by Margaret S. Hamilton
Here is another entry from our Halloween mystery short story contest! The Headless Horseman made it to our top 4! One more goes up tomorrow and then our 2nd place story will go up on Saturday morning. Check out our Terrific Tales section to see all those that have already gone up.
Lizzie Christopher prodded the six foot inflatable shark secured to the top of a golf cart.
“Looks good.” Her daughter, Claire, slid behind the wheel while other sharks climbed aboard.
“Ignition on, slowly press the pedal,” Lizzie said.
Claire grasped the wheel and pulled into a long line of decorated carts.
The Jericho, Ohio Halloween parade was about to start, the high school floats decorated with a television theme. Lizzie snapped one last photo of the group, outfitted in gray sweats stenciled with different days of the week, topped with rubber shark masks, long tails and dorsal fins pinned to their backs. The Shark Week float was launched, with part of the group walking alongside the golf cart throwing candy to the crowd.
Lizzie joined her colleagues on Main Street, in front of the interior design shop she managed. “The Shark Week float is on its way.” She added, “I can’t wait to see the kids wearing the costumes we made. So many fairy princesses and ninja warriors.”
George Emerson, an active senior volunteer in the community, joined her. “Got the games on the Green cleaned up. It’s a good turnout this year. Thanks to you ladies, every child has a costume.”
“I love Halloween. Jericho goes all out, doesn’t it?” Lizzie said.
She turned to admire her shop window – two skeletons sharing tea in Victorian armchairs decorated with carved Medusa’s heads – in front of a display of lush black fabrics strung with pumpkin lights. Scarecrows and witches filled the other Main Street windows, the shop doorways decorated with cornstalks and bales of hay.
The music blaring from speakers on the Green across the street ended, and the crowd stepped up to the curb. Carved jack o’ lanterns flickered as darkness fell. Two policemen on motorcycles cleared the street ahead of the high school marching band.
“Here they come.” Lizzie waved to an assortment of trick-or-treaters following the band, their parents walking alongside.
Hoof beats thudded in the distance. “Are horses in the parade this year?” Lizzie asked.
A black horse raced down Main Street after the children, the rider attired in a vintage dark blue military coat and tall leather boots, a black balaclava pulled over his head. As he approached the area by the Green, he swung a pumpkin by what looked like an attached long blond wig.
“A headless horseman?” Lizzie gasped. “He looks like the original headless Hessian soldier.”
He galloped at top speed towards the children.
“Get the kids out of the street,” George yelled. “He’s not stopping.”
Parents grabbed their children and jumped up on the sidewalk. Lizzie spotted Maeve O’Connell caught in the screaming crowd. Her granddaughter, Tracy, wearing one of the shop’s fairy princess costumes, stood alone, sobbing, in the middle of the congestion.
Lizzie plunged into the street. “Tracy, I’m coming,” she yelled. “Stay right there, honey.”
The headless horseman turned around at the end of the Green and headed back towards the crowd. He swung the pumpkin, and released it towards the sidewalk filled with children and their parents. Lizzie heard screams and shouts, then the sound of breaking glass.
She bent down to scoop up four-year-old Tracy. Someone grabbed Lizzie from behind and shoved her to the ground. Lizzie scrambled back up. The horseman, now in the street, threw Tracy over his shoulder, remounted his horse, and charged across the Green and up a side street. Lizzie caught a glimpse of pink before darkness enveloped horse and riders.
George guided Lizzie back to the sidewalk.
Lizzie took a deep breath. “Do you see Maeve?”
Tall enough to see over the crowd, George spotted her across the street, on the Green. “Go open up the shop and call the police. I’ll get Maeve and bring her to you.”
Lizzie’s hands shook as she pulled out her shop keys. The shop window was shattered, the skeletons a pile of bones mixed with glass.
Lizzie called 911 and talked to the dispatcher, before she forwarded the photos of Tracy she had on her phone for an Amber Alert. She reached the shop installer, who lived nearby, and asked him to bring a piece of plywood from the warehouse, and a push broom to sweep up the broken glass. Claire texted Lizzie that she and her friends were safe.
George brought Maeve into the shop and settled her on the loveseat at the front. Lizzie wrapped Maeve in a mohair throw and brewed a pot of tea.
“Tracy is my baby,” Maeve wailed. “The man on the horse stole my baby.”
The shop installer and his wife carried between them a large piece of plywood from the warehouse. “It’s chaos out there,” he said.
“Have you seen Claire?” Lizzie asked.
“Claire and her friends managed to retrieve and deflate their shark decorations and returned the golf cart. Here they come now.” The sharks filled the back of the shop, chattering at top volume as they texted.
Officer Bethany Schmidt entered through the back door and waded through a maze of shark tails and fins. “Anybody hurt?” She waited for a chorus of “no’s”. “Has everyone called their parents?” The girls held up their cell phones as a “yes.”
Bethany joined Lizzie and Maeve. “Lizzie, thanks for the photos. We also received a phone video of the kidnapping.” She turned to Maeve. “Do you remember me? We met at the Food Pantry. I need you to tell me what happened.”
Maeve pulled a small zippered purse out of her worn coat pocket, and rummaged in it. She handed Bethany a business card. “I remember you. You’re a nice person. Me and Trace, we like you. I always carry your card.”
“That’s good,” Bethany said, handing the card back. “I need to know where you live, Maeve. Do you and Tracy live alone?”
“They live with me,” George Emerson said. He was tall and gentle, with a white beard. He sat down next to Maeve.
“In July, I found Maeve and Tracy in the park next to the lake, with their belongings in that baby buggy Maeve pushes around town. Maeve and I grew up together in Jericho – her brother and I were best friends – so I took them in. They’ve been with me ever since. Maeve’s brothers and their children are long gone.”
Maeve put down her tea. “We’re safe with George. He takes good care of us. Me and Trace, we get free food from the Pantry, and I take Trace to story time at the library. We’re real careful with the books we borrow.”
“I need to know more about you and Tracy, if we’re going to find her,” Bethany said. “What’s your full name, Maeve, and the names of Tracy’s parents?”
“Maeve O’Connell. Trace uses my name, too. Her mother was my Mary. She never told me the name of Tracy’s father. Mary died. It’s just been me and Trace since she was a baby.” She burst into tears again.
“And how did you come back to Jericho?” Bethany jotted down the information as Maeve spoke.
“I don’t remember,” Maeve said. “I recognized the place when we got here. Before it was a park, my brothers and I used to play around the lake. I recognized George’s voice when he found us. He looks different now, with his beard.”
“Have you noticed anyone paying attention to Tracy or asking questions?” Bethany asked.
Maeve shook her head. “No, people are real nice in Jericho. They know our first names, and say hello. Trace plays with some of the kids. We go to the playground, the library, and the duck pond. Trace likes to feed the ducks.”
“So you have no idea who would kidnap Tracy?”
Maeve shook her head, tears rolling down her face.
Bethany turned to Lizzie. “I saw you out in the street about to grab Tracy. Do you remember anything?”
“No, it was bedlam. I was focused on getting Tracy to safety.”
“Maeve, where’s your husband?”
She snuffled in a tissue and blinked her rheumy blue eyes. “My Billy. Billy O’Connell. He was my childhood sweetheart, and now he’s gone.”
Lizzie squeezed her hand. “You’re safe with George. We’re going to find Tracy.”
“That’s good. Me and Trace, all we have is each other.”
George stood up. “Maeve, I’m parked on the other side of the Green, behind St Paul’s. Why don’t you rest up a minute while I get the car?”
Bethany joined the school of sharks at the rear of the shop.
Maeve nodded and dunked one in her tea.
Bethany gestured for Lizzie and George to join her. “Some of the girls noticed the horseman before the parade, but didn’t see his face or speak to him, and they didn’t recognize the horse.”
She turned to George. “Can you give me some background information?”
“Maeve and Billy left Jericho fifty years ago,” George said. “Billy’s dad disappeared, and his uncle threw them off the family farm. The uncle’s grandchildren are still around. They’ve approached Maeve a couple of times, asking her to sign documents as Tracy’s guardian.” He sighed. “I was thinking of hiring a lawyer to deal with it.”
“Does Maeve need medical attention tonight?” Bethany asked.
“She’ll sleep all right. I’ll give her some hot milk. She likes that.”
“Maeve has dementia, doesn’t she,” Lizzie said.
“Yes, early stages. I took her to my late wife’s doctor. I’m taking good care of her.”
Bethany smiled. “I’m sure you are, George. I’ll come out to your place in the morning. Lizzie, want a ride with me tomorrow?”
She nodded, and helped Maeve to her feet, slipping a package of cookies into her pocket.
George lived up a rutted dirt road in the woods adjacent to the park and lake. Lizzie and Bethany found him chopping firewood, while Maeve sat nearby in the sun. The surrounding woods were filled with maple trees. The wind swirled eddies of fallen scarlet and yellow leaves across the lawn. Jericho Lake gleamed in the distance, under a sapphire autumn sky.
What a wonderful place for Tracy to grow up, Lizzie thought.
“Good morning, Maeve,” Bethany said. “We’re still looking for Tracy. We’ll find her soon.”
Maeve beamed. “Trace is a good girl. It’s time to take her to the library for story hour.”
George hung his axe in a tool shed and locked the door. “Can’t be too careful with Tracy around. She helps me with my morning chores.”
They sat at a picnic table set with a thermos jug and mugs. Lizzie poured coffee as George pulled out a piece of paper and placed his reading glasses on his nose.
“I’ve made a few notes. Tracy’s kidnapping must be related to those documents the O’Connells were after Maeve to sign. My bird-watching friend told me he’s seen some business types at the O’Connell farm with a surveyor. I’ve heard that a developer wants to buy the property for a golf course community. I suspect that Tracy, as Billy’s granddaughter, would be considered one of the farm owners.” He drummed his fingers on the table. “Billy’s cousins and their children live there now. I walk by from time to time. There’s a ramshackle barn you can see from the road, but that’s it. The entrance road is gated and locked.”
“My bird-watching buddy is over by the O’Connell farm today, looking for hawks. He spotted a black horse in the field, and caught a flash of pink near the barn.” He grinned. “The pink flash followed him around the field and over to the road. He’s got Tracy. She’s safe.”
Lizzie exhaled, limp with relief after a sleepless night. “We caught a break.”
Bethany stood up. “Come on, let’s go get her.”
“Tracy’s a smart kid to have recognized George’s friend,” Bethany said. She radioed the station and requested assistance from the county sheriff’s department. “It’s our case, but county jurisdiction. Let’s head over there.”
Lizzie and Maeve sat in the back of the police cruiser, George up front with Bethany, as navigator. He directed her to a gravel road that skirted one side of the O’Connell farm. Canada geese grazed in the corn stubble, the air filled with the scent of wood smoke. They swerved on a narrow lane snaking through the woods, and stopped behind a jeep parked at a wide spot.
The driver’s door opened, and a man emerged, binoculars slung around his neck. “George, is that you?”
George walked to the jeep and gathered up a sleeping Tracy. He tucked her into the backseat of the police cruiser next to Maeve, who wrapped her arms around her and crooned a lullaby. Bethany rolled down the cruiser front windows and joined the birder.
A black horse trotted up the road behind the cars, the rider holding a shotgun. Lizzie moved Tracy to the floor of the cruiser and whispered to Maeve to hunker down next to the child. She shrugged off her jacket, covered Tracy, and peeked out the rear window of the cruiser.
“You’ve got someone who belongs to me,” the rider said. He spat a stream of chewing tobacco on the road.
Bethany drew her weapon and faced him.
“You’re a suspect in Tracy’s kidnapping.”
“She’s an O’Connell. She belongs with us.”
“She’s got her own family.
“George Emerson isn’t family. All Maeve had to do was sign those papers we gave her, and we would have handed over the kid.”
Bethany walked towards the man on the horse, her eyes never leaving his hands. He hesitated, then handed down his shotgun, and dismounted. “On the ground now,” the sheriff yelled as he kicked the shotgun away. Bethany grabbed it.
The second sheriff approached the cruiser. “Does the child need medical attention?”
Lizzie talked through the driver’s window. “She looks all right, but she’s sound asleep. Maybe they drugged her.”
“I’ll call an ambulance. Her grandmother can ride with her.”
George brought Maeve and Tracy to Lizzie’s shop the next day. The shop seamstress had sewn a new fairy princess costume for Tracy. She put it on and twirled and danced, as she waved her magic wand. Officer Bethany Schmidt joined them. “The sheriff pulled a warrant and searched the O’Connell place while we interviewed the family. They’re anxious to pin all the blame on Sean, the guy we’ve got in custody. We suspect they were all in on it, but it’s going to be difficult to prove.”
Bethany continued. “The developer who wants to buy the farm needs proof that all the heirs are in agreement. That includes Tracy.”
“Why snatch Tracy in the middle of the Halloween parade? It doesn’t make sense.” Lizzie said.
“In all the confusion, Sean, dressed as the headless horseman, thought he could get away with Tracy. He was right. By the time we organized a search, he was cutting across the fields.”
“Was Tracy drugged?” Lizzie asked.
“Yes, but she woke up in the morning. She knew George’s friend and followed him.”
“And what about the blue uniform coat? Was it an intentional imitation of the headless horseman?”
“More or less. The sheriff found the coat in an old trunk in the barn. Sean wore a costume so he could hide in plain sight near the parade starting point.”
“What about the other O’Connells?”
“They know more than they’re saying about Billy’s father’s disappearance. If we find his remains on the farm, maybe we’ll be able to determine if he was murdered.”
Bethany continued. “George has retained a lawyer to represent Tracy’s interests. If the land deal goes through, there’ll be enough money to pay for her education.”
George thanked Lizzie and Bethany, and gathered Tracy and Maeve. “Come on, let’s go show the ducks your fairy princess dress.” They left the shop, with Tracy between them holding their hands.
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