He froze as brittle magnolia leaves crackled underfoot. There she was, just like clockwork! Did she hear him? Maybe he should’ve found a better place to hide, but in the murky predawn light, cascading limbs of thick, glossy foliage concealed him from view. She couldn’t see the car he’d parked, waiting, behind the thick hedge of holly that bordered the fountain, and if she followed her usual route, she would circle it and turn left toward town. Parting the boughs, he took a cautious step forward. He had what was needed in hand and would be on her before she knew it.
Look at the silly old woman, spearing trash with her umbrella just like this was any other day. The man smiled. Wouldn’t she be surprised? The colonel would be pleased, but God help him if he failed—and this was only the beginning. Well, this should prove he could be trusted.
* * *
Miss Dimple Kilpatrick spied the scrap of paper wedged between two loose stones on the far side of the narrow bridge during her early-morning walk through the park. It was probably swept there by the wind or left by someone who was too lazy to find a trash receptacle, she thought as she speared the offending litter with the point of her umbrella and deposited it with other debris she had collected in the paper bag she carried for that purpose. It had been almost a year since the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and brought them into the war, and one couldn’t afford to be wasteful. As a first-grade teacher of long standing at Elderberry Grammar School, she encouraged her young charges to keep that in mind.
It was barely light as she crossed over the quaint stone bridge and took the curving path between two dark magnolias and around the circular pond where sluggish goldfish hid beneath lily pads in the dark, icy water. The park was one of her favorite places. She often visited there with her good friend Virginia, who served as librarian in the quaint log cabin building at one end of the park, and on summer days took much pleasure reading to children on its rustic porch. Usually she relished the deep serenity of the place in the gray hours just before dawn when peacefulness settled upon her like a comfortable cloak, and Miss Dimple, like most of the people of Elderberry, Georgia, treasured any moments of peace that came her way with the world at war and their young men—many of whom she had taught—shipping out to fight in foreign lands. Even her brother, Henry, although too old to serve in the military, was involved in something for the war effort, something he wouldn’t discuss. She knew it involved planes because of his work at the Bell Bomber Plant in nearby Marietta and that it was important. Henry had been eight and she, fourteen, when she stepped in to help raise him when their mother died, and Dimple Kilpatrick was as proud of her younger brother as if he had been her own child.
This morning seemed unusually quiet, even for this early hour, and Miss Dimple began to feel uncomfortable in her aloneness. She paused briefly to glance behind her in time to see the jiggle of a limb in the dark magnolia. A bird, perhaps? Although it was the second week in November, many of the hardier varieties were still about, but usually not this early in the morning. Swinging her umbrella, Miss Dimple walked faster. It was probably just her imagination, but she’d had the same peculiar sensation the day before on her walk in the deserted north end of town until she’d met up with one of her former students. Angie Webber, on her way to serve up breakfast at Lewellyn’s Drugstore, had walked the rest of the way with her, and Miss Dimple was glad of her company. Now, instead of following her usual Monday route through the deserted streets of town and the hills behind it, she decided to cross the railroad tracks and circle the cotton gin on Settlemyer Street before starting for home. The houses were closer together there and she could take a shorter way home. This morning, because Odessa had promised grapefruit and a poached egg on whole wheat toast at the rooming house where she lived, Miss Dimple was willing to forego her usual fiber-filled muffins.
Lifting the lid of the trash can in the corner of the park to dispose of her collected litter, Miss Dimple risked a second look behind her. Shrouded in shadow, the magnolia tree remained motionless. Relieved, she glanced at her watch in the growing light. Almost seven already. She would have to hurry if she were to have breakfast and get to school on time.
It was not until she had crossed the railroad tracks and neared the vacant lot that Miss Dimple again sensed the feeling. Her mother, long dead now, would’ve said a rabbit ran over her grave, but it was more threatening than that. Not one to become unduly alarmed over matters real or imagined, she attempted to suppress her anxiety by continuing at her usual steady pace and thinking of the egg and grapefruit soon to come, but like an annoying headache the sensation persisted. She was being watched!
Crossing the street, she sat on the low wall fronting the cotton gin and rubbed her ankle as if it were giving her pain. A car, partially hidden by ragged undergrowth and a few pine saplings, waited on the other side of the vacant lot across from her, and Dimple Kilpatrick had walked these streets long enough to know there was no street or driveway there.
Not a soul was in sight and Miss Dimple quickly got to her feet and turned in the other direction. There were several homes on that side of town, and not only did she know most of the people who lived in them, but had taught many of them. She walked faster now, chancing a brief look over her shoulder to see the car—which, in the dusk, seemed either black or dark gray—move slowly to the corner and turn toward her. And the driver wasn’t using his lights. Dimple Kilpatrick picked up her feet and ran.
* * *
Ida Ellerby stood in the doorway wearing a pink tufted robe over her purple flannel gown. “Why, Miss Dimple! Are you all right? Here, come in the kitchen where it’s warm and sit down. You’re all out of breath. Is anything wrong?
“Ralph! Get another cup for Miss Dimple.” Ida put a steadying arm across her shoulders. “My goodness, you look like you’ve done been rode hard and put up wet. What on earth has happened?”
Dimple Kilpatrick sank gratefully into the kitchen chair, glad for the warmth of the oven at her back, and held the coffee cup steady in her hands as strength returned with each sip of the bitter hot liquid. She had glanced behind her to see the dark car speed away as soon as she ran onto the Ellerbys’ front porch. But would it return? And what if the driver was out for a perfectly innocent reason? Perhaps he forgot to turn on his headlights or was reluctant to shine them into the windows of sleeping neighbors. Then wouldn’t she be like “The Boy Who Cried Wolf”?
“A dog,” she said. “Must be a stray, but it seemed as large as a small pony, and I really thought it was going to attack.” Miss Dimple set the cup firmly in the saucer. “It was quite threatening—gave me a bit of a fright.” She smiled. “I’m sorry for bursting in on you like this, Ida. I hope you’ll excuse me for making a spectacle of myself.”
“Now, don’t you think another thing about it. Ralph will be leaving for work in just a few minutes and he’ll be glad to give you a ride home.”
Miss Dimple blushed at the memory of her hasty glimpse of Ralph’s long white underwear as he’d fled the kitchen at her entrance, and said she’d be most grateful for the favor.
Ida sighed as she shook her head. “If there’s a dangerous animal on the prowl around here, we’ll have to do something about it. It just won’t do to have things like that on the loose.”
Miss Dimple agreed wholeheartedly.
Copyright © 2010 by Mignon F MIGNON F. BALLARD grew up in a small town in Georgia. Her previous books include seven mysteries featuring angelic sleuth Augusta Goodnight, and The War on Sally's Station, a novel about growing up in rural Georgia during World War II. She lives in Calhoun, Georgia, where she grew up.