by Lida Bushloper
Enjoy another never before published 4th of July mystery short story!
I knocked on the door of Mama Steve’s cottage. Nobody ever locked their doors in our tiny town of only six thousand people, But Esther Stevenson, known affectionately all over town as Mama Steve, would be 100 years old on the 4th of July, and I didn’t want to startle her. Mama Steve was expecting me, so when I didn’t get an answer to my knock, I opened the door and went in. I was there to interview her for our weekly newspaper’s special 4th of July edition.
Once inside, I could see Mama Steve lying back in her new recliner. It was a gift from her son Rodney, the town’s only lawyer, whom I had interviewed the day before about his remarkable mother. He told me her birthday present was being delivered later that day. At first I thought she had dozed off, but then I stepped closer. Her eyes were wide and staring and her mouth was wrenched open in what looked like a silent scream. I noted her twisted dressing gown and wildly disheveled hair. I also noticed the champagne chenille pillow tossed on the floor beside her chair, the pillow that normally sat on her little couch. In my newspaper career I had seen enough dead bodies to know that this was one of them. I also knew not to touch anything and to call the police chief from my cell phone.
“Bart, you need to come over to Mama Steve’s. I’ve just found her dead. Something’s not right.” I was reluctant to say more. The chief and I had known each other since high school. He knew I was a straight shooter, not given to hysterics or false alarms. He was there within minutes.
He glanced around the room. “You’re right, Paul, this isn’t a natural death. It looks like somebody smothered Mama Steve with her own pillow. But who could have done it? And why? And by the way, how did you happen to be here?”
“She was scheduled to ride on the donkey cart in the parade this year on account of her turning 100. I was doing an interview for the newspaper–you know, the usual softball questions– ‘To what do you attribute your long life?’ and ‘What advice would you give to young people today?’ That sort of thing. Why would anybody in the world want her dead? Everybody loved her.”
It was true. For decades Mama Steve had run a pre-school in town. All the town kids had gone there, and when they grew up, they sent their own children there, too. She was a beloved figure and when she finally retired at age 67, the town threw her a huge party. When she turned 70, she had been chosen to ride on the donkey cart in the annual 4th of July parade. Every year, the parade organizers picked some worthy citizen for that honor. They had picked Mama Steve again on her 80th birthday–and again on her 90th. Every year we all thought it would be her last, but she kept hanging on–to our great delight, I might add, and she had loved it, too. She loved riding in the bed of the little wagon, wearing the red, white and blue striped sash over her shoulder, the starry paper crown on her snow-white hair and waving to the crowd, most of whom she knew by name.
The chief, too, had been one of her little charges when he was a toddler. He was having trouble controlling himself, but he managed. “I’ll talk to you in more detail later, Paula. Right now I need to call in one of the crime scene guys from Stanton.” He mentioned the name of the big town on our border. Our “city” was way too small to have the technical resources for a murder scene. Besides, we hadn’t had a murder in over 20 years; the chief was doing his job, but I had another concern.
“But what about the parade? Should we cancel it? Find someone else for the donkey cart? Should I get in touch with the parade committee?” My mind was racing through the options.
“Go talk to Stephanie,” he said, naming the city manager. “Tell her to keep this quiet for now, until I have a chance to talk to Rodney. She’s highly competent. She’ll know how to handle it, and it should be her or the mayor who gets in touch with the committee chair.”
I found Stephanie in her office. She looked startled to see me, but despite being caught off guard, she was her usual perfectly turned out self. Her navy blue suit and white blouse were impeccable. She had pulled her office trash can close to the side of her desk and she was busy refilling a Scotch tape dispenser with a fresh roll. Her head jerked up when she saw me. “Oh, Paula, I didn’t know you were coming. Too bad you didn’t call first.”
“Sorry, Stephanie, but this couldn’t wait,” I said, pulling a chair close. I settled my open notebook on the edge of the desk, topped by the multiple pens I always carried. As I reporter, my worst nightmare is to be at the scene of a breaking story and run out of ink.
As I got myself organized, I couldn’t help but notice the one and only personal item on her desk. It was picture of her young daughter, Lee Ann, who had been born with an incurable, debilitating and fatal condition. Medical science had done wonders to prolong her life, but now her time was running out, at an ever faster rate. Stephanie made sure she had top notch care. She would have done anything for Lee Ann. She bought her a pony, she added a swimming pool to their house and somehow she wrangled introductions to TV and movie stars when they were in the area. I knew because I had covered most of these events for the paper. Stephanie tried to grant every wish her desperately sick little girl made, and for Stephanie, it was always worth it when she saw Lee Ann smile, laugh and squeal with delight at it all.
“Stephanie, I’ve got bad news. Mama Steve was found dead in her home this morning.” I waited for her reaction.
“Oh, my heavens, that’s terrible. I can just picture her in her brand new recliner,” she mused. “She sure didn’t have much time to enjoy it, but, she was old. I guess it wasn’t unexpected.”
I thought there was something odd about what she said, even though it sounded like she was saying all the right things, but I didn’t take time to puzzle it out. I had to move on to the more urgent problem.
“But, Stephanie, what about the parade? Can you get in touch with the committee? Should they cancel the donkey cart? Or should they get somebody else to ride on it? Somehow that doesn’t seem right.”
Stephanie appeared to think hard about the dilemma. “Well, it’s not my decision, but I’d hate to see it eliminated. The donkey cart has been a part of the parade for a hundred years. It’s a symbol of our pioneer founders and everybody looks forward to it.” She paused, and then was struck by a sudden inspiration. “Hey, I have an idea! Lee Ann has always dreamed about being in the parade. She could never walk in it, of course, and this could be her one and only opportunity.” Her voice caught in a sob. “You know she only has a few more months to live.”
I patted her hand kindly. “Stephanie, that’s a brilliant idea. It’s almost like a miracle for Lee Ann. But still, everybody would have loved to see Mama Steve ride in the parade on her 100th birthday.”
I was surprised, and yet not surprised, at Stephanie’s sharp retort. “Oh, please, she’d had her turn, and more than once.” Stephanie caught herself and pulled back. “Sorry, I shouldn’t have said that, but at least her death will mean something positive for a child in this town. I think she would have loved that.”
I agreed with her and then hurried to gather my things. “Just don’t talk to the committee until the chief has had a chance to notify Rodney. He’ll let you know when it’s okay to move ahead.”
It was true. Rodney needed to hear about his mother’s sudden death from Bart, not from town gossip. I jumped up from my seat, knocking over my notebook and pens, which fell into the trash can. I scrambled to fish them out, meanwhile picking up another small item which I had glimpsed lying in the almost empty container.
I quickly concealed it in my clenched fist. I had to get back to the chief and I found him still at the crime scene, along with the crime scene investigator he had called in. Crime scene tape was now blocking off the yard and the house. Rodney was there, sobbing and slumped against the hood of his car. I touched him on the shoulder.
“You!” He turned on me angrily. “How can you be such a ghoul? You’re already here to write this up for the paper. Can’t you have a little respect?”
I couldn’t take offense. He was in deep grief. I waited for him to calm down a bit. “Rodney, everyone in town is going to be upset about your mother. I guess the chief didn’t tell you that I was the one who found her. I came here for our interview, but I got here too late to save her from whoever did this.”
He looked at me now with gratitude. “I’m sorry, Paula. I know you were very fond of her. I’m glad it was you. But who, Paula, who? The chief already told me they suspect homicide. Who could be so evil?”
I didn’t tell Rodney that I thought I knew who it was. I had to talk to the police first. When Stephanie made the remark about the new recliner, I knew she must have seen it for herself. It had only been delivered the day before. No time for Mama Steve to brag about it, and about her devoted son, to everyone in town. I called out for Bart and he separated himself from the other personnel milling around the scene. When he approached, I showed him what I had smuggled out of Stephanie’s office. He looked at it, puzzled and uncomprehending. So I explained.
“It’s Scotch tape, Bart. I think when you get it to the lab, they’ll find fibers attached. Fibers that match Mama Steve’s chenille pillow, probably combined with flecks of navy blue fabric. It’s an old trick women use to get lint off their clothes. When I went to see Stephanie, she had just finished patting herself down with strips of tape. If you get there before she empties the trash, I’ll bet you find more of these. Besides, the tape doesn’t really work all that well. There’s likely to be chenille specks still on her jacket.”
Bart caught on to what I was saying. He was already heading to his car. He turned suddenly and asked again the one question everybody in town would be asking soon. “But, Paula, why? Why Stephanie of all people? It doesn’t make sense.”
“I think I know. It was her daughter’s last chance to have one more dream come true, to be in the 4th of July parade, waving to everyone from the donkey cart, and you know, she’d do anything, absolutely anything, for her daughter.” He reflected a moment, nodded his head in understanding, then jumped into his car and sped off.
The committee made its decision. Lee Ann, accompanied by her grandmother, got to ride in the parade after all. She squealed and laughed with delight, but of course, her mother was not there to see it.
More mystery reviews, short stories, articles and giveaways can be found in the current issue, and those and others can be found in our mystery section, including another July 4th mystery short story.