Sheriff Delton Ross shifted in his chair. Through his office window, he watched late-August heat waves rise from the department parking lot. Halfheartedly, the sixty-year-old Ross listened to the improbable tale coming from the mouth of Ennis Archer.
She was a local woman, a sister to Dave Fairmont, the man who had recently run off and abandoned his wife of the last thirty years. The whole town of Willow Grove had heard the story.
Dave had left a letter for Lila upon his departure, and she’d run around showing the entire town its contents.
Case closed to his mind; had been for months, except for Ennis.
“I’m telling you Delt, my brother wouldn’t take off like that. Not without getting in touch with one of us. The ones he really loved. Somehow, sometime.”
That was a fact, Ross thought. The Fairmonts had always been more of a clan than a family. They were a tough bunch to get inside. Still, it was odd that the man hadn’t been heard from.
“And then there’s Edgar,” Ennis continued with a firm nod.
“Edgar? Edgar who?” Ross couldn’t believe Lila had taken up with another man already. She hadn’t seemed like the type. Besides, he couldn’t think of a single man in Hartford County named Edgar. Where’d this fellow come from?
“He’s the neighbor’s dog,” Ennis added, as though she had read Ross’ thoughts. “That poor thing sits and howls over that rose garden of Lila’s, day in and day out. Lila’s even built a fence to keep the beast away from her land. But the dog just sits on the other side of that fence and howls, anyway.”Ennis’s hard, gray-green eyes gave the sheriff a look that said, “There, now. What do you think of that?”
Ross blinked before leaning forward in his chair. Ennis now had his full attention. “What kind of dog is it?” Ross asked, taking care to keep his deep voice neutral. An avid sportsman, Ross knew his dogs. This could mean something, but he sure didn’t want to get this woman any more riled up than she already was.
“Oh, heavens,” Ennis answered. “How on earth would I know?”
Ross bit back a sigh and slumped back in his seat. “Which neighbor of hers is it that has this dog?”
“Ed Bracken. He lives in the house just behind Lila’s.” Ennis studied the sheriff a moment, then asked, “You gonna go out there? You gonna follow this up?”
“Yeah, Ennis. I’ll go have a talk with Ed. See what’s going on. But I’m not promising a thing. You saw that letter your brother left, right?”
“Yeah, but I didn’t believe a word of it.”
* * *
Twenty minutes later, Ross stood in front of Ed Bracken’s open front door.
Bracken blinked at the sight of the sheriff. “So has Lila filed a complaint against my Edgar?” he asked, Wearing a worried frown, the old man swung the screen door open to admit the sheriff into the small, Beaumont City house.
“What I’ve heard is that your dog is giving your neighbor, Lila, fits,” Ross said, following his comment up with a chuckle.
Bracken shook his head. “Sometimes, I don’t know what’s got into that dog.”
Just then, as if on cue, Edgar made his appearance. The white, tan, and black dog sniffed the sheriff’s pant legs, then stepped back and emitted a single woof.
“Good lookin’ hound,” Ross offered.
“Yup, not bad. Got him from a breeder over in Hendrickson County. Good price, too. It was of a bit of a drive, but I’d say he was worth it.”
Bracken led the sheriff into the tiny living room and waved a hand at the sagging couch. Ross sat, holding his hat between his knees. The sheriff sat in the path of a current of air being pushed his way by an old box fan, but the breeze didn’t help much. The room was still hot and muggy.
“What’s goin’ on then?” Bracken asked. He eased himself into a small armchair; the dog settled himself beside his master. “Is Lila still all that riled up that she called you now?”
“Nope. I haven’t heard one word from her.”
“Then how did you come onto this little problem of ours?”
“If you don’t mind I’d just as soon not say. But I would like to know when all of this started.”
The old man closed his eyes and thought a bit. “Best I can remember it was when Lila put in that rose bed of hers. Before that, she and Edgar were thick as thieves. Had me a little concerned, that did. Bassets are loyal dogs. I didn’t want my dog’s loyalties confused, you know?”
Ross nodded. It reminded him of his ongoing tug of war with his wife over their Brittany spaniel. Damned dog adored Tabitha for feeding him so well. Talk about dividing the dog’s loyalties. Ross gave himself in internal shake and pulled himself back to the task at hand.
“So Edgar is still at it, then? The howling?”
“Yeah, he would be if I let him. I walk him on a leash now, and I keep him a good distance away from Lila’s place. Still, if I’m careless, and he gets the chance, he’s right back at the fence, and letting everyone in the whole neighborhood know he’s upset.”
* * *
A few minutes later, Ross was out the door of Bracken’s house and headed down the sidewalk. The way the sheriff saw it, he had two moves. He could go to the State’s Attorney, hat in hand, with this tale of a howling basset and push for a search warrant to dig up the rose bed. Or he could go talk to the woman.
He’d had a lot of luck over the years with his little chats. He kinda liked the latter option. Best he could recall, Lila had always been a quiet person — meek and mouse-like. A sort of go-along-to-get-along type of woman. She seemed an unlikely candidate for a killer.
But the more he thought about what he’d heard, the less he liked it. And after talking with Bracken, Lila now had sorta jumped from one side of the balance sheet to the other. Things just didn’t add up.
Ross pulled a deep breath. Only three more years before retirement, he reminded himself as he trod through the sodden air. Then, he’d take to the woods and fields and local ponds and leave the crazies for somebody else to sort out.
Removing his hat from his head, Ross mounted the three wooden stairs to Lila Fairmont’s front porch. Two more strides and he was at her door. He reached out and gave the door five, firm raps.
It wasn’t long before the inside door swung open, and Lila Fairmont stood before him, looking bedraggled and a more than a little guilty. “Yes?” she asked tentatively.
Her free hand fluttered at her throat. She was a tiny woman. Not much meat on her bones.
“I’d like to come in for a minute, if you don’t mind.” Ross took a step forward.
Lila nodded and unlatched the screen door to give him admittance. Then she waved her hand at the couch. “Make yourself at home.”
Ross stood in the center of the room, his hat in his hand. “That sister-in-law of yours came by my office today. She said nobody’s heard hide nor hair of Dave since he took off. She thinks that’s odd. I think so, too. Any chance I could see that letter of his again?”
“It’s in the bedroom. I’ll fetch it and be right back.”
“I’ll wait out in the kitchen, Lila, if you don’t mind.”
“Of course not.”
Like shooting fish in a barrel, Ross thought.
The woman headed toward a hallway which led to the east side of the house. The sheriff made his way through the living and dining rooms to the kitchen. He walked to the back window along the far wall and studied the backyard stretched out before him.
At the sound of Lila’s footsteps, he turned. “That’s some rose garden you’ve got there. My wife has been after me for years to put in one of those. I’d like a closer look at it. How about we go outside? That okay with you?”
Lila looked down at the letter in her hands, then glanced back up at the sheriff.
“It’s okay,” he said. “You can bring the letter with you’”
The woman’s shoulders sagged, but she followed the sheriff outdoors.
Once on the porch, Ross pulled his hat from under his arm, and lifted his right arm high into the air.. His move was the agreed signal for Ed Bracken to turn Edgar loose.
Together, Ross and Lila crossed the lawn to the flower bed. but Edgar reached it long before they could. The plaintive howl of the basset hound broke the quiet of the hot, oppressive, August afternoon.
“I wonder what’s setting that dog off like that?” Ross asked.
“It was my husband’s arrogance,” Lila mumbled, her gaze fastened on the ground. “He was going to leave me. But before he left, he expected me to fix his dinner. So I did.”
“You poisoned him, then?” She nodded.
“I’m gonna have to take you in, Lila.”
“I know.” She stretched forth her slender wrists. “I’d always wanted children,” she said pulling her gaze up to the sheriff’s, “but we couldn’t have any. He wouldn’t adopt. Said they wouldn’t be true Fairmonts.”
“It’s better you don’t tell me anything more, Lila,” Ross said, before launching into a recitation of the Miranda warning. Afterward, he placed the cuffs around her wrists, more to meet her expectations than from any concern on his part. He doubted he had much to fear from this woman.
Sometimes the meek just got tired of sitting around, waiting to inherit the Earth, especially if somebody pulls the rug out from under them. And suddenly, an otherwise mild-mannered person cracks.
He reminded himself that he was only the hunter. He rounded the people up who broke the law and left it to others to deliver justice.
Lila’s future, whatever it was, was now in the hands of a jury or of a judge, a fact for which he was grateful.
He thought of his impending retirement again. It looked even more appealing than it had a short time before.
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