by Herschel Cozine
Here is yet another mother related mystery short story in honor of Mother’s Day. The Hubbard Affair was first published by Orchard Press Mysteries.
Hi. Nathaniel P. Osgood III here. I live and work in Nurseryland as a private detective. It’s an interesting job to say the least, and brings me in contact with some of the strangest people one could ever hope to meet. People say and do crazy things here. For one thing, they are always losing things. Bo Peep lost her sheep. Cinderella lost her slipper. The kittens lost their mittens. Humpty Dumpty lost his balance. And I have it on good authority that Snow White lost her virginity. (Contrary to what you have heard, Dopey does talk. Some people say he talks too much.) Be that as it may, I make a good living recovering lost items. A lot of times, as in the case I am about to discuss, the items in question were not lost at all. They were stolen.
You are all familiar with the tragic case of Mother Hubbard and her poor dog, Samson. Yes, I know. The dog didn’t have a name, unless “Poor” qualifies. But I am a detective, and I get behind the scenes. It’s my job to know these things. Mrs. Hubbard was wiped out–not even a bone for Samson in her cupboard, as they call them here in town. And she wasn’t at all happy about it.
She showed up in my office early one morning. I had just poured myself a cup of coffee and was contemplating a jelly doughnut when the door opened and she bounced through it followed by Samson. She was a tiny lady, dressed in–well–a Mother Hubbard dress. She wore a bonnet and heavy shoes that nevertheless looked comfortable. Her only nod to fashion was the small purse that appeared to have no utilitarian value. She gripped it firmly in one hand, closed the door behind her and faced me.
“Mr. Osgood?” she asked in a high pitched, frail voice. I came to learn that the voice was no indication of her personality. This old gal had spunk.
“Someone has robbed me.”
Before I could acknowledge her first remark she went on. “They wiped out my cupboard, took everything in it.”
I held up my hand. “Before we go any farther, who are you?”
Now that may seem like a silly question to you, being familiar with the incident and all. But you must remember that at the time I posed the question, Mother Hubbard was not the “personality” that she is today.
She paused in her monologue, peered at me over her half glasses and smiled. “Please excuse me,” she said. “My name is Hubbard, Mathilda Hubbard.” She looked from me to the jelly doughnuts. I took the tray and held it out to her. She accepted one hungrily, paused for a moment, then took another one and gave it to Samson. He swallowed it whole.
“We haven’t had breakfast,” she said as a way of explanation. “In fact, we haven’t eaten since yesterday morning.”
I nodded sympathetically; I was good at that. Sympathy goes a long way in this business. I waited for her to compose herself, motioned for her to have a seat, and sat down myself. “Someone has robbed you,” I said. “Do you have any idea who?”
She shook her head. “No. I’m not a wealthy woman. I don’t have much of any value in the house.” She patted Samson absently. “When Father Hubbard died a few years ago, he left me a small widow’s pension.” She waved a delicate hand. “But that’s not important. Someone took my goodies and left what few valuables I have behind.”
“What valuables?” I asked.
“Well,” she said. “I have some jewelry, a camera, and my baseball card collection in the kitchen, quite close to the cupboard.” She shrugged. “They left all that, but stole my food. They even took Samson’s bone. Now I ask you, why would anyone want a bone?”
Perhaps, I thought, the thief had a dog of his own, or perhaps the thief was a dog. In this town, anything is possible. I was about to express my opinion when Mathilda spoke again.
“You must help me, Mr. Osgood.”
Little old ladies in Mother Hubbard dresses are hard to resist. Add to that the threat of a dog bite, and I could only say yes.
“Okay,” I said. “But you have to give me more information.”
She nodded gratefully. “Whatever I can do to help,” she said. “What would you like to know?”
“Let’s start at the beginning,” I said. “When did you first discover that you had been robbed?”
Mathilda stroked the dog absently as she considered the question. “Let’s see, it must have been about 8 o’clock yesterday morning. I always give Samson a bone about that time.” She patted Samson on the head. “So I went to my cupboard to get him a bone.” She paused again, looked at the dog sadly, then at me. “But when I got there the cupboard was bare.” She smiled brightly, “I just made a rhyme.”
I wanted to complete it by saying, “And so the poor dog had none.” But “none” doesn’t really rhyme with “bone”, so I remained silent. It’s a decision I regret to this day.
“When was the last time you went to the cupboard?” I asked.
“That would have been about 7:30 the evening before,” she said. “I have a cup of tea about that time each night before going to bed.” She adjusted her dress. “I retire early these days. With Father gone and all–well I don’t enjoy evenings the way I used to.”
“So then,” I said. “Sometime between 7:30 night before last and 8:00 yesterday morning you were robbed.”
“No,” she said. “I get up at 6:00 and was in the kitchen. So it had to be before 6:00.” She paused thoughtfully. “And after 8:30, since I went to the kitchen to get a drink of water before going to sleep.”
I wrote this information down, nodded toward Samson. “The dog didn’t bark? You heard nothing during the night?”
“Oh, my, no,” she said. “I sleep soundly, and I didn’t have my hearing aid in.” She looked down at Samson. “He’s not a very good watchdog.”
Samson looked at her with sad eyes, and if one used his imagination–as one is prone to do in these parts–he gave an apologetic whine.
“And just exactly what did ‘they’ take?”
“Everything,” she said. She shrugged and spread her hands. “Of course, I don’t keep much on hand. It’s just me and Samson, you know.” She put a finger to her chin. “Let’s see, now. There was a bag of cookies, Oreos, and some peanuts.” She shrugged again. “And Samson’s bone.”
“That’s it?” I asked.
She nodded. “I know it isn’t much. But whoever took it had no right. I’m a little old widow lady with arthritis, a bad leg and…” her voice trailed off and she sighed wearily.
Neighbors?” I asked.
Mother Hubbard frowned. “I beg your pardon?”
“Do you have any neighbors?”
“Oh,” she replied. “Indeed. My next door neighbors are the Spratts. And on the other side are Bill and Gertrude Simon.” She paused and stroked her ample chin. “They have a son. A rather simple man, if you know what I mean.”
“Did they see or hear anything?” I asked.
“I have no idea,” she said. “I didn’t ask. You are the first person I have talked to about this.”
“Okay.” I said. “There isn’t much to go on, but I will see what I can do.”
Mathilda nodded. “I hope you can find whoever did this. Meanwhile I am going to lock my doors at night.” She clucked. “What is the world coming to? A body just can’t feel safe anymore.” She stood up and motioned to her dog.
“Come, Samson. On the way home we’ll stop by the butcher and I’ll get you a bone.”
Samson wagged his tail as if he understood. Who knows? Maybe he did.
I paid a visit to Mrs. Hubbard the next morning. Evidently she had gone to the market since her trip to my office, as she was eating a cookie, while Samson was chewing on a bone of some sort. I didn’t want to know what it was or where he got it. She offered me a cookie. I declined.
“I just wanted to see the cupboard,” I said.
She pointed to a small door next to the refrigerator. It was partially open. I walked over to it, opened it all the way and peered inside. Except for a box of Oreos and a bag of ginger snaps, the cupboard was–if you’ll pardon the expression–bare. I was intrigued, if not dismayed, with Mother’s eating habits. But that was her business. Even so, it looked as if poor Samson would have to make do with the bone he had. I knelt down to get a better look inside. Except for a small hole in the back of the cupboard, most likely made by a mouse, there was nothing.
I closed the door and inspected it as well. The latch was broken and there were scratch marks on the door by the handle. Samson’s handiwork, I concluded. I pointed them out to Mathilda.
“Oh, my, yes,” she said. “Samson gets impatient for his bone. I scold him whenever he does that, but he doesn’t seem to learn.” She threw the dog a disapproving look. Samson stared blankly back at her through brown, moist eyes.
“Has the latch always been broken?”
She nodded. “Oh, yes. It’s been that way for years.” She shook her head sadly. “Henry, that’s my poor departed husband, wasn’t very good at fixing things.”
I glanced around the room, looking for signs of forced entry. In one corner was a grandfather clock. As I watched, a mouse ran up and perched on the flat top. He or she, I had no idea which, picked up a crumb and chewed on it busily. Just then the clock struck one and the mouse hurried down and disappeared in a hole in the wall.
“Did you see that?” I remarked.
Mathilda scratched her chin. “What?”
“That mouse,” I replied. “He ran up the clock, then immediately ran back down again when it chimed.”
Mathilda frowned. “He does that every day at this time,” she said.
“Every day? At the same time?”
She nodded. “One o’clock.”
“Really,” I said. “Don’t you find it odd?”
She shook her head. “Not at all. What’s odd about it?” She gave me a slightly offended look. “Now, cows jumping over the moon. That’s what I call odd.”
She had a point. But oddness comes in varying degrees. I didn’t pursue it. In this town you learn to live with it. I bowed politely to Mathilda, and took my leave. Samson was chewing contentedly on his bone and took no notice of my departure.
Back in my office I tried to reconstruct the crime from what little evidence I had found at the Hubbard house. But I couldn’t get the mouse out of my head. I wondered if he did the same thing at one o’clock in the morning as well. Did it matter? I suppose not. But a mouse running around in broad daylight right under the nose of a dog is not something you see every day. Granted, Samson was not a very good specimen. But even the laziest dogs will chase a mouse when the occasion presents itself. What did it all mean?
“Nothing,” I said to myself. “It means nothing.”
Thus, convincing myself of the insignificance, I turned out the lights, locked the door of my office and went home.
I had finished my dinner, and settled in front of the TV for an evening of reruns, when my thoughts went back to the Hubbard case. At the moment it was the only case I had, so I could give it my full attention. There was little or no evidence to go on. There was no sign of forced entry. That in itself was not significant. Mathilda didn’t lock her doors. But Samson, as poor a specimen of canine-hood as he was, would certainly bark at an intruder.
Then there was the matter of the “loot”, so to speak. Why would anyone take the time and the risk to steal a few cookies and a bone? And why leave the valuables, such as they were?
My thoughts returned to the mouse. There was a mouse hole in the back of the cupboard. Mice like peanuts, and I am certain they would not turn up their little pink noses at Oreos. Could the mouse I saw be the culprit? If so, what happened to the bone?
A scenario was forming in my head. The more I thought about it, the more sense it made. Ma Hubbard may not agree, but I’m not in this business to make people happy. At any rate, I decided to visit her in the morning with my version of what happened to her foodstuff.
The following morning I started out for Mathilda’s house. On the way I made a detour by the Nurseryland Pet Shop. The shop dealt in rare pets, such as blind mice, with and without tails. My purchase was a little more conventional.
Box in hand, I arrived at the Hubbard house and knocked on the door.
She answered my knock almost before I completed it. Samson let out a small woof, gave me an apologetic look when he recognized me, and retreated to his bed in the corner of the room. His bark, pathetic as it was, gave credence to my theory.
“Well,” Mathilda said without preamble. “Do you know who robbed me?”
“I think so,” I said. “But in order to be certain I have something I have to do.”
Before she could say any more, I put the box I was carrying on the floor and opened the lid. A mouse skittered out of the box, looked around briefly, and then ran for shelter. Mrs. Hubbard shrieked. Samson went–by Samson standards–berserk. He woofed, not once, but twice. He started after the mouse, thought better of it, and went back to his bed.
“What’s the meaning of this?” Mrs. Hubbard shouted.
“There is your thief,” I said. “Oh, not the mouse I just released.” I pointed to the clock. “The mouse in the clock.”
I walked over to the clock, reached up and felt around the top. Holding up a handful of peanuts and peanut shells, as well as cookie crumbs, I smiled triumphantly.
Mathilda put a hand to her mouth, her eyes widening. “The mouse?” she said. “Do you mean to tell me that the mouse stole my food?”
She considered this for a moment, then frowned deeper. “But what about Samson’s bone?”
“Aha!” I said, trying my best to impersonate Hercule Poirot. “Ze bone, she was also taken by none other than your leetle dog, Samsone!”
Samson whined feebly. Mrs. Hubbard stared at me “But how…?”
“With a little help from your mouse friend. I suspected they were working together when Samson showed no interest in the little critter the other day. Most dogs would not tolerate a mouse running around the house. But Samson seemed not the least concerned.”
“I see,” Mrs. Hubbard said. “But Samson can’t open the door to the cupboard. And surely you don’t mean to tell me the mouse can carry a bone three times his size.”
“No,” I said. “But the mouse is able to push the door open a crack with his nose. Far enough, at least, so that Samson can do the rest.” I looked at the dog. He lay in his bed pretending sleep. But one eye betrayed him.
“I don’t know if you can say Samson stole anything, since the bone was his to begin with,” I said, hoping my explanation would make the dog feel better about things. “But I would suggest you seal up the hole in your cupboard and get the latch fixed.”
Mathilda was glaring at Samson. “No wonder you don’t wolf your food down like you used to do,” she scolded. Looking at the clock, she shook her head. “I’ve grown rather fond of that little mouse. But I won’t tolerate theft, no matter who the thief is.”
Mother Hubbard followed my suggestions and had the latch of the cupboard repaired and the mouse hole sealed off. Since then she has not had a problem with disappearing Oreos. Her cupboard is always well stocked. In a way, this is unfortunate, as she no longer enjoys celebrity status. After all, who wants to hear about an old lady with a well stocked larder? But then, fame isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Or so I’m told.
More short stories, including more mother related ones, can be found in our Terrific Tales section.