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Chapter 10
What Dawn Left Behind

The next week was extremely busy, for both Courtney and I. I touched bases with Courtney a few times, but she had to finish cleaning the garage on Monday, and mowed the lawn on Tuesday; delivered her papers and did some collections on Wednesday; lazed around the house and did nothing but read on Thursday; and cleaned the house and did laundry on Friday. I was equally busy canning and freezing green beans, squash, and other garden vegetables. I dropped a jar of pickles and some fresh squash and tomatoes by Cal’s office, hoping for information, but he had nothing new to share.

The sun was beginning to go down and the mosquitoes were hungrier than usual on Friday evening, so I went in early and made a salad for dinner. Just as I finished putting the salad together, the phone rang. Absent minded me reached into my pocket for my cell, and then realized it was the house phone, and I grabbed it up on the last ring. The call required that I dress and take a ride to Pop’s. I had not had even one bite of my salad! I eyed it with regret as I placed it in the frig.

Pop’s is a unique environment for Connors Station. Like most small towns, natural divisions group the citizens – religious or political affiliation, income. Although we are too small for a country club, we do have a small golf course with a “club house.” We have “the other side of the tracks.” We also have our “Professor” and the other college educated professionals. However, at Pop’s, everyone blends. A card game is usually going on in the back room. Even if the players place friendly bets, it is not gambling, since it is between friends.

In addition to the grill, Pop has bait, tackle, and two gas pumps. He always has a “wayward woman” (Doc’s terminology) he is training as a waitress. Betty, the waitress at the Downtown Diner started at Pop’s. During the summer months, he hires one of the “economically disadvantaged” high school boys to pump gas and do minor mechanical work. Pop talks to the vocational education teacher at the high school and finds a boy happy for the experience in exchange for free gas and meals. One of his summer employees from the mid-50s – a young man in my class – now owns his own auto dealership in a neighboring town. Pop seems old and I cannot remember a time without him. He likes to talk about “the wars” – if he had not been in them all, his stories certainly sound real enough to be first hand. If you ask Pop if he had “been there,” he takes offense. The folks in town are always trying to figure out how old Pop is and if he had a life before Connors Station and his diner. No one ever succeeds in getting any information, not even Ruth Ellen Hayes.

Although old, Pop does not have the shrunken look some old people get. He is completely bald, and remains clean-shaved, with no gray or white hair visible on his head or face. The hair on his arms is white, but Pop spends time in his garden behind the store growing fresh herbs and vegetables for his cooking, so the hairs appear sun-bleached on his perpetually tanned skin. He is big and brawny and solid, the type of person you do not mess with, which is why his diner is so safe. People who would fight in another environment remain cordial to each other at Pop’s place.
When Pop called and said he had information about Miss Nancy Parker, I did not doubt him for a moment. Even though it would be dark soon and I hated driving after dark because of the deer and other animals along our country roads, I hastily dressed, jumped in my car, and headed north of town.

Pop does not trust anyone else to do the cooking, so he keeps the menu short, listing just the items he enjoys. His daily special might consist of hash and eggs, even at dinnertime, or spaghetti and meatballs at breakfast. I never heard anyone complain – Pop’s cooking is extraordinary. I found Pop in the kitchen tasting the contents of a large pot.

“Here, Mrs. Wilson, taste this stew and see if you can guess what spices I put in.”

“My Pop, this is excellent. Let’s see, I taste bay leaf, parsley, and a hint of mint, am I right?”

“You have pure taste buds.”

“About Miss Parker. Why did you call me?

“Well, I happen to know you were in the park with Courtney Connors. Local gossip is sometimes more accurate than the local paper. And, I have always had a great deal of respect for you. Henry was a good friend. I’ve missed him.”

“You and Henry?”

“Yes. He used to come by and visit. We’d have these great philosophical discussions – sometimes arguments. No, not arguments really. Just debates about morality, where our country was headed politically and spiritually. I think we filled a void for each other in some way.”

“I never knew.”

“He talked about you sometimes. Boy, that man really loved you!”
Tears came to my eyes. He saw them and said, “I’m sorry.’

“No, don’t be. These are not tears of sadness, really. Just tears of memory, so to speak.”

“Well, given what I know of you and the fact that you were involved in finding her body, it seemed like a good idea to call you and see what you think I should do.”

“About what?”

“She was here. Nancy Parker. I was wondering if someone would ever get around to asking me about her.”

“Well, Courtney and I speculated on how she arrived in town – if she might have taken the bus. I have been meaning to call you and ask about bus schedules. Is that how she came to Connors Station, on a bus?”

“Right, last Saturday night. I didn’t think at first she was staying. Got off with no suitcase and bought a sandwich and some coffee. Asked for it to go, like she was getting back on the bus.”Pop paused and I could tell he was unsure if he should be telling me anything. He turned to stir his stew and took time to poor coffee into an oversize mug looking older and more worn than he did. He offered me some, but I declined, since coffee after 4:00 p.m. keeps me from falling asleep.

I wanted to say something to get him talking again, but sensed it would be best if I let him tell me in his own way when he was ready. After he added milk and sugar to his coffee, he turned back and began talking, more to himself than to me.

“She asked me some questions about Connors Station – what kind of a town it is to live in, are folks friendly, are jobs to be had – that sort of thing. I thought she must have liked my answers, because next thing I know, the bus pulls out, and she walks through the door with a suitcase in her hand. Sits in that booth right over by the window and eats her sandwich and drinks her coffee real slow, all the time looking out the window.”

After another pause, this one to take money from a gasoline customer, he continued. “Such a pretty thing. Not like some of the ones who end up here working for me – unhappy, and lost, and alone. No, she looked happy and expectant like, as if she was waiting for something good coming her way. I thought at first she got off at Connors Station on a whim, you know, after asking those questions and all. But then she took out a piece of paper and tried to use her cell phone. No reception out here and I like it that way. Asked if I had a phone she could use. She assured me it was a local call, so I let her.

“I don’t know who she called, but she was mad when she got off the phone. Asked me when the next bus went through heading back to New York. Well, we only get one through here going west and one going east each week – told her it would be Wednesday before the eastbound came through. Would have put her up, but my new girl likes her privacy and I didn’t think it would be right imposing on her. Told her about the motel on the other side of town. Wanted to call a taxi. Told her we didn’t have one.

“Phone rings just about then. When I answer, I hear a man, voice muffled and not recognizable. He asks for ‘Dawn.’ I assume he means my only female customer and I was right. When she got off the phone, she asked me to keep her suitcase for her. Said she’d be back for it. Well, I don’t like assuming that kind of responsibility, but she was persuasive, even cried a little. I admit I felt foolish when I read in the paper she was an actress – she used her skills on me effectively! I’m in the kitchen when I hear a car. By the time I turn the stove down and get out front, all I see are taillights.

““I hate breaking a confidence. After all, the young lady asked me to keep it for her, wait until she came back, and not say anything to anybody. I’ve been thinking of calling the county sheriff. I just didn’t want someone going through her personal stuff, you know. Look, Mrs. Wilson, I just want to get rid of her bag. I’ve got no use for it and whenever I look at it, I’m tempted to open it. I wouldn’t of course. I’m just not sure what to do with it – give it to you, call Sheriff Connors, or Bill Tate?”

“I understand. How about if I call Sheriff Connor to come get the bag? He can be here in about fifteen minutes, the bag will be off your hands, and he’ll know what to do with it.”

“Okay, go call him. I’ll get the bag and both of you a quart of stew to take home for your trouble.”

Sheriff Connor arrived within ten minutes. Courtney was with him and followed Pop to his storage area to retrieve the suitcase.

“Mrs. Wilson, why did he call you about this?” Cal asked.

“Maybe it is because I am close to his age. And he said he knew my Henry well and they were friends. Your guess is as good as mine.”

Cal provided Pop with an official receipt for “evidence.”   

I wanted to go to the Connor’s house. If Cal decided to open Miss Parker’s bag I did not want to miss it, but I was exhausted. The last week was extremely busy. I did not want to miss services the next day, and my garden needed attention.

I ate my salad too quickly to savor it and hoped eating so late would not keep me awake. I was also afraid my curiosity about the suitcase might delay sleep. I made a quick call to the Connors. Cal said they had looked in the suitcase, and there were some letters. He promised that either he or Courtney would fill me in later.

I was asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow. I woke refreshed at 6:00 and decided to do some weeding and picking before eating breakfast and showering for the day.
 
 

Chapter 90
-2-
Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust

Courtney called last night, said Mrs. Parker “acted creepy” at the memorial service, and she was staying away from the funeral. I promised to watch for anyone or anything suspicious and call her immediately after I got home.

I wish I could avoid funerals. However, in a small town, a funeral is a social obligation. Not that I particularly mind the actual service; it provides necessary closure. It is just, at my age, there seem to be so many of them!

At first I could not imagine why in the world parents would choose to bury their daughter in the place where she died – a place she never lived. Ruth Ellen Hayes found out. Yes, I was on Ruth’s call list, as much as I hate to admit it. It was the best way to keep up with the happenings in Connors Station, especially with my age group.

It seems it was not hard for Mr. Ferguson to convince the Parkers this was the best place to bury their daughter. He pointed out the gossip surrounding such a death and that the memories of others seemed to reside at the place the person last visited, whether they visited in life, or in death. Therefore, it would be in their daughter’s best interest not to have the funeral in her home town of Misawa, Missouri, but in Connors Station.
Ferguson inherited the business from his father. I remembered playing hide-and-seek with his sister in the display coffins and other dark recesses of the funeral home, which was why death and funerals held no fear for me. Ferguson’s sister married after college and moved out west. She had a falling-out with her family over her career choice, fine art. Her Puritanical father thought art a useless occupation. I do not remember her coming back after her marriage. I doubt many of her former classmates and friends gave her much thought. I seldom did, except at funerals when I remembered our play place, unchanged since my childhood.

Although the physical appearance of the home remained unchanged, Ferguson updated the business with the latest in coffins and accoutrements. He had a web site and offered a variety of creative options for services. Ferguson could even videotape the service if the family desired, although I do not recall anyone taking advantage of that service yet.

I arrived early so I could watch those attending arrive.  Cal stood inconspicuously outside by his car, keeping an eye on things, ready to lead the hearse with its coffin to the cemetery for graveside services.

I saw no strange face in the crowd. However, a few were missing – Doc, the professor, and Betty from the Downtown Diner. Doc and the professor might have felt they did their duty by attending the memorial service. The Downtown Diner closed on Monday, so Betty had no reason to be absent. She always attended funerals, unless ill or unable for a good reason.
Since she did not know the Parkers, she may have felt her presence not socially required. I had not seen her at the viewing the night before, either. Others attended out of curiosity more than respect: Ruth Ellen Hayes, Grace Glisson, and some of their sisters in gossip. I saw Gallagher, Brother Sherwood’s wife, and a few of the more prominent citizens, a group of about twenty in all. Carol was there and I assumed the young lady with her was the new stylist I heard she hired recently.

Brother Sherwood did not perform the service and I was curious as to why, but either Grace or Ruth Ellen would find out and tell everyone. Ferguson did a good job, concentrating on Nancy’s youthful activities and career accomplishments. He kept it short and closed with a recording of her favorite non-religious song, a Bette Midler rendition of “Wind beneath My Wings.” We all followed the hearse to the cemetery for the graveside services. I think we all went out of a sense of guilt; such a small crowd and such a meaningless death. I know I felt obligated to see this funeral all the way to the end.

Brother Sherwood led the graveside prayer and read Psalm 23, again. As we left the Parkers after the closing prayer they were sitting with Mr. Ferguson and Brother Sherwood. My last glimpse of the Parkers was over my left shoulder as I was leaving. Mrs. Parker was sitting with Mr. Parker’s arm around her shoulders as she sobbed out her grief. She cried so little during the service, but I realized she probably did not want to break down in front of people she still considered strangers.

I neglected to call Courtney when I got home. There was, after all, nothing to tell. I decided to spend the evening reading and sorting through some saved recipes for pickles and relishes, deciding which ones I wanted to make this year.

As I finished my task, my housecoat pocket startled me by ringing. I had been carrying my cell phone with me religiously, but this was the first time it rang. I asked Courtney to hold on for a moment while I put my recipes away, but she hung up. I checked the number and redialed her cell, but when she answered, she sounded miffed. The conversation was totally one-sided. I apologized for not calling after the funeral; she grunted. I explained I had not called because there was nothing to tell her; she answered with silence. I told her we would talk later; she hung up without a reply. So much for working together, I thought.

I made a salad with tomatoes, cucumbers, and lettuce from my garden and went outside in my house dress to eat while I watched the sun set. I thought about the whole situation. Nothing led one to the conclusion that Nancy’s death was murder. Yes, she died in a strange place of suspicious circumstances. But in the absence of a motive or any known connection to Connors Station, we could not even call her death a homicide. Would we ever know the details of her death? Did it even matter at this point? I was about ready to go back to my every day activities and leave Courtney, Nancy, and the entire situation alone, but then something happened to change my mind.
 
 

Chapter 9
Memorial Service
-1-
Fond Farewell

I didn’t go to church Sunday morning. I felt exhausted and Dad said I probably was depressed from what had been going on lately. I slept in, then spent the morning reading a ridiculous, but thoroughly entertaining “teen romance.” I had mixed feelings about going to the memorial service for Nancy Parker, but Mrs. Wilson called and said she would be by to pick me up on her way. She sounded eager to see me, and I didn’t have the heart to back out.

I was afraid I might be conspicuous at this service, however, nobody seemed to be paying any attention to me, because they were watching the Parkers. Boy, this was hard. I knew these people; had known them all my life. I wasn’t even sure what I was looking for. Something unusual. Someone here who shouldn’t be or not here who should be. Also, I needed to watch those who had ties to New York.

Maybe this was a waste of time. It would take money for New York trips. Doc and the professor had the money for annual trips, but few other citizens did. Most of our little town is middle class with middle class values. Those same values brought them to a memorial service of an almost stranger. I began to doubt any hope of finding the murderer lurking about at Ferguson’s.

You need to understand the culture of a small town death. If the Parkers had lived in Connors Station, the ritual would have started with food taken to their home on the first few days following the death. Visiting mourners dispensed sympathy while presenting casseroles in disposable dishes, canned preserves, chocolate cakes, and fruit pies. Viewing of the body would take place the evening before the funeral. Friends and family members would reminisce about the deceased, remembering every wonderful and humorous incident in both public and private life. The funeral would be the next day with a sermon from the preacher of the decease’s congregation, or by Mr. Ferguson, if church going was not part of the lifestyle of their dearly departed.

Of course, this situation was different – no visits and no funeral. I wasn’t sure how I felt about seeing Miss Parker, but whatever work Ferguson did, she had to look better than the way I remembered her. Mr. Ferguson learned his business from his father. Familiarity with everyone in town made it possible for them to capture the little quirks of a person’s face perfectly. The old saying, “Why they look so lifelike!” applied to the work Ferguson did. I wondered how he’d fared with Miss Parker, someone not familiar to him.

When Mrs. Wilson picked me up, she gestured, moving her hands from the top of her head down with a smile. I knew she was referring to my hated dress. The only time you see me in a dress is when it is inappropriate to dress in anything else. I even wear dress pants to church most Sundays.

We agreed to stay separate at the service and compare notes later.
When we arrived, everyone was filing respectfully into the viewing area, past the open coffin. Mrs. Parker latched onto my arm as soon as she saw me, and the two of us led the way with Mr. Parker trailing behind. It became completely silent and I felt all eyes on us. Everyone wanted to hear Mrs. Parker’s reaction when she saw her daughter. Mr. Ferguson lingered as inconspicuously as possible next to a large potted palm just behind the coffin.

“Oh, Henry, doesn’t she look just beautiful? Why, that dress is almost exactly like the one she wore when she was in that play. Her hair and everything.” Ferguson took two steps forward. “Why Mr. Ferguson, how did you ever know?”

“My dear lady, that is why I wanted to have her here. I would not wish anyone to see the body of their dear departed in any but the best possible circumstances. We do want to remember those we love at their best, now don’t we?”

I closed my eyes, counted to five, said a little prayer – for myself, I admit, not the dear departed or her parents – and peaked at Miss Parker. Her mother was right; she looked simply wonderful. She certainly didn’t look dead! Ferguson knew his stuff. I expected for a moment her eyes would open, she’d thank us for the nice little nap, and sashay out the door into the sunlit day. I was glad I came. My mental images of the body on the path were fading. They would have left completely if Grace Glisson hadn’t interrupted my reverie.

“Are you all right, Courtney? You look a bit pallid.”

“Just fine, Mrs. Glisson.”

“Well, move along then dear. We do all want to pay our respects, you know.” She really wanted to satisfy her curiosity. Mrs. Parker’s comments guaranteed everyone attending would view this body, even those who always refrained at other times.

Those who were older took seats with the rest of us standing at the rear. I tuned out most of what Brother Sherwood said and looked around to see if anyone was missing who might reasonably be expected to attend. Betty from the Downtown Diner must be preparing for her Saturday night crowd. Also missing was anyone employed on weekends – local small business owners and weekend workers. Most of the crowd were older or part of the professional members of our community – doctors, lawyers, teachers, and owners of larger businesses who could leave their stores in the hands of a manager. I saw Carol Jenkins, the owner of Carol’s Cut and Curl, the only hair salon in Connors station. She had a woman I did not recognize with her. There wasn’t anyone missing that should be here, nor did I see any strangers.

The soloist from the Methodist church in town sang Psalm 23, too loudly in my opinion. After the closing prayer, non-specifically sending Nancy to her unknown resting place, people milled around, reluctant to leave before the Parkers.

Let’s see. If I were at the memorial service for a young woman I killed, where would I be? Probably where nobody would notice me. And where was that? In the most unlikely place – the middle of everybody.

My eyes went to the center of the crowd in the viewing area. I looked for a man. Alone, well off, single, but not necessarily. Okay, I saw George Gallagher, the newspaper publisher. That made sense; he was here in a professional capacity. With him were my paper customers Doc Daniel and Professor Finch. They weren’t the curious types, but they both had a reason to be here, since they had known Nancy.

I moved close enough to hear their conversation.

“Why so much interest in this Parker woman, George?”

“Natural curiosity, Professor. My article in the paper probably contributed. And remember, small town life can get boring, especially for folks who watch all those crime stories on television. What do you think, Doc?”

“Well, I’m here in a semi-professional capacity. As the only doctor in town, I think it is only right I attend. Those poor parents!”  

Okay, they weren’t mentioning they knew Dawn Davis, which seemed a bit strange. Maybe they had their reasons. After all, Gallagher is the newspaper editor.

As I stood looking around for any other likely prospects, Mr. Ferguson emerged from his office with a red-eyed, weepy Mrs. Parker. Mr. Parker looked relieved of a huge burden. A smile even played around his mouth.
“Folks, can I have your attention, please. The Parkers have decided to go ahead and bury their dear departed daughter here in Connors Station.” The crowd murmured a low babble of surprise and anticipation. Mr. Ferguson continued, “In addition to the memorial service now, we will have the funeral at 2:00 p.m. tomorrow afternoon. The Parkers would like all of you to attend.”

The crowd slowly filed past a prosperous looking Mr. Ferguson standing with the Parkers. People received a renewed invitation to the funeral as they shook hands and offered condolences.

My dad didn’t look happy. I realized he would spend most of his Sunday afternoon escorting the body to the grave site and directing traffic after the end of the graveside services.

I was in line with everyone else and, when I reached the Parkers, Mrs. Parker grabbed my hand and said, “Courtney, thank you again for being here. Please sit with Mr. Parker and me tomorrow afternoon. I would like my daughter’s death finalized with your presence. It seems fitting.” I shivered, because the invitation sounded ominous.
 
 

Part 3: The Need to Know
Chapter 8
Permission to Pursue

No one saw my conspiratorial wink. I hoped Courtney would be satisfied to listen and let me ask any necessary questions. It soon became apparent that no questions were necessary; we just listened to Mrs. Parker monologue about Nancy.

She began recounting the same details we heard at the drugstore. It started to get more interesting when Brother Sherwood queried, “What I would like to know is more about your daughter’s spiritual countenance. Was she a believer? Did she participate in church activities – that sort of thing?”

Mrs. Parker surprised me when she turned towards her husband and said, “Frank, that’s more a question for you.”

“Nancy always went to church with us when she was little. Stayed active as a teen because her best friend was the preacher’s daughter. Her involvement pleased us, because Nancy was a follower with a history of making bad choices. I was dead set against an acting career for her, but my wife felt she had real talent.”

His wife picked up the account. “She was talented. And such a good girl growing up – always respectful and made good grades in school. If she had one problem, it was her attractiveness. She was not just pretty, but beautiful. Even as a little girl, the photographers always wanted to take extra pictures of her and display them to promote their business. She could have made commercials or been a child actor, but Frank would have none of that,” she said with a bitter tone.

“You know why. She already got way too much attention from the boys. I didn’t want to encourage her.”

“Well, that’s in the past. To my way of thinking, there is nothing wrong with being beautiful.”

“Yes, and I wouldn’t be surprised if her beauty led to her death.”

Mrs. Parker began weeping quietly. “Oh, you can say awful things sometimes!”

No one spoke until Brother Sherwood broke the silence, “Well, none of us know the workings of God. I am sure you will share many pleasant memories of your daughter in the future. I have enough information to present a eulogy. Did your daughter have any favorite verses or songs?

Mr. Parker answered. “Nancy loved Psalm 23. She liked the hymn for that one, too.”

“Very appropriate,” said Mr. Ferguson. “Well, I know you folks must be exhausted. Maybe we had best call it a night.” He turned to Mr. Parker. “If you agree, I think we should have the service at 2:00 in the afternoon.”

“That’s fine. Whatever you think is best,” he responded.

Mrs. Parker stopped her sniffling and everyone began to rise and prepare to leave. Franny Ferguson asked if anyone wanted casserole to take home. I suggested they would freeze nicely and it was so late, everyone needed to get going. None of us wanted her leftovers.

After I left, I began to feel guilty involving Courtney. The dinner obviously made her uncomfortable and, I realized, from the way she picked at that casserole, went home starving. Plus, I began realizing how fruitless our efforts were. No one seemed to want to solve this murder. Courtney’s father deferred to the county sheriff. The county sheriff did not have the manpower to conduct a proper investigation since ours was the least populated and poorest county in the state, so he hoped either state or federal investigators would step in.

Courtney would stretch out her bike ride home, so I decided to see Cal and apologize about involving his daughter. I stopped by my house and filled a quart bottle with the rest of my leftover soup. While the soup simmered in the kitchen, I briefly told Courtney’s dad everything about the dinner and made my apologies. Cal knew his daughter well enough to express the opinion she would pursue her inquiries with or without my assistance. The sound of Courtney coming in the front door interrupted our conversation. Cal told me to wait in the kitchen.

“Hi, Dad, I’m home. And I’m not late either. The street light just now came on.”

“You’re cutting it a bit close, aren’t you?”

“Well, I had a good reason this time. Dinner took forever! You know how adults can talk about nothing for hours.”

“You always have a good reason, honey. That’s not the point. I worry when you run late, especially now that we have a murderer in town. You’d think Connors Station would be safer than the big cities.”

“It is, Dad, really. One murder in fifteen years? I don’t call that a crime wave.”

“Sit down, Courtney. And tell me how the dinner went. Were you a comfort to Mrs. Parker?” I heard the sarcasm in Cal’s voice, but if Courtney recognized it, she did not let on.

Maybe because he was a single parent, God gave Cal an extra ability to understand exactly what was going on with his daughter. He opened the door for confession, but how much would Courtney tell him? I hoped the whole truth.

“Dad, Mrs. Wilson was there, too. We are working together to find out more about Nancy Parker and her reason for being in Connors Station.”

I took that as my cue to enter. Courtney did not seem surprised to see me, but gave me a conspiratorial grin. It took me only a moment to realize she had seen my car outside.

I repeated what I had expressed earlier for Courtney’s benefit. “I understand your concern Cal. I am terribly sorry I involved your daughter. I was way out of line.”

Courtney, bless her heart, did not to let me take all the blame.

“Mrs. Wilson is part of this whole thing. You should be thanking her. I could have been terribly traumatized, but she settled me down after I found the body. Actually, my visit to the Parkers might be called therapeutic.”

Cal laughed. “You’ve been watching too many television dramas.” Then he turned serious.

“Mrs. Wilson. I have no control over your life, but you may get encounter legal trouble if you involve yourself in this investigation. Your name was not even mentioned in the newspaper article. At this point few people know of your involvement and I would encourage you to let this go.” He deftly changed the subject. “Now, if you will get your soup, we can eat. Yes, Courtney, I know all about Franny Ferguson’s casseroles. And I have dessert – brownies with ice-cream.”

Courtney and her dad each ate a large bowl of soup and asked for more. They kept asking the brand and flavor of my soup and I kept changing the subject. They would be more likely to accept the answer after full and satisfied.

“Okay, Mrs. Wilson, what kind of soup was that?” Cal asked.

“Refrigerator soup.”

“What?” Cal and Courtney asked simultaneously.

“Refrigerator soup. You take the leftovers in the refrigerator and mix them together.”

“You have to be kidding. I don’t eat leftovers,” Cal said emphatically.

“Well, the trick is in combining things just right. I have only made one batch that tasted off. I mixed too many different things together and did not taste as I went because I got in a hurry. The important part is thinking about what you are adding and making sure it all fits together.”

“Almost like solving a mystery. You put facts and pieces of information together until it all fits,” Courtney observed.

“You are right. Like a puzzle. Each piece fits in just the right place. You add things and check out how it works. I guess puzzles, and cooking, and mysteries are all, in a way, the same.”

“Seems innocent enough when put that way,” Cal said. “Okay, you two; I can tell I am not able to stop you, Courtney. However, you must promise to work with Mrs. Wilson and you will keep me informed. And if anything gets scary – tastes off so to speak – you have to let me know right away.”

“Agreed,” I replied. Cal had surprised me by granting Courtney permission.

“Courtney?”

“Okay!” She responded with enthusiasm. Courtney asked to take her brownie and ice cream to her room, so she could use her computer. As we ate our dessert, Cal Connors and I made no further mention of recent events. We discussed the weather, minimal local gossip, and his daughter’s progress in school. Courtney, I learned, was an A+ student, frequently bored in school. His wife taught Courtney at home before her death the year Courtney entered kindergarten. An early reader, Courtney loved to communicate. She combined her love of history and language using social networks to maintain a select group of friends she collected from around the world. She wanted to know someone in every country on earth. Cal explained she was taking it slow, learning about each country before she moved on. She used missionaries for sources, a suggestion Cal made to guarantee a modicum of safety. I knew from the papers that she consistently won the spelling bee, which explained her adult vocabulary at times. Our Courtney was quite the young lady!

I knew Courtney left us alone purposely. Her implicit trust made me feel a pleasantly comforting responsibility for her.
 
 

Chapter 7
Dinner with Drama

“What are your plans for today, Courtney?” Dad asked.

“Thought I’d hang out downtown with everyone else. Ferguson’s Funeral home will receive Nancy’s body sometime today and the Parkers will be there to make arrangements for their daughter.”

“Courtney, why don’t you just stay away? Those poor people don’t need an audience for their grief.”

“Dad, there is definitely going to be an audience! You know Connors Station. I have to be there; Mrs. Parker wants me to.”

“And when did you see Mrs. Parker?”

“Mrs. Wilson and I were at the drug store and saw the Parkers. We expressed our condolences. She seemed so lonely and confused.”

“How well can you know someone you just met? Courtney, I wish you would just stay home and get the rest of your chores done. You made a good start on the garage, but you need to finish.”

“Not today, Dad, please! You’ll need to be downtown and you can keep an eye on me.”

“You still have to mow the lawn.”

“Have you forgotten I’m out of school? I can do that on Monday.” 

“Promise?”

“Yes, promise!”

The merchants were having a banner day, especially those in a four-block radius of Ferguson’s Funeral Home. People were curious, but no one wanted to be conspicuous, so they were shopping.

I still wanted to ask Brother Sherwood his opinion about my activities. He wasn’t hard to locate; he has presence. Although a small man, there is something about him that draws your eyes to him – a peacefulness and acceptance. Small children, old ladies, and puppy dogs love him. In fact, if someone doesn’t like him, you know right away to stay away from that person. He preaches at the biggest church in town, which is surprising. Although considered non-denominational, his conservative brand of Bible-based preaching eliminates all but the most faithful. Dad is not a church goer – just Christmas and Easter – but he said if one attends church, there isn’t any reason to go anywhere else because, “Brother Sherwood preaches you into heaven or into hell, the choice of a destination yours.”

It only took a few quick questions. Brother Sherwood said I needed to be careful misleading others. He said he knew my motives were good, but he was concerned I’d forget myself and use inappropriate means. He said he had confidence I’d make the right choices. See what I mean? You have to love a man like that.

I’d just finished with Brother Sherwood when the Parkers drove down the street. I felt a subtle change in the environment, as if a magnet attached to the front door of Ferguson’s Funeral Home drew all attention. I saw my dad pull up in his car and station himself outside. We were going to have a body – the coroner released it early this morning. I walked over to join my dad, a reasonable place to be and closer to Ferguson’s and the Parkers. I easily heard their conversation. I couldn’t believe it! Ferguson actually encouraged the Parkers to let him prepare the body for burial. He emphasized the impersonal aspects of big city funerals and the “caring consideration” he would give to the preparation of the body. And then, ever the businessman, he went one-step further and suggested a short memorial service!

“We feel a responsibility of sorts – her body was found here, although I’m sure no resident of Connors Station had anything to do with that. We just want you leaving without a negative impression of our little town.” He oozed sympathy!

The news of this latest development spread quickly through the townsfolk gathered in the immediate area. Boy, Ferguson knew his stuff – no one would miss that service. He even volunteered his hearse for transportation to the Parker’s hometown for burial. The only person who didn’t look happy was my dad. I realized he would miss his most of Saturday monitoring the proceedings and escorting the hearse out of town.

As the Parkers left, they passed by Dad and I and Mrs. Parker grabbed my hand and said, “Courtney, please come to the Ferguson’s tonight for dinner. For some reason, just your presence gives me comfort. I hadn’t realized when we met at the motel that you found Nancy’s body. Frank and I are going to discuss the services with Mr. Ferguson. Brother Sherwood is coming to find out information about Nancy, since he’s been kind enough to agree to present a eulogy. Mrs. Ferguson is going to fix a nice dinner for us all. I’m sure no one will mind if you join us, right Mr. Ferguson?”

I told the Parkers it was up to my dad. I wasn’t sure I liked the idea of staying; the Fergusons lived in a house attached to the funeral home. But Dad agreed, stating he felt relieved to know I’d be busy, especially when he realized Brother Sherwood would be there to keep an eye on me.

                                                       *****

I wasn’t surprised when Mrs. Wilson emerged from the kitchen carrying two pitchers, one of ice tea and one lemonade. She explained to me, “I volunteered to help Mrs. Ferguson serve. That way, she can join her dinner guests and we can take turns jumping up and down.”

“Here, Franny, take my seat next to your husband. I’ll sit by Courtney.” With that one sentence, she arranged the seating so that we were both across from the Parkers.

Brother Sherwood led a long prayer mentioning each person at the table. I’m sure Franny’s fame as the worst cook in town made him as hesitant about starting dinner as I was.

I’m a picky eater, at least, my dad says so. I’m a meat and potatoes kind of girl. I like to be able to identify the contents of my food. A casserole with cheese on top makes me shudder. Wouldn’t you know, the dinner consisted of not one, but three, casseroles? One had cheese on top, one crumbs, and one what looked to be corn chips. An unidentifiable green vegetable (spinach?) cooked to a mushy consistency and dotted with corn and either red pepper or pimiento served as the side dish. Thankfully, Franny served salad and hot rolls.

Mrs. Wilson and Mrs. Ferguson took plates and put servings of chosen casseroles on each. Mrs. Wilson stretched the cheese-topped casserole to its maximum extent with smaller portions. If you were unfortunate enough have Mrs. Ferguson serving you, you received a more generous portion. Mrs. Wilson tried to give me a portion with mostly cheese and reached in front of Mrs. Ferguson to scrape a layer of chips from what appeared to be a chili casserole. I watched the adults pick at the hot food and take heaps of salad and at least two of the hot rolls passed around the table. Those who opted for chili casserole were downing glasses of tea and the pitchers were soon empty.

Mrs. Wilson eyed the almost empty salad bowl and tea pitchers, snagging the salad bowl just before Mr. Parker emptied it. Noting his pained expression, she explained, “I think we need more salad and tea. Excuse me, please. I will be right back. Courtney, can you give me a hand?” I followed her to the kitchen.

Mrs. Wilson encouraged me to stay quiet and listen to the adults. She was afraid they might be hesitant to discuss some topics with an eleven-year-old present. I’m a talker and told her I wasn’t sure I could do it. “I’ll tell you what. If a person speaks directly to you, you can talk. And, if no one else talks to you, I will at least once every ten minutes or so. Deal?”

I reluctantly agreed and we returned to the table, Mrs. Wilson carrying the full salad bowl and more hot rolls. I carried two refilled pitchers of tea.

Mr. Ferguson dominated the conversation, giving a brief history of Connors Station, his adoring wife listening attentively. We weren’t learning a thing. Finally, Brother Sherwood interrupted. “Most of us are almost finished with our dinner. If you don’t mind, I have a few questions about your daughter." Mrs. Wilson winked at me.

 
 

Chapter 6
Like Father, Like Daughter

I guess what bothered me most was that Doc and the Professor knew Nancy, but both seemed to have taken her death impersonally. If someone you knew died, it seemed to me it should matter more. It was too much of a coincidence to have her die where people lived who had seen her in New York in an obscure play. Might they be involved in her death in some way?

Another question – had Doc done the postmortem? There was only one way to find out – check the records. To do so, I would have to invade my father’s files, a prospect that I did not like.

Dad made his weekly trips to the county seat each Friday morning to deliver any prisoners (a rare occurrence) to the county jail, and make the rounds of the county offices, including a quick visit with Constable Tate and the district attorney about any past or future cases. I seldom went with him, because I liked doing my weekly chores so we could both relax on the weekend. During school, I had to do them on Saturday morning, which I hated. I cleaned the whole house, did our laundry – one load white, one colored – and mowed the lawn. Dad would be back in town around twelve-thirty. Sometimes, if I finished my chores early, I rode my bike downtown and met him for lunch at the Downtown Diner. After lunch, Dad and I would buy our week’s groceries and then head home. Today, I decided to stay home. It was hot and I didn’t feel like riding downtown on my bike.

I had thought for a while that Dad had an interest in Betty, the redheaded waitress at the diner, but he said she was too “forward” – whatever that meant. Still, he said he liked her looks. She was pretty, I guess. She was of medium height and build. You could tell her hair was naturally red, because not every hair was the same color like Mrs. Glisson’s same-shade-all-over gray. Her eyes were her most striking feature, sparkling blue that twinkled when she smiled, which was often. I just couldn’t picture her as the mother type and we looked nothing alike. One of my requirements for a new mother was that we’d all match in family portraits. Not that I lost much time brooding about the lack of a mother. I had only been five when my mom died. I vaguely remember someone who always smelled good and spent all her time with me. If it hadn’t been for photographs and Doc’s memories of her, I would know almost nothing.

I didn’t know how she died, either; no one wanted to tell me. Doc convinced me to leave it alone for now, that he’d tell me when I was a little bit older. It was a mystery I wasn’t eager to solve. Dad wouldn’t talk at all about her or her death, and his attitude led me to believe there were some things associated with her death he didn’t even want to think about, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to know the circumstances.

I could clean the whole house in about an hour and there wasn’t much to laundry – just put it in and take it out. I did everything watching television, or I’d stick a movie in and stop it occasionally to vacuum, move the laundry, or get a snack.

Our house was very small, just perfect for the two of us. Dad had done a lot of remodeling. What used to be the formal dining room was my bedroom. The laundry room was between it and the garage. Dad had shortened the length of the garage, using the original storage space at the back as a long, narrow bathroom for me. I had decorated my room all by myself. Dad called it American junk; I said it was full of found treasures. My “bed” was a hammock made from the discarded sides of an old, wooden, deck lounge chair and some rope. Plank bookshelves held my collection of rocks and cacti. You can “forget” to water cactus and they don’t die! A terrarium was home for Leo the lizard. I found Leo outside last summer. Everyone at school had fluffy puppies and kitties to write about when we had composition assignments on “My Pet.” I had allergies, so I had Leo. He took very little attention – like my cactus.

The color scheme of my room was abstract red, black, and white, which went with the lack of frills, curtains, or carpet. Dust did a number on my allergies, so I had tile floors, with metal and plastic furniture. Sliding glass doors on the back wall looked out on the yard. Dad kept saying he wanted heavier stationary doors “for security reasons,” but there always seemed to be other projects going on. His latest was a backyard patio with a gas grill hooked to the propane tank, so all he had to do was light a match. I convinced him to get a guy from the gas company to do the connections for the grill. My dad is talented, but a bit over-confident when it comes to electricity or anything flammable.

Dad’s area is on the other end of the house, the kitchen and living room in the middle. The “family room” is his office. I never bother his stuff. I vacuum his room, but he cleans his own bathroom and keeps his area dusted. His room always seemed musty to me, smelling like my Dad, of leather, aftershave, muddy boots, and the coffee he always seems to be brewing in the corner machine.

His office held the information I sought. I wasn’t about to go into any of his drawers, but I know from experience that he always keeps current mail, magazines, and case files stacked neatly at the front of his massive oak desk. That desk is the one piece of furniture he saved from his parent’s home. It has “history” my dad likes to say. History is not my favorite subject in school, so I never ask him what he means by that statement. He might just mean it is older than he is. Anyway, I could glance at the stacks as I vacuumed his office and see if there was anything obvious.

There it was, the file labeled Nancy Parker. I wondered if Dad knew about “Dawn Davis.” We hadn’t talked in detail about the case. He thought I was just being a curious kid. I planned to ask him what was happening on the case that very day at dinner, and give him any information I had that he didn’t, although I knew he would be mad when he found out I was still snooping around.

All I wanted was the official cause of death, and to find out if Doc did the postmortem. Dad keeps a summary page at the beginning of each file, on the inside front cover. I just needed a moment to glance at that paper. I was very nervous, because I knew I was violating Dad’s trust. Maybe I should just leave. However, what if the information confirmed my suspicions that Doc and Professor Finch were somehow involved? No, I couldn’t do it. As I concluded the debate with myself, Dad spoke behind me.

“Courtney?”

“Oh, Daddy!” I ran to him and threw myself into his arms, crying uncontrollably and speaking incoherently. “I didn’t look, Daddy. Really I didn’t. I wanted to, but I just couldn’t.”

“Now, now, Courtney. Settle down, sweetie.” He scooped me up and carried me into the living room to his recliner, where he rocked me until I settled down enough to talk.

“I just want to know, Daddy. What happened to Nancy Parker? Who killed her? I have so many questions. I try to stop asking them, but they just keep running around in my head.”

“I understand, honey. I’m the same way. That’s why I like law enforcement. I’m asking important questions and solving people’s problems. Tell me the truth, Courtney. You’re still snooping around about this Nancy Parker thing, aren’t you?”

“Yes, Dad, I am. Please don’t stop me.”

“I doubt that I could, at this point. I’ll tell you what, run to my office and get that file off my desk. I’ll meet you in the kitchen. As soon as I get the roast I bought in the crock pot, we’ll have a confab about this case. Like they always say, ‘two heads are better than one’.”

I couldn’t believe he had enough confidence in me to share his information on the case. I realized there must not be much in the way of information in that file, but it still made me feel good.

It only took a few minutes to start the roast. While he peeled potatoes and carrots to drop in with the roast, I finished putting the canned goods in the pantry, then poured some ice tea for both of us from the pitcher in the frig.

“Okay, Courtney. Let’s see what we have. Not much that wasn’t in the newspaper, but if we go over it, maybe we’ll see something new. Talked to Constable Tate this morning and he doesn’t know any more than I do. Also, I talked to Mr. Parker, who was making a formal identification of his daughter’s body and retrieving her personal effects. She had nothing on her body except for her identification and some small bills and change in a pocket of her pants. No purse, which was surprising. Don’t women usually carry a purse?” 

He didn’t wait for an answer, and I realized he was talking more to himself than to me. “Let’s see, time of death approximately 2:00 a.m. give or take an hour. The temperature was low enough to retard the start of decomposition, although rigor mortis had begun to set in. Oh, Courtney, am I being too graphic?”

“No, Dad. It’s okay. Nothing different from what we see on Quincy, M.E., or any of those other programs. Go on, please.”

“She wasn’t killed in the park, but somewhere else. If we hadn’t had so many spectators, we probably could have taken tire imprints and have some idea about the vehicle used to transport her.”

“What really killed her? I know it was a blow, but do they know what from? Was it the blow that actually killed her?”

“One question at a time, Courtney, please.”

“Sorry, Dad. So much is going through my head.”

“I know, honey. Let’s just take it slow and one thing at a time.” He read from his file notes, “‘A sharp blow to the back of her head, either from a fall or a blunt instrument. Death probably instantaneous.’ Her father was glad to hear that. ‘No weapon at the scene.’”

“I would guess Miss Parker literally never knew what (or who) hit her,” I observed.

“It would appear that way. And no one seems to know why Miss Parker was in town, not even her parents, although her father seems to think it was about a man for some reason. We do know she lived in New York previously; the New York police are checking on their end to see if there was anything suspicious prior to her leaving the city. They haven’t found anything yet. And that’s about it.”

“Who did the post mortem?” There, the question I was dreading to ask was out.

“The county coroner with Doc Daniels assisting. Why?”

“Dad, both Doc and the Professor knew Miss Parker. Well, at least knew her as Dawn Davis, the actress. Doc actually went out with her in New York.”

“Doc? You’ve got to be kidding.”

“I can’t believe it either. He visited the Professor last summer. Remember how Professor Finch takes those classes each summer? Well, last summer it was on Modern Drama or something. Anyway, Doc went up for a visit and they both saw the play ‘Dawn Davis,’ our Miss Parker, was in.”

“How did you find all this out, young lady?”

“I asked. Professor Finch told me, and when I saw a poster for the play in Doc’s office, he also filled me in.”

“I seriously doubt either of those two is involved in her death. Still, Courtney, I don’t think it’s a good idea to be asking everyone about this. If you ask the wrong person, it could prove to be dangerous. What poster, Courtney?”

“Just a poster for her play. It was on the wall in his office. I’ve seen it there before, but never noticed what was on it until all this happened. She was very beautiful, wasn’t she Dad.”

“Yes, Courtney, she was, in a New Yorkish, plastic sort of way. Not my type, though.”

“You know, Dad, I still can’t understand how Doc could do the postmortem on someone he knew.”

“Well, doctors don’t look at human bodies the same way we do, honey. It’s like the way we can sit here and talk about this murder. Some folks would never be able to understand how we can talk about such things and even take an interest in them. But we separate the live Miss Parker from her death and the facts surrounding that death. Doc probably separates his memories of Dawn Davis from the actual body of Nancy Parker. He may even have the same professional curiosity about her death as we do – his from his medical perspective, and ours from the criminal. Do you understand, Courtney?”

“I guess so, Dad.” 

“Anything else you’re not telling me, Courtney?”

“No, Dad, that’s everything. Oh, Professor Finch did suggest Nancy might have come to town on the bus and didn’t know anyone from Connor’s Station, just got off here on a whim. I was going to check the bus schedule and see if Pop remembers her.”

“Why don’t you ask Mrs. Wilson to do that? Yes, I figure she’s involved, am I right?”

“Boy, you know me really well!”

“Well, some of your vocabulary when you talk about this case doesn’t sound like words you usually use. I’m going to go make notes in the file on what you just told me, and then e-mail Constable Tate with all this information to bring him up-to-date. But I don’t think I’ll disclose that my source is my twelve-year old daughter. Why don’t you ride over to Mrs. Wilson’s house and catch her up on what we’ve shared?”

“You sure know me well, Dad. I’ll be back in time to set the table for dinner. Oh, and Dad, here’s my notes just in case I left something out.” I handed him my marble composition book. The smile that he gave me as he reached out for it warmed me through and through.

 
 

Chapter 5
List Making


After lunch, I reminded Dad that I still needed to turn in my collections. He wanted me to stay home and watch movies with him, but Gallagher wanted to interview me for a follow-up story about how Miss Parker’s death has affected me.

“Are you sure you should go, honey? I mean, don’t you think you should just stay home and put this whole experience behind you?”

“Look, Dad. I need closure here. Talking to Gallagher about how I’m getting past the experience will help.” 

“Okay, okay! I can tell I’m not going to win this one,” he said with a laugh.

Papers weren’t delivered in town until Dad and I brainstormed job ideas for me. Connors Station had few opportunities for teenage employment. As soon as a teen became old enough to drive, they made the forty-minute trip to the suburbs of the nearest large city to work in fast food or a similar occupation.

I cleverly negotiated a contract (thanks to my dad) not dependent solely on collections, since collections would not provide a steady income. I turned in all the money to Mr. Gallagher, and he gave me back 50% monthly for my deliveries. I put half of that in my savings account, gave a quarter to God, and spent the rest on myself, usually on clothes or school supplies. I kept track of my time each week, earning $2.00 per hour plus tips. After my savings and church contributions, I usually had about twenty to twenty-five dollars a week, plenty for lunches and other incidental expenses.

My route was just the right size, not too large or too small, and I increased Gallagher’s circulation with customers like Doc, frequently too busy to remember to purchase a paper, and our absent-minded Professor Finch. And, of course, we had our share of semi-invalid shut-ins who loved to feed me sweets if I would only take a few minutes visiting with them occasionally.

Gallagher was on the phone when I arrived at the newspaper office, and he gestured for me to take a seat next to his desk. He ended his phone conversation and asked how I was doing. I assured him I felt fine and reminded him that since my dad served as sheriff, the seedier side of life did not scare me. His interview didn’t take long and I knew he was disappointed. Although he was fishing for information, I knew nothing different or new from what everyone else did. I guess he thought I might know something interesting from my dad. He asked me about Mrs. Wilson. I hadn’t been aware he even remembered her involvement. He explained he intentionally did not mention her name in the story. “A woman her age doesn’t need a lot of excitement.” I tried envisioning Mrs. Wilson thrown by anything and failed!

Although I did need to turn in my collections and talk to Mr. Gallagher, my real motivation was having a talk with Grace Glisson. Usually I avoided talking to Mrs. Glisson, because anything you said, no matter how innocently, might end up in one of her columns. I remembered her overhearing a complaint I made to Mr. Gallagher about how Mrs. Stevens declared I delivered torn up papers. I knew her dog considered the paper a large chew toy. That wouldn’t have rated column space, but I inadvertently mentioned that same little fuzz ball went for my ankles every time I tried to collect and that all delivery people avoided her house. He looked cute, but when he attached his pointy little teeth to your ankle, it hurt! I wore my dad’s old combat boots when I tried to collect after that. Another time I made the mistake of mentioning she did not like to pay, always with the excuse she hadn’t been to the bank lately, so I hadn’t collected any money for months. Well, next thing I know, Mrs. Steven’s “vicious” dog and hinted-at “money problems” appear in “Graces Gab,” Mrs. Glisson’s weekly column. Never one to be sneaky about her sources, she quoted me. I still delivered her paper, but she sent her payments directly to the paper, which meant no money for me. I learned to avoid Snuggles, her nasty little dog.

Now, to work into our conversation queries about New York. “Mrs. Glisson, I . . .

“Call me Grace, dear. Everyone does around here. I miss my husband more when people call me Mrs. Just Grace, please.”

I felt uncomfortable calling someone old enough to be my grandmother, Grace, but, if that was what she desired, I would comply, because I didn’t want anything getting in the way of my inquiries.

“Uh, Grace. Have you ever been to New York? I mean, I haven’t. But ever since Miss Parker’s death, I’ve been curious about what it’s like.” I intentionally didn’t call it a murder, because that wasn’t my emphasis in this conversation.

“Oh, yes, Courtney. Years ago, my William took me to see a Broadway play – the 1964 musical Funny Girl with Barbra Streisand. I’ll never forget how wonderful she was.”

“Miss Parker was in an off-Broadway play. What’s the difference between off-Broadway and Broadway?”

“Well, Courtney, the off-Broadway plays are hoping to be hits, and the on-Broadway plays are hits.”

“So, Miss Parker wasn’t really a star?”

“Not yet. Although she certainly was beautiful enough to be one, wasn’t she? Why Ruth Ellen Hayes said the other day that the dress Miss Parker had on was an exact copy of . . . “

I didn’t want to be impolite, but once Mrs. Glisson started talking, you could spend all day listening to what this one said and that one didn’t. So, I interrupted.

“Yes, I’m sure. So, you haven’t been to New York for years?”

“No, Courtney. However, I keep in touch with an old college friend who lives there. Every year we say we are going to get together. Connors Station holds no attraction for a visitor, and I’m scared to venture to New York alone at my age. Maybe this year. And, of course, I do ask everyone who has been there to give me information for my column.”

Aha! Now for the good stuff. “Oh, so we do have folks from Connors Station who go to New York?”

“Why, of course, dear. The doctor used to go at Christmas with his wife before she died. He still goes every year for a few days, though not the weeklong trip they used to take together. Professor Finch goes in the summer for research and to further his education. I think he took a drama course at New York University last summer. And we have the wives of our more prominent citizens who like to shop the New York stores; Mrs. Ferguson, Mayor Monroe’s wife, and Helen Young. Come to think of it, quite a few folks visit the Big Apple. Why, even the county sheriff went to law-enforcement seminar last summer. I remember because his wife, Jean, wanted to go with him, but he refused. Boy, was she mad! I remember how she called and wanted me to run something nasty in my column about his trip; I can’t recall exactly what, but, of course, I refused. Did I tell you what Ruth Ellen Hayes told me the other day?”

“Oh, I’m so sorry Mrs. Glisson, I mean Grace, but I have to go. I’ll see you next Friday when I come to see Mr. Gallagher. You have a nice week now. Bye!”

I hurried out the door as fast as possible, and there was Mrs. Wilson. “What are you doing here?” I asked.

She seemed hesitant to reply. “I know your father warned us about “investigating,” but my curiosity won’t be satisfied until I at least know why that girl was here. I’m going to see what Grace Glisson knows about visitors to New York.”

I couldn’t believe it. She took my idea. “Uh, I don’t think you are going to find out anything exciting. I just got through talking to her.”

“You’re kidding! Well, what did you find out?”

Well, she did feed me cookies and cinnamon rolls, so I guess it would be unfair to leave her out. “Look, I’m on the way to Paterson’s Drugs to buy a composition book to jot down what I learned. Why don’t you come with me?”

“I still want to see Grace. I’ll only be a few minutes, then I’ll join you at either Paterson’s or the Downtown Diner, where I’ll treat you to a shake if you will share your information.”

                                                          *****

Mrs. Wilson met me at Paterson’s Drugs. Shortly after she got there, I spotted the Parkers. Mrs. Parker saw me immediately and I introduced her to Mrs. Wilson. We both expressed our condolences. As she had the other evening, she began talking about Nancy, her happy childhood, popular teen years, and her involvement in the high school drama club that led to her interest in acting. Mr. Parker stood uncomfortably by, shifting from one foot to another.

“Courtney, will you be around tomorrow? Nancy’s body is coming from the county seat. I feel a connection to you for some reason and I just don’t know how . . .,” Mrs. Parker said with a sob.

“Mrs. Parker, I am not sure what I can do . . .”

“Just be there and . . .”

Her husband interrupted to remind his wife of their purpose.

“Irene, let’s get that prescription to help you sleep and get back to the motel. You need to get rested before tomorrow.” 

She smiled bravely and drifted towards the pharmacy.

“Sorry, ladies. When she starts talking about Nancy, there is no stopping her. This has been terribly hard on her. Don’t know what she’ll be like when we get home. I’m thinking of going away for a while, Florida perhaps. You know, away from all her memories.” He left to join his wife. I looked at Mrs. Wilson and saw she was feeling as down as I, but I knew this encounter would only encourage both of us in our quest for the truth. These poor people needed closure!

I explained to Mrs. Wilson that I liked composition books because you could not tear out a page. Doing so ruined the whole book as pages began falling out. I did not want to dispose of something I thought wasn’t important that later might be useful and using the composition book helped make sure I kept all my notes. Mrs. Wilson liked my reasoning and we both bought one. Hers was black and mine was blue.

As we sipped our root beer floats, we wrote down everything that happened since we found the body in the park. Mrs. Wilson helped recall small details. I told her about my deliveries to Doc Daniel and Professor Finch and the fact that they both saw Dawn Davis in New York. She was surprised! I also told her about the poster in Doc’s office and the ringing of the bell by someone, possibly to interrupt our conversation.

As I pulled the scrap of paper I used in Doc’s office from my pocket and added my jottings about my visit to Professor Finch to the information in my book, she asked, “I wonder what Doc’s impression of the Parkers was.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, Mrs. Parker was getting a prescription filled and the only place she could have obtained one in town is from Doc.”

“I hadn’t thought of that.”

She paused and thought a moment before replying, “Also, I wonder what their conversation was like. Did he mention he knew their daughter and did they see his poster?”

“Good questions!”

“Well, speculation won’t do any good. Let’s get back to what we know,” I suggested.

“Well, I asked Grace Glisson to see if she could show me the crime scene photos taken for the paper. She said she would get them together and then call me to come in and see them.”

“Can I go with you?”

“Uh, I’ll tell you what. If anything looks interesting, I’ll ask Grace to make a copy for me and share that with you. I’m not sure the pictures will be of any use, but it’s worth a try.”

We wrote down the names of everyone else who went to New York, starting with the most likely suspects, and ending with the county sheriff, the least likely in both our opinions.

After we consumed our shakes, we talked and laughed for another half hour. She didn’t seem old. She told jokes, and I found out she was a list maker like me. She said she would check her list at home and see if we had left anything out of our composition books. If so, she would give me a call.

We started to divide the people on our list to investigate, and then realized people knew about my involvement, but not hers. She would just seem like another curious citizen. Plus, she wasn’t the daughter of the local sheriff. She would also see what she could learn from our local gossip, Ruth Ellen Hayes. If either of us found anything important, we’d be in contact. Otherwise, we wouldn’t get together until tomorrow afternoon.
 
 

Part 2: Finders Keepers

Chapter 4
Confessions

“Hi Dad, I’m home.”

“Do you want a late breakfast?”

“No thanks. I stopped by Mrs. Wilson’s and she fed me cinnamon rolls.”

“Sit down, Courtney, and tell me, young lady, just how did your collections go?”

The tone in Dad’s voice said he knew the collections were an excuse. Maybe because he is a single parent, God gave him an extra ability to understand exactly what was going on with me. Dad opened the door for confession. How much did I want to tell him? I was already partially grounded and if he discovered I visited the Parkers at their motel, I’d be lucky to get out for church this Sunday.

“Dad, I have a problem. I didn’t deliver three of my papers yesterday, and now one of my customers won’t get a paper.”

“I don’t understand. Are you missing one?”

“Yes . . .  I took it to the motel north of town.”

“Okay, Courtney, we can keep playing this cat and mouse game, or you can tell me what you’ve been up to. Obviously, you have not just been out delivering and collecting. How dumb do you think I am? Your collections are usually an excuse for freedom. I just don’t want them becoming an excuse for license. You do understand the difference, don’t you, Courtney?”

“Yes, Dad, you’ve told me hundreds of times. ‘Freedom involves responsibility; license involves finding excuses for doing something you shouldn’t.’ I have a reason and I will accept the responsibility. I just had to meet the Parkers and find out why their daughter was in town. They are staying at Morton’s Motel. After all, I found the body. Doesn’t that give me some the responsibility for finding the truth?”

“So, you went to the motel to meet the Parkers. And just where did that idea come from? No, don’t tell me. Did your Mrs. Wilson have anything to do with this?”

“Well, we both feel kind of responsible, and we feel a sort of connection, I guess, having found the body and all.”

“I don’t want you involved in this business, but since you obviously want to tell me what you found out, go ahead. I doubt two grief-stricken parents are dangerous.”

“Her mother thinks her darling daughter was perfect, but her father says she was boy crazy and thinks some guy brought or met her here and killed her. What do you think, Dad?”

“Heaven only knows. I’m planning on bowing out of this one and letting the county boys take care of it. If someone transported her body here from out of state, the feds will want to get involved. I’m just a small-town cop without the experience to investigate murder.”

“Oh, come on Dad. Most of solving a mystery is asking good questions and looking for reasonable answers.”

“I’m staying out of this one and I want you to. This isn’t someone’s lost dog, or the deed to property. This is murder.”

“But Dad . . .”

“No more Courtney!”

Dad closed the subject with that look of his that said. “Enough!”

What was I going to do? I shouldn’t go against my dad’s wishes. What if I just investigated Miss Parker’s life and not her death? I’d have to ask Brother Sherwood, my preacher, if that would be okay. The deceit I’d practiced at the motel concerned me as well. I hadn’t lied outright. I remembered a sermon about how misleading someone was the same as lying. Boy, this Christian business can be difficult when you deal with solving a mystery.

I still needed to deliver the rest of my papers to the customer I’d missed. I reminded my dad and he suggested I use our already-read paper for one of my customers. I decided to give it to Mrs. Stevens. I wasn’t even sure she read the paper, seeing as how she knew most of the news from her gossipy friends before the paper even came out.

Dad said I had to go straight to the newspaper office to turn in my collections after my deliveries, and that he would call frequently and keep a timeline of my activities to make sure I didn’t make any changes in the plan.

I pitched a paper at Mrs. Stephen’s porch, glad her little dog, Snuggles, wasn’t outside ready to nip my ankles.

Professor Finch’s mailbox overflowed, as usual. I wondered what would happen if I didn’t periodically take the mail to his door. Would the postal service stop delivering if the box got so full it couldn’t close? I parked my bike and leafed quickly through the envelopes scanning for a New York postmark as I walked up his steps – nothing.

I knew from experience that I needed to wait a good while after ringing the bell. Professor Finch always looked like he had just gotten out of bed, even in the classroom. As far as I knew, he had never been an actual college professor. Early in his career at Wells County High, a surly student called him “Professor,” with an insulting sneer, and the name stuck. He looked like one; tall, angular, with bushy eyebrows and hair that always needed combing. He smoked a pipe and wore either tweed or corduroy sports coats. He wasn’t bad looking, exactly, just nondescript – the kind of man you wouldn’t look at twice in a crowd. He wore thick glasses that always looked dirty. In fact, everything about him looked messy. He never asked me in, which was okay, but I saw piles of books on every available piece of furniture and everything looked dank and dusty, including the professor.

“Ah, Courtney. Collecting again so soon?”

“Actually Professor, you didn’t get your paper yesterday because of the rain. Here it is, and your mail, too.”

“I didn’t pay you last time, did I? Haven’t been to the bank for a while. No need, what with on-line banking and all.” He opened the paper and glanced at the headline.

“Terrible tragedy. Beautiful girl. She looks lovely in this picture.”

“I guess so. At least better than she did lying on that jogging path.”

“Do they know anything about her death? I mean, with your father being the sheriff and all, maybe . . .” He seemed even more confused than usual, if that was possible.

“No one knows anything, at least not that I know of. My dad says they will release more information about cause of death after they inform her parents. I guess they are trying to find out why she visited Connors Station. I heard my dad say they are not even sure how she got here.”

“Well, she might have taken a bus. This may not have been her destination. Maybe she was just running away and ended up here.”

I said, “I hadn’t thought of that,” and I hadn’t. I’d have to check bus schedules. We didn’t have a bus station; the bus simply stopped at Pop’s, a store and grill just east of town. Come to think of it, close to northeast end of the park. I’d have to check and see if a bus coming from New York stopped in town one of the nights before we found her body.

“. . . the last time. Courtney, you should pay attention when I am talking. That’s one sign of a good student.”

“I’m sorry, Professor Finch. I was lost in thought. Have you ever been to New York?”

“That’s what I was just telling you. I saw Nancy Parker in an off-Broadway play last summer while visiting New York. Of course, in the play she wasn’t Nancy Parker, but ‘Dawn Davis’– her stage name. She had a role in a ridiculously predictable family drama I saw and reviewed for a class I took in Modern Drama. She was the only good thing about the play; truly lovely and with a natural talent. I do believe she might have gone far. Too bad, she had such a premature death. Courtney, it’s my opinion that Connors Station holds no answers. She came from New York. Those big cities are filled with crime and intrigue.”

“Well, my dad said Constable Tate has contacted the police in New York City. We should all know something soon.”

“I hope so. Here, Courtney.” He reached into his pocket, pulled out a well-worn wallet and extended a twenty towards me.

“That’s too much, Professor. You only owe eight dollars.”

“Nonsense! What would I do if you did not give me my mail and ring the bell when you bring my paper? It takes extra effort to get off your bike and walk to my door. I do appreciate it, Courtney. I am not as obtuse as I look. Better run along now, and be careful. If you ask the wrong person the right questions, you might have more attention and trouble than you care to.”

Professor Finch’s ominous warning still rang in my mind as I entered the foyer of Doctor Daniel’s “office.” After his wife died, he gave up his office downtown and moved his files and a few pieces of vital equipment to his home. He used what had previously been the formal dining room as his office, and remodeled most of the downstairs to serve as examining rooms and supply areas. Doc lived upstairs. He only kept the patients that were too old or too poor to go to the county seat for treatment. He didn’t have a receptionist, just a nurse. You went into the waiting room and that’s what you did – wait. It never took long until the nurse called out “next.” A bell on the desk was for an emergency or if you were just impatient. I’d never seen anyone ring it. Not that I was sick often, but Doc had a good ear for listening to problems. I loved my dad, but there were things he just wouldn’t talk about, like his childhood and his marriage to my Mom. Doc knew them both and became my source of information, usually positive. He may have embellished the truth to make me feel better. Maybe my parents did not have such a wonderfully romantic courtship and marriage. To be quite honest, I didn’t care. My desire for information meant I didn’t bother to check for veracity.

There were no patients in the waiting room. I had only been sitting for a few minutes – long enough to jot down notes on my conversation with Professor Finch on a scrap of paper I found in my pocket – when Doc himself stuck his head through the door.

“Courtney, come on back to my study. What brings you here? Your dad just called and wanted to know if I had seen you yet.”

“Actually, I brought your paper. I was so wet and cold yesterday morning, and then time just seemed to fly by. I’m sorry it’s a day late.”

“Thursday?” He glanced at the calendar. “Oh, yes, so it is. I saw the paper in town yesterday. Hadn’t thought about not getting one from you.”

As I took a seat, directly across from me hung a poster for Dawn Davis staring in The Memory Chest.

“Ah, you see my poster. Yes, I knew our Miss Parker – though not by that name. I went to New York City last summer. Used to go in the winter at Christmas, but Professor Finch took a class, and I decided to go for the weekend. He had free tickets to that play – part of his class at New York University in Performance Studies. We met our Miss Parker, Dawn Davis to me, after the play. I guess she was flattered by my attentions, and we went out. Quite a shock to see her here in Connors Station. Cannot, for the life of me, figure out what she was doing here, can you?”

His question threw me off completely. I was already going through mental gymnastics after seeing the poster. This was Doc, my friend and mentor. I could not picture his laughing and talking in a New York nightclub with Miss Parker, a girl half his age. When looked at objectively, I had to admit Doc was good looking for a man his age. He still had a full head of hair, most of it silver gray, but he wore it well. He was of average height and weight and looked fit, probably because he knew the importance of staying healthy. Still, he was way too old for Nancy.

 “I know – there’s no fool like an old fool. I admit I was smitten. Fortunately, I only stayed in the city for that one night. Not that I think she had any real interest in me.”

I recovered, but still had no idea what to say. “Not at all, Doc. You’re a good listener and a good friend. You have many good qualities, and I’m sure Nancy Parker saw them just as clearly as I do.”

“That’s sweet, Courtney, but, nevertheless, you must admit, I’ve thrown you a little by my ‘confession’.”

The last word he spoke did throw me. What was he confessing to me? My confusion must have shown as I mumbled, “I’ve got to go, Doc. I don’t want to take your valuable time. Besides, your bell in the waiting room is ringing.”  It surprised both of us and gave an even better excuse for my leaving.

“I’ll walk out with you, Courtney. Come back again soon.”

No one sat in the waiting room and the front door closing indicated someone just made a hasty retreat. We both moved to the door, but whoever rang the bell had disappeared. I didn’t say anything to Doc – there was nothing to say. I went on my way, and when I looked back from the corner, he stood on the porch watching after me. I couldn’t see his face, but his body looked somehow ominous. I hated to think Doc had anything to do with Miss Parker’s death.

My phone rang and I knew it was Dad. “Courtney, where are you?”

“I’m just leaving Doc’s.”

“You sound exhausted. Come on home. I’ll start some soup for lunch and make toasted cheese sandwiches.

Relief almost brought me to tears. I wanted to tell Dad about my visits with the Professor and Doc. I just wasn’t sure how I felt about what I discovered.

 
 

Chapter 3
The Motel Meeting

-1-
A Plan with a Purpose

I decided to call Courtney’s dad and find out how she was doing. I almost hung up after the fifth ring, when Courtney answered. She told me her dad “freaked out” when they returned home, and grounded her.
“Why?” I asked.

“Dad was very upset about my finding a body, more than I was, and mad because I didn’t have my cell phone. I hate taking it while I’m bike riding. He calls to check on me and I have to stop my bike. That can be a real pain, believe me.” 

“He grounded you because you left your cell phone at home?” Sounded like over-reaction to me.

“He just wants to know where I am and what I am doing for a while. I agreed, because he seemed very upset. I think the cell phone thing was just an excuse.” 

I understood his fatherly concern, but still felt his reaction was excessive.

“Dad agreed I can deliver papers and do collections. He wants to see my receipts. I think he suspects that I’ve used my collections as an excuse for excessive bike riding. Of course, I have to take my cell phone.”

“Courtney, are you doing okay? I had a bad nightmare last night. What about you?”

“I was so exhausted! If I dreamed, I don’t remember. Besides, the whole thing still doesn’t seem real.”

“I know what you mean. Has your dad told you anything about her or what caused her death?”

“No, he won’t. Says I can wait until the paper comes out like everybody else. It’s not fair!” she whined.

“Well, he probably doesn’t want to upset you. I know from experience that reading something is different from seeing or hearing it. Distance comes from reading about an event. Your dad probably wants to put distance between what you saw and what actually happened.” “I guess that makes sense. Still, I want to find out! Don’t you?”

“I do, I admit, but we can’t do anything about that, can we.”

“Well, I don’t know about you, but I plan to do some investigating.”

“Courtney, what would your dad say?”

“That it’s none of my business.”

“And he would be right!”

“But it is. Don’t you see? We found that body. It’s ours, in a way.” 

“Oh, Courtney, please. I do not want a body,” I said with a chuckle.

She laughed. “Not actually have it.”

“Well, what do propose we do?”

“We? Thought you didn’t want it?” She laughed again.

“Look,” I said, “what about this. I am sure you can wait one more day. I will call you tomorrow morning after you deliver my paper. That will make your dad pleased you have not pursued getting information, and we will both have the latest details. Right now, all we know is that we have a body. There might be a totally logical explanation for its presence in the park.”

“Sure! We see dead bodies all around every day!”

“That’s not what I mean and you know it. What if she died in an accident?”

“Maybe the body fell out of a plane. I saw that on TV once.”

“Quit being silly! No major airlines have routes over Connors Station.”

“I’m teasing, Mrs. Wilson. Sorry.”

“Got you! Knew you were teasing,” I laughed.

Courtney joined my laughter. “Okay, we’ll wait. But call me as soon as you read the paper. Let me give you my cell number.”

“Just a second. Okay, I have pencil and paper.”

“It’s easy. You don’t even have to dial the area code. 598-8888.”

“That is easy! How did you get that number? Sounds like a business number.”

“Dad wanted a number I wouldn’t forget. Helps that he is the sheriff and has connections.”

“I guess it does. Okay, Courtney. So, we will get together tomorrow and talk then.” She hung up without a response.

I have a cell phone, but I only use it in my car or on trips, in case I have an emergency. I wanted Courtney to be able to reach me, but I did not know my own number; I don’t call myself. I hit settings, found my number, and jotted it on a piece of paper. Next time I saw Courtney, I’d make sure to give her my number, and until this was over, I’d keep my phone with me just in case.

When I awoke Wednesday morning, it was raining. My plastic wrapped paper lay in the carport by my side door. How thoughtful of Courtney, I noted, as I retrieved it and then put on the coffee and poured a glass of orange juice.

The article about our discovery made Courtney a local celebrity. Her picture on the front page, along with several pictures of the crime scene, accompanied an article providing a remarkable amount of information. George Gallagher, the editor, must have been up most of the night doing research to make the most of this unusual and interesting occurrence. The fact our corpse was mildly famous helped. Fingerprinting led to her identification as Dawn Davis, a missing off-Broadway actress with a promising career. Beautiful, in a plastic, big-city sort of way, she was not the type of person you would see on the main street of Connors Station.

I read that at twenty-one years old, Nancy Parker won the Misawa Miss Corn Contest, left her Missouri hometown, and headed for the Big Apple to make her mark and become famous. Apparently, the Providence of God led to her success, not her talent or her ambition. She managed to become an understudy in an off-Broadway play by an unknown author. The play became a surprising hit. When a freak accident hospitalized the star, one Jayleen Reynolds, Dawn Davis (Miss Parker’s stage name) rode her predecessor’s success to the top.

The same article mentioned her parents would arrive in town tomorrow and pick up her body on Friday, when the medical examiner would officially release it. Preliminary cause of death, a blow to the back of the head, the coroner ruled “suspicious.” Further information would not be available until the coroner finished the official autopsy.

Courtney, I am sure, disliked the attention her discovery of the body elicited. I understood Courtney’s desire to be indistinguishable and ignored. Anonymity can be useful, although, in this case, it was a problem for me. The paper made no mention of my presence, which made me mad. Gallagher, the editor, must think a twelve-year-old finding a corpse more newsworthy than a widow making such a discovery. It was as if I had not even been present. Courtney was not alone; I had been there, also.

When I get angry, I want to do something. Suddenly, I understood Courtney’s curiosity. I wanted to find out more about this woman. Courtney was out of school for the summer and I had plenty of time on my hands.

Since we lacked a morgue in town, it would have made logical sense to keep the remains at the county facility until the family made plans for transportation and internment. However, Connors Station can be a bit provincial at times. It was our body and we wanted to be the ones to return it to the family.

The big city newspapers and TV stations picked up the story. They referred to it as a murder and emphasized crime can even occur in a small southern town. Ferguson’s competition came from the mortician located at the county seat, as well as those in the closest big city. He knew the value of free advertising. He made sure the media included his offer of making the body “presentable for the family” and retaining it “in the loving, caring environment” of his facility until the next of kin arrived.

I wanted to contact the family before anyone else. I knew what the papers reported, but I wanted to know all about Dawn Davis. More information could provide the reason why she came to Conner’s Station and perhaps even the cause of her death.

It seemed a bit inappropriate for me to ask questions, but I had a plan using Courtney’s twelve-year-old curiosity and her paper route as an excellent cover. Although Cal’s grounding of Courtney seriously confused my plans and I worried about traumatizing Courtney further, I needed her. I called her cell phone; she didn’t answer. I decided to call her home phone and using the excuse of checking on his daughter if Cal answered. Just as my call went to the answering machine, Courtney answered breathlessly, “Hello?”

“Courtney, you didn’t answer your cell.”

“I only use it when I am away from the house. My social life isn’t active enough that I must remain available all the time. I have it primarily to keep my dad happy. Why did you call?”

“I read the article and think we need to talk. Can you come over?”

“I’m done with most my route. I still have three more papers to deliver to my closest customers.” Perfect, I thought. “I was so wet and windy that I came home to dry off. Riding a bike is fun, but not when it is raining! I’m not sure I want to go back out.”

“I’ve been thinking about our conversation yesterday and I have a plan. I like to make cookies on a rainy day – the heat from the oven takes the chill out of the air. I am going to make chocolate chip cookies and I could use someone to help me eat them. They will be fresh out of the oven.” What child refuses cookies, especially warm chocolate chip.

“And Courtney, don’t deliver those papers until after you see me, okay?”

She hung up without a response, very Courtney-like, I thought. I put cookie dough together as quickly as possible and popped the cookies in the oven just as I heard a hesitant knock on the door. She was more subdued than she had been in the park or during yesterday's conversation. However, it only took a few minutes, and the smell of hot cookies, to get her relaxed and talking.

“Wow, these cookies are awesome! I love chocolate chip, especially warm with milk.”

“I’m happy you’re pleased.

“Courtney, I think I know how you feel, because I share your sense of responsibility concerning Miss Parker. I know your dad is a good sheriff, but in a way, it is our body, yours and mine. We saw it first. I wonder if you would like to join me in doing a little investigating.”

“Are you kidding? Sure. But I’m grounded already and Dad would kill me!” She grabbed for a hot cookie. “I’m only here now because he’s out early patrolling. He seems to think he might find another body or something. Don’t worry, I left a note and told him to call me here if he comes home and finds me gone.”

“Careful, Hon, you’ll burn your mouth,” I warned as I poured her an ice-cold glass of milk. “Aren’t you still curious about why Nancy Parker visited Connors Station and if someone killed her?’

“Sure,” she mumbled as she took a gulp of milk to cool her cookie-filled mouth.

“Look, your dad is at work and doesn’t know you aren’t through delivering papers. We have a name and know she has a family, but what are they like? Are they rich, poor, attractive?”

“It would be good to see them first.” Courtney took the bait as easily her fourth cookie.

I poured her a second glass of milk before saying, “My guess is they will be at Morton’s Motel.”

“You don’t think they’ll stay at The Lodge?” Courtney said her mouth half-filled with cookie.

“I don’t think so. The Lodge caters mostly to relatives of citizens, businesspersons, and the few tourists who pass through on their way to somewhere else. All you need to do is look for a Missouri license plate.”

“What if I see more than one?”

“Look, we’re pretty far from the Interstate. I’m sure there won’t be more than one Missouri plate.” I responded.

“But how do I make contact?” She was going to do it.

“I thought you could use your three papers. You can knock on their door and offer them a sample copy.”

“I have to be home pretty soon. I left my dad a note telling him I’d be here, but what if he calls and I’m not available?”

“Do you have your cell phone?”

“Yes.”

“If he calls, I’ll call you right away and you can head on home.”

“Okay, I’ll do it, but I need energy for the ride.” Courtney grabbed up three cookies and finished her glass of milk.

“And Courtney, here is my phone number for my cell. I want you to be able to reach me easily.”

She glanced at the paper, closed her eyes for a moment, then wadded the paper and threw it at the trashcan, making a perfect pitch. I realized she had memorized my number. Oh, for the memory of a twelve-year-old. I had already forgotten the number!

While I waited for Courtney to return, I cleaned up the kitchen. I started the dishwasher and the phone rang. Cal seemed a bit miffed when I told him Courtney was no longer with me. I called her on her cell phone and told her to get home right away, hoping she could come up with a reasonable excuse for leaving my house.

“I have things to tell you, but can’t talk now. Dad is driving to the county seat to talk to the county coroner early tomorrow. I’ll come by and tell you everything then.” Again, she did not wait for a response, but hung up immediately.

I spent the rest of the day cleaning the house furiously to help time pass quickly. I cleaned out my refrigerator, using any palatable leftovers for a big pot of “refrigerator soup.” It smelled delicious – veggies, rice, a chunk of pot roast chopped into small pieces, the last of a bottle of ketchup and fresh parsley. After a dinner of a cup of soup, a small salad, and a piece of toasted, slightly-stale bread with butter and garlic, I got ready for bed.

The rain stopped during the day, but with evening, it started once again. Realizing sleep would come reluctantly; I picked up a new library book. After a few minutes, I gave up, got out a notebook, and started a list of details from Monday morning in the park. When I finished, I played mindless games on my computer nibbling on the rest of the cookies and sipping milk until exhausted. I slept soundly, and if I dreamed, no memories remained in the morning.

-2-
The Parents

Courtney arrived at 6:30 Thursday morning, breathless from her bike ride. I fixed cinnamon rolls, hoping I had enough milk for both of us.

“I spotted the Missouri license plate right away. The parking places have motel room numbers and the Parkers are in 24, the end room on the second floor. I wanted to make this look legit, so I knocked first on 22. I knew no one was in that room, because no car sat in the assigned parking space. I knocked on 23. Below, an old pickup with a Confederate flag on the front bumper sat in the numbered space. A crusty old coot answered the door, growled he was a day sleeper, and told me to disappear. I moved away from his door as he slammed it. Room 24 answered immediately, probably due to the noise produced by the guy in 23!”

Courtney found herself suddenly face-to-face with grief. Mrs. Parker mumbled a tentative “Yes?” through a tear-soaked tissue. Her reddened eyes made Courtney’s guilt kick in immediately. “I almost mumbled an apology and left,” she confessed.

Had I gone too far? Should I have sent Courtney to intrude on this woman’s solitary sorrow?

"Mr. Parker broke the silence,” Courtney continued. His anger appeared as intense as his wife’s sorrow. His gruff, “What do you want?” brought Courtney back to the reason for her visit.

“I spoke real fast. ‘Sorry to bother you folks. I work for the local newspaper and would like to offer you a free paper since you are out-of-town visitors. Here’s your complimentary copy.’ I held out the paper, rolled up so they would not immediately see the front page with the lead story about the death of their daughter. I thought they would read it later, but Mrs. Parker unfolded the paper, and started crying again as she turned to her husband and pointed out the story, ‘Frank, look, on the front page, all about Nancy’s murder.’

"I blurted, ‘Oh, I’m so sorry!’

“Mrs. Parker stopped crying and said, ‘Oh, my dear, how could you have known? She was lovely, wasn’t she? Frank, here’s that picture of Nancy as Miss Corn. Isn’t she beautiful?’” 

“Her husband did not respond. I couldn’t tell if it was grief over his daughter or anger at me. It was totally silent, and I stood there wishing I could just disappear, but I remembered you and for some reason did not want to disappoint you, so I stumbled on. ‘Yes, she was. Everyone in town is terribly distressed over this tragedy. We haven’t had a murder in Connors Station within my lifetime, although I’m only twelve years old.’ I called it a murder, because Mrs. Parker did. Looking back, I wonder why they assumed her death was not accidental or anything like that.”

“And then Mrs. Parker began talking and I didn’t think she would ever stop. ‘So young! It seems like just yesterday Nancy was your age. I just can’t believe she’s gone. Come in dear – I need a distraction.’ As I stepped in, her husband closed the door. She seemed out of it at first, but when she began talking, it was if a floodgate opened. It is surprising what I learned in only fifteen minutes.” 

Mrs. Parker’s obviously slanted account portrayed their “princess” who did no wrong. Her daughter was intelligent, beautiful, and talented. If she lived, it was obvious her mother thought Nancy would have been a rich, famous actress.

Courtney told me she escaped the Parkers when I called her with a fervent explanation that her dad expected her home. The television was blaring from the from the room next door when she left. The silent Mr. Parker offered to walk her down to her bike. Remembering the antagonism of the day sleeper, Courtney jumped at his offer.

Mr. Parker finally spoke to her when they left the room, “You’ll have to take what Irene says with a grain of salt. Nancy did no wrong in her eyes. She was my daughter, but she wasn’t perfect. Boys, that was her problem; boys and then men. I don’t know why. She liked their approval – their attention. If you ask me, she was in Connors Station because of a man. They find out who brought her here, they’ll know who killed her. Sorry for going on this way. I can only listen to that woman so long. Everything Nancy did was always perfect. She is so loving and so blind!” Leaving Courtney at her bike, he went back upstairs shaking his head and mumbling.

Courtney certainly found out a good deal. After she left, this time with cinnamon rolls, intended for her father, wrapped in foil (though I was sure he would never taste them), I thought over what I learned the past hour. If Nancy’s father was right, a man brought her to Connors Station and then killed her. But who and why? My mind began spinning with possible scenarios explaining Nancy Parker's presence in Connors Station and her death.

 
 
I have decided to post one chapter of my book every few days this month. I need to do a final edit and would love your comments/corrections, suggestions, etc. You can find chapter one on a previous post on my blog page. Enjoy!

Part 1: The Body

Chapter 1
A Talent for Trouble

We did not ask to find a body, but we did ask to be involved in all that followed that discovery. Some people have a talent for dancing, painting, or a sport. Courtney Connor and I have talent for finding trouble!

I am Marjorie Wilson and Courtney delivers my paper twice weekly, on Saturday and Wednesday. My little cottage sits across from the town park. I have a sun room in front where I drink my morning coffee and watch the birds. I am an early riser and frequently see Courtney on her bike when she delivers my paper and on other mornings when she rides the jogging path that terminates across from my house. I have thought of reaching out to her. Her dad, Sheriff Calvin Connor, is a single father and the child possibly needs mothering. She always looks unkempt – not dirty, mind you, just not particularly put together. Perhaps she feels her appearance is of secondary importance.

Connors Station nestles in the hills of North Carolina’s Piedmont. A twelve-year-old must love riding up and down hills. However, I am sure her father prohibits riding on the local roads with their blind curves and traffic consisting of log trucks and any number of old, often uninspected vehicles. The city forbids bike riding on the jogging path, but our bike routes must be boring when compared to the jogging path with its curves following the creek through the city park. I’m sure Courtney’s twelve-year-old imagination made the jogging path equivalent to traversing the High Sierras and totally irresistible.

Courtney startled me when she ran through my front door on Monday morning. Although nothing is scary about a twelve-year-old girl, she had a terrifying expression. She did not even speak to me. She ran for the phone on my kitchen wall, grabbed it up, dialed, and started her conversation.

“Dad, there’s a dead woman on the jogging path in the park.”

I imagined the other side of the conversation. A skeptical, “Sure, Courtney,” with a tone of voice meaning, “Okay, tell me another funny one.”

“No, seriously Dad, there’s a body on the jogging path in the park. Please, just come get me!” She started crying and the tears got his attention. “I’m in Mrs. Wilson’s kitchen across the street from the south entrance. . . Yes, I’ll stay with her until you get here.”

Courtney wanted to keep an eye on the body until her dad arrived. We moved to my front room, but could not see anything from the window.

“I guess because my dad’s the local sheriff, seeing the body didn’t freak me out right away. Anyway, it doesn’t look like a body, but like a rag doll or an abandoned scare crow.”

I knew Courtney was telling the truth about what she thought she saw, but she was only a child. Although she kept insisting we move to some place closer where we could see the corpse, I felt hesitant. I had no desire to see a dead body, but when she started out the door, I accompanied her. Courtney certainly did not need to go alone, and what if she was mistaken about what she saw. Her nervousness made her rattle on, which I did not discourage, because the more she talked, the calmer she became.

“I’ve fallen off my bike so many times my knees look like an etch-a-sketch that never gets reset. Not that I care. I’m not vain about my appearance. I usually seem invisible, which has its advantages. I don’t often get called on in class for example.”

Since she always dressed in a haphazard fashion, with no concern about color or style, it never occurred to me she might design her appearance to create a calculated impression. Courtney’s mousy brown hair, medium complexion, and hazel eyes made her nondescript now. However, I believed she would be an all-American beauty later.

“Dad says I’m a late bloomer and eventually I’ll be a knock-out like my mother. Thank you, but I can wait!” 

I began feeling a real kinship with this girl and her echoing my thoughts only increased it.

We crossed the street and entered the park. The trees at the entrance concealed the body from view. An eerie quite pervaded. No birds sang and the trees were still with not even the rustle of leaves or usual chattering of squirrels. Courtney and I were both silent. We stopped about twenty feet from the body.

I told Courtney to wait while I checked things out. My motivation for approaching the individual was a hope of life. Maybe she had simply suffered an injury of some sort. However, as Courtney had noted, there was something off about the position of the body.

A woman with long, brown tresses lay on her side, curled as if sleeping with her back towards us. I rounded the corpse and saw her face, her sightless eyes directed upward, her expression one of surprise. Obviously young, in her early to mid-twenties, and beautiful, even in death, I did not recognize her and I did not think she lived in Connors Station.

Dressed in tailored, navy blue pants and a loose, white shirt with large gold buttons, her clothes looked expensive. The cuffed pants had a permanent crease. I noted her shiny, red, flat-heeled, leather shoes, but saw no purse.

I returned to stand with Courtney and she asked in a rush of words, “Well, tell me. Is it really a body? A woman, right? Can you tell what happened? Do we know who it is?”

“A young woman, Courtney. I do not recognize her, so I don’t believe she is from around here. Definitely dead.”

“Any blood? A weapon?”

Uncomfortable with her desire for details, I said, “Let’s just wait for your dad. Speculation at this point is useless. I’m sure he will share with you whatever he thinks best.”

As we waited, Courtney rattled on, nervously twirling a loose strand of hair that escaped her ponytail.

“I hope this doesn’t spoil riding on the jogging path. I’m supposed to stay out of the park, but I just can’t resist that path. I’ve made a deal with myself and my Dad, inspired by threats to take my bike away if I’m caught again, to get off and walk my bike as soon as I see the first jogger. There are certain times and days of the week when I can make it all the way to the end of the path without seeing anyone, common sense times, like Sunday morning at 6:00 a.m. Think of a time when you would never jog; that’s when I’m riding that path.” That explained her early morning rides. “I ride my bike everywhere. Not just to school or downtown on Saturday, or for my paper route – everywhere. I’ve always been in or on some sort of individual transportation. The earliest pictures of me after I learned to walk were on my tricycle, or in my Barbie sports car. I challenge anyone to find any pictures — except school pictures, of course — which don’t show me on wheels. I lost my training wheels on my bike sooner than anyone in the neighborhood and from then on, Connors Station became my world. At first my Dad tried to stop my roaming, but he soon gave up.”

She stopped to catch her breath, and I took the opportunity to speak. “If you hadn’t been on your bike . . ."

“I know! I might have freaked out completely.” Courtney has a real talent for interrupting! “I wasn’t going to ride today, but Mondays are not jogging days. I’m not naturally a morning person. I know you are, because I see your kitchen light on almost every time I ride through the park.”

“What prompted your paper route?”

“Although my dad’s job as sheriff doesn’t pay a lot, we aren’t so poor I need a job to help us survive or anything. My dad is just always too busy at the wrong times, so I invariably must go to school without lunch money – a real hassle. Last year I looked around for a job, but nothing was available for a twelve-year-old. The paper route gives me a perfect excuse for being on my bike all over town. For the last year or so, I have either been delivering or collecting. If my dad ever figured out how many hours I actually spend collecting, he would stop my roaming immediately!”

“You are an excellent bike rider. And fast!” She let me talk without interrupting, a sign she was calming down. We chatted about her school and her plans for the summer. She told me about her last summer at camp and her plans to attend again this year. Just as we began to run out of things to talk about, Courtney’s dad parked and walked over to us. After asking if Courtney was okay, and after I assured him she seemed fine, he walked to the body.

The park entrance’s metal arch stated (rather unnecessarily) “City Park,” between two ivy covered, brick columns. As Cal Connor walked under the arch, a breeze rustled the leaves and birds began to chirp and sing, as if on cue. He pulled on rubber gloves and stooped down on the other side of the corpse. I could not see what he was doing, but after a few moments, he removed the gloves, pulled out his cell phone, and made a call. I assumed he called the local mortician who served as our unofficial coroner. Death in Connors Station primarily visits the old or results from natural causes. Having the mortician, Mr. Ferguson, check the body and then transport it to the funeral home made sense in most cases. It wasn’t long until Mr. Ferguson pulled in and assumed responsibility for the body. Sheriff Conner secured an area about twenty-five feet square with yellow crime tape. It surprised me how quickly a crowd of the curious began to gather. Grace Glisson from the local paper arrived, and immediately used her cell phone, doubtlessly getting the editor or a photographer to come out. Everyone present appeared to be using his or her cell phone.

Sheriff Connor ended his call as he approached us. Courtney immediately switched the direction of her attention, and her conversation. “Dad, what took so long? Seems like we’ve been waiting forever.”

“Well, I’m here now. So, honey, what happened?” Sheriff Connor nodded to me and I felt included in their conversational circle.

“I was riding the path really fast, if you were to clock it about thirty-five miles per hour. I’ve almost wiped out a couple of times on the blind curve just after the stone footbridge. When I manage to take that curve without slowing down, I experience an almost spiritual sense of success. I mentally float off into a place where anything is possible – I’m a skydiver, a pilot of my own jet, a world-famous explorer. You know the feeling; the impossible becomes probable.” Courtney’s dad wisely listened without interrupting while his daughter told the story her way.

“Well, I took the curve perfectly. When the straightaway came, I closed my eyes, lifted my hands from the handlebars, and let out a whoop. Something, I don’t know what, caused a sudden shiver down my spine, and I grabbed the handle bars, opened my eyes, and there it lay — the body. I drifted a little to the right, missed it, and kept going right out of the park and into Mrs. Wilson’s house.”

Courtney looked upset again. I picked up her story line.

“She ran right through my door and straight to the phone.”

“I know she’s an early riser because I see her kitchen light on or she is in her sun room having breakfast. She didn’t say anything when I went straight to the phone and called you.”

Courtney’s dad needed to take care of all the business that goes with a death, so we walked over and I sat with Courtney in her dad’s car. I suggested we either wait in my house, or I could take her home Cal agreed, but Courtney declared she was not going anywhere without him.

“Courtney, I can’t leave until the county coroner gets here and completes his preliminary examination. Ferguson isn’t comfortable dealing with a corpse resulting from a suspicious death. It may be a while.”

“I don’t care, Dad. I’m staying until you leave!”

“Okay, but you have to wait in my car.”

Courtney and I sat silently in the squad car watching the crowd continue to grow. Mr. Gallagher, the editor of the local newspaper The Connor’s Station Crier and Courtney’s employer, made sure his staff photographer took more pictures than he would ever use. Gallagher left Courtney and me alone after a few questions. Courtney promised to stop by the newspaper office for an interview the next day. Our small-town paper comes out twice a week, on Wednesday and Saturday. The story of a body found in City Park would boost the circulation of the smaller Wednesday paper considerably. Gallagher wanted a follow up story for the Saturday paper. He did not address any questions to me, nor did he ask me for a follow-up interview, even though I offered to provide one.

Looking back, it was surprising the whole thing did not upset both of us more. For me, the whole situation seemed like an extension of all those old crime programs I watch on TV — Quincy ME, Matlock, Magnum PI. The experience did not seem real.

Chapter 2
Before and After the Fact

After we left the park, Sheriff Cal Connor interviewed both of us his station. He directed his questions to me. A subdued Courtney remained quiet. I provided enough information he did not need a formal statement from Courtney, which, I realized, he hoped would be the case. I did not add any significant information to what he learned at the park.

I didn’t arrive home until after lunchtime. I had no desire to eat and I spent the early afternoon reading, and then took a short nap. Since I skipped lunch, I woke up famished. I did not want anything heavy, so I settled on an omelet. I spent the evening watching game shows on TV and turned in early.

I fell asleep quickly and dreamed of the city park with everything dead. The birds, squirrels, and trees stood starkly against a gray sky with a black sun in the shape of an eye. I furiously painted everything with bright colors on minuscule brushes so they would come back to life. I hurried even faster when I heard the ominous rumble of thunder. If the paint did not dry before the rain started, all would remain dead, and it would be my fault. I awoke feeling depressed. After my coffee finished perking, I grabbed a cinnamon roll, hoping the sugar would sweeten my mood, and headed to my back porch. The bright colors of my flowers and the chirping of the birds dispelled my gloom.

I sat thinking about yesterday’s events. We do not have murders in Connors Station – drunk drivers, the occasional burglary, domestic disturbances, accidental deaths, but not murders. Cal’s job consists of making sure teenagers do not drive recklessly, solving minor domestic disputes, occasional drunk vagrants, and monitoring the two-cell jail, usually empty. Our city jail, the fanciful creation of Sheriff Connor’s glory-seeking predecessor who thought he needed an office and a jail, has only two cells and a small reception area in the front. Connors Station served as just a stepping-stone for that man to a big city detective job after only a year serving our town. The questionable security of the edifice, a converted storefront at the western end of main street, means the county jurisdiction handles major criminals, habitual shoplifters. Connor ended up with the sheriff’s job for the simple reason that nobody else wanted it. In addition, he had the name. Yes, Calvin Connor is related to the Connors after which our town is named.

Perhaps a brief history of Connors Station is called for. Connors Station did not always bear that name. Originally called Wells Mill, the official name change occurred in the sixties, although many of the older residents called it Connors Station for years prior. The town began as the location of a mill owned by the Wells family. It grew slowly, with occupations catering to area farmers who brought their grain for grinding. A blacksmith arrived to fix farm tools. Next, a traveling salesman married a local girl and started a small general store. When the Connors arrived, they operated a stagecoach stop for those traveling west, and many people began calling the settlement Connor’s Station. Through the years, the apostrophe disappeared.

The railroad era began and Mr. Wells used his money and connections to assure a route close to his mill. After that, the town grew rapidly, with a church, school (held in the church building), and guest house for travelers owned by the Wells family. The original guest house and restaurant evolved into a small hotel. When it burned down in the late 1800s, the lot remained empty until the son of the owners moved back to town in the 1920s. He built the Lodge. Travel brochures call it Pine Tree Lodge, but locals simply refer to it as “The Lodge,” not to be confused with the Elk or Moose Lodges, and other service organization meeting places. A massive, wood-fronted, cement block structure (fireproof), it began as a rambling one-story structure offering rooms by the day, week, or month. The current owner, the great-grandson of the re-builder, turned the Lodge into a restaurant and bar, and added two-story motel rooms extending from the rear.

The make-up of Connors Station reflects the immigrant history of our country. Initially, those of European descent settled the Carolina farmland. Next came a few Indian families seeking education for their children or working for farmers or townspeople. After the Civil War, free blacks arrived. After WWI, an extended Japanese family who assisted the Allies some unknown way appeared. The third generation of our Japanese family opened a restaurant across the street from the lodge in the 1970s. The two businesses did not look at each other as competitors. Lovers of Asian food were different from the steak and potato crowd and they recommended each others services as the occasion presented itself. After WWII, several German families chose the farming area surrounding Connors Station. We also had a Jewish family who settled here about the same time, opening a small grocery store.

The town continued to grow as history and culture dictated, until it reached its current population of 15,000. Everyone attends school together and I do not believe there has ever been any racial discrimination. Citizens interact socially as daily lives dictate. Everyone goes downtown on Saturday, to the Christmas Parade, and the Summer in the Park celebration. We call each other by name, first or last, depending on age and relationship.

Most of the houses in Connors Station are old. The Mills family began a hosiery mill in the 1930s. Our house, originally a factory home, no longer looks like a cookie-cutter house. My late husband, Henry, and I purchased our cottage from a young couple who did an excellent renovation. They hated leaving their “first home,” but with the arrival of a second child, needed more living space and wanted a larger yard. It has real shutters, which Henry put in because of the threat of tornadoes. He experienced one as a child in Oklahoma and never forgot it. Predictions of bad storms triggered his ritual of shutter closing that would not save the house but made Henry feel safer. I never close them now. Still, something about having genuine shutters just seems right.

My house sits directly across from the park and the front faces north. Therefore, both the front and back yards are ideal for gardening. In the front yard, a series of stone and brick walkways wind through my flowers. I also have two fruit trees, an apple and a plum. Along the sidewalk, a white picket fence supports my peonies and keeps the neighborhood children from running through the yard or riding their bikes too close to the flowers. Henry tried planting roses, hoping the thorns would discourage trespassers, but that just guaranteed thorn-scratched knees and elbows.

The backyard, where I sat having my coffee, matches the front in size and shape. A small brick patio, the first improvement we made on the property ourselves, contained a small, wrought iron, table and two chairs. Not only was it a favorite place I the morning, but I often grilled fresh vegetables and either fish or chicken on my small, gas grill. Pots of colorful seasonal flowers attracted butterflies, and hummingbirds hovered around the liquid filled feeders. A small patch of lawn provided room for a birdbath. I frequently think of my late husband when I look down at the bricks we laid together in a herringbone pattern.

My husband, Henry, served as a local attorney before his death from an unexpected heart attack ten years ago. Henry always took a walk in the morning. A very early riser, he would leave the house quietly in case I wanted to sleep late. Most mornings, I would get up immediately after he left and start our coffee and breakfast. If the weather was nice, we would eat on the front porch. I enjoyed listening to the birds as the sun came through the trees lining the street.

One morning, Henry did not arrive home as expected. I waited awhile and decided to meet him as he was returning. Henry always went right for his walk, so I walked left at the end of our walk. It was a beautiful morning and I thought Henry had taken his time or stopped to talk with a neighbor.

I didn’t see him at first as he was in the shade under a tree leaning against the trunk, looking up through the leaves. My first response was, “Henry, what in the world! You’re late for breakfast.”

Henry did not respond, so walked up the path to the nearest house. I blurted out that I thought something was wrong with my husband. Apparently, I collapsed, as to this day I have no recollection of the time from when I first spoke to the woman who answered the door to waking up in my bed later with Doctor Daniels hovering over me. I assured him I was fine, but he gave me something to help me sleep.

We pre-planned for our mutual demise, so there was not a great deal to take care of prior to the funeral. I felt as if I was in a fog for a few weeks, but my daily routine provided a sense of comfort and normalcy. I had to admit, I was glad Henry went the way he did. He looked so peaceful and happy sitting under the tree.

The sign we bought at a craft store the first year of our marriage declaring “The Wilson Family” still hangs by the front door, as it did throughout all our forty-year marriage. We had no children; never knew why or cared. We were still “The Wilson Family.”  Our world revolved around each other and our friends in Connors Station.

Unfortunately, I found out that an attractive, fifty-something widow did not make for a foursome in cards, table games, or even Sunday after church dinners. To fill my days, I used our savings and Henry’s insurance to open a card and gift shop, a dream of mine. Eight years after opening, a small mall opened at the county seat with a Hallmark Store. The competition did me in. I have no regrets. Those were eight fulfilling years and my business helped me stay busy instead of clinging to loneliness.

I finished my breakfast and realized my annuals needed dead heading. I glanced around my garden with, I admit, a bit of prideful pleasure. I have Carolina jasmine, red cardinal vine, and hollyhocks against the five-foot chain-link fence on the left side, backing my rose and annual flowerbed. On the right fence, I have one grape vine, raspberries, and two blueberry bushes. My vegetable garden is at the back of the yard. Peas twine up the chain link bean trellis in early spring, replaced by green beans in summer. I grow only what I enjoy eating. I have asparagus, a variety of lettuces, spinach, beets (because I like the leaves in salads), and, of course, tomatoes. Henry use to plant an excessive number of tomatoes. I plant just four – plenty for freshly sliced and I can freeze enough to last me until the next harvest. One eggplant, two banana peppers (one hot and one sweet), and a green poblano pepper for stuffing complete my garden.

My thoughts turned to Calvin and Courtney Connor. As a widower with a child, Calvin Connor needs job flexibility and plenty of time to raise Courtney and the job of sheriff works well for him. On-call twenty-four-seven, he spends less than six hours a day on duty.

Cal left town after high school and met his wife, Catherine, in college. A big-city girl, she tried to adjust to small town life, but missed the bustling energy of a metropolis. I knew Cathy from the card shop I used to own in town. She sent cards to her relatives on birthdays and holidays. In our mutual loneliness, we became friends. I gave her fresh vegetables and some of my favorite recipes, and she gave me a listening ear and hugs.

Courtney was about three when Cathy died. Rumors of what happened to her circled for a few years, until everyone got tired of speculating. Some said she ran off with another man and others said she was dead. There were those who even mentioned Cal as a suspect at first, but nothing ever came of the investigation. Cathy’s death remained a mystery. I knew her well enough to know whatever happened, she had not gone willingly. Courtney arrived at 6:30 Thursday morning, breathless from her bike ride. I fixed cinnamon rolls, hoping I had enough milk for both of us.

“I spotted the Missouri license plate right away. The parking places have motel room numbers and the Parkers are in 24, the end room on the second floor. I wanted to make this look legit, so I knocked first on 22. I knew no one was in that room, because no car sat in the assigned parking space. I knocked on 23. Below, an old pickup with a Confederate flag on the front bumper sat in the numbered space. A crusty old coot answered the door, growled he was a day sleeper, and told me to disappear. I moved away from his door as he slammed it. Room 24 answered immediately, probably due to the noise produced by the guy in 23!”

Courtney found herself suddenly face-to-face with grief. Mrs. Parker mumbled a tentative “Yes?” through a tear-soaked tissue. Her reddened eyes made Courtney’s guilt kick in immediately. “I almost mumbled an apology and left,” she confessed.

Had I gone too far? Should I have sent Courtney to intrude on this woman’s solitary sorrow?

“Mr. Parker broke the silence,” Courtney continued. His anger appeared as intense as his wife’s sorrow. His gruff, “What do you want?” brought Courtney back to the reason for her visit.

I spoke real fast. ‘Sorry to bother you folks. I work for the local newspaper and would like to offer you a free paper since you are out-of-town visitors. Here’s your complimentary copy.’ I held out the paper, rolled up so they would not immediately see the front page with the lead story about the death of their daughter. I thought they would read it later, but Mrs. Parker unfolded the paper, and started crying again as she turned to her husband and pointed out the story, ‘Frank, look, on the front page, all about Nancy’s murder.’    

“I blurted, ‘Oh, I’m so sorry!’

“Mrs. Parker stopped crying and said, ‘Oh, my dear, how could you have known? She was lovely, wasn’t she? Frank, here’s that picture of Nancy as Miss Corn. Isn’t she beautiful?’” 

“Her husband did not respond. I couldn’t tell if it was grief over his daughter or anger at me. It was totally silent, and I stood there wishing I could just disappear, but I remembered you and for some reason did not want to disappoint you, so I stumbled on. ‘Yes, she was. Everyone in town is terribly distressed over this tragedy. We haven’t had a murder in Connors Station within my lifetime, although I’m only twelve years old.’ I called it a murder, because Mrs. Parker did. Looking back, I wonder why they assumed her death was not accidental or anything like that.”

“And then Mrs. Parker began talking and I didn’t think she would ever stop. ‘So young! It seems like just yesterday Nancy was your age. I just can’t believe she’s gone. Come in dear – I need a distraction.’ As I stepped in, her husband closed the door. She seemed out of it at first, but when she began talking, it was if a floodgate opened. It is surprising what I learned in only fifteen minutes.” 

Mrs. Parker’s obviously slanted account portrayed their “princess” who did no wrong. Her daughter was intelligent, beautiful, and talented. If she lived, it was obvious her mother thought Nancy would have been a rich, famous actress.

Courtney told me she escaped the Parkers when I called her with a fervent explanation that her dad expected her home. The television was blaring from the from the room next door when she left. The silent Mr. Parker offered to walk her down to her bike. Remembering the antagonism of the day sleeper, Courtney jumped at his offer.

Mr. Parker finally spoke to her when they left the room, “You’ll have to take what Irene says with a grain of salt. Nancy did no wrong in her eyes. She was my daughter, but she wasn’t perfect. Boys, that was her problem; boys and then men. I don’t know why. She liked their approval – their attention. If you ask me, she was in Connors Station because of a man. They find out who brought her here, they’ll know who killed her. Sorry for going on this way. I can only listen to that woman so long. Everything Nancy did was always perfect. She is so loving and so blind!” Leaving Courtney at her bike, he went back upstairs shaking his head and mumbling.

Courtney certainly found out a good deal. After she left, this time with cinnamon rolls, intended for her father, wrapped in foil (though I was sure he would never taste them), I thought over what I learned the past hour. If Nancy’s father was right, a man brought her to Connors Station and then killed her. But who and why? My mind began spinning with possible scenarios explaining Nancy Parker's presence in Connors Station and her death.
 

Susan Box Mann, Writer