Jo Dereske's
A Helen Zukas Librarian Mystery
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Chapter One
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On Sunday afternoon Miss Helma Zukas dressed for an event she'd never experienced, surprisingly enough, in all her thirty-nine years. She stood before the full-length mirror in her bedroom, briefly clad, holding first a light blue button-up blouse on a hanger in front of her and then a green long-sleeved cotton pullover Behind her, spread neatly and wrinkle-free on her bed, lay a khaki skirt.

Indecisiveness was not a state of mind Helma Zukas was accustomed to, and frankly, she was puzzled by her rising frustration. In fact, she routinely made more critical decisions with less consternation than it was now taking to select her attire.

"Just choose one," she whispered aloud to her reflection, which held a crisply pressed garment in each hand, then closed her lips tightly. Talking to herself was another habit she'd never acquired, even though it was what George Melville, the cataloger at Bellehaven Public Library, called an occupational hazard of working in a library. "An affliction that overtakes the sanest of us," he pronounced.

She caught a glimpse of black low in her mirror, reflecting from the floor of the open doorway of her bedroom, but when she spun around, holding the two garments strategically in front of her, the doorway was empty; Boy Cat Zukas had disappeared. The black former alley cat was allowed inside her apartment as far as the wicker basket Helma had placed near her balcony door, no farther. But she'd found evidence Boy Cat Zukas had no patience for her rules and stretched his boundaries when she wasn't looking: cat hair on the bathroom rug, a depression on a chair cushion, and once, even a tuft of feathers in her hallway.

The blue blouse was more attractive --s he knew it emphasized the Baltic blue of her eyes -- but the green pullover wouldn't wrinkle as easily. Helma didn't even know where they were going; maybe they wouldn't go anywhere at all, only sit on her balcony and gaze out at Washington Bay, talking companionably. It was warm enough, the sun still high in the sky so it wouldn't shine in their eyes, and today the air was clear, cleanly washed by last night's rain. Summer had slid into autumn, bright clear days that remained overwarm for the Pacific Northwest, similar to the Indian summers from Helma's Michigan childhood. Beyond the blue waters of Washington Bay, the near and distant islands followed one after the other to the horizon, green treed humps fading to mounds of blue.

Helma was prepared either way: to go or to stay. Freshly cut carrot and celery sticks, radishes and jicama slices, were arranged on a plastic-covered platter on the top shelf of her refrigerator next to a selection of diet and regular soda pop, bottled water, and white wine. Pretzels, corn chips, and a bright red box of cheese crackers sat on her counter. Matching bowls, one containing mints and the other mixed nuts-without peanuts-sat on the coffee table in her living room, along with white paper napkins and cloth coasters. A Vivaldi CD her cousin Ruby had sent her issued cheery notes of "Summer" through her apartment.

The doorbell pealed and Helma gasped, glancing at the red digital numbers on the clock radio beside her bed: 1:41. Chief of Police Wayne Gallant and his two children weren't due until two o'clock. This was surprising; he knew she was as annoyed by guests arriving too early as she was by people who were tardy.

But the children. Children were an unknown factor, mysteries Helma unintentionally encountered in stores and parks or when they wandered into the adult area of the library. Aside from her nephews, she didn't know any on a personal basis. The children might have thrown off Wayne Gallant's schedule or even been impatient to meet her. Whatever, it couldn't be helped now.

The doorbell rang again, and Helma opted for the green pullover so she didn't have to waste time buttoning, and pulled on her khaki skirt, zipping and tucking as she slipped her feet into a new pair of brown loafers, stopping once to straighten the leather that was curling beneath her left heel.

She smoothed her hand across her hair, tucking down the stubborn curl on the left side of her head as she hurried down the hallway and through her living room, casting a glance at the casually aligned pillows, the fanned magazines, stopping once to nudge the coffee table square on the carpet. The bay shimmered; happy voices rose from Boardwalk Park at the edge of the water and through the open door onto her balcony. The bell was rudely rung again. Wayne Gallant was seldom so impatient.

But when Helma opened her apartment door, it wasn't Bellehaven's chief of police and his two children who stood on her doormat, it was the new neighbor who'd moved into Mrs. Whitney's old apartment next door.

"Mr. Stone," Helma said, peering behind him to the third floor landing, still somehow expecting to see Wayne Gallant and the two children she'd only seen in photographs.

Mr. Stone was agitated. He rubbed his jaw, pulling at his grizzled skin, then wiped his thick hand over his brush cut. Gray hair sprang up behind his hand like newly cut grass. His mouth worked, lips pursing, then sucked between his teeth. He'd moved into 3E the week before, bounding again and again up the three flights of outside stairs of the Bayside Arms despite there being an elevator, whistling, his arms full of cardboard boxes. Again and again.

That first day, he'd stopped Helma as she left her apartment. Balancing a box of kitchenware in one arm, he thrust a large hand toward her. "I'm your new neighbor," he told her. "TNT."

"Tiente?" Helma asked, watching her hand disappear into his...

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