Friday, February 17, 2023

"Broken Hearted Killers" - Chapter Sixteen

The following blog entry is one chapter in “Broken Hearted Killers,” a serial novella written by 16 Writers Who Kill. To read the complete story, please begin with Chapter One, published on the WWK blog on February 2, 2023.

By Debra H. Goldstein

As she bent, gasping for air, Helen grabbed her right side. The police station was within sight, but even if she could catch her breath, the pain’s intensity rendered her unable to walk, let alone run, the remaining distance before Renee caught up to her.

“Take a few deep slow breaths,” Renee said.

Warily, Helen obeyed. She couldn’t figure out why Renee was in full nurse mode rather than going in for the kill.

“Now, stand up and slowly stretch. That should help ease the stitch.”

Helen again followed Renee’s directions. It seemed to her, from the TV shows and movies she’d watched, Renee should be taking greater pleasure in watching her writhe in agony.

“Use your fingers to firmly massage the area that’s spasming.”

Miraculously, the pain eased, but Helen’s moment to make a run for the police station was short-lived. Before she could completely get her bearings, Renee grabbed her arm and firmly guided her to the last lattice back metal park bench Helen had passed. Once they were seated, Renee slid her hand down Helen’s arm toward her wrist. Helen recoiled.

“Sorry, I know my hands are cold, but I need to check your pulse. Tell you what, let’s sit here a moment while you take a few more deep breaths.” Renee pulled her cell phone from her pocket and began typing a message.

“Who are you texting?”

“Nella and Melody. I need to tell them I found you. When you left the store so abruptly, we were afraid that from the shocks you’ve had to your system this week, you were either ill or something else was horribly wrong. Melody and Ashley stayed at the store in case you came back, Nella took her car to see if she saw you walking back to Oak Haven, while Philip checked the back alley in case you went to see where Gus died. On a hunch, I decided to follow the park path.” Renee put her phone away and reached for Helen’s hand again.

This time, Helen gave it to her.

Renee placed three fingers on Helen’s wrist and counted to thirty. “It’s still running a little higher than I’d like. Let’s sit here for a few more minutes.” Renee glanced around. “This is the part of the park I come to when I want to clear my head.”

“Or atone for the past?”

“What are you talking about, Helen?”  

“You know. For your role with the baby mill.”

Instead of defending herself, Renee stared at her. “Why couldn’t you leave poor Iris’s death to the police to figure out? Don’t you understand how many people’s lives your meddling has impacted? If it weren’t for you, dear Gus would still be alive.”

“And if Charles hadn’t gotten lucky, he’d be dead too, wouldn’t he?”

Tears welled from Renee’s eyes. “That was an accident.”

“Smashing someone’s head from behind is an accident?”

“Yes.” Renee’s body shook from the great sobs wracking her. With difficulty she pulled herself together. Her eyes still glistening, she held her head up to meet Helen’s gaze. “It was your fault. Betty and you questioned whether he could be Iris’s new husband and you told me Iris and he had a date planned for Saturday. After all these years of my being there when he wanted, I couldn’t believe he was going to make a life with her instead of me, so I went to his office to confront him.”

“But instead tried to kill him.”

“No! I told you that was an accident.” She waved her hand, with its vermilion tipped nails, toward Helen’s face.

The orange-red flashing by her nose made Helen change her approach. She couldn’t imagine Renee and Charles as a couple. “I guess you grew close working together in the private adoption business?”

Renee sat up straight. “I don’t know what you think you’re inferring. I was a nurse. A good nurse. After I took care of Charles’s late wife in the hospital where she gave birth to their first daughter, he told me about a better paying job at the Wayward Girls Home in Albany, New York. Later, when Iris, her husband, Lionel, and the Fairweathers donated the money for the new Women and Children’s Maternity Hospital here in Granite Falls, Charles offered me the job of supervisory nurse over the infant nurseries. Do you know what a joy it is to hand a new baby to a mother to bond?”

“Even when the baby isn’t theirs?”

“Every baby I placed in a mother’s arms was meant to be there. My job was to rejoice with those who took home a child whether biological or adopted. I didn’t oversee the adoption process. Charles took care of the private adoption legalities.”

“For, I’m sure, a good feeespecially if the baby was blonde and blue-eyed or perhaps a matching set.” Helen looked away from Renee. “Tell me, did you also comfort birth mothers whose children died?”

Renee curled her lips and spoke in a controlled tone. “If necessary. Happily, that only happened in a few instances here in Granite Falls. Sadly, there were a few times when I worked at the Wayward Girls Home that it was deemed medically necessary for a birth mother to be told that for her own mental sanity.”

Helen’s eyes widened. She struggled to maintain a neutral expression. “Who made that choice?”

 “I don’t know, exactly.” Renee averted her face from Helen. “Charles meticulously managed the paperwork and preserved the records. For those adoptions, the adoptive parents picked up their healthy babies immediately. You know, you thought I couldn’t keep a secret, but I remembered you the moment I met you.”

Helen grasped the metal arm of the bench, oblivious to how cold it was. “What are you talking about?”

“You were one of those who fell in the “deemed best” category. I wasn’t there when you first came to stay during your pregnancy and wasn’t your nurse during delivery, but I’d just been hired so I was the one who handed your little girl to her new parents. Having gotten to know you since we became neighbors, I’ve always wondered why you were in the deemed best category.”

Releasing the bench, Helen stared at her hand. The skin was white from how tightly she’d held the bench’s arm. Was Renee saying her baby might still be alive? She thought back to the night Lionel told her his mother wouldn’t allow them to get married. There was nothing she could say that would make him change his mind or go against his parents’ wishes. So, she hadn’t told him about the baby. Instead, she’d left Granite Falls, stayed at the Wayward, had her baby, and then decided to make something out of herself. By the time she finished her five-year academic program and returned to Granite Falls, six years had passed and Lionel, the love of her life, was married to Iris.

“How were Iris and Lionel involved in the baby scheme?”

They weren’t at Wayward, but somehow Charles and Iris came to an understanding when they built the Women and Children’s Maternity Hospital. As its benefactors, the Fairweathers and Vermillions were named the initial board members. Sadly, although she continued to be a member of record, Mrs. Fairweather became an invalid a few months later. She finally died last year. And Lionel? Talk about a man without a backbone. He may have held the title of mayor, but he was a wimp. Iris led him by the nose.”

The hair on the back of Helen’s neck bristled at Renee’s put-down of Lionel. How dare she talk about him like this. “Look at all the wonderful things he did for Granite Falls.”

Renee snorted. “He had a family name and family money. His political career and, for that matter, anything else he ever did, was tied to his mommy or Iris. Lionel, being mayor for all those years, gave Iris the clout and cover to do what Charles and she wanted with the maternity hospital and adoptions.” Renee leaned toward Helen. “You know what Mr. Mayor’s big interest was?”

Helen shook her head.

“Lionel trains. From the time he was born, because of his name, everyone thought it was cute to give him different Lionel train cars. When he died a few years ago, he had a collection that was worth millions. Millions.”

“How do you know that?”

“Because of Philip. He’s a real train buff, although he prefers smaller trains than those made by Lionel. Philip does a live train exhibit once a month for the Granite Hobby Shop and he always helps man the store’s booth at the annual Granite Falls train show. After Lionel’s death, Philip helped Iris and Charles value and sell most of Lionel’s collection.”

“He did?”

Renee nodded. “Charles said he thought the happiest day in Iris’s life was when Charles and she went to the train show and picked up the check from Philip. Even after Philip’s commission, the check Iris took to the bank had a lot of zeroes.”

“Was that how she was able to afford a luxury condo at Oak Haven?”

“Yes. According to Betty, Philip also recently arranged for her to sell the remainder of Lionel’s collections to make the cash offer Betty told us about. The red envelope in Iris’s condo contained the receipt for that last sale.”

“So, you did open the envelope.”

“I didn’t have to. I’m surprised you didn’t recognize that or the train I handed you. Philip believes giving people those little train cars and the red envelopes which he thinks remind people of the red bandanas trainmen wear are a cute way for people to remember his Choo Choo Pharmacy.”

Helen wasn’t about to admit to Renee that after filling one prescription at Choo Choo years ago, she’d taken her business to Save Money Pharmacy. “I gather Betty and you met before that day in my condo.”

“Through Charles. He often used her as a realtor for the disposal of estate property. She handled the sale of my home before I moved into Oak Haven, as well as disposing of Lionel’s mother’s house for Iris after Lionel died.” Renee chuckled. “Iris could be tough and vindicative if you got on her wrong side, but she had a Midas touch. At least she did until you killed her.”

“You mean, until you killed her.”

Renee’s eyes flashed. She stood. “When I last talked to Iris, she was alive. You were the one she was afraid of.”

It suddenly dawned on Helen that thanks to Renee she understood the reason Iris had communicated her fear of Helen to Renee. Helen let out a low whistle as she eased her body off the bench. “Renee, it wasn’t me Iris physically was afraid of. She knew I’d figure out the baby racket.” She reached for Renee’s hand. “I know now that you didn’t kill Iris, but you need to tell me what happened to Charles.”

The tears welled up in Renee’s eyes again. “After you said Iris and he had planned a Saturday date, I went to see if that was true. When I got there, he was just finishing reading Howard’s End for next month’s book group. I asked him if there was suddenly something more than business going on between them. He coldly told me their relationship was strictly professional. That’s when I suggested that, now that it was a year since his wife died, it was time for us to come together publicly like those two lovers who meet after thirty-eight years in As Time Goes By.”

“I love that show. “

“Well, Charles doesn’t. He spun his chair away from me, picked up his copy of Howard’s End, and stared at it. “That can never happen. But sometimes life imitates art. It looks like the bastards will inherit….” That’s when I accidentally hit him with his Lifetime Achievement Bar trophy. When I saw he was bleeding, I was going to call for help, but just then I heard someone coming into the outer office. I panicked and fled through the back door.”

Helen put her arm around Renee’s shoulders. “You need to come with me to the station and tell Detective Torres what you’ve told me and where Charles’ records are.”

Renee raised her eyes to meet Helen’s. “Do you think I’ll go to jail? I don’t think I could survive.”

“I wouldn’t worry about that. Under the circumstances, I doubt Charles will press charges against you. Come on.”

After leaving Renee with Detective Torres and sharing her thoughts with him, Helen debated the best way to test out her new theory of who killed Iris. She called Nella and asked if she would mind picking her up and giving her a ride from the police station back to the bookstore.

When Helen got into Nella’s car, Nella immediately began fussing over her, but Helen hushed her. “I promise I’ll explain everything when we get to A Likely Story. I need a moment to rest.” Before Nella could protest, Helen leaned her head back against the seat and closed her eyes. She promptly fell asleep.

“We’re here,” Nella said, when she gently shook Helen awake. “By the way, you snore.”

Helen smiled at her. “One of my many secrets.”

They weren’t more than two steps into the bookstore when Melody came running to them and hugged Helen. “I’ve been so worried about you.”

“No need. I know it’s near closing, but do you have time for the three of us to have a cup of tea?”

“I need to check that customer out, but we can have tea and there’s a box of brownies that the Garden Club members never had time to open last night. If I close the store, we can stay here and talk as long as you like.”

“Good. You take care of your customer while I make the tea. Nella, why don’t you get napkins and plates for the brownies from the cupboard in the meeting room.”

Once everyone was busy, Helen began heating the water. As she reached for the tea bags, her hand brushed against something. A pillbox fell to the floor. She bent and picked it up. She was about to put it back on the shelf, when her eye was caught by the mini engine that was the logo of Philip’s Choo Choo Pharmacy.

Helen turned the bottle around so she could read the label. It read Adderall and was prescribed for Betty. From her teaching days, Helen was well schooled on Adderall and the many other stimulants students often took. She had even taken a class on what to do if students had a reaction after combining more than one stimulant. Just to make sure the bottle held what it purported; Helen opened it. She immediately recognized that besides Adderall, the bottle contained a second stimulant.

Reflecting on Betty’s behavior in her condo, Helen realized Betty’s symptoms were the classic ones associated with stimulant abuse that she had studied. That meant, if a stressed Betty, which she surely was, had taken an extra pill or had a bad reaction, she could well have had a seizure, stumbled, and hit her head on the fire extinguisher. From where Betty and the extinguisher were found, Helen assumed the tight space would have made it almost impossible for someone to have knocked her out. A seizure and falling against the fire extinguisher would easily explain its dent. A tragic accident, but not a murder, Helen decided. Hearing Nella enter the room, Helen turned and smiled at her while pocketing the pill bottle to share with Detective Torres later. “Do you want any honey in your tea, Nella?”

“No, thank you. These brownies are sweet enough for me. Don’t they look divine?”

“They do.” Helen helped herself to one after placing a teabag and hot water in each mug. “These should be ready in a few minutes. Hopefully, Melody will be back by the time they finish steeping.”

“Not a problem. I’m here and I’ve put the closed sign on the door. The way business has been, I don’t think shutting down five minutes early is going to rob me of any major sales.”

They all laughed at Melody’s attempt at a joke although Helen noticed Melody’s seemed a bit forced. Their laughter was cut off by a pounding on the glass door. The three women looked at each other. “I guess I better go tell whomever it is that we’re closed for the night.”

Nella and Helen glanced at each other and then, hearing the door beep as it was opened, they strained to hear the conversation Melody was having with the late customer. Considering the events of the past few days, they wanted to make sure Melody was okay.

“Detective Torres. I didn’t expect to see you tonight.”

“I thought the store would still be open.”

At the sound of his voice, Nella left Helen’s side. That made it easier for Helen to move closer to the door to eavesdrop.

“Normally, it would be, but Helen, Nella, and I decided to have a tea party. Do you need a book?”

“No. Come to think of it, though, because you’re all here and it is getting cold out, I could use a cup of tea if you wouldn’t mind me joining you ladies.”

“Our pleasure.” Nella’s voice boomed. “The more the merrier. Come with me. Do you have a particular type of tea you prefer?”

“Whatever you’re drinking will be fine.”

The three of them joined Helen. “Detective Torres, why did you come by the shop tonight?”

“Well, I finished something I was doing at the station, and I had a few questions for you. When you weren’t at Oak Haven, I called your cellphone. There was no answer.”

“Oh.” Helen reached into her bag for her phone and handed it to Nella. Unlocking it with Helen’s code, Nella hit a few buttons and turned the phone so Helen could see that she had missed several calls. “You had it on vibrate instead of ring.”

“I can’t seem to get the hang of my new phone or that doorbell app you put on it.”

Nella tapped another button and brought up the videos. “Look, here’s Detective Torres ringing your doorbell. Here’s when I came by your place.”

Helen watched the video and then looked at Nella. “You went into my condo when I wasn’t there?”

“Of course. You gave me a key and I was worried about you. Your condo had your ambience, but you weren’t there, so I left. Don’t worry, I locked the door again.”

How many other times had Nella let herself in, Helen wondered. Ambience? Her small condo had ambience. Did Nella think they were more than friends?

“I’m sure Detective Torres won’t mind hearing.” Helen looked in his direction, but he merely smiled. “What is it you want to tell Melody and me?”

Detective Torres took a sip of his tea and waited for Helen to begin.

“Well, you all know Renee caught up with me after I left the shop.”

Nella and Melody glanced at Detective Torres who nodded.

“We had an interesting discussion. She was the one who knocked Charles out.”

“What!” Nella said. “Why?”

“Let’s just call it a lover’s spat or an accident. The important thing is that Renee was a nurse who handed new babies to adoptive parents.” Helen focused on Melody even though Nella was the one who verbally reacted.

“We know that. I told you Iris said Renee was the nurse who took me from her after she gave birth to me and handed me to my new parents.”

Melody gasped. “Iris lied.”

Helen met Melody’s gaze. “Renee took Nella from you, didn’t she Melody?”

Melody nodded.

“And her twin brother, too?”

Again, Melody shook her head. “I met a soldier stationed at Fort Drum. From South Side Chicago. Swept me off my feet. But he was gone by the time I went to the maternity hospital’s clinic and discovered I was having twins. I didn’t know what to do, but a nice doctor there put me in touch with Iris. She assured me that if I put the twins up for adoption, the hospital had a program to take care of me and the twins would stay together. Of course, Iris lied. She gave them to two different sets of parents. When I found out, I could have killed her, but….”

Helen waved her hand around the bookstore. “Instead, you made a deal that you wouldn’t tell if Iris helped you with the expenses of this store. Right?”

Melody lowered her chin to her chest. “You don’t understand. Without her money, I would have had to close. You know the biggest irony? I don’t think she ever bought a book here. Iris deliberately used the library or encouraged all of you to check out the monthly book selection from the library.”

“How did you find out after all of these years about your twins?” Nella asked.

Everyone stared at Melody. She remained silent. Instead, it was Helen who spoke. “It was Gus, wasn’t it? He wasn’t having an affair with Iris, but with you.”

“One night. That’s all. We were lonely and well, Gus was a sweetheart. After that night, we decided we’d be better being friends without benefits than having a torrid affair. Actually, it was Charles who told me about my twins. He phoned me from the hospital. Guilt, I suppose.” She stared at Nella. “You are my daughter. I found you, but I lost my son and Gus.”

“That’s impossible.” Nella crossed her arms across her chest. “Helen, tell her she’s wrong. Iris made me believe I was her daughter and that she was going to leave me a quarter-million dollars.”

“But you’re not Iris’s daughter.” Helen opened her arms toward Nella. “Iris didn’t have any children. She lied.”

Nella uncrossed her arms and fell into Helen’s embrace. As Helen stroked Nella’s hair, she whispered. “I’ve always wished you were my daughter.”

“You were the mother I wanted, too,” Nella replied. “From the first day I met you and you helped me during my internship. You were so self-assured and so caring of every child you taught. If it wasn’t for you, I wouldn’t have gained the understanding I have of children’s needs or the courage to open my own non-profit.”

She backed away from the hug and glanced around the room. “It was the promise of her money. I had so many plans to grow my non-profit with it.”

“Something changed, didn’t it, Nella? Something about the money? That’s been the catalyst for everything that’s happened.”

“Yes.” Nella hung her head. “Iris met me for coffee before she came to your book club meeting. She told me she was modifying her bequest plans.”

“Why?” Helen asked.

“Because, through the efforts of a dear man, who she knew would eventually share her life, she had discovered twin four-year-olds who were having a rough go of it. Knowing I was established, and their mother and they were financially stretched, Iris decided she needed to direct the bulk of her money to them. I suggested she simply share it among all of us, but she explained she was leaving Oak Haven, helping Ashley get back on her feet, and buying a house that when her silver fox was ready to commit would be large enough to have a train room for rainy days and a big backyard for outside play.”

Melody clung to her mug. Like her fingers, the muscles in her neck were so tight, she could barely croak out her words. “So, until then you assumed Ashley was your sister? Iris never told you that you had a twin brother?”

“Not until after she let me in when she found me outside her condo after she got home from her book club meeting. Even though I had on a jacket and gloves, it was too cold to wait outside, so I’d come into the building.”

“But you weren’t on the surveillance tape,” Detective Torres interjected.

Nella smiled at him. “I told you in Helen’s condo that Iris always had us take the freight elevator to avoid being seen. Maybe someone will sue Oak Haven for not protecting its residents. That gap in the monitoring always bothered me. In fact, Helen, that’s why I bought you your new doorbell.”

Helen glanced at Detective Torres, but neither said anything.

“Iris let me in. Our discussion wasn’t pleasant. As you know, she was at her best when she was being harsh. The zinger was when she reminded me that the boys inheriting her fortune were my ne’er do well brother’s children and that now, come to think of it, she was seeing I wasn’t much better than my brother. You can imagine how shocked I was. At that moment, Renee called.”

Helen cocked her head and interrupted Nella’s narration. “But you didn’t leave?”

“Uh-uh. While they talked, I paced the room, trying to figure out a way to change Iris’s mind. Instead of coming up with a plan, I found myself getting madder and madder. I saw the Citizen of the Year granite-based pine tree award and remembered how upset Iris made you and the others feel when she won it for the work all of you, except Iris, did creating the community garden. I picked it up and felt its weight in my hand. I was behind her when she finished the call and I don’t know what, but something made me smash it against that ugly head of hers.”

“Nella, you’re going to have to come with me,” Detective Torres said.

“No way.” She threw her remaining tea at him and ran from the room. Instead of going toward the locked front door, she ran toward the stock room. Detective Torres, still wiping the liquid from his face, followed, with Melody and Helen behind him.

“There’s a door in there that leads to the back alley,” Melody yelled. Suddenly, she pulled up short. Unable to stop herself, Helen ran right into her. As they untangled themselves, they heard two chimes as the back door opened and closed in rapid succession. “Oh, my. I’m the reason Gus is dead.”

“What are you talking about?”

“All week, I had this creepy sensation that someone was watching the store. When I mentioned it to Gus, he told me not to worry. Although it was years since he had a patrol beat as a uniformed cop, he still remembered how to do it. He must have come upon the person who killed Ashley’s husband in the back alley.”

Hearing sirens, Helen hurried to the main part of the store. Flashing lights in front and heading into the alley told her Detective Torres must have caught Nella. She let out a sigh and returned to the table where the four of them had sat for tea. She rested one hand on her new phone while she covered her eyes with the other. It was only a matter of time before Detective Torres returned and confiscated it. There was no doubt in her mind that a blow-up of the video from the doorbell would show exactly who took the letter opener from her condo.

# # #

Judge Debra H. Goldstein writes Kensington’s Sarah Blair mystery series (Five Belles Too Many, Four Cuts Too Many, Three Treats Too Many, Two Bites Too Many, and One Taste Too Many). Her novels and short stories have received IPPY, AWC, and BWR awards and been named Agatha, Anthony, Derringer and Silver Falchion finalists. Debra’s short pieces have appeared in numerous periodicals and anthologies including Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, Black Cat Mystery Magazine, Mystery Weekly, Malice Domestic Murder Most Edible, Masthead, Murder by the Glass, Jukes & Tonks, An Element of Mystery, and Paranoia Blues. Debra served on the national boards of Sisters in Crime and Mystery Writers of America and was president of the Guppy and SEMWA chapters. Find out more about Debra at .



  1. Ah, the complications upon complications. But the mystery is solved.

  2. Lots and lots of details explained.

  3. Wow! What an ending. Well done, Debra. This chapter was a challenge.

  4. Thanks all... it was a group project, but wait for tomorrow's Epilogue from Connie!

  5. What????? Such an exciting chapter. Looking forward to tomorrow's epilogue!