by Margaret S. Hamilton
Enjoy this never before published Halloween mystery short story, and keep an eye out for more this month!
Lizzie Christopher pulled a pan of pot roast and vegetables out of the oven. She added sliced mushrooms as she greeted her high schoolers, Claire and Phillip, and her husband, Nick Cameron. “Hey, guys, what were you up to after school?” Nudging their three standard Poodles aside with her knee, she put dinner back in the oven and set the timer for fifteen minutes.
“What do you think of screaming coffins?” Claire asked, as she grabbed a bag of pretzels.
“I try not to think about coffins,” Lizzie said. “Why screaming?”
Phillip shoveled a fistful of pretzels in his mouth. “We’re trying to make the whole Halloween Games-on-the-Green more exciting for the older kids. Small kids like to play corn hole and pin the eyes and mouth on the pumpkin.” He grabbed another handful of pretzels. “The shop teacher let us build some coffins out of scrap wood. We made them bottomless, so when the kids open the coffin lids, we’ll jump up from underneath and scare them. Cool, huh?” He continued to munch.
“And some of the coffins will scream?” Lizzie asked.
“Yeah, someone found a simple battery-powered switch mechanism on the internet. Like what turns on the light in the refrigerator,” Phillip said.
“We’ll be at the opposite end of the Green, ages nine and up,” Claire said.
“Will you be in the parade afterwards?” Lizzie asked. “You haven’t mentioned a golf cart float this year.”
“That’s so ninth grade,” Claire said. “We’re racking up service hours doing this project, and making the Halloween Festival more appealing to the older kids. It’s a win-win situation.”
“Are you wearing costumes?” Lizzie asked.
“We’re all going as zombies,” Claire said, as she headed into the dining room to set the table. “Ratty old clothes and gray makeup on our faces.”
“What gave you that idea?” Lizzie asked.
“One of the coffin-building kids says he saw a zombie by the old cemetery,” Phillip said with a grin. “Maybe we’ll have some real zombies join the party on the Green.”
Lizzie and Nick savored their evening dog walk, a quiet time to talk without interruption.
“Ted Sorenson called me today,” Nick said. “He left his puppy Josh asleep in his parish hall office for five minutes. Hearing him bark up a frenzy, Ted hurried back to see someone try to grab him and slip out the parish hall front door.”
“Someone tried to steal Josh?” Lizzie asked.
“That’s what Ted thinks. He warned me to be careful with our dogs, particularly Pippa.”
Pippa was Josh’s litter mate, both fluffy six-month old silver standard Poodles with black shoe button eyes. Lizzie and Nick also had two older black males, Tib and Boo.
“What did the thief look like? Adult, teenager, tall, short, age?”
“Ted said that? As an Episcopal minister, he’s the last person I would expect to have zombies on his mind.” Lizzie looked up at Nick. “Do you think it was one of the kids’ friends playing a practical joke?”
Nick shook his head. “Ted talked to the police, who advised him to always keep Josh on a leash or behind a locked gate. Josh and Pippa are young enough to be snatched for resale or breeding purposes.”
“This makes me crazy,” Lizzie said. “I thought dogs were stolen for fighting rings or lab animals. I didn’t realize there was a puppy black market.”
Gray clouds masked the waxing moon as the wind picked up. They walked through the local college campus to the town founders’ cemetery, where they found the gates chained shut.
“That’s odd,” Lizzie said. “I wonder if they’re expecting trouble.”
Walking along the stone wall, Lizzie spotted flickers of light behind a vault deep in the cemetery. She grabbed Nick’s arm. “Somebody’s smoking down there. What do you think they’re up to?” She stopped to listen. “I hear dogs barking. Do you think it’s the dog thieves?”
Lizzie caught a glimpse of a tall man in the cemetery wearing a ripped and torn business suit. “Hey, look at him, all dressed up for Halloween a week early.” Moaning, the man stumbled and lurched through the headstones close to where they stood on the sidewalk. “Do you think he’s the zombie Phillip’s friend saw?” The three poodles barked their loudest, most threatening barks. “Maybe it’s the zombie who tried to snatch Josh.”
“Let’s cross the street now,” Nick said. He grabbed Lizzie’s arm and waited for a break in traffic.
“The police should question that zombie,” Lizzie said. “He might be part of the dog-snatching ring.”
“Zombies and dog-snatchings. This is more than Halloween pranks,” Nick said. He tapped 9-1-1 on his phone and spoke to the dispatcher.
They walked up the hill along the college green. Lizzie heard a rattle-trap pickup truck rumble up the street. She turned to watch it pick up speed and head toward them. Nick pulled Lizzie and the dogs behind a large oak tree. As the truck drew next to them, it slowed to an idle. Lizzie peeked around the tree trunk.
A pair of Rottweilers in the truck bed growled and snarled. Kennel crates housing small barking dogs were stacked on top of each other, attached to the truck bed with bungee cords. “If the guard dogs jump out of the truck, stay between me and the tree,” Nick said.
Their poodles whined as they clustered around Lizzie’s legs. Pippa whimpered and stood up, front legs wrapped around Lizzie’s waist. The driver glowered under a black hoodie. He pointed to their dogs, then gestured to the truck bed.
Lizzie gasped. “He’s threatening to steal our dogs.”
The driver gunned the truck and thundered up the hill, as the sound of barking dogs faded away.
Lizzie, who managed the town interior design shop, had an excellent working relationship with local police officer Bethany Schmidt. They met for morning coffee and an update on the previous evening’s events. The police had scoured the cemetery searching for both the man dressed as a zombie and evidence that dogs had been there. The police suspected that the dog thieves brought stolen dogs to the cemetery for a hand-off and payment. The pick-up truck had probably contained stolen dogs.
Bethany briefed her on the current dog theft situation: pure-bred puppies and young adult dogs had disappeared recently from yards with electronic fences. “At least you and Nick have a real fence with locked gates. Even so, never let the dogs out without someone watching them.”
Lizzie nodded. “We’ll be careful. And Nick and I will walk them together.” She traced the rim of her mug. “Why pure-bred dogs? I thought hunting dogs would be in demand or dogs for fighting.” She shuddered.
“Any way to make a buck,” Bethany said. “Breeders charge a fortune for their dogs. Too many local residents buy an expensive dog and leave it outside all day. Easy pickings. Especially poodles because they’re ideal for allergy sufferers. Labradoodles and golden doodles are very popular and as a consequence, expensive.”
“How do dog snatchers take the dogs? Wouldn’t the dogs bark or run away?”
“Puppies bark at anything and everything, even butterflies. They trust strangers and come willingly for food,” Bethany said. “There are too many farms around here where dogs could be kept until buyers are found. And the police department lacks the manpower to investigate every on-line listing for puppies.”
Lizzie sipped her coffee. “Mind if I make a few calls?”
Bethany nodded. “That’s fine. Local residents might ignore police statements, but they’ll pay attention to you, Nick, and Ted Sorenson.” She stood and adjusted her equipment belt, “And no snooping. Dog thieves are nasty people.”
“And their guard dogs are equally nasty,” Lizzie said.
Lizzie sent out a mass email to the many people she knew in Jericho through soccer and school activities, alerting them to a possible dog-snatching gang. She also made calls to her shop customers who had acquired puppies in the past year. So many black Labs and Golden Retrievers as well as lap dogs—Yorkies and Boston terriers, French bulldogs and Chihuahuas. And Poodles, of all sizes and colors. Jericho was a dog-friendly town.
His voice strained, Ted Sorenson called to tell her he had noticed chalk marks on the parish hall steps.
She finished her afternoon appointments and walked across the Green. After pacing off the area, she concurred with Claire and Phillip’s screaming coffin plan. There was plenty of room for two groups of kids doing different activities on Halloween
Lizzie immediately noticed the thick strokes of hot pink chalk on the parish hall steps. She squatted down to snap a photo. Probably not drawn by a child. The letter “P” and what might be a male gender symbol, a circle with an arrow at the top, a small dot added in the center of the circle. Pink for puppy or Poodle? Could the dog-snatchers be stalking dog owners and marking their homes and offices for theft at an opportune time?
Sending the photo to Bethany Schmidt, she attached a brief text message about the chalk marks. Ted called the police station and asked if he could scrub the symbols off the steps.
Lizzie took a circuitous route through the historic district of nineteenth-century houses as she walked home. She spotted a blue “C” and what looked like a female symbol at one house, and a green “B” and male symbol without a dot in the middle at another house. She bit her lip. Should she ring the doorbell and tell the owners her suspicions? Or send Bethany Schmidt the house addresses and photos of the symbols? She did the latter, and asked Bethany to alert the owners to remove the marks.
A young sheepdog accompanied by a small woman hurtled down the street and stopped. When Lizzie bent over to say hello, the sheepdog lathered her face. “Stop! You’ll lick my contact lenses right out of my eyes.”
The woman apologized. “Oliver, sit!” The sheepdog wagged his bob tail and sat for a treat.
“Does that chalk symbol look familiar?” Lizzie asked, scratching Oliver’s chin.
The woman squinted at it. “Yes, I have one at my house. Pink, with an “S” and what looks like the male gender symbol. I thought it was some kind of joke.”
Lizzie shook her head. “Someone tried to snatch Ted Sorenson’s puppy Josh from his office yesterday. He noticed the chalk marks on the parish hall steps today.”
“Oh, no!” the woman said. “The police sent out a text warning to local dog owners, but I ignored it. Oliver only goes out on a leash.”
Lizzie introduced herself as she scribbled her cell number on a business card. “Will you alert any dog owners you know? I suspect that the homes, shops, or offices are marked so the thieves can return to snatch the dogs.”
“Of course.” The woman looked at her card. “You’ve got a silver puppy like the Sorenson’s Poodle, don’t you?”
“Yes, and two adult dogs. I’m headed home to check on them right now.” Lizzie thanked her and continued her walk through the residential area bordering the college campus.
Stone walls lined their steep, narrow driveway. Lizzie checked every inch. Nothing. She checked the front steps. Again, nothing. She walked towards the garage and gasped in horror. Chalk marks on the wood siding between the two doors: three pink “P’s,” two male gender symbols, and one female symbol, a dot in the center of the circle. She sagged against the garage. Someone was out to snatch her dogs. She snapped a photo and sent it to Bethany Schmidt, and texted Nick. She couldn’t wait to scrub off the chalk marks. Even behind a locked gate, she was afraid to let the dogs out in the yard. Someone could be waiting, even a zombie. She shuddered. Tomorrow was Halloween—would zombies be lurking, ready to snatch Jericho’s dogs?
Overnight, the entire town learned about the dog snatchers. Bethany Schmidt called to give Lizzie an update: ten homes plus a few shops and offices had chalk markings, all of which had been removed. The owners had promised not to leave their dogs untended, tied up outside shops and restaurants, or loose in their yards behind invisible fences. Bethany told her the police suspected that the different chalk colors indicated the size of the dogs, with relevant gender symbols, the dots indicating breeding potential.
On Halloween night, Lizzie and Nick strolled with their dogs down to the Green to watch the children’s games. One end of the Green swarmed with older children clamoring to see the screaming coffins. The kids lined up and took turns lifting the lid of each coffin mounted on sawhorses, as different zombies rose up and moaned and growled at them. Each coffin screamed at a different pitch level, creating a macabre harmony. The high schoolers wore zombie costumes of all kinds—flapper dresses and military uniforms, sports gear, and even a recycled mermaid costume, all appropriately tattered and dirt-smeared, their faces smeared with gray make-up.
“I doubt anyone will have nightmares tonight,” Lizzie said. “It’s pure silliness. What a great idea.”
Claire, Phillip, and their zombie crew had proposed, as a sign of solidarity against the dog-snatchers, that they walk as many dogs as possible in the Halloween parade.
“The dog owners are allowed to walk along-side their dog walkers,” Lizzie said. “Some of them volunteered to dress up as zombies.”
“What about Ted Sorenson?” Nick asked.
“His wife won’t let him wear a zombie costume. She said the bishop wouldn’t approve. Phillip will walk Josh and Pippa while Claire walks Tib and Boo, with Ted alongside.
Lizzie and Nick joined a large group of dogs and their owners at the end of the Green. After the high school marching band, golf cart floats, and kiddie costume parade passed by, each high school zombie took a dog leash and started down the street. Lizzie had suggested that the police ban dog biscuits from the parade, in case the dog snatchers tried to drug the dogs. Lots of cheers as the dogs paraded down the street, some straining at their leashes, and others trying to eat candy or wrappers left on the ground. It was pandemonium, some of the zombies lurching or moaning in full character mode, and others laughing and waving to the crowd.
Lizzie followed the zombie parade, while Nick ran down the Green to meet their kids and dogs at the end of the parade route. She noticed new zombies join the group, tall young men wearing grease-stained mechanics overalls, their make-up a darker shade of gray. Holding dog leashes, they gazed at the ground. As she kept an eye on Claire and Phillip, Lizzie texted Bethany Schmidt and Nick that zombie imposters with dog leashes had infiltrated the parade. Were they planning to snatch dogs in the confusion at the end of the parade route?
Bethany received the message. At the end of the Green, the high school zombies and the dogs they walked were herded into a corral constructed of police barricades, guarded by police officers. Dog owners would show identification to reclaim their dogs. The imposter zombies were siphoned down a side street and into waiting patrol cars.
Ted Sorenson waved from the zombie corral. Claire, Phillip, and the four Poodles were safe. Lizzie and Nick pointed towards the screaming coffins at the end of the Green. Ted would walk the kids and dogs in that direction.
“The police have all the imposter zombies from the parade,” Lizzie said. “I can’t believe they carried dog leashes, ready to snatch more dogs.”
“But the guy we saw last night with the pick-up truck is still out there, with the dogs he stole,” Nick said.
“I keep thinking of our own dogs, living in a pen, abused and underfed,” Lizzie said as she shivered. She pulled up a coffin lid. “I want to see the screamer switch inside one of these.” She walked down the line of coffins and opened each lid, listening to the different screams. The lid of the last coffin in line flipped open and a figure in a black hoodie and a ripped and torn business suit climbed out.
“Hey, it’s him. The zombie dog thief,” Lizzie shouted. She blew a whistle Bethany had given her. Lizzie and Nick shouted as they followed the dog thief to the end of the Green. Lights flashing and sirens blazing, a patrol car pulled up and two officers jumped out holding weapons.
“On your knees, now!” The dog thief knelt on the ground, hands in the air.
Lizzie charged over. “Where do you get off stealing our dogs?”
One of the officers grabbed her arm. “Easy, Lizzie. We’ve got this.”
Ted, Claire, Phillip, and the dogs joined them, the dogs barking non-stop at the zombie thief.
Bethany Schmidt appeared. “Good work, everyone. We suspect he’s the ringleader, and hope he’ll tell us where we’ll find the stolen dogs.” She smiled. “You might want to call off the attack Poodles.”
“Attack poodles?” the zombie thief screamed. “Nobody told me they were trained guard dogs. I know my rights. You keep them away from me.”
Lizzie and Nick, Ted, Claire and Phillip turned to head back up the Green, eager to share the good news.
Check out other mystery articles, reviews, book giveaways & short stories (including more Halloween ones) in our mystery section and watch for many more Halloween short stories this month.