Tabbies and Turpitude: A Ruby Hobbs Cozy Mystery (Coming Soon!)

The Ruby Hobbs Historical Cozies: coming soon to Kindle Unlimited!

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Chapter One

Mrs. Ruby Hobbs, the widow of Orville Hobbs, Port Blanchet’s police chief for nearly forty years, sat in her rocking chair draining the dregs of her second cup of coffee for the morning as she watched Dickens, her old gray tabby cat, soak up the sun as he lay luxuriously sprawled on the dark green boards of the front porch.

As Ruby rocked and listened to the chirping of the birds and the faint purr of the contented Dickens, she was overcome with a wave of ennui.

Chirping birds, purring cats, and cloudless spring mornings were all very well in small, regular doses, but this spell of tranquility had been carrying on for far too long.

The last exciting incident Ruby could recall was a Thursday afternoon in early March when Floyd Vaughn, the feckless boy who drove the bookmobile, had gotten them stuck in a snowdrift. Ruby, who had turned seventy (two springs ago), had been required to get out and help dig them free with her own mittened hands.

It had been a good day. The memory of it had sustained her through the vicissitudes of a rainy March spent indoors listening to records on her ancient Victrola and rereading the collected works of Robert Louis Stevenson.

It was now the middle of April, and Ruby had run out of Stevenson and moved on to Marie Corelli.

Back when Orville was alive, the phone had rung off the hook day and night in the rambling old farmhouse Ruby still called home. For thirty-eight exciting years, Ruby had been privy to every incident of a criminal nature that had occurred inside Port Blanchet Township and some that had occurred well beyond.

Alas, no more.

True, Ruby’s son, George, had taken up his father’s mantle as the chief of police, but George lived on the other side of town and was annoyingly reluctant to fill his mother in on the intricacies of the activities of the criminal classes.

Now, whenever Ruby’s phone rang, it was usually one of her sisters, Opal or Pearl.

This morning was no exception. Just as Ruby was stepping around the still-slumbering Dickens en route to return her empty coffee cup to the kitchen, the telephone in the hall rang.

“It was ghastly!” were the first words out of Pearl’s mouth.

“What was ghastly?”

Probably, Pearl had found a particularly obnoxious slug in her strawberry patch, or perhaps, William Finch, the milkman, had left muddy footprints on Pearl’s front walk yet again. Possibly, Reverend Murphy’s sermon of the previous Sunday had contained what Pearl considered to be unsound doctrine. Pearl was particularly sensitive to unsound doctrine.

The possibilities were endless. Pearl was of a nervous, excitable disposition. After Pearl had been ejected from their mother’s womb, a trifle prematurely, it must be admitted, Pearl had wailed nonstop in her bassinet for the first three months of her life, or at least that was how Ruby remembered it.

“Hazel nearly died!” said Pearl on the other end of the line, her voice rising to a register that was undoubtedly prompting every cat in Pearl’s neighborhood to put its paws over its ears.

“Nearly died? Hazel Potts?”

Hazel Potts was a supremely disagreeable woman, and it had long been Ruby’s belief, based on a lifetime of observation, that the more disagreeable a person was, the longer they were likely to continue inflicting their existence on the community. Perhaps, it was Hazel’s shear disagreeableness that had saved her from whatever dire fate had nearly befallen her.

“That’s right! Hazel Potts was nearly killed!” Pearl said, her voice going up another octave. At this rate, she’d soon be speaking in a range only dogs could distinguish.

“What happened?

“She was crushed at the paper drive, and now she’s in a coma!”

At least once a year, some civic organization or another in Port Blanchet would put on a wastepaper drive in support of a good cause. As far as Ruby was concerned, the work involved in collecting mountains of old newspapers, bundling them neatly, and hauling them off to whatever rag and bone man in the region willing to take them off one’s hands wasn’t worth the pittance one got for one’s troubles.

“The PTA paper drive? Ruby asked Pearl. “What in the world happened to Hazel? Did Floyd back over her by accident?”

Floyd Vaughn was a terrible driver; Ruby should know. Floyd drove the Port Blanchet Township Bookmobile Thursdays and Saturdays hither and yon up and down the rutted back roads of the countryside surrounding Port Blanchet while Ruby bounced around in the passenger seat with broken springs. While she tried to avoid the broken springs, Ruby would clutch at the handle of the glove compartment, repeatedly jabbed her foot into the running boards where the brake ought to be, and belatedly remember Reverend Murphy’s admonition to never neglect one’s morning prayers.

“Floyd had nothing to do with it,” said Pearl. “It wasn’t anything like that. Well, not exactly like that. Oh, it was ghastly!”

This return by Pearl to her original motif had Ruby suspecting that her youngest sister might be drawing the story out for dramatic effect. Pearl had never thought very highly of Miss Hazel Potts, an opinion shared by nearly everyone who knew Hazel, and although Pearl might be expressing horror at the circumstances of Miss Pott’s near demise, she didn’t seem awfully heartbroken about it.

It occurred to Ruby that after spending decades of being herself the first one privy to nearly every bit of local news of a dramatic nature, her sister might be rather enjoying the experience of having the tables turned.

“What was the exact cause of Hazel’s injuries?” Ruby asked to get Pearl to her point.

“The stack of paper fell on her.”

“Hazel was buried under the pile of wastepaper collections?”

“Yes,” said Pearl.

Ruby tried to picture how one could contrive to nearly meet one’s maker by being engulfed in a cascade of newspapers tied together with bits of old twine, but her imagination failed her.

“The whole stack of papers just toppled over on Hazel, and that’s what’s put her in a coma?” Ruby asked just to be sure she had the story straight.

“Yes, it was only that she somehow ended up with her head underneath an old footstool that saved her. She was out stone cold when they finally dug her out. Opal says Dr. Rigley thinks she’ll fully recover.”

Opal was Ruby and Pearl’s middle sister. Even though Opal was sixty-eight and could have retired ages ago, she still assisted Dr. Rigley on occasions when his new, younger nurse, Pauline Reese, wasn’t available. Now that Pauline had just birthed the fourth little Reese, she was unavailable rather often.

“Hazel still hasn’t come to,” Pearl added. “Opal says she just lays in bed and moans.”

Ruby couldn’t help thinking this didn’t make much of a change for Hazel. Miss Potts had spent most of her sojourn on earth moaning about this and that.

“A mountain of wastepaper spontaneously fell over on Hazel?” Ruby asked. She knew she was repeating herself, but the whole incident was almost unbelievably bizarre.

“It did,” Pearl insisted.

Ruby supposed anything was possible, but it seemed the volunteers must have done a very poor job of stacking those newspapers if the pile might be accidentally toppled.

“Poor petulant Hazel,” Ruby said because it was the only thing to say that seemed both appropriate and truthful.

“Poor petulant Hazel,” Pearl echoed, then remembered that she was a good churchgoing Methodist and added, “God rest her soul.”

“Hazel isn’t dead,” Ruby pointed out.

“Yet,” Pearl added darkly.


“Alma says she has a dark premonition,” Pearl said.

“Alma Finch has a dark premonition about Hazel?”

“No, Hazel had the premonition.”

“What kind of premonition?”

“Hazel thinks she’s going to die soon.”

Chapter Two

“Hazel told Alma she was having a dark premonition that she was going to die soon?” Ruby questioned her sister.

“Something like that,” said Pearl. “I was going to ask Alma more about it, but she was more interested in talking about how her grandson Johnny won the regional spelling bee. Apparently, the winning word was oryzivorous. Alma says it means rice eater. Did you know that?”

Ruby conceded that oryzivorous was a new word to her.

Pearl, after further revealing that she had not actually been inside the Leonard P. Blanchet Memorial Elementary School gymnasium the previous morning at the time of the tragedy but had arrived on the scene after Miss Potts was already engulfed in the cascade of papers and subsequently extracted and had further admitted that she could not, with any degree of accuracy, provide an accounting of everyone who had been present at the time of the accident, she breathlessly signed off.

After Ruby’s coffee cup was washed, dried, and returned to its hook on the china cabinet in the dining room, she’d fried up a pan of kidneys and distributed them evenly between Dickens, Poe, Bronte, and Chaucer, her four cats. After Ruby had refereed the consumption of the kidneys (Chaucer had a tendency to bolt his share and then shoulder Dickens out of the way and eat his food, too), Ruby returned to the phone in the hallway.

She asked Minnie, the girl in charge of the switchboard on Wednesdays, for the residence of Minnie’s aunt, Mrs. Alma Finch.

Alma was the type who meant well, but she was far too enamored with the sound of her own voice. Alma’s favorite subject was the accomplishments of her grandchildren, of whom she had seventeen, each more brilliant than the last, or at least that’s the impression she liked to give.

“What’s this I hear about Hazel?” Ruby said as soon as she’d been put through to Alma.

“Isn’t it too awful?” Alma said. “I hear Hazel still hasn’t come around, poor thing. Still, she’s no spring chicken.”

None of them were spring chickens, but Ruby personally saw no connection between one’s age and infirmity and the likelihood of getting crushed under a cascade of wastepaper.

“What hap—” Ruby started to ask before Alma forgot all about Hazel and moved on to the wondrous accomplishments of one of her seventeen grandchildren, but it was already too late.

“Did you know that my granddaughter Hettie is going to be homecoming queen?” Alma said.

As a matter of fact, Ruby did know. She also knew that Hettie’s younger sister, Lettie, had been selected to serve on the queen’s court, but the intricacies of the social strata of the local teenage set failed to fascinate Ruby. She ruthlessly cut Alma short by asking, “What’s this I hear about Hazel Potts having some dark premonition?”

“Oh, that! It was the strangest thing. Just last week, I happened to run into Hazel as she was coming out of Mayor Prill’s house, and Hazel said—” Alma broke off as if to confirm that no one was listening in before continuing. “Hazel said, and I quote, ‘If something happens to me, it’ll be those two who did it.”

Hazel Potts ran a small rooming house for young single men—Floyd Vaughn was one of her lodgers—but providing two indifferently prepared and frugal meals a day for half a dozen young men left her plenty of time to take on other jobs around town. Hazel came in to clean for the Prills—Mrs. Prill wasn’t very skilled, domestically speaking—four afternoons a week. Hazel had been taking care of the Prills’ heavy cleaning and laundry for years now.

“Hazel thinks Mr. and Mrs. Prill have it in for her?” Ruby asked.

“I don’t think she was referring to Mrs. Prill,” Alma said, lowering her voice even further. “I shouldn’t be spreading gossip—”

If there was one thing Alma Finch enjoyed nearly as much as bragging about her seventeen grandchildren, it was dispensing a tidbit of juicy gossip. Normally, Ruby was not one to encourage this unsavory tendency, but in this case, she was prepared to appreciate Alma’s loose, although not always reliable, tongue.

“It’s a real shame,” said Alma. “After all Mrs. Prill has been through, for her husband to take up with another woman like that.”

“Another woman? Are you saying that Mayor Prill has another woman?”

Alma clicked her tongue and sighed with the bone-deep weariness of a soul burdened down with the weight of human fallibility, but she was apparently not quite yet ready to name names.

“If Hazel wasn’t including Mrs. Prill when she said, ‘those two,’” Ruby persisted, “who did she mean?”

“I think she meant that Minot woman,” Alma said.

“Catherine Minot?”

“That’s right,” said Alma.

Ruby was a nodding acquaintance with the Minots. Catherine Minot was an extraordinarily pretty blond woman in her early thirties with a handsome brunette husband of the same age, three pretty blond children, and four pretty brunette ones. They all sat together three pews ahead of Ruby every Sunday morning in a well-behaved line like little ducks in a row.

The impression Ruby had always gotten of Catherine Minot was one of extreme self-containment. Mrs. Minot had a brittle smile and eyes which betrayed nothing when they looked at you. Ruby found Catherine Minot a trifle unsettling, but she couldn’t articulate why.

“Are you trying to say that Catherine Minot and Julius Prill are on a left-handed honeymoon?” Ruby asked Alma.

Ruby found it a little hard to fathom that if Catherine Minot had been looking to grope for trout in a peculiar river, she’d have chosen Port Blanchet’s mayor as her catch. Julius Prill might carry considerable weight in the community, but he also carried considerable weight around his middle. And not only was Mr. Prill well past his physical prime he was also what Ruby’s grandson Ferris would describe as Dullsville. Julius Prill was a real snore.

Still, Alma seemed sure of her information.

“It’s not for me to suppose what Mr. Prill and that woman get up to when Mrs. Prill goes off to her bowling league on Friday evenings,” Alma told Ruby, “but I see Catherine Minot skulking around to the back door at a quarter past seven every Friday night, bold as brass—”

Alma lived right across the street from the Prills. There was no question that she was in an ideal position to observe the comings and goings of the Prill household.

However, this observation of Alma’s was not quite as cut and dried as it might sound. Alma’s eyesight was so poor that she might have mistaken anyone for Catherine Minot. In fact, it might just as well have been Reverend Murphy or the Fuller Brush Man going around to Julius Prill’s back door every Wednesday evening at a quarter past seven if Alma was going solely on what she thought she saw from her vantage point peeking out behind the lace curtains in her front room in the house across the street.

Unfortunately, Alma was terribly sensitive when it came to her eyesight, so no good would come of questioning her powers of observation.

“You think Hazel knew about Julius and Catherine? You think she knew they were carrying on?”

“I’m sure she did,” said Alma. “Hazel told me herself that she caught Mrs. Minot and Mr. Prill canoodling on the divan in the Prills’ front room, but she made me swear not to tell a soul.”

Either Hazel was a very poor judge of who she ought to be divulging secrets to, or Hazel had told Alma precisely because she knew Alma could be relied upon to blanket the story across Huron County.

“Still,” said Alma, abruptly changing gears, “if there’s anyone Hazel ought to have been worried about causing her harm, it’s that nephew of hers.”


“That boys a ne’er-do-well.”

“What makes you say that?”

“He wants to be like that Mr. Presley.”

“Mr. Presley?”

“That vulgar fellow who was on the Milton Berle Show the other night. The one who sang about his hound dog accompanied by so-called dancing. It was indecent. I had to switch off the set.”

Ruby pleaded ignorance to the existence of this Mr. Presley’s appearance on the Milton Berle Show. No good would come of admitting to Alma that Ruby herself had not turned off the television during Mr. Presley’s performance, and not only that, Ruby had found herself rocking back and forth to the beat. She’d amused herself at the time by wondering if the impulse was why this new style of music had been christened Rock and Roll.

“I think many young people of today enjoy the music of Elvis Presley, but what makes you think Sylvester might be any danger to his aunt?” Ruby asked.

“Sylvester wants to run off to Nashville and go into show business.”

“But how does that pose any danger to Hazel?”

“Because Hazel won’t let him. She’s supposed to be making sure he keeps out of trouble. Hazel won’t let Sylvester have the allowance his parents send him, so he can’t use it to run off to Nashville.”

Sylvester’s father, Hazel’s brother, was an army officer stationed in France, and his wife had gone abroad with her husband. Colonel and Mrs. Potts had left Sylvester to stay in Port Blanchet with his Aunt Hazel while he finished High School.

Sylvester, who’d recently turned seventeen, had dropped out the day of his sixteenth birthday much to the chagrin of his near and dear and gone to work at the local soda fountain ever since.

“But Sylvester must be saving up his wages,” Ruby said. “Won’t he eventually be able to run off to Nashville no matter what Hazel does? And how would putting Hazel in a coma help his cause?”

“Sylvester doesn’t like his aunt,” Alma insisted.

“Lots of people don’t like Hazel, but that doesn’t mean—”

“You must not know what Sylvester said to Floyd?”

Chapter Three

Ruby told Alma she didn’t know anything about any suspicious communication between Sylvester and Floyd, although considering both young men were tenants of Hazel’s shabby boarding establishment, it was certainly reasonable that Sylvester might confide in Floyd about his frustrations with his aunt.

“What did Sylvester tell Floyd?” Ruby asked Alma.

“Well, Sylvester said if Hazel didn’t stop stealing his money, he was going to—” Alma’s doorbell started ringing in the background. “I’m sorry, I have to go. There’s someone at the door. It’s probably the Eureka man, and I don’t need a vacuum, but I’d better see to it anyway.”

Ruby let Alma go. Alma might pretend to be annoyed by the intrusion of door-to-door salesmen, but Ruby suspected that door-to-door salesmen provided the perfect captive audience Alma needed. No itinerant seller of encyclopedias or shoes or household gadgets would dare cut off an elderly lady in the recitation of her grandchildren’s accomplishments. Not if he wanted to walk away with a sale, although Alma probably never bought anything.

Eventually, Ruby wondered, would the salesmen who canvased the county place a marking in chalk on the sidewalk in front of Alma’s like the down and out men who wandered the country during the Great Depression? Ruby had read somewhere that if a house was marked with the drawing of a cat, it meant a kind lady lived within.

If Alma’s house was ever marked in a similar manner, it would undoubtedly be with an empty circle, which meant “nothing to be gained here.”

Ruby was not discouraged by Alma cutting short their conversation. She preferred to go straight to the source, anyway. She’d simply ask Floyd if Sylvester had made threats against his aunt. Alma often got things wrong.

Ruby acknowledged to herself that she’d been burning up the wires and tying up her party line for far longer than was considerate, but she couldn’t resist making one more call. She rang Minnie, the operator, once more and asked for the Port Blanchet police station.

After Minnie put her call through, Ruby found she was speaking, not to her son, George Hobbs, the chief, but to his most junior underling, Joe.

By Ruby’s estimation, Joe Sprackling was a callow youth. At twenty-four, Joe might be a father of three but compared to George’s nearly thirty years on the force, Joe had little life experience to draw upon in the face of adversity and intrusive questioning.

This suited Ruby just fine. She was happy to speak to Joe. Sergeant Sprackling was so much easier to get information out of, and Ruby wasted no time getting to the point.

“What’s all this I hear about Hazel Potts getting crushed under a pile of wastepaper?” she asked Joe.

“It was a regrettable accident.”

Regrettable, perhaps, but Ruby couldn’t help wondering just how much genuine regret was being felt in Port Blanchet due to Hazel Potts’ untimely near-demise.

“Are you absolutely certain it was an accident?” she asked Joe. “Isn’t it an awfully unlikely thing to have occurred? How would a stack of old newspapers just fall over out of the blue like that? Do you think Miss Potts saw it coming?”

Sergeant Sprackling hemmed and hawed until Ruby was certain he wasn’t so sure himself, then George, who must have taken the receiver right out of Joe’s hand, came on the line.

“Chief Hobbs,” he said. “How may I help you?”

“You can bring the twins over for supper tonight,” said Ruby.

Ferris and Franny, Ruby’s eight-year-old grandchildren, were the light of her life.

George had married very late largely due to congenital shyness. At the ripe old age of thirty-nine, he’d married a much younger woman but had experienced only a decade of wedded bliss before the twins’ mother had passed away. Amelia had died the previous May of complications from tuberculosis, leaving George to raise his two young children on his own.

Ruby tried to do what she could, and George had never been known to turn down an opportunity to forgo reheating TV dinners, which was what Ruby feared his little family was subsisting on.

“I’ll make an apple pie with a jar of those Winesaps I put up last fall.”

George grunted, which Ruby took as acceptance of her invitation to supper, then he asked, “Why were you interrogating Sergeant Sprackling?”

“I wasn’t interrogating anyone,” Ruby protested. “What a thing to say about your own mother.”

“Well, leave the police work to the police,” said George. “I’ll come over for supper, but I don’t want to be subjected to hours of questioning about that bank robbery over in Saginaw.”

“I have no intention of asking any questions about that bank robbery over in Saginaw,” Ruby told her son.

It was true; she had no interest in bank robberies forty miles away. What Ruby was very much interested in, however, was the near-fatal accident that had occurred at the PTA paper drive.

That evening, as promised, promptly at seven, Ruby, George, Ferris, and Franny gathered around Ruby’s kitchen table for a succulent pot roast with potatoes and carrots, a green salad that the twins declined to touch until threatened with deprivation come dessert, and a delicious apple pie made from Winesaps Ruby had canned the previous autumn.

“Mother, you outdid yourself,” George said when he finally pushed his chair back from the table.

The twins were in the living room. Through the open door, Ruby could see Ferris teasing Chaucer with a feather on a string and Franny attempting to wrap up Bronte in an old shawl of Ruby’s, probably with the aim of treating the cat as if were a baby doll.

Poe had sought refuge on the top of the old upright player piano in the corner, and Dickens had wisely withdrawn under the divan. The only evidence of his presence was the tip of his twitching tail.

This, Ruby decided, was the ideal opportunity to grill her son on the Hazel incident.

“Poor Hazel,” she said. “What a strange way to end a paper drive.”

“It was a tragic accident, Mother,” George said, standing to his feet. “Nothing more.”

“How can you be sure?”

“I can’t be sure,” George admitted, “but until I’m presented with a shred of evidence to suggest it wasn’t an accident, I’ve got more pressing matters to attend to.”

“And if someone presented you with evidence, you would look into it?”

“Of course,” George said. “But please don’t go stirring up trouble where there is none to be found.”

“If there’s no trouble to be found, then I won’t stir up any,” Ruby said.

“Good. Glad we have that settled. You won’t go poking around for a crime where there isn’t one.”

George didn’t look very glad, though, and nothing was settled because Ruby had no intention of letting the matter rest. Decades of assisting her husband, Orville, in investigations had sharpened her intuition when it came to crime, and there was definitely a crime here, of that Ruby was certain.

She just didn’t know what the nature of the crime was, and despite the fact that it was Hazel Potts who lay prostrate in bed, insensible to anything going on around her, Ruby was far from convinced that Hazel was the only victim in this would-be crime.

The other victims just might not know it yet.

End of Sample

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