Thursday, January 27, 2011

First Chapter Wednesday--Dearly Departed

Some of you may already be familiar with Ida Mae, Arlette, and Tansey, but if you haven't you'll in for a treat as you get to know them in Dearly Departed by Tristi Pinkston.


Ida Mae Babbitt has done her community service and is a reformed woman - no more law-breaking for her. But when Arlette's granddaughter Eden discovers a mystery in a fancy nursing home, Ida Mae - with the perfect excuse of a broken wrist and a broken ankle - checks herself into the place. After all, it is for the greater good. Soon she's buzzing around in her motorized wheelchair, questioning the residents and swiping files from the office. She's bound and determined to get to the bottom of this case. But can she solve the mystery before she becomes the next victim?

FIRST CHAPTER
Ida Mae stepped back and surveyed her freezer with satisfaction. It had taken her all morning, but she had replenished her stock of cranberry cookies and whole-wheat bread. She had also frozen twelve single-serving lasagnas, eight bowls of chicken noodle soup, and six sweet and sour chicken dishes. Cooking for one was definitely different from cooking for a household, but when she froze the extra servings, she could go for days without having to actually spend time in the kitchen. She felt like such a rebel.

She glanced at the clock. Tansy would be coming over in about ten minutes, and she was sure to want some fresh, warm bread once she caught a whiff. Ida Mae thought for a moment. She had some freezer jam in the outside unit, just the thing to serve with the bread. But as she descended the steps from her kitchen to the garage, she lost her balance. For a moment she thought she’d be all right, but then she fell to the hard concrete floor in an ungraceful heap.

The words that sprang to her mind at the sudden pain weren’t befitting a former Relief Society president, but she thought them anyway. She figured the Lord would understand. She hadn’t felt such pain in her life, not even in labor. Of course, she’d had her children in the day when women were totally knocked out to give birth. Ida Mae didn’t remember much of anything from those days.

She lay there for a moment, trying to take a deep breath. When she finally managed to raise her head, she could see that her left ankle was twisted at an odd angle, and that she had gouged it on an old piece of metal left lying around from her nephew Ren’s workbench. Great. Just great.
Her phone was at least twenty feet away, and she couldn’t get up. She didn’t know what she was going to do.

“Ida Mae?” Tansy’s cheerful voice rang through the house. “Ida Mae, are you home?”
“I’m out here, Tansy,” Ida Mae called. “In the garage.”

Tansy stepped through the door. “Ida Mae!” She clutched the doorframe, her face pale. “Are you all right? Speak to me!”

“I already did speak to you, remember?” Ida Mae was so relieved at Tansy’s appearance, she was ready to forgive nonsensical babbling, but some things were just self-explanatory.

“How long have you been out here?”

“Just a few minutes.”

“Well, thank goodness for that. Now, let’s see.” Tansy grabbed a coat from the hook by the door and draped it over Ida Mae. “Should we call the ambulance, or do you think you could get in the car?”

Ida Mae thought about it. A trip to the hospital was definitely in order, but she didn’t know if her insurance would cover the ambulance ride. “Let’s try the car,” she said at last.

Tansy placed a call to the hospital to let them know Ida Mae was coming. Thankfully, the hospital had added another wing in the last year, so they should be able to treat her there without having to transport her to Salt Lake City. Ida Mae could hardly bear the thought of a long drive—just going to the hospital there in Omni would be hassle enough.

“Think of it this way,” Tansy said brightly. “You’re already in the garage. Another few feet, and you’ll be at the car.”

Ida Mae pressed her lips together. She supposed that was a blessing, although she did have the overwhelming compulsion to strangle Tansy with her own purse strap. But that was the pain talking.

Tansy opened the back door of Ida Mae’s car. “Let’s have you crawl in here and lie down. Oh, you have a stick shift.”

Ida Mae hadn’t really thought about it, but yes, her car did have a stick shift. “Can you drive with one?”

“Well, I’ve never done it, but I’m willing to give it a try,” Tansy said. “Unless you want to use my car. I could pull it up the driveway, but you’d have a lot farther to crawl.”

Ida Mae weighed her options. Should she crawl a couple of feet and put her life in the hands of a woman who might end up driving her into a tree, or should she crawl twenty or thirty feet to get into a different car with the same woman? The choice was fairly obvious.

Gritting her teeth, she pulled herself onto her knees. The pain shot up her leg and into her hip, taking her breath away. Sweat broke out in beads across her forehead.

“You can do it, Ida Mae,” Tansy encouraged, looking like a sixty-five-year-old cheerleader.

Ida Mae grasped the doorframe and pulled herself up on her good foot, then crumpled down on the car’s back bench. Tansy helped tuck her friend’s feet up on the seat, careful not to bump the injured ankle, then closed the door and hurried around to the driver’s side.

“Okay, now what do I do?” Tansy asked after she climbed into the car.

At least one good thing came out of the drive to the hospital. Ida Mae was so intent on keeping Tansy from stripping the gears, bouncing like a bunny through the intersection, and going over the guardrail that the focus was taken off the pain in her foot. They came to a screeching halt at the emergency room doors ten life-threatening minutes later, and Ida Mae said a silent prayer of thanks.

“That was fun!” Tansy said, turning around in the seat to look at Ida Mae. “Now, you sit tight.
I’m going to get one of those cute orderlies to bring a wheelchair out here.”

Ida Mae had never before stopped to contemplate the physical appearance of the orderlies at the hospital, but when one did come out with a wheelchair, she had to admit he looked pretty good. Like an angel of mercy, swooping down to deliver her from Tansy’s grasp.

****


“I fully understand your reasons for putting a cast on my ankle,” Ida Mae said, trying to sound calm. “Under the circumstances, that’s the best course of action. But what are you planning to do with that thing?” She pointed at the hypodermic needle in the nurse’s hand.

“Mrs. Babbitt, you scratched your leg on a piece of metal. Your chart indicates that it’s been quite a long time since your last tetanus shot. We’re just trying to keep you healthy.”

“I’m healthiest when I’m not impaled with needles.”

“It’s all right.” Tansy patted Ida Mae’s shoulder. “You can hold my hand.”

“But did you see the size of that thing? It must be six feet long.”

“Oh, the drama,” Arlette retorted. She’d come down to the hospital the minute Tansy called her from the emergency room, but Ida Mae couldn’t see that her presence was helping. So far, all Arlette had done was stand in the corner and make acerbic comments about everything.
“Mrs. Babbitt,” the nurse went on, “tetanus is a very painful condition. Believe me, you don’t want to get it. The shot, on the other hand, will only sting for a minute. You’ll be a little stiff for a day or two, and then it’s all over.” The nurse held up the needle again, giving what she probably thought was a comforting smile, but which was, in actuality, more like the grin of the Joker from the Batman television series.

“Can you numb me first?” Ida Mae asked after a long pause.

“I have a very effective numbing agent, but it’s administered by shot also,” the nurse replied.

“You’d have to give me a shot to get me ready to get a shot? Where is the logic in that?”

“This is a hospital,” Arlette said, taking a step forward. “I’m sure there’s something you could use topically.” Ida Mae was glad to hear her friend finally say something useful. “If nothing else, you could slap some ice on there. That would numb her up.”

Now Ida Mae wished her friend had kept her mouth shut.

“I’ll see what I can do,” the nurse said, laying the needle on the tray and leaving the room.

As soon as she was out of range, Ida Mae turned to Tansy, the one most likely to be sympathetic. “Tansy, you know I’m not a wimp. I never whine and I rarely complain.”

Arlette made a snorting noise, but Ida Mae wasn’t talking to Arlette, so she ignored her and went on. “But I hate needles. I really, really hate them. Can’t we sneak out of here while the nurse is gone?”

“Ida Mae, your cast was put on just minutes ago. I don’t think we can leave quite yet. Besides, you should get that shot.”

So much for Tansy’s sympathy. Ida Mae thought it sounded remarkably like she’d bought into the conspiracy.

“I’ll buy you a balloon,” Arlette said. “I saw a pretty one down in the gift shop.”

“Is it purple?”

“Yes, it’s purple. And it has pansies on it. Which is rather ironic, considering that you’re acting just like a great big pansy right now.”

Ida Mae knew tetanus wasn’t pleasant. She imagined the treatment for it would be much less than pleasant. If getting a shot could forestall all that suffering . . . she sighed. It would have to be done.

“Will you buy me a teddy bear to go with the balloon?”

“I most certainly will not!” Arlette crossed her arms over her chest. “That gift shop has a five hundred percent markup. I will not pay twenty dollars for a teddy bear that would cost nowhere near that much at Walmart.”

“But Walmart teddy bears don’t match the balloons.”


“I’ll buy you the teddy bear, Ida Mae,” Tansy said. “Now, will you be a good girl and get your shot?”

“I suppose,” Ida Mae said just as the nurse walked back into the room. “But go get it right now so I have something to squeeze.”


******

Eden was late for her job at the Salt Lake Sentinel. She walked calmly out of the funeral home but broke into a trot after she reached the parking lot and glanced at her watch. She hadn’t meant to leave so late, but she got caught up in the service and lost track of time.

She pulled into a fast-food restaurant and changed clothes in the bathroom, shoving her dress and heels into her duffel bag. She grabbed a sandwich and was on her way again, but got caught in a traffic snarl on I-215.

“Drat,” she muttered, looking for a gap in traffic so she could take the upcoming exit. She drummed her fingers on the steering wheel as the long string of cars inched forward, the other drivers looking as irritated as she was. Finally she saw an opening and took it, gunning her engine and zipping across, praying no one would hit her. They didn’t, but they certainly did honk.

“Sorry,” she called out, taking the exit. She wove through the side roads and pulled into her parking spot twenty minutes late. Maybe if she sneaked in, no one would notice.

That didn’t work. Halfway across the lobby, she heard someone call her name.

“Eden! Wait up.”

She turned, not wanting to face her boss. She got her wish—it was Kevin, the cute crime reporter who occupied the cubicle next to hers. She glanced around but didn’t see Mr. Cooper anywhere.
“He’s at lunch,” Kevin said, correctly interpreting her look of worry. “So, I hear you took the morning off to go to a funeral. Are you okay?”

Eden tilted her head to the side. It wasn’t her funeral—of course she was okay. Then she realized what he meant. “I’m fine, Kevin. It wasn’t for anyone I knew.”

“What?” He followed her down the hall toward their cubicles. “You went to a funeral, but you don’t know the person who died?”

“Yeah, I know it sounds a little crazy. But haven’t you ever gotten so wrapped up in a story you had to find out more, even though the article was already published?”

“I think we all do.”

“Well, it’s no different for me. Information comes across my desk, I try to condense someone’s whole life into one short obituary, and I can only hope I did it right. Sometimes I like to see how close I came.”

“You mean you make a habit of this funeral-going thing?”

Eden shrugged. “Only once or twice a month, and I generally just attend the ones held on my days off. Today was an exception.”

Kevin shook his head. “I knew you were quirky, but I didn’t know you were a funeral crasher.”

They reached her desk and she bent to tuck her purse under the cabinet.

“So, have you ever been proven wrong about a person?”

Eden looked up at him. “Sure, of course. You know how it is—the bereaved turns in their copy, I clean it up, and it goes to press with all sorts of glowing praise heaped on the deceased. Then at the funeral, I overhear that the louse cheated at cards and stole candy from babies. But you’re supposed to print what they send, you know?”

“But how does that make you feel, when all the world—well, all the subscribers—see this marvelous write-up but it’s not true?”

“Can you imagine an obituary that was really accurate?” Eden held her hands up in front of her, pretending to read a newspaper. “He was killed in a motorcycle accident that he wouldn’t have been in if he hadn’t been stinkin’ drunk and out seeing his girlfriend on the sly. Police say if he’d been smart enough to wear his helmet, he probably wouldn’t have died, although his wife says, ‘Good riddance to him and his smelly socks.’” She lowered her arms. “It would make fascinating reading, but is that really what the family needs?”

“No, I guess not.” Kevin folded his arms and leaned against the dividing wall between her cubicle and his. “Can I come with you sometime?”

Eden looked at him in surprise. “You want to crash a funeral with me?”

“Sure, why not? It sounds like fun.”

She mulled it over. She’d already divulged far more about herself than she’d intended, but there was something about Kevin that just made her want to talk. That could be dangerous.

“I guess,” she said. “I’ll let you know the next time I go.”

“How do you pick them? Do you just flip through the stack, close your eyes, and jab your finger?”
Eden really didn’t want to tell him, but she found herself doing it anyway. “I go to the ones that make me cry.”

“Come again?”

Dang it, if those brown eyes made him look any more like a puppy . . . “While I’m writing up the obituaries, some of them make me cry. Those are the ones that make me curious.”

Kevin shook his head again, and she wondered what kind of sarcastic comment he was getting ready to make. She could take him down in the sarcasm department any day—it was her specialty.

“You’re something else, Eden,” was all he said before disappearing into his own cubicle.

A moment later she heard the sound of rapid typing. At least one of them was getting back to work. His last words had caught her off guard, and Eden had to pull her brain around to the task at hand. She hoped Mr. Cooper wouldn’t figure out how late she’d been.

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