October, 1944. It has been a challenging season for Elderberry's favorite first grade teacher, Miss Dimple Kilpatrick. A beloved former student was recently killed in the war, her brother has become distant, and her friend Odessa, the cook at Pheobe's rooming house, has taken a leave of absence to care for a relative. Still, when Dimple's librarian friend, Virginia, finds a young woman, Dora, on the library porch looking for a place to spend the night, soft-hearted Dimple brings her back to Phoebe's and offers her food and a warm coat. But when Dimple is trying to find her a place to sleep, the young girl disappears.
The next morning, Miss Dimple answers a knock on the door expecting it to be the girl. Instead, she is greeted by greeted by a somewhat disheveled young woman with lustrous hair and a sunrise of a smile who claims she has been assigned to fill in at the house. Augusta Goodnight, a guardian angel who has been summoned from a well-deserved rest after a series of troublesome earthly duties, has taken up at Phoebe's.
When Dora is discovered dead - murdered - the real reason for Augusta's "assignment" becomes clear, at least to Augusta. Reluctantly, Miss Dimple teams up with Augusta to find out who the killer is.
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About the Author
MIGNON F. BALLARD is the author of the Miss Dimple mysteries, along with mysteries featuring angelic sleuth Augusta Goodnight and The War in Sallie's Station, a novel about growing up in rural Georgia during World War II. She lives in her hometown of Calhoun, Georgia.
Read an Excerpt
Miss Dimple and the Slightly Bewildered Angel
By Mignon F. Ballard
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2016 Mignon F. Ballard
All rights reserved.
"What are we going to do about supper?" Lily Moss asked, gazing longingly at the door that led to the kitchen.
"There's still plenty of that applesauce Odessa put up last month, and I suppose I could stir up some buckwheat cakes," Phoebe Chadwick suggested. As proprietor of the rooming house, she was responsible for providing appetizing as well as nutritious meals for her guests, but that was becoming more and more of a challenge with all the rationing and shortages during what seemed like a never-ending war, and now their reliable cook, Odessa Kirby, was leaving them to care for an aging aunt.
Dimple Kilpatrick had grown up eating buckwheat cakes. She hadn't liked them then and she didn't like them now. And besides, hadn't Phoebe served them only a few days before? Still, she kept her objections to herself. Phoebe was a dear friend and she was doing the best she could under the circumstances. All of the boarders had been pitching in to help as much as possible, but with teaching duties taking up most of their time, it was difficult to plan and prepare affordable meals that would appeal to everyone. Why, just the other day she had stirred up a batch of her fiber-filled Victory Muffins, which were intended to inspire one to become healthy and patriotic, as well as regular. It seemed odd to her that no one seemed especially hungry that morning, as most of the muffins were left on the serving platter. She even thought she saw part of one crumbled underneath the bird feeder in the front yard, but, of course, that was surely her imagination.
Annie Gardner tried not to think of Odessa's succulent baked chicken, her crispy fried fish and hush puppies, or her vegetable soup with golden-brown corn muffins. "How long does Odessa plan to be away?" she asked as she helped clear away the empty soup bowls from their midday meal. Because it was Saturday, they hadn't had to rush back to school and had taken their time over canned tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches.
The youngest of Phoebe's roomers, Annie was in her third year as a fourth-grade teacher at Elderberry Grammar School and had recently become engaged to Frazier Duncan, a young lieutenant currently serving somewhere in France — or at least that's where he was the last time she'd heard.
"I suppose we'll be without Odessa until her aunt Aurie is able to get about on her own," Phoebe said. "Odessa said she had a nasty fall and had to have surgery on her hip. She's no spring chicken, you know, and these things take time to heal."
Lucky Aunt Aurie! Annie thought. All she had to do was lie up in bed while Odessa served her all the good things they would be missing out on.
And then she felt ashamed of herself for being so selfish. The poor woman was probably in pain, and would be helpless without Odessa's kind nurturing. ... Still, she did miss those heavenly desserts Odessa seemed to concoct out of practically nothing.
"We do have eggs," Phoebe reminded them, "and I could grate a little cheese for an omelette."
"Then I'll try my hand at biscuits again, if you'll let me." A novice at cooking, Annie had burned the last batch so badly, they'd had to throw them out. "And this time I promise to watch them." She shrugged. "I don't suppose there's any bacon?"
"We should have enough ration stamps if Shorty has any to sell," Phoebe said, speaking of Shorty Skinner, the local butcher. "Half a pound will have to do, if he has it. We don't have enough stamps for more."
"Virginia's holding a book for me at the library," Miss Dimple said. "I'll stop by the butcher's on my way." A great fan of mysteries, she was looking forward to reading John Dickson Carr's latest, Till Death Do Us Part, said to be a clever locked-room puzzle, and Miss Dimple enjoyed the challenge.
But lately, that was about the only thing she enjoyed. She was fond of her first-graders, as always, but had recently found herself lacking her usual enthusiasm for teaching and just about everything else. Dimple supposed it was because of the war, which seemed to define everything and everybody. Looking into the faces of her small charges, she often found herself thinking of others who had sat in those tiny green chairs years before: Peyton Hodges, who read so fast, the rest of the class had trouble keeping up. And she'd had to train herself to accommodate his natural inclination to write with his left hand. The young soldier had been killed the winter before in the Marshall Islands. And Chester Mote, with his big brown eyes and snaggle-toothed grin, had died when his plane ran out of gas during General Dolittle's bombing raid over Japan. Now, more recently, word had come that Dennis Chastain, who joined the marines early in the war, had been killed in September during the Battle of Peleliu in the Pacific. Tall and lanky, he had thrilled onlookers with his Tarzan-like antics in the trees on the playground, and was said to have been in great demand on the dance floor during high school years.
Miss Dimple tucked the required ration books into her worn purple handbag, patted her lavender hat into place, and stepped into the bright October afternoon, determined to find something encouraging in this day. At least the weather was cooperating, she thought, as the sky was so blue it almost hurt her eyes, and the large oaks on Katherine Street canopied the sidewalks in a patchwork of crimson and gold. Dimple Kilpatrick took a deep breath and straightened, walking quickly and with purpose, as was her custom. But today her purpose evaded her. What was the matter with her? Why, this wouldn't do at all!
This, too, shall pass, she reminded herself. You have a job to do, Dimple; now get on with it! Miss Dimple had never doubted the importance of her work. The children under her care deserved the best she could offer, but lately, she felt that hadn't been enough. If only she would hear from Henry. Her brother had been eight and she fourteen when their mother died, and Dimple had taken on the duties of rearing him in her stead. Henry Kilpatrick had become a fine man and a skilled engineer, as well as a loving and supportive brother, and she was proud of the job he was doing at the Bell Bomber Plant in nearby Marietta, Georgia. Although he seldom spoke of his work, she knew it was important to the war effort. Lately, however, Henry had become distant and uncommunicative, almost to the point of being rude, and it was most unlike him. She had received a brief note from her brother a few months before, but nothing since, and he had ignored her recent letters. Dimple missed their occasional visits, missed the warmth and understanding the two of them shared. Of course she had Phoebe and her fellow teachers at the boardinghouse, and she could always rely on her friend Virginia Balliew, the sole librarian at the town's quaint log cabin library. Perhaps, she thought, if things were quiet at the cabin today, the two might have a chance to talk. Dimple disliked unloading her troubles on anyone, but this time she couldn't ignore the need.
Collecting the half pound of bacon at Shorty Skinner's sawdust-smelling shop, Dimple stopped briefly to exchange pleasantries with Jo Carr, whose daughter Charlie taught the third grade in the room opposite from hers, and hurried across the street to the small park, where the library nestled in the shade of glossy magnolias and a sandy pathway circled the fountain, where lazy goldfish swam.
As a rule, the cabin with its wisteria-shaded porch had a calming effect on Dimple and the cares of the day fell away, at least for a while, when she stepped inside the door. For a few precious minutes, she could browse among the books, lose herself in another place, another time, and become immersed in an experience far removed from Elderberry, Georgia, and a war that seemed to go on forever.
The afternoon sunlight cast its enchanting autumn spell across the cabin porch, pooling between rocking chairs and a couple of Boston ferns, and at first Dimple thought it was only a shadow she saw. And then it moved.
The woman stood with her back to the diamond-paned window, her hands clutching a large paper bag, and looked as if she wished she could become a part of the building itself. She wore a dark green skirt and tailored white blouse, with a gray sweater thrown about her shoulders. Her light brown hair curled beneath a knitted beret of dark red and gray.
Miss Dimple smiled. "Good afternoon," she said. "Lovely weather to be out-of-doors."
The woman nodded but didn't speak. Perhaps she had been to the library and was waiting for someone to come for her, but she didn't seem to have a book in her hand. Dimple had never seen her before.
"Is she still there?" Virginia whispered as soon as Dimple closed the door behind her.
"If you mean the woman with the paper bag, then yes. Why? Is there a problem?"
Virginia shook her head and frowned. "Well ... no, but she's been out there all afternoon. I asked her if she'd like to come inside, but she said she only wanted to sit on the porch for a while."
Miss Dimple stepped over Cattus, the library cat, stretched out on a braided rug by the fireplace, although there was no fire this afternoon. "She seems to be waiting for someone, and ... well ... I have a feeling something might be wrong."
Virginia smiled. "Oh, you would! You and your mysteries. But she does seem a bit odd. Tell you what, let's give her a while, and if she's still there in half an hour, we'll try and get to the bottom of this." She frowned. "Is something wrong, Dimple? You look a little down in the dumps today."
And Dimple Kilpatrick returned a book to the shelf with a thump. Where should she begin?
"Have you spoken with Henry over the phone?" Virginia asked when Dimple told her of her concerns. "I realize long-distance is expensive, but in this case ..."
"But I have called, several times, in fact, but Henry's never at home, and Hazel always answers. Of course she promises to relay the message, and I suppose she does, so why doesn't he reply?" Miss Dimple shook her head and frowned. "I'll have to admit, Virginia, this has me most distressed."
Virginia made a noise that sounded very much like a snort. "Oh, that Hazel! For heaven's sake, I wouldn't trust that one as far as I could throw" — she glanced about and pointed to a huge book on a stand — "that copy of Webster's Dictionary over there! You give her too much credit, Dimple."
"Well, she is Henry's wife, and I want to keep peace in the family," Dimple said. Still, she never had understood her brother's choice of a wife. Hazel never went anywhere without her unpleasant sister, Imogene, who lived with the couple and had the personality of a slug.
She didn't mention the air of gloom that seemed to have settled upon her. Why burden her friend with a matter that couldn't be helped? After all, she was bound to snap out of it soon.
"I know!" Virginia suddenly clapped her hands. "Send him a telegram! That's certain to grab his attention."
"But, Virginia, that would be cruel." Everyone knew telegrams were the most frightening things one could receive. The small yellow piece of paper struck terror into the hearts of any recipient, as it might be a notification that a loved one was missing in action, or perhaps even wounded or dead.
Virginia only shrugged. "Do you want to get his attention or not?"
"I suppose you're right," Dimple agreed. "And if I still haven't heard from him by next week, I believe I will do just that."
Dimple collected the book her friend had been holding for her and selected two more. She was preparing to leave, when Virginia reminded her about the stranger on the porch. "I'll walk to the door with you," she offered. "I want to see if our visitor's still there."
"And what if she is? Are you thinking of collecting rent?"
Virginia laughed. "That might not be a bad idea if it looks like she's taking up residence."
But Miss Dimple waved that away with the back of her hand. "Oh, I expect she'll be long gone by now."
But she wasn't. The woman, who looked to be in her late thirties, had made herself comfortable in a rocking chair, with her eyes closed and her chin on her chest, and at first Dimple thought she was asleep, but she sat up abruptly, apparently startled at their approach.
"I hope we didn't alarm you," Miss Dimple said. "Wouldn't you like to come inside?"
The stranger looked quickly about, as if to assure herself she was where she should be. "No, thank you. I believe I'll just sit here, if that's all right."
"Of course, but it's already turning colder, and I'll be closing the library soon." Virginia introduced herself and Dimple. "Is everything all right? There's a telephone inside. Is there anyone I can call for you?"
"Oh, no. No. I'm fine, really." The woman hugged her paper bundle to her chest as if it were a baby. "It's just that ... well, I wondered if I might stay here tonight."
Virginia's eyes widened. "Where? Do you mean here on the porch?" She glanced at Dimple, who shook her head. "I'm sorry, but I'm afraid that won't be possible. Besides, it's going to be cold out here, and where would you sleep?"
"Surely you have family who might help," Dimple offered in what she hoped was a gentle voice. Their guest seemed as easily spooked as a young colt. "You can phone them from here."
But the woman, who finally told them her name was Dora, only shook her head, and as Dimple stood there with Virginia, puzzling over what in the world to do, she noticed that Dora was trembling.
"Well, my goodness, you're getting cold out here. Let's get you somewhere warm. Have you had anything to eat?"
Reluctantly, Dora admitted she'd had only a banana and part of a pack of cheese crackers all day. "But I still have a few of them left," she added, patting the bag in her lap.
"Well, I know where we can remedy that," Miss Dimple said, urging her from the chair. "We'll work on the other problem once we get there."
* * *
And so while the strange newcomer sat in Phoebe Chadwick's kitchen, eating canned chicken noodle soup with bread and cheese and a cold baked apple left from the day before, Miss Dimple Kilpatrick attempted to explain the situation to her fellow boarders.
"She's been on the cabin porch all afternoon, and I can't get a thing out of her except that her name is Dora," she told them. "The poor thing has nothing but a light sweater for a wrap, and it's supposed to turn colder tonight."
"She looks about my size," Velma Anderson said. "I've an old tweed coat I was getting ready to put in the Bundles for Britain, but it'll do just as much good here at home. I'll run get it before I forget. It's right there on my closet shelf." Organized to the hilt, Velma, who taught secretarial science at the high school, hurried upstairs to retrieve the coat. Dora had accepted it gratefully, she told them a few minutes later.
"But what can we do about a place for her to stay?" Phoebe asked. "There's no extra room here, and I'm sure she's harmless, but after all, we don't know anything about her."
Lily Moss gulped. "Oh, you're right, Phoebe! Why, she might be ... well, running from the law, or even a murderer. We could all be killed in our beds — hacked to pieces or stabbed or something. Why, I read just the other day about —"
"Oh, for heaven's sake, Lily! You've been reading too many of those gory paperbacks," Velma said. "We'll make some phone calls. I'm sure we can find a place for the woman to stay, at least for the night."
"What about that tourist home just on the other side of town?" Annie offered. "They take in travelers for about a dollar a night, and I'm sure they don't require credentials. Couldn't we chip in and pay for a night or two?"
Miss Dimple smiled. "That's an excellent idea, Annie. I believe that's Warren and Opal Nelson's place. You remember Warren? Works with Bobby Tinsley at the police department. I'll call Opal right now and find out if they have a room available. She and I have served several times together for the Red Cross Blood Drive, and she seems to be an understanding person. I'll just explain to her about Dora."
* * *
After a few minutes' deliberation, Opal agreed to let Dora stay for the night. "And let's just see how that goes before we add on another," she told them.
"What about nightclothes?" Phoebe asked. "Do you think she has a gown or clean underwear in that bag she carries?"
Velma offered an extra pair of pajamas but said Dora was on her own for the underwear. She did add that she would be glad to drive the woman to the Nelsons' in her Ford V-8, which looked every bit as new as it had when she bought it in 1932.
Excerpted from Miss Dimple and the Slightly Bewildered Angel by Mignon F. Ballard. Copyright © 2016 Mignon F. Ballard. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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