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Once again American's Miss Marple, Gracie Evans is running down clues to a mystery - Locked Rock, Iowa's town drunk's disappearance. She has the help of her two coharts – Melinda Applegate and Madeline Patterford. Gracie doesn't sit and knit like Miss Marple. Instead, she rocks and dozes while she dwells on the mystery at hand.
Join Gracie Evans in solving this latest mystery – book 11 – in the series Amazing Gracie Mystery – set in a small town in Iowa in the early 1900's.
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The Grieving Widder Woman was my entry in the National Novel Writing Contest in November 2018.
Synopsis for the book
According to the gossips, they haven't seen Florence Moffatt's husband, the town drunk, staggering home in the wee hours of the morning for days.. They ask Florence where Elmer is. Florence says he's away on business which makes Gracie Evans scoff that Elmer never worked a day in his life. One day Florence shows up at the Bible Study group in black widow weeds and announces Elmer passed away in Cedar Rapids. She's going to bring him home in a rented wagon. Women frown when Florence says her friend, Preston Terrell, is going on the trip with her. When asked what caused Elmer's death, she gives anyone who asks a different story. When she arrives back in Locked Rock in a week's time, an expensive, walnut casket trimmed in gold is in the back of the wagon. The town turns out to help Widder Moffatt mourn at a nice funeral for good for nothing Elmer Moffatt. From then on, Gracie and her friends see Florence spending her spare time by Elmer's grave, crying and praying. Gracie wonders what Florence's problem is and decides to find out. How could the Widder Moffatt be confused about how Elmer died? Florence should be so glad to be rid of him that she shouldn't have to play the part of The Grieving Widder Woman.
Here is the first chapter of the book
Gracie Evans pushed a hastily placed hairpin securely into her braided ring crowning the top of her head as she slipped into her chair at the kitchen table for breakfast. She noted to herself it was way too quiet in the room. That made her worry something was wrong.
She scanned the rest of the Moser Mansion residents at the table who had showed up ahead of her. Molly Moser Lang, owner of the mansion, seemed to be in a world of her own. Deep in thought, she had her elbow on the table and her fist under her chin as she ran a finger over the red and white checkerboard tablecloth.
Molly had taken to wearing her honey shaded hair in a bun on the back of her neck instead of loose and shoulder length. A sign she was feeling more like a matron than a young woman. Molly was a pretty woman inside and out. Gracie knew that would never change with age.
Orie Lang, Miss Molly's husband, had the Locked Rock Weekly Review stuck in front of his face. Gracie wondered if it wasn't time the man gave up and started using reading glasses. He was about Molly's age and good-looking, with a mop of black hair.
Gracie figured it wouldn't do any good for her to say anything to him about his vision. If anyone brought up reading spectacles Gracie could just hear him say what did he need glasses for when he was a farmer. He would wind up getting them broke.
A few years back, Agnes Barnes, the housekeeper, took Pearlbee Washington's place as the cook when the dear old soul passed away. She mumbled to herself as she plopped two skillets on the wood cook stove to cook sausage patties and eggs. Gracie could hear the pop and crackling of burning wood from clear across the room. By the time she broke eggs in one of the skillets, the lard was hot.
Gracie heard the loud sizzle when the eggs hit the skillet bottom. A pop of flying lard landed on the back of Agnes's right hand. As she rubbed her hand with her apron, the middle-aged, dowdy woman snap to herself, “The nerve. I should say.” Gracie wondered why now of all mornings after fixing eggs and sausage cakes for years did the unexpected pop of hot lard seem so vexing to the woman.
The work counter across from the stove was white with flour from Agnes's biscuit making. The pan of biscuits was in the oven. Gracie already knew that because she heard the oven door on the stove slam shut just before she entered the kitchen. She figured the wood cook stove's oven door had slipped from Agnes's hand. Now it crossed her mind she figured wrong. As Gracie studied the Moser Mansion's Rest Home For Women's housekeeper's face, she realized something was in the wind. Agnes was usually an easy-going gossip, but not this morning. She was wound up as tightly as the busted mainspring in Gracie's father's railroad pocket watch. Her silver streaked, brown hair was frizzled. Agnes looked like she had walked to work in a stiff wind and forgot to comb her hair before any of them came to breakfast.
“Where is Malachi this morning?” Gracie asked Molly.
“Agnes says he has already eaten breakfast and went outside to work in the garden and mow the yard,” Molly answered.
“Reckon it's better for him to work in the cool morning air. Besides, as slow as he's getting, it takes longer for him to get anything done.” Shuffling feet behind her made Gracie twist in her chair. “Morning, Melinda,” she greeted cheerfully, hoping for at least one resident who would be cheerful right back. After all, Melinda Applegate was usually the glass half full type of person.
Her greeting was followed by Miss Molly and Agnes greeting Melinda. Mr. Orie crumpled the newspaper onto his lap as he said good morning to both of them.
Melinda said a meek, “Good morning, everyone”
By that time, Gracie was focused on Orie. She frowned as the newspaper filled with creases and disappeared from view. It was no wonder the news was hard to read by the time she got a hold of Locked Rock, Iowa's weekly newspaper. Lately it had been full of creases, and now she knew exactly who was to blame.
Not wanting to dwell on the crumbled newspaper for fear she might offend Orie out loud, Gracie focused on Melinda's serious face. “Your feet any better?”
The curly, blue-white-haired woman shuffled over to her chair and eased into it. She smoothed the wrinkles out of her black skirt before she placed her red checkered napkin on her lap. Melinda gave a tug on the top end and stretched the napkin up over the lace ruffles on her white blouse as she talked. “No, Gracie, my feet are not better so that I can tell anyway. Though I don't believe they're as puffy as yesterday. Dr. Carter said it might take a few days. I'm suppose to stay off my feet to notice a difference.” Melinda frowned as she thought about the fuzzy blue house shoes she had been shuffling around in. “And I should wear sensible shoes which I don't have. Even my dressy shoes are too tight.”
Molly smiled weakly, knowing how much Melinda valued her neatly dressed appearance. “If Dr. Carter's recommendations are going to help you soon, then you best do what he says until your feet aren't swollen anymore.”
“Oh, I will, but if I see anyone coming besides all of you, I'm going to my room and hide until the company leaves. I don't want them to see me in these sloppy house shoes,” Melinda declared.
Behind them, Madeline Patterford entered the room. “Oh brother, Melinda, just wear longer skirts if you have them so you can tuck your feet out of sight and be comfortable in those house shoes. Bad feet are no fun. Besides, you can't go for our exercise walk with your feet swollen and hurting.”
Melinda looked very thoughtful. “Tucking my feet in under my skirt might work. As for walking, as much as I enjoy our walks, you and Gracie will have to go without me until my feet get better.”
Orie slid his cup over to the edge of the table. “Agnes, when you have time bring me another round of coffee? My cup went dry.”
“Sure thing, Mr. Orie. Right away.” Agnes picked up a couple of potholders from a stack on the corner of the work counter. She reached over the sizzling sausage cakes to the back of the stove and grabbed the large blue and white granite coffee pot by the handle. It was time to fill all the cups.
Agnes scurried to the table. Her hand shook badly as she tipped the pot down over Gracie's cup so she put her left hand over her right one to ease the shaking. Gracie wondered if she should scoot her chair back from the table in case Agnes spilled.
By the time Agnes moved on to Orie's cup, Gracie caught Molly's eye and nodded at Agnes's shaking hands. Molly, alerted that something was wrong, frowned as she watched Agnes move on around to fill her cup, then Madeline and Melinda's cups.
“Agnes, dear, are you feeling all right this morning?” Molly tried to sound casual.
Agnes shrugged. “Just rushing a little more than usual this morning I reckon. For some reason I feel like I'm behind.”
“Take your time, Agnes. We aren't in any hurry,” Molly assured her.
The cook beelined it back to the cook stove to dish up breakfast, mumbling huffily, “There ain't anything wrong with me, I should say.”
Gracie's eyebrows raised at Molly as Agnes made three trips to set the filled, trembling plates in front of each of them. The younger woman shrugged her shoulders and dismissed Agnes's cranky disposition. She didn't want to pry too much into the woman's business. “Well, what have you ladies got planned for your day?”
“Reckon this morning I'll get some fresh air on the porch like usual,” Gracie said.
“Me, too,” agreed Melinda followed by Madeline nodding her agreement.
Molly said, “ Miss Melinda, I'll have Orie bring a footstool out to the porch for you to put your feet on. I suggest you use it for a few days to keep your feet up like the doctor wanted and see if that helps the swelling. If not we better go to Jackson's Dress shop and find you a pair of shoes that feel right on your feet.”
“All right,” Melinda agreed quietly.
“This afternoon is the Bible Study Group's meeting at the church,” Gracie announced. “Are you going, Miss Molly?”
Molly's hand went to her cheek. “Oh my, yes. Thank you so much for mentioning the meeting. I had completely forgotten today is Wednesday. Fine thing, the most important meeting for me not to forget about when I'm the chairwoman this year.”
“Are you ready for the meeting, dear?” Melinda asked.
“Yes, I do have my agenda ready. The discussion is when to have the cemetery clean up day before Decoration Day and we need to organize the picnic on the holiday. Guess I better be at this meeting since I want clean up day to be well-organized and the Decoration Day picnic as well. Last year, I felt the organizing has something left to be desired. The Bible verse I picked and Bible reading pertains to our working to spruce up the Locked Rock cemetery.”
“Good. Since we're all going, we can walk to the church together after lunch,” Madeline offered.
“Reckon we could,” Gracie agreed.
Looking gloomy, Melinda gave a loud sigh. “I think with the way my feet feel I better stay home, Miss Molly.”
“Oh, my, no need for that. You shouldn't be walking to the church so I'll have Malachi hitch up the horse to the buggy and bring it around. We can all ride to the church,” Molly offered.
Gracie scooted her chair back. The legs screeched loudly on the black and white checker board floor. “For now, I'm headed to the front porch if you ladies want to join me. Mr. Orie, are you done with the newspaper?”
“Sure, I am. Here you be, Miss Gracie.” Orie handed the crumpled newspaper across the table to her.
As the three elderly women walked out of the kitchen, Gracie heard Molly's instructions to Agnes about what to fix the twins and Shana for breakfast. Next, Molly headed to the stairs with the intention of getting the Lang's adopted, teenage daughter, Shana up. She could help the five-year-old twins, Jenny Nora and Jessie Ned, get dressed to keep them from dawdling while Molly made the beds. If left on their own, the twins would wake up with nothing but playing on their minds.
The women had settled in their rockers too late to see Marshal Bullock come out of his house across the street and head for his office downtown. His wife, Sara, was bent over the flower bed in front of the house, pulling weeds out of her marigolds. When she heard the mansion porch door bang shut she straightened up, turned around and waved at the women. With her hand shading her eyes, she looked up at the climbing sun and decided it was time to go to work at the switchboard in her house.
Gracie watching the neighborhood and read the newspaper.
From the back yard came some screaming. A boy's yell, “It's my ball. You can't play with it.” A girl's high pitched, angry scream, “Mama!”
Melinda said, “What is going on in back?”
Gracie looked over the gold rimmed reading glasses on her nose. “The twins are awake. Need I say more?”
Melinda just shook her head.
Later that morning, Agnes emerged from the mansion's front door on her way home to cook her husband an early lunch before she came back to serve the mansion residents an oven-baked beef roast, potato and carrot lunch.
“See you later, ladies,” Agnes said hurriedly, not looking either direction as she crossed the porch to the steps.
“Not so fast. Agnes. Stop right there, and tell us what is your problem this morning?” Gracie barked, folding the newspaper and laying it on her lap.
Agnes froze to the spot and gripped her hands together to keep them from shaking. She said over her shoulder, “Nothing worth bothering your head about Gracie Evans.”
“So there is something wrong.” Melinda used a hushed tone.
“I - I said it wasn't anything to worry about, didn't I?” Agnes sputtered as she turned to face them with tears in her eyes.
“Oh, brother! We're all your friends, after all. Please tell us what is wrong. Maybe we can help you,” Madeline said kindly.
“There is nothing anyone can do as far as I can see,” Agnes began. “Unless one of you have a remedy for getting this town shut of Elmer Moffatt.”
Gracie leaned forward in her rocker. “What has that old drunkard, Elmer Moffatt, done this time?”
“More times than not in the wee hours of the morning the awful man walks home before daylight,” Agnes shared.
“So? The man spends his whole night at the Silver Slipper Saloon downtown, drinking and gambling. He's done that way as long as I've known him,” Gracie said dismissively.
“I know he has, but that always made him his wife's worry or whoever else he disturbed while at the saloon. Not mine,” Agnes spit at her.
“How is Elmer suddenly your problem?” Madeline inquired.
“Lately Elmer is headed home as I'm headed to work instead of going home earlier. He weaves from side to side so I can't figure out which way to go out around him. I think he does it on purpose. He cackles like he's being funny and belches loudly.” Agnes shuttered. “For sure a crude man he is. I don't know how his wife, Florence, stands him.”
“Last time I sat by him in church, Elmer smelled like he hadn't had a bath in ages,” Melinda offered. “I had to breathe through my handkerchief during the whole sermon. It was that awful.”
“I don't remember Elmer coming to church.” Gracie twisted in her chair to level a look at Melinda.
“I think that was probably the last time I remember him at church on Sunday. I think the congregation gave him a hard time so he gave up coming,” Melinda told her.
Agnes wrung her hands together. “I'm telling you, ladies, I don't know how much longer I'm going to come to work before daylight with that man on the streets. I'll just have to move your meals down an hour to try to avoid him.”
“That might work,” Melinda agreed. “Mr. Moffatt wouldn't be expecting the change in your routine.”
Gracie slapped the arm of her rocker. “Well, it won't work for me. I've always eaten my breakfast early. Don't figure on stopping now.”
Agnes ran her shaky fingers through her flighty hair as she pleaded, “Then help me figure out a way to keep Elmer Moffatt away from me. Sometimes he gets a weird look in his eyes and winks at me. Why, it's like the old drunk is flirting with me, of all people.”
“That is hard to believe,” Gracie said dryly.
Melinda gave her a hard look and turned her focus back to Agnes. “Dear, I don't blame you for being so very upset. Can't you take a different path to work?”
Madeline clapped. “Good idea, Melinda.”
Agnes grunted. “I thought it would be except I tried that, and I swear Elmer waited to see which block I took to come here so he made sure to meet me.”
Melinda put her hand to her chest. “Oh dear, this is awful.”
Madeline sat up straight in her rocker. “I have an idea. Tell Mr. Orie about this. Ask him to come get you and bring you to the mansion in the buggy for a few days until Elmer Moffatt gets tired of playing his little games.”
Agnes's eyes rolled from side to side as she gave the idea some thought. “That might work. Well, I better hurry home. If I'm much later, I won't have my husband's lunch on the table and back here by the noon meal.”
The women watched Agnes hustled down the walk and through the yard gate. Melinda gave a sigh as she removed her slippered feet from the tapestry covered footstool.
“What's the sigh for?” Gracie asked.
“I have a problem, too,” Melinda lamented as she held her legs up and stared at her puffy feet in the fuzzy blue slippers. “I can't go to the Bible Study meeting in these awful house shoes. I'll just have to stay home.”
“Surely we can think of something to help you out,” Madeline said. “Think, Gracie. What can we do?”
“Why ask me? I don't have any fashion sense. I'd mostly likely wear the house shoes and be hanged with what the others think of it as long as my feet felt better,” Gracie declared.
“No surprise there. We guessed that about your fashion sense a long time ago when all you ever wear is tan blouses and brown cotton skirts,” Madeline snipped. Her face suddenly brightened. “I know what to do. My feet are a little bigger than yours, Melinda. How about you borrow a pair of my shoes to wear until you get a pair of your own?”
Melinda frowned. “I hate to put you out that way.”
“It's not putting me out. I have plenty of shoes. When we go in to eat lunch, I'll go to my bedroom and get a pair for you to wear,” insisted Madeline.
When Agnes talked to Molly and Orie at lunchtime about her dilemma, they were all for helping her. They didn't want their breakfast routine messed up any more than Gracie did.
The next morning at dawn, Orie drove Agnes passed the Moffatt house. Agnes kept a watchful eye on the fading darkness around the buggy. She grabbed Orie's hand and pointed at the staggering man. Just now at the end of the block, Elmer weaved his way home. He stopped and leaned on Alvina Wisecup's picket fence while he watched his intended victim ride by him. First surprise twisted his drunken face, then he belched and laughed a sinister cackle as if the joke was on him.
Once the buggy past him, Agnes couldn't resist a glance back. Elmer staggered on toward his yard gate, and it rankled Agnes even more that he was still cackling to himself. “Mr. Orie, that awful man acts like this is all a joke to him. Do you think bringing me to work is going to keep Elmer Moffatt away from me?”
“I sure hope so. We'll give this a week and see what happens. If Elmer doesn't change his ways, I'll have a talk with him, and if that fails, I'll have Marshal Bullock talk to him. I doubt that Elmer would like to go to jail.”
Agnes settled back on the buggy seat. “I should say. I feel better with you on my side.”
I hope readers enjoy my latest cozy mystery. Here are the links to find the book and ebook.