by Gary R. Hoffman
This July 4th mystery short story by Gary Hoffman has never before been published. Watch for one or two more July 4th mystery short stories this coming week.
“Look, officer. My wife is dead. When are you gonna get the rest of your department down here to gather information?”
Al Voss wanted to laugh, but restrained himself to a smile. “Mr. Paul, the entire law enforcement in the town of Hyson is a City Marshall–and you’re looking at him.”
“I thought you were a county deputy.”
“Technically, yes. I was deputized in case I had a problem that moved outside the city limits. Other than that, I work for the city.”
“Great. So what are you doing?”
“Trying to figure out what happened, sir. Now, you said “someone” came to the door of your trailer last night and said two of the people setting up here for the craft fair were having a problem. Your wife left to settle the dispute. Is that correct?”
“And you don’t know who the person was who came to your door?”
“No. Not a name. It was a male, though. Irene kept track of all the crafters. I was more or less just along for the ride and to help her set up her own booth. That’s basically how she got paid for her work–she got two free booths to sell her own work in.”
Irene Paul had been running craft shows for the past thirty years. Her job was to contact crafters, set up sites for selling and settle any problems that arose during the show. Irene had grown up in the small town of Hyson, population 562, and still had one good friend there, Ethel Strassner. The town council had decided to have a fall celebration to raise money to maintain an old log building in their city park and to have a Fourth of July celebration at the same time. The Hyson Cabin, built by Thomas Hyson, was the first building erected where the town eventually grew.
Ethel Strassner was put in charge of the celebration. Since she had been in contact with Irene over the years, she asked her to set up a craft show for the event. Other events were to be pie auctions, an old tractor show, a “dunking” booth, a fish pond for the kids, three-legged races, food booths, a baby contest and a long session of bingo for the older residents.
While growing up in Hyson, Irene and Ethel had become best friends. Ethel had a twin sister named Edna, who was hit by a car while riding her bicycle when she was twelve years old. Everyone in town knew she had some brain damage from the accident–she was just never the same after that.
Irene had dated Mel Atkins through their four years of high school. Mel was one of the more athletic boys in school. Edna thought he had beautiful wavy hair. Ethel told Irene if she ever wanted to dump him, she would take him. Most everyone in the town just assumed she and Mel would get married after graduation, but then Irene went away to college.
Everyone then assumed she and Mel would get married after she graduated college but, in her sophomore year at Northwest Missouri State University, Irene met George Paul. They got married the day after they both graduated.
Al Voss asked George Paul another question. “When this person came to the door and said two crafters were having a dispute, did he say who they were?”
“Not that I heard.”
“Did Irene have any notes or anything about this show?”
“She always kept a chart of where people were going to be. She put some notes on there, too.”
“I’d like to see that.”
Al closed the small notebook he had been writing in and stood up. “Well, I’ll get back to you as soon as I find out anything. I’ve called in the county sheriff’s department. The county coroner should be along soon, but being a holiday, things are going to move slowly.” He left as soon as George handed him Irene’s chart and notes.
When he got outside, he checked his watch: eleven-thirty. Usually by this time, even on a Friday night, he was home and in bed. It was a clear July night; the stars were making a beautiful twinkling blanket across the country sky. He shook his head and wondered how he had become involved in solving a murder, and not just any murder, but one where someone had been stabbed in the chest and then had their face brutally cut up and disfigured.
After Irene had left her trailer, George went looking for her an hour later. Some of the other crafters and townspeople helped him search. Her body was discovered in the woods a couple of hundred feet from the trailer by Chris Harbor, another crafter. Now Al Voss was supposed to figure all this out.
Al was actually a social studies teacher at the local high school. He took the job of city marshal for two reasons–he wanted the extra money and nobody else wanted the job. It was supposed to be an elected position, but no one ran for the office in the last election, so when he expressed interest, the local city judge appointed him. It was actually a scary process–the judge swore him in and handed him a badge, a gun and a box of ammunition. That was the extent of his training and preparation for the job.
Now, here he was, eight months later, trying to solve a murder. He stopped under a streetlight and looked at the chart Irene had prepared. Chris Harbor had found her body and there was a note by her name saying that she wanted to be moved. Several of the crafters were sitting around a fire, so he went to find Chris. He and Chris went off to the side so they could talk. “It says here you wanted to be moved. What does that mean?”
“I wasn’t happy with the spot Irene had given me. I thought it was too far off the main path. I asked her, if possible, to switch me to another spot. She said she would if a spot came open, like if someone didn’t show up or something, but I guess nothing came open. She never contacted me.”
“So you were unhappy about this?”
Chris wrinkled her brow. “Unhappy, yes, but not enough to kill her if that’s what you’re suggesting.”
“Her husband said she left their trailer about nine. Where were you then?”
“Setting up my booth. It takes me quite awhile to do that, especially since I do it by myself.”
“Can anyone verify that?”
“The people who were setting up next to me. They were still there working when I left.”
Al looked at the chart. “That would be Patty Pribble, right?”
“Right. Patty and I have met each other at craft shows many times. We both follow Irene. If Irene wants crafters, she has a pretty good following.” Chris then looked down. “I guess she had a pretty good following, didn’t she?”
“’Fraid so. Okay, well thanks for your time.”
Al went back to the fire to see if anyone there could remember seeing anyone go to Irene’s trailer. “There were a lot of different people walking around here,” Helen Garber said. “Probably people from the town who were just curious, this being the first craft show here.”
“Well, do any of you know any other crafters who may have had a problem with Irene?”
The group sitting around the fire looked sideways at each other before Patty Pribble spoke. “Howard was pretty upset.”
“And why was that?”
“Well, he pretty much follows Irene’s shows. When he got here and found out how small the show actually was, he got upset. He said he had to travel too far to make this show pay and I heard him arguing earlier today about wanting his money back.”
“Did he get his money back?” Al asked.
“No. That’s part of the deal. Irene never gave refunds.”
“What’s Howard’s last name?”
“And where is he now?”
“I think he left,” a man named Richard Anderson offered. “Howard’s pretty much of a hot-head, especially if things don’t go his way.”
“Anybody know where he lives?”
“I think in Blue Springs, just outside of Kansas City.”
“Know what he drives?”
“Blue Ford pickup. Diesel. Pulls one of those Wells Cargo trailers.”
“Okay, I’ll get the sheriff to put out a bulletin on the truck. Anybody know anything else that might be helpful?”
No one spoke.
Al headed for the pickup the city provided him for his duties as city marshal. When he got there, Jerry Pell was leaning on the hood. Jerry grinned at him and Al figured he was probably drunk again. Jerry was the editor of the local paper, The Hyson Herald, one of the few weekly papers left in the State of Missouri. Al sometimes wondered how he managed to get a paper out at all with the drinking problem he had. Al also knew Jerry’s wife, Annie, had to be a force helping him. “Evening, Jerry.”
Jerry’s grin got bigger. “Well, Mr. City Marshal, looks like you’ve got a titty in the ringer this time.”
Al leaned on the hood close to him; he couldn’t smell any alcohol. “Yeah, I have to admit, this wasn’t something I figured on.”
“Yeah, something always jumps up when you least expect it. Big news, a murder in this town.”
“Probably get some big-time reporters in for this one. You ready?”
Al snickered. “Not even close.”
“Might even get some television crews out of Kansas City.”
“Boy, I really need that.”
Jerry handed him a piece of paper. “I bought the paper just two years before you came here. I wasn’t even aware there had ever been a murder in the town’s history, but I went back on the computer and found one.”
“Yeah, about fifteen years ago. Funny, nobody has ever talked about it before.”
“So what’s on this paper?”
“It’s a copy of the articles that appeared in the Herald at that time. Old man Richards was editor then. Must have been one of the last big stories before he sold out to Les Monahan.”
“Any idea what happened out there tonight?”
Al made a smacking noise. “Not really. Someone comes to this woman’s trailer, tells her there is a problem, she leaves to calm it down and never comes back.”
Jerry took a half-pint bottle of whiskey from his back pocket. “Care for a snort? Help calm you down.”
“No, I think I better be thinking straight.”
Jerry took a big drink. “Ah. I can’t think without this stuff. First one this evening.” He took another drink and Al shivered just watching him. “Good for what ails you.”
Al knew it wouldn’t do anything for what was ailing him right now. “Think I’ll just head home and read these articles you gave me.” He wasn‘t sure if he was going to find anything helpful in them, but he had to try. As soon as he got home, he checked on his wife and kids to make sure they were safe, a habit of his if he was out late. Once he was settled at the kitchen table with a glass of milk and a piece of chocolate cake, he started reading.
The woman who was murdered was Alice Atkins, wife of Mel Atkins, who ran a feed store in town. Alice had been a second grade teacher in the town for eleven years. She had left the family house one evening around eight-thirty to walk the dog. Her body was found in the woods behind the city park. The dog’s leash was beside her, but the clasp to hold it to his collar was broken. It was theorized that the dog maybe saw a raccoon or some other animal near the park, made a lunge for it, broke the leash and ran into the woods. Mrs. Atkins probably ran after the dog, which came home the next morning, still wearing its collar and seemingly none the worse for wear. It had burrs tangled in its fur, but nothing else seemed to be wrong.
An investigation was held by the then city marshal, Luke Tomlinson, along with the county sheriff, but no arrests were ever made. One article stated that Mrs. Atkins had been stabbed to death. No other details were given on how she was killed; a murder weapon was never found.
Al leaned back in his chair and took a large drink of milk to wash down a bite of chocolate cake. It seemed to him there were lots of coincidences, but nothing solid enough to put together. Both victims were women, both were stabbed and both were found in the woods by the city park. Then another thought ran through his mind–both had a relationship to Mel Atkins. Then he got to the “but” part of all of this: they were killed fifteen years apart. His cell phone rang. It was the county coroner telling him they were just getting into town to retrieve the body. The call woke up his wife who came into the kitchen tying her robe. “Everything okay, baby?”
“Yeah. I just need to go back to the park for a little while. You go back to sleep.” He kissed her on the cheek and left.
The county coroner wasn’t the same person who had worked the first murder. He did promise Al he would look up the records on it and get them to him. Al was at Atkins Feed at seven the next morning. “Going to the big celebration today, Mel? I’m looking forward to the fireworks tonight.”
Mel was shuffling some papers on the counter.
“Figured you might have a booth set up down there.”
“Oh, I do. Tony is gonna work it for me until I can get there this afternoon.”
Al noticed his hands were shaking. “I would like to ask you a couple of questions, Mel.”
He dropped the pen he was holding. “About…Irene?”
“That, and about your wife.”
“What about her?”
“Well, Mel, I realize this is probably painful, but there are some things I need to know.”
“I read in some old newspaper articles that she was stabbed, but is that all there is to it?”
“What do you mean?”
“Okay, she was stabbed, but was anything else done to her?”
“You mean like raped or something?”
Mel looked down. “No, whoever the bastard was, he didn’t rape her.”
“Did he cut her up in any other way?”
Mel looked Al in the eyes. “He cut up her face. So bad we had to have a closed coffin.” Tears were starting to roll down his cheeks.
“Do you know what happened to Irene?”
“Only that she was killed, but I didn’t have anything to do with that!”
“Whoa, I didn’t say you did. Why would you think that?”
Mel hit the counter with his fist. “Damn! I went to see her, but I didn’t kill her. She was alive when I left her.”
“Let’s back up a little here. When did you go see her?”
Mel walked to his desk and sat down. “Last night. I told her there was a fight going on between two craft people. I just wanted to talk to her. I didn’t figure her husband would like it, so I made up the story.” He blew his nose. “I figured someone would have told you by now I was the one who went to her trailer.”
“Why did you want to talk to her?”
“Just to see her again. Find out how she was doing–that sort of thing.” He blew his nose again. “She and I were going to get married, at one time.”
“So I’ve heard. Did you try and convince her to leave her husband and come back to you?”
Mel hit the desk. “Hell, no! Nothing like that. I just wanted to have a friendly talk. When we were finished, I left first. We didn’t want to be seen coming out of the woods together.”
Al wasn’t sure exactly what to say. He saw a truck out the back window. “Someone just pulled in. Talk to you later, Mel.”
Al went to find Ethel Strassner, who was at the park, trying to direct everyone as to where they were supposed to be. Edna was following along behind her. “Ethel, I really need to talk to you.”
“Okay, Al. I could use a cup of coffee. Let’s get one and go find a place to sit for awhile.”
Ethel had lived all her life in Hyson. She came back after she went to college and had been the high school librarian ever since. She married Dan Strassner, but started caring for her sister after her parents passed away. The three of them lived in a large old rambling house close to the park. “So what can I do for you, Al?”
“I just need to know anything you can tell me about Irene.”
“Well, for starters, was Mel still in love with her?”
“Probably. He moped around for a few years after Irene got married, but he seemed to get over it. They say part of you always loves your first love.”
“All mine now,” Edna said.
“Just sit and be quiet, Edna,” Ethel told her.
“What did she mean by that?” Al asked.
“No idea. Sometimes she seems to make perfect sense and other times, no sense at all.”
“When you first contacted Irene about coming back here, did she say anything about wanting to meet with Mel?”
“Oh, no. Irene was happily married to George.”
“Not pretty anymore,” Edna said. Ethel shot her a look. Edna started digging at her ear with her index finger and looking around like nothing had happened. “Pretty birds,” Edna said.
“There aren’t any birds around now,” Ethel said.
Al looked at Edna and then the woods. “Does Edna go in those woods very often?”
“All the time. I got her a book on birds and she marks each page when she sees a different one.”
“Care if I take a walk with her?”
“I guess not. Where are you going?”
“I want her to show me where she finds the prettiest birds.”
Edna led Al to the start of a path through the woods. She had walked it so many times, it was easy to follow. It eventually led to the place where Irene’s body had been found. “Do you like Mel, Edna?”
“Edna love Mel.”
“But Mel’s married.”
“He has a girlfriend.”
“No more. Not pretty anymore either.”
“Where did you hide the knife, Edna?”
She looked down and started pushing a pebble around with her foot. “Over there,” she said pointing behind her, “in owl tree. They not pretty anymore.”
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