BY: MARY JANE BRYAN
The pastor’s wife is murdered; her dog is also killed.
Using a “hair-brained” theory to find a matching dog hair,
Sheriff Colton Mitchell follows twists and turns to locate the killer.
The figure moved furtively at the edge of the wood, one slow step at a time. It was a shadow within shadows. This person knew that the security light at the top of the small hill had been out for some time. Even when on, the light did not reach the edge of the clearing, which formed an oval pattern from the house to the edge of the undergrowth. There would always be several feet of darkness at night around the clearing, beyond the scope of the light.
This area of darkness was what the person was counting on to give protection as it slinked its way toward the house at the top of the small hill.
There was no moonlight. The moon was in its smallest phase, making only a sliver in the dark sky. Clouds covered that sliver.
It had already started to rain. The forecast had predicted a heavy thunderstorm at this time on this night. The weather was a major factor for the plan this night.
There were to be straight-line winds as well as this storm, a possible tornado even, as a result of a hurricane in the Gulf which was sending this weather clear up into Northwest Arkansas, and then was predicted to “hook” around on itself and return the same way. This was very unusual this far inland.
Presently, it was dumping lots of rain, thunder, and lightning on the whole area.
Beyond the house there was a cemetery. This cemetery was a typical one found in the countryside of Arkansas. There was always a small, usually white-framed country church, then a cemetery beside or behind it to service the various members that passed away through the years. Members may not even be required to buy a plot. Some of the gravestones would show dates as far back as the middle 1800s, or even older.
More and more, people were being buried closer to the bigger cities, but once in a while, these country cemeteries were still used.
There was a house down the lane past the cemetery, but it was located over a knoll and was not visible from this house. Unless a sleepless person was out and about in the middle of the night, this figure would not be seen from there.
The figure was dressed in all black—black the color of mystery, of fear, of death. Black, the color associated with anguish and the unknown. The color black was associated with the feeling of being incognito, able to create an inconspicuous feeling, enabling the wearer to blend into various scenes.
To this person, it was simply a way to stay as inconspicuous as possible, to blend into the shadows and not be seen.
The “man of the house” was gone. The masked person thought of this man as less than being what this term implied, but still this man was absent, gone to a meeting of like-minded people.
This left the wife and small dog at home. The dog was what one thought of as being a “yip-yip” dog. All shrill bark at the top of its lungs and occasionally, maybe, a nip at the ankles in the false hope that a person would feel intimidated at this pretend-type guard dog.
But this meant stealth and slowness were all the more important. Slow motion would win the day. The person smiled. This night, slow motion would win the night.
Still keeping to the shadows, the figure made its way around the side to the back of the house, to the cemetery side of the property. Inching along the back of the house, it came to the sliding glass doors that went from the dining/kitchen area to the back patio.
Heavy rain was now pouring down. Lightning, then its accompanying thunder, was rapidly drawing closer. The sound of thunder would be an advantage.
The house was built at a time when sliding glass doors were popular. The only difference in this house and the typical ranch style of the time, was the fact that the master bedroom was in the center of the house, at the front, with the door off the dining/kitchen area and not at the end of a hall containing three bedrooms, a hall bath, and a half bath in the master bedroom. Well, maybe a full bath if the owner were lucky.
Still, the figure thought the floor plan was laid out to offer an advantage. Even if the yippy dog started barking, it would only be for a bark or two before it could be silenced. It was the understanding of this person that the wife slept with a “sleep machine” ($50 at Walmart, but you would probably have to order online) going and earplugs.
A conversation overheard had supplied this information.
Good to know.
The wife had commented that although it was so quiet and peaceful in this place, she had grown accustomed to the noise of the machine from when they lived in the married apartments at seminary. The apartment walls were not that well-built. Both people in the conversation had laughed and agreed that nothing was built like it used to be.
Not only would it keep the dog from hearing any sounds too soon, but certainly keep the wife asleep.
The intruder was depending not only the sounds of the machine and the wife blocking out noises with ear plugs, of this place to mask the deed, but the fact that many people still did not lock their doors at night. Whether they just simply forgot to or were so trusting of the place they lived, would be a question for further discussion.
If one were interested in discussing those finer points, of course.
At the glass doors, the figure paused to listen. No sounds. Not even the dog.
Fingers covered in fine black gloves reached to grip the latch. The latch gave and the door opened without a sound.
The opening only had to be big enough for a body to go in sideways. Opening it enough for a frontal entrance would take too long.
The figure slipped in, still as quiet as a mouse.
Could it not be here?
The gun was pointing and ready to silence the dog.
Suddenly, there came the sound of a “flop” onto the floor in the master bedroom and the dog came out.
There was only one “yip” and maybe not even a full one before there were no more.
Silently, the figure went to the door of the master bedroom.
The person in the bed rose up to see what the matter was. Two bullets in quick succession caused her to fall back on the bed. Thunder masked the sound of the gun.
There was no doubt she was dead. Both bullets had pierced the center of her heart.
The person shooting was a marksman.
Henry Carlton stepped out on his front porch. He made sure the screen door closed silently. He took a step away from door and leaned his back against the house. The thin, dark green robe he had thrown on over his t-shirt, the one he always slept in, did not keep out the slight chill of this early spring morning.
It was not quite dawn.
Henry and the missus were heading out this morning to visit her sister across the state. They planned on leaving at 4:15 a.m., and it was only 4:00. Might as well let the missus sleep as long as possible. Traveling was getting to be harder and harder on her. If he would admit it, driving the semi-annual trek, maybe a third time, even, to the sister’s home was getting harder and harder for him, also. But he would not admit that yet.
The truck was packed, with the suitcases and boxes strapped down in the bed with bungee cords so they were secure. He’d packed the night before. He knew everything would be safe overnight.
Nothing ever happened here.
He had brought his cigarette pack and lighter out with him. A quick smoke would be good right now.
Just then a faint light shone through the small trees and scrub bushes that lined the fence from his front gate to the end of his fence down at the corner. His fence ended where the dirt road in this small community went two ways. The “entrance” to the community, which really could not be called a road because it was so short, turned in off State Highway 59, went across a small bridge over a small creek and a few hundred yards before a person had to turn either right toward a few houses down the way, or left on a dirt road that would go for three miles south before it reached State Highway 244. This three-mile stretch of rocky, dirt road paralleled the Arkansas/Oklahoma state line, allowing for only one house at a time down the road on the west side, with a little property on it before the land belonged to the State of Oklahoma.
He had wondered over the years how many Arkansas as opposed to Oklahoma deer had been killed over the years.
The light was followed quickly by the sound of what he thought was a car door. But the door was not slammed but closed quietly. It probably didn’t even latch all the way. But he could not see a car for the foliage along the fence.
He straightened up to get a better look.
Headlights went on but the vehicle did not move. Since the security lights at the corner of these “streets” had burned out when the security light at the parsonage had, he had no way of seeing what kind of vehicle it was. It looked like a small, light-colored car, but he couldn’t tell exactly. He didn’t see an overhead light come on inside the vehicle. Damn the electric company. He knew several people had called about these lights and they kept saying that were going to repair them, but here they were. Still down.
He didn’t blame himself for an overgrown, bushy fence row, making visibility of the vehicle difficult as it continued to sit there. He had commented several times that he needed to clean it out. But you know how that goes.
Then the car started to move slowly, turning the corner toward the highway.
He watched, not being able to see the lights for a few seconds. Another house sat in that short stretch of dirt road, facing north. He thought he saw a flicker of lights among the trees going south on Highway 59 once, but no more, so he assumed the car turned north. Again, there was a healthy stand of trees along the creek that ran parallel to the road, so maybe he just didn’t see any lights with this rain.
He shook his head. Teen-agers! Probably just a couple of no-good teen-agers out all night, necking and drinking. Or, drinking and necking, whichever came first.
He shook his head again. He lit his cigarette. By the time he was finished, it would be time to wake the wife, dress quickly and be off. It would take them all day to reach the sister’s house.
Usually they stayed about a week, maybe longer, depending on everyone’s mood. If they all got along, the stay might extend to two weeks.
At least the fishing was good along the sister’s property on the White River.
When Kelli couldn’t get the pastor’s wife, Maureen, on the phone the next morning, she thought nothing about it. Maureen would not have been expecting her call. They were to meet that afternoon around 3:00 to go over the music for the next Sunday’s morning worship service. Maureen was the choir director and Kelli was the church organist. This Sunday morning, Maureen was going to sing a solo, and Kelli would accompany her on the organ.
Maureen was probably out taking a morning walk with that little dog of hers. She could use the exercise, lose some weight. At least that was Kelli’s opinion, which she kept to herself, of course.
Kelli did not particularly like Maureen. She thought she was overbearing, always having to have her way on church committees and in all planning for the church. True, the church was a small country church “on the hill,” and maybe did not have the greatest pool of talent for certain activities, but that did not give the pastor’s wife the right to think she could control all functions, what was done, when, and who did what.
Kelli needed to change the time they were to meet that afternoon. Her son had called last minute this morning to say that they would be at her home at 4:00 that afternoon to spend a three-day weekend with them. There were two grandchildren involved, so naturally she wanted to be there when they arrived. Maureen would be willing to meet her earlier, she was sure.
The pastor was not scheduled to be home until that evening. He was at the state convention which had lasted all week. It was a once-a-year function, so he did not want to miss any of the sessions. The drive from Little Rock would take about four and a half hours. He, and the two men he was with, would leave there at 5:00 p.m.
Kelli got busy with the breakfast dishes. After the dishes were done, she decided to bake a cake. She forgot to call back to Maureen until about an hour and a half later.
Maureen still did not answer the phone at the parsonage. Kelli tried the church phone, but that went unanswered, also.
Strange, thought Kelli. I don’t know her schedule, of course, but she should be in one place or the other.
The parsonage was just across the driveway, which was an unpaved country lane, from the church. This lane went on past the church, alongside the cemetery until it ended at the house at the end.
Again, she got busy doing the laundry. She dust mopped her hardwood floors while the washing machine was going.
She was grateful for her hardwood floors. They were the original ones in this one- hundred-year-old house, the house her mother had left to her when she passed away. Kelli and her husband had made the decision to retire from each of their respective professions and move to this farmhouse in the country. Since they were each still working past the required retirement time to receive full retirement pay and also their Social Security, they thought it would be a good idea. Her husband, Frank, decided that tending a small herd of cattle would be a good hobby during his retirement. The farmhouse had more than enough land to support a small herd.
They’d remodeled the house, complete with redoing the original hardwood floors. The house had been well maintained during the years her mother had lived there, so it did not take much to remodel it.
As before, she forgot to call Maureen until long after lunch. She had to admit that she was getting more and more forgetful. One thing she knew, though, was that she still had all her musical ability.
She shook her head as she cleaned the dust mop. Maureen didn’t think much of Kelli’s musical ability, of course, and did not hesitate to give her opinion. It seems Kelli’s timing was off this way or that, or Maureen wanted the piece played slower or faster than it was written. Sometimes she wanted a musical “breath” here or there. It was always something and they would go over and over a piece or part of a piece. A cantata always presented a difficult time. These occurred at Christmas and Easter just like clockwork. Kelli never looked forward to them, but this had been her mother’s church and she felt it was now her church, so she would remain faithful.
Her grandfather had been one of the original founders of the church. He was considered a “charter” member. The church had the original paperwork, although many original papers had been abused through the years. Her mother had been responsible for collecting them from different rooms of the church and filing them in a special place, displaying the original charter in a frame and place of honor.
How could she leave this church, the church of her grandparents and parents? She loved the church, just not always what was happening there.
She decided to call the pianist, to tell her she needed to meet earlier and did she know how to get hold of Maureen? Janice didn’t know how, other than the same phone numbers Kelli had tried. Since she lived closer to the church, her house being on the highway, she volunteered to go right then to see if she could find Maureen around the church.
Kelli remembered to call her son to tell him she might be gone when the family arrived, but Frank would be there. She explained that she had not been able to reach the pastor’s wife to schedule an earlier time for practice.
Janice’s knocks on the parsonage front door went unanswered. She stepped to the side, cupped her eyes with her hands and looked through the glass at the side of the door. The glass went from the top of the door to the floor. It was designed so the home owner could see who was at the door before opening it.
She saw nothing amiss in the living room and through to the dining room table. Since the garage door was down, she assumed Maureen must be over at the church. She walked over there. She used her key to go in. She had a key to use whenever she wanted to practice the piano and no one else was there.
She called for Maureen as soon as she was inside. The church was small enough that when it was quiet, as it was right now, anyone would hear a shout no matter where they were in the church.
All was silent. No one answered her call. She returned to her car and went home. She called Kelli as soon as she was in her car. They both agreed just to meet at the regular time.
Maureen would be there by then.