No one could be more orderly or organized than dedicated librarian Helma Zukas. No one could be more rash and raucous than avant-garde artist Ruth Winthrop. Yet the two women are best friends and a resourceful, ingenious, crime-solving team. So when two of Ruth's latest paintings—each depicting an ex-lover who met a very untimely and mysterious end—are stolen, the amazing amateur detectives get to work.
But digging through Ruth's romantic rendezvous turns up more than broken hearts. There's an angry ex-wife, a jealous fellow artist, and a rampaging group of local tree-huggers. There's trouble brewing in Bellehaven . . . and only Helma and Ruth can make certain that mayhem doesn't lead to murder.
About the Author
Jo Dereske grew up in western Michigan, and is a former librarian who now lives in the northwestern corner of Washington State.
Read an Excerpt
Index to Murder
A Miss Zukas Mystery
A Calamitous Suggestion
On a cold Tuesday evening in October, Miss Helma Zukas finally realized her friend Ruth Winthrop was unlikely to recover. Because, in fact, Ruth Winthrop had no intention of recovering.
"My life is over," Ruth announced in despondency so deep it bordered on gratification. "My heart has been shredded to Parmesan."
Ruth sprawled on the sofa in Helma's apartment, her long legs stretched beyond the coffee table where Helma had just returned Ruth's whiskey glass to the safety of a coaster. No denying she looked as if her life were over: bagged eyes, slumped shoulders, garbed in the same paint-stained jeans and sweater she'd been wearing for a week.
Helma Zukas rarely interrupted people in the throes of passionate emotion unless there was imminent danger. In her experience, unnaturally agitated states were exhausting to maintain and wore down quickest when unencouraged.
But Ruth might be the exception. The situation had been deteriorating and Ruth's obsession escalating for a month. The time had come to do something. Anything. Little did Helma suspect that her innocent suggestion would result in deception, destruction, and death.
"I have no illusions this time," Ruth continued, running her hands through her hair until it sprang out in a wild nimbus. "None. What's over is over and the curtain has hit the stage. The lights are out, the mop has flopped. The balcony is closed."
Despite the melodrama, Ruth's lament rang with truth. Helma herself suspected the permanency of the situation, but she hadn'tbelieved Ruth would. Not after all these years. Not really.
Helma had seen Paul's face, had heard the finality in his voice when he stopped by her apartment to say goodbye before he caught his flight back to Minnesota, his shoulders weighted by sorrow and, yes, resignation. "I'm glad you're Ruth's friend, Helma," he'd said, and Helma hadn't responded to his implied hope that she'd stand by Ruth. It wasn't necessary.
She'd watched him descend the staircase of the Bayside Arms, and as soon as his foot touched the sidewalk, she closed her door and telephoned Ruth.
For three days Helma had received no answer at Ruth's studio/house that nestled against the alley a half mile away, neither to phone calls made every three hours or by knocking at the locked door each morning and night on her drive to and from the library.
Ruth's behavior wasn't unusual. She locked her door only if she was inside either painting or was in what she called "a funk." And the current situation qualified as a major funk.
So at first Helma didn't worry. She picked up Ruth's newspapers from the front step and set them out of the weather inside a sculpture designed like a small coffin beside the front door. After sorting through Ruth's mail for envelopes that looked important, she added that to the coffin, too.
But by the third afternoon of silence, Helma became uneasy. She rapped sharply on Ruth's door, tried the doorknob and found it still locked.
She didn't condone shouting in nonemergency situations, or talking through closed doors, but now she cleared her throat and said in a conversational tone, as if Ruth might be crouched on the other side of the door, pressing her ear to the paneled wood, "Ruth, this is ridiculous. I'm going home now, and I intend to call the police."
She'd returned to her apartment, eaten a small salad without dressing and a broiled salmon fillet, and even washed her dishes and put them away, rotating the plate she'd just used to the bottom of the stack of six to equalize wear to the set, and wiped her hands on the hand towel she hung separate from her dish towel.
It was time. She wouldn't call out the police force or dial 911, but chief of police Wayne Gallant, whose personal phone number she kept as private as he did.
And that's when her doorbell had jangled.
Helma rehung the hand towel, took a deep breath, and opened the door without first looking through the security viewer.
Ruth stood on the landing that stretched across the third floor of the Bayside Arms. Clothes rumpled, hair wild, her six-foot frame somehow shrunken.
"Were you trying to call me?" she'd asked, her voice brittle and eyes red. "I must have been taking a nap." And she pushed past Helma, a brown bottle-shaped bag cradled tenderly in the crook of her arm.
Now, an hour later, Ruth hiccupped and reached a hand toward Boy Cat Zukas, who'd left his basket by the balcony door and taken a few tentative steps toward the sofa.
"Kitty, kitty," Ruth said, but the black cat hissed and slunk two feet backward, his back arched.
"Even the cat," Ruth lamented. "Even an old scroungy alley cat who's used up ten of his nine lives. Even he knows. I'm doomed."
"Animals are situational learners," Helma explained, turning her wrist to unobtrusively glance at her watch. It was 10:13. "They're accustomed to specific responses in familiar situations."
Ruth grunted. "You're saying I'm not acting in my usual lighthearted effervescent way?"
"Perhaps not in the way an animal is conditioned to expect."
"That's what I just said: even the cat knows."
"You're ascribing intellectual capabilities to an animal. Reasoning. Emotions . . . "
"Call it animal instinct, then," Ruth said. "I don't give a rip." She waved a hand toward Boy Cat Zukas, who had backed up two more steps. "He knows. I know. You know." She paused, brushed her hands through her hair again and asked, "Don't you?"
Helma didn't answer immediately, feeling the intensity of Ruth's gaze, hearing the uncustomary tentativeness, the lingering edge of hope. She believed in honesty, yes, even admitting to painful truths. But Ruth was also her friend, despite their incongruous lives. They'd developed their bewildering friendship back in Scoop River, Michigan, following a bitter preadolescent battle in St. Alphonse School, where Ruth's parents had enrolled her in the vain hope the nuns would instill a modicum of decorum in their troubled daughter.Index to Murder
A Miss Zukas Mystery. Copyright © by Jo Dereske. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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