Read an Excerpt
Catalogue of Death
A Miss Zukas Mystery
On Wednesday morning, in the dead center of February, Miss Helma Zukas awoke, not to the music of her clock radio, but to a drowsy awareness of unusual light. She snuggled against her 100 percent goose-down pillow, filled with contentment in the warmth of her queen-sized bed, wondering for a single delusional moment if her father had already stoked the furnace.
Helma didn't move but her eyes flew open. Her father had been dead for seventeen years, and she'd lived on the waters of the Pacific Ocean for longer than she'd ever lived in Michigan. In the temperate climate of Bellehaven, Washington, it either rained or it didn't rain. Little else.
But she recognized that soft cushiony light, that diffused, coming-from-nowhere-and-everywhere blue creaminess that muffled sound and movement: snow.
Lots of snow.
Helma flung back her covers, forgetting her strategically placed slippers, leaving her robe draped across the foot of her bed with its sleeves open and folded back. Some people would have been shocked by the sight of Miss Helma Zukas running barefoot to her living room and throwing open the drapes that shrouded the sliding glass doors to her balcony.
Her apartment was flooded by signature whiteness, and for the briefest instant she squinted her eyes against it. Outside, snow fell in feathery flakes, too thick to glimpse the water of Washington Bay or even Boardwalk Park nestled below the Bayside Arms. Only the movement of white, the air itself seeming to shift and drift and circle downward, was visible.
Four inches, atleast, humped along the railings, softened the floor and turned the chairs and small table on her balcony into pillowy shapes.
In fact one of the mounded shapes on the balcony floor moved. Eyes blinked and Boy Cat Zukas rose, snow sliding from his black body. He gazed coolly at her. Helma didn't ascribe human emotions to animals but there did appear to be a hint of accusation in his gaze.
She unlocked her door and slid it open to create an eight-inch gap. Boy Cat Zukas didn't move, only stared unblinking at the entrance toward warmth and comfort, as if waiting for a better offer. Icy air spilled into Helma's apartment, bringing the sting of snowflakes with it.
Only when she began to pull the door closed did Boy Cat Zukas slink through the narrowing gap and take up residence in the wicker basket beside the door—as far as he was allowed into her apartment.
Helma Zukas did not converse with nonhuman species, so she said nothing to the cat as she blotted his wet tracks from her carpet and briefly considered, then rejected, toweling Boy Cat Zukas dry. She'd never touched a cat and she supposed he'd been wet multiple times in his previous life roaming the streets of Bellehaven.
Rarely had Helma seen snow actually moving ashore across the waters of Washington Bay. The air was too temperate, the climate too mild. In the mountains to the east behind Bellehaven, yes, but seldom at sea level. She stood beside her glass doors and watched the downy flakes descend. Beneath that very snow, moss roses already bloomed, daffodils poked up fat green spears, and yesterday she'd remarked on a yellow forsythia blooming against the south wall of the courthouse.
As photo-perfect beautiful as the snow was, even at only a few inches, Helma knew what this meant: Bellehaven was about to be brought to its knees.
"The mayor requests that citizens postpone all nonemergency travel," announced Gillian Hovel, the TV reporter who always pronounced her last name with the accent on the second syllable, as if she'd been challenged too many times in her life, her face brightened by the excitement of bad weather and the possibility of disaster. "All county schools are closed. No city buses will operate until further notice."
The city of Bellehaven didn't own a single snowplow. Its citizenry barely owned winter coats. And unless they played at winter sports, any boots residing in closets were intended for rain or high fashion, not snow.
"Only essential city offices will be open today," the reporter continued, "offering limited services."
The Bellehaven Public Library was certainly an essential city service. Of course, its doors would open to serve the public. And most definitely, Helma's skills were essential to its operation.
Her phone rang.
"Have you looked outside?" Ruth screeched, and Helma pulled the receiver farther from her ear. "It's a blizzard out there."
"It is snowing," Helma agreed. "You're up early."
"Haven't been to bed yet. I've only got two weeks to finish this stuff. And don't say it."
She didn't. There was no point in reminding Ruth that the opening date for her art show had been on the calendar for six months. She'd avoided her paintbrushes until two weeks ago and now lived in a frenzy of belated creativity.
"It's a good day to work inside," Helma said judiciously. A slab of snow slid from the apartment building roof, scattering in front of the window like confetti.
"Inside? On a rare day like this? Want to go for a walk?"
"No thank you. I have to work."
"Work? Where? Nobody's going to the library in this stuff."
"They may," Helma told her. "And I intend to be present to assist them."
"You are so misguided," Ruth said, adding a barrage of tut-tut sounds. "How are you getting there?"
"I have means."
"'Means' means you don't want to tell me, right? Okay, then, I'll talk to you later. Sit in a stuffy library all by yourself when you could be out . . . " And here Ruth broke into song, "'walking in a winter wonderland.'"
After she hung up and was properly attired in clothing from a twenty-year-old box marked Winter Outerwear, Helma pulled open the front door of her apartment and stood taking in the morning. There was the curious magnification yet minimization of sounds. The spinning whine of tires, a child's shout of pleasure, a chime like sailboat rigging, the murmurs of men's voices. If anything, snowflakes now fell more thickly.Catalogue of Death
A Miss Zukas Mystery. Copyright � by Jo Dereske. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.