When I awoke to sunshine, blue skies and the fragrance of freshly-perked coffee that morning, I had no inkling that a few hours later the sun would be blotted out by menacing clouds or that my mother and I would stumble upon a dead body in a brush pile in Goshen Cemetery.
Mom’s purpose in coming to the cemetery was to see what needed to be done before Decoration Day which would happen on the third Sunday of this month of May. My purpose was simply to be with her.
But there it was—a bare human foot sticking stiffly from a mound of dirt and tree limbs heaped in the oldest part of the ancient graveyard called Goshen. Nature itself seemed to recoil at the horror before us. Trees bowed and swayed in a macabre dance with the wild wind while angry clouds brooded over the gray headstones. I had seen more than one dead body in my years as an investigative reporter, but this shocked me to the core because it was so unexpected and horrible.
Mom grabbed my arm. “Darcy,” she said, “is that what I think it is?”
I swallowed before I could answer, “I’m afraid so.”
“But–but how can that be?” Mom’s voice quavered. “Who is it? Come on let’s uncover him. Maybe he is alive. Maybe we can help.” She started toward the pile of debris.
I grabbed her hand. “No. Don’t go there. We need to get the sheriff. Whoever is under that brush is beyond all help.”
Flora Tucker did not take advice easily. She pulled away from me and made a beeline for the grisly object. Past examples of her courage flashed through my mind: Mom gently carrying me to the doctor when, as a child, I fell from a tree and broke my arm; another time, she loaded Dad’s old rifle and poked around the foundation of our barn until she found and shot the copperhead that bit my father. She was not a large woman, but she had a lot of grit.
Nevertheless, I tried to stop her. “You shouldn’t see what’s under there,” I pleaded. “Think about it, Mom. This is a job for the authorities.”
She shook off my hand as if I were a pesky mosquito, grabbed a stick from that pile of trash, and began scooting away the limbs and rocks until she uncovered a green plaid shirt. Removing a few more sticks revealed arms folded across a man’s chest and just a few inches under his arms gaped a ragged, dark bullet hole.
Another two seconds of digging and the dead man’s face appeared. He had a dark complexion and longish gray hair.
Mom gasped and shuddered like the limbs of the surrounding cedars. “It—it’s Ben,” she whispered.
I held my nose and leaned forward. She was right. Ben Ventris, a longtime neighbor of Mom and Dad’s, lay before me. I had visited in the Ventris home many years ago when Mrs. Ventris was alive. I remembered a comfortable house and the scent of wood smoke. Their farm connected to land owned by my grandmother. But now, here was Ben, still and lifeless, thrown away like someone’s trash. Tears stung my eyes.
Something else about Ben Ventris did not look right, besides the fact that he was quite dead. Mom noticed it at the same time as I. Her hand on my arm felt like a vise. “Look!” she whispered hoarsely. “Oh, dear Lord, Darcy, look at Ben’s poor hand!”
I looked. Only a bloody stump remained where the third finger of Ben’s left hand should have been. Nausea welled up in my throat and I heard my mother gag.
“Somebody cut off Ben’s finger,” Mom whispered.
As we stood, mesmerized by the horror in front of us, a strange silence descended on the graveyard. I raised my head to see what was happening. Dark clouds that had brooded above us now moved and churned and a small eddy of whirling air pointed downward. My heart stopped, then thudded against my ribs.
“That’s a tornado!” I yelled. “If it drops, we are in trouble!”
As if in agreement, a low roar began over our heads and wind, hail, and rain came at us, battling to whirl us into the seething heavens.
Mom and I linked arms and stumbled into the storm. Putting her mouth close to my ear, she shouted, “The chapel!”
We struggled toward a small sandstone building at the edge of Goshen Cemetery. Rain blinded us, hail pelted us, and tree branches flew past, but at last we reached the little building. I tugged the door open and we both fell inside, gulping blessedly dry air.
Mom sank into a pew and I leaned against the wall. The storm’s roar dimmed to a comparative quiet within this sanctuary. I was about to sit beside my mother when I heard a sharp click and felt a breeze eddy around me. A shiver traced its way down my spine. Had the back door of the chapel just opened and closed?
“Who’s there?” I called.
“I don’t care who it was,” Mom said, her teeth chattering. “Maybe someone else wanted out of the storm. At the moment, I’d share space with Mick Monroney himself.”
While I doubted that it was Ventris County’s notorious outlaw from the 1930s who had gone out the back door, I could not see much in the dim room. I flipped the light switch. Nothing happened. Evidently, the electric power was a victim of the storm.
Turning the lock in the front door, I felt my way through murky semi-darkness to the other end of the building. No shadowy figure lurked anywhere that I could see. Our arrival must have sent someone who had sheltered here into the storm. Groping for the bolt on the door, I slid it into place and fumbled my way back to the pew where Mom huddled.
“I wish I had a jacket to put around you,” I said. “You must be chilled to the bone.”
“I’ll be all right,” she said. “It’s the shock of finding Ben more than being cold. Do you have your cell phone?”
Of course! Why hadn’t I thought of that handy little electronic gadget? Delving into my purse, I found it and flipped it open. I punched in 911. Nothing lit up nor buzzed nor played music. I shook my head.
“No signal. We must be out of range.”
Mom sighed. “There are lots of hills around. That must be the reason. This storm will let up sooner or later and then we can get safely back home.”
Getting safely back home, I feared, might not be so easy. Wind pounded the chapel and did its best to come in the door or through the roof. Lightning flashes lit up row after row of wood benches inside our shelter. Thankfully, the benches had no other occupants. An old upright piano crouched in a shadowy corner and a small table with a lectern on top stood in front of the pews. My ancestors had gathered here in this small cemetery for countless funerals and Decoration Days. Mom’s grandfather helped build the chapel. Through the years, Goshen had been a place to worship and for mourners to hear the comforting Word of God when burying a loved one. However, after this traumatic day, Goshen Cemetery would never be the same for me. Something more dreadful and awful than a spring storm had happened here. A good man’s life had been cut short, wrested violently from him by an unknown assassin.
“We need to pray, Darcy,” Mom said softly.
I nodded. Together, we began Psalm 91, the Protection Psalm. “He that dwelleth in the secret place of the most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty.”
Mom and I needed the assurance that God was with us. I once fully believed this but events of the last few months had done nothing to strengthen my faith. When my husband Jake died, the ground shifted under my feet. My rock was gone. Why had God allowed Jake to die? Did He care that I was suffering as I had never suffered before? How could it be His will to cut short the life of one as honest and kind and loving as my husband? Of course, I knew that Jake was in Heaven, but what about me? I was left to carry on somehow without him and I sorely missed Jake Campbell’s strong arms around me.
Returning to Levi, Oklahoma, the place of my birth, yesterday gave me the eerie feeling that I had never left. I came home seeking healing, hoping that being away from the Dallas house that I had shared with Jake would somehow ease the aching loneliness. Since that awful morning when I awoke in our bed and found a heart attack had stolen my husband, I had lived with emptiness. Moving through each nightmarish day, I pretended that Jake was in the next room or had just gone downtown. At other times, the cold fact that my husband would never return hit me full force and I knew that, somehow, I would have to carry on without him. During the weeks after Jake’s funeral, I wandered through the house, wondering what to do with it and all the furnishings, unable to concentrate on my job at The Dallas Morning News, even though the editor told me I could work from home. I still had an assignment for the paper which was nowhere nearly completed. Thankfully, Jake’s life insurance was enough so that I could take time off from my job without financial worry.
Mom wanted me to come live with her. She was lonely too, although Dad had died twenty years before. So, when my house sold, I loaded up my personal belongings and headed back to Levi, hoping some of my mother’s courage would rub off on me.
A brilliant flash, a roar, and a crash jarred me out of my reverie. The chapel shuddered.
“The oak,” Mom said. “Lightning must have hit the old oak by the back door. I felt in my bones this morning that a rain was coming but I didn’t know it was going to be a storm like this.”
The tree seemed to have landed on the roof. I hoped it would not come through.
Mom squeezed my arm. “Darcy, I am sorry that you have had such a sad welcome home. I wanted you to feel safe here.”
“I will admit that finding a dead body and being in the middle of the storm of the century is a little different than I imagined,” I said. “It is, however, a homecoming I’ll never forget.”
Actually, it was more than memorable—horrible came to mind. And “safe” was not a good description of the way I felt at the moment. Would a storm obliterate us or would Ben’s murderer get to us first?
Was it only this morning that the neighbor’s old gray mule had brayed a welcome to a beautiful spring day? The sun had dappled the leaves of the maple in Mom’s front yard and brought out the heavenly scent of peonies by the gate. Standing beside those bushes more than twenty years ago, my boyfriend had kissed me for the first time. Not Jake; not at that time. It was tall, slim, and handsome Grant Hendley, the man of my girlhood dreams. Where was Grant now? Had life dealt well with him?
Mom interrupted my thoughts. “Listen, Darcy.”
“I don’t hear anything.”
“Right. We don’t hear anything. The storm is over!”
My knees wobbled when I stood up and my mother evidently felt the same. “I am as weak as a kitten,” she said. “I guess that’s what comes of being scared about half to death.”
Taking her arm, I led her to the front door. “Let’s see if your Toyota will start or if it has washed down the hill into the creek. I hope we can get back to town and there are no trees across the road.”
“But, Darcy,” Mom said, “you’re forgetting poor Ben. Someone should stay with him. You go on home and get the sheriff. I’ll stay.”
I stared at her. “Are you kidding? I’m not letting you out of my sight. There is a murderer loose somewhere around here. Ben is dead and we can’t help him now. My concern is for you. You need dry clothes and something hot to drink. We are both going into Levi and get the law out here as fast as we can.”
Unlocking the door, I tugged it open. Grass swam with water. Rivulets ran here and there like small creeks. The huge oak lay at a crazy angle across the back of the roof, its roots sticking out of the mud. Faded flowers in forlorn little heaps were scattered among the graves and tangled in trees. Sunlight filtered through remnants of racing clouds. At the back of the cemetery, that mound of debris was still there but, thankfully, it was so far away that we could not distinguish Ben’s body.
Mom sighed. “How in the world will we ever have things ready for Decoration Day? And how can we even have a Decoration when somebody has murdered poor Ben?”
I guided her around a water-filled hole. “It will be a job for your cemetery club. If anybody can set this place to rights again, it is you, Flora Tucker. Let’s hurry. Who knows if the killer has gone or if he’s somewhere around here.”
She quickened her pace. I held the door as she slid into the passenger seat of her Toyota. Then I hurried to the driver’s side, jumped in, and reached for the ignition. There was only one route back to Levi and, hopefully, the little creek below the hill had not washed out the road.
The return trip to Levi was an adventure in itself. Water washed up on the car as we splashed across the creek and the tires left deep ruts in red mud. I drove as fast as I dared, my need to contact law enforcement urging me onward. Finally, mud became a paved road and the Toyota picked up speed. Dodging a small tree across the asphalt, we snaked our way up Deertrack Hill. When we were at last on level ground, Mom tried the cell phone again. This time, it worked. She dialed the sheriff’s office in Levi.
Even to me, her quavering recital about finding Ben sounded unbelievable, especially when she mentioned the missing finger. At last, she snapped the phone shut. “Grant said to stay right here and he will meet us. He wants us to go back to Goshen with him and Jim Clendon. That’s Grant’s deputy,” she said.
“Grant?” I asked. “Grant who?”
“Why, Darcy, I thought you knew that Grant Hendley has been sheriff of Ventris County for a year now.” She pointed to a small grocery store. “Why not wait here in Tanner’s parking lot for Grant?”
So my old flame had become the sheriff of his hometown. He would be good at the job. Always a staunch believer in right being right and wrong being wrong—that was Grant Hendley. Unaccountably, I thought about my hair, plastered down to my head by the rain. My shirt and jeans were still damp and mud clung to my shoes. Grant probably would not recognize me.
Driving onto the paved area, I shut off the ignition and slumped against the steering wheel. “I don’t want to go back to the cemetery. Not today; not ever.”
Mom patted my shoulder. “We are going to have to go back.”
Closing my eyes, I asked, “Do you have an aspirin in your purse?”
The sun was playing hide and seek with harmless-looking clouds by the time the sheriff and his deputy arrived. Grant and his deputy swung out of his truck and strode to our car. Grant looked much the way I remembered him, only thinner. His eyes were as blue as ever, but gray sprinkled his red hair. Pushing his Stetson back from his forehead, he smiled and an old, familiar warmth stirred in my heart—a disturbing feeling.
“Darcy,” he said, “good to see you.”
Returning his smile, I reached out to grasp his hand as he extended it through the window.
Jim Clendon squinted at me. “What’s this about finding some poor devil dead on top of the ground at the cemetery? Don’t you know that’s unlawful? You’re supposed to let ‘em stay buried.”
“Forgive me if I don’t find that amusing,” I said between clenched teeth. My head pounded like a kettledrum. Mom’s aspirin had yet to work. “And,” I added, “that is not ‘some poor devil”, that’s Ben Ventris lying out there.”
Clendon grinned and shot a stream of tobacco juice into a puddle.
Mom threw me a warning glance. “I think we’d better just show you what we found, Grant.”
Reluctantly, I put the car into gear and led the way back to our grim discovery. As we stopped once more at Goshen, only the thought of lending support to Mom gave me the courage to walk through the gate.
Grant and his deputy parked beside us. “I see that the storm got the tool shed and that old oak,” Clendon said as he jumped out of Grant’s truck.
“The tool shed can be replaced,” Mom snapped. “What we can’t replace is Ben lying dead out there.” She pointed toward the tumble of branches that was Ben Ventris’ coffin.
Halfway between the gate and the body, Mom and I stopped to watch Grant and Clendon wade through the grass toward that forlorn heap. They walked around, bending over the ground now and then, obviously searching for something. At one point, Clendon kicked a branch aside, then they both peered intently at the pile of debris where we found Ben.
At last they came back to where we waited. What would be Grant’s verdict? Would he find any clues?
An odd little smirk twitched the corner of Clendon’s mouth. He pulled a wad of tobacco from the back pocket of his jeans, bit off a chew, and asked, “Just where is this so-called body?”
Air whooshed from my lungs. “What do you mean?” I gasped.
Running through the sodden grass, I reached the place where Mom and I had uncovered Ben. My mother jogged along behind me. The jumble of branches, rocks, and dirt still covered the ground, but Ben was gone. Not even an indentation showed that a body had lain there.
Both men stared at Mom and me with strange expressions. Grant cleared his throat. “Miss Flora, Darcy, are you sure that was a body here? Nerves play tricks on us sometimes and even make us believe—well—storms make a person nervous and you just went through a bad one. Maybe you thought you saw something that wasn’t actually here.”
Anger brought blood to my face. Had Grant Hendley changed in those years since we were both teenagers? As I remembered, trust had been a large part of our relationship. How dare he insinuate we had made up a story about finding Ben?
Clendon wiped his mouth and snorted. “And, anyhow, are you for certain sure it was Ben Ventris, assuming that you did see somebody on that brush pile, which don’t appear to be likely. If that there body was all covered up, how’d you come to recognize him?”
Grant shook his head. “Now Jim, I’ve read some of Darcy’s articles in the paper and she’s a good investigative reporter. If she and Miss Flora think Ben Ventris was here, we’d better keep looking. Why don’t you take a walk down the hill and see if you can find any sign of a body being moved or any drag marks or squashed vegetation? It’s going to be hard to tell what the storm caused and what might have been made by somebody or something else.” He turned toward us. “Are you pretty sure it was poor old Ventris?”
“There’s no mistake, Grant,” I said. “Mom has known Ben for a long time.”
Clendon interrupted, giving my mother an up-and-down insinuating leer. “Yeah. I heard they were real good friends.”
What did he mean by that? I was on the verge of stepping forward, grabbing Clendon’s fox face, and twisting it around nineteen times.
Grant spoke sharply. “Jim, you go on down the hill and take a look. Now!”
Mom didn’t seem to be aware of any insult. She continued staring at the pile of rubble, her breath raspy.
“Sit down over there, Mom,” I ordered indicating the flat top of a gravestone. Surely she wasn’t going to faint. Her color was pasty.
She fanned her face with her hand, as if she found it hard to breathe. “This must be a nightmare, Darcy,” she said. “It can’t be real.”
“Where did you get that deputy?” I asked Grant as Clendon sauntered down the hill. “Surely you had more candidates in the county that you could choose from.”
“I apologize for Jim,” Grant said. “Sometimes his choice of words isn’t the best, but he’s like a bulldog when it comes to going after the bad guys. Would you two ladies be willing to make a statement saying you saw Ventris under all this brush? Think about it before you answer. You say you found him, you say there was a bullet hole in his chest and that he was missing a finger? Do you want to put your names to a statement like that?”
Stomping my foot sent water splashing from the rain-soaked grass. “Now listen to me, Grant Hendley. It’s just like Mom and I told you. Ben isn’t here now but he certainly was. A dead man named Ben Ventris was lying right out here in all these sticks and limbs before the storm hit. Why would we make up such a story? You know me better than that!”
Clendon sloshed back toward us. “Not a thing down the hill there, folks,” he said. “If somebody dragged a body out of here, there sure isn’t any sign of it now. Maybe the rain revived him and he just up and walked off.”
I bit my tongue and glanced at Mom. She had begun to shiver and I started toward her, thinking that she had had enough for one day. As it turned out, indisputable proof of our story lay at my feet, proof that could provide positive identification of the body these two officers doubted had ever lain here.
I kicked some soggy leaves out of my way and froze in midstride. Although the grayish, swollen object floating in the mud puddle looked like nothing I had ever seen before—pulpy and misshapen—there was no doubt in my mind it could be only one thing—the finger of a human hand.
I beckoned to Grant then pointed to the ground. Nobody said a word. Even Clendon’s sneer vanished. The only sound in the cemetery was a cardinal in a distant tree telling us to “Cheer up, cheer up” and my mother, softly sobbing.
Finally, Grant broke the silence. “Okay. I reckon you were right. I’ll take this to the lab boys and see what they tell me.”
“Darcy,” Mom whispered, “I want to go home.”
We turned toward the gate.
“Hey! Hold on there!” yelled Clendon. “Where do you think you’re going? We haven’t gotten your written statement.”
My cheeks burned and I spun on my heel. “You just hold on yourself,” I said. “We are leaving. If you decide you want a written statement today, you know where my mother lives. If not, we’ll see you tomorrow.”
Mom and I walked away with as much dignity as two traumatized women could summon. I felt the gaze of both men boring into my back as we trudged toward Mom’s car.
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