To see previous installments of Murder Monday, follow volume I or volume II.
The gently rhythmic whirr of a lawnmower buffered the throaty barks of a distant hound. Through the screened window, the scent of cut grass rode in on bursts of the breeze. Fluffy white cotton curtains edged in eyelet bounced back and forth, etching sharp blocks of shadow and light on the worn hardwood floors.
Across town, an aging firetruck rumbled to life, lumbering out onto the street and coughing a siren into action. Surrounding hills caught the piercing shriek and threw it back and forth like a volleyball in the otherwise serene valley.
The trees were slow to turn this year. Faint yellows appeared halfheartedly, but the fireworks show of Maple reds and oranges was absent. Kentucky never had been known for the Icelandic winters of the true North - New York, Michigan, or Minnesota. These were regarded as distant lands, foreign countries, Yankee hideouts.
The corner of a pale green wicker edge blurred into vision. Blink. The lawnmower stopped, then started again. A soft, woolen crocheted hem felt warm against the gradually cooling breeze. Blink. Someone in the distance hollered for a dog.
Elle opened her eyes, momentarily disoriented. What day was it? What time? What state? Her gaze followed the uneven walls to a corner of the room, where her trunk sat spilling forth a cornucopia of pants, slips, socks, and scarves. Now she knew. She was in Oakford. Several state lines away from the familiar paths of broken brick sidewalks that lined her own hometown. Several more state lines away from her beloved school chums. All's well that ends well, she mused, but what about beginning well?
News of the gruesome murder three doors down had circulated more quickly than chicken pox in Sunday School when she was four. Tabs Kirke, known for running the office at the local newspaper that supervised distribution, had been shot five times in the chest. Tabs - who was finally listed in the obituary as Tabs "Tallula" Kirke instead of Tallula "Tabs" Kirke - was found, ironically, by the paper boy she hired three months earlier. Said Ms. Kirke was sprawled on her already messy linoleum with an unfortunate look of glee permanently stuck on her homely face. The startling expression on the face of the "victim" was the result, found Officer Spencer, of a winning lottery ticket in her clutched hand for the amount of $500.00. The conclusion was that she died, not of shock, as a now-embarrassed rookie had suggested, but from the quick succession of five bullets fired into her. She didn't look horrified at her assailant, because Tabs was notoriously near-sighted, and her glasses still hung around her neck on their cat-laden decorative cord.
What puzzled police the most was not that the killer left the winning lottery ticket, or that Tabs hadn't seen him or her. It was that the gooey red bullet holes, once the coroner had cleared away the blood, had been fired in an unusual pattern, leaving Tabs Kirke with a lead "x" in her chest.
A few of the less sensitive officers - the inexperienced rookie and the carefree veteran - had made the obligatory "x marks the spot" joke, the query on whether the victim needed an "x-ray" to the coroner, and the interoffice emails titled "madam x." Though the town was small, and Tabs Kirke was known for her colorful jokes, colorful cat sweaters and colorful car (green exterior, yellow interior), the policemen could be excused their seeming callousness. Both men had known Tabs, and finding your newspaper lady in a partially dried pool of blood with a winning lottery ticket in hand and toast popped up that had never been retrieved was truly unsettling.
The men had fed her cats, contacted her relatives, called the newspaper boy's parents to pick up the shaken juvenile, and thrown away the toast. There had been no struggle. Forensics had arrived in a nondescript minivan and had dutifully dusted the 87 houseplants, shelves full of flea market knick-knacks and the four square inches of bare kitchen counter. Her trash was searched, the body was being processed, her answering machine listened to, her bank account assessed, her email sorted.
But nothing gave any clue about who shot Tabs Kirke and why.
And that thought spurred Elle out of her nap, into her slippers, and over to the window, which she carefully shut. She went to the kitchen, rummaged in a few boxes, and plugged in her electric tea kettle. In times of crisis, only Assam would do.