She stamped a slipper on the linoleum, sticking out her chin. “You never tell me anything, Miltie! Zero! Delilah warned me you were a penny pincher, but I thought it was sour grapes just ’cause of the divorce and all. I mean, at first you were such a sweetheart, dressin’ up to take me to the movies and buying me candy. You charmed the pants off me, and I thought you were so handsome. You promised to love me and take care of me for the rest of my life.”
She cocked her head and let out the saddest of sighs. “What happened to that Miltie, huh? After living with you for five whole years, I realize your ex was right. This place is a dump.” She waved a pudgy hand in his direction. “Everything’s fallin’ apart, and you don’t seem to care. We haven’t gone to a movie in forever, and you don’t even buy me Milk Duds in the checkout line at the supermarket. And now”—she paused to glare at him—“everyone in town knows you’re makin’ a bundle off that land you sold, only you won’t even tell me the numbers. You’re worse than a cheapskate, and I hate you for it!”
Milton ceased dabbing at his wet pants with the kitchen towel and scowled right back at her. “If I’m such a stinker, why don’t you shove off and let me be?”
“Maybe I will,” Shotsie yelled, and with a sweep of pink feet and chenille, she turned on her heel and stomped out.
A door slammed up the hallway, and Milton flinched as the house seemed to shudder beneath him. Moments later, Shotsie’s overloud sobs rattled through the thin walls, and he shook his head at the sound. “Women,” he muttered. “Crazier than loons, all of ’em.”
He’d blamed his mother for nagging his father to the grave, and never forgiven her even when she joined his dad in the Grone family plot. Milt’s bad first marriage had nearly killed him as well, and now it looked like Shotsie had jumped on the bandwagon.
A pain shot through his chest just then, so that for a full minute after he struggled hard to catch his breath.
He rubbed at his breastbone. “Gives me heartburn, she does,” he wheezed as the pain slowly subsided and he could breathe easily again. Just a little gas, he told himself, refusing to believe that a tiny ache between his ribs might mean something more.
Old Doc Melville kept telling him his ticker wasn’t what it used to be. The doc had been after him to take those silly nitro pills ever since the pesky bout with his heart that put him in the hospital a while back. But he hadn’t bought into it. He’d told the doc he felt better than he had in years, that his so-called “heart attack” back when was all his ex-wife’s fault and had been quickly remedied by their divorce.
Milt thumped his chest one last time with the heel of his hand, letting out a far from delicate belch.
Gas. That’s all it was. That and Shotsie.
He glanced at the hallway through which she’d disappeared and scowled again for good measure.
It wasn’t until nearly seven o’clock that night that Shotsie emerged from her self-imposed exile. Clad in blue jeans and sweatshirt advertising a St. Louis beer, she was halfway out the screen door when Milton called to her.
“Where’re you off to at this hour?” he shouted from the kitchen. He sat at the table, an oily rag in hand as he cleaned his shotgun. “Don’t stay out too long, ’cause I’m hungry as a bear and I don’t see dinner on the table.”
“Get your own dinner,” she shouted back. “I’m goin’ to the town meeting.”
“The town meeting,” Milton repeated, and stopped what he was doing. “What in hell are you doin’ that for?”
“So someone will tell me what you’re making for killing all those birds and trees up the river!”
He opened his mouth to yell and forbid her to go. But a tickle of laughter got at him instead, and he howled and hooted at the thought of how the townsfolk would react to seeing her there.
Bang went the door. Her hurried footsteps clomped down the rickety stoop. Through the open window he picked up the string of curses she let loose.
His laughter eased to a chuckle, and he wiped the tears from his eyes. Glancing up, he saw darkness snuffing out the last of twilight.
He waited and listened, thinking she’d return and fix him supper. But when several minutes passed and she didn’t reappear, Milton gave in to his grumbling stomach and got up to fix himself a sandwich. He ate it there at the table; his gun, cleaned and loaded, a mere handsbreadth away.
He’d barely taken a bite of the cold meat loaf when he heard a noise beyond the window, like a critter prowling in the trash. “Damned old woman’s cat,” he muttered, and picked up his shotgun. Felicity Timmons caused him hell enough without his having to put up with that furry beast of hers making a mess of his garbage.
“Here kitty-kitty,” he said in a gruff whisper as he came off the stoop and snuck around the house. “C’mon, you darned flea bag, I’ve got something for you.”
He cocked the gun with a click.
He heard the noise again and hesitated. Sure didn’t sound like a cat; it seemed bigger than that. Were those footsteps coming up behind him?
He spun around in time to see the shadow that lunged at him, but only that. His gun fell from his hands to the ground, going off as it hit the dirt.
The cast of characters in this fascinating whodunit is remarkable! I was enthralled from the very first page of To Helen Back by Susan McBride. It was hard to put down until I found out who the culprit turned out to be.
Ms. McBride is an artiste as well as a best selling author. I highly recommend To Helen Back and I’m hooked on the River Road Mysteries. The next release, Mad as Helen, can’t come soon enough for me!
~ Patricia, Room With Books ~ © July 10, 2014
About The Author:
Susan McBride is the USA TODAY bestselling author of Blue Blood, the first of the Debutante Dropout Mysteries. T he award-winning series also includes T he Good Girl’s Guide to Murder, T he Lone Star Lonely Hearts Club, Night of the Living Deb, and Too Pretty to Die. She’s also the author of T he Truth about Love & Lightning, Little Black Dress, and The Cougar Club, all Target Recommended Reads. She lives in St. Louis, Missouri, with her husband and daughter.
Visit Susan’s web site at www.SusanMcBride.com for more info.
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