I am never so happy to live in tiny River Bend, Illinois, as in the mornings. After I’ve fed Amber his breakfast—usually something fishy from a can that makes the whole house smell like a Florida beach at Red Tide—I lace up my Tretorns and head out for a walk.
The town sits in a valley between the bluffs, and there’s no prettier moment than post-dawn when the sun begins to rise. It winks between the trees above while the birds twitter their good mornings. Houses still look sleepy with shades drawn and porch lights on, though dogs bark greetings from behind picket fences.
It’s just a mile to the river, and I try not to get distracted by what’s in the windows of the shops downtown. But sometimes I can’t resist a peek into Agnes March’s antiques store or Hilary Wiggins’s stationery shop. Although it’s easy enough to step quickly past the sheriff’s office, which lies in between, since Frank Biddle and I don’t exactly see eye to eye.
So many things can happen during my walk, moments that catch my breath. In the spring, it’s the sight of flowers blooming, as though they went from buds to blossoms overnight. In the fall, it’s the crunch of the leaves underfoot and the gorgeous colors of the foliage painted across the bluff sides.
But the other morning when I decided to stroll up Harbor Drive, my breath caught in another way entirely. I watched Eleanora Duncan’s cat chase a butterfly into the street and Eleanora come clucking after her…just as a sedan roared its engine and barreled toward them both. If I hadn’t rushed into the road to pull Eleanora aside, she would have been flattened. When Eleanora had regained her wits, she looked at me with frightened eyes and confessed, “Helen, I think someone is trying to kill me.”
I didn’t buy it, not then, despite Eleanora being a very wealthy widow who’d alienated most of River Bend since her husband and son both died the year before. Losing Marvin first to a heart attack had been hard enough. But when Jim had been killed in a car wreck, it had nearly tipped Eleanora over the edge. She’d gone on to blame Jim’s wife, who’d been at the wheel the rainy day the accident had occurred. Eleanora had even gone so far as to instigate a coroner’s inquest, needing to pin the blame on someone. Though Jean had been cleared, Eleanora had never forgiven her daughter-in-law. And Jean wasn’t the only one Eleanora had treated badly since.
Some said it was the hate in her heart that killed her when Eleanora was found dead on her kitchen floor shortly after the near-miss. But when Doc Melville suspected otherwise—and the Jersey County Medical Examiner’s office confirmed Eleanora had been poisoned—all eyes turned to Jean. To say I was shocked is putting it mildly, though it merely angered me to find out that Frank Biddle dragged Jean out of her house early the next morning to grill her about her mother-in-law’s murder. It was just too bad I had to find it out from Clara Foley who was eating breakfast at the diner, across the street from the sheriff’s office, when he pulled up with Jean in his squad car.
“He had someone with him, you see.” Her pale eyes widened, and her voice rattled with excitement. “It was Jean Duncan as it turns out. He hustled her into his office pretty quick-like, which made me wonder if he didn’t haul her down there on official business seeing as how it’s so early in the morning and the expression on his face wasn’t any too friendly.” Clara paused for breath before rushing on. “And Jean, well, she looked like he’d dragged her out of bed and she’d thrown on the first thing she could find. Her blouse was hanging out of her blue jeans, and her hair looked positively wild….”
I had to admit, it didn’t look good for my friend. It was Jean’s pâté that had been poisoned, and she’d taken it over to Eleanora’s house and placed it in the refrigerator herself. Eleanora’s long-time housekeeper, Zelda, had attested to that very fact.
But I knew that Jean didn’t kill her mother-in-law, regardless of how terribly Eleanora had treated her. Jean had been trying to extend an olive branch to Eleanora. She had never intended to send her to her grave.
As usual, Sheriff Biddle paid no attention to common sense. So what else could I do but dig in my heels and prove that Jean didn’t do it. Sometimes all it takes to figure out what’s what around River Bend is a calm head, tight lips, and a pair of good ears. And if there’s one thing I know how to do well after four children, nine grandchildren, and 75 years, it’s how to listen.
You can read more about Helen in Not A Chance in Helen, the third book in the new “River Road” mystery series, published by HarperCollins.
GIVEAWAY: Leave a comment by 6 p.m. eastern on October 1 for the chance to win a digital copy of NOT A CHANCE IN HELEN or a signed paperback of Mad as Helen. (U.S. only for print), winner’s choice.
About the author
Susan McBride is the USA Today bestselling author of Blue Blood and four other award-winning “Debutante Dropout Mysteries” from HarperCollins including The Good Girl’s Guide To Murder, The Lone Star Lonely Hearts Club, Night Of The Living Deb, and Too Pretty To Die. A sixth title, Say Yes to the Death, will be out in September 2015.
Her River Road Mystery series began with To Helen Back in May and Mad as Helen in July. Not a Chance in Helen is the third of these digital-first books from HarperCollins (the paperback will be available in early November). Susan’s first young adult thriller, Very Bad Things, will be published in hardcover by Delacorte Press on October 14, 2014.
You can find out more about Susan and her books at susanmcbride.com